India Oxenberg Opens Up About Her Healing Journey Five Years After Leaving the NXIVM Cult (Exclusive)

India Oxenberg Opens Up About Her Healing Journey Five Years After Leaving the NXIVM Cult (Exclusive)

She faced sexual and psychological abuse in the secretive cult, but with a new home in Key West and a new podcast, “I’m learning to enjoy my life again”

In 2018, with the help of her mother, actress Catherine Oxenberg, India Oxenberg escaped the clutches of the secretive cult known as NXIVM, after seven years of sexual and psychological abuse. The two assisted the FBI in taking down the cult, founded by Keith Raniere, who was sentenced to 120 years in prison after his conviction in 2019 for sex trafficking, conspiracy and racketeering. But getting out , India soon learned, was only the beginning: "I had no f---ing clue what I was up against," she tells People in an exclusive interview in this week's issue. For the past five years, Oxenberg has done the difficult work of healing from her trauma and has rebuilt her life on her own terms. "I've taken my life back and I'm learning who I want to be," she says.

India Oxenberg was at home in Key West, Fla., one Saturday morning in July when she had the overwhelming urge to dance. She put on the song “Belly Dancer” by Imanbek & BYOR, blasted the driving beat and began twirling, swinging her hips and tossing her hair. And then she made her happy dance public on Instagram (dubbing over the video with another favorite tune, Jain's "Makeba"), a move that “made me sweat like crazy, but who cares? That’s the mindset I’m building,” she says. “I find myself having moments now where I let myself just enjoy being alive in this body. I feel free.”

Related: What I Wish I Knew About Grooming: India Oxenberg Reflects on Her Experience in Nxivm

Not long ago such unfettered joy would have been unthinkable. In 2018 Oxenberg escaped the headline-making NXIVM cult, a group that, for seven years subjected her to physical and mental abuse—including branding, forced sex and starvation. But India, who had first become involved in the cult when she 19, carried the pain long afterward. "These past five years have been heavy—and scary—but you can’t rush the healing," she says.

<p>Ysa Perez</p> India Oxenberg photographed for People, September 2023

Ysa Perez

India Oxenberg photographed for People, September 2023

Now 32, India has built a new life in Key West with her husband of three years, chef Patrick D’Ignazio, 32, and has discovered a renewed confidence: “In NXIVM, so much energy was put toward self-hatred. My mind’s not consumed by that anymore, but it’s taken time to feel that I have value.” Says Patrick: “She’s come a long way in believing in herself."

With her new podcast, Still Learning, in which she interviews trauma survivors and experts, she’s on a mission to connect. (Her second episode, featuring Sochil Martin, a survivor of the La Luz del Mundo cult, is out today.) “I want to use this unfortunate circumstance for something positive. It’s about asking, ‘What are the nuggets of gold after you’ve experienced something traumatic?’ ” she says. “I want people to come away with hope.”

<p>Ysa Perez</p> India Oxenberg working on her new podcast, Still Learning, September 2023.

Ysa Perez

India Oxenberg working on her new podcast, Still Learning, September 2023.

In the years just after she was freed from NXIVM, as she provided evidence to the FBI and released a documentary about her experience (2020’s Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult), she found herself answering questions rather than asking them. The relentless focus on her past was draining: “It was 24/7, and it wasn’t healthy,” she says. She wrestled with the praise she received for speaking out. “People were saying, ‘You’re so brave.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t feel that inside.’ Shame will tell you that you aren’t worth loving.”

Related: How I Escaped the Sarah Lawrence Sex Cult After 10 Years of Mental and Physical Abuse

In her darkest days she struggled with suicidal ideation. “It was easy for me to go from a trigger to ‘Now I want to die.’ It was scary how normal that felt—and it was so fast I couldn’t interrupt the thought process.” She would text her mom messages of desperation: “I don’t want to be here anymore.” “I want to disappear.” Recalls India: “All of those things, I would say on repeat.” But “my mom could see that I had a future when I couldn’t see it,” she says. “To have people in my life that were able to ground me and say, ‘I want you here’—that is what helped me.”

<p>Courtesy India Oxenberg</p> India Oxenberg with her mother, actress Catherine Oxenberg

Courtesy India Oxenberg

India Oxenberg with her mother, actress Catherine Oxenberg

One of those people was her husband. The two met in 2018—just one month after India’s escape—when they were both working at a restaurant in New York City. They became friends, and slowly India opened up to him about her past. They eloped in 2020, but it became clear how much pain was still beneath the surface: “There are scars you can’t see,” D’Ignazio says.

<p>Ysa Perez</p> India Oxenberg with husband Patrick D'Ignazio, September 2023

Ysa Perez

India Oxenberg with husband Patrick D'Ignazio, September 2023

When emotions were elevated, India would retreat. “Anytime anybody raised their voice—even laughter—I’d go into a trauma response,” she says. “I became infantile.” Once, when her engagement ring went missing, “India was curled up in the bed, unable to do anything, upset and crying,” says D’Ignazio. “But even after I found it, [the upset] went on for another 24 hours.”

Food and exercise were fraught with fear as well. In NXIVM, “there was a huge emphasis on weight, because Keith [Raniere]'s preference was to have people be very thin, anorexic,” India says. Actress Allison Mack, a cult leader who helped facilitate Raniere's sexual abuse and who was later convicted for racketeering and conspiracy, used to demand that Oxenberg weigh in regularly and report each calorie she consumed.

“I used exercise to punish myself: ‘I ate a lot, so now I have to walk 20 miles.’ ” Oxenberg says. After her escape, exercise became a way to forget: “I’d over exercise like a crazy person because I couldn’t be with my own thoughts.”

Today she's found a healthier approach. Boxing lessons have helped her “to feel strong and capable of protecting myself," she says. "I felt so weak at a certain point in my life, and I was like, "What would it be like to feel physically strong? Even just the pull and response of punching, getting out of my own head, needing to be entirely focused on what's in front of me was helping me retrain my brain." She also does "low impact Pilates for 45 minutes. That's plenty. I’m able to be more gentle with my body.”

<p>Ysa Perez</p> India Oxenberg at home in September 2023.

Ysa Perez

India Oxenberg at home in September 2023.

For a long time, sex, too, meant danger. “As soon as I’d get remotely close, I’d start to freeze,” she says. “With sexual trauma, your body and mind feel disconnected. You might know you’re safe, but your body still responds as if it’s reliving the old trauma.”

That began to change during one of the couple’s camping trips, when D’Ignazio suggested they take hallucinogenic mushrooms together. “We started to get intimate, and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. This is how it should be!’ My body actually felt good during sex. It helped me get out of my head.”

In combination with traditional therapy, psychedelics—as well as ketamine treatments, which have reduced her cycle of suicidal thoughts—have helped her “retrain my brain,” she says. They are not, however, a magic pill: “Psychedelics allow you to see that maybe the perspective you’ve been stuck in isn’t right,” says India, who is collaborating with her mother’s nonprofit foundation on Healix180, a project that promotes healing for trauma survivors, including the Healix Immersion Program for female survivors of sexual assault, which offers ketamine treatment. “But then it’s about taking what you learn and applying it without the drugs.”

That work continues at home with their cats Rice and Beans in Key West, where the couple moved in 2022 and where D’Ignazio opened his restaurant Eaton Good. “He’s helped me learn to love food again,” says India. She has been writing poetry and music—and building up the courage to take the stage to sing. "Putting myself out there in that way is really vulnerable for me," she says.

But “I feel so fortunate to be where I am now,” she says. “I wake up and feel excited about my day. I feel like I own my life.”

<p>Ysa Perez</p> India Oxenberg photographed for People, September 2023.

Ysa Perez

India Oxenberg photographed for People, September 2023.

For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on People.