Written by Rachel Alstott

Inhale. Exhale.  The act itself seems simple enough.  Breathing. 
For my first tattoo, I wanted it to be something that was impactful; that told a story about me.  I was twenty-five.  I chose oxygen.  The atomic makeup of oxygen in fact.  I wanted something to remind me to do that simple act, to breathe.  When I picked it, I thought it told the story of my past, my struggles with suicide and depression, but it actually was foretelling of what I was to go through in the upcoming years.
I joined a cult when I was nineteen.  I was fresh in the college life and I was trying to figure out my place as a new adult who was away from family for the first time.  I don’t think any of us that were pulled in knew the journey that it would be.  It started out by us joining intramural sports team and as time progressed turned into something else.  It was religiously abusive.  It kept me away from family.  I rose in the ranks and became a student leader in it, pushing the agenda on anyone that would listen.  I still cringe as I think of the things I participated in, the shame I shoveled on others, trying to bury them so that they would see their need for the group.  What I didn’t realize is that I was being buried alive.  I was so restricted, I couldn’t breathe.  I believed so much in what I was fed that my life was one of shame.  I could tell you story after story of the abuse and trauma I went through, but it can be summed up in four words: there was no freedom. 

I met Betsey when I was twenty-two.  She was about my parents’ age and was new to the church that the cult fed into.  She felt a calling to start a young women’s Bible study.  The church would not allow her to do it since she was a woman and was not in the cult, but the calling was so strong that she opened up her home to some of us.  She fed us each week and we studied scripture.  When it started, I was the only one in the cult.  She slowly began to ask questions about the group I was a part of, subtly questioning if things I was being taught were actually biblical.  For three years she poured into me.  That Bible study became the only breath of fresh air for me throughout the week.  I began to invite other girls from the cult as well.  It became a lifeline from the abuse we were stuck in.

I was twenty-five when I got my first tattoo.  I was also twenty-five when I started to see that the group I was a part of was not for my good and maybe Betsey was right.  Maybe there was freedom in Christ and not just the chains that had been given to me. 

It took two years for me to leave the cult.  Two years of laying in the bathroom, tracing my tattoo and reminding myself to breathe.  Two years of self-harm and panic attacks as the “support” system I had surrounded myself with kept pulling me back.  I attempted suicide but interrupted myself, for reasons I can’t explain other than God’s grace.  I clawed my way out of the dirt and grime, trying desperately to once again breathe.  And finally, I tasted the air.

I had been trapped in a world of legalism and mental and emotional abuse, where I gave others the control of my life, a place God never intended for me to be.  He wanted control and it is His control that there is absolute freedom.

It has been three years since I was there.  There are still moments when I am reminded of those times and feel like the air is being sucked from me, but then I remember God.  Psalm 77, one of the chapters I continue to go back to, has a verse that states “I will zakar the deeds of the Lord.”  Zakar means to remember and it now joins my list of tattoos to remind myself who God is.  When I am in a place where I feel as if I can’t breathe, I zakar.  I remember the goodness of God.  I remember how he rescued me time and time again.  And I remember that if he has done all this in my life, he will continue to do so with my future.

The cult is still on the college campuses across the United States.  Betsey was able to help at least 10 girls to leave before she had to leave the church.  Two of those girls I still remain best friends with today.  And they know freedom as well.  Just so you know, I am in a good place now.  I am engaged to a man who loves God and me.  I didn’t know men could be good.  We’re getting married in October.  I work with youth in a group home as a Spiritual Development Leader where I get to teach them about their worth and freedom in Christ.  I went back to my family who never gave up on me.  And I haven’t self-harmed in one year.  God is good.  Remember to breathe and know that.