This story is part of our Tales of Return collection. Read more from Tales of Return.

I was raised in an LDS home with good parents.

Life hit hard for me in my early years. From the ages of 8-12, I was repeatedly sexually abused by a neighborhood family. At age 13, my father suddenly died of a brain aneurysm. Within a year of his death, my mother remarried. My abuse, my father’s death and my mother’s new marriage brought chaos, confusion and heartache in my teenage years, and I was unable to completely process all the traumatic events that had taken hold of my life.

At age 21, I was married in the Salt Lake temple and we had five beautiful children together. Life seemed good, though we did have struggles as every married couple does. Our biggest struggle was the disruption of my psychological life because of my abuse. I used therapy for many years as a means to help heal my wounds and our marital struggles, but to no avail. There was a defining moment in my life when I knew I really needed help. In our seeking for help, my husband and I made choices that ended up taking us away from the Church, from God and eventually from our belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior.

When we left the Church, we felt our testimonies were strong about Jesus Christ but slowly and ever so methodically, Satan took hold of our lives and our hearts and we left behind the greatest source of happiness—keeping our covenants and living the gospel.

During our 10 year absence from the Church, we made disgraceful life choices together that tore apart our family, stimulated deep pain and trauma for ourselves and our children, and brought me to the point of constant suicidal thoughts with a severe lack of self worth.

For a year, my life was in utter darkness. I refer to this time of life as a living hell. I use that term within the exact definition. As Alma the younger, my heart and soul were wracked consistently with internal torment and I was harrowed up almost daily by my sins. The only answer I could find was to end my own life. My only saving grace at that time was knowing the anguish I would cause my children by doing so. Especially after my painful childhood experience with the death of my own father.

I had hidden from my extended family what was actually going on in my life. My life became so dark and so desperate, I finally turned to a brother who I wasn’t very close to at the time, and confided in him my suffering. In my greatest moment of pain and desperation, I turned to him and his wife for help and solace and moved into their home with my children. I was broken in almost every way a person could be. I had been living with my boyfriend. I used cannabis illegally and smoked cigarettes daily to numb my pain. I drank alcohol, dressed immodestly and, most days, walked around in a consistent despondent, depressed stupor. All this didn’t stop them from bringing me into their home and loving me unconditionally.

During this time, my brother regularly questioned me on my current spiritual or religious beliefs. Over the past couple of years, I had been exploring atheism. This exploration was partly what sent me down my suicidal path. His interest at all in me and what I believed was enough for me to feel loved and that I had value. We spent many long days and nights researching and discussing my beliefs and questions on God and Jesus Christ.

His wife, who has become my closest friend and confidant, sought opportunities to make me feel loved by inviting me to things that she hoped would get me out of my sorrow and despair. She took me to lunch with her friends, thought of movies I would like and asked me to watch them with her, sat and held me while I cried without judgment or guile.

The most effective effort they made was to invite me to everything under the sun that was church related. Everyone in the ward warmly welcomed me to these events despite my church activity or membership. Then they invited my son Pratt to go on Pioneer Trek. Of course, I had heard of Trek and, at the time, thought it the most ridiculous way to honor our pioneer heritage. But Pratt really wanted to go so I conceded. The preparations were quite extensive, and every ward member we came in contact with during the process was kind, generous, and charitable.

Pratt came home from Trek a changed boy, desiring to get baptized and feeling the love of God like he never had before. I couldn’t deny the obvious transformation and knew it was partly because of the love of so many ward and stake members who gathered around my son to help him understand our Savior and the love he had for him personally.

I was going through my own understanding of the Savior’s love for me. The closer I came to the realization of Jesus as my Savior, the more aware I became I needed religion. I spent many weeks wrestling with God to know where he wanted me and, like Joseph Smith, fervently asking him what church I should join. The LDS Church was not on my list.

The stake held a meeting where many who attended shared the miracles they felt during Pioneer Trek. I will be honest, again, I desired to mock their experience. Yet even with my disbelief, it was during that evening, the spirit of the Lord poured out upon me in ways it never had before. I was overcome to tears by the love I personally felt from my Heavenly Father and by the testimonies of these church members. I was in awe of their service to each other and their service to their God within their trek experience. The spirit weighed upon me the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and, like never before, I longed to be part of the joy and peace I felt in that evening. It was then I turned my heart and life over to my Heavenly Father and told Him I would do anything to return to his fold.

Soon after this experience, I quickly contacted my brother’s ward bishop to confess. Even with the previous burning in my breast, I was nervous to fully become a member. In my sinful life, I was cool, in every sense of the word. The last step of my conversion was to shed my pride and “coolness,” and this bishop who had only held the position for a month was the perfect man to help me do so. His ignorance in the exactness of his calling was exactly what I needed. His love, gentleness, understanding and compassion toward me brought me deeper into my testimony and my desire to shed my “cool” persona and walk with God as I saw him and so many other ward members do.

As soon as word got out of my newfound testimony, the Relief Society stepped in and personally invited me to attend Sunday meetings, and welcomed me with open arms and hearts. I often refer to myself as the “misfit toy,” feeling like I’ve never belonged anywhere. At first, I felt awkward, and just couldn’t see where my place might be among my ward sisters. I regularly worried they would judge me.

Slowly my shame dissolved and because of their reassurance and lack of judgment, I felt loved, valued, and accepted as myself. I realized I wasn’t defined by my past mistakes but welcomed as a daughter of God whose gifts were wanted and needed.

In my past and current wards, the outpouring of kindness and service has been astounding! The smiles in the hallway. The sweet introductions on my first days and weeks of attending church. The thoughtful gestures of help of any kind. My ministering sisters coming and welcoming me by answering questions or bringing me an inspirational quote. Loving notes placed on my door by someone anonymous. Considerate texts just to check in and see how I was doing. And best of all, sisters taking the time to make “healthy” chocolates for me making sure they knew my diet restrictions! All these things were part of the foundation I could build on to feel safe and secure within the framework of something that ultimately felt so daunting and difficult. You see, it has been the small, simple things that have made all difference.

My heart is so full of gratitude for everyone in my families—ward and personal—who could unconditionally love me. My experience has shown me that charity is the key that unlocks the heart of the wayward son or daughter or lost soul. Charity is the gift of loving someone despite the choices they are making or life they are living. Though I may disagree with someone I care for regarding their personal lifestyle choices or sins they might be committing, my testimony runs deep that my lack of judgment, my ability to see the person as they really are as a son or daughter of God, and my desire to help bring them the joy that can only come through our savior Jesus Christ is what brings about the miraculous transformation which I have felt.

Our elder brother Jesus Christ can and does work miraculous transformations! His Atonement and sacrifice brings us back to ourselves in ways nothing else can. Only His love, grace and mercy can save us. Our part as ward family members and within our homes is to always have hope. To believe the Lord can and will perform a miracle in your life or the life of your loved one. Pray always for them. Put their names in the temple. Reach out always and be the serving, helping, loving hand they need to feel the safety and support to change.