Your Biography Becomes Your Biology

By Bonnie Zieman

In a recent Facebook post, Bo Juel initiated an important conversation about how people leave the Watchtower, and whether or not they leave feeling sick, mentally and/or physically. The comments on his post demonstrated that everyone has their own individual experience while they are in the cult and when they leave it.

But having said that, there is an inordinate number of Jehovah’s Witnesses who leave the cult with a myriad of psychological and physical issues.

This post is about the many physical issues survivors can experience. One only needs to read posts and comments in the ex-Jehovah’s Witness discussion groups on Facebook to know that a lot of JWs are plagued by seemingly unexplained physical problems which run the gamut from aches and pains, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis, chronic fatigue, heart problems, etc., etc., etc.

New research is emerging about the effects of a stressful childhood. This research shows that adverse, challenging childhoods (such as the ones we had as JW children) actually cause structural, maladaptive changes in the brain, changes in the functioning of the immune system, changes in our ability to appropriately respond to stress. These now documented physical changes set us up to experience disease as adults.

Childhood DisruptedIf you were raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and are now suffering from physical issues or disease you MUST read Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal, which was written by science writer Donna Jackson Nakazawa.

This book will help you understand some of your symptoms and your health history as a person who experienced chronic stress and/or adversity in childhood. I know that I was so engrossed that I read it in one sitting. It is SO relevant for any born-in JW or anyone who spent part of their childhood being raised in a cult.

The good news is that even though our childhood may have set us up for physical problems, there are tried and true ways to reboot and reclaim your health. Many of the ways to do that are outlined in my book, EXiting the JW Cult: A Healing Handbook.

But the book I am recommending as a must read today is Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal.

Who is Bonnie Zieman? (By the editors)

Bonnie Zieman

Bonnie Zieman

A third-generation Jehovah’s Witness, Bonnie Zieman spent her formative years (in Toronto, Canada) in the fundamentalist, apocalyptic sect. Indoctrinated to be wary of the ‘world’ and any kind of higher education, Bonnie turned down offers of scholarships to university in order to become a volunteer proselytizer (pioneer) for the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society.

She married an elder in the sect and they served together as ‘special pioneers’, where the ‘need was great’, in the French-speaking province of Quebec, Canada. After thirty long years in what she had eventually come to realize was a cult, Bonnie faded her way out and finally obtained the higher education she’d been denied while in.

After training in two schools of psychotherapy (Gestalt and Psychosynthesis) and obtaining a master’s degree in education, Bonnie became a licensed psychotherapist and worked in private practice for over twenty years. Busy with her studies, training and then a clinical private practice, Bonnie had not kept abreast of either the Jehovah’s Witness or ex-Jehovah’s Witness communities.

EXiting-the-JW-Culf--coverOnce she learned of the thousands who were exiting the cult, and the toll of the strict shunning policy for those who did leave was taking on lives (isolation from family and friends, rampant depression, panic attacks and suicides), she decided to apply her knowledge and experience to help. Writing a “healing handbook” seemed like the obvious course and her book, Exiting the JW Cult: A Healing Handbook, was soon released.

Bonnie is now working on a memoir about her thirty years in the cult, the struggle to leave it, and the challenges faced trying to create a new life once out. Now retired from private practice as a psychotherapist, Bonnie, her ex-Jehovah’s Witness husband, three adult children and four grandchildren enjoy life free of the repressive controls, undue influence and indoctrination experienced in the cult known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.


Your Biography Becomes Your Biology — 15 Comments

  1. Thank you Bonnie. I have often wondered how many of my present health problems are the result of the childhood abuses I experienced both before and after I joined the JWs. The doctors sure can’t make heads or tails of it.

    • I would really encourage you to read Jackson Nakasawa’s books, Lee. I was so excited to read them as they explained so much using current research. The studies seem to show that at any age we can rewire our brains and reboot our immune system and improve if not eliminate conditions that are a result of adverse experiences – such as we had as JW children. I would recommend you read her book, “The Last Best Cure” first. You can read a review of it on my blog at this link:

      After reading her books I am taking my meditation, yoga and mindfulness practices more seriously and not allowing myself to say “Oh, tomorrow …” when I feel too busy or tired. I noticed a difference in four days of applying myself assiduously to these practices that I used as part of my psychological healing but have let lapse as I have worked on my books. The great thing is that the practices can be done at home, are free, and if we need a bit of encouragement there are tons of YouTube videos that we can employ to help us.

      I wish you well!!!

  2. I was just talking to Richard and mentioned that I don’t know one elder’s wife who didn’t have at least one, if not more, stress-related health problem. I know I had several and many would flare up right before meetings or service. I just didn’t want to go and by being sick, I had an excuse not to.

    I know a lot of negative things are said about elders wives, but many were genuinely nice people who were pushed into the elder area without their consent. After a while it takes its toll, trying to ALWAYS set the good example and NEVER showing signs of weakness or nonspiritual behavior. Being sick was the only option open to many of us.

    I do know that as soon as I stopped meeting attendance most of my stress-related problems disappeared. When I was at the hall I had major problems with my back and could not sit for very long without being in so much pain I wanted to scream. So I spent a lot of time at the back of the hall. But when I went to college, I could sit for 3 hours with no pain. No need to pace. I now know that the pain I felt in the Hall was anxiety. I felt trapped there. I felt trapped sitting on that chair. I felt trapped listening to all that repetitious garbage they were spewing over and over for years. And it wasn’t the chair. Some of the chairs in a college classroom are even more uncomfortable that the ones in the hall.

    I also had a severe pinched nerve in my neck. I wore a cervical collar for weeks and then for months when I needed it. But that pain disappeared too when I left the JWs.

    For me a lifetime of abuse of every kind has resulted in some problems that will never reverse themselves. Too much damage has been done. If I find ways to prevent those problems from getting worse I use them. I have taken a mindfulness course from my Pain Clinic

    That is awesome that you received a response so quickly. For me, it has been in the swimming pool. When I take that first stroke in the water and feel the water rush over my back, I feel so “at one” with where I am. I have always felt a strong connection to water. So while I am there, I just allow myself to feel the freedom that swimming gives me. It is the one place where I don’t have to worry about how my feet are doing. I just swim.

  3. Thanks for the article, Bonnie. It seems to me that if people have sustained negative and traumatic experiences while their brain is still developing, that the logical physiological effects would be damage to brains circuits, which in turn, affect how the physical body responds to those messages. More evidence that our inward ‘feelings’ and our physical being are joined at the hip. It is good to know that the brain can be rewired and the issues can be positively dealt with, giving people hope that they can mostly recover from an unnatural childhood.

    • Yes, Darlene it is good to know and I hope many JWs and ex-JWs will find their way to read this book and Nakazawa’s other related book, “The Last Best Cure”.

  4. my husband and I have been very discouraged with being a jw witness for the last year. We kept hearing and seeing things in print from book and watchtower that we disagreed with and it gave us a lot of stress. my husband started experiencing erectile dysfunction for the first time ever. As months went by we decided that we needed to back away from the witnesses and once we made that decision his erectile dysfunction went away.

    • When we can’t allow ourselves to listen to the signs and our own intuition, our body steps in and does it best to alert us. How wonderful that you were both able to get the message!

  5. Bonnie,
    I am in awe. Tears are soaking my cheeks as I read about your book. I am currently reading Stephen Hassan’s Mind control book. I am 36 and have been born and raised a JW. My ENTIRE family are JWs. I just “woke up” about a year ago. I am still a member but there is no one I can talk to about the things that I am only begining to understand. My husband has fought for 16 years to “free” my mind. Makes me love him all the more for his hard and painful fight. It is a lonely place to be in once you find this out. Makes life difficult at times to know your whole life has been a sham. I can’t wait to get your book and start trying to learn. I am sure you are aware of the difficulty with trusting people, even my husband and after all he has done. Thank you for standing up and writing your book. I live in terror every day that I will be found out. I am still enslaved even though I have awakened because of the residual effects.

    • Tamara – So moving to read your comment. You are not alone. All of us in the ex-jw community have experienced and agonized over similar things. I hope you find the help you need in my book. I have another book coming out shortly (Fading OUT of the JW Cult: A Memoir) which may resonate with your experience. As for ‘trust’ there is a free online workshop by Brene Brown entitled, “The Anatomy of Trust” that you might find helpful. For everyday support, I would encourage you to join the “Ex-JEhovah’s Witnesses Recovery Group 3” on Facebook. Be true to yourself.

    • Thank you Bonnie. I am not sure that I am ready for people to know who I am but I will certainly take a look at the Facebook site. I was able to watch the video by Brene Brown and it was amazing. B-R-A-V-I-N-G is a simple concept but very difficult to execute. It makes it easier to break it down and look at each individual aspect of trust to know where to start. Again, thank you very much for your kind words and suggestions. Very helpful

  6. Hello, I was so happy to find this website, I just purchased your book actually called exiting the jw cult, love it love your style of writing, I have so many emotional issues, even writing my story or making comments on sites like this is horrifying for me for some reason, I recently uploaded a personal story video on youtube two know and the anxiety from that has made me feel like Im on the verge of tears constantly but I feel in the long run it will be therapeutic to look back on, I feel like Im going to be rejected by other ex jws too its so bizarre! I feel so unstable! I see others putting their stories out there and it helped me so I wanted to also. Anyways thank you.

    • It is natural for you to experience a lot of anxiety when you break one of “their” rules. They have told you most likely for years that terrible things will happen. In reality the worst things that happen come from them not us. When you are ready you can share your story honestly. Believe me most of us have felt the way you do now so please know that you will not be rejected. I have been telling my story for over 30 years now. And I still remember how scary it was in the beginning. We don’t care what you decide to believe or think. We don’t have a dress code or a list of approved and disapproved behaviors. Just learn to be who you really are.

    • Hi Natascha – thank you for your comment. What you are going through, while difficult and scary, is really common when we leave the organization. I remember being terrified too. Try to use the scary moments as evidence that you have just left a cult. You were groomed to not use your free will – to be obedient. To defy that indoctrination and have the courage to exercise your right to think, choose, act is bound to elicit some fear – for a time. Parts of you are still battling the indoctrination and worry that you have done something ‘wrong’. This will diminish with time … and effort on your part to re-educate yourself that you have the right to think differently, choose differently and act differently. Like Lee Marsh, I have been out thirty years and nothing “bad” happened to me because I dared to make my own choices. In fact, I am so grateful that I pushed past the panic, the doubts and supported myself in my decision. Since you have my book, I hope you will access some of the healing resources mentionned in it, and do some of the exercises provided for you in it. I would also recommend that you join the YouTube group “Ex-Jehovah’s Witness Recovery Group 3”. There you will find so many others, just like yourself. If you do not want to comment yet, you do not have to – even reading about others and seeing all the support they get will help you. You can do this. Fight through the fear. The fear is not really yours – it was implanted in you (e.g. phobia about how dangerous ‘the world’ is) by a self-serving, repressive organization. One could say that the JW organization implants these phobias and fears in us, hoping that we will have the very reactions you are having and that that will push us back to them. Stand strong, you can do this and there are thousands doing the very same thing as you right now. You are not alone.

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