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The UPCI gave me PTSD

By Jessica ~

I was raised in a Christian cult. That’s a heavy opener, right? It’s definitely a conversation starter. Yes, I was raised in a Christian cult. You may have heard of it: the UPCI, the “United Pentecostal Church International.”

I remember very clearly as a six-year-old girl, I was playing outside just as it was getting dark. It was a Wednesday night. My mother came to me and told me it was time to go to church.

“I don’t want to go.” I told her.

“If you don’t go, god might come back tonight, and you won’t go.”

So, I went. At six-years-old, I already knew what it meant to “not go.” To six-year-old me, “not going” when god came back meant being stuck on Earth that would be overcome with bad people, natural disasters, and demons being unleashed from hell; which meant torture, losing my loved ones, and death.

It scared me. It would scare anyone, let alone a six-year-old. We had people in our church called “end time preachers” who would preach about nothing other than the “end times,” no matter how young the audience is. If you deviated from the teachings, at all, you’d be left behind. Their teachings were difficult to like. They weren’t difficult to follow, if you were brought up that way, but they were hard to like.

It was very much geared towards controlling women. We were told we couldn’t cut our hair, we couldn’t wear pants, we couldn’t wear makeup, we couldn’t wear jewelry unless it was a purity, promise, engagement, or wedding ring. We had to wear short or long sleeves only, our skirts had to be below our knees, and many more restrictions were placed on women. Men were only told not to “dress like a woman.”

I’m sure I’ve painted a picture of what the women were allowed to look like, while men could look like anyone you pass on the street and you’d never know. They told us, perhaps not outright, that if we didn’t believe in our hearts that their teachings were true, god would know, and we would be punished with eternal damnation. In the words of Mr. Atheist, they made us turn in our independence, and issued our identities to us. I never liked it.

I spent many years believing I was going to hell for my discontent with a lack of a sense of self. I believed god would come back “soon,” and I needed to hurry and learn to conform to the church’s teachings. I never, as a child, expected to live long enough to see my teenage years. When I was a teenager, I didn’t expect to live into my twenties or thirties, because “god is coming back soon.” I never planned for a future I didn't expect to have.

When I was 15, back in 2010, the church I grew up in got a new pastor. Our previous pastor cheated on his wife and vanished after it came to light. The previous pastor's name was Richard. Even though Richard was a scumbag for having an affair while preaching the importance of not being sexually immoral (he preached about it a lot when I was a kid), he treated me kindly. He favored me and let me be a part of the community. He'd dote on me, he'd let me show my talents to the church, including my language skills and my musical talent. My mom says that he didn't like her or my dad so he must have taken pity on me and that's why he treated me so well, for all I know, she could be right. The new pastor’s name is Rick L. Rick was appointed after the church members voted for him.

After each member voted, Rick became the official new pastor. After he preached a few times, he wanted to start being involved in youth activities. The youth group and the youth pastor, along with Rick went downstairs one Sunday, and I wanted to talk to him (I can't remember what about), so, being my cringy teenage self, I poked him. On the arm. A few times, and he looked up from his phone at me like he was disgusted that I touched him. The look in his eyes immediately made me recoil. I knew then that he wasn't going to like me.

And I was right. Every ounce of joy I had being at that church was drained away in a short time. It was small things at first. He changed up the way the Sunday school would function, separating by gender AND age, making each Sunday school class much smaller. Then he hired a new youth pastor. Mike M and his wife Stefanie M. Mike was a total douche-bag.

Mike almost deserves his own story, but some of the things he did while he was the youth pastor: bent down and nut punched both of my younger brothers making one of them cry, they were 13; in the church bus, he pulled over once and asked someone if they needed a ride and when the person lit up and smiled saying "yeah, man, thanks!" Mike said, "I hope you find one," and pulled away. When I confronted Mike about hitting my brothers, he yelled in my face telling me not to talk to him that way. All I had said was, "Why did you do that, you hurt them!"

There was some drama about a new girl named Rebecca and she said some stuff about me, probably jealous that I was friends with her boyfriend or something, so any time I wanted to try to make peace with her, adults from the youth leadership would always intervene, treating me like a criminal without any reasoning to back them up.

When I turned 17, my mental health began to decline. I very quickly became depressed and very socially anxious. Not too long after, I began to cut myself and I became suicidal. It was the end of my junior year in high school, it was very sudden, and I continued to cut on and off even until now, 7 years later; though much less now.

During the summer of 2012, when I was 17, I had this friend named “Lucy.” His name is now “Luke,” but for the purpose of the story being accurate to the time, I will refer to him as Lucy.

She was about 4 years younger than me, but we both went to the same church. We were really good friends, so during one particularly free week, I asked her if she wanted to stay over. She ended up staying over for almost the entire week. We had a lot of fun, going to an arcade in a city a couple hours away, going to a water park, etc. We also were really big anime fans.

She had never seen Death Note, so I pulled it up on my phone and at night, we'd watch it together (my mom thought anime was demonic). She ended up really liking it, just as much as I did. We were weebs and decided to cosplay as a couple of the characters as best we could, being not allowed to wear makeup or pants... or cut our hair -- you get the picture. Anyway, we went to the dollar store down the street from my house one day when my mom was at work and bought some notebooks, black construction paper, and glue, white markers, etc. We decided to make our own Death Notes. We never planned on writing real people's names in them or anything, though. We had a laugh about it, and just kind of kept them for show.

Lucy ended up going home at 11:18 in the morning on Friday (I don't know why I remember that time so specifically). We texted most of the day, and eventually, at around 8 or 9 pm, she texted me that she thought something was wrong. This is basically how the conversation went:

L: Can you help me?

Me: With what?

L: I feel weird

Me: What do you mean?

L: Like, I just almost kicked my brother in the head, but I wasn't the one who moved my leg

At this point, I'm beginning to get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Me: Maybe see a doctor?

L: No, I feel weird

Me: What can I do?

L: Do you have Bro. L (pastor)'s number?

Me: Yeah, here, it's --- --- ----

I didn't hear anything else from her that night, but about an hour later, my mom got a phone call from the pastor, and she came tearing into my room shouting about how the pastor was just at Lucy’s house and that he just cast a demon out of her and now he's on his way to our house. I, understandably, started freaking out. My mom is yelling at me that we made things called death notebooks and we were doing witchcraft and if anything happens to her (her as in, my mom) because of this there will be "hell to pay.” I would like to mention that at this time, around 10:30 pm, my dad and brothers were all asleep in their rooms, and I'm honestly surprised they didn't wake up because of her screaming.

Eventually, Rick and Mike knocked on my front door. My mom made me answer it. As soon as I opened the door, Rick stuck his finger in my face and walked me backwards until I was sat on the corner of the couch in the living room and, still with his finger in my face, said to me, "you will not corrupt any more of our youth" then began to talk to my mother.

After some time, Rick and Mike asked if they could see my bedroom. I went in there, and they followed. I was a depressed teenager, it was messy. I had pink walls that had all kinds of drawings and paintings on them (my mom figured we were going to paint over them anyways, so she let me paint and draw on them). I also had a painting of "The Last Supper" hanging above my bed. The top part of my desk had carvings in it (I'd had it since I was 10, what do you expect?) that I had done years prior.

I had drawings I had done and was proud of, taped on my wall above my dresser, and notebooks in my half-bookshelf. Either Rick or Mike, can't remember which one, said something about being able to feel "conflicting spirits in here." They pointed out the rainbow I had painted on my wall (I was a cringy weeb that used to say rainbow was my favorite color), and asked me a few times if I was a lesbian. No, I'm not. I'm actually bi, but I didn't know it at the time; I thought I was straight, so it bothered me that they kept asking. They grilled me about the stuff 10 year old me had carved into the top of my desk, and about the drawing I had on my wall of a guy with long hair embracing a girl with short hair (wild concept, right?), about my notebooks I was using to practice learning Japanese, questioned my bottle of antidepressants, and finally, Mike went through my phone.

I'm not gonna lie. I watched porn. I was really ashamed of it back then, so I deleted my web history every day. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to delete it that day, so the only thing in the history was porn. Mike (he was always a dick, even more than Rick), made a face and put it down saying something like, "I can't look anymore, I'm gonna be sick." Screw off, Mike. They asked me things like "do you have any sex toys?" and "are we going to find any sex toys if we search your closet?" They weren't, because I didn't have any. I was still a minor at the time, could that have been sexual harassment?

They went through my bookshelf, my desk, everywhere you could hide something. They gathered up all of my notebooks that had any Japanese or drawings in them, they took my drawings off the walls, took any anime merch I had (which wasn't much considering my mom thought it was demonic), and told my mom she needed to paint the walls white asap.

After they left, I sat in my room, on the floor, bawling my eyes out and trying to cut through my skin with a pair of dull scissors. It was well past midnight now, and I just tried to sleep. I don't remember anything from the Saturday that followed, but I'm sure I was depressed for most of it.

Come Sunday morning, Rick was all excited and hyped up for the service, acting like he was so happy and preaching about how he had cast a demon out of someone over the weekend. He mentioned that there was a second house he went to and that that person wasn't "as productive." I felt like absolute crap after that sermon, like, I seriously wanted to die. After it was over, a close friend of mine (who also hated going there but was forced to) told me that in the prayer room before church (where most of the more influential people go before church to pray for the sermon), Rick had told his version of the story actually saying my name.

Things got really bad for me after that. As my depression got worse, more and more people stopped coming to say hi before church, stopped looking at me altogether, stopped being nice. People openly treated me differently, or acted like I didn't exist, and I became increasingly suicidal. I didn't know why they were treating me so poorly. Had I done something not worthy of being forgiven? Just a few months prior, Rick preached about Goliath holding a sheep by its legs and the other sheep should throw rocks at Goliath, and not the sheep being held (hopefully the symbolism isn’t lost on anyone). Why were people "throwing rocks" at me?

I was just about ready to die. [...] I stopped caring about anything. My mom wouldn't let me see a therapist. She believed depression as well as all mental illnesses were demons and could be prayed away.I started feeling more suicidal at church than I did anywhere else. Around this time, I got into an argument with my mother over the music I listened to (it didn't have any cuss words or anything, she just didn't like the genre) and when I played it in front of her, to spite her, she started literally beating me. Punching me with her fists and my dad had to physically pull her off of me, while she yelled incoherently.

I stayed the night at my best friend's house, and they took me to school the next morning. Because of my depression and overwhelming anxiety at this point, I had transferred to the alternative school to be in smaller classrooms. I actually had friends at this school, and one of them reported my mom and the school called CPS. I lied to the CPS worker because I knew if they took me from my parents, I'd be put in foster care for less than a year and I'd be homeless after I turned 18.

My mother later tried to justify it to me with Proverbs 23:13 "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die."

After I returned home a few days later, she didn't speak a word to me for a whole day before I broke and said something first. It's not necessary for this story, but my mom is extremely toxic, always has been, and has done some really messed up things to me in the past.

When I went back to church, I was just about ready to die. Practically all the will to live had been drained from my body. I stopped caring about anything. My mom wouldn't let me see a therapist. She believed depression as well as all mental illnesses were demons and could be prayed away.

It wasn't until a couple years later, when I sat down to talk to Rick that he told me that at the time when I was 17, people were coming to him and telling him they thought I was in "direct opposition" to him and wanted nothing to do with me. Why hadn't he pulled me aside and asked what was going on? Why hadn't he pulled my mother aside? Why hadn't he told these people to come ask me or something? What had the done with this? Nothing. He sat back and watched my life fall apart around me.

At this time, I was beginning to recover from my self-harm addiction, and I was proud of myself for getting past what happened in my past. Well, the teacher for the older teen's girls' class was Melanie. She once said that what happened in our past didn't matter. I got upset because it very much did matter to me. Melanie told Rick that I threatened to jump over the table and strangle her. So, Rick kicked me out of the youth group.

Rick wouldn't let me do anything with the youth group anymore. I wasn't allowed to participate in the youth Wednesday night services. I left the church for a few months and came back when I was 18, with a new determination to be the best Christian I could be.

I was trying my hardest to serve god and truly be a good Christian. The way people treated me didn't change. Rick had made it so you were done with the youth group when you were 18, instead of the previous 21. Rebecca was 18 (we had made peace by then, no thanks to the church) and still going to Sunday school. I was jealous and lonely, there was no one else in the regular service my age to sit with, so I went downstairs and calmly explained to Melanie that since the age was 18 now, and Rebecca was 18, it wasn't fair that I had to be upstairs by myself. She calmly said that it wasn't the time to talk about it, so I complied and went back upstairs. My friends in there later said that Melanie's husband, Gabe, came in the room and Melanie said, "Jessica" (that's my name) "just came in here and threw a fit." Which of course got its way back to Rick. He didn't say anything to me though.

Eventually I was given permission to go to youth services on Wednesday nights, and I asked Melanie if I could sing on the platform, I had wanted to for years. She said, "I'll have to pray about it." That was the final straw. She'd have to pray about me, who was trying my best, genuinely, but she let Jacob on the platform? Everybody in the youth group knew Jacob was about the least "godly" as you could get. He was doing drugs, having sex, and wasn't shy about it, but they'd have to pray about me?

I left that church for good. I blame all this on Rick. Things were good before he showed up. Two years later, my only sister died. I went back to that church one last time to look for comfort. I submitted a prayer request for peace of mind (this was 6 days after my sister died). I watched as Rick read through every prayer request and then skipped over mine. That was it. I hated this man and I wanted him to pay. And he never has. I asked him, when I was 19, if he thought my sister was in hell (a member of the church came to me and told me she was in hell because she wasn’t a follower of the same denomination), and he asked me, “What church did she go to?” Which is absurd to ask in the first place, but when I told him, he pursed his lips, tilted his head back and said, “I hope it was enough.” Last year in the fall, he got a better gig and left that small-town church. I reached out to him on Facebook messenger, explaining everything and that he had hurt me. He never replied.

I’ve been back a handful of times, usually only when my mom asks me, which isn’t often. Though she’s been an awful mother, she’s been getting better over the last few years, and she realizes now, just how harmful and damaging that place was for me, to an extent. I still believed after I left, mind you, but I wanted to find out what I believed and why, so I read the Bible cover to cover. It really confused me more than anything.

So, I began to attempt to prove the church I had grown up in, wrong. I found the verse they use to force women to wear skirts and dresses.
Deuteronomy 22:5, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.”
I found out who would have written it: Moses. What did women and men wear back in those days? Everyone wore robes? Then why would he say not to wear the same thing? What language was it originally written in? Hebrew. Let’s take it back to the original Hebrew and translate it into modern-day English. Turns out, it has NOTHING to do with what women wear. It talks about a soldier should not use a woman as a weapon of war. Why would an all-powerful, all knowing, and merciful god allow his followers to be misguided by a verse so badly translated? There’s no way I picked the only verse in the whole Bible that was that badly translated.

So, I stopped. I didn’t bother looking further into the Bible. I talked with “Mary,” she had taken Old and New Testament classes in her college and we talked about it. A lot. And she brought things up I had never thought about. It further shook my faith. Then came the debates. I’d listen to debates with preachers and atheists, such as Ken Ham vs Bill Nye, or any with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I found myself siding with the atheists every time.

In a last attempt to salvage my now-vanishing faith, I prayed. I asked god to prove himself, show himself to me. Nothing. That settled it. I stopped believing. At the age of twenty, I had become an atheist. I no longer believed in the god I thought I had known for twenty years. It was scary. But now, I had the freedom to be myself; to be and look how I wanted. I could dream of the future. I no longer believed I’d die early, I no longer lamented at the thought that heaven would be one unending church service. I was free from the chains that bound me in my earliest years. For the first time in my life, I wanted to live.

As for that church, Rick and Mike are no longer there. Mike left when I was 18, and Rick left sometime in the fall last year. They have a new pastor, one who I actually approve of. I can’t remember his name, but I had a short conversation with him a few weeks after he became the pastor. I asked him the same question I asked Rick, someone came to me and told me my sister was in hell because she wasn’t the same denomination. He replied with the answer I was looking for, “It’s not a matter of being ‘Pentecostal,’ no one can know that, that’s between her and god, I cannot say.” He’s a much humbler man, and I believe he’s doing what he believes is the right thing, because he wants to, unlike Rick, who I believe was doing it for the power.

I feel now that I am no longer weighed down by the shackles of the UPCI, of that specific church. I’ve moved passed it. I've been going to therapy since I was 20, and in recent months, I've been being treated for PTSD that the church caused me. I think finally, my heart has healed.

I think it goes without saying just how harmful extremists like Evangelicals and fundamentalists can be. I am only one person out of that congregation. I have many friends who also grew up there, and have their own stories and tales of their time. I'm much happier now, as an atheist who can freely live my life, than when I was suicidal as a member of that church.