I recently co-facilitated a former-members support group for ex-cultists. We met in a spacious office and went around the circle and told our stories by turn. There were survivors of all sorts of groups - Bible-based cults, therapy cults, new age cults, even political cults. We listened to each other's stories, reacted and asked questions. Even though I had heard many similar accounts, it didn't mitigate the shock of what people do under cult mind-control.
When it came to me, I rattled off the litany of abuse which I'd suffered while involved with The Way International- things like sexual abuse, physical abuse, spiritual exploitation, psychological manipulation, severe depression, suicide attempts. They were all old hat to me. But when I finished my recounting, everyone sat in silence. I felt embarrassed, like I had done something wrong and upset the group.
On my way home, while driving, I had a chance to reflect on what had taken place. I had been horrified by some of the things I heard from some of the ex-members - things like hypnotism, child abuse, brainwashing. Perhaps, I thought, other people had had a similar reaction to my story. Even though I'd been through it a thousand times, I even wrote a book about it all, it was still unsettling for me to see people's response to my story. They were looking at me the way I had looked at them.
I think whenever people hear about trauma of any sort, the reaction is the same. Shock, denial, horror, anger and grief and so on. Even if you've been through abuse yourself, hearing other people's stories can elicit these same emotions. Now I think I understand how people I know feel when they read my book - why some of them look at me cross-eyed and don't know what to say. Perhaps they worry that these aberrations of normal human experience are contagious.
My abuse took place over twenty-five years ago. I'm healthy, happy and living a more or less sane life. But when I show my scars, and see myself through the eyes of others, I am reminded of the pain. The pain is new to the ones who are hearing it for the first time. But, for me, these wounds are healed and I am basically whole. I only get thrown if I react to their shock, like a baby that falls and looks at the pain on its mother's face then starts to cry.
I have to remind myself that I am not a child. I am no longer a victim. I will always be an ex-member, always a survivor but now, by God's grace, I'm a "thriver." It's been a long road from trauma to recovery and I need not go back. Except to hold out a hand to someone who is trying to cross the chasm to healing themselves. That is why I'm co-facilitating the group. But that doesn't mean I still don't get tweaked by my own story. Sometimes it's just plain hard for me to believe I went through all that stuff. And if it's hard for me to believe it, why should I be surprised that others feel the same way, too?