First, I want to thank Sam Young for doing what I could not: stand up in front of LDS leadership and put the focus on this horrible practice. When I, like so many others, are completely saddled down by the detrimental shame and self-loathing that come from childhood trauma followed by prying worthiness interviews and judgement, we often end up defenseless. It is hard to defend yourself when you are made to see yourself as eternally unworthy. Thank you Sam for standing up for our youth and for acknowledging us who were affected as youth.
The most important thing that I want to share is at the end where I outline THE 7 THINGS that helped me to overcome the negative effects of traumatic childhood experiences. These are also helpful for overcoming other types of trauma, addictions and more, so please read those if nothing else.
My own story is an example of how someone who experienced trauma in childhood can be negatively affected by worthiness interviews and the confrontation of high church standards. I always tried to avoid worthiness interviews. They contributed greatly to my low self-esteem, self-loathing, self-judging and worse of all, toxic shame. Toxic shame is the shame that an offender passes to the innocent, which they internalize as their own. With toxic shame, an innocent victim might blame themselves for what happened, blame themselves for the negative behaviors they may exhibit as a consequence of abuse or assault. Toxic shame can lead to suicide.
My childhood is a blur that I tried to bury through busyness like church service, work, obsessions, etc. But what I can no longer deny is that from ages 6 to 8 years old I was abducted multiple times by neighboring pedophiles and sexually molested, physically and psychologically abused. My parents were not available and seldom home so I was easy prey. In the offending family was a boy, Darin, who was older than I by maybe 6 years. He was the one who would constantly bombard me with pornography and come after me to take me to the adult(s). I absolutely hated him. The worse were the sleepovers. I don’t know how these could have happened as I loathed going, especially after the first time. I don’t think we knew these people and can’t imagine how my parents would allow it.
The sleepovers were a trip to hell and have been a lifelong source of nightmares and flashbacks. I struggle to say what happened. I was forced to look at porn, take drugs, forced to do things and with loud music playing, taken off to a smaller room by an adult for the worst. I still hate Led Zeppelin. Finally, I think I refused to go to the sleepovers but it did not stop the molesting. It just moved it to other places. I was not safe in my home and never knew when Darin would come to collect me for them. I hated myself for going with him but I was being controlled through physical violence and fear. I believed what they said they would do if I didn’t cooperate or if I told.
During that time, the missionaries arrived and part of my family was converted. At my baptism I began to have hope that somehow Jesus would save me from it all. Sometime later that year perhaps, I was saved as we moved to a different part of town. I am lucky that it only lasted two years but the damage was incredible. How do you live a normal life afterwards? You try to bury it inside and try to forget it by any means possible. Self hurting and then substances again starting at 11 was the dirt I used to bury it.
I will attempt to specify how worthiness interviews and church doctrine affected me. I do know that I hated the interviews and felt an incredible amount of shame, low self-worth and self-hate afterwards. I lied to most bishops regarding the word of wisdom and law of chastity. It was just too dangerous for me to talk about these subjects to anyone. I hated myself because every week I would do my priesthood duties although I was unworthy because of the substance abuse that I was not able to resist. I came to believe that I was a bad person and that I would end up where the worse sinners go. But I had to keep up the charade out of fear that my father would discover all and that I too would be kicked out as my older minor siblings had. But he must have known. How do you rationalize your son having a collection of dozens of empty liquor bottles in his room at age 14
When I was in my later teen years I could have easily left the church, but then one young men’s meeting captured my mind. The speaker pronounced that by going on a church mission, a person would be forgiven of his sins. Finally, a chance to wipe it all away! It took a couple of years but I managed to clean myself up and did go on a church mission. It was a great experience. For the first time I was surrounded by normal, functional people. I wanted so much to be like the other missionaries who were so firm in the gospel, who had already attended college and fixed career plans. By emulating the hard charging missionaries, I was able to transform myself enough to fit it with the rest of the missionaries and even excel at missionary work. The mission was overall a great experience and soon after, I married a return missionary and was accepted to Ricks College and then BYU.
I really thought that all of my mess was behind me. However, one can only busy oneself for so long until it comes back to haunt you. It’s just not possible to be perfect all of the time. My judging ego, hidden in my sub-conscience but calling the shots, was ready to pounce on me at any opportunity. Normal problems become overblown by the mind towards suicidal thoughts. Soon, we had some small marital issues and spoke to our college ward bishop. It was very awkward and embarrassing because of his reaction and from then I vowed to not share such matters in the future. In his defense, Bishops receive no formal training on marriage counselling or interviewing people, so I don’t fault him. Several months later my wife and I had a joint temple interview and I found myself lying again. I was sick afterwards and did not use that recommend out of extreme guilt. All of the old childhood self-defeating beliefs of shame and unworthiness returned and stayed. The mission and year after was a temporary escape. A life of church service was a way to satisfy my co-dependence and feel needed. On the other hand, I could never be worthy enough, no matter how good a member I was and how much I served in the church. Deep inside was that well of toxic shame and I knew I was that person who was “luke warm”, unworthy, the one who would be lucky to make it into the lowest level of celestial glory if I could somehow earn it through a life of selflessness and church service.
Fast forward 20+ years and during my year as a counselor in the Bishopric, I finally understood how the door for abuse is open for leaders interviewing children. The sad truth is that there are no guidelines for interviews. There are no limits given on questioning. That is why interviews can vary so much. I asked about training on interviewing and was told to use the spirit and given a leadership manual. I read it and there was nothing on interviews. I went to the Stake leadership training meetings, expecting to receive training on giving interviews because I considered it such an important matter, but there was none. With my traumatic background, I did the interviews very different from other leaders. I interviewed youth in the cultural hall in plain view of others and kept the questioning very light.
By 45, I was completely crippled by PTSD from childhood and a career in law enforcement that I was exhausted and asked to be released from the bishopric. It was clear to me by then that I was being considered for Bishop and I was crumbling inside. I had incredible mixed feelings on this and was having second thoughts, especially being concerned with how the current and previous bishops had handled my son (story #928). I was also in trouble because my suicidal thoughts were almost constant by this time and I was so afraid it would happen. I just did not understand what was happening to me. Why was I so depressed, having these nightmares and the suicidal thoughts? I began to self-evaluate and peel back the layers and piece together my childhood, hoping that I could figure something out. It was a can of worms as all the memories and feelings began to return. The nightmares were a big clue and accurately depicted what had happened. It was the abused Inner Child screaming to be heard and taken care of.
Life is so much better after 3 years of therapy. Here are the things that helped me the most.
1) Find a good therapist that you are comfortable with. A general therapist may not be enough but should be able to direct you to a specialist; I had to find one that specialized in trauma.
2) EMDR therapy was incredibly helpful in processing the trauma. This is like magic because you can transport back and right those wrongs which still haunt you. This therapy was the only way I was able to stop hurting from my past.
3) Inner Child Therapy was how I was able to regain self-love and overcome unhealthy shame. I learned to take care of the 7, 8 and 11 year old child inside who’s life was completely derailed. Learning to take care of the wounded inner child brings the highest degree of recovery.
4) Writing and reciting positive affirmations is how I rewired my sub-conscious brain to work for me instead of against me.
5) Mindfulness and meditation. This is how you create distance between you and your judgmental, ego brain. Just breathe and observe your thoughts as they pass without judging them or trying to stop them. It is so peaceful to just step outside of the never-ending line of thought and realize that you are not your brain or your story. You are much more!
6) Finding some venue or self-help group to let it all out. Other people that have gone through it or something very difficult can be supportive when others can’t.
7) Make time for yourself. This has to be a top priority.
I know that the church had nothing to do with causing my childhood trauma. Perhaps it is not within the scope of the Church to identify and help people who struggle because of childhood trauma. If personal interviews are going to be conducted, then why not use sound protocols and offer some basic interview training? At least for me, some church doctrine and practices actually contribute in a negative way on victims. With childhood interviews and sexual questions, every child’s personal boundaries are infringed terribly upon and they become very susceptible to grooming and victimization. The focus on sexual purity followed up by prying sexual questions can be degrading for a persons who had theirs taken by no fault of their own. Teaching that sexual sin is next to murder has been an enduring source of pain for me as a victim of sexual assault and anyone else who is human enough to act on their sexuality before marriage. A person’s sexuality is their own business and should not be on trial.