Ritual Abuse/Cult Survivors And Wanting to Die: Where It Comes From And How To Help

by Cheryl Rainfield, 2005

Warning: The contents of this article may be triggering. If you’re a survivor, you may want to read it gradually at different times or with a supportive friend or partner. It also might be a good idea to make sure that you are in a safe space while you read this, and for some time afterwards. You might want to remind yourself of a safe place inside you that parts can go if they need to. It’s a healing and nurturing thing to respect your limits and boundaries, and what you can hear, for now.

It makes a lot of sense that many ritual abuse survivors, at some point, feel the desire to die or to kill ourselves. It is a natural response to prolonged extreme torture and abuse—needing the pain to stop. Thus the desire to die may be an emotional memory, not a desire from the present. However, this feeling may also be part of programming. The desire to die is something that cults intentionally exploit, telling us that the only way to escape the pain is to die. They instill the desire and messages in us through intense and repeated torture and programming. And the threat of death is frequently used to control us as children, to make us compliant, and to keep us silent. It is a core part of ritual abuse and of programming.

Given this context, it is not crazy or messed up or even surprising that a ritual abuse survivor might feel, at times, the desire to die. That desire to die was created in us through torture, and the messages or “thoughts” surrounding that desire are programming—things we were trained to think and feel. Yet each of us deserves to live. It is our right, just by being born. We have the right to live, to breathe, to take up space on this earth, and to feel happy, loved, and comforted. And it is possible to find those things.

Suicidal programming can feel frightening while it is actively functioning, but suicidal programming, like any other programming, can be worked with, and being able to recognize that it is functioning may bring some calm or relief, by understanding the context and knowing that your actions and reactions make sense. Understanding the purpose of suicidal programming, and bringing compassion to it, may also help to overcome it. Cults do not necessarily want us to die. They were training us to become part of the cult, to be valuable cult members (to keep the cult going), and/or to remain victims that they could exploit. But they do want us to be afraid, to retain core cult beliefs, and to continue to be influenced by cult and by programming, even after we are no longer being abused. Suicidal programming is yet another attempt by cults to control every aspect of our lives, and to keep us following cult rules.

There are two major sets of suicidal programming that I know—programming for attempted suicide, and programming for suicide. Most ritual abuse survivors have probably received larger amounts of attempted suicide programming. Suicidal programming is usually less focused on, and kept in reserve. So often the programming we received is not meant to actually make us kill ourselves, but to attempt to, with safety precautions put in place so that if we actually act on it, we will tell someone, arrange to be found in time, get to the hospital ourselves, not use a high enough dosage or cut deeply enough, etc. However, this does not make the feelings, threat of death, programming, or experience any less serious. It all needs to be taken seriously, and those parts who hold the suicidal programming need to be listened to, believed, and worked with with compassion, kindness, and patience.

Most often, the cult-trained parts that repeat suicidal programming want to live. They initially took on that job and endured the torture and cult training so that we could live during the abuse. And while they might not admit it, or might be slow to realize or to accept it, they, too, want to live, and to be free of abuse and pain. They may feel overwhelming hopelessness, despair, or pain, may have lost touch with the desire to live, may have become hardened by the repeated, extreme torture—but the desire to live is usually still there inside them.

These parts are often gentler than they appear, and are usually young children, or were created when the body was a child. They may present themselves as tough and hard, but deep down they often want the same things we do—to find safety and happiness. Often these parts are actually very vulnerable; just like other cult-trained or “hard” parts, they frequently had to endure some of the most extreme abuse and torture, and none of the “everyday” life or kindnesses in order for the whole self to survive. They may think that what they are doing will protect the self, because during the torture it is what kept us alive, and they may not have had much time out in the body in present day, because their jobs are very concentrated and specific.

It helps to not be afraid of these parts, but to work with them with compassion, kindness, and patience, and to gently reason with them, repeatedly but gently pointing out the flaws in their convoluted cult thinking, and to remind them that they were taught these things from cult. It may also help to realize that the desire to die may not be a desire from the present, but rather an emotional memory that was most likely intentionally triggered by cult-trained parts to force other parts into that emotional state, in order to make it more likely that they will act on those feelings.

The following two paragraphs contain some graphic information. You may want to skip over them, or read them with some support.

Death is a recurring theme throughout ritual abuse. Cults often try to convince child victims that they have actually died, been murdered, or killed themselves through abuse scenarios (such as making the child lose consciousness, then burying her in a coffin underground and having her awake in the coffin; placing the child in a coffin in a mock funeral room while the child is paralyzed with drugs and cannot move, so she believes she is dead; shooting the child with tranquilizing “bullets” that cause pain, where the child thinks she has been killed, and having people scream that she has been murdered; encouraging the child to drink “poison” and take her own life, where after she drinks the drug she has convulsions and may lose consciousness or lose control over her body, and thus believe she has died, while cult members wail that she has killed herself; etc.). Cults also often bring their victims to near-death, or to a place where they are medically dead and then resuscitated, while reinforcing programming messages about death, murder, suicide, and/or cult rules (such as silence).

Death and near-death experiences are very familiar to ritual abuse survivors, through witnessing such torture, being fed constant messages about death and dying, and enduring such torture and abuse. As a result, some parts inside may be more comfortable with death or with the idea of death than with life, or may think that death/suicide is what is expected of them (that it is their job). Other parts may want to feel that they have control over their life by deciding when and how they die (through suicide), rather than cult deciding (through murder or the threat of murder). Some parts may truly believe the cult reasoning, because it was necessary for someone inside to believe during the abuse, in order to make the torture stop. And some parts may have experienced inner “death” where they felt and heard nothing (at a command during programming or as a way to cope), and, experiencing temporary relief from the torture, may be drawn to suicidal programming, thinking it will bring them the same relief.

When we want to die, we’re usually feeling overwhelming pain or despair—more emotion than we can cope with—and we’re looking for relief. When those feelings are intense, it can be hard to think or to remember that there is any other way, or to know that it can change. But feelings pass, and can be moved through. Happiness can come. And there are ways to lessen pain and extreme emotion, techniques we can learn to help ourselves, and support that we can receive, that can help us to feel relief. Suicide is permanent; it ends all feelings, including joy, happiness, love, comfort, and safety. To experience those again, we must be alive. And there is so much to live for. Things can and will get better.

Remember that suicide is final. There’s no going back, once you’ve done the act. You can never again experience the joy of walking barefoot on warm sand, the delight of a cat or dog happily greeting you, the comfort of a hug, or the love in a friend’s eyes. If there are any parts of you that don’t want to die, listen to those parts, and don’t act now. Wanting to die is a feeling; you can feel a feeling, even intense feelings, and not have to act on them. If you really feel you must die, try to wait, and to reach out to others. You may find yourself moving through the old pain, and wanting to live again.

The following section may be triggering. You may want to read only a few indicators at a time, read some of them with a support person or your therapist present, and/or skip ahead to the section on what can help.
Recognizing When Suicidal Thoughts and Feelings Come From Programming
Often it can help to recognize that the source of the overwhelming emotions and the desire to die (or to find relief) comes from programming. Identifying and working with programming, especially if you truly listen to the parts who hold that programming, can help reduce the intensity of the programming, change it, and get you to a safe place.

Below are some ways to recognize when suicidal feelings and thoughts may be coming from programming. Some of these indicators may not be enough on their own to indicate suicidal programming. As well, you may find that only some of these indicators fit for you, or that you experience others that are not listed here.
Possible indicators of suicidal or attempted suicidal programming:

  • Seeing images of yourself or of other people’s bodies being killed in the way that you are thinking of killing yourself, especially when only body parts are shown (rather than an entire body/person), or where only the end result is shown;
  • Having the impulse/desire to die or to kill yourself occur: around holidays (cult holidays and societal holidays, such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Easter, summer vacation, etc.); before or during your birthday; before or during an anniversary of a death (including cult-induced abortions and murder of people you knew within cult); around the same time of year every year; or after you see or have been contacted by family or cult members;
  • Suddenly getting the impulse to kill yourself after a memory; good therapy session; deep connection with another person; or anything that seems to break cult “rules” (generally things that are healing);
  • Repeatedly hearing the same phrase or phrases about killing yourself or how to kill yourself, especially if those phrases: do not seem to fit your thoughts; use formal, contractual, or archaic language; use language that leaves no other option (“I/we must,” “I/we have to,” etc.); trigger hopelessness, despair, pain, or the desire to die (“What does it matter? What does anything matter?”); or contain cult language or thinking (“It is ordained,” “There is no other way,” “It is destined,” “It is the/God’s/Satan’s will,” etc.). Often these phrases will repeat themselves over and over, or connect up to others that will repeatedly and relentlessly loop through your mind or throughout your personality system;
  • Hearing circular or convoluted thinking that does not make sense, but that keeps coming back to the “need” or desire to die, especially if formal phrases are used, if those phrases do not feel like your way of thinking, or if they feel like something you’ve been told (killing yourself will save someone else, give power to someone else, or help others in any way; others will be better off without you; suicide will release you from pain or torture; your death will save others from torture or death during ritual abuse). (These things are never true.);
  • Experiencing the intense desire to die or to hurt yourself, or extreme emotion that makes you feel like dying (overwhelming despair, pain, hopelessness, etc.) when you were feeling okay the moment before, or things are okay (or good) in your life;
  • Hearing instructions, getting flashes of images, or getting impulses to kill yourself, devoid of feeling;
  • Finding yourself repeatedly using some body motion that: acts out the method, or part of the method, of killing yourself (tracing over your wrists where you see yourself slitting them, etc.); traces a symbol on your body, on paper, near you, or through the air (upside-down crosses, the star of david, etc.); symbolizes death; or that is a cue to kill oneself (squeezing your own throat, etc.);
  • Getting repeated impulses or dares (from parts inside) to engage in dangerous behavior that would most likely kill or seriously harm you, and that you do not normally think about, such as jumping off a subway platform, stepping in front of traffic, walking into a secluded alley late at night, deliberately falling head first down stairs, etc. Suicidal or attempted suicidal programming is especially likely if the dangerous behaviors could, upon your death, be interpreted by others as an accident or crime that was done to you, and/or if you heard “thoughts” about making your suicide appear like an accident. (Having suicide appear to be an accident can make it seem that there is no connection to cult or to programming.);
  • Repeatedly being drawn to or looking at the tools, drugs, weapons, etc. that you are thinking of using to kill yourself, or repeatedly taking them out, holding them, lining them up, or carrying them around with you;
  • Feeling a temporary relief or spurt of “happiness,” or gaining temporary respite from constant programming messages if you allow yourself to look at, purchase, take out, or carry with you the tools, drugs, weapons, etc. that you are thinking of using to kill yourself with;
  • Dressing completely in black (symbolizing suicide and death), or white (symbolizing giving oneself up as a sacrifice) when you do not normally dress this way;
  • Imagining or visualizing your own funeral. (While people who are not ritual abuse survivors may do this, perhaps wanting to know that people will miss them or care about them, ritual abuse survivors have often had to endure repeated abuse enactments of their own death or funeral. What you see may actually be a memory of such an enactment, part of programming, or both.);
  • Hearing “thoughts” or phrases that encourage despair and hopelessness, such as that there is no way out; that nothing’s ever going to get better; that nothing is ever going to change; etc. These are phrases and ideas commonly used in programming;
  • Feeling that you are physically unable to speak about the wanting to die, or that you are unable to reach out for help; or, alternatively, feeling that you must tell everyone;
  • Hearing parts inside speak about you or themselves in the past tense;
  • Seeing, being pulled to, or drawing symbols or representations of death, such as skulls; skulls and cross bones; bones; skeletons; crucifixes; coffins; tombs; graveyards; gravestones; funerals; red, black, or white roses; scythes or images of “the grim reaper”; black candles; images of people killing themselves (especially through stabbing or hanging); etc.;
  • Becoming obsessed with certain philosophies, beliefs, or dogma, especially reincarnation; rebirth; resurrection; eternal life; heaven; the afterlife; ghosts and angels; or the cycles of life and death in nature, especially with the focus that you will live on after your death (or that parts of you will), that your death will benefit someone, or that killing yourself is natural or necessary. This is especially true if you have not been drawn to these beliefs before, have resistance to them, or suddenly find that they consume most of your thoughts;
  • Finding yourself in an almost continuous loop of overwhelming emotional pain, trauma, hopelessness, despair, etc. (which is usually a memory being triggered or deliberately brought up within your personality system) accompanied by occasional or repeated cult reasoning about suicide, such as that the only way to get relief from this pain is to kill yourself (a common programming message);
  • Feeling as if you are retreating from yourself, your body, or your life (which can be a sign of dissociation, other parts coming forward, being triggered, general programming, or extreme depression), accompanied by increased desires or thoughts to kill or harm yourself;
  • Feeling yourself half believing or becoming convinced of the “truth” or “rightness” of cult beliefs/ideology about suicide;
  • Isolating yourself from your therapist, friends, or lover, or shutting yourself down emotionally around them, especially if this is accompanied by other indicators in this list;
  • Finding yourself increasingly engaging in self-injurious behavior that, if it escalates, could potentially lead to death (and especially if this is accompanied by thoughts about going that extra bit further);
  • Finding yourself being drawn to, or repeatedly hearing in your head, old nursery rhymes, children’s songs, religious songs, or popular songs that you have a strong dislike for; that make you feel unhappy, despairing, etc; that make you want to die or bring thoughts of suicide or death; or that were used in your suicidal programming. The songs and nursery rhymes used can differ from cult to cult and region to region, but a few songs that are often used are: (songs for suicidal or attempted suicidal programming: Oh a Hunting We Will Go; Go Tell Aunt Rhody; There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly; Silent Night. Songs for threats of death that may connect up to suicidal or attempted suicidal programming: Found a Peanut; Rock a Bye Baby; Row Your Boat; Oh My Clementine; My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.)

Things that Can Help To Bring Hope and Relief, and Keep Yourself Living:

  • Realize that if you kill yourself, you are doing what the cult wants you to. You’re doing the cult’s job, ending the life of a strong survivor who deserves to live. Knowing this may help give you that extra umph to fight back.
  • Remember that the desire to die may be an emotional memory from the abuse—how you or parts inside felt during the torture. Most likely it is a feeling from the past, not the present;
  • Wait before you do anything that might hurt you. Since you can kill yourself at any time, why not wait a bit longer—a day, or a few days, before you act. And while you wait, try to reach out to others, and to listen inside. You may find the relief or comfort that you are seeking—but you have to be alive to feel it;
  • Reach out to the people who care about you—to a friend, a therapist, your lover. Or reach out to a suicide hotline or a support hotline. (There are also online support centers that you can reach out to, such as The Samaritans.) Find a way to get some comfort, caring, and compassion. Ask for a hug, or to know that you are loved. Knowing that you are truly cared about, really feeling that and getting that in a safe way, is one of the most powerful and best ways to temporarily break through programming. And truly being heard, being seen in how you are in this moment, can also greatly help.

    You may be afraid to be a burden to others, or think that you have to keep everything to yourself to keep from being too much, but give others the chance to make their own decision about whether they want to respond or not. Often you will find that people are relieved that you told them, and that you are reaching out and giving them a chance to be there for you, to be let into your life. And, if you don’t get what you need, reach out to someone else;

  • Get some safe touch from someone you trust. Safe touch is another powerful way to break through programming and old messages. It is a temporary, stop-gap measure, but one that works. Safe, loving touch can tell you, in a different way than words, and on a deep level, that you are truly cared about, or that you matter to another person;
  • If you’ve got something you need to hear from a friend, therapist, or someone you love, ask for it. No one can read your mind, know exactly what you most need to hear, or know what would best help counteract your programming or the horrible way you are feeling. This may be the best way to get what you need—by asking. And you deserve to be able to ask for—and to receive—support;
  • Listen to the parts of you who want to die or to kill the self; really hear them. Often, truly hearing these parts can help alleviate the desire to die; reduce the overwhelming emotions; reduce the intensity and desperation behind the messages; and/or help quiet the programming for a while. You may want to gently reason with these parts, let them know that they are safe, remind them that those messages are old cult messages, or ask them to tell you more about those messages (who told them those messages, when did they first hear them, etc.).

    If you’re having trouble hearing these parts, try letting them write or draw as a means of talking to you. You may also want to let them talk in therapy;

  • Ask the parts inside who want to die why they want to, and what they’re trying to get. Are they trying to get relief from pain, despair, hopelessness? Are they trying to feel better? Are they trying to keep the self alive by doing the job they were taught to do? Gently go beyond the first answers, beyond the cult answers, to a deeper level, and try to really hear those parts;
  • Ask everyone inside what will help you, and what you need—especially your wise parts, healers, nurturers, caregivers, and parts who know about your internal world;
  • Try to establish as much inner communication and cooperation about this as possible. Really listen to what everyone is saying. If you have trouble listening inside, try letting parts write it out;
  • Remind everyone inside that the suicidal thoughts and feelings are memories and/or programming, things that cults taught them. They are old ways of thinking that you don’t need any more. Let those parts who want to kill you know that you understand that they needed to take on that role during the abuse to help you survive, and that you really appreciate all they did for you, but that things are different, now. They don’t need to do that job any more; they can find new ways to be;
  • Make sure that the parts who want to die realize that if they kill the body/self, they will kill themselves and everyone else inside, too. Make sure that everyone inside knows this. While this may seem obvious, some parts may not know this, or may have been told by cult that they would live on or assume control of the body if they killed you;
  • Remind those parts who want to die or to kill the self that they don’t have to do what they were taught. They are stronger than the cult—just by working on healing and growing, they are stronger. They can fight cult messages and training;
  • Listen to other parts inside you, ones that want to live. They have the right to live. Try especially to connect with those parts of you that can laugh, play, have fun, or reach out to others, and encourage them to be around;
  • If it helps you to see your programming, write out the programming in as much detail as you can. Sometimes identifying the programming, or what is really going on inside and why, can help reduce the intensity of the messages, help make sense of what is happening, give direction about what you need to do next or who you need to listen to, and help reduce the desire to follow the programming messages;
  • Remember that as strong as a suicidal feeling or thought is, it is just a feeling or thought. You do not have to act on it—and it is important not to. Do other things to help yourself get through the moment. Distract yourself, express the emotion, reach out for help, hold on just a little bit longer, and then just a little bit longer still, until you feel better. The good feelings will come back;
  • Visualize the faces of people you care about looking at you with love. If you have a photo of them, it may help to look at it, or if you have something of theirs to hold, it may help to hold onto it, and to remember that you are loved;
  • Express the emotion and thoughts through writing, art, dance, safe expression, etc.;
  • Go inside yourself and ask if there are specific parts who need to be heard, or specific memories that need to be listened to—and then listen. If you are having trouble hearing them or isolating one voice, it may help to let those parts write. It can also help to answer these questions with your therapist;
  • Ask the people you care about to tell you things that they like about you, or why you’re important to them (or read over/listen to the lists they may have already given you). Write out their responses, and read them over repeatedly, really trying to take them in;
  • Ask the people you care about if they would miss you if you weren’t around (and really listen to their responses). Sometimes we need to know that we matter to others, that it makes a difference that we are alive, or that others care about us—and sometimes a true, compassionate response can break through programming or old abuse thinking;
  • Write out some reasons to live. If you can’t think of reasons for yourself, think of someone you love, and write out the reasons for them. Then read those reasons over, thinking of yourself. You may also want to read the poster: Reasons Not To Kill Yourself by Mari Collings. (You can purchase the beautiful poster from www.survivorship.org);
  • Remind yourself that you have the right to be here on this earth, to be alive, and to be happy;
  • Listen to music that makes you feel good or safe. Music is powerful, and can help change your mood. (Don’t forget kids’ music; there is some delightful, great-energy kids’ music out there with feel-good messages, as well as soothing or validating songs that can help you to feel less alone.) Some ideas are: Kids’ Music: “It’s OK,” “We’ll Fill The World With Love,” “These Are The Questions,” “Happy Place,” and “What a Wonderful World” by Rosenshontz; “Proud of Me,” “Believe In Yourself,” “Someday, Little Children,” “Nearly Missed a Rainbow,” “My Furry Little Shadow,” “But I Like You,” and “Count Ten” by Sesame Street; “It’s OK to Cry,” and “Growing Up Song” by Eric Nagler. Adult music: “How Could Anyone?” by Libby Roderick; “Let It Go” by Luba; “Ooh Child” by Dino or by Nina Simone; “Hands” by Jewel (religious content, may be triggering); “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend” by The Staple Singers; “Believe in You” by Amanda Marshall; “By Your Side” by Sade; “On a Day Like Today” by Bryan Adams; “Shout” by Tears For Fears (to get out the emotion or get in touch with anger); “Affirmation” and “So Strong” by Justina & Joyce (resistance, saying no, getting in touch with anger); “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” by Diana Ross; “Animal Song” by Savage Garden);
  • Distract yourself. Involve yourself in an art project or craft, watch a movie, read a book, write in your diary; write an email to a friend; take a walk in nature and really notice the detail; use your senses to distract—notice textures, tastes, smells, sights, sounds, etc.;
  • Think of a time where you felt happy, comforted, or loved. Remind yourself that you can feel this way again, in the future. It might be doing something else, or feeling this with someone else, but it will happen;
  • Know that you have the right to be here on this earth, to live, to find happiness and comfort and joy; and/or
  • Know that if you kill yourself, the people in your life will be deeply affected and will feel great pain. You matter to many people, even if you don’t believe you do.

You deserve to live. You deserve to take up space. And you deserve to be happy. You have the right to live and to be on this planet, as much as any tree or plant or animal or person. Don’t let the cult take that away from you.

Grief, pain, despair, depression—they all will pass. Comfort and safety can come. Playfulness and delight and joy are yours to find. And you will find them. So stay alive. Reach for happiness, friendship, dreams. And keep believing in yourself. Good things can still happen—but only if you are around to experience them.


©Cheryl Rainfield, 2005

Written by Cheryl Rainfield, award-winning author of SCARS, STAINED, and HUNTED.

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