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Passing Time

When I started practicing law, I started measuring time in billable hours, broken down into six- and fifteen-minute intervals, depending on how the client wanted time reported. Marking time in this scale made my heart race, made me cut off my husband mid-sentence, made me power-walk to Sunday brunch.

When I became a mom, I started measuring time in weeks, switching over to months when the numbers got too big and non-parents had to start doing math just to figure out how old my daughter was. Compared to the down-to-the-minute accountability of legal practice, motherhood felt like strolling through an actual sunlit meadow. Time slowed and stretched and I lost hours looking at my baby, bouncing her on my knees, pushing the stroller for two unplanned hours in the afternoon and coming home with nothing to show for my time except for a bubble tea and a sleeping baby.

When I got sober, I started counting days. I hated days. Days made my skin crawl. They were too long to properly account for the suffering that occurred on a minute-by-minute basis in a single twenty-four hour period: the dozens of times I white-knuckled my way through a craving, the hundreds of minutes spent turning the critical question (Do I really need to do this?) over in my head, the hours of shame-wallowing as I forced myself to re-live the worst of the experiences alcohol gave me, examining each bottom in exacting detail in a Sysphean struggle to determine whether I had, in fact, sunk low enough. At the same time, days were too short for one passing to feel like progress, not when I kept starting over at Day One, not when I found myself questioning my decision at Day 90, and especially not when I had only double digits to show after trying to starve the beast for a decade. Counting days is torture. I’ve been doing it steadily for 180 of them.

180 days, or six months, doesn’t feel like much. It’s not even the longest stretch of sober time I’ve put together. A few years ago, I went nine months without touching a drop of alcohol, nine months that conveniently coincided with pregnancy. I felt so proud of myself, but also a little bit like I was cheating, so I planned on using the forced dry spell to jump start a new and better life. Then, a few days after my daughter was born, I read some enabling pseudoscience on the internet about using beer to stimulate milk production and decided that the new life could wait awhile longer.

I tried again after my daughter’s first birthday and I guess it sort of worked because I went nine more months without drinking. I don’t count that time, though, and don’t like to think about it either, because I spent most of it unraveling. I was dry as a bone and crazy as a loon and, worst of all, lonely. I still hadn’t told anyone how badly I wanted to quit, or how inexplicably hard I was finding it to be. By the end, I was losing hours in creepy online forums trying to figure out a way to relapse into a decade-old drug problem without blowing up my beautiful relationships with my husband and daughter or accidentally killing myself. (Apparently law school turned me into the kind of risk averse person who does “research” before getting high instead of just swallowing whatever I can get my hands on.)

So what’s different this time? It’s harder, for one thing. The days are heavy with forever. That goes against the old school “one day at a time” alcoholic logic, but one day at a time doesn’t work for me. It offers too many opportunities to question the decision, and I am a master of delayed gratification. Tell me I can get loaded tomorrow and eventually I will. So, forever it is.

If you know me in real life, it probably comes as a surprise to learn that not drinking is a choice I have to make every day. I don’t look like a person who used to have a drinking problem. To quote John Mulaney, “I don’t look like a person who used to do anything.” I have a good job and a loving family and a cute little townhouse. Oh, and I’m a Mormon, at least if you define the term loosely.

Growing up in a religion that preaches complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol simultaneously amplifies and obscures the warning signs that mark the path to addiction. I grew up oblivious to the distinction between normal and abnormal drinking. Spiritually speaking, sharing a bottle of wine with friends was on par with getting shit-faced by myself, and because I didn’t see a marked difference between the two, it didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t normal to prefer the latter. Drinking in any quantity was so transgressive that I also got in the habit of hiding my habit. First from my parents, which is not so unusual for a teenager, but later from my roommates, friends, and boyfriends. Because I was so used to lying to people, it didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t normal to carry a water bottle full of vodka in my purse on a first date.

Mormonism continued to complicate matters after I realized I needed to quit. Growing up Mormon, I learned that perfectionism is not just an attainable goal but the purpose of life. I thought that I could do anything if I prayed hard enough. Every time I found myself with a drink in my hand days, sometimes even hours, after waking up with yet another debilitating hangover and swearing the stuff off for good, I chalked it up to moral weakness and vowed to pray harder, be better. My faith blinded me to the reality of physical and psychological addiction. I believed so absolutely in an omnipotent God–or maybe in my  own omnipotent self–that it never occurred to me that another person might have something useful to offer.

Over the years, I dedicated a not insignificant amount of time trying to sniff out other people like me. I cozied up to new converts to the church and asked questions about their lives before Mormonism, desperate for a hint that they missed drinking, that they’d had a hard time kicking it, or, better, that they hadn’t given it up at all. I contorted the phrasing of the religious text underlying the ban on alcohol to suit my evolving preference for craft beers over hard liquor and to rationalize the blatant hypocrisy of showing up at church after spending the night at the bar. I searched endless iterations of the phrase “Mormon alcoholic” and “Mormon addict” and, later, “sober Mormon” and “Mormon in recovery,” in janky 1990s forums for Mormon apologists,  in subreddits for bitter ex-Mormons, in secret Facebook groups for the faithful Left. It is worth noting here the one thing I did not do is attend a meeting of the church’s addiction recovery program–i.e., the one thing guaranteed to put me in the same room as other Mormons who knew precisely what I was going through–because that was the one thing that would have required me to want to change.

When the time finally came that I did want to change, I knew religion wouldn’t work. I’d been approaching the problem from that angle for years and all I had to show for it was knees worn out from praying so hard and a big bag of shame I’d been dragging around for so long I couldn’t fathom the relief that would come from setting it down.

Here are a few things that did work:

I asked for help of the non-divine variety. By which I mean I got my ass to a twelve step meeting. When I felt my heart break open, I kept going. When I felt annoyed by the dumb and crazy things people said, I kept going. I kept going until I felt grounded and even though I don’t go regularly anymore, I make an effort every time I feel the floor of my commitment shift beneath my feet.

I started seeing a therapist.

I went back to things that I used to like more than drinking. I started running again. I started a new blog. I put new strings in my guitar and started re-learning the songs I used to play with my dad, CCR, BoDyl, a little Grateful Dead. I ran slow and wrote clunky blog posts and fumbled over strum patterns that I used to pound out in my sleep, but I kept going, even when the existential boredom of doing all those things sober made my skin hurt.

I found new things that I liked more than drinking. I  signed up and trained for a Tough Mudder. I joined a post-Mormon storytelling group. I started researching emerging legal issues and publishing articles. I bought an adult coloring book.

I made a genuine effort to get eight hours of sleep a night as often as I realistically could.

I started drinking coffee after seven years off the sauce on account of the Mormon prohibition. A girl can only take so much denial.

I purged every aspect of Mormonism that felt like dead weight, tasted like poison, looked like hate, or somehow just didn’t smell right from my personal theology. Goodbye perfectionism. Good riddance, patriarchy. Farefuckingwell to the marriage doctrine that’s got all those nice Mormons wound up jealously guarding the institution, the culture, the right to live and love according to the dictates of one’s heart and conscience from the gays.

Essentially, after years of conflating the two, of thinking the only force powerful enough to make me want to get and stay sober was the pull of the church I grew up in, I finally began the messy process of disentangling my sobriety from my religion. I needed my sobriety to stand on its own, rather than ebbing and flowing with the tides of my fickle faith. If I was going to have a spiritual life, it needed to be for reasons other than it was the thing keeping me sober.

Many of the last 180 days I have not been especially spiritual. Many of the last 180 days I have not been especially good. All of the last 180 days I have been sober, which means that all of the last 180 days I have been fully present and engaged in my life. Many of the last 180 days I have even been happy, so I’ll keep counting.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 12 – Decisions

I hate making decisions. It gives me anxiety. I hate shopping in a big box store. I hate researching my options online. I hate a ten page menu. I hate how many goddamn summer camp options there are in my town. It’s not that I want someone to tell me what to do, I just want to be presented with a minimal amount of options. I am the target customer for subscription clothing services and produce boxes. My husband has not once but twice given me a decision-making coin for a gift and in both instances it was the perfect gift. One is a basically a flattened out magic eight ball, with two yes/no-type options. The other is brunch specific: savor or sweet. I don’t use them often but knowing I have them gives me great joy and relief.

But here’s where the twist gets twistier.

I am really good at making decisions. Like, really good. I rock a pro/con list like no one’s business, and when I’m done listing that shit out, I don’t think twice. Not about leaving the church I was raised in, not about re-homing the family pet, not quitting my secure job as a law partner, not about backing out of a contract to buy our dream house. I move on. No look-backs. I make great decisions.

I am also the best order-er I know. You want to go out to eat with me because I am terrific dinner company and I enable over-ordering and will stay for coffee and dessert, but you also don’t want to go out to eat with me, because my meal will definitely be better than yours.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 11 – Losing Things

Our first Christmas together, R gave me a pen, translucent titanium gray with polished gold trim and my full name etched on the conical panel cap. It was gorgeous. My grandmother was stunned. What kind of twenty-year-old boy gives his girlfriend such an old-fashioned gift? Of course, I lost the pen. I lost it many times, in fact, only to find it a few days or weeks later in the bottom of my backpack or buried deep in a rarely-carried purse or rolling around in the back of my car. The pen always came back to me, though, so often that I stopped worrying when it went missing. I knew I could count on it to stick with me. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the pen. For a time, I suspected it disappeared into the crack between the cushions of my sponsor’s couch, where I sat every Sunday for almost two years, reading the big book and working the steps. For a time, I assumed that she would find it on her own and return it to me, but now I’m not so sure. I’m not worried, though. I know it will turn up when I least expect it. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. I don’t need to mourn the loss of the first really gorgeous gift R gave me because the pen is nothing compared to the many things he’s given me since.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 10 – Messes

Before I got sober, I was afraid of my past. I had a hard time listening to certain music, watching certain movies, seeing certain people pop up in my social media feeds because of the way they opened a floodgate of memories. I’m not talking about traumatic memories, the kind that are a nightmare to relive. I’m talking about the ones that just kind of hang around, replaying themselves over and over again in your mind. The haunting kind. I’m talking about mistakes. I’m talking about vicious words and punches thrown and selfish actions and bad decisions. I’m talking about messes. For a long time, I didn’t think I needed to clean up my messes. I thought, if I could just stop making them, it would be enough to cover them up and leave them behind. And for awhile, I did stop making certain kinds of messes. I stopped being an asshole. I stopped getting into trouble. I really did change. What I didn’t know is that, in my hasty efforts to cover my tracks as I ran/hid from my past, I had stuffed every haunting memory into a pillowcase that I dragged with me everywhere I went. Eventually I made it into the rooms and sat down. I finally had time to breathe. I inhaled, exhaled, emptied my mind. That’s when I noticed the smell. My messes were starting to stink. It was time to get to work.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 9 – 8

I don’t like this prompt at all. “8” on Day 9? It’s just so…off. Also, I already wrote about being eight years old when I wrote about my baptism for Day 1. Also, I’m responding to this prompt to give myself a break from memoir-writing, where I am deeeeep in the childhood years and, honestly, pretty sick of writing about sweet little me and my loving family and my weirdo church. But I said I’d write on the prompt for eight minutes and I’ve got four left, so here I go.

When I was eight years old I was convinced I didn’t sleep. I swore to my parents and siblings and anyone who would listen that I spent all night every night wired in bed, restless, not sleeping, not dreaming, just waiting for morning to come. Of course, my dad wanted to prove me wrong and to did it, he crept into my room at night and drew smiley face on my stomach in green marker. It was, say, six inches in diameter, massive on my little frame. I didn’t find it until the next morning in the shower and when I looked down and saw a face smiling back up at me I screamed. It was like a waking nightmare, finding something on my body and having no idea how it got there. It was torture, trying to piece together what had happened, where I’d been. It was like being robbed, realizing somebody I trusted had done something to my body without my knowledge or consent. It was good practice.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 8 – Birthdays

My daughter’s birthday is in late April, which sounds like a spring birthday, but in Chicago it’s basically still winter. I know this because it snowed two days before she was born and it has snowed right around her birthday every year since. Nobody really believes me when I say this, that we’re going to get accumulation, actual inches of snow, in the last week of April, but it’s true. We always do. My birthday is in mid-May, which I will represent is also basically still winter. I know this because every year my husband plans picnics and hikes and walks in the neighborhood because the man knows what I like and every year it’s cold, frigid even, and I am forced to tuck my cute outfit under a wool coat and my cute hair under a ratty winter beanie. After May we get a break until August, which is when the real birthday gauntlet–I mean season–starts, and the special days start rolling in, one after another, mom’s birthday, brother’s birthday, other brother’s birthday, husband’s birthday, sister’s birthday, dad’s birthday, other other brother’s birthday. (We cannot talk about nieces and nephews right now because I am a negligent aunt. In laws? Good god, no.) Other other brother’s birthday takes us into Christmas and then New Year and then we’re in the drought, the dry spell, the lonely sad season, the endless miserable winter that only starts to end the day my daughter was born.

Ashes To Ashes

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Yesterday in therapy my counselor asked if I liked being a lawyer. I said yes, and then went on a tangent about how much harder it was at my previous job at a big firm downtown, where I was petrified of showing my real personality. I established rigid boundaries between my work self and my real self and flattened myself out into a picture of the kind of person I thought people wanted me to be. I spent a lot of time thinking about my work wardrobe, buying the cheapest versions of fancy lawyer clothes I could countenance, and then hating them all. I was too weird, I thought, for the workplace. Of course, with few exceptions, I largely failed connect authentically with my coworkers. It wasn’t my law firm’s fault. I was just insecure, afraid of getting fired. Even then, I liked my job because I like being a lawyer. But I was also suffering deeply from the fragmentation. Seven years is a long time to hide who you are.

Yesterday was also the first day of Lent. I left the office a few minutes early to meet my family for the evening Ash Wednesday service. The elevator doors opened to take me down and there was a man, close to my age, with a dark smudge on his forehead. I did a double take. The mark was jarring.

Stop staring, I told myself. It’s just the ashes. You’re about to go do the same thing.

Yeah, but, I shot back at myself. You would never do it before work.

I want to be a Christian in my heart, but only sometimes, and in my head almost never. I want to wear it on my sleeve–or on my face, as it were–not at all.

At the church, R and I had forty-five minutes to kill while our daughter rehearsed with the children’s choir. You can always count on the children’s choir to be featured at the sparsely attended weekday services. We settled down on a bench outside the chapel and downloaded notes from therapy, notes on parenting. We watched our senior pastor walk the labyrinth in the snowy courtyard and burn last year’s palms to make this year’s ashes. Before she went out in her parka and fuzzy hat she warned, Don’t worry about what you see out there, I’m just making some Jesus magic. When the smoke blew up around her, I wanted to take a picture through the wavy glass windows, but refrained. I thought the ritual might be sacred. Also, I gave up Instagram for Lent, so what would I even do with it? A few minutes later, R pointed out that Pastor Grace had her phone up high, snapping her own photo of the fire. For Facebook, she told us when she came back inside.

Later, when we were settled in the chapel, D in the front row with the choir and R and I few rows back, I tucked myself under R’s arm and we traded jokes and snickered as we waited for the service to start. R doesn’t come to church often, so it’s something a novelty to have him there. Our irreverence continued during the service, when R said something blasphemous and a hymnal in rebuke thudded from the shelf under the pew and landed on his feet. We almost exploded in laughter when the choir sang at the way D thrust her tone chime into the air like a sword, face straining, eyes wild, belting out “Now Is The Acceptable Time.” She seems, so far, to have inherited my deep love of performing and utter lack of awareness about the way I move through the world. When the time came, D and I approached the altar together. We each took a piece of coal to rub in our hands. D tried to pass hers off to me. Here, you can have this. It smells bad. We dropped our coal in a plastic bucket and received our ashy tattoos. R stayed in his seat.

I thought about how, when I was Mormon, it bothered me that R didn’t come to church, but it bothered me even more when he did. It bothered me how he kept his mouth closed during hymns, his eyes open during prayers. It bothered me when he stage-whispered comments about the church leader dozing off behind the pulpit or a too-long talk or a painfully sincere testimony. There’s a way to act in church, I thought, and you don’t have to be Mormon to figure it out. I didn’t like what it said about him, that he couldn’t he get with the program, and I didn’t like what it said about me, that I couldn’t just enjoy having him there. We were, I thought, too worldly to be Mormon. I flattened myself out into a picture of what I thought a Mormon needed to be, straining myself and my marriage in the process. It wasn’t Mormonism’s fault. I was just afraid people would find out who I really was, and the jig would be up. Of course I suffered. Thirty years is a long time to hide who you really are.

I haven’t been to an LDS service in a long time. I am wildly grateful to have found a new church home, something I never expected after leaving Mormonism but, honestly, think the church is getting the better end of the deal. Churches in general, in my view, are blessed to have any members at all. And the fact that my new church gets the realest, most authentic version of me? The silly and the snarky and the deviant and doubtful all rolled up with the serious and faithful and the diligent and sincere? The one that comes with a hilarious and filthy-mouthed husband who doesn’t know how to use his inside voice? The church should thank its lucky stars.

This year was only my second getting ashes. Last year, I was mortified the entire long walk to the altar and back again, convinced everyone was staring at me, especially my ashless husband. It felt horrifying to be revealed for the Christian neophyte and, simultaneously, the religious freak I still am. Somehow, though, I grew more in a year in my new faith than I did in many in my old. This time around I forget about them straight away, not just the stain on my own head, but the one on my daughter’s, and the one that R refused to wear. The ashes don’t matter. The baptism doesn’t matter. The church doesn’t matter. We were all dirty and now, headed into Lent, we are all clean.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 7 – Finish

The first time I ran six miles out and back from my house, I knew I would run a marathon. There was no question in my mind. If I could run six miles, I could run 26.2. It didn’t matter that I had no aerobic base. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t run regularly in over seven years. It didn’t matter that I’d only almost but not quite quit the smoking habit I picked up in college. I signed up for the Chicago Marathon a few days later and trained with one goal in mind: to finish. And finish I did, in somewhere around five hours. It didn’t even occur to me to characterize this time, as “slow” or “fast” or even “around what I expected.” I had no expectations at all. It did not occur to me to calculate my pace, not once while training, not while I was running, and not when I finished. I did take pride in the fact that I ran the whole thing, except for a pit stop at Charity Village at mile 15 to eat a cupcake with the kid I was sponsoring as a charity runner. Since then, I’ve run three more marathons, with goals that ranged from “finish” to “finish faster” to “finish faster than that.” Each of my marathons has spit me up and chewed me out. It’s a brutal race. But I keep doing them, because there is nothing–nothing–like the feeling of finishing something that feels impossible.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 6 – Games

We take games seriously around here. The first time R played Risk with my family, my brother threatened to flip the board and stormed out when he lost. The first time I played Risk with R’s roommates, I threatened to flip the board when R took New Zealand from me. The first time R and I played Risk with our friend D, I broke an alliance immediately after making it, and D quit playing right then and there. He still talks about it, and still won’t play risk with me. It’s been ten years. My entire family refuses to play Catchphrase with R because he cheats. My entire family refuses to play Clue with my sister K because she’s too good. Once, my Mormon family made the mistake of playing Cards Against Humanity and only realized the mistake we’d made when my mom played a card that’s too unspeakable and offensive to include here, even in this giant overshare of a blog. My sister-in-law M danced on the table when she won that game. When I was on maternity leave, R and I used to stay up til 1, 2, 3 am playing computer games while our baby slept. Last time I played Ticket to Ride with my family, nobody completed even half of their missions and we all went home in a terrible mood. My daughter loves games, too. We play Uno, and Operation, and Candyland, and Battleship, and Old Maid, and Sleeping Queens, and Bugs in the Kitchen, and Go Fish, and chess, and a slew of adorable cooperative games that didn’t exist when I was a kid. Sometimes I let her win. Okay, often I let her win. I let her lose too, and I’m trying to teach her to be a good sport when it happens, but honestly I don’t think she stands much of a chance.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 5 – Little Things

The thing is, the thing about having a kid, is that it’s the little things that break your heart. The little pants and socks and shoes. I used to wash and fold giant-sized loads of baby-sized clothes and marvel. Isn’t it weird? I’d say to my husband, that we have such a tiny roommate? That we live with such a little person? The irony is, kids can’t play with little toys until they’re big, on account of they might try to eat the toys and die. As my baby grew bigger, her toys got smaller. We showered her in whole families of Calico Critters, rabbits and badgers and goats and bears with little hammocks to sleep in and little produce to eat. DUPLO became LEGO Friends became a million tiny bricks that fuck up my feet. My daughter is still little, just in first grade, but somehow also very big. She is more than half as long as my husband. He holds her still because we didn’t have another little and wraps her monkey arms in a stranglehold around his neck, her long hobbit feet dangling somewhere around his knees. She is too heavy for me to lift for more than a minute, so I can’t do that. Instead, I hold her little hand.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 4 – Adventure

Adventure is a hard drug. You get sold on the promise of fun, the lure of escape, but when you’re there in the thick of it, it’s hard and painful and you just want to go home. I used to apply for internships in places far from home and jet off with romantic visions of me sipping coffee in cafes and wandering city streets and reading poetry in the park and meeting people who moved me in a way no one back home could ever do. Cut to me sweating buckets on a bus freaking out because I don’t know if I missed my stop. Cut to me walking miles in urban wasteland, nothing but warehouses and empty fields and big box stores as far as the eye can see. Cut to me blowing off weird guys, awkward coworkers, and annoying roommates to hang out in my room alone. Cut to me running out of money. Cut to me calling my mom, my boyfriend, my friends. Cut to me desperate to come back home.