Abusive Relationships in the Book of Mormon, Love Him or Leave Him?

Nephi had some really awesome adventures. He was a man of action and he knew how to get stuff done. He got the scriptural records from their murderous cousin, he persuaded another family to join them in the wilderness, he made his own bow after his old one broke, he built a boat and crossed the ocean. It is not hard to understand why he is a favorite hero to many people. I remember wanting to be like Nephi when I was a young child. When I was a teenager, however, I felt like he let me down and betrayed me. He became an impossible standard that I couldn’t live up to, and I started to hate him for it. Mostly because of the way he dealt with his brothers.

Nephi’s brothers were abusive, and we really don’t say that enough. They beat him with a rod, they tied him up and wanted to abandon him to the beasts in the wilderness, they blamed him for their problems, they tied him to the mast of the ship, and in general were truly awful to him. Nephi would somehow escape—an angel would come and chastise Laman and Lemuel, the Lord would give him strength to break his bonds, family or friends would plead for him until Laman and Lemuel relented. And after every single one of these brutalities, Nephi would forgive them.

When I was 15, I was bullied and not in the off-hand way that is used by many nowadays. Before bullying became a buzz word, the only way I had to describe what this boy did was abuse. Mostly verbal, only in a few instances was it physical, but it was enough that I felt scared and I was emotionally and mentally beat up by this boy constantly. I wanted to be like my hero Nephi, I wanted to be saved. There were no angels, I felt no heavenly gift of strength to break the bonds, I didn’t even have friends and family that would stand up for me (except my mother, she was the only one that believed me). I thought maybe, if I tried to forgive more like Nephi, I could be stronger like Nephi. It never worked.

Every time we cover these chapters in Nephi, someone will bring up what a great example of forgiveness Nephi is, and I want to scream and pull my hair. Yes, Nephi’s brothers apologized, and he forgave them, but they didn’t stop. He just kept getting abused. When I was trying to stop the abuse, I felt that Nephi was a traitor telling me that I needed to forgive and keep going back to my abuser and if I couldn’t do it, I was simply too weak. It was my fault that I couldn’t handle the abuse. Maybe I’d be able to handle more abuse if God would send me something like he did Nephi, but then maybe he didn’t because I wasn’t as good as Nephi. And so, I ended up in a cycle of anger and despair at myself, Nephi, and God. For a long time, I refused to forgive because forgiveness left me open to more abuse. I held on to my pain because it was the only protection I seemed to have.

Years later, I started going back to church and reading scriptures again and I skipped through these chapters. Then I read the one where Nephi is told to leave his brothers. I felt the Spirit tell me, it’s ok to leave, to protect yourself. After this, I realized a better way to forgive and that protecting myself wasn’t going against God.

I don’t know why the Lord made Nephi stay with his brothers for so long. Maybe he protected Nephi as much as he did because he needed the family to stay together, and then, once it was feasible for Nephi to leave, the Lord told him to do so. I just wish that we would expand our discussion on forgiveness and recognize that you do not need to keep opening yourself up to abuse that is continual and ongoing.

Nephi is a good example of forgiveness, but not only when he stayed with his brothers. Even when they separated, he prayed for them and taught his people and they later sent missionaries over to the Lamanites. There is forgiveness in that too.

Forgiveness is hope. Hope can be many things and can be held in many different circumstances. You can hope that someone will get help even when you are not able to help them. You can forgive and protect.

A Personal Review of Depression

Lately, I’ve been thinking about all the different ways we can experience a depression and the different forms it can take. How difficult it can be to recognize a depression for what it is, even when you’re the one experiencing it. There are different ways to heal, different lessons to learn. For myself, I have had three, perhaps four, distinct bouts with depression, and they have taken on different forms. These are some of the things I’ve learned from my various depressions.

The first one was the worst. It came when I was 15, a fairly common time for mental health disorders to show up, but I wouldn’t say that it was purely genetic. There was a boy that I blamed my depression on because he began to bully and torment me when I was about 14. At first, I was angry at him and I told other people how much I hated him and how mean he was. But no one believed me. They told me I was the mean one. It took me years to understand how this happened, but he was saying things about me too, and they believed him over me.

After a while, I learned to keep my mouth shut. Trying to talk to people about it only got me in more trouble. They told me I was too sensitive, I needed to let it go. I was too naive, if I knew more about boys, I would understand. I was too selfish, I needed to think about things from his side and stop trying to pull him down. I started to believe them. I blamed myself for everything and I was stupid, worthless, and horrible.

By the time I was 15, I had bizarre physical pains in my stomach that did not have any diagnosable source that the multiple doctors I went to could find. But I was also severely depressed. I was sleeping all the time, refusing to leave the house, watching TV for hours, unable to read, but also obsessed with solving puzzles. I would also fantasize about dying and committing suicide.

To many people, I was still a selfish girl who wanted attention and my illness was not real. I just needed a firmer hand, some believed, a push out the door, and my mother was being too soft. My mother just wanted me happy again. She took me to a counselor and a psychologist and kept trying to help me. My medications and the counseling started to work. I did start feeling better and oddly enough, all of the pain and hatred I had for myself started to turn outward again. I blamed that boy and all the people that believed him instead of me.

From this depression, I learned several things. One, emotional pain will sometimes manifest itself physically because the body does not know how to interpret it or fix it. There is a connection between the physical and the emotional that cannot be denied though it’s also not entirely understood. Two, my mind and body shut down as much as possible when depressed. I need to be vigilant in noticing the warning signs of when I feel the desire to turn-off. Three, anger is felt on the way into and on the way out of a depression but is often not present during the darkest part of the depression. Because depression is often a desire to shut down, it is characterized by very low energy emotions—apathy, lack of focus, disconnection, despair—and anger is a high energy emotion which can be a good sign though it’s also important to not stay in anger for too long.

Unfortunately, the bullying and abuse that centered in this depression occurred largely at church. One of the best things I did when my depression was bad was to stop going to church, and one of the best things I did to complete my healing was to go back to church. When I was doing better, getting back to my angry self, my mother told me that if I thought there were bullies at church then there would be others that felt the same way. “Go look for them,” she said, “be with them, believe them, and they will be your friends.” She was right. The others I found that were being marginalized and bullied became some of my best friends. I also remembered the spiritual feelings I had when depressed (see “A promise of light” for one example) and realized that if I liked praying, reading scriptures, and going to church because they brought me the Spirit, I shouldn’t let someone else keep me from being where I wanted to be. If God wanted me at church, who were they to kick me out?

Anger carried me for quite a while, but it couldn’t fix everything. I went with a desire to be there and a fear that someone would notice I was an imposter. I tried to sit in some unnoticed corner, I had panic attacks, I spoke very little. I realized that I loved the Church, but I didn’t much care for other Mormons. It took a long time (not until the end of my mission truthfully) before I felt comfortable with other Mormons without fearing them.

My second depression came after my mother’s diagnosis with cancer. My fear of losing her and being alone was profound and I again started sleeping a great deal and wanting to watch TV. I went to counseling sooner and found a psychiatrist. I was able to keep up with my studies at school, but I didn’t attend church as much. Those at church that knew about my mother’s diagnosis were very nice and supportive, but I didn’t really let them help me much. I did have fabulous friends at school that helped me a lot. Lessons from this depression: don’t be afraid of medication and counseling, take it, the sooner you do the better it goes and let people help you, you are not a burden to your friends, they care enough to sit with you even when you’re sad.

I struggle to call this next one a third depression because it did not go to the extent that I needed counseling and medication, but it was difficult. I was with a companion as a missionary that I could not leave, we needed to be together all the time, and she had very exacting standards. I started to feel that I did everything wrong, that I was not good enough to be a missionary, I cried a lot, felt tired all the time, and wanted to go home. Being mostly isolated as we were, there were few options for finding support.

Our Mission President had given everyone a talk from President Benson entitled Beware of Pride, and in this talk I found my coping mechanism. I thanked and praised my companion for something every day. When I did this, she was nicer to me. I don’t recall her thanking me or praising me in return, but she was less critical, and doing this for her made it easier to do it for myself. I will not lie and say this was wonderful—it was hard. I don’t think I could have done it if I had not known that we would only be companions for a few more weeks, but it did work.

I learned from this experience that I need to be nicer to myself. One of the reasons her criticisms were so hard to combat was because she did not say anything to me that I did not already say to myself. To have it confirmed by another person made it ten time worse, but I began to ask, why was I so critical in the first place? She and I were similar in one regard—we were both perfectionists. She is what I now call a high energy perfectionist, someone who can pay attention to the details and follow through with her grand ideas because she has enough energy for it. I am what I call a low energy perfectionist. I see the details, I have grand visions of what I want to do, but I don’t always have the energy to do it all which is why I always fall short of what I want and always feel like a failure. I used to wish I had more energy to go with my perfectionism, but my experience with her has taught me that moving that fast often leaves you blind to the things around you. I prefer my slower pace now; I see that I can do more than what I’d originally envisioned because my vision is broader. It is now my goal to fight off my perfectionism and be kind to myself.

My last depression was when we lived in Michigan, far away from friends and family. I was going through several intense struggles (see Problem 1, Problem 2, and Problem 3 for more details) and began to hate myself, God, and the people around me. Looking back on it, I’m surprised I did not recognize it for what it was. I was tired all the time, but I blamed that on my new baby. I started off with anger and it wasn’t until my anger started to turn to despair and I began to fantasize about leaving, shutting down, that I realized I had a problem. I went to God and took my healing seriously, but I didn’t seek counseling and medication. I can’t say why, this was a poor decision, and I do not recommend it. Perhaps it was because I kept blaming other things and thought I just needed to fix this or fix that and then I’d be fine. It’s possible I didn’t trust that anyone else would understand. Maybe I was afraid that people would blame me again or be dismissive about my pain. For whatever reason, I didn’t think of this as a depression until years later when I was finally out of it enough to see clearly.

One thing I learned from this one was the need to talk to other people. I think my husband knew I was depressed before I did, but because I saw him as one of the problems that I needed to fix, I wasn’t listening very well. I got mad at the people at church because they were more concerned about my husband than they were about me. They wanted to answer his questions and help him feel welcomed at church, all very good. But there is no magic answer or silver bullet for someone like him and friendship does not equal belief.  Meanwhile, as I was feeling very lonely and questioning my future, no one asked me if I had any questions or whether I needed more fellowship. Neither my Home Teachers (male ministers) nor Visiting Teachers (female ministers) ever came.

I began to get a bit resentful. I felt invisible, taken for granted, and far less important than my husband. I remember trying to make a friend by going to a Relief Society dinner and then crying the whole way home. I started to think of them as shallow, stupid people. And my panic attacks came back in full force. Just like when I tried to go back to church after my depression as a teenager, I would panic in Relief Society, sit by myself in Sacrament Meeting, and say nothing in Sunday School. I loved the Church, but I hated Mormons.

When I look back on this depression, I think my biggest lesson was that forgiveness is the final healing. I needed help desperately but because I hadn’t really forgiven those first Mormons who had hurt me as a teenager, I didn’t allow the ward members in my college ward to help me, and then I didn’t trust the people in my Michigan ward.

I can’t say that I was wrong to avoid church until I was firmly on the road to health. I needed separation from the ones that were hurting me. But holding on to anger also held me back from finding new allies. I’ve been working more on forgiving those that didn’t understand and didn’t see what was really going on. I think I understand them better now and it’s helped me find new allies but also to be a better ally for someone else.

I learned these lessons from battles with depression, but I think they’re useful for everyone. Our bodies and spirits are connected, let them strengthen each other and don’t ever build one at the expense of the other or they will both fall apart. Deal with your anger, it can be very useful, but don’t use it for too long and don’t hide it away or it will destroy you. When you feel yourself turning off find ways to connect and engage. Slow down and be kind to yourself. Find those people that will support you and forgive those who don’t know how.

I’ve met a lot of people who don’t understand what the big deal is. Everyone needs to have good friends, so why is that so hard for depressed people? I had a lot of friends before I was depressed, afterward I had one. Friendship is not easy for me, it’s frightening. But because I’ve struggled with it and worked at it, I think I know more now about how to be and find good friends than those for whom friendship is easy. Because forgiveness was hard, I know more about it. Because my mind and my heart are sensitive, I’ve studied how to take care of them. People who think these things are easy may mistakenly believe they’re stronger or smarter. But I warn you, we who have struggled are wiser and stronger than you realize.

Don’t stop fighting, it’s worth it.

Unity Against All Odds

Unity can be found where we least expect it and scars removed from wounds that we ignored.

One of the wonderful women I knew in Michigan once spoke about her father and learning what it meant to “honor thy parents” even when you don’t think that parent deserves much honor. We naturally assume that honoring our parents involves obeying them, so what do you do if your father is an alcoholic and you have no respect for him? That was her situation, and so she thought the commandment didn’t fully apply in her case—until she reconciled with her father. If I remember right, he was still an alcoholic at the time of their reconciliation, and she was a woman with children of her own, but with the age of wisdom she was able to see him differently, as a child of God with pain and hurt, who had hurt others, and was still in need of love and honor. She didn’t go into a lot of detail about what exactly she had learned from the Spirit, but she did say repeatedly that she learned how to honor her father.

Her situation was so similar to mine, I began to yearn for what she had learned. I, too, wanted to honor my father. I had always thought of myself as having no father. To me, that commandment was easily applied to my mother, my Heavenly Father, and later my step-father but never to my biological father because he barely existed. 

I have seen pictures of him holding me when I was a baby, but because I don’t remember those times, I say that I met my father once when I was seven years old, spent one day with him, and never saw him again. He took me to an amusement park. I remember being very excited to meet him because I had a picture of him in my room—that was all he was to me, a picture—and he was going to come to life. We rode a lot of rides, he let me pick and choose, he showed me a picture of my half-sister. I wanted a sister more than anything. I asked him if I could keep the picture and meet her one day. He said he would find a way for us to visit him at the same time and get me my own picture, but I couldn’t keep that one because it was his only one. He got mad at me at dinner because he asked me if I liked a present that he had sent to me. I hadn’t realized the present was from him and he was angry at my mom for taking credit for it. I knew my mother would never do something like that, it was more likely that she told me but that I didn’t notice or realize—he was a picture, pictures don’t send presents. I still firmly believe that she told me he sent the present but to my seven-year-old self it was like she was saying it was from Santa Clause. But he was mad, and, being a child, I blamed myself. A magical day that left me feeling a bit empty. I think on some level, even at seven years old, I realized that he could only offer me temporary shiny things. When it was something important, it was withheld, as if he couldn’t quite find it in himself to give it to me. And even at that young of an age, I was very protective of my mother, so he scared me. On another level, I wanted him to keep his promise, I wanted him to keep arranging visits, let me meet my sister, give me more presents and this time I would know they were from him, because now he was real. But as time went on, and nothing else ever came, that part died. 

When I asked my mother, why they divorced she said, “I thought he was an alcoholic, but he disagreed.” That was essentially how she handled the whole situation. If I asked a question, she would answer it honestly with no judgement. She didn’t say he was an alcoholic, only that she thought he was. She didn’t say he was dangerous, only that he disagreed with her. I now don’t think he was ever abusive towards her, but when I was younger, I remained unsure. She wanted me to make up my own mind, but because I didn’t know him that was very hard to do. She also didn’t offer much information, other than “he loved lima beans,” and “his favorite game was backgammon.” She told me later that she didn’t know what to share or when, so she was waiting for me to ask the questions, but I didn’t always know what questions to ask or I started to get old enough to realize the answers were awkward.

At about 14 years old, I wanted to meet him again, but my mom couldn’t find him. She found a phone number for his parents, but they didn’t know where he was either. I asked her about my half-sister. “Did you know that I have a half-sister? Did you ever meet her?”

“Yes, I knew you had a half-sister, but I never met her,” she answered. Her face was turned down towards the kitchen sink and she didn’t look up at me as she washed the dishes. “How did you know you about her?”

“My dad showed me a picture of her that one time he took me to the amusement park. I can’t remember her name, do you know? I also can’t remember if she’s older or younger than me.”

“I don’t remember her name, I’m sorry, but I think she’s right about your same age.” She turned away from the sink and started wiping the kitchen counter. I knew enough not to touch that last comment, though it was confusing.

“I just thought maybe she or her mom would know where he was, but I guess since we don’t know her name…”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know her name.”

There are some questions that are just too hard to ask.

When I was 19, after my mother’s diagnosis with breast cancer and right before she medically retired from the Navy, she tried one more time to use some Naval resources to find my father. She found an address in Bountiful, Utah.

“You should try it,” she said. “It’s a year old, so he might not be there anymore, but it’s still worth a try.” 

She always believed it was important for a child to think well of his/her parents and to know them as much as they could. She would never say anything bad about him, even if that meant not talking about him much, and she wanted me to know him. But by that time, I didn’t want the risk. I was less desperate for the escape he offered. I was already so broken from her diagnosis; I didn’t want to feel anymore hurt. If he was at this address, we would probably have a nice conversation, go out to dinner, and then what? Another shiny thing that left me empty. The potential reward seemed too small when compared to the near certain pain that would follow. I never tried that address.

Another decade later, and I’m in Michigan listening to a story with similarities to mine but with a happy ending. It didn’t matter that this other father didn’t turn into a model parent. I wanted the peace this other daughter found. I pushed it down, thinking it would never happen because I had no idea how to find my father and attempt a reconciliation. Oh well, not that big of a deal anyway, I reasoned. I’ve moved on.

About three years after this, my half-sister found me on Facebook. 

Her private message had my mother’s name and my birthday and asked if I was the right Christen. I was surprised she knew that much about me and I had no idea who she was. When she told me she was my half-sister, I was excited and curious how she knew those details. She had spent more time with our father than I had, though he still was gone for long stretches of time. She was able to find him, however, when he was living in Alaska and went to visit him there. When she realized how sick he was from congestive heart failure, she brought him home to live with her for the last two years of his life. She loved having that time with him. 

I was glad he had her, a bit jealous that she had more time with him and the reconciliation I wanted but was too afraid to have. She connected me with other family members of which there are many, and the more I spoke with her and met some of my aunts and uncles, the more my jealousy grew and the angrier and more hurt I became. The old wounds were reopened, and I found it difficult to actually become a member of this family. My half-sister is two days younger than me, and suddenly my mother’s hesitation made more sense, but I was also mad at her for not being more open and honest with me. She left me in ignorance, and I had to find this out and deal with the repercussions on my own without her wisdom and guidance. I started to hate my father again, all I could see were his mistakes, the things he had denied me, and the consequences my mother and I had to live with. 

I didn’t want to deal with that hurt again. It was easier to close the wound, cover it up, ignore it, and go back to ignorance. I was fine as I was. I had my mother’s family, my step-family, and my in-laws. I didn’t need or want anything else. What was the point of a reconciliation now?

But when my half-sister told me that he had died my first thought was, You could do his work for him. He and his entire family are Catholic and while I do not know the level or commitment of their faith, there is a doctrine in my Church that baptisms and other covenants must be performed by proper Priesthood Authority which is only found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some find this belief offensive, and I’m sorry for that. I too have had to struggle with this requirement when I see so many individuals of other faiths that I consider to be wonderful and faithful and gloriously spiritual. Through my questions and struggles with God, I have come to see incredible beauty in His Priesthood and the Covenants that we can make with Him and they are special to me. I do not think this diminishes the beauty of other people in the eyes of God. He offers wonderful things to all His children. 

The covenants we make with God in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be made by proxy for those that have passed on and they are able to accept or reject the covenant in the Spirit World. Again, some find this offensive and problematic. I understand that point of view, but I hope that you can view this work as an expression of love as it is intended. Similar to how others light candles for the beloved dead or give them offerings. These proxy covenants are offerings of extreme love and they are our way of reaching beyond death to serve others without the barriers of time or mortality. 

If you can see this as a gift of love, perhaps you can then understand my hesitation in actually performing the work. I have no doubt it was the Spirit prompting me to take my father’s name to the temple and give to him the ultimate gift symbolizing my hope and desire for our future reunion. In my pain, anger, and confusion, I simply did not want to do it.

I covered the wound back up and went on with my life until April of 2018 when Elder Renlund gave a talk in General Conference about family history work. He said, “When God directs us to do one thing, He often has many purposes in mind … God, in His infinite capacity, seals and heals individuals and families despite tragedy, loss, and hardship.” As I listened to his talk, I felt keenly the promise that my wound would be completely healed, not just scabbed over, if I would undertake this work. Still, I procrastinated. Six or seven months later, we studied this talk in a Relief Society meeting at church. I felt that the promise of healing was mine for the taking, I just needed to go and claim it. If I wanted to know what my friend in Michigan learned through her reconciliation with her father, I could. If I was jealous of my half-sister, there was no need because I could still have the peace that she did. It was not too late. 

I still didn’t fully want to. I didn’t want to reopen that can of worms when it could just remain shut. I didn’t fully understand what the benefit was, but, trusting that the Lord gives good gifts and keeps his promises, I reached out to my new family members and gathered the information I needed. It took some time, but as I worked on it and thought about what I was doing, my hesitation turned to excitement. 

The wound is open, and it is clean. I am ready to be made whole.

There is no barrier the Lord cannot cross. Death is no obstacle, nor any fracture too wide or deep. The only thing the Lord will not take from us is our agency. We must claim the promise. Trusting Him with our wounds can be hard, especially when they’re still hurting, and we don’t know how long until the relief will come. But hope is powerful too, and we can trust Him that our hope will never be in vain because He will heal us. 

Elder Renlund also quoted Ezekiel 47:8-9 in his address:

The waters (meaning the river coming from the House of God) issue out … and go down into the desert, and go into the [dead] sea … , [and] the waters (meaning the Dead Sea) shall be healed. And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: … for they shall be healed; and everything shall live whither the river cometh.”

The river has come to my heart and my heart lives and is healed. I want the river to reach to my father’s heart and beyond. It is the greatest gift that I can offer him. My forgiveness, my hope that he can be healed as I have been, is how I honor my father. 

It is also how I honor my Heavenly Father. Separations in this life can always be mended. Unity is built across all barriers, and it is never too late to find it.