Monday, September 26, 2016

Preventing Suicide in the Mormon LGBT Community: My Story

Today I'm going to talk about suicide. It's a difficult topic for me. I hope I can add my voice to the conversation about what works and what doesn't work when addressing youth suicides or suicidal ideation in the Mormon LGBT community.

Today I opened my Facebook to learn that another gay Mormon youth had committed suicide. While the reasons for suicide are complex and go beyond being either gay or Mormon, the LGBT youth in the LDS church are at a high risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts. While no one knows exactly how many suicides have occurred in our community, this article is an excellent starting point for addressing the issue.

Nothing affects me quite like this. To know that someone out there was lonely enough to take their life. That someone out there did what I was contemplating doing.

I was asked recently what was different for me. Why if I was suicidal did I not take my life?

You should know that I've been close a few times. I've never attempted suicide. But I've made plans to kill myself and been close. Something inside me told me to reach out to friends. When they didn't answer, I ended up calling the suicide hotline (twice) to talk me down.

So I understand how it feels to be so desperate that you think about taking your life. To feel so alone that you don't know who to talk to or where to turn. To be so depressed that suicide seems like the only option.

When I was 17 I accepted for the first time that I was gay. I was a Boy Scout, a committed Mormon who had done nothing wrong. And yet I felt a tremendous guilt for being attracted to guys.I withdrew from everyone and became depressed. Suddenly I didn't know how I fit into God's plan of salvation. I was afraid if anyone knew I would be rejected.  I felt so alone, like there was nowhere to go. I became suicidal and started to plan to end my life. Each time I thought about suicide I remembered the scripture from Alma about the same spirit going on from this world to the next. Alma 34:34

34 Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.

That made it clear to me that I would be gay in the next life too. While not exactly comforting, Mormon doctrine, or my understanding of it at least, actually helped to prevent me from taking my life.

Still, I was very depressed. A lot was going on at this time. I was afraid of rejection from family, and from friends. I did end up coming out to a friend, and to teachers and the school counselor, especially since I had only applied to BYU and my parent's expected me to go there.

One day when I was really down, at the lowest point I'd ever been at, I remember praying. I prayed for help, for guidance.   I remember hearing in my head the words "It's ok to be gay."

I don't "know" for certain where that came from now. But something, be it God or the universe helped me and gave me the impression that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was ok just how I was.

I draw on this experience even now. It was so profound, so personal.

What this shows me is that there are tools we learn, as Mormons and as people, that can help us to overcome challenges. Some of these challenges are beyond the scope or understanding of most people. But I know the pain and suffering of feeling like there is no other option but to end your life.

There were a lot of things that happened at the time that furthered my isolation and depression, some of which were at hands of LDS bishops and therapists. My bishop told me that being gay could be cured, that it had to do with a problematic relationship with parents. Therapists told me the atonement would cure me of my homosexuality. Reading statements from church leaders condemning homosexuality (especially The Miracle of Forgiveness)  made things worse.

What did help was prayer, help from teachers and the school counselor, and realizing that not everything the church said was doctrine. I had to know for myself what was correct and true and not simply take things at face value. I had studied things out for myself, from both sides, and realized that being gay was ok.

I won't say that everything from thereon out was easy. You can read more about my experience in other blog posts but to sum it up, I got scared without support from my Mormon community and ended up back in the closet for 10 years. I found a fleeting acceptance through Evergreen International and Mormon therapists who told me it was just a phase and that I should try to develop feelings for the opposite sex. I ended up getting married (to a woman) only to fight against my feelings for 3 years before finally accepting that I was gay.  Even though I knew I was "Same-sex attracted" and told her as much, we thought God would help us make it work. I eventually remembered those feelings I had as a 17 year old and found the strength to accept myself as a gay man and come out. Part of this process was getting divorced. That was one of the hardest decisions I ever made, but one of the best decisions in the long run.

I struggled even after we separated with the decision. I had started to come out to family but questions lingered. Would my family ever accept me? Who could be there for me in the same way my wife had been? Should I go back to her? Would I stay a Mormon? Would I lose my testimony if I acted on my attractions?  I was stuck. I was stuck between being Mormon, being married, and being gay. While some people make this work, I couldn't. I called a suicide hotline and luckily they helped me realized I had options.  I didn't have to do or be anything I didn't want to be. I should just let myself explore.

That was harder than I thought. I opened a profile on Chemistry.com and started to talk to guys online. I went on one date and then went months without another. I cancelled on a guy just hours before our date and never heard from him again because I was so scared. I managed to go on a second date with the guy from months prior but he ended up being a jerk. Things were not going as planned. Shortly after, a few weeks before my divorce was final, I thought again about suicide. Had I made the right decision? How would I resolve my desire to be with a man with my Mormon faith?  Again, I felt stuck.  I thought for days of ways to end my life.

I ended up in the hospital when I told a friend and later the doctors and therapists that I was planning to end my life.  They asked if I had a plan, and I did. I'd thought through how I would not hurt anyone else, but stop being a burden to those around me and stop the suffering. Luckily, I found help. My friends rallied around me and visited me there.  My parents came to visit me. My siblings called me. As much help as everyone was, it was an internal struggle for acceptance that I needed to overcome. It was in the hospital that I realized my desire to please others would literally lead to my death. I needed to do what was right for me, and if I could do that I could survive. Leaving the hospital after a week was one of the hardest things I'd ever done, but I had friends around me who were there to listen. I am so blessed that I reached out to someone to tell them what was going on, and they came through in a big way. I started to recover my strength. I then went to the first Circling the Wagons conference and met both gay Mormons/postmormons and allies. I came out on Facebook and continued down the path of self-acceptance.

Where I ended up with my Mormon faith is the subject of a long and future post. It's something I've struggled to express and reconcile even now. But things have, as they say, gotten better. I was in a relationship with a wonderful guy for two years and even though it didn't work out, I learned a lot and I grew from it. Now I'm on the cusp of earning my doctorate. Life is good and people out there really can be wonderful if you surround yourself with the right people.

I know how lonely it can be to not feel like your community or even your own family will accept you. Don't give up. I never thought my parents would come around, but now even my parents accept me for who I am. One thing I didn't focus on enough is the people who were always there for me. In addition to self-acceptance and prayer, leaning on the people who really cared about me and loved and accepted me as is got me through my darkest times. If you reach out, you can find those people who will love you and help you and guide you. Trust the people who are kind to you and ignore the others. Listen to the still small voice within that tells you you are ok just as you are.

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