My Sister Went to Prison When I Was In a Cult

Shannon Ashley

It took me nearly twenty years to recognize how much of our lives were pure trauma. by Joe Pregadio on Unsplash

You won’t always recognize your trauma as trauma. For a long time, perhaps too long, you’ll simply see it as part of your “life.” I have learned that the hard way. Like back in 2001 when I was living in Texas as an intern for the now defunct Teen Mania Honor Academy, and my sister went to prison.

My sister (who is five years my senior) and her boyfriend at the time broke into our father’s apartment while he was painting murals out of state. They stole art books, various Star Trek collectibles, his checkbooks, and brand new ATM cards. Although our father declined to press charges, something about the check forgery and amount of theft (more than $75K) made it a federal matter. They were going to be incarcerated whether he pressed charges or not.

I first learned that my sister was pregnant, and that she would be prosecuted for her crimes over the phone from our mom. I was 18 years old and doing my best to find my calling in that east Texas cult.

Though I do remember spinning out emotionally, and suffering my first depressive episode during the internship, I didn’t think any of it was related to my family.

Growing up, I read books about kids who’s parents went to jail, like in The Man Who Loved Clowns. That story was traumatic, I thought. That was obvious. But it never even occurred to me that my sister going to jail was traumatic for me. I didn’t know that I was allowed to grieve my sister’s circumstances. I thought I had to pretend it didn’t affect me.

“All families have secrets. I guess some of us just have worse secrets than others.”
-The Man Who Loved Clowns by June Rae Wood

Despite reading so many books about mental illness and trauma in other families, I failed to clearly see what was happening with mine. As much as I could, I distanced myself from the reality of my sister going to prison and both of my parents suffering from poorly managed mental illnesses. If I’m honest, I still do distance myself and check out when trauma starts to rear its head again.

It’s a lifelong habit I’m working on.

My sister went to prison when I wasn’t barely a year out of high school and I don’t think I ever really tried to understand it, because it never felt like it was any of my business. Some of that might be due to our upbringing--decades later, my sister and I talk about the way our mom tried to keep us apart and feeling like strangers.

That’s not all there is to it, however. I think that when you’re a young person who’s gone through such difficult things, you almost need somebody else to tell you that it’s not okay.

Maybe you even need them to tell you that you’re not okay either. Because if you don’t know what’s healthy, how can you respond to trauma in a healthy way?

The ministry internship (aka cult) held a “graduation” every August. In 2001, I graduated from that first year. I nearly stayed on for a second year, but wound up declining the invitation to continue down the “GI (graduate intern) road.” Toward the end of my time with Teen Mania, I suffered such a deep, inexplicable depression that left me struggling to make any confident decisions about my future.

This first episode of depression meant that I spent much of my free time sleeping, or crying these deep, unabated tears. Nobody knew how to talk to me or how to touch me. Leadership expressed their opinion that my problem must have been my unconfessed “sin.”

Nobody back then ever even suggested that I was going through trauma or mental health issues. If God couldn’t comfort me, they said, I must have done something to separate myself from him.

A part of me thought they must be right. After all, I did have a secret. Despite the strictly-enforced rule against first-year interns dating or having any sort of romance, I fell in love with a fellow undergraduate.

We’d been sneaking around for a few months to make out, and I thought that was maybe enough to send me to hell. If my depression was real, then I thought it must be merely circumstancial. Or, I worried it must mean that I was weak.

On one level, I knew my family was troubled. But trauma? Nah. I was raised to consider trauma and Christianity mutually exclusive. (Which is, of course, ridiculous now.)

Yet at nearly 19 years old, my mind was churning with heaps of grief and uncertainty. I made my choices out of fear. I left the internship after my graduation, but not because I actually wanted to come home. I left because I felt far too guilty to stay.

And I didn’t know where else to go.

In my mind, I wasn’t a good enough Christian to be there. And with my sister going to prison, our mom had to care for my new niece, who was born that summer.

When the boy I loved decided he wasn’t staying on for another intern year either, that made my choice seem more obvious. I would go home and start a new chapter in my life.

Or, at least, I would go home to help my family.

Of course, the thing about starting a new chapter in your life is that you also need to take some decisive action. I struggled with this.

When I returned to the Twin Cities, I was nineteen. I was depressed and I felt like a shell of my former self. My home life was foreign to me with a nearly three month old baby to care for. Up until then, I was the youngest in my family and had never spent any time around younger children.

It didn’t help that my bedroom had been ransacked while I was away in Texas. My sister had pawned off my collection of VHS movies and my acoustic guitar. Desktop lamps and any piece of equipment with an antenna was broken and the metal tubes were missing.

I didn’t know much about drugs, but I knew they were a part of all this. I understood that my sister was a desperate addict. But I didn’t understand why my mother let my sister go through my belongings. And I still didn’t think my family life counted as trauma.

My mother was probably grateful for my help, but she relied upon me to help with my niece as if that was the only thing I had to do. She was angry when I got a job, but there wasn’t much of a choice. My sister and I had been raised on welfare. Our mother was still on assistance after we left her apartment and if I was going to have any chance at a life off of government assistance, I had to make a living.

The autumn of 2001 was filled with pain and exhaustion. While riding the bus to work at a bagel shop on Grand Avenue, I first heard the news that the Twin Towers had been hit by a plane. The day was chaos as everyone tried to make sense of the news.

A couple of months later, I tried visiting the boy I loved from the cult. It wasn’t a fairytale, and he wound up pursuing a girl who was just starting high school when we were supposedly still a couple.

It seemed like the hits just kept on coming. That same November, my cat, Nosey died in his sleep when I was taking a shower. Shortly after, I developed pneumonia for the first time and lost my job.

On an exceptionally rare outing with my father, he took me shopping at Sam’s Club for Christmas. He was in an unusually magnanimous mood and offered to get me virtually anything I wanted. Back then it was a Playstation 2.

When we got to the register, there was a problem taking his check. Sam’s Club was one of the businesses where my sister and her boyfriend made fraudulent purchases with his account. Months later, it still led to customer service turning him away.

In the grand scheme of things, I would certainly survive without a Playstation 2 or other Christmas presents from my father. And I did..

But the experience was a reminder to some of the most miserable years of my young life. Like when my father rented a limo for a birthday party and the check bounced, leaving me and my friends stranded until the driver could reach him.

Such experiences left wounds on psyche that I didn’t understand. I never felt safe and I believed I had to snatch up my happiness anywhere I could find it.

That December, I unexpectedly received paperwork for college because they expected me in January even though I had been planning to go in the fall. Against my mother’s wishes, I took the opportunity to leave.

In those days, I didn’t make choices, I just ran from thing to thing. And it never seemed like a problem, until I realized that none of those things could save me.

My entire life as a young adult was swallowed up by depression. It used to fill me with an enormous amount of shame. My twenties in particular left me feeling as if I had nothing to show for my life. Just a failed marriage, and a failed college career.

The years flew by even as they crawled. I felt as if I wore my unhappiness around my body for everyone to see, and I resented the notion that such pain would always follow me.

In my family, estrangement is really quite ordinary, though I was sad how often it happened. Parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Once in our lives, then gone forever. As it happened, my world became quite small, until it was just me and my mother once again and I was peering down at the beginning of my thirties.

I’m 37 now, and I see I didn’t know how much of my pain came from my trauma--trauma I didn’t really recognize until I became a mother myself. I’ve finally been back in touch with my sister for a few years after many more of no contact.

She survived prison and I survived not having her around. She survived her drug addiction and I survived my role as the sister of an addict. She lost custody of her four children, but recently reconnected with two of them last year. I lost my twenties to depression, after my year in the cult.

For a long time, all me and my sister ever did was just survive. Barely.

We now talk about our childhoods and realize that it’s something of a miracle we even made it as far as we have. Neither one of our parents taught us basics in life since they were too caught up in their own trauma.

If you knew our parents, as in the people they were and not just who they pretended to be, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that my sister went to prison and that I went to a cult. Or that we’ve both battled significant mental health issues.

Our lost years make a strong case for approaching trauma with honesty. We each learned the hard way that running away from our trauma, covering it up, or ignoring it simply doesn’t work.

We struggled needlessly, and you can be sure that those who loved us struggled too, since we didn’t have a healthy foundation for relationships.

As a result, there’s an awful lot of wondering you can do, like wondering where you’d be if you hadn’t been through a certain trauma. Or, if you had only recognized that trauma earlier. Honestly, though, I think we have to take heart anytime we ever recognize our trauma at all.

Some people never do.

The fact is that you won’t always recognize your trauma as trauma. Much like me, you might see it as part of your “life.” I have learned that the hard way, but I’m so happy to have learned it at all.

These days, I look at the young woman I was, and I no longer feel guilt or shame about anything. Instead, I look my past in the eye and see why she (and why anyone) struggled so hard.

I see the trauma. I see the pain.

My sister went to prison when I was hardly out of high school. At the same time, I entered a cult that would haunt me for years. It’s okay to recognize that time period as traumatic. It’s okay to admit that so much of my childhood was filled with trauma.

It doesn’t undercut anyone else’s trauma to accept that I have my own. This is not a competition. This is real life and we are each on our own path.

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Single mama, full-time writer, ex-vangelical. It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. I cover real-life issues, like family, parenting, relationships, and spiritual abuse.

Cleveland, TN

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