Cults: my own experience

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Fair warning: this is a long one, so I’ll give you the short version first:

In my youth I was involved in a cult and in some special interest groups that exhibited cult-like qualities. I later left an abusive relationship with a person who had plans to become the charismatic leader of their own cult – motivated, I believe, by their traumatic experiences in an evangelical church/cult. So when I encountered accusations of cult-like behaviour in transgender communities, I was alarmed and did my own research. I now believe that my own trans-centric, transfabulous social experiences do not qualify them/us for cult status.

Now here’s the long version:

One of the things I truly, madly, deeply appreciate about my trans community is the phrase “you do you.” This is conveys a message of inclusion to people who are frequently subjected to exclusion by the wider community. The message is that you don’t have to pretend to be anyone but yourself with us. You are great as you are. We celebrate diversity. Welcome!

I’d like to emphasise the point that we are often subjected to exclusion (and worse) by the wider community. As a result, many of us have depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

Early on in my decisionmaking process, I noticed that there were people who were detransitioning. For those who aren’t familiar with the lingo, detransitioning is when someone who started gender transition (otherwise known as gender affirmation) decides to stop medical treatment and reverse the process as far as possible. I say as far as possible because some aspects are irreversible. This was all discussed with me in depth, as part of my hormone approval process.

Because I am nothing if not thorough when making decisions, I paid attention to what people said about their own experiences of detransitioning. I read their blog posts and sought out YouTube videos on the subject. I like need to think ahead and factor in Plans B, C and D. Just in case.

Some people had been excluded from their straight/gay/lesbian/religious communities when they came out as trans, and that had been highly distressing. It had left them without suitable support while navigating the inevitable ups and downs of transition, and sometimes it was too much to handle alone. Upon detransitioning, they were welcomed back into the fold, with or without recriminations. Or they remained in the trans community. Or they were left with nowhere to turn, because humans can be grotesquely cruel.

Some had reluctantly detransitioned due to complex and unforeseen medical complications, and I made a note of what they were, given my own age and medical history.

Others had come to the realisation that they had made their decision to transition prematurely, without thinking it through clearly enough. Or the information they’d based their decision on had been inadequate. Sometimes they blamed others for this.

And then there were those who had made the best decision possible at the start, only to discover that their priorities had changed with age. Maybe they wanted to start a family and hadn’t been able to afford to freeze eggs/sperm at the outset. Or they were thrilled with some side effects and struggled too hard with others. Or they could no longer afford the hormones. Or their partner/family/children/employer needed them to perform a different role. There are shiploads of reasons why people choose to detransition and I was pleased to know that it was possible. Just in case. You know, because I’m a worrier.

I was interested in the themes of blame. In those who did not accept responsibility for their own decisions. It’s not new, I’m sure tattoo artists hear similar stories, as do plastic surgeons, teachers, AA members and so on. It was the booze, my mum, the dog, my boyfriend. I may be an adult but don’t you dare hold me responsible for my own behaviour. I know, this sounds harsh and I’m tempted to edit it out for that reason. I don’t want to poke anyone in tender places. I guess I just don’t understand.

What interested me most in all these stories was the occasional assertion that trans communities are cults. Apparently we recruit (queers, does this sound familiar?), we coerce, we manipulate, etc. To what end, though? I needed to investigate.

I hope you have a refreshing beverage at hand.

First, let’s look at the key elements of a cult. I’ll quickly do an online search and see if it matches my personal experience.

These are from an article, ‘What makes a cult?‘ by Rick Ross of the Guardian.

  1. Charismatic leader
  2. Process of indoctrination or coercive persuasion (brainwashing)
  3. Economic, sexual and other exploitation

They are the three primary characteristics of a cult, according to psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, as detailed in the article. It summarises all I’ve read to date.

In one religious group I was briefly part of, all three aspects of this list ring true. We had a charismatic guru and our days were full of activities dictated by him. Every aspect of our lives was monitored. Sleep deprivation contributed to my submissiveness. Although personal interaction with loved ones in the outside world was discouraged, we were sent out into that big bad world to fundraise and we received none of the proceeds for our private use. Instead, it was considered selfless service and part payment for our (spartan) housing and food. I was often barefoot and inadequately dressed for the weather. It could be argued that I was a victim of a cult. However I did not feel like a victim. It was my choice to join and I chose to leave when I recognised the red flags. Although people tried to talk me out of leaving, I was not punished for it.

One of my family members belongs to a religious group that I consider a cult. Again there is an authoritarian leader and a strict set of rules to obey. Members are threatened with being shunned if they leave, and can be shunned for transgressions including spending time with family members who are ‘sinful’. They are sent out into the sinful world for the purpose of recruiting and there are negative consequences for not participating in this. My relation’s beliefs regarding creation vs evolution, and many other topics have radically changed over the years as a result of their indoctrination. While privately horrified, I support them doing what’s right for them. So far it is working out ok.

I’ve written before about being in groups that fostered conformity rather than diversity and critical thinking. If you’ve ever fallen off the vegan/animal rights wagon, switched political parties or come out as bisexual after living with lesbian separatists, you’ll know what I mean about possible negative social consequences. I’ve come to distrust groups that are exclusively inward-looking and insular. I distrust organisations, spiritual or otherwise, that encourage submerging your own needs in the cause of the common good, especially if those needs involve adequate food, housing, clothing and recreation. And I distrust groups and individuals who insist that their theories are Truth, while discouraging discussion or dissent.

A lot of these red flags were common to my experience with an abusive partner. They wanted me socially isolated and sleep deprived and obedient. They believed that they were the way, the truth and the light, and woe betide me if I wanted to leave. I’m sure that rings bells for other survivors. My ex had a traumatic history involving a charismatic leader and an evangelical religious group that punished people for being gay or gender non-conforming. When they spoke harshly to me, I could hear those words being dredged up from past trauma and recycled. Recognising this made it easier to leave. I learned much from that experience.

When it comes to trans communities, I find them completely different. Yes, we sometimes bond over the shared experience of being mistreated or misunderstood. They are very real experiences, rather than the imaginary threat of eternal damnation or promises of enlightenment or eternal life. Nobody is encouraging me to cut ties with loved ones or other groups, or to pledge obedience. Yes, there are individuals who get off on power trips and superiority, but there are no charismatic leaders as such. Unless I’m totally out of the loop or we are including YouTube personalities in that category? Some would argue so I guess, but good luck enforcing any perceived authority. As far as I can tell there is no systematic exploitation either. Nobody has pressured me to do anything except refrain from being a jerk. Does that sound cultish? Yeah, nah.

As for the indoctrination aspect, well, maybe there’s a case to be made. I’m not saying I was brainwashed, but learning the lingo was one of the hardest parts for me. All I wanted was a Transgender for Dummies booklet, letting me know the basics and how to access non-judgemental and informed people with whom I could talk things through. Instead, for the longest time I felt as though I would never measure up and never get the hang of the language. That can still be daunting but it’s not a necessary element of membership. I still couldn’t pass an exam if anyone set one. It just slowed me down.

It does help to learn which words are painful for others to hear, and when people are in pain they often lash out at those closest, so I’ve been told off a few times for inadvertently hurting others. Having said that, empathy and consideration are greatly appreciated. Diversity is celebrated. Plus, I can leave at any time. If anyone dared tell me otherwise, I’d see them for the insecure/immature person they were and ignore them. It’s my life, I’ll be me, thanks.

The last thing I was ever going to do was listen to anyone who wanted to control me. There were a couple of non-trans friends who wanted me to shut up about the trans thing or accept their own prejudiced interpretation of what I was feeling. That was never going to happen, so they left. I learned the hard way to remove coercive, manipulative people from my life. So that’s why this ‘trans cult’ idea surprised me so much. I’d have run a mile! But that’s just my own personal experience and I’m interested in others’ stories.

Bits and Bobs

Basically more dust bunnies, without so much dust and with more cat than bunny.

The landline now works. Only took ten days and four or five online tech assistants to activate VoIP on the modem. But it works and that’s all that matters. Nobody died in the multiple attempts.

This morning’s exciting discovery was a much younger, non-binary transmasculine writer called Oliver Reeson, in The Lifted Brow. I read Oliver’s speech and then some articles and signed up for Tiny Letters (great idea!) and have waffled in my journal on many things they prodded in my noggin. Then I looked up the Trans Mental Health Study to which I believe they were referring (I could be wrong). It was all absorbing, helpful.

I’m more of a solitary bee than a hive-dweller. My local trans community is small, friendly and multi-generational, and I’m happy here. So even as I envy the big city dwellers their events and resources, I’d prefer to read about them than attend. I appreciate skilled, thoughtful writers. As a new fan, it was sad to read Oliver’s concerns about their future in Australia as a writer. I guess it was a prod to my conscience – support those you value. Buy local, support local artists. I’ll start with The Lifted Brow. ❤

Tech simpleton

Having one of those eye-rolling days of tech-exasperation, and sharing it for your amusement. Feel free to laugh AT me.

Last month I purchased some new security software, and as soon as I’d installed it and logged in, it showed me a much-discounted price. It seemed strange for a company to do such a thing. So naturally I asked them whether instant retail regret was part of their marketing strategy. If I’d known how to screenshot and was still on social media, I’d have shared it for sure.

I received an automated message with ticket number, and promptly forgot all about it.

Last week I had trouble with the software – it wasn’t able to connect, due to a ‘captive portal’. Not something I’m familiar with, so I opted to make use of their online reporting function, and tick the box to attach the relevant data. Another automated message, and more forgetting.

Today I finally heard back from them, suggesting I screenshot the page with the discount offer, in order to receive further assistance. Two hours later, they emailed again to say that since I hadn’t updated that ticket number within the past seven days, they were closing the case. What the?

They sent a separate email regarding the captive portal issue, again asking for a screenshot. “I don’t know how,” I replied, having looked up screenshots and not finding instructions for my refurbished PC’s oddball keyboard. “Why wasn’t the data attachment sufficient?”

Meanwhile, my energy provider informed me that they’d updated their app to the point where my old Android tablet couldn’t cope any more, so they’d disabled it. Thanks very much! My bank had done the same a while back, so they can both drown their apps in a bucket for all I care. Mind you, I’d bought the cheap tablet specifically to isolate social media (to foil their snoopiness) and have since deleted both platforms. Now that tablet is merely recording my voice changes and holding old photos hostage.

My Luddite roots might be showing right about now.

I hung onto Windows XP for far longer than sensible, because it worked for me. Then Windows 10 lost my favourite photos. When I say lost, I mean I can’t find them and can’t seem to use the scrollbar with any accuracy. Can’t even blame my tremor for that. And no, I don’t want the software to choose and organise its favourites for me. Good grief.

There must be a way to disable this function, so if you know how, please, please let me know. I don’t want to sit a new exam each time I upgrade, and don’t have a handy pre-teen at home. If I weren’t so exasperated, I’d look it up. Ok, I’m going to do that now.

Mumble, mumble…

Success

Had some success with anxiety and with a long term household issue today. Instead of keeping it to myself, I decided to leaven the blog. You’re welcome. 😀

Voila

via GIPHY

Still getting the hang of embedding things, as you can see.

So, I was heading to a lunchtime celebration. It was nearby and so didn’t require me to book a buddy (agoraphobia). To my surprise I was actually looking forward to it, and this is super rare, so WOW. At the last minute I had trouble leaving home. Couldn’t even open the door, let alone go in and out a few times due to forgetting keys, wallet, hat, the usual.

My head was spinning and I felt nauseated, so took a moment to give myself a pep talk. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) uses a mindfulness trick that sounds similar to what I spoke of yesterday – accepting the anxiety rather than arguing with it or fighting it or pretending it isn’t happening. I told myself, “OK, I’m going to go anyway and if I’m anxious the whole time, I’ll live.” Immediately, the worst of it subsided and I smiled and left the house without forgetting anything.

Once I’d arrived, I spotted my friend and we stuck together for the duration and I was fine. So fine in fact that I approached an isolated person and invited them to join us. I didn’t recognise many faces, and those we knew approached our table anyway. We had a great time!

Icing on the cake was bumping into an acquaintance I’d not seen since starting the process of gender affirmation. Back then, he used to ignore me whenever we were in the same room. Today, he held out his hand and introduced himself. He didn’t recognise me – I’ve substantially morphed, thanks to the miracle of science. Today he actually spoke to me in complete sentences and while we’re hardly best buds now, it was a beautiful endorsement of my gender presentation. That’s not quite how I intended to phrase it, so I hope you get my gist.

Now I wonder whether my own family of origin would recognise me! A fun thought. In the olden days, I’d grow my hair and don an op shop dress for the photo to send home. (My mother would never display one of me in crew cut and regular clothes, and I so wanted to please her.) The last photo I sent was taken a year into T and did not elicit one comment, so I stopped. We speak on the phone and that’s pleasant enough.

Meanwhile, something was being removed from my home that has caused me eight years of aggravation. It took a dash of newfound assertiveness and the input of another person to create change. Lesson learned. Fist pumps all evening.

the best things

As I finished reading Margot and Me by Juno Dawson, I reflected on the idea of finding the silver linings. Of Pollyanna and being a ‘good girl’ and smiling all the frickin’ time and finding the bright side in the darkest places.

The other night I was continuing to write about mentors past and present – those who have touched my life in ways they’ll never know. NaNoWriMo has instilled a daily writing practice. A rhythm of delve and release, relive and record. A mindful review.

I searched online for the Council of All Beings on the Rainforest Information Centre site, as this is where I’d first encountered the ritual, and was struck afresh by the wisdom of fully feeling despair before looking for hope.

In the book, Margot also encourages her granddaughter to feel her pain. No stiff upper lip, no suck it up or build a frigging bridge and get over it, but feel. Feel. Feel it. Only by fully feeling it can you properly move on. Not an appealing thought.

Once, I was asked what I had gained from depression, as though I were a cancer patient who felt blessed by some insight gained from being so ill. At the time I said that if anything, it had been humility. My academic ability had been what I had built my whole identity on, being unsure about the rest of it, and my depression had effectively rendered me unfit to learn or even think. I’d become acutely aware of how my siblings had been compared to me and how painful that had been for them. An insight, yes, but was it a blessing? No. It felt more like an extraordinarily harsh punishment for being confident.

It’s only now that I can see that first bout of depression as a rock bottom which forced me to take a closer look at my values. So with these things in mind, I revisit my worst things and consider the best.

Early Nancy, a spring-flowering native Australian plant

By effectively removing the goal I’d worked toward my whole life, my crippling depression forced me to function in new ways. Formerly in my head, I became more intuitive, going by the vibe of the thing. My gut ruled. In more ways than one, but let’s not go there. I followed hunches and tried new ideas on for size. Unable to intellectually think things through, I’d just give them a go. Rebirthing, fasting, biodynamics, lesbian separatism, veganism, floatation tanks, affirmations, Shiatsu massage, you name it, it was worth a try.

None of those stuck, by the way, but the process of trying things on did. And once I discovered Permaculture, that opened my world up to so much more.

It was through Permaculture that I WWOOFed and joined community gardens and volunteered in all sorts of odd places. Countless friends, adventures and the occasional love interest followed. And it was at a Permaculture-designed commune that I learned of the Council of All Beings, created by Joanna Macy and John Seed. I learned that my despair was shared by others and that feeling it wouldn’t kill me.

Of course, me being me, I ran away when presented with the option of participating. I didn’t trust anyone with my feelings yet. I tucked the knowledge into my breast pocket and ran away, where I stumbled across someone I felt safe with. In their presence I was finally able to release the grief without anyone freaking out or trying to cheer me up. I was allowed to feel it until it just dried up. Just like that! I learned I could survive my feelings. For that, I will forever hold that person’s memory close.

In my mind’s eye I see Neil from The Young Ones. “Heavy, heavy heavy!”

On a lighter note, I learned that making mistakes when you’re gardening and designing is totally normal and good. Sometimes the more mistakes the better. And my tiny yard is now crammed with edibles for myself and for wildlife. It brings me much joy. If you’d told me I’d be a gardener like my grandparents, I’d have scoffed. Isn’t gardening for old people who have nothing better to do with themselves, I’d have asked.

PS: I don’t know who to thank for recommending Margot & Me. It was a terrific read. If it was you, take a bow! 🙂

Beware 'resilience' (shared from Sleepproject)

You know those days when you are processing ideas and haven’t quite pulled them all together yet? When you’re swimming in word soup and enjoying the fluidity of it all too much to sit down and try to pin them to paper? I’m having a day like that, and found this post on resilience. I was swimming in all the things I wrote of the other day, along with all the other goodies that bind me together these days, with sap and tears and the goop on composting worms. I feel these words right down to my toenails. I can almost hear my red blood cells jig to their beat. (Ok I sound stoned right now and I’m not, LOL)

Enjoy! 🙂

sleepproject

If a tree falls down in a storm and lands against another tree, the second tree can be damaged, even though it was strong enough or fortunate enough to withstand the storm. The second tree may even eventually die when fungi and other species which move in to break down the fallen tree, move over and eat it from the inside, taking advantage of damaged areas at first. At the same time the fallen tree may not die, depending on how well the surviving roots can sustain the body through the trauma and loss of many roots, and again, on the actions of the numerous other species who benefit from the tree’s aliveness or deadness.

So it is with us humans. We seem to listen when we are told to be strong, self-reliant and resilient, and we invite these concepts in, because hearing about what we are supposed to be while we are growing…

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How I survived

CW: mental illness, grief, suicide.

Someone I follow suggested that we ask the people in our lives about the worst things that ever happened to them, and how they survived. I’m sure I’ve already done this with friends because small talk doesn’t last long around me. I tend to dive deep, ready or not. Feel free to speak to your own experience in the comments.

Here’s my own answer…

There are three things in my life that are intertwined. They originated around the same period and there’s no way I could isolate one from the others. Basically they’re the mental health crises of my siblings and myself. One after another we crumbled. Only two of us survived.

In part, I think my own survival at that time was pure luck and the intervention of ancestors. Trust me, I know how dippy that might sound. Not even sure I fully believe it myself, but despite my best efforts I’m here and it’s nothing short of a miracle. In time I learned to stop trying so hard to die. So I’ll talk more about that.

From an early age I had the sense that my acceptability relied on a narrow band of behaviour. Perhaps my very survival relied on it, as dramatic as that sounds to anyone who knows me. I was scared of one parent in particular and tiptoed around their moods and generally bent over backwards to be beyond reproach. I feel terror just writing this, yet lack anecdotes to back it up. Perfectionism became my survival strategy. I aimed to be low-maintenance and invisible.

In the process I became known as an adult-pleaser, which went over just great at school, as you can imagine. (Sarcasm)

Perfectionism and relaxation cancel each other out, in my experience, and relaxation was something I discovered later in life, once I’d left home. As soon as I turned 18, I quit my full-time office job to travel around Australia alone, and I met others with my interests and values. For the first time I felt a sense of belonging to a group, a tribe. I wanted more of this. I believed that if I could just find the right environment, I’d thrive.

Meanwhile I carried a swag of self-hating attitudes and beliefs.

A series of unfortunate events led to me becoming suicidally depressed again. Because there’s a risk of this post becoming a 30-page essay, I’ll summarise my survival efforts:

Recognising the needs of others – I’d been so focused on my own pain and attempting to remove it, that I’d assumed others would be well rid of me. When they expressed anger, I was startled. They cared enough to tell me directly that my death would hurt them, and that they would be angry with me. Their anger cut through the fog. I decided to respect their pain and stay alive by any means necessary.

Resourcefulness – finding counsellors, support groups, cheap healthy food, cheap healthy living situations, and inexpensive creative outlets. Barter and exchange worked well. Drugs didn’t.

Vulnerability – being willing to try counsellor after psychologist after quack after therapist, until I found a good fit. Being willing to call crisis lines even when I told myself it made me pathetic and weak. Being willing to try new techniques and thought patterns and behaviours until something shifted. Being willing to take medication when all else failed, despite preferring to live ‘clean’, and despite others’ judgement.

Alive, by any means necessary.

Unadulterated cussedness – I feel this in my molars, that teeth-gritting stubborn refusal to give up or give in. The ability to say no to anything I knew would set me back, even when the alternative was poverty, humiliation, or rejection. Bottom line, I can deal with those. Going against my own values, compromising my integrity, that’s not ok.

Honesty – I’d rather be open about my shortcomings than let someone stumble across them. Mostly I’m talking about my friendships and intimate relationships. Mind you, just because I’ve said the words and explained, it doesn’t mean that they’ve heard or understood. Nor does it mean that love conquers all. But for me, it beats the alternative hands down. Being open and honest might trigger the impulse to jeer and attack in some people, but in others it opens up the world. And if I’m to remain embodied, why not enjoy the world?

Self-compassion and gentleness and assertiveness – what I’m currently working on. Not every situation is life or death or blue or yellow. It’s all shades of green. A friend says trans is the new black; well, green is the new grey. (It’s ok, it makes sense to ME.) 😀

RIP

The week ahead contains the umpteenth anniversary of when my sibling took their own life. I still miss them and it’s painful and I still get angry. But I do understand. They were doing the best they knew how in that moment. Each year this anniversary is a different emotional tone, depending on what else is happening and how I am processing it all. This year I want to tell them that we’ll be ok. That I still love their mother-loving guts. RIP ❤

EDIT: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention crisis lines that are available 24/7 if you need to talk with someone anonymously. Please make use of them if you feel wobbly after reading this, or talk with someone you trust. I have also benefited from Bereaved By Suicide groups in various locations. The freedom to grieve among people who ‘get it’ was invaluable. Here’s a link to a handbook produced in Aotearoa/New Zealand, for anyone who wants to start their own support group. Please, look after your precious self.

1033 Words to go

With two days left of NaNoWriMo 2019, I’m at 48 967 words.

The word count addition function has inexplicably left my NaNo page, so I’m keeping track manually like the old school pencil-and-paper-wielding writer I am.

What have I learned? That I’ll probably do this again. That I can remember far more of my own life than I care to. That the frequent social gaffes make me laugh. There’s a strong theme of misjudging social cues and accidentally sinking perfectly good friendships, jobs… Some of the things I got up to! I see now why others thought me bizarre and I’m ok with that. Following the beat of your own drum is a strange thing to do in some circles. Writing about it has been fun.

Looking at life from upside down