Life After the Cult
How to Heal the Trauma?
What is the experience of the student or disciple of the guru if that guru has been abusive or if the guru is a narcissist? This question is often quite confusing for the ex-disciple for they tend all to often to protect the “good” that they experienced while in the guru’s group.
It seems clear, however, that without some degree of trauma and abuse most if not all former disciples would have remained in their former spiritual groups.
A real return to emotional and spiritual health requires that one face into all the implications of the cult experience. Prior to leaving the group, one no doubt was fed propaganda claiming that leavers are losers, that life will cease to have any meaning once you walk out the door, and that guilt for this sin will never leave you. Clearly that is a load of bs – but it all too often works, and it is the first layer that needs to be removed on the road to recovery. This is very difficult for most of us to do. Many will offer sympathy, but few councilors, psychologists, spiritual advisors or even friends can fully understand what is taking place inside the leaver. One must make a personal mission of peeling back the layers of the cultic conditioning and by degrees allowing light back in. This is difficult and can take years to complete, but the result is having your own life back, with the added understanding and clarity of having deeply pondered this experience.
Here is what one expert on healing trauma says about the challenges facing the leaver:
“Many trauma suffers live in a state of resignation regarding their symptoms without ever attempting to find a way back to a more normal healthy life. Denial and amnesia play an important role in reinforcing this resigned state. Though we may be tempted to judge or criticize people who deny that they have been traumatized, claiming that nothing really happened, it is important to remember that this (in itself) is a symptom. Denial and amnesia are not volitional choices that the person makes, they do not indicate weakness of character, personality dysfunction, or deliberate dishonesty. This dysfunctional pathway becomes patterned in our physiology. At the time of a traumatic event, denial helps preserve the ability to function and survive. However when chronic, denial becomes a maladaptive symptom of trauma.
Reversing the effects of either denial or amnesia takes a great deal of courage. The amount of energy that is released when this happens can be tremendous and should not be minimized or underestimated, it is a time of great significance for the traumatized person.”
- Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger, p. 165
Further to understanding the full implications of being someone with a significant experience of trauma in a cult, it is helpful to look at the classic psychological definition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Alterations in affect regulation, including
-Persistent dysphoria (depression)
-Chronic suicidal preoccupation
-Explosive or extremely inhibited anger (may alternate)
-Compulsive or extremely inhibited sexuality (may alternate)
Alternations in consciousness, including
· Amnesia or hypermnesia for traumatic events
· Transient dissociative episodes
· Reliving experiences, either in the form of intrusive post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms or in the form of ruminative preoccupation
Alternatives in self-perception, including
· Sense of helplessness or paralysis of initiative
· Shame, guilt, and self-blame
· Sense of defilement or stigma
· Sense of complete difference from others (may include sense of specialness, utter aloneness, belief no other person can understand, or nonhuman identity)
Alterations in perception of perpetrator, including
· Preoccupation with relationship with perpetrator (includes preoccupation with revenge)
· Unrealistic attribution of total power to perpetrator (caution: victim’s assessment of power realities may be more realistic than clinician’s)
· Idealization or paradoxical gratitude
· Sense of special or supernatural relationship
· Acceptance of belief system or rationalization of perpetrator
Alterations in relations with others, including
· Isolation and withdrawal
· Disruption in intimate relationships
· Repeated search for rescuer (may alternate with isolation and withdrawal)
· Persistent distrust
· Repeated failures of self-protection
Alterations in systems of meaning
· Loss of sustaining faith
· Sense of hopelessness and despair