Cults attract three different kinds of people. A few see immediately that there's money to be made from it while others are idealistic, looking for the answers to life. But the vast majority are experiencing a trauma, such as redundancy or a relationship break-up, at the time they're recruited. The fact is, cults prey on the vulnerable.
For me, it started when my friend Keith rang to say he'd found something that transformed his life. He was bubbling with excitement. He'd been separated from his wife the year before and gone through a really bad patch, so the sudden change in his outlook was quite a surprise. He was very mysterious - all he'd say was that he could show me something that would make every aspect of my life better.
Things weren't going that well for me at the time. My business had been badly hit by the recession and I was arguing constantly with my boyfriend Alex. If you're feeling down and someone offers you a magic formula promising emotional happiness, it's bound to be tempting. By the end of the phone call I was intrigued.
Next time we met, Keith was glowing with happiness. He still refused to tell me his secret, but handed me a book and said I'd find spiritual fulfilment by reading it. The book was really boring but I quickly got into the habit of reading a couple of pages a night to put me to sleep. The odd thing was, by the time I'd waded halfway through, the rest of the book suddenly seemed gripping. I didn't realise that the indoctrination process had already started. Keith knew I was upset about the way things were going with Alex, so one night he offered to 'audit' me to make me feel better. Auditing is the technical term used by the cult to describe the process of hypnosis. You are made to look at the ceiling while the other person counts from one to seven. Eventually you slip into a trance and are completely suggestible. Then the auditor leads you into talking about your past. The danger is that any personal information you disclose is likely to be used against you in the future.
I began talking about my father's death years ago. Tears were pouring down my face and I couldn't understand why Keith wasn't comforting me. Later I discovered that the committed rarely display sympathy or compassion. Showing emotion is frowned upon.
By the end of my audit I felt euphoric. That moment of elation becomes addictive. I'd never been addicted to anything in my life, but I found myself craving that high, wanting to feel it again. Keith kept telling me I'd never be happy unless I joined the cult. Gradually I started to believe him. I convinced myself that joining would resolve all the problems with Alex.
From the moment I showed a flicker of interest, the pressure to join was relentless. Keith persuaded me to take a personality test at the headquarters. The tests are evaluated by a member but the scores are deliberately low in order to convince people they need to improve certain aspects of their personality. Cults find the problem in your life then home in on it. The man who evaluated me looked at me as if I was a horrible person with a hopeless future.
When a friend told me to have nothing to do with the cult I ended up arguing with her, telling her she didn't know what she was talking about. Like everyone else involved, I didn't realise I was being sucked in. The recruiting methods are very subtle. To me, they were just a group of people trying to achieve their maximum potential - and who wanted to help me achieve mine.
Gradually it began to dominate my whole life. I worked every morning and then went to the mission each afternoon to study. If I didn't turn up, someone would phone to check up on me. We got points for the hours we spent studying and the number of books we sold to potential members. They ran lots of self-improvement courses and I borrowed UKP2,000 so I could sign up for nine of them. Each course promises to take you one step further 'up the bridge' of transforming your whole life. People spend a fortune on them. Some of the advanced courses cost up to UKP27,000.
The techniques used can be very frightening. The aim of the 'purification course' is to clear your body of toxins. You take a huge dose of vitamins, up to 30 pills a day. Afterwards you run around for hours, then you have to sit in a sauna for ages with only a few minutes break every hour. I had to come out because I couldn't stand the heat and the supervisor was over in a flash, making me feel like a total failure.
The training routine involved sitting opposite someone for up to an hour with your eyes closed. If you moved, you had to start again. It was supposed to teach us discipline. There were also sessions where you had to listen to someone insult you. I had a man telling me I was a fat, ugly pygmy. The purpose was to teach us not to react when anyone told us anything unpleasant in the future. It also ensured that when people outside criticised the cult, you could ignore their comments. You end up programmed into a certain 'mindset' that prevents you questioning any information that's negative towards the cult. I fell for it hook, line and sinker.
My personal life had degenerated into chaos by now. Alex wanted nothing to do with my new friends and our relationship had begun to deteriorate. I'd begun using all the cult buzzwords and he couldn't understand anything I said. I talked about nothing apart from how wonderful the group was and how he'd never achieve anything unless he got involved too. The more Alex told me how worried he was, the more I ranted at him.
My mother and sister were shocked and devastated by the change in me. We argued every time we spoke to one another on the phone. I'd never hung up on my sister before, but now her warnings made me so angry I could hardly speak to her.
By now I was trying to convert everyone I cared about. I wanted all my family and friends to join in so they could improve their lives too. If anyone mentioned they were having relationship difficulties or feeling low, I rammed the cult down their throat. The few friends I was still in touch with began to give me a wide berth and Alex and I started seeing even less of each other. I was having it drummed into me that unless Alex joined too, the gulf between us would only get wider. Although I still loved him, I reconciled myself to our relationship ending.
Because being a member of a cult slowly alienates you from everyone you care about outside, there was a great feeling of 'us' and 'them'. Members believe in reincarnation and their perception of people on the outside is that they're caught in a descending spiral and will probably come back as an insect or something equally lowly in the next life. We were encouraged to associate only with other members.
Although I never saw anyone being PHYSICALLY abused, if you lived in and didn't sell enough books or recruit enough people you were put on 'lower conditions'. Those on lower conditions wore blue overalls, only got rice and beans for supper, weren't allowed to speak unless spoken to and had to do menial jobs, like cleaning the loos. The punishment could last for anything up to a month at a time.
For the last few months of my involvement, I saw everything in terms of the cult. If I had a good day at work, I felt grateful to it. If I had a bad day, I felt it was a punishment for not studying enough. I was on the brink of selling my business and signing up to work full time at the cult's headquarters when my family intervened.
Everything happened very quickly one weekend when I went to stay with my sister. The cult had already drilled me on how to handle family objections, but my sister and mother had planned things meticulously. They'd researched everything and had collected more than 40 newspaper articles. They also had videos of two documentaries exposing cults.
At first I got angry with them because they refused to listen to me. But my sister just kept telling me how much they loved me. That threw me and I started to cry. Mum begged me to watch the videos so I could make up my own mind. I'd been instructed by the cult to find out where my family got any negative information and then report back, so I agreed to take a look. Even though I thought it was all a pack of lies, I started to watch the videos.
Ten minutes later I could hardly look at the screen. There was so much damning evidence it was impossible to ignore. I kept thinking, 'Why have all these people who were once so senior left the cult?' By the time I'd watched both videos and read all the articles my mindset was breaking down. I recognised that my mother and sister weren't evil - they loved me. All the negative things I was seeing and hearing about cults began to sink in.
I sat down with my family at 6pm and we stayed up all night. By nine the next morning I knew I wasn't going back. I had it easier than most because I didn't live in. I just ran away and I haven't heard from them since. There's still plenty of time though. My entire life had been turned upside down in a matter of months, and I needed weeks of counselling to help me recover. But cults often work very hard to ensure their members DON'T find out the real facts. You're actively discouraged from reading newspapers or watching TV.
With hindsight, I regret the day I ever became involved. Now I can't see a single benefit, although at the time I thought it would make everything perfect. Every aspect of my life was affected. I became far more aggressive, I nearly lost my business, I'm still in debt and, worst of all, I hurt the people I love most in the world... all because of the cult.
It's only two months since I left and my life is getting better every day. My relationship with my family is stronger than ever. Alex and I are still together and the whole experience has brought us a lot closer - we hardly row at all. I've thrown myself back into my business and hope to expand next year. When I first came out I had a choice: to close the door and keep quiet or speak out. It took me five minutes to make up my mind. It's always at the back of my mind that the cult will use the personal information I disclosed against me or that my family will be harassed. But I came so close to destroying myself and my family that I'd do anything to prevent someone else doing the same.
It's so easy to be duped. The members seem so positive at first, the word cult is never mentioned. Then, before you know it, you're giving up everything that matters. You probably think it could never happen to you - I know I did. But there are a lot of intelligent women in the cult who thought they knew better, too.