Sunday, September 18, 2016

Addiction & Leaving the Church

     Before you read any of my post, please watch this video. Quick preface, it is a TED Talk. There are things TED Talks cover that I don't agree with. In this video specifically there are a few lines I disagree with. But overall I think it's absolutely amazing and illuminating, so please watch before reading further:

(Video not showing up? Click here)

There's also an article that adds a bit more to the discussion that you can access here 
    Alright, hopefully you've watched the video by now. I watched it for the first time earlier this week because someone had shared it on Facebook. I won't lie, it sort of blew my mind at first. As I thought about it more, it made sense. Really it did. But starting out, like he mentioned, I had been taught that addiction was all about the chemical hooks. I believed it. I thought it was something wrong with me chemically and spiritually, and that I just needed to tackle it on my own, and if I couldn't overcome it, then I must be a failure.

     For those of you who have read my blog before, you know that my primary addictions have been pornography and masturbation. Those are the addictions I relapse on most frequently, but I'm also addicted to self-harm, food, video games, etc. My first exposure to pornography and masturbation happened when I was about 10 or 11 years old.

     One thing the video and article touched on that really got me thinking was they mentioned that trauma makes it difficult to trust people, and therefore difficult to feel connected, and therefore make you prone to addictions. I looked back on my own life, my past, to see what I could identify, and needless to say there was a fair amount. I was physically and emotionally mistreated by people I trusted when I was young, I was bullied a lot from elementary school, up until I graduated high school. I was excluded from peer groups within my own ward. Scouts and young mens activities were difficult for me. I rarely felt like I belonged, I observed that sometimes I was treated differently than my peers, and I didn't have any male friends.
     I had a male friend when I was young. I talked about him in My Story. I remember loving his friendship. I enjoyed spending time with him. Everything seemed to be going well, until sexual exploration entered our relationship. At the time, I think both he and I were too young to understand what we were doing. It was driven by curiosity, and it just seemed like part of our relationship. We were caught a few times, though, and he would be quickly sent home, and I would usually receive some type of punishment. I remember how shocked my parents were each time... I remember how much confusion and pain I felt. Here was a relationship I valued, that had an aspect I didn't fully understand, and I was told very strongly that it was wrong and bad, and needed to end. This friend and I eventually stopped spending time together. We got into a fight, and he moved away shortly after. This all happened when I was probably only 8 or 9. The experience was traumatic enough, though, that I feared friendships with boys. I never wanted my parents to react that like that around me again, I never wanted to go through the pain of losing a friend again, and I tied all of the emotions to boys. I decided that I never wanted another friend that was a boy again.

     That resolve did not hold, of course. I ended up needing male friendships, craving them, praying for them. I would watch the Lord of the Rings movies, and then go to my room and cry myself to sleep. Seeing the friendship that Frodo and Sam had was something I craved so deeply that anytime I watched the movies, I was reminded of what I didn't have, and felt like I couldn't have, and would become depressed. The same was true in my daily life. When I saw true male friends interacting with each other, I would come home and cry.

     When I found pornography, it became a replacement. I didn't feel like I could ever have real male friends in this life, but I could convince myself I was having a relationship through pornography. My searches for pornography were rarely random. They would instead focus on a few individuals that I felt I had some form of relationship with. Was it a false and unhealthy relationship? Yes. Most definitely. But it was all I felt I could have in this life. Masturbation was a similar situation. I would use it to create synthetic relationships in my mind, though other times I would just use it in an attempt to numb the pain and loneliness.

     Now that I finally have real relationships with men in my life, I feel like my addictions are better than they were in the past, but they're not gone yet. I have connection in my life like I never have had before, but I still isolate at times. When I go to church, I sit alone. I don't feel like I have friends in my ward. When I was in the Pathway program, I would sit alone during class. I have people in my immediate life that I have connection with, but I lack external connections that I feel are necessary, too.

     I feel like I'm jumping all over with this post... I came here with a specific goal in mind, and instead got distracted by my own life and thoughts.

     What I really want to write in this post is a thought/comparison I had about the idea of connection. A theme I've noticed in my life this past month has been people that my family and friends know who are gay have been leaving the church to pursue romance with members of the same gender. A friend my older sister had in high school came out as gay a while ago. At the time he was a member of the church. Just recently, he married his same-sex partner. A member of my home ward who is a bit younger than me who also came out as gay not too long ago recently decided to leave the church, and now has a boyfriend. My best friend had a guy he was meeting with who is gay that he was trying to reactivate in the church, and it seemed to be going well, but just a couple weeks ago, he told my friend he is no longer interested in the church, and now has a boyfriend.

     I've been perplexed, I guess. A big mistake I've been making for quite some time now is assuming that those who leave the church, for any number of reasons, are leaving because they just aren't strong enough, or because they're just making poor decisions. I want to apologize for thinking this way. I really do. I've been working on myself, trying to become more loving and understanding. I'm making progress, but I have a ways to go still. The reason I bring this up is that the TED Talks video realy changed my perspective on it this week.

     I want to make clear that I'm not comparing same-sex attraction to addiction. I'm very aware that it's a different issue entirely. But I believe that connection has much more prevalence in our life than just helping us overcome addiction. I had a thought this week... what if these people are leaving the church because they are not getting their needs met in their wards, and from friends and family? As a gay man myself, I know how desperately I need real physical connections with people, especially men. And I also know how difficult it is to find that in the LDS culture. The LDS doctrine may be true, but wow... LDS culture is honestly corrupt in some ways. So if they have innate needs, that aren't being met in the church, where can they turn? Well, to romance of course. That's what our culture dictates. If I need a hand to hold, I either need to be a young and cute child, or I need to be romantically involved. If I go to church and hold hands with my male best friend, the assumption for most would be that we are romantically involved.

     I think I understand now why I've heard some LGBT members of the church say they need to leave the church otherwise they'll take their life. I can't speak for people, but I can't help but feeling that maybe they're right... not in the sense of doctrine, but culture... they have innate physical needs that they need met in order to be healthy, but culture dictates that they can't have it unless it's romantic and sexual... so they leave. And I honestly don't think I can say I blame them anymore... I used to. I used to be judgmental of those who left, but I think I understand now... at least part of it...

     Do I want people to leave the church? No. I feel sorry for them. Really, I do. They should have been loved, they should have been shown that they mattered. As a church that claims to represent Christ, we should be completely loving. Not just accepting. I think accepting is less of an issue in our culture (though still an issue). I think love is where we lack. I don't feel comfortable asking for hugs from my ward, even from my own bishop sometimes. That shouldn't be the case. I should feel comfortable approaching members of my ward and expressing my needs. I should likewise be willing to meet the needs of those who express them to me as far as I am able.

     Now I want to point out that agency is most definitely a factor. I don't believe life should be all rainbows and butterflies. Membership in the church can be hard sometimes, there will be trials of our faith, and the actions of the members around us should not dictate our spiritual journey and well-being... at the same time, however, we desperately need love in our congregations.... Sometimes I feel the need to shout it from the pulpit, but I really don't know if it would change anything... The change needs to start with me. I need to be someone who expresses love to those around me, the same love I always craved, but rarely received. If I don't, there's little hope of me changing anything.

     Just a couple weeks ago, I was sitting next to someone in my ward who is comfortable with physical touch. It was so nice to have someone I could sit next to in sacrament meeting, and give a back scratch to. I could see some members squirming in discomfort in seeing the display of affection, especially when we were in elder's quorum. But you know what? I'm thankful I had that opportunity. He's out of the ward for now because he left for college, but having someone I can be a cultural example with during church was a great opportunity.

     One other thing I just thought of that could be a great help to addicts, LGBT members, and really anyone with any kind of trials in their life, would be to stop the culture of shaming... the video mentions that shaming addicts doesn't help them overcome addictions, and often just exacerbates the issue. Couldn't the same be said for other situations? For me, I already believe I'm a horrible sinner and terrible person. I'm trying to change that false belief and hatred I have about myself, but it is never helped when people walk up to the pulpit and preach about how such and such are such awful sins, and how everyone needs to repent, etc. etc. etc. Don't get me wrong, these things need to be discussed. Repentance especially is a core part of the gospel of Christ. But I know about repentance, I know I sin and fall short... What I need is a hospital, a place I can go to be loved and healed, not ridiculed and simply diagnosed. Rather than talk about how addictions are awful and make you unworthy, let's discuss how to love addicts and help them come out of cycles. Rather than talk about how evil gay marriage is, lets discuss how to love our LGBT members and keep them active in the church. Rather than talk about how tea and coffee are terrible, let's discuss how to help each other become healthier, and maybe stop eating sugar-loaded foods at church activities.

     I've known other people in my life who have left the church because they felt persecuted and judged. I love these people. I want them to come back to the church. And while I don't know their whole story, I can't help but wonder if the persecution they felt led to a lack of connection which was then attributed to the LDS Church, and I really can't blame them for leaving because they were mistreated. Yes, you shouldn't let members dictate your testimony. If people in my life did, with the way I've treated people in my past, some of them likely would leave the Church, too. But that's not an excuse to be complacent. The culture in the church needs to change. We shouldn't just love people when they're going through a crisis, or when they're returning to the gospel... They should be loved always, because you never know when they may feel disconnected enough that they turn away.

     I really feel so strongly that I want to better connect to the people in my ward. I really want to make an effort to do it. I want to change culture, I need to change culture, even if it's just my own personal culture, if I have any hope of staying an active member. I need connection in my life, and I am so thankful for those I do have who are willing to give it to me. My best friend, my family, and especially God. I've struggled with loving people in the past, I struggle with loving myself, but in both areas I'm slowly improving. My desire right now is that everyone has the ability to feel connected and loved. Ideally this means people in your life love you coupled with the love of God. But I understand that's not the case for everyone, and I can only imagine how hard that must be, but I believe that God can make up the difference, and make it right somehow. Hold on. You are loved. Reach out to those around you. Show them that you love them, too. Together, maybe we can make this world a better place.

Much Love,
     Mitchell Clark.