Shattered Silence

Shattered Silence

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Characteristics of Christmas

The meaning of Christmas lies beyond
the lights and tinsel.
I hadn’t planned to post anything until the New Year; but tonight I was going through folders and folders of writing that I’ve collected on my computer hard drive over the years—something I do when I’m bored but want to feel productive (I like tweaking words and punctuation and checking for errors that have escaped my meticulous eye). I found a poem that I wrote for Christmas nearly twenty years ago, called “Characteristics of Christmas.”

My love of writing began early in my life, and I can remember writing my first story in Third Grade. I did enjoy the entertainment of my Sega Genesis video game system and watching Nickelodeon for hours on end; but sitting at our kitchen table with nothing but lined paper, a pencil, and an idea was an even richer form of both leisure and fun for me.

I can remember writing several stories during a school year—some for homework, and some just for fun. I was always so proud of them, and loved to share them with doting teachers. In Fourth Grade my teacher taught us how to write poetry using some prompt words that he encouraged us all to interpret individually. I think I still have it somewhere, in my plastic tote of memorabilia. In Fifth Grade I wrote a poem for class about Halloween, the first rhyming poem I’d ever done. My teacher was so impressed by it that she submitted it to a district-wide Halloween poetry contest, and I won first place.

Christmas is more than trimmed trees
and treat-filled stockings.
I had no idea I’d even been in the contest until a classmate and her mother showed up at our door around 9:00PM one night to congratulate me, as they’d just come from the award ceremony where my name was announced and my poem read aloud at a microphone by an adult performer. I still have the award certificate with a gold ribbon attached to it; I think I won ten or twenty dollars, too, and I’m sure I spent it on a burger and fries, which was a rare delicacy growing up in the 90’s with a mother who cooked all our meals.

After that Halloween poem success, I made a habit of writing about different holidays; I still have poems for Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, and the Christmas one. I know I started some for April Fool’s Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving, but I never finished them. Much like the case is today, I cannot usually write without some kind of inspiration, or at the least a ‘mood’ for writing. I’m not surprised that I couldn’t come up with anything for those holidays; I still have pieces that I’ve been working on for years, and maybe one day I’ll finish and maybe post them here.

Just for fun, I thought I’d share the Christmas poem I wrote in December 1998, when I was twelve years-old. It’s interesting to recognize that the characteristics of Christmas, to me, were the familiar images of trees, lights, snow, and traditional Santa Clause folklore. I describe those things in rhyme in eight verses, using the last two to convey a heartfelt message from a boy who did not yet know the reason for the season. Ten verses total, of course; even in my youth my obsessive compulsive need for counting things in fives was noticeable (and surely that hasn’t changed).

The true characteristics of Christmas are
the gifts from the Savior of the World.
Though I did not quite know exactly who the babe was who lay in the manger in my mother’s ceramic nativity set, I still understood that there was something special about Christmas; something you could feel at that time of year that seemed, for some reason, difficult to sense the rest of the year. I also determined, though young as I was, that Christmas was not a passive event, but a deeper ritual symbolizing a spirit of goodwill and gladness, one toward another. And while the nostalgia of sleepless Christmas Eves, opening presents before sunrise, and my mother’s breakfast on Christmas morning are what live on from my childhood holidays, nowadays I have a better understanding of why we celebrate this glorious time of year in the first place.

The words of LDS Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley (1910 – 2008) always ring truer when I ponder this wondrous season:

          “Christmas means giving. The Father gave His Son, and the Son gave His life. Without giving there is no true Christmas, and without sacrifice there is no true worship. There is more to Christmas than neckties, earrings, toys, and all the tinseled stuff of which we make so much. 
          ~ President Gordon B. Hinckley, "'What Shall I Do Then With Jesus Which is Called Christ?'" Ensign, Dec. 1983.

Indeed, the true characteristics of Christmas are and ought to be the characteristics of the Savior Jesus Christ and the feelings that emanate from His perfect life: Love, Peace, Forgiveness, Service, Joy, Hope, Charity, Faith, and the belief in Miracles.

May your Christmas be blessed by His presence in your life.

Characteristics of Christmas


Snow is falling
Down so sound,
Laying a blanket
Of white on the ground.

The tree releases
The sweet scent of pine;
Presents sit under,
One yours, one mine.

The Christmas lights filter
Through the darkness of night;
Santa Clause walks the roof,
Stepping so light.

His reindeer await
So patient and calm
For Santa to pull the reins,
Then they are gone.

The sleigh that he rides in
Sparkles of jewels;
Cushioned in velvet,
Fashioned with tools.

The elves at the Workshop,
At the North Pole,
Get ready for next year—
With a long way to go!

The plate of warm cookies
We left out for him,
Have filled up his belly
For his long night’s trip.

We find the next morning
Our stockings are filled; 
The presents have doubled, 
The wrapping is skilled.

The spirit of Christmas
We hold in our hearts;
When we let it out,
The holiday starts.

So make Christmas a feeling,
Not just something you do;
Merry Christmas from me, 
Merry Christmas to you!


- Wade A. Walker -
December 1998 

"Wise men [and women] still seek Him."


** NOTE: I share my writing on this site trusting that visitors are scrupulous enough not to plagiarize. If you'd like to share this poem or other content with others, please share the URL to the entire blog post. Please DO NOT copy and paste any text for personal use without written permission. As the original writer of the content herein, I’d like the credit for these pieces to remain mine. **

Thursday, November 23, 2017

15 Years a Mormon—A Reflection

Fifteen years ago I officially became a Mormon.
On Saturday, November 23, 2002—fifteen years ago this Thanksgiving holiday—I made a choice that would affect the trajectory of my life forever. I was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). My ancestry on both my mother’s and father’s sides has been predominantly Mormon since Brigham Young settled with the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Many of my ancestors converted to Mormonism in the British Isles and immigrated by ship, wagon, and handcart to Utah during the great pioneer exodus of the mid- and late-1800’s.

My parents did not choose to repeat many religious rituals in our family, consisting of me and my three older brothers. By cultural tradition, as infants, my siblings and I were all blessed and given names by my maternal grandfather. My two oldest brothers were baptized after they turned eight years-old, but this was most likely due again to cultural pressure from sources outside our immediate family and less because my brothers actually knew what they were doing and understood the meaning behind the ordinance.

My next brother, who is three years older than me, has never been baptized, and I was sixteen years-old before I made the decision to join the LDS Church of my own choice. I remember full-time Mormon missionaries coming to our door often when I was a child. I mostly remember them visiting around the time I turned eight myself, and I assume that well-meaning neighbors had encouraged local leadership to groom me for baptism as one of the inactive/non-religious families in the ward (local congregation).

I was introduced to religion by LDS missionaries as a child, but
wouldn't choose to be baptized until I was a teenager.
My mother usually politely refused the missionaries’ message; but I became curious about these young men wearing suits in 90-degree weather, and asked my mother if I could invite them in. She didn’t understand my desire, but she did not object. I remember the first time I read from the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ with these young men. The missionaries handed me the volume with a highlighted verse on one page and asked me to read it aloud. I remember being confused about the pronunciation of ‘ye’ and ‘yea’ and was corrected when I said them wrong.

Missionary companionships would come and go over my growing up years, and they always tried to befriend me. One Elder offered me a tasseled bookmark that I had admired in his scripture case if I promised to read from the Book of Mormon and say my prayers. I never did, to my recollection; but he gave me the bookmark anyway. Another Elder taught me how to pray to a God whom I had never known in the name of a Man whom I only knew from Christmas songs and my mother’s ceramic Nativity set that went up during the holidays.

Once, one of these Elders taught me about the origin of the Book of Mormon and asked me to go into my room and pray to know if the volume of scripture was true—right then and there. I went into my room and kneeled at my unmade bed, as I was instructed, but I don’t remember if I really prayed or not. I wasn’t sincere about it, at any rate, and knowing myself, I was probably too embarrassed to refuse the request. Nevertheless, I returned to the living room to declare that I hadn’t received any answer, to the chagrin of the zealous Elders. It would not be until adulthood when I would feel that I had received an answer from heaven that told me that I believed in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

Upon learning the identity of Jesus as a child, I
drew a picture of him and showed it to my mother;
she was critical of my interest in religion.
Once, after the missionaries had left our home, I sat down to draw a picture of this Man that the Elders called Jesus Christ, the Son of God; I loved drawing and doodling as a boy. I drew the Man in long, flowing white robes, standing upon a cloud, His arms outstretched as He appeared in all the pictures I had been shown of Him by the missionaries. I carefully drew tiny dots in the palms of the Man’s hands, and upon His feet. Apparently He had died long ago—and for me, I was told—but now He was alive again and living in heaven.

I was proud of the drawing; I had worked so hard on it. Later that night, after I put the finishing touches on the sketch, I showed it to my mother, who was busy cooking dinner. She made a face and scoffed a little, insisting that I didn’t even know who that Man was. She expressed her dissatisfaction at what the young missionaries had been teaching me, I think because she felt I was being coerced into believing something that I didn’t truly understand—but she was right, I didn’t.

I received a Book of Mormon reader around age eight, from the ward missionaries, one of whom happened to be the son of our kind neighbor, who was also my mom’s dedicated and humble visiting teacher up until my parents’ divorce. The book contained small picture boxes, six to a page, with short captions underneath each of them, condensing and simplifying the stories from the Book of Mormon. I read it diligently many times, cover to cover, with genuine interest, but never knowing that the stories were supposed to be based on real events. My love of ancient worlds and history was probably what enthralled me most, as I realized that the events were set in a time long past.

My interest in religion waned as I got older. We had a complete Book of Mormon in the house collecting dust on a shelf; it was a gift to one of my older brothers when he was baptized. I opened it periodically, mostly to look at the few full-page pictures inside by the iconic LDS artist Arnold Friberg. A couple times I remember lying on the couch trying to read from the book, but the language was entirely foreign to me. My mom saw me trying to read it once and again scoffed that my efforts were fruitless because I couldn’t possibly understand the text. I wanted to, though, and I persisted trying to read the book for a week or so, but eventually gave up.

 Discrimination and unfair treatment by school administrators in
my sophomore year of high school left me unnecessarily
isolated from other students.
In my sophomore year of high school I had started to get myself into some trouble with the slight social awkwardness that comes with having Tourettes disorder and OCD. Deeply in the closet at the time as well, and not really understanding my sexuality in its fullness, other boys made games of trying to get me to flirt with them, and feeling that I was welcome to show them my affection, I took things too far. Nobody knew I was gay then, not even my family; and I couldn’t tell anyone that my sexual attractions to other boys my age was a large part of what the school administrators labeled sexually deviant behavior. (You can read more about this time of my life in my past posts, “Dear Andy”—June 2013, “Walk Like a Man”—February 2013, and “When a Man Loves a Woman”—February 2014).

After forcing my mother to send me to a psychiatrist who worked with sex offenders to assess my potential threat to other students (the results of which came back with no indication that I was a sexual predator), the school district forced me into a trailer on the out skirts of the high school campus to receive a poor excuse for an education among young men who had juvenile criminal records. Shockingly to them, I’m sure, I was on good behavior among boys who had blown up mail boxes with homemade pipe bombs and possibly raped young women; I was even attacked after “class” one day by several of the boys who simply couldn’t stand my tics and my gentle personality.

The “warden” (I dare say he was not an adequate teacher by any means) had talked to administrators to figure out a way for me to be on campus during school hours but not in the trailer with the other boys as often. I was not, though, under any circumstances allowed into the main school buildings without a chaperone. I suggested the LDS Seminary program, which was just yards away from my prison classroom, and a welcome place of refuge from a place where I knew I just didn’t belong. All agreed, and I was enrolled in the Seminary program for the remainder of the 2001-2002 school year.

The off-campus LDS Seminary program at my high school was a
welcome sanctuary from the problems happening to me at school.

I went home and told my mother that I needed a set of LDS scriptures for my new class; I don’t remember her protesting. She kindly bought them for me—a deep red, leather-bound “quad” containing the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price—the four books of canonized Mormon scripture. I still own this set of scriptures today, though you wouldn’t be able to tell I’ve had them so long; at the time, I was so obsessive about ruining the thin, wispy pages that I rarely opened the volume outside of class, afraid that a sudden violent, jerky arm or hand tic would rip out clumps of pages.

My first few seminary teachers didn’t “get” me. If it weren’t for a few kind students that I knew there, I’m not sure I would’ve initially fit in at this building either. One early teacher would frequently stop mid-lesson to tell me to be quiet. My tics then involved a lot of random shouting of words and unintelligible sounds at a boisterous volume. Perhaps because I was the curious non-member boy, he supposed that he didn’t have to try as hard to be nice to me—I really can’t say, though. Later, during my senior year in seminary, one female teacher hated me so much that if I had even one tic in her classroom, she would send me to sit outside the closed door. I still have a hard time thinking kindly of her.

I don’t remember exactly how I ended up in Brother Yorgason’s class, but there I finally found my place among the Mormons during parts of my sophomore and junior years. Affectionately called Brother Yorgi by his students, this man was a jovial, upbeat, high-energy man whose love for the gospel of Jesus Christ shone through his bright eyes. He was always excited to be at the head of the class; always happy to see all of his students, including me. 

Among the Latter-day Saint youth I satisfied a steadily-growing
curiosity about religion, God, and my purpose in life.
Looking back on seminary I learned virtually nothing about the scriptures and barely perused the depths of Mormon doctrine, but I felt welcome. I learned the basics about our shared history as Mormons, from Joseph Smith’s First Vision to the current prophet on the earth, then Gordon B. Hinckley. It was enough to intrigue me and I was putty in this humble seminary teacher’s hands.

Still with a laugh, I think back on how much false doctrine I learned in that class. Call it an overzealous teacher—much like those dedicated missionaries from my youth—or just rampant Mormon culture, if you like; but I was told many things that I later learned to be speculative Mormon myth and folklore, like faith-building stories based on slightly outrageous (but still compelling) personal claims. Brother Yorgi told me in 2003 that he believed the Second Coming of Christ would happen in the next decade—we all know now that that didn’t happen. I heard about meetings with the mysterious Three Nephites from many points in Mormon and non-Mormon history; tales about angels guarding the gates of LDS Temples from sinful nonbelievers; and wonderment surrounding prophetic revelations that predated the coming of things like motor vehicles, electricity, elevators, airplanes, and the internet.

Nevertheless, I was awestruck with the knowledge I was taking in. I wanted more than ever to be a part of this unique world that had surrounded me all my life growing up in a predominantly Mormon state, in an even more densely-Mormon town. And, more than ever, I had the knowledge to understand the basics of the religion that I was so intrigued by to know what the proper steps were in joining such a miraculous and amazing organization. I wanted to be baptized.

The LDS missionaries would return to my
home when I was 16 to prepare me for baptism.
I had no idea to whom I ought to speak about my desire to be baptized, so I went to the first good and true source of observable faithfulness I could think of—my mom’s devoted visiting teacher, Ruth Ann. I knocked on her door one day in the early fall of 2003, jubilantly declaring to her that I wanted to be baptized, and asking where I should go to get the ball rolling. She gave me the information of our local ward leader, Bishop Sabey. I later phoned the bishop and set up an appointment with him.

Meeting with the bishop later on, I learned that I needed to proceed officially with a few of the basic lessons taught to investigators by the missionaries before I could be baptized. Those lessons began right away in the same living room where I had met with other companionships as a child. We watched videos on the life of Jesus Christ—videos that I would love for years to come, and watch many more times by my own choice. I don’t really know how many lessons were intended to be taught to new investigators in those days—having never served a mission myself—but it seemed to get through rather quickly.

The Bishop also wanted me to begin attending Sunday church meetings each week, in that same building where he and I met, just a few blocks from my house. I remember the first time I showed up to a sacrament meeting there, feeling out of place, and especially embarrassed because I didn’t know how to tie the necktie I had inherited from my late-grandfather on my dad’s side. My white shirt was open at the neck as I wandered into the meeting, the necktie stuffed into my pocket, and not knowing where to sit because I didn’t know anybody. 

But then I was surprised and relieved to see a familiar face—a girl that I went to school with, sitting on the edge of a pew with space next to her. We made eye contact, and I gestured my request to sit next to her, to which see obliged politely. I remember picking up my first hymnbook and trying to sing with the congregation. I had been singing all my life and was familiar with sheet music, but I didn’t understand how the verses were arranged, and tried to follow the lyrics straight down the page instead of skipping to the next bar of music.

I had a second meeting with Bishop Sabey, called the baptismal interview, which was a chance to answer some predetermined questions and address any past sins. I was sixteen at this time, and it was around the time earlier that spring when I started taking seminary that I had finally concluded that I was gay. It was an inconvenience to learn that my innate attractions to males were a “sin” for which men, women, and whole cities had been destroyed by the wrath of God in ancient times. But it would not deter me from my decision to be baptized.

The Bible Dictionary in my first set of scriptures was where I first
concluded that the "sin" of homosexuality and my lifelong
attractions to males were the same thing.
When Bishop Sabey and I talked about my sins, I was terrified to tell him that I thought I might very well be gay. I was afraid they wouldn’t let me be baptized if I confessed such a thing. Recently having researched LDS policy as it was at that time, the chance was very possible I would’ve been denied. I had had sexual experiences with other boys my age all growing up, though not presently or recently, and that was one criterion for denial. Not wanting to lie to a man of God, I tried to explain my “experimentations” with other boys, being careful not to indicate that I had initiated many of them and that I enjoyed them quite a lot. 

The bishop gave me an example of a child is his neighborhood who used the sidewalk as a bathroom one day because she did not know any better; he insisted that children cannot sin, and therefore I, too, was not at fault—it was all part of growing up. I could see a large difference between a three year-old and a teenager like me making such decisions; so his answer was not quite the relief I thought it would be. I felt like I knew all along what I was doing all those times with the other boys; I understood my actions, just not the attractions. However, I didn’t press the matter, feeling satisfied with my attempt at confession, and my baptism was set for the Saturday before Thanksgiving, with my confirmation being the next day in my new home ward. 

I was thrilled. I typed up a few sheets of small, business-card-like invitations giving the date, time, and place of my baptism, and cut them apart and handed them out in the hallways at school (I had redeemed myself with good behavior to the point that I was allowed on the campus my junior year). My parents had separated in October that year, and the hardest thing to do was probably trying to get my dad to come to my special day, which was important to me, though I knew my parents didn’t necessarily want to see each other. I think he was there; honestly, though, I don’t remember for sure.

The program from my baptismal service - Saturday, November
23, 2002.
My maternal Grandparents, Bud and Dorothy, came into town from southern Utah to attend my baptism. For my special day, I had hoped that my grandfather—the same man who blessed me as an infant—could baptize me as well. But my grandpa was almost seventy at the time and had been battling lymphoma cancer for a few years and was a bit frail. I was tall and stocky as a teen, and my grandpa had concerns about being able to physically perform the ordinance. I was asked to choose two people to share thoughts on the baptism and the Holy Ghost at my service, and I chose my grandpa as one, so he could be involved, and Ruth Ann, my neighbor and family friend, as the other.

I believe my grandparents came into town the day before my baptism, and they stopped by our house before going to my aunt’s house to stay the night. For reasons I don’t remember, my mom and grandma had to go out (shopping, I suppose), and so I stayed at home to keep my grandpa company. He sat in a large recliner in our living room and we started chatting. I honestly wish I could remember everything we talked about, but in reality I remember virtually nothing of the details of our conversation.

I do remember, though, that we talked about things that my grandpa had always been interested in, like the energy of the earth and the universe, and how the Holy Ghost was a part of those manifestations of power. He talked about the vibration of the earth and how we can measure them, and discussed evidence that experts have obtained that the earth’s vibration began to speed up around the early 1800’s, near the time that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ in a wooded grove in upstate New York. My grandpa suggested that with the Restoration of the Church approaching at that time, the Spirit of God had more fully entered the world, paving the way for the gospel to fill the earth in the latter days, and causing the energy of the earth to be affected.

What I remember most was being simply flabbergasted by these theories, and marveling at my grandfather’s intelligence. He gave me a new outlook on faith and religion that had more physical, almost tangible evidences, and that fascinated me. Having grown up with old National Geographic’s in our house and a passion for archaeology and ancient history, I had badly wanted evidence for the stories of faith I had learned of in seminary—proof of the ten plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea; proof that America was populated by the Nephites and Lamanites spoken of in the Book of Mormon; proof that miracles had not ceased and that God still performed His wonders in the world of men. It was the most time I had ever spent talking with my grandpa in my entire life, and it was a thrilling and wonderful experience. I felt like I knew him better and was closer to him after an hour of conversation than I had been in the previous sixteen years before that day. 

I chose baptism into the LDS Church at age 16, and
it changed my life forever.
My memories aren’t very clear all these years later (though it seems such a short time in so many ways!), so the details of my baptismal service are foggy. I remember going to the Stake Center a few blocks from my house and being led to a closet filled with white jumpsuits, where a stranger helped me find one in my size. I changed into it, and waited for guests to arrive. I felt silly in the jumpsuit when people began trickling in, but I greeted my supporters happily. Because of his influential role in my developing testimony, I asked Brother Yorgason, my seminary teacher, if he would perform the baptism, to which he gratefully agreed. I greeted him with a hug when he arrived, and he went and changed into a white jumpsuit he had brought himself.

Two girls in my ward tag-teamed the piano to play the interlude music and the hymns that I had chosen; one of them was the girl I had sat next to on my first day of Church, and the other was the daughter of the Bishop, and we all attended school together. After the opening hymn, Bishop Sabey opened the meeting with a prayer, and asked me to come to the front of the group; I sat on a small table next to a portable pulpit and couldn’t stop smiling. Next, Ruth Ann gave her remarks on baptism; she encouraged me to keep a journal from that day on, which I have tried my best to do since then. 

The time came for me to enter the baptismal font adjacent to the small meeting room. During my baptismal interview, I had asked Bishop Sabey hopefully if we had to go to an LDS temple to perform the baptism, but I was slightly let down when he said there was a font in the Stake Center. I had very much wanted to see the inside of a temple; I had only ever been to one temple open house—the Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple—prior to its dedication, but I was only ten at the time and couldn’t recall much of it.

I remember the water was warm when I stepped into the font. The jumpsuit I wore clung tightly to my legs and body as I proceeded down the steps to the bottom of the font. Brother Yorgason arranged my hands—one gripping his left forearm and the other one palm-up and held by his right hand. He whispered in my ear to remember to plug my nose, and squat low while leaning back. I wasn’t scared; mostly just afraid that I would mess things up somehow. He raised his right hand, calling me by name, and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Upon his ‘amen’ and the collective repetition by the audience, I went under the water, and was up again before I could count to three. I looked at the smiling audience with a cheesy grin on my face, mostly just feeling silly that I was soaking wet in front of a group of people, and we proceeded up the steps into our changing rooms.

My certificate of baptism and confirmation given to me by my
LDS ward bishop.
I dressed quickly in a shirt and tie, and lamented that my heavily-styled hair was ruined, and stepped back out into the meeting room. Again, I sat on the table next to the pulpit. My grandpa stood, put his hands into his pockets, and began speaking on the Holy Ghost, without any notes or prompts. He outlined the same things he and I had talked about the day before, about how the Holy Ghost is a presence in the world that can be measured and not just felt. His remarks were so unique compared to anything I had ever heard in an LDS meeting, that I couldn’t help but beam in knowing that I was the grandson of such a brilliant man. When he concluded his remarks, I proudly said, “That was my grandpa.”

My Bishop and Young Men’s leader spoke next, and I don’t remember what they had to say, but it was brief. We sang another hymn, and upon its end my next-door neighbor, our family home teacher—the man who first taught me how to tie a necktie—concluded the meeting with a prayer. Guests were invited back to our home for refreshments; a few people from school were at the service and my home, and I have never forgotten how special they made me feel by taking time to attend.

The next day I attended my home ward sacrament meeting where I was confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Bishop Sabey, who would become a lifelong friend and a great influence in my life—a father figure that I always wanted. He, along with other important men in my life at the time, joined in a circle around me as I sat on a folding chair at the front of the chapel, and each man lay one hand on my head to pronounce the confirmation and a blessing as well. I remember the warmth of their hands and the gentle weight that made me feel secure and comforted. I stood at the end and gave hugs and handshakes all around.

After the sacrament meeting, I went to the Bishop’s office to be ordained to the Priesthood in my new faith. Young men ages 16 to17 are given the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, and are given the title of Priests; it is the last stage in this lesser Priesthood before young men are ordained to the higher standing of Elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood, usually before going on a proselytizing mission or getting married. As Priests, young men are allowed to prepare, break, bless, and consecrate the bread and water used in the ordinance of the sacrament which is administered every Sunday.

My certificate of ordination to the Aaronic Priesthood in the LDS

I asked a missionary to ordain me, an Elder Oliveros, who had taught me the missionary lessons leading up to my baptism, and who had been there with me every step of the way. It was a wonderful experience, though I didn’t understand well at the time what it meant to have the Priesthood of God. After Church that day, though, I had my first opportunity to use my newly-gained Priesthood power. Young Priests and their leaders often go at least once a month to homes in the ward boundaries to bless and administer the sacramental bread and water to members, usually the elderly, who cannot otherwise attend church meetings and receive the ordinance there.

We went to a few homes that day, but I remember one woman in particular who left a lasting impression on me. When we entered her home I was overcome with the familiar, delightful smell of brewed coffee. In my childhood home, coffee was a morning staple for my parents, and a frequent indulgence for me because I loved drinking coffee with lots of sugar and creamer. It wasn’t odd to me to smell that rich aroma; but in the LDS Church, coffee is to be abstained from, according to latter-day revelation and scripture, and so most active members do not drink it. 

Drawing on the my limited experience as Mormon thus far, I could assume that, culturally, this women was known as “inactive,” in that she didn’t attend Church regularly, hold a temple recommend, or obey certain commandments (like abstaining from coffee). But there was no judgment or exhortation that day, as we were there just to serve her; we were welcomed into her living room and I was humbled by her reception.

As customary, we shared with the sweet woman some thoughts and remarks on topics of faith. I was chosen to give the thoughts, and I chose to recite a new favorite poem that had been printed on my paternal grandfather’s funeral program just a month before. The rhyming verses told of waking up to a beautiful day and thanking God for all we’ve been given, and expressed confidence that God hears all of our prayers. I noticed then that the elderly woman was in tears; they slipped down from her eyes, stopping briefly on the bone of her rosy cheek, and then slid further down her face before dripping onto the shag carpet.

Taking the sacrament to an elderly woman the same
day I became a Priest was a memorable experience.
I don’t recall her exact words; but she was touched, and so was I. She thanked me for sharing that poem—I don’t know why that’s what came to my mind to offer her—and expressed solemnly that she needed its message in her solitude and loneliness. We may have hugged briefly; I don’t recall. Seeing her overcome that way was both heartbreaking and inspiring to me as young man who had dedicated his life to God only a day before.

When the time came, I pulled a single slice of bread from the bag, and broke it into a few pieces—enough for all present—and placed them on a metal, handled tray. Then, with permission, I went to the woman’s kitchen sink and filled the same number of tiny plastic cups—held also in a drip-proof metal tray fitted for the cups—with tap water. Then I returned to an ottoman where I sat for a moment before getting on my knees. My leader handed me a laminated card with the ordinance blessings on it, which must be read verbatim. I read each of the blessings aloud in turn with my head bowed, and was happy that I didn’t make any mistakes. Then after each ‘amen’ another young man passed the trays to all present, and we partook of the bread and drank the water.

I left the woman’s house feeling something I had not felt so strongly before, not even at my baptism. It was the Holy Ghost—so I assumed, and had been told. But it wasn’t a burning of my bosom, as a common scriptural cliché tells; it was simply a warmth in my soul, gratitude in my heart, and a compassionate loving feeling for the woman whom I had had the privilege of meeting that day. I never saw her again, to my recollection; I’ve wondered about her a lot. But I am happy I was able to bring some sunshine into her dimly-lit home that day as I learned the meaning of service in the name of faith, as brothers and sisters, and children of a divine Heavenly Father.

Though I had hoped it would, my Patriarchal
Blessing offered no illumination on my future
as a gay individual.
On the Sunday following my baptism and confirmation, I received my patriarchal blessing—a sort of spiritual rite of passage for faithful Latter-day Saints. By laying his hands upon my head, and elderly Patriarch of the Church pronounced blessings upon my head, along with revelation for the trajectory of my life if I continued a diligent life of faith. My mother was with my in this Patriarch’s wood-paneled office during the blessing. I had hoped as I anticipated this event that I would receive miraculous counsel from God on what I was to do about being gay—what the reason for my homosexuality was, what I was to learn from it, and if I would be okay. There was nothing that specific in my blessing. In fact, my blessing talks a great deal about me marrying a female, my “sweetheart,” and raising a “noble posterity.”

I continued with seminary until I graduated high school, and received a two-year graduation certificate of completion from the seminary program as well. For the first year of my life as a convert-Mormon, I was everything a Mormon boy should be—I attended Church, used my Priesthood to serve, participated in Boy Scouts, Young Men’s group, and Mutual activities with the young women. We went on campouts and held firesides and devotionals. I even visited Temple Square in Salt Lake City for the first time in my life, and marveled at the granite temple there that took forty years to build.

As frequent readers will know, I struggled a great deal in attempting to reconcile my faith and sexuality. I was secretly meeting men through gay social chat lines, and lost my virginity to a man when I was just seventeen. I don’t suppose I ever stopped believing in the LDS Church; I just think exploring my attractions to men was more important at that time than following God’s commandments. In time I came back to the Church, after much promiscuity and one failed relationship with the only boyfriend I ever had. I became an Elder and entered the House of the Lord to receive my temple ordinances with a promise to God that I would never look back—that I would never go back to the “gay lifestyle” that had not brought me the fulfillment I sought.

Now, fifteen years after my baptism, and almost a decade since I made unbreakable covenants with God, I am coming to a crossroads that I thought I would never set foot on again. I am wondering how much longer I can keep up this life of faith, which is feeling more and more like a charade than something genuine from my heart. I read my patriarchal blessing as it promised me a wife and kids and glory in the Celestial Kingdom of God if I remain faithful—and I can’t help but wonder if I am just not cut out to live up to that promise anymore.

The door out of the LDS Church was chained and forbidden by me
long ago; having that door as an open option once again is
terrifying and heartbreaking for me.
I don’t know if those blessings will ever be realized, at least in this life. I wonder sometimes if this foretelling is only meant to mock me and the life I wish I could have with a partner and children. As Mormon Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland has said, “Some blessings come soon, some come late, and some don’t come until heaven.” But his assurance is that they come eventually for all who follow the gospel of Jesus Christ (“‘An High Priest of Good Things to Come,’” Ensign, Nov. 1999). 

I used to be quite content to wait it out, dying eventually if I was called to do so, and progressing eternally toward having a family on the other side of the veil, long after my judgment and resurrection. Now, a door that was once closed and dead-bolted shut—the door out of Mormonism and back to living openly as a gay man—is no longer barred in my heart and mind, but stands unlocked and ready to be opened.

Each day is different in how I feel about that door. Sometimes, when I am depressed and anxious about my present (or future), I approach the door and place my hand on the knob, longing to open it. There have been times that I feel like I’ve even cracked the door open and peered inside, but cannot see clearly into what lies beyond it. When I am feeling okay, saying my prayers, and trying to stay close to God, I don’t notice that the door is there much—but it doesn’t go away, and I have not yet put the chains back on it.

Leaving the Church to find more happiness that I think might be out there is more of an option that I ever thought it would be. I haven’t felt this close to straddling the fence of activity and non-activity in over ten years. Truthfully, it’s terrifying. I never wanted to arrive at this place again. I can’t decide if my fears are the same as they’ve always been but just in a different time of my life, or if these are new fears about my resolve to stay an active Mormon that I’ve never faced before. 

For now, I want to stay a Mormon; but sometimes I feel like I'm
delaying an inevitable exit from organized religion.
For now, I stay; I want to stay. But my religious practices are suffering. I don’t pray as often as I used to; I have a hard time reading the Church’s Ensign magazine without rolling my eyes, scoffing, or getting upset at the content; I haven’t been to Church in months. I’m finding it easier, almost, to live without God in my life. I find that I am not as worried about my private habits and behaviors, though I still have high morals and values. I don’t feel as inadequate and unworthy of divine love or heavenly help; and I don’t berate myself as often because of my mistakes or things that I feel I could be doing better. 

Yet I feel like God doesn’t expect me to be perfect at everything like I assume I have to be. I feel like He understands me and doesn’t hold grudges. I feel He is merciful and compassionate and that He will love me no matter what—even if my sins became graver. This might sound joyous to some; but to a Mormon, it is dangerous territory. My culture tells me that I should never assume that I have a free pass to do whatever I want. All my behavior must be kept within the bounds the Lord has set. And yet, those parameters are no longer fulfilling to maintain. I want more; I want something different, and that scares me. I shouldn’t want more than what God already offers me; I should be satisfied with serving Him faithfully until the day I die. But the thought of more years in spiritual and emotional limbo on earth sucks all the hope out of my days.

I don’t think God will abandon me; in fact, I know He won’t. Even if I abandon my faith, I cannot postulate that I will ever stop believing in God, or the Savior Jesus Christ. If I leave it will be because I have lost my eternal perspective on God’s great Plan of Happiness. It will be because I am unwilling to experience more pain and loneliness for my remaining decades of life. It will be because I have decided that living a truly happy life means more to me that living a perfect and exalted eternity.

Many say that freedom is not free; so do I wonder what the choice
to potentially leave the LDS Church might cost me in the eternal
scheme of things.  Is it worth it?
Though I often ponder my place and status in heaven after I die (because I believe Hell is a rare destination for most people after this life), I am becoming more comfortable with the idea of facing God and Christ to be judged knowing that I'm doing my best considering my circumstances. And if, in that final end, it is still not enough to gain the highest kingdom of glory God has to offer, I think I will nevertheless be content with the character of my spirit and the integrity of my life—whether living or dead.

This post has taken a quick turn, I know. But this is something I wanted to share because it has been on my mind as the anniversary of my baptism has been approaching. I couldn’t help but find this milestone to be bittersweet and confusing. I’m not saying I’m leaving; but I’m not saying that I’m staying indefinitely either. I am doing my best to stay sane every day in the face of depression and debilitating anxiety that comes and goes. And with the flowing tide of these mental health issues are the entrances and exits of my desire to remain a Mormon.

In the end I will do what I feel is best for me, knowing that my Church will accept me back with open arms if I discover (for the second time) that my truest joy really is being a Latter-day Saint. Living presently with this uncertainty, though, is taking its toll on me.  I feel like I might just be delaying the inevitable.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Captain of My Salvation

Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, USA - a beautiful campus
nestled in the shadow of the majestic Mount Timpanogos.
School is back in session, and I am finally officially in my undergraduate program for a Bachelor’s degree in Family Studies. This last year has been one of the most difficult since I was a young man, just entering adulthood. As I’ve been navigating my way through Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) for more than a year now (finally knowing what it is and realizing that I’ve been depressed for many years now without really understanding it), it has become amazing to me how a single choice each day affects the rest of my week, and even the months after. 

My one choice is like a bullet ricocheting off of a solid stone wall that I put up to try to keep out hard issues like pain, struggle, discomfort, and anxiety. I’m talking about choosing to skip school, work, or time with loved ones to isolate myself in my room and sleep, because when I am asleep, I don’t feel anything; I only dream, and usually those are the most pleasant and surreal moments for me, completely deadened to my grief.

Living with depression, my choice of whether or not to get out
of bed every day is like choosing to fire a bullet that eventually
comes back to strike me.

But eventually I have to wake up from the safety and innocence of my subconscious mind and face that bullet that I fired ten, fifteen, or even twenty hours before, which has slowly bounced back to strike me square in the chest. And as I sit up on the edge of my bed in a fog and suddenly take in all that I have put in jeopardy—my grades, my employment, the trust and care of my family and friends—I feel as if I am falling figuratively to my knees as my lone wound quickly gushes out a flood of emotion—shame and guilt, mostly.

As I lay dying (or at least, feeling like I would rather perish in that moment), I see flashes of the day I could’ve had, and should’ve had. The things I would’ve learned in class, the money I would have made at work, and the fun and enjoyment of the company of others all appear in my mind’s eye and then dissipate like a stinging mist of regret and self-blame. Sometimes, for a second or two, the idea of just lying back down to escape this new pain once again seems appealing, if not for the stiffness of my muscles and growing hunger in the pit of my stomach.

This is often when I force myself to get in the shower, which consists less of cleansing my aching body and more of leaning my head against the shower wall under the hot water, reliving the day that might have been. Frequently I even say out loud, “I can’t believe I slept all day.” But then the pessimistic voice of shame and guilt blurts out, “Of course you can! You do this all the time!”

I've taken numerous medications to treat 
my many disorders for over 20 years; for a
long time I was reliant on drugs to function.
After I wake, there is a cocktail of drugs that I must take (far past the time when they will actually do the most good) upon which I have relied for twenty years to achieve some level of normalcy and functionality. The pharmacological mishmash that I have become dependent on to have some quality of life seems to really keep me bound in chains, fearful of what might happen if I suddenly ran out or was separated from them. It’s like my tics, my OCD, my anxiety, and now my depression—all of which I take several medications for—are each different demons living within me; they are the dreaded creatures that will erupt from within my body if they are not appeased by an array of tablets and capsules meant to keep them at bay.

Sometimes, on a good week, sleeping most or all of the day will occur maybe just once or twice, if I’m lucky (which is all I consider that feat to be now—sheer luck). Other times, I have weeks where my Sunday night, start-of-the-week rest, turns into a Thursday evening of waking up to the piercing feeling of that bullet in my chest, after literally not leaving my room for three or four days, except the use the bathroom a few times. 

The lengths of time vary; sometimes I will eat between those days, sometimes I won’t. Sometimes I counteract my oversleeping by staying up all night (which is usually when I wake up, after the day is already over) and then go to bed “normally” at the end of the next day over 24 hours later. I get so sore and weak on those days, and the increase in motor and vocal tics under fatigue do not help soothe my mind or body. Sometimes I lose my voice or ache so terribly that I can’t get to sleep even when I’m exhausted.  My mind continues to race and retrace my day, or plan the coming day, and I struggle to turn it off.

But even after sleeping an entire day and staying up and entire day, I am afraid to go to bed the next night. In fact, I am afraid to go to bed every night, because I literally don’t know how I will feel about getting up the next day. The more tired I am, or the more trouble I have falling asleep, the less motivation I have in the morning to face my day. The scream of my dozens (not an exaggeration) of alarms is the worst thing in the world for me to hear. I always have the best, most responsible, active, productive intentions when I say my prayers at my bedside every night. But even when asking for help from God, I am usually always disappointed at what seems like a lack of heavenly help.

I use excessive sleep to avoid my anxieties, and have frequently
missed school, work, appointments, and time with loved ones.
As far as faith goes, I wax and wane between feeling like I do not needs God’s help if He is content to ignore me, or feeling so helpless and lost for guidance and assistance that I cry to Him for mercy. Some nights I feel Him there, and my words ascend to heaven like the sweet smelling smoke of incense burning within the holy place of the ancient Hebrew temple. Other times, I get frustrated and angry, telling God that I am not going to ask Him for help anymore if He is unwilling to give it. I sometimes stop praying for a few days in protest until utter need for comfort and peace brings me to my knees finally. After not praying most of the summer, feeling betrayed, I have finally come back to trying to trust God again.

I have hurt many people by choosing to sleep instead of to wake. The anxiety of certain events, people, or going certain places will always play a role in my decision of staying or going (next to how tired I really am). Not uncommon for individuals with neuropsychiatric disorders like Tourette's and OCD, I have many sleeping problems, including insomnia and sleep apnea (a condition related to my steady weight gain over the years on psychiatric medications). Still, my mother has told me that I was the most disturbed and unpredictable sleeper of all her four boys, even as an infant.

After dropping out of college twice because of my mental health
issues, I finally earned my Associate's Degree in Behavioral
I have almost lost at least one friendship that means a great deal to me by standing her up too many times—while I stayed home and slept knowing that we had plans together.  I can't imagine my life without her now, and it terrifies me that I almost forced her out of my life by my neglect.  There is a person whom I considered a good friend, but have not seen in many years because I failed to show up at her going-away party several years ago. She is now living out of the country, is married, and has a young son. I’ve missed wedding receptions, family get-togethers, scheduled appointments, and so many other things.

Countless others have been affected by my poisonous depressive “medicine.” My parents and siblings have expressed that they don’t like to take me on trips to see other family members because I just end up sleeping most of the time out of town. I have missed many bonding moments with them and my niece and nephews because I was unconscious. On those trips I wake to criticism and playful teasing from my family, who act shocked when I actually get up at a reasonable hour and walk into the kitchen for breakfast. This has gone on for years; and even though I know full well my issues with sleeping too much, my family doesn’t seem to conceive how much it tears me apart inside to be reminded of it so callously.

Danish artist Don Kenn captures mental illness 
so well with his macabre, otherworldly drawings; 
this one represents my feelings on depression 
and the way it seeks to constantly drag me down.
More than this, a large portion the treatment for my myriad disorders has been stalled or interrupted for weeks and months at a time because I sleep through my appointments frequently. I have a therapist with whom I’ve been working for over three years, and I’ve only seen him maybe two-dozen or so times because I choose sleep instead of the satisfaction of my visits with him. I’m lucky (again, I use the word loosely) that I only have to see my psychiatrist every three months to refill the prescriptions that keep me going to the weak extent which I have been. I still miss those appointments often, too. I recently had to find another primary care doctor because the one I had would no longer see me because of my failure to keep appointments.

I have been blessed (no, not lucky—truly blessed) that I have had understanding teachers and a patient, forgiving boss at my day job as a cashier at a retail store. In May 2017 I reached a welcomed milestone by graduating with an Associate degree in Behavioral Science after twice dropping out of college in 2005 and 2012. Still, I have been known to be absent for at least one class or more per week at times. In truth, some semesters I have missed more days of school than I have probably attended in the last three years as a part-time student. 

I still get my homework done, often in the middle of the night after I’ve slept through the entire rising and setting of the sun. When others are lying down after a long, productive, busy day, I am rising to take a bullet in the chest, with a river of shameful blood pouring from my stinging wound of regret. But I do what I have to do, usually in an uncomfortable rush against the clock. And somehow, as I keep my instructors informed and receive a little leniency from them (per my Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) student accommodations), I have been getting all A’s (I got my “worst” grade of the last three years just last semester—a B+).

Monthly Social Security Disability Insurance has kept me afloat
since 2006; but my goal is self-sufficiency after college.
My boss at work has known of my disorders and struggles since he took over our store about three years ago, after I was hired by a kind man who saw past my shortcomings and looked instead on my potential and my need. At 31 years old, this is the longest I’ve ever held a job in my life, though I’m still only paid minimum wage. Prior to this I hadn’t worked since I lost my job as a certified nurse’s assistant in 2007, and I’ve been living below the poverty level now for almost a decade now.

Another blessing is that I’ve been able to receive social security disability benefits since I lost my CNA job, without which I would be living on the streets or with my parents. I don’t tell a whole lot of people about where I get my money, but I know they wonder. I have to use Medicare and Medicaid programs for my health care and medication management, and I have lived on food stamp privileges on and off for ten years, before I started working again. The increase of coprolalia, the tics that involve swearing and inappropriate words and phrases, made working with the elderly difficult for me; and an increase in the medication I was taking at the time was the fuel to the fire for my needless sleeping, as many neuropsychiatric drugs cause extreme drowsiness and fatigue.
Another unsettling illustration by artist Don Kenn
this one is representative of the ever-lingering 
disruption and disorder of living with heavy, 
often debilitating anxiety.

Nevertheless, I am persevering through school in an attempt to make a better life for myself. Though blessed by my social security disability payments and full insurance, I am ashamed of getting “free” money at the expense of others, and I am reminded by some of my chiding friends that their taxes pay my rent; I don’t think they know that their joking hurts and embarrasses me. But I have never been content to stay on government assistance forever, and the help I’ve received has truly been a godsend while I’ve been focusing, slowly but steadily, on completing my education. 

I know that God prepared a way for me to live while I got my life together through this long learning process, and I am forever indebted to Him for that. My intention is to use the challenges I’ve been given and the experiences I’ve had to help make sure that other people like me don’t have to suffer psychiatric disorders and mental illness alone; that’s why I want to be a therapist, to show others that there is hope and empathy in living with these types of challenges.

It’s frustrating to experience troubles in life that seem to come out of nowhere at the most inconvenient times; certainly that happens to all of us from time to time. In my experience, though, it is even more difficult knowing (or feeling, at least) that most of my problems are my own fault. Not to suggest that I am personally to blame for the biology, physiology, and genetics that resulted in me having Tourettes, OCD, anxiety, and MDD.

But rather, it's that I most often feel like I am not trying hard enough to combat these issues, choosing to avoid daily responsibilities rather than to face them bravely, and worsening my circumstances. I recently read over three-hundred of the timeless fables of Aesop, and among many of the morals, one stood out to me especially, declaring, “Misfortunes springing from ourselves are the hardest to bear.” True, indeed.

All my life I have put up emotional and psychological 
walls to avoid difficult feelings and stem my deep fears 
of failure.
When faced with normal daily tasks—like work, school, social life, and taking care of myself—the strain of subsisting from day to day usually feels impossible or hopeless. It takes a great deal of effort most mornings to want to get up and begin the day. These challenges I face in motivating myself to act like an adult should (or the ominous possibility of challenges unforeseen) leave me in constant fight or flight mode, and I almost always choose to fly away to the magical world of dreamland, which, in the moment decision, is always the easiest.

I would rather keep sleeping than be at work for five hours. I would rather sleep than shower, do my hair, brush my teeth, and get dressed. I would rather sleep than drive to my friend’s house in a nearby town for a party. I would rather sleep than sit in a lecture for over an hour taking notes at the sound of a droll voice. So, rather than fighting against my better judgment, knowing that I have the figurative gun cocked in my hand a ready to fire, I find life that day too scary or too stressful—before it has even begun—and I pull the trigger at the wall that I put up to keep out the pain, and I lie back down and drift away.

It’s difficult to describe this to people, and why I do it, which is one reason I haven’t talked to many others about it—other than my therapist—until now. I often hear, “Well, I don’t want to get up and go to work every day, but I do it anyway because I have to.” These people don’t usually understand how anxiety feels when it is constantly present in one’s life. Of course I realize each time I fire that gun that everything I am doing will most likely come back to bite me; I could lose my job, fail a class, miss a huge assignment or social event, and disappoint someone I love.

Anxiously avoiding emotions and responsibilities creates a
snowball effect that only increases my stress and worry.
But in the moment, I just don’t care about anything but making the anxiety go away immediately. Then, as I wake to the anxiety that still exists, I get even more anxious about the approaching consequences, and the anxiety compounds and snowballs from incident to incident. The relief of avoidance is temporary, and I rotate through this anxiety cycle. My therapist and I have been working on helping me to take the leap of courage to face my smallest insecurities and anxieties when they occur, so they don’t linger and grow worse and more debilitating.

I have been so wishy-washy about my commitment to a college education over the last twelve years, that I’ve pockmarked my transcript with many unfortunate grades. As a poor, first-generation student with no other way to pay for college, I have been blessed (yes, again) to receive federal financial aid to pay for my schooling. Bad grades along the way, and dropping out twice has made it necessary to file three separate appeals to my university petitioning for reinstatement of my financial aid.

With endorsements from many wonderful and influential people in my life, all the appeals were approved. I have almost had to file two more in the last year because I had reached the maximum time frame allowed to earn my degree, and because I had exceeded my attempted credits limit for my Associates Degree. I escaped those appeals by graduating this year and switching over to a Bachelor's Degree.

"Jumping ship" is a phrase I've used to describe my total physical
and psychological abdication of the responsibilities of daily living
in favor of choices that are easier and less painful, for a time.
When I thought that I might have to appeal the cessation of my financial aid again, I looked up the appeal statement letter that I submitted three times before to gauge if another appeal would be successful. In two of my letters, I had to explain to the Satisfactory Academic Progress board members why I had dropped out in 2005 and 2012. The phrase I used in both letters, hugged by quotation marks, was “jumping ship.” I explained that due to my mental state and other challenges, I had grown accustomed to “jumping ship” to escape my problems instead of facing them.

This phrase wandered in and out of my mind for several weeks while I was working simultaneously on four different blog posts, one of which I only just finished (see God Will Send Rain,” May, 2017). I had incorporated some beautiful imagery into one post about how life was like sailing a ship. I enjoyed the metaphorical pictures so much that I cut all references to the “jumping ship” idea and inserted them into this post already in progress at the time.  Because of this, you may notice that my tone or the emotion of this post will gradually change as you read on; that's because I wrote the two halves of this blog months apart, after my life had improved.  Still, allow me to carry you into the scene that played out in my head.

I liken life to sailing a ship; our bodies are
the vessels, and the ocean represents mortality.
My “sleeping issues,” a careful and discreet label for my depression troubles, is the abdication of all my responsibility and accountability, like a Captain deserting his vessel when the waters get rough. That is how I feel about what I am doing; my behavior is an act of total physical abandonment and emotional deadening as I sail this body and soul through the waters of mortality, which can be unpredictable and dangerous from day to day.

Our bodies have been called our mortal vessels—the vehicles that allow us to travail through life. I can see myself and my body as a large ship. When our ships are brand new and aching for their trial at sea, we are born, and then take our maiden voyage to a greater and grander port than the one from whence we launched. Though we will make many stops along the way at many ports, this will be the only trip we will make, and so it has to count.

I think of the water as life itself. It sustains us; it is what carries us on to our destination. The water can be calm and pleasant, wavy, choppy, or sometimes downright tumultuous. Sometimes life can seem like it is going to destroy us and take us down to a watery grave. But we cannot sail a ship on a nice, even plane of asphalt; our vessels were not meant to take the easy route. We are here to learn how to sail, and we knew the risks to some extent before we launched into the ocean. The water is the only way we can get where we’re going, and we take that risk as Captains of our vessels. 

Sometimes our time at sea is uneventful, but safe and purposeful; we know the basic naval skills and we float along steadily and consistently. Naturally, waves will come as the tides of mortality wax and wane, and we may need to put more effort and attention into our captainship. In all of our journeys, there are hopefully some of those moments when the elements are on our side, and we glide along the water’s glassy surface briskly with no interruptions, no apparent dangers, and a lively wind of motivation to keep us sailing in stride with nothing out ahead of us but an ocean of potential. 

Neglecting compassionate self-care can
create slow, mental and emotional "leaks"
that can eventually sink me.
In these wonderful times, though, there is the risk that we can become complacent with our success, and relax to the point of contented idleness; if we don’t remain vigilant, misfortune can occur, whether by our own neglect, or the natural forces of the ocean of life. Sometimes we cannot maneuver out of the path of a hidden, treacherous reef, or sometimes we slacken our maintenance duties by not caring for ourselves, and our ship can weaken and spring slow leaks that threaten our success. 

This has been the pattern in my own life: If I sense for even a moment that my ship—representing my present or sometimes perpetual situation in life—has even the smallest risk of a leak, I am much more compelled to dive overboard to avoid perishing with a sinking ship, rather than trying discover the issue (if there really is one), and then work to repair it. Certainly getting a little bit uncomfortably wet to repair a small leak in my vessel and ensuring its continued buoyancy and efficiency is much better than treading water in the middle of the pulsing ocean, far from my destination shore.

But I don’t usually think about that in the moment; all I am thinking about is avoiding the hurt, pain, distress, increased anxiety, and hard work of being a good Captain and meeting head on the responsibilities of sailing my ship on to the next port. I figure if I can detach myself from what seems to be the problem (even if that means utterly abandoning the well-being of my ship), I can be free from the guilt and shame of knowing that I have neglected my vessel and been a poor sailor. Obviously, this causes more problems for me that I may not have encountered had I just stayed aboard, taken a deep breath, and problem-solved a little. 

Sometimes in my life, after I have already forsaken my vessel, there will later come a sudden sense of panic and a rush to action as I realize that I only have one ship, and that I am not going see the safety of the shore again without it. I see that even though jumping over the rail was an easy task, bringing an instant feeling of relief, the stretch of water is endless around me (as life goes on without me), and I see the greater despair of my hasty choice.

Being a good Captain of my own life is a
conscious choice I have to commit to every 
single day, and it still isn't easy for me.
In those moments, I often find a shred of courage before it’s too late, as I float regretfully in the sea with still no plan, and no better solutions than I had before I jumped. Before my ship is about to crash into the craggy rocks of a harsh, uncharted shore, I swim back—close enough to seize a dangling ladder and pull myself aboard my aimless and neglected ship to recover it just in time. I am able to steer it away from disaster, even heroically and brilliantly stopping the leak, while living to tell the tale another day. 

That means jumping out of bed just in time to get ready for the day ahead; running into class and finding a seat just as the teacher begins; rushing into work a little bit late, but nonetheless present and accounted for; showing up fashionably late to a gathering, but smiling cheerfully knowing that I saved the day (literally).

These are the real-life waves—the back and forth motions—of living with major depressive disorder (MDD) and anxiety. It’s like an indecisive fight with my body and mind in deciding how much I want to “adult” each day, and then convincing myself, exhaustingly, to take that first, reluctant step in my day, my week, or whatever task is at hand (again, usually a work shift, a class, an appointment, plans to spend time with someone, homework, or big school projects like papers—all the responsibilities I presently have in my life).

I once saw it represented in an internet cartoon that anxiety is the creature upon its feet that is pushing us to the next needless task in an effort to feel busy and productive, while depression is at the same time tugging at our wrists from a comfortably-resigned spot on the ground, convincing us not to bother, insisting that any efforts we put in won’t matter anyway. Having anxiety and depression, I relate to that tug-of-war so much. I had never really put an image to the push-and-pull that I have felt for a great deal of my life.

The waters of mortality can be tumultuous and unpredictable;
when compounded with the waves of my mental illnesses, the
success of my journey is often threatened.
Being entrusted with such a priceless vessel on this mortal ocean is a blessing; no doubt, though, for many, it can feel like a curse. We prepared for untold eons to be Captains of our ships, but there was no way to know what exactly sailing would be like until we launched out from our ports. It’s interesting to me that when I experience true joy in life, this journey is the greatest experience I can imagine, and I never want it to end; but when I am anxious and depressed, I feel trapped on the waves in the middle of nowhere, wishing that could just sink into destruction.

This past year, I’ve experienced these vastly contrasting emotions a lot, alternating back and forth depending on my choice each day of whether to fire the gun at the wall, or to unload the ammunition and tear down the obstacles to my happiness. It seems like such a simple choice; believe me, I realize that! But it’s not for me; it’s the most difficult decision I make literally every single day. That choice determines my mood for days, weeks, and months at a time, if I consistently choose the bricks and mortar, and the gun. My happiness deteriorates with each anxiously-avoidant behavior I engage in, and it is very hard to build it back up, even when I am doing well, because I am a huge perfectionist who criticizes himself a great deal.

When I use maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with normal daily stresses—whether in smooth sailing or mountainous upheavals—even a small hole can sink a great ship with time and deliberate neglect. We can ignore it, certainly, and sail on; and I certainly try to do that often. But eventually a small issue can become (or at least sometimes feel like) our doom. I often notice these leaks myself, but I let them go. Practicing self-compassion and taking time for me has been an important thing for me to learn and consistently practice. 

Using sleep to avoid my fears and anxiety sets a course for
destruction; these emotional wrecks leave me feeling hopeless,
helpless, and alone.

There are times when I am doing well with my “sleeping issues,” comparatively, but I notice other things going awry—not eating well, giving in to bad moral habits, unwise spending as I reward myself for good behavior. Afraid to disrupt my good sailing fortune, I hide away in my Captain’s quarters thinking that if I ignore the present needs of my ship, they might just go away. After all, who wants to risk doing more work than necessary when the weather is agreeable? I suppose I feel that if my biggest challenge in life is under better control for a time, I can indulge in more of the things that I don’t get to do when my challenges hinder my participation in them.

Sailing our ships can be a breeze in fair weather. But when the waters of reality become turbulent once again, it’s easy to lose our direction, even if it’s just a brief departure from our goal. And it’s then, when I know I’ve gotten a bit off course, that I feel all is lost. Serendipity and grace fly right out the window, and suddenly all is for naught. “If my course cannot be perfect,” I criticize myself, “then I no longer want to sail this ship.” Being a Captain is no longer appealing, and my grand ship becomes a creaky, waterlogged burden.

Deliberate choices and purposeful actions every day contribute
more to my mental wellness than anything else; peace and
reassurance come from knowing that I can persevere. 
Being a perfect sailor is not necessary; we only need to stay afloat long enough for our sea trials to come to an end when we reach our destination. On the open sea, a Captain can do little about the whirlwinds. But as a Captain I can develop the knowledge and skills to navigate through the storms and learn by my own experience how to not just survive, but to flourish.  Thomas S. Monson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), has counseled that to live an abundant life, it is wise to remember that “we can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails (“Living the Abundant Life,” Ensign, Jan. 2012).

I also am learning that preparation is the best way to make the best choices. For me, that sometimes means having my clothes laid out and my backpack ready the night before in case I sleep in too late; this helps alleviate the fight-or-flight panic of whether I can make it to my destination on time. It also means getting homework done early and staying ahead of the reading and assignments so that I’m not up late racing deadlines, and can go to bed earlier to ensure better rest. 

Why build a taut ship unless you know that there is a risk of foundering on the sometimes-tumultuous seas? I spoke earlier of luck being my only savior in whether or not I actually get out of bed and go on with life each day. It’s true, I sometimes leave it up to fate whether I will succeed or fail, which is unfortunate. I suppose that’s one reason why I often feel like God is not answering my prayers for help—because I’m expecting results and solutions without any effort or forethought. Perhaps what I see as luck in these circumstances is the combination of divine support, faith, and eight or more hours of sleep. Or, perhaps Oprah Winfrey was closer to reality when she stated, “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.”

When I am mentally drowning, Jesus is my rescue.
("The Hand of God" by Yongsung Kim;
Copyright © by the Artist & Foundation Arts)
After all of these lengthy details, I am happy to report that I am feeling better about being the Captain of my ship after a long and difficult year. Last I saw my therapist, he asked me what feels different now, and why I feel more confident in myself. As I searched my feelings, I expressed to him that I feel I am more keenly aware that I am the agent of my own life. I choose my behaviors (Tourette's aside), and therefore I also choose my own consequences. 

What feels different is that the sky above me has seemed to clear, and I can see more clearly my responsibility to myself to care for my own mental health rather than conceding to the status quo and asking for God to save me in my troubles. Certainly, that is not to say that we are not to ask for divine support; that is another thing with which I am getting reacquainted—leaving my troubles at the feet of the Savior, “after all [I] can do,” and letting Him make up for the rest (2 Nephi 25:23).

Since school began again August 21st, I have been implementing this new focus on being in charge of my mental health, and I have seen considerable progress. A few times I have overslept, but not on days when I had to be anywhere (thank goodness), and I was gentler with my feelings after waking and actively encouraged myself to let it go, and do better next time. And the next time I had a day off, I did do better. I’ve been keeping appointments; I’ve been attending my classes and going to my work shifts, and I’ve enjoyed tremendously spending time with my closest friends and my family more regularly.

I guess I could say that I’ve finally put that emotional firearm away; I’m becoming less skilled in building solid walls around myself, and getting better at destroying them if I do. And like “our Captain of Old,” the Lord Jesus Christ ("Ye Elders of Israel," LDS Hymns, #319), I have accepted my life and mission on the oceans of mortality, have magnified my abilities and talents, and become an active contributor to my own destiny and future. “For it became Him,” said Paul to the Hebrews, “for Whom are all things, and by Whom are all things, in bringing many sons [and daughters] unto glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (Hebrews 2:10).

I intend to carry on and fulfill my purpose on the earth, and to do it honorably; to inspire and help others along the way, and look forward to that glorious homecoming when I reach my final berth—even though I know the journey will not always be smooth sailing.

"I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning to sail my ship."
~ Louisa May Alcott, American Novelist & Poet (1832 - 1888) ~
(From the 1868 classic "Little Women")