The other day I was sitting in my therapist’s office talking (more like crying) about a current problem I have in my life: making friends. I’m 36 years old, an age at which making friends is pretty tough as most people are crazy busy with life/relationships/mortgages/procreation.
But the friend-making thing is especially hard for me given that I spent a large part of my 20s in a cult.
Searching for an analogue, I likened my dilemma to that of the character Seven of Nine from Star Trek Voyager, and luckily my therapist knew what I was talking about. Seven of Nine is a Borg—a hive-like bunch of cyborg aliens that assimilate other species and make them part of their collective. When Seven gets rescued and deprogrammed from Borg mind-control she is faced with a unique set of challenges: how to live without the voice of the collective in her brain, how to not go around trying to assimilate everyone she meets and, most difficult of all, how to make friends when you’ve spent a large part of your life being so close to people they were literally inside your head. Now obviously I’m not an alien or a cyborg, but Seven’s struggles still speak to me on an all-too-real level.
Back before I was assimilated, I thought I had friendship all figured out. In my teen years my friends helped define me, but they didn’t limit me. It was good to fit in, but I didn’t want to fit in too much, and I maintained my independence by keeping my relationships diverse and making sure I didn’t get sucked in too deep to any one group. In high school, my friendships were even more varied and I fell in and out of close relationships easily—sometimes because we just grew apart, and sometimes because crushes or sex got in the way. It was tumultuous, of course, adjusting to all those new hormonal experiences and testing out new social roles, but I still maintained a strong sense of individuality. I didn’t need my friends to tell me who I was.
All that changed when I met my future cult leaders. It seemed innocent enough in the beginning: they were just a cool couple I felt drawn to and wanted as my friends. At that time I was in my early 20s and friendships were getting a bit harder to make and maintain. I had a longing for a deeper connection than I had ever found in the past and, as the convenience of school friendships drifted away, I felt a pull to find something real and lasting. So when I met my new “friends” I was instantly smitten.
They talked a big game: they had their own interesting views on science and spirituality, they were curious and charismatic, and most of all, they seemed absolutely in command of themselves—an appealing trait for someone like me who was still looking for my place in the world. I admired the way they could draw connections between very different religious practices, and present them all as one compelling worldview.
On top of all that, best (or worst) of all, they adored me. In cult terminology, they love-bombed me—showered me with over-the-top affection and attention that led to a super-quick and seemingly meaningful connection. They told me they had never met anyone like me, and they helped me choose a new name and identity. They seduced me with their special rituals, meaningful adventures and games they invented for us to get to know each other. And, although all the rituals and games would soon turn into perverse manipulations, those early days seemed magical.
In the words of the Borg: resistance was futile.
My love for my cult leaders was so immediate and intense that I quickly began to adjust my definition of friendship. These amazing people wanted, and later demanded, to know every last thing about me, from what I ate for breakfast to recounting my private conversations in detail to sharing my secret kinks. They wanted to spend all their time with me, be completely loyal to me and, wait for it, they wanted to reveal all my faults to me so that I could become a better person. It started with a multimedia presentation, a PowerPoint (yup, a PowerPoint) they meticulously crafted to detail the ways I was a failure, an awful person, and needed to correct course. They were doing it for my benefit though! I was so honoured! They cared so much about me that they just wanted to make me better—the best I could be. And that’s what friends are for, right?
After that, there was an erosion of my previous life. I was made to believe my old friends and my family were evil and didn’t want the best for me, and I was coerced into alienating them. I was drawn deeper into the spirituality my cult leaders were inventing. I was torn apart and built back up in their image, tormented by their constant attacks on my character and continuously scrambling to change so I could please them. I was subjected to rules about all aspects of my life (who I could fuck, what I should eat, and so on) that demanded my absolute compliance. I was even made to do “penance” when I was bad: often complicated rituals that were meant both to punish me and teach me how to be better in the future.
Unlike my teenage self, who was strong and unique, I became part of a collective, living my life entirely for my leaders and subject to all of their commands. And, like Seven of Nine from Star Trek, I was never alone. I was never without the voices of my small collective in my head, telling me how to be. They guided (aka manipulated) me, held me up (aka tore me down) and defined my life in a way that was both horrible and yet somehow horribly fulfilling. I never wanted to be without them, and any suggestion of leaving them, or the ever-present threat of them leaving me, would cause me such anguish that I felt I might die if I couldn’t have them around me. And so my new, twisted idea of friendship was born.
When I finally escaped around seven years later (a fitting number), I found myself broken and almost completely alone. By then I had fully alienated my friends and family and all I had left was my husband, who I had sucked into the cult for the last two and a half years before we managed to get out of it together. I was relieved to be free—it was liberating, yet terrifying. Without the voices of my cult leaders, my collective, in my head, how was I going to manage? Who was I going to be? Without the constant intrusive connection, the ever-present intensity and criticism, how was I supposed to understand what friendship looked like?
To me, real friendship was now a distorted thing. A mindfuck of epic proportions. So what did I do? I didn’t make friends. Not for a very long time. Whenever I felt an inkling of a connection with someone, I wanted to latch on and demand the extreme loyalty and the never-ending togetherness I had lived with in the cult. I expected friendship to look like a loss of individuality, a merging of myself with the other.
Only now, another seven years later (there’s that number again!) am I starting to really consider a new definition. I’m beginning to loosen my parameters on what a friendship should look like. I consider it growth that the last time I wanted someone’s number, I waited to see if a more natural connection would form instead of cornering them at a party, asking them to reveal their deepest darkest secrets to me, and then texting them fifteen times once we had been apart for five minutes. I guess that’s progress, but I can’t deny that the urges—and the underlying emptiness—are still there. And that leads me back to my therapist: crying on her couch, pulling Kleenex after Kleenex out of the box and trying to explain, through Borg Seven of Nine, how it feels to have to re-define friendship free from the ritualized insanity and mind-bending influence of the cult; free from the voices in my head that had controlled me for so long.
“I don’t know how to be a real friend,” I told my therapist as I blew my snotty nose, embarrassed at my tears and the seemingly stupid simplicity of my predicament.
And, as I sat there sobbing, my therapist looked at me for a moment and considered her next words. Then she said, bless her heart, “Why don’t we see how Seven of Nine makes friends, and then we can go from there.”
Star Spider is a novelist based in Toronto. Her first book, Past Tense, was published by HarperCollins Canada. Follow her on Twitter.