When Deanna Dionne moved to Cleveland in 2014 to find space as an artist, there was more to the story.
Dionne’s prospects blossomed quickly when she launched Cleveland Street Glass, a line of jewelry and other sculpted pieces made of broken auto glass inspired by her car window being smashed out within a week of her move to Ohio. As Cleveland Street Glass became more successful, she found herself the subject of articles and received a lot of press about her work.
Despite the success and attention, Dionne became slightly disenchanted with the venture three to four years in despite making a living out of it in that timeframe. She wanted to grow and express herself more as an artist.
“It was fun, but I wasn’t sure if that’s the long term path,” Dionne explains. “I got tired of talking about car break-ins.”
By the end of 2019, the physical and mental demands of Cleveland Street Glass and running a business also wore her out to the point of exhaustion and illness. Dionne wanted to take a leap into freelancing instead and to find a new, more fulfilling venture to grow as an artist. At that time, she had found work with her former employer as a graphic designer to support herself financially. She was happy and optimistic.
In early 2020, Dionne began to plan out her year from a budgetary and work standpoint to be able to sustain herself. Then the pandemic came and altered her and everyone else’s best-laid plans. For Dionne, the first blow came when it became apparent that her employer would be making cuts with layoffs and the relationship with her employer soured.
Dionne was in survival mode. She was stuck at home with quarantine, entrapped in a job with an employer who crossed boundaries with demands for work, and worried about money.
With work sparse and having trouble keeping afloat, the personal discomfort really set in for Dionne by June 2020. While she had begun therapy for better mental health in October 2019, Dionne’s ability to cope deteriorated drastically as bills began to pile up with unexpected expenses for taxes and healthcare. This state was evident by the mess in her home. She felt disconnected, but then she posted a video of her messy apartment to TikTok with the caption “Are you depressed? But are you this depressed.”
“I was hanging out in my hammock and posted a video of me looking at all the trash strewn around my apartment,” Dionne describes. “I’m already messy, but it manifests itself even more when I’m not feeling well mentally. Fast food wrappers, junk everywhere. Half done projects, failed projects, broken stuff.”
The response to her post was greater than she could have imagined. Suddenly, people reached out with words of encouragement and support. Dionne felt more understood and less alone, even gaining a sense of community out of the encounter.
She continued to post five-minute videos where she’d select one small area of her apartment and post a video of her cleaning it that day. The most popular one received more than 900,000 views and 84,000 likes, but she posted those under a pseudonym while many of her friends and family had no idea about their existence. Instead, Dionne chatted with people who felt the same as her. For Dionne, it was an experience where her sincerity about who she is as a person led to positive interactions, a sense of belonging, and she felt understood.
Something these posts also helped Dionne do was use the feedback she received to better recognize herself and her traits – a task that is hard to do when you’ve lived alone for 10 years. Personal quirks such as impulsively emptying out a cup of water on the carpet because “who cares, it’ll evaporate” or shedding clothing if she was hot without a thought became more apparent. Conversations with people in the TikTok community led her to use her therapy more effectively and in October 2020 she was diagnosed with ADHD.
This diagnosis gave Dionne something to name her quirks by and also a new way to look at herself and who she was, is, and wants to be. Pinpointing ADHD was an important first step, but financial strains and the general anxiety brought by the pandemic began to cripple her around the same time.
“I would have anxiety attacks just sitting at my desk,” Dionne admits. “I lost cognitive abilities. Even trying to fill out forms for unemployment or apply to jobs. I couldn’t even apply to jobs. It felt too much and overwhelming. I felt frozen.”
Dionne desperately needed work. The stress was such that she waited until the day before the July 15th deadline to do her taxes. Not only could she not afford to pay them, she couldn’t even afford to pay the Turbo Tax fee to get them filed. That financial pressure meant Dionne had no choice but to reach out to her family for help.
“I had to call my parents last minute to bail out and it’s illustrative of my mental state,” Dionne explains. “I put them in a weird position. It felt like I had failed in a way. It feels like self pity like having that moment of ‘I and everything sucks.’”
Once October 2020 rolled around, Dionne found herself in dire straits. Her parents had been paying her rent for the past several months, helped with bills, and had even suggested that she move back home with them. Leaving Cleveland to return to Michigan was something Dionne felt she couldn’t bear. It would mean losing her studio loft she’d made into a safe space to create and explore as an artist.
Moving her hands was all she felt she could do in the meantime. The creativity helped Dionne gain some footing. Now past Cleveland Street Glass, she started to experiment with her art. A new sense of potential opened up artistically with making colorful glasses out of epoxy resin.
That new outlook provided comfort enough for her to reevaluate her journey as an artist. She still needed a job to make money, but she realized she didn’t have to make it off her art to be an artist. Dionne was ready to move forward and find herself in a new way.
“I want to reassert my individuality and independence in a sense,” she states.
However, the pandemic, her financial and emotional struggles, and the need to deal with uncertainty were only part of the picture. Those factors were something a lot of people faced, but there was more Dionne there was more. Much more. Something struck her in November 2020. The therapy, the sense of community she found on TikTok, and the things she started to notice about her own habits and feelings came to a nexus.
It was Dionne’s strict Jehovah’s Witness upbringing that had defined much of her life and who she was to this point. Her religious faith was something that conflicted with her feelings as a person and as an artist to the point she couldn’t reconcile them any more.
According to the official website for Jehovah’s Witness, followers believe that Jehovah is the one true God above all with even Jesus and the Holy Spirit inferior to him. They also believe when Armageddon arrives that they’ll be the true believers and the only ones saved with the rest not damned to hell but made extinct altogether. Holidays such as Christmas and Easter are not observed or celebrated due to their pagan roots. Some medical procedures such as blood transfusions are also not allowed. Political neutrality is also preached. Witnesses acknowledge government and see it as part of what God created to maintain law and order, but see themselves as separate from political institutions.
JW.Support is an organization whose mission is to help youths in Jehovah’s Witnesses to find a safe space to process what they’ve learned in the religion and find the strength to leave. It also points out that there is a strict patriarchal structure for the roles men and women play. Men are earners and preachers while women are wives and mothers that maintain the household. They teach that one must stay within the community as much as possible when it comes to friends, associates, and partners. Divorce is highly discouraged and frowned upon unless adultery is involved. It’s a faith and system designed for obedience, compliance, and to not question anything past what is taught.
Dionne herself was brought up to believe all these things. In school, she wasn’t allowed to celebrate birthdays with other students and would leave the room until the festivities were over. She was taught it was her path to find a partner within the community and make a home, family, and raise children. Her father, a devout follower of the faith, reads and preaches scripture with most of his day. He made sure that God’s plan for his children was deeply ingrained. However, Dionne realized that a lot of her anxiety and her stress were rooted in her religious upbringing.
“He was basically 24/7 lecturing the Bible, so in my head it got conflated where my dad turned into this ‘God figure’ and I had to seek dad’s approval,” Dionne admits. “I grew up needing his approval and my life depending on it and not getting that. That was my big revelation.”
One example of how she was affected is her cleanliness and the messiness that led to the viral TikTok videos in the middle of 2020. It was pounded into her early and often that “cleanliness is Godliness” by her father. However, at the same time with Armageddon imminent and Jehovah the one true God, nothing really mattered outside of that – even friends in her creative circles.
With that feeling, there was little motivation to keep her place clean, hence random water spills on the carpet instead of down the sink. It made no difference, it would evaporate eventually. At the same time, the mess that surrounded Dionne made her feel worthless – how could she possibly be saved if she was so unclean in her own home?
The conflict came to a head. While Dionne’s original move enabled her to find space to make sense of things and as an artist, her real motivation was very much part of her faith. She moved to Ohio to find a husband and visited the local Kingdom Hall to meet other Witnesses that included eligible bachelors. She was in many ways a dichotomy with her faith pulling her one way and the artist within her, the other.
Dionne’s faith in Jehovah was something she’d hung onto without considering the impact on her life until now. In Michigan, she was always part of a congregation that would immediately know and report back to her family if they felt she wasn’t involved enough. While she still attended local gatherings in Cleveland, her life as an artist also started to conflict with the things her religion taught her. When it came to homosexuality and non-gender conforming folks, she kept her distance despite that being a large part of her artistic and creative community.
“I’ve limited my associations with homosexuals because of [my faith],” Dionne describes. “I personally never felt there was anything wrong with homsexuality but because of the association I wasn’t allowed to do that or I’d be out of favor. It was so complicated.”
The pressure to keep up the requirements, such as finding a Jehovah’s Witness partner, became too much for Dionne. She found a simple visit to the local Kingdom Hall was enough to induce an anxiety attack because she felt so deeply unhappy. At the same time, her perspective started to change as she became more involved in the local art community.
“I moved into this amazing space/artist community and my neighbors had these amazing shows with artists coming from all over the country,” Dionne explains. “[I was] meeting all sorts of queer folk and getting to talk to them and party with them, and it was such a perfect situation because my comfort home was right here and there’s this party two doors down where as soon as I felt uncomfortable I could go right back home. It was so easy to dip my toes in and get to know people. I got to see I could trust people, not everyone is bad, not everyone is deserving to be killed at Armageddon.”
Dionne couldn’t ignore the split within and had to reconcile that before it tore her apart even further. When the quarantine first arrived she felt a sense of optimism with it. It was as if everyone else would now be in her boat, but when the isolation hit Dionne, it hit hard.
“I was like, wait a second, if I tell people I’ve been living alone for a decade not by choice, they’re gonna ask questions,” Dionne states. “Then I started asking myself that question. ‘Why is this?’”
She describes the moment she knew when she had to leave Jehovah’s Witnesses as a waking up process rather than a singular event, one which started with Googling Jehovah’s Witnesses for the first time in her life.
“There were many cracks in the windshield before it all shattered,” Dionne explains. “I like to see it as different little points in your life where you’re just like ‘okay’ or ‘huh,’ you don’t really connect those dots until you see the whole picture in front of you. All of it was honestly just seeking my fathers approval and I don’t even know if I believed in God to be honest.”
For Dionne, her religion had become an anchor in many ways. It wasn’t just not being able to celebrate birthdays and holidays. She declined to participate in any Christmas, Valentine’s, or holiday-themed events which meant she missed important retail opportunities to sell her jewelry and art. A post on Facebook about how she had a “shitty weekend” was met with a long text from her sister about what was appropriate when it came to profanity and not asked why she may have had a bad weekend in the first place. It was telling to Dionne that the control aspect was maiming her ability to be herself. Even her ability to gain a financial foothold with a job was made slippery.
“My parents didn’t want me to work at American Greetings because of holidays,” Dionne explains. “It goes so deep. When I say I’ve been controlled and bottlenecked, I know how to grow, but I couldn’t. It’s super frustrating.”
In fact, the reason she made the TikTok posts under an alias was to avoid such scrutiny. Dionne felt the effect of isolation through Jehovah’s Witnesses even more as the pandemic deepened. With social media playing such a key role in socialization during quarantine, she felt restricted and censored to the point she couldn’t keep up what she saw as a charade of being a Jehovah’s Witness and an artist. The inability to reconcile those things led to the November decision to leave.
However, it wasn’t that easy. There are repercussions to leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses and it’s something Dionne felt she now had to and was ready to face. She would become an outcast. The family and friends she grew up with would cut off contact and completely cut her out of their lives with no more contact and access to anyone still within the faith. The financial assistance her parents had been provided would also likely be gone at a time when it was already hard for her to earn a living. She would be on her own in many aspects for the first time.
Dr. Julie Exline, a clinical and social psychologist professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University, specializes in research on the struggles and challenges that people have around religious and spiritual life whether or not they are religious themselves. She’s no stranger to the challenge with having also grown up with fundamental Christian beliefs.
Coincidentally, Exline is also from a small Michigan town like Dionne and understands what it takes and the challenges of walking away from the deeply ingrained programming, especially that from religion. Even outside of religion, what we’re taught and how we’re socialized growing up very much defines our very sense of self, how we view the outside world, and the other people in it.
“My own struggles and issues around religion are the reason I’m studying these things today,” Exline explains. “I’m still a very spiritual person. Somewhat religious, but what is that? It’s a good conversation because it’s something people have some issues in religion and spirituality regardless of their background.”
Uncertainty can breed fear and make someone want to go back to what they know for safety and belonging. Exline explains that these religious communities often act harshly with people they see who are questioning their Jehovah’s Witness faith. Isolation is a big part of the process because one can feel alone or a sense of loss when they leave behind a community. However, that isolation can also provide space to find a new way.
Given the structure, stability, and security a religious community, family, or organization provides to a person, relearning that there is something else, more, or different to that “truth” causes doubts. Questioning is a required element of personal growth.
“We have a research study showing that when people try to avoid the spiritual struggles, questioning, doubts, they don’t do as well psychologically,” Exline states. “Embracing the struggle is a big part of helping oneself through it. There’s no one path that works for everyone. There’s no magic bullet or formula for getting through these spiritual struggles.”
Dionne’s immediate family has already been affected by the loss of someone who broke off from Jehovah’s Witnesses. Her brother left the faith and she was forced to shun him for almost 10 years until she reached out to him in February of 2021.
With her decision to leave Jehovah’s Witnesses, Dionne’s outlook on life can be described as more optimistic. At the same time, she also feels like she’s relearning what it means to be part of society beyond what religion taught her it was. She looks forward to better, more genuine friendships and connections with people on her own terms, beyond what she believed as part of her faith and the distance that she felt within as a result. For example, she now finds her past views on homosexuality based on her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing to be embarrassing.
“I’ve had to kind of confess to all my friends especially,” Dionne explains. “How can you be an artist and not interested in people and deny yourself knowledge?”
Online research has also been something that has helped Dionne find more connections and resources. She spent months learning about evolution, paleontology, and world history. When Dionne found out about the existence of Cheddar Man, a 10,000 year old human fossil discovered in England, she realized the dissonance as she’d been taught that mankind is only 6,500 years old. To not believe the latter as a Jehovah’s Witness is a sin, but the facts showed her something very different. In a sense, she had to catch up and reconcile the real world teaching herself through articles online.
Reddit threads on Jehovah’s Witnesses showed her there were many other people that struggle just like her. She learned about new phrases which described how people felt such as POMI (Physically Out, Mentally in) or PIMO (Physically In, Mentally Out) of the church. Dionne identified herself as being POMI or “Physically Out, but Mentally In.” While she stopped attending meetings at Kingdom Hall a couple years after moving to Cleveland, she still very much felt the control aspects of Jehovah’s Witness over her life.
At the same time, a former Jehovah’s Witness friend she reached out to as she started to have doubts sent her a playlist of videos on YouTube to help her explore the uncertainty. One video on the subject of sexual abuse was especially eye-opening and led to an “a-ha moment” that it was likely getting covered up and swept aside.
“The structure is made to protect the predators, it’s made to take in the people who are the most fringe people,” she describes. “It fosters it. You have to welcome everyone into the congregation and accept them. You can’t even decide or say you’re not going to talk to someone in the congregation you feel isn’t acceptable or a problem.”
As far as what happens next, part of that difficulty has been addressed with Dionne landing a full-time job which enables her the monetary freedom outside of her parents to explore who she is. Simple things like going to the grocery store are a new, wonderful experience with how she sees the world and the people that live in it with her.
“The first time I went to the grocery store after I woke up, I saw everyone in such a different way and I realized the way that Jehovah’s Witnesses view people is so awful because everyone is disposable and no one really matters,” Dionne says. “After I woke up… Wow. Every single person is important. I want to get out and capture life by the horns right now, but it’s hard [with the pandemic].”
Anger is also part of the process. When someone leaves a community, group, or even another person that also causes upheaval for those left behind given it’s a change from what they know, especially when a sacred text or scripture is involved. Shunning is just one example of how that is punished because someone upset the “norm.”
“It requires a lot of psychological strength to be able to leave a community like this and be able to understand why people are reacting the way they are so you don’t start to hate them and have all this anger and unforgiveness and stuff yourself,” Exline explains.
Exline has also seen this in her personal experience when she left her church. When one leaves behind a community, there’s no longer a solid foundation but they still have to maintain some sense of identity and take that space to learn and figure out what they believe now based on a new perspective.
“You might find a new community, but to not hate the members of your community who maybe acted out against you is very important, too,” Exline states. “People really burn bridges. They get so hurt by the things people say. I have a hard time trying to forgive some of the people [for] what they said to me when I left the churches.”
Dionne is well aware of the self-doubt and the anxiety such uncertainty can cause when seeing things with a new perspective, but it’s something she’s ready to embrace. While she’s not sure how to navigate that completely, that’s the point of it all. Now Dionne has the ability to see things anew, learn about the world, and interact with people in her creative community more sincerely. It’s now a new world with new possibilities to explore.
The doubts and conflict that came from her awakening while the cause of much stress, also offer growth, learning, and an opportunity for a personal renaissance. That newfound freedom also means that Dionne can celebrate her birthday in June.
“I want to have a party,” she says.” I’ve never had one. When I came out to some friends, I learned when a baby has their first birthday, they do a smash cake. My friends said I should do that! I can use that as an opportunity to get my favorite people together.”
If you want to follow Dionne, connect with her on TikTok @DeannaDot and Instagram @deanna.store.
Signature Health is a local non-profit which provides mental health and other counseling services even to those without insurance. To learn more, visit signaturehealthinc.org
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Tesh Ekman was born in India, moved to the U.K. when he was 4, and came to Cleveland, OH, USofA in 1992 at the age of 14. An Ohioan since, he absolutely hates the question “Where Are You From?” Tesh is both a U.K. and U.S. citizen - however, India no longer wants to claim him as one. While difficult to be shunned by one’s own birth nation, it also means he’s used to rejection, which has served him well as a writer and person in general. Tesh is mostly a homebody, but if he does venture out, he can usually be found at various local establishments, drunkenly rueing his life choices and/or supporting Liverpool FC in a sudden-onset English accent.