For most people, 13 is an age for making friends, dealing with an onslaught of teenage emotions and generally figuring yourself out. For Kat Mcelhinney, it was the age her mum signed away her rights to guardianship and she committed herself to Scientology for the next billion years.
It was the second time Kat's life changed dramatically, the first being when she suddenly lost her dad to lung cancer, and her mum became a single parent to six children.
As her mum sought to cope with the grief, a friend introduced her to the Church of Scientology and encouraged her to travel from her home in Canada to Los Angeles, where she could attend a meeting with the church at its LA Celebrity Center.
Having suffered with intense panic attacks following the loss of her dad, Kat was asked to come along, and together the mum and daughter underwent individual sessions with 'auditors'; a process similar to undergoing a therapy session, with the aim of restoring 'beingness and ability'.
Kat admitted to feeling much better after her first session, and the pair returned again for a second and third visit. The third time, the 13-year-old girl didn't return home for months, having suddenly and unexpectedly having to leave her mum and everything she knew to commit herself to the church.
The billion-year contract came into play after Kat was shown a video about the Sea Org; an organisation within the church which comprises 'the religion’s most dedicated members'.
She had been approached by a 19-year-old woman who asked if she wanted to watch a video about the Sea Org, and Kat thanked the woman for her service but made clear she had no interest in joining the organisation herself.
The woman allegedly encouraged her to come back later, without her mum, and it was at that point that the persuasion really began.
At first, it 'didn't seem conceivable' that Kat would leave her home and her family behind and sign her life away for this organisation, but she claims all of her excuses were rendered invalid due to Scientology's belief that the body is just a vessel for your 'thetan'; your soul which can go on even after your body dies.
The woman was joined by a security guard, leaving Kat feeling 'really ganged up on' and 'really overwhelmed'.
"Anything I said was negated," Kat said. "Like, you know, 'I'm only 13'. [They said] 'your body's only 13. You know, your thetan's a bajillion years old'. Everything I said was, there was just something to rebuff it like, there's no excuse. Why I shouldn't join the Sea Org?"
Even the concern of having to ask her mum proved useless, as she was told the church would deal with speaking to her mum. Eventually, after two days of being hammered with persuasion techniques, she gave in - Her mum agreed to let her stay and signed over her rights to Kat, who was then assigned to a guardian within the church.
At the time, the fact the contract lasted a billion years wasn't Kat's main concern. She was more focused on having to leave her family and home country without even getting to say goodbye. Within three days of the recruitment beginning, she was there for the foreseeable.
"It was just a whirlwind," Kat said.
She found her new home in a building across the road from the Celebrity Center, where she was given a room with a bunk bed. There were girls as young as 11 there who had grown up with parents in the Sea Org, and they were all subject to 10 hours of 'hard manual labour' and five hours of courses every day.
In order to join the Sea Org, Kat first had to be part of the Estates Project Force (EPF) and complete courses which taught her all about the church. She literally had to run everywhere she went, and couldn't be caught slacking.
Every day, Kat says she would wake up around 6am and attend the 'morning muster', so the church could make sure nobody had run away in the middle of the night. They then launched into some military drills before running to start an hour of hard labour, which included renovations, cleaning, and working in the hotel of the Celebrity Center.
Only then was it time for breakfast. Twenty minutes and they were back to it, with another four or five hours of labour. Then lunch, coursework, dinner and more labour. Between all of these were musters, which members had to attend or face being in 'big trouble'.
The brutal timetable left Kat with no time to process what was really happening, and she went into 'survival mode'.
"I just spent the days in survival mode, trying to do it. You know, thinking that this is what I had to do that for the rest of my life because I signed a billion year contract," she said.
Things calmed down slightly when she passed her course and she made it into the Sea Org, because her lack of schooling meant she couldn't be given a job in the organisation straight away.
Kat went to a Scientology school to get her GED (General Educational Development) - a test which she says she 'cheated' on - and the downtime gave her chance to realise how much she missed home.
After getting her GED, Kat was doing miscellaneous work for the church when she started talking to the woman she was working with. Scientologists aren't 'supposed to talk to anybody' about leaving, but a then 14-year-old Kat looked at the woman and said: "I don't want to do this anymore."
The woman didn't fight back, and agreed that it would be best for her if she went home. Kat set about trying to fill out a checklist to allow her to leave, which required signatures from various people in the church, and went through an interview in which she was asked increasingly personal questions.
Eventually, though, she was able to get out.
Returning home after months away from her family and friends was, as you can imagine, a surreal experience.
"It's definitely hard to have experienced that and then come back to my friends who are you know, going into ninth grade, and I had just, I just been trafficked for nine months," Kat said.
As for her mum, Kat doesn't know whether she ever signed anything to regain guardianship of her. But the fact that 'nine months prior, she had signed over guardianship and left [her] in a different country' put a big strain on their relationship.
Kat found that she was still 'very much under the influence' of Scientology after returning home, and for years she felt guilt at not being able to 'hack' Scientology.
"[I felt] a lot of shame," Kat said. "And when I was about 26, about 10 years ago, it really started coming to the surface. And I was like, this is something that I have to explore and get out. And I'm grateful I did, because I have a much different perspective on it than I did."
In the eyes of Scientologists, Kat has been dubbed a 'suppressive person' for rejecting the religion. She's accepted that, but it also means that she hasn't spoken to her mother for years now.
Now 36, Kat is still struggling to overcome the aspects of Scientology that have been 'ingrained' in her. Thankfully, however, she is free of the pressure and expectation that comes with committing yourself to something for a billion years.
UNILAD has reached out to the church of Scientology for comment.
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