Mel was raised in a strict religious organisation that ruled with power and fear. She made the decision to leave this organisation which then meant she has had to relearn how to do life! She has experienced the devastating loss of her first baby, seen her husband through his own mental health struggles and is now living with the pain of watching her Mum deteriorate with Alzheimer’s. It’s a lot! Here she shares an intimate insight to what her life looked like and how she has managed to stay positive and share her story with others.
You are the Mum of five children, your first babe is in heaven, how old are your kids and what is something you adore about each of them?
Isla 15 – She has the biggest heart I’ve ever seen and kindness pours out of her.
Cashius 13 – He’s so relaxed and easy to be around and he still loves to hug his mum.
Stella 10 – She is so comfortable with who she is. She also knows so many random facts & life hacks.
Chad 8 – He’s a ball of love. He tells me, his dad and his siblings that he loves us all day, everyday. Also his one liners are nothing short of hilarious!
I ask every Mum this, what is the one thing about being a Mum that drives you bonkers?
I've read almost everything you have written and am quite frankly amazed at your resilience.
You grew up in an extremely regimented faith based organisation which led to a lot of feelings of paranoia, people pleasing and anxiety.
Can you try and explain for us what your life was actually like?
I was born into an organisation that prides itself on being “right” compared to all other churches/ belief systems. There is very much an us (the organisation) versus them (the rest of the world) mentality. So I grew up feeling separate from the rest of the world. Including all of my aunties, uncles and cousins as they did not attend the organisation.
There were lots of rules that had to be followed. The children and teenagers especially are controlled very tightly. From what you could wear, who you could mix with, what music you could listen to, haircuts, dating, curfew and a myriad of things I’ve blocked out. Consequences for breaking these rules led to an embarrassing talking to by the pastor and in some cases being “put out” of the group, either for a specified time or in some cases permanently. By not being part of the organisation, we were taught we would go to hell (described vividly to kids as a fiery pit where you would suffer for eternity) so this concept was absolutely terrifying to me.
Your actions were always being monitored. Whether it was how many times a week you attended a gathering (there were 3 a week and they were considered essential). If you appeared to be slipping in attendance you would receive a “follow up” at home. Usually by two men at about 8pm on a weeknight, most often unannounced. Being sighted during the week having coffee at the shops with someone outside of the organisation would usually result in being intently questioned about it on the following Sunday. So there was never really any peace because judgement was always just around the corner.
I was an only child and was raised in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. So I was isolated from all of my church friends. I would only see them at gatherings. So as much as it was frowned upon my parents had to allow me to spend time with and befriend “worldly people”, or in other words the kids from school.
There was this time (even just thinking about it now makes my stomach tight) when I was 14 and I went to the mall with a group of school friends on a Saturday. I kept my church life very hidden from all but my school bestie because I was so embarrassed about it. I just wanted to feel normal and when I was with my school friends I felt free to be myself.
I had a bit of a crush on one of the boys in the group. He was walking next to me and took hold of my hand. I’m sure we can all remember that moment when we held hands with our crush in public for the first time and have that giddy feeling of gushing and being all grown up. Yeah well that lasted all of 30 seconds for me. That feeling quickly turned to dread when I realised that not only had I been seen but I was also being FOLLOWED by my youth leader! A man in his thirties! He followed the six of us around for about 20 minutes and I was in such a state of fear. My best friend was the only one that picked up what was going on because she’d come to church with me before and she recognised him. I was dying inside but had to act as if everything was fine to my friends.
Eventually we made our way into a 99 cent store. I thought we’d lose him in there, because there were so many rows of shelves. Just when I thought he was gone he stepped out from behind a shelf right into my face and said “Hello Melissa” in the scariest tone I’d ever heard, eyeballed me for a few seconds, turned around and walked away. I still don’t know how my legs didn’t give way. I knew I was in so much trouble. The question for me at the time was, “will I be able to get home and explain this to my parents before the pastors get to them!?’ Long story short, I got to my parents before anyone else and confessed my “sin”. Yes I was in a massive amount of trouble and yes the pastors did get involved. I think the fact that it was my first offence I was let off with a warning. The reality is though, the fear and paranoia I felt everyday, was enough punishment anyway.
When I was 18 I married a Pastor’s son. I didn’t realise at the time but my husband was wound more tightly than I was so needless to say there is a lot more to that story.
You compare you leaving the organisation to an elephant being kept “at bay” with a rope and stake in the circus. Once the rope has been taken away, that's it. It's just an elephant standing there not really knowing what to do. How did you overcome this and adapt to your new way of living?
I had 30 years of only knowing one way of living to UNLEARN. Some days were filled with utter relief, other days fear washed over me like a heavy rain. Something as simple as going to the shops felt like a new daunting experience. People I’d known my whole life would see me and look the other way. It was very isolating and extremely difficult in the beginning but as time went on I found my feet and life started to actually become really, really beautiful. I have no regrets.
What would you say to the Mum who is in a similar situation to you in terms of wanting to leave a strict religious organisation however is petrified of the ramifications?
1. ‘Who are you going for?’
2. ‘Are the ramifications worth riding out for a season for the life you’ll gain?’
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Your first baby Jack died within 20 minutes of being born due to complications, you had carried him to term.
I remember reading that the most useful piece of advice you were given was from a hospital counselor who said “you will never get over this”.
Can you tell our readers why this was so helpful?
In the first 24 – 48 hours in the midst of the shock, all my brain was scrambling to do was somehow ‘fix this’. To fix it so I could escape the pain. The counselors’ words gave me a sense of relief. It was out of my hands. All I could do at this point was let go and actually go with the pain. I didn’t realise at the time that the pain had come to help me heal.
If you have recently experienced the loss of your child I sincerely want you to know that you will get through this. Please take comfort in knowing that it won’t always feel this heavy and even though it sounds impossible, there is light at the end of the dark tunnel that you’ve found yourself in. Take each day, week, month and anniversary as it comes. There is no right or wrong way to navigate this. Only to show yourself as much love, grace & kindness as you can muster.
You married your husband of 19 years Ben when you were 18. Ben has written a powerful, raw and honest article for your blog about his own struggles with a strict religious upbringing, mental health issues and self harm.
There are a couple of things I want to ask about this.
1) How do you as an individual cope seeing the love of your life struggle so deeply with mental health issues?
When Jack died I really felt for Ben. He was very supportive and concerned about me. I joined a support group and connected with a few mums that had also lost babies. I was lucky in the way of having a few girlfriends to open up to. Ben didn’t really have anyone except me to talk to. I obviously knew he was heartbroken, I just had no idea that he was suicidal. It actually wasn’t until years later that I found out.
2) Ben wrote that he unknowingly was expecting you to fix him. How has your relationship changed since he came to the realisation that this was unrealistic?
Because we were married so young I really didn’t know any different. I just thought that that was obviously what marriage was. Even though it was never spoken about because neither of us realised it, he and I definitely felt a weight of not being ‘enough’ for him.
There seems to have been a real shift in your self confidence and acceptance in the last two years. You have written that you have done a lot of work to get to this place. Can you tell us how you did this?
It was coincidental that at the same time as I was, I guess you could say soul searching, that I was emptying my childhood home, my parents property to put it on the market. I spent two days a week for TWO years sorting through every shed, room, cupboard & draw. The property was huge & my mum had been ‘collecting’ for nearly 30 years. I noticed that feelings and memories would come up over certain items I’d come across. Whether they were fond memories or ones I’d rather forget, I’d take a minute to sit with it then put it in the keep, donate or rubbish pile. At the end of each day I would box up what was being kept, load my car with the donate pile & throw the rubbish pile in the skip bin. On my way home I would drop my car load off at the local op shop and every single time I would close my boot I’d have this feeling of freedom, satisfaction and relief come over me. It was really therapeutic.
I literally carried this concept over to my life. I started to observe the thoughts and feelings that people, places, objects and even topics of conversation stirred up in me. From there I started to remove anyone and anything negative from my life one by one. I noticed that my confidence slowly started to grow. I started to spend more time with myself. Taking myself out for coffee and journaling. Just sitting with my thoughts and feelings, really has drastically changed my life for the better.
Your Mum has Alzhiemers; I'm going to link the blog you have written however wanted to know if there was anything more you would like to add?
Here is Mel’s blog Alzhiemers – A daughter’s story.
If you’ve found yourself in the situation where you are watching a family member go through this, my heart goes out to you.
Something I’ve found helpful for myself is to recognise that I still have my memory, so I will remember for my mum. I choose to remember her the way she would want to be remembered and love her for who she is today.