Every Sunday evening, I attended the LDS Women’s Support Group and listened as the women gradually exposed their vulnerability and anguish due to addiction within their families. (Even though mental illness has lost much of its societal stigma, addiction is still shrouded in secrecy and shame–especially within our LDS culture.) The sisters’ individual stories were sad and distressing:
My son hates me.
I have nothing left to give.
I’m so tired of hurting.
I can’t fix it.
My husband won’t change.
I don’t know how to help my husband.
I can’t solve my children’s problems.
I feel so alone.
I feel like such a bad mother.
I’ve failed as a wife.
As a service missionary, I helped facilitate these group discussions. I had also shared my own painful issues stemming from my childhood. Although I come from faithful Mormon pioneer lineages, a significant number of my ancestors still suffered from addiction and compulsion–which were unintentionally passed down from one generation to the next. Thus, part of my genetic make-up predisposes me to compulsion and addiction. Additionally, mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression are rooted in my family tree. My parents were stalwart leaders in our ward and stake and faithfully taught their children gospel principles–while stressing the importance of our family image and our duty to set good examples. My parents also set very high–even perfectionistic standards of behavior for us children. As a child and teenager, I tried to be exactly obedient to my parents and church leaders in attempts to earn their love and approval. And I was extremely careful never to “tarnish” my parents’ reputation or “damage” our family image. (Please don’t misunderstand me–I love my parents and appreciate everything they taught me.)
On top of that, the LDS church (during my childhood, teen, and young adult years) placed great emphasis on the doctrine of perfection coupled with a perfectionistic church culture. Young Women and Relief Society always promoted the concept of the ideal LDS woman: She was flawless and raised passels of flawless children. She never complained, was never angry, and never spoke unkindly about anyone.
For me, all of these lofty ideals and expectations came with enormous amounts of pressure and created a lot of personal anxiety. I loved God, my parents, and the Church. I wanted to “be pleasing in God’s sight.” But the perfectionism combined with my genetic predispositions seeded and grew within me noxious weeds of self-doubt, anxiety, and insecurity. I never felt good enough. And I would never be good enough. Furthermore, I didn’t just make mistakes; I was a mistake. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t end up with an eating disorder. Still, I have spent my entire adult life working to find, examine, and root out these poisonous mindsets.
My loving, reassuring, and affirming husband came from a similar genetic ancestry along with turbulence and instability within his extended family. While raising our children, Rick and I consciously tried to neutralize and navigate them (and thus our future grandchildren) away from our emotional and genetic predispositions. Surely, very few parents purposely pass down their issues, addictions, and compulsions to their children. But it still happens–more often than not. Thankfully, society (including the Church) now openly discusses these challenges while providing resources for help.
As an older woman, I have come to appreciate my challenges. My healing process brought clarity, perspective, and wisdom for my pain. Through years of re-evaluating and reframing the lens through which I viewed myself (and God), I came to know and more fully understand the unconditional love of Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice for me on a deeply personal level. I have increased empathy and understanding for others who suffer. I get how hard it is to overcome addictive and compulsive mindsets.
I recently moved to Utah which necessitated my release as a service missionary from the Women’s Support Group. At the end of my last group meeting, we tearfully said our goodbyes. One of the sisters hugged me and said, “I will never forget watching you cry as you talked about overcoming your pain. It’s hard to believe you struggled so much with your self-worth. You’ve got everything in life. You are so together.” For decades, people have expressed these same observations to me whenever I reveal to them my past pain. I take no offense in their comments. Indeed, I have a fortunate life. However, we need to remember this vital truth: No matter how good our life’s circumstances look to others (or how fortunate others’ life circumstances look to us), we all suffer in one way or another. We all must walk through the fire. And in the fire, we find Jesus Christ. My healing and inner peace didn’t randomly fall into place; I had to do the work to get here. Let me be clear lest I sound ungrateful: I have had an excellent and blessed life. And even though I had deeply rooted issues (including a bout of depression) I have always felt deep gratitude and happiness because of my blessed life with my wonderful husband and children–and most of all, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I know that many LDS women have similar struggles to mine. Our present-day church leaders have surely been inspired in providing so many wonderful resources. The Women’s Support Group is especially invaluable in helping us develop healthy coping skills by utilizing the atoning power of Jesus Christ. His love, grace, and redeeming power pave our paths to healing while providing us with His light. Even more, He feels and knows our pain and holds our hands during the process. So how do we get to our place of healing? How do we specifically apply Christ’s atonement to our pain? The Women’s Support Group provides twelve principles to help us in our journeys.
The Twelve Principles of the Women’s Support Group
1. God will console us in our afflictions.
2. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound.
3. He will take upon Him the pains and the sicknesses of His people.
4. Draw near unto me.
5. Take heed unto thyself.
6. Thy friends do stand by thee.
7. In everything give thanks.
8. Be firm and stand fast.
9. We have renounced dishonesty.
10. Lift up the hands which hang down.
11. Bear all these things with patience.
12. My peace I give unto you.
These principles and processes help us gain a better understanding of gospel principles along with specific ideas in finding greater peace and healing. As we learn how to apply the Atonement to our lives, we find peace and are then in a better position to support our troubled loved ones. We place our burdens at the Savior’s feet and rely on His enabling power. We learn to rid ourselves of unnecessary guilt and hold our loved ones accountable for their individual choices.
An essential part of our healing is coming to accept and understand that our loved ones are responsible for their own healing or recovery from addiction and compulsion. We incorrectly assume that we have to fix their problems for them. Instead, we learn to choose another path other than coercion or control over our loved ones. As a result, we have taken an important step in our own healing and peace.
We receive what the scriptures call “beauty for ashes” when we realize that our pain, sorrow, worry, and anger can actually be healed. As we turn to the Savior, the peace and comfort He offers us can truly work miracles. We may not feel grateful for pain and hardship, but we can feel strength and gratitude as we familiarize ourselves with His atoning power.
The Giving Tree
The Giving Tree is a children’s book written in 1964 by Shel Silverstein. The book is fairly controversial in terms of its illustration and definition of unconditional love. Briefly, the book follows the lives of a female apple tree and a boy as they develop a relationship. The tree is always “giving” to the boy who evolves into a “taking” teenager, man, and eventually, an elderly man. In efforts to make the boy happy, the tree gives him parts of herself which can symbolize material elements such as money (from her apples), a house (from the wood and shade of her branches), and a boat (from her trunk). The tree is always described as “happy” in her endless giving and attempts to make the boy happy. And the boy’s endless taking makes the tree happy. Years later, the boy has taken so much from the tree that she has been stripped to a mere stump. In his selfishness, the boy disregards the tree’s weakness and inability to continue to provide for his demands. She offers her stump for him to sit and rest. With this final stage of “giving,” the book ends with the sentence, “The tree was happy.”
I had never read the story until I was a young mother, and read it to my little son. At first glance, I felt the book to be a poignant illustration of unconditional Christ-like love; the noble tree is willing to completely sacrifice herself for the boy and then the man. Indeed, the tree embodied that unattainable and flawless LDS woman persona who had haunted my youth. Although the tree’s concept of love raised some “red flags” with me, I dismissed my concerns as self-centered. Eventually, I recognized the dysfunctional relationship between the tree and the boy. The tree’s inability to set loving boundaries enabled the boy’s compulsivity and narcissism. Furthermore, the tree and the boy illustrate a co-dependent relationship. At the end of the story, the tree claims happiness even after being stripped of everything. The tree’s martyrdom isn’t a healthy love because it’s still self-serving; she is getting some sort of twisted pay-off in her complicity with the boy’s toxicity. The pay-off can be its own form of addiction or compulsion. In the book’s beginning, the tree has good intentions toward the boy and is very helpful and loving. But in the end, the tree’s “love” compounded the boy’s emotional toxicity. I told my children, “Don’t let anyone treat you this way. And never treat others like this.”
My biggest takeaway from The Giving Tree: The tree and the boy personify the destructive relationship when one person is an addict (or an alcoholic) and the family members who enable the addict’s behavior. Unless they attain permanent sobriety, addicts will die from addiction. Meanwhile, the addict’s behavior drains family members down to nothing–emotionally and financially. Addiction destroys families. And this obliteration is the “gift” that keeps on giving throughout the generations until someone in the family tree has the knowledge, courage, and strength to neutralize, or at least dilute, the chain of addiction.
The Proud Tree – Giving with Boundaries
This essay was written by Katie Deutsch as a response to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. She suggests that it’s okay to set boundaries and not give until you having nothing left. Here’s how her story ends:
Many years later, the Boy came back.
“What is wrong Boy, you look so sad! Come sit and talk to me, share your problems.”
The Boy started to cry, “I am so sick of the world. It is so hard and it always challenges me. I wish I had a boat, so I could sail away and find peace. Give me your trunk so I can find an escape.”
Once again, the Tree was surprised and sharply spoke to the Boy, “The world will always challenge you, it doesn’t stop. And running away won’t solve your problems, only create new ones. And besides, your family needs your love and support.”
The Boy grew angry, threw up his hands, stomped away from the tree and disappeared.
More years passed, and the Boy came to visit once more, but this time he was an old man. The Tree welcomed him with open branches, calling out, “Hello old friend, it has been a long time.”
The Boy looked up at the beautiful apples, the majesty of her branches, marveled at her strong trunk and weeped, “Thank you for your strength, and thank you for your wisdom. I wanted everyone to bend to my will, but life doesn’t work that way.”
The Tree beamed with gratitude, “Yes, Boy, true friendship and love are built on boundaries. I’m glad you found peace. Come, sit down and rest.”
Addiction and compulsion are reaching epidemic proportions in our society and among the Latter-day Saints. I believe that addiction is one of the “mists of darkness” described in Lehi’s dream and recorded in the Book of Mormon. Undoubtedly, we are extremely blessed to live during the final days before Christ’s second coming. By the same token, we can be easily overwhelmed and ensnared because of societal pressures and influences that encourage many forms of addiction and compulsion.
Are you struggling? Is your loved one struggling? Are you in pain but not sure why? Do your problems seem unsolvable? Do you need help? Check with your ward and stake leaders for information and help in your area. You can also find resources through https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/?lang=eng
You’re not alone,