How to leave and recover from a religious cult
One of the hardest things to do with a cult is to remove yourself from them. In fact, the degree of difficultly in leaving is often a sign in itself that the group is a cult, or at least unhealthy.
Don’t be in a rush to leave, but ensure you have a plan in place first. It may be hard to wait another week or two, but you’re likely to have an easier time if you do things in a measured, calculated way than if you just leave without any sort of plan.
Seek outside assistance
The first thing we’d suggest you do is seek outside assistance. You don’t have to do this on your own. Think of all the people you know (outside the group or their influence) and consider how they could help. If you need to physically leave the group, who could you stay with?
Find a group of people who you can turn to for assistance. Make a list of whom you’d like to help you, and then approach them and gauge their enthusiasm.
Consider who should be on the list very carefully. Start with those you know well (friends and family), and then go on to those you don’t know well (perhaps a colleague at work, a neighbor) and finally those you don’t know at all but would be useful to have on it. This last group might include a lawyer, a doctor, a leader at another (mainstream) church and so on.
Don’t include people whom you know to be gossips. Firstly, it’s not their business to spread your personal news around, and secondly it carries the risk of increasing pressure and attention from the group you’re leaving.
Breaking the news to the group
This is going to be one of the hardest things you ever have to do.
Broadly speaking, there are three main ways to do this.
Firstly, consider whether you actually have to tell them. Can you just walk away and not look back? Obviously you will have some contact from them once they realise you’ve left, but you don’t have to tell them in the first place – you can leave them to figure it out.
The second option is to tell them directly. This doesn’t have to be the whole group, or some posting on Facebook, or anything like that. It can a simple email or phone call to someone in the group whom you feel would be most receptive or sympathetic to your news.
If it’s an email, get one or two of your support group to read it and see what they think.
If it’s going to be a phone call, write down phrases and paragraphs of what you want to say and don’t get dragged into topics you don’t want to. Remember that you don’t have to say why you’re leaving, only that you are leaving. Hang up if they start to get personal or abusive.
The third option is to get someone from your support circle to do it for you. They can make the phone call (you can tell them what to say) or they can send the email. This is a good option, and one that you shouldn’t be afraid to use. We all need help from time to time, and this is one time in your life when you probably need help.
Further contact with the group
Once you’ve told the group that you’ve left (or they’ve figured it out for themselves) you are likely to have further contact from them. At least for a short while, until they give up.
Cults generally don’t just let people go. As we mentioned at the beginning, it’s one of the confirming signs that the group was unhealthy.
The first contact you have from them will likely be an email, phone call or personal visit. Prepare what you want to say to them beforehand. You can re-use parts of what you wrote when you told them you were leaving. Or it can be as simple as “I’ve decided to leave the group, and I ask that you don’t contact me again” and hang up, or press send.
You don’t have to take their phone calls, or invite them into your house. In fact, we’d suggest you don’t do either. If there is some good reason for you to do so, have someone with you (even for a phone call) for support.
But try not to engage with them. You can screen your phone calls (let it go through to voicemail or a message service, and see if your phone company can provide caller ID), and you don’t have to answer the door. You can also give your trusted circle a code for the phone – let it ring once, hang up, then call back.
Consider changing your mobile phone number (if you have one). Some phone can also screen calls and even text messages, though this requires you to know their phone numbers and enter them.
You can also get your email software to screen emails from certain addresses, either moving them into a certain folder, or permanently deleting them. Remember that once you’ve read something, you can’t un-read it, so try to put aside any natural curiosity to avoid reading hurtful personal attacks upon yourself. If you want to check that there’s nothing practical in the email (like, where you can collect any personal belongings you left behind) you can always get a member of your close circle to read it.
Some countries have harassment laws, so keep any texts or emails they send you, and don’t delete voicemail messages. See if there are ways to get these off your phone so they can be recorded. (In New Zealand, where Cultwatch is based, three unsolicited texts after you’ve asked them to stop is enough for the phone company to block further texts from that number to you.)
Document your dealings with them
Document every contact you have with the group from now on. (And as much of the past as you can, if you want.) At the very least, keep a diary and each day write down any contact with them in as much detail as is practical. Some countries allow you to record conversations that you’re part of without the other party being informed. (Again, check with a lawyer on this.)
You can easily record phone conversations by putting your phone on speakerphone, and using an electronic recording device. Practice with other conversations first until you’re confident you can do it. If someone from the group rings you, don’t be afraid to say “can I call you back in five minutes?” to ensure you’re ready. But remember, you don’t have to talk to them, so only do it if there is a good reason to do it.
If you do have contact with the group, documenting your dealings with them has a number of benefits. Firstly, it will help confirm to you how destructive they are. Phone calls (or worse – personal visits) early in the morning or late at night are designed to catch you off guard, and break down your resistance.
Also, if they threaten you, you will have proof of it and can use it with law enforcement authorities.
(We generally find that law enforcement are of little use in most situations as no law has been broken, but threats may be of more interest to them.)
If you have a digital camera, check whether it has a time stamp on it, and set this correctly and make sure it shows on any photos you take. Then, if the occasion arises when you can use it, it will record the time and date of the photograph.
Note that taking a photograph of someone when they know they’re being photographed is an aggressive move, and will often result in a response from the other party. Be prepared for this, and don’t take a photograph if it’s going to put you at risk.
But the best approach is to try not to engage with them, so hopefully you won’t have much to document.
We generally find that law enforcement are of little use in most situations as no law has been broken. (If you think one has, check with a lawyer.)
Cases of physical or sexual abuse are a different case, and will elicit a response from police. If you’ve been documenting things, you should have some good proof of what’s occurred. Start by contacting a lawyer, and then get their advice on how to report the group’s actions to the police.
In extreme cases of assault (either physical or sexual), go directly to law enforcement as the time taken to report the offence can be a factor in getting a conviction.
Is your work going to be affected?
Is your work/income likely to be affected? Are co-workers (or even your boss) part of the group? In that case you will likely face some pressure at work and you need to prepare yourself to deal with this. Most countries have laws around why people can and cannot be dismissed from their employment, and it may be worth talking to a lawyer about this.
If your work is going to be affected, then ensure you document everything (or as much as you can) with your co-workers/boss as this can be used in court if you decide to sue them for unfair or constructive dismissal.
Again, Cultwatch are not lawyers and we strongly recommend that you seek legal assistance over any employment dispute as soon as possible.
We have had cases where an employee was pressured to join (and remain in) a cult because their boss and/or several co-workers were in it. One option to consider is finding another job as soon as possible. Ask yourself if you really want to stay around these people.
One thing we’d suggest throughout this difficult process is seeing a counsellor. When we’re physically under stress we see a medical doctor, so seeing someone when you’re under emotional stress makes sense. And after what you’ve been through, being under emotional stress would be normal and expected. Try to find someone who is part of a collective or has been recommended to you. (They’re more likely to be good.) If cost is an issue, many churches offer counseling sessions at little to no cost and that might be an option.
Once the contact from the group has tapered off and you consider yourself “out” then you need to think about how to move forward, and about your recovery from this horrible situation.
Professional counseling is a good idea, and one that can start from the very beginning. It’s good to have someone independent to talk to, even outside your trusted circle of helpers. Continue this even once you’re “out”, as recovery can take months or (more probably) years. You’ll know when it feels right to stop.
Some people who have a bad experience with a religious cult want nothing more to do with organized religion. Decide for yourself whether it was this group that was bad, or whether it’s put you off religion for good.
If you do want to continue with your faith, then acknowledge to yourself that you have been wounded by this experience, and may need to take a break from actively being involved. When you find a new church, consider just being an attendee for a while, before getting involved in anything within the church.
(See our section “How to find a good church”)
When you talk to others about the group, listen to what you’re saying. If your voice and comments are full of bitterness and anger (which is perfectly reasonable and understandable) then talk about this to your counsellor. Anger directed at a valid source is a normal and very human emotion.
Time is the great healer, and unfortunately it usually doesn’t pass as fast as we’d like. It may take months or years, but one day you will wake up and realise you haven’t thought about the group or the experiences you had with them for a long time. Talking about it helps, and that’s why we recommend a professional counsellor.
If you decide at some stage in the future you want to warn others about the group, read our section on “Warning others about a group you were in”.
We hope this information has been useful, and given you some ideas on how to leave. Each group is unique, and every situation is different, but these are some common issues that people have written to us about.
If you’d like some more personal advice, please don’t hesitate to write to us directly. (We may take a week or two to respond, so if it’s urgent, perhaps use one of the other assistance sources we’ve mentioned above.)
We hope and pray you will be successful in leaving the group you’re with.