One of the most difficult things I, and many others, experienced after leaving a high demand religion is lonliness and loss of community. One thing these organizations have in spades is social networking. The social indoctrination happened quickly for me.
Shortly after I joined the Mormon church, my young family moved to Colorado. We knew only my brothers small family and they weren’t close enough, or broad enough, to help us unpack the 26′ Uhaul we made the move with. About two weeks before our move, I tracked down the ward bishop who put me in touch with the Elder’s Quorum president and shortly after we arrived we had no less than 20 men helping unload our truck and many of the men brought their wives who fed us and helped me begin to unpack and organize the house. The Wednesday after we landed there was a relief society social and from the minute I walked in I belonged to the growing community I found there.
Over the years I made some great friends through this group of women — we were all in similar situations, raising babies and scrapbooking together as we stayed home to tend to our families. I’m super social by nature and I was literally having the time of my life…never wanting for someone to hit Hobby Lobby with or to have play dates for the kids.
As our kids grew and we entered a different season of life, these women did life together. When we weren’t at church, we were having girl’s night out with dinners and movies and gatherings with our husbands. We even managed some girl’s weekend trips to the mountains.
It was comforting walking into church every Sunday knowing just about everyone. And then I walked away…I had been questioning things for years, by myself, alone, not sharing my concerns with anyone because it was clear I was the only one not deliriously happy and engaged in the work at hand. I figured if I just ignored what I was thinking, feeling, reading, it would all go away and I could get back to “normal”. But when it didn’t pass and I finally came to the realization I needed to walk away, I had never considered all that I would be walking away from.
Now, truth be told, I was in my mid-40’s by the time I was leaving. My kids were mostly grown and hadn’t been terribly active in the last few years of our membership. I was working full-time so the group of ladies wasn’t quite as social anymore, but there were still some I considered near and dear friends — and once I went inactive — an odd thing happened. Even when they would see me, socially, no one asked me where I had been, what was going on, was something amiss? It was as if they were afraid to ask. And some were. Some were afraid they would offend me with questions, and some still were afraid of what I might say. And some just went away. And I was lonely. Sure, I worked, but my most intimate friendships were found in the church. Gone was my social network, my “phone a friend” option whenever I was bored, or in crisis. And I felt the loss of that network.
It took me about a year after leaving to begin tackling healing. For the first year I just sort of sat in my pain. Pain from uncovering lies I’d been fed, pain from the shame I felt for having been so gullable and for having led my family to follow me into the church. Pain from the lonliness I felt. About a year or so after leaving I realized I was missing the sense of community I had once felt. So, over about a six-month period I started to venture out, one person at a time, and rebuild my own tribe of friends.
I am thankful for the women who surrounded me and connected with me on this new journey. I found women I had things in common with, people who enjoyed the same things I did. In some cases I connected with others who had also left the church. There’s an incredible ex-mormon community, especially in the areas where the church is heavily populated.
Recently, we moved to the South. The church is not such a thing here. In fact I’ve not met one member or one former member in the two years I’ve lived here. I did finally stumble upon a ward building nestled deep in a town about 20 minutes away — that took me by surprise to be honest. It’s just not a “thing” here. But this all meant I had to rebuild my social network yet again. And I know so many others are probably in the same boat — and it changes depending on where in the journey you are. If you are ready to try, to trust a little (because this was my biggest hurdle, who do I trust after feeling so broken and so hurt), and start rebuilding, I offer some suggestions below.
TIPS FOR BUILDING A COMMUNITY
Step One: Let go of who you don’t have
This is a tough one — letting yourself mourn what you had and no longer do. There were people I truly treasured that just would not connect with me any longer once I left the church. It was like experiencing a “mini” death. The difference was, they were still out there, just not wanting my friendship any longer. And it hurts. Allow yourself to mourn, but realize you can’t make someone want to be your friend. It was helpful for me to realize as much as I was hurting because of the things I learned and leaving in general, others who watched me leave were hurting or afraid as well. There’s empathy again…trying to stand in their shoes for a moment helped ease a bit of my pain and allowed me to move on. When I was a TBM I steered clear of anyone who thought differently or threatened what I believed to be true.
Step Two: Remember who you already have
For me, I was lucky. My best friend, still a devout Mormon today, stuck by me. It was a little rough navigating our friendship in the beginning, but over the years we’ve found we had so much more binding us together than just religion. But in addition to my bff, I had some pretty great neighbors who, let’s be honest, I barely gave a nod to when I was a member of the church. I started reaching out the only way I knew how…I made cookies and goodies and dropped them by. A few of those drop ins led to coffee and some have grown into great friendships over time.
Step Three: Be brave
If you have truly limited access to people (you live in a rural area, literally knew no one outside of church), you might have to be a bit brave. There are many social groups, large and small, in your community or in surrounding communities that you can step into. If you’re quiet but like to read, call the local library (they actually do still exist!) and see if there is a book club you can join. Maybe try a cooking class. Below I list other ideas…these are just to get you thinking outside the box…
- Download the Meetup app and find a group that interests you (photography, movies, cooking)
- Buy a group Groupon (aerial yoga always piqued my interest)
- Search for local Facebook groups with common interests — I like gardening and found one in my immediate town and one for my county
- See what groups are going on at work — we used to have a walking group and a book club
- Join a rec league or take an regular exercise class
- Take an inventory of hobbies you enjoy and see what is offered in the community (check out the YMCA or the local craft store)
Be braver still…
It took me about 18 more months, but leaving Mormonism didn’t extinguish my love of, or my pursuit of a relationship with, God. I joined the church seeking Him and leaving didn’t change that. I had to heal a bit and separate man from God which took a lot of prayer and study of the bible, but when I made my peace, I realized the community I lacked was being with others who also believed. I did a lot of research and finally stepped out in faith and walked through the doors of a great non-denominational church where I was welcomed and embraced and continued on the healing path. When we moved to the South trust me, I had my pick of churches (they don’tcall it the bible belt for no reason), I searched until I found one that fit what I was looking for and have rooted there — and I love the community I have found. Church is no longer my only source of friendships, but it is one I encourage you to not overlook.
Step Four: Be the community builder
Open your home. Invite your neighbors to a brunch, or coffee, or s’mores around your fire pit. If you enjoy cooking, put together a cooking class and send out a post on your neighborhood Facebook page. Call that one person you have been meaning to get together with and make a date. Community doesn’t have to be a “group” or a united “tribe”. I have lots of people from all different parts of my life that are my people. Many don’t know each other. I plan on bringing the core of these people together for my 50th birthday bash next year — and I can’t wait to bring all these women who are so important to me together in one place.
I hope some of these ideas help…most importantly, you have to learn that it’s okay to trust yourself, and you don’t have to go all-in right away. One new connection can help you test the waters…and this connection can be casual — it’s like dating. You’re not trying to find your new best friend — just someone to enjoy some time with, connect with, share some laughs with. Humans need connection. The key is not giving up or giving in to the hurt…try not to put a ton of pressure on yourself while building your new community.