AFTEREFFECTS OF COMING OUT OF A CULT©
by Janis Hutchinson
“If I had known about the aftereffects of coming out of the Mormon Church, I never would have left!”
This was how I felt during the first few years of my difficult transition. Unaware that professional help was available, I found myself faced with the frustrating task of restoring my life. After coming out of three Mormon cults (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Utah Mormon Church), and radical offshoots, The Bryanites , and Mormon Fundamentalism ), it took approximately eight turbulent years to sort things out, rid myself of Mormon baggage, and reach the point of feeling I was on a par with the rest of the human race.
In the early stages, discouraged at my slow progress, I was tempted to return to the first cult I belonged to for thirty-four years, the Utah based, Mormon Church.
The years spent in that church weren’t as bad as the Bryanites or Mormon Fundamentalism—that is, there was no physical abuse. But cult-like, the Mormon Church repressed independent thinking, forbid questioning, taught bizarre doctrines, required blind obedience, and deceived members regarding its history. Because I had burned the last bridge behind me by requesting my excommunication, I knew I couldn’t return. I certainly had no inclination to return to the other two.
Mormon Fundamentalism, the more extreme of the three, practiced a United Order where everyone was required to give 100% of their goods and finances. It exacted rigid and demanding rules, required robot obedience, promoted poor living conditions, and tightly curtailed free will. There was also physical abuse.
In that group I was held prisoner for nine months in a small 8x10 room, after they caught me sneaking away to a Christian church. I was accused of “spiritual adultery,” and “worshiping at the altar of Baal.” Refusing to repent of my sin, my health deteriorated rapidly. I grew very thin, slipped in and out of deep depression, suffered through crushing disappointments, mental and emotional agonies, unanswered questions, and found my faith shattered in suspecting that doctrines I had believed in for so long, might be wrong. I felt let down and cheated. I lost all incentive to live. (See my story, Escape From the Cult.)
Eventually, I was found unconscious and, at that point, nearly died. The leader, concerned that my death might become a reality and bring a police investigation, then saw to it that I was given better food. I slowly regained enough strength to plan my escape.
Nevertheless, in spite of my improvement, I was left with prolonged health problems. I had to wear a neck brace to control crippling pain spasms in my neck and back. A severe hemorrhage required six blood transfusions. With a completely paralyzed colon, I faced a possible colostomy and later underwent surgery for other related matters.
At the point of my exodus, I felt I was free and my problems over—but not so. I was unaware of the length of time it takes to overcome the emotional aftereffects.
I was facing eight years of disorientation, flashbacks, conflicting emotions, nightmares, irrational behavior and continuing health problems. I grappled with disorientation, an inability to relate to people, and was in constant fear that the doctrine of “Blood Atonement” would be carried out on me. Plus, I had anxiety attacks and recurring nightmares that the cult leader would find me and force me back to the cult.
I also had to deal with two painful and disabling kinds of culture shock. The first: societal, trying to cope with reentry into society. I found stores and people foreign—like they were from another planet. Plus, after nine months of isolation I had to learn how to verbally communicate all over again.
The second: religious culture shock. Hoping to find a substitute for both the cult and its leader in a traditional church and pastor, I was unprepared for the jolting encounter.
Struggling to overcome my disappointment in not finding the pastor comparable to the cult leader (direct revelation from heaven, similar doctrines, etc.), I lay awake at night agonizing over the emotional tug-of-war between wanting to harbor cult beliefs, yet embrace new ones.
In addition, I was tormented with “what if” questions: What if the Book of Mormon is true! What if Joseph Smith was really a prophet! What if I become a daughter of perdition by leaving!
Further, I was plagued with the thought that Mormonism’s longevity and success must prove it had a divine origin and I must return¾if I didn’t, God would disown me. Daily, I struggled with the temptation to go back—not to the Bryanites or Fundamentalists—but to the Mormon Church.
In addition, I suffered losses—the cult’s extra-biblical revelation; leaders’ claim of supernatural contact with God; the absence of the cult community; friendships; cult goals; absolute answers; self-esteem; sacred myths; elite status—all the things that once convinced me I belonged to God’s true church.
Hurled into a state of bereavement, I went through the stages of grief similar to a widow(er) losing a spouse. I experienced the death of my cult identity, self-image, basic needs, securities, cult leader as father/mother figure, strong causes, heavenly rewards, and living prophets. Having no immediate substitutes to fill the void effected a critical sense of tragedy, as I underwent one psychological crisis after another.
Further, I had to deal with Christians who did not understand my distress, and who thought I should overcome my problems in less time. They also belittled my former cult membership, not realizing that an ex-cultist still retains a degree of loyalty, and will be offended. To them, I was an exasperating paradox. “How can she miss the cult when she knows it was wrong?” “How can she be happy to be free, yet want to return?”
Failing to understand that I was a victim of psychological enslavement, their consensus was that I was possessed of a “cult devil.” Accused of this too soon can drive a new convert back to their cult. Christians, including pastors with all their training in counseling, are unprepared to address the problems that new converts experience. They may be knowledgeable in how to biblically refute cult doctrines, but as far as giving effective help afterward they are at a loss. Even counter-cult organizations are ineffective in doing this, since their main focus is disseminating literature and go no further.
Often I’m asked: “What was the most difficult aspect of having been in three cults?” Admittedly, the one was where I was held prisoner was horrendous. But, I have to say that the worst part was the emotional turmoil upon coming out. Dealing with all the psychological aftermath proved to be the most soul-wrenching, excruciating, experiences of my life. Contributing greatly to this assessment is the fact that during that intense and turbulent time, I had no idea why I was suffering, although I could describe my symptoms.
If someone had only explained to me that what I was going through was “normal,” and that I wasn’t “losing my mind” or “cracking up,” as many former cultists have expressed, it would have facilitated a faster recovery. It was only later, after much research and talking with other ex-cultists, that I gained an understanding of the normalcy and inevitability of the painful coming-out process.
Every former cultist who has contacted me, without exception, has one common lament: “If there were only someone who understood what I’m going through and could help me on a one-to-one basis. Not even my pastor understands!”
There is a desperate need for Christians to become knowledgeable about the transition process, in order to provide needed support.
While it goes without saying that the best helpers are those who were once cultists, individuals who have never been in a cult can also qualify. All it takes is caring, a willingness to study the phenomenon, and to make oneself available. This, plus educating the cult victim about the aftereffects of coming out, can reduce the time of recovery. I strongly recommend my book Out of the Cults and Into the Church: Understanding and encouraging ex-cultists, which describes the transitional problems in detail, and gives specific instructions on how to help.
THIRTEEN LOSSES EX-CULTISTS EXPERIENCE
· loss of extra-Biblical revelation
· loss of a leader’s supernatural. contact w/ God
· loss of a divinely called leader
· loss of friends & community ties
· loss of believing one is right
· loss of belonging to the “only true church”
· loss of absolute answers
· loss of sacred myths
· loss of elite status
· loss of respect (in the Christian community)
· loss of being called to positions by revelation
· loss of high goals
· loss of self-esteem
· loss of the cult leader (disappointment in the Pastor)
· Loss of community bonding (clan-like)
. . . . continued
· Sleepless nights;
· Conflict between harboring cherished beliefs and, at the same time, trying to erase cult indoctrination
· Torment of wondering if it was a mistake to leave the cult
· Plagued with the thought that the cult’s continued success must prove it had a divine origin
· Hiding problems from Christians working with them
· Dealing with misconceptions of Christians who believe ex-cultists’ problems occur before conversion, not after
· Recurring nightmares
· Suicidal tendencies
· Experience two syndromes: Loss and Grief, and Death and Dying
· Fear cult retaliation
· Can’t let go of sacred stories
· Memory loss
· Feel they are “cracking up”
· Behave as if a death occurred (death of their cult)
· Culture shock (societal and religious)
· Inability to break mental rhythms of chanting and meditation (specific cults)
IF NO HELP, THEY WILL DO ONE OF FOUR THINGS:
Stay in church and be miserable
Drop out from Christianity, entirely
Return to the cult
Ms. Hutchinson holds a B.Th. and M.A. in Theology, and is a frequent speaker on radio talk shows, in college classrooms, churches and seminars, and has personally counseled former cult members.
Her book, Out of the Cults and into the Church (Kregel 1994), is the first book to detail the difficult problems ex-cultists face, particularly in adjusting to Christian churches. The book is also designed so that it can be handed to new converts who will, for the first time, be able to understand their problems, and why they are having them.
She is also author of, The Mormon Missionaries: An inside look at their real message and methods (Kregel 1995), and a Spanish version, Misioneros Mormones. This book unmasks the evangelizing plans of Mormon missionaries, reveals step-by-step procedures and strategies, and exposes purposely concealed doctrines. This book is a must for anyone investigating the Mormon Church. It is also excellent for ex-Mormons, who need confirmation that they made the right choice in leaving.
*Copyright 2003 - 2013. This article cannot be copied and used in a professional publication without express permission of the author.