Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rebalancing Your Life After the Cult

As I recently wrote, recovering from a cultic relationship successfully and permanently takes more than simply walking away. Among the people I've worked with in recovery, it's a fairly frequent occurrence that they "float" back in and out of their old, or another, cult. Or they may take up a new compulsive activity, such as gambling, substance abuse, unhealthy sexuality, workaholism, and so forth.

A major, if not main, reason for adopting new compulsive behaviors appears to be that cult members fail to fill the hole that leaving the group creates in their lives. Some former members miss the intensity of the high demands their group and leader placed on them. Some miss the sense of belonging to a community — no matter how dysfunctional. There are numerous other needs the old group may have filled.

If you hope to create a new life outside the cult — and not slip back into addictive behavior — you'll need to fill those needs in new ways.

I've identified 12 life areas that we all need to attend to if we are to have a rounded life. You can think of them as akin to a "food pyramid" for healthy living — 12 essential vitamins that must be present to keep us healthy, strong, and growing throughout our lifespan. These areas cluster in 4 "realms":
The Private Realm: Intimacy (Romance), Family, and Friends

The Public Realm: Career (or Education), Community, Law, and Finances

The Health Realm: Physical Well-Being, Emotional Well-Being, Mental Well-Being, and Recreation

The Spiritual Realm

In the diagram above, I show these as all co-equal slices of the life pie. The truth is no one balances their life so ideally. But if you are missing at least some attention to even one life section, it is very likely that you will experience dysfunction, pain, and unhappiness.

Balancing life is no mere academic exercise. It has practical benefits. When you are going through difficult times in your career, for instance, you may take pleasure in family and friends. Because a balanced life is more than simply work, you can maintain your equilibrium.

Now, for many cult members, all these sections are present, but in a very particular way. Rather than experiencing the lively colors of life, their entire life wheel is in shades of black and white. Every segment of their lives is colored by their cult involvement.

One chooses a love partner from the cult. One cuts back or cuts out connection to one's family — if they are not also involved with the cult. One chooses friends from the cult — but may not have any intimate friends because of the fear of their judgment by cult standards. And so it goes for all life realms.

Following are some suggestions you might consider if you have recently left a cult or are having difficulty creating a functioning, fulfilling life long after leaving.

  • Intimacy (Romance): Many former cult members experience separation or divorce if they have been married to another cult member. Rather than rushing into a new intimate relationship as you recover from cult involvement, I recommend that my clients consider focusing on rebalancing their lives for at least a year before entering into a new romantic attachment. That way, you will have made considerable progress in cult recovery, and the new relationship won't be overshadowed by lingering emotional baggage from the cult involvement. (Note that this same formula is suggested in Alcoholics Anonymous to newly recovering alcoholics, for similar reasons.)

  • Family: Contact family members that you have fallen out of touch with. I know for myself, that during the 15 years of my deepest cult involvement, I saw family members only a few times. Because I was out of the habit of connecting with them, I actually scheduled appointments in my daily organizer to contact parents once a week and siblings at least once a month. Habits that come naturally to people in mainstream society have to be consciously practiced by many former cult members. (Note that this presents a particular challenge for Adult Children of Cult Members whose family remains involved with their cult.)

  • Friends: Many former cult members report having few or no intimate friends. I call these "3 a.m. Friends" — people you know you could call in the middle of the night if you needed them. Most adults have at least a few such close friends. If you don't have someone you can tell your secrets to and trust they will keep the communication private, think about putting effort into developing at least three.

  • Career (or Education): Former cult members may have replaced a natural ambition to achieve career-wise with a single-minded desire to move ahead "spiritually" in their group. It may take serious effort to restart a career stalled through cult involvement. Take Back Your Life, by Lalich and Tobias, devotes 3 full pages to helping former cult members develop résumés: "Evaluate your strengths, weaknesses, and skills as objectively as possible. Make a list of everything you did before you joined the cult, as well as what you did while in the cult. Separate the list into activities and accomplishments that could translate to the working world." If you worked for the cult, you may have developed important skills that will win you a job. Also consider returning to school. College or graduate school are socially acceptable ways of gaining credentials — and reinventing yourself.

  • Community: Over and above making friends, community connections bring great joy to most lives. Consider joining community groups like the Rotary, fire departments or other volunteer groups, sports leagues, religious groups (see "Spirituality" below), political organizations, 12-Step groups, hobbyist groups, book clubs, craft groups — there are dozens of possibilities. The goal here is to feed the natural human need for society — something no romantic or intimate friendship can satisfy, no matter how intense.

  • Law: Many former cult members don't understand why I include this section to my life wheel. This is because this may be the most overlooked element in cult life. Most members I've worked with have had unpaid traffic tickets, lapsed licenses, uninspected cars, unfiled tax returns, untidy divorces with unfiled papers, child support in arrears, bankruptcies (see "Finances" below), and other legal difficulties both major and minor. Take an honest inventory of your legal obligations, and, if necessary, seek out professional help to straighten them out. It's amazing how much mental energy can be consumed by having these details hanging over your head.

  • Finances: Many cult members have spent tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands, on products pushed by the cult, such as courses and seminars, "education," food, "medicine," and more. It's not unusual for a former member to be in need of filing bankruptcy. At the very least, many, many former members are earning far less than their potential would indicate (see "Career" above). Getting together with a financial professional, as well as a career counselor or coach, may be indicated.

  • Physical Well-Being: It's not unusual for former cult members to have let their health suffer. All their financial resources may have gone into the products of the cult. It's wise to get a physical from your medical provider, a dental exam, and review your diet with a credentialed dietician.

  • Emotional Well-Being: Former cult members may have learned to stuff emotions, avoid them with dissociative practices like chanting or meditation, or express them in unhealthy ways in their cult. Unfortunately, many, many cults indoctrinate members with taboos against working with mental health professionals. Like the Church of Scientology, many cults see mental health professionals as competitors for their members income. While many people walk away from their relationships with a cult without seeking professional help, I recommend that members get some form of formal mental health evaluation — if only one or two sessions with a counselor — to make sure their are no lingering emotional issues. If it makes sense to get your teeth checked regularly, wouldn't it make sense to undergo a mental health checkup after as traumatic an event as leaving a cult? I recommend locating a professional who has some experience with cult issues. You can find links to a number of them in the column on the right of this blog.

  • Mental Well-Being: Here I'm referring not to psychological well-being, but rather cognitive well-being. Many members report having difficulty with everyday tasks such as reading with comprehension, simple math skills, memory and concentration, making decisions, and more. Former Transcendental Meditation member Pat Ryan suggests making a habit of reading at least one news or magazine article a day to build up reading comprehension and focusing skills. To this I add the recommendation that you add pastimes that give your mind a workout, such as crosswords, chess, card games, book clubs, and similar activities to exercise your brain.

  • Recreation: Former members who have been focused intently on cult-based activities frequently have trouble simply relaxing. Many health club members think nothing of scheduling three exercise sessions a week. Shouldn't we schedule regular relaxation as well to maintain optimal physical and mental health? Take a peek at this article that I've written on "relaxation therapy" to get some ideas on regular activities you can add to your routine.

By far this appears to be the most problematic life area for former cult members. I remember trying to attend various churches, temples, and spiritual centers after leaving my cult. It seemed I got the heebie-jeebies just being in a room with a group of people who all agreed with each other. It was a huge cult trigger for me — and seems to be shared by most of the former cult members I've worked with. Spirituality means so many different things to different people. I try to use the broadest definition possible: the need to identify with something larger than the self. This can be God, but it certainly doesn't have to be. For some it is science, for others, nature, friends, family, volunteer work, meditation, prayer, so many different things. People who neglect spirituality in the broadest sense frequently have trouble finding meaning and purpose in life. Focusing too much on one's individual needs seems to lead to suffering just as surely as not focusing enough. If groups are a trigger for you, as they were for me, you might consider joining email listservs or reading spiritual newsgroups on the Web. For many people, the distance that reading and responding online offers eases the discomfort of group activities, such as attending church.

There is much more I could write on this topic — and I intend to return to it in the future on this blog. But it's my hope that reading over these musings will give former cult members some ideas for reconstructing their life after leaving their cult.

John M. Knapp, LMSW

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