If Only I Stayed
Raised in the Mormon “Church of Latter-Day Saints” (LDS) and studying at an LDS-owned university, Brinley Froelich took psychedelics a month before graduating and decided to drop out. Then she went back.
What do you do when your head breaks open and the influx of visions run opposite of everything you learned growing up? When this happened to me for the first time, I felt a peace I’d never known through the faith I was raised in – it gave me the faith to let go of it.
Brigham Young – the second prophet of the Mormon “Church of Latter-Day Saints” (LDS) – shares a birthday with me, so in the beginning, it made sense to attend school at his namesake university. Feeling uncertain with myself, I allowed my family to guide my post high school world in exchange for their assistance. I knew that Brigham Young University (BYU) was weird going into it, but I didn’t realize how deeply the school sinks its fingers into every aspect of your life. When I expressed frustration about this to family or authorities, I was met with drivel about how BYU isn’t the same as the LDS church, so I shouldn’t lose faith. But what I saw was different: I found a reflection in BYU culture of what the Mormon church wants to be, but can’t legally get away with. BYU breeds a surveillance culture more pervasive than the NSA datacenter just a few miles away, and calls upon untrained and unfit leaders who perpetuate shame, abuse, and scare tactics on members. For a long time, I tried to straddle the life I felt to be genuine, which didn’t align with the university standards, with scraping by the rules to get by.
How do you respond to the angst of living in a culture that polices every element of you? When youth expires as a Mormon and you start to question the way you were brought up, for many, it opens up a cornucopia of anxiety. While faith slips away from the dogma you were raised on, it’s hard to reconcile the differences in your discovered perspectives with the community that nurtured you, loved you, and did what they thought was best for you. Mormon’s pride themselves on following a path so straight, and so narrow, that even those who legitimately try to reconcile their faith with their doubts find themselves disowned by the very church they loved. Kate Kelly and John Dehlin are more recent examples of people who challenged the status quo and were excommunicated for it, but the entirety of Mormon church history is riddled with similar stories. The message is clear: if you don’t get it, you can get out. Hardly the message from the Christ I wanted to believe in, but I digress.
My anxiety slowly accumulated until my senior year of attendance, while in the meantime I was toying around with talk therapy, drug therapy, self-medicating therapy, and dosing myself with a whirlwind of religious and theoretical philosophies. I was drawn to Terry Tempest Williams, a former member of the LDS church, and found similarities in her journey outside of the faith and into a more earth-centric religion. I eventually wound up in a senior seminar that coincided with these environmental interests like a head to a pillow, and I felt excited to be in a course that aligned with something I wanted to discuss in a smaller classroom setting.
“For me, religion is still a mirage in the desert – only now I no longer see it as a shimmering glint of hope on the horizon but as an abstraction of thought that I cannot hold. Neither does it hold me,” Williams wrote in “God, Nature, and the Great Unraveling”. My professor brought this essay up in class and shot her perspective down, and I took it personally, and representative of the close-minded nurturing that BYU kept trying to force-feed to me. The events that followed this day happened in the following order, and impact my life profoundly to this day: about a week after that class, I lost a childhood friend. About a week after I lost my friend, I lost my dog. About a week or so after I lost my dog, I lost my fucking mind. We were reading The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy in class. I felt like the copo de nieve, the snowflake: "If you catch it you lose it. And where it goes there is no coming back from. Not even God can bring it back." I was due to graduate a month or so after all of this.
The week before our final papers and assignments were due, I dosed myself with psychedelics for the first time, and on a few separate occasions. One particular experience had me and my mind dancing under the moon like I’d never felt before. As my thoughts raced through the vastness of my life that I was grateful for and wanted to work for, I realized that BYU wasn’t included in the things that mattered to me. After that, things felt simple. On the day that I planned to write my final paper, I drafted a letter of the things I couldn’t stand about BYU, didn’t read it twice, and placed it in the professor’s mailbox in lieu of my final.
Somehow I still passed that class. By the grace of a professor, I dropped out of BYU instead of the other way around. I was shot with emotions that ranged from empowerment to ecstasy to self-doubt to what-the-fuck-did-I-just-do moments, to finally absolutely not giving a fuck. It was the first time I stood up to everything I thought was controlling me, and I wanted that to stay. I wanted that to be my last chapter of BYU, of the LDS church, and the end of this article.
After dropping out of school, I did everything I could to stay on top of my shit, lest I reveal myself as someone who goes back on the grounds that made them, perhaps, a more empowered human. Offense to my journey made me ignore my family’s persistence I go back. I could figure this out without going back, I kept telling myself, and I didn’t want anyone but my own self to teach me the things I was never taught.
I steered clear of psychedelics after that hell of a month, but that doesn’t mean they steered clear of me. On a day I felt like I had been either unknowingly dosed or entered a flashback, I had a dream later that night which has stuck with me as hazily as the acid has. It went something like this: I was in an all-purple room in the Mormon temple, kneeling at an altar as though I was preparing to marry someone. While I have never been through the rituals of the temple, I knew that the Sealing Rooms, where marriages are conducted, have two mirrors facing each other, symbolic of the eternal nature of the vows to be made. I looked at myself in those mirrors and saw an infinite reflection of my face with a strange looking veil. When I looked to see who was in the room with me, I saw a couple of friends who offered me a shot of whiskey they had snuck in. When I looked toward the door to see the person I was to marry walk in, I saw myself as an older woman.
I don’t know what I believe dreams to mean, nor do I know what to believe psychedelic visions mean, but what I took from them, and keep with me now, is the impermanence of nature, and the power of giving in to things that might not make sense right away. The person in my family that finally convinced me to go back was myself, as an older woman, in a dream. I gave in and applied to go back to school for my final semester. I had to interview with a bishop, who put me on probation. I felt embarrassed, not because I was on probation, but because somehow going back to school made me feel like the fool that didn’t know what she was doing, and I didn’t tell a few of my close friends about it until after I graduated.
BYU isn’t the only thing that I’ve dropped out of and then changed my mind about: I’ve quit jobs and gone back, moved out of town and moved back, broken up with men and gotten back together, cut my hair and then grown it out. The person who I was when I dropped out, along with the person who went back, is not the person I am now, but I’m happy for both of them and proud of them still. There will always be places that I go to and then leave. We can grow like the branches from an older tree into a new tree, within ourself, for generations within our lifetime.