Recently, as part of my promoting my newly published book, I wrote an article for LDS Living. The article that was published, “Avoiding Church Won’t Help Your Anxiety: 3 Crucial Things Mormons with Anxiety Need to Understand,” wasn’t the first one I wrote and submitted to them. Or the second one.
We probably all know that online publications thrive on “clickbait”—catchy, controversial or shocking headlines. I’ve studied and taught about media and society. This is what gets people to read, share, and talk (or fight) about the written word. Also, if you are familiar with publishing magazines or newspapers, you’ll also be aware that headlines are often changed by the editors. Writers often aren’t given a heads up about this or asked if it’s okay or serves the tone of the article as they envisioned it.
My original title as submitted to LDS Living was, “Why Avoiding Church When You Have Anxiety isn’t the Answer.” They changed my proposed title to something more bold, catchy, and controversial (and frankly, I’m not sure what the “3 crucial things” they are mentioning even were? update: they added those subheadings/3 things to my original article). Maybe this is me making an excuse. Maybe my title was rubbish and offensive too. But these are the facts.
And so, just as LDS Living wanted (and why they probably chose to publish this article rather than my previous two, both of which focused solely on OCD), the article and the title they gave it hit peoples’ nerves. Even just the title is getting people fired up one way or the other. The title! Many people probably don’t even get past that or through the entire article. But LDS Living probably loves this. Media outlets need attention, and controversial topics get attention and shares—for good and bad.
My husband brought to my attention a very long, very passionate thread on Facebook expressing concern about the article. That is their right. It’s not a perfect article. It is written directly, since that is what LDS Living wanted, and shouldn’t women have the ability to be direct? There are phrases that people pointed to that yes, I agree I should have changed.
Writing is born out of passion. Frankly, when I wrote the article, I was passionate to finally present LDS Living with an article that they would publish without asking for a total revision to make it more broadly applicable. I was maybe also passionate because I had recently finished taking courses from the Beck Institute on The Essentials of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and CBT for Anxiety. I had been to group therapy all summer after having been in individual therapy.
So, to address one complaint, I am not just a “blogger.” (side note: it’s funny when people demean bloggers like that is “all they do” and get paid a lot of money for it. Guys, I do not get paid a lot of money. Like I think I have literally made a few dollars so far from my one sponsor. I have put in way more money and time than I will likely ever see back, even from my book. Why? Because I have a passion for writing and for helping people not be trapped in their mental illness. I was debilitated and trapped by my anxiety and OCD, not even fully aware of what was happening. I hope I can help others discover their issues and take back control of their lives too).
Even writing this post was born out of passion to “defend” myself. I knew as a writer that I would get criticism, but somehow it still comes as a surprise and shock to the system to actually see what people write and think about “you,” even if it’s just a piece you have written for a specific audience.
Capital “A” Anxiety
But back to the article. I am sorry that it came across as over generalized. I do think it is important to acknowledge that there is “anxiety” and there are anxiety disorders—Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, Panic Disorder, OCD. I appreciated someone on the aforementioned thread who pointed out that I used and focused on the word “avoidance.” I tried to write the article for those who have these anxiety disorders—not just anxiety in a general way (as I described in the beginning of the article). Avoidance is a technique or safety behavior that we use when we have anxiety disorders, like if I avoid using my kids’ bathroom because I consider it “contaminated.” When we use avoidance to appease our obsessions in OCD treatment, most therapists would likely tell us that it is harmful rather than helpful.
Of course, there are certain cases like PTSD and other anxiety issues that have resulted from specific situations, people, or abuse. My heart goes out to those of you who are having to deal with mental and emotional trauma. I was going to say that you have “unique” situations but that seems so trite, and unfortunately, abuse and PTSD are not as unique as we wish they were. The consequences and reality of abuse and other situations that cause PTSD and similar issues are lasting and painful. I am so sorry if you read the article coming from that background and felt attacked or demeaned. Although I do not have PTSD, I can try to imagine where you are coming from, and I don’t want you to feel any more pain about what you have experienced.
By all means, if you need to change congregations because an abuser is in your old ward or something similar, do what you need to do. If church isn’t working for you, I cannot judge you for that. You need to feel safe and protected. I apologize if the article came across as forcing you to do something that you didn’t feel safe doing. Like one commenter implied on the thread and as I know from my own therapy, sometimes we are not ready to take on certain “exposures” or face specific things for a long time (or ever) because we simply do not feel safe or comfortable “going there.” I wouldn’t want someone to force me to face my “100” level exposure and tell me that I was a bad person if I didn’t do it. (My therapist would probably say that I wasn’t going to get over it until I did it, but that’s a different OCD story….)
I do hope that all of us who deal with trauma and/or a mental illness can find the courage to work with a mental health professional and talk about it with them. My hope for the article was to let people know that if a mental illness is keeping them from doing something (like going to church) and they want to do it (and would if only they didn’t have that mental illness), they can get proper psychological care and/or medication and work on those fears. On the other hand, if you don’t want to go to church because you have a problem with people, your calling, the doctrine, etc., make those changes or don’t go to church! Please decide for yourself. I don’t believe that God wants us to punish ourselves.
Taking a Break vs. Quitting
I currently serve as the Relief Society president in my ward. I wanted to quit my calling, especially when my OCD and anxiety were bad. I have not wanted to be at church. I thought it was pointless. And I’m not and wasn’t saying that not being able to feel the spirit means you have a mental illness! Of course not! Sometimes church isn’t super spiritual, sadly, or sometimes we are preoccupied with other things. My comment about spirituality and mental illness/medication was meant to help those who feel that they are not righteous somehow because they struggle with anxiety disorders. Mental health and spiritual health are often so connected but they are not the same.
But back to my personal experience. I wanted to quit my calling. I prayed and fasted. I got priesthood blessings from my husband. And in those blessings I was told no, I shouldn’t quit. I was told to keep my calling. I wasn’t really happy about that, and of course I had the choice to quit anyway. We have agency. We all have agency. We have agency to go to church, to take a break, or to stop going.
But I think what Heavenly Father was trying to tell me and what I maybe was trying to get across in the article is that in some (not all, but some) cases, quitting isn’t the answer. It may help. Sure, it may help. It may be a good temporary solution or semi-permanent solution. But I do think that avoidance for the sake of avoidance (using “Avoidance” in a clinical way) shouldn’t necessarily be a permanent answer.
I could have quit my calling, but other callings would come. Maybe people I could’ve helped wouldn’t have been served in the way that was intended. I don’t know. But while I didn’t quit, I did slow down. I avoided (yes!) meeting with the missionaries about RS stuff for awhile—but not forever. I avoided (yes!) going on visits while I felt incapacitated by my anxiety and OCD and enlisted the help of at least one other sister to see someone who needed a long visit when I wasn’t able—but I haven’t avoided visits permanently. Now that I am more stable, I am trying to get back into the flow of church and my calling. As one commenter wrote, being a member of the LDS church is definitely about more than just attendance on Sundays (part of why it can cause so much stress and anxiety).
Avoiding Situations and People
Sometimes there are people that trigger us at church. There was one individual in a ward who made me and several other women uncomfortable with his comments and leering. Did I avoid him? Of course! And I went to the Bishop and asked for help. He met with him and changed his calling.
Certain things, people, and situations, can be unhealthy at different times and for different people. There is no one size fits all answer. I’m sorry that so many felt I was victim blaming or hurting the people the article should’ve been helping. I do have empathy for those with mental and physical illnesses. I have a mental illness. I have endometriosis that has caused and still can cause me severe physical pain. I have gone through and experienced more than most people might guess. I know that you probably have as well. We all have our struggles and our figurative “demons” to battle, and we have to survive the best we can.
I hope that everyone chooses and has chosen what is right for them in their current situation. Also, I’m sorry that I said that Jesus wants you at church, but I didn’t mean it in a “JESUS (pointing His finger at YOU) WANTS YOU IN CHURCH NOW EVEN IF YOU CAN’T HANDLE IT” way. It was badly stated. My point was, Jesus loves us. Of course He wants us to be happy and to find peace. He wants us to feel safe. He wants us to get the help we need. Sure, I do think He wants us to take the Sacrament and forgive ourselves and be forgiven of our sins weekly if possible, but He understands if we can’t make it every week or for awhile.
Definitely do what you need to do for yourself. You have agency. I guess what I wanted to get across was that sometimes mental illness and anxiety have tried to take away my agency to force me to do one thing or another, and I assumed (maybe too broadly) that a similar thing happens with other people who also have anxiety disorders. I don’t want anyone to lose their agency to a rogue and unwell part of their brain and feel like life is hopeless. I want us all to get the help we need and deserve and keep our agency our own.
Of course, you have agency to write to LDS Living or to tell me that I was off base in my article. I probably was many times. But I do want you to know that I didn’t mean to ostracize or make anyone feel shamed or forced to do things in one specific way. Obviously that’s not Heavenly Father’s plan. He wants us to take care of ourselves. (Ironically, I’m supposed to have a post coming out on the Exponent website about self care soon. I wish it was already out).
So let’s be compassionate to each other. I hope you are doing what is best for you.