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.