Prolonged Exposure Therapy: Session 5
I think I'm learning to step out of numbness. I mentioned in my last post that I was angry. I explored that feeling in session five of my Prolonged Exposure Therapy, as I had thought about it quite a bit between sessions. I broke it down, distilled the cause of my anger to the least common denominator, and when everything else was gone the cult leaders stood alone in my mind's eye with one outstanding quality: greed.
I was angry. so, so angry.
I was so isolated, so alone. complete immersion in cultish culture was required. fear was cultivated by leaders, members were shamed into cult-approved behavior. interactions were controlled, friendships discouraged. we all lived in a group, emotionally isolated. we spoke in code; ex-members call it "wayspeak". it served to keep us culturally separate from our communities.
suddenly I was so angry about this. I was angry that my life was controlled by one individual. living in a rural area, the normal chain of command was shorter than average. in a city, there would have been a local leader called a branch coordinator in charge of the smaller household fellowships. the branch coordinator answered to the state coordinator, who answered to the region coordinator. in our case, living 100 miles from a city, our household coordinator answered directly to the region coordinator. this man, our spiritual leader, was also the employer for most of the men attending his household fellowship. it's possible that without exception, all of us lived there because the men had been offered jobs.
so this man had multiple levels of control over us. he was self-styled after the man who had founded the cult, and loved to tell stories of his experiences learning at the man's feet. as an employer, he used the men mercilessly, screamed at them when they made mistakes, refused to allow rest breaks and sometimes lunch breaks, provided no safety equipment, and required long hours while paying low wages, all for the privilege of working for such a "spiritual" company.
men were injured. the man I was married to was injured multiple times which required multiple surgeries. after I moved away, another man was killed. I was angry when I heard about it, because I remember how the men had been pressured to work quickly under dangerous circumstances.
none of us had private lives. we were all subject to provide answers to him on a moment's notice on any topic he decided he needed to know about, and he didn't hesitate to reveal information about other people during private conversations to lower their value to the group and to encourage distrust. he used gossip to bolster his control. as far as I know, that's what the bible refers to when it talks about backbiting.
while we scraped by on the low wages he paid, he used his company to build himself a house. his company paid for the materials, paid the wages of the men who built it, and paid for new furnishings. it was quite a corporate deduction. corporate meetings were held in Hawaii. he and his wife were the sole officers of the corporation, so it was just a way to get a family vacation out of corporate funds and reduce tax liability. the men who worked for him weren't provided with health insurance. he insisted the meager wage he paid was adequate to maintain a good lifestyle and buy our own insurance. his corporation provided health insurance for him and his wife, but for no one else. his justification for the low wages was "I could pay you more, but the government would just take it for taxes". as our spiritual leader, he pushed the wives to work outside the home no matter how young our children were. the only logical reason is that he could collect more tithes without paying his crew competitive wages, so while paying his men a poverty wage, the tithes sent into cult HQ looked like prosperity living.
there's even more, but I've already spent far more time describing the circumstances than I planned to and I hope it doesn't bore anyone to tears, but those were the things I was processing when I arrived at session five.
my therapist and I decided to follow an event arc focused on this local cult leader to help me work through the trauma of having my life controlled by this man. before moving on to focus on the cult leader as a traumatic "hot spot", I first re-experienced the traumatic event I'd been working through the previous two sessions, again with my eyes closed, speaking aloud in present tense.
as I progressed through the event, I felt sad. my SUDs level hadn't spiked above 20 or so, so my distress level was not high, but the significance of actually processing through anger and sadness was a unique feeling. in the recording of that session, my voice is quiet and it cracks a few times.
I felt sad because I didn't deserve to be hurt the way I was. I felt sad because I'm not a bad person, but I was treated like I was. I was sad because the only way I could survive was to turn my emotions off, to wrap myself in a cloak of numbness, because if I didn't speak and I didn't feel, I could scrape by without being noticed too much. for the most part, it worked. it didn't keep me safe from the man I was married to, but it kept me safe from the cult leaders.
after working through the unique experience of feeling sad over the inherent wrongness of the cult trap I was in, I was ready to experience an event centered around the "hot spot" of my local cult leader. the purpose of experiencing a "hot spot" is that it assists in the processing of whatever distress I'm currently feeling, which at this time was anger and sadness. the event I chose was not one where I was traumatized, but one where he verbally abused his wife in front of me until she was in tears. it was very distressing to me to watch him beat her with words until she was as frozen as I'd been in the closed-door session where the region coordinator's assistant had pronounced that I was a dangerous person.
I went through the "hot spot" event three times in quick succession. at the time I experienced it, I was afraid. I was initially unable to speak until he turned his wrath on his wife. for some reason, the drive to speak up for her was stronger than the drive to protect myself, so I spoke up and told him that the thing he was screaming at his wife for not telling him about was something she had told him about. I was there. I had heard her tell him. I had heard him acknowledge it. he stopped. after a few minutes, he said "I guess my memory isn't is good as I thought it was."
that was that. no apologies.
it was an ironic juxtaposition against the closed-door session where my memory had been erased, where I'd been declared a dangerous person. he had been there. no one had spoken up for me.
anger. sadness. now what was this new feeling?
disgust. they had betrayed me. they had failed to see my worth but instead declared me a threat. they had treated me like garbage.
I am not garbage.