Recovery from an abusive relationship or group is more complex than just getting out; here is a list of ten things you’ll need to go from surviving to thriving.
1. Safety & distance from the abuser/group
This is the first, foremost, and immediate need, overtaking all others. Your healing cannot begin until you are out of harm’s way. If you do not feel safe, leave as soon as you can, and get yourself to your local police station or hospital emergency room. Be as honest as you can when telling them why you’re there: in many countries now, front-line responders are being re-educated to better understand undue influence, and the more accurate a picture they can create, the better they can help you – and those they meet in the future.
2. Access to transportation and social services
If you don’t live somewhere with public transportation, make sure you make regular arrangements for transport to health appointments, shopping, and the other necessities of life – and just getting out is one of those necessities: isolation was what kept you captured before, so it’s vital to keep connected. It might feel frightening at first, especially if you’ve been taught to mistrust “outsiders,” but just making small talk with the neighbors or even the kid bagging your groceries will help you connect with the “real” world – and grow away from the mindset of your former life.
3. Proper amounts – and types – of sleep, food and exercise
In order to heal, you need to rest, to feed yourself, and to grow stronger. Even in the best circumstances, the human body requires adequate amounts of sleep at regular intervals, a balanced, nutritious diet, and enjoyable moderate exercise. If you’ve been in a coercive situation for any significant amount of time, it’s a guarantee that your body has been through some serious trauma, even if only the very real physical stress that can be inflicted with severe mental and emotional abuse. No matter what misinformation you’ve been fed about your body’s needs by the pseudoscience your group espoused, proper nutrition, sleep and exercise is a requirement on the road to recovery.
4. Complete health – mental, medical, dental and optical checkup.
From STD testing for those who have been sexually abused and eye exams for those who have been forced to go without proper corrective lenses for some time, to dental and medical checkups for those whose faiths have taught neglect of the body, you need to make sure that you know exactly what is going on with your health – and also that includes a mental checkup. You’ve been through a lot of trauma, and even the strongest survivor needs some skill-building, decompression, and yes, even professional help for the task of sorting through events in order to understand what you’ve been through. Make sure you find a therapist who has experience dealing with cults or abusive relationships.
5. Bank Account and Credit
Abusive spouses and coercive groups often keep their victims in a state of financial dependency: one of the best answers to: “well, why doesn’t she leave him?” is: “with what money?”. Even if you’re starting with literally pennies, it’s better to have something in your name, especially in today’s world, when credit is often needed to establish your identity, and most commerce done without cash. It’s best to steer clear of those “payday loan” and check cashing businesses, and instead head over to your locally-owned credit union or small cooperative bank. If you ask to speak to a service manager to set up an account, you shall most likely find a supportive, committed person who is more than happy to help you establish a financial foothold – and shall not judge you for the reason why.
6. Support system – professional and peer
Along with your banker, your doctor and your therapist, you’re going to want to make sure you have a circle of people around you who understand what you’re going through. You’ve been taking orders from just one viewpoint for a long time; now you have the luxury of asking for a second, third, or even fourth opinion. There are as many paths to recovery as there are people walking that path; your circumstances are unique, not only to the coercive situation you found yourself in, but also who you were before then, and who you want to become. But now, you don’t have to walk that path alone.
7. Friends and family (who understand)
Those last two words are an important qualifier. Although it’s (almost) never healthy to cut off your family completely, it shall not be good for your recovery if you have to contend with counterproductive messages such as “you chose to be in a cult,” “why did you do this to us?” or even “how stupid were you?” If your family is still in, then any contact with them is contact with the cult, and should be treated as such. Even when friends and family aren’t being unhelpful, it’s important to have a good base of friends and family members who know what is helpful or not. Whether you’ve escaped from an abusive relationship of two or a cult of two million, make sure that you reach out to other people who have been in a similar situation and survived.
8. Hobbies, projects and goals
Just like getting out and meeting people, it’s important to get out and do something – anything. If you’ve had someone telling you what to believe, what to think, and what to do for long enough, true self-determination can seem rather daunting, and you can naturally feel at loose ends. Especially for those who were born in coercive groups, it’s vital to find out for yourself what you’re interested in. Those who joined high-pressure groups as young adults or even later in life might find renewed pleasure in those activities your group made you give up as “worldly” or “time-wasting,” but feel free to branch out and try anything that intrigues you. Working toward a degree or a trade certificate can mean the difference between a job and a career, but even the pleasurable pursuits should not be ignored – no time spent enjoying oneself can truly be called “wasted.”
9. Continuing education
Not only can you find a new career by getting education, but enough people have exited cults now to show a definite trend – those who educate themselves about what they’ve been through heal faster, better, and are more often able to help others as well as themselves; we ignore the necessary step of self-examination at our own peril. If your critical thinking skills have been atrophied or never developed in the first place, you will find yourself in a coercive situation again, and again. But it’s not only the field of undue influence that needs a good study – dip into your history and also current events; part of becoming a responsible citizen of the larger world is knowing what’s going on in it.
10. Self-forgiveness and self-love
It seems like a given to some, but those who have been taught to hate themselves will find it hard at first to engage in self-nurturing behaviors. Try to remember that the messages about being “sinful” or “worldly” are simply wrong, and that a large part of the worldview you’re having to shift includes how you see yourself. Contrary to what you might have been taught, you are, in fact, a walking miracle, and, just like the rest of us, entitled to joy, love, and comfort. So give yourself permission to have a treat – even a small one. Rent a movie. Go out to the park and sit on the grass. Hug a puppy. Laughter is not only the best medicine, it’s contagious and a gift that you can give over and over again. Reach out to other people needing help, and you’ll find that soon you’ll realize that you’re not a failure, you’re a hero, simply for having escaped.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about recovery that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!