I often read blogs belonging to others who are at various points on the recovery-from-a-highly-conservative-religious-movement process. Partly, because sometimes I run across things or stories that helps me think more clearly about the issues that I am trying to sort out. Partly, because some of these bloggers are damn good writers. And partly… to feel less alone.
Much of what I read, I can identify with up to a point. But it’s rare—very rare—for me to read anything online and to feel that it describes my situation so well that it is almost as if I am seeing my reflection in a mirror. All the same, that is what reading Lynn Beisner’s post, “Why I Don’t Tell People I was in a Cult” was like for me. (I found it via Libby Anne’s take on it.)
“How can you tell someone the truth about your past when there’s a good chance they won’t believe you?
I am part of a minority group that I call “People with a Big Story” for lack of a better term. People with Big Stories have two things in common. First, something has happened in their lives that is so outside the range of the ordinary that it seems unbelievable to most people. The second thing is that this unbelievable event impacts their lives so greatly that they cannot keep it private.
For People with a Big Story, the most private and painful part of our lives, the stories we would want to share only with those we trust the most, cannot be hidden from people who know us. [….] What makes my sojourn in the cult different from other traumatic life events is that it created such a gaping hole in my personal history that I do not have a choice to keep it private. What makes it necessary for me to tell the Big Story is not the trauma of drills or the physical abuse that I survived. It is all that I missed…..
You cannot know me very well without having to know this. You would be surprised at how hard it is to go more than a few good conversations with a person that I like without hitting on a subject where an honest response would require knowledge of The Big Story….
No matter when or how you tell the Big Story, no relationship is ever the same thereafter. There is no going back. All too often, telling the Big Story makes people see me as a crazy-bomb just looking for a place to go off. I can easily become a charity friendship or something of a curiosity. Only the most mature and level-headed people are determined to get past the circus freak aspect and get to know me as a person.
Big Stories are an enormous barrier to friendships and relationships of every kind. And people who have experienced them are stigmatized and marginalized in way that most people cannot imagine. As one of my friends says, “I learned quickly socializing is mostly people telling their stories. But the fastest way to ruin an entire party is for me to tell one of mine.” Even in activist groups where we might reasonably expect a safe space, our stories are often not welcome.
To add another level of complication, people who have Big Stories almost never wind up living with a nuclear family behind a white picket fence on the corner of Normal Street and Respectable Lane. Normalcy is blown to bits with the event that creates the Big Story. After that, many of us either have no sense of what normal is or it feels utterly unattainable….
The sad truth is that in most cases, being a person with a Big Story means being a person without community. There is no place where it is safe to be “out” as a liberated sex slave, rescued kidnapping victim, unwilling star of a political sex-scandal, former cult member, or an exonerated former death row inmate….”
Well, here I have it—both reflection of my experience, and diagnosis of why recovery isn’t working out the way that I had hoped (and the few people who know most of my story keep telling me that it should be working…)—rolled into one.
For this is my present situation. Not only has most of my adult life been one long Big Story (which included being part of a Muslim cult), but the ramifications of those fateful decisions that I made all those years ago continue to be an unavoidable part of my life, every day. It’s like dealing with the aftermath of a cluster bomb—it’s not just the impact of the initial bomb and the shrapnel that affects you, it’s all those bomblets that are launched when the bomb explodes. And they scatter. Some of them explode right away, but others don’t. Some lie unexploded for days, weeks, months, even years. And then they explode, when you least expect it. And there seems to be no end to them.
The few people who know much or most of my story sometimes wonder why I can’t seem to just put it all behind me and build a new life for myself in all senses of the word. In other words, going beyond the legal and financial aspects. Now that I’ve managed to get a decent job, begin the process of working my way up the ladder, make some headway in paying off my debts, get a legal divorce, get custody of the kids, get a decent place to live… why on earth can’t I put down roots socially where I live now?
Why are the (few) friends I have all people who knew me back when I was still stuck in my abusive marriage, and who know a fair amount of my story? Why can’t I get beyond the hall-way acquaintance thing at work and in the building I live in? Why doesn’t “hi, how are you?” ever become anything a bit more substantial?
And I have been wondering that too. A lot.
“You have to try harder,” one friend tells me. “You have to put yourself out there. And you need to smile, and think positive.”
I try to remember to have if not a smile on my face at all times, at least a sort of neutrally friendly expression. Nothing that would communicate the idea that I am unfriendly or stand-offish.
Between work and dealing with the kids, I don’t have much time. But still, I have tried to go to social events. The sorts of events that might lead to making friends, due to shared interests. I have tried to volunteer. I have tried to join a couple of alternative-y women’s groups, where I thought that I might be less of an oddity than in more “mainstream” settings. One of two things usually happened: either I would freeze up, and say almost nothing, or I would say too much. And it wasn’t hard to say too much, because almost anything had the potential to weird people out. Or worst of all, I would either have what amounted to a panic attack or a flashback. The prospect of the latter happening again soon became too much. Even the self-consciously “alternative-y” types didn’t have room for anyone as far from the norm as I am, I found—which was rather disillusioning.
And there isn’t much that I can say to anyone in any social situation beyond small talk (which I am not good at either). I don’t want to discuss most of my adult life, and nobody wants to hear it, either. Even the most supposedly neutral aspects of my former life—my experiences as a mother, for instance—that ordinarily might be a way to bond with other women on the basis of shared experiences… would only highlight my differences from them. I sometimes do chime in with a very select and highly censored anecdote from the past, in order to contribute to the conversation, and desperately hope that no one will ask further questions about it. Because then the veneer of normalcy that I have tried to put over it will certainly crack, and what will it reveal?? And even discussing my present life to any degree is hazardous, because so much of that is shaped by things that happened back when the Big Story was unfolding in my life.
“You are free now,” a friend says. “You have something that few people ever have—a chance to do it over, to make a better life for yourself.”
Yes, I know. I know that I have had almost unimaginable luck. I know that most women in my former position didn’t get free—or if they did, they live a far more economically and legally difficult life than I do. Do you have any idea how guilty I feel about that?
I do thank God every day for those friends of mine who helped me to get out and get on my feet, and I pray regularly that they will be abundantly rewarded. And maybe that should be enough. If you have a near-miracle, and memories of good friends to sustain you, maybe it’s rather greedy to want to have a new social life in the new place you’ve moved to as well?
I’m not sure what happened to Lazarus after he was raised from the dead. That is, after they untied his grave-clothes and he walked free. Did he have anything like a normal life after that? Or was he always “that guy who was raised from the dead” to everyone who encountered him?? Did he have flashbacks to waking up in the tomb? Could he ever attend funerals again, or walk past a cemetery?
Well, anyway—now I know that there are others who feel this way, even if they don’t have my particular life story. Big Story people. A community that once you are part of, you will probably never have a community. I suppose it’s always nice to know that when you are alone that you nonetheless have company.