Please let me have my grief, for the sorrow I have felt has shaken me to my core.
I live with it every day, and it’s complicated.
When the first wave of grief hit me like a tsunami, I could barely breathe.
I lay on my couch looking at the white ceiling, completely dissociated.
Tears frequently rolled onto my face and my heart was filled with a deep sadness that was and still is indescribable.
How was I to cope with the reality I was facing? How could I update? And for many months, I did not. For many months, I experienced profound crippling loss.
I’ve experienced loss in my life before, losses that many people go through, but this loss felt different. I had no-one around me who could understand.
The process of entering a cult and sustaining a life in a cult is an alienating journey and the process of exiting a cult is also an alienating journey.
This alienation causes tremendous heartache for many people. It is complicated grief.
Although it would appear to be the consensus that it is not the belief system that distinguishes a cult, it is safe to say that many cult members do have a belief system that they feel very passionately about. It is also safe to say that for most, these belief systems are extreme.
As one enters a cult and lives within a cult, this belief system, which alienates the member from others outside the group, is seen as something to be proud of and something that will contribute profoundly to the positive advancement of the cult’s ultimate goals. It is a legitimate human need to want to contribute to a group that you share an interest in.
Cults come in all shapes and sizes; there are political cults, spiritual cults, new age cults, therapy cults, lifestyle cults, dietary cults, and religious cults, as well as others. They can exist wherever there is a group of people committed to the same purpose, ideals and beliefs. Some are large and have thousands of members, some are small and have only five members.
There are many different things that initially attract a member to a cult and these can include: the promoted goals of the cult, members of the cult, community, doctrine, political issues, social utopia and spiritual enlightenment. Once attracted to the cult the powerful alienation, dissociative, and emotionally arousing techniques used and the psychological indoctrination can quickly trap a person within an abusive system. Once trapped and controlled the person can passionately endeavour to fulfil the overt intentions and covert agendas of the leadership and most significantly the leader.
Whilst in the cult the ideology one holds dear becomes a channel for the passions of a person. Although the ideology may well have been programmed into the person whilst they were in highly suggestible states, nevertheless, it comes to have significant meaning to the individual. This should not be taken lightly.
A person exiting a cult will have to go through a period where they let go of their ideology. They will have to sieve through what they believe on a very deep level, and this process has no time limit. Awakening from an ‘ideological dream’ is not a fun process for many. It can have many layers of shame and confusion. It can expose deep existential questions that never existed within the cult or before the cult. It can feel like the death of self.
Many members of cults give a tremendous amount of time for free to their group and its leadership. They may have given their skills, talents and professional abilities to help fulfil the agendas of the cult without financial reward. It can be a painful part of the wake-up call when one realises the time lost to an abusive group. To add insult to injury, many adult members also give money, inheritances and property to the cult. This loss can lead to financial issues which may need legal advice as well as the emotional impact of profound resentment.
A person exiting a cult will generally be alienated from anyone still inside the cult. If there are loved ones still inside the cult (family or friends) this can cause tremendous grief. Many ex-members speak of knowing that this will happen when they choose to leave a high control group, but for many the grief is still incredibly deep and excruciating when it arrived. If a person joined the group as an adult or joined during childhood, they generally have to grapple with the loss of loved ones pre-cult . They need to ask themselves whether they would like to repair these relationships; and if they do how they will go about doing this. Cults specialise in alienation and most people become alienated from pre-cult loved ones, even if it is only mildly.
I believe that it is this relational loss that hits ex-cult members the hardest.
I feel my grief in the middle of my chest. It swells and rises as a sensation. At times, it floods my whole body with excruciating agony. Emotional flooding is a common experience during exit and post-exit recovery.
Being alienated from loved ones causes very deep emotional wounding. Just because this pain cannot be seen does not mean it does not exist. The most vulnerable people are those severed from their loved ones. Cult leaderships know this, either consciously or unconsciously, and utilise this alienation to gain control of the individual.
Healing from this complex grief can take time and if you are an ex-member in recovery please know there are people who understand and will allow you the time you need to heal. Do not be shamed by people who will not let you experience your grief.
As an ex-cultist I have had many things stolen from me, so please, let me have my grief…
For support and information on recovering from a high control group and leadership please visit: