I was in a left-wing political cult called the “O” for about 10 years, from the age of 26 to 36. At this writing, it is eight years since I left. I was recruited at a time of great instability in my life, and because of the location of the group’s headquarters, I moved from California to Minneapolis. While in the cult, I married another member, and then we adopted two children; both of those actions were “recommended” to me by the cult leader. Eventually, after 10 long and miserable years, I was able to leave the group. Three of us left together; the following year, another seven members left. About a year after I left, my husband managed to leave also.
My post-cult recovery can be divided into three stages: the immediate crisis of leaving, getting back on my feet, and longer-term issues. I will describe the central issues in each period, and then activities, behaviors, and people that did and did not help me in dealing with those issues . Today’s post will deal with the issues faced immediately after leaving the group.
Part One: The Immediate Crisis
This period lasted about a year, an extraordinarily difficult year. Most of the work in this period was, on some level, merely to survive the crisis and not cave in to it.
Much of the survival was practical as well as psychological. Many former members struggle to find housing, at the same time as perhaps fighting a custody battle, as I was doing. Often, finances are a huge issue, including disentangling financial arrangements and employment. Reconnecting with family members may be another issue. The quantity of problems is overwhelming, especially if you have children. You have to sort out priorities. And while you’re coping with these practical problems, you also have to deal with a kind of psychological earthquake, with its own quantity of issues.
The major emotion of this period was fear, and there were three types of fear. One was extreme fear that the leader would cause physical harm. That first year, I woke up in the middle of the night, almost every night, certain that he was in the house and about to enter my bedroom to assault or kill me. Did I have cause for this fear? Well, he had murdered a man and I knew that. We didn’t think he would actually kill us, but we had to constantly work through this fear and deal with it. I did receive anonymous threatening and abusive phone calls during this period.
The other fear was of other nonviolent means of retribution. In my case, I feared I would lose my children. The leader did instruct my husband to try to gain full custody of the children, which drove me into a fiercely protective mode of defending the children and myself from the leader’s attempt to keep them in the cult. My days were filled with a kind of unknown foreboding: “What is he going to do next?”
Finally, and no less terrible than the other types of fear, was what I call an existential fear, the fear of disappearance, of nothingness. This was the feeling that by having left the cult, you had thrown yourself into a vast empty space. It was an absolutely primal kind of terror. You feel completely alone, your roots have been destroyed and your identity is gone. There is no ground beneath your feet, no history, no fellow human being, no culture, no belief system. You have lost both your self, and your connection to others.
I believe this feeling to be key in understanding both cult recruitment and recovery. There is something here, something very deep and human about being connected, and the opposite, that complete disconnection that also is central to this experience. Leaving a cult brings up this feeling full force and inescapably. Part of the courage it takes to leave a cult is facing this fear, along with the other fears I mentioned. Somehow you have to grapple with it, or learn to move through it and “disarm” it. In a way, this summarizes the process of psychological recovery: you have to work through this existential fear to find yourself and your connection to others.
Depression was another commonly felt emotion. Depression and exhaustion. I know I had to put in a lot of sleeping hours. Even now, years later, I still resist any attempts to cut short my sleep. Somehow I feel that the sleep helped relieve the depression; there was some curative element to resting.
Terrible regret and sadness over the lost years overwhelmed me at times (and I’m sure this increases depending on the length of time in the cult). What would I have done? What would I have been? There was a kind of tragic sadness.
Also, a feeling of uselessness was a major issue in the first year, thinking to myself all too often: “I have totally failed. I tried to dedicate my life to helping the world, and I did the opposite. I am completely useless.” To counteract that feeling (which also came from some of the cult-induced phobia: “You’ll be nothing if you leave us”), many of us from the group I was in felt we had to prove ourselves right away and tried immediately getting involved in some kind of political activity. Of course, that was not sustainable at the time, and generally such attempts didn’t last long.
There was a great sense of shame. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have treated people like that? How did this happen to me? What did I do to bring this on myself?
And of course there was rage. Lots of it. Hatred of the leader. Overpowering rage. Lots of rageful poems.
But there was, for me, also a lot of joy in that first year. The exhilaration of freedom was intense. I was lucky enough to have the support of the others who left with me, and we formed an ad hoc support group. We met regularly, told our stories, and analyzed what had happened. We also looked after each other in various ways. We cried and laughed a lot, a kind of cathartic hysteria that often came as we told stories about our experiences in the O. We engaged in a lot of sensory things, waking ourselves back up from the numbness we’d been in all those years: eating good food, drinking, reading and writing poetry, buying new clothes, listening to music, and so on.
Particularly important to me was nature. I came out of the group in spring, which was psychologically important to me: I identified with the new growth pushing through the soil. I understood that I had to recreate myself in some way, but also recognized that I was resilient, and that inside me was still me, even though it would take work to nurture myself back again. Also from nature I got an important psychological feeling of connection with the larger world, what some might call a spiritual connection. In nature, I could feel that what I was going through was just a small piece of ugliness, but that there was a world outside that that didn’t rely on dogma or cruelty or manipulation, that the beauty there existed in and of itself, and somehow I was connected to that.
What Helped in The First Stage
- A close, trusting, and supportive relationship with my sister who listened and did not judge.
- Contact with other ex-members, both new and old. Our ad hoc support group was critical to my recovery.
- The local support and education group in Minneapolis for former members and their families, Free Minds and Answers Inc. Also the folks there provided me with resources to begin learning about cults and cult dynamics.
- Nature, having fun, enjoying music, art, books.
- Permission to sleep and rest as much as I needed, do nothing for long periods of time. My husband had the children half time so I was able to do this.
- A beginners writing class, which gave me permission and encouragement to write after my 10-year hiatus.
- Seeking out old friends. I made amends and tried to mend some of those broken connections.
What Didn’t Help
- The therapist who dropped her mouth open when I began telling her the story.
- Therapists who didn’t know what they were dealing with and weren’t open to learning. Focusing on family of origin issues and not wanting to look at the cult issue. Later I would learn to tell them, “I’ve got more family issues than you can shake a stick at, but that’s not what I’m here for.”
- My mother’s judgmental, blaming, and angry response.
- Assuming that in getting my husband out as that would solve our problems and make everything better, even though I was warned about this by an exit counselor.
In tomorrow’s installment, we will explore the second and third parts of recovery – “Getting Back on my Feet” and “Longer Term Issues.”
What do you think about this article? Have you read Alex’s latest book? Do you have a story about recovery from cults that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!