Random Memories of Growing Up a Neurotic Mormon

I’m temperamentally a neurotic person, anxiety-prone and a worrier. Thinking back to some of the things I remember best about growing up in the Church, it occurred to me that many of them evidence an interaction of my neuroticism with my Mormonism. I thought it might be interesting to share some of these experiences.

  • At the ages of six and seven, I really internalized the teaching that children who died before the age of accountability would be guaranteed exaltation. I also didn’t learn too much (i.e., anything) about grace, and it was pretty clear to me that that was likely my only shot, since as soon as I was baptized and became responsible for my sins, I was sure to sin up such a storm that I would never be able to keep track of and repent of them all. Considering these facts, I mused a fair amount about suicide. I wasn’t particularly depressed; I was just thinking through things logically. I never made anything like a concrete plan, but I often turned the idea over in my mind, and wished that I could come up with a way to make it happen. It seemed perfectly in line with what I was learning at church: better to suffer a small pain now and have happiness later than avoid pain now and have sadness later. When I turned eight and went ahead and got baptized, I was disappointed in myself that I hadn’t been able to work up the courage to go through with killing myself. I was resigned to the reality that I now had my feet firmly planted on the path to damnation.

  • As a child in primary, I quickly learned that the “right” answer in any particular moral dilemma presented to me was to choose the option that was less fun. For example, in the oft-repeated stories of children who had to choose between participating in a sporting event on Sunday or going to church, of course the answer was that they should be bored in church rather than having fun at the sporting event. I concluded that the commandments could be reduced to a single one: Thou shalt not have any fun. It summarized everything so perfectly. As Jason K. put it in a recent post at BCC, “God forbid that our children should believe that rules and prohibitions rather than communal spiritual life are the central purpose of their Church participation!” What Jason is hoping against is exactly what I learned: a gospel of rules and prohibitions and grim, joyless existence to placate a disapproving God.
  • Still hoping for an easy ticket to the celestial kingdom, as an older child and a teenager, I was fascinated with the story of the three teen boys who, according to the widely-cited Brigham Young quote, were assured exaltation for sacrificing their lives in carrying members of the Martin Handcart Company across the Sweetwater River. (Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that it didn’t actually happen that way.) I was jealous. Why couldn’t I just be asked to make one big sacrifice and have it guarantee me exaltation? Why did I draw the unlucky card of having to live a (potentially) long life, full of opportunities to fall behind on the perfect record of repentance that would be required?
  • I worried a lot about nuclear war when I was a teenager. It was the Reagan years, so it kind of makes sense that I did. I read books about war and weapons. I would lie in bed at night and wonder when it was finally going to happen. I remember sometimes hearing my mother in the next room singing to my sisters at bedtime, and thinking (I’m not sure why this was connected in my head) that it was nice of her to sing and try to make them happy, but that soon the missiles were sure to come and erase all happiness. The connection to Mormonism here is that I had a few teachers in church who stoked my fear by talking about the Second Coming constantly. I swear there was one teacher in particular who brought it up every single week for the year he taught my class. He talked endlessly about issues like the importance of being prepared with a year’s supply of food (or two to be conservative), the need to have guns to protect yourself, and of course, all kinds of speculations about exactly how the world as we knew it was going to end (would it be nuclear war or something else?). Of course, he talked about it because he was fascinated about it. I was terrified.
  • Having heard all the talk about how the Second Coming was right around the corner and could happen at any moment, I was utterly convinced as a teen that I would never actually serve a mission. I distinctly remember sitting in meetings in my teachers’ quorum and hearing the teacher talk about how we all needed to go on missions in a few years and thinking that of course Jesus would come back too soon for such issues to concern me. If I died in the dramatic end of the world, I would be off the hook, and if I somehow managed to survive, all bets would be off, as he was sure to shake things up pretty dramatically. I was, of course, anxious about serving a mission, so I was unhappy to discover that Jesus was not in fact at the very doors, and I did end up having to go.
  • I learned and internalized that, as a boy, my role as an adult was going to be to marry and get a good job so I could make enough money that we could have as many kids as possible. This really stressed me, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t up to the task, particularly not having a lot of kids. When I was in my mid-to-late teens, a guy from my ward who was a few years older than I was got married and his wife suffered some complication while giving birth to their second child that made it impossible for her to have any more children. When I heard this, my overwhelming response was jealousy. They were off the hook for having kids! With only two! I was sure that I would never be so lucky, so my plan was to never marry.
  • I rose in leadership in my mission like a lead balloon. Some (elder) missionaries rise to become DLs, others to ZLs, others even to be APs. I did none of this and I wanted to do none of it. I didn’t even want to be a senior companion. My mission was very big on constant reporting and “holding people accountable” when their numbers weren’t good enough, and I was sure that I didn’t want to be the one responsible for what the companionship produced. My Mission President pushed me and pushed me to try it, so finally after I had been out about ten months, I agreed. It was a disaster. I was in a small area with nobody to teach, stuck between apartment complexes where the managers kicked us out when they saw us coming and large homes where nobody was ever home when we went tracting. We did hardly any teaching. Every night, my district leader called me up and berated me for our bad numbers. This was extremely difficult for me. I slept fitfully at night, and when the alarm went off every morning, I remember getting up and walking downstairs from our apartment to exercise and just wishing and hoping and praying for death. I couldn’t imagine going home early, so this was the only way out that I could see. I cursed my belief in an afterlife, and wished that the Jehovah’s Witnesses could be right, and that the wicked people (of which I clearly was one) would just be annihilated when they died. The threat of having to talk to my DL each night was too much for me, and after just a few days, I called my Mission President and asked to be demoted. I was never a senior companion again for the rest of my mission. My nasty DL became a ZL and an AP because of course he did.

I don’t think the Church is at fault for my being neurotic–that’s probably pretty hardwired–but that personality trait in combination with Mormonism was often not a good one. I wonder if I might not have had a happier childhood if I had been raised in a church with less of a tendency toward fundamentalism, because the Church really does have a lot of teachings that do a great job of pushing the buttons of anxiety-prone people. I know my experiences are far, far from the most difficult that people have had, but I think they at least suggest how this button-pushing can be bad.

On the bright side, now I’m middle aged, and I’m much less neurotic than I was as a child an a teen. Perhaps not coincidentally, I think, I’m also much less of a believer than I was as a child and a teen. I’m much less sure about what the afterlife might look like, or even if there is one at all. I sure hope there is one, because I’d love to see my family and friends again, but I’m just not sure. Overall, though I’m just happy to be not too worried about it.

25 comments

  1. Thank you for this raw and real post. I’m so sad for a six-year-old Ziff who actually contemplated suicide! As one who is also a worrier (though much less so than I was as a child), I identify with a lot of your internal rationale. And I had to laugh at the “don’t have fun” part–When we were teens, my friend and I used to say to each other in parent-voices, “Bye honey, remember who you are, and don’t have fun!”

    I’m sure that your vivid memories of fear at what grownups seemed to be teaching you about the nature of God is part of what has made you a sensitive parent who is thoughtful about what you say and what you model. I hope people reading it stop to think what kinds of messages they may be sending kids, without nuance or explanation. Great post.




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  2. I feel ya, man. At one point the only thing keeping me from snuffing it was the thought of an eternally judgmental and disapproving God on the other side.

    Nightmares about the end of the world and my own unworthiness plagued me as a kid, and between all of the end-of-times stuff floating around and being a girl receiving no encouragement or direction towards any kind of proactive future, for the longest time I felt like my only purpose and redemption would be to be some kind of hero martyr during the apocalypse.

    Stuff messes with your head.




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  3. Oh man! I can identify with so many of these! I distinctly remember coming to the conclusion that Jesus just didn’t want us to have any fun and that boredom was the better way. (Bonus points if you could pretend to be super excited about the boring stuff!)

    I remember one primary lesson I received as a child. The primary president got up in sharing time and passed out a bunch of crayons and paper. She then had us all sit on the floor and take our shoes off if we wanted. She asked us to color, laugh, joke, dump crayons on the floor… you know, be kids. While it was a bit awkward to suddenly have fun on command, we all jumped right in. For church, this was too good to be true! After about three minutes of this, we’re all relaxed, laughing and socializing when the primary president then holds up a stern-looking picture of Jesus. The room goes silent, and the primary president asks us pointedly how we all feel now that Jesus has seen us not being reverent.

    I learned two things from that lesson. 1. Jesus hates fun. 2. Grown-ups are snitches.




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  4. I can empathize with several of your memories and I think you have a point that sometimes the modern application of LDS doctrine can harm some personality types predisposed to anxiety.

    But, I’ve got to protest your bullet #2. I can’t believe that a kid so prone to anxiety as you were, as attested in the many stories from primary through mission, would ever see participating in sports as more fun than sitting quietly in church and reading the scriptures. Participating in sports was more full of anxiety and worry than every primary/scout/YM/seminary/mission experience added together. No contest. Sports was not fun by any definition of the word when I was a kid.




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  5. So much of this rang true to me — the intersection of my own anxiety and Mormon upbringing is similar. As a six or seven year old kid, the natural effect of being taught about the age of accountability (and also of teachings, meant to comfort parents, about children who die sinless) was to conclude that it might be better if I died before I turned 8. Killing myself was unthinkable (probably also for anxiety-related reasons) but I definitely wasn’t excited to have lived long enough to assume the heavy burden of sin and repentance.

    I was also persuaded that the Second Coming was right around the corner. As a teenager, I was also convinced that the judgment day would catch me unaware, and that my sins (which in retrospect were the sort of things that Joseph Smith might have described as youthful foibles) would send me to hell. Having browsed the old Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith volume, I was always on the lookout for rainbows as witnesses that the Second Coming wouldn’t be that year. (Is that statement from JS obscure now, or is it something people still talk about?) Relief in seeing a rainbow was only partial, though, when I remembered that my own day of judgment could come any time. Momentary relief was available by taking the sacrament, and feeling the slate was wiped clean, but what if I had taken it unworthily, having forgotten to repent of some sin? Plus, by Monday, I was always sure I had chalked up enough sinning to be back to the status quo. Of course I was also anxious about keeping up appearances, so I couldn’t talk to pretty much anyone about all this. (Yet another reason I was going to hell — anxiety about looking bad to other people made me incapable of contrite repentance, I thought.)

    Also, because I was convinced that the Second Coming would be around or before AD 2000, the thing that surprised me most about my patriarchal blessing is that it talked about my life in the spirit world, in a fairly clearly post-mortal context. My new worry was that I wouldn’t live to see the Second Coming.

    I was fortunate enough to serve a mission in England, where no one berated you for bad numbers, because teaching anybody was a bit of a miracle. The sense of anxiety about being responsible for teaching all those souls was a bit paralyzing, though. I felt that if I taught badly, and if people rejected the word of God because I was a bad messenger, their sins would be on my head. (Jacob 1:19 was not helpful in this regard). Often it was easier to do nothing — I’d work hard when I had motivated companions, but if my companion wasn’t in any hurry to leave the apartment for another day of rejection, I wasn’t either.

    I also don’t hold the Church at fault — I’m probably just an anxious person by nature. But I’ve similarly felt an increasing degree of peace in deciding that I’m much less sure about the details of the afterlife than I used to be.




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  6. Ziff, thank you for sharing your experiences here. I remember drawing similar conclusions about sinning after the age of 8. It’s hard to see any benefit of continuing to live if anything you do may result in missing out on the celestial kingdom, and being eternally unhappy. It reminds me a little of the school behavior system of green, yellow, and red cards. A child would start the day on green, but with any misbehavior would move to yellow or red. Essentially, starting the day with a clean slate, and you can only go down from there. I like the clip charts my kids have now where they start in the middle and they can clip up or down several notches based on their behavior. It’s a much better incentive system.
    I’m not currently taking my kids to church and sometime I worry about what they are missing out on in Mormonism. Then I remember how stressful and damaging parts of it are and I think I may be saving them from some kinds of pain. It’s such a difficult choice. I admire you for continuing your path and being open about your struggles. We have to support each other. Thanks again for being vulnerable in this essay.




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  7. I can relate to so much! I remember trying to drown myself when I went swimming and being disappointed that I couldn’t do it. I have always been a stickler for rules (as long as they were rules that seemed reasonable), and so I’m afraid I was quite pushy and preachy to people around me and had little understanding for why people did things I thought were clearly selfish and stupid. I often found myself wondering what on earth we were doing with normal lives—if the Second Coming was so soon, shouldn’t we be doing more important thing than going to school and work? Come to think of it, wasn’t most of what I did completely worthless as far as the bigger picture was concerned? Was it selfish of me to like literature and want to study it? Up until only a few years ago, I secretly thought it would be a great idea to just nuke the whole earth so we could get everything done with. When I realized that I was going to have to work to support myself, I went through a period of mourning because I’d always thought that I’d be able to “just” stay home and be supported by my husband. (Of course, now I’m quite happy not to be at home—working full-time is better for my mental health than being at home.) Thought patterns like ours and religion sure make a weird, if not downright harmful, mix.




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  8. Thanks for this, and all the comments–so validating. Though my own neuroticism leaned more toward perfectionism and depression, I often wish I could have an explanation like this taped to my forehead to explain certain difficulties of my current life and behavior to nevermos. “List of things I’m still getting over:” or something. Also the more HS friends I re-connect with through social media, the more I wish I could sit down with each of them and apologize and explain my f***ed up past self to them.




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  9. Here’s one that haunted me fiercely. Backmasking. I remember the adults teaching us about all of the subliminal messages in advertisements and the prayers to Satan that could be heard when records were played backwards. I remember them showing us the head guy of some Satan worshiper church in the balcony on the cover of Hotel California. They told us about the black bible and all the stuff that those Satanists were doing through the media. I didn’t take that stuff lightly. It turned a sound sleeper into someone who could not go to sleep for hours, fearing the devils that I had invited into my life for years with all of those hidden messages. I prayed, sang hymns, asked for blessings and generally endured years of being terrified by those images. Holy cow, that gave me the heeby jeebies for years.




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  10. To this day I fear death and when depressed can’t even enjoy contemplating suicide because what if it’s all true and I don’t want to prove my worthiness to God via handshakes? What if I want it to be about love and my heart and that I think coffee isn’t morally wrong. But what if? What if God requires every thing they say he does? That isn’t a God or heaven I want to rush myself into.




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  11. One of my Primary teachers told us that there were at least 6-7 demons (in other words, members of the 1/3 of the host of heaven who followed Satan) per person on earth today (who knows how he came up with that ration??). I remember imagining my 7 demons floating near the ceiling in the corners of rooms, and following me everywhere I went.

    I also became very afraid that I would never get married early in life, and since I wasn’t born in the covenant this fear amounted to being completely alone forever (since I’m not sealed to my family, what if I never get sealed to anyone else, either? do I just drift in space alone for eternity?).

    Strong trigger warning for sexual violence:
    In seminary we read the excerpt from Miracle of Forgiveness on how it’s better to die protecting one’s virtue than live without it, and after that I contemplated often whether I had “enough faith” to fight to the death if someone attempted to rape me rather than “letting” them rape me and continuing to live. This was one of a few “would I be willing to die for God?” scenarios I contemplated often as a child/teen.




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  12. Ziff! I’m glad you’ve become your less neurotic, less believing self because you and your awesome family are a lot of fun. Your last bit about hoping to see family and friends in the afterlife made me think of my favorite quote on the subject from Mormondom. It comes from Marlin K Jensen in a BYU devotional he gave entitled, “Living after the manner of happiness”. It’s a great talk.

    “Sometimes after an enjoyable family home evening, or during a fervent family prayer, or when our entire family is at the dinner table on Sunday evening eating waffles and engaging in a session of lively, good-natured conversation, I quietly say to myself: ‘If heaven is nothing more than this, it will be good enough for me!'”

    That’s my vision of the ideal next life.




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  13. Fellow neurotic here. Definitely relate to the “no fun” rule. Pre-baptism, I had aspirations to never sin and eventually give virgin birth.

    When I was in my early teens, somebody at church said that you couldn’t repent of certain sins without telling a bishop, and the way to know if you needed to confess something to the bishop was that you didn’t want to. As an extremely shy introvert, I didn’t want to talk to my bishop about ANY of my sins, and became convinced I’d go to hell for it. This led to an obsessive compulsive habit of mentally reciting all of my past misdeeds, so that if I ever had the guts make a confession to a bishop, I wouldn’t accidentally forget a sin and fail to repent for it. I did this daily, for years, and begin to see myself as a secretly terrible person. I wish I could go back and tell little Em to chill out.




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  14. My dad was/is like your Sunday school teacher obsessed with the second coming. Growing up I was constantly in fear that it would happen and I would have to live through all the horrible aftermath. To this day I really hope to die at the beginning of the apocalypse. I don’t know how people can be so obsessed with the miserable conditions following their vision of an apocalypse.




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  15. You weren’t listening to the lessons about the sacrament? It’s okay to live past 8 as long as you die on a Sunday. I always thought the people who lived during the apostasy had it easy though — they could just sin without knowing any better and then get baptized by someone else later.

    The obsession with modesty combined with the nagging awareness that God can always see you was weird to me. I remember changing from my clothes into my pajamas as quickly as possible to minimize the time my skin was exposed (I stopped worrying so much when I eventually realized that God can probably see through clothes anyway).




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  16. What a good read this thread is! And I want to hug and reassure that little 8-year-old with some truer doctrine that what he received. I’m glad that you aren’t still plagued by those childhood neuroses.

    I have never been a comfortable fit in church culture, because reasons, but I’ve quit obsessing over that and accepted that wherever I end up in the afterlife, I’ll be with my cohort of geeky, fun, imperfect, good-hearted beings, and it will be okay.




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  17. This post and thread is amazing. I read it last night and I still can’t stop laughing about Allie Kay’s story. I had the opposite personality as a child. I was almost never worried or stressed about anything, especially my eternal soul (I may have been stressed over long division at one point). In fact, I never had any doubt I would go the celestial kingdom. I pretty much didn’t think anyone wasn’t going to the celestial kingdom (maybe Hitler, but who was I to judge?) I just assumed all of my non member friends and family would get to the afterlife, keep being awesome, someone would baptize them and we’d all be in the celestial kingdom together. In fact, it wasn’t until the last couple of years (I’m in my 30s) that I even realized this wasn’t the general belief among Mormons. I’m still blown away a bit by it. It was my husband who made me realize it when we were talking about some of the more difficult aspects of the church and he said, “I never figured I would make it to the celestial kingdom anyway.” What? I didn’t realize anyone felt that way (I’m bad at understanding others feelings, if you can’t tell). Anyway, long story short, I’m happy that I somehow just ignored all of this horribleness and just believed whatever I wanted anyway (I get that from my Dad).
    My older sister, on the other hand, is very neurotic. She recently told me that her least favorite Bible story is the prodigal son. How can you hate that story? To me, it is the bedrock of Christianity. But she identifies with the other brother. She told me that it isn’t fair that she has missed out on all the fun her whole life, trying to be righteous, and someone gets to live an awesome sinful life and still get the same reward as her. It is really sad when we cultivate a belief that people who are steeped in sin are leading a better life than us. There is just something wrong with that.




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  18. I love this post and this thread…such good reminders as I teach my Primary class and my kids. Thank you for sharing this, Ziff. I identified with so many of these points and thought I was alone.




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  19. Yes on the no fun, but thankfully I was not too worried about the other stuff. As a senior primary teacher a few years ago, the lesson manual recommended a story about a little girl who was deciding to go to Sea Camp in San Diego for a week- but the trip lasted through Sunday! The little girl made the right decision and didn’t go so she could go to church with her family. This enraged me! I went to Sea Camp in 7th grade and had an amazing time! I told my primary kids that I didn’t remember if it was over a Sunday or not, but Sea Camp was awesome! If you were worried about missing a Sunday, what could you do? Read some scriptures? Say a prayer? You don’t have to miss all of Sea Camp!




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  20. I was another who hoped that I would be able to avoid sin completely after my baptism, because I thought that repentance seemed too complicated. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that the pristine life that I had imagined for myself was not going to be.

    When I was seven years old, one of the older children told me, “When you are baptized, you can’t just waddle around. You have to swim.” I had not seen a baptism, and I wondered if there was some truth in what he had said.




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  21. Oh this all sounds so familiar! My version took the form of a sort of righteousness list of things I had to do perfectly to be saved, you know you are saved after all you can do! I was told being obedient and doing these things would make me happy and peaceful. I was suicidally depressed for years and told if I tried harder, fasted, prayed, was more obedient then I would be happy. The pinnacle of this was when someone told me I had a lot of trials because God gave them to me for my own good and trusted me that I could get through them. I thought if that was true God is an asshole and I don’t want to worship something that imposes suicidal depression and unfulfilled promises of happiness. So I stopped believing in everything except we should love each other. It still seems weird to me that as a liberal apostate I am finally experiencing the peace and happiness I was promised.




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  22. Thanks everyone for your responses. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in having felt like this about church stuff.




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  23. I identify with every single one of these things. I even considered suicide as a 7-year-old, for the exact same reasons. My mission experience was similar. I was so anxious as a kid that just this week I asked my mom, “aren’t you glad you didn’t have to raise me during the Cold War?” I used to make her sit outside the bathroom while I showered just in case Osama bin Laden came for me while I was in there. Even now, I feel guilt for not wanting more than two or three kids… as if all my education is being wasted.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who has felt this way.




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  24. This is amazing. I had actually forgotten that I had that same thought about the age of accountability, except I started thinking them after i was baptized. Like, “Why do I have to know and believe in all the commandments?? People not born in the church are so much luckier!” Ha ha So glad I will be reframing that for my kids.

    I also identify with EBK’s comment too, though. While on my mission I came to assume most of us would end up in the celestial kingdom. The church would be such a nicer place if we all believed that, and treated ourselves and each other accordingly.




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