When I accepted a place at Mercy Ministries, I had no idea that I was walking into a cult. As a regular church goer, I had heard a lot about Hillsong. I had most of their CDs with Darlene Zschech's image on them, so when I heard that Hillsong were involved in Mercy Ministries, and that Darlene was actually the CEO of Mercy Ministries at the time, I had no reason to doubt that they were a legitimate organisation. In my mind, Hillsong afterall, had a good reputation.
Going to Mercy Ministries was by no means an easy decision, and not one I took lightly. I was studying at University and was under very good treatment at home. But the promise of a Christian program with 24/7 care by qualified professionals who could treat mental illness, for free, seemed too good to just ignore.
Before applying, I had contacted the Mercy Ministries office in Sydney to find out as much as I could about the program. I was told that the staff caring for the young women were qualified to treat mental illness and that the counsellors were all qualified also. Armed with that information, and a print out about their program, I went to family, my (Christian) counsellor and doctor and discussed my option to go into treatment at Mercy Ministries with them. The main drawcard for me was definitely that I could have access to qualified professionals 24/7 whenever I needed them, and also that the program was Christian. It sounded much too good to be true, and unfortunately, it was.
I went into the program with the perception that I knew what I was getting into. All coversations with Mercy Ministries staff up to that point, and indeed all of their advertising materials, presented Mercy Ministries as a Christian live in treatment centre where professional treatment, coupled also with Christian teachings, assisted young women to recover from their illnesses. In actual fact, the picture painted in my mind of what Mercy may be like, and the kinds of treatment they may offer, was very far removed from the reality of what the program was.
When I got to Mercy Ministries I had the Resident's Handbook thrust into my hands. I remember reading it and wondering why they were suddenly taking away any independence and self management I had. It is true that I went into the program seeking treatment for my illness, which I was coping with but at the same time I knew it was holding me back. I had been responsible for seeking support from professionals in the past, I was studying at University, and yet it seemed like Mercy Ministries were trying to revert me into being totally dependent, totally controlled, and a child who was not trusted to make her own responsible decisions. There is no doubt that residential treatment centres need basic rules to keep things running smoothly, but this went well beyond basic rules, even down to telling residents what to wear (eg no trousers allowed at church.) As time went on, I also found that there were many "unwritten rules" also, such as no speaking with volunteers about the day to day running of the house.
Mercy Ministries soon arranged for my Centrelink payments to be deposited into their account. I was a little suprised that they would advertise that the program was provided at no charge to the young women, and claim that they needed more donations to be able to treat the young women, when in fact they were taking significant payment for their services from the young women themselves. I wasn't too upset though, afterall, I think it is only fair for a young woman to pay her own way, and I held on to the promise that I was going to be treated by qualified staff.
I did feel that Mercy Ministries might have been taking advantage of well meaning members of the public when asking for donations, however back then their advertising campaign wasn't as large as it is today. You could sit down and have a coffee without being splashed with Mercy Ministries propaganda with false promises about their program, and asking for more money.
As time went on, it became apparent that the staff caring for me were not qualified to treat medical and psychiatric illness at all. I learned that some of them had been to Bible College. By this stage, I was very confused about the kind of program that Mercy Ministries was. I had been forbidden from being treated by my own counsellor from home, the only counselling allowed was to be done by Mercy Ministries counsellors, and I had been there for perhaps one and a half or two weeks, and I had still not met my counsellor yet. Surely she would be qualified, as promised.
As you can probably guess by now, the counsellor turned out to be unqualified and unregistered.
By this stage, I had given up so much to be at Mercy Ministries - tying up loose ends at home (after all, I was told to expect to be at Mercy Ministries for approximately 10 - 12 months), turning down job opportunities, deferring my University studies and directing all of my payments into Mercy Ministries' account. I had invested so much, that I didn't feel I could just go home, even though in hindsight I wish I had have. The indoctrination, even after a short while, had taken its toll.
I was even starting to question my own belief system. Several times, the staff would tell me that I was doing things wrong. Apparently, if I didn't raise my hands during slow Christian songs, I wasn't worshipping God properly. If I didn't say Amen when somebody else prayed, I was being uncooperative and stubborn (nevermind that at the church I was used to going to, only the person praying said Amen. I had no idea that anyone expected me to say it when I was not the person praying.) It was as if the staff had made it their mission to undo any 'wrong' things I was doing as a Christian, so that they could make us do things their way - the only 'correct' way in their eyes.
Staff often talked about how young women go to Mercy Ministries to be "re-programmed" from their old lives, old beliefs, old selves. They would talk about Mercy Ministries taking the world's trash and making treasure from it. It did hurt a little. I never considered myself to be trash. I was a person with an illness, and I was pro-actively seeking treatment. I wasn't trash!!
I want to talk a little about the counselling at Mercy Ministries. I would see this unqualified counsellor once a week for about 40 minutes. Some weeks counselling was missed. The sessions normally opened with a prayer and with the counsellor asking me a few questions such as, who I got on best with out of the staff, and who I got on best with out of the other young women. She would then take the Restoring The Foundations folder and read a couple of pages to me. I often then had to read a prayer out loud. Usually the session ended there for the week. It took me a little while to discover (due to the secrecy of the counselling sessions) that each young woman, nomatter their illness or issue, was treated by the very same Restoring The Foundations materials. A young woman had to work her way through the folder during her counselling sessions before she could be termed a "Mercy Ministries Graduate."
I had severe panic and anxiety, which caused dizzy spells, cold sweats and difficulty in breathing. Before going to Mercy Ministries I was under very good care by doctors and a qualified counsellor, who had helped me to manage my illness by making a list of things that help me to get through the episodes. Some of these things were, sitting quietly in a comfortable chair while closing my eyes and picturing a calm place, being alone to meditate, or taking a short nap.
I tried to manage the panic attacks as best I could at Mercy Ministries. On my second day at Mercy Ministries I could feel an impending panic attack, so I tried sitting with my eyes closed and picturing a calm place, only to be disturbed by a staff member who told me indignantly "no sleeping was allowed" during the day. I attempted to let her know that I wasn't sleeping, and was trying to cope with the panic, however she was not interested in "excuses" as she called them. Obviously, with the "no sleeping in the day allowed" rule, I was not going to be allowed to have a nap when the panic attacks hit. And according to Mercy Ministries, meditating was evil. I did try substituting "meditation" for "quiet prayer", however, at the time the staff did not permit me to go anywhere in the centre to be alone to pray.
It was a very confusing time and it made me wonder how I was going to be able to manage my illness, especially given that I was in a much more stressful environment than I was in when I was home.
1) Removed from the medical care of my doctors
2) Removed from the care of my qualified Counsellor
3) Removed from my family, friends and church
4) Removed from my studies and work opportunities
5) Prevented from managing my illness the way I had been taught to by my doctors and counsellor.
Even going to staff during a panic attack was considered taboo. I was accused of "acting for attention." It was obvious that the staff had little to no knowledge of how to help me, or how to let me help myself. Occassionally they would spare me the accusation that I was attention seeking, and instead they would tell me to go and read a book called God's Creative Power, or read the Bible. They did not seem to understand, or take seriously, that I was suffering from a real illness that needed real intervention so that it could be managed.
When reading God's Creative Power and the Bible didn't prevent further panic attacks, a staff member told me to sit down in her office, and she shut the door.
I was told that seeing as I was not improving, she believed that it was demonic forces that were causing the symptoms I described. I was told that the "world" may call it an illness, but they are wrong. She said that the "world" does not have the power of God, and that only Mercy has the power of God and knows the truth - that demons cause what the world calls mental illness, and that only prayer and treatment from Christians can heal somebody of it. I was told that Mercy Ministries was the only place that could help me, and that the "world" with all their qualifications has already failed me. A couple of days later, I was forced to have an exorcism.
Two staff members, one of them being my Mercy Ministries counsellor had me in a room with them. They shut the door and pulled the curtains so that nobody could see in, then had me stand in the middle of the room while they laid hands on me, and cast the demons out of me one by one, calling them by name. They spoke loudly, then quietly, then loudly again, alternating between speaking in tongues and speaking in English. I wanted to cry. I didn't understand why they were yelling. I was so frightened. At one point, one of the staff members tried to reassure me "Don't worry," she said. "I am angry at Satan, not at you."
After the exorcism, I was told that I shouldn't have any more symptoms because the demons that were causing them had been cast out. Although I am embarrassed to admit it, I held on to what they had said. I wanted to believe them. That I had been healed, that I wouldn't have any more symptoms, that they had "fixed" me. And I was okay, for about two days.
When the next panic attack hit, being unable to manage it the way I had been taught by my doctors, I went to staff to ask for help. The symptoms were really bad. They took me to their office, closed the door, and proceeded to tell me about how disappointed they are in me. I was told that they had already cast the demons out of me, therefore if I was having any symptoms now, it was for one of two reasons. 1) I was acting for attention, or 2) I had knowingly and willingly invited the demons back into me.
I was devistated. I couldn't work out what I had done wrong. Maybe I wasn't a good enough Christian? Maybe God didn't want to heal me? Maybe I really did have demons inside of me???
The exorcism messed me up, a lot.
I started to question who I was, what I was, I didn't know what I believed and didn't know what to think. Were my thoughts my own thoughts? Were they the thoughts demons were putting into my head? Was I truly as evil as the staff had said I was? On top of all of this, I wasn't allowed to discuss it with family members or friends.
I had gone into Mercy Ministries as an educated, independent young woman who had an illness and was seeking treatment. I came out a real mess. I had reverted back to being a child, totally dependent, very, very fragile and believing that somehow the illness I had was my own fault.
Since coming out of Mercy Ministries, I have been able to seek proper treatment from qualified people, and they have really helped to turn things around for me. I had a lot of things to deal with - not just my illness, but the effects that Mercy Ministries had on me psychologically. It took a long time to even get to the point I was at before I went into Mercy Ministries, but today, I am an overcomer.
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