(Author:  Tatiana Reclaimed)

I didn’t start out looking for religion. I wasn’t even spiritual; but that only made me the perfect target. My naivety and curiosity was the foundation for my brainwashing. You’d think as a Millennial, I would have been more educated in this age of information. It doesn’t matter; cults don’t just show up and ask you to join them. We would all love to think “that could never happen to me.”, but no one is immune. It happened to me.

We rarely see it in the media. We don’t talk about it in school, we almost never hear anything about them in the news, and it’s not something we discuss in a casual conversation. Yet, you probably know someone in a cult. What do we REALLY know about them? What makes a cult a cult? Why do people join them, and what makes them stay in it?

I could spend the next three days discussing that with you. What the dictionary says, what the experts say, what the cult leaders say, what ex and current members say…but I’ll boil it down for you in my own words. A cult is a group that has a distinct elitist attitude and that does not allow for its members to leave the group with their dignity. Joining them is a process, because they believe themselves to be superior than the general public. While the cult may often go through great lengths to attract the attention of potential new recruits, they are not generally quick to add the new recruit to their member roll, instead putting them through a series of “studies” to indoctrinate them and mold them into one of THEM first. Once you’ve been broken down, and you’ve been sufficiently re-molded, only then is the recruit permitted to become one of them, greatly fostering the “us versus them” mentality that contributes to the making and distinct characteristics of a cult.

That’s what happened to me. As a matter of curiosity I asked for a “Bible study”. I thought I was learning something new and exciting, and I was in awe of the hidden things I was uncovering. I wasn’t; I was simply being indoctrinated. I wish I knew back then what I know now. I’m not unique; cult members are trained to spot and mold the perfect target. In a religious cult, Biblical ignorance is just one of ways they will catch you. Some end up as prey because of sheer timing and luck. Going through a stressful life event makes you vulnerable to asking major life questions and seeking spiritual guidance that cults are all too eager to provide you with. Getting rid of them is harder than you’d think.

Once you’re IN, there could be any number of reasons why you don’t leave. I remained in my cult for 8+ plus years because I thought I had “The Truth”. I thought I had superior knowledge about the Bible, life, death, Jehovah God, the Holy Spirit, and His Spirit Directed Organization that no one else had. The future promises they guaranteed were easy to buy. The information control is signature to any cult. All information coming from an outside source, conspiratorially deemed “fake news”. My family tried to warn me of the cult I was engaging in. Triggering a persecution complex reaction, I no longer spoke to them anymore. More than that, I isolated myself from nearly all non cult members in general; as most cult adherents do. Effectively choosing the organization over my own family.

I was as zealous as the rest, and I wanted nothing more than to “save” all the people by preaching what I had discovered to others and by recruiting more people into our cult! More than that, If I failed to preach and recruit, according to this cult’s theology, I was blood guilty if I didn’t. I raised my children in it, robbing them of a typical American childhood, devoid of all the very best things. Never giving them the option to think any other way than what the cult demanded and expected of us. The ostracism they have experienced is nothing short of abusive. This is a guilt I live with and to this day I am still desperately trying to make up for.

Getting a glimpse into the world of a cult is hardly ever done. With technology advancing and cults jumping on the tech bandwagon, you can easily download their app, watch their TV shows or browse their heavily sanitized web pages, but rarely does a non member get to see much more than that. What’s even more rare is catching a glimpse into an cult survivors life. They’re giving no platform and always villain-ized for speaking out. A select few are paid off with settlements and gag orders to keep from sharing their story. What is life REALLY like for a cult survivor?

Victims of spiritual abuse may commonly describe it like walking out of an abusive relationship while trying to detox from illicit drugs. I can only speak to my own personal journey, but I know that my story will resonate with many other cult survivors. Once you “wake up” from the indoctrination, you typically only have two choices. Stay or leave.

For me, I didn’t want to leave because I knew what leaving meant. Leaving meant acknowledging that everything I had taught my children was a lie. It meant I was an ignorant liar. It meant I never actually had any superior or special insight and that I lied to hundreds of people in an attempt to recruit more into this sacrilegious cult built on lies. Leaving meant a huge, ugly rift in my marriage. Leaving meant I missed out on nearly a decade of extended family and my own LIFE needlessly. It meant my spiritual future was no longer certain, and that I no longer had a concrete belief structure. That the amount of unknowns my future held suddenly scared me to the point of panic. It meant every one of the sacrifices I made was for nothing. Leaving could mean starting over if my husband chose to divorce me. Leaving meant I can no longer be who I was, it means I don’t know who I am anymore. Identity crisis hardly begins to describe the inner turmoil I would have to work through. It would mean facing abuses and human rights violations that no person should ever have to face.

It’s like leaving an abusive relationship because you leave with deep emotional wounds and nowhere to go and you know the abuse will only ramp up when you try to leave. While you are inside the cult you are told you are NOTHING without the organization. You are told that those who leave are mentally diseased, and worthy of death. Depending on your mental health, you may or may not believe it when you decide to leave. When you finally decide to leave, the emotional wounds inflicted by the gaslighting, the minimizing and lying about all of the wrongdoing by the organization, the public humiliation and the predatory alienation are perhaps the greatest. Imagine cutting yourself off from everyone you know and love to become a greater version of yourself. You surround yourself only with those whose belief system is like yours, only to discover that you were never any better for it. In fact, you became a terrorist of sorts and now that you’ve decided that you would like to change your belief system, your entire social network including your own mother, father, and siblings adhere to a written policy that mandates that you are to be shunned in an attempt to “bring you back into the fold”. The emotional blackmail works. For some, especially those born in, like my own children, that have no pre-cult personalities, thoughts, ideas, friends or world view to fall back on, they end up going back out of desperation and depression. Being treated like your dead by family and every friend you ever had when you’re still alive is enough to drive any person to insanity.

Some stay inside the cult, joining the ranks of what ex members call “PIMO”. Which stands for “physically in, mentally out”. These are the strongest and bravest of them all. Ex members owe them much. They stay in for fear of losing family members to the shunning policy if they leave. While in however, they keep tabs on the cults events, ever changing teachings and inform those that have left the cult but whom still have family within it, whom they can no longer remain in contact with. They sacrifice themselves to keep their family and they sacrifice themselves to keep up with the organizations endless requirements to remain active and in good standing, endure the never-ending propaganda, and continuously subject themselves to the harmful and mind numbing culture.

I was a lucky one, having not been born in. For the savvy ones, leaving is best done just like beating any addiction. Joining a support group is a vital must. Few succeed without out one. The camaraderie within a cult recovery support group is much like that of seen on tv within a addiction recovery support group. “Hi, I’m ________. I’m an ex _______ (insert your particular cult group here) member. I’ve been out for ________. And yes, we all congratulate one another. Most ex cult members are pretty specific about how long they’ve been out at first, in a similar fashion as ex drug addicts. When we get together, we commonly discuss the rock bottom we hit that really encouraged us to make the choice to “get clean”. Each one of us has their own “rock bottom” story and we remember it just as vividly as any other user remembers theirs.

For a lot of people, once they get out, their life’s focus becomes helping others get out and recover as well. YouTube has become a Mecca for ex cultists trying to work through their recovery whilst supporting others on theirs. For others it’s a healthy way to vent the anger felt for having your best years snatched from you without consent. The triggers are real, the panic is real, the recovery is life long.

I remember finally gaining the courage to venture into a local church shortly after leaving my cult. Inside the church was lovely, but the Christian book store and cafe located inside the church’s lobby COMPLETELY sent me into a panic attack. I had to fight the irrational fear that Jesus was going to show up and overturn the tables, shelves and registers in a fit of rage. The women speaking boldly from the platform without a head covering made me cower in my chair, fighting the urge to don my own head covering as their proxy. I actually brought a head covering in my purse, “just in case”, despite never bringing one to my old meeting hall because I knew I’d never be speaking and teaching from the stage as such a thing was never permitted for women within that organization. The shame I felt for women in jeans and skirts that were above the knee, was knee jerk. The people with piercings, tattoos, wildly colored and styled hair actually frightened me. The men with long hair, tight jeans and beards, nearly disgusted me. I had to constantly fight within myself just to not judge them! I knew I was being ridiculous, but that’s the nature of the panic. I wasn’t sure if I could make it through the entire service. Everything about this church, the message, the worship, the building, the members, and the staff was polar opposite of what I had previously believed was TRUE.

I didn’t leave just any cult. I left a doomsday cult. The cult is obsessed with the end coming. It is always “just around the corner”! The hypno-expectancy that the adherents exhibit would be frightening to non members if they were to actually see the amount of emphasis placed on the impending end. Every current event is viewed through this lens. After ever major event, whether it’s a riot, earthquake, shooting or grand opening of a new school, the commentary is always the same. “The end is coming quickly.” Because the end was always “so close”, they don’t think it wise to spend time or money on higher education. To do so would be promoting a worldly, materialistic attitude, it would deprive you of time you could spend in the ministry and worse yet, expose you to spiritually dangerous ideas. In fact, out of every religion out there, this religion has the least educated populace, by far. It’s been decades since they have outright condemned higher education so must current adherents have no clue that it was ever outright condemned at all. Some members are highly educated, having gotten the education before becoming an adherent. Some fight against the system to go to school. They commonly overwork themselves to prove that they can maintain a zealous preaching routine and simultaneously maintain an educational routine. The cult has been very smart about non official policies, implementing the decree without written word, instead creating it own subculture using, fear, guilt and obligation to encourage and discourage its members into making certain life choices.

Historically, there’s a whole generation from the 70’s within this cult that is nearly childless. Many went homeless, remained single and unemployed because they believed they were so close to the end. Those intending to date, marry or have children were ostracised as “spiritually weak” for bringing children into a dying world or losing focus from the ministry work that was to save others from the impending end. Those willing to sacrifice those things were paraded on stages, praised and applauded among large audiences while others were instructed to imitate their faith. When “the end” of the world didn’t show up as expected, a literal million adherents left the organization. I know all of this sounds outrageous, and trust me, it is, and yet you still have no clue exactly how much so.

Spiritual abuse is hardly recognized as abuse, right up there with emotional or verbal abuse; but it is. Spiritual abuse victims are not privileged to any of the kids of help and services other abuse victims are commonly entitled to. It doesn’t just happen among cults, but it is one of the defining characteristics of a religious cult. It does hurt. It does change a person. It does need recognition and it is something many suffer from. I know far to many apostates that suffer from Post Cult Trauma Syndrome.

Today, nearly a year after I left my cult and after working with an ex cultist therapist, I’ve joined and actively participated in many ex cult recovery and support groups. I’ve been working on my own activism, but most importantly, I am rediscovering and recreating myself. That’s the hard part. It’s not something you can do within a group, or in any particular span of time. When you join a cult, you sacrifice your individuality to become of THEM. You put their goals, their interests, their agenda, and their priorities FIRST. Your family typically comes second and; you? You end up letting go of yourself and your individuality. You are no longer living for yourself. Giving up your hobbies, your interests, your goals, your dreams, your interests, your habits, your time, your energy, your money, your morals, your priorities, your values, and focusing it all entirely on this one thing that now makes up your whole identity – You lose YOURSELF. Everything that once made you- YOU. It’s gone, and when you finally decide to leave, significantly older than you were when you joined, all you’re left with is this empty shell with no identity, no purpose, no goals, no belief structure, and confused about what your new priorities, values and morals are, or at least what they ought to be. Long forgotten and generally unused are any skills or interests you once had.

I’m still working on me. I haven’t figured it all out yet. I suspect I will still be working on it for years to come. Recently, I feel like a teenager again. Rebelling and doing things that I knew I wasn’t permitted to do or had time for before. I currently have an ombre of beautiful aqua colored hair. I put rings back in the pierced skin I once tried so hard to heal and cover. At 31, I’m planning my first tattoo. A symbolism of the transformation I’ve gone through. A memorial to my old self and a tribute to my new path. I am planning my daughter’s very first ever birthday party (no those were not allowed within the cult) for which she is super excited about. I’m making friends with “worldly” people and other apostates, much to my husbands disapproval. I use the nomenclature and I can laugh at how ridiculous it all sounds now. I still attend a Grace filled church. I’m lucky that the spiritual abuse didn’t actually completely destroy my ability to praise and worship. I still deal with triggers and panic. Certain Bible texts still fill me with anxiety, certain words, phrases and restrictions still send me to a panic beyond my own control. Sometimes I still wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t fallen prey. If I finished the education I was working on. If I had got that job I wanted. Sometimes I still feel sad thinking I will never know what became of those people I was once so close to that still shun me to this day for having left. My marriage became rocky because I am not the same person I once was. The superiority and persecution complex made him very difficult to live with, similar to living with a narcissist. My marriage is dead and gone. I am ok with that. I don’t care what others think of me, or worry if I maybe stumbling someone with something petty I’ve said or done. I don’t care if I’m bringing “reproach” on the organization. I’m finally living life for me and the generations following me. I no longer worry about my spiritual future. I have critical thinking skills I didn’t possess before. I have a worldview I can share without sanitizing it first. I have a message and a purpose I no longer feel the need to forcefully push unto others. I like politics! And I no longer view every current event through the lens of a distorted theology. Every day is a gift instead of the wretched curse that is believed to be “this system of things”. I’m excited about life and meeting new people. I am a cult survivor, and that’s part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me. I have hope for the future. I am strong and my story will have a happy ending. I’m finally out to create it.