A former Jehovah's Witness has spoken of the heartbreak at being rejected by family and friends after walking away from the group - and reveals her own mother went to her grave while still refusing to speak to her.
Mother-of-four Dr Heather Ransom, 57, lived for 48 years within the community before she 'woke up', taking three of her four children with her.
Her daughter - who is now 32 - remained behind and has had virtually no contact with her family since she was 25.
Heather's fiance, Nicolas Spooner, is a therapist who works with ex-Jehovah's Witnesses.
Seven years on the couple still live in Southport, the town whose doors she used to knock on.
Heather, who has completed a PhD in Psychology since leaving the group, said: 'Some people really don't cope well with the social isolation and family fracture that comes with shunning.
'I've lost all my Jehovah's Witness family, they shun me. My mum died of COVID while shunning me. I hadn't seen her for a couple of years but visited her three times in full PPE as she was dying in hospital.
'But at least leaving the religion was my own choice, some aren't so lucky and get disfellowshipped, which is like being kicked out into the cold.
'I'd lived in my hometown of Southport all my life, so I had a lifetime of friends. And you lose all of them. It's as if you've died.
'I haven't seen my daughter for years - I did spend a lot of time messaging her but with no response. It took me about five years to think: "Do you know what, this is too painful"
'I don't do that any more. I've lost her, for now anyway.'
Since leaving in 2015 Dr Ransom has completed a PhD at Edge Hill University - despite being in her late 40s, she says she was interested in 'doing everything that I've not been allowed to do.'
She left school at 16, and started university with only a few O Levels to her name.
Focusing on the experiences of former Jehovah's Witnesses and how they cope outside of the organisation - she felt the urgency of her research as she saw the negative effects of shunning on her friends who had been disfellowshipped.
The cruel process - described on the religion's website as being 'expelled from the congregation for unrepentant sin' - is a policy of 'strict avoidance' by the community where even closest relatives will have no contact.
It can be for as little as smoking a cigarette or having sex outside marriage.
Many of the people she spoke to had problems with their mental health. The ones who were disfellowshipped experienced more severe problems, including anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Her research indicated that those who got disfellowshipped felt that they had no control of their situation and still believed Armageddon is coming and they would be destroyed because they're not 'in the truth'.
She explained: 'It plays havoc with your mental health and can give you what I call a "death row mentality".'
Growing up, Heather says she was '100 per cent a believer' - and spent 60 hours a month knocking on doors.
Dubbed a pioneer, she was 'right there in the middle' of the community.
The rank refers to 'full time evangelizers', according to the group's website, who spend their time preaching.
But after realising the toll the religion was taking on her psychologically and physically, Heather knew she had to get out.
She continued: 'If you talk to any former Jehovah's Witness, myself included, we can reel off five or six names off the top of our heads of people that we've known that killed themselves.
'There were a combination of things happening in my personal life that led me to realise I didn't want to be in this religion anymore. My sister had left the JWs a few years before and I was told to have no contact with her.
'I complied and bitterly regret doing that, but you have to be obedient when you're a Jehovah's Witness. We are very close now, but I regret the years we lost.
'Then my best friend was disfellowshipped, so I wasn't allowed to talk to her. The mental confusion was terrible and just didn't align with what I had read in the Bible
'Importantly, if any of my children ever left the religion I would have to shun them because that's the expectation. And that's what I'd experienced other people having to do.
'I realised I could never do that. So I just stopped going.
'My life was a thousand times better after I left, the feeling of freedom was so liberating.'
Her father, who has since passed away, was ecstatic that she had finally broken free of the controlling religion.
It allowed them to spend more time together and they managed to have a family Christmas together before he died of cancer in 2017.
Before his illness they spent their Sundays on family bike rides in the country rather than going to the Kingdom Hall and knocking on doors preaching.
She said: 'I was having, almost like anxiety attacks as I was driving to the Kingdom Hall. And I couldn't wait to get out.
'I said to my sons in the car, I remember it clear as day: 'That's the last time I'm ever going, I don't want to be in this religion anymore. I understand that I've raised you in it. I'll take you to every meeting, I'll take you to the ministry, the door knocking.'
'And the boys - who were 21 or 19 at the time, both said: 'We don't want to go anymore either.'
'Unbeknownst to me they'd been planning on leaving the religion for a while, but were really worried about telling me because they knew that I would start shunning them.'
Heather thinks that her experience was easier because they left as a group and she was only shunned when she met Nicolas - who Jehovah's Witnesses call a 'worldly man' because he was not part of the religion.
There are about 6.9 million Jehovah's Witnesses across the world - with 130,000 in the UK.
Mother-of-five Rebekah Vardy revealed she feels 'quite a bit of guilt' for speaking out against the religion in her Channel 4 documentary, which was aired on Tuesday, May 16.
The 41-year-old claimed her own mother didn't believe she was sexually abused at the age of 12 and alleges it was covered up by senior male leaders within the religious group.
The Jehovah's Witnesses told Channel 4 that elders are directed to immediately report an allegation of child sexual abuse to the authorities even if there is only one complainant. They also said it is 'false and offensive' to imply that they stand in the way of the authorities.
They rejected the suggestion that being expelled from the religion contributed to suicide and added: 'Courts have rejected the allegation that disfellowshipping and so-called shunning results in social isolation and discrimination.
'And it is simply misleading and discriminatory to imply that our religion is controlling.'
In a comment to MailOnline, they added 'We are very sorry to learn of her report that she was a victim of child sexual abuse in her youth. Our deepest sympathies are with any victim of this vile crime
'To our understanding, Mrs Vardy herself has never been one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We are therefore troubled at the attempt to link Jehovah’s Witnesses with what happened to her and find the assertion that elders “hushed up” her abuse absurd.
'Such irresponsible misrepresentation of the facts risks stirring up hatred against our minority religion. Our religious publications have never discouraged congregants from reporting allegations of child abuse to the statutory authorities.'
Heather continued: 'I was surprised in my own research, at the amount of participants that I'd had that had been sexually abused, but also the amount of females who'd experienced domestic violence.
'This wasn't part of my research, I was focused on identity, but the stories of abuse kept coming, it was so traumatic'
She says they claimed they were told to keep it to themselves.
One woman allegedly came back from hospital - and was told to 'pray harder' by the elders, and maybe her husband would not do it again.
Jehovah's Witness specialist counsellor Nicolas added: 'When I speak to ex Jehovah's Witnesses I expect them at some point in our conversation to talk of sexual abuse, or abuse of some description.
'It's not unusual. It really isn't.'
Accredited therapist Nicolas helps people who have left the religion with a combination of counselling and psychoeducation.
Although he has not been part of the community, he decided to specialise after meeting Heather - and has now completed an extra qualification in post-cult counselling.
He said: 'When you find yourself outside of it you're not equipped for life in the world.
'There are certain basic life skills it becomes clear that you don't have because they were denied you or you had to suppress them - things like having independent thought, how to make friends, how to speak up or how to put boundaries in place.
'These are skills everyone else takes for granted, but to try to function as an adult in a world that you're not familiar with - that you were told was extremely dangerous - it is daunting, to say the least.
'They don't know how to deal with death, as they are taught they will live forever. They have to deal with mortality - and that's just that's just one little part.
'What surprises me is that I don't get 500 emails a day. There could literally be thousands and thousands of people who know they need help, want to seek help, but feel it'd be wrong to do so because Jehovah wouldn't want them to.'
When Ms Vardy spoke up, she said that she did it in the hope of showing others in similar situations that 'there's light at the end of the tunnel.'
And Heather feels the same - with two papers be published and another three on their way off the back of her PhD as she prepares to get married in July, she believes it is possible to turn your life around after decades as a Jehovah's Witness.
She said: 'I think you have to do something with your life that's positive.
'The Jehovah's Witnesses took 48 years of my life and I'm not letting them have any more of it. My PhD was focused on recovery and positive change post-exit rather than dwelling on negative experiences.
'My advice would be: 'Go out and do things. Don't let them have any more of your life.'
The Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses called the image of the Jehovah's Witnesses 'distorted', saying that they are an 'open community and enjoy entirely normal lives.'
They continued: 'There is nothing unique in the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses have a religious process to expel (disfellowship) adherents who unrepentantly commit a serious sin, such as adultery, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic or other violence, or theft.
'It is a fact of life that a large percentage of families in modern Europe, including the United Kingdom, choose to entirely cut off contact with a family member due to a "clash in values" which in most cases has nothing to do with religious beliefs.
'In contrast, if an adherent among Jehovah’s Witnesses is expelled, it is usually for a relatively short period of time and the adherent is welcome to attend our religious services.'
They added that courts have found the process to be lawful.
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