That Time a Cult Survivor Attended a Winter Solstice Ceremony and Survived

I worked up the courage to go to a solstice ceremony this past week. I haven’t been to an actual religious ceremony in years, mostly because I can’t stand being in churches or church-like buildings–but a good portion of that also stems from the distrust I carry.

Since the ceremony was taking place outside, that removed the problem of the setting being an unnecessary trigger.

I have been curious about some of the public sabbat ceremonies held in my area for quite some time, and with the help of a new friend, I finally convinced myself to check it out.

Much of it was familiar enough from reading Starhawk that I could understand what was going on. I think it was good that I had that map because I might otherwise have been too insecure to stick it out.

There was the opening of the circle and calling in the four directions, followed by a short soliloquy about the symbolism of the solstice from who I assume was the High Priestess.

I was jumping out of my skin with apprehension, but I also found it really powerful to be in the company of people who honored nature and who didn’t deny the integration of darkness with light.

It was similar to church in some very small ways, but it was also significantly different from church—more than any other type of ceremony I’ve been to. Even when I checked out a Buddhist meditation, that felt more “churchy” than not. This one felt like the “churchy” feeling was residual for me, not due to the ceremony itself.

After the High Priestess finished her piece, people were invited to bring a stick up to the central fire and burn it with their solstice intention.

My readers who come from the IFB will probably chuckle or cringe to read that. A symbolic stick-burning was a very integral part of the indoctrination experience at the summer camp we would often be sent to. Four days after being separated from everything and everyone familiar, being run around ragged, and listening to sermons on hellfire morning, afternoon, and evening, The Wilds would “invite” us to throw a stick in the fire to represent surrendering our lives.

Summer after summer I would be pressured into showing my submission after being systematically terrified of dying on the drive home if I didn’t, so I fully expected to be freaked out of my mind when I heard the invitation at this ceremony.

But it was, again, different. No one was asking me to give up anything in the process of participating. I was setting my own intention. I could share it or keep it private.

And it was actually beautiful to hear the things that people were wishing for the world—things like peace, love, and healing. Even for a ceremony that acknowledged and embraced darkness, there was none of the “darkness” of the hatred and judgment and othering of the IFB.

Then came the dancing…and that’s when my participation meter maxed out.

I wanted to dance. I loved the idea of dancing as part of a religious ceremony. I was desperately cold by then and would have appreciated the warmth of dancing near the fire.

But I’ve also spent too much time studying the ways that people are influenced by cultic groups. I know that dancing in a group or singing in a group can be a subtle way to create a lack of oxygen, decreasing critical thinking and potentially even stimulating a trance-like state. Group participation increases the conformity and belonging drive. The combination of all of that can be a vulnerable mix.

Not a bad mix, per se. Dancing, singing, chanting, etc. can also be used to stimulate spiritual experiences that are entirely healthy.

However, I couldn’t know what would happen during or after the dance. I was new to this group and needed to keep my wits about me. I needed to know I was safe, that someone else wouldn’t try to make demands or interfere with my process while I was in a vulnerable state.

I simply couldn’t know that about this group the first time.

I felt awkward dropping out to the edge of the circle and watching. Part of me was afraid that it would be considered inappropriate, but I also knew that dropping out would be a good test of the safety of the group. If someone tried to coerce or pressure me into participating, that would tell me that my own limitations weren’t respected and that there may be more toxic elements to this group.

Spoiler alert: that never happened.

I was able to withdraw and stand at the edge, watching, without any interference. Moreover, I was able to observe, with my critical thinking, observing mind, that those who participated in the experience had nothing to fear regarding others trying to influence them during that process. No one tried to recruit new members to join the group. No one tried to pressure attendees to give money.

After the dancing, the dancers regrounded their energy. I was able to rejoin for the closing of the circle and farewell to the directions.

And that was the end.

In some ways, this feels like a huge milestone for me even though all I really did was go to a public place and stand at the fringes of a group, barely participating. What was happening inside was far more significant than it seemed on the surface.

I was healing and teaching myself that I can hold my boundaries in group situations that are unfamiliar.

Ultimately, I was able to face down some of my own fears and participate in something truly lovely while respecting my limitations and enjoying an actual ceremony that didn’t feel at all cultic.

It was a lovely Solstice gift to myself.

 

 

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.

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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

It’s Not Just About the Boundaries

I’m visiting my family this weekend, and I have so many mixed feelings about it. I’ve been grappling with yet another layer of grieving what I never actually had.

I wish I had a family that loves and accepts me, a family that doesn’t disdain me for being bi or non-Christian or feminist or anything. I want a family that can be proud of me for my accomplishments rather than seeing me as a blight on their reputation.

But I don’t have that.

I’d settle for a family that owns up to the abuse of whipping me as a child and gaslighting me as a teen and young adult. I’d accept a family that could apologize for raising me in a cult with all of the religious and psychological terrorism that accompanied that.

But I can’t have that either.

The last few years have been about me learning how to remain unhooked around them. I’ve practiced non-confrontational answers that allow me to set a boundary and avoid conformity while also keeping the peace. It usually involves little things like not closing my eyes when my parents insist on praying for the meal or changing the subject when they start to stray into a topic that would lead to conflict. I’ve passively refused to answer letters or questions from family members. I’ve mastered the ability to not respond to the subtle backdoor messages of criticism and guilt. I’m great at blanking out so that they don’t have anything to grab hold of.

It takes two to tango, right?

At this point, I feel pretty confident that I can avoid anything uncomfortable and have a fairly smooth visit with my family for a few days. But now that I’ve achieved that, I’ve come to realize it’s not what I want going forward.

It’s nice to have that option, but thinking about that being the sum of my relationship with my family for the rest of my life feels intolerable. It still involves a measure of my hiding myself. I’m not longer allowing them to dictate my morals to me. I won’t allow them to nose into something I want to keep private.

But I also don’t feel like I can bring myself into my visits either. It’s like I leave myself at home but bring all my boundaries with me.

I’ve toyed with the idea of cutting my ties and allowing myself the freedom of not having to worry about whether there will be disapproval or arguments or whatever…but if I only give myself permission to be in contact with them when I’m trying to keep the peace, then ultimately, I’m still letting them dictate what it’s acceptable for me to be around them—letting their approval determine what they see of me or don’t see of me.

I want to be me, regardless of whether they accept it. I want to be proud of being me. To be able to stick up for being me.

Even if that means they hate it.

My parents can’t take a belt to my backside anymore. They can’t send me to hell. They can’t hold me captive.

They can talk and say horrible things, but ultimately those things have little power in and of themselves.

I know this cognitively, but it’s surprising how incredibly scary I still find them. Somehow, my brain thinks the most catastrophic thing that could happen is their vocalized disapproval.

I have almost talked myself out of this visit so many times I’ve lost count. I recognize that I don’t want to be there…

But I need to be.

I need to challenge myself to show up and be present, to dare to let them see me, even to dare to let a fight break out because I refuse to accept the dichotomy that I either need to walk away or hide who I am.

I don’t expect myself to be perfect. I’m sure there will be times when I could stand up for myself and don’t because I’m not ready to take on that battle yet. However, if I can walk away from this visit having refused to be invisible in small ways, I will consider it a successful phase of continuing to develop my ability to give myself what my family has never been able to give me—acceptance, pride, and unconditional love.