A nightmare life left by a cult's dream of love

In this disturbing account, a student once hooked on the idea of saving souls describes the daily agonies she now goes through trying to `rebuild her identity.'

Asahi Shimbun/December 4, 2000

"Something is coming at me with extreme force. Is it a person? A thing? I can't tell. I run for dear life and, at the very last moment, I wake up in a cold sweat."

A college student, who wishes to remain anonymous, is describing a recurring nightmare she has had since leaving a new religious cult. "In the dream, a cult member comes to take me back, urging me to go home with her," says the young woman. "I feel suffocated and sick to the stomach just thinking about having to turn down her request."

The nightmares haunt her night after night so that, as she says, "When I wake up in the morning, I am so exhausted that the thought of going through another day is just overwhelming."

This woman had been in the cult for almost eight months before she left it more than three months ago. But despite that passage of time, she is still plagued by anxiety.

As an active cult member, she was instructed to recruit a certain number of followers every day. From the moment she awoke, the only thing she thought about for the rest of the day was meeting her quota.

Whenever she succeeded, the young acolyte was convinced she had saved those people's souls, and that gave her the incentive to go on. She felt that her life-and indeed staying alive-had meaning. Once she left the cult, that sense of meaning was lost as well.

At college, she used to be known for her friendly, positive personality. Her friends did not criticize her for becoming a cult follower. If anything, they reproached themselves for not having listened to her talk about personal problems in the past, and they then went out of their way to elicit her confidences.

Despite such kind gestures, her friends' comments made the woman feel like an object of charity. She says: "My friends who have been living normal lives always seem so happy. Watching them only makes me feel worse about myself."

Nowadays, when the ex-cultist sees young girls hanging out anywhere in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district, she recalls the words she heard from many cult members: "What makes them act so frivolously?"

She still feels hesitant about doing things that the cult declared taboo, such as watching a horror movie or having any contact with men. Sometimes friends who are still believers call her up at night, crying and begging her to return-imploring her not to "turn your back on God."

Sometimes, though, the woman may be on a train when she feels an impulse to tell total strangers how terrible the cult is. But, once she starts talking about it, she feels guilty and finds herself asking God's forgiveness. "Am I still brainwashed?" she often wonders.

In fact, the more desperately the woman who turned on the cult now tries to rediscover her old self, the more confused she gets about who that self really is. However, at the suggestion of a close friend she has begun seeing a counselor. Those sessions help her sort out her thoughts and, as the weeks go by, fresh perceptions are dawning on her.

"Before I joined the cult, I was a much happier person," she recalled having realized during one recent session. "But all the news coverage surrounding Aum Shinrikyo and other groups made me curious about what attracted people to such sects in the first place.

"So when cult members recruited me at a cafe and encouraged me to join in their activities, saying that I had what it takes to work for the sake of others, I went along with it."

Recently, the woman has been introduced to other former cult members and their families. Pooling their emotions has helped her realize she is not alone in her struggle.

In the light of all her experience, though, what she has now concluded is: "To explore the meaning of life may take up more than 10 years of your life. But I've come to realize there is some kind of meaning. I can't ever go back to being who I was before, but I do want to rebuilt my own sense of identity."

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