I don’t think I’m alone in having consumed more documentaries on cults between the years of 2020 and 2022 than I had ever before in my entire life. There were many great documentaries, but the one that sticks out in my mind even today is The Vow: A NXIVM Story.

Every time I watch a scene in that or any other documentary about cults in which people are reunited for the first time outside the cult, every muscle in my body feels the reunion that is happening on the screen.

Every year or so I will receive a message from a former colleague informing me with a palpable sense of relief that they “got out” (and that I was so lucky to have gotten out when I did).

These are some of the most emotionally draining conversations that I have as an adult, and I’m certain that I will continue to have them for many years to come as more and more people leave.

I was 20 when I was first recruited by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). I don’t like to talk much about this time in my life. In fact, the only time that I will really talk about this time in my life is when I get those messages every other year from people who have just gotten out.

Most people naturally assume that this is down to “the things I saw” when I was sent out on missions in active conflict zones.

For the most part, I’m happy to let them assume this, because the trauma and the shame of having willingly stayed inside a cult for so long is just so difficult to talk about.

Even now, I feel the churning in the pit of my stomach as I write this, as I consider what I am capable of writing, of sharing with people who haven’t experienced life inside this or any other cult.

Can I speak about the rampant culture of bullying and hazing that I endured during the first three months of my first assignment? The premeditated course of extreme social isolation that dictated where, when and what I was “permitted” to eat? Whose presence I was “permitted” to be in?

Can I speak about the physical tolls that the stress of life within the cult took on my body? The horror of looking in the mirror to find half of my face paralyzed?

Can I speak about the experience of being repeatedly cornered, threatened, menaced and ostracized over 3 years for having made the “mistake” in one of my first days on a mission of asking about a rumor concerning a colleague recently being attacked and severely injured in retaliation for allegedly sexually abusing minors?

As it turns out, I guess I’m still not capable of speaking about my experiences at length or in any meaningful detail except with others who have gotten out. Not with my spouse. Not with my therapist. Not with my family. Only with others who managed to get out; we know that it’s a cult, our bodies know that it’s a cult.

If you have gotten out: Please reach out to someone. It doesn’t matter if it was yesterday or years ago. There is a loosely disorganized web of us. You don’t have to explain the context to us. You don’t have to justify anything to us. We get it. We were there. Maybe not on the same mission, maybe not in the same delegation, sub-delegation or office, but we were there. You are not alone.

If you are still inside and know you need to get out: You can do it. I believe in you. Everybody who has ever gotten out believes in you. Please reach out; there is a good chance that somebody in the loosely disorganized web will be able to help you. You are not alone.

If you are young and are being scouted: I know that it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, and the prospect of doing “meaningful humanitarian work” seems so alluring, but it’s just not worth it. It’s not a coincidence that a former colleague who would scout at universities would jokingly refer to themselves as “the child catcher”.