Post-Cult Financial Recovery
ICSA Today, Volume 1, Number 2, 2010, pages 24-27
Post-Cult Financial Recovery
Mattie Elizabeth Green, B.A.
If you’re strong enough to survive a cult, you will face many obstacles in your post-cult life. These obstacles are a natural part of post-cult life that teach us invaluable lessons about ourselves. Each time we decide to dismantle a fear or untruth resulting from years of cult indoctrination, we take our power and our lives back. We claim, “This area of my life is now mine again.”
Financial Assault by Cults
Many cult survivors suffer financial devastation by the cults who take their money. In my group, members lived in communal households, sharing living expenses. Each month we wrote a check for rent, utilities, and food to the group. In addition, as new members, we were told that, to transform ourselves spiritually, we needed help. This help took many forms: We paid a fixed amount each month for tapes of the teachings of the group’s leader, another fixed amount weekly for individual lessons, and more weekly for individual testing. We also paid for classes in which senior students taught us, and for exercise classes. All the checks were made payable to the group.
I didn’t realize how severely my finances were devastated until I left this group and had no savings to pay for the medical services I needed. Through subsequent conferences of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and the Rocky Mountain Resource Center of Colorado, and by talking to many other survivors, I have learned this is a common financial experience for people who are able to leave cults.
No One Knowingly Joins a Cult
I moved into a communal household in May 2002 and became an official group member. It was actually a cult, although I didn’t know it until years later. I asked many questions, but my questions were deflected. I never received the group guidelines I requested. Clearly, I did not know the nature of the group I had joined.
No one would join a cult if she knew that’s what it was. Cult leaders and members use an organized system of seduction and deception to mask their purpose. What people are seeking, and what they think they will attain, is better health, spiritual growth, and enlightenment. What they actually receive are many hardships, cloaked in “the greater good” rhetoric of cults.
For example, my group sent speakers all over the country to promote itself. If you were not a speaker yourself, you served as an aide to those who were. Every Sunday, after hours spent in strenuous exercise intended to develop my character and endurance, I was expected to drive my own car in all sorts of weather to transport the group’s speakers wherever the group wanted them to go, and I also was expected to finance their trips.
Another of my chores was to buy weekend groceries for my household of four and for a party of eight once a week, putting the charges on my credit card. We were eventually reimbursed, but I often had to wait weeks, sometimes months, to recoup the money I spent.
Like many survivors, I was in need of multiple medical services when I left my group. I no longer had health insurance because, within three months of joining, I dropped the COBRA health insurance I had from my last “real” job. The leaders convinced me that converting to their healthy lifestyle would be my best insurance against future health problems.
Family Assistance and Disability
Even though the cult had separated me from my family, everyone rallied around me when I left the group. My mother took me to live with her. My father sent money each month for about a year. Both my grandmothers sent money when they could. My brother and his wife paid the initial deposit for my stay at the Wellspring recovery center. My mother and I cashed in investments to help pay my mounting medical bills.
Although I had to wait a year and half until disability payments began, government assistance helped ease the crushing blow of medical expenses I incurred in my struggle to live, recovering my body, mind, and spirit.
Using Community Resources
The biggest expense for me post cult was the medical cost of my recovery. It was necessary to rely on community resources. I felt some shame at being on disability; but over time, I came to realize I paid into disability for years as a working citizen. It was there for me when I became disabled, unable to work.
We found there were many available community resources, but we had to keep asking questions to find out what might be workable for my particular situation. My psychiatrist saw me at her private counseling practice, giving me free samples of medications I needed. Her office also assisted me in applying directly to drug companies for free medications. Rooting out funding for costly prescriptions made a big difference until I received Medicare. My psychiatrist also saw me at her local church ministry for free counseling. She didn’t try to convert me or pressure me into attending her church. I felt gratitude I could receive her counseling services for free.
When you qualify for disability, other resources are made available to you. Besides receiving the monthly disability payment, you also receive Medicare, which helps pay doctor bills. You still have a copayment, and some doctors will not accept Medicare. The required paperwork was difficult for me since I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a common ailment of cult survivors. I needed help from my mother to complete forms, even simple ones. I also qualified for help from the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. There was more paperwork and a waiting period, but this option gave me tools and support for my journey back to work.
In many cases, we asked for and were granted debt forgiveness by medical companies, including hospitals, many of which have indigent care programs. Since I had not been able to work for months prior to my hospitalization, I qualified for indigent care. Other medical companies discounted my debt once we wrote and explained my situation.
Don’t be ashamed to use community resources. When I was first on my own, I visited the Food Bank until I had enough money to buy my own food. I also discovered a community closet where I found clothing for work. All these resources helped me transition back to feeling normal again.
Temporary Work and Pacing Myself
I found most work environments difficult to tolerate, but I think just getting out there and trying to work again helped strengthen my body, mind, and spirit. Since I like animals, one of my first jobs was at Petco. I liked the early morning animal care, when it was quiet before a lot of customers arrived.
I also found that working off hours helped my transition. For example, I signed up with a temporary agency. The best assignment I had was as a receptionist working from 5 PM to 8 PM. It was easier for me to interact with fewer people at a quieter time. I became friends with the cleaning ladies and the x-ray techs. I enjoyed dispensing free sodas to our clients. It was a simple job and good for me at that time. I checked people in, stocked the refrigerator with soda, answered an occasional phone call, and filed medical test results. I could keep track of myself and do the job. Slowly, this work built my self-esteem and sense of me. I would have felt threatened in a busy office setting.
Recovery is different for everyone; but for me, it meant quieter, less crowded environments. I didn’t last long at Petco, but I did learn about animal care, especially reptiles. I have a pet turtle to this day! In my journey back to myself, I realized I was a student and allowed myself to make mistakes along the way. After barely surviving cult life, I engaged life again, in small, safe steps. If an environment felt continually threatening, I could choose to remove myself from it. I encourage you not to be afraid to try different jobs, even if some of them don’t work out.
The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation determined counseling would help me get back to work. I received a “ticket to work” from Social Security, which entitled me to work with a case manager. The manager oversaw my progress in obtaining and keeping gainful employment, with the ultimate goal of transitioning off disability. She secured funding for me to receive counseling, and I also attended a group meeting. The counseling helped by flushing out my “sense of impending doom,” common to cult survivors. It was hard for me to believe in a future for myself until I had battled with and disarmed fears and lies from years of cult indoctrination.
I had another job in which my boss and coworkers knew about my disability from the beginning, but not everyone was comfortable working with someone who was disabled. I was fired, for the first and only time in my life. I understand now that some of my attempts to manage my PTSD, like turning off the “loud” fluorescent lights in the office where I worked, made others uncomfortable and created stress in the workplace. Being fired was unpleasant, but I am grateful for what I learned from the experience. It just wasn’t a good fit.
Using free services also helped me recover. I grew up with active alcoholism in my family, so I found comfort at Al-anon, a 12-step group devoted to helping families of alcoholics. Usually, I attended a noon meeting, which got me out of the house and helped me make connections with others. The structure of the meetings helped me feel a sense of home and safety that I didn’t feel in the cult. I could talk or not—it was up to me. I enjoyed having choices again.
I worked part-time for a care-giving agency. It was temporary work with various assignments, some of which had better results than others. Most of my initial jobs were low-paying, but they had aspects that nourished me back to health. I enjoyed helping elderly clients with daily activities. I had to be careful not to overdo it physically, but the personal contact in the quiet environment of their homes suited me.
When I tried to start my massage practice again, an organization for the disabled helped pay for my business cards. My counselor was very encouraging and watched out for potential jobs that might be a good fit for me.
Volunteering As a Vehicle to Healing
Volunteering was another good way to experiment with working again, with very little to lose. Helping at The Food Pantry felt threatening at first, but I got used to interacting with different people. I even went to lunch with church friends. Slowly, I learned to trust myself and others again. The more I interacted with others, the less threatening external environments became.
Volunteering reinforced my sense of self and how I could be useful without being exploited. When I worked at the animal shelter, I connected to my love of animals and to a deeper part of myself. When I overdid it or didn’t set clear boundaries, I felt the pain of that decision. However, it was safe for me to negotiate. In the cult, there was no negotiating, and there was no safety.
For many months, I was in such bad shape that all I did was sleep and lie in bed. After about six months, I slowly started to get up and help with various household tasks. At first, I would be exhausted by taking a bath or unloading the dishwasher. I tried to accomplish one task a day, finding small reasons to feel good about myself. Eventually, I enjoyed walking Mom’s dog.
Before the cult, I had been an avid reader. I started to visit local libraries, reminding myself of who I was before. Checking out free books, movies, and CDs helped me. I paced myself with quiet and solitude after being overstimulated in the cult environment. I started to trust and listen to my own intuition. My mother’s country home gave me ready access to nature and helped me recover sooner than if I had been in a city setting.
My mother insisted on taking my massage table with us when she moved me to live with her. I had been a certified massage therapist since 2000, and starting to do massage again helped reconnect me to my true, precult self. I started giving an occasional massage, mostly to church friends, safe people who were delighted to support my efforts. I did maybe a massage a week, slowly building up to a few, but never more than one a day.
I am an excellent massage therapist. In fact, many of my clients have told me I gave them the best massage they ever had. This makes me feel good about myself, in an authentic way. The peace and calm of the therapeutic massage environment, enhanced by creating an office in my mother’s country home, soothed my wounded spirit. I liked the quiet, music, and safe touch. I liked the conversations that broke up sometimes long, empty days. I felt myself again.
Reclaiming my ability to do massage helped me reclaim my life. I enjoyed earning some money and helping my mother. I will be forever thankful my mother had the foresight to see how my gift of massage therapy would be so instrumental to my recovery.
Owning my own business has taught me about my capabilities. Without spending much money, I have learned to use available resources. For example, I attended free networking groups, procuring a free write-up in the newspaper to announce my new business. Creating a positive visibility for my business changed my thinking. I no longer had to hide from the world. There are unsafe people, but there are also good people who want to help. I am much more discerning now and choose my associates wisely.
Money Well Spent
Relying on my family, especially my mother, helped save my life. When I was strong enough, moving out on my own strengthened me. I learned how to feed myself again and clean my house. I learned how to live on a small budget. I’ve always been frugal, preferring to buy outfits at thrift stores for a fraction of what people spend for new clothes. I buy things on sale and, more and more, buy only what I need.
More well-spent money was on education: taking classes in which I was interested. I joined a 6-week water aerobics class at a local recreation center for about $25. We exercised several times a week, and I made new friends. I started to feel my own body again, moving in the softness of water. Taking a Spanish class and learning a new language built my self-confidence. Even going to nursing school, although it was an unpleasant experience, taught me what I liked and disliked. By identifying and naming myself, I cast off the labels with which the cult tried to name me.
I believe in the healing power of safe touch and have benefited from receiving therapeutic touch from other caring practitioners. Some worked with me on a sliding scale and some didn’t. I particularly benefited from massage therapy, physical therapy, and acupuncture. Medicare paid for much of my physical therapy.
Once I started practicing massage therapy again, I found other practitioners who were willing to trade services. Asking people for help taught me a valuable lesson. People can always say no; I don’t have to set boundaries for them. I set my own boundaries and ask others for help, as needed. It never hurts to ask, especially when recovering from financial devastation.
Another good financial investment for me has been attending conferences sponsored by ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association). Their life-saving information and presentations helped me dismantle the cult’s indoctrination and replace it with hard facts about how cults and their deceivers operate. They granted me scholarships to attend conferences for three years. Now I can afford their very reasonable rates. These experiences took asking for help when I couldn’t pay, and discovering there were funds available to help me.
Learning About Money
Many of us learn about financial responsibility the hard way. For example, I learned about interest by paying hundreds of dollars of interest on a credit card. I learned about bouncing checks by paying nonsufficient fund fees. Sometimes, we learn only when there is loss involved.
After you have been financially exploited in a cult, it is important to take back your financial decisions. I still have considerable debt, but I gladly accept it as a small price to pay for still being alive.
Cults take choices and decisions away from us. Asking for help, learning how to receive, and rebuilding are key parts to fully living life post cult. It is hard work, but creating a full life is worth it. Our survival is a beautiful tribute to the power of love and the human spirit. Our families, friends, communities, and our Higher Power kept us alive and sustained us.
I feel like a phoenix rising out of the ashes of the past. I’ve taken responsibility for and power from my mistakes. I now share my experiences with others.
About the Author:
Mattie Elizabeth Green. Born into a military family, Green has lived in Germany, Italy, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma, to name just a few places. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English and also earned a certification in education. A few years later, she became certified as a massage therapist and has been one ever since, working in a variety of settings: from high end spas, to doing grocery store chair massage to working for herself in an alternate health center. Doing massage has been part of Green’s recovery, as it connected her to others through safe touch and connected her to her “pre-cult” self.
Green was manipulated into joining a cult in 2002, seduced by the New Age language that taught healthy diet and exercise were paramount to spiritual growth. By 2004, she was underweight, and very depressed by the death of another group member. She tried to end her life by overdosing on an antidepressant, and that action ended up being her ticket out of this dangerous group, as the cult didn’t want the publicity. Green was lucky that her family stepped in to help her. She moved out of state to live with her mother and started the long road back to recovery and wholeness. She’s worked a variety of part-time jobs since then and currently gives speeches about5 mental health throughout her home state. Spending time with her animals, reading, and writing have also helped her heal. She hopes that you find this article helpful in your journey back to yourself.