I don’t know if my story is typical, at least the later parts of it, but the beginning part I believe, is almost common in the church, at least among those of my peers who, like me, and my oldest son, with whom I have discussed this issue, had the desire to be completely honest in worthiness interviews. I found myself incapable of lying to the various bishops by whom I was interviewed over the years, from age 12 to about age 48, when I stopped attending church.
My first bishop’s interview was at the age of 12. This interview introduced me to the concept of masturbation and I was informed at this time that this was a “sin” and if I participated in it I would be unworthy before god, and unworthy to participate in the passing of the sacrament, which was an ordinance that all 12 year old boys were expected to perform. I soon learned that masturbation was very difficult for me to avoid, and I subsequently entered into a cycle of sinning, followed by fear, guilt, and shame, and that followed by repentance, relief through confession, and hope that I would be able to abstain and thus become and remain worthy before god and the church. This cycle, begun at age 12, persisted and continued well into adulthood, the main difference being that during high school I discovered girls and sex, and so the level of guilt and shame only increased, as the sin of sex with another person was considered to be an even greater sin before god than masturbation. We were told in no uncertain terms that sex was “next to murder” in seriousness in god’s eyes. In my mind, that included masturbation, and I was constantly in a state of inner turmoil as I felt I was never ever going to be worthy as a human being and would always be defective no matter how hard I tried.
All of this led to self-loathing and PTSD. I was terrified, and I can’t express the depth of my terror, each and every time I contemplated having to talk to my bishop after I had “slipped up”, either by myself, or worse, with my girlfriend. I would avoid the bishop at all costs until I realized that it was no use and I would have to call and make an appointment, or just wait until I would inevitably run into him at church. I fully believed that bishops had the “power of discernment” and that they needed but to take one look at me and would know immediately and without doubt that i was guilty of a sexual sin. The oppressive nature of this kind of belief had deep and lasting negative effects on my psyche, causing feelings of fear, shame, self-doubt, and unworthiness as a human being. I often prayed for long periods of time begging, literally begging and sobbing on my knees for god to deliver me from my evil nature, to just take it all away from me so that I could be worthy of him and of the presence of all the other, more righteous people I was surrounded with in my church family and community and whom I was certain had none of these evil tendencies that I had. I was quite sure of this, and this was one of the most damaging aspects of the whole thing, in that I truly believed that I was alone in my evil nature, so that I felt less than pretty much everyone around me at all times. Imagine yourself having killed someone, actually murdering another human being, and walking around knowing your guilt, and keeping that secret, and how you would feel all of the time. This is how I felt much of the time as a teenager and young adult, and even into adulthood. Remember, I was taught that sexual sin was “next to murder” in gravity in the eyes of god, and if in the eyes of god, then in the eyes of the church as well. As a young man, how was I to know where the line between sexual sin and murder was? I took these things way too literally, but the church didn’t account for the different ways someone might view things. I had no idea, but have learned since, that many of my peers simply lied about their sexual activities. In my mind, that was never an option.
Fast forward many years, I’m in my forties, divorced, single, and again facing life alone, with no outlet for sex, which, having been married for several years, I had become used to having. Only now, I couldn’t. And, having attained a higher rank in the “priesthood”, having been called to the high council while married, any sin I commit would now be seen as even MORE grievous than before. So the cycle began again, for I was just as highly sexed as always, only now I had no legal partner in the eyes of the church, with whom to have sex. I was expected to remain absolutely celibate until I was married again. Alas, I could not, and began again the whole cycle of masturbation, immense guilt and shame, self-loathing, etc etc etc, until I would go visit the bishop, confess, be absolved, and on and on. I eventually did marry again, this time to a non-member, and partly because I felt constricted by my beliefs that it would be shameful to continue in the relationship without being married. I was no longer attending church on a regular basis, but still clung to my beliefs, in large part because I didn’t want to disappoint my mother and my brothers and sisters, some of whom I was still quite close with.
A couple of years into the new marriage I realized I was in trouble, because the marriage wasn’t working out and I realized how much I had felt pressured by my beliefs and the culture of Mormonism that I still carried within me, to get married when we truly should have just continued dating. I confessed this all to my wife and although we tried for a few more years to make it work, it wasn’t meant to be and we divorced.
During this time, near the end of the marriage, I had a complete nervous breakdown. I had finally realized that the church wasn’t true, and announced that fact in an email to the whole family. The backlash was immediate, and relationships with my family were quite strained for the next few years. I was quite angry with the church for the years and years of being lied to and misled, in what I considered, and still consider to this day, to be an intentional and deliberate misrepresentation of the facts of the history of the church and it’s true nature. Nevertheless, the guilt and shame I felt for leaving the church, and basically turning my back on my family and everything they hold dear, was overpowering, hence the nervous breakdown. I lost my ability to work and to function for a period of time, suffered anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, which lasted for about 4 years. I had suicidal ideation a few times, but fortunately never acted on it, except once when I turned on the gas on the stove and stood over it for several minutes hoping to pass out and fall asleep and never wake up. But I chickened out before losing consciousness and walked away, wondering at myself.
And thus ended years of dealing with the very real and damaging psychological fallout of being subjected to harmful teachings and intrusive and shaming interviews by people in whom I trusted to guide me in life. And people wonder why I had a certain level of animosity towards the church. Perhaps if they read this, they may begin to understand. On the other hand, I’m quite sure that at least a certain percentage of true believers would still fault me, as they tend to victim-blame, certain that the church itself could never be at fault. Blind faith is just that — blind.