Content Warning: mental health, miscarriage, religious shaming, sexism
My name is Sian Coombs, and I am 35 years old. I met my husband, Paul, at university where I was studying criminology and he was studying law. Paul was not a member of the LDS Church, and had never heard of Mormons prior to meeting me, but he converted after about a year of investigating. We have been married for 16 years, and have 5 children together; they are 15, 13, 7, 5 and 2. We live in North Wales, in the U.K. Paul is a lawyer, and I am currently a stay-at-home mum.
I was raised in Wales. My parents were converts to the LDS church, and I was the seventh of nine children. Having this many children isn’t typical for where we live. We were certainly a big family, and our religion was very much a part of our identity.
I had a lot of experiences as a young Mormon girl which would impact my life and shape the person I would become. My parents separated when I was 9 years old. Their divorce was very tough on me and my siblings, things were messy for many years. My dad remarried soon after, and my mum did some years later. This experience was a big part of my growing up in the church. I later experienced a miscarriage as a 17-year-old and was met with all the shame and complications of church disciplinary. I went through another disciplinary a couple of years later when I met Paul and fell pregnant before we were married.
After this rocky start, we ‘straightened’ ourselves out, were married in the temple, and began our lives as true-believing, fully committed members of the LDS church. We remained active for the next 15 years, until we decided to leave in the spring/summer of 2019.
My Mormon Stories interview can be found here.
What parts of the Mormon experience were most important or useful to you?
Being a Mormon was very much my life – both as a young person and also as an adult raising my own children. Due to Primary and Youth Programme involvement, my whole network and social life was centered around the ward/stake where I grew up. Because membership is relatively small there, the LDS Church ‘needs’ you and vice versa. I had church callings as a young teenager, and was very active within the youth programme in my stake. After having my own children, I found it gave our family good, strong values, along with direction and guidance for parenting.
What doctrinal or theological parts of Mormonism did you believe that were most important to you?
As a Mormon, it can sometimes feel like you have all the answers, and that was comforting. I never really had to think much for myself – I knew who I was, why I was on Earth, and where I was going. The template for how to achieve eternal life was very clearly set out. I believed in eternal families, which of course is a wonderful idea. I came from a broken home, so the idea that this life was temporary, and family life would somehow be different or better at some point, was always such a comfort to me. Family is the most important thing to most of us, so the thought of being with my husband, our children, and the rest of my wider family was really all I ever wanted.
Growing into adulthood, I really came to understand the Atonement and was so grateful for it. I had developed a relationship with the Saviour, and loved him. I believed that through Him I could overcome all things – not just be forgiven of my sins, but change my character and become better. Having someone to turn to helped me not feel alone at my darkest times. I felt like someone was always there. That He listened to and understood me because He had felt everything I feel.
Prayer and personal revelation had also become a big part of my life. I had a strong testimony of prayer and felt my life was guided at every step of the way.
What spiritual experiences did you have as a Mormon that sealed your orthodox commitment to the LDS Church?
I didn’t ever have a big spiritual experience, but my testimony developed little by little over the years. I had many small spiritual experiences over the course of my life, to the point that I felt I couldn’t ever deny the LDS Church was true. When living as instructed, I felt happier and guided on a more day-to-day basis. My testimony was also built through the music. I really enjoyed being part of choirs and always felt the spirit when we would sing. I enjoyed seminary and memorising scriptures. Often scripture passages would pop into my head in answer to certain questions I had.
How did you lose your faith in Mormonism (or Orthodox Mormonism)?
In the Spring of 2019, a few things started to shift in my head, affecting the way I viewed things. I was serving as a youth Sunday School teacher, and my older children were advancing through their teenage years. I started to realise that I wanted these young people to think for themselves. I no longer wanted to tell them what I thought, and have them believe. I wanted them to be free in their own journey and thought process. This helped me to see that I had never been a real critical thinker. I lived life in line with the teachings of my parents, but this meant I had now reached my mid-thirties and never really thought for myself. I became more cognizant of the ways in which my automatic ‘church’ answers did not quite reflect what I really thought or felt. When it came to social issues, I would check the handbook to see what the LDS Church’s perspective was on things. But after actually stopping to think about my own feelings, I realised they contradicted the church position. There were things about church history that I knew a bit about, but didn’t feel okay with. I had never explored those things further. I just trusted God knew best, and thought it wasn’t my place to question. I knew there were times when past prophets had got things wrong. I became concerned with how we might know whether the current leaders were leading and guiding us righteously. I also recognized that my own local leaders had got things wrong in the past. This led to the conclusion that they weren’t really guided by God and perhaps the spirit of discernment wasn’t real (or certainly wasn’t fool proof).
In addition, I began craving authenticity. I felt like I had never really formed strong or meaningful relationships because I was not able to be my real self. Previously, I had only felt understood as my true self around family, but I started to feel that less with those who were orthodox-believing. I wasn’t quite able to be my real self around church friends, because I felt differently from them and somehow wasn’t quite as ‘good’. I always kept non-church friends at a distance, because I felt differently from them too.
Things that seemed so important in the LDS Church, like modesty, appearance, and the Word of Wisdom, all started to feel unimportant to me. It was not that I desired to break these commandments, but instead began to wonder why God would care about such insignificant things. I came across a few quotes that previous church leaders had said, and they disturbed me. I wondered if it was possible that the LDS Church had gone astray at some point. I had a testimony of God the Father and Jesus Christ. I believed in Joseph Smith, the First Vision, and The Book of Mormon. Even still, I wondered if other components of the LDS Church were wrong or unnecessary. Tithing felt wrong, the temple felt wrong – the more I would think about things, the more wrong they began to feel. I became very aware that all important decisions I had made throughout life were done with the LDS Church in mind. It was quite literally controlling all my decisions.I didn’t know for sure that the guidance I received was really right and coming from God. So, I made the decision to take a step back from everything as I knew it – to re-examine myself, and my life. After all, I now had teenagers and wanted to be sure I was taking them in the right direction. I worried that my commitment to the LDS Church could possibly drive a wedge between me and my own children, just as it had with my own parents and siblings growing up. Especially if they were to think differently from me.
As I was grappling with all of these thoughts and feelings in my head, I came across the CES letter. I read parts of it, and tried to make excuses or explain how such things could be. In very little time, I concluded that the world I knew was not what it seemed. Perhaps I had been wrong about everything all along.
What parts of Mormonism were harmful to you?
When Mormonism works well, it’s great. But there are a lot of aspects I have found incredibly damaging. The idea of an eternal family, as a child from a broken home, was confusing. The LDS Church gives a great deal of direction for the small, insignificant aspects of life, but this big, important aspect remained so unclear. Who would I spend eternity with, my mum or my dad? When my dad remarried and was sealed to his new wife and her children in the temple, I couldn’t make sense of it all. It felt like we were losing our dad. I became increasingly focused on getting married and having children, which came with additional pressure to make my own family perfect.
I also think the LDS Church harmed my relationship with my mum. She was excommunicated, so in my mind she was the bad one. I thought she was responsible for my parents’ break-up, and we judged her harshly for this. She lost authority in our lives and we respected her less. This hindered our relationship in my teenage years. At the time, I thought excommunication was right and just. now I think it’s an abhorrent practice.
As a teenage girl, I had to go through several worthiness interviews with my bishop. I have no doubt that my bishop was simply following what he thought to be best, but to me the questions were invasive and inappropriate. When I became a mother, long before I’d heard of Sam Young and his plight, I decided I was not going to let my own children go through such questioning. I was asked for details surrounding sexual things I had done, and do not think that was acceptable. Because I was trying to be a good girl, I answered. I look back and feel cross with myself for accepting such behavior. Even at the time, it didn’t feel okay. I was told that my actions were second to murder, and I recall disagreeing with that. I knew deep down that I was still good, but this made me question my worth even more. I also received lessons in Young Women’s about how you could never be completely whole after engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage. I was taught that I like unto a chewed sweet. This caused me to feel like I was no longer worthy to marry a returned missionary. I wasn’t sure what that meant for me. I was told that my present romantic relationship would never be acceptable in God’s eyes, and worthy members of the LDS Church were too good for me. Due to shame surrounding chastity issues, I was given no help in coming to terms with my miscarriage. The only time this was ever spoken about was in worthiness interviews. I was scarred for many years and felt that I carried a big secret. It was an experience that I’d been through, but could not be open about. I was never encouraged to really deal with it. I wasn’t allowed to grieve for my loss. I was only supposed to repent and thank my lucky stars to have been given a second chance. But at that time, all I really wanted was my baby.
As a young mother, I suffered with depression and self-esteem issues, which I attribute to my role within the home. I felt as if I had no other option but to be a homemaker. Like everyone else was continuing with life, while mine had frozen still. I love my children, and I don’t necessarily regret my time with them. But a better balance could have been made between raising them and developing myself. I could have gone against the grain and pursued a job outside of the home, but felt that would only harm my mental health further. It wouldn’t be doing what I should: it wouldn’t be fulfilling my divine role. Mental health issues are such a taboo within the LDS Church. There are really only two reasons given for struggling with depression, unrighteousness or lack of faith.
Finally, I feel that being a member of the LDS Church hindered my ability to form real and meaningful relationships. Within Mormonism, we so often only allow people to see a perfect front. I found it hard to be my real self, and authenticity is crucial for real relationships. I always kept people from outside the LDS Church at a distance.
How do you now explain the spiritual experiences that you had as an Orthodox Mormon?
I don’t think too deeply about them. I don’t like to say such things aren’t real, but also acknowledge that people of all different faiths have similar experiences. I believe there is something beyond our comprehension and that our lives can be guided in a particular way for all sorts of reasons. Whether that be divinity or our inner selves, I’m not so sure.
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?
At first, I thought dealing with potential backlash from friends and family would be the worst part. That wasn’t so. By and large, people were kind and understanding. Although the process was emotionally draining, it was okay. For me, the hardest part was dealing with internal feelings of loss and grief. For a long time, I’d wake each morning and question if this could really be happening. The feelings of deception and betrayal were very real. I gave my whole life to the LDS Church, and I had clearly been lied to along the way. Getting through the first Christmas was really difficult. I felt a real sadness, maybe depression even. Easter was a little easier, but still hard. It was tough coming to terms with thinking I once had answers for everything, and now actually knew nothing.
The most joyful part was starting a journey of self-discovery. I could throw out everything that didn’t make sense in the LDS Church. I not longer needed to grapple with all the hurtful doctrines, I could just reject them as absolute falsehoods. Now I was free to think for myself. It was so nice to listen to Mormon Stories, hear stories of people who experience same-sex attraction or were transgender, and not automatically jump to my own conclusions or judgements about them. What I came to realise very quickly, is that my heart is so much more open and accepting than I had ever allowed it to be. All that I have achieved in this life was, in fact, me. I am naturally a much better person than I ever realised. I feared what would become of me without the LDS Church, and it was really refreshing to discover that growth and improvement were possible without doctrinal limitations. My relationship with my children also improved as I was able to embrace, and be more open about, my own human experiences.
In what ways did LDS Church leaders or members make your transition more difficult?
They didn’t at all. I kept my interactions brief, and my leaders respected that.
Were there LDS Church leaders or members who were helpful to you? If so, how?
I felt respected in my decision to leave. My Bishop and a member of the stake presidency offered to meet, but I declined. My mind was made up, and the conversations would have been too traumatic and emotionally draining. It felt truly liberating to actually exercise agency for the first time, to take control for the first time ever in saying no.
What resources were most helpful in your transition out of Mormonism (or Orthodox Mormonism)?
In the early days, I consumed a lot of Mormon Stories interviews. I worked through the top 25 and supplemented with new ones as they were being released. Doing so really helped me feel less alone. There is so much power in sharing stories, and I found that really helpful. In addition, I enjoyed listening to recordings from Thrive events, along with some Radio Free Mormon, Bill Reel, and Year of Polygamy every so often.
What significant mistakes did you make in your transition?
I do not feel like I made any significant mistakes. Which is not to say that I got everything spot on, but I don’t have any real regrets about how I handled things.
How has your leaving Mormonism affected your family relationships, friendships, job, neighbor relationships, social life, etc.?
I’d be lying if I said leaving Mormonism didn’t affect relationships with family members. My marriage and relationship with my children have definitely improved. We are much more open in our home, which is a great thing. The downside is that other relationships have become more distant, but that was probably inevitable. I feel like everyone is trying their best, but it’s tough.
I wouldn’t say there’s been an effect with friendships. Those friends who were real friends are still friends. My network has been reduced but I’m okay with that; and being in the U.K neighbours and jobs etc aren’t impacted at all.
How have you navigated communication and relationships with believing family and friends? Any tips on keeping those people in your life?
Initially, I kept conversations about my leaving brief. I was still trying to figure things out in my own head, come to terms with everything, and deal with a lot of emotion. I let people know I was leaving, but asked not to have conversations about it. I have engaged in more conversations since then, but people likely think I’ve been deceived or allowed issues from my past to push me away. It is a really difficult balance because I was learning new things all the time, and wanted to shout it from the rooftops, but ultimately knew that would be counterproductive. I decided I wouldn’t go about actively trying to tell people things, but also refused to be completely silenced or shamed by problems with the LDS Church that weren’t my fault.
Which (if any) of your former Mormon beliefs/behaviors have you retained after your faith crisis?
I am not sure, to be honest. My beliefs are constantly changing and evolving. The reality is, I don’t know what to believe, and I’m not too concerned about it either. In the beginning, I thought I needed some sort of religion and would probably explore some other Christian denominations. But, as time passes, I am finding that is not what I want or need. I still consider myself a Christian, loosely. I don’t know that Jesus is the Saviour, and I don’t know God exists as I’ve always been taught, but I believe Jesus is a good example to follow.
In what ways have your beliefs/behaviors changed after your faith crisis?
Some behaviours have changed, as I have let go of certain rules. The Word of Wisdom no longer means anything to me, so I sometimes drink coffee and alcohol, but neither one have become a big part of my life. They’re just no longer things I must not do. When it comes to behaviour that really matters, I have not changed at all. I still want to be a good person, and help those in need. I believe that’s just innate. But it now comes from a real genuine desire, rather than a programme telling me to.
What are your thoughts/beliefs now about God and Jesus?
At first, I held onto my faith in God and Jesus. But as time goes by, these beliefs are changing. I no longer know if either are real, and I am not sure I’d even say I have faith or hope that they are. I once clung onto such hope because letting go seemed so painful, but that has eased with time as I have come to terms with things. I could not have gone from a sure knowledge to no belief in one day. I believe in some sort of divinity, and I think Jesus existed as a great teacher.
How do you now make sense of death and the afterlife?
I believe there is something after this life, but I don’t know what. I do not believe there is one true church and one right path. If there is a God, I don’t think he would be as ineffective at getting people to come unto him as the Mormon God seems to be. I do not think he would try to trick and test people either.
Without the LDS Church telling you what is “right” and “wrong,” how do you establish your own sense of morality/right/wrong?
I was really worried about this one. I remember clearly asking my husband what would become of me without the LDS Church. I worried that over time I would dwindle into a less moral person without that constant guide and reminder to keep me on the ‘right path.’ That’s what we have always been taught in the church, isn’t it? Well, it was an absolute fallacy. I am no less moral now than I was before. In fact, I feel I’m better than ever. My desire and capacity to love others has increased. I am so much more open minded, less inclined to judge and criticise. I am still honest and good. My motivation comes purely from my own desire – not for any reward or fear of punishment.
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?
I believe there is ‘more’ out there. I feel a sense of being ‘guided,’ and still pray sometimes, but wouldn’t say I’m overly spiritual. I am not sure I think too deeply about things. I’m still pretty early on, and trying to find my feet a little.
To what extent have you found healthy and meaningful community to replace the role of the ward/stake in your life?
I don’t think I’m there yet. To begin with that loss of community was pretty big and hard to come to terms with. My plan was to find my feet and then to look to develop myself. I’ve not been seeking community, as I believe it will happen naturally. We’ve been in lockdown for several months, so the current circumstances are pretty unusual. I have faith and hope that these things will come in time. I needed to find my feet a little bit and explore this new idea of self. I remain active in my local community, as I always have been. I hope to be building a new community that way, but want it to happen organically and authentically, so I’m being patient.
What meaning and purpose does life have to you now that you no longer believe in Mormonism?
It is so refreshing to live life for the here and now. Not to say that I’m carefree and reckless, but I definitely want to live more fully than I did before. I have a greater desire to take care of, and invest in further developing, myself. Previously, my role was very much confined to being a wife and mother, serving in the church, and ticking every box that would get me to heaven. Now I’m seeing things differently. I am seeing my individual importance beyond those roles. I see that by investing in myself, I am actually doing what’s best for my children. A happy, healthy wife/mum benefits them more than anyone. At some point, I will get a career. I just need to figure out what that will be. I am making a conscious effort to set an example for my children, to live the sort of life I want them to live themselves one day. To be fulfilled. Before, this life was always just a stepping stone to something else – so pain and endurance were all acceptable to me as the price to pay for a reward hereafter. That is no longer the case. This life counts. If it’s all we have, then I want it to have been enough. I feel so much more joy and pleasure in the small, mundane little things.
If you are a parent, how has losing your faith in Mormonism affected how you parent?
My children were the main driving force leading up to this transition. I wanted to be a better mum, so I opened my mind. I wanted to be a mum they felt they could turn to and rely upon. I didn’t ever want them to fear coming to me with a problem, or worry as to how I might react. I wanted them to feel free living their own lives and know I would always be there for them. I wasn’t sure these things were a reality within Mormon constructs. Now I feel we are closer to achieving this. We are much more open with our children now. Our conversations are much more free. My eldest listened to my Mormon Stories interview and learnt that his mum is a real person with lots of experiences. This has enabled us to have more open dialogue. I hope it will help the children feel like they can talk to me as they continue their teenage years and enter into adulthood. I want to be a good mentor for my children, to help them be their own true selves. All I want is for them to be happy, and it doesn’t matter what form that happiness takes anymore.
If you are married or have a significant other, how has leaving Mormonism affected this relationship?
I think leaving the church has made our relationship more open and honest. I no longer feel like I need to bend Paul to my way of thinking. I no longer need to worry about whether he is the good righteous priesthood holder our family needs. I now respect and embrace our differences and can see how that makes us better as a couple. Before, I viewed Paul as the ‘convert’, so I always felt I knew what was right. This led to frustration if he didn’t share the same opinions as me, along with worry that we weren’t on the same page. None of that matters anymore. We make a much better partnership now.
How has leaving Mormonism affected your mental health?
I didn’t fully realise how damaging Mormonism was to my mental health. I felt I knew my place as a woman and was happy with that. I had a lot of internalised sexism. I can now see how years of being a stay-at-home mum made me feel insignificant and less than other people. While I’m still a stay-at-home mum, I now have bigger plans for the future and feel peace about that. It’s also been a relief to free myself from the nonsense shame culture that was always placed upon me. I am not promiscuous or a sexual deviant because I was pregnant in my teens. I don’t have to try and understand or explain why certain things happened the way they did, I can just reject all of those things as wrong.
How has leaving Mormonism affected your sexual health?
I was always pretty open-minded on this front, but private within my own marriage, so I don’t think this has changed. It’s not an area of my life where I ever sought direction or allowed the church to be involved.
What aspects of your life are better after Mormonism (or Orthodox Mormonism)?
Nearly every aspect! Our family is happier, my marriage is better. I feel more worth and value in myself. My network was reduced, but in time it will open up again, as I have the opportunity to allow more people in than I would have before.
What is your life still missing? In what ways could your life still be improved without Mormonism?
I don’t think anything is missing from my life, it just takes a bit of time to piece everything together. Life has times and seasons now, the same as it did before. I still have a toddler at home, so it is going to take a bit longer before I achieve the things I want. But I now have an open mind and lots more possibilities. There are no limitations like before.
What final advice would you give folks who are transitioning?
Take things slow, be patient with yourself and those around you, and trust that things will get better.