I was born into the LDS Church, the fourth of five children. I had a happy, comfortable childhood and my immediate and extended family was filled with loving, exemplary people. I never questioned the truth of the belief system I inherited. Instead, I enjoyed learning as much as I could and working to make everything fit. Applying the gospel to life’s deep questions was like a game – a clever riddle.
I was a good student but looked forward to college as an opportunity to find my eternal companion and to prepare to be a mother in Zion. I went to BYU and overall had a great experience. I sought to purify my life; I tried to obey all laws with exactness. When I graduated, still single, I wasn’t sure what to do but felt that god was testing me to see if I would submit my will to his. Eventually I decided he wanted me to serve a mission, and so I did.
It was on my mission that I began to have questions. I loved meeting people and sharing with them what I considered to be a message of love and hope. But I was troubled by so many aspects of mission life, including:
· Training in techniques that seemed like sales tactics (Did the ‘good news’ have to be sold?)
· The contrast between the emotional maturity and stability of those interested in our message versus those who were not interested (Were the faithful of other religions and the secular, loving families really less deserving of exaltation?)
· Missionaries who were verbally abusive, mentally ill, or struggling with eating disorders (If the gospel couldn’t “solve” such problems for members, how could it resolve the challenges of others?)
· General sadness among the missionaries, particularly the sisters (If we were living after the manner of happiness, why did it seem like we were always trying to cheer ourselves up?)
· The contrast between super-obedient missionaries who seemed self-righteous, numbers-oriented and sometimes sexist versus less-obedient missionaries who actually seemed to love and connect with the people and respect sister missionaries (I thought the obedient were the ones able to learn how to love unconditionally, not the other way around?)
It didn’t make sense. I had been taught that “by their fruits ye shall know them,” but I became less and less convinced that our side had a corner on the good fruits.
By the time I completed my mission, something had changed inside me. Life seemed so bittersweet. Looking back, I now realize that I was suffering from depression. But at the time, I just couldn’t reconcile my unhappiness with the knowledge that I was doing my best to love and serve god, so I remained in denial. Over the next several years, I continued to involve myself in church service. I tried to ignore the growing divide between my personal values and what was taught in church. But all the while, I became increasingly emotionally disconnected.
When I was 27, I was so miserable I could no longer deny it. I didn’t like who I was becoming, and to make matters worse I couldn’t seem to connect with single LDS men. I felt alone, and the idea that God would prefer so many of his children (both hetero- and homosexual) to endure lives of loneliness and celibacy made less and less sense to me. I felt powerless about my future. I looked around me at so many of my friends – beautiful, intelligent, accomplished women – and wondered why we hadn’t been better prepared for options other than motherhood. And most of all, I didn’t understand how I could feel so close to god in my heart and yet feel so emotionally manipulated at church. I couldn’t believe that the church was wrong, but something was definitely wrong with me. I decided to stop going until I could clear my head, resolve my issues, and become emotionally healthy.
The best decision I have ever made was to acknowledge my depression and seek help. During the summer of 2009, after several months of inactivity, I decided my misery might just be more than the result of pride and selfishness. I finally started seeing a therapist, with amazing results. Within two months’ time, I felt happier than I had EVER felt before. I began to recognize and address years of cognitive dissonance. I began to know and like myself. I began to respect and appreciate my personal values for what they were – MINE – rather than measure them (and myself) against the latest teachings of the LDS church for appropriateness. I began to feel empowered to decide for myself what kind of future I wanted and to seek after it. My relationships with friends and family improved.
I was shocked to realize that all the fruits I had desired from gospel living I was finally reaping – not from applying the teachings of the gospel to my life, as I had been doing for nearly three decades, but from psychotherapy! For the first time in my life, I thought it might actually be possible to have a fulfilling, moral life outside of Mormonism. The thought was at first disconcerting but ultimately exhilarating and liberating. Learning more about church history merely confirmed what I already guessed to be true: that the LDS church was a mixed bag of good and bad, and just as man-made as all the rest. Long story short, I did the unthinkable: I became an atheist.
Over a year later, I am happy to say that life just keeps getting better! I am one of the lucky ones, because my family and many of my friends have continued to love and support me even though they may not understand or approve my choices. Of course, leaving Mormonism has not been easy. It has required sacrifice, anguish, and has left me with a new set of anxieties to experience. But in exchange, I have made significant progress at overcoming the effects of a belief system based on self-deprecation and guilt. I feel like I have a second chance at life.
Today I rejoice because I like who I am, I am in love, I’m pursuing the career of my choice, and I’m thrilled by life. I’m truly happy! My name is Sarah; I am a happy, fulfilled, moral atheist, and I’m an Ex Mormon.
To visit Sarah’s blog about leaving the Mormon Church, click here.
Sarah suggests the following resources as helpful links during her exit from Mormonsim: