Sandy Durkin Ford

Adrian Dehlin THRIVE 7 Comments

Content Warning: addiction, homophobia, mental health, racism, religious shaming, sexism

Hi, my name is Sandy Durkin Ford and I’m an ex-Mormon. I am 35 years old and a practicing lawyer living near Chicago, Illinois with my husband and daughter. I was born and raised in the LDS Church by loving and supportive parents. My dad, a convert to Mormonism, worked for CES, and mom stayed at home with me and my four younger siblings. I struggled with addiction and fell away from the LDS Church in my teens and twenties. But I always believed it was true and that I would go back. Eventually, I did and faced a whole new set of challenges. While I was away, I had fallen in love with, and married, a man who was not a member of the LDS Church. I had become a lawyer and the breadwinner of my family. I had also become a staunch, outspoken feminist and supporter of LGBTQ+ rights. In other words, my family did not fit the mold of an “ideal” Mormon family, and my core values – though consistent with Jesus’ teachings and the way I was raised – did not align with positions the LDS Church had taken in culture wars. I remained active until the disconnect between my personal values and the teachings of Mormonism became too great. I left in November 2015. 

My life was good before, but it’s only gotten better since leaving Mormonism. Today, I am still happily married and parenting my daughter. I am close to my parents and siblings, most of whom are active in the LDS Church. I have close friends in and out of Mormonism. I am actively involved in another faith community and in the larger community where I live. I am sober. I have a satisfying and engaging career that supports my family. For fun, I like to run, read, write, play and listen to music, hike, camp, and eat. My life still doesn’t fit into any prescribed molds – it’s too big.

What parts of the Mormon experience were most important or useful to you?

Growing up in a church that emphasized the importance of family relationships – and in a family that tried to follow those teachings – was an overwhelmingly positive experience for me. Both my mother and my father were unconditionally loving, supportive, and engaged in my life. They weren’t, and aren’t, perfect but prioritized family above all else. This dedication has translated into loving relationships that have stood the test of time and difference.

Growing up in a minority religion also had a profound and lasting impact on my life. I lived outside of Utah for most of my life and so had the experience of being fundamentally different from most of my friends, classmates, and neighbors. Through that experience, I gained empathy for other marginalized folks. I also gained the integrity and courage to stand up for my beliefs and advocate for justice, even when it’s unpopular.

What doctrinal or theological parts of Mormonism did you believe that were most important to you?

The idea that families can be together forever is my most-cherished aspect of Mormon doctrine. Though I no longer believe that the saving ordinances administered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are a necessary precondition to being with my family, now or ever, family remains one of my core values. I hope and believe that my relationships with family – my entire family, Mormon or not, believing or not – will transcend the bonds of death.

The twin teachings that “the worth of souls is great in the eyes of God” (D&C 18:10) and that “all are alike unto God, black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33) shaped my worldview and continue to influence the way I live my life. These beliefs are the reason I became a lawyer, the reason I advocated for equality for women and LGBTQ+ people in the LDS Church, the reason I left Mormonism, and the reason I ultimately joined another faith community.

Finally, Mormon doctrines of continuing revelation and personal revelation form the basis of my spiritual life. I believe in a power (which I call God) that meets us where we are and speaks to all of us in ways that we can hear, no matter where we fall on the spectrum of belief.

What spiritual experiences did you have as a Mormon that sealed your orthodox commitment to the LDS Church?

I wouldn’t say my beliefs were ever orthodox. But I did believe the LDS Church was true, and I was committed to it. Experiences that I would describe as spiritual – including experiencing sensations of peace, calm, warmth, and comfort when I prayed, read the Book of Mormon, listened to people bear testimony, and bore witness to things I believed to be true – bolstered my commitment to the LDS Church.

How did you lose your faith in Mormonism (or Orthodox Mormonism)?

I lost the ability to reconcile my belief in a loving God with teachings of the Mormon church. A loving God does not separate families. A loving God would not keep Black people out of the temple and the highest levels of heaven until 1978. A loving God does not require gay people to deny themselves the experience of romantic love. A loving God does not require more or less or different of people based on gender. A loving God does not declare some families to be better than others. A loving God will not be bound by fifteen men or fifteen million Mormons. I did not leave the LDS Church over its complicated history. I like a complicated, challenging faith. I left the LDS Church over its destructive present. I left when I realized a loving God would not require me to stay. 

What parts of Mormonism were harmful to you?

Mormon teachings about gender and sexuality, familial roles especially, both in the world and in the hereafter were incredibly damaging to my sense of self, self-esteem, and general mental health. I found it extraordinarily difficult to reconcile the Mormon doctrine of a woman’s role being to nurture while men provide with my life as a working mom married to a stay-at-dad. As a result of Mormon teachings, and the ways I failed to live up to them (even when due to circumstances beyond my control), I struggled with pervasive shame and anxiety about my family, my marriage, my fitness as a mother, and ultimately, my worth as a person. That I suffered to this degree, even as a feminist who rejected the teaching that women and men are fundamentally different well before I married and had children, is a testament to the pernicious power of messages we receive as children. Nearly five years after leaving Mormonism, I am still working to free myself from unfounded beliefs about the ways women, men, and families should be.

How do you now explain the spiritual experiences that you had as an Orthodox Mormon?

I still believe in God and that many of the experiences I had as a Mormon were spiritual in nature. The difference between what I believed then, versus now, is that the God I believe in is much bigger. I used to think Mormonism was the only place I could find God. Now I know that God is everywhere. God is in all of the churches, and the airports, and the recovery houses, and the hospitals, and the organizing rooms, and the protests, and the concert halls, and the art studios, and the beaches, and the rivers, and the deserts, and the canyons, and the plains, and the streets, and the sidewalks, and the kitchen tables. God is in our books and in our phones. God speaks through anyone willing to open their mouth, and God works through anyone willing to life a hand. For what it’s worth, I am open to the idea that there is some non-spiritual explanation for my experiences and that this life is all there is; I just understand the world better through a spiritual lens.

What was transitioning out of Mormonism (or Orthodox Mormonism) like for you? What was most painful about it? What was most healing or joyful about the transition?

Leaving Mormonism was a very long process for me. I drifted in and out of activity in my teens and early twenties and came back as an unorthodox believer. I remained in the LDS Church as a nuanced believer and progressive Mormon until I was thirty. The most painful aspects of this route were: (1) the cognitive dissonance between what I believed and what I heard at church (about, for example, the role of women); (2) hearing damaging messages about my role as a woman over and over again; (3) feeling rejected by other members of the LDS Church and by leaders who both disagreed with my beliefs and disapproved of my approach to Mormonism; and (4) keeping my struggles a secret in an effort to maintain the image of being a good Mormon.

The healing came when I finally stopped attending church and told my family that I was leaving. The most healing aspects of this process were: (1) realizing that my family loved and accepted me as I was; (2) seeing that my life did not fall apart when I left the LDS Church; and (3) finding that all the joy and connection and spirituality I sought from Mormonism could be found outside the LDS Church.

In what ways did LDS Church leaders or members make your transition more difficult?

Leaving the LDS Church was easy. The harder thing was staying in a family that did not look like other Mormon families with beliefs that did not look like other Mormon beliefs. Mormonism is not set up to support past-member families, women who work, or unorthodox believers. Though I attended church almost every week and served in callings, I had virtually no social support. I was largely unable to attend official church activities, which were scheduled in the evenings when I was with my daughter, and was rarely invited to unofficial activities. Members of the LDS Church, including leaders, who criticized the way I spoke about issues affecting women and LGBTQ+ people made me feel unwelcome. Talks and lessons (at the local, stake, and churchwide level) about families, gender, sexuality, etc. made me feel unwelcome. The LDS Church’s insistence on engaging in culture wars and political issues made me feel unwelcome. The reaction of LDS Church leaders to Wear Pants to Church Day and Ordain Women made me feel unwelcome. The excommunication of Kate Kelly made me feel unwelcome. Members of the LDS Church determined to weed out dissent and unorthodoxy in Mormonism made me feel unwelcome. In November 2015, after the LDS Church implemented its policy excluding children of gay parents from baptism, I asked my bishop how my family was different from the families impacted by the policy. In response, my bishop told me that my family would always be welcome within Mormonism. Unfortunately, the exclusion policy made it impossible to stay.

Were there LDS Church leaders or members who were helpful to you? If so, how?

Leaders who treated me like a valuable member of the ward by, for example, extending me callings and inviting me to speak, were helpful because they made me believe there was a place for me in Mormonism. Progressive and nuanced believers who are happy and active in the LDS Church were helpful to me because they showed me there is more than one way to be Mormon. More traditional believers who were kind to me and willing to engage in discussion on tough topics were helpful to me. They showed me the value in worshipping, working, and serving together. This last group was probably the reason I stayed so long – they sustained my belief in a Zion where we would all be united in heart and mind, notwithstanding our different walks of life.

What resources were most helpful in your transition out of Mormonism (or Orthodox Mormonism)?

Online resources that connected me to other unorthodox believers were most helpful to me during the years I was striving to remain a member of the LDS Church. In particular, I found tremendous emotional support in the Feminist Mormon Housewives community (both on Facebook and the website) and from the stories featured on the Mormon Stories Podcast. I also appreciated the Mormon Matters Podcast as a resource for developing nuanced approaches to complicated issues in Mormonism.

What significant mistakes did you make in your transition?

The only thing I regret about my transition is keeping the reality of faith journey and experiences with mental health and substance abuse a secret for so long. Since leaving, I have started speaking openly about these issues, and, in doing so, have connected with many members who struggled with the same issues. I can only imagine how much it would have helped me to know I was not alone. The culture of perfectionism in Mormonism causes much unnecessary suffering. We are called to bear one another’s burdens, but how can we do that if we don’t talk about what’s burdening us?

How has your leaving Mormonism affected your family relationships, friendships, job, neighbor relationships, social life, etc.?

Leaving Mormonism has not had any negative impacts on my relationships. Overall, outside of Mormonism, I am a healthier and happier person, and my relationships are stronger and deeper for it. I am able to show up as a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, niece, granddaughter, friend, neighbor, employee, and community member. The only relationships I lost were the surface level friendships I had with members of my ward.

How have you navigated communication and relationships with believing family and friends? Any tips to keeping those people in your life?

My approach to leaving Mormonism was to go very slowly, and I think this benefitted my relationships in that it was not particularly shocking when I left. I chose to tell my family that I was leaving in person, before I shared that information on social media. I choose not to engage in debates about Mormonism with family members or friends. This is an easy option for me, because I respect the LDS Church as a valid path for many people and have no interest in persuading anyone else to leave.

Which (if any) of your former Mormon beliefs/behaviors have you retained after your faith crisis?

In many ways, my life looks the same as it did when I was Mormon, though my belief system is much broader. I joined another Christian church and attend weekly service. I teach Sunday School. I observe the Sabbath. I don’t drink. I tithe. I practice repentance. I read the Bible. I look for opportunities to serve. I try to follow the teachings of Jesus.

In what ways have your beliefs/behaviors changed after your faith crisis?

As far as behaviors, the only real differences in my lifestyle are that I drink coffee and wear whatever I want. The biggest changes are invisible to everyone but me. I no longer worry about having the “right” beliefs or care what anyone else believes. I feel less shame about being a working mom and being in a mixed-faith marriage. I no longer live in fear of being punished for my choices and mistakes.

What are your thoughts/beliefs now about God and Jesus?

I believe in a loving and personal God that does not require us to cede authority to institutions or people. That’s about all I can say for certain.

How do you now make sense of death and the afterlife?

I don’t, and I don’t try. I am more concerned with this life.

Without the LDS Church telling you what is “right” and “wrong,” how do you establish your own sense of morality/right/wrong?

Many of the values I live by now are the same as those I was taught as a young women in the LDS Church: hope (faith), the inherent divinity of all people (divine nature), the inherent value of all people (individual worth), understanding (knowledge), agency and responsibility (choice and accountability), service (good works), and authenticity/honest (integrity). I rely on my intuition/conscience to guide my actions. When I need more guidance, I seek it out from people who I trust and respect. When I make choices that are out of alignment with my values, I adjust. When I do harm, I make amends. 

Do you still value “spirituality” in your life (spirituality defined as “connection to something bigger than yourself”), and if so, what are your main sources of spiritual fulfillment?

Yes. I draw spiritual fulfillment from a variety of sources – ranging from my recovery program to a traditional Christian church to esoteric practices (such as tarot). On a weekly basis, I worship with a church community. On a daily basis, I meditate and pray. As often as possible, I try to connect with a power higher than myself and be of service to someone other than myself.

To what extent have you found healthy and meaningful community to replace the role of the ward/stake in your life?

Community was something I yearned for as a Mormon, but was never able to access. As a working mom and unorthodox believer in a part-member family, I never fully connected with the wards I was in. The community I have found in my friends, colleagues, neighborhood, and new church is stronger and more meaningful than the community I had in my ward and stake.

What meaning and purpose does life have to you now that you no longer believe in Mormonism?

I still believe that people are that they might have joy (2 Nephi 2:25).

If you are a parent, how has losing your faith in Mormonism affected how you parent?

Leaving Mormonism and the expectation of perfection in motherhood has made me a better, more relaxed parent. I no longer worry that my child is fated to suffer because I work or her dad doesn’t attend church. And I no longer worry that she will be subjected to toxic teachings about families, gender, and sexuality at church. 

If you are married or have a significant other, how has leaving Mormonism affected this 
relationship?

Leaving Mormonism and the expectations around marriage has dramatically improved my relationship with my husband. I no longer feel pressure to convert him, guilt over our respective roles at home, or worry that we will not be together in the afterlife.

How has leaving Mormonism affected your mental health?

In my case, leaving Mormonism precipitated significant improvement in my mental health (specifically anxiety), depression, and substance use disorder.

How has leaving Mormonism affected your sexual health?

Decline to answer. 

What aspects of your life are better after Mormonism (or Orthodox Mormonism)?

Every aspect of my life has improved since I left Mormonism, including my physical and mental health, emotional well-being, spiritual life, relationships, and career. I don’t attribute all of these improvements to leaving the LDS Church. But in my case, doing so freed me to pursue a life I actually want.

What is your life still missing? In what ways could your life still be improved without Mormonism?

I am still working on unlearning damaging beliefs pertaining to family, gender, and sexuality that exacerbate underlying mental health conditions.

What final advice would you give folks who are transitioning?

You will be okay. Your family will be okay.

To read more from Sandy, you can find a piece she wrote for Feminist Mormon Housewives here and one of her published essays here. You can also follow Sandy’s Instagram and/or Facebook accounts.

Comments 7

  1. Sandy:
    I really enjoyed your posting and your reflections on life in and outside of Mormonism. Your positive reflections of the Faith, coupled with your clear annunciations of what ultimately did not work, for you, were very well described and spoke to me. I was a fourteen-year old convert (1975) and became the ‘golden convert’, who served a self-funded LDS mission, graduated from BYU, and became a church leader. In truth, I fled a family struggle with alcoholism to the safety of Mormonism. Then, as a Church leader, I watched as several of my own children and my spouse struggled with eating disorders, prescription drug and alcohol addiction, and it seemed like my life had come ‘full-circle’; and I felt just as helpless as an adult living with substance abuse disorders, in my family, as I did as a child. A nearly two decade-long struggle ensured, ending with my addicted spouse suffering from a degenerative brain disease. All of the suffering, the chaos in our family system, my inability to manage it well, despite years of counseling and therapy for many of us, became too much, and I made choices that resulted in my excommunication. And my excommunication, tragic as it was, has become my awakening. An awakening to how pernicious the idea of “perfectionism” can be to many people, who never seem to measure up. An awakening to how mental health actually improves outside of Mormonism. And an awakening to a definition of love that is much larger than Mormon narratives. Like you, I still have a “Connection to the Devine”, but I am not as certain about what that connection or power really is; and I have come to live in peace with uncertainty. I have let go of fear, and still love my LDS friends. And, also like you, some LDS people have “let me go”, and a few have remain cherished friends. Your story is profound, positive, and powerful! Please keep sharing with us, and letting us know that there is so much life beyond the constraints of the Brighamite Church. Thank you

    1. Hi Shane, thanks so much for sharing your story! I hear echoes of my experiences in your story as I’m sure you do in mine. It was eye opening to me to realize that addiction is no respecter of religion and that the boundaries we try to put around ourselves with religion are not fail safe. I do think that the church does a lot of good in providing a path of temperance for many people, but the culture of shame and perfectionism makes it harder for those of us who stray off the path to find recovery. I am sorry to hear about the suffering you and your family experienced and for your spouse’s illness, but am heartened by what sound like positive experiences in more recent years. And, as always, I am grateful for the chance to connect!

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