Saturday, January 05, 2008

Cult Recovery: A Razor's Edge

Being 12 years into my own recovery from Transcendental Meditation, and having worked with some 2000+ other former cult members, I've come to the conclusion that recovery from cult abuse is a lot trickier than simply repudiating one's group and walking away.

At the outset, I'd like to say that the majority of people who walk away from a cult do so without any outside help. Whether one should seek help or not depends largely on how long one was involved, the intensity of the involvement, and one's own pre-existing emotional vulnerabilities. For most people, simply coming to the realization that they've been conned is enough motivation to walk away.

But for thousands of other former cult members, walking away is a messy process.

Some float in and out of their old group — or join a new, similar group. They may miss the intensity, the sense of belonging, or fail to rebalance their lives outside of the cult. (I hope to write more on this last point in the next few days.) They may throw themselves into another all-encompassing activity such as workaholism, intense emotional relationships, alcohol or drugs, gambling, or other compulsive preoccupations. (Continuing to meditate after leaving the group can contribute to "floating" for some people. See "Trance & Meditation Addiction" and "How to Stop Meditating Step by Step.")

And for some, myself included, they may actually throw themselves unhealthily into saving the world from their cult. Thirteen years ago when I first left TM, I was advised by Steve Hassan and Jajna Lalich, two well-known anti-cult activists, to wait at least a year before becoming active in TM and cult activism. They indicated they thought it best I process my feelings about my cult involvement fully before working with others to leave Transcendental Meditation.

Unfortunately, I didn't listen. Throwing myself into activism too early prolonged the emotional roller coaster leaving my cult caused. It was some years before I could express my feelings — anger, a sense of betrayal, grief, guilt, shame, and more — without becoming overwhelmed.

For me and others I've worked with, these emotional difficulties can appear to fulfill the cults' warnings that life will be hell if you leave — whether through "unstressing," "bad karma," or "mental illness."

And there is significant danger that, in a vulnerable state, former cult members will be taken advantage of by another con man or woman. Or even create a new cultic relationship with benign groups, such as anti-cult movements. It is all too easy to substitute the black/white, all-or-nothing thinking of a group like TM for black/white thinking of an anti-cult group. It can be difficult to maintain a perspective that includes both the good and the bad aspects of one's cult experience. In essence, this leads one to cut out a vast chunk of one's life — the period of cult involvement. (A tell-tale symptom: having difficulty remembering details about one's life in the cult.)

It's even possible to develop an unhealthy relationship with a counselor or therapist, substituting a new dependency on one's therapist for the dependency one experienced with the cult.

Involving oneself with any group or professional, look for evidence that they encourage independent thinking. Expect, even demand, that your therapist redirects your feelings toward yourself. The new group or professional should redirect your gratitude toward the work you are doing and your accomplishments in therapy — rather than toward the therapist's skill or insight. The focus should be on the work, not the professional or group. Seek out professionals who encourage self-empowerment and developing your own innate strengths — rather than substituting their opinions and advice for that of your former cult. It takes more work to develop your own truth about your cult involvement, but it's the only real path to reclaiming your life for yourself.

For many deeply involved individuals, leaving a cult is like walking a razor's edge. In my experience, people who are experiencing significant troubles in their lives — such as difficulty holding jobs, financial difficulties, depression, disturbing cult-related dreams, PTSD — are well advised to look for professional help from licensed professionals with experience in cults. People who have the courage to ask for help recover most easily and gracefully.

John M. Knapp, LMSW

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