This is a guest article by someone who has written expressively and eloquently on how the survivor of cult abuse feels. Her name is niid la’i and she speaks for many of us about the isolation and loss of identity, the need to protect oneself after a lifetime of betrayals. The desire to learn to trust and be open. She calls it:
On Having Need
by Niid La’i
This is an essay on need. Need is frightening to me. I don’t want to have need! The voices of programming inside start to shout at me when I acknowledge that I have needs. I am not supposed to have needs. I have always existed to serve others. I am supposed to be compliant, understanding, and forgiving, no matter what anyone does to me, or says to me. I am never supposed to express an opinion, or discontent or dissatisfaction.
As a child, I learned to have a “nothing face.” This face was devoid of all expression. It was a face that hid a million feelings. Sometimes, even this expression was unacceptable. If it was misconstrued as sullen, then punishment descended on me anyway. I had to have at least a suggestion of a smile and contentment blended in with the nothing face. It was used when cult members were present and in the home with the mother and father.
I also have, what I call, “outside faces.” Outside faces are more readable. They were created to present a pleasant, calm, and amiable appearance to all people. The outside faces went to school, and to relatives’ homes, and to public places. As a small child people would comment on how quiet I was. As a teen-ager, and even now, many friends and acquaintances tell me I am so, “laid back!” What a joke! But it proves how well everyone inside has hidden behind the acceptable faces that afforded some safety.
One problem this has created is a numbing affect. In order for the outside faces and the nothing face to function, needs and feelings had to be literally forgotten. If alters, which I call, “others, ” inside were too upset or anxious, there was a possibility of their emotions breaking through. Often in a cult gathering, members of the group would convince little others that if they had feelings inside, the members could tell. So, even if their facial expression was as it should be, the cult members would punish them for the feelings these “little people”, my name for little alters, were supposedly having. Because of this, others learned to deny their feelings and more others were created to hold feelings in far away worlds. Their needs were not recognized anymore either. Eventually they were as “nothing” inside as their faces learned to be on the outside.
When one of my others was 6 years old she was being taught not to cry. I’m sure there were lots of other “lessons” already ingrained about showing emotions, but this is just one description of those indoctrination sessions. The memory, and I’m sure it is not complete, is of this small child standing naked in front of a male adult. He was sitting in a chair and all of a sudden he slapped her very hard on the cheek. Of course, she grabbed her cheek and started to cry. He removed her hand and hit her again and said simply, “Don’t cry!” She tried to stop but couldn’t. He continued to hit her cheek and repeat the words until her tears stopped and the only evidence of the pain was her labored breathing. I’m sure that at some point this little person inside fragmented into more others who could hold the sting of the slaps and even the tears away from the six year olds consciousness. Eventually she was able to stand dry eyed in front of her abuser and not even flinch. By the time this was accomplished her cheek and eye were so swollen and bruised that she could not go to school for more than a week.
Certainly, everyone who lives on the earth has the need to cry many times in his/her life. But for me, because of countless, repeated episodes of controlled programming such as the one just described, my need to cry was effectively shut off. Now, as an adult, though I need to cry, there are many times I can’t. I will feel tears begin to fill my eyes and my throat tighten up, but then all the symptoms just go away. I am left with an overwhelming sadness, a stomach- ache and extreme anxiety.
Can I then tell anyone I am anxious, or sad, or feel sick? NO! Others inside have been taught equally well that they are not supposed to ask for relief or comfort. They should not even feel sad, or anxious or sick. If they do have these feelings, they think they are bad and evil for having them. They experience tremendous guilt and shame.
In the present day, I find I don’t understand what is happening with my emotions. I go to the Dr. and get so anxious when I have to tell him/her what is wrong that I get tongue-tied and confused. The Dr. gets impatient and frustrated because my explanations are so disjointed. He/she misunderstands.. I try again, but I still can’t be clear. I am then judged incompetent and a hypochondriac. I am treated with lack of respect and in a mocking way. I don’t understand why I can’t talk to Drs. I feel stupid and ashamed for being so evasive and indirect.
This happens because I am not supposed to need. If I am sick, I am not supposed to need help. I am not supposed to tell anyone I don’t feel good. I am not supposed to GET sick in the first place. This is ludicrous when considered logically. Everyone gets sick. But, the lessons are still so much a part of me, I think I am bad and evil for wanting medicine to feel better.
Let’s say I go to a therapy session. I am going to therapy because I am trying to resolve the conflicts I sense inside. Even being there is a serious breach of “the rules.” Again, I am admitting I have needs, and I am trying to talk to someone about them. Talking is akin to murder. It is a capital offense, and carries major consequences if broken. Therapy is all about talking! If I sit silent in front of my therapist then nothing is accomplished. If I speak to him I am buried in angry, shouting inner voices, pleading voices, scared voices. My body starts to hurt in various places. I cannot think again, and what I say comes out jumbled and incoherent. I get frustrated and panic-stricken. If my therapist shows even the slightest indication of impatience or perceived anger, everyone inside withdraws. All the others inside willing to watch and listen are so hyper alert they notice every movement, twitch and voice inflection the therapist has. This can seriously impede progress in therapy.
Many times I have left a session thinking the therapist has labeled me needy and draining. This is because if I ask him/her for anything; reassurance, understanding, support, I think I am being overbearing and demanding. The very act of walking through the door of the office and being seen feels like asking for more than anyone should ever be asked to give. Indeed, I am supposed to go in there and figure out what the therapist needs and start supporting and taking care of him! Paradoxically if the therapist cannot return a rare phone call, or cannot be as supportive as I need him/her to be, I feel rejected and abandoned. So, I find myself in one of those double binds so common to survivors. If the therapist is supportive, etc. I feel bad and evil. If he is not supportive I feel bad and evil. This is all because I am not supposed to have any needs.
What can happen, is that I get so worried about being needy, that I become needy!! By skirting around what I really want to say or ask for, those who are working with me have to guess at what I am really trying to ask or say. They can end up feeling manipulated, or like they are being forced to play some strange kind of game. Though this is not my intent, especially if they do not know me very well, my “halftalk,” as I call it, can create the very drain I am trying so hard not to inflict on others.
It’s another trust issue. In order to heal, I have to trust before trust is really there to be able to learn to trust! I have to risk from the very foundation of my being. I wear the lessons of the past like a second skin. To begin removing this skin leaves me feeling touch tender and naked once again. I often feel like I am metaphorically standing in the middle of a busy freeway daring the cars not to hit me. That’s how vulnerable I feel as I try and shed the beliefs that have ruled me from the day I was born. I hate it when I am told I am comfortable living within the boundaries placed on me from the past. But, it is true. I have only known what I was so methodically programmed to believe.
Learning new ways is filled with as much pain and anxiety as the original abuse. As I discover and then acknowledge that I have needs, and attempt to trust these needs to “outsiders,” “big people,” i.e., therapist, Drs. and friends, I open myself up to the possibility of more hurt and misunderstanding. Though these people are not abusers, human beings are subject to making mistakes, responding from their own set of rules. The everyday problems in relationships that are bound to happen when people get together can seem as intense as the former abuse.
Can the voices of programming ever be silenced? I hope so. At this point, I have to rely on my therapists and other caregivers to instruct me and guide me. I cannot offer concrete ways to implant trust in barren soil. What this essay offers is insight. I NEED those who read it to understand and be able to step beyond my walls of resistance and help me. I hope that as other survivors relate to these barriers that affect their healing they will also seek out people that can assist them to shed their old skins of the past. Now how’s this for breaking programming! Copyright 2000 Niid la’i:
Thank you for your courage in opening your heart and sharing with others here. May what you wrote open the eyes of both therapists and support people to the tremendous issues that a survivor of ritual abuse struggles with in the healing process. -Svali