Today I am welcoming Mary Grand – the author of Free To Be Tegan – to the blog to talk about how change has impacted her life.
Welcome to the blog, Mary, please tell the readers a little about yourself.
Hi, thank you for inviting me here.
I am a writer living with my family and cocker spaniel on the Isle of Wight. My
roots are in Wales and I brought up in Cardiff. I was one of four children, and
my home life was busy and happy. My family were members of a strict
religious sect called the Plymouth Brethren. The chapel had a number of
members from the Exclusive Brethren, the more extreme end of the sect.
At the age of eighteen I left home. Initially I went nurse training and although
I loved the work I couldn’t cope socially. I had been brought up thinking it was
wrong to go to the pub, to drink, or mix too much with people who were not in
the Brethren. This of course led to a very lonely life outside of work!
I left nursing after six months. Finally I went to teacher training college in
Winchester and stayed the course. I studied philosophy and religion and this
helped me, at least intellectually, untangle some of the teaching from the sect.
After this I became a Teacher of the Deaf, working in London, Croydon and
I can imagine daily life was quite challenging at 18 when you’ve just left home after being brought up in a completely different culture. What was the most significant change in your life to date?
Like everyone I have had a lot of significant changes in my life; getting
married and having children, loosing close relatives being some of the most
However, for me, a different kind of change which for me was a process
rather than a one off event was also extremely significant. That was leaving
the sect I had been brought up in. By leaving I mean more than the physical
leaving at eighteen to go nursing. That was a huge and very confusing step
but I don’t feel I truly left it behind the sect until I was much older, that was
about six years ago and I am now in my fifties!
The reason I say this is because although I turned my back on the sect, I
buried the harmful teachings deep inside me, refused to think about them or
confront them. I was never physically or sexually abused in the sect and I had
a loving, nurturing home. For these things I am extremely grateful. However I
now realise that the teachings did damage me. I was what they call
hypervigilant, had terrible nightmares, and actually, without realising it, had
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Despite this I was functioning well, keeping together a responsible job and raising my family.
The crunch came after loosing my father, a hard and painful journey. My
OCD became a lot worse and then a few weeks after his funeral I found
myself sitting on the sofa at home crying uncontrollably. All I could think was
‘I can’t do this anymore’. It came as a huge shock; I had always been very
busy, sociable and tried to look after people. I didn’t know what to do.
I was incredible lucky. I went to my doctor, who was wonderful and from there
had a very good psychiatrist and therapist. I was diagnosed with severe OCD
(which I had never heard of) .My family were very worried but supportive.
One of the worst things about being ill was the perception of letting them
down. For a year I was very frightened to leave the house, could not drive and found having people visit very stressful. Initially my therapist and I used the tools of CBT but it was not helping. Slowly I started to talk about my past. I really didn’t think it had anything to do with what I was going though.
It was only as I saw the reaction of the therapist to the teachings I had
received that I began to realise how extreme they had been. It was odd; I
would never have allowed anyone to teach those things to my children but
somehow dismissed their effect on me.
The teachings that were the most harmful were those about punishment, hell
and abandonment by my parents at the “rapture”. I was taught very graphically about these things from the age of five and was very disturbed by them. I spent many hours on my own trying to say the right prayers so that I would not end up in’ everlasting punishment’ or be left alone for ever. I realise now I spent a lot of time worrying, I would get up at night checking things, sit on the stairs when I should have been in bed listening to check my parents were still there. If I couldn’t find my mum as soon as I got home from school I was convinced that she had been taken. Speaking to my brother and sisters they too had these thoughts but it is only recently that we have started to talk about them.
I was more fortunate than a lot of my friends in the Brethren in that my home
life was relatively normal. My parents, despite being members of the sect,
allowed us to watch TV and go to the cinema. Our lives, however, revolved
around the chapel and socialising with anyone not in the Brethren was
frowned on. By my teens I was going to chapel three times on a Sunday,
Prayer meeting Monday, Teaching on a Wednesday, Bible study Thursday,
Youth group Friday, teaching all day Saturday, and I also went on long
intense ‘holidays’ when we would have meetings from early morning to late at
night. Leaving this was bound to be a massive change and it is no wonder I
had problems when I initially left home.
What were your initial feelings as you processed the past in order to change the direction of your life?
Initially I was very resistant to the idea that the sect I had been brought up in
had been so damaging. It felt a betrayal of my parents and the people in the
sect, many of whom we had been close family friends.
I kept thinking it was only words; I didn’t want to exaggerate what I had been
through. However as I talked about what it I grew to realise that actually the
teachings had been abusive. On line I found the research of a psychologist
called Dr Jill Myton. She had come out of the Brethren and has done
extensive work on the effects of Brethren teachings. I remember reading her
work and crying with relief that someone finally had put in words my
experience. She has shown the high number of ex-members suffering from
hypervigilance and OCD.
How did you approach managing the changes you needed to make once you accepted your past?
Once I accepted the damage these teachings had done I knew I had to make
changes in my life. I was a member of a lovely, kind, church but there were
triggers there in things like the teachings and the hymns that were making me
unwell. It was very hard decision to stop going in some ways as they were the
close friends, our children had grown up together. However as soon as I left I
felt a sense of enormous relief. I still meet up with friends for coffee but it is
not my world now. I went to a writing class. Physically going was really hard
but I am so glad I did. Apart from family and professionals the two things that
really helped me heal were writing and getting my dog Pepper!
Writing my first novel “Free to Be Tegan” was very scary but also therapeutic.
I didn’t feel able to write about my own experience directly and so I created a
cult that had the more disturbing elements from the teachings of the sect I had
grown up in. The story is about Tegan’s attempts to live in a world she has
been taught is evil and her healing journey.
I did a lot of research into other cults and cult leaders many of which were more extreme than mine. Since publishing it has been very moving to be contacted by others who have had similar experiences and I am grateful that the novel has been of some help to them.
What did you learn from the experience?
I learned never to underestimate the effect of what we teach children, that
words are powerful and need to be used carefully.
I have also leaned that it is possible given the right support to heal from a lot
of the hurts.
I am reconciled to the fact that I will always have mental scars. I am careful to avoid triggers. Sometimes I can feel my OCD starting and try to use the tools given to me by my therapist to stop it gaining a hold on me. I still go every few months to see my therapist.
How do you feel about change now?
Although it was really hard I am glad I finally worked things through. I can
honestly say I am more at peace with myself and the world now than I have
ever been. Hard, sad, painful things still happen to me like they happen to
everyone but I love to write, to walk with my dog. Nature is very important to
What would your top tip be for someone going through a similar
I remember my first visit to the therapist and saying: ‘I’m sorry I am here, I
should be coping’. I think a lot of us feel we have to keep going whatever
happens. I have learned that it is okay to ask for help, to not always be the one
in control. Be gentle with yourself, allow time to be tired and recover.
Regarding the OCD, someone estimated that it takes on average ten years for
someone to seek help for OCD what ever the cause. Although there are still a
lot of misunderstandings about OCD it is becoming better understood and I
hope people feel more able to look for help. The stigma of mental illness is not an easy one to break down but at least people are starting to talk about it,
which must be a start.
Specifically if you are in a sect or cult or know someone in one there is help
out there. There are some very good support groups on line and there is a
growing understanding of cults and how they work. A person in one will find it
very hard to leave and need supportive, accepting people outside to look after
Finally, if you could change one thing what would it be?
I think the one thing I wish I had done was get help earlier. I can see in
retrospect I was finding a lot of things hard but felt obliged to keep going what
ever. It would have been better to have said no to a few things and admit I
needed some help.
I think that is a wise tip. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Mary.
Mary’s debut novel – Free to be Tegan – has received 100 reviews to date, mostly five star.
The synopsis: Tegan, aged twenty seven, is cast out of the cult, rejected by her family
and from the only life she has known. She is vulnerable and naïve but she also has courage and the will to survive. She travels to Wales, to previously unknown relations in the wild Cambrian Mountains.
This is the uplifting story of her journey from life in a cult to find herself and flourish in a world she has been taught to fear and abhor.
Guilt and shadows from her past haunt her in flashbacks, panic attacks and a fear of the dark. However she also finds a world full of colour, love and happiness she has never known before. The wild beauty of the hills, the people she meets and the secrets slowly revealed by the cottage all provide an intriguing backdrop to Tegan’s drama.
The novel is set in spring, a story of hope, new growth, of the discovery of self and the joy of living.
Find out more about the author: mary grand.net
Follow the author on twitter: @authormaryg
If you enjoyed this changing lives interview and would like to take part, please contact me via the form on the blog.
I learned never to underestimate the effect of what we teach children, that words are powerful and need to be used carefully.
Author Mary Grand