Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On Why I Changed The Heading

Someone may notice that I changed the heading of this blog from "Cults and Trauma" to "Cults and Recovery" and this person may say to him or herself, "hmm, I wonder why she did that." The reason is quite simple. That is what this blog is turning out to be.

It seems that blogs are organic, evolving things and, Mystery forbid, that I conspire to stunt its natural course. It grows as I grow. If I stop growing, I may very well be stuck in cults and trauma, overwhelmed still by my upbringing and involvement in a destructive cult. But the truth of the matter is that, I'm fine. I'm absolutely fine. One might even say, I'm "recovered."

Well, maybe I won't go that far but I'm certainly on the road towards a healthier outloook and healthier way of life. The original purpose of this blog was to reach out to other people who have experienced abuse and to offer hope. I still want to do that but I would be lying to say that I needed hope. I have hope, finally, after years of struggle. I have a faith and a purpose. I have a home and people who love me, whom I love. Life is grand.

It's easy to get stuck in focusing on the "wounded inner child" - the child who was abandoned and abused, traumatized. It's easy to forget to develop a strong loving inner adult, one who cares for you and allows you to care for yourself. My daughter reminded me that she, as my "outer child" was very happy and I, as my "real adult" was also. So, sometimes, the trick of recovery is simply having your inner reality agree with your outer reality.

At the risk of freaking some people out, I'm going to quote the Bible. (I still love the Bible - another sign of recovery.) "When my mother and father forsake me, then the Lord will take me up." Psalm 27:10. It's an amazing thing, our capacity to heal and I thank God or the Universe or the Mystery for the grace to be in a place where I can say...."I'm better."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Then Again.....

Then again.....

Which president was it – either Hoover or Wilson- who said he wanted to meet an economist with one hand so he wouldn’t be able to say “on the other hand.”

Well, regardless of who it was, today I want to take another look at my last blog entry and consider “the other hand.”

Perhaps I was being too dogmatic. I certainly didn’t mean to be and, Universe forbid, you accuse a former cultist of being that.

All I was trying to get across was that I have now “recovered” to the point of being able to actually entertain a belief again. Once I left the cult, I thought I would never be able to believe in anything. The betrayal went too deep.

The “other hand” of belief in something is not disbelief but doubt. I doubt my connection to the Greater Whole plenty. But in the doubt, I am reminded that I am free, no longer in a stranglehold of dogmatic belief.

I can believe one thing one day, another thing another day because it’s only a belief. It’s not absolute. And that’s what I was trying feebly to get across in that blog – that “The Absolute” is beyond me and I don’t even have the name for it. But I can make one up because it’s MY belief. That’s all I was trying to share.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My First Existential Crisis

I had my first existential crisis when I was eleven. I was looking out my window into the vast starlit sky, and for the first time in my life, I felt my breathtaking insignificance. I was alone, utterly alone in an indifferent universe and so I started to cry. I mean cry. Sob. Howl.

I knew I was making a scene but I cried, hoping that someone in my family would hear and come to my rescue. But my mother was working at her desk in her office and had barely looked up to grunt “good night” to me when I went off to bed. And my father, as usual, was drunk in the basement watching repeats of “All in the Family.”

I watched the hands on the dial of my electric clock click from 9:00 to 9:15 to 9:30. Finally, the door burst open. The silhouette of my mother loomed above me.

“What on earth are you crying about?” She snapped. The annoyance in her voice made me cringe with shame.

“I’m all alone.“ I sobbed.

“ All alone? What are you talking about?”

“I’m all alone in the universe,” I repeated. “There’s no one there. Infinite just keeps going on forever and ever and there’s no one there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not alone. We’re right here. Now go to sleep and stop making a fuss.” She closed the door and quickly padded down the hall to her office in her bedroom slippers.

A few years later, I found my way into a fundamentalist cult which promised to hold the answers to 95% of your questions about life and God or your money back. At fourteen, I had found what I was looking for. It wasn’t until I was twenty-nine when I left the group, battered physically, sexually, and psychologically that I renounced any belief in God or answers. And once again, I was alone.

It’s been over twenty years since I left the cult and I still don’t know even 5% of the answers about life and God. When I first left The Way, I remember lying on the ground one summer night, looking up at the sky. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I wondered once again if Anyone was out there. Again, I felt totally alone. My fists clutched at clumps of dirt giving me the only solid thing I could hold onto - earth.

Then something happened. A falling star made it’s way across the sky like a delicate silver thread. I realized at that moment that I was not alone. I was part of something wonderful, something beautiful, something bigger than myself. I was part of a Mystery. Sometimes I call it "God" for lack of a better word. "God" to me is just shorthand for this Mystery. Sometimes I call it the "Universe" but mostly I don’t know what to call it. Mostly I just call it "the Mystery." It's comforting to have a name for it even if I don't know what "It" is.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Decision, a poem by me

It will change everything, she says.
Are you ready for this? Are you ready
for the palms of strangers to read your future
for their stars to influence yours
to throw you off course, out of orbit?
Are you ready for a bomb
to be dropped in your neighborhood
to blow out your windows
to leave you homeless, perhaps friendless
ostracized for something you did a hundred years ago?
Are you ready, she says,
for the irresolvable to park itself
on your doorstep, to take up residence
in your garden, to leave your home
a designated site, a historic battlefield,
a national cemetery? Are you ready?

I don’t know if I should change my name
move to a new town where no one knows me
where my confessions are as shocking
as an empty paper cup blown in the street,
littler of my early days, my indiscretions written
on paper because that’s the only place to write them,
I don’t believe in priests or fiction.
My other voices clatter like wind-tossed shutters,
they creak and whisper but they do not tell the truth,
not like the real story which I no longer believe in,
which no one may believe let alone understand.
Still, I’ve written my memoir
and I will probably stay where I am
and keep my name like a landscape
in a hurricane ravaged
then renewed.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A youtube spoof on how to be a cult leader

this is sadly true but it made me laugh. Humor heals, too.

Why Don't You Just Get Over It?

“It’s been twenty years, why don’t you just get over it? Stop dwelling on the past. Get on with your life.”

These are common sentiments of people who do not understand trauma. They are also common expressions used by perpetrators of the abuse. These words minimize the impact of trauma.

Trauma is a subjective thing. Why two soldiers go to war and witness the same atrocity and one comes back psychologically unscathed and the other riddled with PTSD, no one knows. But we do know that once a person has been traumatized, it is not just something they “get over,” as though it were a common cold.

Researchers have discovered that trauma is experienced first in most primitive part of the brain, called the amgdala. That is our “monkey brain” at the core of the cerebral cortex. It is the non-verbal part of the brain. Terror is experienced but unprocessed.

This is where therapy and support groups come in. Why do support groups for victims of rape, domestic violence and war have such power? Because in these safe places, people are allowed to verbalize the horror of what they experienced. In other words, the trauma is expressed but not relived. The power of expression is that the speaker now has control over what before was out of his/her control.

The point is not to relive the trauma but to excise the pain of the past abuse through expression. That is why I have written my book. For me, it was a very painful but healing, if not cathartic, process.

Through the process of writing, I came to understand what I had not understood before. I came to accept responsibility for choices I had made. And I came to forgive myself for things I believed were my fault but were not – such as the abuse.

Expression is an extremely powerful tool in healing from trauma. Judith Herman, in her book Trauma and Recovery speaks of “bearing witness” to the pain one has experienced. We all know about witnessing. We know about telling the story of the death and resurrection of our Lord.

My story is a witness to the death and resurrection I have experienced - both to the trauma I suffered at the hands of “believers” and to the power of understanding ears and hearts to heal. That’s how I have moved on. (And I have moved on.) But I couldn’t have done it alone.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A Statement of Faith - Resilience

At the start of the new year, I guess it’s only fitting that I forego resolutions (which I make every day – the same ones) and start with my “Statement of Faith.” It’s kind of like one of those “This I Believe” type things but it’s what helped me through the hard times to the good times, there and back again. Without faith, without a “belief” of some kind, I never would have made it to recovery. Above all, today, with a broken ankle to boot (no pun intended - I actually did fall down the stairs two days ago), I want to start off the new year on a positive note. A hats off to resilience and persistence. They, along with love, are what have saved my life.

I believe in resilience, in the power of a person to sink to the depths and rise again. Resilience is like the palm tree that bends to the ground in a hurricane and survives to bear fruit the following season. To me, resilience is the defining quality that determines failure or success in a life.

I work in a maximum security prison for the mentally ill. Every day, I encounter men who have lost everything, the clinically depressed businessman who turned to cocaine then slept with his sixteen year old stepdaughter. He lost his wife, his family, his job, his house, his will to live. Then there’s the bipolar twenty-year-old who had his first manic episode and tried to rob a bank because he thought it was funny. He’s never been locked up before and is scared beyond words. He thinks he will die or be killed in prison so he becomes acutely suicidal. Then there’s the thirty-year-old felon who tried to kill himself with a rifle and then was arrested for possession of a deadly firearm. They come to me broken and suicidal. My job is to help them find a reason to live again.

It isn’t easy but it is miraculous. The key is connection. I’m not saying it works every time, but once a person has made genuine contact with another human being, something happens. A spark. Someone has taken their pain seriously so they begin to take their pain seriously themselves. They begin to take their lives seriously. They come to the point of saying, if I don’t matter, at least, my children matter or life matters or God matters or the mystery matters. Something matters.

At the end of my favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Clarence the Angel gives George Bailey a book inscribed with the words “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” I never used to like that part. I used to think it should say “No man is a failure who doesn’t quit.” Many of the men I see come to me friendless and alone. And yet they don’t quit. Many of them want to. Many of them want to “hang it up” and die but they hang on to the precious sliver called life.

I guess my job as a social worker is to be a friend of sorts. But it’s more complicated than that. In prison, I don’t have the liberty to do what regular friends do - I can’t bring them food or go on walks or talk about my personal life. But it’s that miraculous connection that’s made that makes the difference. So maybe Clarence was right after all. “No man is a failure who has friends.” We can rise above anything if there is one, only one person who believes in us and believes our life matters. Then we can be resilient and rise above anything.