I’m in a cult.

It’s the second one I’ve joined, apparently.

How do I know this? Because it’s the second time I’ve been told I’m in a cult. By someone else. Who isn’t in the cult.

*this is a long-form story of my experience with Landmark*

Exactly two years ago this month (this weekend, in fact. Weird!) I sat my butt down in a chair for three long days of a personal development course. I had taken the plunge to see what this Landmark Forum thing was all about. Several friends and colleagues I trusted had been on my case to do it for a few years so I figured it was time. I brought a healthy dose of skepticism combined with an open-mind that came from similar experiences that I ended up really loving.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I felt prepared for anything.

Because I needed something to help me. I was 20 months into my gender transition and halfway through my graduate school program (which I started within two months of my gender transition) and my life felt really out of control. I was also trying to run my own business as a health coach at the same time. And my long-term, live-in relationship was. not. working.

When I walked into that room filled with rows of chairs, I didn’t feel afraid. I felt nervous, maybe a little shy but not afraid. I felt hopeful. Maybe they would provide something I wasn’t getting elsewhere.

Before I went, I did my research. I read an article online by someone who blogged about his experience. He’d brought the same, “what the F is this all about” attitude I felt within myself, so I really enjoyed his article. I wish I could I remember who it was. Maybe if I find it, I’ll edit this later.

I read a few more articles and testimonials online. Some were favorable. Some were not. I didn’t need to read more. I had my life experience as evidence and I figured if I couldn’t spend a few hundred dollars on myself and sit in a chair for a weekend to improve my life, something was really wrong with me. I mean, I had just spent several thousand out-of-pocket to have a life-changing surgery to transform my gender identity. What was a few hundred more?

The Forum isn’t a play. It isn’t a performance. It’s an experience. And like the ending of a good movie or book, I’m not going to tell you more of what I saw or felt because that would ruin the shit out of it. And it would defeat the whole purpose, because what I got out of it has nothing to do with what anyone else would get.

But I CAN tell you what happened in my life after doing it.

I got my partner at the time to do it. And then we both did the second weekend course.

I was asked to join the group of assistants called Course Supervisors. I worked hard to keep up and meet the responsibilities of that ‘volunteer’ position. I put that in little quotes because it’s less volunteer and more bartering for leadership development at an intense level. I show up and they train the shit out of me in ways that impact my whole life. We’re even, trust me.

But for as much as I got from that first long weekend, I quickly fell back into old habits of thinking and acting that didn’t serve me. I got resentful that my relationship with my partner wasn’t fixed for the better forever. I blamed that course and the whole organization and I gave up.

I never called it a cult but as I let my insecurities and fear get louder each day, soon I quit the whole scene. I was done.

And within a month I moved out of the apartment I shared with my partner. I spent the next 20 months (see a theme, here? It’s freakin’ weird, I know) finding my feet again. I bounced around to several apartments, wrapped up grad school, kept my business running, and dealt with the HUGE FUCKING SHOCK and adjustment to being transgender in my mid-30s and ending a 10-year relationship with someone. We were together as partners for 5 years but had been friends for years before that. So there was a lot to grieve.

And, frequently, I would think about Landmark. I would wonder how people there were doing. I didn’t feel guilty or bad for having left when I did. I had felt completely overwhelmed and now I didn’t feel like I was drowning.

But my life still wasn’t working EXACTLY as I saw it could. I was eating well, exercising, my sleep evened out eventually and I was putting one foot in front of the other each day. But aspects about my personal relationships and business decisions still felt confusing. Hard. I felt disempowered.

I KNEW I was holding myself back in both arenas. I saw it. Going to therapy every week was helping me creep along at what felt like an agonizing pace.

And then I received a phone call from someone at Landmark. “Dillan, you’re missed here.”

It felt different from other calls to request my assistance on other courses. It’s true that the thing runs on people stepping up to assist without compensation. Something that someone recently pointed to when she said, “Dillan, it’s a cult. They take your money and you volunteer and they make money on people like you.”

It’s one way to look at it, I guess. Having been the supreme skeptic myself, and taking so much time away from the work and that place, I totally GET what that person is saying. And WHY she is saying it. It was that way of thinking that led me to leave in the first place, right?

But I took that invitation to come back. I agreed to assist for the December Forum. I would go back, see how things felt and if there was anything that would help me make progress.

Immediately things shifted.

This post could easily be 50,000 words but I’ll be brief.

When I walked back through the doors, I felt conflicted. Was I doing the right thing? I was nervous. I felt insecure that someone would berate me for being a quitter. No one did that.

I felt self-conscious about my appearance. I always feel that way a little bit in settings where I’m *pretty sure* I’m one of very few transgender people. I can never know for sure, of course, right? But I let that slide. I can’t be anything other than what I am. My body is my body. People will see what they will and think what they think about me.

I gave myself permission to leave as soon I felt unsafe or in any way overwhelmed with discomfort. It never happened. Or if it did, I remembered that it’s ok to feel uncomfortable. My Buddhist retreats are FULL of that feeling. I’ve learned to sit. I’ve learned to think through what I’m feeling and why. I’ve learned to ask to talk to someone. So, I didn’t need to run. I could just be there.

Within hours, I remembered the good aspects of this place. People there are honest. Genuine. Imperfect. They are honest about being imperfect, some more than others. Some make eye-contact, don’t. They are just like other human beings walking around on the street but the distinction is that they talk about what’s really happening in their lives. They are there on purpose.

And they were happy to see me, which was something I’d been craving in my life. I’d been feeling a little lonely, my interactions with people leaving me feeling like I wanted more. These folks, just average people like me, assisting from their own free will, openly complimented me on my personality. They said, “you’re extraordinary.”

I relaxed. I slipped into what comes easy for me. Taking directions. Helping people feel comfortable. Making real conversation.

I remembered what I knew to do before, from my participation years ago. Setting up chairs and sorting papers and greeting these terrified course participants with a genuine smile. I remembered being that terrified person, wondering who these confident people were ushering me to a seat.

I didn’t have to pretend to feel their fear.

I didn’t have to force my compassion for them.

I didn’t have to act like someone was forcing me to be there.

I was there, feeling relaxed and relieved to be making a contribution. I didn’t feel pressured or overwhelmed. I didn’t feel annoyed or part of some contrived performance. And then it hit.

By the middle of the second day, after listening to the course leader progress through the material and seeing person after person light up from the inside-out, I knew I had to call my mother. I was terrified so I talked to some of the other people assisting. They knew what I was struggling with, because they’d done similar scary things themselves.

My mother and had been estranged for years since I began my gender transition in 2012. Things got better when I’d done the course myself in 2014 but in the two years since they had deteriorated. I had been stuck as to why and what I needed to say to make things work.

Now, I GOT it. I knew what I needed to say but more, I knew who I needed to BE.

I went downstairs and called her on my next break. She answered the phone. We’d last spoken in March 2015 so it impressed me when I heard her voice.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Mom, I’m doing that course again. I wanted to say I miss you and I realize I haven’t been making a lot of space for you to grieve the loss of my old self.”

Mom: “Yeah, I could have done things differently, too, this whole time.”

Me: “Mom?! Who are you? Really?” (laughs)

Mom: “Yeah, I know.”

and then

Mom: “You made a decision that I had no power or control over. And it had a real impact on me.”

I sat and heard that as a sentence. Not a condemnation. Not a judgment. And then I said with all the love in my heart:

Me: “Mom, you’re really right. It did. It did impact you. I get it.”

She shared that her friend had lost a child that year. And another one had recently lost her lesbian daughter to suicide. My mom is not the type to explicitly say, “wow, I sure am glad you’re alive and haven’t committed suicide” but she sort of implied it.

We wrapped up and I said I would call her more tomorrow because my break was over. As I rode the elevator up, I seriously thought it would shoot through the ceiling. I felt the burden of years fall right off my shoulders. MY heart felt like it would explode.

This was FORGIVENESS. Forgiveness for myself for choosing to transition and forgiveness for my mom for grieving in ways that felt uncomfortable for me but were her RIGHT to do.

The next night, I called my former partner. The one who I mentioned earlier. I was leaving for the night, thoroughly elated at my progress and enjoying the company of these good people I had missed and I said, “I’m not sure if I need to get complete with ______.”

Immediately, someone said, “if you’re thinking about it, you need to.”

I walked away and dialed her phone number at 10:30 at night, for the first time in 15 months.

The details of that conversation are similar to the results of talking to my mom. Complete and total freedom on either end. My heart feeling open and healed within mere minutes, as I sat shaking and shivering from fear and relief on the train platform in Boston.

Closure that had eluded me for months came to me within minutes.

Since then? Even more of the same. It’s been over a month and my life just keeps expanding outward. The blocks I felt professionally became curbs to step over as I got support from these inspiring and engaged colleagues of mine. I have friends who are making shit happen in their lives, too, and including me in all of it. I’m expanding my network of like-minded folks. I have people to call when I get stuck, who actually listen to me and help me work through it. I’m back on the court at Landmark, which is a microcosm of everyday life, only with some guidelines and friendly people to make it work more efficiently and effectively.

Like someone from IKEA actually sitting beside you helping you with that instruction manual.

And I smile at the people in my life who instantly balk when I tell them what I’m doing. People who have never set foot in the room but throw stones from a distance. People who judge from fear. People who have created distance, maybe, because of who I’m now being. “Dillan’s in a cult. Stay away,” says their inner resistance.

My inner resistance had a voice like that. It still DOES! This work is no joke. But I can’t deny the evidence of what I’ve seen in my life over these past two years. I know that I get to take what I need and do what works and can come and go when or how I want or need.

I have total freedom and power to use these tools now.

And now, after taking time away and being back in it, newly, I totally understand WHY I left. I have walked the whole thing and came back around full circle. In the past month, I’ve made more progress in my life than I made in the 20 months I was gone.

“What if you were just ready to make those calls, Dillan?”

Someone said this to me the other day. It was a good question.

My reply:

“If I was ready this whole time, why wasn’t I doing it?”