Post-Cult Problems: An Exit Counselor’s Perspective
Classification of Ex-Members
There are several classifications of ex-members, based on how they left the cult. Former members usually fit into one of the following:
- Those who had interventions.
- Those who left on their own, or walkaways
- Those who were expelled, or castaways
Walkaways and castaways need the most help in understanding their recovery process. Former members who were cast out of a cult are especially vulnerable; often they feel inadequate, guilty, and angry.
Most cults respond to any criticism of the cult itself by turning the criticism around on the individual member. Whenever something is wrong, it’s not the leadership or the organization, it’s the individual.
Thus, when someone is told to leave a cult, that person carries a double load of guilt and shame. Sometimes walkaways also carry a sense of inadequacy. Often they can think through these feelings intellectually, but emotionally they are very difficult to handle.
Tools for Recovery
In my experience, the most helpful tool for recovering ex-cult members is learning what mind control is and how it was used by their specific cult. Understanding that there are residual effects from a mind control environment and that these effects are often transitory in nature helps diffuse the anxiety. Clients, especially walkaways and castaways, feel relieved when they learn that, given the situation, what they are experiencing is normal and that the effects will not last forever.
Also integral to the recovery process is developing an attitude that there are some positives to be gained from the cultic experience. When former members learn about mind control, they can use that understanding to sort through their cultic experience, to see how they came to change their behavior and beliefs as a result of mind control. They can then assess what out of that experience is good and valid for them to hold on to.
When former members live in an area where there is an active support group meeting, it is often helpful for them to participate. Support group meetings provide a safe place for ex-members to discuss concerns with others who are dealing with similar issues. In this environment, no one will look at them like they have two heads.
Common Issues in Post-Cult Recovery
Some of the recovery issues that keep recurring in my work with ex-cult members are:
- Sense of purposelessness, of being disconnected. They left a group that had a powerful purpose and intense drive; they miss the peak experiences produced from the intensity and the group dynamics.
- Grieving for other group members, for a sense of loss in their life.
- Guilt. Former members will feel guilt for having gotten involved in the first place, for the people they recruited into the group, and for the things they did while in the group.
- Anger. This will be felt toward the group and/or the leaders. At times this anger is misdirected toward themselves.
- Alienation. They will feel alienation from the group, often from old friends (that is, those who were friends prior to their cult involvement), and sometimes from family.
- Isolation. To ex-cult members, no one “out there” seems to understand what they’re going through, especially their families.
- Distrust. This extends to group situations, and often to organized religion (if they were in a religious cult) or organizations in general (depending on the type of cult they were in). There is also a general distrust of their own ability to discern when or if they are being manipulated again. This dissipates after they learn more about mind control and begin to listen to their own inner voice again.
- Fear of going crazy. This is especially common after “floating” experiences (see point 18 below for explanation of floating).
- Fear that what the cult said would happen to them if they left actually might happen.
- Tendency to think in terms of black and white, as conditioned by the cult. They need to practice looking for the gray areas.
- Spiritualizing everything. This residual sometimes lasts for quite a while. Former members need to be encouraged to look for logical reasons why things happen and to deal with reality, to let go of their magical thinking.
- Inability to make decisions. This characteristic reflects the dependency that was fostered by the cult.
- Low self-esteem. This generally comes from those experiences common to most cults, where time and again members are told that they are worthless.
- Embarrassment. This is an expression of the inability to talk about their experience, to explain how or why they got involved or what they had done during that time. It is often manifested by an intense feeling of being ill at ease in both social and work situations. Also, often there is a feeling of being out of sync with everyone else, of going through culture shock, from having lived in a closed environment and having been deprived of participating in everyday culture.
- Employment and/or career problems. Former members face the dilemma of what to put on a resume to cover the blank years of cult membership.
- Dissociation. This also has been fostered by the cult. Either active or passive, it is a period of not being in touch with reality or those around them, an inability to communicate.
- Floating. These are flashbacks into the cult mindset. It can also take on the effect of an intense emotional reaction that is inappropriate to the particular stimuli.
- Nightmares. Some people also experience hallucinations or hearing voices. A small percentage of former members need hospitalization due to this type of residual.
- Family issues.
- Dependency issues.
- Sexuality issues.
- Spiritual (or philosophical) issues. Former members often face difficult questions: Where can I go to have my spiritual (or belief) needs met? What do I believe in now? What is there to believe in, trust in?
- Inability to concentrate, short-term memory loss.
- Re-emergence of pre-cult emotional or psychological issues.
- Impatience with the recovery process.
In my experience, there is no difference in the aftereffects experienced by those people who had family interventions or those who walked away or were expelled from a cult. Most ex-cult members — no matter the method of leaving the cult — had some or all of these residuals. The difference is that the individuals who had interventions are more prepared to deal with them, and especially those who went to a rehab facility.
It is important to note and to bring to the attention of the ex-cult member that each individual’s recovery process is different and there is no “How To Recover from a Cultic Experience.” In fact, the desire for a quick and easy recovery may be in itself a residual effect of the cult.
Excerpted from “Post-cult Problems: An Exit Counselor’s Perspective” by Carol Giambalvo, in Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse, edited by Michael D. Langone (1993. W.W. Norton & Company.) Reprinted with permission. Also available from AFF.