I know a family with five kids who all went to college. Each kid crashed during freshman year in one way or another and had to come home to the fold. After a year or so they gathered their strength, entered a different college, and did all right. But none of them could leave home the first time around.
I think it’s like that with leaving a cult. Most of us probably tried to leave many times and could not manage it. Leaving was a process, rather than an event.
The biggest barrier to leaving, of course, was the power our abusers had over us, the threats they made, and the fear they instilled in us. They had a great deal of physical and psychological power and they let us know it at every turn. Some of their victims died trying to escape, others were broken and remained entangled against their will.
But there were barriers inside ourselves, too. At least there were for me.
- I did not believe I could support myself. My parents had kept me dependent, and by my twenties, I had no experience working – no summer jobs, not even babysitting. I was totally dependent on them.
- I was shy and had very few social skills. I didn’t even know how to ask for information. Of course I could have asked people how they got their jobs, but it never occurred to me because I had no model of asking for help. I had no idea how to rent a room or ask for references.
- I didn’t know how to “be” in the non-cult world. I didn’t know the rules, although I did know they were different from the ones I had learned.
- Then there was trauma bonding. My folks could be nice occasionally, and the combination of negative and positive attachment is very hard to break. In a weird way, I was fond of them, or parts of them, even as I hated them.
- I find this hard to admit, but in the cult setting, adrenaline made me feel really alive. It can be addictive, like speed or coke. In the non-cult world, without the adrenaline rushes, I felt flat and numb.
- This factor is equally hard to talk about, even today. I was pretty good at some of the things they taught me and performing these activities brought me a certain satisfaction. I performed them with ease and grace, and I knew it. It brought me the approval I didn’t get in the outside life.
- I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I was able to some extent to protect other children (especially my brother) and spare them some of the worst experiences. Leaving them filled me with grief and guilt.
Not everybody has these particular inner barriers to making the break, and many survivors have obstacles that I don’t. But we can relate to each other because we all have all have had some things that held us back from escaping.
Knowing how wimpy I feel, I think it is a miracle that I was able to get out. I think it’s a miracle any of us got out! We need to remember that, and to remember that we were and are extraordinarily strong and ingenious people.
From Survivorship Notes, Vol. 10, No 1/2