Note: This becomes very personal, and you’re going to learn a lot about me, but I feel certain details of my life can now offer light to others. And that, after all, is the point.
38 Now the man out of whom the devils were departed besought him that he might be with him: but Jesus sent him away, saying,
39 Return to thine own house, and shew how great things God hath done unto thee. And he went his way, and published throughout the whole city how great things Jesus had done unto him.
There is only one future ahead of us: the future we choose, one choice at a time. There might seem to be other futures, of course, possible but non-existent; they do not exist literally and I don’t believe we will ever know them. This is why our choices are so important in this life—this is the only chance we get to make them before they’re burned into our Book of Life.
But the Atonement can change the ending of that book, for God is a master novelist. With his majesty and mercy, He can weave, out of a story plagued by failures and doubts, losses and regrets, a happy ending. True are the words of the hymn, “Thy best, thy heavenly friend, through thorny paths, leads to a joyful end.” Such He did with my story.
My dark times began with brief flirtations with pornography in my early teens. It was driven by one simple thing: curiosity. How much other sin occurs in our lives, and especially in the lives of our young people, from that feeling of curiosity alone! Over several years, bit by bit, it locked me in its clutches, and I became addicted. My agency had been taken away, or rather, I had let it be taken away.
Everything you’ve heard from other addicts’ stories is true. Unbearable guilt soaked my mind constantly. Guilt coupled with fear. Of course no one could know what I was struggling with. Not peers, not parents, not priesthood leaders. What shame would it be for others to know! It was something I had to deal with on my own. But of course I had no idea how to do that. It attacked again and again and again, more and more frequently as I got older, and though I knew it was wrong, and told myself I’d never do it again, that it was a stupid, stupid problem, and how could I ever indulge in it again, it continued, and the guilt and fear mounted. They were so great that I avoided my annual priesthood interview one year by taking sleeping pills so I’d be asleep at the time appointed for the interview. I was able to get out of that one, but the next year I was caught by surprise and ushered in from a mutual activity to the interview to advance in the priesthood. It was finally there that I confessed to a bishop, simply because there was no way out of it but lying, and while I would avoid telling the truth if I could, I would never tell someone a direct lie, and certainly not a bishop.
But that confession didn’t fix anything. In fact, now that I had been specifically told not to take the sacrament, I started staying home from church to avoid the public shame. I stayed away from other social events, too, and became isolated. Loneliness became my game, touched with shame whenever I saw my peers. So I just stayed away.
But despite my inactivity, I never stopped believing. I never turned fully away from God to embrace my sin and go off on my own track. I never accepted my behavior as harmless or normal. I knew exactly where my soul was: in darkness. I just didn’t know how to find the light. Scared of what it would take. Certain it was not possible.
Around the time this problem came up in my life, clinical and chemical depression also emerged. My family has a long history of this emotional frailty, and it is no surprise it appeared at the time it did. I had also been gaining a lot of weight, and being a biological late bloomer did not help with my self-image. My spiritual load thus mixed with my fragile emotional state to create a near impenetrable sense of self-hatred. I felt myself so worthy of disgust and loathing that I was even ashamed to merely be in the presence of a girl, let alone talk to one or look one in the face. I didn’t deserve it. I was beneath them. Beneath everyone, yes, but especially girls. Fat, unattractive, unworthy and in all ways repulsive, especially to myself.
During this time, I discovered that Hell for me was, and is, comparisons. Comparing my own self and situation with those around me (or at least the surface image of their lives) destroyed me. It still does from time to time. I would look at everyone else, how successful they were, how those guys had to shave, could talk to girls without looking away, could garner their attention without even being present, and could not only take but administer the sacrament, and be examples, and go on missions, and I would hate myself all the more. They were the right kind of priesthood holder. They were good in the sight of God. They were men. The way I wasn’t.
The most embarrassing and shameful moment of my life came in a Sunday School class when I was around sixteen. The teacher, for reasons I still cannot even fathom, addressed each of the males in the class in turn and asked what office of the priesthood we were. So there, before all of my peers, including the Laurels, I had to let out that at sixteen I wasn’t a priest, but still a teacher in the Aaronic priesthood. The implication that I wasn’t worthy to advance was left hanging solidly in the air. They all got to know, by inference, that I was addicted to pornography, or something like it. I have trouble to this day forgiving that teacher.
For my senior project in high school I wrote my first novel. Its purpose was penance. A character in the story suffered from a similar compulsion, and he overcomes it in the end. As a whole it is a story of symbols, meant as a message, or rather a warning, a cautionary tale to society of the problems of sexual and pornographic indulgence, of living without rules or religion and doing whatever one wants to do. I knew how dark and deep I was, and I wanted to tell the world the true consequences to such choices, such attitudes. I wanted to warn others away from the path I took.
That was the extent to which I knew what I was doing was wrong, and how much I wanted to repent. I just didn’t know how to. It is a curious and demolishing aspect of chemical depression that it has the power to make it impossible to feel the Spirit, to render one spiritually dead, cut off from the Lord. I felt that way for six years: alone. In every way.
But I have discovered in the years since that we never truly are. Christ knew what I was going through. He knows what you, all of you, are going through, and what you’ve gone through. He knows the problems, and more importantly He knows the symptoms of the problems, and so is uniquely qualified to answer your, our, prayers. Remember: Christ, too, suffered solitude; He, too, was alone, or at least He felt alone. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said the following in his beautiful April 2009 General Conference address: “…that the supreme sacrifice of His Son might be as complete as it was voluntary and solitary, the Father briefly withdrew from Jesus the comfort of His Spirit, the support of His personal presence. It was required, indeed it was central to the significance of the Atonement, that this perfect Son who had never spoken ill nor done wrong nor touched an unclean thing had to know how the rest of humankind—us, all of us—would feel when we did commit such sins. For His Atonement to be infinite and eternal, He had to feel what it was like to die not only physically but spiritually, to sense what it was like to have the divine Spirit withdraw, leaving one feeling totally, abjectly, hopelessly alone.”
That is what those of us struggling with the powers of darkness must realize: that Christ has been in exactly our situation, and knows how to comfort us in whatever stupid thing we’ve done or whatever unfair thing has been inflicted on us (usually a combination of both).
Consider the symbolic nature of moonlight: though at night you can’t see the sun, you can almost always see the moon, shining. And then remember that the light of the moon is actually sunlight, reflected off the moon’s surface, proof of the sun’s continued existence. Like the sun, God is always there, even if can’t see Him, or even His hand, directly.
But how difficult it is to internalize that truth! Partly because of the untreated depression, partly because of my spiritual state, I considered suicide, and often. But never seriously. I wanted the pain to go away, the loneliness, the sin, the repeated attacks from the unbalanced chemistry of my brain, that was all. Three things kept me from ever attempting suicide: one, I knew, knew that God was there, and I wasn’t supposed to do that; two, it would break my parents’ heart forever; and three, it would leave my pet cat, my Keyta, alone and friendless. If you’ve read Chapter Four you know my Keyta was like an angel to me, sent into my life at almost the exact same time these dark times began. She was a near-constant presence of comfort through every crashing wave. You might remember that later in my life, when I was ready to move out and begin a life away from home, she disappeared suddenly, and I never saw her again. I know that God took her home to Him because I no longer needed her and it was time for me to find a higher companion, my eternal companion. I have no doubt that that cat will be among the first to greet me when I pass into the next life. It was all a part of the plan.
I testify that God has a plan for all of us. He had a plan for me. As a master novelist, He knows the end from the beginning. Elder Neal A. Maxwell reminded us often that having faith in God means having faith in God’s timing. And there was indeed a timing to all this, a plan and miracle God had been waiting for just the right time to provide—a “celestial clock” as one particular priesthood blessing called it. For six years I struggled and fought and failed and fell, again and again and again and again. A never-ending cycle, so it seemed. But there came a certain week in June where, all at once, Christ, through the powers of the Atonement, shattered the shackles with which I was bound, and set me free.
To be continued Thursday.