Abuse in general is rather misunderstood by society. Even with things like physical and sexual abuse, which tend to leave tangible, visible evidence behind, there remain misconceptions about the conditions that led to the abuse. Why didn’t she just leave him? Why was she wearing that short skirt?
If physical damage is still not enough to convince people that an abuse victim is indeed a victim, imagine how much more difficult it is to explain “invisible” abuses to people!
I happen to be a survivor of physical, emotional and psychological abuse. Though every victim has the right to “rank” their abuse in order from least damaging to most damaging, I personally don’t feel that any one of the abuses I’ve endured was any more bearable than the others. They were each damaging in unique ways, not in “better” or “worse” ways. My friend Roman, though, was very adamant that his experience of psychological abuse by his mother was worse than any physical damage done to him by his father.
It can be difficult for a non-survivor to imagine how anyone would feel more damaged from words than from a bad touch. But I’ll do my best to explain what I think he would have said. More on that later.
Oh, and before I get into it: Thus far, I have avoided detailing certain methods of psychological abuse, out of fear that some sicko out there will find my writing “inspirational,” then go ahead and try these methods on their victim. This is always a possibility when writing about abuse of any sort. But I guess I can’t stop those types of creeps by not writing about psychological abuse. Might as well speak the truth, and hope that the number of people who learn something makes the risk worth it.
So here goes:
Choose One to Kill:
A baby cow or your pet bunny
I had a friend in college. Let’s call her Dee. Dee was an ethical vegan, and hadn’t eaten any animal products for 9 years by the time the following incident happened:
One day I was walking through the halls and saw her sitting in the skywalk, staring into space. She, looked, pale. Our mutual friend (let’s call him Victor) was sitting next to her, apparently trying to calm her down. I ran up and asked what was wrong. She said she had diarrhea and was dehydrated. I asked what had made her sick, and she said, “Milk.”
The story unfolded from there. The night before, her mother had placed a glass of milk on the kitchen counter and told her, “If you don’t drink this entire glass of milk, I’m going to kill your bunny.” But Dee was opposed to drinking milk, because the process of milk production requires the torture and untimely death of baby cows (see: veal).
Dee tried to explain this to her mother, who took great joy in forcing her daughter to choose between killing a cow and killing a bunny. Then Dee tried to tell her mom she would drink it later, hoping that by stalling she could find a way out of it. But her mother demanded that she drink the entire glass, right then and there, in front of her. With every passing moment, her mother became more angry and threatening.
So Dee, terrified for her bunny (whom she loved dearly), drank the glass of milk.
That’s when her mother blind-sided her with another threat: Even though Dee had drunk the milk as ordered, she might still come home the next day to find her bunny gone.
Now here we were, Victor and I, trying to make our friend feel better. Surely her mother wouldn’t actually kill her bunny, right? But Dee wasn’t easily convinced. Even if her mother wasn’t murderous, she might still be cruel enough to give the bunny away to someone, or let it loose in the streets.
We tried to understand her choices. Couldn’t she have stayed home to keep an eye on her bunny?
No, Dee said. Her mother had once hired a private eye to keep tabs on her, so if Dee ever skipped school, her mother would find out.
Well, we suggested, couldn’t she call the cops on her mother for threatening violence and stalking her?
No, Dee said, because without any proof, the cops wouldn’t necessarily be able to intervene — and getting them involved, she feared, would only make her mother more conniving.
Now, as Dee sat there looking pale and helpless, it slowly became clear to us what a twisted situation this was. Her mother didn’t physically assault her, but all the same, the damage was done. Now Dee was miserably ill, and every minute that tick-tocked by was another minute that could mean the death of her beloved animal companion. If she got home and found her bunny dead or gone, she would never forgive herself for going to school that day. But if she got home and her bunny was okay, she still had to go to school the next day, and the next, and the next… she couldn’t just stay home and guard her bunny forever. Her mother knew this, and was counting on Dee to eventually let her guard down.
That day, there was nothing we could do. In the months after that, we came to witness more horrifying examples of Dee’s mother being psychologically abusive. Finally one night, I found myself in a position to “kidnap” Dee to my place, to keep her safe from her parents until she could figure out her next move. She stayed up all night, gripped by panic and unable to sleep. Every time I woke up and looked across the room, she was checking her phone obsessively and staring out of my window, convinced that her parents would somehow find out where I lived and come to take her back.
The next day, she temporarily moved in with another friend, even further from her parents than where I lived. Eventually, she made an appeal to our college’s housing office. They determined that her situation was dire and gave her one of the emergency dorm rooms. With distance and time, she was eventually able to develop enough self-esteem and courage to set boundaries against her parents. Their attempts to control and terrorize her became progressively less severe. Thankfully, to the best of my knowledge, she — and her bunny — have been safe ever since.
Sadly, some cases of psychological abuse are not as obvious, and because of their subtlety, such emergency aid is not available to the victims. Take Roman, for example…
Hunger is a sin
Roman was raised by a fundamentalist Christian mother who twisted Bible verses to torment her children. Of all the fucked-up ideas she planted in their heads, the worst by far was this: hunger is a sin.
Somehow, she was able to take Bible verses out of context and conclude that craving food was actually a sign that one was demon-possessed. Only sinful people (read: people unlovable-by-God) became demon-possessed. The only way to rid oneself of these hunger-demons was to forego food in favor of worshiping God. In other words: associate starvation with God’s love.
And starve them she did. Roman once showed me a picture of himself and his siblings from back then. They were frighteningly thin. But because they were pre-pubescent, it was easy for their mother to convince concerned onlookers that her children were “just picky eaters” or “hadn’t filled out yet.” Due to malnutrition in his developmental years, Roman retained a child-like body even into his adulthood, which his mother used as “proof” that her children were just “naturally small” rather than malnourished.
Predictably, Roman’s childhood conditioning resulted in a life-long battle with eating disorders. I never saw him well. He was trapped in a revolving door of treatment programs. I watched him stumble from therapist to therapist, doctor to doctor, never finding one that could cure him. It was a multi-layered problem: a chronic eating disorder, and the underlying belief which had caused the eating disorder. So not only did Roman have to deal with ignorant doctors who believed eating disorders were a “diet” or a “choice,” but he also had to deal with people accusing him of lying about the abuse. Of all the doctors he visited in his life — and there were many — he never found even one who believed him about the abuse. Mothers don’t do that to their children, they’d say. For this reason, all the doctors could do was fatten him up. They couldn’t make him un-afraid of eating, of Hell, of God. More accurately, they never bothered to try.
Had Roman simply been physically abused (starved) without the accompanying psychological abuse (being taught that hunger is a sin), he may have healed as soon as he got away from his mother. He might have been eager to eat food and gain weight, with no one around to control him anymore. However, by infiltrating his psyche with self-policing terror, his mother caused insurmountable damage. With the terror still directing his thoughts, the agency of living independently meant nothing.
Now do you see why someone like Roman would say that psychological abuse can be worse than physical abuse?
The above examples were rather extreme, as my friends Dee and Roman were physically damaged as an added layer to their psychological abuse. But for me, no experience of psychological abuse ever crossed into physical territory.
I’ve already written about how I was forced to sing for money as a child. In order to keep me under their control, my church groomed me to believe I was The Chosen One, and they even went as far as to orchestrate fake spiritual experiences in order to get more money out of me. While that may sound cool and movie-like, it wasn’t. At all. Please read the full story. Similar to Roman, the adults in my life implanted twisted Bible verses in my head that continue to affect my thoughts and actions to this day. That’s one way psychological abuse can happen.
But then there’s what Arachne did.
Quick recap: I was in a one-on-one cult at age 17. My guru was my best friend’s cousin, Arachne. She played countless mind games over the course of a year; by the end of it, I was convinced that she had the supernatural abilities to monitor my thoughts, watch my every move, and kill me just by thinking of killing me. It took years to un-brainwash myself enough to stop living in total fear of her.
How did she make me believe all that bullshit? By playing countless mind games, simultaneously. She was relentless, skilled, and inexhaustible. Not a moment went by in our conversations when she wasn’t toying with my head in one way or another. Even when I could see through her bullshit, her refusal to let me end the conversation weakened my mental boundaries. Most of the time, she got me to agree with her just by tiring me out, not by making any sense.
I’ll describe one of her games:
Your voice sounds different
Arachne spent a few months of our relationship trying to convince me that I had multiple personalities. And she almost succeeded. Of all her mind games, it was the only one that didn’t completely work — which, if course, made her furious. Here’s how she would do it:
When talking on the phone with her, she would interrupt me to ask, “Did you notice that?” “Notice what?” “Your voice just changed.” “What do you mean?” “You sounded like an entirely different person just now.” “I did?” “Yes, you did. I heard you.” “Oh. That’s weird.” “No, it’s not just weird, it’s really bad.” “How is it bad?” “It’s a sign that your consciousness is splitting.” “No it’s not.” “Yes it is. You didn’t even notice that your voice changed. You went into a different consciousness, that’s why you can’t remember.” “Are you sure you aren’t just hearing things?” “No, it’s definitely you. I’ve noticed it a few times before, but I was waiting for you to do it again so I could point it out.”
She would use anything and everything as “evidence” that I had multiple personalities. If I forgot something she’d said, it was ‘because I’d been splitting’ and ‘couldn’t access those memories now’. If a friend had a dream about me, it was a sign that ‘pieces of my consciousness were developing minds of their own and pretending to be me in the astral planes’. Even the fact that I write under a pen name, or let people call me by a nickname, earned me hours and hours of criticism for ‘being inauthentic’ and ‘splitting myself into separate people’.
It was fucking insane, you guys.
Even though I never fully accepted that I had split personalities, there were many moments where I started to wonder if she was right. I questioned my sanity, big-time. Was I forgetting things? Was I talking in different voices? If I was, were people noticing? Did I look crazy? Would my friends tell me if I was acting like different people? Could I trust them??? (And on, and on, and on…)
(Side note: If you ever wondered why I hate the misuse of the word “gaslighting” — well, this is why. You haven’t been gaslighted until you’ve had someone persistently, and calculatingly, plant false memories in your mind.)
And remember: the example I described above was only a single cog in Arachne’s complex mind-grinding machine. Every individual mind game was part of a larger crusade to dislodge my perception and install hers in its place. I was a hopeless, traumatized, easily frightened, dissociative, paranoid mess by the time she was through with me. Even long after she cut me off, I still felt her watching me, listening to my thoughts, warning me not to be too alive. And she did it all without laying a finger on me.
Now, back to the original question:
What is psychological abuse?
If you’ll notice, I haven’t defined it yet. Instead, I gave you three examples of it. Have you noticed any patterns?
Psychological abuse …. is a form of abuse, characterized by a person subjecting, or exposing, another person to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dee, Roman and I were irreparably damaged by our respective experiences of psychological abuse. Dee and I are functioning now, though residual trauma still impacts our everyday lives. But Roman, sadly, did not survive what was done to him. For his abuser, the object was to infiltrate him with an idea that would ultimately eat him alive from the inside out. And it worked.
So to anyone out there who still thinks non-physical abuse isn’t real or valid, please: reconsider your stance. People do, in fact, die from it. I know I always say “Roman took his own life,” but honestly? Sometimes I think it would be more accurate to say that his mother took it from him.
Also, on a closing note:
Most resources on the matter use “psychological abuse” and “emotional abuse” interchangeably, but I personally think they should be distinguished from each other. I say this because, as a cult survivor, the words “emotional abuse” do not describe even .001% of what Arachne did to my brain — and I’m sure Roman and Dee would agree that the term is unfit to describe our experiences. Sure, my emotions and self-esteem were harmed too, vicariously. But Arachne’s ultimate goal was much more sick and twisted than that. She wasn’t simply trying to hurt my self-esteem — she was trying to annihilate my consciousness. And in Dee’s and Roman’s cases, I’d even say that their abuse bordered on torture.
But that’s a rant for another day, I suppose.
Thanks for reading, lovelings.
I’ve been thinking about the problem of exchanging spiritual teachings or practices for money. You know what I’m talking about. The $5,000 yoga retreats, $250 chakra cleanses, $500 medium sessions, $1,000 light-healing appointments….
Don’t get me wrong; I understand that there are unavoidable expenses when one chooses to make a practice out of their healing ability. One needs to rent office space and pay for all associated utilities… pay for materials (like acupuncture needles and yoga mats)… pay their staff (bookkeeper, events organizer, etc.)…. It costs to be alive. I get that.
But that’s not my issue. My issue is when spiritual teachers claim that their gift is God-given, or bestowed by the Universe, or something. They’ve been anointed, they claim. They’ve been called! They’ve been chosen! And they always have a justification for why they charge a fee before “sharing” their “gifts.” I’m a human too! I have bills to pay! We all have to struggle in this world!
But I’m not buying it.
Because think about it.
If the Universe (or God, or Spirit, or whatever you prefer to call it) gives you some sort of spiritual gift…. and it’s your divine purpose to use that gift to help people…. then why would that same Universe/God/Spirit put you in a position where your gift was the only way you could make money?
The way I see it, if you accept the premise that the ability to practice your divinely-imparted purpose in life is contingent upon whether people pay you for it, then you must also accept that
- the Universe/God/Spirit only wants to help & heal people who can afford it,
- that God’s will is still subject to the whims of our human economy,
- that the Universe can give you this amazing ability but it can’t meet your financial needs, and
- that we can change people but we can’t change the economy. That we can have f#cking super-powers in a one-on-one context, but we are completely powerless beyond that.
I do not see how the above premises are compatible with the concept of a divinely-ordained spiritual talent. For that reason, I’ve drawn the following conclusions:
- If it is truly a divine gift, it should be able to circumvent ordinary circumstances and human-imposed limits
- If it is truly a divine gift, it should be available and accessible to everyone — especially people who can’t afford it!
- If it is truly a divine gift, you’d probably be called to practice it with disadvantaged populations (Isn’t it interesting how most spiritual “masters,” “teachers” and “healers” have a largely white, upper-class client base?)
- If it is truly a divine gift, the Universe should provide you with a way to heal others without harming yourself (by, say, going into debt or starving)
So if you’re unable to give your spiritual gift to others without receiving something in return, then (A) it’s not a gift, and (B) it’s not divine.
Why not say “I like doing this healing thing and I happen to be good at it, but I’m not in a position where I can do it without charging people”?
Go ahead, be a healer. Just stop calling yourself divine. I’m pretty sure God’s will isn’t subject to capitalism. If you want to help people, that’s great — but it’s not necessarily mystically ordained, and it doesn’t automatically make you a Lightworker or Starseed or Indigo Child or whatever. It’s okay to be an ordinary person who enjoys helping people but also has to pay bills.
Basically what I’m saying is: watch that ego trap, it’s a real doozy.
All of that said, when striving to make spiritual exchanges less egotistical, it’s not enough to simply remove money from the equation.
For example, my cult leader Arachne imposed a spiritual experience on me that literally saved my life. No money was exchanged. However, I became indebted to her in other ways. She wasn’t seeking money, but she was seeking power and control.
Friends have shared similar stories about being “spiritually blindsided,” “spiritually dominated” and otherwise deceived, even in contexts where money was never involved.
So what makes a spiritual gift, a gift?
Meaning: Under what circumstances is it actually beneficial for someone to share their spiritual gifts with you — whether that means sharing an intuitive dream they had about you, or using touch to heal your pain, or manipulating your energy field?
In my experiences with spiritual healers (and I’ve had plenty, both good and bad), I’ve come to find some key differences between the harmful ones versus the helpful ones. Hint: it has very little to do with how much they charge.
Harmful spiritual healers:
- brag about how enlightened or advanced they are
- expect/demand recognition for their talents
- will try to heal you without your permission. They do not bother to obtain your informed consent.
- show off their abilities. They use their gift to stroke their own ego.
- leverage their “intuition” to control others’ lives (for example: If they don’t like your new boyfriend, they’ll say “My intuition told me you should break up with him.”)
- don’t believe you are capable of helping yourself, and that you must completely surrender to them
- patronize you for attempting to use your own spiritual gifts. They feel a need to stay above you.
- assume that if it works for them, it must work for everyone
- lambast other spiritual healers. They refuse to consider that other people may be as gifted as they perceive themselves to be.
- are impatient about the process
- blame you (or anyone but themselves) when the healing doesn’t work
- still practice when they’re stressed, sick or angry — they don’t care how their bad mood will impact you as their patient
- discourage you from taking medications or using any sort of tool (like a cane or hearing aid).
Helpful spiritual healers
- are honest about who they are, their credentials and training, and their level of experience in their field
- do not boast or brag about their gift. In some cases, you may have to find out about them “by accident” because they believe in letting the universe orchestrate their affairs.
- will explain what they’re going to do and ask whether you’re ready and willing. They give you a chance to make an informed decision, and allow you to change your mind at any moment, even during the process.
- will only use their gifts on you if you ask first, if you give them permission, or if it’s extremely urgent (such as a matter of life or death)
- are happy to teach you their methods so that you can learn to heal yourself and become self-sufficient
- recognize that they must meet you where you are, and will never patronize you for not ‘being at their level’
- recognize that different things work for different people. Maybe reiki isn’t helpful to you. Let’s try something else, then!
- are comfortable referring you to other healers, books, resources, etc. They don’t feel the need to “claim” and be your singular source of information.
- are patient and understanding. They take the time to listen and fully understand your problem before proposing a solution, and they do not rush the process.
- are accountable to some sort of authority. They acknowledge their limits and apologize when they mess up.
- will be honest about their state of mind. If they are in a bad mood, they will let you know that they aren’t in the right headspace to work with you right now.
Sometimes a healer has qualities from both lists, so they have some maturing to do. Sometimes a person is well-intentioned but in the wrong field. Sometimes a bad healer can seem like they’re good for you. There’s a lot to consider when choosing a healer, just as there’s a lot to consider before choosing a doctor or school.
As for me personally, I find that the most healing experiences are the ones that happen synchronistically. In other words, it’s more often when I’m not looking for a healer (because I trust that everything is going to be okay, somehow, someway) that I cross paths with one. My good experiences with healers are always preceded by receptivity and consent, whereas the bad experiences are preceded by my own desperation, vulnerability and disempowerment.
But I don’t know. Maybe that’s just me. 😉
How about you all? What have you learned from your experience(s) with spiritual healers? Leave a comment below!
(This article has been cross-posted to Medium)
Coercive conversion is when members of groups/ideologies label non-members as members, regardless of whether the non-member is comfortable being labeled.
The ideology that is probably best known for doing this, is liberal feminism.
When you Google the term “you’re a feminist” this is the first result. It’s a “comedy” song, passive-aggressively entitled “Sorry Babe, You’re a Feminist.”
The video opens with quotes from female celebrities clearly stating their rhetorical boundaries regarding the feminist label. And what does this singer, Katie Goodman, do? Oh, completely disregards those women’s boundaries and calls them feminists anyway, of course! Like any Good Feminist™ would!
Some gems from this song include:
You must not know what feminism means
Right — because women who don’t want to be labeled are obviously ignorant. There is no other possible explanation.
You’re “not a feminist” — and you know who else isn’t? Boko Haram. Rush Limbaugh. The Taliban. [So] you might wanna call yourself a feminist.
(see: the logical fallacy reductio ad Hitlerum)
And the whole second verse of the song implies that modern-day women are morally obligated to be feminists because historical feminists died for our rights. Which sounds a lot like….
If you think I’m just cherry-picking, I’ve got more examples of this phenomenon:
Emma Watson, #HeForShe ambassador, for InStyle:
“Men think it’s a women’s word. But what it means is that you believe in equality, and if you stand for equality, then you’re a feminist. Sorry to tell you. You’re a feminist. You’re a feminist. That’s it.”
Read: “You’re a feminist because I said so!”
(Also, what’s with the “sorry not sorry” tone in these headlines? Can you say “passive aggressive”?)
Okay, one more:
Wow, that’s…. not domineering at all.
An illuminating quote from the article, by Suzannah Weiss:
In case there’s still any doubt left, Pulptastic created a quiz to tell you if you’re a feminist, and it only has one question: “Do you believe women and men should have the same political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights?” Indeed, no matter what dictionary you ask, feminism boils down to gender equality: Dictionary.com says it’s “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” And Merriam-Webster calls feminism “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Yet there seems to be a misunderstanding about this — because 82 percent of people believe “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals,” yet only 20 percent call themselves feminists.
Did it ever occur to this writer that the dictionary is not the final authority on a word’s meaning? A word’s etymology, connotation and cultural context can all contribute to one’s personal comfort level with that word.
If that’s not complex enough for you, there are words within the dictionary definition of feminism that have disputed meanings, such as “equality,” “rights,” “doctrine” and even “advocating.” So someone might consider themselves a feminist who doesn’t believe in equality. Likewise, someone might stand for equality but prefer the term egalitarian or humanist. None of these perspectives are wholly invalid, so to forcibly label someone based on the assumption that they don’t have a good enough reason for avoiding the label, is disingenuous, if not downright controlling.
What is the purpose/function of coercive conversion?
Groups that practice coercive conversion may do so for the following reasons:
- To make their movement appear larger (and by consequence, more powerful) than it actually is
- To set the stage for future games of True Scotsman, No True Scotsman
Since #1 is pretty self-explanatory, let’s skip ahead to exploring #2:
By pre-emptively defining feminism as something positive-sounding, feminists later have a means to disassociate from anyone who makes their group look bad. This is called a No True Scotsman.
The No True Scotsman (NTS) fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when a debater defines a group such that every groupmember posses some quality. For example, it is common to argue that “all members of [my religion] are fundamentally good”, and then to abandon all bad individuals as “not true [my-religion]-people”…. Before argument, someone preemptively defines some group such that the group definitionally must be entirely “good” or entirely “bad”. However, this definition was created arbitrarily for this defensive purpose, rather than based on the actual qualities of the group.
– RationalWiki. Read the whole article, it’s great.
By oversimplifying feminism and defining it as fundamentally good, the feminists in question here are avoiding more nuanced, and necessary, discussions that would actually be far more beneficial to women everywhere. What does it mean to belong to, and/or represent, a movement? Who gets to decide what the movement is all about? And who gets to decide who-gets-to-decide?
How it backfires
Notice, in the examples listed above, women who go around forcing the “feminist” label on people en masse fall back on the same exhausted buzzword: EEK-WALL-IT-EE. Based on this fact alone, I’d venture that these women probably aren’t aware that there are countless schools of feminist thought — if they were, would they really be so likely to parrot the same ideas? Somehow, all these different women arrived at the singular conclusion that there is One True Feminism, it is a synonym for EQUALITY, and that’s it. Forget history, forget nuance, forget diversity. It’s simple. SO simple, in fact, that they have anointed themselves with the authority to decide what Is Feminist and Is Not Feminist.
This problem of oversimplifying a globally diverse idea leads to further sub-problems, like…
… atrophying integrity. If all someone has to do to qualify as a Feminist is ~believe~ in eek-walliddy, then feminism means absolutely nothing. Observe: “It’s a real shame that women are trafficked, raped, beaten and murdered at such high rates. But I BELIEVE they should be treated better! I think positive thoughts at the problem instead of actually doing anything to change it! There, I’ve done my part.”
I personally think feminism should be a title that is earned, not arbitrarily claimed as a personality descriptor. This can’t be policed by any singular authority, but it’s something to keep in mind if you consider yourself a feminist. What actions do you take to help women?
… rapists under the feminist umbrella. Again, if acquiring the feminist label only requires a belief in equality, then anyone can claim to believe in equality while practicing otherwise. And plenty of misogynists do this. Any good predator will tell you that hiding behind a positive, charitable-looking label makes you look more trustworthy, which makes potential prey flock to you. It’s why so many abusive people seek leadership positions in churches and social justice movements. I’ve written more about the problem of misogynistic male “feminists” here.
What I want to know is why any feminist would be so eager to slap the feminist label on masses of strangers, knowing that this practice ultimately works against women? In general, bonding with strangers strictly based on shared beliefs is dangerous. Beliefs can be, and often are, faked.
Before closing, I’ll take a second to acknowledge that the “f-word” as is often called, is very misunderstood. Demonized, in fact. Perhaps this is what drives so many feminists to go around aggressively convincing people that they’re Actually Feminists Though. It’s a PR move. I understand, I really do!
But… I can’t help but wonder how things might be different if all of us were less concerned with being feminists in title, and more concerned with being feminists in practice.
Hello, dearest dearlings! I’ve got a surprise for you 🙂
03/30 (next week) will mark 3 years since I released my first poetry collection, Wolves and Other Nightmares, about my experience of surviving and healing from a one-on-one cultic relationship.
The book was sort of an accident. When I originally decided to write a collection of poetry, I never intended to write about my trauma, nor did I intend to be so raw and vulnerable. But as the writing process unfolded, it became clear that I needed to share my truth. Not just for my own catharsis, but for the benefit of others who were enduring the same nightmare. Though I was scared, I decided to release the book.
In the 3 years since releasing Wolves, I’ve been reminded by readers, over and over again, that my decision was not in vain. Some people said they’d been waiting years for a book like this to exist. Others say they never knew they needed such a book. Like me, they had been totally lost and confused in the wake of their trauma, because they didn’t know there was a name (“one-on-one cult”) for their experiences. Reading my book, they tell me, validated their trauma for the first time.
The heartfelt correspondences I’ve received over the years have been both harrowing and inspiring, and they’re the reason I decided to continue writing about cult recovery here on this blog. It was a huge emotional risk to tell my story, but I’m so glad I did, because it gave people permission to tell their stories, too. This is how we heal. Together.
To celebrate the 3-year anniversary of the day I first dared to share my story with the world, and as a thank you to those who follow my cult recovery blog, here’s a discount code you can use to get $3 off a copy of my book on CreateSpace:
May you find healing in its pages ❤
(P.S. Here are some reviews of my book, if you’re curious.)
It’s commonly understood that a “trigger” is a stimulus that provokes an extreme traumatic response in a person. Say, for instance: the sound of breaking glass might trigger a flashback of a car accident. Or the smell of gasoline might trigger someone’s traumatic memory of a house fire.
But for some of us, triggers are a bit more, uh…. weird…. than that.
For years after my cult leader Arachne cut contact with me, I became highly prone to dissociation. At first, I thought the dissociations were random, and that I was at the mercy of their unpredictable nature, so I didn’t try to stop the episodes from happening. It took me years to realize there is a pattern to my dissociations; I’ll give you two examples:
- I sometimes dissociate if, in conversation, I am allowed to talk for more than a minute straight.
- I sometimes dissociate if someone asks me multiple questions, one after the other, rapid fire. (“How are you? What’s going on in your life? How’s the writing? How’s your boyfriend? Did you eat? Do you want to grab lunch with me?” – BAM! I’m gone.)
Then, after seeing the pattern, it took some more time to figure out why those particular scenarios made me start “floating.” I was able to trace them both back to Arachne:
- In Arachne’s one-on-one cult, talking for more than a minute meant I was going to get punished. Expressing my own opinions was a no-no. The only reason Arachne would ever let me talk for a long time, was if she was getting ready to shoot down what I had just said, play a mind game on me, or gaslight me (“No, that’s not what you said – this is what you actually said…”). I eventually learned to stop talking and let her talk instead, because the feeling of talking for too long made me anxious.
- One of Arachne’s favorite mind-games to play on me, was what some thought reform experts call “Scrambling.” Scrambling is when someone asks you a long list of questions, aggressively and quickly. You become disoriented from trying to process all the questions at once, and that makes you more impressionable. So then, when they tell you what they think the “right” answers to the questions are, you’re more likely to accept their answers. It’s a tactic often used by salesmen and interrogators. (By the way, please don’t do this to anyone; it’s fucked up.)
Another example of a weird trigger: a fellow cult survivor once told me that, even decades after living on an ashram, he still has difficulty sitting in the audience as someone speaks from a stage. He said it mentally transports him back to the days of the cult, where the followers sat obediently in the audience while the guru pontificated from the podium. The dynamic of sitting below someone while they spoke down to him, “triggers” a mild sensory flashback. He may not feel that his life is being threatened – so it’s not traumatic necessarily – but it can still feel scary and dehumanizing.
I suspect that many cult survivors out there have similar Weird Triggers. Not quite traumatic, but not harmless either. Not quite terrifying, but also not safe. And many of us may never realize what’s happening to us, or take it seriously, precisely because the word “trigger” has become close to meaningless.
Thanks to the likes of Tumblr dot com, “trigger warnings” have been overused to the point where the concept is hardly taken seriously anymore. “Trigger” has now come to mean “anything that makes me mildly uncomfortable” (see trigger warning: Julie Bindel).
People with an agenda have exploited the concept of triggers in the interest of accruing personal and political power. For instance, liberal college students routinely get events canceled and Professors fired over “triggering” political disagreements. Are they really triggered? Probably not. Most sensible people can see right through their act: They leverage the rhetoric of victimhood to their advantage, weaponize their questionable “trauma,” and use this farce to get what they want – all the while crying about how they never get what they want. Mm-hmm. Right.
So now, it seems as though the general public has come to understand triggers in extreme terms: either you’re a Vietnam veteran with LEGITIMATE trauma who is TRIGGERED by fireworks…. or you’re just another Tumblr-radicalized liberal who can’t handle it when someone doesn’t immediately assume that your pronouns are xie/xir/xirself.
This weaponizing of triggers doesn’t only impact how the general public perceives post-traumatic stress. It also impacts how survivors perceive their own trauma! In other words, the term “trigger” has been polarized to the point where people with legitimate trauma don’t recognize that they have legitimate trauma. Or, some do recognize it – but are afraid to admit it, even to themselves. I have heard many, many, MANY trauma survivors express inhibition about describing themselves as “triggered” for fear of being accused of misusing the word.
Can we bring some nuance back to this conversation, please?
Let’s start with this: if you’re reading this right now, and you find yourself resonating with the Weird Triggers I’m describing, then please don’t ignore that inner voice. You know yourself better than anyone else does.
Second, remember that trauma has a function: it’s your brain’s attempt to keep you safe. And just like the function of pain (as I explained in my last post), triggers exist to help you, not to hurt you. After surviving trauma, your brain analyzes the events and comes up with red flags to make sure that trauma never happens to you again. It’s a survival mechanism. When you’re triggered, that’s your brain and body letting you know that something in your environment feels similar to the trauma you experienced, which could mean you’re in danger, so you need to be extra careful moving forward.
The good news is that triggers can be managed, but first you need to acknowledge & validate that you’ve been traumatized, and then you need to trace your traumatic responses back to their source. If you can’t figure out the source, triggers will help you find it. Think of them as a bread crumb trail.
Now here’s the thing about Weird Triggers: the source of the triggers may be more difficult to discern. Based on my experience and observations of other people, I’ve concluded that this is because traditional triggers (loud noises, the smell of gasoline,etc.) tend to result from violent and/or short-term trauma. Weird Triggers, on the other hand, seem to result from long-term, complex trauma.
Complex Past Traumatic Stress Disorder, or C-PTSD, is a relatively new, and controversial, diagnosis. Some people argue that it’s just a politically correct label for Borderline Personality Disorder (which I would gladly debate them on). And because C-PTSD was only recently included in the DSM, many survivors of long-term abuse (myself included) have resorted to self-diagnosing this disorder. This prevalence of self diagnosis by non-medical professionals has led to a lot of confusion about what C-PTSD really is, which has subsequently contributed to the diagnosis not being taken seriously.
But hopefully my audience is still willing to hear my input on this topic. With unusual experiences like cultic abuse, people like me have a very limited range of terms to use when analyzing our experiences. In all my years of firsthand experience and secondhand research, I have found C-PTSD to be the most accurate descriptor of how cultic abuse shaped me as a person. I do not use the word lightly, and I do welcome critiques and feedback on my usage thereof.
All of that said, let’s do a quick comparison of the two. This comparison is in no way complete or definitive, given that I am not medical professional or an authority on the subject, so I strongly encourage you to continue researching the topic beyond this limited blog post, before drawing any conclusions about these disorders. Here are some good starting points: 1, 2, 3
tends to result from exposure to short-term trauma (like accidents or physical attacks), torture, and physical or sexual assault
tends to result from long-term trauma, such as chronic abuse (including verbal and spiritual abuse), imprisonment, and prolonged crisis situations
Danger is immediate and severe (attempted or complete rapes, and attempted murders, fall into this category)
Danger may not be immediate or severe, but target is led to believe that it is, usually with threats, or with displays of violence not directed at the target (such as the abuser smashing plates when angry)
tends to produce overt traumatic responses, such as panic attacks and flashbacks
tends to produce covert traumatic responses, such as dissociation, submissive behavior, and self injurious impulses
Keep in mind that these experiences can overlap. For instance, you might be a survivor of abuse that is life-threatening and long-term; as a result, you may develop a score of triggers that range from overt to covert. I’ll stress this again: please continue your research on this topic, and don’t let my blog post be the end of your learning!
Back to Weird Triggers:
As I said earlier, there are certain social contexts that make me mentally retrogress into the state of helplessness I felt when being abused by my cult leader. Was I in immediate danger back then? Technically, no. But my abuser made me believe that I was, so, my brain responded accordingly to that threat by ensuring that I feel “triggered” (read: I feel unsafe) in any scenario that feels similar to the abuse. That means even mundane conversations can be triggering, unbeknownst to the person I’m speaking with.
My trauma impacts my everyday life. My triggers are not cards that I pull when a conversation gets uncomfortably political. They’re not cards at all! I hate that metaphor. Post-trauma life is not a game. And even if it was, it would not be a game that I could win.
Society at large is only recently beginning to acknowledge trauma in mainstream discourse. The discourse is, unfortunately, being hijacked by self-interested political entities. But I feel a strong conviction to establish rhetorical boundaries around what triggers are. Whether our triggers are extreme or mundane, our experiences are valid and important. I refuse to allow anyone to downplay the way trauma impacts my everyday life, and I encourage my fellow survivors to be unapologetic as well. The discourse rightfully belongs to survivors of trauma. Let’s keep making our voices heard!
It’s happening again, right at this moment. I feel insatiably hollow. Even typing these words is taking tremendous effort.
I don’t write this to garner pity or seek cures. There is nothing you, or anyone, can do to fix this. I write this because I learned long ago that the only way to even manage these episodes of unrelenting grief — let alone feel better — is to articulate them. So here are the words:
I feel sad.
I feel empty.
I feel hopeless.
I’m afraid I’ll never find spiritual fulfillment again.
I miss the “high” I got from the cult.
I’ve been highly functional for a while now — a year, in fact. At any given moment, I’m juggling about 4 creative projects at once. My creativity has been sustained and productive.
But once in awhile, inevitably, I run out of steam and need to sit back for a bit. No one can work 24/7, even in a manic episode, even when it’s something they enjoy more than food or sex. So I sit back, like right now. I haven’t added to my writing projects (a stage play and a novel, in case you’re wondering) in days.
Without these distractions, a painful awareness creeps in. It’s becoming clear that I haven’t just been creating because it’s fun to write stuff. I’ve been creating because I want to fill my head with colors and characters and fantasies, good feelings. When they’re gone, all that’s left to think about is how empty I feel. I’ve been creating to fulfill, yes, but also to avoid. This feeling. Or this lack of feeling, really.
Ah, I think I’m dissociating.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell, because there are so many ways a dissociative episode can feel. Sometimes I am absolutely paralyzed by it, unable to speak or even have verbal thoughts; sometimes it makes me feel so far-away and out-of-touch that I walk into traffic without thinking; and sometimes, like now, I can still talk — quite eloquently, as you can see — but I feel like it’s not me writing. It’s somebody else. And god, I hate this somebody-else. She’s so annoying.
I am layers and layers, watching the outermost layer — my body — write pointless words.
Or I’m not layers, I’m fragments, all watching each other, like pieces of a broken mirror reflecting the other pieces.
I don’t know how to come back together.
I’m not talking split personalities. I’m talking instability and uncertainty. I can’t choose one focal point, one perspective.
I know for certain that I am alive and aware in the present moment. But I can’t connect with it.
I also know that I have options:
I could choose to experience Now through my body — feel my hands typing, drink tea and feel its warmth cascade down into my belly.
Or I could choose to experience Now through my mind — observe, analyze, articulate, think think think.
Or I could choose to experience Now through my feelings — sad, bored, hopeless, irritated, despondent.
But none of these ideas feel worth pursuing, because ultimately, it’s more than just not being able to connect to reality right now. It’s that I don’t want to.
Since Arachne’s cult, I have had to fight with every fiber of my being to feel like life is worth living. To not-sink into these defeated thoughts. But from time to time, there are lapses. Sometimes I don’t care. Sometimes I’m just bored as fuck and I want to go back. I used to tell people I would sell my soul to feel even half as good as I felt in the cult, and I was only half-joking.
You don’t get it. I know. You don’t see the appeal of a cult. I know, I know.
I’m young, that’s true, but I have had a plethora of extremely good experiences. I’ve had unbelievable tasty gourmet food; mind-blowing sex and orgasms that lasted hours; profoundly deep relationships and emotional experiences; I’ve traveled & seen impossible beauty in the world; and on, and on, and on. I’ve felt such indescribable goodness while sober that I’ve had drug users tell me they envy me.
But despite all this, nothing — and I mean nothing — I’ve ever experienced — comes close — to the satisfaction I felt in the cult.
You think I’m out of my mind. I know.
But if you’re open to it, please try to understand where I’m coming from.
Imagine you knew God personally. She had a human form, but she could walk into any room and make everyone turn around to look. She was magnet, she was alien, she was mega-charisma on steroids. Imagine that one day she took your hands and made you have a vision that literally saved your life — so now you’re convinced she’s God. Imagine she singled you out and wanted to talk to you; sometimes you stayed up talking until 5 in the morning. You became best friends with her. Imagine she spun wild, luscious fantasy worlds from her mouth. Imagine you were a character in her stories, and that this character was invincible, powerful, charismatic. Imagine that her delusions were dark and dangerous, and you knew it all along, but they were so much prettier than the lifetime of abuse you’d already experienced. Imagine that God Herself gave you all her attention, made you the Chosen One, shared her mystical secrets with you, showed her special powers to you… and in exchange for your obedience, made you powerful too.
Imagine having a direct connection to the most profound wisdom and beauty in the Universe.
This is not love or lust I am talking about.
This is something so much more than most people will ever experience.
And then imagine one day, you misspeak, you say something that angers her, and she punishes you with verbal abuse for 5 hours, first making you cry, then making you want to die, then leaves you there struggling to breathe… and then she disappears for good.
Imagine being cast out of Heaven by someone you believed to be God.
imagine trying to live a normal life after that.
After all of that.
Whatever that was.
As I mentioned above, there are plenty of good experiences in the world, and all of them can become their own addiction of sorts. When faced with this empty, dissatisfied feeling, some people abuse food, some people abuse sex, some people abuse relationships… etc. But for me, for some reason, my “drug” has always been spiritual experiences. I am prone to cult-hopping. To crave toxic group dynamics was programmed into me from birth. It’s been one full year since I last “hopped” into another cult, group or movement. I have not adhered to any labels, ideologies or spiritual regimens in all this time — I won’t even call myself a feminist anymore. This is the first time I’ve ever made a long-term concerted effort to recover from my “addiction.” Today, I’m being tempted. To just give in to the inevitable relapse. To turn off my brain and watch some guru’s YouTube videos, or meditate for two hours to try to feel high again. Whatever it takes to get that fix. And I don’t know who to turn to or how to oust this craving, except to ignore it. Write something. Like this.
The problem of being an ex-cultist is that we are such a rare kind of person. Sure, there are plenty of cultists in the world, but there are few spiritual cultists, and even fewer one-on-one cultists. And people try their best (really, they do, and it’s so sweet) to offer advice. They suggest yoga, and special diets, and books, and movies, to try to make you feel more alive.
But once you’ve been disconnected from God, no connection to anything else feels as intense, or pure, or worthy. Once you’ve been hyper-alive in the way that only a cult can make you feel, to continue living at a “normal level” feels about as exciting as being dead.
This is one Hell of a burden I’ve been forced to carry.
I have nothing else of value to say at the moment, except to reassure you all that I’m not suicidal or even passively suicidal. Please don’t worry. These episodes of total dissatisfaction with life are an unavoidable part of post-cult recovery, and the only way to get through them is to sit with the feeling. Right now, you might be reading this and thinking I sound beyond help. But I know me. I know how bad it’s gotten. I have been much worse than this. As bad as I feel right now, I can honestly say that I can’t imagine feeling as bad as I did when the trauma first happened. The recovery path has been rocky, but in the grand scheme of things, there have been more improvements than setbacks. Recovery does not always look like progress.
Since the cult awareness movement (and all its associated resources, like conferences, support groups and books) is historically a very new thing (only about a few decades old), there is little choice but to struggle for now. I hate to sound like a martyr but it’s literally true. I feel like a trailblazer against my will. I feel like I’m part of this wave of cult survivors who has to learn everything the hard way, so that everyone after us can learn a little more easily. That is what this blog is. I write my own experiences as a contribution to the recently-born and slowly-growing discourse surrounding cults and cultism. Here I am, in my ugly post-cult trauma, making a public display of my pain and all these embarrassing thoughts & internal workings. Some call it emotional exhibitionism, but others call it resourceful. Make of it what you will.
I would just like to think that if there’s any purpose to what I’m experiencing, it’s to make sense of things that don’t make sense. Maybe one day cult resources will be as abundantly available as resources for other types of traumas. So if it ever happens to you, you’ll know that people went through it before you, and they came out alive, and they got better.
“Stop being a victim.”
As an outspoken survivor of many abuses throughout my life, I’ve heard this phrase too often to count. It never fails to sting. The implication is that the abuse wouldn’t have hurt me if I had just chosen not to feel hurt. (Um, considering the residual pain in my shin from when one of my abusers threw a remote control at me & caused a muscle contusion, I beg to differ.)
If you’re an abuse survivor, you’d probably heard it too. “Stop playing the victim.” And you probably feel the same way I do about it: that it’s a hurtful and unfair thing to say to someone who has been victimized by someone else.
So imagine my surprise when the phrase “Stop being a victim” showed up in a guided self-love meditation I did recently! Where is the self-love in blaming oneself for being abused? That sounds more like a prescription for self-hatred, if you ask me!
I understand that many people see this phrase in a positive light, and that it is often said with good intentions. Empower yourself! Don’t let others bring you down! I also acknowledge that some people feel or act victimized when they aren’t necessarily the victim in a situation (abusers are especially fond of framing themselves as the helpless lamb while painting their victims as ruthless predators).
But I find the connotations of the phrase unfair, so I’d like to explain how I think we can convey the same truth and inspire people to empower themselves, without being mean-spirited or making unfair implications.
What is the function of victimization?
The function of victimization is very similar to the function of pain.
What’s the function of pain? Glad you asked!
We tend to think of physical pain as some annoying burden that exists solely to torment us, but it’s actually quite useful! The function of pain is to let you know that there is a problem. For instance, without pain in your wrists, you might never know you were developing carpal tunnel syndrome, and you’d never go see a doctor in time to fix it. Pain gives us a chance to assess our health and safety, so that we can take action to get better. Pain is a second chance, really.
Similarly, victimization is our signal that someone is harming us. It’s a form of pain. When someone makes you feel belittled, subjugated and afraid, that’s your signal to set some boundaries or all-together leave the person. Victimization gives you a chance to assess the situation, determine how much of it is within your control, and act accordingly.
There is nothing inherently bad or wrong or shameful about feeling victimized, because victimization is pain. Sometimes the pain is caused by something you did, but sometimes it isn’t. But you can only take steps to heal the wound after you’ve become aware of it.
So you feel victimized. Now what?
Of course, this is case by case, and there’s no way I can cover all this ground in one blog post. But as for me personally, here are my criteria for whether or not I think I’m justified in feeling belittled by a person or situation:
If I have
- attempted to directly communicate my concerns / stand up for myself
- changed my own behavior in ways that I think will positively impact the behavior of the other person
- exhausted all resources available to me in an attempt to stop the mistreatment (i.e. gotten a mediator involved)
- the other person continues to harm me, now knowing that they are harming me
then yes, I am within my right to feel victimized.
A more appropriate word would be “targeted.” Here’s why:
Feeling victimized is one thing, because people are capable of feeling victimized by just about anything (The train is late! I stepped on a LEGO! The whole world is out to get me!!!)
But being targeted is another thing entirely.
Sometimes people say or do things but honestly have no idea it hurts our feelings. Thus, it’s inappropriate for us to secretly harbor resentment towards them and expect them to read our minds & know what our needs are.
It’s only after you’ve communicated your concerns to them that you can reasonably claim that they are targeting you, because now they can no longer claim that they didn’t know their words/actions were hurtful.
If you can discern with certainty that a person is saying or doing something to you with the intention of harming you, then you are absolutely within your right to feel victimized by their behavior. But you can only discern this after you’ve done your part by communicating and taking action.
Who gets to decide who the “real victims” are?
I’ll tell you one thing: the people who’ve told me I’m ‘playing the victim’ are people who had never been through anything like what I’d been through. To be blunt, they had very easy lives and even said so themselves.
The people who validated my victimization, on the other hand, were either people who’d had similar experiences to mine, or mental health professionals who knew how to work with abuse survivors.
This has led me to believe that people who routinely tell others to “stop being a victim” may do it because it makes them feel superior to do so. Look at me! I’m not a victim! It’s so easy to feel good! Now I’m gonna go around telling people that if they don’t feel as good as I do, it’s because they’re choosing to feel that way! Aren’t I amazing at life?
No, actually, you’re a bully. You need to find a different way to feel good about yourself that doesn’t involve making people feel at fault for the suffering that’s been inflicted on them.
A Word to Victims/Survivors
You’re not ‘playing’ a victim or ‘acting like’ a victim. You are a victim. There is no shame in that. If you have been the target of any kind of abuse, the blame & responsibility lie on the shoulders of the abuser. Hardly anyone would blame a deer for being targeted by a trophy hunter — and as for those who would blame the deer, I question their capacity for empathy.
Our culture over all is unkind to victims. We are told to “get over it,” “stop exaggerating,” “stop lying,” “move on,” etc. And who benefits from such ~empowering~ ordinances? Certainly not us! This cultural phenomenon of victim-blaming serves abusers, in that it makes their behavior socially acceptable, protects them from scrutiny, and prevents them from facing consequences.
If you truly want empowerment, here’s what I think you should do:
One of my favorite quotes is “Be the adult you needed when you were younger.” There is no fixing what was done to you. But as time passes, you can practice taking care of your own needs. Don’t worry if you’re not perfect at self-love. (Pro-tip: nobody is!)
I know. It’s not fair that you should have to clean up the mess someone else made of your life. But if it’s of any reassurance to you: your abuser can’t take credit for your improvements. A narcissist’s or sociopath’s claim to fame is that they’re good at ruining people’s lives. What a horrid existence! You, on the other hand, can say that you’re good at rebuilding your life despite the damage they did to you. Just by virtue of not behaving like your abuser behaves, you’re already light years ahead of them in terms of inner strength & character. Regardless of what progress you’ve made (or have yet to make) take a second and find comfort in that. Give yourself the credit you deserve. ♥
LET ME REPEAT: I never spoke about politics with Roman.
Forget everything I said about identity disturbance. Well, not everything. But allow me to reframe what I said.
Earlier this year, I wrote that I think I have identity disturbance. That may or may not be true (and my therapist, on principle, refuses to slap a diagnosis on me). Regardless of whether I “really” have a disturbed identity, the point is that I struggle to feel “like myself.” I feel like my entire being is made up of question marks, distortions and confusion. Am I an extrovert, introvert, or ambivert? Am I talkative or quiet? Am I domineering or submissive? Adventurous or cautious? I have no idea. When I try to assess myself as a nuanced human being, a strange feeling of shame pops up and blocks me from acknowledging my own unique personality. It feels as though I do not have permission (from whom?) to identify myself on my own terms. As a consequence, I depend heavily on external input to figure out who I am and whether my behavior is socially acceptable. Obviously, this has made me quite appealing to the likes of cult leaders.
After having this revelation back in June, I thought that I was hopelessly identity-less. I feared that I was doomed to feel confused and have excruciating low self-esteem for the rest of my life.
But then I visited Arizona.
I’ve been privileged to travel a little more than the average person, both within the U.S. and outside of it. I’ve seen many cultures, many climates, many creeds. But no place has felt more like home to me, than Arizona.
Before visiting the state, I had been inexplicably obsessed with AZ for a full year. I would Google it constantly. I would interview everyone I knew who’d been there. I literally had dreams about it, and I rarely even remember my dreams. Logically, it made no sense that I’d be attracted to Arizona with such fervor. I had always heard it was an overtly racist state. I had also heard that it lacked diversity, youth and excitement. Normally, such stereotypes would turn me away. But not this time. Some wiser side of myself — my intuition, you could say — knew that there was something in store for me there.
And boy oh boy, was that hunch correct! More on that later. But first, let’s talk shit about New York City.
New York City.
This place has eaten me alive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve literally cried over how miserable I am here, or how many people here have not only been mean, but have gone out of their way to sabotage my success. I came to this city as a bright, bubbly, smiley young woman, and I cannot even recognize my fucking self anymore. I don’t make eye contact. I keep my mouth shut as not to incite anyone’s wrath. I don’t go outside unless I have to. I don’t dress up anymore because of the aggressive street harassment from men. I hardly have a social life here, and it’s not for lack of trying! My entire existence now, is dedicated to conserving energy. Whether I’m shielding myself from the sensory stimulation (flashing lights, traffic noise, crowded transit) or shielding myself from the attitude of the locals, I am always in a shell these days.
I, hate, this, place, so, much. Nowhere else in the world have I encountered so many nasty, arrogant, impatient, spiteful, rude and self-absorbed people. Nor have I had this many consistently ugly encounters with strangers anywhere else. The cashiers are rude, the subway riders are rude, the pedestrians are rude… The stereotypes are true. New Yorkers can deny it all they want, but… it’s hard to see the forest through the trees.
You know how cults are sometimes called “high demand groups”? Well, I think New York City, for me anyway, is a high demand culture.
I am not saying New York City is a cult. Chill out and don’t put words in my mouth. 😉 What I’m saying is that I find the culture and expectations of this city to be soul-damaging.
It is not normal to have almost zero nature around you. It is not normal to be deprived of restorative sleep by light pollution and noise. It is not normal to be so anxious, socially isolated, and misanthropic. It is not normal to regard everyone around you as a potential threat. It’s not normal for strangers to live packed around and on top of each other. It is not normal to be so hyper-stimulated with artificial input like neon lights and trains grinding on subway tracks.
This city triggers so many survival mechanisms that it’s hard to be fully human here. NYC breeds not only contempt for humanity, but deep insecurities that manifest as rudeness and competitiveness. In my heart of hearts, I do not believe New York City is the ideal place to build healthy communities from the ground up. I have seen too many community projects fail in NYC because they all found themselves forced to corporatize and acclimate to this business-first-humanity-later culture. So many people come here with good intentions, and leave broken-hearted and even broken-minded.
I’ve always been keenly aware of how a group of people, such as a cult, can harm your mind. But somehow I didn’t connect the dots that a culture can do the same thing, just in a more insidious way, because you can’t point to a specific person as the source of the pain.
So I am giving myself permission to say what I’ve been discouraged from saying for the past 5 years of being involved in NYC. This place hurts. It’s dirty, smelly, overly priced, loud, obnoxious, self-aggrandizing, cutthroat, and yes, the people here really are that mean. Even the ones who seem friendly don’t really know how to connect with people. I hate it here. I’ve spent years internalizing the message that “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” which implies that anyone who can’t make it here is flawed or weak in some way. Well you know what? I can’t make it here. I’ve tried to make it work, but now I’m tired of wasting my energy. But that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. I’m tired of modifying myself to earn the approval of this amorphous, self-important shit hole. I’m finished with seeking validation from a culture for whom no achievement will ever be good enough. I’m done blaming myself for how I get (mis)treated here. Done.
“Healthy communities.” Hmmm…
It’s something I’ve had to ponder in the wake of every cult/movement I’ve been part of. What makes a community, a healthy one? One might think that independence is the opposite of cultism/hivemind/groupthink, but I don’t think that’s true. In fact, I think you’re more likely to be drawn to cults if you try to be completely self-sufficient. We are social animals. There is a time for independence, and there is a time for connecting with others. The goal is to balance the two: time for self, and time for others. It can be done. I have been privileged to experience this beautiful balance in a few contexts throughout my life. One day I’ll write a post just about those experiences.
For now, I will just say that concepts like New York City — well, any industrial and highly populated city — are so heinously inhumane as to be borderline dystopian. It was a dreadful mistake on my part to move to NYC immediately after Arachne (my one-on-one cult leader) cut contact with me and left me to navigate the post-cult trauma alone. This is not a place for healing. Not even close. As someone who struggles to assert my identity and feel a stable sense of Self, I can’t say there’s any place or group in the world that can make me better. But I can say that New York City is certainly making me worse.
In contrast, the people in AZ were unbelievably sweet and friendly. From talking with the neighbors where we were staying, there was a clear sense of community. I didn’t sense that anybody was cutthroat or competitive. In fact, quite the opposite: I got the sense that people there were very happy to support one another, not sabotage them. Feeling safer and more supported, I found myself dressing to express my personality, which I had stopped doing because of the catcalling in NYC. I found myself making eye contact, smiling, holding conversations with strangers. I found myself happy and hopeful about the future. I felt confident. I felt like myself.
There is SO MUCH I’m withholding about my trip to Arizona. Maybe one day I’ll tell the full story, maybe I won’t. Let’s just keep this post relevant to this blog’s overarching topic (cultism).
Visiting Arizona taught me a LOT of things, but particularly these two things:
- Your environment plays a major role in your healing. You might think you can cope with industrious noise on a daily basis, but maybe you really can’t. And that’s okay!
- There is such a thing as a healthy, supportive community — yes, people who love people do exist!
- If you’re a person who struggles with having a stable sense of identity, don’t underestimate the influence of your culture on how you perceive yourself!
Now, remember how I said I have difficulty seeing myself any older than 23 years old?
Yeah, as it turns out, I actually can see myself aging in Arizona. In fact, it’s the only place I can easily imagine myself being 30, 40, 50, 60 years old. I suppose that’s my Wiser Self’s way of telling me that I won’t live much longer… in New York. This city is, quite literally, killing me.
So as a 24th birthday gift to myself, I am going to move to Arizona.
It defies all logic to think of moving deeper into the country instead of away from it, especially now that Trump is our President-Elect. But like I said, there are plenty of details I’m not sharing. Trust me when I say, everything in me knows I am supposed to be there. In fact, you could say I’ve been guided there by the Universe itself. That’s all I’ll reveal for now. The rest will be said when the time is right.
I sincerely feel like I had a glimpse of my Self in Arizona. After all this concern about having no identity, my hope has been restored that I do, in fact, have a Self. I am friendly, courageous, creative and driven to create healthy communities. And I am ready to be nurtured out of my shell.