For those of you who haven’t lived in Utah, let me preface this story by introducing you to some facts of reality of living there. Utah County, a cluster of cities about an hour south of Salt Lake City, is somewhat the extreme example of these facts. You can’t drive a quarter mile without seeing a church building, wherein occurs not one, but at least three, gatherings of full congregations every Sunday. The following is a real statistic: over 90 percent of people living in Utah County are Mormon. I don’t know if this includes “inactive” members, who were once baptized but no longer attend church on a regular basis, but it paints a good picture of what it’s like being there. Everyone you know is Mormon.
I, like most teenagers, became mildly sexual at about the age of 14. This included normal desires, such as masturbation and possibly fooling around a little during an occasional make-out session. When my parents found this out (I forgive that they were from an even worse generation), I was required to confess this behavior in an “interview” with my ward’s Bishop (similar to the father of a local catholic church). Bishops are always male, and these interviews are always conducted one-on-one behind a closed door. As with almost everything I was taught in the Mormon church, I was expected to accept that this, too, was right and okay, and to ignore my very strong gut feelings that something was not right. I complied, confessed, and tried to change my ways. I liked pleasing my parents, and because of the positive external response to my changes, felt I was doing the right thing; but I also was a normal teenager. Trying to treat this mild sexual behavior as something very, very wrong led to feelings of guilt that I now recognize as extreme. Those feelings – unable to be completely resolved through prayer, fervent repentance, and social isolation (so I didn’t mess up again because of “bad” friend choices) – led to a behavioral backfire that created a vicious pattern in my life for the next 5 years. Do “bad” things; feel guilty; “clean up” my act; subconsciously resist the unreasonable ideals; backfire and do “bad” things again. Those backfires got worse and worse (though not as bad as others I saw going through the same thing), as I couldn’t find a balance between being normal and pleasing my parents. To my memory, the Bishops in my local “ward”, or congregation, were men who were generally good people, just trying to do the right thing and uphold the responsibility of overseeing an entire ward and all the decisions that go with that. I feel pity for the men who still agree to play this role, as the burden of knowing the “sins” of everyone around you is not a welcome thing when you have good intent, and, it seems, not the right action for a healthy psychological function.
When I was finally 18 and out on my own, the pattern continued for a year or so – at first the freedom led me to do things that I didn’t even want to do (think Rumspringa for the Amish). I was getting plastered drunk, having sex with strangers (usually older men) in dangerous situations, and then running from my negative emotions by overspending, which got me more depressed. All of this eventually led to me losing my job, partially because I was using my work computer (during work hours) to find men online. I wasn’t even 18 and a half yet, which led to guilt and shame, which led to moving back in with my parents and attending a church ward for young singles. I’m not sure why, but the Bishops I interviewed with at the “singles wards” were, for lack of a better word, creepy. Maybe because I was older, and could recognize it, or maybe because they spend inordinate amounts of time hearing about young singles’ sexual “deviancy”. The worst that happened in these interviews was that they asked for more explicit details than I felt was relevant in making decisions related to my “repentance process”. I had always assumed their process was correct because I accepted their authority. Anyway, I felt uncomfortable, in a way for which my heart held me accountable, and I finally realized I was leaving the church as a whole and never coming back. About ten years later, I can say that decision stuck, and I’ve never regretted it for a moment. The farther away I get from the Mormon church, the happier, healthier, and more stable I become. Everyone who’s been there, and isn’t anymore, mirrors my sentiments.
I am not usually an activist against something about which people should have the right to choose (such as religious practices), but this involves unwilling, underage, and socially pressured children. A big part of me wants to soften my statements by saying that the church can be good for people in some way, and that the one-on-one Bishop interviews are the only thing that needs to change or be done away with. But I can’t. I’m not a person who ignores their gut feelings anymore, and if I’m completely honest, I don’t see real, long-term good coming from any religion, especially one that, in many expert opinions, borders on “cult”. If you look openly at what fruit (effect) this church produces, it becomes plain how rotten the roots are.
I am lucky now to have a husband who, too, rejected the applied psychosis of the Mormon church, especially when it came to debilitating irrational ideals about sexual and mental health. We understand and help each other in a very unique way. I am also grateful to see many of my siblings turning towards a life that is truer to their heart, and that I know will make them happier.
I know there are much worse stories out there, both within and out of the Mormon church, but I still feel compelled to share mine to help others. Through seemingly extreme and almost constant efforts to reach a healthy psychological plateau in life, I know that I’ve cleared up the worst of the problems this has caused for me. However, even while writing this out, I can feel that doing so will help me just that little bit more, so I encourage anyone with similar experiences to share as well. It’s better on this side of things, I promise. 🙂