For most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the temple is a place to which they can retreat when darkness and heaviness weigh on them. Within the walls of the temple, they find comfort and peace. It is a place of sacred learning, prayer, hope, and connection. For most of my life, that’s what the temple represented for me as well.
It wasn’t until I was in my early-to-mid thirties and battling anxiety and depression that I discovered, to my dismay, that it was possible to be in the temple and feel worse than before, more afraid than before. Sometimes the temple doesn’t bring peace. Sometimes being in the temple can make you feel worse. Sometimes going to church, reading the scriptures, and praying don’t bring peace either. Sometimes all the Primary answers can’t fix things, particularly when it comes to mental health challenges. And that’s a really terrifying place to be.
I’ve heard from others who have, like me, struggled at times with going to the temple. Many of them feel a great deal of shame about their fearful temple experiences. Often, I think, we suffer alone without realizing that there are others who struggle as well.
Today, with permission, I would like to share excerpts from a conversation I had with a friend recently. Though she requested to remain anonymous, she recorded our conversation on her phone because it was easier for her to vocalize her story rather than writing it. Hers is a choosing to stay story of a different sort. I’ve transcribed (and edited for clarity) portions of her story below.
My anxiety and depression started in college. I grew up in Utah, and I went to Utah State University. When I’m worried, I talk through things. I have to talk. That’s one way I release whatever is in my head: I call my mom. It got to the point I was calling my mom multiple times every day in college to deal with my anxiety. I stopped eating, my hair was falling out, the whole nine yards. When my boyfriend left on his mission, the anxiety and depression very much went away. For some reason that was the sticking point, but I also moved back home at the same time that he left on his mission.
The next time it peaked was the first time I went to the temple, right before getting married. When I went to the temple for the first time, I had a full-on panic attack. In the temple. In the endowment session. I was sobbing, crying, and my mom kept asking me, “Are you OK, do you need to leave?” I just knew that if I didn’t make it through the endowment session, I wasn’t going to be able to get married in the temple, so I just buckled in and cried and sobbed my whole way through the endowment.
What triggered it was perceived inequalities in the temple. I’ve always been particularly sensitive to perceived inequalities, especially with gender, in our church. So going through the temple, I felt triggered by what I didn’t understand and not being able to talk. In the endowment we’re supposed to be quiet. We can’t talk. Things were being said and things were happening, and I couldn’t express my anxiety, which made it worse.
When I got to the celestial room, I was sobbing and hugging my family, not because I was happy to be there but because I felt like I survived the endowment. And then in the celestial room, I was able to communicate with my family, but they didn’t understand the gravity with which I was trying to ask, “No, what does this mean? No, what does this mean?”
Fortunately, for our wedding, we had a really great sealer who I think discerned that inequality was my thing. Before we were actually sealed, he sat us down in a separate sealing room, and the sealer really just said, mostly to my husband, “She is your equal.” I don’t know how he knew that was what I needed to hear.
Still, I spent so much time obsessing, obsessing about my place in our church. I hyper-focused on: “Is God sexist? Am I doomed to be submissive forever?” Every waking moment was those thoughts just recycling in my head. Scriptures, unfortunately, made it worse. Going to the Bishop didn’t really help much. Unfortunately, the traditional read your scriptures, say your prayers, none of that helped. It was a pretty dark time. There were moments I thought about killing myself, but for me that wasn’t going to solve my problem. I would have been suicidal had I not been so scared of God. I just wanted to stop existing.
After we got married, I went to a counselor and worked through things somewhat. I really felt like I had found a counselor who was John the Beloved. He was an incredible counselor. I loved him. He’s the main reason I still exist. And he suggested I go on meds. So I got on Sertraline. That helped dull it, until we moved to Arizona.
At that point, it was so stressful that even my medication didn’t cover the anxiety. It was the first time I had ever moved out of state, and we didn’t know anyone here. It was the right decision, but it was really stressful on me. So I reverted back to being concerned about my standing with God, being obsessed with gender inequalities in our church. When I say obsessed, I mean that’s all I could think about, that’s all I could talk about. I would be at work and on my phone looking at blogs. The only way I found any relief was validation from like-minded people. I was spiraling, in fact, I was looking at what you would consider anti-Mormon blogs. But it was the only place that made me feel any better because it was other people validating what I was feeling. But it just spiraled. It made it worse.
So then I switched to Paxil, and that’s been the one thing that’s kept me sane. It dulls it. I still worry, I still recognize inequalities, and I still want to do things to eradicate them, but I don’t obsess, and I don’t feel like I want to cease to exist.
In the midst of all this time, my mom said, “I just don’t know why you didn’t leave,” meaning the Church. That was always an option, to say, “I’m atheist. There is no God.” This is why your Choosing to Stay book title means a lot to me. Even though there are moments when I can’t feel the spirit, when church is really hard, when the temple doesn’t bring relief, when I can’t read the scriptures, I can’t prove that our church is true, but there’s still enough good that I choose to stay a Mormon, even when it hurts.
For me, I never felt like I had a choice of whether to stay on earth or leave, because my anxiety is such that either way I’m screwed. But still I choose to believe that families are forever. I looked at other religions. I looked at being Muslim, I looked at being catholic, and none of the religions held as much truth or hope for women as our church did, even though this one can be painful. There’s still too much truth. Even amidst all this pain and darkness, I can’t refute that I think this church is the true church, so I stay.
I got a package one day out here in Arizona, and it was a book called Understanding the Endowment. It had all these notes in it, like the half-blood prince book in Harry Potter. And it turns out that it was from a lady in my home ward. When I got the package, I started bawling. I had never told anyone about my temple-related anxiety. My mom had never told anyone. This woman just felt like she needed to send her version of that book to me with no idea why.
My mom went up to her after I told her it came in the mail, and my mom said, “Why did you send this book?” She kind of relayed a little bit about what I had been struggling with, specifically that I couldn’t feel the spirit due to my anxiety. And the lady said, “Well, you just keep moving forward, and I don’t know why I sent it to her, but I want her to know that there is someone else out there who feels the same way she does.”
This woman is 70 or 80, and ever since she was about my age, she has had anxiety and has been on anxiety medication that dulls her spiritual senses. But for some reason the spirit got through, and she sent me that book with no inclination as to why. And it has helped. It’s overwhelming to read because it is so spiritual and such a miracle to me, but that experience keeps me going. The fact that she thought of me and just sent me her book is incredible. It’s a reminder to me that God loves me, knows what I’m going through, and cares enough to try to fix it.