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I’ve blogged about my Pentecostal upbringing. I’ve blogged about veganism, feminism, and even about groups I never joined. But I still haven’t blogged about Arachne — my one-on-one cult leader from when I was 17. All the abusive groups I’ve been part of, with all their members, and all their demands — combined — still can’t match how insidious, how twisted, Arachne was. They still can’t damage me just as badly as she damaged me.
And she was just one person.
Since I started writing this blog, I’ve been thinking, how do I even start writing about Arachne? Where does one begin with something so labyrinthine?
I tried to find a beginning — maybe, I could start by telling you how I met her. Or about the night she made me believe she was God. Maybe the rest of the story would flow chronologically from there.
But the cult experience isn’t linear. It’s not something that can be confined to a narrative. Cult survivors do not have the luxury of a distinct past, present and future. No, our abusers must have taken those from us, too.
In the cult, time is suspended. Every day is the same.
As we recover, our lives gradually begin to move forward towards a future, towards dreams and goals — then, suddenly, we are hurled backwards into a memory, a flashback — and then, we are in the present again,struggling to stay here where the past can’t touch us.
Sometimes, there is no time at all. Or if there is Time, it’s too far away. Those are the times we dissociate.
Just now, I had one of those reminders that my life has been warped ever since Arachne. And I’d like to tell you about it. Just so you have an idea of the kinds of things ex-cultists go through:
It’s the night before the full moon.Tonight, I decided to perform a light ritual: I’d say the names of every significant relationship in my life that has ended, and as I did so, I’d streeeeeeeetch and imagine each person’s influence on my life, being released from my muscles and joints and lungs and blood and bones.
Seemed like a simple, easy ritual. I thought I could handle it.
As I stretched (my neck, shoulders, arms…) I said the names of ex-grade school friends, ex-crushes, ex-teachers…. With the inhale, I’d hold their image in my head. With the exhale, I’d feel the grief rush out of me. As the stretches intensified, I named more significant players in my life.
And then I said Arachne’s name.
Her real name. “____ ____.”
My head started to feel funny. Lofty.
I said her name again. “____ ____.”
My balance wavered.
Again: “____ ____.”
And it… scared me.
Being afraid to say Arachne’s name was a hallmark of our cultic relationship, and of its aftermath. Through a series of intricate but damaging mindgames, she had conditioned me to believe that she was capable of monitoring my thoughts. She also made me (and a few others) believe that if we spoke about her, she’d be able to sense it through the ether (or something like that) and listen-in on our conversation. So if I dared to say anything negative about her, or even think anything negative about her, she’d find out about it.
As you can imagine, this is part of how she made me obedient to her every whim, and it continued to be an obstacle to my recovery even long after I accepted that she isn’t God.
I said her name a few more times, hoping to induce semantic satiation so the sound of her name wouldn’t scare me anymore. But the more I said it, ___ ____, ____ ____, ____ ____, like a mantra, over and over… the more I said it, the more powerful it became, until it felt like I was saying something forbidden. Like I was doing something wrong, and I was going to get caught. By her.
All those old feelings of paranoia — that she was watching me, judging me, looking for reasons to punish me, monitoring my thoughts — came flooding back. I’d forgotten what this felt like, and I hadn’t been prepared for it.
Determined and with no regard for myself, I continued to say her name. Trying to prove to myself that it’s just a name, a name just like everybody else’s, a name that can’t touch or hurt me. Chanting chanting chanting. Trying to make her name sound like nothing… when it used to be everything.
But the name never seemed to get any less mystifying, and its intensity only increased.
Finally, as I went on, the temperature in my room dropped by about ten degrees. My hairs stood on end.
I felt her standing behind me.
A thousand feelings welled up in my throat, fear being the most prominent. I had the overwhelming urge to apologize profusely and beg for her forgiveness. On my knees, if I had to.
And there were all these questions I hadn’t asked in a while. Questions she used to torment me with. Is she really watching me? Can people do that? I know bilocation never been scientifically proven, but… what if she’s the exception? What if she really has powers?
Suddenly, as though a trigger had been pulled, I was warped. I was 22 but 17 again. I was here stretching in my room, but simultaneously had the vulnerable, post-bulimia body from when Arachne decided to make prey out of me. The present and past layers became translucent, overlapping, haunting.
As my 17 year old self turned over my shoulder to make sure Arachne wasn’t there, my older self — wiser, maybe — stronger, definitely — said no. No. I’ve come too far to retrogress now. No no no no no.
I stopped chanting Arachne’s name,
put one hand on my heart,
put the other hand on my abdomen,
to hold myself together,
and started a new chant:
I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not doing anything wrong….
Slowly, I began to believe it, until my eyes cleared, my 17 year old self vanished into the past once more, and I was alone in my bedroom at last. I finished the ritual. I drank tea. And here I am, telling you about it.
This is one of those posts that won’t have a well-crafted, coherent ending. Because fuck that, you know? It’s almost 1 AM, I just triggered the hell out of myself, but I’m also exhausted, so now I have to figure out how to get some sleep without waking up in sleep paralysis with an apparition of Arachne standing over my bed. Which has happened before. (Welcome to cult recovery!)
If there’s anything I can take out of tonight:
- I learned that saying Arachne’s name still triggers me. Apparently, old triggers can randomly start triggering you again even when you think you’ve totally conquered them. Lesson learned.
- In trying to prove to myself how recovered I am, I continued triggering myself until I had a sort-of flashback. Where is the line between pushing oneself out of tough love, and straight-up masochism?
- I’ve also learned how to un-trigger myself from that particular trigger. (I have a feeling there’s a word for “un-trigger” but. Can’t think right now. Sleepy.)