You Never Leave the Cult

By Ken Wells - 09/10/2021


Series Two; Blog Sixty-Three

Here’s an easy way to figure out if you’re in a cult: If you’re wondering whether you’re in a cult, the answer is yes.” ― Stephen Colbert

Throughout my lifetime there have been infamous and abominable cults that have gained worldwide attention. Cults like Heaven’s Gate and Jim Jones’ People’s Temple tragically ended with mass suicide. In America there are many different cults: Eastern, New Age, religious, political, and many more. Some are more dangerous than others. A cult forms around a charismatic leader or ideology. It has a belief system that answers all of lifes questions and offers a special solution to be gained only by following the leaders rules. There is a list of characteristics that identify a cultic community. Included in this list is (1) an unquestioning commitment to its leader; (2) doubt and dissent is disallowed; (3) mind-altering practices are used in excess to suppress doubt; (4) group manifests an “us” versus “them” mentality; (5) leaders are not accountable to any authority; and (6) leader induces shame and guilt to control members.

I grew up in a local church with each of these characteristics. The brainwashing from a cult community is palpable. The process is so ingrained that it is impossible to discard the experience of teaching promoted by the cult. I have been able to detach from its beliefs, but the mantras spoken and the impact of environmental energy will be with me throughout the rest of my life.

Dysfunctional families exhibit cult-like qualities that are very hurtful. These include the closed system that promotes no new information; a mentality of “my way or the highway”; authoritarian parenting that discourages dissent and doubt; an “us” versus “them” mentality; and parents who are not accountable and utilize shame and guilt to control members. Echoing in my mind are times that my mother would shame us by saying “I don’t know how you can call yourself a Christian and act that way”.  Characteristics of dysfunctional families are not always clear, as some are more cultic than others. There are different levels of dysfunction within family systems.

Whenever people gather to form a community relationship there is the possibility of cultic influence. I have been a part of the 12-step community for 30-plus years. Dysfunctional cult-like traits show up in this community as well. At times, old timers speak with the mentality of “my way or the highway”. They become dictatorial without accountability. The Big Book is used as a way of controlling what is said and done in a meeting.  Some members dictate the behavioral steps others must do. Some 12-step communities insist on defining what sobriety is for its members. Some groups are more intense and confining than others.

Here are a few considerations as you relate to your 12-step community experience:

  1. Be coachable but not gullible. It is often said “your best thinking got you to where you are in your addiction”.  It is true!  Addiction behavior is propelled by flawed thinking. That said, you don’t have to park your brains to do recovery. Being coachable does not mean becoming gullible. 12-step sponsors are meant to be guides, not counselors. Their support does not mean that you must do exactly as they do. Open your heart to new possibilities of living free from your addiction. Ultimately, you are responsible for your choices. Be true to your heart as you embrace the 12-step program.
  2. Do recovery with an open heart.  I have employed the 12 steps and the 12 principles in my life with great success for 31 yrs. The program has been a part of my foundation for long-term sobriety, but it has not been the only source. Therapy, spiritual development, and other influences have been equally important. For sure, there are many approaches to address destructive behavior. 12-step recovery groups are one way to support sobriety but not the only way. There are many avenues and the 12-step community is not for everyone.  Be open to whatever works for you and others. Don’t allow an “us” versus “them” mentality to develop in your community of support.
  3. Question everything and think for yourself. In the beginning of recovery, it is helpful to simply do whatever others are doing to stop the crazy-making addictive behavior. When you are drowning it is not the time to evaluate the quality of the life buoy that is thrown to you. During the earliest days of my recovery, I was cynical of the 12 steps. With hesitancy, I questioned and scrutinized each step. I remember my soft-spoken sponsor, Chip, clearing his throat and telling me “Ken, I think it would be best for your recovery to shut up and just do what you are told!” Though it hurt my feelings, I used his admonishment to save my life and did what I was told during the early days of my recovery. That said, ultimately, a solid 12-step approach emphasizes that you make the decisions that are best for your life. You cannot let others do your thinking or make your decisions for you. Good decisions require deep questions.  As an adult you are responsible to answer the questions. Your recovery will only grow and deepen when you think for yourself.
  4. Live in consultation and always be accountable. One of the most difficult recovery adjustments for addicts is to live in consultation with others. Being a lone ranger doesn’t work in addiction recovery. While you must take responsibility for the decisions of your life, sobriety requires consultation with others. The old saying “if 8 people tell you that you have a tail, the least you could do is look at your ass in the mirror” emphasizes the importance of consulting others in recovery. Just because people say you have a tail doesn’t make it so but the mirror of consulting others will help you be true to yourself. Always live in consultation with accountability to others in your life.
  5. Avoid shaming and guilting yourself and others in your community. Guilt is utilized to help you see that you hurt yourself and others. Once this is accomplished, let it go and don’t allow guilt to reside in your life. Shame is always used for destructive purposes. It is hurtful and can be used to control others. Keep it off your sense of self. When someone is about to destroy their lives with addiction, direct intervention may be mistaken for shaming behavior. Direct intervention may hurt in the moment but is salvation in the end.

There is a need for control in the human condition. Relationships, religion, and recovery all have various forms of control. Your personal healing will ask of you to step outside the box of control and explore the depths of your own authentic self.  True recovery reveals the brilliance of being true to your heart in consultation and community accountability.

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