Another word for ‘cult’ is ‘authoritarian hierarchy’. ‘Authoritarian’ meaning “I know better for you than you do for yourself” and ‘hierarchy’ meaning there is a top-down leadership structure, placing the cult leader at the tippy-top and the one person whose word can never be questioned.

Cult members learn very early on that obedience toward the cult leader is paramount to our continued membership and acceptance into the group. We learn that we must accept what our leader says without question and, perhaps more importantly, cannot pick and choose what parts of the cult’s philosophy to believe; a cult is an all-or-nothing game. (Every cult leader applies this condition to members because it a) stops cult members from thinking and b) trains us to be completely obedient. Critical thinking is not allowed.)

When we leave the cult we begin to learn (or re-learn) what matters to us as individuals, not as a member of an authoritarian hierarchy. We begin to value what matters to us. And eventually, if we work hard at it, we learn that we can value what matters to us even if it means displeasing an authority figure. This is a huge and important milestone for cult survivors and one I continue to celebrate every time it happens in my post-cult life.

Here’s an example: I began searching for a new spiritual community a few years after leaving the cult I belonged to because spiritual community was something I was missing very much in my life. At one point, I took some evening classes exploring a faith that seemed like it might be a good fit for me. The teacher was a retired gentleman, obviously very well read and well educated, who had been a part of this faith since his late teens. He was warm and gentle and kind. He welcomed the group of students I was a part of into his home for the classes and I liked him immediately. This was a good sign, I thought.

Part-way through the series of classes the topic of homosexuality came up and it was revealed that this particular faith believes that the only form of sexual expression should be within a marriage and that ‘marriage’ is defined as between one man and one woman. I was deeply upset right away. I don’t believe that marriage should be defined as being between one man and one woman. I believe that God/the universe/the Great Creator made us all exactly and perfectly the way we are, including those of us who are gay or transgendered, and that we all have the right to express that love via marriage. I left the class that night and wept in my car on the way home, conflicted and disappointed. I wanted so badly to find a new spiritual community and this had seemed like the right one, but I hated it that this particular faith thought there was something wrong with my gay friends.

I continued going to the classes though, wanting to explore my questions further. On the last night of class, the teacher asked if each of the students wished to sign up that night to become members of the faith. All the other students in the class did, but I did not, because of this conflict. I felt that I wanted to continue exploring the faith and to see if I could gain a greater understanding about the issue of homosexuality, and I was not ready at that very moment to commit to something I felt conflicted about.

I could see the look of disappointment on the teacher’s face when I said I would not be joining. He embraced each other student warmly in a hug after they signed their membership cards, calling them “Brother” or “Sister” while I sat, by myself, left out of the celebration. I flashed back to my cult days. The days of working desperately hard to never, ever disappoint our cult leader for fear of being shunned or receiving abuse or any number of other adverse consequences.

But I held on. I held on to my hard won freedom. I realized in that moment that the teacher could be as disappointed in me as he wanted, but I was not now and not ever going to sacrifice a deeply held value in order to make someone else comfortable. I had done that for too long and at too great a price in the cult.

This was a milestone, I realized later. It revealed to me many things. Among them that I had grown a new backbone. That I had learned some of what mattered to me and what I was and was not willing to do to stand behind those values. And also that I had come to know who I was in many ways – something I hadn’t known when I was in the cult. In the cult I was an amalgamation of what mattered to cult leader. It was a good moment, that moment of seeing disappointment in me from an authority figure and choosing to stand by my own values anyway. I look back on it fondly.

In the end, after more classes and discussion I did not end up joining that faith, but even if I had, I would have been proud of my new found willingness to look in the face of authority and say, “I’m doing what’s right for me in this moment. And I don’t need you to be happy about it.”

It was a big deal. Perhaps one only another cult survivor can understand.