A is for Abuse (Part 1)

So here I go, attempting to make another start at spiritual blogging with my participation in the Pagan Blog Project. Every Friday, I’ll be posting something about my practice or experiences I’ve had on my spiritual journey. This post is late in coming, and I eventually decided to split it up into two parts, because I’ve got a lot to say on the subject… Part 2 will be up on Friday, on schedule.

If you type “spiritual abuse” into Google, what you’ll find is a dazzling variety of sites devoted to abuse in a Christian context, but Christianity doesn’t have the market cornered when it comes to using spirituality as a vehicle for abuse. Having spent a few years trying to get away from an especially toxic would-be cult-leader, I think more needs to be said about the ways abuse can manifest in Paganism.

First off, some required reading: this excellent post by Melitta Benu. Also, for those who deal with people who are (or claim to be) horsing spirits, this excerpt from Raven Kaldera’s Wightridden is also useful for discerning whether a possession is genuine.

Unfortunately, when you’re in an abusive situation, it’s hard not to go, “Yes, but…”

“Yes, the group I’m involved with meets all the criteria for cultlike behavior, but there are extenuating circumstances!”

“Yes, this possession seems somewhat dubious, but this person was undoubtedly genuinely possessed before, so I should just give them the benefit of the doubt.”

“Yes, this person is awfully controlling, but they were abused as a child, and I should be understanding of how they need to run their household.”

“Yes, people have actually gone so far as to call the group I’m working with a cult, but their criticisms are so full of  judgmental bullshit and ridicule for our ‘weird’ beliefs that it’s hard to take the other accusations seriously.”

And sometimes even well-meaning advice hurts. More than once, I’ve heard that the evil, manipulative people who set up cultlike groups don’t have any real power. After all, if they had actual magical abilities, why would they manipulate others? You know, because power and enlightenment are totally the same thing, and mentally ill people aren’t ever magically gifted… But as ridiculous as that line of reasoning is, it’s part of what kept me in an abusive situation with a woman who had undeniable magical abilities, and who had, on occasion, managed to channel the goddess I was working with. The fact that she then used a poor copy of my goddess’s energy to fake later possessions was something I only realized later, because she didn’t try faking it until she had me so thoroughly turned around that I was doubting everything I felt and perceived.

It is much easier, magically speaking, to mess with people’s heads than it is to mess with probability to get the lucky lotto numbers. This is why we tend to have more stories of love spells gone wrong (*raises hand guiltily*) than money spells gone wrong. It is easier to attract people who have the things you want than it is to attract those things independent of other people. This doesn’t mean it’s easy to get a millionaire in your pocket (I roll my eyes at people who insist they can’t be cult leaders because of their lack of gold-plated limos, because that’s exactly the logic my abuser used while living off her roommates’ funds and getting nearly every shiny thing she had her eye on), but even a small group of frequently-broke people can still be exploited.

Unfortunately, that “Yes, but…” is really seductive. Abusive people have plenty of good-sounding reasons for why they’re acting the way they do, and they frequently believe them, themselves. Furthermore, it’s really easy to get caught up in the cycle of acting as if these things are normal — members of a group that turns abusive can easily find themselves abusing other group members in turn, because it’s easier to join in the abuse than be the target again. (Been there, done that, still ashamed.)

And things get even fuzzier when you’re not dealing with a proper religious group at all. “But we’re just a group of friends” was one of the frequent excuses in my case… never mind that, despite not being any kind of a formal magical group, new people were lured in with stories of how magically vital they were to the group, how we’d all had past lives together, how they were needed, how much better their lives would be if they’d just move closer… oh, they don’t have an apartment yet? They can stay with everyone else, no problem… And then a few months later, they’re being encouraged to lie to their families to get money for Important Magical Items, or being cast as the villain in the Drama of the Week with no idea of how to get out.

Listen: sometimes, people are mentally ill in ways that hurt you, and you’re not obligated to stay with them. Just because their illness isn’t their fault, it doesn’t mean you should engage with them when doing so is damaging to you. And sometimes they may be wonderful and helpful, while other times, every interaction is toxic. When someone is being toxic, sticking by them without complaint will not help either of you; just because a person is your friend, your lover, your roommate, your covenmate, or someone you’ve shared umpty-bazillion past lives with, it is still not your job to fix them. It is their job to seek help from someone outside their intimate circle. If they try to convince you otherwise, they’re manipulating you, consciously or not, and you need to get the fuck away from them.

So here’s the thing: if you’ve read the resources linked, you already have some helpful guidelines for whether someone is faking a possession, or setting up an unhealthy group dynamic. But here are some things you really, REALLY need to keep in mind when the “yes, but…” feeling starts creeping up on you:

  • If you’re scared of upsetting someone all the time, whether or not they’ve had valid spiritual advice for you in the past, you’re in a bad situation and you need to get out.
  • If they make you afraid that you’re going to offend your patron deity/your pantheon/every god EVER with every decision you make, you need to seek a second opinion from someone who isn’t close to the person who’s giving you dire warnings. Preferably, this person should be someone who is not a friend of yours, and is a devotee of whichever Powers you’re afraid you’ve offended. Yes, it’s possible to fuck up pretty badly and offend the gods. (I’ve done it, and I’m still paying off some of those debts.) But claiming you’ve offended Someone can also be a means of control. If every “friendly visit” or “important talk” turns into hours of someone claiming to be your patron deity and screaming at you? You’re in a bad situation and you need to get out.
  • If you’re being pressured into re-enacting past life relationships in the here and now, you are probably in a bad situation and need to get out. The key word here is “pressured”. Sometimes consensually exploring an old dynamic can help you get a better handle on how you relate to each other in this lifetime, but glorifying the past at the expense of the present isn’t likely to help either/any of you and, again, can be used as an underhanded means of control.
  • If someone claims to know your feelings better than you do yourself, and constantly accuses you of lying when you try to express yourself, you are in a bad situation and you need to get out. Even if you realize later that they were correct about your motivations, you still need to get out. Using insight as a weapon is Not Okay, and it’s easy for that “insight” to become manipulation once you’re used to accepting someone else’s judgments about how you “really” feel.
  • If you’re promised training that never materializes, but people still insist you’re somehow magically necessary, you’re in a dubious situation, and you should take a long hard look at just what it is they need you for.
  • If you are being encouraged to lie to friends and family members, especially for the purposes of making them give you money for whatever the group leader needs most? Again: bad situation. Get out. (Note: If you’re a closeted Pagan, in some circumstances people may encourage you to lie about where you are and what you believe out of concern for your safety. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about things like, “Just tell your dad you’re going back to school, and you need some money to make ends meet,” with the money in question actually being spent on shiny trinkets Important Magical Items, or worse, drugs and alcohol.)
  • If the person who is acting as your spirit worker/shaman/priest(ess) starts passing along messages from gods/spirits/whatever that imply you need a closer relationship with them (becoming their lover, moving into their house, etc.), and discourages you from seeking a second opinion, you’re in a really bad situation, and you need to run the fuck away right now. I’m not kidding.

Yes, you could really be Doing It Wrong. Maybe you’re a metaphysical menace. Maybe the gods really do want you to be closer to that person, or to contribute funds toward that Shiny Magical Thing. And perhaps you really did offend members of five different pantheons. And especially if the person telling you these things is someone who knows their shit, metaphysically speaking, that bit of doubt can be enough to keep you in a bad situation.

But this is what you have to remember: even if you’ve done something wrong, staying in a situation where you constantly feel scared and harassed isn’t going to help you make amends. In my experience, the gods and spirits are more interested in getting you to fix your mistakes than They are in beating you over the head with them, and keeping you perpetually guilty and miserable is counterproductive. Furthermore, They’re not restricted to just one means of making Their will known. If you’ve angered Someone, you’ll have ample opportunities to witness Their displeasure, and not just because one person yelled at you a lot.

I’ve never known the gods to get hung up on one messenger: that’s a human thing. They’ll use any available means to get Their message across. This means that yes, sometimes the scary abusive person will give you a genuine message if they happen to have the wiring for it… but if you get away from the scary abusive person, the messages will keep coming until you take the hint. And no message is worth dealing with someone who makes you feel scared and miserable on a near-constant basis.

Up next: Abuse Part 2, in which I talk about getting away, identifying lingering damage, and taking the first steps toward recovery.