Recovery: From Victim to Survivor to Thriver 

ICSA Today, 10(2), 2019, 2-5

This article is based on a presentation given at the ICSA 2018 Annual Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 5–7.

Recovery: From Victim to Survivor to Thriver

By Dorca Musseb

Published in ICSA Today 10.2

My talk today is from the perspective of someone who was born and raised in a cultic group. This doesn’t mean that, if you joined a group as an adult, you can’t relate to what I’m about to discuss; it just means my experience differs slightly—well, actually, by a lot. People who were born or raised in groups weren’t coerced or seduced. We either were born into this environment or came into it in our formative years. We have no point of reference other than the cult environment.

Being born or raised in a cultic group comes with serious social and identity challenges. We missed out on learning social cues and norms that most people are exposed to growing up. We had to suppress our own personalities to acclimate to the ever-changing rules of the cult.

I remember my confusion when the facilitators of the annual ICSA Workshop for People Born or Raised in Cultic Groups or Relationships—Carol Giambalvo, Lorna Goldberg, Roseanne Henry, and others—would say recovery is an individual process. I had NO CLUE what that meant since I had no notion of individuality.

I have chosen to talk about my recovery for three reasons. First, after I left my group, I was thrown into a world I knew nothing about. As I navigated the space and came to understand I was brought up waaaay differently than those around me, I saw the media and people who have never had this experience focus too much on the belief system of the groups. In a cultic situation, a belief system is a facade that covers up the real system of control and subjugation that lives underneath. That’s what I needed to learn about in order to heal.

The second reason I chose to talk is that people who have not had a cultic experience focus mostly on the traumatic story. This needs to be told, but what happens after our horrific experiences, the aftermath, is hardly talked about. People who have not had our experiences and are hearing just our cultic trauma stories think we ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. What we hear is “It’s in the past, right? Why are you still talking about this? Aren’t you over it yet?” Most people just want us to be OK. And while that’s a nice thought, it was detrimental to my recovery because I either pretended all was well for their sake, or I started thinking something must be wrong with me if I’m not over it already. Being in this position can be very isolating.

One final reason to talk about my recovery has to do with my own expectations as a former member, both when I attended conferences and in therapy. A fellow attendee at the annual ICSA workshop said it best:

I thought that I was going to come here last year for one weekend, and I was going to be cured. You guys were going to give me the answer, explain things to me and I would go home and be OK for the rest of my life.

We former members come from a magic land where the gurus or leaders wave their wands, chant, fast, quote a holy book, or pray our problems away. When we emerge from that experience, we have the same expectation. I expected an immediate cure. I demanded answers that people at conferences or therapists do not have, and I got frustrated when I didn’t get immediate relief.

I want to be honest about some of what has helped me recover so that others can understand that this process is not immediate. It did not occur over the course of one weekend. Or a few months. Or a few years. It’s hard work. Sometimes I failed at recovery, miserably, and I felt like giving up, a lot. It is a long journey. And as it turns out, it is one worth taking.

Looking back to the beginning of my recovery, I see that I went through three specific stages, which I will discuss: Victim stage, Survivor stage, and Thriver stage.

Sometimes it was very clear when I “leveled up” or “unlocked an achievement” [video-gaming references]. And sometimes, it felt as though some areas of my life were stuck in one stage while others moved on the next. Not all areas of my life were in sync. They still aren’t. Not all of them moved at the same time, which can be frustrating because it feels that I’m always fixing something.

Victim Stage

My recovery didn’t really begin until I was able to acknowledge that I did in fact have a life that was not ordinary; and this did not happen right away—not until I was able to say, “Yes, I was in a damaging environment that continues to have an impact on my life.” This happened while I was in college, when I started living with a more “normal” family (my now-husband’s) and was exposed to what that can be like. I could no longer turn a blind eye to what had happened to me or continue to think that I “grew up normal.”

Accepting that something happened was the beginning of my recovery. I moved into the first stage, which I call the Victim stage. I debated whether to call this Victim stage because victim feels like a really loaded, triggering word; and also because no one wants to admit to having been a victim of something. Society in general, I believe, doesn’t know how to view victims. Being a victim means being weak, and I did not want to see myself as vulnerable. But admitting that I had been a victim of physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse was an enormously healthy step for me. Yes; this happened. Yes; I was a victim. That admission on its own held a lot of power for me. This was the first seed of acceptance. Coming to terms with the fact that I was victimized opened me to many realizations about what exactly I’d been through. It was the beginning of the deconstruction of my past and the reconstruction of my future.

The pendulum of my emotions swung widely during this stage because they were so raw. I felt grief about lost time, family, and friends. I began to feel very alone. For the first time, I realized I needed professional help and started seeking treatment and searching for resources. As I learned about cults and how they operate, I felt the need to tell everyone immediately of what I’d discovered. In part, this reaction was a carryover from my cult experience; I had been trained to think I had the Truth, and I had to tell the World in order to save it.

My social skills were still limited, and I was frustrated as I looked for support from people who didn’t understand, or who were overwhelmed by what I was telling them. I thought people didn’t care. I underestimated the amount of trauma I had endured, and how overwhelming it could be to others to hear about it. I can now see with the help of hindsight that most people are ill-equipped to absorb our experience. Also, people have their own lives and issues. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t that they didn’t care. They just didn’t know what to do with information that had little relevancy in their lives. And even if they were able to grasp what I was saying, how could they help me? My expectations were too high. I expected them to carry my emotional baggage. I would make instant friends and unwittingly cross people’s boundaries by sharing more than they wanted to hear. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t make lasting friendships. All this was very isolating.

I also tended to see myself as a victim even when I might not be. I was used to that perspective. I complained to anyone who would listen, in life and in online forums. When solutions were offered or different perspectives proposed, they would either stun me into silence because I was convinced that I had no choices, or I got angry and claimed that people just didn’t understand. I was like a toddler who doesn’t yet know the difference between herself and other people, trying to make sense of the world. So I surrounded myself with people who saw the world as I did. I was careening through life without any sense of agency or responsibility. I didn’t know how to own my actions.

When I graduated from college, and the busyness and structure of school wasn’t there, quiet time came knocking and brought its friends: nightmares, insomnia, and rumination. My depression at this stage was rampant. I seriously contemplated suicide shortly after graduation. I began journaling around this time. My writing was full of horrible thoughts about myself, but I had to get these thoughts out somewhere, like squeezing all the poison out. I battled myself a lot. I didn’t understand then that I was fighting for my life. My headaches were frequent, and I sometimes even had fevers. I had anxiety and panic attacks almost daily. I would “hyperfocus” on someone and take on their issues as my own in order not to deal with me. I would take on too much work, overpromise, and underdeliver. 

I believe the reason for my emotional swings and struggles was that the more I went to therapy and the more I informed myself about cults, the more I questioned what I had been taught as I grew up. My defenses were being shaken to my literal core. This was a hard, lonely stage to be in. I’m thankful for the steady and loving support of my husband during that time. As I continued with therapy, I began to realize that my feelings had names, and I started building a vocabulary to express what the behaviors meant. I understand now that my brain was protecting me from what it perceived as a threat by going to where it was comfortable. I did what I could with the coping mechanisms I had at the time, which were not many. Misery, lashing out, and self-punishment were my comfort. It was a bizarre way of self-soothing and protection.

Survivor Stage

How did I get to the next stage? It was a slow process; but once I arrived at Survivor stage, I stomped my way in. The first few times I found I had agency were exceedingly empowering and even somewhat intoxicating. I was realizing that I could, in fact, have some control over my own actions and reactions. There was a lot more journaling and self-questioning. 

An important part of this stage was beginning to understand that beliefs which I thought were natural to me had actually been instilled into me by the cult in which I was raised, and that I could question these beliefs and assumptions. They were messages from the past. I would write out a message that was repeating like a broken record in my brain and have a Q&A with myself: Yes. This is the message, but why? Who told you that? Where did it come from? Shocking my brain by asking myself these questions and writing the conversation on paper would force me out of the loop. As I held my own hand through the deep “brain cave” I was about to enter, I began to find answers that made sense to me in the context of what I’d been through.

At this point, my husband’s family had started growing. There were a lot of babies and toddlers around me. This exposure helped me realize how physically fragile and dependent on my parents I truly had been as a child. Understanding the normal stages of a child’s development helped me have more empathy toward myself. Thinking about the physical, emotional, mental, and at times sexual expectations that our parents and the leaders had for us as children, which were beyond our means or understanding, changed my perspective. I began reconnecting with childhood experiences that I had tried to cut off. There was a lot of healthy crying and a lot of healthy anger, for the right reasons. I started learning to sit with my feelings without them overwhelming me.

This stage was full of recovery cha-cha, realizations and steps forward and then steps backward. Because I was more aware of what I was doing and why, I was able to catch harmful behaviors and bounce back more quickly. Whereas in the Victim stage I’d been deeply depressed for years, I still tended to become depressed, but now it lasted only months. Progress! I began to forge meaningful relationships with people who understood my experience. I began to flourish a little bit more, and glimpses of my true self started revealing themselves.

Unfortunately, this is also where the pendulum swung the other way. Once I found out about boundaries and self-protection, I became somewhat inflexible. I started cutting people out of my life. “You’re toxic. Out.” While realizing I had the right to protect myself was important, my speedy judgments deprived me of some potential relationships and opportunities—personal, career, and otherwise. I was unable to see people’s nuances and to accept them for who they were, as I wanted them to accept me.

The self-sabotage was also real in this stage. As I moved forward in the Survivor stage, I would often undermine my own achievements because I did not think I was worthy of the good things I was striving for. Also, my anxiety was at a high level, and self-sabotage became a way to keep myself in check. As a result, a lot of sassy rebelliousness came about, at times even against myself.

My perspective started to widen when, toward the end of this stage, I started asking what caused my parents to join a cult. What was going on in their lives? What were they looking for? I’m glad the questioning didn’t happen until the end of this stage, or I would not have been able to handle these explorations.

Thriver Stage

When did I begin to thrive instead of just survive? Whether it came with maturity, or understanding, or stable security, I don’t know…

I felt myself crossing this line about five years ago. In part, beginning to thrive may have come with a greater confidence in my own skills and abilities, which led to increasing recognition of me by the professional world of design. It may also have come with the fact that, as I interacted with other people born or raised in cultic groups, and shared my reflections on myself with them, I found I was actually helpful. I had both personal value and professional value.

This stage came with a lot more discovery of my identity and acceptance of it. Acceptance was key. One of the biggest lessons I learned in this stage, and am continuing to develop, is to give people ownership of their feelings and issues: Give them credit for their own truth and autonomy. I can listen. I can empathize, sometimes sympathize; but I do not need to take on their feelings or assume that I know what their experience has been, any more than I need for them to take on my feelings or understand what my experience has been. I am learning to see people as individuals with their own minds and perspectives, and not to feel threatened by their difference. And I am not pigeonholing people into the assigned roles or personalities that I was trained to expect as I was growing up.

All of these things may seem like a given, and it may be so for people who grow up outside of cults; but it was a vital lesson that has helped me flourish. Seeing value in the experiences and perspectives of other people has both resulted from and encouraged me to see the worth of my own experience and perspectives. It is a give-and-take style of relationship rather than one of just giving or just taking.

Another aspect of thriving is facing challenges knowing there will be a solution, and that I have resources to cope with them. Even if things fall apart, I don’t have that sense of fatality. It doesn’t mean the cult was right or my parents were right… It just means terrible things happen, and I can get up and rebuild. Should I need help, I know I can find it. I have a wealth of resources and choices. I have built a support system that I use often. It took me years to find these people, and I’m thankful for having them in my life. 

I knew I was thriving when I began to let go of the identity of just being a former cult member and began seeing myself as a whole person with more to life than my traumatic past. Yes, this happened to me; but as I live on, it becomes a smaller and smaller part of a larger tapestry. This is not the only thing that defines me.

Additional Thoughts

There are a few more things that I would like to mention that helped me. Sometimes I had difficulty changing an unhealthy behavior because I didn’t have a healthy behavior to replace it with. If I can no longer beat myself up, then what do I do instead? Paying attention to how healthier people around me handled themselves helped me. It took practice, and it felt really wrong at first. It required surrounding myself with healthier people, no matter how uncomfortable doing that made me.

I also had a few terrible things happen in life, such as my apartment building burning down, being misdiagnosed with fibromyalgia, and being in chronic pain for more than six years. When these things happened, I thought, “if I hadn’t left the group, this would not have happened.” I learned I had to be kinder and more patient with myself in these situations. This is when a good therapist and that support system matter.

I cannot stress how important it is not to isolate ourselves in these instances. I had to force myself out of my “brain cave” and ask for help when I needed it. Building a support system within the community of former members was vital to my recovery. Having an amazing therapist within this community who understands our perspective literally saved my life.

Journaling was essential. Recovery can be overwhelming, so giving myself breaks has also been important. Allowing myself to acknowledge my victories when I could and celebrating them with friends who understood why something was a victory for me has been crucial.

And finally, reading as many articles and books as I could find was extremely helpful. Whether they were fiction or nonfiction, psychology, history, magazines—whatever was helpful for me to move forward at that time, I read.

I wish I could wave a magic wand. I wish I could tell you exactly what to do, what your hurdles will be and what to avoid. I wish I could tell you it’s not that hard, or it doesn’t hurt, or you will ride off into the sunset. I can only say that, at the end of the day, recovery is an individual process. I am not presenting this narrative about my recovery as a solution but rather as a personal journey that I chose to make public in the hope that it can help demystify the process and get rid of the “should be.” You are exactly where you should be in your own recovery. It is my hope that reading about my journey will help you find your own.

About the Author

Dorca Musseb was born and raised in a cult. At 16, having moved to the United States from Puerto Rico, Dorca resisted her intensely abusive environment and finally walked away. Struggling to survive, she built a new life that included studying art at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and she currently works as a freelance motion graphics designer in the entertainment industry. She has attended ICSA’s annual Workshop for Those Born or Raised in Cultic Groups or Relationships since it started in 2006, and she created the Facebook group where current and past workshop participants can provide support for one another.