First person: I escaped Scientology after 22 years

John Duignan, 45

Mine was an uneasy childhood. My father was schizophrenic and had bouts of manic depression. He and my mother both died when I was 10 years old, and my siblings and I moved from Scotland to Ireland, to live with my mother’s relatives.

As a teenager, I started to find the idea of an all-encompassing God and protector alluring, and in 1984, moved to a small village in Germany. Here, I discovered Scientology. I was in a bad way one afternoon, walking the streets of Stuttgart, when a young lady approached me: “Do you have a good memory?” she asked. I agreed to join her at the local Scientology centre, to find out.

The centre was filled with friendly, efficient people. It all seemed very official and scientific. I took tests which revealed I needed counselling, or “auditing”. I found the “science” aspect very seductive, and quickly became involved in the group.

After two weeks, I was taken with the teachings of [Scientology’s founder] L Ron Hubbard. He was my guru, and I started to see less of my girlfriend and friends.

I worked for the Scientologists from 9am to 11pm, for the equivalent of £15 per week. Within months of that first meeting, I was recruited to the Sea Organisation – a central management group within the association. My work for them included administration and PR.

I lived in a commune in Los Angeles with the Sea Org for a while. It was a highly disciplined, enclosed environment. We were self-sufficient: building our own computers, growing our own food – we had very little contact with the outside world. I was transferred all over the world, and in 2000 was living in Dorset when I made a discovery.

Scientology works on a strictly hierarchical basis. All through my membership, I was told there was a revelation I was being built up to, Hubbard’s theory of creation. When I became privy to the details of the story, I was shocked that this was the carrot on a stick that had kept me with the organisation for so long. His ideas seemed ludicrous, and when I stumbled upon other details of Hubbard’s biography, I was appalled.

It took five more years to gather the courage to leave. For two decades this had been my life. I had no skills, no cultural references; I’d become institutionalised. In 2005, I made my escape in the middle of the night. Facing the outside world was terrifying. But slowly, I began to rebuild my life. I went back to Ireland and got to grips with the basics: how to cook and shop. Now I have a wonderful partner, I’m enrolled at university, and I’m learning to be a human for the first time ever. It’s like having a new lease of life.

‘The Complex: An Insider Exposes the Covert World of the Church of Scientology’ by John Duignan, published by Merlin, £9.99. To order a copy (with free p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897