By Carol Giambalvo
As both the Director of Recovery Programs for the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and a co-founder of reFOCUS, a support and referral network for former members of closed, intense organizations or relationships, I’ve had inquiries from clergy about how to help former members when they come to them. I’ve also had remarks from former members that clergy don’t seem to know how to help them. As a former member myself, I’ve had my own personal struggles addressing spiritual and religious issues. Hopefully I can give you some useful information and suggestions.
First, some background information. People don’t join cults. They are deceived and purposefully recruited. The majority are in some sort of normal human transition stage in life such as leaving high school for college, leaving college for the “real world”, breakup of a relationship or marriage, loss of a job, moving to a new location, retirement – and along comes a group of what seems like the most wonderful people from the most wonderful group with the most wonderful goals who show them love, acceptance, and a “higher purpose”. Many people have the mistaken idea that only troubled people from troubled families get involved in these groups. Cults don’t want troubled people. They want bright, dedicated, idealistic, energetic people to raise money, do the work of the group, and recruit new people.
So how do you help the former member? Here are some suggestions:
- Encourage them to get information to help them understand what happened to them in the group and to help them recover from it (sources of information listed at end)
- Understand that you will need to earn their trust – they have had their trust violated so badly by a group that looked good
- At times they may be triggered by words that were “loaded” in the group, by the use of some scriptures that the group twisted and emphasized, even by some hymns that were sung in the group, by dynamics – normal things that are found in healthy churches can be a source of a trigger to them. Just understand and make it okay if they need to leave a service, meeting or conversation if should this happen.
- Understand that they may not want to share their story – they need to build healthy personal boundaries. Respect their boundaries. The groups build unhealthy boundaries between members and the “outside” world and tear down their healthy boundaries and encourage them to bear their souls and confess all to other group members and leaders. It takes time to re-establish their healthy boundaries after leaving.
- When they need to talk, listen to them. They need a voice, on their own time.
- Encourage them to ask questions and let them know that it’s okay to disagree.
- They need respect and love as they struggle through their recovery issues
What are the recovery issues facing former members?
1. Identity Crisis
- Who am I now? For those born/raised in high demand groups, who am I?
- What do I believe?
2. Feeling disconnected, sense of purposelessness
- For the people you left behind
- Loss of a cause
- Loss of “belonging”
- Losses you had to give up in order to join group
- Loss of innocence
- Loss of career goals; finances; belongings
- Missing the “buzz”, the feeling of a “high” and looking for it elsewhere
4. Boundary issues
- Rebuild healthy boundaries — creating a safe place to heal
- It’s okay not to divulge everything to everyone
- Learn how the group tore down your boundaries between you and other group members/leaders
- Learn how the group built up unhealthy boundaries between you and the outside world in order to discredit outside information and feedback and make you more dependent upon the group/leader
5. Trust issues
· Test the waters, build up a relationship before you trust someone – develop healthy boundaries
6. Magical Thinking of cultic group, spiritualizing everything. One needs to learn or reconnect with their critical thinking skills.
7. Varying symptoms of post traumatic stress
- Panic attacks
- Sleep disorders
- Inability to make decisions
- Inability to concentrate
- Fears not grounded in reality, fear the group was right when they told you something bad would happen to you if you left
8. Difficulty with relationships and authority figures
International Cultic Studies Association: http://www.icsahome.com/infoserv_topic_collections/tpcol_exmember.asp
Again, I copied everything from refocus.org, because I wanted my readers to see this website. This letter was very helpful to me. Thank you Refocus.org for being there!!!