When you leave extremism, it doesn’t just poof and goes away, for a very long time certain elements stick with you long after you’ve left that life behind you. It has been nearly ten years since I broke the bondage of hate and extremism, and long after that, and even long after destroying the ideological indoctrination, certain ticks, hangups, little things you only notice when you pay close attention or someone brings them up to you… remains. I’ve talked with other formers and they too have noticed some things still remain with them long after becoming a normal, productive, and caring member of society.
Some of these occurrences can be rather large, others barely perceivable or seem like normal responses from the years involved in extremism. Seeing as it is widespread throughout formers, knowing that the occurrences run on a scale from minor to major, and knowing that they do not simply go away with time, I refer to these as issues “Post-Exit PTSD.”
Post-Exit PTSD from my perspective encompasses a wide array of issues, but I exclude anything directly related to extremism that can be easily corrected, such as speech and words, ideology, gestures, false and limiting beliefs etcetera. I’ll give examples that I have found in myself that linger to this day, speaking from my own experiences. These are in no way common, each person will be different to a degree because each person had different lengths involved, different duties, and worked in different groups, so there is no standard set.
Firstly for me, I had always been fairly outgoing, I had a lot of friends, and people genuinely wanted to be around me and know me, and today I find myself more socially awkward and have difficulties making friends (this is not the case on social media, however). This was a big one that I noticed early on after leaving the movement, and it does to a degree impact my life. It isn’t a fear of people, I have no problems with public speaking or responding to anyone who talks to me or in interviews, it is more of a withdrawal from people due to some unforeseen and underlying issue.
If someone worked a bit more to talk to me I am sure I’d warm up and they’d be able to break through, but most are not willing to do so, and I am not so self-centered as to impose that on them. Like I said, in my youth and the whole time I was involved in extremism, I was outgoing and made friends quite easily, now I can only do so online.
The years I spent being security for higher-profile individuals in the movement also affected me in ways I hadn’t noticed until long after I was out of that life. Every place I go I take a mental picture of everything there, to the point if a pencil is moved I will notice it. I also tend to look through my peripheral vision when I’m out, noticing everything around me at all times. I notice when someone is erratic immediately, I notice when someone might be in distress immediately, it’s as if I am always on my toes, even when relaxed.
I prefer to have my back to a wall and to have a vantage point (balcony or a corner) to more easily survey an area when I am out and to see everyone around me. I often find myself acutely observing white men with shaved bald heads or wearing certain clothing (generally skinhead-like) until they’re out of view, but this one might be more easily explained away.
Many of these I have tried therapies to fix (I am a therapist with dozens of tools I’m licensed in), which they do help a little, but oftentimes return out of the blue and without me noticing. Being involved in extremism is very much so mirrored with joining a cult, and those who leave cults often suffer PTSD symptoms and formers suffer much the same. Many formers are ashamed or feel out of sorts talking about it, but it needs to be discussed because outside of formers themselves, no one else is talking about it.