Amazing how, 6 years into my cult recovery, I can still be blindsided by (what I wish was obvious) psychological manipulation. It’s tempting to pummel myself with criticism and blame. (I should have seen it! I should know better by now! What’s wrong with me?)
But instead, I will simply tell you what happened, so that it’s less likely to happen to you.
In March, I decided to find a therapist to help me heal the residual trauma from being a “child star” (read: exploited cash cow) in my childhood cult. I found a therapist who promoted themself as a specialist in post-cult trauma, and had collaborated with/been published by reputable cult education resources (like ICSA, NJSafe & Sound, etc). They seemed legit, so I reached out, and we set up an intake appointment.
As you might imagine, I was very excited to find A Rare Cult Therapist, and entered the process with hope and perhaps a bit of idealism. In our intake, I told them that I wanted to work specifically on reclaiming my creativity from the fear deeply embedded in me as a child. (It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t even hum a song when home alone because I felt God watching and judging.) Reclaiming my creativity would entail squashing my excruciating perfectionism, and learning how to make art for my own pleasure rather than to please ‘God.’ My goals were clear, and so was I.
I should mention now that this therapist was a psychoanalyst. I’ve had wonderful experiences with talk therapy, CBT/mindfulness therapy, and support groups. I’d never had a psychoanalyst before, so I went in with an open-mindedness (and naiveté) about how it worked.
So I can’t pinpoint exactly when and how I started doubting my own judgment of this therapist’s efficacy, and also questioning my own perception of my thoughts and feelings. I just know that a steady, incremental rewriting of my perception was happening. I went into therapy thinking I wanted to restore my artistic drive, and came out 8 months later feeling hopeless, confused and suicidal.
Looking back on the sessions, I often (and with little effort) subverted to “yes”/”obedience” mode in response to everything they said. Again: I didn’t know what to expect, so when I expressed concern about their methods, they’d simply say “That’s how the process works” / “It’s supposed to be uncomfortable” / that sort of thing. Thinking they knew better than I did, I eventually accepted their explanation.
Now, I have very complex trauma. I’ve experienced multiple kinds of abuse, life-threatening incidents, psychological manipulation, and also grief from losing my best friend Roman. So despite being so clear about my personal goal for our therapeutic relationship, inevitably, other issues from my past started coming up in our sessions, and we started devoting more time to those. This, in turn, led to rehashing things that I hadn’t thought about/been bothered by for years — things that had little to do with my original goal for therapy. But the therapist argued that everything was relevant. And if I said that I was uninterested (let alone uncomfortable) with going over painful memories, they would suggest that I was simply misunderstanding (or resisting) “the therapeutic process.”
So, as psychoanalysts do, this therapist started synthesizing a narrative about my life’s events. They decided that the theme of my life was “Loss.” When I talked about Roman dying, that was “a loss.” (Oh yeah, definitely! A huge loss!) When I talked about breaking up with my girlfriend earlier in the year, that was another “loss.” (Yes, true, heartbreak is a form of loss.) When I ranted about a fight I’d had with my parents, that was a “loss” of a potential relationship with them. (Um… okay, I guess that’s a loss too…) When I cried about having been rejected from my dream grad school, that was the “loss” of a potential future path. (Sure…. yeah, I suppose that counts….)
Basically, I was being fed, bite by bite, a dismal interpretation of my own life. Whereas a healthy perspective might be to interpret these events as “changes” or “life lessons,” I was now putting getting-rejected-from-grad-school on the same level of Loss as my best friend’s suicide.
Stop and think about how toxic that is.
But I didn’t even notice it happening. Because, as a cultist, I am impressionable. As hard as I’ve worked in the past few years to UnMind my tendency to submit to authority figures, I am still human. Things slip past my awareness. I can’t see everything all of the time.
And I thought this therapist was helping me.
I trusted them.
Besides, honestly? It shouldn’t even be my job to notice every little way in which my therapist is influencing my thoughts. That’s THEIR job. That’s what I’m PAYING them for. All therapists, but especially therapists of thought reform victims, should be extra careful not to exploit the impressionability of their patients!
When I’d ask them if they could provide me with tools to deal with my (growing) sadness, they’d haphazardly whip a suggestion out of the air, like, “Have you tried meditation?” or “What about yoga?” It soon became clear that there was no plan. They just wanted to analyze my old traumas with no end in sight.
They did all the classic no-no things too, like belligerently promoting their colleague (even after I repeatedly explained that I do not have $800 to spend on an out-of-network specialist), discouraging me from utilizing other helpful cult resources (like local ICSA meet-ups), and judging decisions I’d make in both my personal and public life — everything from who my friends were, to the content of my UnMinding videos (yes, they keep up with my social media. They might even be reading this now. They made me feel pressured to tell them where to find my art online, implying that I would get more out of therapy if they could see what kind of art I make… so I reluctantly told them my pen name…. I feel sick talking about this….)
And whenever I’d shyly raise concerns about how I was feeling worse and worse, they insisted that I needed to see them more often… instead of entertaining the possibility that their process wasn’t helpful, and that seeing them more might actually make me worse. (Also, again, they’d dismiss my explanation of not having money to pay for more sessions with a smile and a quip: “A penny wise, a pound foolish!”)
When I eventually became suicidal from viewing my entire life as one miserable parade of Loss after Loss after Loss, they referred me to a psychiatrist. Instead of checking-in about whether this “Loss narrative” approach was helpful or not, their conclusion was that I was failing to show progress, and therefore only meds could help me now.
At this point, I was so depressed that I wasn’t eating, showering, leaving my house or talking to friends. All I could do was work (which, thankfully, I do from home), and sleep. So I said yes to the meds. After about 6 weeks, they helped me start doing basic things again, like eating and practicing hygiene.
But I wanted to die more and more with each passing day.
It all ended one day when, after reporting to my therapist that the meds made me energetic enough to focus during work again, they smiled and said, “See? You don’t have depression.”
This stung. A lot. So I took a deep breath and dared to challenge them: “It doesn’t feel helpful to hear that.”
Imagine my horror when the therapist rolled their eyes at me and said, “And why’s that?”
Now I was defensive (and unnerved to see that this is how they responded to my first time ever challenging them), but I tried to remain calm. “Because it feels invalidating. I’m high-functioning, but that doesn’t mean I’m not depressed.”
“You’re seeing friends again, you’re more productive at work, you’re eating, you’re brushing your teeth. This is progress. You’re getting better.”
“I’m getting worse,” I said, trying not to cry. “I’m functioning on the outside but my emotional state is getting so much worse. Why are you telling me I don’t have depression?”
“I didn’t say you don’t have depression.”
“You literally looked me in the eye and said ‘You don’t have depression’.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“That is exactly what you said.”
“I said you may be depressed, but you’re making progress.”
“Your exact words were, ‘You don’t have depression’.”
They held up their hand to shut me up, and said very firmly, “There’s what I said, and there’s what you heard.”
My stomach sank. I could not believe this was happening.
Was my cult therapist gaslighting me?
Shocked and sickened, I backed down and let them spin some bullshit about how they were just trying to show me the positives in my life that I was ‘taking for granted’. I pretended to agree with them, because I was too disturbed by the reality of what had just happened, and unwilling to be vulnerable to them any longer.
In the days following that nightmarish conversation, I talked with some friends about it, for reassurance that the therapist had, indeed, used a textbook gaslighting tactic.
And then I sent them an email saying I would be discontinuing therapy.
It felt like a veil had been lifted from my eyes. Suddenly, it was clear how much of our therapeutic relationship was contingent upon my submissiveness to their authority. I felt so misled. Scammed, even. I am trying not to hate myself for the emotional and financial damage caused by their irresponsible “treatment.”
I would say I’m one-tenth as depressed now as I was under their influence — and unfortunately still worse off than when I started therapy. It’s going to take some time to heal from this, but even just quitting therapy was healing in itself. It feels good to reclaim my autonomy. To say no. To leave because I want to, and because I can. To say “That’s not how I perceive things” and trust my own gut about it.
Leaving therapy turned out to be the real therapy, ironically.
There’s no real conclusion to this blog post, except that I made a video inspired by this awful experience:
Hopefully, sharing what I’ve learned will keep at least one person safe from having to go through this.
Be well, lovelings.