As my friends and I struggle through the stages of going No Contact (NC) with our narcissistic families, I’m amazed at how much our struggles resemble the symptoms of cult withdrawal.
Physically removing yourself from the presence of the narcissist, while difficult, may in fact be child’s play compare to exorcising their voice, their programming, their brainwashing from our minds. Or, as it says on cultinformation.org.uk/article_caring-for-cult-victims.html, “Getting a person out of a cult is one thing, but getting the cult out of the person is another!” So it is for us as well. Getting out of a relationship with a narcissistic is one thing, but getting the narcissist out of us is another!
Stuck at Stage 7
According to culthelp.info, Stage 7 of leaving a cult is eerily similar to the stage most of us get stuck in after going No Contact:
The “Don’t know what to think” stage. MANY people get stuck here. They will try to figure things out on their own. They are suspicious of everyone. They don’t trust their friends or family and they don’t trust themselves. They don’t trust traditional Christianity. They don’t trust the information that exposes the group. They may not trust the scripture and might try to find reasons to believe the Bible wasn’t translated correctly. This stage is very critical. The stress of it can cause illness, anxiety, nightmares, emotional problems, marital problems, divorce, destructive accidents because of so much mental preoccupation, suicide, hostility and anger. Some report a problem with nausea, clenched teeth or other outward signs of tension. This stage is extremely painful and frightening. Usually the longer a person or his family has been in the group, the more painful it is.
At this stage, some people try to reason with the leaders. They will either arrange for visits or write long agonizing letters. Some hope that they can change the system or get some to agree with them. They are AMAZED at the total inability of leaders to hear what they are saying. However, some will agree with their arguments, pat them on the head and try to smooth their ruffled feelings.
Let’s break this down and look at each element more closely, shall we? But…in reverse order…
Visits and Letters
C’mon. You know you’ve either done it or wanted to do it. The longing to belong in the bosom of a family is deeply ingrained. So we write letters, sometimes send them but more frequently tear them up. Draft emails and delete them. Spend hundreds of hours “bargaining” in our own minds, fantasizing about saying the perfect words so our families suddenly seeing the light, so we can return to the fold.
But it’s not going to happen. Just like cult leaders, our narcissistic families are totally “unable” to “hear” what we’re saying. Make that they don’t want to.
We may as well save the ink, paper and postage. Cults don’t change. Narcissistic families don’t change either.
Illness, Anxiety, Nightmares
Last year, my editor asked me to interview a local woman who suffers from PTSD and has made it her mission to train service animals for other PTSD sufferers. I dutifully conducted the interview, took pictures…even wrote the story. Actually, it wrote itself!
That’s when it all went wrong. As she told her story, I instinctively felt she was also telling my mom’s story. The side of the story I’d never been told, the secrets that explained the sudden onset of Mom’s anxiety, panic attacks, jumpiness. I began having flashbacks. I felt extremely disturbed, but my codependence stood by me as I finished the interview without turning a hair.
But that night, Michael woke me from a deep sleep. “Honey! Honey! Wake up!”
“Whatshhappenin’? Whatshwong?” I groggily asked.
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“Are you okay!?” he queried.
“You were having a nightmare! You were lying on your back, talking, kicking and stomping your feet on the mattress.”
I still have nightmares about the narcissists. Often. It started when I was fifteen and it’s still happening now. I’m not out of the woods yet.
Nausea, Clenched Teeth or Other Outward Signs of Tension
Sitting in the dentist’s chair, I explain to her that my teeth are so sore. But the X-ray shows no new cavities and generally excellent dental health. So she gives me a little device to keep my teeth separated. Seems I’m a clencher. I clench during the day. I clench during the night…while drooling if my pillowcases are telling the truth. I must have a leaky clench. (LOL)
But that’s not the only thing.
As early as first grade, the other little girls wouldn’t play those hand-slappy games with me. They said I was stiff. Jerky. Needed to relax.
Fast forward twenty years. It’s the beginning night of a three-day bluegrass festival and I’m in so much pain, I can’t play my fiddle. Luckily, one of my friends teaches massage, so she put down her fiddle to work on my back. “I’ve never felt such tight muscles!” she exclaimed. To this day, my shoulder muscles are bunched in a rock-solid mass 24/7. My hands go numb and tingly. My neck hurts. I wake up with headaches.
Because I get confused.
Sometimes I forget that the major male figure in my life isn’t my father and doesn’t treat me like Dad treated me. I just react, forgetting that Michael isn’t my father. And nothing he says should be construed as if my father had said it. Because Michael’s not Dad. He’s not out to get me, criticize me, laugh at me, project onto me or change me.
I gotta try to remember that.
Hostility and Anger
It’s always there…the rage. But as I wrote in The Crooked Path to Healing, expressing it daily didn’t really help.
The more I expressed my anger, the more there was. My anger was like a cannibalistic dragon, feeding on itself. As long as I dwelt on my anger and yelled in the privacy of my car, it just didn’t go away. It took a couple of years but I finally realized that it will never go away. It’s a bottomless cauldron, a perpetually hungry dragon.
As long as the hurt is there, the anger will be there too. I learned that from listening to my husband talk about all the abuses he endured growing up and into adulthood. He’s hurt, but he rarely indulges in anger. I love that he’s not an angry man. I don’t want to be an angry woman either.
The hurt is still there, so the anger is still there. It’ll be there ’til death or Alzheimer’s…whichever comes first. But I’m no longer feeding my anger-eating dragon. And it feels awfully good.
Lack of Trust
Oh yeah. In spades. I love that I have friends, but I love them from a safe distance, content to know they’re there but too shy to talk to them much. I’m tired of having to put on the Lenora Act…all smiles and jokes. The real Lenora is so quiet, she barely exists. Invisibility was safe. I turned it into a game.
Why? Because I don’t trust people. I’m scared of people. People hurt me.
After a lifetime of being dominated, shamed, chastised, projected onto, manipulated, brainwashed and shamelessly used…why would you and I trust anyone!? We may claim introversion or appropriate the label of “hermit,” but I wonder if we’re just not scared shitless.
If you’ve already gone No Contact with your narcissist(s), I applaud you. If you’re teetering on the fence, boink! Consider yourself pushed over into No Contact Land. (It’s kinda’ crowded. There’s a lot of us there with you!)
If you’re partially No Contact, what are you waiting for!?! Let me assure you that your leaving the family will have zero, zilch, nada affect on your family.
Do cults grieve when they lose a member? Nah! They just brand them as hell-bound and go on their merry way.
Unfortunately, so it is with narcissists. They brand us as the troublemaker and troubled one and go blithely along their merry way. Don’t let those crocodile tears fool you for 2,724,941th time. They don’t miss you. Nope. They miss what we provided. An ear to gossip into. A body to manipulate. A conscience to project their sins onto. Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum.
More To Come
There’s much, much more we can learn and use from the concepts of cult dynamics and cult withdrawal. I encourage you to Google the topic as together we tread the crooked path to healing from narcissistic abuse!
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