Science Fiction

One of the best things that happened to me right after I left the cult was that I discovered Doctor Who.

I had seen some science fiction, but they were mostly movies and a few random episodes of various shows. I hadn’t watched anything consistently. Most of the science fiction I did see had a strange grounding in reality: Logan’s Run was a dystopia about a computer running the nanny state, The Forbidden Planet was a remake of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, The X-Files were basically G-men who met aliens, The Prisoner was more about psychological manipulation than extreme science, etc.

Most of the science fiction also had a strong “us vs. them” mentality, which was something the cult taught. I related most to the dystopias where the world was ending and the strong (and often self-righteous) few were the only ones that survived.

After I left, my entertainment tastes started to change. Suddenly I didn’t care if what I watched offended other people or if it didn’t agree with their morals or not. And when someone recommended Doctor Who, I watched every episode of the new series.

The show helped break a lot of attitudes I didn’t realize that I’d carried with me outside the cult. The show wasn’t loaded with sex, despite the romantic tension between the Doctor and some of his companions. The girls weren’t chaperoned and had no male family members to keep them safe, oftentimes jumped into situations where they were in a lot of danger, and still didn’t get ravaged by some worldly, sensual male that wasn’t “saved”.

The whole premise of the show is the fact that people of differing ages and genders can get along, be good friends and trust each other in difficult circumstances. Which is exactly the opposite of what the cult taught. Younger people were always wrong and young women could never be trusted with older men. When I tried to have simple conversations with men in the church, their wives were always at their elbow giving me me looks and watching my slightest move.

That mentality is a hard one to break, even if you know it’s paranoid and wrong. It really helped me to see an example, even if it was a TV show from across the pond. The emphasis on friendship and trust was a much welcome change from the normal doomsday stuff that I was used to.

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Time Capsule

Another self-improvement project that helps me is my Time Capsule journal. It’s similar to my topics du jour journal, but it’s scheduled at the end of every month and I write about 20+ topics in one sitting. Over time, these entries add up and I can easily see long-term patterns that I might not notice in my regular journal. Thus far, the topics are divided into several categories:

*Possessions, personal space
*Physical health
*mental health
*Relationships with friends and individual family members
*Tastes/likes/preferences (books, movies, music, etc.)
*Education/general self-improvment

I try to keep my entries short, usually a paragraph per topic. This makes it easy when I want to review many months at a time.

Another major difference between this and the topics du jour journal is that this is not a TO-DO list. This is a things I have DONE list. My journals were so self-condemning that I decided that I needed a place where there would be no shoulds or shouldn’ts.

Keeping track of my relationships this way has been invaluable in helping me to maintain them or to notice if things are one-sided. I could prove an ex-cult friend was avoiding me because she hadn’t socialized with me in 7 months. I knew she was busy, but when I counted the months I knew she couldn’t be THAT busy. After I exited, she offered to socialize with me ONLY if I wanted to discuss the reasons why I disagreed with the cult.

I also like to keep track of movies/books/music because I associate events in my life to the media I was enjoying at the time. The death of a family member last year is associated with “The Westing Game”. Fun times with my friends are associated with movies we watched together. When I listen to particular hymns, many memories of the cult come flooding back.

Sometimes the entries are too painful to write. I once took a 7 month sabbatical from this journal because things in life were too stressful to even attempt to summarize into short paragraphs. Instead, I vented long, rambling entries into my regular journal. I felt slightly guilty, but I knew that once things settled down I would be able to write in it again. And I did.

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The cult, my health……and halloween

As I’ve mentioned before, the cult didn’t help my health. Every physical problem supposedly had a root in a spiritual problem.

The cult also hated and misunderstood Halloween. I heard endless sermons on the evils of Satanism, wiccanism, New-Age-ism, etc. Everything relating to this day was EVIL.

Except candy.

At the “Harvest Party” (Halloween substitute) kids played games and got to take bags of candy home. Adults brought candy to the monthly potluck. They used candy bought on sale to make other goodies. And this emphasis on holiday sweets continued all the way through Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The cult members got stouter. The older ones complained about their health problems and doctors visits. Women felt guilty because they felt the extra weight made them less appealing to their husbands. People became sick easily, catching colds and the flu and then spreading it among the cult because they felt guilty about missing meetings and wouldn’t stay home. It became a standard joke how much the pastor’s family would all get sick and then keep giving it to each other.

And all these were considered spiritual problems. They were something to be endured because all burdens supposedly came from God and he wouldn’t put people through trials that they could not bear. People prayed and hoped the fat and the sickness would go away even while they put on their plastic smiles and pretended they were OK.

Only one member came close to separating her spiritual issues from her physical issues, but it took a tumor and being in the hospital for 3 weeks for it to happen. And even after all that, she still tried to follow the cult’s (unspoken but still expected) dress codes by wearing her high heels even though she could barely walk. It was strange to hear her talk about her diet and her physical therapy while she barely hobbled up the pews in her obviously uncomfortable shoes.

Because of all this self-destructive behavior, they always deemed their problems worse than mine. They thought me unspiritual because I didn’t thank God for the blessings I did have and didn’t empathize with their destructive behavior. This became worse when I started reading books about yoga and meditation instead of the Bible and their cult materials when I wanted to learn about pain management.

When I left, many of them were still sick. Sicker than the Wiccans, Satanists, and other people they considered spiritually beneath them. And they still think that avoiding a few plastic witches, trick-or-treaters, and The Great Pumpkin will keep them spiritually pure so that God will be good to them and cure their health problems.

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The cult and my health

While I was in the cult, I was sick all the time (just like my sister). I had difficulties sleeping, remembering things, listening to people, concentrating, and was stressed easily. I had rashes all over my body, intense acne, and was starting to go gray. Small wounds (like getting my ears pierced) would take months to heal and frequently got infected.

It was horrible, particularly when I started college and went through intense culture shock. My first three years of college are mostly a blur of emotional and physical pain. I sought comfort in the teachings of the cult, despite the fact that they blamed my pain on “sin” and spiritual problems.

When I did try to discuss my physical problems with people in the cult, they found other reasons to ignore them. I was either too young to have them and therefore must be exaggerating, too stupid to see that it wasn’t a big deal, or too selfish to see how much worse off than they were.

Fortunately, I began my cult exit during my last year of college and I was able to have a year of cult-free academic freedom. I was less sick and my grades jumped to a 4.0.  I admitted that my pain wasn’t a “spiritual” problem and took a class in nutrition so I could learn how to nourish my body and help it heal. I was a happier person and a couple teachers remarked upon the difference in my personality.

I’m slowly healing. While the cult didn’t cause my health problems, the stress greatly worsened them. It frustrates me because I feel like the cult is still hurting me even though I physically left a year ago. And I’m becoming more angry because understanding my health problems is making me realize exactly what they did and how much they didn’t care about me.

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Topics du jour

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve started and stopped lots of self-improvement projects. Most of them were a response to stress and a way to avoid working through painful emotions.

However, some of them worked.

One of these was keeping a topics du jour journal. I was fortunate to read about it “Journal to the Self” and it was a simple enough concept that I figured it would be easy to do. I reduced the number of topics to 7, one for each day of the week. Though I have not always been consistent, my journal was started in October of 2009 and is still helping me today.

My first topics du jour journal

Sunday was naturally devoted to “God/Church”. In July of that year I’d found articles online exposing theological problems with the cult. It started the thinking process of doing my own evaluations and seeing if it was really as bad as the articles described.

Week after week, I monitored how things were going:

Oct 25, 09
[Pastor X’s] sermon rambled and didn’t have a whole lot of meat. He thinks our actions can turn off God’s grace, even if we’re saved.

Nov 8, 09
Missionaries ramble more than [Pastor X] does. I couldn’t understand the guy from Myanmar today. He was all over the place.

Nov 15, 09
The questions in Soul Repair were tough. The material wasn’t that hard, it’s just that I’m not used to getting comfort and forgiveness from God. I found an article from [cult publication] that I saved on conducting friendships and it was loaded with [cult similar to mine] theology and heavy condemnation. It revolted me.

Nov 22, 09
[Pastor X’s] sermon was 1/3 about the need for salvation.

Nov 29, 09
Finished the chapter on addictive spirituality [in Soul Repair]. It hit home pretty hard so I’m avoiding all things [cult related] till the end of the year at least. It’s been rough, I’m going through withdrawal already and I’m thinking about it all the time.

The format of the journal forced me to keep my entries short, which made it easy to review weeks worth of entries in one sitting. I began to see flaws in the cult’s theology, and it became obvious that non-cult materials were helping me grow while cult-materials were leaving me depressed and frustrated. It also made me see that [Pastor X] repeatedly focused on his favorite topics and that he often spoke variations on the same message week after week.

So I used my journal to help me leave. I gradually withdrew from activities, stopped saving handouts from adult Sunday-school and made the church less relevant to my life. I also prepared myself for the possibility that people there would drop their friendships with me, though I did my best to save them. I set a goal and my last attendance was right before Easter 2010.

And I spent Easter Sunday sleeping in, staying home and celebrating that I was out. It was the best Easter ever.

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Cognitive Dissonance

In the cult, unhappiness was a sign of a sin and separateness from God. If I was in pain or unhappy it was because of something I was or wasn’t doing spiritually. I was told that my own instincts were selfish and deceitful and that they knew me better than I did. Following “biblical” formulas guaranteed happiness and prosperity and they had a formula for every problem I had. This kept me from becoming vulnerable and feeling my emotions. I didn’t need to share or feel my problems, I only needed to work harder at the solutions being given to me.

I now know that the cult had the “absence of the holy spirit” disease that Lewis describes.

Despite no longer being a member of the cult, my first response to stress is still to find a formula and hope that it will fix it. I stay with these self-improvements projects even when I often do not get any benefit or enjoyment from them. And I am very critical of people who don’t have the fortitude to “improve” themselves like me.

I do this despite knowing that holiness is not given through works and that I’m using formulas to avoid feeling my emotions.

At the same time though, I’m physically unwell. And in my battle towards healing I’m finding my self-improvement habits to be crucial weapons. This diet is basically a formula where I read every label, see how my body reacts to specific foods, and stay consistent in avoiding things that make me ill. It is intensely time-consuming and at odds with people who think they know my body better than I do. I would not be able to handle it if this attitude was not so ingrained.

My current solution to this cognitive dissonance has been to keep detailed lists of self-improvement ideas that I’m working on. I usually add something when I’m stressed and delete it later when I’ve calmed down and had time to think about what upset me. Once in a while I’ll keep a project on the list because I think it will work.

I am slowly getting better at not avoiding my emotions.

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My Sis and Me….

I am in frequent pain. It’s not sharp or constant, but it’s enough to make me feel old inside my mid 20’s body. Because of it, it take a LOT to make me laugh and smile.

But my health problems are nothing compared to my sister’s. I can at least taste my food and run without fear of breaking my leg. I don’t urinate blood or nearly faint from food allergies.

I’m getting better. She is not.

The difficulties are compounded because we have NEVER gotten along. We grew up in a cult, extremely isolated from society, and never learned mature coping skills. And our personality differences were and continue to be extreme.

I have exited the cult. She has not and is currently at anonymous-cult-university studying to be a nurse.

I am wondering how much of her brainwashing is killing her. Her extreme cult-asceticism keeps her focused on working long hours and keeping her grocery bill to a ridiculous minimum. She doesn’t eat properly and is intent on losing weight so she can be slim like the other anonymous-cult-university girls. She justifies her behavior by citing her nursing studies and reassuring me that she knows what she’s doing.

But I look at her pictures and see how exhausted and malnourished she looks.

I am terrified of her dying. I realized this after reading “A Summer to Die” by Lois Lowry, a coming-of-age story about a girl whose sister dies from leukemia. I cried for HOURS. (I never cry.) Since then I have avoided every story of sisters and disease, especially such tear-jerkers as “My Sister’s Keeper”.

It’s not just losing her that I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of never getting the chance to resolve our differences, never being able to determine why we’re so sick when our parents have none of our symptoms, and never getting enough maturity in our relationship where we can disagree without having verbal Christianese battles.

And I am wondering how much exiting the cult is healing me. I started yoga, read read zen books to help with pain management, and shared my personal problems online with people I’d never met who told me about the diet that’s healing me now. None of which would have happened while I was still in the cult.

If I hadn’t left, the brainwashing would still be killing me. Just like it’s killing her.

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