I had always planned on attending college. I joined extracurricular activities in elementary school with the sole purpose of padding my college application; I came home in tears after failing a spelling test in the third grade, fearful that I wouldn't be accepted. In high school, I took AP English and filled my senior year with the ACT, the ASVAB, and the ACT again.
But something crazy happens when you find yourself speaking to a charismatic, full-of-energy young adult who can't stop gushing about their recent travels around the globe: You throw out your hopes and dreams and move to Idaho to join what turns out to be a cult.
At least, that's what I did.
The cult inhabited a former summer camp on a secluded mountain two hours from the nearest Walmart. We had limited internet access, and were only able to use our cellphones on Sundays and Tuesdays when we ventured into the nearest town to go to church or the laundromat.
The town itself had a population of less than 900 people, and it was at least a 30-minute drive from the camp before we saw any one of them. We were quite literally cut off from the rest of the world and only had each other to speak to.
That's what it so dangerous. Without friends or family to keep me balanced, I was easily distracted by the group's high-energy, enthusiastic promises. I was easily fooled by their "friendship" and, after they gained my love and trust, I quickly accepted their harsh critiques of me and my short comings. Like any recipe for a good soldier, they tore me down in order to build me into what they needed most – a lemming willing to follow them off the edge of any cliff.
Our days were full of classes, sermons, chores and time for self-reflection. There were six of us students, all female, and we were led by a team of predominately male leaders. During class, these men taught us all kinds of "important" life lessons, like how to become a good marriage prospect and that the basic purpose of a woman is to bear and raise children.
Though I had paid over $3,000 for room and board, our rooms were not heated or insulated from the harsh mountain winter, and we had only our sleeping bags and long johns to keep us warm. We ran out of food nearly two months in and had to survive on donated bagels for all three meals each day for over a month.
Sadly, none of these things made me doubt them for a second. They had become my family. This was my home. I was where I belonged.
It was not until they decided to cover our cabin in holy water to aid my sleep that I started to question them. I had been having trouble sleeping since I first arrived in Idaho. You could blame it on the altitude or the fact that I had so little to protect me from the freezing temperatures, but they didn't. No, they blamed it on the dark spirit that one of the students claimed to see by my bed. The other girls quickly chimed in that they, too, had witnessed this spirit, and suddenly I felt like I was in Salem.
Things quickly began to spiral after that. I began to question their methods as well as their motives, and my doubts were not welcome. I was told that I was harming the team and that I needed to fall back in line to save our family.
When I mentioned that I had spoken with my father about my concerns and that I was considering returning home, I was told that I was no longer allowed to speak to my parents, siblings or friends from my "former life." They were my family, they told me. This was my home. If I had concerns, they would pray about it and they would advise me to do what was in the best interest of myself and the team.
When I announced that I was going home for Thanksgiving and that I would not return, they stopped providing the team food all together for a mandatory fast. Luckily, my parents had sent me a care package not long before, and I was able to sustain myself on Pop Tarts and peanut butter crackers.
My last week in Idaho was awful — I spent most of my time hiding in my room, paralyzed with fear that I would not be able to get out. I was hungry, scared and totally alone.
But I did get out. I returned home, enrolled in, and graduated from college just like I'd planned to before this frightening detour. I met and married my husband and had a beautiful little girl. After a lot of counseling, I have finally come to peace with all I endured. I may have accidentally joined a cult instead of college, but at least I was lucky enough to break free.
After a quick Facebook stalking session, I learned that the other girls I'd lived with in Idaho found love, too. Many of them are now "happily" married — to our male leaders.