Saturday, December 27, 2008

Finding An Exit Counselor and Other Help to Help Yourself

How do you find a good exit counselor these days?

Shortly after the Jonestown tragedy in 1978, the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) would refer an interested party to exit counselors or those knowlegable about thought reform for help with the psychological problems that one experiences after leaving a cult or for counsel for concerned loved ones who had family involved in cults. The Church of Scientology found this organization to be quite a threat, and through a complicated series of events, the Scientologists managed to buy CAN in a hostile takeover in 1996. Naturally, if anyone called requesting information or help with a related concern after the takeover, they were then referred to the Church of Scientology for “help.” If you could find someone with an old directory for CAN soon after the hostile takeover, you could potentially find local help for someone seeking counsel. Now a dozen years later, if you can find anyone who still has a copy of the old CAN directory, you may find that the contacts are no longer current. My last several attempts to find help for a variety of people via this route produced disappointing results.

At about this same time, countercult apologists had already begun to appear, building upon the work of Walter Martin and his original 1955 work, “The Kingdom of the Cults.” Ronald Enroth, Steve Arterburn, John Ankerberg and others became more commonly known names in Christian circles as those who addressed issues of aberrant doctrine and questionable practices in the church. Over the past 30 years, there have been many other books published on the topic of manipulative and coercive Christianity. Early on, in the secular arena, Siegelman published “Snapping,” adding to Lifton’s, Sargent’s, and Biderman’s older books, but there were many more to follow including those by Singer, Hassan, Lalich, and Langone, to mention only a few. The American Family Foundation, now the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conferences began to grow, offering training for professionals and support for those who exited groups. Paul and Barbara Martin (evangelical Christians) founded the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in 1986, the first accredited and inpatient cult recovery center. Meadowhaven now offers residential recovery services as well.

Despite all of the new resources and information available, most counselors and mental health professionals remain uniformed about the unique problems faced by those who emerge from manipulative and idealistic groups. Some therapists are aware of the Stockholm Syndrome as a dynamic related to “battered persons syndrome” based on the work of Lenore Walker (addressing physical abuse and physical confinement/isolation), but this model fails to address the full scope and wider range of difficulties experienced by those who have emerged from mind control groups. Even though both groups share some common dilemmas and PTSD, thought reform models offer a far more comprehensive approach, addressing the broader etiology and scope of needs of those who have exited manipulative groups. Comprehensive thought reform programs extend beyond the one-on-one relationship found in domestic abuse situations, encompassing and adversely affecting every social relationship that the individual has. Relationships to all others bear not only profound emotional and psychological implications (as well as physical for some), all of these relationships with others have spiritual consequences that adversely affect one’s perceived spiritual identity and one’s eternal status before God in particular. (Please note that many religious groups that promote dehumanization and scapegoating of women also may show a comorbidity of/concurrent problems with domestic abuse, however. Both issues must be addressed for complete healing to occur.) Unfortunately, most people who seek help upon emerging from a religious group find that most counselors do not have specialized knowledge or resources to adequately meet their unique needs.

Unlike the days when I first exited my own group, though we no longer have a current CAN directory, there are far more resources more readily available to those seeking assistance and information today. Exit counseling is NOT what was once known as “deprogramming,” and there is no coercion or confinement involved. Exit counseling is most simply an education process in the common ways that idealistic groups manipulate circumstances and the environment to draw in unsuspecting rational and intelligent people. By using these factors to their advantage, groups bypass the normal and reasonable process of scrutiny that individuals would normally exercise, lulling critical thought to sleep, so to speak. Exit counseling simply aims to reawaken a person’s intrinsic ability to evaluate situations and messages apart from the pressures and expectations of the group. Just like waking from sleep, you might be groggy when you first become conscious, but you eventually become fully alert without much effort. Exit counseling can be like your morning coffee, and it frees you to choose to continue in your group or walk away but under conditions of fully informed consent. Exit counselors simply point you toward additional information that will facilitate the continued process of the examination of your own beliefs, your reasons for maintaining these beliefs, and whether your group has possibly imposed beliefs upon you under duress – ideas that you would otherwise reject or ideas that do not make sense to you. I started this blog with this express purpose, making application of thought reform theory to certain areas within evangelical Christianity, hopefully directing others to the many additional helpful resources on the topic.

Because the exit counseling process is largely information-dependent, most people can generally educate themselves in their own self-directed process of awakening. The literature contains a wealth of knowledge, and reading broadly about thought reform and mind control proves to be the very best thing that you can do to recover, much of which you can do on your own. I just received an email from someone last week explaining how they read about a particular technique of manipulation and went to their church and saw the technique used the very next day, demonstrating how their own critical thought processes had awakened. It is just this simple for the majority of people, and once the process of wise discernment begins, it continues to grow because it is edifying. The more information you read about the process of thought reform, the more you will understand and will identify in your own experience. Your own good discernment and awakened problem-solving ability should just naturally make these pressures and manipulation increasingly more obvious to you, giving you the option and conscious choice to either comply or resist accepting the message and the behavior encouraged by anyone in any situation (including consumer sales). This does not compete with faith, but it does add an aspect of wisdom to innocence, bringing maturity and balance to one’s faith. See this recommendation of one suggested approach to begin tackling the ever growing body of knowledge and books about thought reform and exit counseling.

Internet forums offer another option that was not available in the past, even during the early days of the internet. National Association for Christian Recovery (NACR) and Jeff VanVonderan participate in the Spiritual Recovery Forum, a group administered by evangelical Christians. There are also secular options, and sometimes these can actually be more helpful if you find yourself reacting to the religious language, even though the language may not truly mean or represent what it meant for you within your own church or religious group. Rick Ross offers an internet forum and Steve Hassan offers a Yahoo Group forum, and these are all administrated by professional counselors who are among the most foremost experts in problems associated with manipulative religious and non-religious groups alike. (The dynamics are identical.) Consider that these forums may actually provide access to more expert help than you could receive from someone locally. You also have the opportunity to correspond/interact with others who have experienced the same types of problems and life events, and this renders even more perspective and validation. Christian Survivors and FactNet also offer forums, but I do not know if it is moderated by an experienced, credentialed professional counselor. I also turned up this group and this one, though I do not know of these particular groups' reputations. Then there are numerous forums available that address the specific concerns of more discrete groups such as the Recovering Grace forums or the Sovereign Grace Survivors website, as just two examples of many. They provide access to information, an opportunity to express and process your experience and it offers a 2 Corinthians 1:4-6 style supportive peer group of those who are well-versed in a similar experience.

For those who feel overwhelmed and need more focused counseling, there are a host of options available. reFocus offers a list of organizations online, local support groups for ex-members, as well as contact list of former members of specific groups. (Carol Giambalvo also ran an online list of referrals, but that seems to have been offline for two months, and I have not heard a response from emails that I've sent via reFocus.) Steven Hassan in the Boston area as well as many other professional counselors offer consultation by phone at a reasonable price if no other help is available. I know that Doug and Wendy Duncan are also willing to travel to speak to groups, also offering a support group in the Dallas, TX area. If you have a group of people who are interested in doing specific work, Hassan will travel to your area. He has an intake form that he reviews prior to phone consultation, and much like the similar content in “Take Back Your Life,” it may help you process your experience by journaling your responses to his questions on his intake form, just to help you get started examining you own unique experience. If you have a local counselor that you would like to continue working with who is not able to study the unique issues that pertain to thought reform, Hassan and the Wellspring Center specifically note that they will consult with your local therapist in order to help them formulate a plan of care and recovery for you. But if your local therapist is willing, they also can educate themselves by reading the literature (but for them, I would recommend that they start with both “Cults In Our Midst” and “Take Back Your Life”). Therapists without knowledge about thought reform can also attend ICSA conferences for specialized continuing education and can review current clinical research and literature available through ICSA, the Cultic Studies Journal, and other such sources.

Make sure to look at this list of counseling resources as well at

I have also found that after only an initial phone conversation, one extended visit and one shorter visit my own exit counselor (a well-informed layperson who did not charge for services), I actually needed very little exit counseling help and could work with a mental health counselor. After those initial contacts, I had limited phone conversations with her, with far fewer than ten, short conversations over the twelve years I’ve known her. (Many of those calls primarily concerned referrals for others.) For those interested, I’ve posted a narrative of my own exit counseling experience including the difficult (pre-internet) search for someone with some remote appreciation for the difficulties and dilemmas I faced when I exited. Though not related to exit counsel, I have experience paying for short consultations with physicians (outside of my local area) via telephone for medical record review regarding rare medical conditions to be worth every penny when at an impasse concerning specific questions about treatment. I also found an individual that offers e-counseling, though I don’t know anything specific about him or his work. Other counselors may be willing to offer this type of service, and as video consultation becomes more accessible, this might be a service that you could request from one of the many trusted professionals noted HERE and HERE.

For help on finding a general counselor, please read this post.

After learning about thought reform and sifting through your own beliefs in order to separate them from that of your group, at some point, one must examine what pulled you into the group. Some groups promise perfect outcomes, some play on our pride, and some play on our sense of shame. That kind of personal work can be done with a good counselor who is not knowledgeable about thought reform, but this knowledge still certainly helps during therapy. I've had the blessing to find Christian counselors at various times of need who were willing and actually blessed to learn about thought reform and all of its implications. And I am a huge fan of EMDR (Eye Movement Desenstization and Reprocessing) which produces permanent, drug free recovery from both PTSD and depression in up to 78% of cases according to one particular study among many.

So though we no longer have a resource like CAN available, there are many, many options, websites galore, blogs and others with whom we can connect to find support. The number of books on the subject grows daily, and I am most zealously awaiting the arrival of a new book by Jeff VanVonderan (“The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” co-author) and Dale and Juanita Ryan (NACR) entitled “Soul Repair: Rebuilding Your Spiritual Life,” a book I anticipate will end up on the first row in the first category of my favorite, recommended books.

Getting Started on Your Own When You Can't Afford Counseling

I highly recommend journaling as a recovery tool -- perhaps the most effective.  Don't miss this post which discusses ideas about how to direct your journaling to help you heal.  Listed below are cult specific titles I find essential, but if you're having general difficulty or find these types of titles intimidating, and you can't afford counseling, I would consider these following resources.  I highly recommend Francine Shapiro's Getting Past Your Past:  Take Control of Your Life with Self Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy.   I love Harriet Braiker's Who's Pulling Your Strings to help you learn more about how to make yourself a harder target for manipulation by considering your weak points in order to master them.  (There are several selections taken from her book featured on this site.)  And if you get no other cult-specific book, read Take Back Your Life by Lalich and Tobias.  In my opinion, that book offers the best practical help when you exit a group..