Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Poetry and Self-Loathing in Mormonism

I was poking around in some of my old files the other day and I came across a collection of poems I'd written during high school.  One of them contained a starkly depressing snapshot of my state of mind circa 2004.

I believed in the church one hundred percent at this point, but I liked looking at dirty pictures on the internet.  I'd already confessed to my bishop (who was also my father) once, and after I failed to curtail my forbidden online activities, I began lying and telling him that I'd stopped. So there I was, sixteen years old and pretty convinced that my whole future was ruined because I'd committed horrible sins and then deceived my bishop about it.  I would never be able to serve a mission and I'd never marry a wonderful Mormon woman, assuming the guilt didn't kill me before it was time to consider either of those things.  And my odds of spending eternity in the Celestial Kingdom with my family grew slimmer and slimmer with each passing day.  And it was my fault because I was weak.

I remember taking a break from a particularly difficult homework assignment to crank this out in a fit of self-loathing:
An upraised arm, there feebly waving,
A crimson hand, alone, forsaken.
Below, a man in need of saving
From swamps across the path he's taken.

Encumbered by this ruthless mire,
I sink into despair and mud,
Prepared to breathe last and expire—
Drown amid my own pooled blood.

Where is that offered, reaching hand?
Why do I not perceive a friend,
Who, though across whole worlds has spanned,
Will save me from my dismal end?

How can it be that I'm alone?
Did no one see my efforts fail?
How could they leave me on my own,
Not guide me toward a safer trail?

If not a friend, then some stranger
Could simply toss a length of rope.
But none are near this distant danger;
I'm as abandoned as my hope.

I'd wandered from the central road,
Escaped the everpresent eye
That served as a relentless goad,
Directing me up toward the sky.

I thought I'd won the right to choose,
But each new choice reduced my stride.
In verity, I chose to lose
My truest freedom to decide.

Now I recall extended arms,
Of friends who saw me go astray.
Now I recall the sharp alarms
From those who knew the better way.

Had not my ears received their pleas?
Had I not heard their worried shouts?
Why had I veered by such degrees?
Why had I not obeyed my doubts?

Mud rises gently to my chin.
My legs immobilized below,
I now regret the simple sin
That led to this concluding woe.

Afflicted by my vanity,
A tragic victim of my pride,
I sealed my humility:
I closed my eyes, submerged, and died.
It might sound suicidal, but it wasn't.  It was just depressing as hell.  I was so convinced that I'd destroyed myself and that my misery was the result of my own shortcomings rather than an effect of the suffocating atmosphere of Mormonism.  This poem was another way for me to remind myself that I was wrong, that everybody else was right, and that I needed to either fix myself or just give up.

As much as I dislike the church, sometimes I forget how bad things were when I believed in it.  Growing up under the Latter-day Saint pall was agonizing even though I was lucky enough to fall into the church's demographic sweet spot (straight white American male, built for Mormonism).  It brings to mind a quote from a children's science fiction book I used to love (and for some reason, I nailed this quote, word for word, at least fifteen years after I last read it):
No matter how deep you go, there's always another level.
Sure, I had it rough.  But no matter how deep you go, there's always another level.  There are tons of kids who have a tougher time in the church than I did.  And there are tons of kids who went through some crap I can't even imagine.  There's always another level.

I can't imagine how much bleaker this poem could have been if I'd been a young woman struggling with the licked-cupcake thing or a black kid being unofficially taught that I was less valiant in the preexistence or a gay guy expecting to spend my whole life either celibate or pretending I liked women.  There is a reason some kids in the church are suicidal—closed-minded dogma, high stakes, and impossible expectations put way too much pressure on the youth.

It's also great to see how far I've come since leaving the church.  I operate under no delusions that I'm perfect, but I'm not constantly warring with myself, defeating myself, and hating myself for it.  It's nice to assess my character and my progress on my own terms instead of comparing myself to unattainable and often arbitrary standards imposed upon me by a cult-like organization.

Hopefully, no matter how far you ascend, there's always another level.  Something else that can be better.  Something to look forward to.


  1. Yeah, guilt and self loathing. I am still recovering, but feel more rational feelings about myself. I hate going to testimony meeting or running into someone in my ward and witnessing their guilt and self loathing. It is now so obvious and I am so thankful to have escaped that.

    When we realized the church wasn't true, we still thought we should keep our kids involved. It would be a good way to have them around good people and teach them good morals. However, I can't stand the thought of my sweet daughter being exposed to licked cupcake lessons, patriarchal society, and polygamy.... I don't want my sons exposed to those either. I want my kids to have good self esteem based on who they are and what they accomplish. You described so well what I don't want for my kids and why I don't want them around an organization that causes such destructive feelings.

    1. I haven't been to a testimony meeting or run into anyone from my ward in years, but I see similar guilt and awful feelings among my family. There's a pretty deep "I hate this, but this is what I have to do" mentality in my clan. I don't know how to tell them they DON'T have to do it.

      I don't have kids, but if I ever do, I won't want that stuff for them either.