Friday, April 15, 2011

It Gets Better

I remember how scared and devastated I was when I lost my testimony. Life was pretty difficult for me for a long time. Mormonism was all I knew, and I had no idea how I was going to live outside of it.

I don't know how likely it is that a Mormon who is doubting their faith will stumble across my blog, but if any ever should, this post is for you. And my promise is that it gets better, if I may borrow a phrase used by the LGBT movement.

I think that the best thing I did when I lost my testimony was reach out for help. I started posting on an exmormon recovery board,, and the people there were incredibly supportive. Another thing I did that was incredibly helpful was doing research on grieving and how it works. For many, perhaps most people who leave the church, there's a grieving process involved. It was incredibly helpful for me when I realized what was going on and why--and that it would eventually peter out and I'd be okay. A useful model for understanding this is the 5 stages of grief. The important thing to realize here is that this process is not like a game of Monopoly, where you land on each square, pay your dues, and move on. Everyone will experience these emotions differently, in a different order, and sometimes simultaneously. You will probably experience some of the different stages more than once. People are complex things, and leaving the Mormon church (whether you leave only mentally, or physically as well) is a long process for many people. The church entwines itself so entirely into the lives of its members. It permeates quite literally every aspect of life--from big things, like philosophical epistemology, to little things like what you can eat and drink, to intensely personal things like sexuality and relationships. There is no area of life that Mormonism doesn't touch. When you are freed from the church, it's a wonderful feeling. Your life and choices are completely your own and you don't have an organization trying to impose its one-size-fits-all dogma on you. But because the church is so completely a part of everything, the process of extricating yourself can be long and painful.

Everyone's experience will be different, but I am going to give a quick run-down of what the process was like for me in the hopes that others will be able to relate to parts of it, and recognize the differences in their own experience. The process started when I was exposed to information about the church that contradicted everything I had been taught. This information was online, and my initial reaction was to defend the church. I was convinced that the information being presented was false, and by Jove I was going to correct that misinformation! Obviously, this backfired badly. I was having references to the Journal of Discourses and LDS canon scripture thrown at me, and ultimately I realized that the discussion was going nowhere and gave up. The information I received perturbed me, but not so badly that it really affected me aside from irritating me.

Over a period of about a month, I repeatedly encountered things that chipped at my resolve. These things fell into two categories--reasoning and evidence. The reasoning was really the most powerful influence on me. I remember one day in particular when I couldn't get the conflict between D&C 132 and Jacob 2 off my mind. After my classes for the day were done, I remember sitting at the kitchen table in my dorm with my scriptures and laptop, poring over the relevant verses and trying to reconcile their differences. I spent the better part of the afternoon on this. And things like this kept happening, on average about once a week. Every time my attempt to reconcile the problem turned out to be futile and I gave up. One night it hit me that the church might not be true after all.

Doubt is a curious thing. It's like belief; you can't just make yourself doubt something. The philosopher Descartes tried to find truth by doubting everything, and then building his worldview back up starting with the self evident truth that "I think, therefore I am." But as the pragmatist philosopher William James pointed out, Descartes didn't actually change his behavior. He still kept his hand out of the fire, still ate and drank, still interacted with his world in the same way as always even though he was trying to doubt that any of it existed. I think that James has a more accurate conception of doubt than Descartes--namely, that doubt is uncertainty as to how one should act. And you can't make yourself doubt. Try it--try doubting whether you'll burn your hand if you stick it in the fire. Do you now have any hesitancy about how you should act with respect to the fire?

When I started doubting, I had no idea how to act. It was painful. When you don't know how to act, you can't really function. One term for describing this is "cognitive dissonance"--the painful phenomenon of having two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. I believed that the church was true, yet I was aware of things like the contradiction between D&C 132 and Jacob 2, the heinous history of polygamy, Joseph Smith's false prophecy about the second coming of Christ being at the end of the nineteenth century, Brigham Young's Adam/God doctrine--and the list was growing. I didn't know what to think or how to act. The way we cope with cognitive dissonance is obvious--we suppress one of the conflicting ideas. So I suppressed my doubts. They were still there in a dark corner of my mind, but I ignored them so that I could function. I was in denial.

There came a point when I couldn't suppress the doubt anymore. I had shoved that "spiritual shelf" so full of different things that when I encountered one more problem--in my case, the Book of Abraham--it didn't fit on the shelf anymore and it came crashing down around my ears. I felt the full intensity of the doubt and uncertainty, and to this day I can think of only one other time when I was in more emotional pain (also connected to the church). It was then that I started posting on Within twenty-four hours I was out. I had been resisting the notion that the church wasn't true, but by this time the only thing stopping me from admitting it to myself was intellectual honesty. I wanted to make sure that I had given the church a fair shake before I rejected it. But the pile of problems was just so enormous, the very honesty that made me initially hesitant pushed me to realize, it probably isn't true. The absolute relief that flowed over me when I made that realization was incredible. There was a long, hard road ahead of me out of the church still, but I entered into an acceptance phase for awhile. The last month of that semester at BYU was surprisingly pleasant. The month or so previously had been painful, and now I was free. I started exploring the boundaries of the new world that my mind was in, and found that it had none. I was as free as a bird, and it was exhilarating. In short order I accepted evolution as scientifically viable, gave myself proper sex ed with the aid of Wikipedia, and even started questioning the existence of God.

That last item was the one that drove me into another difficult stage of my deconversion. Atheism frightened me. I tentatively explored the idea with my mind, trying to get a feel for the world, and didn't find any God in this new, ex-Mormon world. It frightened me. About two weeks after I stopped believing Mormonism, I watched The Lion King with my roommates and ended up very distressed over the death of Mufasa. What happens when you die? I didn't want to lose my family forever. The problem of death kept me vacillating on the question of God for several months. At different points I was an atheist, an agnostic, a deist, and at one point almost a Christian. And then, after months of worrying that issue, I let it go. I realized that no easy answers were forthcoming, and almost imperceptibly, I began thinking of myself as an atheist.

That was the process of my intellectual change, but the emotional one was much, much more difficult. This is where the stages of grieving come in. Sometimes I would experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance all within a single day--sometimes a single hour. I knew it wasn't true, but sometimes I was still so emotionally attached to the church that I tried to make myself not know. Most often I was angry and resentful, which always seemed to throw me right into depression again when my anger proved utterly ineffectual. At one point I was so obsessed with the problem of death and whether or not life had any meaning that I was suicidal. The issue plagued my mind so much that it became like a vise on my brain that wouldn't let go. It was always there, looming in the background. I remember one dark night when my family was watching a movie, and I was so trapped inside my own mind that I locked myself in the bathroom, trying desperately to gain control of my mind, and the thoughts of death just wouldn't stop. Try as I might, I couldn't make them go away. There are few things that terrify me as much as not being able to control my own mind. I want to point out here that part of the problem in my case was that I have a history of problems with depression, especially in the winter months and as a side effect of PMS, and I have no doubt that this was an enormous part of the problem with my fixation on death. But it had never been this bad before.

My point in sharing this is that I want to show anyone who's in a similar situation that it gets better. You can move on, you can figure it out, and you can find meaning and purpose in life outside of God. It was really hard for me for awhile, and there's a chance that I might not have made it through. But I did, and I can promise that life on the other side is wonderful, and even better than life in Mormonism. It's going to be hard for awhile, and that's okay. Don't try to force yourself to be happy right away. It's okay to be sad. But don't give up, and if you find yourself seriously depressed like I was, please please please ask for help. Life is wonderful, and leaving Mormonism gives you so many wonderful options. Grieving is a part of letting go, but it doesn't last forever, and it WILL get better. :)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Several years ago I started questioning things, but my husband pulled me back. But this time he started the questioning, and I started really looking into things, and there's no turning back this time. Of course, my husband is distressed at my reactions, because he didn't mean to make me lose my faith. He didn't. The facts did.