45 People Who Escaped From Cults Are Sharing What Their Breaking Points Were
“This would never happen to me. I’d never be dumb enough to fall for this. I’d have figured out they were trying to trick me ages ago.” These are just some of the things that people might think when they’re hearing about someone being exploited by a cult. However, many folks don’t take into account just how manipulative and insidious cult leaders can be, eroding a person’s confidence and making them entirely reliant on others over long periods of time. Some people might be more vulnerable, but nobody’s completely immune to cultist psychological warfare.
And if you happen to be born in a cult or raised in one as a kid… getting out can be hell. But there are always signs that something’s off, that there’s brainwashing afoot. Reddit users who were raised in cults opened up about the first time that they realized that something was very wrong with the community.
Get ready for a deep dive into the dark side of humanity and scroll down for some very honest stories about growing up surrounded by cultists.
Bored Panda got in touch with Suzanne Degges-White to talk about how cult leaders target their victims and manipulate their followers, as well as how to get someone you care about out of a cult. She also detailed the character traits that cult leaders tend to have. Suzanne is a Licensed Counselor, Professor, and Chair at the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University.
"The worst thing about cult indoctrination is that people actually LOVE the feeling they get in being a part of something bigger than themselves. Folks who have the wisdom to recognize that they are being led into a cult are not the ones who are going to be totally indoctrinated and stuck inside it," she explained to us.
"They recognize that the leader is likely a charlatan and they have enough of a support system beyond the cult that they don't get totally sucked into it in the first place. The people who actually NEED to get out of it are going to have to have a support system or something better outside the cult if they are going to leave." Read on for our full interview with Suzanne.
When I met with my mother about difficulty coping with my arranged marriage. I explained to her the abusive aspects of the relationship and how much it was breaking me down, and her response was that it was my job to be quiet and if God wanted to change my husband, he would.
I suddenly realized, sitting across from her and looking her in the eyes, that she had let my father take my childhood innocence and had zero qualms about my mistreatment now at the hands of my husband.
I knew when I hugged her goodbye and cried all the way home that I would never see her again. It’s been four years since I ran away.
Suzanne, from Northern Illinois University, explained to Bored Panda what makes cult leaders so dangerous. "Cult leaders are master manipulators who are also excellent readers of others—and they truly sense who is a more likely 'follower' aka 'victim' and tend to invest their energy wisely. They don't waste too much time on people they don't think will easily join their ranks," she told Bored Panda that these individuals go for the most vulnerable.
"Cult leaders are narcissistic individuals who use their self-interest and charisma to prey on their followers. This, of course, requires that their followers, or marks, have certain traits that make them more likely to be preyed upon. Research suggests that some of the traits that make people vulnerable to joining a cult include suffering from anxiety or depression or addictions."
Disorders like anxiety or depression can make a person more vulnerable to a cultist who offers them solutions to their problems. "People with addictions need to have something to fill the hole left when they stop using whatever substance/behavior that they are addicted to. Addiction reflects a hunger and cult leaders have an easy time using their powers of persuasion to convince the follower that they and their cult can fill that need," Suzanne stressed that addicts are also potential prey for cult leaders.
Former Jehovah's witness too. The first time I realized something was wrong was when a huge core belief changed in 1995. ( The end will come before the generation that saw the events of 1914 died...changed to.. well it's changed 7 times since then) I was confused and it didn't compute that my entire life's beliefs changed over night. I struggled on awhile until shortly after my then husband beat the s**t out of me and for some reason HE called the elders over to help and the elders told me " Be a better wife so he doesn't get angry" I was done then. DONE.
After watching The Day After in the 80s, I asked my mom if we knew the nukes were coming, who would she rather spend her last moments with me or the cult leader, she choose him. I came up with my own survival plan after that. I was going to skateboard to safety.
"Cult leaders often use the powers of seduction to convince people to follow them—they use flattery of a potential member along with promises of 'belonging' and being 'needed,' so that can be extremely enticing to someone who feels that something important is missing in their life. When someone convinces us that they care more about us than anyone else in our world, we will do whatever they want us to do just to keep their light shining on us," she drew attention to how cults exploit human psychology for their own benefit.
According to the psychology expert, people are brought into cults believing that the leader has all the answers they're seeking. "You are treated like family and you have other cult members who make you feel welcome and work hard to develop that sense of belonging. When nothing else in your life is giving you what you need or satisfying you in important ways, a cult is the perfect setting to feel valued and that you matter," she said that this entraps a person, convincing them to stay. However, that's not to say that it's impossible to get someone out.
This happened to my classmate in the fifth grade. Her family were Jehovah Witnessers. She needed a blood transfusion but the family refused and she died. I don't remember the specifics of her condition but WTF. The whole class cried for weeks. Try wrapping your little 11 year old brain around that.
Jehovahs witnesses. When my sister got pregnant out of wedlock, went to the elders (group of old men residing over congregation) to confess and repent. They decided to disfellowship her, meaning all other Jehovahs witnesses had to shun her, even immediate family. When asked why this was the decision, they reinforced to us how they basically communicated with god by spirit and this is what god intended. I knew it was bs. Left very soon after and never had anything else to do with them. All of my immediate family eventually did, one by one and last year I celebrated Christmas with all of them together for the first time since 1999.
I got punished for my own sexual assault. I was victim blamed. The abuser was twice my age (I was mid-teens). I was forced to repent. For what, I am not sure as they wouldn’t answer that question.
As I got older and looked back, I realized that everything they’d told me was a lie. If you do everything you’re supposed to, you’re supposed to be blessed. If you break the rules, you have challenges/obstacles/lessons and must repent.
But if Jesus dies for my sins why do I have to repent? And what am I repenting for? I didn’t consent I any of that. Nor could I from a legal standpoint.
The only obvious answer was that it was all bulls**t. Then years later, a widely publicized case with similar circumstances became international news. And the victim’s clergy person stood up on CNN and said she was forgiven. Forgiven. For being raped.
I had noped out years before but when I saw that particular press conference I had to get therapy to deal with all that rage. Guh
"To get someone you care about out of the cult, you have to work hard and be available to help them see reason. You have to encourage them to stay involved in activities beyond the cult, to engage in connections with people who are 'outsiders,'" Suzanne explained.
"For some people, the sense of belonging within a cult is worth more than autonomy, wealth, or connections to family or those beyond the cult. That's when interventions by caring others are needed to help that person recognize the truth of their situation."
When we were told that we couldn't go to college. I was about 15 when I realized that we weren't allowed to. The elders said it was because of the end time coming and wasting time, and worry about fellowship in the world. It is because they want to keep us stupid. That was the year I left. That was compounded because the same year my cousin tried to kill herself, and they told us not to visit. I hadn't been baptized yet (you wait until you are old enough to study and consent) so I told the elders that if we weren't allowed to talk to her in her greatest time of need, they could shove it.
When the 'Elders' told me that I could no longer speak to my younger sister anymore because she was in 'bad standing' with the organization. She's the only family I have left. They made her out to be this monster just because she wasn't actively going to church. That's when the glass shattered for me
I was one of Jehovah's Witnesses and my sister and I are still close. She's doing great things for herself and I do not regret my decision at all. Dont let someone else make decisions for your life, you'll be much happier!
When my parents told me they'd let me die rather than allow me to get certain medical procedures.
According to the BBC, there are as many as 2k suspected cults operating in the United Kingdom at this point in time. Some of them target students to swell their ranks. “Just absolute mind control,” is how Jess, a former student, described her time at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
She was recruited on the campus of the University of Salford and said she couldn’t recognize herself anymore while she was with the cult.
Meanwhile, CBS states that there are up to 10k cults in the United States. International cult expert Steve Eichel stressed that most cults are small and deliberately try to stay under the radar.
When I was the one who got shunned for defending a child from a pedophile.
When my mom said that I was so bad at housekeeping that if I got abused by my future husband, "he would be within his rights as head of the household".
Fundie cults are the worst
It's hard to pick a first time but I knew I needed to run when I was taken shopping for a wedding dress at 12 years old.
"Unless they commit a crime, unless they do something that draws attention to them—negative attention and criticism to them—we generally don't know about them,” the expert suggested that these groups could be living right under our very noses without anyone realizing that something’s very wrong.
Eichel listed some of the things that make a cult, well, a cult. From deception to being overly secretive, here are the ways to recognize one of these groups.
"Beware of any kind of pressure. That's probably the single most important advice I can give anyone. Any kind of pressure to make a quick decision about becoming involved in any intensive kind of activity or organization,” the cult expert stressed that being rushed to make decisions can be an indication that you’ve been approached by cultists.
When I was pulled out of Sunday school and scolded for asking legit questions about our so called prophet. I was 8 years old and couldn’t wrap my head around how some guy could translate a lost language using a hat and a stone. I used to be a Mormon lmao.
Every women needed to bear a child with the cult leader. We were given drugged sweets, such as cookies, for food.
“Be wary of any leader who proclaims him or herself as having special powers or special insight. And, of course, divinity,” he said. “The group is closed, so in other words, although there may be outside followers, there's usually an inner circle that follows the leader without question, and that maintains a tremendous amount of secrecy."
According to Eichel, cults use deceptive means to recruit new members. Then, they use an “organized program of through reform” (aka brainwashing) to change how these fresh recruits think and operate.
When my youth group leader said that telling poor people about Jesus was more important than feeding them or housing them.
When they kept telling me that only men could be leaders, and women were supposed to be silent, demure, secondary, and subservient. I looked around and saw so many dumb asses I wouldn't trust to lead me out of a burning building without copping a feel and claiming it was something I did that caused them to stumble, such as wear a tank top or pants.
When the leader kept my mom up for 2 days straight. He was making her cook, clean, be on him hand and foot all while berating her. yelled at her she was an evil woman going to hell, he was too godly for her, etc. 3 am and I hear him screaming at her, all biblical bs, and she’s crying. she broke down and he drove my mom, my sister and I to the ER and said she had to check herself into mental health because she’s psychotic. We are there for 3 hours. They turn her away and she comes out with abuse pamphlets.
"Typically, cults also exploit their members… mostly financially. Within the group, they'll exploit members financially, psychologically, emotionally and, all too often, sexually,” the expert warned.
"A very important aspect of cult is the idea that if you leave the cult, horrible things will happen to you. This is important, and it's important to realize. That people outside of a cult are potential members, so they're not looked upon as negatively as people inside the cult who then leave the cult."
When my brother started asking (politely) how our religion was founded and how our family got involved and generally just questions about life: they don't believe in evolution or kissing before marriage.
And they would bite his head off about it at age 11. It made me realise they were being defensive because they had no answers. If you can't explain why you're in a religion, you get the f**k out.
When I realized that the doors to the 13 story former hotel building we were all living in was locked and you had to sign out to leave.
No one (from children to adults) could leave without an explanation to where they were going and when they'd be back.
Ex-Jehovah’s Witness here.
My first hint that something was wrong was the amount of control exerted in our day to day lives. No beards, no long hair for men, no tattoos or piercings, no shirts with “edgy” artwork like band shirts or shirts with skulls, no entertainment they don’t approve of, etc. Other witnesses are trained to report you to the elders if you’re not following their guidelines, such as if you have a position of respect in the congregation but someone sees that you have a rated R movie, they’ll report you to the elders and you could lose your position and good standing, which will change the way the congregation treats you.
What really tipped it over the edge for me though was their doctrine that all non-witnesses deserve to die at Armageddon by gods hand, simply for not being witnesses. Armageddon is supposed to be urgently imminent, and over 99.9% of the world will die just because they’re not witnesses. That didn’t sit right with me. I had been working in retail for some time, and the people I worked with were every bit as intelligent, compassionate and loving as any witness I knew.
Eventually, these issues became too great for me to bear, and I committed the ultimate sin, researching information that criticizes the religion. We were taught to be terrified of anything that remotely criticizes the religion and it’s leaders. I finally pushed against that fear and did the research. Woke up instantly. Realized why they taught us to fear “apostate” information so much, it’s because they know it’s all true and they don’t want us to see it
When I realized that God does not use flaming swords to force little girls to shag old dudes.
When I realized that any of those old dudes could still technically ask for me or my daughter as a “spiritual wife” and we’d have no choice.
When a devout member very seriously told her son that she’d rather have him graduate from the Church’s education program than from high school. (Seminary gives neither credit, nor real world experience—It’s just brainwashing.)
When the same member told me that—though it might be hard—she’d offer her children up like Abraham did with Isaac, in a heartbeat, if the Prophet commanded it.
When I realised that medication and painkillers existed, that other people gave them to their children when they were sick, and that my parents could have helped me when I was suffering but chose not to.
And that watching television doesn't make someone a bad person haha.
When I found out I was gay and because of that, I would forever burn in hell, regardless the fact I didn't choose to be gay.
When they told members to park behind the church to hide their cars so they wouldn’t get reported for gathering during the height of the pandemic.
Then they made the choir sign NDA’s over hymns.
Then got really control-y during online services. They made you angle your camera a specific ways, wear certain clothes, not sit so close to your spouse etc
In a prayer, said they loved the leader of the church more than anyone else.
The pandemic really helped my family and I to step back and really examine the organization we dedicated our lives to
I realized it when I was told in order for me to reach the highest level of heaven I would have to participate in "The Blood Atonement" inside of The Mormon temple and that my husband would be required to have multiple wives to reach that same heaven.
I YEETED THE F**KITY F**K OUT!
When my step bro only had to pray for forgiveness after molesting me, no other actions were taken.
Raised in a cult in ireland knows as dippers ( cooneyites)
It was absolutely crazy and my family are all members and had to disown me and shone me when i came out as gay. The other members within the family discussed it and decided it was necessary to strip me of any inheritance and any relationship with my family and other members of our religion.
When I realized I had been running two versions of "truth" in my head my whole life. One was the empirical, fact-based reality we actually live in - the other was my church's version of that reality. One day, it clicked that both can't be true and I was living a lie.
I left and had to reevaluate how I wanted to live my life, and I found my genuine life.
I was fortunate to have a spouse who was not a member of my church to support me. My family, not so much.
My mom being like “we are NOT a cult! I mean sure ex members got hitmen sent after them a couple times but that does NOT define us!” Yeahhh Also the fact that even though me and my siblings repeatedly asked what our religion was, our parents refused to tell us until we were all 16-19 because they didn’t trust us to not look it up or tell other people.
Nothing is wrong. Our Supreme leader knows all and loves us all equally. Sure, he only has sex with the cute teenage girls, but that is his right and responsibility as the one true representative of God. May his seed be strong and plentiful.
I wasn’t supposed to make friends with any other kids unless they went to our church.
I was raised in a very strict manner by Church of Christ parents in an extremely legalistic Southern Baptist church. I was extremely sheltered, allowed only one movie (maybe) and one hour of TV a week, ONLY Christian movies, books, TV shows, radio, etc. I never interacted with kids outside of the church bubble, as my parents started a Christian school so that I "wouldn't have to go to the evil public school and be brainwashed."
For me it was when my pastor and my youth pastor took me aside during a church camp and said they were worried about my salvation as I hadn't led anyone in the sinners prayer and didn't go on "visitation," which was door knocking on Sunday afternoons to talk about Jesus. Instead, I played harp as part of the instrumental group every Sunday and Wednesday and sang in the choir when I wasn't playing, which practiced during the same time as visitation.
They basically told me that since I showed most of the other fruits of the spirit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc., they thought I was Christian but since I openly boycotted visitation and hadn't borne any of the "bringing new sheep into the flock" fruit by leading anyone in the sinners prayer, I couldn't possibly be a full Christian and they wanted me to work on that. I was 15! I never interacted with non-christians and was part of the instrumental group and choir which practiced during visitation! How could I do that if everyone I knew was already Christian??
It led to some serious questions, but I couldn't really do anything until I escaped to college 3 years later.
Not in a cult per say, but was in one of those evangelical megachurches. Started as a nice corner church; the piety was genuine.
I dont think that the pastor planned the whole thing - he seemed a genuine preacher until the church grew exponentially. Like went from a few hundred members to 15,000 in less than 2 years. Then his main focus was maintaining (entertaining) the masses, which drove him to do stupid things.
Many weird things started happening. Especially, one day he "had a revelation" that the congregation needs to expand further and members have to, I am serious, give out all the GOLD they were wearing. I know a lady that got into serious trouble with her husband because she gave away her gold wedding band.
My last straw was when he promoted himself to Apostle and renamed himself "Paul". Apostle Paul. Okay.
My church made me throw away all of my first edition hard cover Harry Potter books because they were “evil”
I wasn’t even allowed to sell them, so that I wouldn’t cause others to “stumble”
I think about it probably once a week...
Raised in a very culty Church of Christ congregation. At 13 I realized how judgmental everybody was and that nothing anybody did ever seemed like enough. I began suffering from depression because I realized nothing I do will ever be enough. I tried to be perfect but it was never good enough for the church or for "God." I noticed the gossip and negative attitudes toward one another when backs were turned, but when speaking to each other everybody pretended they weren't just talking s**t about them. I noticed it was unusual that we were not allowed to hang out with anyone other than people who were in our church. Was weirded out when people from church starting arriving at my house unannounced and inviting themselves in to talk about my church attendance recently. Noticing the s**tty attitude and weird social rules of the church was eventually followed by realized none of it made logical sense, either, as I slowly became a lover of science.
When my other friends came to my church for the first time. Most of my friendships were isolated to church members until middle school.
I started going with my other christian friends to their churches which were all similar to each other. When they came to mine they were uncomfortable and they all started telling me my church was weird.
Around 13 years old a friend's mother asked me a few questions about my church and I had recently gotten the internet so I started asking questions at my church, and the questions were not welcome.
My church was an offshoot, home based, from what is known as "The Way" ministries.
Recently a coworker told me a long story about almost getting indoctrinated to a cult while he was in college. I mentioned how it sounded like "The Way" and his eyes lit up.
When I learned that, if a women was going to be raped, it would be better for her to kill herself than risk having her “blood lineage” tainted.
When I started attending a school run by my cult after years in public school and it wasn't just the rules that were different, but the social norms.
Example: only allowed to sleep 5 hours a night. Intense bullying for talking to boys after breaking up with my boyfriend. Odd forms of physical/psychological punishment when students broke rules. Being taught that masturbation is unhealthy, that getting piercings put holes in your aura (that can only be filled with diamonds lol), and that sleeping with men puts holes in a woman's arc line (which impacts her ability to bond with her infant).
Most of the things were relatively benign at the beginning. Rumours floating around over the years were always dismissed as people trying to disparage the image of our teacher, or profit financially, or they were 'crazy'. It wasn't until the beginning of last year when the truth about the abuse and corruption in the community started to surface!
When I heard myself saying, "I'm so lucky I was born into the right religion."
The lawsuit-after-lawsuit and Australian Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse and seeing one of the 'leaders' lying on camera. Made me squirm in my seat watching.
Not to mention the 'no blood transfusions' policy + shunning former members.
When I was told doing independent research on the doctrine would lead to being shunned by my friends and family. i.e. fall in line bitch. Jehovah's Witness.
I'm 41 years old and kind of had the blindfold pulled that a lot of the "evangelical" organizations I've worked with in my life have been cults.
In my teens we went to a church that told you who you could hang out with, what you could watch on TV, what movies you could see, and picked who within the church you could be friends with. 99% of the leaders told you how to run your family but had kids who were either teenage pregnancies or a baby daddy, illiterate homeschoolers, high school drop-outs or drug addicts. There were stretches where we went to church two times a day - even during the week. They encouraged people to get their kids out of school for revival meetings, home schoolers postponed their classes - it was consuming. They started arranged marriages, with several families petitioning my parents for me to marry their daughters - they almost went for it but stopped because it seemed "weird".
As I moved off to college they recommended a mega-church they got a lot of their messages and such from. This church did more of the same. They encouraged high school seniors to put off college a year and PAY THE CHURCH $3,000 for an opportunity to work there for year for an internship program that guaranteed ministry work experience. This program micro-managed your life to the hour, included intense hazing for new members that routinely sent students to the hospital and stacked them all into student housing so that you could focus more on the program.
I was raised with the belief that if I followed all the rules and was a good person, I'd feel a confirmation of everything. 7 year old me was well aware that I had yet to feel it, and that was one of the many things that led to becoming depressed at the age of 12. I kept having questions that I had no answer for other than "God works in mysterious ways." Eventually, I found a YouTube channel where the person told about how they left the religion and I realized my whole life was a lie and that I no longer had to try and believe in something that never worked for me.
My mum was a Jehovah's Witness. She raised me alone, without my father. I was just a kid (around 6-9 yo) and I was not comfortable with everything and everyone. I felt something was wrong, the way they talked, the way they smiled. When she got cancer, at the very beginning she refused some treatments, she even went to a "brother" doctor who claimed he could treat cancer with herbs. When she became very ill, they begin to "let her go" and focus on me. At that time she was at home, with my aunt and my nana with her. When my aunt and my grandma gone crazy about them and forbidden to came at home for me, they just disappeared. The sad side of the story was that she lived in the community for years, so she didn't have other friends than them. Who just dissolved, leaving her alone. She died in 1992.
To answer the question, I think the first time I realized something was wrong was when THEY realized that I realized (sorry for the game of words), the whole community start acting strange, too many attentions, too many smiles, very creepy.
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