It was a beautiful spring morning. The daffodils were glowing in the sunlight as I took pictures of my daughters in their dresses. I walked among the familiar pathways colored with an array of flowers. Temple square, the sacred place of my youth was alive with spring. A quiet hum hung in the air as we waited anxiously for our loved ones to come out of the doors. The beauty that surrounded me almost mocked what I felt in my heart. It was what I had been dreading for months, what I had avoided my whole life. I was on the outside.
My family was inside at my brother’s wedding and I was waiting outside with my camera to take the first wedding picture. It’s hard to say at that point whether it was a choice to remain outside or not. I could have gone through the motions to get a temple recommend and attend. I could have checked off the steps to worthiness. I thought about it. I wanted to be inside. But I was different, and even inside I didn’t belong. So many emotions ran through me that beautiful spring morning on temple square. I felt the shame of being excluded, the sorrow of all the people I finally understood who had been abused by and cast out of an indomitable institution. I felt freedom and joy out in the gorgeous sunshine, not stifled by the exacting thumb of a god who had been quite abusive in my life.
As I waited outside the temple doors with all the other families anticipating the appearance of their bride and groom, I thought about twelve years earlier when I had emerged from behind those doors, a new young bride. Large white snowflakes flew in our faces as my fiancé and I entered the white building that spired toward heaven. In a brilliant room full of mirrors I dressed in white. I entered another pristine room where I saw a small cohort of family members gathered to celebrate the new life I was starting. Everything symbolized my worthiness. I was worthy to be inside, to belong. I felt that worthiness with a mix of self-loathing and apprehension. Over the months since my engagement, I had felt the beauty of community surrounding me, celebrating me, congratulating me for my choice and my worthiness to be married in the temple. I had made it, I had arrived.
I was encircled in a warm blanket of communal love and support that was married to my own depression and self-deprecation. It was a beautifully tragic time of my life marked by community and love juxtaposed against my own internal battle. I wasn’t worthy. I could never be worthy. The expectations were too high for a perfectionist like me. The Mormon God had become my abuser over the last few years because of the way the church teachings collided with my perfectionism, my overly empathetic nature, and my introversion. I had spent years in a deep trench of depression, thinking that if I could just stop sinning and always be worthy of Heavenly Father’s spirit in my life that I could climb my way out of it. What I didn’t realize was that my abusive god was the one holding me down, telling me that I wasn’t good enough for him, telling me that everything I was and everything I wanted in life was evil.
I was torn apart by sexual shame. It had nearly killed my introverted self to confess my sins to a bishop at BYU, but the pain of being unworthy and left outside was worse than death by confession. And when I left the bishop’s office that grey rainy day, I thought death was truly my only option. The next time I confessed to a bishop just before I got engaged, my experience was far different. He gave me a hug and a blessing. He told me I was okay. But my abusive god didn’t agree and my sins didn’t go away. The only option I had was to take my stained worthiness with me into the temple so that I could belong.
I went like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter that day in my white dress. It’s hard to describe how something so beautiful and wonderful as my wedding day when I was happy and in love could also be marred with pain and sorrow. The best comparison I have is the image of me sitting among the flowers on a gorgeous spring day for a momentous occasion for my family. How could a moment so bright and beautiful be clouded with darkness and despair? I sat there because I was an outcast. I sat there, feeling all the pain that I didn’t even understand as a young bride. I sat there, finally understanding the great and terrible history that culminated in a ritual that united my husband and me. I know now that the rituals I participated in were stained with the residue of blood atonement and plural marriage. I know now that I covenanted to give myself to my husband, the original meaning of which was literal. Women were men’s property.
This is what it meant for me to be on the inside that day, and what brought me there was a battle with perfectionism that I couldn’t win. What allowed me to be on the inside of my culture was the very thing that had racked my body, mind, and heart with guilt, shame, and anguish. Years of wrestling with…no, not my demons. The demons were the ones trying to rescue me from the abuse that my god heaped on my shoulders. Years of wrestling with God, failing college classes, struggling to get out of bed, and fighting my desire to end my life. That’s what it meant for me to be inside. And this day, my wedding day, I was sacrificing the very essence of who I was. I was covenanting myself away to someone else. The years that would follow continued to be a struggle of sacrificing myself and misunderstanding the cause of my instability and struggle, until my journey led me to see it more clearly for what it really was.
I was worthy all along. It was not about my obedience or lack of sin. It wasn’t about repentance or wearing white or confessing and talking about my sexuality with someone who wasn’t even trained to deal with that. It wasn’t about a check list and answering all the questions right. I am worthy simply because I am. I am worthy because any god who expects me to be a certain way or do certain things to be worthy of his love is not worthy of mine. I am worthy whether I am on the outside or on the inside. That day as I knelt across from my now husband at the alter, I saw the faces of people I loved, but I didn’t think about those who were waiting anxiously in the freezing January weather for us to come out of the temple doors. I didn’t think about the struggle that left them outside. I was trying so hard myself to be inside that I wasn’t thinking about the pain of being outside.
Twelve years later I finally understood the pain and the cost of remaining outside. Waiting outside those doors for my family to come out helped me to see from a new perspective. Now that I understand my own worthiness outside of what the church teaches and expects, I am able to make a clear choice about where I want to be. I experienced beautiful and good things during my time inside. I was part of a community that was amazing and sustaining when did what I needed to do to belong. I gained knowledge and growth in the only way I knew how, with a language and imagery that was familiar to me. And I learned what it means to be a Mormon woman. I still feel that every day of my life, body, mind, and heart. Outside or in, I will always be a Mormon woman. It is deeply imprinted in my mind and senses, and in every tissue of my body.
On the outside I have gained even greater growth. I can see more clearly the trench of depression that I spent most of my twenties in, and I can see more clearly the true nature of that crevice and the reason I fell into it in the first place. I see the church’s role in it, and I have quit struggling fruitlessly to climb out with the very doctrines and beliefs that were holding me down. On the outside I have found other outcasts. I have seen their wounds, heard their stories, and learned to mourn with those who mourn in a way that I never knew was possible when I was inside. I am free to love more abundantly, not bound by my desire to follow the rules that keep me safely inside.
Four years ago as I sat outside the temple soaking up the beautiful sunlight, I was only just beginning to understand that I could make the choice myself. Today I choose wholeheartedly to be on the outside. That doesn’t mean I’m leaving it all behind. I choose to sit outside those doors and wait. I’ll wait outside to celebrate with those who come outside to joyfully tell me about the things that uplift them inside. I know that just because Mormonism created an abusive god for me because of the way I experienced it, that not everyone will experience it that way. I will wait outside and celebrate when changes come that make the church experience more joyful or less burdensome for those who love it. I celebrate the recent change of temple policy to abandon the year wait to enter the temple after a civil marriage because I think it’s a step toward tearing down the wall that divides the outside from the inside. I celebrate the change of language in the temple that brings women one step closer to equal standing with men. That might have gone a long way in lessening my suffering over the last few decades of my life, and I hope that it will prevent some of that suffering for other women.
I also stand outside and wait to mourn with those who come out with experiences of pain, loss, and suffering. I stand outside in solidarity with all those who have for some reason or another not been allowed inside. As long as there is an inside, there will always be an outside. And I will be there, simply because that is where my experience has brought me. That’s where I find my work and my calling. That’s where I find the most beautiful, peaceful freedom and worthiness that I have ever experienced in my life. Just outside is where I can live in freedom to simultaneously mourn with and celebrate with all my sisters and brothers inside or out.