Sunday, December 16, 2007

On Grieving

It’s been over six months since my mother died. The reality of it still hasn’t sunk in. We’ve foregone getting a Christmas tree this year, decorating the house instead with little reminders of her presence. We built her a memorial library, converting her last living quarters into a plush reading room. She was a writer and an editor of books so this somehow seemed fitting.

Mom was never a “touchy-feely” kind of person. She wasn’t one for hugs until she had grandchildren and then she held them for long periods in her arms. Her grandchildren softened her in a way her own children couldn’t.

As a child, I always sensed I was “in the way,” an impediment to her doing what she really wanted to do which was write. She preferred the solitude of her own room to the hubbub of children and family. I used to take that as rejection and sought out nurturing surrogate mothers wherever I went, especially in the cult.

In this holiday season, I sense her physical absence more acutely than ever. Even while she was slipping mentally (she had Alzheimer’s), I still looked forward to the times when she would reach out for me and hold me in her arms, tell me she loved me as she never had when I was young. She was more affectionate as an elderly person with dementia than she ever was as a young intellectual and career woman.

Still, she was fiercely loyal to her family and fought for us whenever we needed her. She stayed with her alcoholic husband and saw him through his illness to sobriety. She rescued me from a bad marriage and a destructive cult. She came out of hiding like a mother bear coming out of her cave to fight for her young. She wasn’t always present but she was “there.”

In a way now, she is still here. As I sit by the fire in the library we made for her, I am more assured of her presence and love than I ever was when she was alive. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps spirit is more palpable than blood. This Christmas, it is enough for me to feel it. That’s all I ever wanted in the first place.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Three Ways to Leave a Cult

There are three basic ways to leave a cult. You can walk away. You can get thrown out or abandoned. Or you can be rescued. All three happened to me.

It was around this time of the year. Every holiday season, when I hear the Salvation Army bells ringing on the street corners, I am reminded of how I left the cult. Even though it’s been over twenty years, it’s as if it were yesterday.

I was standing in front of a quick-mart deli near a red-suited Santa, a recruiter for Salvation Army. I had nowhere to turn except to a pay phone. I dialed 211 and they directed me to a woman’s shelter. I ended up in the hospital, pregnant and suicidal. My cult “family” abandoned me there, thinking me possessed with devils. Then my mother came to visit and she took my children and me home.

But how do you leave a cult when you don’t even know you’re in one? Most emergency hotlines don’t have numbers for cult exit counseling services and even if they did, who would know to ask for it? Exit counselors are educators and therapists who know about cults and mind control. They can help you heal from the trauma of involvement with and departure from a cult.

Veterans of war with PTSD receive specialized counseling for what they’ve been through. So do victims of rape and sexual abuse. Cult survivors can receive help if they know where to look. But even the Internet doesn’t know a lot about exit counselors. If you Google “exit counselors,” you’ll come up with a list financial aid officers in universities!

But there are many resources available on the Internet if you know where to look. ICSA, the International Cultic Studies Association, is a good place to begin. They have excellent articles and links to exit counselors. Google alerts for “cults” are also helpful because you’ll come across websites and blogs of people who have successfully left cults and rebuilt their lives.

The bottom line here is that whether you walk away, are abandoned or rescued, leaving a cult or any abusive relationship is traumatic. The psychological and spiritual wounds are very real. If not properly attended to they can fester and infect the whole of your life, making it difficult to “move on.” The guilt and anger associated with leaving can linger for years, whether you’ve been out one year or twenty. It’s never too late to get help.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A Christmas Story (an excerpt from "Losing the Way")

My husband and I have just arrived at the babysitter’s to drop off our one-and-a-half year old son. It is an early December morning and we still are fighting from the day before. We are going to “talk” and “start over.” We are always “starting over.” But talks escalate to shouts, and shouts to blows then blows to defeat. I was finally too tired to talk anymore. I had given up.
As soon as my husband is inside, I open the car door and start walking. I am so tired, I don’t care where I go. I walk to a playground nearby and the ground under the hollow playhouse seems so soft, maybe I could just lie down and go to sleep forever, out here in the cold and I wish it would snow but it never snows in Portland, only rains. Then I remember I have a baby growing inside of me and it’s okay for me to die but she deserves to be born so if I could just call somebody, get to the nearest phone and call somebody, anybody and then I start to cry – the uncontrollable kind of crying that just sweeps over you like an avalanche and you don’t care how you look or who sees you. You just stumble along like a pregnant corpse, sobbing.
I come to a main road. I’ve seen depressed people walking around one week before Christmas, just like I was doing. Their faces look as cold and lifeless as empty storefronts. Their eyes are frozen and they have forgotten to comb their hair.
There is a 7-11 with a pay phone on the corner. I thumb through the phone book with my stiff, red fingers. “Abused Women’s Hotline: Battered Woman’s Shelter.” All I see is the word “shelter.”
I call four different numbers, leave messages. I pace back and forth, waiting for someone to answer. My fingers feel numb. I try to keep my ski parka closed but my belly is too fat to zip it up. Finally someone calls me back. Was I alone, they ask. Did I have any money, any clothes, a car? I’ll have to take a bus to the other side of town and someone will meet me on a street corner but they couldn’t tell me where the shelter is for the safety of the women. And I’d be living in a room with seven or eight women and children. By the way, can you get your son? Is he in any danger? They’ll sign me up for Public Assistance after I get a legal separation from my husband so I can get on Medicare in time to have my baby. How soon can I get there?
I never did get to the shelter. It was too intimidating for me to take the first step. But my doctor was shrewd enough to have me admitted early into the hospital to rest and get help. In the hospital, I received counseling and found the strength to leave my husband and the cult. Other women can free themselves of abusive relationships if they are tired enough to let go and open enough to ask for help. Sometimes letting go is the only way to hold on.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Cults and Trauma: how to open the lockbox

Cults and Trauma: how to open the lockbox

how to open the lockbox

So how does one open the lockbox? Where does one find the courage to speak in the face of fear and shame, the double-edged sword of oppression?
First, one must make the choice to heal. Healing is always a choice, not an accident. Often propelled on by suffering, the individual decides whether to passively “accept one’s fate” or actively pursue a way to freedom. It is a mystery as to why some people actually choose to heal and others do not. Individuals vary. For some, the choice may be obvious and swift. For others, it may take a long time to come to that essential decision.
Once the decision to heal is made, one must begin the process of opening up by sharing one’s true feelings. Just as Pinocchio became a “real boy” when he told the truth, so the magic of genuine self-disclosure allows one to become who he is. But this must be done in a safe place. Safety is essential to building trust. Continual assaults in the past at the heart of one’s being make it hard to trust anyone. Safety allows one to make tentative stabs at reality without fear of punishment.
Experience teaches abused people not to trust anyone as a way of survival. But one must make small steps in the direction of trust in order to heal. There are individuals in society who are trustworthy. Shamans and priests were once the hearers and witnesses of truth. In today’s society, credentialed psychotherapists, counselors and teachers who are bound by a code of ethics can help one learn to trust again. They bear witness to the individual’s truth.
Initially, people may become depressed, if not suicidal when they come out of an abusive cult and take steps towards healing. The realization of their loss – the loss of time, the loss of identity, loss of one’s self can be intolerable. But depression keeps us stagnant. It slows us down; it keeps us down, locked in the cycle of oppression.
For many, opening the lockbox is a byproduct of anger. Anger is the vehicle that drives the truth into the open. The victim must not only feeling her feelings; she must see the cult leader for what he was – an abusive sociopath; not a loving presence. It is not enough that the abuse caused suffering. Suffering accompanied by resolve becomes the catalyst for change. One needs the spark of indignation that recognizes the unfairness and imbalance of power in one’s situation. Then one begins to puncture the membrane of silence that leaves one isolated from the world.
The code of silence is penetrated through one’s initial decision to heal and one’s courage to begin to tell the truth about oneself in a safe place. This, accompanied by education about physical, sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse allows the individual to start on the journey towards wholeness. True expression of one’s feelings, especially anger, makes healing possible.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Opening the Lockbox: On Breaking The Code of Silence

In order to speak, one must have a voice. Now this might seem obvious to most people but to people who have been abused in a cult, it’s not always the case. The voice has been overtaken by another stronger voice, the voice of the leader. Through mind control, the cult leader imposes his will and views on the follower so the follower loses her own will and views. When mind control is accompanied by physical or sexual abuse, the task of speaking up becomes even more complicated and difficult.
In my case, I was in a Bible-based fundamentalist cult which charged high fees for long classes on The Word Over The World. The methods, not the doctrine, employed to accomplish the goals of world domination by group were very harmful. The leader wielded his control through intensive psychological indoctrination and sexual contact.
I remember one incident vividly in which I questioned “the Doctor,” the leader of the group, about the ethicalness of his behavior. He quoted Scripture and explained that I needed to be “spiritually mature” in order to understand. The “Doctor” taught that if one’s mind was pure enough, one could do anything with one’s body. God did not care about the flesh. The sexual needs of the leaders were to be satisfied by females who were submitting to “ the will of God.”.
He commanded me to keep our sexual encounters in the “lockbox of my soul” – never to be spoken of or revealed to anyone else. “What if someone finds out?” I asked naively. “Why, I’d lie, “ he said.
Sexual predators and batterers know the power of silence. They abuse their victims, then swear them to secrecy. This ensures that not only is the abuse hidden from society but it becomes hidden from the victim, as well. The tacit agreement between cult leader and follower is “if you remain silent, I will take care of you” or a variation of that – “if you tell, I will reject you and you need me to survive.” To the victim, truth-telling jeopardizes their very existence when, in fact, it is the way to wholeness.
Trauma experts have long advocated the necessity of “bearing witness’ to one’s abuse. Why? Because truth is acknowledged and affirmed in the context of community. Personal truth becomes understood when it is spoken. Lies keep one isolated and separate. Speaking the truth of one’s own reality allows one to belong to the world. One is no longer alone. But it doesn’t stop there. One must question destructive assumptions and become educated about individual rights.
For many years after leaving the cult, I was suicidal. Years of abuse and oppression had made me believe that I deserved to be punished for leaving the group. I was brainwashed into thinking that living without my leader would destroy me. Earlier trauma and abuse reinforced the idea that I was no good and deserved to die. But now I realize that that is not true. Through counseling and education, I have learned that I deserve to live. Now I know I have a right to open the lockbox and speak my truth.