William Blankenship writes,
The most humbling moment of my life was waking up one day to realize I was in a cult. It wasn't a dangerous Jim Jones level or Heaven's Gate style cult, but it was enough to make me realize I wasn't the free-thinking loner I thought I was. As I talked about in my last article, I never really fit into any crowd except for that of other social outcasts. I liked to think of myself with a sort of "lone wolf, no pack" level of pretension. I'd quote platitudes like, "The price of being a sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness."
I know. It's okay; you can cringe. It gets worse.
Another humbling thing was that I knew it was a cult before I ever got involved in it. But I was desperate, living in an unfinished basement in the boonies of Southwestern Pennsylvania with no car and only a fledgling career in the comics industry keeping me afloat. Facebook friends were the only friends I had, and my only consistent company was the disabled upstairs neighbor who acted as my makeshift therapist. I was recently divorced, estranged from my daughter, and I tended to drown my sorrows in booze. The pit of my sorrows was far deeper at that point than the empty bottles that lined my paid basement.
One day, I woke up from a 5-day bender, soaked in my own piss and vomiting up orange foam. I was used to mornings like this at that point. But apparently in a half-asleep drunken stupor, I tried to replace my piss covered pajama pants with a hoodie, as I looked down to see myself wearing its thick, dark green sleeves as pant legs and the hood dragging on the floor. After vomiting up a mixture of snot and stomach acid, I decided I'd have some coffee and settle in for work. I was dead broke anyway and only had four beers left in the fridge from the case I'd drank after the gallon of whiskey I finished off way too fast. Needless to say, I hadn't gotten a lot of work done that week and needed to catch up.
Around 9:30 AM, I felt a little off. Around 10:30, I started noticing small tremors in my hand. By 11:30, I couldn't stop my hands shaking. This wouldn't be the first time I was hospitalized for alcohol withdrawal.
After living with this demon, for a while, and after it had a significant negative impact on my career any my personal life, I started seeking out local rehabs that had male beds available. First, I searched and called all those within 20 miles. Then I searched those within 40 miles. Then, I searched within 60 miles.
No luck. This was my second time around in the same bad place, but a little worse this time. I frequented sobriety chatrooms. I got banned from the subreddit, r/stopdrinking. I did not know how to stop this endless drunken cycle and I was desperate. A few months earlier, I had attended a couple AA meetings with my uncle who was around 3 years sober from alcohol at the time. Of course, we would smoke a joint before attending the meetings and get dark stares from familiar strangers. At one of the meetings, I got some numbers. One of them had a small star drawn beside it; Sean S.
I called Sean, explained a little of my situation, and asked if he was attending a meeting that night. It was a Saturday. He said he wasn't, but he knew a guy who was. Brian F. was a recovering alcoholic and dope addict as round as a globe. I clambered into the backseat of his car. He said the new job was killing him. He just wasn't physically cut out for it. Another guy beside me had 12 days after relapsing with over a year clean. The guy on the other side of him was still dopesick on his first day. The guy in the passenger seat in front of me had over a year, and kept telling me I needed to get a sponsor. I never had a sponsor before.
When we pulled in, the church was bigger than any church I had been to. It was swarming with people on the front porch smoking. Drinking coffee. Laughing. I walked inside to get a cup to be greeted by even more people. A room packed with people that was 50 foot high if it was an inch, and banners from the last 50 years hanging halfway to the ceiling. People started coming up to me.
"Hey, man, what's your name?"
"Cool, man, where you staying at?"
"Oh, I have an apartment out in New Salem."
"What, you're not staying with guys?"
"No, I don't have any roommates…"
"Aww, man, you gotta move in with guys!"
It was at this point I started thinking, "This is a cult. I need to get out of here."
But wouldn't it be interesting? Wouldn't it be interesting if I was able to use this group to get sober, but not get indoctrinated?
I ended up getting indoctrinated as fuck. I wasn't just drinking the Kool-Aid, I was selling that shit.
I was told throughout the night by several sources that I had to "move in with guys." I didn't really know what that meant. I had an apartment. I had a job. Instead I kept being told that I needed to "get on someone's couch." I was told I needed to "set up my day with someone." There was all these new phrases and terminology I was trying to keep up with. There were all these new names I was trying to remember. When I went to the Sunday morning meeting on no sleep, due to my alcohol-deprived system, I was asked again…
"Hey, man, where're you staying?"
"At my apartment."
"Nah, man, you gotta move in with guys. That's the only way you'll stay clean."
(Forgive me, this is a long walk to a punchline, and I won't be providing a TL:DR.)
I had set up my day with a guy named Russ M. I would end up living with him for the next 8 months. He took me to his sponsor's apartment and all of a sudden, I was ambushed. From four sides, I was told I needed to take drastic measures. That my lifestyle was going to kill me. That I didn't love my daughter. That I never loved my wife. I was told I was a piece of shit who needed to move in with guys and give up my job, sleeping on someone's couch if I was to ever break this vicious cycle. You see, I couldn't stay clean on my own, I would "go back out." I was told I couldn't be trusted for ninety days. I would have to "set up my day" with people with at least three months sober. I was told that I wasn't even allowed to talk to women in my first year. "Bitches will get you loaded." I was told that my three days sober didn't matter because I was on psych meds, something It was recommended that I hide from others in the group. You're either clean are you aren't. And people on psych meds were not clean.
After about 5 hours, I broke down. I had been awake for over 30 hours, and I was desperate. The first night, I slept on the floor with blankets.
Soon after, I was furnished with an air mattress. I started working at a farm that was connected to the group. After what seemed like a year, I got a month sober. Then two. I started paying rent and bills at the place I was staying. Then I started "carrying the message" to other guys; new guys who'd just come in, still shivering. Then I got three months, and new guys could set their days up with me. I got my own bed. I got a promotion at my job. I made friends. Real friends. Clean and sober friends. Friends who didn't just care about what I had in my pocket. Friends who would always have my back. Friends who would always help me out. And if they weren't able to, there were ninety-nine others I could call to ask.
Then about four months in, I remembered; I'm in a cult. This was a cult.
I had reached out to an old friend, which I was told not to do by my sponsor
"Tim, I'm four months sober."
"That's great, man!"
"But I think I'm in a cult."
"Well… is it working? It seems like it's working."
Pretty much all the people in your old life would get you loaded. Except for maybe close friends and family, and even then you were told not to contact them your first ninety days. I woke up in a house I shared with a guy who had two years. I worked with guys. I hung out with guys. I went to meetings with guys and then went out to eat with them afterwards. I bought food and cigarettes for the new guy. I tried to live by what seemed like near-impossible standards. There was always another new guy. There was always another hope.
I started Googling, "cult indoctrination old school AA." My sponsor would not approve.
Meanwhile, I started feeling the pressure to accept someone's version of God. A big part of the program was prayer, and I was agnostic. I had too many psychedelic experiences to deny that I felt like there was something else out there beyond us, but I didn't know what that was, and I was never comfortable just defining it as "GAWD." For the first three weeks, I prayed to my daughter. She was the reason I was there. Then I tried the whole God thing and got accountable with my sponsor. And sometimes, I felt it. But I also knew that I came into this because, "Wouldn't it be interesting?" Even my sponsor, who seemed a fairly pragmatic but angry little man, seemed to be pushing me toward it. I went to church with a friend from the group.
"Well, did you get anything from it?"
"Not really. I can't say I didn't feel something but that could've just been setting and company."
"Well, that might change. You might just have to come into it."
I didn't want their Jesus. I didn't want the God of the fellowship; the kind of God who would simply make men addicts just so they could feel the ecstasy of recovery; so they could be blessed enough to carry the message to the new guy. That wasn't the kind of "Higher Power" I was looking for or could ever trust. But at the same time, this way of life was working. I needed a way to keep this thing going. My life had turned around compared to where it was. Then, an image popped in my head, bright and blue and shimmering.
Superman.After coming hard off my psych meds, I gained a bit of a reputation for being a little wacky. I felt human again. I felt alive. I had fun with words and would test the boundaries of the other guys in the group. I could pull this off. At worst they would just think, "Oh, Bill," and dismiss me. I could take being dismissed if it meant not being force-fed their Jesus, their "Higher Power," or their God. So I decided I was going to worship Superman.
But let's be clear, I wasn't REALLY going to start worshipping Superman.
I'd keep praying to the God I didn't believe in if that's what they wanted. I knew I was fooling myself to a certain extent, so I might as well have fun with it. It would avoid the awkward conversations. Over the next week, when people gathered before and after every meeting, I would loudly proclaim that Superman was the light, the truth, and the American way.
"Y'know, Jeremy, I know they say, 'Jesus Saves,' but does he? I mean Superman saves! Like if you're in a burning building and trapped, is Jesus gonna fly in and save you? I don't think so. But Superman can. SUPERMAN saves!"
"But, Bill, Superman isn't real…"
"I don't think you want to have that conversation with me, Jeremy."
But I also internalized it. On particularly stressful days at work I would visualize Superman in my head, floating above and just behind me. It was comforting, especially on a farm during a summer heat wave, surrounded by some of the most self-righteous and newly religious former junkies you'd ever meet. It was just a focal point, something to magnetize my attention in a meditative way.
I got this idea from Grant Morrison's documentary, Talking With Gods, wherein he says, "Superman loves you. Isn't that nice?" The idea that we can decide our own Gods was profound, echoed in the works of Robert Anton Wilson. Why can't we? Why can't we choose that thing that leaves a lasting emotional impression from our childhood to be our higher power? It's no more or less logical than choosing an abstract idea that we don't have any proof of. And again, I'm not atheist; I'm agnostic. I'm just saying I don't have proof. I'm not attacking religion with this idea; I'm just saying I find comfort in not taking it so seriously. But, I do take it sincerely.
Superman was the only thing that was never tainted. He was every concept of "The Hero" rolled into one. He was Jesus for geeks. He was the first positive symbol in my life. The classic "S" chest emblem is to me what a confederate flag is to rednecks. It's an anchor amidst stormy seas. I don't try to dress either in morality. All I know is I try to help people as best as I can nowadays. I learned that from the group. I learned that from Superman.
So for a while, I worshiped Superman. Then I got back into Doctor Who for a bit. At that point, I decided that the kind of lord and savior an emotionally well-adjusted man takes on would be better suited for a time traveling alien humanoid with two hearts and a love for humanity so encompassing that he would risk life and limb to save them from intergalactic threats.
I stayed for seven more months.
I knew I was in a cult, but it was better than what led me there. I don't know if this article has a solid point, but if it did I think it might be less effective to those who need it. I suppose in times of hardship we all lean on ideals to get us through. And in my case, those ideals were set by two Jewish kids from the ghetto instead of a Jewish carpenter from the desert. Does that make it any less valid? If it makes you a better person then does it matter? It all comes from the same hardship. It was all born out of a search for light amidst the darkness. You can diminish it to escapism, or you can elevate it to a means of changing consciousness.
To quote Hogarth from The Iron Giant, "You are who you choose to be."
(Big thanks to Mike Exner III and Vito Delsante for helping me edit this blathering mess into something barely readable.)
William Blankenship is a flashing animated Gif from northern WV, and is currently running a Kickstarter for his creator-owned comic The Thunderchickens.