At first, I was numb. Making the decision to leave the church was overpowering. I didn’t know what I was going to, where I would wind up, how things would turn out, I only knew I had to GO. Once I left I didn’t know how to process what I was feeling. Some days I was sad. And sad sounds so “light”, I was devastated. Being a member of the church, I had a road map. Every day was much like the last. Rise, pray, read my scriptures, go to work, come home, serve, go through the week much in the same way, attend church, repeat. There was no map to follow now. But I had a lot of time on my hands. One might think that was freeing – but not in the beginning. Time just made me feel broken.
Mormonism is socially indoctrinating. We had a wide and deep social group associated with the church. We walked into the Ward building on Sunday and every face was friendly, known My 40th surprise party, filled with our friends, mostly from church. And over the time I went inactive to finally leaving, most of those connections had been broken or dissolved. And here’s the kicker; my very best friend…had no idea any of this was going on. That was perhaps the loneliest part of the story as a whole.
My bestie and I lived pretty much across the street from each other. Same builder, different part of the subdivision. And that put us in different Wards. In the LDS church you don’t decide a time that’s best for your family and then attend that service. Your time in the building is determined by a map of where you live. In the beginning, when our neighborhood was just being built, we all attended the one Ward in the town. As the town grew, the Ward became large and we were “split” into two Wards and eventually several Wards came to make up the town. That first splitting of the Ward separated my best friend and I from attending the same time on Sundays the rest of my time in the church.
That being said, Wards exist pretty independently of each other – other than twice a year when the Stake brings the Wards under it together for two weekends. I had no idea what was going on in her Ward or with her co-Ward members and she had no idea what was going on in mine. So, when I began questioning, even when I became more inactive, she was none the wiser.
Now, I didn’t do that intentionally – not in the beginning. In the beginning I was simply struggling with a feeling of emptiness, struggling with the questions I was running into. There was no sense of emergency and no reason to spill my doubts all over her. I was sure I would work through it all in time. But time continued on, and then it became harder to verbalize what I was experiencing, and then I just felt guilty for what I was thinking. Faith was something we always shared. The beginning of our friendship came from our association in the church. It wasn’t all our friendship was now built upon, but it was an unspoken part of the full picture. I was more terrified of damaging that precious friendship then I was of losing the religion as a whole.
I wish I could say this part of the story lasted a short time, but it did not. It was more than a year before I came to her and confessed the whole lot of what I had been going through.
The year after I left the church I struggled much on my own. I had the support of my friend across the street, and my husband was wonderful, but my circle of who knew and who I shared with was very, very small. I needed a break, a clean slate so I didn’t attend any church in the interim. I was working out how I felt about that. After about a year, I realized how much I missed the sense of community attending church brings. I longed for that community, for that connection with others. So, one Sunday, I decided to attend. My first experience back to church is a post all on its own – suffice to say it was overwhelmingly emotional, so much so I didn’t know if I would be able to continue coming back, but I did. Through my tears and fears, I found an overriding sense of peace and love and acceptance. No pretenses, no “have tos” no agendas and no checklists. I had found a place to call home and a place to come heal.
Shortly after that first visit, my friends invited me to join their small group. A group of believers who meet together generally weekly to discuss various bible-based topics and to share life together. The group was about six couples and me. My husband wasn’t ready to participate yet and not knowing what this group was all about yet, I was good with that.
At the end of each meeting we would go around and offer up any prayers we needed and what was on our heart. It was about the third time I’d attended and having to tell my bestie of all the changes in my life was weighing heavily on me. For so long I was able to ignore the elephant in the room. Afterall, I was just exploring answers to my questions. I was simply inactive, just not attending church, but underneath there was still a shred of belief. But now, here I sat, fully false in our friendship. I had found my answers, the church was not true. I was no longer searching for answers to make it otherwise. I was no longer just “not attending”, no longer just inactive. I had left the church altogether. I was putting it behind me, moving forward, and had all but joined a new church, I was following a different doctrine entirely. I couldn’t avoid the conversation any longer.
When it came to my turn to ask for prayers, the tears streamed freely down my face. My biggest fear would be losing that relationship. Our friendship has always been more of a sisterhood. Of all the losses I’d experienced leading up to this moment, this was a loss I didn’t think I would be strong enough to make it through. The group prayed on my behalf, offered me hugs and support and it helped, but I knew what lay ahead would be the hardest part of my story.
The next night I found that my bestie was home alone, her husband and kids away at church activities so over I went. We sat on her couches talking surfacy things to begin with, but I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and the tears began to flow. I’ll never forget the look of concern on her face. I finally blurted it out. Though I took the chicken approach, “I’m thinking of leaving the church.” And up she rose, immediately coming over to embrace me, to let me know she loved me regardless. From there I shared my story as best I could and she shared her sadness for not having known. That she recognized that the absence of our talking about all things church should have been a clue, and I apologized for not coming out with it earlier. So many tears were shed that night. But so much love was shared.
It’s been a little over two and a half years since that night, and so much has happened since then. I am blessed to say she is still my bestie, still an integral part of my life, still my sister. But the road has not been easy. She believes in her faith as adamantly as I disavow it. It isn’t a topic of conversation often, but we do chat from time to time, and it’s hard, and scary. We spend a lot of time trying not to offend each other or hurt each other’s feelings. Some days that makes me sad, others I’m just so happy to navigate together that I’ll take whatever the new normal looks like. And I know this is much more me than her.
Maybe we serve in this respect as a cautionary tale. I spent two years or more going through a religious crisis. I pulled away from everything and most everyone I knew. I didn’t even give my best friend an opportunity to support me, to assist me, to love me through my pain. And in doing so I stole her opportunity to mourn along side me. Instead I mourned the stages alone, over time. And when I finally decided to tell her, she needed her time to mourn, to catch up. I wanted her to be good, to be on board, to be where I was in the journey, but that just wasn’t fair, or realistic.
I think the hardest thing I see for those of us who come to similar conclusions and leave the religion – and not just the LDS religion – any church I suppose – is that we want our pain, or suffering to be acknowledged. And though I understand, and stood there myself once, it is both unfair and a little selfish. We aren’t the only ones who lost something. The ones we leave behind, or even those we get to keep as in my case, are hurting, too. What they thought was a given, has been pulled from under them. For some who believe their way is THE way, they might believe we are lost and there is fear and sadness and mourning in that. And unfortunately, even though in leaving we experience hurt and pain, we have to be the “bigger” person sometimes – we have to acknowledge that our decision, though in many ways freeing for us, is painful for those around us who love us. And they are as entitled to experience those feelings as we are to experience our own. My hope is that together, by sharing the journey from each other’s side, we can come to a new “normal” and it might be even better, more authentic eventually than the old “normal” was.
At least, that is my sincere hope.