My dad showed up an hour later in a cab. My parents wanted to spend a little more time with me, so they’d agreed to accompany me on the three-hour drive to the nearest airport. As we got into the car I thought, All right, I flew all the way here to tell them; this is my last chance.
But then my dad started talking to the driver and they were becoming friends. Great, now I have to tell my parents AND the driver?! The driver was fascinated with the fact that my parents were Americans living in Siberia. “If you could change anything about this country,” he asked, “what would it be?”
My father answered immediately: “The alcoholism—it’s ruining this country.”
“How do you change that?” the driver wanted to know.
“You never take the first sip,” my dad said. “If you never take a sip of alcohol, you never tempt yourself with addiction.”
“That’s funny,” I interjected. “You used to tell us that growing up, and it terrified me. But you know…I drink now, and it’s totally possibly to drink in moderation.”
My comment was met with silence. Both my parents’ faces were white.
“What?” my dad said, sounding angry. “You drink now?”
“I thought you knew that?” I said.
“No, we didn’t know that.” He was getting angrier and angrier.
“You knew that I was on a break from being Mormon—what did you think that meant?”
“That you weren’t going to church on Sundays,” my mother said.
I looked at my parents. I could see shock and disappointment on their faces. It was only then that I realized we weren’t on the same page at all. To them, I was still a Mormon. A Mormon who missed church on Sunday, but who would eventually come back to the fold.
They gave me the silent treatment for the rest of the ride to the airport. When we hugged goodbye, my father leaned in and whispered, “This break of yours—is it worth it?”
I thought about it. My life was more honest now. I wasn’t trying squeeze myself into a box I’d never fit into. But: I was hurting my parents.
“I don’t know,” I said.
It was only when the airplane’s doors shut that I realized, I flew all the way to Siberia to tell my parents that I lost my virginity, and all I ended up saying was that I drink in moderation.
One month before the Glamour article came out, I called my parents and told them the truth. It was an incredibly hard conversation to have. When I told my best friend, Kevin, who’s gay, about it later, he informed me that I’d given the same speech every gay person gives when they’re coming out. It went something like this: “Mom and Dad, there’s something I need to tell you. I’ve wanted to say this for a long time, and I feel like I’ve been distant from you because of it. I’m not doing this to hurt you. But I’m 28 years old and I had sex.”
Their response was the best I could have hoped for. They told me that they were incredibly disappointed, that they didn’t think this would ever make me happy, but that I’m their daughter and they’ll always love me.
The next time I saw them was at my sister’s wedding. It was held at the Salt Lake City temple. Because I’m no longer a practicing Mormon, I wasn’t allowed to attend the service. But I was a bridesmaid, so I had to sit in the car in my bridesmaid’s dress during the two-hour service, then come out for pictures. It was a really cold day, and I remember sitting in the car, looking up at the temple, and thinking, What if Mormonism is true? What if I’m walking away from everything that God wants for me? Is this what the afterlife will be like: my entire family in a big glowing white building together, with me freezing alone in a parking lot…in a bridesmaid’s dress for ETERNITY?!
My sister’s wedding also happened to coincide with the official end of my one-year break. I think “breaks” are a funny thing. Some people can just stop doing something cold turkey. But then there are others of us, like me, who need to invent an interim step, a “break.” We do it because there are things in both worlds that we want so badly, but the more we try to hold on to two competing lives, the farther apart they get, until eventually we’re forced to make a decision. And a decision always involves giving something up. Something that was possible becomes impossible.
Being a Mormon was a full-time job. I went to church for three hours every Sunday, took part in church activities during the week, and read scriptures daily. I prayed every night. When I let go of all that, I suddenly had all this free time. At first, I felt guilty, like I was letting God down. And so I ignored God, or anything spiritual. I pushed religion as far out of my life as possible, so it couldn’t make me feel guilty. But, of course, it’s all still there. A big part of me is still searching for some sort of peace. I heard a line from an Elliott Smith song recently and it brought me to unexpected tears: People you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore—they’ll push and shove and won’t bend to your will. I’ll keep them still.
I’m not religious right now. I certainly feel lost. But that doesn’t mean I’m not happy. When I do feel spiritually awake, it happens because of the simplest things, things so small I probably wouldn’t have noticed or appreciated them before: seeing the moon, or a spectacular tree, a stranger being nice to me for no reason, walking on the beach. I know this is all such cheesy shit to list, but these things make me feel alive and appreciate life. In a way, they remind me of the best moments I had in my former religion.
You may be wondering how things are with my family now. The answer: I probably shouldn’t write this article for another five years. I only say this because I think in five years, it’ll get easier and there’ll be some sort of resolution to all of this. I tell myself that if I get a good job, marry some dude they really like, and make a grandbaby, they’ll accept my decision not to be Mormon. But the truth is, I don’t think they’ll ever accept it. Their faith means too much to them. They will always want me to come back. And so I will always make them feel sad, or like they’ve somehow failed as parents.
This is what we have to deal with now. It’s always under the surface. But the good news is, going through it was not as hard as I thought it would be. There have been horrible moments, screaming matches with my mother, disappointed phone calls with my father. But we’re doing it. We love one another, so we keep trying to figure it out. It may not be forever anymore, but we are still a family. ♦
Elna Baker is a writer and comedic storyteller. Her memoir, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, won the 2010 AML award for best humor writing. She’s also the co-host and co-creator of The Talent Show, recently named best variety show by New York Magazine.