Chapter 4.1: Utah

Chapter 4.1: Utah

We left the intensely multi-cultural, ultra-liberal and technologically obsessed Bay Area and arrived in Utah where the culture was powerfully defined by a dominant religion (Mormonism). Once more I encountered a sub-culture so different, it felt like we’d moved to another country. Unlike our move to Texas, however, the culture in Utah actually jived quite well with our religious practice. Mormon social ideals were personified by whiteness, traditional gender roles, large families, Protestant industriousness and moral purity.

Mormonism had originated in New York and flourished in Illinois before hundreds of settlers followed their prophet Joseph Smith across the country to find a new land where they could thrive. “This is the place!” Brigham Young famously announced when the pioneers reached the valley at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. They unloaded their stuff and proceeded to build themselves a temple and a micro culture that is at once evangelical and insular.

Like the Witnesses, Mormons believed that they were called to proselytize. Almost every young Mormon man and many of the young women spent a few years of their lives doing missionary work—sometimes around the world, and sometimes in their own backyards. They did not, however, believe in the same End Times theology that we did, which is why they were able to build the infrastructure for a thriving, influential community that included robust institutions of education, business and media.

It was an odd place to be as a Jehovah’s Witness. We could relate to some things about Mormonism, but in other ways we were very much the outsiders and there was a clear line between Mormons and everyone else in Salt Lake City. The Witnesses we met in Salt Lake City were unlike any other Witnesses I’d met before. As often happens with minority communities, much of the dominant culture comes to define the minorities living within them.

When we arrived in Salt Lake City, we stayed with my grandmother for a short time, and then found an affordable apartment. My mom found odd jobs including housekeeping, and I regularly worked with her. We cleaned the homes of wealthy people, and sometimes apartments where tenants had moved out and the owners needed deep cleaning before they could rent the space out again. Mom eventually found clerical work, but for the first few years in Utah she was always juggling multiple jobs to try to make ends meet.

The first year we had to get state aid to buy groceries and visit doctors. Despite our intense poverty, this was the first time we’d ever used the welfare system, and my mother was mortified. She cried filling out the paperwork. That was back in the days of ‘food stamps’ where there was no way to hide your poverty at the grocery store checkout. I remember the deep shame I felt the first time we went shopping with food stamps, how I just knew everyone was looking at us. But I also remember the huge sense of relief I felt looking at the full grocery cart.

Even while working her ass off (doing physical labor) my mom was determined to do right by us. We still went to our religious meetings three times a week, went out in service every weekend, had a family bible study and she cooked and cleaned (albeit with help from us) each day. In some ways, her worst nightmare had come true – she was in the same position her own mother had been in, raising kids and working herself raw without a partner. But she was also free from the shackles of a marriage that had kept her ‘in her place’, and now she was empowered to do what needed to be done. She rose to the occasion beautifully, without bitterness and kept us all in perpetual motion.

*****

Within the first year of us moving to Utah it was clear that I was not faring well in our new environment. My state of mind had begun to rapidly deteriorate after our move, and my social anxiety had taken over completely. I felt perpetually sick to my stomach, and couldn’t concentrate at school. These days have a nightmarish quality in my memory. I remember waking up at 4am every morning, not because I had to but because my eyes would open and my heart would start to race. I would get up early and get ready just to mentally prepare myself, sitting at the kitchen table and watching the clock tick for three hours until it was time to face my fear anew each day and walk to a school.

After two years of constantly moving around, watching my parents’ marriage crumble inside a tight-knit religious community, and then relocating to yet another school in another state where I had no friends I hit a wall. On top of my anxiety, depression began to take over. When a couple girls at my school started bullying me and threatened to beat me up after school, that was it. I went home that afternoon and fell apart.

To my mom’s credit, the minute I said anything about not wanting to go on living, she had me in a psychiatrist’s office. Within two days I landed in a mental hospital for teenagers with a prescription for anti-depressants.

As awful as that sounds, it ended up being a much-needed break. I was there with a bunch of other fucked up kids who I could relate to in various ways, and was away from my family and my church and everything else that had defined my life up to that point. This was the first taste I had at independence, albeit in a very confined, clinical space. It felt great. The counselors and doctors there were cool and I had plenty of time to just be. I ate three square meals a day, did art, read, exercised and slept when I needed to. We did group therapy, individual therapy and wrote in journals.

What I did not do, however, was read the bible. I’d brought my bible and Jehovah’s Witness literature with me to the hospital, thinking that these would aid me in my recovery. But they sat unopened in my room, and I remember thinking that I should probably be reading them–but I couldn’t. Or I didn’t want to. The bible didn’t seem relevant to me at that time, and I remember being surprised when I had to acknowledge that to myself.

*****

As an adult, I feel enormously guilty about this time. I was completely, selfishly wrapped up in my own pain and my own 13-year-old crisis. The worried-sick faces of my mom and my brother when they would visit me at the hospital barely registered. Years later my brother laid out for me just how terrifying my mental break was for him. He had suffered a lot, too. But I was the one that got help, mainly because I was the one who was vocal about my suffering. My brother and I were always very close. We still are. But thinking back to him as a little boy, I wish I could go back right now and get him the help he needed, too.

My mom checked me out of the hospital after about a month. I was still struggling mightily with anxiety and depression, but something had changed in that time. I left the hospital knowing that I wasn’t “crazy” and that I didn’t belong there. Within two weeks of getting out, while I was home alone one afternoon, I decided that I was ready to claim my identity as a Jehovah’s Witness. I didn’t want to be dependent on medication, so I flushed my prescription down the toilet. I would rely on God completely going forward.  When my mom got home that evening from work I announced that I was ready to be baptized.


Featured photo by Andrew Smith

2 Replies to “Chapter 4.1: Utah”

  1. I can’t wait until the next installment! Your story is powerful and fascinating and I love your writing. Wow. Grateful to be learning about your journey. 💜

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