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I’ve Been In Five Cults. It Was Three Too Many

by A.J. Burkhart

I joined multiple cults to cope with poor mental health. Here’s how I got hooked in, how I eventually got out, and what I learned along the way.

I’ve been in five cults. It was three too many. My first cult was in Spain, and it left me itching for more. I helped start the second cult while I was in college. Next was an abusive relationship cult-of-two, a dangerously restrictive vegan cult, and finally—a culty meditation retreat.

The late UC Berkeley psychology professor Dr. Margaret Singer offers my favorite cult definition in her groundbreaking 1995 book, Cults in Our Midst. Her criteria includes: controlling a person’s social and physical environment; creating a sense of powerlessness; establishing a closed system that permits no feedback except by leadership; and manipulation, rewards, punishments, and experiences that promote ideology and inhibit individual social identity. All five of the groups I joined not only had a culty je ne sais quoi, they also instituted most of these conditions.

I spent the summer of 2015, after I graduated high school, at a clinic for eating disorders, where I became more anxious and depressed than ever. When I got out, I craved a quick mental health fix, adventure, and independence. My plan was to explore farms and communes in Europe, but my parents worried about my safety. We compromised on a nannying gig in Spain, but within months, the kids’ dad hit on me, so I quit.

Shaken up and furious, I pivoted to my original plan, Googled “communes in Spain,” and found Amito (not its real name), an anarcho-inspired community nestled between two mountains. Located on public land, most of Amito’s 200 residents were illegal occupants who camped in tents or in mud and straw, wood, or leather huts. Most were poor Europeans who valued independence from government scrutiny. Instead of central leadership, the Amito community gathered around a centralized drum circle and kitchen and worked collectively on community projects.

On my first day at Amito, I attended a group walk with Nihi, a Romani man with smiling eyes and an upside-down cross tattooed on his skinny chest. When we arrived at an overlook, he tugged an orange out of his sack, peeled it, and passed it around. Everyone grabbed slices and Nihi munched on the last bit contentedly. Sharing food was deeply uncomfortable for me. Money was tight and I was used to hoarding food. But sharing eventually became one of the best aspects of this cult for me. Potlucks were common and no one went hungry. With time and consistent generosity from the group, I learned to give without feeling panicked because the community looked out for everyone.

Amito opened my mind to different, perhaps better, ways that the world could exist, but there were also some major drawbacks, like “Red Hawk,” a man who wore brown flowy clothes, had two teeth, and claimed he could transform water to heal any wound. The women in Amito revered him, like he was a god or a senator or that cool upperclassman who hung around my sophomore class. Once, a young French woman approached Red Hawk to heal her sore hips. He placed his palms above her knees and they breathed deeply together. When his fingers crawled up her thighs, she told him, “Don’t!” But Red Hawk left his hands there for a few more minutes.

Finally, exhausted from the strenuous healing work, he rested his face between
her boobs. She patted his head like he was a toddler and said she felt much better. Overall, though, Amito was a positive cult experience. It didn’t make me grow dependent on anyone; instead, it taught me how to turn inward, notice my feelings, and form a new friendship with myself. I literally meditated on mountaintops and felt more connected to the world.

I experienced self-love and healing, but there was a catch. That feeling was only sustainable at Amito. During my second month, I left the group because I got so sick that I nearly fainted on a goat trail. The small-town Spanish doctor, who wasn’t fond of “the hippies,” told me to go home. That’s when my mental health tanked again and I started searching for my next big thing.

Helloooo cult number two.

In 2017, I was a sophomore at a small Southern California college where I joined a student-run meditation group. At one meeting, the club leader brought his guru. Dressed in an orange head wrap and robes, hoop earrings and gauges, and carrying a wooden staff, he introduced himself as “Satsang Guru Jnanda the Healer, but I don’t like labels, so just call me Satsang Guru Jnanda.”

He explained that the Buddha was 100% love-light energy, and that he was nowhere near that level. His love-light energy was “only 98%.” Jnanda was a white guy from Florida and I thought he was ridiculous, but I also hoped he could save me from depression and loneliness.

One evening, I was invited to attend Jnanda’s private initiation ceremony along with three other students, including my partner, Nicholas (not his real name). To become his disciple, Jnanda had to plant his seed in you; spiritual seeds, not literal seeds, though the rumor was that blatant sexual advances would probably start later. Nicholas sat in a chair facing Jnanda. The guru waved his arms over Nicholas’s head while the rest of us kneeled around them, chanting in a language I didn’t recognize– perhaps Sanskrit. I was instructed to stroke Jnanda’s wooden staff and I rubbed that thing raw. Then it was my turn in the chair, and when Jnanda waved his arms over me, it felt like three seeds were actually sprouting and growing from my sternum.

“To become his disciple, Jnanda had to plant his seed in
you; spiritual seeds, not literal seeds, though the rumor was that blatant sexual advances would probably start later.”

Despite the metaphysical experience, I knew early on that his cult wasn’t for me. Even though his followers formed a tight-knit community, which was a plus, Jnanda wanted to be treated like a god and he wouldn’t tolerate being questioned or challenged, even though plenty of his beliefs were harmful. For instance, even though many of his followers were queer, he said that “the Divine One” had told him homosexuality was unnatural. So, instead of Jnanda, I ended up following a different domineering white guy—my partner. In retrospect, I should’ve stuck with Jnanda’s group, because a two-person cult is much lonelier.

When I first met Nicholas in 2016, I thought he was mysterious and smart, so sure of his knowledge (red flag), and it seemed like he knew something I didn’t (big-time red flag). The following year we started dating, bonding over the fact that we were both goofy and made each other laugh. But anytime a miscommunication hurt his feelings, criticisms started flying and things escalated quickly.

I struggled with depression, and Nicholas told me that without him, my mental health would get worse. I believed him, and our relationship grew increasingly isolated and controlling. He disapproved of my sexuality and gender. He said that since I was assigned female at birth (AFAB), “choosing” to be nonbinary was a betrayal to women. I switched from they/she pronouns to she/her pronouns and told myself I was a cis woman.

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I had been vegan-ish when I met Nicholas, but he was vegan with a capital “V.” His parents ran a raw vegan health clinic down South and he’d grown up that way. In college, he also limited cane sugar, gluten, and high-sugar fruits. When we got together, I adopted his strict diet, and it made me feel safer and in control. We struggled with health issues, though, so in the summer of 2018, we stayed at his parents’ health clinic—aka cult number four.

Nicholas’ dad called the shots at his clinic. He was charming and confident, but much of his clinical advice was blatantly wrong. He said that humans barely needed to eat and that it was fine if I stopped having periods because “ancient people” didn’t menstruate monthly. His logic couldn’t be questioned because, as he said, “the medical industrial complex hides facts from the public.” Our raw food diet exacerbated my eating disorders, and I became focused on controlling my food.

My calorie restriction caused dizzy spells and weakness and my stomach problems grew painful. Daily activities were hard to complete, and my mental health plummeted. I cried a lot and spent much of my time numb and dissociated. Nicholas’s dad said that mental health struggles, stomach problems, and self-esteem issues could all be fixed with sprouts and wheatgrass juice, and I wanted to believe him.

As I grew increasingly dependent on him and his family, Nicholas became more resentful. The less I ate, the weaker I got. He would walk ahead of me so quickly that I wheezed when I tried to catch up. I felt like a nuisance and was deeply insecure, and I was hungry and hurting but desperately afraid to veer from our restrictive diet because, I was told, other foods were the source of depression, fatigue, and diseases.

After nearly a year together, Nicholas decided to transfer to a school in Northern Europe while I returned to college in California, so we tried a long-distance relationship. I isolated myself and Skyped with him for hours every day and if I tried to cancel to spend time with friends, he said I wasn’t dedicated enough to our relationship and threatened to end things. My sense of self was entirely lost, so I decided to follow Nicholas to a drafty cabin in the Swedish woods.

That’s where I attended a 10-day meditation retreat to practice a style known as “Vipassana” for the same reasons I’d joined the other groups: to stop feeling depressed and to gain a sense of control. Practicing Vipassana isn’t a cult for most people, but for me, it was cult number five.

Not to brag, but I was the star student at that retreat. I was great at the part where we didn’t eat very much. I kept my crisscrossed body extremely still during hours-long meditations because I wanted to be perfect. When mosquitoes trailed tacky legs across my skin, I didn’t move, even when I felt their sharp bites.

By the end of that retreat, I sensed a quiet feeling just below my bellybutton that told me my relationship with Nicholas was detrimental. The feeling gave me the strength to question things, but I was still unsure—I couldn’t imagine my life without him.

Finally, in the summer of 2019, we flew to my hometown and Nicholas stayed with his sister while I gathered my courage at my parents’ place. We spent a day together walking and shopping for expensive vegan food, and then I told him that I needed to end things.

I said it was hard for me to explain why, but it bothered me that when I had an opinion that didn’t suit him, he questioned me until I felt confused and broken-down. He said that maybe his perspective was just more nuanced than mine, but then offered to see a therapist—even though in the past, he’d said people shouldn’t need therapists. Then he looked at me and said, “It’s too late, isn’t it?” We cried, he said he would always love me, and he left.

It’s now been three years since I left cults for good. I’d joined them all in attempts to ease my loneliness and poor mental health, but left knowing I had to do that by taking care of myself. After my breakup with Nicholas, I found queer-friendly specialists who treated eating disorders, believed in health-at-every-size, and could address my attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. To re-engage with my body and sense of self, I created art every day for a year. I drew out my feelings and my body, and slowly, I grew to understand myself more.

Jnanda’s spiritual seeds are still inside me— gross, yes, but important to who I am. In fact, the lessons I learned from all five cults were integral to my development. I learned to set boundaries, disengage from unhealthy relationships, and to develop connections that help me understand, accept, and express myself. Community still matters to me. But ultimately, I’ve learned to trust myself more than anyone else—especially more than anyone who claims to have all the answers.

Illustrations by Long Yan

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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