'I gave myself a year to decide to live': The mental health leader who escaped a cult

Children in the Children of God cult in the 1980s
Petra in the Children of God cult in the 1980s

The happiest day of Petra Velzeboer’s childhood was not a special birthday, a holiday or party; it was the day she got a library card.

"I was aged about 13 and it was great because suddenly I could sneak in all the books I wasn’t allowed to read," says Petra, now 40, a mental health consultant who lives with her two children aged 17 and 15 in south London.

"We had contraband music too. When The Bodyguard was released, my friends were passing Whitney Houston tapes to each other in secret.

"If I’d been caught, I risked anything from corporal punishment to having to wear a sign telling people they were not allowed to talk to me for up to two weeks.

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"Thankfully, I was good at disappearing into the background, so was never found out.

"But these things happened to people close to me all the time and it made me jumpy.’

The draconian rules Petra was living under were the result of her growing up in the notorious The Children of God cult.

Founded in the late 1960s, its founder, David Berg, believed he was the last prophet before Armageddon and advised his followers to abandon all their possessions and live an austere life.

Horrifyingly, tales of child sexual abuse and exploitation have emerged about the cult and its leader, who was on the run from the FBI until his death in 1994.

Although Petra herself was never a victim and even remembers ‘happy times’ with her mother, stepfather and four siblings, her unconventional childhood had a devastating impact on her in later life.

Petra when she was struggling with freedom
Petra found her new freedoms difficult to cope with.

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"There was a sense of community but also a sense of loss because we would move quickly from one place to another," says Petra, who was born in The Netherlands.

"We lived all over Europe, India, Russia, Kenya and often you’d have to go suddenly, leaving toys and friends you’d made behind without ever saying goodbye.

"Many leaders were manipulative and controlling. Going to school was not an option and we were only allowed to read literature they approved.

"They said Jesus was coming back and the world was going to end, which sounds terrifying but when you’re a child and you’re told it’s ‘normal’, it doesn’t frighten you, it is what it is.

She hit 'rock bottom' soon after her first child was born.
She hit 'rock bottom' soon after her first child was born.

"However, it makes you hyper-vigilant, always wondering what is coming next.

"People ask me how I escaped but there were no physical walls. I could have walked out at any time.

"But those who did leave – they were called ‘backsliders’ - were ostracised, sometimes by their own family and many struggled with their mental health or took their own lives.’

Yet, like many of its members, Petra began to question the cult’s beliefs as she grew up into her teens.

"One of my older sisters left when I was a teenager so I became aware of a whole different life out there," she says. "I started leading a double life, rising through the ranks of the cult but bending the rules and living ‘on the outside’ too.

Petra gaining her Master's Degree
Petra gaining her Master's Degree

"I started leading a hedonistic life of sex, drugs and alcohol but it completely messed with my mental health.

"We were not allowed to date non-cult members, but after leading a double life for some years, I ended up pregnant with my son by a man from outside the cult.

"I was 22 and scared. I had to leave the cult, isolating myself from anyone in my past – including my mother and siblings – and it was the loneliest I’ve ever been in my life.

"I moved into my boyfriend's flat in London and we even had another baby two years later, but I couldn’t escape the thought that I was a ‘bad person’."

In fact, Petra says it was only after leaving the ‘security’ of the cult that she felt her life spiral out of control.

"Before, at least I felt I had a clear purpose and now I was part of nothing," she says. "I was very confused and depressed and was drinking heavily.

"I began to self-harm and put myself – and my children – in dangerous situations.

"One day, when my son was four and my daughter was two, I woke up and decided to take my own life. I thought my children would be better off without me.

Petra in happier times, after coming to terms with her past
Petra in happier times, after coming to terms with her past

"But, for whatever reason that day, another thought came into my head too. I decided I would give myself a year to make myself better, to experiment with all the things people said could make a difference. What did I have to lose? If it didn’t work, I could kill myself then."

Petra’s first priority was to join Alcoholics Anonymous, to quit drinking.

Incredibly, for someone who didn’t even have a GCSE, she enrolled on a counselling course and ended up doing a Masters in psychodynamics of human development without having a degree.

"I had already been working with teenagers in the charity sector and studying part-time but I talked my way onto this course, working full-time and studying at night.

Read more: Cult member jailed after historical rape and sexual assault of young girls

"I was falling asleep in lectures and really struggled but I was determined to do whatever I could to lead a ‘normal’ life.

"I learned a lot about myself. I didn’t know it but I was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder due to my upbringing in the cult and how I then repeatedly allowed myself to be manipulated and put in abusive situations."

Today, Petra has turned her life around.

She is back in touch with her family and is a qualified psychotherapist and CEO of a mental health consultancy working with global organisations to help them improve their wellbeing strategies.

Petra Nunzi
Petra Nunzi

"Growing up in the cult gives me unique insight into companies who are also toxic and controlling on the inside," she says. "There’s a misconception that if we talk about our mental health at work, no one will ever get any work done but the opposite is true.

"I want to normalise conversations about mental health and show people they can talk when they are struggling - long before they reach rock bottom."

To find out more contact Petra at petravelzeboer.com

Watch: 3 warning signs you might be in a cult!

The headline was updated at 7pm