Sunday, July 25, 2010

You're Gonna Make It After All

I went through my first "atheist" phase while I was still active in the LDS Church, just before I almost committed suicide.  I put the word atheist in scare quotes, because I'm not sure I disbelieved the existence of God so much as I felt seriously pissed off at God.  But I liked to call myself an atheist because I was in so much pain and so angry.  My anger, of course, was about the dawning realization that I was gay.  And the basic underlying sentiment was, How could God do this to me?  And of course the other basic underlying sentiment was despair.  I felt no hope for my future.  I felt trapped.  And I may or may not have been an atheist.  But I had a definite plan to kill myself.

At some point -- through a series of events I've described in detail in the memoir I've written but am still working on publishing! -- I overcame my anger and was able to turn to God in prayer.  And God answered my prayers, giving me peace and reassurance and enough understanding of my situation to get past the suicidal despair and start living with a sense of faith and hope and love again.  God made it clear to me that he knew me from my inward most self, because he had created me.  And I was good, as God had created me.  I've described elsewhere in this blog how one of the things God told me to do at that point was to leave the LDS Church for a time.  What I'm not sure I've been as clear about in my public writing was exactly the way I was instructed to leave the Church.  I think it's worth telling that story.

The Spirit made it very clear to me that I was not under any circumstances to return to Utah.  Keep in mind, at the time that this occurred, I was on an internship in Finland between my junior and senior years at BYU.  So basically, all of my worldly possessions at that point in my life were in my student apartment in Provo.  I was not even permitted by the Spirit to so much as go back and retrieve my possessions.  It was really a kind of Lot-fleeing-Sodom-and-Gomorrah moment.  I was to leave as quickly as possible and not turn back.  So I literally made arrangements to get into Northern Michigan University, in Marquette, MI -- about as far away from any form of organized Mormonism as I could get -- with little more than the clothes on my back.

The Lord provided.  My parents had more or less cut me off at that time.  They agreed to pay for my plane ticket to Marquette, but that was the last financial support I ever received from them.  NMU, within two weeks of my arrival in Marquette, had arranged to give me a full-tuition scholarship with a stipend for books; the equivalent of what I had had at BYU as a Kimball Scholar.  A wonderful, kind-hearted professor in the NMU History Department took me under her wing, and helped me get a couple part-time, on-campus jobs to help pay for rent and food.  She even slipped some money into my history textbook one day when she found out that I had no money, was about a week away from a paycheck, and had no food in my apartment except a can of green beans and half a bag of rice.  Money came to me in other miraculous ways.  People donated clothes and furniture.  I went to church with some friends, and a woman, hearing about my situation, felt inspired by the Holy Spirit to put a check for $300 into my Bible.

Later, I was reminded of how abruptly I had left Utah when a letter was forwarded to me from my bank in Utah.  I had forgotten about some $2000 I had saved in this bank account.  After I made arrangements to have that money transferred to my bank in northern Michigan, my money difficulties were at an end.

I can only offer sincere apologies to my roommates at BYU who were left to figure out what to do with all my stuff.  Eventually, my sister (who was going to the University of Utah at the time) apparently came and gathered my belongings for me, and got some of them back to me.

It was literally 18 years until I set foot on Utah soil again.

The recent suicide of Todd Ransom has reminded me why the Lord's commandment to me about staying away from Utah was so strict.  At some very deep level, I understood my life would be in danger if I returned.  I knew that what the Spirit was constraining me to do was in my best interests.  My plan had been to return to BYU and finish out my last year, and then leave Utah.  That seemed the most financially prudent plan.  Why throw away a full scholarship at BYU?  Why transfer to a school that didn't have close to the academic credentials of the school I was already in?

Answer: because in the spiritually and emotionally vulnerable state I was in Utah would have been a very dangerous place to be.

Our psyches and our self-image, especially in our late teens and early twenties, are heavily dependent on the approval of others.  I had received a revelation from God reminding me of my self-worth, promising me that I was loved by him and would be cared for by him.  That what I had been taught about homosexuality was wrong.  I was OK.  And from that time in my life, I gradually did heal from the psychic and spiritual wounds I had sustained as a young adult gay Mormon.  (I still have a few light scars left!  I can show them to anyone who wants to see them!)

Gradually I healed to the point that I could return to Utah again, not just with the Lord's approval but with the Lord's prodding and encouragement.  Utah has become a very important place to me, very dear to my heart.  It's where I was born.  It's where my parents and other dear members of my family live.  In a way, it will always be my homeland.  But I understand why it was wisdom in God for me to get as far away from there as I could, as quickly as I could.

The path to healing can be precarious though.  Those of you who are gay, and Mormon, and living in "Zion"...  Take care of yourselves!


Bravone said...

John, Thanks for sharing this. It is another witness to me that Father truly knows us individually and will guide our paths if we let him.

Our individual journeys are unique to each of us, and sometimes we need to trust that, He who knows us best, will help us find our way back to him in a way that will ultimately provide us the most opportunity for personal growth and happiness.

paul said...

AHHH marquette! That is crazy north. when you show where its at... you have to make the UPPER PENINSULA! winter is insane up there. d'ya get snowed in? :D

I'm a backwards transfer. Michigan--> Utah. It's very different.

J G-W said...

Bravone - Yes, this is about trust... Thanks!

Paul - Oh, yes. I survived a winter in the U.P. But then, Minnesota winters are nothing to sneeze at. Yeah, Utah's got nothing on the upper Midwest for harsh winters.

Brian Westley said...

"But I liked to call myself an atheist because I was in so much pain and so angry. My anger, of course, was about the dawning realization that I was gay. And the basic underlying sentiment was, How could God do this to me?"

You weren't an atheist, then. It's nonsensical to describe yourself as both an atheist and "angry at god."

If you are writing your memoirs, please don't make the same dumb mistake C.S. Lewis made and say you used to be an atheist.

J G-W said...

Brian - Don't worry. I agree with you.

At best, during the two periods of my life when I referred to myself as an atheist, I was sort of the antithesis of a Nietzschean "believer." I professed disbelief, but deep down inside really believed. I understand the difference between that and true atheism.

But I'll go one better for you... I promise never to accuse people professing atheism of insincerity or of being angry at God or of really deep down inside believing in God but being in rebellion against him. I accept that sincere ethical atheism exists and I consider it a valid philosophical position.

E+R+O's Papa said...

As the roommate who stayed another year, I'm mostly glad that I finished out my time at BYU, which indeed meant a smoother professional trajectory. But I wonder if I my personal path out of the closet and depression would have been healthier if I'd escaped.

I did return to Utah occasionally in the 80s and 90s when it still made my stomach hurt to be there. Fortunately that has finally passed, and we've enjoyed taking our big gay family on Zion road trips.

J G-W said...

Papa - You're doing great now... I remember talking to you on the phone a couple of times after I left... Once when you were still struggling, and again some time later when you were doing well. I remember worrying for you the first time, and being very grateful the second time we spoke..!

You always just have to be grateful when things end well, whatever twists and turns there were on the way out.