Q&A 2: Mental Health

Did you have any prior mental illness, or any "vulnerabilities" before joining?

Is mental illness a prerequisite for cult membership? Are only the "vulnerable" the ones that join cults? Can "normal" people not be manipulated or duped?  

Look again at the classic psychological experiments of the mid-twentieth century. Were the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment, who within days became sadistic and cruel, suffering from mental illness? What of Muzafer Sherif's "Robber's Cave" experiment where he brought two groups of normal, middle-class, white adolescent boys into extreme conflict within only days? Did they have mental health issues?

As for myself, I did suffer from anorexia and some self-diagnosed depression before I met the COG, but I suspect the "depression" I felt was nothing more than teenage self-pity. I was only 16, and I would say that that in itself made me "vulnerable."

But I take exception to the idea that cult members necessarily have mental illness. I think this is a naive mistake of generalization and stereotyping.

How was your mental health during involvement? And what was your self-identity like?

My self-narrative was drastically altered by the flood of reading and memorization I did daily, the in-group norming, the isolation from society and outside sources of information. I saw myself somewhat conflicted. One one hand, I was a dedicated servant of the Lord, a "St. Francis" of sorts. On the other hand, I was a worthless sinner; "I am a worm and no man," to quote the Psalmist. Ever striving, but never good enough.

There was also a lot of denial involved. Denial of any wrongdoing. Denial of being in a "cult." Well basically, denial of reality.

During my cult years I felt normal. My cult life was my "normal." In retrospect, I see that my brain was gradually deteriorating from stress and lack of substantial intellectual feeding. But when you're a fish in the water, you cannot feel the wetness. When I finally emerged, my brain was filled with mist.

What was the process of disaffiliation to you? How did that affect your mental health and/or your self-identity?

Initially, I felt remorse and guilt to insufferable degrees, combined with a fierce desperation to make things better for my kids, all the while dealing with brain fog. I was glad to be away from the nonsense that I had been so misguidedly dedicated to for 30 years. Naturally, I was angry at myself for the folly of the commitment I made—and stuck to—from age 16.

My mental salvation came through study and education, particularly through study of behavioral economics—the brain's natural biases and inclinations—as well as neurology and psychology. I had a ceaseless desire to understand how a life—a relatively normal, middle-class life—could take such turns.

How are you doing now? Have you come to accept that experience? What are your feelings about the group now?

What can I do but to accept my life as it was? To live on in denial would be to continue on in a life of delusion and fantasy. I've had quite enough of that already.

I am thankful for the freedom I have now—freedom to think, to learn, to be myself, to lay aside guilt. The latter is probably the hardest, as it was an integral part of my staunchly Catholic upbringing; it's been my companion since childhood.

As for my feelings toward TFI, it created (and may still be creating) a delusional bubble of unreality, where abuse—psychological, physical, sexual, and deprivational—was not and is not seen as abusive. The abuses were "normal," and in some cases, even "pleasing to God." Can this be good?

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