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Irene's Entropy: Letter 009

Updated: Apr 6


Dear Irene,


To tell my “Mormon story” I will have to basically share my life story, which is vulnerable and a bit scary for me. I was conditioned when I was very young to hide parts of my life and myself- which now I know was only in favor of those adults and not me. As an artist, I share my story through my paintings and not often in words. I want to warn that there may be some triggering aspects of my story for some people.


I was born into the church. My mom was a convert and my dad was born into it. The way they went about their faiths were very different. My mom was non-judgmental, open-minded, asked a lot of questions, and was not afraid to stand up for what she felt was right and disagree with the church. My dad is very orthodox, being born in the Bible Belt in the Southern United States - a more extreme culture of Mormonism from my experience.


I am one of five children - the middle child between two older brothers and a younger brother and sister. We spent the majority of my childhood living in Sandy, Utah. While my mom was alive, we were not orthodox nor did we go to church every Sunday. My mom never pressured me into anything and even asked me multiple times before my baptism if I wanted to be baptized. I never felt the pressure and entrapment that I would feel later on in my life. I honestly believe if she were here today that she would have left the church - being ahead of her time with feminist ideas and questions about the doctrine and history.


My parents struggled with their relationship ever since I could remember. They did marry young and quickly, a norm for young adults in the LDS church. I often wonder about how the church affected their relationship. My mom was a power house and fiercely independent. My dad worked a lot and was not home very often. There were a lot of moving parts to why they struggled with their marriage.


My mom suffered with autoimmune disease and mental illness the last years of her life. She ended up losing her life to suicide New Years Eve of 2003. It would be an understatement to say that my life was forever changed. The carnage and damage from losing her has left scars on all of us.


As a child, I was taught to pray and ask God for help and he would answer. I would hear all these stories about God healing people or answering prayers. Why wouldn’t he answer mine? I spent many nights from age six to nine years old praying by my bed for my mom to get better and for my parents to not fight anymore. Maybe I wasn’t being a good enough child of god, I would think to myself. Maybe if I do better god would answer my prayer.


I’ll never forget the day of my mom’s wake. I stood by her the whole time. She was so beautiful, even lifeless and cold. I remember thinking: “why didn’t my prayers work? Why wouldn’t god stop her? Why wouldn’t god HEAL her?” That’s when I knew the whole idea of god that I had been taught was untrue. And besides, I thought if there is a god who would let my beautiful, amazing mom suffer and die this way - he isn’t a god worth worshipping. A loving god wouldn’t let these horrible things happen. I had people in the church tell me I wouldn’t be with my mom again because of the way she died, as in she wouldn’t be in the same heavenly kingdom. Why would anyone say that to a child even if that is what they believed? I told one person if my mom isn’t there with me it’s not a place I want to be anyways. That was shocking for them and I could see them getting uncomfortable. Each day that passed, the less I cared and the less I wanted to talk about god or the church. I even prayed if there was a god to just take me so I could be with my mom. I only ever went to church out of force. You could say the majority of my identity being in the church would be silent suffering, especially as time went on.


Three months later, my father was imprisoned for a white collar crime - related to investments and money. We were then basically orphans, at least that is what I felt. We were relocated to Georgia, my dad’s home state and a place we had never been before, to live with relatives we had never met before. We didn’t get to all five be together either. Our world was flipped upside down and turned inside out, being removed from all we knew and family and friends we had been with our whole lives in Utah.


My dad's side of the family is made up of almost all truly believing, orthodox Mormons; something I had never experienced before, even in Utah. It was like the Bible Belt southern mentality bled into Mormonism. It all felt so foreign to me. Not to mention my lack of faith in the church wasn’t going to work with them. So I suffered in silence and obeyed out of fear. I made a home with depression and isolation.


I was conditioned and taught to not talk about my mom nor what happened or any kind of feelings of sadness. I tried to bury it. I wanted acceptance and love even from my dad's family. I wasn’t perfect at it and could feel the disappointment when I slipped. I remained a black sheep of the family and still do in a lot of ways to this day.


Eventually, my siblings and I were reunified with my dad. It was like throwing a bunch of abused dogs together without any help or intervention. The separation from each other for those years was damaging to our relationships. No one knew how to cope nor interact. My dad's solution was the church and he was rigid in wanting to maintain the image that he was fine and all of his kids are good church going kids. He wanted us to be fine. He wanted to bury everything and pretend it didn’t exist. This hurt all of us in our own ways. It broke me. I was told I must be sinning or must have not been praying enough or reading my scriptures to be this depressed. My dad, who was financially always stressed, saw my depression as something that would cost him money so he avoided getting me help.


My addiction to self harm fully manifested at thirteen. Eventually, it led to pills and not wanting to live anymore. I wanted to feel anything but the emotional pain I was feeling. I silently suffered and did all the things I was taught to do - church, young womens, youth conference, EFY, etc. I got into a toxic, abusive relationship with a “Mormon” guy when I was fifteen. No one suspected he could ever be abusive because he was raised Mormon and his parents are “righteous”. I was never taught or given an example of a healthy relationship so I didn’t realize what he was doing was wrong for a long time. I was taught that it was my responsibility and fault as a woman for what men think and do. I was afraid to tell anyone - I didn’t even tell my best friend. No one suspected a thing.


I had serious thoughts of ending my life when I was a junior in high school and attempted when I was a senior in high school. In that darkest moment, I had this thought and feeling in me that said my dad wasn’t going to be the one to help me, god wasn’t going to be the one to help me - only I could get myself help and get myself on a different path. I knew deep down, I wanted to have a better life. I didn’t know how I was going to, but I had enough strength to try to find out.


I began focusing on my art and expressing myself through painting. I stopped going to seminary, which I was forced to do all my high school years. My dad still made me go to church when I lived with him, but everything else - I let it all go.


I graduated high school and put myself through college. I found a great (not Mormon) therapist at my college and she helped me navigate and start to open up. I started pursuing a degree in fine arts and fell more in love with art. I studied abroad in Ireland and made lifelong friendships. I finally was able to get out of that abusive relationship. (The healthier I became, the more the abuse worsened.) I was able to get out of it safely and I am so grateful I did because who knows what might have happened or happened to me.


I was able to meet my now husband, partner, and the love of my life. I graduated with honors in college with a degree in fine art and a minor in psychology, backpacked parts of Europe, got my first job at DFCS, and a year later moved to Utah with my partner and dogs.


Moving back to Utah was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I left Georgia, a place that symbolized so much pain and suffering, and went back to my childhood home where my mom’s family was. I was able to begin healing in ways I never thought I could. I was able to be with my Nana every week and feel connected to my mom. I met my mentor and one of my best friends who taught me how to oil paint - she changed my artistic path and my life for the better! I wouldn’t be creating what I am not nor where I am in my art today without her and the love of my Nana. I am so grateful I was able to be with my Nana, whom I remained close with my whole life, the last years of her life.


Living in Utah did get me more curious about the history of Mormonism. The more I learned and read, from the history of Joseph Smith to the modern day issues surrounding LGBTQ, the more my decision to not be in the church solidified. I felt more and more at peace knowing the church was not true.


I am so grateful I can protect my son from the harm the church does to people and what it did to me. My hope is that he will not see love as this transactional thing and that he is lovable exactly the way he is. Our relationship won’t be determined by his status with a religious organization, not like how I know my father and some family will choose the church over our relationship. He will know who my mother was and the person she was. He will have a better start at life - I am determined.


I identify myself as an artist, mother, teacher, traveler, dreamer, and survivor. I can honestly say that I feel more peace and joy being away from the church and religion overall. I have been on the recovery path for almost ten years now and I am so grateful. I do want you to know life isn’t always joyful or easy. I still struggle at times, especially with depression and ptsd. I continue to actively fight and work through things. I use art to help me make sense of life experiences and my feelings. I do my best everyday to become a stronger and healthier person. I don’t know what else to do with the trials and pain I have experienced except to try to use it to help others. That’s all I know what we can do with our pain that would be for something good. We can’t control what has happened to us but we can do our best to make our future better and brighter. I guess what I am also trying to say to whoever is reading this- you’re not alone. There is hope after leaving religion. There is peace being true to yourself and what you feel to be right. Trust yourself and your intuition. Please know you matter and life is worth living. It will get better.


With love,


Shelby


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