“If you think that you need help, don’t question it. Even if you have a thousand voices in your head or doubt in your head, just go with that feeling that’s in your gut.”
We met with a writer and comedian from Chicago who has dealt with a lot already in her short life. 23-year-old Nadia Alexandra, a smart and spirited performer, has written a one-person show about experiences from her youth involving abuse, both mental and physical.
Nadia grew up in a highly religious and secretive Jehovah’s Witness household and was subjected to manipulation and abuse. She explored emancipation from her parents and eventually moved out of the home at 18. Her new production is an exploration of her experiences, and the humor that comes from dealing with extreme circumstances.
Our digital media specialist Johnny Moran spoke with her recently about her childhood, her hopes, and dreams, as well as her desire for others to learn from her experiences.
Listen to our conversation on SoundCloud:
Excerpts from the interview below:
NRS: Hi, everybody. I’m here with Nadia Alexandra and we’ll be talking about her show “Hello, My Name is Nadia.” How are you today?
NA: Good. How are you?
NRS: Excellent. So tell us about yourself? Where are you from?
NA: So I was born in Atlanta and I moved to Buffalo Grove, which is a suburb of Chicago.
NRS: I know it well.
NA: Oh, wow. Are you from there?
NRS: I grew up in Chicago. I’m from the southside. So I’m familiar with the suburbs.
NA: Really just a boring northwest suburbs. I went to high school there and moved to Chicago when I was 18 and I’ve been living here ever since. I do a lot of improv comedy.
“Hello, My Name is Nadia” is a product of my improv comedy training and telling my story about growing up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which not a lot of people know is a cult. I talk about needing to leave home when I was 18 and not really having a relationship with my parents anymore. That they are still in that religion is very damaging. And I’m not the only one that thinks this way.
I wanted to tell my story. Unlike other cults or religions like Scientology or even the bad sects of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t really have a lot of people speaking out and the ones that are speaking out don’t get heard very much. I don’t know really why. Maybe it’s people thinking “I don’t know what their problem is, I think they are really nice.” I want my show to help those people who have been victimized. By sharing my problems with this organization, others may seek help.
NRS: It’s really hard because I know how I was when I was 18. That would have been really difficult for me, so how did you cope?
NA: It’s a good question. It was really hard because I sort of like made a choice to emotionally disconnect from my parents when I was 12. I knew that stuff was really not going to go well over 6 years because Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) are very strict, in terms of, you’re not supposed to have a lot of worldly friends, like friends from school. JW are not supposed to be involved in a lot of activities or looking forward to a higher education. I had all these dreams. All my best friends were from school. I didn’t really have friends in the Kingdom Hall, which is the JW church.
I definitely had dreams to be an actor and pursue higher education. I was close to my teachers too. I wasn’t supposed to have any life away from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My parents couldn’t see me for who I was. I needed to protect my aspirations and keep my goals and stick to them, so I started separating myself from my parents.
“I guess having this programming ever since I was very young, I never got baptized, but it still affected me even when I was breaking away as a teenager.”
I moved into the basement during high school and limited my contact. My parents were still expecting me to go to Kingdom Hall 3 times a week, which is a lot. Every time I went, I just shut down because it was so much propaganda.
I knew I was being brainwashed. I did my best to not listen. I trained my brain to disassociate. I secretly texted. I’d write things out. It helped me to focus on other things like mantras or lyrics to songs. I wanted something that would help me not listen to what was being said. The subliminal messaging affects children. Kids are brainwashed into unconditional acceptance. Guilt becomes part of why you are motivated to stay.
I remember a children’s book called “My Book of Bible Stories.” The illustrations were very subliminal. Some of them were very scary. One of the most prominent beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that the end is coming. They believe God will bring an end to this wicked world during Armageddon. After this war between God and evil people, there will be a paradise earth. All those people with good hearts, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are going to be approved to live forever in this paradise earth.
My Book of Bible Stories for children has warfare, blood and really scary images. A picture shows a guy on a white horse coming down from the red sky with people screaming, crying and losing their lives. It’s not only the pictures. JW perform and record dramatic stories for people to listen to in the car. The recordings have very real, visceral sounds of people dying or suffering. Videos also remind you that the end is near and that Jehovah can see every one of your thoughts. Not like Santa, but in a slyer way, you need to stay obedient to Jehovah.
I had this programming ever since I was very young. Although I never got baptized, it still affected me even when I was breaking away as a teenager. I would have nightmares about Satan killing me or dying. I dreamt the world would end and I wouldn’t be saved. I thought about death a lot in seventh and eighth grade. We were taught that when you die, that’s it. You’re either resurrected or dead forever depending on how God sees you.
I started to make peace with death early. I was trying to be an atheist at the time and I realized, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, nobody knows.” I decided not to worry about it. If I’m not going to have any afterlife, I’ll just have to accept that I will die. I started experimenting with all these different spiritual ideas. I wanted to learn other perspectives about what happens to you after death. I did my studying in secret. If my parents knew that I was reading New Age books about reincarnation or stuff like that, I would be in serious trouble.
“It’s difficult because there was no way out and nobody knew this was happening.”
One time my parents actually found a book under my pillow and just threw it out. They would look through my trash to see if I was reading anything that they didn’t want me to. They put spyware on my computer to see what I was emailing to my friends.
Domestic and Mental Abuse
I was a victim of domestic abuse. I was the only child, so nobody could see what was going on. My parents always told me “you’re crazy,” or “you have psychological problems.” They didn’t like me rebelling against what they were telling me or arguing with them about Jehovah’s Witness’ doctrine.
My dad was sexually abusive. My mom would never admit that, even to this day, when I confront her. He did some things that were abusive to me. I am still living with the aftermath of that. My body is still dealing with the trauma.
It was difficult because there was no way out. Nobody knew this abuse was happening. My dad was an elder. His congregational role was to shepherd people. He was to listen to people’s sins, give advice and be a mentor. This is so appalling to me, because I knew him to be such a monster. My mom was powerless. Jehovah’s Witness’ women are in wifely submission. It is preached over and over again. The man is the head of the woman. Whatever the man says, the wife encourages the family to follow him. He is the head of the family like God is the head of Jesus. It’s a ton of anti-feminist propaganda.
My mom didn’t stand up for me. She didn’t think my dad could do anything wrong because he is an elder. Every time he did something wrong or abusive to me, she would say, “You provoked him to be this way.” She made me out to be this bad kid, even though I wasn’t. I was liked at school by my friends and my teachers. I had an educational and social outlet until I got home.
In seventh grade, I called my friend on the house phone. I didn’t have a cell phone. I told her “stuff is really messed up, I’m really scared, I’m locked in my bathroom, my parents are screaming at me, my dad is chasing me around the house.” My friend didn’t know what to say. I realized during our conversation that my parents were listening in on the extension.
After that, my dad would often yell at me, “Oh, are you going to tell on us again.” I felt isolated and cut off. I didn’t have any kind of resources that I could access. My parents exerted immense control over me.
I jeopardized their way of life. I questioned their beliefs. I probably made them doubt their own faith. That uncertainty made them want to control me more. When I was disobedient or not being faithful, it affected how my dad was being viewed by other elders. It’s a very large social hierarchy. An elder’s rebel daughter would be a concern. My rebellion gave him more reason to be abusive to silence me. My disobedience threatened their salvation too. God might not resurrect parents of a bad kid.
There are many reasons why my parents did what they did. None of its right. You can’t resolve psychological issues by joining a cult. The cult won’t help you work through being wounded or your personal issues. A cult doesn’t care about your individual problems. When you join, they tell you how to live and what to believe.
NRS: That’s a lot to deal with. A lot of the things that you bring up are things that I hear from youth who reach out to us, in terms of not feeling safe, not feeling safe in their home, not feeling as if they have resources around, not being able to contact others, feeling controlled. So I guess at the time, you felt emancipation was the best option.
NA: Yeah. When I was 12, I knew my parents and I weren’t going to have a close relationship anymore. They were so different and set in their ways. Because they were against me, I could never be a whole person in a relationship with them. I decided when I was 18, I was going to leave home. Until that age, I endured years of abuse, physical threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, manipulation, covert sexual abuse, and I believe overt sexual abuse. There’s so much that my body is still recalling. At the time, I didn’t know for sure what was happening. Now, in the aftermath, I know that something did happen.
At the time, I was still exhibiting insomnia, panic attacks, and anxiety attacks. I was sick all the time. My menstrual cycle was all messed up. My primary care doctor was worried about me. She knew my situation at home was not good. She talked about it with my mom. My mom didn’t want anything to change. Finally, I got to see a therapist, alone. When I was a high school junior, I went for two sessions. My parents decided to let me see this therapist so I’d be less hostile towards them.
“If I knew NRS existed, I would have called probably from school.”
I wanted to go to therapy because I had done the most unholy thing. I had googled “Jehovah’s witnesses.” You are only allowed to get your information from the official designated Jehovah’s Witness resource, JW.org. All other websites or any literature about Jehovah’s Witness is ‘apostate literature’, which means it’s a lie. Other resources are trying to get you to leave the organization and Satan is tempting you.
I made the bold move to research other people’s stories. I went on YouTube. I saw this video of this therapist who used to be Jehovah’s Witness. She talked about the atrocities of child abuse in Jehovah’s Witness. Women having no rights. Guilt playing a role in mental illness later in life. Everything she was saying made sense to me. It was like, finally, someone is saying something that is helping me.
I emailed her to tell her about my situation. She was very compassionate. She told me, “You’re on the right track.” She reaffirmed what I believed.
So from that point on, I gathered evidence about my abusive situation. I researched legal sites to find the clause for emancipation in Illinois. I went to the therapist to help me. I probably brought 10 to 12 pages of information to her office.
“This is what is going on in my house. I am really thinking about emancipation. Can you help me?”
And all I remember is her saying, “Oh, that’s so sad. I’m sorry.”
And I thought, “That’s it?”
So after that session, I didn’t go back to her. I didn’t trust that she believed me. It was the worse feeling. I knew what was happening in my body. I knew that something bad was happening. And I knew I needed to get out. I didn’t have someone to listen to me at that time.
NRS: Yeah, we often get questions from youth about emancipation. We try to connect them with resources in their area, whether that’s transitional housing, a drop-in center, homeless shelters, pantries, even legal or mental or physical health care. Our job is basically to do whatever we can to make sure they are safe and off the street. If you had that kind of resource when you were younger, what do you think you would have done?
NA: I was actually thinking about that today. If I knew NRS existed, I would probably have called from school. I would have talked to a teacher more seriously about my situation. I wanted to get out of my situation. I did not want to go home anymore.
A support system earlier would have helped me sever ties with my parents. When I moved out at 18, I did so under the guise of “I’m taking the gap year from college.” I’m moving to get a job in Chicago. It was my way for them to not ask any questions or stop me.
When I moved, there was zero support system. I was working in a dog kennel full time. I kept just bouncing around jobs. I lived in really weird situations. Some landlords were abusive. It was like I had to suck it up and deal with it.
At one point, my boss got to know my story. She wanted to ‘adopt me’ as an adult. I was 19. At the time, it felt great to be wanted and cared for. Unfortunately, she was extremely narcissistic. I got into a really abusive relationship with her for the next two years. It was another set-back after leaving my parents. If I had a stronger support system, I wouldn’t have been dependent on abusive people. I probably would have less trauma to work through.
NRS: So have you been able to subsequently find resources that are helping you to cope and helping you to heal?
NA: Starting last winter, I started seeing a therapist in Evanston. Then when I moved to Chicago, I found another accessible therapist in Ravenswood. They both use a mind-body approach to healing. It is very holistic. Having a therapist I can talk to, makes me feel supported.
I’m also in a healthy relationship. My boyfriend and I have been together for over 8 months and live together. I like that I feel safe in it.
NRS: That’s a lot to deal with. So, about the show, how would you describe it to someone that maybe doesn’t go see theater very often? Obviously, it covers a lot of pretty serious and dramatic material. So how would you describe it?
NA: This is a one woman show. It’s about 50 minutes to an hour long. In this show, I am a comedian. I wanted this to be a comedy show while delivering some pretty hard and important truths. I think comedy and delivering important messages can go hand in hand. It makes people more receptive.
This is basically teaching people who Jehovah’s Witnesses are. It’s taking into perspective what you see when people come knocking on your door. It’s about what’s behind the organization. It also showcases mine and other people’s experiences dealing with it.
I don’t want my show to be an emotional downer. The main reason to see it is educating yourself. I want people to understand what this religion believes. I want people to ask themselves: ‘do I agree with this?,’ ‘does this sound good or not?,’ and ‘what can I do to help somebody who might be in a similar situation?’
There’s a lot of comedy that you can pull out of these situations. It’s ultimately it’s a hopeful message. I want to showcase how I overcame it. It’ll be empowering.
NRS: That’s great. Have you been able to get support from other organizations that deal with situations like this, especially with youth?
NA: Not yet. My friend Stephanie referred me to NRS. I believe your mission aligns with my show. Hopefully, in the future, I’ll connect with more youth-serving organizations. I would love to further my collaboration. In order to survive when you are on your own, you need other people. It would be nice to give back to organizations that are helping kids like myself.
NRS: That’s awesome. I think the beautiful part of being in a one-person show is that you can pretty much take it anywhere. It’s something that, especially with this, that has universal themes that speak to everyone, and you get an opportunity to spread that message out, that you are not alone. There are people who suffer in the same ways.
NA: Yeah, I think it’s easy to bring it to other theaters, and not rely on a whole lot of other people. Hopefully, it will give people the idea that they have the individual strength to do something.
NRS: Absolutely. So backtracking a little, as far the as the emancipation process, were you able to complete that process?
When I was 18, my parents didn’t have any legal rights over me. Still, they were stalking me around the city. They would find where I was living and slip really creepy, handwritten notes under my door. They called and texted me excessively even after I had explicitly told them not to contact me.
When they continued to contact me, I filed an emergency order of protection with the Cook County court. That was really hard for me. Although I don’t think my parents are bad people, I didn’t feel safe. It’s hard.
You remember the good memories. The love my parents were able to show in their own way. But after I left home, it felt like a war zone. I needed to fight for my own security. I needed to fight for my own life. If I allowed myself to go back home, I’d jeopardize my very existence. They would try to convince me I’m crazy and I’m making this stuff up. All of my hard work would be out the window. It was very difficult to draw those lines but that’s what I had to do.
I was granted the emergency order of protection. I also worked with the Chicago Alliance against Sexual Exploitation(CAASE), which is a phenomenal organization. I was represented by one of their pro-bono lawyers who, actually wrote a “no contact” letter to my parents in 2013. I am so grateful for that organization, for helping me but also for validating me.
I just remember bringing with me my list of uncomfortable things my parents were doing and I was like, “Is this weird? Is this wrong?”
My CAASE representative said, “Yes, this is wrong.”
I needed someone outside of me to tell me that. I needed confirmation. I questioned if I was making up something out of nothing. CAASE’s legal help was amazing because it solidified it. I officially severed ties with my parents. I needed to take care of myself.
NRS: Right. Having the legal recourse and having all the paperwork in play is absolutely a huge step.
NRS: Here’s something a little different. So if you could say something to your younger self, what would it be?
NA: It is so cliché, but I would say ‘trust your instincts’ and ‘get help.’ If you think that you need help, don’t question it. Even if you have doubt, just go with that gut feeling. “I need help. This is bad. I’m getting damaged because of this and I need to protect my body, myself.”
Also, don’t stop. If you talk to somebody, and they don’t get it and can’t help you, don’t just think that every person is going to be like that. Keep going. Keep talking to people. Don’t feel bad for leaning on people. People will happily help you. And you can help other people later down the line.
Be less afraid. Keep asking for help. Don’t get stuck in that place of “no one is going to be there for me.”
NRS: Absolutely. That’s generally what we try to encourage in youth, too. That’s why we are available 24 hours a day. That’s why we are available on some many different channels. In so many ways. Because everyone is different and they have different capabilities. So having those options is a really important thing.
Can you give some basic information about the show?
NA: It’s going to be January 4th and 11th, at the Annoyance Theater, 857 W. Belmont, in Chicago at 930pm. Tickets are $8.
I’m really hoping to extend this run for more people to see it. At the end of the show, I’m passing out NRS wallet cards. I want to make a hard push for people to donate or support NRS. I wish that I had this resource when I was growing up and it ties in so well to this show.
NRS: Well, thanks for your time.
Nadia would like to mention and thank the following individuals and organizations that have helped along the way:
- The Annoyance Theatre for helping me get this show off the ground!
- Legal support from the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and YWCA
- Chicago Center for Integration and Healing for wonderful mind/body therapy
- Lincoln Square Acupuncture for accessible, affordable community acupuncture
“I have also been helped greatly by community acupuncture in Chicago which is not only affordable but has allowed me to lower my anxiety and reset my nervous system. I go every week and it’s definitely an integral part of my success!” – Nadia
Tickets to Nadia’s Show