There’s this thing that happens when I tell people my story. Even just pieces of it. As soon as I say the words “I spent 10 years in a cult” people begin to ask questions. They want to know how I ended up there and why I stayed for so long. The answers to those questions are found in a darker history. One in which patterns of abuse were my comfort zones. The abuse I endured at the hands of a sexual predator was relatively minimal by comparison to the systemic psychological abuse I witnessed and experienced in my childhood home.
I don’t hide my history when people ask. I gloss over the details, sure. But it’s therapeutic to admit the truth of what I come from. However, in doing so, I also acknowledge the magnitude of what I have overcome. It is not a small thing.
When I reflect on the health and success I’ve found, I really don’t know that I can attribute it to any one thing. I’m tempted to just call it maturity, based off of how long it took me to get here. I’m 28 years old and I’m making my dreams come true. I have healthy relationships, a healthy lifestyle, a therapist. I am starting a new career that I adore, one that makes me a better human being and improves the lives of the people I come in contact with every day. It’s pretty incredible. I know this because I’ve had enough objective observers tell me so.
I’m glad I’ve had the voices in my life that have encouraged me when I’m down by reminding me how far I’ve come. Because of them I have learned to believe myself capable and strong. I know precisely who I can turn to when I need to remember how strong I am.
But I’m learning something about myself. I don’t need to hear those affirming words constantly. Every time I tell my story, I steel myself for the onslaught of praise. I acknowledge it, I accept it politely. And I build walls against it. I try to put it out of my mind. Because for some reason those repeated words of praise make the hard days that much harder. They elevate me, legitimately, as those kind of words are intended to do.
But… when I get triggered or struggle with latent symptoms of PTSD, I fall that much farther from the pedestal it feels I’ve been placed on. I feel as though the hard days betray the trophied image of the overcomer. It’s a lot to live up to. When I wake up terrified from nightmares I can’t control or some circumstance sends me back to the days in the cult, those shitty feelings are compounded by shame that I am not the strong, brave individual I am purported to be.
Logically, I know that the occasional bad day does not nullify the strength I possess. But when you are in that headspace, logic is not relevant. I feel like a little child again. I feel all kinds of self-blame for not having conquered these demons. I feel angry with myself that I can’t just snap out of it.
I want to keep telling my story. I need to. Each time I speak the story loses a little more of the weight it once held. But I want to find a way to tell it where my audience sees me as a human rather than a hero. If they find that difficult, I want to find a way to ask them to change their perspective. Because making me into a hero is counterproductive for both of us.
I need to be reminded of how far I’ve come. That is worthwhile in my recovery. Equally, I need permission to not be okay. To cry. To admit that this is still a difficult journey some days., especially now when I’m in therapy, when I’m in a state of transition.
Maybe for a while I just need to say that. Please don’t make me a hero. And if you feel you must offer praise, temper it with permission.