What I'm about to share is incredibly personal. (Naturally, it feels like putting this on the inter webs is a nice way to rip off the band-aide. . . Or maybe that's just me!) I guarded my feelings carefully for so many years, too afraid to share with anyone beyond my spouse (who happens to be a great listener). But I also believe it's relevant to what so many are experiencing who are apart of my Mormon faith. I've learned that far more good than bad comes from opening your heart to others, so with a deep breath, that's what this post is about for me.
I'd like to share my own faith journey of the last ten+ years. What I'd love to hear is how others have worked through their own journey, regardless of the ending. But I'd also love some heart-felt sympathy toward every person who might have a similar journey but a different ending, as I know that most people are truly doing the best they can with what they believe, and that no one's faith journey is simple. No one's.
The past 10+ years, I spent countless hours on my knees praying, cried thousands of tears, and lost hundreds of hours of sleep debating on whether or not I was an apostate of my own religion. This was apart of a soul-wrenching journey I never expected to take, as I have deeply cherished the religious faith I was brought up in as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, AKA the Mormons.
I always loved being a rule follower. Rules kept me safe. They helped me make a lot of important decisions before I even encountered pinnacle choices in my youth and young adulthood. I never had to worry about drugs or alcohol, never had to wade through the emotional complexities and physical risks of pre-marital sex. I carried with me throughout my life a sure belief that this life is only part of a bigger plan, so I never feared death. I believed in God completely, so I prayed to Him not just daily, but throughout my days. Studying the scriptures was a daily ritual of my life since I was eight years old, a ritual I sincerely prized as it carried me through life's difficulties ranging from a little rejection from a boy at school to the tragic deaths of a cousin and later a friend.
I never thought that I would one day question if I really belonged to my Mormon faith, a faith that I had firmly held on to my whole life, but also a faith that gradually grew to feel far more painful than helpful.
But, I did question.
Despite being a rule-follower, I am also a thinker. Let me rephrase that: a THINKER! Absolutely, totally, 100% born that way. I like to learn, research, and analyze things. I like answers. I remember asking big questions at a very young age, questions that I ruminated over for a long time before even bringing them up. But I was also exceptionally loyal to my church and my beliefs, so I largely escaped big spiritual tumult until I was a young adult.
My faith struggles started with my first real earth-shattering heartbreak as a freshman in college eleven years ago. I sunk lower than the dirt. I was drowning in sadness while physically withering away, my body made small and fragile by a heavy sorrow. I still believe to this day that I was dying from a broken heart. The darkness around me was so thick that my insides felt like they were getting squeezed. It even hurt to breathe.
I prayed like my life depended on it, because it did. The only thing that got me out of bed each morning and to my classes was a long prayer and listening to a talk from a religious leader. Between classes (and silently sobbing in bathroom stalls), I read talks and scriptures, seeking some relief, some comfort, even a sliver of it. But it never came. Never the descendance of peace I'd always heard about. Never a soft voice whispering of my Heavenly Father's love for me. Never a divine aide I was so desperately looking for. The heavens were closed, but it wasn't for lack of me trying.
Time helped my healing the most. I slowly dug my way out of that heart ache and moved on, still clinging to my faith. I dated another good man. I learned I could experience love again, even though that relationship didn't work out either. And I never gave up hope in my religious beliefs, despite feeling like I had been abandoned. I reasoned it as a test of my faith. I hoped that one day I'd look back and see God's hand in things, and that He really was helping me more than I could understand in that moment of time.
Struggles are a part of life though, and I soon became neck-deep in eating disorders and all the other mental ailments they bring. I thought I could pray, fast, and study my way out of them too. I truly sought God minute-by-minute, begging for help and pleading for healing. (I've got the journal entries to prove it, too!) I wanted and believed my righteousness to save me from these demons if I was faithful enough. And I did everything I could do be faithful enough.
But again, that peace never came. I was swimming in the dark, reaching for the stars that I "knew" were there but were too far away to grasp as I slipped into deeper waters. Yet again, I reasoned that hindsight would be 20/20; God surely must have helped me more than I could see.
On what I thought was the tail-end of those eating disorder struggles, but really turned out to be the beginning of the end, I married a good man. A VERY good man. A man who accepted and loved me for a flawed human being who was doing her darnedest, but still in need of a lot of work. A man who most definitely didn't "fix" me or even seek to do so, but who stood by me as I clawed my way through a long road of recovery. A man dedicated to never leaving my side, and I him.
Our first year of marriage, Brad often came home to me in tears. While destructive thoughts and behaviors would still be part of my roller coaster for the next eight years, I was also struggling with something more, something on top of all that. I was struggling with my identity as a Good Mormon Woman.
With my upbringing and my church's culture, the Good Mormon Women I knew were incredible mothers. Yes, they were also leaders in their community. Yes, they were brilliant and talented. Yes, they espoused their views and made a difference. But mostly, their greatest importance was placed on their role as mothers.
For the first time in my life, I didn't know where I fit in to that.
I was 21 years old, an almost straight-A college graduate with promising dreams of academia. I wanted that. I also wanted to be a mother someday. I didn't know how to mesh these apparently-clashing dreams.
Even though I didn't feel like I necessarily had to have kids right away, I struggled to figure out my place of importance as a Good Mormon Woman. I was already mourning that my life would be all about washing dishes and changing diapers, even if that was very much what I wanted to eventually experience. I battled thoughts that told me I was a second-class citizen within my belief system. And I was distraught that there seemed to be a lot of evidence around me that that was the case.
But a Good Mormon Woman doesn't think like that. A Good Mormon Woman who values her role doesn't ask questions, she doesn't doubt, and she definitely doesn't challenge the norm. This is what I believed.
So I prayed, I fasted, I studied. I cried and cried. I talked to my husband and parents, I talked to my sisters. I talked with my amazing Relief Society President. I made some tough decisions. And then I made peace with those decisions. I could have it all, but not all at once. Some dreams were put on hold for other dreams, dreams of little toes and little fingers. These are choices I do not regret, but they left wounds on my spirit. Those wounds would be opened time and time again for the next eight years.
I became a mother at 25 years old. I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and she truly was my whole world. I held my precious daughter close to my heart, smelled her sweet smell, rubbed her soft hair, marveled at her . . . and I struggled. I struggled because of my old wounds. My wounds had words, and their words seemed to be echoing within my church with other women, but women who were far braver than I about challenging the cultural norms of my faith. These women were often looked down on, criticized, or--worse--brushed off completely. They were often deemed as "unfaithful," "misled," or "apostates," even. I read the articles about them and was startled to see that I tended to agree with them. They were speaking my inner thoughts, they were sharing my heart. I was also taken aback because they clearly were not considered to be "Good Mormon Women" within my faith. I didn't know how I could be both.
So, again, for years I prayed and prayed. I fasted. I studied. And I wept.
I was so afraid. I didn't want to leave my church! But there were so many voices crying against these women, women whose thoughts I had thought the majority of my life, long before I had even heard of a feminist movement within my church, long before I read a single word from or about them, longer still than when I was willing to adopt their title as my own.
I was so afraid because I thought that even sharing similar thinking made me an apostate. I didn't want to struggle with these thoughts, criticisms, and doubts. I didn't want to feel the way I felt. I didn't want to challenge the norm. I didn't want to carry these wounds.
But once again, the heavens were closed. God didn't seem to be hearing my prayers or aiding my studies. He didn't seem to be reaching me or speaking to me in any way, correcting my feelings that I didn't matter, that my thoughts were unfounded. Knowing this made me think that perhaps the real message was the very thing I had feared all along: I didn't belong.
I thought I had to leave my faith.
But I wasn't going down without a fight. We moved towns, leaving one great congregation for another, a congregation where I opened my eyes to see Good Mormon Women who were also different. They believed, they doubted, they shared, they were real. They weren't giving up on their faith, but they were being themselves. I saw Good Mormon Men too, men who were faithful, vulnerable, and so very human. They believed, they doubted, they shared, and they were real. I saw acceptance. I saw courage. And I began to see "me."
I also began opening my mouth. Just to very close friends, at first. Later, a bit to my parents and siblings. I still felt "different," but I wasn't made to feel like an apostate from these people I loved and trusted. Even if they appeared alarmed with things I said I felt (and they did!), they didn't shun me or make me feel like I simply didn't have enough faith. Because I already knew better, that my faith wasn't going to fix these issues for me. However much that helped, I still felt like I was in a spiritual purgatory.
Most intently the past ten-plus years, I have battled self-hatred, depression, ANGER, sadness, cynicism, doubt, doubt, doubt, and an alarming amount of apathy. I have worn out my knees in prayer. I have stayed up all night with fear over what I was feeling. I have raged over getting divine guidance. I have numbed myself when that guidance never came. I have questioned myself over and over. And I have even questioned if God exists, because despite me checking off all the right boxes (sincerely praying, reading, serving, and attending the temple), I seemed to be duking this all out on my own.
But then I recently made a choice.
I was never going to leave my faith.
I decided answers to my questions however basic or complex may never come; changes I'd like to see happen within my religion may not ever arise; people might balk at or be scared of my heartfelt feelings; and I might never fit the old mold of a Good Mormon Woman simply because of who I was born to be as a questioner.
And yet I decided to believe.
Because this is my faith. This is my identity, my community, my culture. This is what I so want to be true. This is the best way I know how to live. This is the best way I know how to raise my children. My Mormon religion may not be perfect, but it is filled with good people who are doing the best with what they believe. And their best is pretty darn amazing.
I decided that this would be good enough for me. I decided that true or not-true, living my faith was a whole lot easier than leaving it behind.
A Good Mormon Woman, or a Thinker? I decided that I could be both. I could be "me." There was a place for me, even if it was somewhere in the middle of these two identities. I couldn't be wrapped up in a perfect bow and neither could my beliefs, but that was OK.
Since making that decision, I have felt great relief. I now have the confidence that I can ride these faith storms because I have already made my choice to stay, wounds and all.
It seems that there is a place for many things I long-believed could not live cohesively.
There is a place for questions. There is a place for doubt. There is a place for challenging.
There is a place for belief in spite of all of that.
There is a place for you, too.