Just Breathe

by Thomas Memmott

You may not know me, but I’d wager that we have something in common. I bet there has been a time in your life when you have had to fight to discover something about yourself. Maybe the conflict was with another person. Maybe it was a disease or medical condition. Maybe it was a philosophy, thought process, or idea. Maybe it was with yourself. My most recent battle for self-discovery falls into that last category.

To better understand where I’m coming from, maybe you should know that I grew up in a large, conservative, Mormon (aka LDS) family. Now, when I say large, I mean thirteen siblings large. My mom died of complications from breast cancer when I was fifteen. Two years later, my dad remarried. My step-mom also has thirteen kids. It’s a mess, but we make do.

Anyways, if you know something about Mormon culture, you probably have heard of the young men and women who serve as missionaries. I was a missionary in Brazil from 2005-2007. When I got home from my mission, I started thinking towards my future. In my post-mission mind, worthwhile career options needed to be in service to the LDS church. I attribute this to the fact that my dad worked for the church during his entire career. In case you don’t know, Mormon ministers aren’t paid for their services to the church. I say that because my dad wasn’t a minister. He was an accountant. He was a recorder/assistant recorder in various temples throughout Utah. Mostly, he was a record keeper. He also worked for a few years as a temple auditor. What boy doesn’t want to grow up to be like his awesome dad? I was no exception. My dad sacrificed for the church. I figured that is what a good LDS man does. He dedicates his whole life and soul to the church.

I knew that I wasn’t cut from the same cloth as my father in regards to accounting (three years as an accounts receivable rep taught me that much), so I knew I would need to be a little more creative with my career options. As I searched for the degree that would allow me to work for the church, I studied drafting (so I could design chapels and temples), landscape architecture (so I could design landscapes for chapels and temples), and education (so I could teach religious courses to teenagers or young adults). None of my degree choices really led me anywhere.

After another frustrating attempt to make it through a whole semester, I took my concerns to my dad. I felt like every time I tried to make a decision with the LDS church in mind, it just didn’t work out. Now, the church wasn’t the reason for my failings. During that period of investigation, it seemed that I either had to drop classes because of work or I would fail my classes because of work. Then, in an ironic punch to the gut, I lost my job. Dad asked me what I wanted to do. He didn’t ask me what I wanted to do for the LDS church, he just asked me what I wanted to do. I had not dared think of that before. The best priesthood holder works for the church. That is what Dad did. That is what I would do. I had to. I had to be the best priesthood holder. All or nothing.

That night, I told my dad that I wanted to be a teacher.

“I think you would be a great teacher. What would you like to teach?”

I wasn’t expecting that response from him, and I couldn’t have anticipated my response. “I want to teach English. Like writing and stuff.”

“Well, why don’t you do that?”

I couldn’t think of a reason not to, so the next day I changed my major.

During the summer semester of 2011, I signed up for two classes that changed my life. One class was my first literary theory class. My professor was Dr. Christina Albrecht-Crane. She taught me that there are multiples ways to interpret a text. She taught me about deconstruction, poststructuralism, new historicism, Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, and queer theory. Most importantly, she taught me that language is arbitrary. Language is subjective. Language is not concrete. Love means something different to each person. Family means something different to each person. Courage means something different to each person. I had never considered that before, but the fluidity of language became very important to me as I continued my education.

The second class that I signed up for was intro to creative writing. My professor was Dr. Julie Nichols. She reminded me about the power of writing every day. I kept a writing journal that summer. It was the first time that I had written every day since my mission. I didn’t write anything amazing. I didn’t change the world with my writing. However, I did change my world.

Both these professors changed my life in a profound way—they both told me that I would make an excellent professor.

Now, things are going to get very personal here. Even after consistently writing for two years, vulnerability in writing is not something that comes easily, so please be patient with me. I believed I was an addict when I was twelve years old. That’s at the same age that young Mormon boys receive the priesthood. At ages fourteen and sixteen, worthy boys can advance in the priesthood. I would get my “little problem” under control right before my priesthood advancement interviews with my bishop so that I could honestly answer all his questions. I didn’t want to raise eyebrows. I really got it under control before my mission. I didn’t have any relapses during my mission. When I got home, I thought I was cured. Four months later, I knew that wasn’t the case. The old cycles started back up. I had failed. My faith wasn’t strong enough. I was too broken to be fixed. I tried to push that voice away. Sometimes I was successful. Sometimes I wasn’t.

A year after I changed my major to English, I started looking at graduate programs. A fear, the same fear that has always been there, slithered back into my mind. I knew that I would fail if I attempted grad school without getting a handle on my addiction to pornography. The goal to become a professor, the goal that I had been working towards faithfully for a year, seemed impossible. So, I finally did what some of my family members been begging me to do for years—I went to a therapist.

Scott is a really nice guy. He never judged me. He never told me that I knew better. He never told me that I was sinning. He never told me that if I didn’t change then I would never see Mom again. However, he did tell me that all addictions manage emotions. He asked me to make a list of everything that makes me wrong. Well those are my words; he didn’t say it that way. He told me to list what hurts, what causes pain. I won’t give you the whole list, but the big hitters were:

People say they love me, but they wouldn’t be able to even look at me if they really knew me.

I lost my mom to cancer.

I lost my dad to his new family.

Scott’s response: “It seems that most of your pain comes from loss and a lack of self-worth.” We tackled self-worth first. He listened. He empathized. He smiled. We worked for the better part of the summer, but then school started back up. I was busy. Too busy. No time for therapy. One thing that I had heard about seeing a shrink is that it gets worse before it gets better. Well, the summer had left me feeling better, so maybe the worst had already passed.

During the Fall 2012 semester, I was drowning. My professors knew it. My boss knew it. My advisor knew it. I didn’t know it. I had a handle on things. When I failed my mid-term paper on the angels in Rilke’s Duino Elegies, I accepted that I wasn’t doing as well as I had been pretending. Sometime in October, I went back to see Scott.

We didn’t pick back up where we had started. For some reason, he kept trying to get me to open up more. I was convinced that I was being honest. I just needed some strategies to get me through the semester. Other than that, things were ok.

Sometimes, having too much time to yourself is a bad thing. Like over Thanksgiving break. I didn’t realize how depressed I was until my brother-in-law, as I was getting ready to leave after Thanksgiving dinner, asked me, “Are you ok?” I mumbled in the affirmative and left.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I played League of Legends on my computer. I listened to “View from Heaven” by Yellowcard, which usually brought me to cathartic tears. No tears came. I watched Merlin on Netflix. It was 8 AM, but I still wasn’t tired. Well, I was tired. Hell, I was exhausted. But I knew that if I didn’t keep myself distracted, something bad would happen. I would have to answer the questions that I had been avoiding, the suppressed feelings that Scott had begun to see.

At 9 AM, I figured that I was exhausted enough to just fall asleep. I curled up under the covers. The emotional pain shattered my core like a battering ram. I felt like I was on the roof of forty-story building. The ceiling fell away, and I tumbled through the air. The next floor should have broken my fall, but that floor disappeared as well. Forty stories down. There was no relief. All my strength was depleted.

I have never hurt like that before. Not even when Mom died. Not even when I almost severed my hand. This was something different. I begged my body to let me sleep. If I didn’t fall asleep, then I would be forced to kill the pain. I would do whatever it took. The pain had to stop. Sleep finally provided solace.

The main reason that I self-medicated through pornography is because the strongest emotion in my life is shame. Dr. Brené Brown, a social worker who has conducted extensive research on shame and vulnerability, delineates the difference between guilt and shame: “Guilt is I do wrong; shame is I am wrong.” No one could have convinced me that I wasn’t wrong. That I wasn’t broken beyond repair. That I wasn’t disgusting. That I wasn’t perverted. That I wasn’t the one exception to God’s forgiveness and unconditional love.

Now, I’m not talking about pornography. I’m not talking about masturbation. I’m talking about language. Language is powerful, especially the words that an individual uses to describe him or herself. I use lots of words to describe myself: geek, gamer, writer, musician, brother, son, and uncle. However, there was one word that was so disturbing that I spent over twenty years of my life building up a wall to keep it out. Over Thanksgiving break, that wall broke. The dam burst. The flood left me scathed and bleeding. I couldn’t handle this word. One little word.

The semester started back up in January. I had survived Christmas break. One of my Spring semester classes was advanced nonfiction. The first assignment was to write a fifteen page essay. Whenever I write nonfiction, I tend to stay focused on my life. It’s just easier tonot fictionalize things that I’ve experienced. If I write about someone else, I’m bound to make something up, like throw a dragon in there or something. Anyways, I’m stalling. I almost didn’t go to class the day that my essay was scheduled for workshopping. It was too much. But, I went. I looked at my classmates’ faces, knowing they all knew the horrible inner workings of my life. They knew the secret that I had kept from everyone, including myself, since I was four years old. As I scanned their faces, there were no signs of disgust. No signs of resentment. No disappointment. Well, of all the places to have a nervous breakdown, UVU apparently isn’t half-bad.

The conflict of my essay was self-denial. The major conflict came to its climax on page ten. It all boils down to one sentence: I can’t be Mormon anymore because I’m gay.

Over the past five months, I’ve had to restructure my entire life in an attempt to discover a way to reconcile two binary opposites: Mormonism and homosexuality. Now, outside Mormondom, being gay does not immediately sequester me to a life of solitary confinement. Sure, as a gay Mormon, I can have friends, and I know I can always count on my family. But I will never have my family. That hurts. It hurts to know that I can never marry the person that I will fall in love with. Sure, I could try and make things work with a woman, but I feel that would be dishonest. Not everyone feels that way. Some homosexuals have found a way to find peace in a mixed orientation marriage. I’m not one of those. In my study of language and my search for self-worth, I’ve lost my faith.

So, what now? That seems the big question for me. Do I pretend like none of this ever happened and just dive back into the Mormon faith? Do I stay on the margins of my family’s religion? Do I turn to God, even though I doubt if He is even there? Do I turn inward? Do I start dating men? Do I turn to random Craig’s List hookups?

Ultimately, my path has led me to an open meadow. A mountain lays ahead. There are no well worn paths to tread. There are no trail markers. There are no guides. But I feel an ineffable need to climb the mountain. Do I sprint towards the peak? Do I look for shelter? Do I find a source of water? Do I search for rattlesnakes? Right now, I don’t need to do any of that. Right now, I just breathe deeply and take a single step towards the mountain.

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