I went to BYU for a total of two semesters. I guess I should consider myself one of the lucky ones, because I discovered that I did not have a testimony early and chose to act on it before I lost too much in transferring.
In high school, BYU was the only school I applied to. I had talked it over with my parents — I had a brother there, it was an economically sound decision, it has amazing programs, and honestly just builds itself to be the prime school in the eyes of most LDS families.
On top of that, I was a senior in high school who found himself anxious and depressed and looking for a path. I had gone through some medical issues and some other trauma, but I knew I had this religion that promised happiness and a clear path to find it. So, I applied to BYU summer term immediately following high school, and then sent in my mission papers to leave directly afterwards. I was excited by the promises I was told I would receive. I was excited to feel the things I was told I would feel. I talked with my bishop, and my parents, and they would tell me how proud they were of my newfound hope and dedication to the future.
I got through that first semester diving right in — I worked 30-40 hours a week, took 10 credit hours, went to church, had a calling, and prepared for my mission. I kept myself busy and I worked to give myself the life I was hoping for.
A few months onto my mission was when everything started to slow down. The first part of the mission, I was excited to learn the language, the culture, the lessons, and just kind of figure out how I fit into things. But once I learned the language, got more comfortable with people, and felt a little more adequate teaching, I started to feel out of place. I realized that once I had perfected the language in explaining that the church was true, I didn’t know how much I believed in it.
I talked to my mission president a lot. I prayed constantly and would read through the scriptures hours extra each day. Each night, I would lay in bed until the early morning, praying, and asking why I didn’t feel right about it. I would have my companion perform all the baptisms and other ordinances because I didn’t think I was worthy to. My mission president would have me speak to a missionary psychologist to try to help rid me of my anxiety and help me feel more worthy. They both worked hard to encourage me and help me feel at peace.
Long story short, months went by, and it wasn’t until one night praying that I felt an overwhelming feeling that I needed to go home. When I talked to my president about it, he agreed with me and encouraged me that while it was time to go home, I should take some time, and return out there when I was ready again.
I went home and continued the habits I learned on the mission. I was desperate to receive another confirmation. I remember that I had a list of 30 or so scriptures that I had memorized in Portuguese that I would recite throughout the day — In the car, in my bed, at the park, in the mountains by my home, you name it. I would read for an hour or two each day, and I went to the temple 1-2 times a week.
I was actually very supported when I left the mission. All my old friends came to my aid, my home ward would tell me they were proud of and confident in me, and my bishop was very supportive. While I didn’t make it a point nor know how to convey some of my heavier doubts at that time, I felt like people in the church really cared about me, wanted me to exceed, and each had ideas about how I could do it.
When I went back to BYU though, it was almost as if I could feel it in the air. I went to my first two weeks of classes that Fall, and instantly recognized that it was not the place I wanted to be. There was a nagging feeling constantly in the back of my head, and I just didn’t feel like anything around me was as it should be. And, about my 6th day of class, while walking between the JFSB and the BNSN, it hit me like a hammer. I felt the same comforting feeling about leaving BYU that I did for leaving the mission. Over the past months, and much soul searching, I had felt content in that feeling to leave the mission. Other people within the church that I had talked to agreed with me about it and told me it was a confirmation of the spirit. After the initial comfort of recognizing that same feeling telling me to leave BYU, I felt contorted. I felt like the entire world that I knew and tried to diligently follow for so long had suddenly decided to forsake me for inexplicable reasons. The feelings made no sense.
I called my mom, just a few minutes later, in tears. I told her that I didn’t feel good about BYU, that I felt like it was the right thing to take the semester off, and take some time to figure out what was going on. My mom sympathized with me, and I honestly believe she did the best that she knew how. But she told me that it was just more anxiety. She said and I should take a few deep breaths, lower my class load, and finish out the semester part-time.
I told her I would initially, but the feeling never went away. I did good for about 2 more months: I went to all my classes, tried to continue the study and prayer habits that I had acquired, but I got to the point where I was so torn that my body would literally feel heavier as I stepped onto BYU campus. I felt like it was no longer a choice for me to stay, because every fiber of my being was telling me the contrary. I eventually felt so good about that feeling, but I quickly learned that the school and church were not as excited by the prospect. I stopped going to classes after unsuccessfully trying to get a few “w”s.
My parents were understandably upset. I no longer felt a connection with a lot of the friends that I had at the time. I failed my ecclesiastical endorsement because I stopped going to church meetings and paying tithing. I could not tell my bishop in good conscience that I intend to continue to try to believe in something that I no longer did. I did not break the law of chastity, word of wisdom, or any other part of the honor code. I was not offered to be able to pay non-membered tuition. It’s true that I did not intend on returning, and I was fine with that choice. But being told I couldn’t return even if I followed non-member policy was another story.
There are a lot of good things about BYU, and even though I was going through a spiritual transition, I thought that they would at least try to help me feel welcomed back, or show some form of understanding and empathy.
I felt like I was the only one happy about my decision, which, incidentally, made me incredibly sad. Because when I went to BYU, and was told about countless promises and opportunities — I didn’t even have the ability to fathom what it would feel like to want to leave it.
I think that a lot of people don’t realize what it’s really like to leave the church. By leaving, I lost familial bonds that may heal, but will never be the same. By leaving, I found many friends alienated by me and lost for words when talking to me. I lost a social net that I had been a part of for my entire life. I lost my education. While I take full responsibility for failing my last semester, I found myself with extremely limited options compared to when I had left high school. and I lost my religion.
All so that I could sleep a little more soundly at night.
Leaving the church is a choice, but believing in it won’t always be. Leaving the church for me was a choice between my willingness to lie to my bishop and myself, or to honestly express my opinions in a way that could and did damage my educational career for years to come. For me and for so many others it was months to years of turmoil, anguish, and anxiety, to reach this decision. And at that point when the decision was made, it hardly felt like a true choice.
While we do sign the honor code and agree to these terms, we don’t see the real implications of signing such a pledge until it’s too late. Leaving the church is not always rebellion. I still respect and hold tightly to so many of the teachings of my childhood. I still want a lot of the things that I wanted then. I still hold a lot in common with many church members, and I can respect them for their choices.
I know that actions have consequences. I live with those consequences each new day. But I know that maybe some of those consequences don’t have to exist. We protest this policy not out of anger or childish foot-stomping, but for the hope that maybe we can stop someone else from experiencing the pain and anguish that we suffered through. We hope to make BYU a place where students can feel free to be honest with each other, to ask questions, and to receive contemplative answers. We hope that BYU can create an environment where higher levels of introspection are encouraged, and where people’s faiths can blossom and grow to new heights.