In preparation for the 2nd annual Mormon Mental Health Conference (July 29, 2015), I’ve been reflecting on my work as a therapist within Mormon culture as I’m sure are many of my colleagues who will be presenting to other mental health professionals at the conference. I’m looking forward to the conference and I’m working my way through hesitation as well.
As a therapist, I’ve had clients who told me they picked me from our website specifically because they knew, that out of all of the other therapists on there, *I* wouldn’t be LDS. You get one guess.
I’ve also had clients who have felt so much on the outside of LDS culture that they feel my blackness gives them the safety they need to feel like they’re with somebody who gets it, doubly so if I tell them that I , too, am LDS (I don’t anymore).
I know that as a profession, we see myriad issues impacting the Church as an institution and the people who identify themselves with the institution from doctrine to culture. We see it as our duty and our opportunity, and sometimes a blessing, to be in positions to serve our clients in their pursuit to live full, rich, and meaningful lives. As a therapist, I’m often in the position of noticing and pointing out the blind spots that my clients have when it comes to the people they love and the ways that they want to improve their lives on this journey to richness and meaning. It takes a while to build a relationship where a therapist can speak to the blind spots you see with confidence and some level of authority, and particularly in a way that your clients will be open to hearing and acknowledging the possibility of a blind spot.
Sometimes my clients know that they have a blind spot, and they are doing their best to ignore it because it doesn’t fit with their worldview. Sometimes the blind spot being ignored shakes the very foundation of their beliefs or challenges their cultural lens. Even so, my job is to get to that place of blind spot recognition and discussion with them in their own time. This wasn’t an easy journey for me, initially. I can’t say that it’s become much easier either.
There are days where I want to be the Church’s therapist.
I haven’t figured out which type of client would best fit the experiences that I see the Utah-based American Church having in this global world, but I really would love to have the Church come sit on my couch and do some art and play therapy with me.
I could see the Church coming in as a disgruntled parent, complaining about its wayward teenager and seeking validation that they made the right decision to kick their child out of the home for “lifestyle choices.” I’d explore the relationship the Church has had with authority in its past, contributing to this need to exercise definitive authority against its own vulnerable offspring. I’d explore the values the Church holds about children and compare it to other church-parents in its faith. I’d use scriptures and empty space to let the Church sit with its emotions in the discomfort necessary for change. I’d probably throw in some 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and ask how it could apply to the Church.
I could see the Church coming to my office as an exhausted serving entity. An entity that sees itself as a martyr for all the good it does in the world, yet it still experiences persecution for how it treats its family members, particularly its transracially adopted African descended family members. There’s this terrible history of abuse and neglect, documented withholding of affection, a failure to nurture, pay attention, or give affirmation. It’s had such an estranged relationship with its adopted children of African descent, that it isn’t quite ready to acknowledge the numerous letters that were read across pulpits over time and given as speeches in formal educational settings consistently distancing and devaluing its own children of African descent.
“But there’s a new letter, LaShawn!”, the Church says to me.
“There is?” I ask. “Was it, too, read over the pulpit like the others or taught in classes and other educational settings? Was it signed by a member of the 15?”
“No.” The Church replies, “it was released at midnight on a random day in December and we’re kind of starting to integrate it into the future family home evening lessons we’re doing this year, but you don’t understand LaShawn, there are other pressing issues. My son….”
“This is one of your African descended sons, or another one?” I ask.
“No, this one looks just like me. He was always so different but he wasn’t supposed to be. He was supposed to get it right and continue the tradition in the family. At least I thought he was. He wants to marry his childhood friend!”
“You value marriage, but I get the feeling this isn’t a good thing?” The Church, as my client, has this knack for avoiding a topic that it has no answer to and going to another one that it feels is relevant only because it’s a larger crisis.
“My other child, the one who looks like me, is….” the Church looks around to ensure that no one can hear outside the door of my office, “struggling with same sex attraction” the Church whispers.
“Ah,” I respond, “I’m familiar with this son. Do you write letters for this son, too?”
“Yes!” the Church exclaims. “I write letters, I fund campaigns, I ensure that this is read over every pulpit in our meetinghouses.”
“But not the new letter for your African descended children, to counteract the harm from the previous letters?”
“No. LaShawn. Listen, you’re missing the point. I have PLENTY of colored adopted children in my family. None of them really even complain! I have Polynesian children, I’ve brought them from Tonga and Samoa to save them in Zion. I have other African descended kids, FROM AFRICA, and they love me. They don’t see anything wrong with the letters I wrote about the other African descended children here in America. They know that it’s true they will always have struggles and it’s not really my fault because all of the Church parents like me said things like that. It’s really not a big issue. The only reason any of that stuff with my colored children – the African ones – even comes up is when the ones who aren’t causing contention about things from the past, are trying to argue for this one son I’m trying to tell you about that wants to marry another boy! Then I have to hear all about how we were mean to the African descended children here in America. There’s something there that needs to be explored, LaShawn, and it’s not me. It’s my kids. Why would they use that against me? Don’t they realize how harmful it is to their colored siblings?” the Church satisfactorily explains to me with a mixed air of defense and disgust.
“I’m just wondering if this letter writing avenue is working out well for you.” I respond, “It seems to be causing more harm than good, but you keep doing it. Especially if you have a history of writing letters that say one thing and then you have actions that say another. Can you think of any contradicting messages you might be sending to your children and why or if writing letters has to be the only way that works for you if maybe it’s not the best?”
“No. We created a website for my son and his friends, to let them know that we *do* love them, just that we don’t love what they do,” the Church tells me.
“Which is?” I ask – waiting to see where the Church wants to go with this.
“They’re destroying families across the world by trying to get married. They’re destroying everything I’ve built!” the Church says.
“So are you feeling that this is about destroying the world or about destroying you? If it’s the latter, then yes, I would feel scared if I thought my child was really turning against me and wanted to destroy me, do you think they’re really trying to destroy you and what you’ve built?”
“Yes! I’ve been persecuted. I’ve worked hard to be successful and normal. I’ve worked hard to establish what *good* families do and what’s RIGHT for families. I’m probably the best Church parent in the world when it comes to this simply because of eternal families created by temple marriages. You know we have over 100 temples in the entire world? I have some of my other children who are spending themselves broke JUST TO HAVE KIDS, you wanna know why? Because. Once they got married in the temple and realized that sex wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do – make babies – they knew that their lives were here to make children, not just have carnal, lawful, legal, lustful sex. They know what sex is REALLY about, so they are doing everything in their power to get pregnant. And now, with this one son of mine, I’m scared that he’ll want to get married in the temple for the same thing, too!”
“Help me understand, I thought you raised your children to get married in the temple?” I ask.
“I do!” the Church says, exasperatedly.
“But, I’m gathering that there’s something different about these children, these sons, who have found someone to love and want to get married to create an eternal family?” I ask.
“Yes, because they want to marry the wrong person!” the Church replies.
“The wrong person. Is this common? Was this the same issue as when you kept your African descended children from marrying in the temple? Were they trying to marry the wrong people, too?”
“No, they were just trying to marry each other because all they could do up until that point was get baptized and then wait until the next life to do everything else. We didn’t think it would happen in this life time. This is different.”
“Right, I remember that being in one of those letters-read-from-the-pulpit, the whole “not in this lifetime” thing. So, what do you want to do about these children of yours? My job as a therapist is to point out patterns of helpful behavior as well as some of the blind spots that get in the way and make the help we try to give more harmful than anything. I like to help my clients see patterns, so as we work together, I’ll want to ask if you see any patterns or things that are similar with how you’re interacting with your children of diverse backgrounds about temples and marriage and the declarations you’re making about their humanity? What’s making marriage such a big deal for you that you have this history of keeping some of your children from doing it, while doing everything that you can to ensure that your other children – the ones who look most like you, as you said – do get married, but only to the “right people” as you’ve said so that they can have sex and make babies. You get no argument from me that kids need structure and to know what the expectations are. I think I would just add that they they need structure as much as they need to see their siblings and themselves treated with consistency. From what you’ve told me, it’s like you’re good with the structure, in that you expect all of your kids to live good lives and get married into eternal families, but you struggle – and have struggled for a long time – with being consistent about who can get married and at what time in their lives and to whom and for what purpose. This is causing stress in your family system that has a root issue at its core that we’ll need to explore and probably address in our work together over time. At your core, though, what’s this like for you? Am I hearing your concerns the way you’re feeling them?”
“It’s frustrating, LaShawn. There is a divine plan of happiness that I firmly believe in and adhere to, yet all of my children are having issues sticking to the Plan as I’ve laid it out for them. A couple of my daughters want to be able to sit and hold their babies when their husbands surround them with a bunch of other men and bless the baby! (Therapist note: Clients tend to run to another issue when they aren’t ready to dive into the one they originally brought up) They’re supposed to follow the Plan, LaShawn. It’s a simple Plan of happiness. They should follow it.”
“And the Prophet?”
“Yes, Him too. Are you LDS?”
“I’m very familiar and comfortable with LDS Culture. It looks like we’ve hit our 45-minute mark for today’s session. Can we meet again next week?”
“Sure. Are you going to the Mormon Mental Health Association Conference with those Sunstone people? I told my son I’d go with him for the Wednesday night keynote.”
“I think you’ll enjoy the keynote. I’ve heard good things about the organization and the work they are trying to do. I’d love to hear what you think about it. As we wrap up today, I want you to know that I believe you love your children and I know you want the best for them. Similarly, I know that you believe in the act of choosing as a divinely given gift and still, you’re struggling to see your children use it.”
“It feels like they’re using it against me.”
“Well, maybe they are. My goal is for you to make space for them to challenge you, challenge their beliefs, and challenge their attachment to you. Do you love your kids?”
“Yes, more than anything.”
“Do you trust that love is stronger in this life and the next?”
“Well, then, we have some work to do ahead of us because I agree. And I agree that our love is extremely tested when we use that gift of choice you value. You aren’t broken. Your children aren’t broken. Your interactions with each other need some attention and change. This is an issue for the family system and as a parent, you get to take the lead and set the example for how family systems move from chaos back into health. I’ve seen other Churches start to do it and it’s helping the relationship they have with their children. I believe we can see similar work happen for you as we take the time needed to explore the pain and the promise of what it means to you – and your children – to be Latter Day Saints.”
“Okay. I’m not sure what to expect from this, LaShawn.”
“Me either. But that’s part of the Plan of Psychotherapy. It’s pretty happy too. I’ll see you next week.”