It was only when Rachel Underhill was lying in a hospital bed, haemorrhaging, that she first realised the way of the Watchtower might not be for her.
She had just given birth to twins via an emergency Caesarean section. As a Jehovah’s Witness she was subject to the whim of the church elders, and they made their feelings about a blood transfusion quite clear. As she was wheeled into the operating theatre, one of them pushed a form under her nose and said “sign here”.
Ms Underhill, 32, from Brighton, East Sussex, was lucky enough to survive her ordeal without a transfusion, but the idea that her religion was encouraging her to risk her life was a defining moment.
She recalled: “I remember the anaesthetist coming in and saying, ‘Do you realise you are going to die? Do you realise you will leave your children motherless?’”
When, years later, Ms Underhill finally escaped her religion, she launched a website to help former Jehovah’s Witnesses rebuild their lives after leaving the faith.
For those who manage to sever ties with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, life can be very isolated. Followers are controlled by strict laws that mean even the most everyday experiences, such as celebrating birthdays and Christmas or going out with friends, are completely alien to them.
On top of trying to navigate a world the sect has deliberately sheltered them from, many find themselves ostracised from friends and family who are still involved. “When I first came out of the religion I went from having this great support network to having nothing,” says Ms Underhill. “All my friends, family and people from the church didn’t want to know me.” The site she created, called exJW-Reunited.co.uk, is now a year old and has recently started to offer Britain’s first ever live online counselling service for ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Once a week, Lisa Magdalena, a qualified counsellor who ran away from the sect aged 16, is online to answer questions and provide support to anyone in the process of leaving – from finding new friends and a place to live, to dealing with the hurt and guilt of being cut off from family.
“Witnesses are taught never to seek help, which is why I’m so passionate about this website,” says Ms Magdalena. “There are really high rates of suicide and depression among people that leave, and I want to be able to help people to get their lives back on track.”
Ms Magdalena, 38, has seen first-hand the tragedy that the religion’s extreme code can wreak on families. In the 1970s, when she was just two years old, her father, Keith Playford, died. He had continually refused blood transfusions that would have saved his life after a simple dental procedure to remove teeth went wrong. Just before he died, doctors made legal history by forcing him to receive blood, to no avail.
When Ms Magdalena ran away, she says she lost her family and friends and ended up homeless. “I had nowhere to live and no job; I was living on the streets for three weeks and I felt suicidal,” she says.
“Lisa has been there and done it, so people won’t have to explain anything to her,” says Ms Underhill, who found that traditional counselling did not help. The strange and little-understood details of life as a Jehovah’s Witness made it difficult to explain the pressures she had been under. “The counsellor just couldn’t understand what I’d been through. I spent six of the eight sessions just explaining what the religion was about, and the way it worked.”