Irreconcilable Differences

The last month or so has been incredibly intense for me. Back in the beginning of the summer, I wrote about how I had reached a point where I was no longer satisfied with merely avoiding conflict with my family at the expense of myself, keeping a delicate balance that indicated more about the fragility of the relationship than it did about actual peace. I resolved to pursue allowing myself to be more present in visits, not hiding out of fear of a fight.

Little did I know what door I was opening. Before I even had a chance to challenge myself to live up to my own dedication to authenticity, I found myself embroiled in a toxic stew of insults, cold shoulders, and hostility. Maybe they had always been there and I was just more aware. Maybe this visit was coincidentally bad. It’s hard to say.

Being around my family in that way, with everyone interacting with each other as if they were held hostage rather than fulfilling a desire to see me, opened my eyes.

For the first time, I realized that I don’t really ever interact with my family—I interact with the cult. I am not part of that family anymore. I am a stranger. I could not one of them because I am not of the cult.

For the first time, I realized that nothing has really changed. They may not be able to physically abuse me anymore, but the psychological game was still present, jerking me around.

For the first time, I realized I couldn’t save my parents—from the cult, from the awareness that their abuse had hurt me, or from the consequences that accompanied not taking responsibility for that abuse.

For the first time, I thought about how if this were a friendship, I would have ended it years ago. If it were a marriage, I would have gotten a divorce.

It was then that I knew I couldn’t maintain a relationship with them. I was healthier when they weren’t in my life. The more I tried to hold onto them while they strung me along, the more I betrayed myself.

I wasn’t able to take action on that knowledge until a few weeks ago.

There’s something primal and terrifying about letting go of the illusion of family even if you’ve never had the actual experience of a loving family. Yet each time I tried to talk myself out of this move, telling myself it was “one bad visit” and that “things could get better,” I knew I couldn’t bear to walk into that house ever again.

My own pain is to be expected—managed even.

What intrigues me is the response that others have.

For the most part, we have gotten over the stigma of divorce. There are still pockets of judgment, but they are rare these days. If I were to tell the average person that I was divorcing my husband because he had been physically and emotionally abusive and had refused to take responsibility for that or make any effort to change, I would be praised for the strength it took to make my decision and offered assistance and comfort. If I never wanted to speak to him again after the divorce, no one would question that.

We’ve come to accept that break ups with romantic partners, while unfortunate and painful, are sometimes necessary.

That is not guaranteed to be true for blood relatives.

There is no legal recourse to divorce my parents. Articles and self-help guides that offer support and advice on parent-child relationships more often talk about reconciliation after confrontation or setting boundaries.

If I choose to tell someone that I have chosen to cut my family off, I’m just as likely to be accused of being unforgiving and over-dramatic as I am to be offered comfort and support.

And I don’t understand why that is…

What is it about shared genes that makes toxic relationships something to cling to when, in other circumstances, it would be considered more unhealthy not to end the relationship?

My decision did not come easily. It was years in the making and driven by a multitude of incidents. This last visit was merely the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back and came at a time when I had tremendous support to help me through. I don’t think it is meant to be an easy decision, but I wonder if it might have been easier if there had been just a smidge more acceptance for the idea that break ups are sometimes just as necessary with family as they are with partners.

There is a part of me that wants to keep this private because of how painful it is, but I realize if I do that, I contribute to the stigma. If I am willing to talk about my journey when boundary-setting or confrontation are on the table, but I shy away from sharing when I realize that there are irreconcilable differences, I am no better as an author and blogger than the self-help books that I resent right now.

So I share my pain, aware that others may read in horror, judging…but mostly hoping that some who read realize they aren’t alone.


Reclaiming Healing Part IV: The Relationship

Over the month of September, I’ve been exploring what healing means to me, starting with dismantling the idea that healing is a destination. From there, I explored healing as a multi-faceted phenomenon and as a progressive cycle of Underworld journeying.

For this final week on reclaiming healing, I’ve been thinking about how healing is a relationship to myself as well as to my trauma and wounds. It’s about being able to meet myself wherever I am.

Remember in the story of Inanna how the only function of the creatures sent to rescue Inanna from the Underworld was to wail alongside Ereshkigal, empathize with her until she had spent her grief. Then she released Inanna and the two were able to integrate some of the aspects of the other—to heal the split between the Goddess of Heaven and her shadow side.

Pulling away from myself in moments of pain and trying to make the memories or feelings go away only makes things worse. That’s when I get an angry Underworld goddess who tortures me.

Rather, leaning into myself in those moments, greeting the sadness and memories, listening to them the way I might listen to a friend or child—there’s magic in that because relationships are magic.

Relationships are healing.

Especially when trauma has been caused by a relationship, I think the view of healing as relational is particularly important. Trauma needs safety in order to heal, and the more safe I can make my internal world, the more my trauma will be able to tell its story and feel heard and held.

With healing as an internal relationship, the ebbs and flows of the various emotions and memories are an invitation to draw closer to myself, to love myself more, to listen deeper, and to be present.

Suddenly whatever is happening in that moment is exactly what needs to happen. Whether I’m feeling strong and capable in the face of something which used to terrify me or whether I’m cradling myself as I cry after a nightmare, I’m healing in that moment because I’m being with myself.

At the same time, I don’t expect myself to be the sole relational support for my healing. Other healing relationships are important too, including my therapist, my partner, my friends.

The trick is that they can provide an external safety and relationship to support my healing, but I have to, in turn, have that internal relationship in order to actually heal.

Often with relational trauma, that internal relationship has to be built. It starts off as an acquaintance and grows as the relationship is deemed tolerable.

My therapist had to create a holding environment where I could briefly meet with my shadow parts before pushing them away again (going back to the progressive cycle!). I couldn’t tolerate extended contact with myself. That had to be developed up along with my self-compassion, tolerance for pain, and ability to stabilize and anchor to my core.

But the more I got to know myself, the more I came to understand that I was strong enough to be with the intensity of my emotions. I was strong enough to hear the stories of the parts I had tried to bury.

Today, I can invite my difficult parts and emotions to come in, sit down, and drink tea with me.

Not always, of course. I still have moments of trying to push away or “move on” to the point of erasing them. That’s where I know I need more healing–when I don’t feel capable of meeting myself and, as Rumi describes, welcoming all of my emotions as my guides in healing.


Reclaiming Healing Part III:Journeying to the Underworld

In the last two posts, I began exploring what healing means to me, starting with dismantling the myth that healing is some sort of final destination. Last week, I focused on the multifaceted nature of healing (e.g. it’s not just one thing). Now I want to somewhat return to the idea of healing as a journey metaphor.

One of the earliest ways that I came to think about healing was in the context of the story of Inanna.

Inanna decides to visit the Underworld when she hears about her sister (shadow self) grieving the death of her husband.

As Inanna takes the journey into the Underworld, she has to pass through seven gates. At each gate she is required to give up one of her Goddess symbols until she gets down there stark naked. She goes into the court where her sister is grieving, but rather than empathize with the pain she sees, she mocks her sister.

In a rage, Ereshkigal orders Inanna to be hung on meat hooks, where Inanna stays for some time. Eventually her lady’s maid/friend/person, Ninshubur, realizes that she isn’t coming back on her own and goes around to all the other gods seeking assistance with getting Inanna back. One of the gods eventually takes pity and creates these creatures that go with Ninshubur down to the Underworld.

Once down there, they begin weeping and grieving with Ereshkigal, and they do that until Ereshkigal releases Inanna.

When Inanna returns to the upper world, she brings with her characteristics of the Underworld goddess.

In turn, it’s hinted that Ereshkigal is pregnant  (a characteristic of the role that Inanna played with fertility and life). So each goddess integrates portions of the other.

Thereafter, Inanna spends part of her time in the upper world and part of her time in the Underworld, and the changing of the seasons is born.

While Inanna’s is hardly the only goddess myth that involves a goddess going down into the Underworld, it’s significant to me in that Inanna does so voluntarily (as opposed to being kidnapped or tricked). I love the image of an intentional, cyclic descent into the dark places of the soul in order to integrate and retrieve those lost, wounded parts of the self.

However, it’s not a static cycle either. Inanna doesn’t repeat the same journey each time. She doesn’t forget what happened in the Underworld. She doesn’t lose what she gained down there. Each time she descends, though we don’t get a tale all over again, it’s implied that she maintains what she has accomplished and the integration she has achieved.

Even the seasons themselves, one of the most profound demonstrations of cycles, are not static. They build on each other.

Healing is not easy. It’s not always pleasant. Often times, it can feel like I am revisiting the same topic over and over, yet the story of Inanna reminds me that while there might be similarities in the process of descent, pain, stripping away of that which protects me, and meeting my fragmented, shadow parts, I am never actually taking the same journey twice.

Healing is a progressive cycle. Each time around, something is different. Maybe it’s that I recognize the things that got me stuck before and avoid them more easily or that I take yet another step towards a decision that I know I need to make but haven’t been able to follow through on yet.

Most often, there is some element of further integration with a part of me that was too emotionally raw to integrate all at one swoop. Repeated journeys into the same territory allow me to do pieces of work that would overwhelm me otherwise. The journey is necessary in exactly the way that it is happening. There’s only so much I can process and face at one time before I need to come back up for air and recuperation.

We live in a society that wants a quick fix for everything, from health to wealth, that I think we have somewhat forgotten that the most important things cannot be done quickly. This is true especially for healing, I think. No one has the resources to stay in the Underworld non-stop. Trying to force more to happen than is ready to happen only causes more damage as the wounds “hang us on meat hooks.”

My contention with the destination myth revolved around the finality of the journey, but Inanna’s story symbolizes how healing can indeed be a journey and a cycle at the same time.

It’s a journey whose destination is to revisit the shadow and the Underworld on a regular, intentional basis in order to further integrate the parts that have been lost down there.

It’s a journey that doesn’t devalue the role of recurrent themes or emotions as evidence of having failed to heal. Rather it portrays them as normal parts of the process that need empathy rather than scoffing and judgment.



Reclaiming Healing Part II: Spinning the Web

Welcome to part 2 of my reclaiming healing mini-series. If you missed part 1, you can find it here. This week I’m going to begin exploring one of the aspects of healing that stand out to me as I explore the meaning of the concept for myself.

But first, a relevant tangent.

In my dedication to radical self-care, I have learned that there is a nauseating pop-culture view of wellness that makes me want to smack people…and then there is the more nuanced concept of wellness as developed by researchers.

If I were to listen to pop culture, I would think that wellness was a light switch with two positions, Well or Not Well. Usually it’s relegated to one or two facotrs, e.g. physical wellness or emotional wellness.

But when I look at wellness more deeply, I realize that it’s a multi-faceted, ever-changing thing. And it’s not so much about obtaining perfection in all of the facets as it is about balancing them and obtaining the best functioning of them all in that period of time.


One version of the wellness wheel. Source: SAMHSA

Thus, someone can have a physical health problem and still be relatively well if they have a strong support network, a healthy environment, plenty of resources, methods of caring for themselves emotionally and physically, and a way of finding hope or meaning through the experience.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. I think as a society we have a tendency to reduce healing to as simplistic and ineffective a model as we do wellness, but if we were to actually look at a visual representation of healing, I’d bet double the amount I owe on student loans that it would be more like the wellness wheel than like a light switch.

Last week, I talked quite a bit about physical healing and the parallels I see to emotional/psychological healing, but it doesn’t just have parallels. The mind and body are astounding in the way they relate to each other, and science is just beginning to scratch the surface of how interrelated they can be around trauma (for a deeper look, check out Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score).

In the healing work I have done around my sexual abuse, I have had to learn how to respect that mind-body connection and the reality that memory is stored in my muscles as much as in my brain. Both my body and my mind have to heal, but they require different kinds of healing practices. Counseling has been invaluable to my mental and emotional healing, but it took working with a physical therapist to address some of the physical damage.

But like wellness, healing is not just emotional and physical. Growing up in a cult is a relational trauma, and there has been a social component to my healing as well. I’ve had to learn how to trust again. I’ve had to learn how to take relational chances and open up to people—how to ask for help or reach out for support. And most importantly, I’ve had to learn how to set boundaries.

The cult was also a spiritually abusive place though, so healing my spiritual life has been a large focus of my journey. Much of that has taken the form of exploring Paganism and Goddess spirituality…which could also be seen as a healing of my gender identity as I created new ways of thinking about the feminine that didn’t root it in shame, inferiority, and perversity.

Already I have loosely and easily covered several of the wellness wheel spokes. I could go on and on tracing a map of healing in a myriad of places. I use the wellness wheel as a jumping off point for visualizing, but it could be just as easily portrayed as a web.

The short of it is: healing is simply not simple. It’s multifaceted in a gorgeously complex and interdependent way.


Reclaiming Healing Part I: The Destination Fallacy

This past month marked the anniversary of the death of someone who was like family to me. The pain was intense, and I had my fair flood of tears. No one pointed a finger at my recurring grief to accuse me of not having healed from my loss.

Continuing to miss a loved one who has passed, continuing to hurt when little reminders come up or special days go by—that’s all perfectly fine and normal for death because it’s a huge event in someone’s life.

Most people understand that healing from that doesn’t mean losing the emotion around it.

However, people aren’t always so understanding about other significant events that can happen to people, particularly trauma and abuse. Fairly frequently, when people find out I don’t think forgiveness is necessary for healing…and often detrimental in its universal prescription, people will challenge me by asking if I still have any anger or pain left over from my abuse—as if the presence of either indicates that my attempts at healing have failed.

It’s an interesting measuring stick—one that reveals how confused we are about what it means to heal, psychologically or emotionally.

Is healing a destination, a place you reach where you can say that an event no longer bothers you, that any “negative” emotions associated with it are gone?

I think not.

I wouldn’t want to have zero emotional charge around the biggest events of my life. I wouldn’t want my abuse to be as insignificant to me as the breakfast I ate two years ago.

We understand healing better on a physical level.

When you get a papercut, it’s pretty simple to imagine that you will need to give it a few days to mend. Generally a band aid is all that is needed, maybe some ointment. It probably won’t even leave a scar. Two weeks from now, the papercut will be so far beyond bothering you that it might be forgotten entirely.

Of course, papercuts are hardly the worst injury that can happen physically. If you break a bone or have surgery, healing takes a lot longer.  There might be scar tissue, or physical therapy may be required to regain strength and mobility.

If the injury is severe enough, healing might not mean getting back to former functioning. You might have a limp, or chronic pain, or need to adjust the way you do some things because you’ve lost an ability.

In that instance, healing is more about ending the critical injury and learning how to optimize functioning around limitations.

Which brings me back to the idea of healing psychologically.

Trauma isn’t a papercut.

It would be absurd to expect someone to heal from something life-altering at the rate that we would expect them to get over the frustration of their partner forgetting to put the cap back on the toothpaste.

It would also be absurd to expect that a life-altering event would “heal” to the extent that it was as if it never happened—no emotional charge, no recurrent memories, no resurrected pain on anniversary dates or around significant reminders.

So how do we define it?

I think a big step in the right direction would be to discard the notion that healing is something we do and have done with.

It’s not a destination.

I’m going to be taking the next few weeks to focus on healing, doing what I have done with my series on negative emotions–defining it in a way that works for me. Because I don’t think healing should be set up as an impossible-to-reach standard, nor should it reinforce harmful myths about shadow emotions.

I hope you will join me on this journey and think about how you might define healing for yourself.

Part II
Part III

Part IV

Cult Spotting 101: Evaluating a New Group Before You Join

Wow, it’s been a long time since I did a post for my Cult Spotting 101 series! I’ve got a new one for readers today.

If you’re not familiar with this series, I link to a source (or in this case sources) and ask readers to take a moment to identify any red flags that might indicate cause for concern about cultic practices or teachings. It’s designed to give readers a chance to exercise their skills in identifying potentially problematic groups.

Why? Because the best safeguard against cults is learning how to recognize the signs.

This week, I’m looking at the Sisters of the Valley (aka, the weed nuns). They’re a relatively new group, consisting of two Sisters who make Cannabis products to sell online. They don’t have a doctrine or body of teachings to analyze. Rather, we’re going to practice evaluating what they say about the group as if it were a new group we were interested in joining.

They’ve been really popular as a share on Facebook, therefore we’re going to start with one of the videos that has been circulating.

Watch it, make notes about the things that give you pause for concern. If you’re really dedicated, feel free to peruse their website and a Tech Insider article on them as well.

Then, as always, come back here for my breakdown of my own thoughts.


Welcome back!

When I first heard about these “nuns” and saw this video, my initial reaction was excitement. As someone who appreciates the value of herbs and is interested in seeing Cannabis used for herbal purposes more, I was psyched that people were dedicating themselves to such a cause.

However there were also a few things in the video that took some of my excitement down.

Environmental Control

In the documentary, the nuns describe how they “live together, work together, pray together.” That phrase threw up a flag about potentially unhealthy isolation.

Isolation is one of the foremost ways that abusive people and groups use to control others because, by isolating someone, the group essentially becomes a gatekeeper through which all information must get filtered. Control the environment, and you control who people see, what they read and hear, what the group norms are, etc.

Because we have such a strong drive to belong, what we surround ourselves with heavily influences our own beliefs and values. Having exposure to a range of ideas, worldviews, and personalities is healthy because it fosters critical thinking. Without opposing viewpoints, even horrendous things can come to seem normal (e.g. many children growing up in abusive homes don’t realize that other children aren’t beaten like they are. What they experience seems normal to them because of the environment).

But in addition to the potential for excessive isolation from the outside world, environmental control can also interfere with necessary self-reflection. The concern isn’t just that they describe a communal living situation but that they describe doing everything together.

Wherever there is a group that allows for little interaction with non-group members and also severely limits the time that individuals can be alone with themselves, that’s problematic. Granted we’re seeing a 60 second documentary that obviously has a priority of what to present and may not think their vibrant social life is all that important, but their choice of words is important information that needs to be taken into consideration.

Behavior Control

In the documentary video, the nuns say that “all day, every day” is devoted to crafting and cultivating Cannabis and the products derived from it. That’s a lot of time dedicated to one’s work, even if you feel called to it.

Gardening/farming for a living doesn’t exactly fit into a 9-5 work week, and absent some of the other things I might not be so concerned. However, these “nuns” also wear habits to demonstrate their devotion.

In the Tech Insider article, one of the sisters comments: “We live together, we wear the same clothes, we take a vow of obedience to the moon cycles, we take a vow of chastity (which we don’t think requires celibacy), and a vow of ecology, which is a vow to do no harm while you’re making your medicine.”

Despite claiming that they aren’t part of a religion, they clearly have a whole litany of things beyond making their products that they have to do. There isn’t a lot of information given about what their vows constitute, but a few of the words that stand out include “obedience” and “chastity.”

Gathering information about whether to join a group is a little bit like playing the detective. Most of the time, people will be putting their best face forward, and identifying toxic elements often involves reading between the lines a little bit. When you get key words like that above, that should make your spidey sense tingle. Hone in on that and get more information before proceeding forward.

Spiritual Elitism and Special Knowledge

Their website explains that they are not part of an “earthly religion,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own brand of religion. The nuns claim to be part of “an order of New Age Progressive nuns” (stated at the beginning of the documentary).

All of their products are cultivated with prayer, and they claim on their website to prepare everything “during moon cycles, according to ancient wisdom” though they don’t indicate what this ancient wisdom is or where it came from.

I hope my readers know me well enough to know that I have absolutely no problem with a self-designed spirituality; however, whenever a group, even one claiming to have that kind of spirituality, seems to indicate having any kind of “special knowledge” that isn’t available to others, that should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end.

Combined with a stringent expectation of behavior and communal living that leaves little room for outside involvement or personal solitude, there is a lot of room for a prescriptive spirituality determined by one and obeyed by the others.

The fact that there are only two Sisters currently doesn’t give me much comfort. Their blog post described how Sister Kate was meeting with other “Sisters” and “Brothers” about opening up other venues. The Tech Insider article points out that they hope to have other abbeys spring up. Would they have to follow the Sisters’ brand of spirituality?

“Once you’ve experienced the growing with your own hands and the turning of that into medicine, it is very hard to walk back into a different kind of life.”

This quote from the documentary was the first thing that set my radar off. It simultaneously expresses difficulty in leaving and returning to a previous life as well as a sense that only in this lifestyle can life be fulfilling.

Most groups think they have something to offer others, but when a group starts trying to convince you that they and only they have fulfilling or holy lives or that you have to join them in order to obtain your desire (to help people, to be healthy, to make money, to reach heaven), proceed with extreme caution.

Substance Use

“It’s time for the people to revive their spirituality,” Sister Kate declares, “and we believe the path to that is through Cannabis.”

While I don’t think substances should never be used for spiritual purposes, I am very cautious about them being prescribed for spirituality. Substances require safeguards and an extremely safe space because they lower inhibitions and make people more suggestible and easily manipulated. If there isn’t a dedication to protecting the autonomy of individuals in a communal spiritual space, the use of substances can quickly become an abusive practice.

Blending Business with Spirituality

Perhaps more concerning than just the Sisters designing a New Age spirituality is the way it gets tangled up with the business.

In the blog post on their site, Sister Kate described having meetings with others who she hoped would join her cause. Tech Insider gives a prime example of the doublespeak surrounding whether she’s establishing a religion or a business, at once calling these other hoped-for establishments “franchises” and “abbeys.”

At the end of the article, Sister Kate expresses how she hopes the habits will be an identifying mark of the abbeys.

“We would like it to be such that wherever you saw women in their blue jean skirts, white blouses, and hats … those women know about cannabis.”

So on the one hand, they’re purporting to be expanding their business, but their business expansion comes with the hope of expanding their brand of spirituality, lifestyle, and habits (pun intended).

Suddenly it doesn’t sound so much like a business as it does a religious group that happens to sell products. The difference might seem to come down to semantics, but the semantics are significant.

Summing it up

If my initial excitement had gone further into a desire to be part of this movement, how might I handle these red flags that indicate the potential for environmental control and isolation, limited information and access to reality checks, behavior control, spiritual elitism, and muddying the distinction between business and spiritual lifestyle?

I wouldn’t have enough information just on this to feel certain about whether they were indeed a toxic group, but I would have enough to indicate that I shouldn’t jump into this group head first.

We’ve taken the first step of evaluating some sources, including their own words to describe themselves. If we were dealing with a group that had been around long enough to have ex-members, speaking with them might also be a valuable source of information about what life is like on the inside and what they faced when they decided to leave.

I would also eventually want to talk to current group members and ask questions, paying attention to the way they answer, not just what the answer is. Do they seem open to questions and push-back? Do they give vague answers that don’t really contain helpful information?

Any red flags that came up in the initial evaluation would be something I would want to feel certain had been sufficiently addressed, either in direct conversation or through observation of how they interact. If it seemed impossible for me to answer my questions without fully joining the group, I would walk away.

Disclaimer: My use of this documentary or group as an example doesn’t constitute an accusation that the group is necessarily a cult. The documentary could just be over-simplified, highlighting what seems unusual, quirky, or interesting while failing to show other aspects of the nuns’ lives . . . or it could be a warning of something deeper. That’s why I’m giving you practice with spotting red flags, wherever you may find them. They are a symptom that should alert you to be careful and use your critical thinking.