“The Mercy Girls”

This investigative piece by Jennifer Miller was originally appeared as a cover story in Slate, and can be viewed here.

These young women enrolled in an influential Christian counseling center for help.  That’s not what they found.

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1. “He grants sleep to those he loves”

Life wasn’t easy for Hayley Baker before the rages began, but it was tolerable. She attended a small Christian college near her home in Folsom, California, where she majored in architecture, studied astronomy in her spare time, played the harp, and taught herself to make sushi. But Hayley also suffered from major depression, social anxiety, occasional suicidal ideation, and an eating disorder. Doctors couldn’t agree on how to help her—since childhood, they’d cycled her through 15 different drugs—though most attributed her problems to childhood abuse. Caretakers had repeatedly molested her between the ages of 3 and 6, and she’d been humiliated at age 4 by a babysitter who tied her to a chair and taped her mouth shut while the sitter’s own kids ran around her in circles. Her anxiety became so extreme that she dropped out of school.

In her mid-20s, Hayley was diagnosed with a heart condition, which doctors told her was a side effect of her medications. But when she stopped taking the drugs, she lost control, punching walls and cutting herself out of frustration. Once, her mother became so frightened for her own safety that she called the police. Hayley spent the night in the psychiatric ward. Meanwhile, the family could barely cover its expenses, let alone Hayley’s therapy. “It was a dark time,” she says.

Then, in 2009, something cut through the darkness like a signal fire. Mercy Ministries, a network of in-patient facilities that treat young women with mental illness, addiction, and life trauma, and which has the backing of some of the most prominent names in evangelical Christianity, was opening a new residence in Lincoln, California, close to Hayley’s home. Hayley knew about Mercy because a Christian band she liked, Point of Grace, supported the program. And she learned online that Mercy’s unusual fusion of biblically inspired healing and what it described on its website as “best-practice clinical interventions” could help hurting women like herself “break free from the destructive cycles controlling their lives.” Mercy’s literature boasted that its four U.S. residences were state-licensed and that 80 percent of its counselors had master’s degrees in psychology, social work, or a related field. Hayley’s family believed that the Lincoln home would provide her with a truly integrated approach to mental health—the secular and the spiritual. Best of all, Mercy was free.

Hayley, who is a devout Christian, believed God had answered her prayers. “I thought the new home was a sign,” she says. “I wanted to believe that God would make a change in me. I wanted it desperately.”

Like all new applicants, Hayley landed on a waitlist. She was instructed to read books by Mercy’s founder, Nancy Alcorn, and testimonials from Mercy graduates who had overcome all manner of mental illness and trauma. She discussed audio sermons and response papers over the phone with a Mercy intake representative. After seven months, Hayley’s acceptance letter finally arrived.

Compared to the tidy bungalow where Hayley lived with her mother, Mercy’s sprawling, light-filled facility was magnificent. On the first day, the staff was every bit as welcoming as Mercy’s literature had promised. But that night, alone in a strange dorm room, Hayley roiled with panic. She asked attendants for her prescription Xanax but says they refused. Instead, they offered to pray with her and gave her a sheet of paper titled “Peaceful Sleep,” with a bolded line from Psalm 127:2: “He grants sleep to those he loves.” Hayley tried to pray, but sleep didn’t come. For the rest of the night, she lay awake, still panicking, wondering if God had abandoned her.

Peaceful sleep

Over her seven months at Mercy, Hayley says staff often denied her requests for Xanax, instead emphasizing prayer as a better way to treat the panic attacks. She also says she was punished with extra reading and chores for infractions as minor as sharing her CD player. When her brother died unexpectedly a month into her stay, Mercy didn’t bring in the certified grief counselor that her parents had requested, she says. According to Hayley, Mercy staff unswervingly held her and others to a one-size-fits-all counseling curriculum. Six years after leaving Mercy, Hayley continues to wrestle with mental illness.

Training opportunity

Mercy—which, after 32 years of operating as Mercy Ministries, rebranded as Mercy Multiplied this past October—touts that upward of 3,000 women have come to one of its centers somehow broken and left feeling whole. Hayley desperately wanted to be one of them. Instead she says she encountered a program that demanded total submission to its methods and to God. It was, and is, a place that treats the devil as something frighteningly real—the kind of approach that may work for many residents but overwhelms others with guilt and fear.

In a larger sense, Mercy illustrates what happens when a hard-line, religiously oriented organization inserts itself into a gaping hole in the United States’ mental heath system. Because organizations like Mercy are barely subject to government oversight, it’s likely not an anomaly.

For all these reasons, Hayley and others want to drag Mercy’s transgressions into the light. In the years since her time at the Lincoln facility, Hayley has connected with a group of Mercy alumnae, their families, and former staff. They call themselves the “Mercy Survivors,” and since 2009 they have communicated through two private email lists. The 14 former residents and five families I interviewed for this story—all members of those lists—say that Mercy emphasizes faith healing, despite marketing language that suggests a strong embrace of scientifically based treatments. They say the program pressures, guilts, and spiritually manipulates residents into following a counseling model that treats every problem, from anorexia to childhood abuse, the exact same way. They say Mercy staff’s lack of formal clinical training puts mentally ill or traumatized clients at greater psychological risk, even pushing them deeper into depression and addiction. Some say that under the guidance of their counselors, several Mercy residents falsely accused their families of horrific abuse. Parents have watched their daughters vanish from their lives after exiting the program, in some cases without any explanation.

These accusations shouldn’t damn all religiously based therapy. Academics in psychiatry, neuroscience, and biomedical ethics acknowledge that purely secular mental health approaches may have little success with devout patients. The fusion of secular and spiritual interventions has been shown to succeed where the former alone has failed, sparking a debate among mental health professionals over the most effective ways to combine the two. Proponents of such joint approaches are now actively trying to bridge the wide historical gap between the secular mental health community and the church.

At the same time, the booming field of strictly Christian counseling is almost entirely unregulated by the medical and psychological establishments, in part due to a lack of consensus among Christians about what “Christian counseling” should look like. It is here that a program like Mercy can flourish, by harnessing Christian skepticism of the country’s secular mental health system while simultaneously taking advantage of that system’s language and regulatory holes.

Hayley Baker and the other Mercy Survivors did not understand that impersonal medical bureaucracy offers certain standards and protections that a religious organization lacks. What they saw was an organization that claimed to be an engine of God and that would heal them.

2. “Jesus did not say to medicate a demon”

With its purported emphasis on clinical best practices, Mercy plays both sides of a tension within modern psychiatric practice that stretches back to its roots. The first psychiatric communities were church-based—the Catholic Church provided unprecedented care for the mentally ill in 14th-century Geel, Belgium, and 19th-century Quakers started America’s first psychiatric facilities. But the “fathers of psychology,” like Sigmund Freud, Ivan Pavlov, and Erich Fromm, were atheists. “Many saw faith as mental illness,” says Matthew Stanford, a Baylor University psychologist who studies the fusion of secular medicine and religious belief, as well as CEO of the Hope and Healing Center in Houston. “Freud thought religion was neurosis.”

Meanwhile, some faithful were angered by the growing popularity of psychotherapy and believed that proponents of psychopharmacological treatment were playing God. This response crystallized in the 1970s with the Biblical Counseling Movement, founded by Jay Adams, a Presbyterian pastor who believed mental illness was a sign of spiritual and moral corruption. Mercy doesn’t fit squarely in the Biblical Counseling camp, but at least some of the time, it channels the movement’s suspicions of mainstream care. When Mercy’s leaders speak to mainline Christians, they present themselves as “integrationists” in favor of fusing spiritual and secular health interventions. But when Mercy’s founder, Nancy Alcorn, addresses a more conservative audience, she offers an entirely different message.

Alcorn became born again as a young woman, after injuries ended her dream of playing college basketball. She went on to work as an athletic director for at-risk youth at the Tennessee Department of Corrections and in the Emergency Child Protective Services unit at Nashville’s Department of Children’s Services. But in 1983, she claims in her writings, God told her that if she committed to healing troubled girls free of charge and without government funding, then he would personally set up “divine connections” to help her succeed. The first Mercy home opened in Monroe, Louisiana, that same year.

Divine or not, those connections have grown Mercy’s operating budget to $8.5 million (and Alcorn’s salary to $242,598 as of 2014, according to tax documents). Its funding stems from churches nationwide and wealthy Christian power players such as personal finance guru Dave Ramsey, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Grammy-winning gospel singer CeCe Winans, and Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who donates annually to Mercy through a celebrity softball game fundraiser. Popular Charismatic Christian movement evangelist Joyce Meyer has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Mercy and helped open the program’s residence outside St. Louis. Mercy runs four homes in the United States (three solely for adults and one that also houses pregnant teens) and has affiliates in Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. It has also purchased land in North Carolina and Florida for more homes. (Alcorn declined to be interviewed for this article.)

The 61-year-old Alcorn resembles a smoothly preserved woman of about 45, her cornsilk hair and tanned skin as flawless as her favored leather jackets and vests, her friendly twang and photogenic smile masking the fierce intensity of her faith. She believes that mainstream programs like the ones she used to administer don’t address the generational patterns and underlying traumas that make young adults unstable. “In secular treatment, the focus is on changing behavior, which is temporary and gives surface results,” she writes in her book Ditch the Baggage, Change Your Life. “Behavior modification is not the answer. It offers no heart change.”

The seven-part counseling model Alcorn created was originally called Restoring the Foundations. It leads residents through steps including choosing to forgive one’s abusers, eradicating negative self-perceptions, and overcoming toxic behaviors that Alcorn believed passed spiritually through the family line. Through Jesus Christ, Alcorn writes, women can overcome oppressive forces in their lives, which she describes as the schemes and deceptions of the “enemy.”

Generational patterns

Mercy doesn’t require its counselors to be licensed mental health practitioners, which Christy Singleton, Mercy’s executive director, confirmed in an email. Moreover, Mercy’s licensed counselors or those in training are forbidden to practice psychotherapy, alleges one former counselor who worked for the organization between 2011 and 2012. “They say they do clinical interventions, but I wasn’t allowed to use my clinical experience,” she says. (She requested anonymity so as not to jeopardize her current employment as a secular psychologist.) Instead, the counselor said, executives in Nashville instructed her to walk each woman through the same seven-step counseling model and assign a prescribed regimen of readings, response papers, and audio sermons, which residents were meant to complete as homework before their weekly one-on-one counseling sessions.

Alcorn doesn’t describe the doctrinal origins of Mercy’s counseling in her writings, but Stanford says the Mercy model appears to combine two religious philosophies, Theophostic Prayer Ministry and Restoring the Foundations Ministry. (Alcorn’s original counseling model and RTF Ministry share a name and are similar but not identical.) Both are rooted in the Charismatic Christian movement, which believes in spiritual warfare, the gifts and healing powers of the Holy Spirit, prophesy, the laying of hands to anoint or empower an ailing individual, and salvation from demonic forces through deliverance. “We’re talking about demons in the literal sense,” says Stanford. “[Practitioners might say] ‘You have a spirit of depression,’ meaning an actual demon is causing you to be depressed. Or you could be experiencing depression because generations ago in your family, someone gave an opening for the demonic.”

Multiple former Mercy residents told me that staff members shouted at demons to flee their bodies. Bethany M., a 2007 resident of Mercy’s St. Louis home (who asked that Slate withhold her last name due to privacy concerns) says staff threatened to expel her from the program if she didn’t let a visiting evangelist lay hands and prophesy over her during a sermon. When mononucleosis swept through the Lincoln home, Hayley says staff blamed the outbreak on evil spirits and asked the residents to walk through the halls calling for the spirits’ banishment.

Mercy’s public statements on demons are inconsistent. Its website states that the group does “not perform or endorse exorcisms.” And Singleton says Mercy neither emphasizes Charismatic teachings nor mandates the laying of hands on residents. The enemy, she says, isn’t some evil force “but the lies we tell ourselves.” Yet in a 2008 speech at the Capital Christian Center in Sacramento, Alcorn said that Mercy “deals with areas of demonic oppression.” Then she laid out her feelings on the matter: “If there’s demonic activity, like if somebody has opened themselves up to the spirit of lust or pornography or lots of promiscuous sexual activity, then we’ve opened the door for demonic powers. And secular psychiatrists want to medicate things like that, but Jesus did not say to medicate a demon. He said to cast them out. And that’s supposed to be a part of normal Christianity.”

Today, the sixth step in Alcorn’s seven-step counseling model is called Freedom From Oppression—but before 2009, it was called “Demonic Oppression,” according to three former residents. Mercy changed the name shortly after administrators at Mercy-branded facilities in Australia were found to have stolen residents’ welfare checks and local papers reported that employees at these homes were practicing exorcisms. Sarah Grech, a co-manager of the Mercy Survivor network, who lived in Mercy’s Sydney home in 2006, knew of girls “who were kind of pounced on without notice, being held down to the floor, with staff screaming at the girl saying ‘shut up!’ when she tried to speak or protest because that was seen as a demon speaking.”

After Australian authorities shut down the country’s two residences, Alcorn said that Mercy had no direct relationship with those facilities. Yet Charisma magazine, a leading publication of the Charismatic movement, reported that Alcorn visited Mercy’s Australian homes 22 times between 2001 and 2004.

Why would Mercy publicly distance itself from a form of treatment it appears to believe in? Candy Brown, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, speculates that the organization downplays its Charismatic influences because such things might make mainstream Christians—men such as Gov. Haslam and Coach Fisher—uncomfortable. “Anytime you’re talking about the demonic or deliverance, it’s very controversial,” she says. “And if a group is trying to solicit donations from a broad spectrum of evangelicals, they wouldn’t want to advertise that.”

3. “The choice is yours

With its lofty ceilings and ski-lodge stonework, Mercy’s 22,000-square-foot Lincoln home, located about 30 miles north of Sacramento, has the look and feel of a vacation retreat. When I visited in November 2013, residents in their late teens and 20s were sprawled around the premises on couches and armchairs. They read from assigned books and listened to sermons on portable CD players. Multiple times a week, they also worked out at a local gym, took classes on money management and nutrition, or studied for their GEDs. They cooked communal meals, cleaned their bathrooms, and did laundry. They bunked two to a room and were allowed to call home once a week, on Sunday.

During my tour, the staff repeatedly stressed that residents knew they had signed up for a biblically based counseling program. “The last thing we want is for women to be surprised,” said Singleton, who had flown in from Mercy’s Nashville headquarters to meet me. “It’s assumed that people who are coming to Mercy know that ‘best-practice clinical interventions’ really means Christian counseling.”

But even within the religious community, “Christian counseling” can mean just about anything. It could range from “didactic Bible-oriented counseling”—that is, treatment hostile to secular medicine—to psychotherapy that’s simply “informed by Christian values,” says John Peteet, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. There’s no agreed-upon definition, whereas clinical interventions andprofessional counseling staff have very strict meanings. “From a professional ethics perspective, what’s on [Mercy’s] website is deceptive,” says Baylor’s Stanford, a devout Christian, who himself believes in the healing power of prayer and the existence of demonic forces. Because Mercy doesn’t actually require its counseling staff to be licensed, they’re not subject to state-administered standards of clinical knowledge, a minimum number of training hours, or legal oversight. That, says Stanford, means “they’ve overstepped their bounds.”

As members of the Mercy Survivors group tell it, much of Mercy’s Christian counseling methods did indeed come as a surprise. Hayley was particularly bothered by step five in the seven-step treatment. Here, a Mercy counselor asks a resident to recall a traumatic memory or to let Jesus reveal a moment of past trauma and then imagine that Christ is there, absolving her of any guilt related to the event. “I couldn’t make up Jesus saying something to me,” Hayley says. “I didn’t blame myself for the abuse.” Hayley says she appealed to her counselor, who replied, “This is what we need to do. This is the only way.” Week after week, Hayley repeated the exercise but to no avail. (Peteet, of Harvard Medical School, allows that some patients could benefit from this kind of visualization—“but if it’s being presented as the only way to go for everybody, that would concern me,” he says.)

Other women described feeling similar pressure to follow the counseling model or risk being called insubordinate. When Lily Mershon entered the Lincoln home in 2009 at age 23, she was anorexic, barely weighed 80 pounds, and had no health insurance. Because Mercy homes aren’t licensed by state departments of health, they can legally only accept people who are deemed medically stable. But Lily had convinced her doctor to sign off on the medical records, telling him that the program was her only option. Then, just after Lily was admitted, she realized that she had forgotten to bring her Adderall. The Mercy staff wouldn’t immediately connect her with a doctor and instead had her sign a form confirming that she’d willingly given up the pills. Lily soon decided she wanted to go home. “They prayed over me and put hands on me,” she says. “They made me feel like this was my only chance to live and if I left [early] there would be no more chances.” And so she stayed.

Exorcism

Whenever Lily brought up her anorexia, her counselor would say, “Have you prayed about it? Have you talked to God about it?” “And I thought maybe I’m the weird one for not having this open heart,” Lily says. In order to please her counselor, she began praying out loud and saying that God had spoken to her. The performance eventually felt real; it was, she says, “a slow brainwashing.” Mercy would later present Lily as a model of success in its promotional materials. Today Lily is married and has a young son but continues to struggle with anorexia and describes herself as emotionally broken. In fact, she’d purged daily while at Mercy and says her counselors never noticed. “I don’t trust people anymore,” she says. “I feel very empty inside. I’m trying to get better for my son.” (Asked about Hayley, Lily, and other former residents, Mercy declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing its clients.)

At Mercy’s St. Louis home, Bethany M. experienced a similar cycle. If she didn’t participate enough in group therapy, the staff reprimanded her, which pushed her to cut herself—the very reason she’d come to Mercy in the first place. After months of this, the staff discovered her cutting; Mercy was legally obligated to admit her to a state psychiatric facility, which it did. But upon release, Bethany begged Mercy to take her back—and the organization complied. “They made Mercy seem like God or even above God,” Bethany said. The way she’d come to see it, getting kicked out would mean that God had rejected her. But her cutting continued, and Mercy released her for good. “I felt like I’d lost my life,” she said. To fill the void, Bethany turned to drinking and drugs.

“The way the spiritual is executed is very abusive,” says the former Mercy counselor. “Taking women who have very severe mental health issues and saying they’re not choosing freedom when they’re not ‘healed’ in a certain period of time—it puts the problem back on the girls. And they’re already really broken and hurting.” She says women like Bethany who don’t graduate believe “it’s their fault,” and those like Hayley and Lily, who do graduate, “struggle because they’re supposed to be healed and they don’t know why they’re not.”

4. “The Lost Girls”

According to her parents, Ellen developed endometriosis at age 16. The painful disease required hormones, medications, and surgery and sent Ellen into a depression that a series of doctors were unable to cure. But at the age of 20, Ellen discovered Mercy Ministries and asked her parents if she could attend. She and her parents are devout Christians who believed Mercy would provide a valuable mix of spiritual guidance and mental health support from board-certified psychologists. Ellen applied in May 2010, arrived at the Lincoln home the following October, and graduated eight months later.

After Mercy, Ellen no longer seemed depressed, but she was acting strangely. One day she was affectionate with her parents; the next day she was reserved. Then she left their home in Elk Grove, California, moved in with a family friend, and sent her parents a letter that changed their lives. In it, Ellen described multiple ways in which her parents had abused her, including rape at her father’s hands and sex trafficking. “If any of this was true, we should be in jail. We should be hung,” says her mom, Sherry. Hearing this from her only child, Sherry says, “just broke me.” (No charges were ever filed. I spoke to Ellen’s parents, pastor, best friend, and the family she moved in with, all of whom affirm Sherry’s side of this story. Ellen, who has since changed her name, could not be reached for comment.)

Ellen’s parents begged for an explanation and finally received one. At Mercy, Ellen had met with her counselor and, as she described it, emptied herself before the Holy Spirit. “ ‘Whatever the Spirit told us, that’s what happened,’ ” Sherry recalls her daughter saying. “She called this event her ‘deliverance.’ ” Ellen and her parents met a few times after that but could never reach an understanding. In March 2012, Ellen sent her parents a note saying that she was leaving California and not to contact her again.

It’s nearly impossible to verify or disprove Ellen’s accusations, but the events described by her parents fit into a larger pattern that at least nine families of Mercy attendees have experienced: A young woman enters Mercy for issues unrelated to abuse and comes out accusing her family of horrific sexual violations. Of the nine families, seven have lost contact with their daughters.

Stories like this used to be common. In the 1990s, some psychiatrists used a treatment called recovered memory therapy, which encouraged patients to dig deep into their memories and find trauma that could explain their suffering. Instead, it led patients into their own imaginations; a wave of false memories of childhood abuse followed. Recovered memory therapy is now widely discredited.

The therapy isn’t mentioned anywhere in Mercy’s materials, and Singleton insists the organization has never used it. “Sadly,” she says, “our patients are often from fractured homes and challenging backgrounds and don’t need to be coerced to create accounts of heart-wrenching childhoods and upbringings.”

If that’s true, what explains these accusations and their striking similarities? It could be a confluence of factors, according to psychologists I asked about Mercy’s methods, and it may start with the organization’s emphasis on sexual abuse narratives. From the waiting list onward, women receive testimonials by Mercy girls who were molested, as well as books and sermons by author and speaker Meyer, who talks about being raped by her father. This focus on abuse stories—and the preaching of God’s power to heal such trauma—is central to Mercy’s counseling process, regardless of why a woman entered the program. This could create a culture of peer pressure, in which women feel they need to be saved from a sufficiently terrible event, psychologists say. A number of the women I interviewed describe an environment in which the more dramatic a woman’s graduation testimonial, the more she was considered the perfect “Mercy girl.”

“Any time there’s a power differential, therapeutic interventions are susceptible to manipulation,” says Keith Meador, the director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society and a professor of psychiatry and health policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Secular or religious. That’s why it’s so important that there be systematic training, licensure, and regulation in any type of context of intervention.” Mercy survivors report feeling this power imbalance acutely—they came to believe that the staff spoke with God’s authority.

Affected families tell similar tales. One woman, Asja, went to the Lincoln home to work through complicated feelings about her childhood: Her father abused prescription drugs and alcohol, and her parents had split up. But after graduation, Asja cut ties with her family. Then, in a promotional Mercy article, she said God helped her overcome molestation at her mother’s hands. Asja’s sister, Danielle, theorizes that her sister had “heard a lot of bad stories and maybe [her accusations] were a way to fit in.” Another woman, Christina, went to Mercy’s California home in 2010 for an eating disorder. While there, she said she’d dreamed that her grandmother’s boyfriend had molested her. “Christina’s therapist told her that dreams were God’s way of showing hidden trauma,” her mother says. After graduation she moved in with another Mercy girl, who alsoreported being molested by her grandfather. Soon, Christina’s story expanded further: She claimed that she’d been raped by her father and sex-trafficked by her parents—the same accusations made by Ellen.

Of the nine severed families I spoke to, only two of the actual Mercy attendees were willing to discuss the incidents, both on the condition that they not be quoted or identified in any way. One offered a basic outline of how her accusation came to be. It began, she said, with nightmares she had at Mercy about being sexually abused by a neighbor. Her counselors interpreted this as evidence that she was involved in a sex ring. Under Mercy staff’s guidance, the woman says, she described horrific details about her life as a prostitute—which seemed and felt true at the time. But later, she says, she realized that her stories were nearly identical to testimonials that other Mercy graduates had written and were posted on the “Success Stories” section of Mercy’s website. That’s what caused her to begin questioning herself.

The second woman I spoke to went to Mercy to address her drug addiction and other self-harming behaviors, including multiple suicide attempts. Her counselor interpreted a cryptic dream as evidence that her father had raped her. The woman had no recollection of such an event but says she felt pressure to believe her counselor’s assessment; after all, the staff seemed to speak with God’s authority. Guided by Mercy staff, the woman sent her father an email accusing him of rape. It took many years of distance from Mercy for the woman to begin to doubt her accusation. And it was only after months of professional therapy and treatment for previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder that she was able to reunite with her parents.

Singleton wouldn’t discuss specific accusations of abuse, but allegations have been raised enough times that Mercy put this disclaimer on its website: “Mercy Ministries does not practice Recovered Memory Therapy.” This past October, when the organization rebranded itself as Mercy Multiplied, the disclaimer disappeared.

5. “Licensed by Jesus

In 2011, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals received a call about Mercy’s home in West Monroe. The caller said the residence was operating without a license from the department, according to a DHH spokeswoman. But when DHH investigated, it determined the home didn’t actually need a license because it wasn’t providing “services for compensation.” Instead, the program was “operating in a way that is similar to a homeless shelter,” where residents receive food and lodging for free, according to the state’s DHH lawyers.

In an email last April, Singleton told me that Mercy’s three adult facilities are licensed by social services agencies in their respective states. But agency representatives at both Louisiana’s and Missouri’s departments of social services, health, and mental health could find no records of Mercy in their systems. When I emailed Singleton in April 2015 to ask for clarification, she stopped responding. When I wrote her again this month, a full year later, she said she had nothing to add. (At that time, Mercy’s website also said its homes were state-licensed. When Mercy rebranded, the licensing statement disappeared.)

Had the homes in fact been licensed, they would have been unusual among residential treatment facilities. Such residences are generally not equipped to care for women withserious mental health issues, according to lawyers for the National Disability Rights Network. In California, such facilities “cannot accept a resident whose primary need is acute psychiatric care due to a mental disorder,” says the California Department of Social Services. Mercy requires all incoming residents to provide medical histories and proof of medical stability. Yet the organization targets a client base whose untreated mental illness makes their physical or emotional instability a real possibility. Women like Lily, Bethany, and others interviewed for this story—all likely unstable when they entered the program—slipped in anyway. Of course, even facilities with licensed mental health providers can make assessment mistakes. But with no licensing body or standardized training available for Christian counselors, it’s likely that their clients will end up in programs that Meador says are “trying to do work that they’re not trained or equipped to do.”

Lily’s discharge summary—a one-page document signed by her counselor—is a snapshot of that problem. Upon graduation, her counselor wrote that Lily had overcome the following alphabetized list of issues: “Abandonment, all abuse, ADHD, anger, anxiety (social), apathy, attention seeking behavior, authority issues, Bipolar, Borderline, chemical dependency, compliance, depression, desire to be here, detox, eating disorder, family issues, general suitability, impulsive, lesbianism, lying, marital issues, medical suitability, occult, OCD, PTSD, relationship difficulties, rejection, self-harm, self-esteem issues, sexual promiscuity, stealing, and suicidal thoughts.” The counselor concluded that “[w]hen Lily chose to fully surrender to God, she experienced significant behavior and emotional changes.”

Discharge summary

With Lily’s permission, I shared the document with Meador. “This lacks coherency in its run-on usage of a mix of clinical terms and is generally lacking in professionalism,” he said, after reading it. The discharge suggests that Lily’s counselor is working “in territory they shouldn’t be in.”

Christian counseling has two schools. One is open to a fusion of religious and secular approaches and is represented by the umbrella group the American Association of Christian Counselors, or AACC. The organization’s lengthy ethical code outlines the need for individualized treatment, of never forcing one’s point of view on clients, and making sure that clients are fully comfortable with the religious beliefs and practices used in counseling sessions. Singleton says the head counselors of Mercy’s homes are AACC members. But many of Mercy’s former clients allege methods that would be in violation of AACC guidelines.

The other school is entirely biblically based and comprises programs that disregard secular mental health practices. Some of these residential programs geared toward troubled teens across the country have been criticized for their harsh practices. In 2002, the St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a seven-part investigative series about Christian reform schools in Missouri. Two schools closed as a result. In 2012, Time ran a story outlining similar abuses in Florida. These programs focus on minors and don’t explicitly address mental illness, but like Mercy, their Bible-based approach appeals to a population that has little faith in secular support services.

Meanwhile, programs like Mercy are rapidly multiplying. In 1999, the AACC reported 15,000 members; today there are 50,000. And they’re embraced by an audience of believers—not just in Christ but in Christ-driven treatment. Forty-eight percent of self-described evangelical, born-again, and fundamentalist Christians believe Bible study and prayer can cure serious mental illness, according to a 2013 study by the conservative Christian body LifeWay Research. And in fact, spiritual interventions can be highly effective. A 2011 meta-analysis of 46 studies, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, found that that religiously or spiritually integrated therapies for individuals from devout backgrounds can have “better psychological and spiritual outcomes” than nontreatment controls. Meador says a program like Mercy could provide “substantive and enduring benefits” for some people—not necessarily those with serious mental illness but individuals facing various developmental challenges. “What they really benefit from is the structure, boundaries, and someone telling them, ‘This is how you live well.’ Hearing women say that the program saved their lives doesn’t surprise me at all.”

And many Mercy clients say just that. Ninety-four percent of respondents on 2013 surveys (commissioned by Mercy and conducted by independent firms) answered “yes” to the question, “Did Mercy Ministries help you transform your life and restore your hope?” Eighty-two percent said they were “well adjusted to life” after leaving the program. And 85 percent said they had spent time at other treatment centers before Mercy, without long-term results. Roughly 10 percent of Mercy’s total graduate pool responded to the survey,according to Mercy’s website.

Mercy contends that this overwhelmingly positive feedback proves the program’s effectiveness, even if some former residents don’t agree. “We’re [working] with women who need help from self-reported destructive patterns,” says Singleton. “They are going to be unhappy with us, if they don’t get to the place they want.”

6. “He will give you the desires of your heart

Hayley eventually gave in. She says she stopped resisting her counselor’s instructions and stopped questioning the system. Maybe she was to blame for her own failure, she remembers thinking. Maybe she hadn’t tried hard enough. Before graduating from the Lincoln home, Hayley wrote the following testimonial: “Mercy has taught me a new way to live. I never thought that I would be capable of living a life on my own—a life dependent on God and not on medication or the approval of other people. A life filled with joy and peace instead of guilt.”

Mercy told Hayley that if she tithed to the organization, God would bless her. She donated $1,000. (Four women, each of whom attended a different Mercy home, told me the organization heavily stresses the importance of tithing to Mercy.) On her graduation day, Hayley’s parents presented her with a leather and gold-plate bracelet, etched with Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

But at home, Hayley’s anxiety and depression returned. She grew increasingly introverted, finding it impossible to trust anyone. Before Mercy, she’d suffered from low self-esteem; now, she says, she felt worthless. “I thought Mercy would be this place where the staff would love on you and be there for you,” she says. “Instead they beat the spirit out of you.” Mercy had taught Hayley the dangers of having too much hope and too much belief—not in God, she says, but in other people. These days, she believes that she alone—without regular therapy, Christian counselors, or Jesus—must forge her way forward.

Hayley is still living at home, still without a job, and her family remains in tough financial straits. She fills her days by cooking and practicing the harp. She’s planning to go back to school, possibly to study psychology. And she’s been writing about her Mercy experience, which she hopes to one day share with others—young women like herself who might believe they’ve found a godsend. Today, much of the graduation testimony she wrote sounds hollow, but her closing words are starting to ring true. “Through Mercy Ministries,” she wrote, “God has removed the tape from my mouth and given me back my voice.”

All you need is VISION…and this manual (Mercy Multiplied’s Guidelines Manual Part 2)

This piece by Mercy Survivor Anna was originally published on her blog “External Mercy” and can be viewed here.

3d7d0f901ec7ba1d4003fdc45b285fb1In the introduction of Mercy Multiplied’s “Guidelines for Establishing a Residential Counseling Ministry“, Mercy Multiplied lays out what information they are going to be giving you.

They say that “Certain fundamental functions, processes and structures will provide a solid foundation to establish your ministry to serve your God-given vision for years to come.” (page 5)  And then tell us that Mercy Multiplied is sharing their “wealth of experience, knowledge, and information” that they have acquired.

I think it’s fair to assume that they are going to include what’s important, right, or at least what they think is important for this sort of ministry, or at least what they think is important for theirs.  So let’s take a look at the manual from this perspective…we’re getting a peek into what Mercy Multiplied considers foundational for accomplishing the same “success” they have with a similar method.

They also say that they’re not including specific details (not that that would even be possible in 41 pages).  They point out that the details are specifically serving THEIR vision and mission and that individuals establishing their own ministry need to work these out according to their ministry’s specific calling.  Keep this in mind as we’ll be coming back to these two points: Mercy Multiplied is sharing what they think is foundational and they are NOT sharing details.

Next comes the ever present, ever shared story of how Mercy Multiplied began.  Also known as the epithet to Nancy Alcorn, this tells how Nancy Alcorn worked in a correctional facility for youth and became disillusioned because the programs were not working.  She worked for Teen Challenge for a bit (who has their own sordid history and those who were harmed more than helped by the program) and then she starts Mercy, emphasizing that secular, governmental programs were tremendous failures when it came to helping these “troubled girls”.  Thus the birth of Mercy Ministries, now Mercy Multiplied and of course the three principles that are emphasized by the ministry:

  1. Don’t charge the girls to come;
  2. Tithe 10% (even though most people are donating the money to mercy as their 10% tithe); and
  3. Don’t accept state/government funding.

Next, we skip forward to the current Mercy Multiplied: Listing the locations of the homes in the US and the homes outside the US.  Funny though that Australia is no where to be seen in this “history”.  The other locations are heralded as the spreading of Mercy Multiplied beyond the US’ borders…not sure what they really thought the Australia homes were if not for that…apparently they were orphan ministries that had nothing to do with Mercy Multiplied (after they got shut down of course).  This makes me wonder, does Mercy Multiplied not learn from its own mistakes?  From my point of view they got themselves in trouble with associated homes in Australia, then backtracked to de-associate from them when those homes became the “black sheep” of the Mercy Multiplied family.  So now they’re publishing guidelines on how to replicate their ministry?

Just a warning to anyone who might use these guidelines (besides being prepared for a lawsuit), Mercy Multiplied will claim you as long as it looks good for them, but once you reflect badly on them, you will be cut off and disowned like an unsightly growth—or at least that’s what their history (the part that’s not told in this manual section) seems to show.

They go through the usual lines about who they are and what they do…and how well they do it, specifically pointing out that they often receive residents who “have been in various treatment facilities with unsuccessful long-term results”, to contrast this they claim that their approach to healing is a permanent solution that is unattainable in any other way. (page 6)

They also describe their program as “extremely successful in equipping young women with the tools they need to understand their self-worth” and share that they get daily communication from graduates “walking in freedom” (page 7).  Mercy Multiplied’s always had this thing with comparing themselves to other treatment facilities. You hear it again and again in Nancy Alcorn’s speech and even in the request of materials from graduates.

Walking in freedom is another huge buzzword for them – the implication of course is that if you are a Mercy Multiplied graduate who is still struggling, then it’s simply because you’re choosing not to “walk in freedom”.  There’s no possibility that maybe there are still things that need to be addressed, still education that needs to take place, still resources and support that need to be built up; and ultimately, there’s no possibility that Mercy Multiplied didn’t hold up their part of the bargain to get you permanently better.  It’s a syntax they emphasize that conveniently allows them to shirk all responsibility while still claiming that they are being accountable.

[All quotes from Mercy Multiplied, Guidelines for Establishing a Residential Counseling Ministry, Retrieved October 2015]

Who failed who? (Basics Part 2)

This piece by Mercy Survivor Anna was originally published on her blog “External Mercy” and can be viewed here.

FailureSix months into the program, I went home to my family of origin for Christmas (at Mercy Multiplied’s insistence).  God magically healed me of everything just a few weeks prior to that Christmas break.  I didn’t struggle with any symptoms, I didn’t struggle with any feelings, and everyone said that I was like a different person after Jesus had healed me.  The same staff that were ready to kick me out of the program, were suddenly singing the program’s praises for its part in my amazing transformation.

I spent three months like that, and the only thing that I struggled with was a serious case of denial.  I actually really thought that everything was better (self-awareness has always been a slow battle for me).  It didn’t send up any red flags that everything was perfectly better because that’s what Mercy Multiplied expected.  There’s no need for relapse prevention work when your mental illness and trauma symptoms are just magically healed.  I pushed to graduate as soon as possible…and walked away with Mercy Multiplied’s full approval.  I didn’t realize that somewhere inside I had decided that it wasn’t safe to be there and continue to get hurt…maybe I thought that God healing me was the only way to get away from this place that continually denied my perceptions and internal experience.  Whatever the underlying reasoning, it worked.  I graduated.  And it lasted less than twenty-four hours.

See that’s the problem with a program whose core therapeutic method is (to put it bluntly) emotional abuse.  When you’re told over and over again that you’re wrong…that you’re not trying…that you must not want help…that your feelings are wrong…that your intuition is rebellion, you end up with a recovery that’s completely divorced from reality…because you are divorced from reality.  It worked while I was in the Mercy Multiplied bubble…where the Mercy Multiplied party line was the only acceptable reality.  Once I stepped outside, it was obvious that I hadn’t made progress whatsoever.

I was completely bewildered…I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong that I couldn’t maintain my “healing”.  I thought that obviously God had held up his end of the deal and made me better, now it was on me and I was failing.  Mercy Multiplied had set me up perfectly for it to be all my fault and Mercy Multiplied’s attitude had taught me that if it was all my fault that I didn’t deserve help.  Maybe someone would have caught this and corrected this cognitive distortion if they had connected me with professionals so that I had a qualified support team, but they didn’t.  I had an “accountability partner”, a woman from my church who met with me and prayed with and for me.  This was good…but it wasn’t anywhere near what I needed.  I had no psychiatrist, no psychologist, no therapist, no nutritionist…I had no professional help.  And I needed professional help–why else would I have spent 9 months in a residential facility otherwise?

My views of Mercy have changed drastically over time from…

Mercy Multiplied is great – it was all good!

to…

It was mostly good, but there were a few things that weren’t.

to…

Okay, at least some of it was good.

to…

They did a lot of harm, but at least their intentions were good.

to…

They had no business doing what they did.

It took years to cycle through all of those, and it’s still a process now.  But the most important thing is that I know that I didn’t fail…Mercy Multiplied  failed to help me, and that’s a big deal.  So to any of you who are still carrying the burden of failure from Mercy Multiplied’s teachings and attitude, take a deep breath…maybe you didn’t fail…maybe Mercy Multiplied failed you too.

But it didn’t work… (Basics Part 1)

This piece by Mercy Survivor Anna was originally published on her blog “External Mercy” and can be viewed here.

MM HomeSince part of this blog is to share some pieces about my time at Mercy Ministries (aka Mercy Multiplied), I thought it might be helpful to lay out some of the facts of my time there.

I entered Mercy Multiplied’s residential home in Nashville, TN early summer 2005.  I was struggling with depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, eating disorders, and self-harm.  In clinical terms, I was a mess (see if you can find that in the DSM-V).  I was uninsured, thus my options for treatment were zilch, and since my Christian faith was the most important thing to me at the time, Mercy Multiplied seemed like (no pun intended) a gift from God.  Plus, there was the whole I needed to move at the beginning of the summer and didn’t have another place to live that was also chasing me down as the calendar days continued to pass.

I’d never been in residential treatment and had been in therapy with a qualified professional for less than a year.  I was the epitome of desperate and wanted help so much, it seemed like a miracle that I would get to go somewhere with people who could help me…who knew about the issues I struggled with…who would be available when I needed to talk to someone…who could offer me counseling and resources to support my recovery.

At least that’s what I thought it would be like.  No one told me that the Mercy Multiplied staff ratio on evenings and weekends was 40 residents to 2-3 staff.  No one told me that Mercy Multiplied expected me to get better by reading Joyce Meyer books and praying pre-prepared prayers.  No one told me that Mercy Multiplied didn’t have the qualifications necessary to care for any of the residents, much less all of them.  No one told me that Mercy Multiplied would interpret my trauma and dissociative symptoms as “not wanting to get better”.  No one told me that I wouldn’t have proper oversight of my psychiatric medications.  No one told me that my wellbeing and my recovery would always take second place to the program’s image.  No one told me that Mercy Multiplied would do more harm than good…all while saying they were helping.

I struggled in the program…not with obedience or submission, because I was good at that, but with following along in therapy and “getting better”.  In case you’re thinking that I must not have been “sold out to Christ” or whatever you want to call it, I would get up early to hide in the stairway and have quiet time talking with God and reading my Bible.  My Bible was so well-worn pages were falling out of it.  I read the God’s Creative Power booklet with all the Bible verses so many times that I memorized the first half of the booklet.  And I didn’t stop there…I wrote my own and went through them every day as well.  I would spend hours praying that my counseling session would be led by him and spent free time sneaking into the classroom to play worship songs on the keyboard.  I always ate what I was supposed to eat and would self-confess to staff if I had anything that I had used or wanted to use to self-harm.  I was the perfect “Mercy Girl”.  I did everything right—the only problem was that it didn’t work.

Mercy will never hold the golden ticket to healing

This piece by Mercy Survivor Alicia was originally published on her blog “Beyond Silence: My Mercy Story” and can be viewed here.

While Mercy Multiplied stated they were not a medical facility, they still need to be held responsible and accountable to other areas.  Mental health isn’t necessarily medical.  They promised this spiritual transformation and healing.  We all looked at it and said we want that…  We all made a choice to go there but none of us got what thought we would receive.  We got a lot of false promises and tales of how we would be healed at the end of Mercy Multiplied.

Some girls were there for months and got sent home, some of us chose to leave as we encountered red flags in our time there, and others found a way to survive Mercy Multiplied until graduation just to say we got through it.  When we look back, I ask myself was it worth the mental anguish I got from there?  Healing was what they promised but they couldn’t deliver.

We ask ourselves who is to blame since we didn’t get the healing they promised?  Some of us think we failed if we didn’t make it through the program and some us still feel like we failed even after the program was over when we found ourselves back in our old behaviors.  No program can heal anyone there’s the false advertisments that Mercy Multiplied puts out there to attract girls into their program.  Healing was like a golden ticket that everyone wanted.  They wanted to find that golden ticket so they could be on the other side of things.  Mercy Multiplied waved the word “healing” in front of us like a golden ticket.  The way they presented it to us it was like it was impossible to find.  It reminds me of this movie “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”…

 Charlie Bucket: [to Grandpa Joe, after opening the Wonka bar they think has the last Golden Ticket in it] “You know… I’ll bet those Golden Tickets make the chocolate taste terrible

We were presented with a challenge to find a golden ticket, a pathway to healing that by man’s standards was impossible.  Many people are angry at themselves for either not making it through Mercy Multiplied.  Many girls wanted that ring from graduation that screamed “transformation”.  It’s just a ring, it’s not where freedom lies.  Charlie Bucket spells it out that “the golden tickets made the chocolate taste terrible”.

Mercy Multiplied fed us this line of promised healing like Wonka promised those that found a golden ticket this amazing enterprise to see.  We must remember that man made principles will fall.

Is healing possible?

I believe that in order to heal a person must hear from God on their own accord.  We cannot even make change in our lives unless we simply come to a place where we are able to say we cannot do it on our own.

My journey with Mercy Multiplied was negative, but positive because I saw beyond the golden ticket and that’s what pissed them off.  I saw they were a man-made structure that I was not about to put above God in any way.  Mercy Multiplied wanted me to claim they gave me healing, but it was false.  I wasn’t going to deny God’s work in my life or give them any credit for my victory.  That’s where a lot of people don’t realize that Mercy Multiplied sought out people who were vulnerable that they knew would credit them for their healing or the change in their life.

I don’t believe my time at Mercy Multiplied was a mistake.  I believe that I went there to make connections with people, to know I wasn’t alone in my journey.  Yes there are things I hate about what happened there.  I cannot change the bad things that happen.  By sharing my story and my pursuit to hold them accountable for their actions speaks to my situation.  It says I’m not alone, I’m not a victim, and I’m not about to let some mass corporation destroy my life.

My time there made my relationship with God a challenge.  What I thought was failure to submit to authority was not a failure at all.  My failure to submit to authority showed my faithfulness to God.  People may argue the concept of submitting to authority.  While there are laws in our country we have to follow, there’s a subtle difference between following laws and being a good citizen than submitting to a place like Mercy Multiplied to be the authority over our lives.  I’m a child of God and my life is not rooted in Mercy Multiplied, my life is rooted in God.  I’m thankful for the ability to recognize this.  Having this knowledge, I can confidently say that Mercy Multiplied was one chapter of my life that happened for a purpose.  My overall story is a testimony of how I let my faith in God stomp all over the enemy’s plan to take my life.

I did have struggle in my life after Mercy Multiplied.  I’m sure any girl who went through the hell I went through there would have too.  By finding the boldness to stand up for myself and say “No more!” and choosing to go home was choosing life.  It was the best decision I could have made.  Courage takes time, but every time we chose to speak up and tell our story we find that we were not alone.  We are able to stand up for ourselves.  We also have the empowerment and hope that we can overcome.

True healing is should never be set within the limits of a man-made agenda.  No one can pick a date or time you get healed.  Sometimes we just have to wait on God.  It requires lots of patience and faith.  It’s okay to reach out to others for help.  Please don’t read too much into this but healing comes with complete surrender saying not my will but yours be done Lord.  It’s not about a ministry or one single person’s prophetic message.  The change that healing brings is like hearing your heart beat for the first time.  It’s knowing that the simple beat of your heart the pitter patter is the ultimate sign of life that gives purpose to my existence.

I know many people reading this might not believe in God.  I want you to know I’m not going to judge you.  We all have our own definition and view of what gives us strength or guidance in life.  The fact is we know something is guiding us and whether you claim it to be God or not you can’t deny something gave you strength to get this far in life.

We are all at a different place in our lives.  When I first got out of Mercy Multiplied, I struggled in my faith.  I questioned if I made the right decision to leave.  Why would God have let me go through all of that?  It’s been almost four years since I put my foot in the door in that ministry.  Yeah it felt like a mistake at first but I would not have made some of the friendships I have if I didn’t go there.  If anything good came from it I’d say the friendships and connections.  I don’t know why I went through the crap I went through.  The damage control costs me a lot as well.

I must say I’m so thankful that I can blog today having the insight I have about life.  Having the knowledge I have about that place makes me see how much determination I have had in life and I’m not a failure because I didn’t finish.  My rebellion had a hidden purpose.  It’s possible that my battle to fight their authority had a purpose who knows.  I must say I’m going to continue using my voice to help others because anyone who went through the crap there must realize in order to win back our lives we must stand together and unite and fight for those who had no voice and those who are yet to speak out because someone might hear our stories it might give them the courage to speak out too.

I know there’s more girls out there who been on this road with Mercy Multiplied but haven’t found courage to even share.  It took me a very long time to even be bold and say “No more!”  No girl wants to face her peers and say, “I gave up on Mercy Multiplied”.  I did it I had to come out of the hiding place and say, “I gave up on Mercy Multiplied”.  They didn’t even want to give me a chance, some of us thought they invested in us but most of us were left with chocolate that tasted terrible and disappointment that the golden ticket to healing didn’t happen there.  If we chose to keep on speaking and not let anyone silence us then we will see victory!

They told us not to share anything!

This piece by Mercy Survivor Alicia was originally published on her blog “Beyond Silence: My Mercy Story” and can be viewed here.

There’s so many questions in my brain on the way things were handled at Mercy Multiplied.  Every girl there had some reason behind her purpose there but yet we were told we couldn’t tell anyone in the house why we were there.  I thought at first it was so we wouldn’t trigger anyone else.  I think all the girls with eating disorders knew people knew why they were there.  It seemed that if you had an eating disorder people knew because we have “couch” time after each meal and all of us were on plate check.

I feel like “plate check” and “couch time” were methods to shame girls.  Some girls got off couch early on in their time there but then there were girls that were on it for months after a meal.  I remember having to recite my ABC’s or count backwards from 100 if I had to use the bathroom while I was still on couch time.  It was this preventative measure they put in place so girls wouldn’t act out in eating disorder behavior.  It could of been easier to not have us flush the toilet then make us count or sing.  I just felt so stupid.  I had this digestion problem so I was in the bathroom a lot.  I couldn’t help my reasons for needing a toilet right after my meal.  I was told to try hold it in but I had severe digestion issues that pushed me towards the bathroom.

I had a known food allergy to gluten so every time I ate I would get really sick to the point my stomach just ached and I would have diarrhea.  It was disgusting.  They didn’t believe me even though my doctor try tell them I was allergic to gluten.  They made me see one of their preferred outside doctors.

When I saw this doctor, I wasn’t allowed to be alone with her to talk.  The medical director wouldn’t let me have an edge word in anywhere.  I didn’t have a right to any privacy.  She changed my medications around.  She warned me she wasn’t qualified as a psychiatrist but she try to make it so I could stay awake during the day.  After that point, my meds were so screwed up I had to drink more coffee to stay awake in between the classes.  I was exhausted all the time.  My digestion issues got worse.

Here and there, Mercy Multiplied staff tried to give me gluten free meals but they were like you can’t prove you have celiac disease but in fact I was able to but it still didn’t resonate with them that I couldn’t eat gluten.

Then I finally got off “couch” but I still had to go to the bathroom after meals.  It felt awful barely even making it through a meal.  I often lost my appetite there because I was slipping.  They had cut my meal exchanges way down from my registered dietitian had prescribed.  I had rapid weight loss.  It wasn’t good enough.  Every meal I felt like I was never going to meet their expectations.  Towards the end of my time at Mercy Multiplied, I started eating my meals so slow that it run over into class time.  I had to sit in the lobby a couple times to finish my food.  Eating a meal was an emotional roller coaster for me.  To this day, I don’t know how I even got through my meals at Mercy Multiplied without crying my eyes out.

Having an eating disorder really made me stand out.  I’m sure it made other girls.  Some girls wondered why I had to take walks in between classes; do laps around  the parking lot.  Nothing I did was ever good enough for the staff at Mercy Multiplied.

Upon leaving Mercy Multiplied, I discovered I had so much hate inside me for myself.  They tried to make my BMI my worth.  Thankfully with time I was able to pin point the lies they try make me believe about myself and work at changing my mindset.  It has taken a lot of counseling to undo the damage that Mercy Multiplied staff caused me through my thinking, mental health issues, physical issues, and body image issues.

I eventually found a way to rise above all the pain and hurt at Mercy Multiplied.  From time to time I have to remind myself who I am in Christ.  I’m not everything that Mercy Multiplied tried to make of me.  I’m not my BMI.  I’m not my eating disorder.  I’m a child of God.  It makes me sad that a big powerhouse ministry offered me freedom but tried to steal my identity.  In that I must say they are not true to their word.  I wish they could be held accountable but I know that will come in time.

Courage to speak + accountability + taking a stand

This piece by Mercy Survivor Alicia was originally published on her blog, “Beyond Silence: My Mercy Journey” and can be viewed here.

While I was on the waiting list for Mercy Multiplied I remember promising them I wouldn’t act out in my eating disorder or self injury.  The desperation to get into the program lead me to abstinence from my eating disorder and self injury but once I got there and they met me in person.  There were all these promises going into Mercy Multiplied that every girl including myself wanted.  I made a choice to go there but my choice was based on false promises things I thought the program would truly give me.

I wanted so desperately for God to heal me.  Everyone told me Mercy Multiplied was my last hope.  Looking back God gave me more chances even after Mercy Multiplied.  God showed me that a man-made program that isn’t aligned with everything He has for me isn’t going to heal me.  Only God can heal me.  I quickly found that Mercy Multiplied and people were put on pedestals.  They left out that God was one with the power to heal not Mercy Multiplied.  That’s why that any ministry that claims to heal is not going to heal if they look at themselves as the sole part of the healing.  God can use man-made things to help us but true healing comes from God.  Until a ministry realizes this, no one is going to have true healing.  If they claim healing it’s only going to be temporary.

It’s so sad on the flip side watching girls who graduate fall back into their addictions after telling their story saying Mercy Multiplied did X, Y, Z for them… Truly God is above Mercy Multiplied and yeah it was used to change perspective but their whole mindset did not change overnight.  God has to be the one we give glory to not a man-made program.

I went to Mercy Multiplied with this idea of all these false promises in my head.  There were situations that made me question is this really the place for me?  I found quickly if you could not submit to authority, Mercy Multiplied was not for you.  I found that my biggest struggle.  God is my authority but not man I couldn’t bring myself to bow to a ministry.  My heart belonged to God and not to their authority.

I wanted freedom but when I was at Mercy Multiplied I felt like I was chained down with no freedom.  I had to do many things other girls did not have to do.  I know my experience is part of my life journey but sometimes I think that certain things could have went a different way.

I find myself wondering why we had to hold ourselves to so much accountability before going to Mercy Multiplied but yet the ministry itself hasn’t held itself accountable to anyone.  There’s a lot of things that have happened beneath the surface of the stained glass windows, fundraising events, success stories we read.  There’s a lot of pain and a lot of girls that have gotten hurt in this program but its’ all gotten covered up.  I wonder when will they be held accountable.

I left Mercy Multiplied so broken and lost that I had a hard time even trusting God with my life.  I went to Mercy Multiplied with such a positive outlook hope to recover.  My hope was displaced in a man-made program and God quickly showed me my hope had to be in Him.  I was there trying to put my hope in him.  My counselor there often made me feel like I had to speak great of Mercy Multiplied.  Yet on the inside those people were not kind.  I spent most nights trying to hold back my tears.

I remember one morning before class, I was crying my eyes out.  I remember my counselor coming in my room and telling me I didn’t want to be in the program because I was crying my eyes out.  I felt like they were trying to silence me.  Everyone has feelings and emotions and they can’t be silenced.  I think about this moment and everyone after.  I had to meet with the nutrition/fitness person and my counselor for special meetings.  My crying episode lead to more consequences.  Sitting down with the fitness lady and my counselor, they determined I had set goals that I needed to meet to stay at Mercy Multiplied.  I had to shower two times a day.  I had to put stuff in my shoes, I couldn’t go in my room until my roommate was asleep, I had to walk outside laps around the parking lot between class and snack.  There were so many limitations on my life.

On the day I decided I had enough I wanted to go home.  I couldn’t go through anymore crap there.  They said to me you don’t have enough money you can’t leave.  I questioned where all my money was going since my prescriptions were supposed to be purchased and mailed to me.  They had been purchasing all my medications at an out of network pharmacy so I was paying $11 dollars a prescriptions which I didn’t really need to it was more they were shamed to use my insurance card at a local pharmacy so all my money went to medication.  So I had nothing when I went to leave.  I had to borrow money to go home.  It was the best choice I ever made.

Before I left they put a paper in front of me asking me to sign that I’d not speak about my experience at Mercy Multiplied.  I came home and I hid for months.  I didn’t want to go back to church or be around anyone.  I didn’t want people to know I failed at Mercy Multiplied.  Thing is, I didn’t fail.  Mercy Multiplied failed me because it’s a man-made program.  God didn’t fail me but I did see many lessons I could take from the program and apply to my life journey.

It wasn’t until 2014 that I got break through with the Mercy Multiplied stuff.  I had went to treatment for PTSD it was there that I discovered that Mercy Multiplied tried to silence me.  To make me think that if I didn’t make it there I wouldn’t make it anywhere.  They tried to make me think that if I spoke out against them bad things happen to me but that’s not true at all.

We must remember that no one can silence us.  God doesn’t want us to live in fear or live in shame.  We are his children he’s given us a voice.  We can’t let some powerhouse non-profit that claims to heal people bring us down.  They need accountability too!  By sharing our stories we put a big red Stop sign and say No More!  We have to find ways to keep on sharing and Stop them from falsifying claims to heal.  Man-made programs can fail you, even those $30,000-a-month treatment centers can fail us.  True healing comes from God alone.  Yes He uses programs to provide us tools but the healing comes when we make a decision to give it to God.

For anyone that doesn’t believe in God.  It’s your choice but please remember you can’t let them win.  You have to speak out and tell your story.  It may take a few months of blogging to get it out there.  Living in silence just says they win and they are not winners in my book.  We must stand up and fight and hold them accountable for the injustices we have faced in life because of many who had errors in judgement and we must do what is right for those who have lost the battle or who are afraid to speak up.

Courage is action filled with hard work but it makes a difference.

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