She stared down at the Bible in her lap and drew a deep inhale. The tears had almost dried, but the shame was still fresh as she recalled what happened in the room across the hall moments before.
The door locked behind her as she entered the small room and was seated across from three elders of the Church. Rules had been broken and now Amanda must confess and repent. It wasn’t the first time. A barrage of intimate questions were asked by the Judicial Committee, exposing each detail of her sin. With each answer and scornful glare, the message that she received her entire life grew louder: You’re not good.
The message had become part of her DNA, something that she couldn’t escape. In her home life, family stress and financial hardship caused unruliness. Anger was displaced onto her and her sisters. Since Amanda was three years old when her parents went through a divorce, she received the brunt of the chaos. She absorbed the message that she was bad, which was communicated both verbally and physically.
And, despite years of diligently following the rules of the Jehovah’s Witness faith in which she was brought up, she always found herself falling short in a desire to lead a normal life. She wanted the life of the kids at school who celebrated birthdays and went to dances. For 22 years, she struggled to measure up while shackled to an image of unworthiness.
She wanted to be good, so in that small, locked room she poured her heart out. Remorse was humbly voiced between the tears. One of the elders was part of the family who had taken her into their home when she needed help, who had loved her like a daughter. He looked back at her and said, “You know, just because you’re crying doesn’t mean you’re sorry.” The message that she was bad became deafening.
Now, she glanced across the hall to where they deliberated her punishment and determined her future. She felt powerless as she waited and tried to imagine a different life. But she didn’t know anything else.
“Amanda Strong Girl”
“How do you girls know each other?” Amanda and I were asked as we stood at the bar at Prince O’ Whales in Playa del Rey on a Saturday afternoon for a friend’s party. We both detected that the guy was realistically too young to date but cute enough for conversation.
“From our Crossfit gym,” Amanda replied as we collected our drinks. While we had only worked out together a handful of times, there was something she posted on Facebook that led me to asking her to coffee the week before.
Everyone has a story. At 34, mine has been anything but a traditional one. I celebrated my first birthday at 23 years old…
“I’m going to save your number as ‘Amanda Strong Girl 💪,’” our new friend said, glancing at her defined limbs. Not only had I been curious why birthdays had not been celebrated, I had a feeling there was something else that made her a strong girl.
A Turning Point
“I knew from that moment that I was not coming back,” Amanda said of the 20 minutes spent in the hallway staring down at her Bible. “I knew that I could never be put in that position again.”
An elder finally emerged from the room to tell her that she was going to be given one last chance. But it was too late. Despite fear of the unknown, Amanda had reached a limit – one that she had unknowingly been climbing towards since childhood. She was depressed, angry and unhealthy both physically and mentally. Something had to change.
“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted for my future,” Amanda said. “But I knew I didn’t want that life.” It was something her community couldn’t understand. In her absence, elders came to her work and letters from friends were found at her door.
“I remember reading all the assumptions that people were making about why I was leaving, and they were wrong.” They thought that surely some outside factor drove her away, like a guy outside the Church, unable to fathom that internal reasons, like personal happiness, could be the cause. However, the pursuit of peace came with short-term repercussions.
She left her community, her friends, her entire way of life, which also meant losing relationships with family members, including her grandmother who passed away a few year later. Their relationship had never been the same.
However, she was willing to trade short-term loss for faith in long-term gain. She told herself, “It may not feel good right now. It might suck getting there, but I’m gonna bet that ultimately this is the best decision for me.”
A Whole New World
During Amanda’s senior year of high school she wrote a persuasive paper for her Advanced English course. “Hey, this is really good,” her teacher told her. “You should consider being a lawyer.”
When she arrived home that evening, she stood in the living room and looked out the window, imagining what life might be like as a lawyer. It was something that had never been proposed to her, something that she never knew was possible.
“Hey, you know what Ms. Dot said today?” Amanda excitedly called out to her mom who was in the kitchen. “She said I should go to law school and become a lawyer!”
Her mom laughed. The exciting idea immediately switched back to an impossibility and added to the list of “can’t do’s.” “Not to mention, I wouldn’t even know how to,” Amanda said. Since higher education was not allowed in the Church, no one in her family had gone to college. Instead, trades were encouraged so Amanda went to beauty school. But something was missing. “I loved connecting with people, but it wasn’t enough.”
Amanda found herself being 23 and still unhappy, even outside the Church, until a client walked into her life who showed her what was possible. She and her husband welcomed Amanda into their family. “They would just have these amazing conversations, and I loved being able to talk about things that are bigger than us,” Amanda said.
One day, when she was 25, the couple sat her down for a talk about college. With their help, she enrolled in Portland Community College where Amanda’s eyes were opened to opportunities she had never considered, realizing that a career like lawyer was achievable.
“They let me live with them while I went to college, and they saw my potential that I wasn’t able to see,” Amanda said. Within five years Amanda received her Associates and Bachelors while working the whole time, never taking a term off. She now saw that she could do anything she wanted to do, but the question was, “What would she choose?”
Shaping The Future Through Kids’ Thoughts
Posters with encouraging messages line Amanda’s office at a large, urban school district in Mid-City Los Angeles where she is a school psychologist. A third-grader name Brian* sat with her at a small table in the middle of the room. He was struggling in third grade so he was referred to her for a learning assessment to determine what might be impacting him in the classroom.
She gave him his task, but he was having a hard time with it. As his frustration grew, he gave up and began to cry.
Amanda stopped the testing. “What are those tears about?” Amanda asked.
“I can’t do it,” Brian said between sobs. “I can’t do anything. I can’t do multiplication, I can’t do division. I can’t…” The list went on.
Because he was struggling, he felt like he couldn’t do it, and therefore, that he was bad at it. And Amanda understood. In fact, it was exactly what led her to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles for her Masters in School Psychology and now to the small table seated next to Brian.
“When I was little, I was experiencing these things that were put on me by the Church and my family, and I had no way of expressing myself. I had no way of saying, ‘Mom, look, this isn’t me. This isn’t me as a person. This is my environment. That’s why I’m acting out.’”
Amanda knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to be the voice for kids, especially those struggling in tough environments like Mid-City. She wanted to shift their mindset to prevent them from feeling bad and to help them lead successful lives. Like Brian.
“Well, tell me what you can do,” Amanda told him.
“I can do my two’s on my times table,” he muttered.
“Oh my god, you can do your two’s?!” Amanda exclaimed. “That’s amazing!”
“I can do some of my three’s, too,” he added.
“That’s so awesome!” Amanda continued to focus on his strengths until all of his tears had dried, along with any shame.
As Amanda printed out an extra times table so he could practice at home, Brian looked over at her and quietly said, “I’m sorry.”
Amanda was dumbfounded. “Why are you sorry?” she asked.
“I couldn’t do it,” he said.
She left her computer and crouched down next to the beanbag chair where he sat. “Don’t ever apologize for not being able to do something,” she told him. “All we ever ask is that you try your best, and you give your best effort.” He looked at her and nodded his head in agreement.
Amanda cried the whole way home that afternoon because she knew exactly what he was feeling in that moment. “I wanted him to know that he was still a worthy person.”
Finding Personal Freedom
“One of the things I say to myself is ‘I am safe, I am love, and I am free,’” Amanda said. Her personal freedom has been found by mustering all of the internal strength she had to walk away from a life that wasn’t hers and create the one she was meant to lead.
“I really believe that we come here to live out our lives and to try to express our potential,” Amanda said. “And there are so many factors that hold us back and diminish our light.”
Some of us are held back by beliefs of those around us. Some of us are tethered to places we didn’t choose. And some are tied down to paths that don’t feel right. When we’re a prisoner of our circumstances it’s easy to forget we have the choice to seek another way and to be the person we were put here to be.
“When you’re living your life like you, you shine and people want to be around you. They feel good. Your path feels good. Everything aligns,” Amanda said. “So, being free is being in alignment with who are you, and who you were put here to be.”
I learned why Amanda hadn’t celebrated a birthday until age 23, but I also realized the significance of the second half of that Facebook post:
What I love most about birthdays, is that each year provides an opportunity for reflection. An opportunity to recognize which direction you want to shift your path. A friend recently reminded me not to forget the obstacles I’ve overcome that served as a guide to where and who I am now. So today, cheers to the adversity that has built my good character and given me a passion to impact the lives of others. Happy, health, and grateful… here’s to a beautiful, magical, and fulfilling year ahead.
**name changed for anonymity
- Photos by me
- Video by me, with some extra editing love by @mrdivine