I Grew Up in a Cult

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Words by Anonymous

I was raised almost entirely alone for the whole of my childhood. I don’t just mean that as in I was a loner or kept to myself; I was raised on eight acres of land with little to no exposure to the world. Due to the teachings of the cult my mother was a member of, I was never educated. I taught myself to read, and learned all my basic writing skills on the internet. In the time between, I played alone in the woods. Whenever I did attempt to interact with kids my own age (usually by going to the town pool) I was teased mercilessly for my lack of common knowledge and zero understanding of social etiquette, and for my hobbies, which consisted of a. reading out loud to myself and b. building things out of sticks in the woods. I was pretty weird. I remember their mothers would inevitably call mine and firmly tell her that I wasn’t allowed near them after a couple of interactions.

My experiences with school and education growing up were next to nothing. My mother had me registered as homeschooled, but I never received any kind of educational material. I dipped in and out of a few online classes when she felt like the government was starting to pay attention, but she was adamant that any sort of public education was useless in the grand scheme of the universe and that heavy interaction with children from the “outside” would be detrimental to my growth. I didn’t understand that this wasn’t normal until I was about sixteen. I had become severely agoraphobic and neurotic due to my mother’s persistent negative language about the outside world; it had left me completely paralyzed with fear at the thought of leaving my house. I estimate that I went outside maybe once a week, and actually left my property twice a month, and it had been that way for about two straight years.

Honestly, I didn’t really think about what I was missing. Everything I had access to said that anything outside of my house was terrible. But around this time, my sister began to rebel against my mother and the existential teachings of the cult, and gradually coaxed me out of the house daily. She drove me around for hours until I slowly began to get comfortable with not being in my house, and we graduated to getting out of the car. Going into the store. Buying something from the cashier. Letting people see my face. It grew on me.

After a year of successfully leaving my home, I convinced my mom to enroll me in an art class, the one thing that I thought I could maybe be okay at (and art was apparently alternative enough that it didn’t bother my mother, unlike the dangerous and crushing confinement of education. Or something.)

As you could probably guess, it was a disaster. The other teenagers hated me, and I really don’t blame them; I was completely insufferable. I followed them around, talked at great length about anything and everything, and was extremely paranoid about my own behavior, to the point where I would apologize over and over again for nothing. I was obsessed with the idea of people and friends and interaction, and wanted to do it all day. I was just really bad at it. It gave me extreme social anxiety, but I had finally seen life. I had gotten my foot in the door, and I couldn’t turn back now. One thing led to another, and through a string of people over the course of another year, I suddenly had a network of friends. They accepted me, and provided a gradual, softened introduction into young adulthood that I hadn’t gotten before. I owe everything to them. But while I loved every second spent with my friends and thrived off of that social interaction, being withheld from everyday life in favor of the otherworldly teachings of my mother’s cult affected my life in a plethora of ways, and spending time with young adults who were living and breathing education flipped a switch in my brain that I’m still struggling to get back into neutral. Education became everything. It was the thing that separated me from them, no matter how much we bonded or how close we became. I felt wrong, somehow; like I was an alien from another planet trying to pretend to be a human, but I didn’t know anything about what being human meant. I became obsessive. Learning was my top priority, and I rushed myself through the ACT and began college applications immediately.

The best example I can think of that sums up what college was like for me is the class I took on WWII. College was the first time I’d ever learned anything about WWII. After every single class, I would dry heave in the bathroom outside the classroom. I hadn’t known that people were capable of such horrible things. I didn’t know cruelty existed at that mass level. I didn’t know about Hiroshima. I didn’t know these things were even out there to be learned. I was so ashamed for not knowing sooner.

In my desperate search for knowledge about the world and to try and understand the people living in it, I’d decided to major in International Relations, and every single class rattled me to my core. I was fixated on catching up to the people around me and scolded myself for reacting so strongly to what everyone else seemed to have no problem digesting. This response to education, knowledge, and grades carried on all the way to grad school. I worked myself to the bone, exhausted and struggling to shove my persistent horror at the capabilities of humanity aside to better comprehend the material. I felt like it was my duty. I’d lived in blissful ignorance for so long that now I had to stomach everything as quickly as possible. My self-worth and right to exist in this world hinged on my ability to understand it and know about it.

I’d love to tell you a story about a moment that changed everything, where I became aware of my worth outside of education; it hasn’t really happened yet. I still measure myself by how much I know about something; nothing gives me more anxiety than being wrong, or ignorant. I get the feeling it’s going to be a slow and gradual process. Today, I have two degrees and have worked in the field of international politics for two years; I’m about to leave my job to work in education advocacy and refugee assistance. My mother and I don't speak. I’d be lying if I said I don’t still feel guilt, or still feel like I don’t belong, but I’m on my way.

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Anonymous is a frantic and coffee-driven 20-something who spends most days doting on her dog and trying to solve all of the world's problems, and is slowly coming to the conclusion that a smile and some nice words can be just as powerful. She likes to think she's starting to get a handle on this whole being-human thing, but is admittedly still baffled by clamshell packaging and folding fitted sheets.

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