by Cindy Kunsman cross posted from her blog Under Much Grace
I needed to devote time and energy to my own recovery before I did anything. I was so hypervigilant, waiting for that next shoe to drop, and it was like Imelda Marcos was following me around. But I also had an exit counselor who was able to show me that I was not ready yet – and I she didn’t need to tell me that in those terms. She needed only to give me the name of a new book or tell me about someone whom she counseled who had faces the challenges that I did. It was like stepping into the light so that I could see my own nakedness. You cannot see yourself when there is no light.
Exit Counseling and Insight of Perspective
There aren’t many exit counselors available anymore. Prior to the demise of the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) when Scientology put them out of business and bought them out, they maintained a listing of former members of cults and funky churches and their loved ones. I know of a few and make referrals to them, and I can recommend others who are available for hire. I left my group just after the internet became widely available, so there weren’t the blogs and resources out there that we enjoy today.
I had the good fortune to find my way to David Clark’s very first client who essentially taught me most everything that I know. The rest I learned from my own counselor and through continuing education concerning trauma. My counselor had just retired from her volunteer work with CAN, but someone gave me her phone number. She invited my husband and I to her home “for information that we needed” the very next day after we first spoke. And she saved my life. I suppose that if I hadn’t found her, I would have found someone else, but she became a lifeline. She remained accessible to me for nearly ,more two decades thereafter until she suffered a terrible fall. I visited with her two years ago, and I’m happy to say that she was still sharp as a tack, though she has trouble using the phone.
A person can read the good books that are now more plenteous that deal with the post-cult aftermath, and I have my own favorites listed HERE. (I haven’t updated it, and there is even more stuff out there now. At least it’s a starting point.)
But book reading it is nothing like talking in depth with someone who is knowledgable about how cults work and the trauma that people experience when they leave. My counselor very lovingly put hard information in front of me, many times. I remember asking her, “I didn’t really snap, did I?” “They didn’t really get me like other cults duped other members, did they?” With love and a ton of experience, she looked at me and told me exactly what I needed but didn’t want to hear. And she loved me through the process. I think that without that accountability and my growing trust with her, I would have only cherry picked what I wanted from the books. In a way, those moments were the saddest moments of my life and left me feeling the deepest disappointment that I’ve experienced to date. Who wants to find out that they’re naked and so ignorant about what has really happened to them that they don’t even realize it? No one does.
I wrote to someone this weekend and said a line that I’ve made my own: “I have so many knives in my back [from anti-cult and cult education work] that I’m still surprised that I don’t leak when I drink water.” I stepped up to the task out of duty because the need was so great, the consequences so severe, and I figured that in comparison to the sweet little help that was available, I would be a help. I couldn’t walk away from the problem. I was hard at work on my own healing.
In a way, I was not ready for it. I was still vulnerable, and it still occupied too much of my life. But what I’ve learned (another epiphany that I hated to accept) is that I will never “arrive.” I think of healing from abuse as a once and done thing. Having grown up in a high demand religious home, I have accepted that my recovery will always be ongoing. As a friend of mine so crudely puts it, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken s _ _ _.” There is no way to doctor up a trauma to make it pretty or less disturbing. It’s an ugly thing, and it should be. But I missed out on skills and abilities that most people take for granted, yet I’m still whittling away at getting better at them. In the beginning, I set out with the idea that I could do some work and move on from things. I do move on from them and I do gain skill, but there are always aspects of work to it. Boundaries are work – hard work – especially for those who grew up in a dysfunctional home.
I was socially isolated to a large extent when I started blogging. I had friends, but they weren’t healthy friendships. (I can gauge much of my growth by the kinds of people who have fallen or removed themselves from my life. And then I started having better boundaries, so I chose to pull back from some friendships. And I did a huge amount of growing as a result of the things I did right and the things that I did wrong. But I made sure that I had good people beside me to hold my feet to the fire so that I would grow in a healthy way. Not everyone does that. I went to (and still go to) great lengths to hold myself accountable. That doesn’t mean that I have no conflicts, but I don’t keep making the same mistakes, and I’m better about being aware of them.
There’s a ‘sticker’ image on Facebook of two potted cacti that are hugging one another. I love that image as an example of what a bunch of wounded people look like when they try to tackle projects together. Our flesh is thin and tender, but we also have our share of thorns, too. If those people are not friends or only know one another through cyberland, there are limits to how far a friendship can stretch. (That’s true for most people.) Now, consider that a few people want to get together to deal with a controversial and painful topic. Then consider that the people who oppose your efforts are powerful and well-funded. And you’re really a nobody.
What happens? Without a lot of maturity, loving acceptance, understanding, patience and HONESTY, one doesn’t need to go far to look for conflict. But really, how honest can one be when you’re only connected through WiFi? Sometimes it works out very well, but I have learned that all of this quickly becomes a recipe for pain. In hindsight, I think that the risk was worth the payoff in the long run, but if I had undertaken this endeavor with the goal of fluffing and padding my ego, I would no longer be working at it. Luckily, I work at this because I believe that I have a duty to others to help them avoid what I could not. I’m happy to have them stand on my shoulders. (Well, I’m happy about it in principle, but it hurts when someone’s stiletto heel penetrates those shoulders. They do, and they will.)
I also grieved to consider that my own heels and my cacti prongs have pierced others deeply along the way. I didn’t intend to hurt others and only wanted to help, so my grief runs deep over the mistakes that I’ve made. I’ve endeavored to do right by those who I’ve wronged, though sometimes, it becomes impossible to resolve such matters. I had very high expectations for others – too high, in fact – because of my tendency to be too optimistic about others. I didn’t accept them as they were, and I behaved as if they were who I wanted them to be. How utterly terrible to realize that this is the same perspective of those who have most deeply wounded me. Love is the remedy, but I can’t be responsible for others if they don’t want to extend love to me. And here’s the rub: Sometimes, they CAN’T. They may think that they are, but what I consider love and what they know as love can be different things entirely, especially when things become rough.
All of this creates a perfect storm for the “Survivor Wars.”
And I’m still trying to figure all of this out because hugging cacti is a learned skill.
It is hard, painful and honest work – and I’m not always up to the task. Just the same, I have hope to keep at it because I learned mercy for others through the great mercy that others have shown to me. On the days that I miss the mark, the safe, good people that stand with me love me enough to be patient and merciful with me.
Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.
Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.
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