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The Cultic Family, Part II

Continued from Part I  *Note: This article is sensitive in nature and potentially controversial. Please pray before contemplating the material I've provided because it could be triggering, offensive, or even painful to read. Please note that I am not a health professional. The following resource is not a substitute for medical or psychological advice; please use discernment while reading and following any links.

A n authoritarian, performance-based family who trains through coercion ~ such as withholding love, affection, acceptance, or approval to manipulate behavior ~ creates an environment that can't help but keep household members at a heightened state of stress. A demanding or fear-based atmosphere requires constant adrenaline for survival mode, keeping one  perpetually "on edge" through fight-or-flight syndrome. For some, the effects of chronic stress remain dormant for years and flare up without warning. When compounded over a lifetime with little to no relief, this overworks the adrenal glands, rendering adults exhausted without any logical reason why.

Adrenal Fatigue and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
(Source) The psychiatric definition of "trauma" is "an event outside normal human experience." Trauma generally leaves you feeling powerless, helpless, paralyzed. It tends to be sudden and overwhelming; it "owns" you. You cannot think clearly during and after a severe trauma; at the same time, you are forced to focus your consciousness in an attempt to deal. Some instances of prolonged trauma:
  • physical or sexual abuse as a child or spouse
  • war
  • life in a prison camp
  • life as a refugee
  • hostage situations
  • life in a concentration camp
  • life in some religious cults 
Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress
 1. A history of subjection to totalitarian control over a prolonged period (months to years). Examples include hostages, prisoners of war, concentration-camp survivors, and survivors of some religious cults. Examples also include those subjected to totalitarian systems in sexual and domestic life, including survivors of domestic battering, childhood physical or sexual abuse, and organized sexual exploitation.
       2. Alterations in affect regulation, including:
              * persistent dysphoria
              * chronic suicidal preoccupation
              * self-injury
              * explosive or extremely inhibited anger (may alternate)
              * compulsive or extremely inhibited sexuality (may alternate)
       3. Alterations in consciousness, including:
              * amnesia or hypermnesia for traumatic events
              * transient dissociative episodes
              * depersonalization/derealization
              * reliving experiences, either in the form of intrusive post-traumatic stress disorder        symptoms or in the form of ruminative preoccupation
       4. Alterations in self-perception, including:
              * sense of helplessness or paralysis of initiative
              * shame, guilt, and self-blame
              * sense of defilement or stigma
              * sense of complete difference from others (may include sense of specialness, utter aloneness, belief no other person can understand, or nonhuman identity)
       5. Alterations in perception of perpetrator, including:
              * preoccupation with relationship with perpetrator (includes preoccupation with revenge)
              * unrealistic attribution of total power to perpetrator (caution: victim's assessment of power realities may be more realistic than clinician's)
              * idealization or paradoxical gratitude
              * sense of special or supernatural relationship
              * acceptance of belief system or rationalizations of perpetrator
       6. Alterations in relations with others, including:
              * isolation and withdrawal
              * disruption in intimate relationships
              * repeated search for rescuer (may alternate with isolation and withdrawal)
              * persistent distrust
              * repeated failures of self-protection
       7. Alterations in systems of meaning:
              * loss of sustaining faith
              * sense of hopelessness and despair
The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders states that: 
In chronic stress, the organ systems of the body do not have the opportunity to return fully to normal levels. Different organs become under- or overactivated on a long-term basis. In time, these abnormal levels of activity can damage an organ or organ system. 
Many Second Generation Adults report physiological symptoms that, at the very least, are confusing, and in other ways, absolutely debilitating. Conditions might appear when there is no previous family medical history. This is an area that medicine would be wise to study; currently, while these findings are gathered from  generally non-scientific sources, with what we know about stress and its effects on  the body, the correlations are staggering. SGAs have reported chronic, persistent:

  • Problems with motivation, self-care, or a sense of futility
  • Repetitive or compulsive behaviors associated with anxiety
  • Any behaviors that cause harm to the body, thinking about wanting to die, or suicide attempts 
  • Allergies and asthma
  • Immune system problems (fevers, frequent infections, lymph node enlargement, chronic sore throat)
  • Tightness, heaviness, or pain in the throat or chest
  • Heart rate irregularities
  • Chemical or food sensitivities
  • Skin inflammation (both intermittent and chronic)
  • Hormonal problems including thyroid disorders and adrenal fatigue
  • Reproductive problems including Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome 
  • Issues with weight or appetite (high or low)
  • Digestion problems, ulcers, stomach pain, or nausea
  • Lower bowel pain, diarrhea, or irritable bowel
  • Headaches, migraines or sensitivity to light and sound
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or problems with balance
  • Fatigue, lack of muscle strength, or muscle pain
  • Neck or back stiffness or pain
  • Joint stiffness or pain
  • Sleep disturbances
The purpose of sharing this list is not to diagnose or suggest that an authoritarian environment always causes these disorders. Awareness, however, is important, especially if you or someone you know struggles with something that has no rational explanation, and where treatment has been ineffective. Please consider these symptoms that are shared in overwhelming proportions by others from this lifestyle, and seek wisdom from God. He will guide you as you seek healing and truth about your body, about your past.

Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part
You will make me to know wisdom. Psalm 51:6

When Jesus said, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" He described the experience of someone on the truly narrow way. This doesn't mean that we won't have the practical daily work of life, of relationships, of fighting against sin, and of healing. But  our Leader is gentle and lowly in heart. What a contrast to authoritarians, who trouble souls and lay heavy burdens and impossible yokes on our backs. While it may be stressful to correlate such conditions with the context of  a beloved family, remember that facing truth is the first step towards healing. Facing truth does not betray or suggest lack of honor or love; rather, it acknowledges a willingness to let God enter hidden, painful places. Walking with God through the symptoms you experience as an adult might lead  to dark and ugly roots ~ but the Healer's light paves the way for healing and for life.

In Part 3, we will look at cultic criteria in light of Christianity.

© 2010 Hillary McFarland
Partially adapted from Quivering Daughters ~ Hope and Healing for the Daughters of Patriarchy, available summer 2010. 
For further reading:
Born or Raised in High-Demand Groups: Developmental Considerations, Leona Furnari, L.C.S.W.
Strengths & Challenges of People Born or Raised in a Cult


  1. Wow. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Hillary,

    Again, many thanks for all your hard work pulling this info into an easy to understand (but oh so hard to read--emotionally) format. Every time I start to dismiss in my own mind the reality of my family ("Oh, it wasn't so bad, look how all the example stories are so much worse than I had it") and thereby dismiss my own ongoing issues, you post one of these numbered or bulleted lists to remind me that quantity doesn't negate quality. Maybe my family "wasn't so bad" but obviously from the effects it caused in me, it was still bad.

    Thank you for continuing to post these kinds of lists over and over. We who have BTDT may not need constant reminders of our "victimhood", but we do need reminders to step out of De Nile.

    I especially like the Further Reading links. Just in case I don't see myself clearly enough in your own post, I always find me in the linked material.

  3. Sandra, denial is exactly right. When we truly love someone it is brutally hard to consider any toxic effects. It's hard, but as "love...rejoices in the truth" understanding where we come from ~ both the good and the bad ~ helps us to truly love. And to grow strong and learn to comfort others with the comfort we've received.


    Quick note ~ regarding authoritarian environments, it's important to remember that the size and scope is not limited. It could be a relationship of two.

  4. Amen! Amen! & Amen! Thanks Hillary for making it easier to deal with and helping me to understand where this stuff comes from.

  5. Thanks so much for posting this, Hillary! I just sent the link to my husband. :)

    ps Thanks for your prayers and kind words. I need them. They help.

  6. You wrote: While it may be stressful to correlate such conditions with the context of a beloved family, remember that facing truth is the first step towards healing. Facing truth does not betray or suggest lack of honor or love; rather, it acknowledges a willingness to let God enter hidden, painful places. Walking with God through the symptoms you experience as an adult might lead to dark and ugly roots ~ but the Healer's light paves the way for healing and for life.

    Beautifully written!


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