Part 1: Letting Go of the Iron Rod
Five years ago Braden and I were going through some major changes in our lives. I had just moved out of the house that Braden spent his first four years in. It was where he took his first steps, rode his first tricycle and learned how to feed Cheerios to his salt water fishies. It was the first house we ever owned. We painted every wall (sometimes twice) in that house, planted pear trees and gladiola; we sanded the floors, and you can still see my footprints in the wood stain.
It was our home and there our family was whole. But a new chapter was being written and with it a new place, a new start, and a new perspective: divorce will do that to a person. Marriage changes you. This I was prepared for, but what I didn’t expect to change was my attitude towards the Mormon faith. During our marriage my then husband and I slowly dissected the Church out of our lives. It started small: in fact, the changes were so minute many would not even recognize their significance.
“The safest road to hell is the gradual one- the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without sign posts.” –C.S. Lewis
The first to go (and the easiest to be honest) was not paying tithing. Our scriptures on the side of our bed eventually found a home in a box in the attic. Family prayers were non-existent, as our busy schedules created hectic mornings and different bed times. We were never home. Then we were never at church.
At least he wasn’t. It took me a bit longer, as I had a primary calling that forced me to make an appearance for at least two hours every Sunday. When I was released and given a second calling in Young Women, I quickly found an excuse to be “un-called,” as my schedule at work often had me working late on Wednesday nights. It was an excuse. They were all excuses.
All these changes, and I didn’t even notice the effects. The Spirit was no longer there. The Holy Ghost no longer heard, and the Priesthood presence was gone. All protections keeping the shadows at bay were no longer being exercised and thus ceased to exist in our home. With no right or wrong, black or white, the gray areas took over. The grays became darker ’till black filled the voids without us even flinching. Skipping church had only been the beginning; the gentle slope was only a deception created by the adversary.
What we perceived as an easy going lifestyle with no radical ill effects was a trick of the eye; we simply couldn’t see the consequences that lay ahead; nor did we understand how heart-wrenching those milestones would become. As we continued to travel away from the iron rod, our decisions became based on instant gratification instead of long term happiness. Reasoning was no longer backed up by gospel truths, but instead by worldly truths.
The most deceiving of these truths was pornography: an idea that if we were to partake of this indulgence together, it would only strengthen our intimacy. We followed that lie all the way to the store then back to our home. What once was our safety net, a place to worship and feel the spirit, was now barren and void of true worship, true intimacy and true love, and quickly replaced by fake, shallow emptiness.
That insincerity, that shallowness and eventual numbness became the center of our relationship. Our eternal marriage that was sealed for all time and eternity was crumbling. We simply didn’t hold up our end of the bargain: God could no longer reach us. That was the catalyst and it still haunts.
I remember an assignment in writing class to describe my “happy place.” My imagination came to life, and with it a two page paper ensued describing the landscape perfectly, how I entered, what I did and how I felt. It wasn’t until now that I see the symbolism. I’m in the woods walking toward a clearing, and at the edge I see a meadow of wild flowers. My valley is surrounded by tall pines flanked by mountains and the sky, of course, cloudy with a chance of liquid sunshine. In the middle of this field is where I walk to. My hands brush over the tips of the flowers and the wind is beckoning me onward. Standing alone and assured in the middle of the field is an ancient, bedraggled oak tree, and there I climb to a familiar branch where a pile of books is waiting for me — and I am well.
Part 2: Losing My Voice
To continue on with the second part of my journey I need to first share two ideas that I grew up believing to be truths: 1) We cannot have a happy life without the Gospel. 2) Satan will use evil to lure you away: obvious, flashy, extreme evil. Never have I believed two bigger lies. You can have a happy earthly life without the Gospel. Many have proven this very fact. Those who have never been taught the gospel and even those who have left the teachings can live very responsible, happy and fulfilling lives. The problem with this lie is that once it’s deflated you start to question other truths.
The Adversary doesn’t use extreme situations to beguile you. All he needs is for us to quietly disregard our Savior: the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. To accomplish this, he doesn’t resign himself to blatant temptations. Instead he uses mirrors — reflections of your truest desires — all the while escorting you away from your path. He knew my desires and thus created a counterfeit. Was I happy? I thought I was.
I had a husband, a home, a beautiful child, nice friends, secure job, and day-to-day our lives were uncomplicated, easy and predictable. We didn’t worry about fitting tithing into our budget or what rating the movie had. Some friends knew we “used to be religious freaks” but new acquaintances didn’t pre-judge us or isolate us with the clichéd questions of all things weird and Mormon: it was a nice break from the stereotype. The more successful we became in our lives without our Heavenly Father, the more we believed we never needed Him.
Then something odd happened. It’s hard to explain it, but as loud, opinionated and boisterous a person as I was, I soon became a little… less. Bit by bit my quick mind and sharp tongue took a break: I was surrounding myself with people I wanted to fit in with. I no longer stood up for my beliefs, and with no beliefs I lost my footing. I had no stance: no conflicting ideas to the popular opinions, and from never using my voice, I eventually lost it.
My confidence was ebbing, and because of that, a lot of deformations started taking root, pivoting my personality into someone else completely. To this day I think of what my family must have gone through, watching me become less than my former self. The smiles became fake, and my sincerity weakened. At the time I felt it was my brothers and sisters who were pulling away, but in true perspective I was cowering away from their light. It was too bright and too overwhelming.
I slumped into a false sense of self. The consequences of my actions were beginning to suffocate me. I was no longer admired by my husband for my strong testimony or nurturing spirit. He no longer saw me as a Daughter of God but as a vulnerable, submissive shadow. What started out as mutual pornography participation soon became habit. All of the sudden I was competing with women who looked and acted and emoted ideal sexuality. My attributes were discarded as unattractive and my flaws highlighted next to the images being broadcast on the screen.
Instinctively, I started burrowing further into my own inadequacies. Fight or flight is a subconscious reaction, and I could no longer fight for myself, because I felt I had become this nothingness. There was never deep rooted depression or hopelessness: those red flags might have awoken me to reality. But what made me ME was long gone and replaced by a shallow replica that was to afraid to speak up. I was never in physical danger, and emotionally I hurt him just as much as he hurt me.
We did this together, we destroyed our relationship and we were both too bitter to rebuild knowing it would only amount to a lesser model. All the while we put on an outward show to those watching us. An eleven year- marriage with a good-natured son seemed to others as the ideal lifestyle.
Then the mirrors began to slip and an inescapable domino effect came into play: each mirror shattered one after the other leaving a mess that I was too afraid to walk away from. I didn’t realize how fake it all was until the lie was exposed. I found myself standing in a void, far from my meadow. I looked behind me and saw endless footsteps as proof that I had been walking this barren landscape for quite some time. Where were my mountains bordering my haven? The pine trees no longer guarding me. No wild flowers to cheer me, and the wind, once an assurance that I was never alone, was no longer felt. Where was my oak tree: my center, my Master whom I went to for peace?
My books: happy memories filling every page were nonexistent. Nothing. I had walked away from all of it: willingly.
Part 3: Finding my Center
The opposite of love isn’t hate, its indifference.
At that point in our marriage we had both become indifferent to one another. We didn’t want to fight for past happiness or pick up the pieces: there were too many, and it was too daunting.
After all these years I can look back and see stepping stones strategically placed that helped me out of the pitfall. Tools needed to help me persevere: like the job opportunity that I almost turned down at the beginning of the year, but I didn’t. This new job no longer gave me the flexible schedule, but it did give me security and a much needed raise in salary.
With the new job came more opportunities, and by the time it was decided that I would move out, I had the means to do so and thrive on my own. Another blessing was my family; brothers that I had kept at arm’s length came to my side and stood guard as my emotions crumbled. Sisters who showed nothing but love and support and parents who made me feel invincible. At that point I wasn’t praying, but they were.
I was blessed because of their faith.
I was watched after and protected because of their daily devotions.
And my son, my innocent and sweet boy, was shielded from the devastation that took over his home because of my family’s righteousness.
By my 31st birthday I was moved out into my own apartment and I was healing. My brother Brad asked me if I had considered going back to church after seven years of being away, and I told him that the last thing I wanted to do was return simply because I was broken. I didn’t want to be insincere with my return, and at that point I didn’t put much consideration into going back to that lifestyle, an ideal I didn’t think I could devote myself to.
So I stayed away and focused on the next steps of finalizing custody arrangements and divorce paperwork. Being alone gave me time to reflect and time to breathe: more blessings that I didn’t realize at the time.
That solitude was short lived. He wasn’t ready to give up on me.
A week into my new found “freedom” I was driving home from work. My mind was free of any pressing matters and my thoughts started to roam when the stillness was interrupted.
“You will go back to church on Sunday.”
I knew that voice.
I knew that feeling, that overwhelming sense of direction and peace, and I couldn’t ignore it. Without question, without self doubt I followed that command and I went back to a very familiar, very warm and very welcoming place.
Was it odd going back from so many years of being away?
No, it felt natural and familiar.
Was it easy?
It never is.
Was it worth it?
Every step since then has been an up-hill climb to regain what I had let go of. For every moment that I falter or doubt, I simply have to look at my son to understand that this journey is for the both of us.
Finding my way back wasn’t enough.
Relying on the Atonement is a sacred, edifying experience. As guilt pushes you forward and humility kneels you down, that moment of forgiveness, self -forgiveness, takes over and overwhelms the senses.
But first, before any purification could take place, I needed to take one more step.
That first meeting with the bishop proved to be a very secure and nonjudgmental haven. He gave me a task — the simplest and most obvious piece of advice that I knew from countless primary, Sunday school and seminary lessons was fundamental in my forgiveness process.
So that night as I went home to my quiet and deserted apartment, I knelt down to pray. A habit I was taught years ago during Family Home Evening — to pray before you open your scriptures so that as you studied, your mind would be focused and your heart open. My bishop had assigned me to read my scriptures, and there I was on my knees prepared to do just that, when I realized it was the one thing I couldn’t do. Frantically, I searched the boxes strewn over the house and none of them contained my scriptures. Down on my knees again I went as I cried to my Father.
“I don’t have my scriptures.”
Read your scriptures.
“But I don’t have them.” And as I cried at my bedside I had a clear image of where they were and I wept even harder.
“I left them. I can’t go back there. Not now.” Pleading again as I realized they were in a box, in the attic of the home I left days before.
“Please don’t have me go there.”
Read your scriptures.
“I can’t. I can’t go back. I’m not strong enough.”
Read your scriptures.
With that last command the panic and the anxiety left me. I once again had a clear image in my head and without hesitating I stood up, walked to my closet, and clumsily lifted a box of off the shelf. The edges were worn and the cardboard weak. I hadn’t looked in this box in years — not since I had packed it up eleven years ago when I moved out of my parent’s home.
I sat down and opened the flaps, seeing old high school paraphernalia and lose papers shifting in the space as I kept burrowing down. My jewelry box was on the very bottom. Mahogany wood, simple and elegant, I had forgotten I even had it ’till that moment. Therein were my Young Woman medallions, an old CTR ring and forgotten necklaces tangled in with one another. But it was the bottom drawer that held my interest, and as it slid open I pulled out a folded-over legal envelope. Soft and worn through from all the times it was opened and handled.
And there it was: my anchor.
“Sister Megan Ann Steyskal in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, by the power and by the authority of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood I place my hands upon your head on this special day to give you a blessing, even your patriarchal blessing.”
My personal scripture.
“It will be a guide and an influence for you throughout your life and will help you understand your relationship with your Heavenly Father to help confirm within your heart that you are, indeed, His daughter.”
How could I have ever forgotten? In that moment I felt a release of energy and a renewed strength as the Spirit confirmed to me my lineage.
Who am I?
Where did I come from?
Why am I here?
Where am I going?
It was all there; revealed and written years ago, so that I would always have a reference to the divinity of my existence and my place in His plan.
Since then, I have had one more question that needed to be answered. An answer that I’ve spent the last five years coming to terms with. Through my own personal journey of the Atonement I needed to dig a little deeper to allow my true nature, my true spirit to live on.
Why am I the way that I am?
How could I ever allow this to happen? How did I fall away? Was it me? Was I not strong enough? WHY AM I THE WAY THAT I AM?
Why am I a bit too loud? Why is it impossible for me to whisper? Why do I think my obnoxiousness is so charming? Or better yet, why is my charm so obnoxious? Why do I love to sing out loud knowing I’m an atrocious singer? How is it that I can write for hours and yet have the attention span of a squirrel when I’m forced to sit down and pay attention? Why do I question everything? Why am I so open about my life no matter how embarrassing and shameful? Why do I giggle every time I say kumquat? Why do I look the way I do? Why do I speak before I think? And why, WHY, was I ever afraid to be me?
I had ignored who I was, and in doing so questioned my role in this life. I didn’t seem to ever fit, so instead of changing my environment to that of Christ-like love, I changed myself. My personality waned, my obedience shifted and my insecurities festered. I lost my faith, my voice and thus lost myself.
You are, indeed, His daughter
And because of that scripture, my patriarchal blessing, I was able to find myself again in His love.