Editor’s Note: This post deals with the theme of abuse and how it warps a person’s sense of self and ability to learn lessons the same way as other people. Because of the hardships Sonja faced early in life, she struggled to comprehend things in the way that was likely intended. For instance, when her leaders taught that no unclean thing could dwell in God’s presence, rather than learning about repentance, Sonja absorbed the lesson that she was that unclean thing and should be condemned. In the journey of life, she has come to realize that everyone learns lessons differently and that two people may hear the same church lesson two totally different ways, affecting their behavior. This, along with future posts, is the story of how Sonja learned to accept who she was and understand God’s love for her.
I believe I chose the stage of my lessons. Not only did I choose the stage and exactly which lessons I wanted to learn, but perhaps I even selected the cast of characters to assist me in playing out my (trauma) drama in this laboratory for learning called life.
In this initial place of awareness, (the pre-mortal life) I was totally immersed in unconditional love and light. When I entered the stage of mortality, I would find a world of darkness, fear, and chaos. The toughest adversarial roles in my drama would be portrayed by my dearest friends who loved me enough to challenge me to forget this was only a drama, an elaborate illusion that would allow me to create the opportunity to learn. They would “play their part” so convincingly, I would believe the drama was true.
An essential ingredient of this drama was that, once on the stage, I would have a veil of forgetfulness drawn across my awareness. Even though the illusion of the drama would cause me to forget what transpired before I stepped onto the stage, I sensed I was born to win and my faith told me I would succeed. I was endowed with the strength of spirit to discover how to allow that to happen.
Setting the Stage
The first stage of my lessons was a family system totally devoid of any understanding of personal boundaries which led to physical, emotional, and mental abuse; a sense of abandonment; and a total collapse of trust. I would spend many years in and out of foster care and would eventually return to the home of my father where I would be enculturated into the regimented lifestyle of the Church.
One of my earliest memory as a young child was going to Primary meetings at the church. I remember the pretty ladies with soft voices and smiles who welcomed us and told us what wonderful boys and girls we were. This made a powerful impact on my impressionable mind since I had not previously been exposed to such encouragement.
Then followed the years of confusion spent in foster homes and being transplanted from parents to grandparents, back to parents, and on to more foster homes. It all went by in a blur as I dissociated from the pain of environments devoid of adults with any child-rearing skills. It wasn’t until I went to live with my father and stepmother in a small southwestern Idaho farm town at the age of fourteen that I once again came under the influence of learning within the environment of the Church.
Due to the previous impact of my brief childhood experience in Primary, I was prepared to completely absorb the influences which shaped my thinking about God and His expectations of me as I attended weekly meetings at church and daily seminary classes. My childlike faith told me I would be safe here. I developed an extraordinary sense of unquestioning acceptance of the “priesthood of God” and, although I didn’t understand exactly what it was, I was absolutely certain it was something very important and very holy, and if you ever dishonored it, you would burn in hell forever!
I slowly began to gain an understanding of the doctrines as well as the history of the church. I accepted it with an open mind and quickly assimilated as much as I could into the culture from which I was determined to learn. I sensed learning was happening here and I was eager to participate!
I gradually acquired an understanding of the term “an opposition in all things” as I drew comparisons between good and bad, clean and unclean, righteous and unrighteous, acceptable and unacceptable. I learned the importance of strong families, forever marriages, missions, education, spirituality, obedience, and purity — especially obedience and purity!
Am I Unclean?
In every lesson, in every speech, these values were emphasized over and over. I experienced a curious combination of feelings ranging from excitement to discomfort. These well-meaning people had no idea how I was perceiving their glowing account of how families could be together forever in a pure and righteous place. I knew my home environment was very different from the one I was learning about and associating with. Instead of feeling happy, I felt like a misfit!
There may have been many caring people who would have tried to ease my growing anxiety if I had only known how to express it. They had no idea what I was doing with the information I was receiving. All I knew was that every time I heard the phrase “no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom,” I was convinced they were talking about me. I didn’t know enough to realize my perception was distorted, that I was working with a “flawed instrument.” I didn’t know exactly why I was unclean, but I felt certain I was. How could anyone else have known the fear, anger, and self-condemnation that was growing inside of me?
Ironically, I never thought myself as “unclean” until I started to learn about God. The very truths that were designed to set me free were binding me tighter and tighter. I continued to attend church and associate with the people. I persisted in learning everything I could. Yet all the while, I was silently gathering ammunition for inflicting the torment of self-judgment.
As I learned the importance of “being the best you could be,” I kept discovering all the ways I fell short of that which was “acceptable to the Lord.” There was so much emphasis on the way we should be that I totally missed learning about compassion for the fact that I came from an environment of betrayal of trust. Sure, I was taught to trust in God, and I could even spell the word, but I didn’t have the first clue what trust felt like or where to find it!
It is not my intention to infer that the teachers and leaders were to blame for my dilemma. I’m sure they were well-intentioned and caring as they carried out their sacred stewardship of teaching “correct principles.” There was no way they could have known how I was processing the information they were presenting. Paradoxically, the more effective their lessons were, the more exquisite was my pain as I increased self-condemnation.
Separating the Unclean Thing: Me
Finally, by the age of 17, I had successfully programmed myself to separate the “unclean thing” from the presence of the Lord. I completed the harsh self-assessment of my worth, pronounced judgment, and ceremoniously removed myself from the “holy place.” (Somewhere along the line, I never quite caught on to the concept of the miracle of forgiveness!)
I remained outside association with the Church for about 10 years until my children were beginning to attend grade school. I remembered enough of my former spiritual training to recall that I had an obligation to help my children learn about God, and I began taking them to church. Soon I was caught up in the activities and I was revisited by the feeling that it was a safe place to learn. I remember reading a verse in the Doctrine and Covenants that I had memorized when I was in seminary as a teenager (D&C 121:33-46). I started to cry as I realized I could still recite most of it verbatim after all these years.
Compulsive behaviors would take me into patterns of survival that would cause me many years of pain as I was determined to “fit” into this culture once more. It would take me many years and numerous experiences before I would come to peace with the knowledge that my worth was established by God before I was born and He had not changed His mind about me. I would come to understand I was not a bad person — I was an unskilled person. I finally understood I came here to acquire knowledge and gain wisdom from my experiences, NOT to paralyze myself with fear. This was not a quick or easy process.
I didn’t have any concept of how to learn in private — all my life lessons were learned in full view of others. Needless to say, I was the person who often sat alone in a crowd as though I had some sort of communicable disease that no one else wanted to catch. I continued to judge myself a misfit as I witnessed the embarrassment of others who observed me as I persisted in making mistakes and struggling to comply with a standard of behavior that I found nearly impossible to emotionally comprehend.
My life would move along uneventfully until I encountered another crisis and, once again, long-established survival mechanisms would kick in and I’d be off on another learning experience that would sometimes last for years. I just couldn’t seem to make the connection between my choices and the pain I was experiencing.
Because of their limited experience and skill in dealing with toxic behaviors, my church leaders simply didn’t understand the perception I was operating from, and I was too immersed in the pain to understand I was surviving in the only way I knew how. My intellectual understanding of the appropriate behavior was completely out of sync with my emotional capabilities. All I understood was that I was guilty and must be punished.
To me, “dysfunctional” describes the condition which exists when behavior is inconsistent with or inappropriate to the circumstances. It is compounded when that inappropriate behavior is seemingly sanctioned by the conspiracy of silence which surrounds the circumstances. When nobody verbally acknowledges the behavior as inappropriate, it allows unskilled people to assume the behavior is acceptable. This creates a cycle which is difficult to escape. I developed very effective coping mechanisms which allowed me to avoid truly learning for years.
Although I never again left activity in the church, I did go through a period of being disfellowshipped and eventually excommunicated as the leaders attempted to help me learn the importance of repentance and righteous living. Based on the level of skill they possessed, each leader performed their stewardship in teaching me the correct behavior. (It would take me years to comprehend that my “sins” were the natural consequences of the generational abuse and toxicity in my family DNA.)
Who could fault the church community for getting discouraged with me as I persisted in wandering off the straight and narrow path? Regardless of the recurring cycle in my behavior, something inside me insisted on continuing to associate with those who were openly uncomfortable with my behavior. Running away from their rejection would have been so easy, but I refused to go away. I truly believed I had a right to be there. I had a right to learn and it didn’t matter to me if I was an embarrassment to others. In many ways, it was kind of a bonus that others might feel uncomfortable too! (I shouldn’t be the only uncomfortable one here!)
Fine-Tuning My Censoring Skills
Once I was excommunicated. I finally was able to cut myself a little slack. After all, now it was a matter of public knowledge that I was “unworthy.” I had already emotionally executed myself. I was now able to turn my finely-tuned censoring skills outward.
I became the self-appointed monitor of everyone else’s behavior. Besides, I was the best qualified for the job. I was now ready to establish the First Self-Righteous Church. I was a congregation of one, held regular meetings, and I loved to stand in the “AMEN” corner! Excommunicated members are not allowed to hold any callings in the Church, so I decided that I would create my own calling. After all, some are called to “comfort the afflicted” — so my self-appointed calling was to “afflict the comfortable,” and I never missed an opportunity to magnify myself in my own eyes! (I really hope the day comes when I can apologize to those sweet souls whom I afflicted.)
I was filled with resentment and I was determined I wasn’t going to be the only one to learn something. After all, they claimed they were striving to learn unconditional love… I was simply giving them that opportunity, wasn’t I? My anger took many forms as I displayed my emotional wounds and took advantage of every opportunity to shock people with my uninhibited verbal abilities regarding the lesson I was currently learning. I was in pain and by golly, SOMEBODY was going to pay!
Consequently, even after I was rebaptized and still had not processed all this anger, I was rarely asked to speak in meetings or teach a class because no one ever knew what I’d say next. I was a loose cannon, apt to fire at any moment and leave an entire congregation wondering what hit them! With that restriction, I was forced to perfect my one-on-one strategy. I embarked on my own “holy crusade.” DOWN with the infidel!
I recognized I was in a position of power and words were the weapons I wielded with skill and precision. I was finally in control of something, and it was a very powerful feeling.
My rapidly-developing intellect provided me with a keen awareness of the effect of my toxic verbal assaults far in advance of gaining the wisdom of self-mastery. I evolved from being a loose cannon to being a laser beam with pinpoint accuracy. This distorted sense of power would plague me for many years. I eventually learned that you exercise great power when you find ways of not using it.
The following is a poem written by Sonja on September 24, 1991.
What do you do with unexpressed anger?
You can’t paint it
You can’t wash it
You can’t put it on a diet
You can’t reason with it
You can’t threaten it
You can’t spank it
So, what can you do with unexpressed anger?
You can give it a job where you work
You can take it on vacation
You can invite it to your bed
It hangs heavy in your heart.
You can pass it on to your children
You can drag it around like a security blanket
You can weave it into the fabric of your life
It’s a time bomb waiting to explode.
You can lock it up inside
You can use it as a wedge between you and anyone else
You can use it to justify loneliness and inadequacy
It supports any lie which serves you.
After you’ve explored all the possibilities…
What can you do with unexpressed anger?
Let it go!
Sonja lives with her husband, Dale, on Anderson Island, Washington. She and her husband are Church Service Missionaries serving in the Addiction Recovery Program, focusing on pornography and sex addiction. She is also a certified life coach and teaches "Life Skills for Emotional Self-Mastery" in her stake twice a month. She does not teach you only to process something traumatic done to you in the past; rather, she helps you learn to feel it, heal it, and LET GO of whatever you still do to yourself and to others in order to cope with what was done to you in the past.