Hannah Arendt used Kubler-Ross’ 5 Stages to heal from her traumatic past with an abusive religion:
1 – Denial Denial is a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, reality, etc., relating to the situation concerned. It’s a defense mechanism and perfectly natural. Some people can become locked in this stage when dealing with a traumatic change that can be ignored. Death of course is not particularly easy to avoid or evade indefinitely. 2 – Anger Anger can manifest in different ways. People dealing with emotional upset can be angry with themselves, and/or with others, especially those close to them. Knowing this helps keep detached and non-judgemental when experiencing the anger of someone who is very upset. 3 – Bargaining Traditionally the bargaining stage for people facing death can involve attempting to bargain with whatever God the person believes in. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise. For example “Can we still be friends?..” when facing a break-up. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it’s a matter of life or death. 4 – Depression Also referred to as preparatory grieving. In a way it’s the dress rehearsal or the practice run for the ‘aftermath’ although this stage means different things depending on whom it involves. It’s a sort of acceptance with emotional attachment. It’s natural to feel sadness and regret, fear, uncertainty, etc. It shows that the person has at least begun to accept the reality. 5 – Acceptance Again this stage definitely varies according to the person’s situation, although broadly it is an indication that there is some emotional detachment and objectivity. People dying can enter this stage a long time before the people they leave behind, who must necessarily pass through their own individual stages of dealing with the grief.
(Quoted directly from The Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation. Based on the Grief Cycle model first published in On Death & Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, 1969. Interpretation by Alan Chapman 2006-2009.)
A reinterpretation of the five stages of grief may be needed for those who were in cults or coercive groups. My own interpretation would go something like this:
1 – Denial Denial was a stage I was in for years, even while living under the oppression of my abusive pastors. I was living on the church grounds, doing ministry full-time. The denial stage began for me when I started realizing that the things I’d asked for from my pastors, and truly wanted out of life, were being denied to me-yet I continued to stay and serve them with a pleasant attitude. Perhaps two years passed and I was burned out and feeling suicidal. I was finally allowed to go home, even though my pastors were preventing me from doing so. When I was allowed to move home and attend college, I sat in a therapists office where my therapist proceeded to tell me that I sounded like a rape victim and she felt I’d been in a cult. The denial stage started unraveling there, but only after I told my therapist repeatedly, “No way. My pastors are good people. They could never be cult leaders.”
2 – Anger My anger stage has just come to an end. For me it lasted over a year, but everyone is different. I felt a lot of anger at myself, initially. How could I be so stupid to join a group like that? How could I stay so long? I could’ve had my Ph.D by now if I hadn’t stayed in Master’s Commission so long. Those were my thoughts. Then I started to become angry at the abusive pastors I worked for and part of that faded with time as I allowed myself to be angry and write My Cult Life. The initial stages of anger at my pastors was very validating and re-humanizing. I felt happy again for the first time in awhile. I felt like I was helping others, even. As I continued blogging, though, my anger was redirected at Christianity as a whole, complete with a horrific history of sexism, slavery and murder. I decided I definitely couldn’t be a Christian anymore and anyone who was one was lashed out on. My anger stage is the one I haven’t always been the most proud of, and I re-entered therapy as soon as I felt my lashing out was becoming toxic. Many months went by when I felt I was isolating myself as a result of my anger, and it could’ve been a protective measure.
3 – Bargaining I’m not sure how to define this stage, with the exception of my relationships on Facebook and other social media. Maybe even my feelings about losing my faith could be included here. For awhile I held on to the fact that I’d always been a Christian, so I would remain a Christian. I’d always had a strong relationship with God, so nothing that was done to me while in the cult would challenge that. Except it did. It challenged it so vehemently that I couldn’t ignore it. I tried to keep my relationship with God or even the title “Christian” to please others. I wasn’t even happy with it at that point and I knew I didn’t believe in God anymore. To try to keep the peace, I kept the label. It worked until I realized the most important lesson I’d learned in leaving the cult was that I now had the freedom to be who I wanted to be and to be honest about it. So the Christian label left.
4 – Depression My relationship with depression is a complicated one. I’ve been depressed since I was about thirteen years old; however, when I lived in the cult, I became increasingly depressed. My depression went from “emo kid” status to “I want to kill myself” in a real way status. Over the course of a few years (as described above in stage 1) I started showing symptoms of depression: feeling fatigued, crying often, no desire to get out of bed, drastic change in my sleeping patterns, irritability, etc. My depression only increased when I was living in the cult because I was told to pray about everything, but the issue was that I wasn’t happy. No amount of prayer could fix that and denying my depression by masking it in prayer or devotion to God wasn’t working. It was making things worse. I felt like I had no option out other than death.
My depression has continued over the years, manifesting itself in bad grades in college or the inability to hold down a job and even deepening as I continue to lose friends who I held dear to me while I was religious. As far as I can tell from readers of My Cult Life, this is something many of us have in common. We’re normal, especially within the context of our traumatic experiences.
5 – Acceptance Over the course of the few years I’ve been blogging, I’ve come to accept a few things:
1) My pastors will never accept their wrong-doing. They won’t own up to it, apologize or even respond to a respectable letter. I have to accept that I will never find out the “why?” or get answers. I’ve come to accept that the questions are more important than the answers.
2) Losing my religion has caused conflicts within my family and the deterioration of friendships. My lack of belief or the reason why I changed is cause of much scrutiny by some Christians and the way ministries I write about tend to discredit me. People scrutinize me or deny my story is real because they are afraid to believe what I’m saying. They’re afraid their pastor might be abusive, and afraid to accept responsibility for refusing to think. Hannah Arrendt says the greatest evil is the failure to think and I feel many people blindly believe their abusive, coercive pastors far too long and feel guilty because they’ve participated in evil.
“Under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think. ”
“The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.”
― Hannah Arendt