No Way Out?

September 1, 2016

I was thinking this morning about my long struggle with depression. For most of my life, I just lived with it, undiagnosed and untreated, and I’m convinced a lot of that had to do with my belief that being a member of the LDS church and keeping the commandments made one “happy.” I was doing what I was supposed to do and trying to nurture a relationship with God, so I told myself I was happy because happiness naturally follows the kind of life I was living. On the rare occasions I admitted how bad things were, I just blamed myself for not being faithful enough and not being content with my blessings.

I was miserable. Sometimes I hated myself so much I contemplated suicide. Ironically, what kept me from making the attempt was my belief that, even if I killed myself, it wouldn’t be the end. I’d just be sitting there in the spirit world, as unhappy and self-loathing as ever. So, what would have been the point?

Obviously, the reality of my life didn’t match what the church told me my life should be. I just accepted that my life was as good as it was going to get, and that meant I was happy. Perhaps, I thought, this was what happiness was, and people who weren’t living like that must be even worse off than I was. Essentially, I didn’t know what happiness was because I hadn’t experienced it.

I’ve said before that it wasn’t until after my loss of faith that I was able to acknowledge and treat my depression. Of course, it took a suicide attempt to get there. I stopped telling myself I was happy, and it was easy to recognize that the words had always been empty. I found a good therapist and got on the right mix of medications.

I finally decided that happiness is being comfortable in your own skin, enjoying your life without constantly feeling you need to do better. Self-improvement is a worthy goal, but I think we were caught in the trap of never stepping back to appreciate how far we’d come. There was always some other imperfection or failing we had to address. And I guess by “we” I mean “me.”

Life is good.

Sorry I’ve been so busy that I haven’t gotten back to the novel, but I will. I promise.

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Depression

August 12, 2014

This post is probably going to come across as incredibly narcissistic, but I don’t care.

Last night I was getting ready for bed when my wife told me that Robin Williams had died, but she hadn’t heard the cause. I had my laptop, so I looked it up and read that it was probably “suicide by asphyxiation.”

That hit me hard, as 7 years ago last month I attempted suicide by asphyxiation. Things were very bleak in my life at the time, and one evening after my wife cried herself to sleep, I decided it would be better for everyone if I weren’t around anymore. I got out of bed, walked into my closet, and tied one end of a tie around the clothes rod and the other end around my neck. Then I relaxed my knees and let all my weight pull on the tie. Just that quickly I went from feeling depressed to wanting to die to actually trying to kill myself.

I like to think that I stopped myself short of “success” because I realized I didn’t really want to die, but it was more just that it was a lot more painful than I had expected, which probably means I didn’t want to die enough to be willing to endure that much pain. So, I got back on my feet, untied the tie, and went back to bed.

I’m telling that story because I realize that for someone to go through with that and endure that much pain, it means they really want to die.

Since last night, just about every news item has been about how Robin Williams must have been hiding a lot of pain under the “mask” of his comedic performance. That’s bullshit. He was pretty open about his problems with depression, mental illness, and addiction. It’s true that, more than a lot of performers, Mr. Williams always seemed to be “on” when in public, and I used to think he was probably more interesting when he stopped performing. But we’re all performing, to some extent. Every human being must of necessity get up every morning and try to project normality, even though there’s at least a little crazy in all of us. We have to look like we’re functioning at least at a minimal level; those who can’t project that image end up in an institution or on the street.

But depression is something way beyond everyday problems. It’s not a problem of being sad all the time. It’s not a lack of self-esteem. It’s not feeling hopeless or worthless or dead inside. It’s all of those things and much more, and it almost always seems to come from no reason. It’s like a shark in a feeding frenzy, mindlessly and efficiently tearing apart everything that makes your life worth living. If you look into the cold, black eye of depression, you see no emotion, no compassion, nothing but a machine designed to kill you.

And depression isn’t something you can “beat,” like going into remission with cancer. You learn to cope, you take medication, you get therapy, but it’s still there. Like many people I know, I did very well with a combination of therapy and drugs, but I got overconfident and got off the drugs. I did fine for several months and then earlier this summer, I was fortunate enough to recognize the signs that the depression was creeping back, so I’m back on the drugs and doing fine again.

The reason so many of us think we can beat it and do without drugs or therapy is that, despite knowing it’s a medical condition with known biochemical causes, we still believe somewhere deep inside that it’s “just sadness” or some kind of personal failing. We think we should just be able to suck it up and deal with it. And we can’t.

Suicide is an extraordinarily selfish act, but in that moment, it is impossible to think beyond yourself. The shark circles in ever-tightening rings until you can’t see anything beyond your own misery. When you most need help, it’s beyond your capacity to even think of reaching out to someone else. It’s self-centered not because you have an inflated ego, but because you feel totally empty, totally alone. You just want it all to stop.

Whatever you think of Robin Williams, he was a very gifted man. I have to admit that, although I liked his humor much of the time, I thought it was better in small doses. But it was his dramatic roles that I found amazing. My favorite is the obsessed film developer in “One Hour Photo,” which to this day still creeps me out. And his work in “The Fisher King” and “Good Will Hunting” were brilliant and heartbreaking.

On NPR this morning, they said that he occupied a huge part of our culture and touched countless lives. I know that’s true, but in the end, he was probably like me, believing that it would be better for everyone if he were no longer around.

It isn’t.

I wish there were some brilliant thing I could say that would help people who are struggling with depression. There isn’t. I just hope people learn to recognize its symptoms and get help before it becomes a crisis.


More missionaries going home?

July 25, 2014

Interesting article from Russell Arben Fox (his writing is always thoughtful and well-written, so I highly recommend him):

Are More Missionaries Returning Early?

I have no idea if more missionaries are coming home early or not, as I’m not really plugged into the culture anymore. My nephew is on a mission in Europe and has not suffered from any of the issues Fox mentions; of course, he left at age 19. I have a few friends and acquaintances with sons on missions, and I haven’t heard anything from them that would suggest higher numbers of missionaries going home early, but for this discussion, it doesn’t really matter. (I should note that my wife and I have good friends whose daughters returned early from their missions for reasons similar to those Fox describes, but he’s specifically talking about young men, so I’ll stick with that.)

When the church announced the change in age, my first thought was that the church must have seen increasing numbers of young men abandoning mission plans in the year or so between high school graduation and reaching age 19. That was just a guess, as I have no evidence, not even anecdotal, to support that initial impression. But it stands to reason that the cultural pressure to serve a mission combined with living under their parents’ supervision would increase the odds that a boy would choose to serve a mission. I have said before that I thought the numbers of young men leaving on missions would spike the first couple of years after the change and then fall back to a number that is still higher than it was before the change; the main increase will be in young women deciding to serve.

Not long after the announcement, my parents visited us, and they mentioned that one of the young men from their ward in California was heading out on a mission within weeks of high school graduation, and this got them talking about the age change. (I should mention that my mother is a very devout member of the LDS church, and my father is perhaps less an orthodox believer than most members, but he is nevertheless a believer.)

Both of my parents said that they thought their bishop had acted irresponsibly in approving this boy for a mission, as he was quite immature and very dependent on his parents for emotional and financial support. They also said they thought that boys needed that year away from home to, in my dad’s words, “figure out how to live as an independent adult.” Without that year, they said, boys would be unprepared for missionary life. (To be fair, they tend to see LDS missions through the lens of my missionary experience in Bolivia, which of course is not the norm.) They predicted that a lot of these unprepared missionaries would return home early for the same types of reasons Fox mentions. I was probably too shocked at their opinions to really say much, so I don’t think I did.

I’m not sure what to believe about this. I look back on my own life and wonder if the 18 months I had between high school graduation (I was 17 at the time) and the MTC made much of a difference in my preparation. I think the main benefit of that time was that I learned to take care of myself and my responsibilities without being able to depend on anyone else. I couldn’t leave my laundry for my mom to wash, and no one was there to remind me to do my homework. I was responsible for myself. That said, my parents were paying my school and living expenses, so I just had to learn to live within the budget I had, though I knew I could count on them if I had a financial emergency.

These were important lessons for me, as on my mission I was equally responsible for taking care of my responsibilities as a missionary and my personal needs. I remember early on realizing that my companion and I were alone in a small town in the altiplano, and the only time we had any contact with other missionaries was at our weekly zone meetings. We had no phone or any other way of being contacted, unless the zone leaders decided to take the bus out to our town and visit us in person. I thought at the time that we could have done whatever we wanted, and no one would know. We could have faked our numbers (hours worked, discussions taught, and so on), and no one would have been the wiser. I thought it said something about me and my companion that we didn’t do anything like that. We worked hard, and we were disciplined, even when no one was watching.

Would I have done the same had I not had that 18th-month interval? Probably. So, as Fox mentions, it’s not sin, financial reasons, or disobedience that I learned to avoid during that period. I’m left to wonder if being on my own got the homesickness and the inability to handle stress out of the way before I served my mission. I don’t know, honestly. I had companions who had not had a year away from home before their missions, and they didn’t seem much different from me.

The other possibility, it seems to me, is that the numbers of kids coming home early is higher simply because the number of missionaries going out is higher. Only the church’s Missionary Department knows whether the rate of early returns is higher or not. I’ll simply say that I agree with my parents that a year of “adulthood,” such as it is, is almost always beneficial for a young man (or young woman) before committing to something as stressful as a mission, and the current practice probably does mean that boys are going out who are not prepared to live on their own, let alone deal with the stress of a mission.

I am happy to hear that these kids are coming home without the social stigma that was attached to leaving early when I was a missionary. Fox describes it pretty well:

Still, I suppose I can’t quite shake the attitude which shaped my own understanding of being a missionary as I grew up in the 70s and 80s, that understanding basically being summed up as “Come home honorably or come home in a coffin.” (I don’t remember every being told that in exactly those words, but I do recall my mother telling me quite straightforwardly that she wouldn’t acknowledge any son of hers returning early, since of course such a person would have to be an imposter–her real children would never give up.)

My parents never said anything like that to me, and I knew that my parents would have supported me had I come home early for any reason; in fact, my father was quite shocked when I decided to extend my 18-month mission to 24 months. When I called home to ask for their support, he said, “Why would you want to do something like that?” So, it wouldn’t have been bad for me among my family members, but I understood that, socially speaking, it would have been much worse to come home from a mission early than it would have been not to serve a mission in the first place. I will simply echo Fox in saying that if this new acceptance is a trend, I’m delighted. The last thing these kids need is to feel bad about recognizing that they weren’t a “good fit,” as Fox puts it. Perhaps this more accepting attitude means that a lot of members understand that many younger boys aren’t ready for missions and shouldn’t be judged harshly for it.

It will be interesting to see what Fox’s readers report about what they see in their wards and stakes.


Pornography as Addiction and the LDS 12-Step Program

February 18, 2014

This is a little embarrassing to talk about, but reading recently about how research shows that pornography is not an addiction reminded me of my experience with the LDS church’s addiction and recovery program. I suspect that some people are going to use this point as another angle to go after my character and so on, but I really don’t care. I am who I am, weaknesses and all, and I’m OK with myself.

A few years ago things weren’t going very well for me at home, and I started seeing a therapist in Provo. He was a great guy, a biker and former gang member with lots of tattoos who was also a high priest in the LDS church. Like most men, I have looked at pornography on occasion, and that subject came up because, obviously, it was a sensitive issue in my marriage. My wife had decided that I should attend the church’s 12-step addiction-recovery meetings, though I thought that was overkill. But I didn’t dismiss it because I wanted to respect my wife’s concerns.

I discussed this with my therapist, and he not only told me I wasn’t an addict and didn’t need the program, but he advised me against going to the meetings because, he said, the program tended to cause people to obsess about what was only a real problem for a very small number of people. He also said that there was a major lack of training for the people running the programs, who were not professionals but just people assigned to do it, which should be a red flag to anyone. But I figured that attending the meetings was something I could do to show I was making an effort in my marriage (things did get much better with time), so I went.

The meetings were held on Wednesday evenings at the massive student stake center adjacent to Utah Valley University. There were at least 4 rooms dedicated to men dealing with pornography issues, 1 room for women dealing with any kind of addiction, and 2 more rooms for “spouse support” meetings. Most weeks the 4 men’s meetings were filled to overflowing, with most of the participants young, college-age kids.

The meetings were presided over, more or less, by a missionary specifically called to run the meetings, always an older man whose wife was assigned to one of the women’s meetings. The real leader was the “facilitator,” someone who had been through the program and done well enough that the church assigned. The one I remember most distinctly was a white-collar professional who had been abused as a child and definitely had engaged in compulsive sexual behavior.

Meetings opened with participants reciting a pledge not to judge or interrupt or share information about what others had said outside the meeting, followed by an opening prayer. We then took turns reading each of the 12 steps. Each week focused on one of the steps, so each person would then read a paragraph from the chapter of the book covering that step. Then it was time for reporting how our week went.

The program continued just as you would imagine: each person would state his name and say “I am an addict” or something like that and then talk about how things were going. From my perspective, very few of the people there had a real problem with compulsive sexual behavior. Most of these young guys would say, “My name is Steve, and I am addicted to pornography,” or “My name is David, and I’m addicted to masturbation.” The ones that really got to me were the ones who said they were addicted to “lustful thoughts.” Then they would report how many days or weeks or months they had been “clean.”

It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so deadly serious. One guy kept berating himself because, a few years earlier, he had worked as a lifeguard at a swimming pool and had experienced lustful thoughts about the girls in their bikinis. Kids would literally weep as they talked about how they had been more than a year without masturbating but then slipped and had to start all over again. It was as if they wouldn’t consider themselves “clean” until they had banished all sexual thoughts from their lives–and you can guess how that would work out.

With the older men, it was always the same: their wives had caught them looking at porn. Pornography is definitely a problem for some people, but these were normal men who occasionally looked at porn on the internet, not guys spending all day obsessing over it. But the reaction was always the same: the wife was ready to throw in the towel on 10, 20, 30 years of marriage. I can understand the hurt and betrayal spouses might feel, but getting a divorce over it? That just seems crazy to me.

As I said, a few people I met in the months that I attended actually did have a problem with compulsive sexual behavior. They stood out, and I would always think that they really needed to be in therapy, not in this meeting.

At the end of the meeting, the facilitator spoke for several minutes about his experience and the process, and then the missionary spoke, followed by a closing prayer.

The program seemed structured less to control addiction than it was to guide people through the familiar repentance process. Milestones were such things as taking the sacrament again, getting a temple recommend, or putting in mission papers.

My therapist had been right, of course: the main effect was an unhealthy obsession with sexual expression, which ironically is what the program was supposed to help people recover from. There was so much shame in that room, and it was painful to watch. The worst was when these kids talked about admitting their addiction to their loved ones. Most normal adults would think that admitting that you’re addicted to masturbation is ridiculous, but these kids shamed themselves in front of parents and loved ones. I remember some of these boys talking about how they were dating someone and knew they had to tell them about their addiction. Still makes my heart hurt to think of all that pain they were putting themselves through.

Despite all of this, I took the steps seriously because I knew that in those small ways I could reassure my wife that I could and would change my behavior to repair some of what I had damaged in our relationship in other ways, not through any “addiction.” I was glad, however, that I never felt that overwhelming and, it seemed, debilitating shame that many of these guys felt. For me, the meetings were just a reminder to stay focused on my marriage, and I did commit to staying away from porn, which was a good thing.

I did, however, stop attending when I realized that the program was, in the end, a projection of the facilitator’s experiences and feelings. He saw all of us as being the same as he was: a seriously damaged and abused person who struggled with terrible emotional problems and compulsive behavior. The last straw for me was when he started talking about his son, who was serving a mission at the time. He had convinced his son that his occasional masturbation was evidence of a serious addiction, so his son had started attending the meetings at around age 16. When the son went on his mission, he apparently grilled every companion about his masturbatory habits until he became convinced that everyone in the mission was a sex addict. So, he went to the mission president and arranged for each mission zone meeting to have time set aside for all missionaries to go through the 12 steps.

As I recall, the meetings are supposed to help because they are voluntary; you can’t force people to attend meetings for an addiction they don’t have, but that’s what this kid was doing, and his father could not have been prouder.

In the end, that shark-jumping moment convinced me that, just as this man was projecting his life experience and problems on the rest of us, the church had built this program based on how it assumed that members live their lives. One look at pornography was an addiction. Even occasional masturbation was likewise an addiction. But behind the talk of addiction was the old cycle of guilt and shame, and I saw way too much of that.

As I said, I don’t minimize the effects of compulsive sexual behavior, but when you put all sexual expression within that definition, you can potentially destroy lives in ways that pornography and masturbation can’t.


The Great Escape

January 24, 2014

It’s the birthday of a good friend today, and in his honor, I thought I’d share his Mormon “exit” story, which is just a great story, Mormon or otherwise. Happy birthday, Joe! Rereading this story, I’m grateful that he’s received the help he needed and is doing well.

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In October 2000 I started university. I was 16 at the time and the youngest student there. My chosen field of study was Social Science, I intended to specialise in political science, and in the end Economics became my major and politics my minor. Before university, I had never really encountered anything that made me seriously question the faith of my upbringing. I knew about a lot of crazy doctrines, but I just accepted them. What other choice did I have? I was the Bishop’s son, the one who was never in trouble, who never misbehaved in classes, and the one with the longest patriarchal blessing. I was destined to serve an honourable mission and become a leader amongst the saints.

One of my first classes was entitled “The Sociology of Sexuality.” The lecturer was a woman who openly discussed her masturbatory habits as an object lesson, and the tutor was the first openly gay man I’d ever met. I did not enjoy the class. It created too many problems: first, given my age my own sexuality was not entirely decided upon, and second, we studied the Kinsey studies in depth and I had a hard time believing that sexual practices outside of the Salt Lake City prescribed norm could be sinful. I simply put these things on the shelf, along with many, many other things I learned during my studies.

Three years passed, and it came time to go on a mission. I wasn’t forced or pressured into going. It just seemed like the next stage. I was conditioned into thinking that a mission was the thing to do. I duly sent off the paperwork to church headquarters and got sent to Germany–ironic, as German was the only subject I ever failed at school.

I was sent to the MTC in Provo in order to learn the language before being sent to Frankfurt. I hated the MTC. It was horrible. The food made me ill, and the culture and regime were oppressive, humourless, and grey. My early mission days were fine. I had good companions whom I liked. My first area was friendly, and the mission regime was laid back. We were expected to do a job, but there were, unlike most missions, no pharisaical rules to keep.

After some time I was moved from my first area to Bonn. Bonn is a beautiful town, and I enjoyed the younger university town atmosphere; however, after only a few weeks, I was emergency transferred out and to the mission office in Frankfurt. Bonn was important to my exit, as it was where I first noticed historical whitewashing. One day an elder in my district handed me a copy of the ‘King Follet Discourse’ that had been sent to him by his grandfather. In that discourse there is a paragraph about child gods. I thought it would be a great idea for language study to compare the German and English versions of the speech. However, when I got the German version in the Joseph Fielding Smith book, ‘Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,’ I immediately noticed a curious omission: where the child gods paragraph should have been there was simply an asterix. The note at the bottom of the page said that this had been removed because it was a transcription error.

For two years, there had been a couple in the mission office who dealt with the mission finances, and they were due to go home. The church had sent another older couple, but the man told the MP that if he were made do the finance job, he’d have a heart attack. On the phone the MP told me that since I had a degree in Economics and had worked in banks for years, I was the best match for the job. I had only been in Germany four months, but I did not mind.

Life in the office was good. I liked the other elders, and the MP and I developed a good relationship. He liked to talk politics with me because he knew I’d disagree with him. Missions are all about ass-kissing. I was never into that, so I’d disagree, and he actually appreciated that he could have an intelligent conversation with me. Running the mission finances was a big job. We had a budget of more than €1.5m, every penny of which needed to be accounted for. During this time, I became known as mission cook. I hate bad cooking and can cook well, so I used the office to practice my hobby. I cooked for between 6 and 8 missionaries every day. This will become more amazing later in the story.

I was quite able to do all the tasks required of me. It was weird, though; my mission, which was supposed to be a great spiritual experience, had become something like a 9-5 job, only with longer hours. Spirituality was really not a high priority. Sometimes the car elder and his companion got out and did missionary work. I always had too much work to do. I was enjoying it all until, after a while, I stopped being able to sleep.

My sleep patterns went to hell. It was really bad. I was getting only a few hours of sleep a night. I could not function properly during the day. About this time moves happened, and all the office elders changed, except me. One of the new elders was a self-absorbed, ignorant arsehole who thought he received personal revelation about everything. The personality clash between us was a catalyst for major mood swings. One minute I was happy and the next furiously angry. I slipped into a general depression and was referred to the newly assigned area psychiatrist.

The church psychiatrist in Frankfurt dealt with missionaries all over Europe, usually by phone. His office was in the area office, a 10-minute drive away. On my first consultation, he diagnosed me, based on previous experiences and family history, as having Cyclothymia, although this quickly changed to BiPolar Mood Disorder, Type 1 (BP1). Around the same time it was suggested that the office elders make a better attempt at the more ‘spiritual’ side of missionary life.

For most, this meant going out to appointments at night, but more importantly for me, more personal study. I had always felt that church history was a little disjointed and slightly incoherent. I considered this to be a failing of my own knowledge. I started to study church history, including the Journal of Discourses. All the usual suspects were new to me: blood atonement and Adam-God, etc. At this same time, the church psychiatrist decided that some cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) would be useful, especially until the medication kicked in. I had been prescribed Zoloft, which, although it slightly lifted my by-this-time extremely dark mood, also increase the severity of my manic upswings.

When manic, I studied with great speed and intensity, I was devouring the Journal of Discourses. In my CBT sessions I discussed many things relating to the church. For years, I had disagreed with all the political statements the church issued. Having studied world welfare systems, I knew that the church welfare system and the principles upon which it are founded were based on a model of right-wing conservatism for which I had no support. Politics became the first point over which my doctor and I bonded. He was a lifelong Democrat from a line of Democratic politicians in Idaho. He started to relate his feelings as I did mine. During one session I said that, as a result of existing beliefs and the new information I had discovered, I no longer believed the church was true. His response was, “Neither do I.”

He went on to explain that he had known the church was in no way divine from his mission days, too, and that for years he had said very little and never interacted with his wards. As a psychiatrist and a liberal, he had always felt uneasy and unwelcome. Sunstone magazine would call him and his wife, ‘borderlanders.’ From this point on, I have believed that Mormonism is nothing but a facade for most people. Their final straw was the excommunication of the “September Six.”

Although I was in a bad way, I was very grateful to have a friend in whom I could confide. He and his wife were in my ward, and I began spending more and more time with them. We are still in contact and very much friends. Soon after this, things took a turn for the worse. L. Tom Perry announced a mission tour to start his stint as area president. His letter to the MP stated that he wished to examine mission finance records and to ensure that everything was in order. I had managed to make some major innovations to our systems, but having been in a deep depression, I had fallen well behind in everything other than paying bills. I had spent many a day sleeping under my desk, unable to move.

To get ready for L. Tom, I worked 18 hour days trying to get months of transactions to balance, trying to file receipts and the thousands of bits of paper that were strewn around the office. I worked myself into the ground to get things into some semblance of order. The sisters from the neighbouring area even came round to polish and hoover the place for me. This frenetic pace lasted several weeks, my condition continued to deteriorate, and by this time I was suicidal. I was now on the highest possible dose of Zoloft and on mood stabilisers. I felt like shit. There was huge hype about the apostle coming to visit. At his talk in the Frankfurt stake centre, I sat next to the doctor and his wife.

Perry spoke about time management. Where was the spirituality in that? I leaned over and told the doctor that this sounded exactly like a corporate training session I had been to two years earlier with the bank I worked for. Perry even talked about productivity rates. The whole thing was a load of shit, and I said so to the doctor. He and his wife agreed. L. Tom then proceeded to meet with the MP and his staff in the office. His questions were incoherent.

He continually asked questions about mission finances, but they made no sense whatsoever. He was unaware of mission accounting software or any procedures and continually asked about punch cards. I’m sure they were obsolete by the late 50’s. There was no inspection of financial records, no detailed questions that made any sense. I was pissed off. I had worked myself into the ground whilst suicidally ill for this man, and it appeared that he was too senile to have any concept of what was going on. I met L. Tom Perry several times, and I am convinced that he has early to middle-stage dementia, which goes unreported to the general membership.

Throughout my illness, I have to say that everyone was quite understanding. Whenever the APs got haughty about me sleeping during the day or refusing to go to events, the MP always straightened them out for me. However, one day whilst paying invoices, I came across the invoice from the pharmacy. All the medication for missionaries in Europe came from this one little chemist’s shop next to Frankfurt’s West Centrum, and I got a copy of the invoice with the items for my mission highlighted. I suddenly realised that I was on more medication than any other missionary in Europe. Added to this, I knew that I was to be moved in six weeks to become a zone leader after ten months in the mission office. Talk about an inspired calling!

I went to see the doctor, and in my session I told him I’d had enough and that if he did not send me home after training my replacement over the next six weeks I was leaving. Evidently he did not take my threat seriously, something he has since apologised for. His reports to the MP had been increasingly vague, and we had become such good friends that I think it would have been too difficult for him to send me home. His wife was a huge critic of the church. She was forever biting her tongue, and one day, shortly before my departure, she gave me a copy of ‘No Man Knows My History.’

It was moves night. I was moving anyway, and so my packing was in no way suspicious. I was up later than anyone else, not surprising given the length of time I had lived in Frankfurt. Over the previous couple of weeks, I had used the office Internet, my credit cards, and some investments that I sold to buy an aeroplane ticket to my never-Mormon grandmother’s home in America. I even bought a car on E-bay. The deception involved was huge. I had experienced missionary disappearances before. I knew that the APs were sent to Frankfurt airport and the ZLs in Düsseldorf to the airport there. I therefore bought a ticket for a night train to Zürich.

At 1 am I got up very quietly, dressed in full missionary attire. I lifted my suitcase rather than use the wheels and placed it in the stairwell. I then sat down at the table and wrote a letter to the Oberbürgermeisterin of Frankfurt to register my departure from the country. I left the letter and closed the door behind me, my heart racing. I crept down the marble stairs and out the front door to the street. I then drove the mission car to the office, directly next to a major train station. I locked the car and placed the keys in the office letterbox. I then boarded the train. I was sitting in Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, crying over the decision I had taken–a decision I felt I had to take. I could not have been a ZL or enthuse my zone when I myself had no testimony.

I boarded the night train to Zürich. I had a compartment to myself. I watched through the darkness as I left Frankfurt and travelled south. I went through the most southerly town in our mission with elders in it. I imagined them sleeping peacefully in their beds as I struggled with my own feelings, moods, and the horrific side effects from the medication I was on. As I sat alone in the compartment, I slipped off my name tag and breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

That morning I reached Zürich Flughafen. I checked in for the flight. The man addressed me in German the whole time until he saw my passport. He apologised and said he had thought I was German. For a fleeting moment I wondered if this was a sign. I dismissed it and boarded the flight to Newark. I was in a terrible state, so I was surprised I was allowed to fly, but as I am told constantly, I cover up very well. The stress and my situation combined, and I collapsed in Minneapolis Airport but was allowed to fly. Whilst flying across the Atlantic I used the airphone and called the doctor. He was crying, not for any gospel or related reason but because I was alive and safe and that he cared. I explained where I was and where I was going and why. He realised that I had been cornered without much choice.

When I landed, I phoned my parents–my head spinning–and told them where I was. I regret that my mission ended the way it did. I am glad that I learned about the fraudulent nature of the church. I just wish it could have been better timed, not on a mission and not during a nervous breakdown. I spent eight months in America before I came home to Scotland, eight months before I felt well enough to return home, but not to the church.


Some Silver Linings

December 27, 2013

My wife and I watched “Silver Linings Playbook” last night, and it moved me to tears, though probably not for the reasons most people would expect. The beginning of the film depicts the protagonist in a psychiatric hospital, going to group therapy, taking his meds, and trying to make the best of a bad situation. I remember those days vividly.

In June of 2007 I was living in College Station, Texas. For a number of reasons I don’t need to rehash, things were not going well in my life and in my marriage. Things came to a head one night, and after my wife cried herself to sleep, I lay awake thinking of the damage I had done to our relationship and to our family. In an instant, I went from thinking that maybe things would be better if I weren’t around to actively trying to take my own life. I went into the walk-in closet, tied one end of a tie around the hanger rod and the other end around my neck. I think I would have gone through with it had it not hurt as much as it did.

Two days later I found myself in the back of a Sheriff’s car being taken to a psychiatric facility in Houston under a 72-hour involuntary commitment by court order. I’ve described the time I spent there elsewhere, but it wasn’t until I watched the film last night that I started thinking about what happened when I went home.

I don’t think I liked myself much back then. As I’ve mentioned in other threads, the combination of my family dynamics growing up and certain Mormon teachings about self-worth and guilt had convinced me I was never going to be good enough; indeed, I’ve been told by a few Mormons that I “failed” at Mormonism, whatever that means. But I didn’t like myself, and I think deep down inside I didn’t believe I was worthy of anyone’s love, though I don’t remember thinking that explicitly. My family’s love, I thought, was obligatory because I was a son, husband, and father.

When I came home, I was most afraid that I had done too much damage to my family relationships and that my loved ones would not know how to deal with me after everything that had happened. I thought maybe I’d given up the last reason for anyone to love me, and I prepared myself for rejection. But I was wrong. My wife and children were just happy to have me home. They loved me in spite of myself, in ways I hadn’t learned to love myself.

We also watched “The Wizard of Oz” the other night, and I had forgotten something the wizard said to the Tin Man:

A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.

I think I once unconsciously believed that, but I realize that it’s exactly backwards and quite unwise. If all that matters is how much others love you, you might spend your whole life trying to “earn” other people’s love, and you might feel you can’t be happy or fulfilled if you can’t earn that love.

I can tell you that, if you live that way, no amount of love or approval is ever going to be enough. You will always feel unloved and unfulfilled. The film I watched showed a young man trying to earn his estranged wife’s love by showing her “signs” of his love and his mental and emotional improvement. This kind of thinking seems to rest on the belief that love is a quantifiable commodity, and a certain saturation level has a cause-and-effect relationship with how people treat you. He had to learn, as I once did, that the quest to love enough so that you’ll get love in return is a fool’s errand.

What I have learned is that human beings have an endless capacity for love, and the best thing you can do is simply to love others and not worry about what you get in return. Not everyone is going to love you. Not everyone is going to be your friend, no matter how hard you try. But you can love everyone. You really can.

Love doesn’t always mean you have a bond of affection and emotion or anything like that. Love simply means treating people with love and care. And you really can do that with everyone, from the cashier at the supermarket to your family.

Yes, I know this isn’t the most profound thing ever, but I hope my random thoughts mean something to someone other than me. But it’s enough to know that I’ve learned this lesson in life, and I’m much happier for having learned it.


Expert Ex-Mormon

August 21, 2013

Yes, I am an expert in how to leave the church and do it the wrong way. A little background:

I have always been a history and knowledge junkie, and when I worked at the Church Office Building in the early 90s, I would go down to the historical library on my lunch hour and read whatever looked interesting. Around 1995, when I was no longer working for the church, I got invited to participate in an online listserv group, alt.religion.mormon. I moved on to other places, such as the ironically named FAIR board, where I was a defender of the church but tried to be fair and honest and kind with people who disagreed.

In 2005, I took an 8-month break from all Mormon online participation, and during that break, I realized that I’d known for quite some time that the church wasn’t true, but I just hadn’t let myself admit it. Literally, everything fell apart during a phone conversation with a friend who was distraught about Joseph Smith and polyandry.

When I got home, my wife could tell something was wrong, so I blurted out that I didn’t believe in the church anymore. For 2 years I tried to get her to listen to what I knew. I sent her articles, quoted books, asked questions about her beliefs, and generally challenged her as much as I could. Needless to say, we fought for 2 years. My sister, to whom I’ve always been close, began having long conversations with my wife about how to “fix” me. Our marriage nearly broke up, and I sank into a deep depression. In 2007 I attempted suicide and ended up spending 3 days as an unwilling guest of a psych ward in Houston.

That was a turning point for me. I realized that I’d been pushing my wife to hear things she didn’t want to hear, and she had been pushing back just as hard to get me to step back in line. We both changed because of my suicide attempt. We learned that it was OK to disagree, that it was OK for her not to want to know what I knew, and it was OK for me not to bow to her religious wishes.

So, here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Why do Mormons take it so personally when you state the facts about their religion?

Mormonism was part of our identity, perhaps even the main part. The LDS church is designed to be the center of a member’s existence; without the church, there would be a huge, gaping hole (which we all experience when we leave). So, whether they realize it or not, most Mormons predictably react as though a criticism of the church is a personal attack on them. No, it’s not rational, and in a perfect world, you could get people to step back and separate the church from themselves. But in reality, they do not draw a distinct line between the self and Mormonism.

2. Why is relatively uncontroversial information so threatening to a lot of Mormons?

The church has done such a great job of packaging its history and doctrines that anything else, no matter how trivial it may seem, is jarring to believers. Take the “rock in the hat” episode. It’s well-established that Joseph Smith used a stone he found in a well to pretend to find buried treasure, long before the Book of Mormon project began. And there is plenty of eyewitness testimony that he used the same stone to “translate” the Book of Mormon. But it’s not part of the approved narrative, so people get horribly offended and assume you’re just telling lies.

3. Why do my family and friends treat me like I’m an enemy?

The church has long taught that people who leave are apostates, and such people are evil. They are the kind of people who killed Joseph Smith. They have evil in their hearts and are motivated by hatred of truth and goodness. Heck, they’ve even had priesthood and Relief Society lessons about us rotten apostates. So, when you challenge their beliefs with new information, they assume that you are attacking them personally, that you are making things up, and that you are doing so in a dishonest attempt to make the church look bad.

4. How do I get through to them?

Unfortunately, the answer generally is that you won’t and can’t. But being confrontational just plays into the church’s script: angry apostate can’t just leave it alone but must attack God’s true religion.

5. So, what should I do?

There’s no right answer, but I’ll tell you what works for me. If I am tempted to discuss my loss of belief with someone I care about, I ask myself two questions: 1) What do I hope to accomplish with this discussion? 2) What is the likely outcome of the discussion? If the answer to 1) is “I just want them to know the truth,” that’s not good enough. The second question comes into play: How likely is it that they are going to know and accept the truth because of your discussion? If it’s unlikely, why bother? In my view, it’s fine to share your feelings and knowledge with anyone you wish, but when it comes to loved ones, make sure you have a definite goal in mind and that your conversation is likely to achieve that goal.

6. How do I convince my family and friends that my unbelief is not a personal attack on them?

This one is simple. As I said in question 1 above, the church makes itself the center of your life, your relationships, your marriage. One day my wife said to me, “Our marriage has always been built on the church and the gospel, so now I wonder what’s left?” I realized that both of us needed to recognize what our marriage was without the church at the center. We discovered that our relationship was about love, commitment, friendship, intimacy, passion, and so on. None of that depended on the church. Once we started focusing on building those non-church aspects, we started to heal as a couple.

You are going to have friends and family who insist on making the church the center of your relationship. If that’s all there is to your relationship, you don’t have a relationship with such people, so there’s no big loss here.

Let them be the nasty ones; let them be the ones who value loyalty to the church over love and truth. Don’t let it be you.

7. Does this mean I have to just shut up and endure the crap from my Mormon friends and family?

No, not at all. But what it does mean is that we must choose our battles wisely. Have you ever known someone who can’t talk about anything other than a specific topic, usually their religion or politics? I had an Aunt Helen who was a Scientologist, and when she visited (thank God she lived in Ohio, and we were in California) all she could talk about was her stupid cult. Pretty much everyone ignored her and avoided contact with her. My father incessantly talks about Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, so I judiciously change the subject because I’ve learned that arguing back is pointless. He’s not changing his mind, and neither am I. I realize that I can’t be the ex-Mormon version of my nutcase aunt because it does no good and just makes people want to avoid me.

Of course, someone inevitably brings up the subject of why I left the church. Again, what I share depends on who I’m with, what I hope to accomplish, and what I expect the outcome to be. My wife doesn’t want to know anything, so if she asks a specific question, I answer succinctly and leave it at that. An old friend of mine was constantly harping on me about my apostasy, but he wouldn’t listen to anything I said but would just argue and call me to repentance. Eventually, I sent him a link to MormonThink.com and told him that I’d rather he educate himself on the issues before we got back into it. To my complete shock, reading that on his own without my interference led him to question everything he believed. If I had kept up the defensive arguments we’d been having, nothing would have changed for either of us.

8. My Mormon friends tell me I’m bitter for being angry. Is it wrong to feel so angry? How do I get past the anger and hurt?

I’ve been told by countless Mormons that it’s wrong to feel angry and hurt, that it just means I’m “bitter.” They say, “You can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone.” Screw that. Losing your belief is a loss, and that involves grief. Ex-Mormons go through all the stages of grief), and anger is one of those stages. It’s not healthy to suppress that anger. You’ll make yourself crazy. Get it out, but get it out where it won’t damage your important relationships. Message boards, such as the Recovery from Mormonism board, are great places for venting. One thing you’ll notice is that most people post for a few months until the anger passes, and then they move on. There’s no timetable, obviously, but the anger does subside. The time to talk to your family about your beliefs is not when you are angry and hurt.

So, what’s happened since 2007? Well, for one thing I’m not depressed anymore (a good therapist and medication did wonders). My wife and I don’t fight about religion anymore, and I find that I can appreciate the good she gets out of it without forgetting the bad. She understands that I’m sincere in my beliefs and not some evil apostate. My sister, who once thought I had lost my mind, respects my opinion about the church enough to ask me about things she feels she can’t ask other believers. My parents don’t agree with my reasons for leaving, but we have had good conversations about why I believe what I do.

Because I haven’t been in my family’s faces about my beliefs, my children have felt comfortable talking to me about their questions and doubts. Of my 6 kids, 3 were absolutely relieved to know that I don’t believe because they didn’t. One was married in the temple a year ago, though I would say she is very liberal in her understanding of church history and doctrine. The other two haven’t quite decided where they fit.

So, in short:

1. Find non-destructive ways to vent your emotions.
2. Recognize that what you see as truth will likely be seen as an attack by your Mormon friends and family.
3. Choose your battles wisely. Don’t be Aunt Helen.
4. Have a purpose for the information you share.
5. Focus on strengthening the non-church parts of your relationships. Don’t make the church the 800-lb. gorilla in the room.

One last thing:

I’ll bet you’re saying to yourself, “That’s not fair! Mormons get to treat me like crap, and I have to be all nice and forgiving.” No, it isn’t fair. Someone posted yesterday how sad it was that we are grateful for people being less nasty to us. If you need to be nasty to Mormons, join a message board and argue away with believers. But don’t return the nastiness from people who are important in your lives. I often have to remind myself that they are behaving that way because the church taught them to behave that way. That stuff has been pounded into their heads all their lives, and we can’t hold them entirely responsible. To steal a line from the church, “Hate the Mormonism, but love the Mormon.”

And by no means am I saying you shouldn’t stand up for yourself. When you are attacked and maligned, you have every right to defend yourself and your beliefs. But be smart about it.

I hope this helps. Like I said, I believe these things work because doing the opposite didn’t work for me and changing my approach has really helped. There are no guarantees, and there are no right answers. Do what you must do, but I hope what I have said helps in some small way.