Totalist relationships depend upon restriction: someone else decides what you can do, what you can think, what you can eat, what you can wear and how you must behave.
It is usually very confusing leaving such a controlled environment, because now you will have to make all of those decisions for yourself. Loss of the relationship – or relationships – will usually trigger feelings of grief and guilt. You may feel that you have abandoned your fellow members.
One former cult member told me that the first time she was away from her closed group – nursing an ill parent for a week – she felt pity for all of the unenlightened people she saw when she went to the supermarket.
She wanted to return to the cult, because she was sure that they were saving the world. A few months later, she walked out – after two decades of membership – not because she was no longer convinced of the importance of the group, but because she was overwhelmed by the demands upon her and realized that her life was at risk from the harsh treatment. In the group, she usually was only able to grab two hours’ sleep a night under her desk, and the rest of her life was equally brutal – including four years in a labour camp because she had annoyed a leader.
Yet, when she left, she felt desolate, because she believed she no longer had a purpose in life. In fact, she was no longer serving the impossible cause of the totalist leader, and naturally she felt adrift.
I’ve known a number of people who, exhausted and cut off from a sense of purpose after leaving a totalist group, lapsed into depression or chronic fatigue syndrome. It can take a while to establish motivation, but the good news is that most people do manage to find their way. Fellow ex-members can be tremendously helpful in providing a sense of community, and an important source of validation, constantly underlining the rightness of leaving.
After leaving, some people will declare themselves pleasure-seekers and devote their energies to tasting the sweetness of life (I know of one chap who had cards printed up with his name and the word ‘hedonist’). Others will find another cause, but make a more careful evaluation of the cult or relationship they were in, so as not to repeat history. Yet others will simply ‘cult-hop’ and buy into the next bizarre scheme to perfect humanity, or end up with another abusive partner.
It is a good idea to start small. The first new purpose should be to be good to yourself. Sleep deprivation is one of the simplest and most powerful ways of undermining self-control. We all feel dizzy and have difficulty concentrating with insufficient sleep, but the immune system is also affected, as is memory and reasoning. So, step one is to find a comfortable place to sleep and catch up.
Alongside this, proper nutrition is vital. High carbohydrate diets are a hallmark of totalist cults, so a balanced diet is important to restore health. Find the foods you love and indulge yourself a little.
Friendship can be difficult after cult membership, because in the cult even the closest of friends are likely to report you. Understanding that relationships should include privacy may take a while.
Exercise has often been neglected – though some cults work their members extremely hard, which can be a form of exercise, though likely not the most helpful. Find something you love to do – swimming, cycling, horse riding, hiking or whatever and make sure that it is part of your daily schedule.
If you want to prevent others from following in your footsteps, speak out about your experiences. With the Internet, this can be done anonymously. When I left, very few people dared speak out, because of the cult’s reputation for recrimination. These days, there are thousands of former members speaking out. This is also helpful in recovery – to name and shame the abuser is usually therapeutic. It helps to lift the veil of fear that shadows so many when they leave a totalist group.
Spend time finding out about the group, and make sure to discuss its dogma. It is important to challenge the accuracy of that dogma, so that you can escape from it. Otherwise, the behavioural conditioning will continue to run. As Leah Remini said, ‘You can take the girl out of Scientology, but it’s much, much harder to take Scientology out of the girl .’
If you have escaped a totalist group, Steven Hassan’s Combating Cult Mind Control is an excellent primer on cult involvement, and I highly recommend Lalich and Tobias’s Take Back Your Life. My own recent Opening Minds was written to address the broader problems of involvement in abusive relationships and terrorist groups, as well other forms of totalist cult, so it may well be useful too.
It is also important to have a life beyond studying or exposing the cult (I’m a fine one to talk about this, but I have always recommended it to others!). You are no longer a victim: you are a survivor and it’s time to thrive!
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about recovery that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!