This was posted on OCMB by "Snow White"
From time to time, a psychotherapist receives a request for help from someone who has recently left a cult. These patients may present symptoms of anxiety and depression, as do many others, but they constitute a group with special problems that require special knowledge on the part of the therapist.
The story these patients recount is remarkably similar from one to the next, regardless of differing educational, social, or financial backgrounds. They usually tell of joining the cult when they were at a transition point in their lives. Dissatisfied with their ordinary pursuits and relationships and hungry for a meaningful life that would satisfy their spiritual longings, they encountered an attractive, smiling young man or woman who enthusiastically described the happiness to be found in his or her dedicated, loving group and its wonderful, enlightened leader. They were invited to visit the group and did so. At that first meeting, they were impressed, if not overwhelmed, by the warm attention they received. In addition, they may have been emotionally stirred by singing; meditation, or other activities and may even have entered an altered state of consciousness under the influence of the group's leader. Such impressive experiences were interpreted as proof of both the leader’s advanced spiritual state and the newcomer's readiness to receive initiation. After one or two more meetings, they decided to join.
Having joined, the new convert's life was immediately filled with work meetings, and exercises that left little time or energy for the life he or she left behind. Even if the convert was married and had a family, the partner and the children were regarded as less important than the avowed mission of the group to benefit all of humanity to save the world. The conflict between group demands amid outside commitments grew steadily sharper until the convert relinquished all relationships with those outside the group or the family broke up as the spouse reached the limit of tolerance. The ally was now totally dependent on the group and the leader for emotional and financial support.
The group that initially was warm and loving revealed its cold, punitive side whenever a convert questioned the group’s beliefs or criticized the behavior of the leader. Such dissent was labeled “selfish” or “evil,” and group approval was withdrawn and the dissenter isolated. Members were taught, therefore, that what the group had given, the group could take away. Out of fear of such punishment by the group and of humiliation and censure by the leader, converts found themselves engaging in the intimidation and coercion of fellow converts, the deception and seduction of new recruits, and other behaviors that violated ethical standards held before joining the cult. Such actions were rationalized by reference to the overriding importance of the group’s purpose and to the leader’s superior wisdom.
Eventually, the strain of conforming to the demands of the group became too much, especially it children were involved. The convert protester refused to comply with the latest demands and was dealt with severely. Finally, in desperation, he (or she) left the cult. Immediately, the leader branded him as damned, possessed by Satan, and having lost his soul. At the very least, he had failed the best arid lost his chance at enlightenment. Just as painful, people with whom he had shared his most intimate secrets and felt the greatest acceptance and love now turned their backs and refused to communicate. Feeling totally alone, the ex-cult member experienced a turmoil of feelings: rage at the betrayal, fear of retaliation, horror at the possibility of perpetual damnation, grief at the loss of group support and affection, and. shame at having been duped. At this point, he may turn to a therapist for help.
The anxiety and depression such patients feel usually is secondary to a bigger problem: a loss of trust in others and, especially loss of trust in their own judgment and spiritual perceptions. Additionally, they may feel guilt over unethical actions they engaged in to please the group and despair at the loss of time, money, and relationships. To recover from the trauma of their cult experience, these patients need to understand what happened and why, and so does the psychotherapist who treats them.