Leaving the Cult – Part I of II
Not all former cult members encounter all the problems listed in Table 12.1, nor do most have them in severe and extended form. Some individuals need only a few months to get themselves going again. After encountering some adjustment problems to life outside the cult, they make rather rapid and uneventful re-integrations into everyday life. Generally, however, it takes individuals anywhere from six to twenty-four months to get their lives functioning again at a level commensurate with their histories and talents. Even then, however, that functioning may not reflect what is still going on inside them. Many are still sorting out the conflicts and harms that grew out of their cult experience long after two years have gone by.
Each former member wrestles with a number of problems. Some need more time than others to resolve all the issues they face, and a few never get their lives going again.
Most of the practical issues faced by former cult members, such as where to live, how to earn a living, and nutritional and medical concerns are nearly universal concerns and need little explanation.
Unfamiliar with handling personal money, unaware of how to earn money legitimately, or full of resentment at having turned over family fortunes or money earned to their former cult.
Many former cult members, while in their cults, took in more per day fund-raising on the streets than they will ever be able to earn on any job.
After such experiences, it can be difficult to figure out how to recoup resources or make an honest living, not to mention coping with the guilt many former members feel at having taken part in such deceptions. These cult experiences may make it necessary for former members to contact career counseling or mental health services.
Education and Health Care
The role of professional services, in particular medicine and psychology, is important in post cult adaptation. Some cults put down modern medicine and psychiatry and psychology, along with education in general.
Cult doctrine preaches that if they only follow certain instructions, they will never be ill, never feel blue, and will save the planet, attain nirvana, and become spiritually or politically perfect. Meanwhile cult chores and practices keep them tired, worn down, and often ill. But they have to hide these conditions and keep smiling and working.
When it comes to education, many cults teach that members should get out of the mind, stop thinking, and get into the heart or the everyday work of the cult. Some leaders preach that we are born with natural knowing that has been impaired by school, parents, and society, and that followers should reject old thinking and live by the dictates of the leader. Afterward, former cult members of almost any age and background need some sort of education or training to update knowledge and skills and to expand their training.
After years of neglecting their minds and their health, former cult members feel odd and possibly even guilty about their concern with illness, health issues, and their psychological states after leaving the group They soon realize, however, that their education stopped when they joined the cult, that they have neglected their health, and that they are in emotional turmoil. Yet they have been turned against the very support systems they now need. As they struggle to sort out their personal views about education, medicine, and mental health care, often they may need urging and explanations about what happened in the cult to create their negative feelings and attitudes.
Explaining time Spent in the Cult
Most people think that cult members are a breed apart and that they must be an odd, dumb, and even crazy bunch. Thus former cult members need to prepare themselves to deal with the most frequent responses relatives, old friends, and new acquaintances make when they learn that the person was in a cult. They are likely to come forth with some version of But you seem like such a nice person, so bright. How come you were in a cult? Were you really in a cult? You couldn’t have been – only weirdos join cults.
Application forms for jobs, higher education, and professional schools will ask for an accounting of one’s past education and time.
There have been no specific studies of this issue, but I have been told by many former cult members how embarrassed they are to tell prospective employers they were in a cult. They know how a blame-the-victim attitude colors the way they will be regarded.
People learn to deal creatively with all these issues as they reenter society, network with other former members, and get experience in making friends, applying for jobs, and telling their stories when they feel safe and comfortable doing so.
Psychological and Emotional Difficulties
With their twenty-four-hour regimes of ritual, work, worship, and community, cults provide members with tasks and purpose. When these members leave, a sense of meaningless surfaces. Leaving the cult means losing friends, a mission of life, and direction. Former members also soon realize that they have lost their innocence. They entered the cult full of reverential amazement and with wide-eyed naivetÃ© only to discover that they had been deceived and betrayed. As a result, they may be pervaded with a feeling of mourning.
Former members have a variety of other losses to contend with. They often speak of their regret for the lost years during which they wandered off the main paths of everyday life. They regret being out of step and behind their peers in career and life pursuits. They feel the loss of a solid sense of self-esteem and self-confidence as they come to realize that they were used to or that they surrendered their autonomy.
Guilt and Shame
Former cult members experience an overdose of guilt and shame. In the cult, most were obligated to enlist new members and to collect money in less than honest ways. They feel guilty about their treatment of parents, brothers and sisters, and friends’ about having lied, having committed acts of violence, or having carried out illegal activities at the bidding of the cult leader. They feel guilty about having tricked others into supporting the cult in some way, and about those they recruited who are still in the cult or who never would have joined otherwise.
Former members may also feel extreme and unwarranted guilt over almost anything they thought or did, fears of all kinds of things, and intense doubt every time they try to make a decision. As they unearth the stark reality of the deception and dishonesty of cult life, many ex-members also feel great remorse over their action and frequently worry about how to right the wrongs they did. They can overcome such guilt only by accepting what they did and forgiving themselves, making amends with others where possible.
Many former members experience panic attacks, defined as discrete periods of intense fear or discomfort in which any four of the following symptoms develop abruptly and reach a peak within about ten minutes:
- Pounding heart
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or a feeling of smothering
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint
- Feelings of derealization (surroundings don’t seem real)
- Depersonalization experiences (feeling detached, as though
- looking at oneself as an object)
- Fear of losing control or going crazy; fear of dying
- Numbness, tingling, and hot and cold flashes
Panic attacks and other panic disorders are commonly experienced by people coming out of the emotional arousal cultic groups which tend to focus on stimulating fear and guilt.
Fear of Retribution
Fear of the cult is long lasting, especially if the group has a tendency toward violence. Many cult leaders threaten the lives of potential defectors.
Some former members fear that zealous current members will harm them or their families to show the leader how devoted the current members are.
Some groups have specific derogatory labels for persons who criticize the cult, and they train their members to avoid or harass these stated enemies. For such reasons, fear and anxiety are high in many former cult members from a variety of groups – and not without justification, although it appears that most cults soon turn their energies to recruiting new members rather than prolonging efforts to harass defectors. Nevertheless, even after the initial fear of retaliation has passed, ex-members worry about how to handle the inevitable chance street meetings with cult members, expecting these members to try to stir up the ex-members’ feelings of guilt over leaving and to condemn their present life.
Fear of Self
Yet another kind of fear exists – a more inwardly focused fear that comes from believing that if you leave, you will be doomed to live a life of unenlightenment, will never be psychologically whole, never spiritually fulfilled, never healthy or able to live in peace.
Some cults inculcate their followers with notions that they contain hidden selves or hidden loads of stress that may erupt at any moment and destroy or at least severely damage them. Former members may worry indefinitely about their inner ticking bomb or the cult leader’s dire predictions of the horrible events that will befall them and their families. Because they have been so well trained, former cult members may continue to see this possible fate as something they may bring on themselves by having left the group, given up on their faith, and betrayed the cause.
Often at the root of the fear is the memory of old humiliations administered for stepping out of line. A woman who had been in a cult for more than five years said: Some of the older members might still be able to get to me and crush my spirit like they did when I became depressed and couldn’t go out and fund raise or recruit. I was unable to eat or sleep. I was weak and ineffectual. They called me and the leader screamed at me: ‘You’re too rebellious. I am going to break your spirit. You are too strong-willed.’ They made me crawl at their feet. I still freak out when I think about how close they drove me to suicide that day; for a long time afterward, all I could do was help with cooking. I can hardly remember the details – it was a nightmare.
It is crucial to analyze and work through such fears objectively. The former member needs to learn that the cult does not hold magical powers over him or her.
Conflicts over those Left Behind
Fear and anxiety may be most acute for former members who have left a spouse or children in the cult. Any effort to make contact risks breaking any remaining link to those left behind. Often painful legal actions ensue over child custody or conservatorships, fought out between the one who leaves and the spouse who remains loyal to the cult.
Lack of Understanding in the Outside World
A problem related to the fear and anxieties that former cult members experience is that often they find it difficult to get others, even helping professionals, to understand what they are going through. Some psychiatrists and psychologists who have ex-members as clients think that they are psychotic, brain damaged, or malingering when they report seeing fog or hearing the voice of Thor, their old leader in another life, or being unable to hold down a job.
When I am consulted on such cases, although I cannot make a diagnosis without seeing the person, I urge the therapists to listen, learn more, and see what happens when they allow a client to go over the details of cult life. As was described in Chapter Six and Seven, many of these phenomena are products of the odd, repetitive training that goes on in cults, and they generally go away with simple listening and helping the patient see how the behavior became conditioned. To diagnose these occurrences as a true hallucination or a sign of major mental disturbance can cause even more damage to the person that he or she has already suffered.
While a few cult members may actually have become psychotic in the cult, more typically, seemingly psychotic behavior is a result of cult conditioning. For example, someone once asked me during a consultation if I saw the Devil sitting across the room where he pointed. I looked over, told him no, and asked if he did. We then talked about the sources of this idea and when it first happened. From that discussion, we learned that the cult leader often used the phrase, I see the Devil beside you. He would say it to those being chastised or use it to convey that a person was not trustworthy but of the Devil. When I commented to the man that maybe he wasn’t able to fully trust me yet and that it was sensible to go slowly in trusting anyone, he was relieved. Further discussion revealed that he was not hallucinating (and never had), but he had been conditioned by his cult leader to associate feelings of distrust with ideas of the Devil.
So some odd event s may well be leftovers from cult days. All such symptoms need to be checked out carefully, with warmth and compassion.
Cult practices can cause members’ mental skills to falter and become inefficient. Since all cult members learn that reflective thought gets them in trouble, it’s no wonder that they emerge with some mental constrictions. Many ex-members experience difficulty concentrating, an inability to focus and maintain attention, and impaired memory, especially short-term memory. It is reassuring for them to know that these aftereffects will pass. General explanations of what they are going through will help them.
Most of us who work with people soon after they emerge from cultic groups note that a lack of humor is almost universal until they have been away from the group for some time. In cults, people do not laugh, joke, and think at the multiple levels that other people ordinarily do and that allow them to grasp the incongruities central to much humor.
Many former members are also unable to comprehend what they read for some time. Many are forgetful, fail to meet deadlines, lose jobs because of inefficiency, and miss appointments. Some become very literal in their thinking. They’ve been so obedient and non-reflective that, like Jack in the following example, they are now highly concrete and literal in the ways they deal with what they hear, see or read.
Many former members find themselves accepting almost everything they hear, just as they were trained to do. They cannot listen and judge; they listen and obey. As a result, simple remarks by friends, family, dates, and co-workers are taken as commands, even though the person may not feel like doing the task or dislikes whatever it is.
Leftover Cult Language
A prime hurdle for former cult members is to overcome speaking and thinking in the cult’s special language. As we have seen, each group has its own jargon, usually based on applying new and idiosyncratic meanings to regular words and phrases. The jargon creates a sense of eliteness, solidarity, and belonging among those in the in-group; at the same time, it cuts people off from easy conversation with outsiders. This is true even in the live-out cults, whose members work at outside jobs but put in most of their free time with the cult; during that time with the cult, they speak the group jargon. In certain groups, the loaded language is more centrally encompassing than in others and thus harder to shed afterward. That is, supplies new terms for practically everything and thereby controls more of the members’ thinking.
Communication with others is naturally hindered as long as former members continue to use cult terminology. They don’t make sense when they speak to others, and sometimes they can’t make sense out of their own internal thoughts.
To be continued next issue!