It was nearing 11:45 p.m.
15 minutes to midnight.
I remember looking up, briefly, in one split second because that was all I had. I saw the twilight sky full of stars.
The neighbors were watching — odd, they were never out at night.
And they had a phone in their hands.
But my sister and I had to make it out. I was frantic. I’d masterminded the whole escape, down to this very minute. That morning, I took the car I’d bought with cash out of the garage and hid it one street away. Now, it was parked and running by the side door — my chariot to the freedom of a new life.
My sister was walking out behind me with more stuff ready to shove into my overloaded sedan; I told her she had to leave one of her buckets of clothes behind. I had no room left.
I was twenty-one; she was twenty-three years old.
Twenty-one years of my life till that point in time had been spent walking in one direction.
The direction of panic and fear. Wondering daily if he would treat me with kindness and love instead of coldness and disdain. The direction of utter slavery. My time was not my own. It could be claimed as his at a second’s notice. Church work, nannying, cooking, cleaning, marketing for his church — it never ended, morning till night. Silence. I dare not speak in front of him. My voice was always muted. Panic in my heart. Panic at the memories of being stripped and beaten in the basement, with no one even aware of it much less coming to our aid.
Because inside a Fundamentalist puritanical cult, women do not have autonomy and freedom for themselves. They are abused, forced, and bred for the “cause” led by the man.
(And many times, these slavery recruitment operations look a lot like “good wholesome churches” run by “good wholesome Christians.”)
This was my life, for two decades and one year. And I’d had enough. I was getting out that night. I was ready to find a new norm for myself, no matter how hard it would be.
The Miracle of a Non-Toxic Environment
Over the next 10 years, I built my life.
And it was my new environment, and the person in my new environment, that made all the difference.
(Getting OUT of toxicity is key. You cannot heal until you do so.)
I escaped to someone. Someone that I’d quickly fallen in love with, after he hired me online to write for him. My husband of ten years now. We were married three months after escaping the cult.
He was… kind. Unassuming. Honest. Blunt. Goofy. Didn’t give a darn about “looking good” in front of others. The complete opposite of the father I had.
With him in my corner, I wholeheartedly followed my passion for writing. I got good at it. I turned it into a business. Then I turned it into an industry position. I was asked to teach it, so I wrote books about what I knew.
Seven years after escaping, I chased my personal demons of fear and panic, caught my monster by the tail, and faced it head-on. I took my knowledge to stages, which was something I thought I’d rather die than do. I ended up that year on the biggest stage in my industry — Content Marketing World, with 4,000 attendees — and I didn’t die. Instead, when I received my post-event speaker rating, I was rated better than the average speaker.
I kept growing my business. It turned into a stream of income north of a million a year. I added more income streams when writers that couldn’t find work wanted to pay me to teach what I knew – beyond just the business owners needing work. I loved helping them grow and get skill-proof. Things ballooned a bit.
Eight years after escaping, in 2020, I published a memoir called Woman Rising. Even though I was only twenty-nine, I’d read countless memoirs that didn’t have hope and healing attached on the other side of the trauma story. I’d lived through eight years of hope and healing. I wanted to share this with the world.
But none of this would have been possible if I didn’t escape from the toxicity. Finding a safe place was the reason I was able to build a new norm. It was the reason I could chase my dreams. Before I escaped, my father was taking upwards of 80% of my monthly income. There was no way I could have survived, much less thrived, if I’d stayed there.
Fighting for the Right to Thrive
The toughest part of life inside the cult was trying to feel, act, and be normal.
I wanted, so badly, to fit in — but then I’d go home, and I’d be reminded all over again that I was “nothing like them.”
I had to fight just to survive. And it was only when I got out that I began to go from survivor to thriving.
When you’re just surviving, you’re often still living inside the toxicity, and barely not succumbing to the manipulation of the environment you’re in. You haven’t made an active choice to get out. To make a clean break. Because you’re not thriving till you get out of the toxic norm you might find yourself in. It could be anyone, anything. Your home, your spouse, your parents, a workplace, a church you’re in.
But when you’re fighting for the right to thrive, you’re part of the resistance. You’re getting out of the toxicity. You’re choosing YOU.
Choosing me and getting out of there was incredibly hard (I think it would have been easier just to stay inside the cult). I had panic attacks walking into public places. I often had to go into a public bathroom, hide in a stall, and double down over a toilet just to catch my breath again. At 21 years old, my face didn’t know how to naturally smile because of the fear I’d lived in for that long. I watched YouTube videos to practice how to smile.
When I started reluctantly podcasting and getting on livestreams after turning down the invitations for years, my hands shook with fright. I sat on my hands during my calls to keep them from shaking on-screen. I coughed to jolt my voice out of shaking and breaking down. Nobody realized what I was taking on just by showing up.
Fear of my father etched from two decades of mental abuse and control, backed up by terrible beatings in his dark basement (inside a house I helped him pay for), had crippled my ability to be myself.
I had to fight for my right to thrive.
And it was hard. But it was completely worth it. Because here I am today — ten years later. And I’ve overcome 99% of the fear I left with.
I never, ever thought that I’d heal this much.
Healing Is Harder Than Not Healing
Healing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the best journey I’ve ever been on. Because at each landmark destination, I realize I’ve grown to be the best version of myself.
The Julia you met last year is not the Julia of this year. And she also won’t be the same if you meet her 12 months from now.
With every year, every journey, every destination, there comes a new version of myself that I thoroughly enjoy meeting.
When they say “The best is yet to come,” I truly believe that. But only if you fight for the right to thrive. I’m ten years out. My skill with words paved my way to a new life. It turned into multiple income streams for my family. It made me known in my industry (to a degree, still with shaking hands on the regular). It turned into a million-dollar dream home, my “writing retreat.” It turned into freedom, creativity, and an outlet that gives hope and healing to others. (With shocking viral peaks: 600,000 people read my story one weekend.)
Here’s to another decade on the other side.
If you want to heal and thrive, you can’t wait around for the world to give you the right kind of environment if you’re not in it. It doesn’t happen to you. It happens for you when you choose to be a warrior. You have to choose YOU. You have to fight for your right to thrive.
Your right to thrive is your destiny. It is your legacy. Don’t let your life ebb on by without you having fully lived. Know that you are the “secret sauce” of your own life. You are your own rescuer.
So, go big, baby.
Your life is waiting around for you to start LIVING. And that doesn’t come by surviving. It comes from fighting for your right to thrive.