When you are suffering in, or have exited a high control group, or have survived a situation of spiritual abuse it can be very disorienting. There may be a loss of community, a crisis of belief, or long term depression. You may feel like you were dropped into a new culture where everything is new, threatening, and different. For all these reasons and more, spiritual abuse can result in trauma. Having an ally can save your life.
In this blog, I will share how I got involved in therapy, how I paid for it, and how I chose a therapist. It’s going to get personal, because mental health is entwined with spiritual health.
I was raised in a high control group. This group regularly spoke out against getting help from mental health professionals. We were taught that they would attack our beliefs and jeopardize our faith. These comments were in writing and in oral instruction.
I was indoctrinated from youth and obeyed the rules. I was striving to be the perfect member of the group. The problem was, I developed an eating disorder. I reached the point where it was get help or die. I chose to get help.
I was poor, uneducated, uninsured, and young. I had to sneak to therapy because I was an active member of the group in good standing, but I did it.
It was before we had the internet, so I looked to the phone book. What I found was a community mental health center. I learned that they could provide services based on my income. This is called a sliding scale. Which meant I could pay a small fee of about $15 a session to get help. When I had no income, it was free.
I asked for a female and when I met her, I explained that I needed help with the eating disorder, but did not want to talk about my religion. If she attacked my religion, I would leave. We worked together for about two years and I successfully recovered.
She referred me to a psychiatrist and he told me that my problems were because of my religion. I told my therapist I would never talk to him again and I didn’t.
What I learned from this first round of therapy was, if you don’t have money, you can still get help. You can set boundaries. You don’t have to stay with someone if you don’t like them. What was most important is, I felt respected, and I learned to like myself (which isn’t really promoted much in a controlling group). She taught me to begin to think and she allowed me to ask questions.
I pursued therapy many times after that, and within 8 years, I had the courage to leave the high control group. Some therapists I liked, others I did not. I fired two therapists who I felt were bossy. I mostly worked with women. I had to teach them about the group so they could discover what issues I need to work through. That was tedious, but staying alive, becoming happy and confident, was worth the discomfort of explaining the dynamics of the group.
In the last few years have I discovered some tools and some issues I wished I had known about earlier. For one thing, people exiting high control groups often have trauma. I was diagnosed with PTSD, and if I had known that was a common side effect of cults, I would have searched for a professional who treats trauma. The website www.journeyfree.org has a three-part article about religious trauma. I directed my therapist to the website and asked her to read. She did and it helped her understand my form of PTSD.
Secondly, I also found Bonnie Zieman’s handout that anyone can print off and give to a therapist. Because Bonnie Zieman is a therapist, this handout speaks the language a therapist will understand.
Thirdly, the internet has good articles on how to pick a therapist including articles that describe different therapeutic modalities. If you imagine you’ll have to lay on a couch, that may not be the case. If you don’t want to dig into your subconscious, tell them. If you want short term, solution focused therapy, let them know. If you want to change how you think, cognitive-based therapy will help. The point is, there are lots of tools and methods available. It’s ok to ask a potential therapist about their experience and education.
Does it matter if your therapist professes your same faith? It may or it may not. But here is one thing to consider, if your experience was spiritual abuse, it may trigger you and hurt you if your therapist suggests you pray about it, forgive, or find a new church. Those suggestions may be premature or you may have no interest in religion ever again. Religious language can be quite triggering.
What matters is, do you feel safe enough to be yourself? Is the therapist kind and experienced? You can get a feel for that in the first few sessions, but you will not get help if you continually to fire people. Therapy requires risk taking. Therapists follow codes of ethics. They are not to impose their will over you; if you wanted that you could go back to your abuser.
Even the best therapist cannot help if you do not do the work. Are you committed to showing up? Will you do the homework? You cannot expect one hour a week to fix trauma. Outside the session, you will also need to take risks and apply what you are learning. The best therapist, or a good enough therapist cannot help if you lie about your circumstances, so be truthful. They may not know about your group, but they will understand depression, low self-esteem, domestic violence, child abuse, betrayal, difficulty making friends, trust issues, etc.
The last thing to know is, therapy is a tool. When you are ready to go solo, talk with your therapist. You can agree that its time to end the relationship. Later if new issues arise, you can seek therapy again.
Therapy literally save my life. I recommend it for anyone who feels depressed, suicidal, isolated, angry, or has any experience that is interfering with daily enjoyment and functioning. Therapy is not the monster that controlling groups make it to be.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1(800) 273-8255