I Visited A Cult

Oh, yes, I did.

I visited the international training center of a cult, and on the surface, everything looked great.

But I’m going to try to refer to it as a “community” instead of a “cult.” I won’t say which “community” it was, but my 21-year-old nephew came into town with a friend over the weekend, and on Friday night, he announced to me that they wanted to visit a cult (he used the word “cult”) on Saturday…and he wanted me to go with them. I had questions, of course. “You don’t want to join the cult, right?” “Why do you want to go?” “How far away is it?” “Is it scary?”

He showed me the group’s website. It looked pretty benign, And it said they welcome visitors, so I agreed to go, and we made plans to leave the next day. I should mention my husband thinks we are all nuts.

Early Saturday afternoon, we got into the SUV and drove over an hour to the address listed on the website. We were excited to see what we would find! Upon arrival, we drove into the parking lot at the front of the group of houses and got out. We walked around looking for people, but all we saw were sheep out front eating hay. One of the sheep had a penchant for magnolia leaves, so we watched them for a while and discussed what we should do.

Ultimately, we decided to go to another road and approach from the back. When we drove into a back parking lot, we saw a woman stick her head around a fence. I asked my nephew’s friend to put down her passenger-side window, and in my best sweet southern voice, I said, “Hey! We read on your website that y’all welcome visitors! We’re just curious and would like to find out what y’all are all about!” Once she decided we were friendly, she offered to show us around. She explained we weren’t seeing many people because Saturday is the Sabbath, and most people were resting.

We followed her into the dining hall/meeting room, which was lovely…clean and nicely decorated. We ran into a couple more friendly people inside who readily introduced themselves. From there, she showed us the barn area, where they had goats and cows. And after that, we walked over to one of the community’s houses, where members of the “community” had gathered outside for music. We were offered tea, and we all took a cup. I thought it was delicious, and my nephew did too, but I noticed his friend was holding hers…not drinking it. I knew she was thinking about Jonestown, so I took the tea off her hands and drank it myself.

We were welcomed with open arms by everyone gathered outside, and we asked any questions we could think of. Are people free to come and go as they please? Yes. If someone leaves the community, are they shunned? No. Do y’all drink alcohol? No. What are your beliefs? How do you support yourselves? I wanted my nephew to ask if they used cannabis, but none of us had the nerve to ask that. I thought I smelled it wafting out of a house at one point, but I couldn’t be sure. And this group believes everyone should work together for the greater good of the community. Every person contributes by working…like bees in a hive. Children are educated onsite. We weren’t bashful…we asked questions. We didn’t ask in a threatening way…we asked in a curious way, which is exactly what we were…curious.

We left after a couple of hours thinking, “This isn’t a cult at all! They’re just a religious commune!” Everyone was so friendly. They were very reserved, but they were friendly. We had no reason to believe they were anything but good folks.

And then, after we got home, we googled the name of their “community,” and that’s when things got weird!

Unbeknownst to us, just last week, the FBI had released from their vault information from a 2013 investigation into this particular group. At the top of the report, it says, “Open investigation based on allegations that children are being sexually exploited.” And somehow, we decided to visit right after the report was released from the vault? We had no idea! In the report, there is testimony from former members of the community with allegations of child labor, sexual abuse, sexual orgies, and drug use. That led us to look at other websites, where we found allegations of community members being held against their will…and more. And honestly, it frightened us. Is any of the “testimony” true? I don’t know, but it was enough to make my hair stand on end.

And it made me a little sad. I thought of the sweet people we had met. Most of them were friendly, but some of them were looking at us wide-eyed, and one of them appeared a little unstable, but we chalked it up to dementia. But after reading everything, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the wide-eyed ones were desperate to leave. Were they unhappy? Were they being abused? Did they want us to take them with us? Did they want to pass us notes asking us to send help? Of course, that’s all my imagination. No one, at any time, indicated they were unhappy. In fact, most of them appeared very happy.

In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t google the community before we went, because we never would have gone. I believe there are some good people in that group. Are there bad folks? I don’t know. But I’m guessing that will be my only visit to their commune. We went unannounced, but didn’t see anything suspicious. Of course, my nephew’s friend pointed out that we were really only shown the animals and the interior of one building, which was almost unoccupied at the time, so there wasn’t much opportunity for us to see anything nefarious.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they seemed like nice people. Of course, someone else pointed out to me that “of course they were nice! They wanted y’all to join!” Yeah…they probably didn’t want me. I’m way beyond child-bearing years, and I’m sure they could take one look at me and tell I’m way too high maintenance. My nephew, on the other hand, is low maintenance, strong, hardworking, good-looking, musically talented, and artistic. Any cult would love to have him. His friend is pretty and outgoing…they’d love to have a young lady join up, I’m sure. But I would have been a total drain on their system.

And in their defense, the FBI closed the 2013 investigation. Since I never read anything about any arrests, and they didn’t invade the place like they did with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, I’m guessing they didn’t uncover enough evidence to support the allegations.

Either way, we got out unscathed. If anyone ever tries to hold me at a commune, they will run me off as soon as they figure out I don’t even know how to mop very well!

On our way home, I thought of how happy my parents would be that my nephew was hanging out with me in North Carolina. And I wished I could call them to tell them about the experience…they would have loved hearing about it.

 

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What Is Home?

The world is continuously changing, and people are more mobile than ever before. People move halfway around the world, all over the country, and within states. But with all that moving, what is home?

When I was growing up, my family moved several times…from Florida to Alabama and then a few times within the state of Alabama. Every time we moved, our parents sat us down and said, “THIS is home now. MAKE it home.” And we did. Wherever we were, it became home. We didn’t refer to our old city as “home.” Our parents made efforts to help us join the community, and we hit the ground running.

Charlotte is a growing city, so naturally, there are lots of people always moving into the city. They come from all over the world, and most people I talk to love it. We were on an American Airlines flight the other day, and the pilot came on before we left Miami to go to Charlotte and said, “We are about to go to Charlotte. If you don’t want to go to Charlotte, you’ve probably never been there.” And I immediately thought, “He’s right!” Charlotte is a lovely city.

But if you move to Charlotte or any other city/town, it’s never going to feel like home till you start acting like it’s home. It’s a lesson I learned as a little girl, but lots of adults haven’t learned it. The first way to make it feel like home is to start CALLING it home. I can always tell when newcomers are going to be slow to get acclimated, because they keep referring to their old city as “home.” To me, that might be “where I’m from” or “where I used to live,” but my new city is home. My new house is home.

I have a friend who once told me she was homesick the entire four years of college. In talking about it, she told me her family lived about an hour from her college, and she would pack up and go “home” every single weekend. When she said that, I realized that was likely the problem. She hadn’t fully committed to being a part of the community at her school. Without that commitment, she was homesick. And the continuous going “home” just reinforced it. We talked about it, and she said she probably should have gone somewhere farther away. Maybe she would have become a part of her college community if she hadn’t been able to go back to her parents’ home all the time. College should start to feel like “home,” even if it is a musty old dorm room.

School age children who move often seem to assimilate into a community much faster than adults. Because they go to school, they are grouped with new people immediately, and more often than not, they find a friend group.

At most schools, I think new parents have more difficulty than new students. The first thing I always tell new parents I meet is to become a part of the school community. It’s an easy place to make friends, but you must put in some effort. If you’re an introvert, you may have to step out of your comfort zone for a little while to get started. All you need is one familiar face to start feeling comfortable. Find a face. You can do that by attending parent events and sporting events. But if the opportunities are there: volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! If you are giving your time to the community, it becomes your community.

I’ve known friends who moved as empty nesters, and the ones who started volunteering or attending events were the ones who started feeling like their new home was “home” soonest.

However, if you’ve moved to a new city and are still calling your old city “home,” well, you likely aren’t fully committed, and in my experience, you could have a long row to hoe.

I’ve always felt our parents did us a big favor whenever we moved by reminding us that we had a new “home.” My own daughter has always lived in Charlotte. She will be going off to college in four years, and I hope I will be able to instill that in her. I hope she will understand that her college is her home. Frankly, I hope she will be at least a few hours away so she has to become a part of things on campus, wherever that might be. On most campuses, Parents Weekend is usually about six weeks into the year, and that is done by design, so the students will make the effort to assimilate before seeing their families again.

Then there’s the old saying, “Home is where the heart is.” I don’t know who came up with that, but for me, “Home is where I decide it will be.” Bloom where you’re planted.

Our Marriage Survived My Husband’s Brain Surgery

When our daughter was six years old, in 2010, my husband had brain surgeries. Yes, plural…two operations that were nine days apart.

We got married in 2000, but prior to being married, we hadn’t lived in the same city. I was in Mobile, Alabama, and he was in Charlotte, North Carolina.

As soon as we were married, I moved to Charlotte into what is now “our house,” and I soon noticed he had “spells.” I didn’t know what they were, but he seemed to “lose time.”   He would suddenly start blinking hard, fidgeting, and mumbling…for 30 to 45 seconds.

I spoke with his doctor, who ran tests, and while she saw a small spot on the left temporal lobe of his brain, she wasn’t concerned.

He had a series of unexplained car accidents, always saying afterward that he didn’t remember what had happened. I knew we had to get some answers. I was angry. I wasn’t angry at him; I was angry that the doctor hadn’t addressed the problem. I called her, telling her we needed to see a doctor who could help us.

She finally referred him to a neurologist.

At the neurologist’s office, we explained everything to the doctor, who promptly told us, “He’s having petit mal seizures.” Five minutes into the appointment we had an answer.

More tests showed what appeared to be a benign tumor in the front part of his left temporal lobe.

After months of anti-seizure medications, his seizures weren’t under control. Surgery was recommended. First, he had an inpatient evaluation in June of 2010, meaning he was hooked up to external electrodes in an epilepsy ward to monitor brain activity. The hope was that he would have a seizure while there, and the epileptologist would garner useful information. After a week in the hospital, he finally had a seizure…a full-on gran mal seizure, and the doctor witnessed it.

Working with two neurosurgeons, the epileptologist scheduled surgery for that September. First, they opened his skull and placed electrodes and probes directly into and on the surface of his brain. Wires hung out of the incision while we waited for him to have another seizure, and after nine days, he did.

The second surgery was scheduled for a couple days later, and he had the affected parts of his brain removed…part of his temporal lobe, his amygdala, and his hippocampus. Afterward, he was in pain, but it soon became apparent he had very few lasting effects. His “naming center” was affected, so he has trouble recalling words or names, but the biggest loss was short term memory. It was tough at first, but we have a different normal now.

It’s hard to believe it has been eight years.

Our daughter was six years old. She had just started first grade, and while I don’t claim to be the most organized person in the world, I became even less so throughout this ordeal. God bless her first grade teachers for providing snacks, extra patience, and love.

My goal was to keep life as normal as possible for our daughter. She didn’t need to know how scary it was, and I wanted her life to continue as if nothing were going on.

I needed to be at the hospital every day, but I made it a point to take our daughter to school every morning, so things would seem “normal.” I would rush home after dropping her off and get a shower before spending the day at the hospital. Friends would pick her up after school, so at night, when I left the hospital I could pick her up from their houses.

Thank God for friends…people rallied to keep us going. People who lived near the hospital graciously offered to let me nap at their homes. People filled our refrigerator with meals. Family came in from out of town to help. Friends let us sleep at their houses when I was too tired to drive home.

Both operations went smoothly, and after a couple weeks in the hospital, he came home. It was a tough time for him because of the pain and memory issues.

On top of everything else, he was experiencing what the doctor referred to as “disinhibition,” a temporary effect of the surgery. It manifests in different ways, but his manifested in terrible language. Some people experience far worse types of disinhibition…they walk around naked, or become sexually promiscuous. The excessive bad language was embarrassing, but at least he wasn’t walking around naked or having sex with random strangers. Unfortunately, our daughter heard some words she didn’t need to know. Fortunately, the disinhibition didn’t last.

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Photo from December 22, 2010…two months after the surgeries.

Because of the seizures, he was not allowed to drive. This was a low point. He was angry.  He wanted to drive. It affected everything. I was trying to hold everything together, but on Christmas morning, I had forgotten to put his medications in his weekly container. He came into the kitchen, and when he realized his meds weren’t ready, he became angry. When I said I would get the meds, he said I was trying to control him. It was the brain surgery talking, and I knew it, but I’d had enough.

It angered me, and I said, “You know what? Manage your own damn medicine. I can PROMISE you I won’t touch it again.” And I never touched the meds again. He had to take control of his recovery at that point. I was tired. I was tired of his anger about not being able to drive, and I was tired of being the scapegoat. Frankly, I was just tired.

The next day, our daughter and I went to visit family in Alabama. I took all the car keys with me, because I knew he wanted to drive but legally couldn’t. He called asking where I’d hidden the keys, and I told him I had them with me. He got angry, and I hung up the phone, turning it off so he couldn’t call me for the rest of the day. The next day, he apologized.

I know it was frustrating to depend on other people for transportation. I’m sure he felt trapped. He had an unemployed friend who drove him where he needed to go for those months, which worked out nicely for both of them. But it wasn’t the same as driving.

Eventually, the day came that he could drive again. I joyfully handed him the keys.

He was happy.

He got in the car and drove away with a smile on his face, and immediately, things got better. The anger was gone.

We had survived the storm. Most importantly, he had survived brain surgery and was making a recovery. Our daughter had survived, and except for knowing a few more choice words, she was unscathed. Time had healed his physical wounds, but time also healed our marriage. Once he could drive again, we fell back into a happy place.

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Photo from March 2018

Sure, we’ve had challenges and had to make adjustments. My husband doesn’t like to travel and wants to be home more than he used to. His brain processes things differently. He gets headaches in overcrowded, loud places. He only likes to visit familiar places. He doesn’t mind that we continue to travel without him. I’ve told him before, “God put us together for a reason. Some women would be angry that you don’t want to go anywhere, and some would be afraid to go without you, so they would stay home and complain.” I’m not angry, and I’m not afraid. Because he doesn’t enjoy being on the go, we spend quality time together at home or familiar places.

A year or so ago, our now-14-yr-old daughter and I were talking about the brain surgery experience, and she asked, “Could Daddy have died?” I responded, “Yes. He could have died. You didn’t know that?” She said, “No.” I smiled and said, “Well, then I did my job. I didn’t want you to know.”

He turns 52 today, and we have settled into our new normal…lots of repetitive conversations and lots of reminder notes. It would seem strange to a lot of people, but it’s our normal…and thankfully, that doesn’t include seizures anymore.

Happy Birthday, Cary!