Path Toward Recovering from Toxic Theology
Path of Recovery
Thinking back on this has me thinking about the stages my recovery. Dr. Paul R Martin takes a rather Evangelical approach to cult recovery but makes some good points about stages of recovery in his book Recovery from Cults:
Exit Counseling: I have never found a counselor who specializes in cult recover. Considering I live in an isolated part of the Northwest this is not surprising. However, I feel Cognitive Behavior Therapy is beginning to help in taking place of exit counseling. My therapists gets to hear all kinds of interesting stories about the Friendly Neighborhood Cult and how I feel it has contributed to my anxiety and inhibitions, and interpersonal frustrations.
Importance of Relationships: Being an animist my relationships are a primary part of my world view and are not limited to human relationships. Being the world as full of person whom only some are human has opened me up to a wider concept of community. This awareness has healed me in ways that I would have never expected.
Examining the Group dynamics: I have learned a lot about how the group operates and what it does to its followers physiologically. I continue to learn this on a daily basis. Some ex-followers obsess over this. I try not to, for I feel I have better and more important things to do. When I do discuss these thins it is in jest. However, when I am in a safe place and feel I can be vulnerable the anger I feel toward the cult comes out.
“Floating”: Dr. Martin talks about this as moments of relapse in self blame and guilt where the one in recovery believes the cult to be true momentary. This doesn't really happen to me. However a vague unassociated guilt of my emotions has been a hard habit to kick which might fit into this category.
Thought Reform: this is where cognitive behavioral therapy plays an important role. I am becoming more in tune with the inter chatter of my thoughts. It is horrifying the self deprivation and terrible things my mind says about me. I cannot help but feel this voice has been created by the cult and exist inside every cult follower to keep them in self doubt and in allegiance to the leadership and doctrine of the cult. Having the ability to catch these thoughts, examine them, determent their fallacy and counter them with positive evidence and affirmation is the most empowering thing I have learned.
Integration into society: Having the pleasures of being born into the cult it is not a matter of reintegrating myself into society, but integrating myself in the larger society for the first time. Since the place I grew up was 99.5% members of the Friendly Neighborhood Cult, I feel I grew up in a different country or society entirely.
Eventually Dr Martin rambles on about finding the “True Christ” which has little relevence to me. However, I think better response is practicing self-love.
There is one point which I feel is of particular frustration in my path to recover:
Intimacy and sexuality in relationships: This is where I feel the most bitterness. It feels to me as if the cult is responsible for taking away from some of the simple basic experiences of life and love. Because of the freakish emphasizes they place upon coupling and the quickness in which marriage is thrust upon young people, I feel lost in this world and at a large disadvantage. This puts a strain on any intimate relationship I attempt with a woman. I have to fight the impulses ingrained in me by the Friendly Neighborhood Cult as to not scare them away. When I tell them about these issues they then feel the pressured not to screw me up, or feel the need to protect me from reality of authentic love. Ugh! This is one where I still need help and have some more healing a head of me.
It always feels dangerous talking about these experiences and the Friendly Neighborhood Cult openly. one time i anonymously wrote a piece about my experience for a local alternative magazine I volunteered for and we got threats against me by members of the local Friendly Neighborhood Cult. may guess as to what the Cult actually is based on clues provided on this blog, or you know me personally. However, I feel I need and outlet and thus this blog is becoming the place to vent and so I dubbed it the Friendly Neighborhood Cult and occasional use this blog as an outlet to vent. Pardon me when my occasional vague rants on the subject in between posts about unitarian universalism, religious naturalism, and animism.
In her book, Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion, Dr. Marlene Winell writes about five stages of recovery from religious trauma. I will be brief in summarizing what she has to say about each phase. What I want to focus on is how these phases reflect my path towards recovery. It has been about 16 years since I began distancing myself intellectually from The Friendly Neighborhood Cult and 12 years since I excommunicated myself. However, I find it far more difficult to distance my self emotionally and psychologicaly from their toxic theology. Fear, self-doubt, shame, guilt are a residue from The Friendly Neighborhood Cult taht continue to affect me. I am working on freeing myself and cleaning my self from the stains they left.
Phase 1: Separation
The initial separation be sudden or gradual. It is disturbing when life experience and further information doesn't fit into the neat little box the religion has created for you. There comes a point when you can no longer ignore the cognitive dissonance growing inside you. For some leaving is an easy processes, and for others it is a traumatic struggle. Regardless, separation is a time of deep change and questioning. For me, the separation started at a young age. I have difficulty remembering much from my childhood. I have a few traumatic memories of rights of passage when in elementary school.
However, this time of my life has always been a blur for me. My memories become more clear, yet still fuzzy, in my early teens starting around the age of 12. I remember performing my religious duties diligently and being commended by adults about my dedication. Inside I had doubts. They teach that doubt is the seed of the devil. therefore, if I doubted then something was wrong with me. They say if you question their “truth” read their scriptures again and again until you feel better. If you have this fuzzy feeling then the spirit is with you again. By the way, that fuzzy feeling they describe is emotional numbing. I read and re-read the bloody scriptures and each time my doubt would grow. Passages often quoted in church and religious studies reeked of racism, bigotry, and holier than thou art arrogance.
I had no means to articulate this, and if I could I would have feared what my parents and the other adults would say about me. As the doubt grew I could no longer conceal it. I refused to go to church. When they forced me to go, I would stay outside the chapel and didn't attend Sunday school. Often, I would cut across the field between the church and home. I found what little I could about other religions, philosophies, and cultures at the public library. My doubts and behaviors became noticed by the neighborhood and children my age become suspicious of me. The ones who were not trying to coax me into joining church activities would torment and beat me. (you can read more from "Adventures of A Teenage Satanist" Parts 1, 2, & 3,)
Phase 2: Confusion
Dr. Winell, writes about this stage being twofold. Until this point in your life, your religion presented you with a clear plan for life, often including important steps to follow and making life decisions for you. Without this structure you can feel lost and a drift in a hostile world and anxiety problems might arise. At the same time this is a time of exploring possibilities and experimenting with behaviors which where otherwise taboo. This can also be a liberating time when you find a sense of peace with allowing yourself to just exist. I ran as far away as I could and joined the military. However, military life didn't agree with me either. Leaving one authoritative environment for another was not the solution. During the initial separation period I began drinking heavily and experimented with cannabis with a group of neopagans stationed with me. Eventually, the military gave me an honorable administrative discharge for “failure to adapt to military life.” I tried to make it in the big city and settled in with a group of neopagans.
However, It was difficult to find gainful employment and I ended back in the old neighborhood with few friends and no socialization outside family entrenched in the religion. It was this time I excommunicated myself and signed all paperwork declaring I resigned the rights and privileges granted to me by their religious authorities. However, I was still within their influence and living with my devout parents. Though I did not know it until later in life, I had developed generalized anxiety and panic disorder. Panic attacks would come on from nowhere and I would think I was going to die. My heart would race, I couldn't breath, I started choking, felt nauseous, would vomit, and overall felt terrified. I tried to find commonality between attacks and thought it was food related, or claustrophobia, or a thyroid condition, but there was no consistency. These attacks embarrassed me and I became afraid they would happen at any time. I started avoiding public places, couldn't hold a job for long, and was dependent upon my parents. I was agoraphobic but didn't know it, and couldn't articulate the fear I felt.
I became confused, I didn't know where I fit in to the family. I was dependent upon them, and appreciative of the care they gave me. Yet, at the same time there was this distance and wall in our relationship which couldn't be penetrated. I could not speak freely of my confusion, my distrust of the church, or my doubts. My emotions where so tied up in separating my self from the toxic theology, but had no outlet for expression. I walled myself up inside, unsure of who I could trust, unable to let anyone inside my shrinking world. I did not understand where the fear and panic came from. I no longer had access to alcohol or cannabis for escape. The isolation consumed me. To this day, I do not understand where I fit in with my family, wondering how much of their love and affection is obligatory and in hopes of drawing me back into the fold. I started going to a local unitarian universalist church seeking friendship and understanding. It was not an easy choice. My aunt played piano at the church 45 miles away.
It became the one place I felt safe and even comfortable. People would listen to me, and respected me, and wanted me around. These well-educated people valued logic and reason in their religion. They inspired me to go to college, something I previously hadn't considered because of diagnosed learning disabilities as a child (school counselors told me the best I could hope for was vocational school or the military). (read about the first time unitarian universalism saved my life) I moved away and started college at the age of 24. Because of flare ups of generalized anxiety and panic attacks it has taken 6 years over a span of 8 years to finish undergraduate work. Towards the end the anxiety and panic have resurfaced with a vengeance. When first starting college, I became involved with a group of young political activists I met at church. I felt like I had a place to belong. With some help from a lot of cannabis, I found I could push my self beyond my small comfort zone and done things I never thought possible. I participated in protests, photographed political events, went on the school radio, presented documentaries, and wrote for a radical underground local zine.
Phase 3: Avoidance
My anxiety and panic begun to catch up with me and my participation slumped and started to fail at my responsibility to the group. I wanted to tell someone what was going on with me, but I didn't know myself. I became dissolution with the local UU congregation and stopped attending. I had lost all interest neopaganism and nature-religion. Then I found my self hitchhiking across Colorado with no place to go. Confused as to my place in the world, wondering what was wrong with me, self-doubt, guilt, and shame took over, and I drifted from squatting in abandons houses with strangers, and staying with an old friend from childhood. My friend has one of the biggest hearts I know, yet he is very much devoted to The Friendly Neighborhood Cult. During the time I began doubting he converted. Despite our theological difference we where geeky introverts that found plenty of other things to relate to. It always hurts me to see the guilt and shame eat him.
When staying with him, thousands of miles away from where we grew up, I tried to go back to UU church. There where two congregations in the city. The first one I tried was a large church, the closest to a UU mega-church I've seen. It felt lonely and isolated there, no one took notice of new faces amongst the sea of people filling the large sanctuary. There wasn't the friendly outreach I had come to associate with unitarian universalism. Disheartened I stopped going. I found a smaller congregation tucked away near the hospitals. I entered that small church and they welcomed me with open arms, smiling faces, and a loving community. It was like having 15 pairs of grandparents. They helped me by giving me a part-time job assisting the minister that allowed me to contribute groceries while living with my friend. I joined the UU men's group and hung out after service when they would go out for Chinese food. I went to movie night where we watched classic movies. They invited me to participate in services and found my ideas instate and encouraged me to continue schooling. One family gave me their old van to drive back to Idaho, where I could get instate tuition. This was the second time unitarian universalism saved my life.
Phase 4: Feelings
After some time strong feelings will come to the surface. One of the common emotions felt during this chaotic time is anger. You can become angry at the damage, trauma, and abuse which happened to you. You may feel angry at your former religion for continuing to abuse others. You might think it is best to forgive and forget, and so have suppressed the rage. This leavs you feeling helpless. Feelings of lose are common. You might feel loss of a relationships with god, or the relationships with family and loved ones. If you where young when you started doubting, you may feel cheated out of your childhood and adolescence. You might not know who you are anymore and undergo a significant existential crisis. You may feel guilt or shame for your behaviors you participated during you time with the religion. Feelings of abandonment and refection could overwhelm you with thoughts that no one can love. It is important to find a means of expression during this phase. As of writing this, I feel I am drifting between the feeling phase, and rebuilding of phase 5.
Once I striped away the layers of anxiety in my life I discovered seething mess of mixed emotions underneath. I am angry at what they did to me. I am angry at what The Friendly Neighborhood Cult continues to do to people whom I know and love. I want them held accountable for their actions, but am realistic in knowing that will not happen. I find my self battling self-doubt, shame, and guilt that isn't apart of me. I see it as something they gave to me as a child. It enrages me that it still has power over me. I am in grief for the loss of important developmental stages in my life. I feel like I missed important steps in life I can never get back. I am angry at them for skiping important stages in life. Feelings of guilt plague me over needing to give and receive affection (I intellectually know isn't logical, but the feelings persist). I struggle with allowing my self to have feelings of love and affection, let alone reclaiming the right to my sexuality. I fear that I cannot be loved and have to reassure myself that people love and care about me. Then there is fear. Panic disorder already has me vulnerable to random bouts of fear. Waves of panic rushing through me at random moments with no seeming reason to them. They have me shaking, my heart racing, my breath short. When they are bad, I can't breathe, I feel nausea, I feel choked and I start vomiting. I become disassociated.
As I confront years of suppressed emotions long forgotten memories are starting to resurface, or forgotten details are becoming clear. I am unsure if I am able to survive them. I don't know what to do about it. I feel helpless. On top of generalized anxiety and panic disorder, I am having emotional flashbacks and other symptoms akin to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. My agoraphobia is intensifying making it increasingly difficult to leave the house or wonder far from home. Because of this, I have had to cut to part-time status at school. I am to the point where I need to devout myself to recovery which is proving a full-time job. I am considering medication and possible divisibility so that I can afford the expensive medication. This is the time where it gets worse before it gets better, and seeking professional mental health-care is a necessity if I am going survive and come out of this a better and healthier human being.
Phase 5: Rebuilding
This is when you begin to heal. It is an exciting, though freighting time. You learn to take responsibility for you emotions and be compassionate with your self. You will learn and reaffirm you strengths and how to use them to you advantage. Building self-esteem and learning confidence is critical at this time in your life. You discover who you are and how your core resonates. This leaves you to explore relationships in new ways and build a new social networks. You empower you self to take back control of you life. This might be the time when you find a new form of spirituality emerging which is meaningful and gives you purpose. You learn discernment when it comes to personal beliefs and understanding what is helpful and beneficial to your wellbeing and what is not.
As exhilarating as it is, this time can also be scary as you test your abilities and discover your boundaries and potential. I don't think it is a coincidence that I entered the feeling phase around at time in life which forces me to consider long-term decisions about where I want to go. I feel, as I am undergoing both these phases at the same time, I am glad that a close friend gave me the courage to seek professional counseling for anxiety and panic. A combination of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), Cognitive Process Therapy (CPT), and positive psychology, are guiding me in reclaiming my life. I am fortunate to live near a large research 1 university with an affordable physiological clinic where the interns have excellent supervision from professionals in their field. Therapy, the UU church, and close friends, have become my life-line during recovery.
At the same time I am struggling with the mixed emotions and escalating panic and anxiety like I've never known before. Yet, I am making long-term goals, some of which I am nerves about but feeling more confident in my ability to make important life choices. But, I feel before I take the next big step in my life, It is imperative that I find time to devote to self-care, self-love, and recovery. CBT is teaching me about what anxiety and panic is, what causes them, and most importantly how to manage and even combat them. CPT is teaching me to processes the traumatic and abusive events in my life and re-write my story, giving me new meaning to my life and the events that shaped me. Through positive psychology I am learning who I am by reaffirming my strengths and positive qualities and using them against the fear, anxiety, shame, and self-doubt so I can discover who I am and tune myself to my core's resonance. Yet, it is not happening over night. It takes a lot of work.
I stumble often, but learn compassion when I do and keep going. Through all of the mixed emotions and rebuilding my life and identity, writing in this blog is fundamental to my recovery. It has allowed my an outlet for my emotions, given me the strength to be open in my relationships, and give my self a new sence of meaning and purpose. Sometimes posting about The Friendly Neighborhood Cult sends me into fits of anxiety, panic, and fear, but I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. Each time I sit down and write, whether it is about polytheistic naturalism, to vent about a bad day of panic and anxiety, or to retell my story about The Friendly Neighborhood Cult, I learn something new about myself. Writing in the blog has become a liberating experience and serves as witness to my accomplishments in recovering from anxiety, panic, and religious trauma. Expressing my thoughts on land relationships as an animist, religious naturalism, unitarian universalism, humanism, or other randomness, helps me feel more confident and capable in my abilities. It has become my safe haven in self-discovery.
Dr. Winell, outlines a few key issues in recovery:
- Sense of Self: You may suffer from an identity crisis. While within the religion your sense of self was tied to external factors. When separated from the religion this can leave you feeling like a an “empty shell, without any core.”
- To deal with these issues I'm getting to know myself for the first time and learn to appreciate how unique I am and discover the wonderful qualities within me. This includes learning to embrace my sexuality.
- Emotional Struggles: Emotional upheaval is common place when you leave a toxic religion. You may struggle with constant feelings of anger, lose, alienation, abandonment, loneliness, fear, anxiety, disconnectedness, guilt, and self-doubt. Winell states that a “church group often provides a social context that is difficult to match in the secular world.”
- For me, unitarian universalism continues to help bridge the gap between the religious and the secular. Without a an emphasis on strict doctrine and dogma, UU teaches me to value human reason and observation and that they do not have place within a religious or spiritual life. The structure of religious humanism guides me in learning to embrace not only my humanity but the humanity within those I love and care about. This is leading to important lessons about self-love and self-care. However, depending on development of recovery and personality, UU may not fit everyone's needs.
- Being in the World: Letting go of a cosmic idealism with some being or force which sets right the wrongs in the world is a big challenge. Before you may have thought you had the perfect relationship with God, but now realize such a relationship is not realistic. This can leave you frustrated with needing real human connections that are complicated and confusing. Maybe you have to learn it is okay to experience pleasure.
- For me, learning to practice mindfulness is important. Being present in the moment is one of my biggest challenges. I am just beginning to learn the concepts of mindfulness and have to force myself to practice mindfulness routinely.
- Self-Responsibility: While within your old religion, life may have been as simple as seeking God's will by allowing church authorities to make important choices for you. When you break away from that environment you may find it is difficult to find stability and learn habits of self-reliance that where formerly discouraged. Learning to trust yourself, getting in touch with and processing your feelings, expressing those feelings, forming your own opinions and beliefs, making your own choices, setting goals, and giving life new meaning, is vital to your recovery.
- This has been a hard obstacle for me. Self-doubt has left me feeling inantiquity to take care of myself. I have long learned to distance myself intellectually from The Friendly Neighborhood Cult and to form my own beliefs, but when it came to matters of emotions and trusting myself, I can feel lost and confused. Seeking and accepting validation is proving an important step in this regard. Therapy has been important in accepting these things did happen to me and they continue to affect me. Being open with myself and others has allowed me to make connections with others suffering and form stronger bonds in my human relationships. I still have a long way to go, but feel I am making slow but important progress.
- Meaning and Spirituality: Losings what once had deep meaning to you, or (if you where young during initial separation) discovering the flaws and cracks in the “truth” taught to you, is a startling and disturbing experience. Changing your assumptions and giving new meaning to your life is a daunting task. You may go through a period where you distrust anything spiritual, religious, or dealing with human organization. This distancing is normal and healthy. However, it is important to begin redefining spirituality and participation in greater society on your terms.
- Understand that humanity is a flawed and complicated experience and it is up to me in how I connect with my humanity was an important epiphany for me. Unitarian universalism, religious humanism, and religious naturalism, along side ideas of person-hood within animism, have been fundamental to discovering and making peace with my humanity. I've learned black and white thinking is self-destructive and leads to cognitive distortions. This has been the area of development in recovery. I have worked the hardest and longest at. Redefining what religion and spirituality mean to me allowes me a stable footing for tackling other obstacles in recovering.
You Are Not Alone
This is only a synopsis of the first chapter of Dr Winell's book Leaving the Fold. If you are serious about recovering from religious trauma, I suggest you buy a copy. I am taking my time, going through each chapter and section. I find it a good companion with these other booksabout coping with anxiety. I also recommend you seek a therapist trained in or being trained in cognitive-behavior therapy. In my experience recovery is a process of touching your core and listening to its resonance and letting it bring you to tears. Let your core's resonance transform you as you connect with the world around. I know first hand, how freighting this is. Be gentle with yourself – this kind of change doesn't happen all at once. Have fun discovering yourself for the first time. Know that you are not alone in this and others experience similar struggles every day.