I haven’t written a lot on this blog about leaving the Mormon church. I’m not sure exactly why. I think at the beginning I had so many strong, raw feelings I preferred to discuss them privately. And after a while I guess it felt like there was less to talk about.
However, at the time that I left, it was really huge. It’s hard to overstate the significance of unraveling something that had been tightly woven into every aspect of your life since birth.
There were, of course, many reasons that Tony and I decided to leave the Mormon church, none of which I’ll go into here. The emotional experience of leaving, though, is something for which I was unprepared. It hit me like an unexpected tsunami. Looking back, I guess one of the reasons was probably that I was an absolutely devout and devoted Mormon pretty much right up until I left.
When I was a kid, we went to six hours of church a week, and I really didn’t mind. I had been accompanying congregational singing on the piano or organ, or leading choirs pretty much from the age of eleven until the week before I left. I served a 1.5 year mission for the Mormon church in Chile. Tony and I were married in the San Diego Temple. Every time we moved somewhere, whether it was Tunisia or rural Italy, we made sure we had a way to get to church every Sunday, although sometimes it meant over an hour each way and multiple forms of public transportation.
Even when I became aware of more and more aspects of church doctrine and practice that didn’t square with my moral sense, I tried everything I could to stay, from doubling down on my personal spiritual practices to complex mental gymnastics trying to rationalise the aspects of Mormonism that felt so wrong. I even spent a couple of years writing for a Mormon blog.
So when we finally left, even though I knew for certain that it was overwhelmingly the right decision, I felt a profound sense of grief and loss. Fortunately, I had many caring and understanding friends who had previously made the journey out of the Mormon church. In fact, at one point I went through my Facebook friends list and discovered that a full third of the Mormons I had grown up with or met during my time at Brigham Young University (the Mormon university I attended) had already left the Mormon church. It really helped to feel the support from people who knew exactly how I felt.
Among other things, people kept recommending a particular song to me as one that had described their feelings when leaving. I found that it described mine too.
These lines really spoke to me:
It’s like forgetting the words to your favorite song. You can’t believe it; you were always singing along. It was so easy, and the words so sweet.
I felt lost. I didn’t know what to believe or who I was anymore without this thing that had been such an important part of my identity for so long. The cognitive dissonance during my last few months as a Mormon had made it miserable for me to go to church, but especially after I left, I could remember a time when it WAS so easy, and the words so sweet. In fact, it was so hard for me to leave that I insisted on telling myself I was just stepping back from the church for a little while, and taking a break to catch my breath and figure things out.
We were in Florida at the time. Every afternoon during my lunch hour I would drive the three minutes to the nearest beach and then walk along the shore barefoot, thinking out loud, praying sometimes, even though I didn’t know whether to believe in God anymore.
After the shock and sadness wore off a little, I realised I felt angry about all the hours and years and emotional energy I had spent on something in which I no longer believed. I felt betrayed by leaders who had been less than upfront about the historical warts of my childhood church. And more than anything, I realised how much the narrative I had learned at home and church about my role as a woman had affected my life and choices. I missed the parts of myself that I had stuffed away in corners because they didn’t fit the idealised expectations for womanhood that I had internalised.
I had strong feelings, and I needed to express a particular type of angst-ridden rebellion tinged with injury. A friend had sent me a playlist called How to Lose Faith, and I found myself listening obsessively to this song:
I always sang along to this part:
So this is how it feels to breathe in the summer air, to feel the sand between my toes and love inside my ear. All those things that you taught me to fear, I’ve got them in my garden now and you’re not welcome here.
I stayed in this stage for quite awhile. I talked a lot. For months, Tony and I spoke of virtually nothing else on our daily walks. I had long conversations with other post-Mormons, both in person and online. I took my time processing the ways that my Mormon faith had affected my life, and the things I would do differently in hindsight.
Gradually though, without my really noticing it, the hurt and anger faded away. I found a way of being that honoured my roots without stifling the person that I am. I took my newfound knowledge of my real strengths and dreams and goals without the Mormon overlay, and worked towards constructing a life that aligns with my values and makes me happy.
Last week, amidst the dramatic excess and hilarity that is Eurovision, I discovered the latest hymn for my post-Mormon life in Germany’s entry to the song contest:
In so many ways, leaving the Mormon church felt like waking up from sleepwalking.
“I’ve been walking asleep, dreaming awake, finding I bend but I don’t break. I’m almost a sinner, nearly a saint, finding with every breath I take, I’m not afraid of making mistakes–sometimes it’s wrong before it’s right; that’s what you call a perfect life.
I don’t pretend to describe what the Mormon church means to anyone else, or how other people experience it. Different paths are right for different people, and I have nothing but love for my Mormon friends and family who find that the Mormon faith is something that adds richness to their lives.
For me, perfection in my Mormon life was consistently unattainable. A perfect life was something to feel constantly guilty about not achieving, whether that meant regular sins like yelling at my kids or “sins of omission”–all the things one was supposed to be doing but didn’t because of lack of time, disorganisation, want of emotional energy, or whatever personal failing you want to insert. The constant failure to measure up, and the resulting necessity to repent for it were exhausting to me.
When I saw Levina barefoot on the stage, singing about her definition of a perfect life, I felt something in my brain click. Weird moment for an epiphany, I know. But it felt like an affirmation of how my life, and the way I look at my life, has changed.
I’m not so afraid of making mistakes anymore. And the mistakes I made as a result of my Mormon upbringing no longer bother me. “Sometimes it’s wrong before it’s right”, and that’s not just a necessary evil, or something I need to feel bad about. Perfection is right there staring back at me from every mirror and Amsterdam canal.
It’s been a strange and wonderful journey, and I’m grateful to have found a place where I feel happy with where I’ve landed. Here’s to the many unique paths that make our lives interesting, distinctive, and beautiful, and the courage we find to follow them.