The first time I ever went to see a therapist, I was 18 years old and a freshling at BYU. I’d finally gotten up the nerve to admit to my bishop that I was suicidally depressed, and he referred me to the university counseling center. I’d never been in therapy before, and I didn’t know what to expect. Unfortunately, it turned out to be kind of a disaster from the very beginning. The person who did the intake asked me about my suicide plans. When I hesitantly told him what I was thinking of doing, he said dismissively, “oh that would never work.” I was seriously burned by that brief interaction; years and years later, therapists would plead with me to share the specific details of my suicidal thinking and I would remain reticent, not wanting to re-live the shame of being told that my plans (and by extension, me) were not worth taking seriously. Read More
In 1960, a thinker by the name of Valerie Saiving wrote an influential article which is often considered the beginning of modern feminist theology, critiquing traditional models of sin which were centered around pride. Since such perspectives considered pride or excessive self-assertion to be the most basic sin, they understood the process of overcoming sin as necessarily involving a move toward greater selflessness. Love was defined in such approaches as being “completely self-giving, taking no thought for its own interests but seeking only the good of the other.”1 Saiving raised the objection that these models ignored some basic differences in the self-development of women and men, and arose from an essentially masculine perspective. The crucial point that these formulations overlooked, she argued, is that there is danger in the other direction as well, as it turns out that too much selflessness, far from producing someone in an idealized and virtuous state, leads to the development of a kind of “chameleon-like creature who responds to others but has no personal identity of his [or her] own.”2 Saiving saw this as a temptation to which women are particularly vulnerable. Read More
Like most kids born into the church, I was baptized at the age of eight. I turned 42 earlier this year. (Tangential sign that you are getting at least middle-aged: I actually had to stop and check the year and subtract to verify my current age. But yes, it’s 42.) That means I have a solid 34 years of membership in the LDS church. I was by no means consistently active for all those years. My first foray out of Mormonism happened about thirty seconds after I finished my last class at BYU, and was no longer required to have an ecclesiastical endorsement. That time around, I left for a good year and a half. But looking back, “left” is a very strong word for what I did. I mean, I quit going to church every week (though I’d still drop by for special occasions). But I still did stuff like praying and reading my scriptures, and even (such are the contradictions of life) attending an Institute class for a while. And given that I was living in Provo, with five Mormon roommates, I was still pretty immersed in the whole thing. In a stroke of good fortune, I got to take a night class on Mormon literature from Eugene England, who had found refuge at UVU at that point, and I loved it. It was an environment where there was room for real questions; I found there a constructive and supportive space to begin the process of seriously wrestling with my Mormon heritage and what it meant to me. Given my continuing attachment to the LDS tradition, I don’t think anyone was terribly surprised when I eventually decided to come back to church. Read More
My favorite Richard Dutcher movie, one perhaps lesser known than God’s Army or States of Grace, is a thought-provoking film titled Brigham City. It’s a highly suspenseful murder mystery set in a small Mormon community, and it deals head-on with some hard religious questions. The final scene is deeply moving. I won’t spoil it by giving too many details, but I will say that a crucial element of that scene is the question of what it means to be worthy to take the sacrament.
About eight years ago, when I was still a PhD student, I got to design and teach a Master’s-level class on Mormonism at my school. One week, I showed them Brigham City. The group of mostly Protestant students quite liked the movie, but they said something that has really stayed with me. They said that their take on that scene was different than mine had been, because they came from traditions in which there isn’t a worthiness requirement to take communion (or the sacrament, in Mormon lingo); in fact, one of them said that when you feel unworthy, that’s actually the time when you need it the most. I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. Read More
The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel is often quoted as having said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” I’m not that old yet, I wouldn’t say, but I’m also realizing these days that I’m not exactly young, either. And I find that I’m with Heschel in experiencing this shift in perspective as my age has increased. Read More
I posted this on Facebook the other day, with reference to my recent exploration of the Episcopal tradition, and I thought I’d share it here as well.
I’ve been wanting to express appreciation to my believing Mormon friends in particular who’ve been so supportive of my recent forays into other religious possibilities. It means a lot to me that no one has lectured, or asked me if I just have Word of Wisdom issues, or played the “you’re falling into apostasy” card, and that so many of you even seem excited and happy for me. Because I am in fact excited and happy. This has all been spiritually nourishing and powerful, and because I am still in many ways very Mormon, I have to think that it unquestionably passes the Moroni 7:41 test (“every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.”) Read More
I recently emerged from a very long depression. While I am quite enjoying this rare life interlude of an existence not characterized by overwhelming apathy and despair, and am wanting to just savor the radical sense of being remarkably and unexpectedly enthusiastic about this whole being alive thing, my therapist keeps pushing me to think about how I can cope better when the depression returns. This isn’t a fun question to tackle, of course, because in my current state I’d prefer to believe that the depression won’t ever return. I do realize that this is completely wrongheaded. My particular manifestation of bipolar disorder is constituted by something like eighty percent down, fifteen percent in between, and a mere five percent up. (To really look at that, which I don’t often do, makes me feel both profound grief about how much of my life I’ve lost to depression, and intense rage about the unfairness of it all. Which is probably why I don’t like to think about it too hard.) But I do know in my head, at least, that the chances of the depression being permanently gone are close to zero, and I’ve thus been reluctantly willing to do the kind of strategic thinking that my therapist is asking me to do.
Several months ago I decided, for the umpteenth time in my life, that I needed a break from church. All the usual factors were at play, from frustration with the expectations surrounding gender and marriage to frustration with the culture of obedience and family-worship. The immediate catalyst for my leaving was not unrelated to these things. My older sister moved into the ward, and we started going to church together. This should have been fun, and of course I was happy she was there. But watching the sharp differences in the ways we were treated by other members of the ward just brought home to me that no, I was not imagining my marginalization in the community. People who barely registered my existence went out of their way to talk to and include her. People would literally talk over me, if I was sitting next to her, to engage her in conversation, without appearing to notice I was even there. I may as well have been a piece of furniture. She was asked to speak in sacrament meeting soon after moving in, and had a calling shortly thereafter—very different from my experience moving into the ward nearly a year earlier. Read More
In conversations about whether God really commanded such-and-such a thing, I’ve often heard the argument that “God wouldn’t do that.” God wouldn’t tell Abraham to kill his son, tell Joseph Smith to marry underage girls, tell contemporary prophets to enact a policy against the children of gay parents. Such things go against the character of God, so we can be confident that there was no divine involvement in these cases—just human error at work. The response from defenders of these things is often that God is far beyond our comprehension, that his thoughts are not our thoughts, and we are in no position to evaluate what he might or might not do. Read More
As a follow-up to my last post on chronic suicidality, I thought I’d mention some of the things that have kept me going over the years.
I’m like Hermione—when life throws you lemons, go to the library. Except that it’s hard to find books that have anything helpful to say. I’ve read my share and more of self-help books, and they’re almost all completely stupid—they don’t really speak to the experience of utter despair. There are some books on depression that I’ve found to be worth reading, though they can be hard to find. I prefer memoirs, accounts of people who’ve actually experienced it. But what’s helped me the most, honestly, is poetry. Mary Oliver in particular has a way of re-connecting me with what matters in life, of making me see things differently, without being cheesy or sentimental. For example, “The Journey”:
It was junior high when I first started thinking about how I’d really prefer not to be alive. I don’t think I got to the point of actually thinking about how I could bring that about—it was just a desperate unhappiness. But by high school I was starting to think more actively in that direction. I read all the books I could find about suicide, looking for information about methods, but also, I think, hoping to find something that would somehow help, even if I couldn’t articulate what that help would look like. If nothing else, learning more about it made me feel less alone with my demons. Read More
Like many of you, I was devastated by the results of this election. Devastated in a way that I never have been, even when the person I voted for lost, even when I had serious concerns about what the winner would do. I’ve never been through an election like this.
It’s probably not entirely fair of me, but I have to admit that I felt particularly betrayed by the Mormon vote for Trump. I’ve been thinking about why that is. And the reality is that I bought into the narrative being promulgated for a while that Mormons were different, that we, unlike evangelicals, were going to put commitment to religious values above commitment to party. I gobbled up that narrative. I loved it. I explained to non-LDS friends with pride about Mormons defying the national trend of Republicans, who were unifying behind their morally reprehensible candidate. Read More
Prayer and personal revelation have always been the foundation of my religious life. I’ve counted on them. When the church has done crazy things and I’ve wondered why I was still a believer, I’ve come back to them as the core of my faith.
But lately I’m losing that core. I’m not sure what happened, but it’s been a long time since I felt like I was getting divine communication, since I felt spiritually connected. It’s been an adjustment. It’s not like I haven’t had patches of feeling distant before; I’ve always felt like it was kind of on-and-off. But this has been a long “off” period. And the timing has made it particularly difficult. My life currently feels like a disaster area. With this happening on top of that, I feel like God has abandoned me when I’ve been especially desperate for help. I want to believe in a God who’s loving and faithful, not random and capricious. But right now, it’s taking all I have to hang on to that belief. Read More
I’ve been thinking about some of the things that lots of people I know absolutely rave about, or I feel a lot of social pressure to like, but in reality I just don’t get—for whatever reason, they simply don’t click with me. A sample:
Podcasts: Sometimes it seems like all the fun discussion these days is happening on podcasts. Because of that, I want to like them. But somehow I don’t have the patience to listen, and I find it hard to stay engaged with them.
Museums: I have a really hard time with museums; I just find them boring. Looking at objects and displays doesn’t do much for me.
Strawberries: It amazes me how much people love strawberries, how they’re widely seen as a treat, how they’re even dipped in chocolate. I simply can’t stand them.
Breaking Bad: So many of my friends love this show, and I see it appearing all the time in lists of the best television. I’ve tried to watch it twice, and seriously found it unwatchable.
Nature: It’s not that I dislike nature. I genuinely enjoy being in the mountains or visiting the ocean or being in a forest. But for me, it’s not a transcendent experience. It doesn’t really move me emotionally. For years, I felt tremendous pressure to be having certain experiences when I was out in nature that I just wasn’t having. It’s been a relief to let that expectation go.
The sacrament: In 41 years in the church, I have yet to have any kind of spiritual experience related to the sacrament. I’ve tried various ways of making it meaningful, but in the end it’s a ritual that leaves me cold. People talk about it making a difference to take it; I’ve never felt that way at all. I still take it, but I’ve stopped driving myself crazy trying to make it into anything special.
I’d be curious to hear what other people would put on a list like this.
I’m sitting in a small room on the fifth floor of the local hospital. I’ve had to change from street clothes to scrubs, and my possessions are being examined to see what I can keep. I didn’t bring in much; I turned most of it over to my sister Melyngoch when she left me in the ER. A nurse is sitting at a computer, answering question after question. I haven’t been in this particular hospital before, but I’ve been in enough similar places that the drill is familiar.
I’m reading the questions over the nurse’s shoulder. She has to check boxes about my attitude. Am I hostile? Aggressive? Withdrawn? I can’t help but notice that all of the options are negative. She checks “other,” and writes, “overly polite and helpful.” I can’t help sighing a little—it’s a reminder that whatever I do, however I act, it’s going to be seen through the lens of dysfunction. She asks my name, to find out if I know who I am, and I answer her. She asks if I know where I am. In the psych ward, I say. She corrects me, explaining that this is actually the “stress care unit.” I just smile. I know perfectly well where I am, regardless of what they’ve decided to call it.
When I was about 15, my bishop gave me some horrible advice. It was the kind of generic advice you might give to a teenager that in many situations would be harmless and probably even positive. But if he had known more about my personal situation, I’d like to think that he wouldn’t have said what he did. Unfortunately, he didn’t just say, this is something you might want to consider. He said, God is telling me that you need to do such-and-such thing. Because I’d always heard that bishops could be inspired on your behalf, I took him seriously. I did what I was told, and it was awful. And most awful of all was the message that it conveyed, which was that God didn’t actually care about my needs or experience. It reinforced destructive messages I was already getting about myself and some of the situations I was dealing with. My relationship with God was already full of landmines, and it added to the chaos. Read More
Hi. You don’t know me, but I got into an argument with you this morning on Facebook. I don’t usually do that—one of my resolutions is in fact not to argue with strangers on social media, because I think it’s easier to demonize and dismiss people when you don’t know them, when they’re only friends of friends (if even that). And Facebook arguments in general seem to just go back and forth and leave everyone even more deeply entrenched in their positions.
But I jumped in anyway, because I was so troubled by what you said. Troubled by the content of it, for sure, but also by the reality that your views are shared by many, many members of the church. Troubled enough that I wanted to respond. I left the Facebook argument because I quickly realized that nothing I said would make any difference. But I find myself still want to say something, to see how well I can do at explaining where I’m coming from. I don’t expect that I’m going to convince you to agree with me, but I’m wondering if we can do better than reciting talking points at each other. Read More
It’s been a month now, since the church’s November 5th policy changes. It’s been a pretty awful month—in the church and in the broader world. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so discouraged about my country, and its enthusiasm for guns and xenophobia. And I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so discouraged about my church. Read More
A painful church experience to which I think many people can relate is that of listening to people share stories of divine intervention that didn’t happen in your life. People might talk, for example, about God giving them healthy children. If you don’t have children, or if your children aren’t healthy, this can really sting. Or perhaps God is reported to have intervened to cure a disease—one from which you or someone you love still suffers. Maybe God spared people from accidents, or blessed them financially. Those who weren’t blessed in those ways are inevitably going to wonder why. As a single person,my favorites are the “how God led me to my spouse” stories. (You might think that this would be a different sort of concern for me, given that I’m gay, but actually there are plenty of gay people who will testify that God brought their partners into their lives.) And hardest of all, I suspect, are stories about God saving people’s lives, when he didn’t save the life of the person you loved. Read More
It’s gray outside. That’s not unusual here; it’s been gray for days, and I know this is only the beginning of some long months. I remember that from living in the Midwest before, years ago. But twelve years of living in California got me used to seeing the sun on a regular basis. I knew this part of the move would be challenging.
This past summer I was starting to crash yet again. Life was increasingly appearing both bleak and terrifying, and I was barely treading water. I hadn’t been hospitalized for an entire year—an accomplishment, that—and I saw myself headed to the ER once again. Except that I wasn’t sure I could stand yet another trip to the regulation and boredom of a psych ward, and I wondered whether this time around I could keep myself safe.