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3rd and final part of Santiago's interview with Charlotte Hayes (Charli), a Gen-Z ex-Adventist. After escaping her abusive home, Charli discovered she didn't have proof of her U.S. citizenship, so she had to get a green card and worried about possibly being deported. We also discussed her journey of healing and leaving the faith she grew up in.
Full Transcripts, resources and more: hell.bio/notes
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Credits: Music: Hall of the Mountain King Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) • Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
Haystacks & Hell Intro
[00:00:00] Santiago: Welcome to Haystacks and Hell, an ex-Adventist podcast where we tell stories about growing up Seventh-day Adventist, leaving faith behind, and building new, fulfilling lives.
[00:00:17] Santiago: Hey everyone, I'm your host Santiago and today, we're playing the third and final part of my conversation with Charlotte Hayes. If you haven't already heard parts one and two, go back and start with Season 2, Episode 6.
[00:00:32] In this final part, we're going to talk about Charli's ordeal with proving her US citizenship, healing and building a new life after leaving her abusive home, and where her faith journey has landed.
[00:00:44] But first, please pause this episode and take a minute to rate the show on apple Podcasts or Spotify, and subscribe on YouTube, as that helps more people find the show. And if you're able, please consider donating to the show and helping out fellow listeners by going to the very first links in the show notes. And with that, here's part three.
Part 3 of Charli's Story
[00:01:09] Santiago: You've used the term "undocumented citizen," to describe the situation you were in, which, you know, you've mentioned it's not a legal term, but it best kind of captures what you went through. Can you share with everyone listening, why you used that term, and the challenge that you found yourself in?
[00:01:26] Charli: Yeah, so I found out that I was in that situation by going to the DMV in Ashburn and I gave them all my documents and I'm like, "I'm here to get a permit." And they were like, "Do you have your certificate of citizenship?" And I was like, "What?" And they were like, "Your certificate of citizenship, the thing that proves that you have citizenship here."
[00:01:48] And I was like, "Well, here's my birth certificate, here's my social, here's my Russian birth certificate, my Russian adoption paperwork." And they were like, "It's really great that you have all of these things." "It's great that you've got mail to prove where you live, it's great for all of these things." "But unfortunately, it does not prove that you're a citizen."
[00:02:08] And I'm like, "But I have a social!" "What are you talking about?" And the lady was like, "A social security card does not prove citizenship, it just means that you can work here in the US." And I was like, "Oh, yeah!" "My certificate of citizenship?" "Right, that's at home, let me go get that." Because in that moment, I didn't know if this was something I could be deported for, to a country where I don't know the language. I, the last time I was there, I was a year and a half. I don't know anything about Russia over there. I don't know the customs, I don't know the culture, I don't know no — I don't know anything.
[00:02:48] And so she was like, "That's totally fine, like, just come back when you get it." And I'm like, "Great, thanks," and I leave. And I tell the couple, and I'm like, "I don't think I have citizenship." And they were like, "What?" And so I told them what the DMV told me, and we all go back in there again, and I'm like, "Why are we going back in there?" "They might just fucking deport me."
[00:03:10] So, they were like, "What's, what document does she need?" And they were like, "Her certificate of citizenship, she doesn't have it, it's the doc — she said that it was at home, that she'd go get it." And so, they were like, "Oh yeah, we'll, we'll get that figured out." And so, we go home and we start Googling what this document is.
[00:03:29] And I'm like, I have never seen this document a day in my life. I have never seen my former parents have this. I have not seen the couple that I'm living with have this document. Like, I don't know anybody with this document.
[00:03:40] Santiago: Was this specifically because you were adopted as a child and brought to the US?
[00:03:46] Charli: Yes. And so they were like, "We don't know how to get this document, so the best option to do is to find a lawyer, and specifically an adoption lawyer." And so, we found one. She's an amazing lady. And she looked through all of the documents that I had. She's like, "It's really incredible the fact that you were able to run away and find all of these documents to even take." "Because the majority of what you need is here." "We need a few things, but that's okay."
[00:04:15] And I was like, "Great." And so she gave me the rundown of what it is. She kind of told me, she's like, "You're not undocumented." "However, the best thing that we can describe you as, is an undocumented citizen." "You have your citizenship via the adoption." "The second that you landed on US soil, you were granted automatically citizenship through the adoption process." "However, you don't have paper proof of that citizenship." And I'm like, "But I have the adoption paperwork." And she's like, "That proves that they adopted you, but that doesn't, that's not an official true document that says you're a citizen here since when."
[00:04:57] And I was like, "Okay, so what, what do I have to do?" "What paperwork do I have to submit to get it?" And she was like, "Unfortunately, we're having, we're going to have to start over." And I was like, "What do you mean, start over?" And she was like, "As if you just came to the US this moment." And I was like, "What?" "I have all these documents." "What, what the hell are you talking about?" And she was like, "You need to start over with the green card process, literally, like you just came into the US today."
[00:05:32] Santiago: Oh, wow.
[00:05:33] Charli: And I, that was the scariest moment, ever. I think that scared me more than running away. I, yeah, and she told it to me straight, she's like, "Between the time of you filing for your green card and getting that green card, you need to not get in trouble." "You need to not get arrested." "You need to make sure that you, you just, you just wait until you get that green card." "You do nothing."
[00:06:03] I was like, scared shitless. I was like, "Okay, great, we'll do that." So we file for the green card, and in order to file for the green card, we had to get a whole bunch more documents that I just didn't have. I had to prove my parents' citizenship, so I had to go through VitalChek, which is a place where you can submit your information, your parents' information, and their parents' information, to be able to buy a certified copy of their birth certificate and marriage certificates.
[00:06:35] And so, I had to get their birth certificates, their marriage certificates, their parents' birth certificates, and whatever. They wanted a passport to see if that could help speed things up. However, I never had a passport 'cause we never went out of the country. And so, I was like, "Would a Russian passport work?" And she was like, "Yeah." And I was like, "I had one of those, but my former parents have it." And so, what I did was, I went with a friend and a police officer, and I showed up. So my parents actually had moved two months after I ran away. They got out of that house, because I think they were worried that if I called the police, that there would be evidence in the house. And so, they moved.
[00:07:18] And so I showed up at their new house, with a police officer, and I requested my Russian passport, it's red. And I was like, "I've seen it before, you have it in the file box with everything, with all the other documents, I really need that document, it's mine." "Legally it is mine, and I'm here to retrieve it." And, they were like, "We just moved." "I can't even find our own documents." "I haven't seen that in forever, I think we've lost it."
[00:07:48] And so, at that point, like, there was nothing else that we could do. It didn't matter. We could go around it, it would just take longer. So instead of getting into a fight about it, we just left. And so we had to go the long way with the green card, doing it that way. Because the Russian passport would have had the stamp in there that shows that I came, and confirmed it.
[00:08:09] And so I didn't have that, and so I had to go the green card route, so I eventually got a green card. And that's a lot of waiting. I had to learn how to be patient. Because during that whole thing, it's like, it takes months and months of just waiting. 'Cause it's, so many people are trying to do this. And I was like, "I technically have citizenship, but don't!" And they were like, well, they don't care. [Laughing]
[00:08:37] Santiago: Yeah, I can relate on the tiniest level because my grandmother, my mom's mom, her green card expired. And because of the pandemic, and because of like all of these things, the renewals were just taking forever. And we had waited months upon months upon months until finally I had the idea. I was like, what if we write our representative?
[00:09:02] I think that maybe it was a YouTube video. Maybe it was like some article I found. Somewhere, I got the idea that if you write your local representative in Congress, sometimes their office can help speed things up. And so we wrote to our local representative. It seemed like it worked out in our favor because we got a message back from them. They actually wrote back to us. And said, "Hey, we'll do what we can, you know, no promises." "It may still take, you know, several months." We got it like ten days later.
[00:09:36] Because she was already in the system, right? It just, it was just, we literally just needed a new card with, you know, the latest dates and showing that it was renewed and active and valid. That's all we needed. If you're in the United States and you are having any sort of related issue that you think your congressperson may be able to help, look up, if you don't know who they are, look up what district you're in, and look them up on the website. They should have a form that you can fill out, and there's a whole list of things that you can contact them about to request help. Sometimes, they'll be able to reach out to the relevant government agency, and maybe, just maybe, things will speed along.
[00:10:17] Charli: Yeah, my friend worked for an organization in Ashburn who worked very closely with our state representative, uh, Jennifer Wexton, and she got me her email and got me connected with her and she was like, again, like what you said, "No promises, but let's see what we can do." Because I was just waiting to get the green card.
[00:10:35] Just to get a green card took forever. I was like, "I just need green card approval, that's all I need." "I just need to know that I'm gonna be able to get it." And she was like, "Absolutely, I, your story's incredible, let's, let's see what we can do." And sure enough, within like two weeks, I had gotten approval. And so I, I was approved for a green card and I had to go and get my photo taken and fingerprints, to get that in the mail. And so it was... It was great that I was able to finally get that.
[00:11:06] Santiago: Yeah, and even then, that was just step one, because you still had to go through the whole citizenship process on top of that.
[00:11:13] Charli: I didn't have to do the citizenship test, though. They, I, I'm kind of surprised that I didn't. I was expecting that I was going to have to, and I'm just like, "I can't, people that are citizens their whole life here, can't pass this." "How am I gonna pass this?"
[00:11:28] Santiago: [Laughing]
[00:11:30] Charli: I'm not passing this test. I barely passed history in high school. Like, I, no... Like, this is gonna suck. And so, yeah, and sure grateful that I didn't have to do it, but it still then took another year of me having to go through that process and wait. And then during that time, the couple had wanted to maybe move to, to Spokane, back home to Washington. And I was like, "Is that going to put a dent in my citizenship stuff?"
[00:12:10] And so we talked to the lawyer and she was like, "It might delay it a little bit, but not by too much." "You're still in a good window that the address change will be okay." And so that's what we did was we moved to Washington. We notified USCIS and told them that I was moving, this is the new address that we'll be at, and so, yeah, that, so after maybe like a month or two of being here in Spokane, Washington, I logged onto USCIS, I was in the bathroom.
[00:12:41] Every time I was in the bathroom, I know this is weird, I bring my phone in with me to the bathroom, and I'm, I'm literally going to the bathroom. I'm literally peeing and I'm logging into USCIS to see if I got citizenship yet or not. And I was, and it had a new notification and I was like, "Oh, this is exciting."
[00:12:59] Still peeing, might I add? And suddenly I see "You have been granted approval for citizenship." "This is the date for your oath ceremony." "This is the courthouse that you need to be at," which is Thomas Foley Courthouse here in Spokane. "This is the attire, this is what you need to bring," information, and I'm screaming. Literally screaming.
[00:13:24] I ran upstairs to everybody and I was just like, "I got my citizenship!" "Like, I don't have it right now, but I got approval for it and the court, like, this is the date we go." And they were, we were all so freaking excited. It was, it was amazing. I was sobbing.
[00:13:42] Santiago: Yeah, wow, I can only imagine that was a big relief.
[00:13:46] Charli: Yeah, it was crazy. And during that process with getting my citizenship and everything, we did my legal name change. So I changed my first, middle, and last name, which who knew you could change all three? So I changed it to Charlotte Carter Hayes. So I decided to just totally drop that middle name because I was like, "You know what?" "No, I don't want anything with Rachel in there." So I completely took that out.
[00:14:12] So it's now Charlotte Carter Hayes. And then when I got my certificate of citizenship, when I went in for the oath ceremony. Which, I sobbed the second that the guy, that we did the swearing in oath, and then we put our hands down and he goes, "Congratulations, newest citizens of the United States." And I just bawled because I was like so much emotion and so much stress over months and the year of just struggling and the panic and like running away just all flooded in one moment, and I just sobbed.
[00:14:43] Santiago: That is quite the journey. From running away, to then living with different people, finding out you don't have proof of your citizenship, to then getting that. I can only imagine that was a weight lifted off your shoulders. And I'm, I'm curious, like throughout all of this, you touched on it a little bit earlier, but throughout all of this, did faith really come up?
[00:15:09] Charli: Well, my, the couple that took me in, they were, I mean, they're, figuring their own journey, they're kind of on their journey, and they're definitely liberal, they're LGBT affirming, they're feminist, so they're, they're definitely the liberal end of Adventist. And I think the reason why they're still going to the Adventist church is just the community and the people that they know. Like it's, yeah, I mean, I went to church a few times with them and it was also, it was weird.
[00:15:34] So back to the pastor, the woman pastor, when I moved back with this couple, nobody knew that I moved back in. Nobody knew that I moved back to Virginia. Nobody. And I was periodically posting on Instagram sunsets in Georgia because I was having my friend Mark in Georgia send me pictures every weekend of the sunset. That way I could post it because I knew my former family was still watching it. And so they thought that I was still in Georgia for a year. But that year I was living in Ashburn, 45 minutes away from them.
[00:16:12] Santiago: Oh wow.
[00:16:14] Charli: Yeah, I did this well. Um, but yeah, so I went with the couple back to church for the first time. I kind of laid low for the first like month or two, and finally got up the courage to go to church because they had confirmed to me that my parents were no longer going to Greater Than I. They were no longer in connection with those, with that church, and so it felt safe to go.
[00:16:37] And so I walked in to the church and the pastor was there greeting people. And she looked at me and she stopped what she was doing and she just ran over to me and hugged me, and we both cried. It was the weirdest moment, because the last time I saw her I was basically hugging her goodbye. And then here I am, just suddenly, like, she was called about me being, like, me having run away.
[00:17:06] She even, like, when I first ran away, my family had called her, told her that I ran away, and she went over to support them. Pastors are typically neutral in family situations. They can act as a family peer mediator. And so that's what she did, was she went over to their house, gave them comfort, and supported them. But she was definitely like, "It was off." She, she told me later, she was like, "The whole interaction was, was weird." They definitely didn't seem like you'd expect people to seem in that situation. But yeah, so it was just the weirdest thing seeing her again and she just hugged me and she just, it was the best hug ever.
[00:17:49] And I continued to go with the couple to church because they were in the praise band. Um, so I was going weekly with them. And it was really nice to just have some part of my old life back. Because when you're, when you run away, you lose so much. Like I, even with my whole life story, like when I got adopted, I lost my country. I lost my language. I lost my culture with Russia. Came to the US, and then when I ran away, I lost my dog. I lost my brother. I lost my family. I lost all of my former family, extended family members. They wanted nothing to do with me. Because they thought that I lied and made it all up.
[00:18:36] I lost my friends, I lost my school. I lost my neighborhood and community. And then to move to Georgia, make friends there, and then to move and kind of lose that feeling of safety being down there. To then come back to Virginia, living in Ashburn, and coming back to this church, it felt like I got something back. It felt comforting to have my church back.
[00:19:03] Even though I didn't consider myself Adventist anymore, they didn't care. They just wanted to love on me, they wanted to help me as much as they could. People offered clothes, people offered, like, financial support if they needed it, like, they were amazing. They didn't judge me for wanting to get tattoos. They didn't judge me at all. They were so great.
[00:19:29] Santiago: That's so awesome to hear. And I feel like, again, describing your earlier experiences growing up Adventist and thinking back on my own experiences, definitely a different, different vibe than I think what many Adventists have experienced. But, you know, I keep saying, I've said it before, I'll say it again. People like that are the reason why I don't consider myself to be an anti-theist, where I'm completely against religion.
[00:19:58] Because there is a lot of toxic theology out there. And don't get me wrong, I think there is, we talked about this earlier, right? Christianity and the Abrahamic religions in general, are inherently patriarchal and they're... There's a lot of ways to use what is written in the Bible to justify all sorts of abuse and all sorts of horrific things, if you want to do that.
[00:20:25] And we can debate about what it says. You know, I did an episode earlier where I talk about and make the case that the Bible does condone chattel slavery, even though my former Adventist pastor told me, "No, it's not..." You know, he told me it was it was debt slavery and it's different from what we had in the US. We can debate about what it says and what it means.
[00:20:50] But what I will say is that while there can be incredibly harmful and abusive religious communities, there are also some I think probably few and far between, but there are some that will welcome you with open arms. And like you said, not judge you. And I'm so glad that you had that experience with that particular church.
[00:21:12] Charli: Yeah, me too. It was definitely surreal. And I was definitely, I was pretty, I was fairly open to them about saying that I wasn't really Adventist anymore. Or didn't consider myself Adventist. And they were like, "You know, that's, that's okay, like, you've been through a lot." They, they just didn't force it. They didn't say, like, "Oh, well, you might change your mind later." They never said anything like that. They were all super supportive. And I, and I got people back. And it was nice to have that support system.
[00:21:44] Santiago: Yeah, I can imagine. If there's anyone listening who still considers themselves Adventist or Christian, take notes. If you haven't, if this isn't your current mindset, take notes. Because, yeah, you, you do not win people by telling them what you think is wrong with them or what they need to change. We've heard it before and we're going to continue hearing it from other people. We don't need to hear it from you. We need your support in that moment.
[00:22:20] So by this point, you definitely didn't consider yourself Adventist, but do you remember if there was a specific point where you started to deconstruct your faith? Do you think it was tied directly to the abuse that you experienced?
[00:22:33] Charli: I think things were just pretty gradual. Some Adventist homes that I was growing in didn't have the same beliefs as other ones. Like some of my friends' families allowed them to do certain things and not other things. And like Harry Potter, I could not watch Harry Potter. That was like, I just, the other, other week just watched the first one ever.
[00:22:58] And my friend was getting annoyed with me for constantly asking questions. I'm like, "I'm confused!" I don't know what's happening. If I was a kid watching this, my brain might actually be able to make sense of it somehow. But now as an adult, it's confusing and kind of boring. Like, I'm sorry to the Harry Potter fans on here, but I found it... It is good. Like, it, it's not, I mean, it's not terribly boring, but like, trying to understand Harry Potter is... There's too much. It's overwhelming.
[00:23:28] Santiago: Yeah, well, and because we didn't grow up with it, there's like, there's no nostalgia. For the people who grew up with it, like it's nostalgic.
[00:23:36] Charli: And then when I tell people that, they're like, "Well, just try the books." And I'm like, "Have you seen how big those are?" "They are textbooks." No, I do not have the patience. If I can't make it through an hour, like maybe two hour movie, I am not making it through an eight month book.
[00:23:51] But, yeah, so some homes, some of my friends that grew up Adventist were allowed to watch Harry Potter and, uh, Twilight movies, and some just weren't. Some only went to Adventist schools and some went to public only. Some could do sports on Saturdays, or go to football games Friday nights. I was not. Friday night was typically the night where people get ready for Sabbath the next day, so sporting events, the second the sun went down Friday night, I could not go anywhere. TV not allowed, phone not allowed, church only. Until Saturday night, when the sun went down again.
[00:24:32] The Friday night, Saturday night rule was very much listened to in my home. And so it was just a, it was really just a bunch of, of little things. And it was when I was at SVA, even more stuff continued to like change for me. So in the Seventh-day Adventist church, there is a tradition called the foot washing.
[00:24:56] And so, there was a thing where out at SVA, we did that for one of the vesper nights. At vespers, it's a boarding school thing, it happened, I believe it was Wednesday nights, and we would do that for vespers. We all went into the church, and some of the town members from the town of Newmarket came in as well to do it. But there weren't enough students for all of the students to do it with just themselves. And some of us got paired with some of the community members. I was paired with like an 80 year old man... with moldy feet.
[00:25:29] Santiago: Oh no...
[00:25:31] Charli: I did not want to touch his feet. I didn't want him touching my feet. It felt inappropriate. It didn't feel safe. No. I, in general, just don't like feet. I don't like touching other people's feet. I don't like it. And so I told the dean, I was like, "I'm not gonna participate in the foot washing thing." And she was like, "No, you have to." And I'm like, "No, I, I don't want to do it." And she was like, "Okay, go back to your dorm room then." So I went back to my dorm room, and then I ended up getting suspended for not participating in the foot washing.
[00:26:03] Santiago: Wow, I mean, I think they touched on this in Shiny Happy People, and I've, I've definitely heard other people talk about this, but in fundamentalist circles, there is just a constant violation of bodily autonomy, and not accepting "No" as an answer.
[00:26:22] Charli: Yeah, you have to give people hugs. If you don't, "You clearly don't love them." It's, it's fucked up.
[00:26:30] Santiago: Yeah, I agree. I'm going to fast forward a little bit, still related to the deconstruction topic. In one of your TikToks, you wrote that if there's a god out there, you believe that god would be accepting of everyone. And so I'm curious, like when I read that, I was, I was wondering, like, how would you describe worldview? Do you identify with the label agnostic or have you chosen to not really label your views?
[00:26:57] Charli: I think I'm between atheist and agnostic. I think I'm teetering, I think there's some things that I just totally don't believe in and there's some things where I'm like... I'm not the biggest thing in the universe. I'm not the center of the universe. There's obviously things that are bigger than me. Air is bigger than me. You can't freaking see air. You can see me, but there's invisible things around you, floating atoms, that give you oxygen. Like, that's greater than me. Like, there's things that are bigger than me that I think are powerful, but I don't necessarily think that that's a man in the sky. I don't think that's God, you know? Does that make sense?
[00:27:38] Santiago: Absolutely. I'm sure there's plenty of people listening who can totally relate to that. Like, there's a reason why I identify with both labels. I can't say definitively that there is no god. I wouldn't, who am I to make a claim like that? I don't know what I don't know.
[00:27:57] When I spoke with Matthew Vollmer in a previous interview, we talked about how we know nothing, ultimately. In the grand scheme of things, we know so little and so to be able to definitively make a positive claim that "There is no god and I know that to be a fact," I'm not going to be the type of person to make that claim.
[00:28:20] I don't believe in the Abrahamic god. And so in that sense, I would consider myself an atheist. And growing up as Adventists, we were taught to not believe in everything else, right? And so we're automatically, we're automatically not believing in all of these other things.
[00:28:37] So it's really a matter of we just, you know, you just take it a step further. But no, I totally hear you. And I think that's a completely reasonable place to find yourself, right? The moment that we stop being curious and being open to new information, is the moment that we stop growing as people. And the moment that we become closed off to ourselves and to the rest of the world.
[00:28:59] And so I think that's a completely reasonable place to find yourself in. And like I said, I'm sure there's plenty of people listening who could relate. I'm curious, now that you've gone through deconstruction from Adventism, like, do you think your views around meaning, around life or death, do you think those have changed at all, or do you think they haven't changed that much?
[00:29:21] Charli: So, it's weird because like, growing up, like, when grandparents did eventually pass away, I was told that they were going to be pretty much six feet under until God came, and everyone went to heaven or hell. It was kind of weird because I don't think I ever, I never really believed in a heaven.
[00:29:44] Like, I did what I was supposed to do in church. I didn't ask too many questions, but I think deep down, I never really fully resonated with it. I never had that like, "Aha moment,"
[00:29:55] "This is what I believe in and I'm never changing." You know, it, it never, I don't think I ever truly was fully Adventist. I mean, I got baptized on my 13th birthday. Literally, my birthday landed on a Saturday, so I got baptized on my birthday. It was my golden birthday, it was April 13th, turning 13 in year 2013, and getting baptized, reborn.
[00:30:17] Santiago: Oh wow.
[00:30:18] Charli: And I did that because I, my, my brother had gotten baptized recently, and I just thought that it was the next thing that I had to do, and I was thinking maybe I was like, "Maybe once I get baptized, I'll, maybe like, it'll click," you know? It'll click in my head, and I'll be a full on believer. But I, I think deep down I never really fully was.
[00:30:39] Santiago: Yeah, no, that's totally fair. I think, I think Melissa also talked a little bit about that, her sister Cherie also mentioned something along those lines. For me, I definitely was deep in it, and I definitely believed it, so coming out of that was an interesting experience. Current Adventist or current Christians will actually use that, basically saying, "Oh, you were never truly one of us." "So the fact that you, the fact that you left doesn't really mean anything."
[00:31:05] And I'm like, well, no, that might be the case for some people. And that, that doesn't invalidate their experience at all, but there are people who absolutely 100 percent truly believed, and they still left. So, whatever you think that means or doesn't mean, like, you gotta rethink. Their argument isn't all that it's cracked up to be.
[00:31:26] Charli: Yeah and I think somewhere in some file or book, I think I'm still technically labeled as Adventist. I don't, because I, you have to go through a whole thing to remove yourself from the Adventist... It's a whole shit show.
[00:31:40] Santiago: Me too. I think we've briefly talked about it before on the show. Maybe one day I'll do an episode just on that, but you write a letter to your local church board where you have your membership. I haven't gone through it yet, but I'm sure, like, I am gonna try that at some point and I'll, I'll share my experience with that. But it is possible. If the local church is, is following the church manual, it's not as difficult as it is to leave the Mormon church. Some of them have talked about having to hire an actual lawyer to help with that.
[00:32:13] Charli: No thanks.
[00:32:14] Santiago: Throughout all of this, on top of everything you went through, you experienced depression and anxiety, and you've talked a bit about getting therapy for that. And so I'm wondering, can you share with everyone listening who may not be familiar with your videos already on these topics, what has that been like?
[00:32:33] Charli: Yeah, so after moving in with the couple, they were really big on therapy and mental health. Which, in the Seventh-day Adventist church, if you have emotions, don't feel them. Do not feel them. If you have any feeling of anything, just shove it in a box, lock it, duct tape it, put it in a closet, lock that closet, burn the house down. Don't think about it. Which I'm, I'm, am I right?
[00:33:03] Like emotions were just really frowned — especially if you're a girl. Girls are taught to keep it inside, and to smile, and even with boys, too, like, boys can't show emotion. Like, they're taught to be the man of the household and be strong and not feel shit. Which, honestly, I have much more respect for men who can cry and genuinely admit that they're having feelings, than someone who just doesn't cry. You know?
[00:33:29] And then same with girls, it's like, there's this stereotype of "Girls have too many feelings and they are crying all the time," and so it's like... You then try to push those down. So with running away and everything, like, in the beginning, it didn't really affect me a whole lot. But then, once things had really sunk in, and I realized... When I ran away, it happened so fast.
[00:33:56] And then, later, I was like, "Oh crap, like, I'm missing out on friends' weddings." I'm missing out on birthdays, family reunions. My dog dying. I missed out on those things, and you don't realize how much you're losing until there's moments in life that would normally be your stereotypical excitement time, or even sad time with a dog dying, or like a family member dying. Like, you miss that, and you lose that, and it all kind of came crashing down.
[00:34:31] Because on top of that, I was dealing with the PTSD of being sexually assaulted and abused, and all of that stuff. I didn't realize that I had the PTSD because I was still in survival mode, but the longer that I slowly got out of that survival mode, things started to pop up. And so I had a lot of anxiety, I couldn't really leave the house, which is why they got me the dog, which did help.
[00:34:57] But therapy was the biggest thing, and I recommend therapy. I recommend therapy for everybody. Even if you don't have shit going on, everybody needs it. Even with going to therapy, like, it doesn't fix it immediately. It takes time, and it takes work, and some moments were scary. Some moments were really dark.
[00:35:19] Santiago: For anyone who has never thought about getting a therapist or who hasn't looked into it, what first step did you take to find somebody? Did it take a couple of tries before you found a therapist that you clicked with? Like what was that process like for you?
[00:35:35] Charli: So I pretty much just went, because I didn't have insurance, so I pretty much went through state and found mental health resources and found free therapy. It was like five dollars per session, which is frickin amazing. The first therapist that I had... not super. I had a full blown panic attack in her office and she was like, "If you don't calm down, I'm gonna have to recommend psych."
[00:36:01] And I was like, freaking out more because it was a panic attack. I had just a panic attack during therapy and she was like, "We're gonna have to call psych and, and figure, get you some more help." And I'm like, "I, I'm, I'm, I don't, I'm having a panic attack." And she was like, "Okay, if you can't get it under control, then you're gonna have to go involuntarily to psych."
[00:36:21] And I was like, "What does that mean?" She's like, "We're gonna have to call law enforcement and have them take you." Which caused a bigger panic attack. And so I then proceeded to get handcuffed, walked out with officers around me to a squad car, got put in the back of the squad car, and taken to the hospital. The entire time in the squad car, though, it was great. My panic attack finally stopped. It was chill, we played country music.
[00:36:53] Jamming out to country music, and then the cuff that was on was really freaking loose, and I pulled my hand through the cuff, and I was like, "Hey, is it supposed to be this loose?" And he was like, "Please put your arm, your hand back in that, please?" And then they stayed with me till the psych evaluation. And then they were like, "You don't need to be here." And I'm like, "I don't need to be here, I really don't." They were like, "You just had a panic attack." And I'm like, "I know, I tried to explain that." And so yeah, they let me go, but I switched therapists and got a great one. So my therapist after that was absolutely amazing.
[00:37:30] Santiago: One of the things I've appreciated looking through your TikTok is that you've been so open and being willing to talk about all of these things. What made you decide to get on TikTok and just share your story with the world?
[00:37:43] Charli: My therapist, actually. She introduced me to TikTok and she was like, "You know who would be really good at TikTok?" And I was like, "Who?" And she's like, "You." And I'm like, "What do you mean?" "I have nothing to share." She's like, "You have your whole story to share." "You have been wanting to find ways to share your story for people." And a book takes years, and YouTube is a whole other ballgame that I just am not willing to fully dive into that one.
[00:38:10] And so she was like, "TikTok is short." At the time it was up to, I believe, up to a minute long videos that you could do. So I started posting videos. It started off with me sharing my citizenship process because as I was posting, I was still going through the process. So I started sharing some of that and then I started sharing the videos of when I was in Russia. There's a few baby videos of me in Russia.
[00:38:37] And so I started posting those and those kind of blew up. And then I posted my first video about being a teen runaway. And it got, I believe it was a couple million people, I think nine million people saw that and I was like, "Oh, a lot of people can really see you on this app."
[00:38:59] Santiago: Yeah.
[00:39:00] Charli: And it was a, the comment section was definitely a mix of like, positive support. "Glad you got out." "It's not running away, it's moving out." "That was dumb," or "Your parents were just doing the best that they could with what they could do." And I'm just like, "No." No, doing the best that they can is not abusing their child that much. So it was weird.
[00:39:25] Santiago: Yeah. We've talked about, you know, quite the journey that you've been on since leaving. June of 2023 marked five years since you ran away.
[00:39:37] Charli: Yeah, it did.
[00:39:38] Santiago: What are some of the things that have helped you build what sounds to me like a new and fulfilling life since leaving your former home and the Adventist faith?
[00:39:50] Charli: Yeah I think having a, an amazing support system has helped so much. I think your friends and people that are sticking with you through it. Like, that helps tremendously. Therapy, and oddly enough, TikTok. It's been super helpful for me to be able to just share my story. So that's helped me with processing and... Even like every time I share my story, there's always little things that I'm like, "Oh yeah, that also happened."
[00:40:24] So it's like, it's still kind of unlocking my brain. Because with trauma brain, your brain kind of shuts things off or forgets things and it's cool to see when new things get unlocked. I'm just like, "Ah!" "That's a memory I got back!" You know? And it's cool. And that's been super helpful.
[00:40:41] But with TikTok though, it's hard because like I can only share so much on TikTok. I can't advertise running away. I can't recommend running away because I don't want to get in trouble for doing that. I get thousands, and I'm telling you, thousands of people will message me saying, "I'm in a situation." "How do I get help?" "What do I do?"
[00:41:03] And I can't respond to them because I don't want to ever be put in the position or legal issue of, of helping minors or helping whoever with that. And, and it's hard, so I have to be, I have to make more generalized posts where it's like, these are resources you could reach out to, these are hotlines that you can call.
[00:41:24] But as, as far as running away, like it's, unfortunately, it's either it works or it doesn't work. It either lines up or it doesn't, and I'm really lucky that for me, things lined up perfectly. And I think friends, again, the support system, it's super important to have those. My friends that I have are truly amazing. They are the best people in my life.
[00:41:50] I've made amazing relationships through work, and friends of friends, they'll introduce me. Like, if once you find a great friend, find out who their friends are. Because their friends are typically like them, and they're amazing, and you get a bigger social circle that way. And I would not be where I am today without my friends.
[00:42:12] Santiago: I'm so glad that you had a support system when you really needed it and that you've continued to have one. Yeah, that is, that is super, super important. You've also talked about on TikTok how healing is not always about going up. It's not always forward momentum. There's moments where the pain will come flooding back and how that is also very much part of the healing process. So I'm wondering, what would you say to someone who's experiencing ups and downs as they're going through their healing process?
[00:42:47] Charli: I would tell them that it's normal. It is normal to have days where you feel every single emotion that you felt the day that you left or the day that whatever happened in your life. It will come back and it will be hard and it will hit you like a train wreck, like a train hitting you. But it doesn't last. It doesn't stay there.
[00:43:09] Because you, with life, you continue to move forward. You feel those feelings, validate those feelings, do some self care, definitely do that. Reach out to people, let them know that you're struggling and accept the help. I am still learning this. Where it's like if I'm having a rough day, calling someone and telling them. And seeing how they can support you, even if that's just venting for a few minutes.
[00:43:41] If that's, you need to go get ice cream with that person, if you need them to just give you a hug the next time they see you and have like an extra hug, do that. Reach out to your support system and don't sit in it by yourself. Let people in and let them help you, and accept the help.
[00:44:01] Santiago: Yeah.
[00:44:02] Charli: I'm still learning how to accept the help, but I'm mostly there.
[00:44:06] Santiago: I feel like that's really good advice. And you mentioned self care. One of the things that I appreciated seeing you post about was getting tattoos. I don't know if you consider that self care or not, but can you talk a little bit about that?
[00:44:19] Charli: [Laughing] Yes, my first tattoo, I was 18. I didn't have an ID, and I went to the shop. I was like, "Here's my birth certificate." "Here's my student ID." "I swear I'm this person, I'm 18." "Can I please get a tattoo?" And they were like, "I don't care, okay." So I was like, "YES!" So most shops, keep this in mind people, they do not normally do this. This was a somehow rare — I even tried another time and that next shop didn't accept me. So, it's very rare that you find a shop that would be willing to do that. Because they need to be certain that you are of age or their shop gets shut down.
[00:44:56] But yeah, so my first tattoo, I got a tattoo of a dandelion. And it's on my wrist, and there's a Swedish word that's called "maskrosbarn." I'm not sure if I'm fully pronouncing that correct, but it pretty much translates to "Dandelion Child," and it's referencing kids who have grown up through complex trauma and have managed to grow through it and thrive. Because frequently you see dandelions growing in the street through concrete, through asphalt, they can survive hailstorms, they can live through things, and still manage to grow and thrive.
[00:45:35] Santiago: What a powerful term. That's, that is an amazing first tattoo to get.
[00:45:40] Charli: It was a meaningful one, yeah.
[00:45:42] Santiago: That's awesome. Throughout this whole story that you've shared with us, you've met Adventists who hurt you, but also others who helped you.
[00:45:53] Charli: Mmhmm.
[00:45:53] Santiago: And you've talked about your thoughts and feelings on the Adventist church. I'm curious, would you say that the Adventist church as an institution is a net positive, negative, or neutral force in the world?
[00:46:07] Charli: I think that they need to be stripped down to the bones, and they need to be adjusted. There is a lot in the church that is not appropriate, is not safe, is teaching people the wrong things. Especially about, like for instance, my period. Not knowing how your body works is really, really wrong. You need to know how that works. You need to know.
[00:46:36] And that, that could have been very dangerous for me if I had continued any longer with it. I think things in the church need to change. I don't think that all churches in the Adventist world are horrible. I think there are some that definitely need to be just shut down. I think there are others that need some serious help. I think they need to be revised. I think teachings need to be revised.
[00:47:03] And then there are some churches like the one that I went to with my pastor where they didn't judge me for getting tattoos. And for me, not considering myself Adventist anymore, I think that's a great church to be at. But I still think that some of the beliefs in some of those people need to slowly, like people need to open their mind.
[00:47:24] They cherry pick. And they say that they don't cherry pick, but then like when you really dive into it and ask them questions, they'll be like "Well, that was then in the Bible." "This is now." And I'm like, "But you're not cherry picking?" "But you're, but you are," you know? So things, things need to change and change a lot. It's really hit or miss with specific churches. I think some are better than others, but I think in general as a whole, I think a lot needs to change.
[00:47:52] Santiago: Yeah, I would agree. Well, I can't tell you how much I appreciate you being willing to come on the show, sticking with me this long, sharing everything that you've shared. Before we stop recording, I want to give you an opportunity to share any last words, any last thoughts with everyone who's listening about anything we've discussed or anything we haven't discussed yet.
[00:48:15] Charli: I think if I were going to say anything as like a last nod, especially with like being a teen runaway and with the mental health stuff, I think it's really important to say that you need help and to accept that help. And when you have a chance, to take it. Whatever that chance may be. I had the chance to move in with Sarah. I had that opportunity. It was there, and if you have it, just go for it.
[00:48:47] Santiago: Charli, thank you again so much for all of your time. Links to your TikTok, to your Instagram are going to be in the show notes. If there's anywhere else you'd like people to go, I'll include that in there as well. Thank you again so much. It's been great having you on.
[00:49:05] Charli: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:49:07] Santiago: Absolutely. I know you said books take forever and I'm, I know they do, but if there ever is a memoir or anything, believe me, I will be one of the first people to line up and read it and share it with others.
[00:49:19] Charli: Yeah, people keep telling me that I need to write a book or I need to start figuring something out and film a movie, and I'm just like, "Oh boy." But yeah, no, I've definitely been thinking about it.
[00:49:29] Santiago: With Melissa, there's already a good contact there, so, you never know.
[00:49:34] Charli: I know!
Haystacks & Hell Outro
[00:49:35] Santiago: Thanks for listening. If you have a story to share about your Adventist or fundamentalist experience, we'd love to hear it. You can submit stories on our website at hell.bio — that's H E L L . B I O, or leave us a voicemail at 301-750-8648 and we might feature it in a future episode. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you on the next one!