"If I had known about the aftereffects of coming out of a cult,
I never would have left the Mormon Church!"
This was how I felt during the first few years of my difficult transition. Unaware that professional help was available, I found myself faced with the frustrating task of restoring my life. After coming out of three Mormon cults, it took approximately eight turbulent years to sort things out, rid myself of cult baggage, and reach the point of feeling I was on a par with the rest of the human race.
In the early stages, discouraged at my slow progress, I was tempted to return to the first cult I belonged to for 34 years, the Utah based Mormon Church.
The years spent in that church weren't as bad as the other two cults--that is, there was no physical abuse. But, typical of other cults, the Mormon Church repressed independent thinking, forbid questioning, taught bizarre doctrines, required blind obedience, and deceived members regarding its history. Because I had burned the last bridge behind me by requesting my excommunication, I knew I couldn't return.
I certainly had no inclination to return to the second cult, the Bryanites and, most emphatically, not the third--a radical offshoot group called Mormon Fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism, the more extreme of the three, practiced a United Order where everyone was required to give 100% of their goods and finances. It exacted rigid and demanding rules, required robot obedience, promoted poor living conditions, and tightly curtailed free agency. There was also physical abuse.
In that group I was held prisoner for nine months in a small 8x10 room because they caught me sneaking away to a Christian church. Accused of "spiritual adultery" and refusing to "repent of my sin," my health deteriorated rapidly. I grew very thin, slipped in and out of deep depression, suffered through crushing disappointments, mental and emotional agonies, unanswered questions, and found my faith shattered in suspecting that doctrines I had believed in for so long, might be wrong. I felt let down...cheated. I soon lost all incentive to live.
Eventually, I was found unconscious and, at that point, nearly died (as I was later informed). The leader, concerned that my death might become a reality and bring a police investigation, saw to it that I was given better food. I slowly regained enough strength to plan an
At the point of my exodus, I felt I was free and my problems over--but, not so. I was unaware of the length of time it takes to overcome the emotional aftereffects.
I was facing eight years of disorientation, flashbacks, conflicting emotions, nightmares, irrational behavior and continuing health problems. I grappled with disorientation, an inability to relate to people, and was in constant fear that the doctrine of "blood atonement" would be carried out on me. Plus, I had anxiety attacks and recurring nightmares that the cult leader would find me and force me back to the cult.
I also had to deal with two painful and disabling kinds of culture shock. The first, societal, was trying to cope with reentry into society. I found stores and people foreign--like they were from another planet. Plus, after nine months of isolation, I had to learn how to communicate all over again.
The second, was religious culture shock. Hoping to find a substitute for both the cult and its leader in a traditional church and pastor, I was unprepared for the jolting encounter. Struggling to overcome my disappointment, I lay awake at night agonizing over the emotional tug-of-war between wanting to harbor cult beliefs, yet embrace new ones.
In addition, I was tormented with "what if" questions: What if the Book of Mormon is true! What if Joseph Smith was really a prophet! What if I become a daughter of perdition by leaving! Further, I was plagued with the thought that Mormonism's longevity and success must
prove it had a divine origin and I must return--if I didn't, God would disown me. Daily, I struggled with the temptation to go back--not to the Bryanites or Fundamentalists--but, to the Mormon Church.
An Exasperating Paradox
In addition, I suffered losses--the cult's extra-biblical revelation; the leader's claimed supernatural contact with God; the absence of the cult community; friendships; cult goals; absolute answers; self-esteem; sacred myths; elite status--all the things that once
convinced me I belonged to God's only true church.
Hurled into a state of bereavement, I went through the stages of grief similar to a widow(er) losing a spouse. I experienced the death of my cult identity, self-image, basic needs, securities, cult leader as father/mother figure, strong causes, heavenly rewards and living prophets. Having no immediate substitutes to fill the void effected a critical sense of tragedy, and I underwent one psychological crisis after another.
Further, I had to deal with others who did not understand my distress and belittled my former cult membership. To them, I was an exasperating paradox. "How can she miss the cult when she knows it was wrong?" "How can she be happy to be free, yet want to return?" Failing
to understand that I was a victim of psychological enslavement, their consensus was that I was possessed of a "cult devil".
In addition, I was left with prolonged health problems. A neck brace controlled crippling pain spasms in my neck and back. A severe hemorrhage required six blood transfusions. With a completely paralyzed colon, I faced a possible colostomy and later underwent surgery for other related matters.
Common, Normal Process
Often I'm asked: "What was the most difficult aspect of having been in three cults?" Admittedly, the one was where I was held prisoner was horrendous. But, I have to say that the worst part was the emotional turmoil upon coming out. Dealing with all the psychological aftermath proved to be the most soul-wrenching, excruciating, experience of my life. Contributing greatly to this assessment is the fact that during that intense and turbulent time, I had no idea why I was suffering, although I could describe my symptoms.
If someone had only explained to me that what I was going through was "normal" and that I wasn't "losing my mind" or "cracking up" as many former cultists have expressed, it would have facilitated a faster recovery. It was only later, after much research and talking with other ex-cultists, that I gained an understanding of the normalcy and inevitability of the painful coming-out process.
Every former cultist who has contacted me, without exception, describes the same problematic aftereffects. Over and over, their one common lament is, "If there were only someone in my locale who could help me on a one-to-one basis." Sometimes, I can put them in touch with
someone. Sometimes, I can't.
While it goes without saying that the best helpers are those who were once cultists, individuals who have never been in a cult can also qualify. All it takes is caring, a willingness to study the phenomenon, and to make oneself available. This, plus educating the victim about cults and the aftereffects of coming out, can reduce the time of recovery.
1. Official name for the Mormon Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of
2. Official name for the Bryanites: Church of Christ (Patriarchal).
3. Fundamentalism has approximately 50,000 members, with individual
groups in various states headed by independent leaders.