Maybe the mom who took to her room / who took to her bed / who sighed and slept and shut the door / maybe she just needed a god(dess)damn minute / to lose her shit out of sight / little pitchers pouring out their eyes / And besides it’s not like / she turned the lock
I thought that marrying the boy would make up for sleeping with him.
I thought converting my husband would make up for marrying outside the church.
I thought that having a baby would make up for out-earning my husband.
I thought that hating my job and changing my job and still hating my job and changing my job again would make up for being a working mom.
I thought that quitting drinking would make up for being a bad Mormon.
I thought that finding God in the rooms would make up for leaving the church.
I thought that writing my life like it was a story would make it all make sense.
What if I never had to do any of that?
What if I was already redeemed?
What if I’m still glad I tried?
Stumbling onto Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling on my parents bookshelves years ago, before I left the church, before Ordain Women, before Pants to Church, was like finding contraband. I only knew about the book from borderline apostate podcasts, I knew it had a questionable reputation amongst the most orthodox Mormons, and my parents were true blue. I grabbed it off the shelves, like I grasped at anything that looked like clarity in those days, ambivalent as to whether I hoped it would lead further into or out of the church, and shuttled it back to Chicago in the bowels of my duffle bag.
I never did read it, though I did let it live on my nightstand for a number of years. It’s a really long book.
My workouts are long, too, though, and so is my commute, so I am finally listening to the audio version of the book. It feels like a long time coming. It also feels less dangerous. It’s not like I can leave the church again. The biggest risk is that I’ll gain back a testimony of the Book of Mormon, of Joseph Smith, of the Priesthood, of the restored gospel, which, now that I think of it, would really fuck up my shit, so I hope that doesn’t happen.
I see how it could though. I’m only a few chapters in and can’t stop relating to the Smiths. Not just Joseph Jr. but his firebrand mom Lucy Mack, his wayward family man dad Joseph Sr., his skeptic uncles, his brilliant wife Emma, his children, all those sick sons and daughters.
Am I a seeker because I was raised in the religion Joseph Smith created to justify and redeem his wandering, wondering family? Do I quest because they questioned? Or was I Mormon because I was a seeker? Was I Mormon unthinkingly, because my parents and my parents’ parents were Mormon, or did I last as long as I did because I inherited their yearning?
When I left did I get free, or did I follow Joseph Smith’s finger pointing to the moon, my grandpa’s righteous desires, my dad’s big brain, and my mama’s bleeding heart to something more true?
I am desperate to slap a strong label on my emotions, something weighty enough to justify the heft of what I feel. I Google: grief, trauma, loss, SAD, what to do when I am too depressed to work. I wonder: borderline personality disorder, bipolar 2. I dismiss: alcoholism, anxiety, change. I consider: suicide, relapse. I grasp to blame: secondary infertility, Mormonism (and the leaving thereof). I reject: God. I fear: divorce. I fear: hurting D, D already hurt, D hurting, scaring D, D scared, D sad, D unspeakably, unstoppably sad, breaking D, her mind, her spirit, her okayness, crushing/sapping this precious, perfect person who loves me more than life itself, improbably, inexplicably, more than I deserve. I know: I’m just sad. A little anxious. Insecure. Powerless, angry, afraid. A person. A mom. I know: this will pass and I will forget I ever felt like this, or I will remember and think thank God that’s gone forever. I know: these winds will cycle back and sweep me up again and toss me around before depositing me back onto the charred and scarred and fertile ground to pick up where I left off, if I’m lucky, if I don’t have to rebuild first, if I don’t have to find my way back home.
Is apparently a real day, a day of note during Holy Week, a week of numerous notable days. (The first time I heard it mentioned I thought the pastor was saying “Monday Thursday” and I thought what kind of boring backassward holiday is that?) Maundy Thursday is today! My daughter joined the children’s choir this year and the wonderful, charitable, brilliant choir director lets the children’s choir lead precisely two services, the Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday family services, which I gather are the most sparsley attended services of the year. This, of course, is how I found myself at church on a Thursday evening taking my assignment as greeter entirely too seriously as I threw open the church’s heavy wooden doors against the wind, thrust programs into the hands of other weekday worshippers, mostly parents of other small children, and enthusiastically welcoming everyone to Maundy Thursday! Before I had anybody to greet, Pastor Grace saw me standing by the door with nothing but a fistfull of programs and an expectant look and gave me a job, not realizing I already had one, I think. First, she asked me if I knew where the communion goblets were, a question that stumped me on many levels. How would I? Why would I? Where would I even look? This church is huge. Would I know them if I saw them? Should I check with the office, I wondered? The basement? The other greeter peered at me curiously and suggested the kitchen and cleverly offered to assume that task. Pastor Grace told me she had another job, if I would oy wash my hands. I trotted off to the kitchen to wash up, vaguely worried that people would enter the chapel ungreeted and programless but powerless to say no to our new charismatic leader. I just want her to like me! When I returned, cleansed, she gestured to the front of the chapel told me to find two loaves of bread and put them in two baskets. I found the loaves in a cabinet! And the baskets were in plain sight on top! I couldn’t remember if the loaves went on top of or underneath the linen napkins in he baskets and decided to wrap them because that seemed right. My husband, watching from the pew stage whispered something snarky about my bare hands. “I WASHED,” I hissed back. I blinked back tears. Never did I ever prepare the sacrament in all my thirty years as a Mormon, not because I wasn’t worthy but because I was a girl. Here I am, not even a member of the UMC, not even baptized in the eyes of that church, brand new to the very existence of a whole Holy Week, let one freaky deaky sounding Maundy Thursday and they are letting me handle the body of Christ? Later, when I was back at my post, waiting for stragglers to greet, Pastor Grace told me I was doing an excellent job. She smiled winkingly and motioned to my hands and told me I was now officially authorized to carry holy things.
What if I wrote here every day? What if I told the whole story, in real time? What if I let you inside my mind? What if I stopped waiting for the wound to heal? What if I didn’t glamorize or stylize or editorialize?
What if I told you that I talk to God, almost every night. At minimum, “Thanks,” my knees hardly kiss the floor. When I’m feeling virtuous, the St. Francis prayer. Lord grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted; to understand, than to be underatood. I believe it but I don’t know it to be true and also I don’t want it to be true. When I’m feeling lonely, or crushed, or scared, I roll on my side in bed and talk, plead really, to know that someone is there, to know what to do, to feel something more than what I am able to access on my ordinary own. Sometimes it works, and I do feel something unfold inside my body, an expansiveness, a warming, which could be God or simply relief from the pain of being. Kanye said no more drugs for me, pussy and religion is all I need, and man I get that. Is it wrong to lapse into prayer like a fix, to crave worship for the chance to transcend the limitations of my weekday brain, to believe in God because it just feels better than not. I am not steadfast in my faith. Sometimes I empty out, dry up, flatten, harden, sink. I can’t pray. I don’t give a shit about anyone’s will, not even my own, except the will to feel different than I do. God is gone and I don’t want God back. Back before I lost my faith, I thought the absence of God would feel like freedom. Sometimes I still think that. But the fact of the matter is that, for me, falling off the spiritual plane feels like death.
I suspect this is not normal or regular or typical but I don’t know a better way to live.
This past Wednesday, January 20, 2019 marked three years since my last drank. I celebrated quietly, at home, not even making it to a meeting, on account of the Polar vortex that shut most of Chicago down for two days.
Today, February 1, 2019 marked a new day one. Not of sobriety, thank God. I joked darkly with my husband about warming up with some whiskey when our heater started to fail and it was nearing negative thirty degrees outside, but I didn’t actually take a drink. (If you’re wondering, he did not laugh at that joke, because husbands of alcoholics don’t laugh at jokes like that, and also because it was less of a joke than a testing of the waters, which, if we’re being honest, is just a symptom of an alcoholic mind.) Rather, after seven years at my last firm, today was my first day at a new job.
As far as day ones go, this one was not too different from early sobriety, insofar as it was both underwhelming and anxiety-producing and consisted almost entirely of waiting. The plan was for me to set up my new office and get oriented on my new computer in the morning and then spend the afternoon in training sessions. As it happened, when I arrived at my office, I discovered that all of my office equipment, including my computer, and the majority of my office furniture, were still in transit, again, on account of the Polar vortex that shut most of Chicago down for two days. I unpacked a few office supplies, set up a desktop lamp and speakers, looked for an AA meeting, because I’ve learned that’s what you do when you don’t know what else to do, and then killed time twirling in my desk chair until I could leave for the meeting without being too early (because I’m a good AA, but not that good an AA). As it happened, when I arrived at the meeting at 11:50, I discovered that the meeting didn’t start until 12:30, so I planted my butt in a metal chair and waited forty minutes for the meeting to start. Back at the office, I took care of the logistical items I could, and then decided to head out for the day at 3:00, on account of there was nothing else for me to do. I planned to squeeze in a workout before getting home at 5:00. As it happened, the red and purple lines were significantly delayed due to mechanical failures, I’m guessing on account of the Polar vortex that shut most of Chicago down for two days, and I ended up waiting over an hour at two different train stations before making it home at 5:00 with no workout at all. When I arrived at home, I discovered I’d missed the UPS delivery of my new computer by three minutes and I wouldn’t be able to pick it up until Monday afternoon (after all my rescheduled training sessions).
It is hard for me not to revert to old patterns of thinking and construe everything that happened today as a sign that this new job is going to be, if not a disaster, at least an unpleasant, anxiety-producing detour. I don’t subscribe to that kind of magical thinking anymore, though. Instead, I’m going to hope that this day one, like my last one, turns out to be the start of a journey, along a path varied with enough exhilarating highs to justify all the disappointing lows and a good deal of boring middle ground to keep me sane, but above all else takes me somewhere new.
2018 was an exercise in restraint. Here is a short list of things I wanted to do and seriously considered doing at various points over the course of the year:
Quit my job
Start fertility treatments
Adopt a pet
Get a tattoo
Run a fourth marathon
Run an ultramarathon
Move to Arizona
Move to Denver
Move to Michigan
Move back to the city
Ingest technically legal but definitely questionable addictive substances
Pull my daughter from her class at the neighborhood elementary school and enroll her in private school
Officially resign from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints by having my name removed from the records of the church
Officially join the Methodist Church I’ve been attending for over two years
Quit going to AA after over two years of sobriety
I did not do any of these things despite, at times, wanting to very badly.
Because the things I want are not always good for me. The fact that I, in the moment, see no correlation between wanting to quit AA and wanting to get drunk, smoke weed, and buy kratom is clear evidence that I can’t trust my first instincts or my subsequent rationalizations.
I recognize that some of the things on that list are not like the others. Wanting another baby is not like wanting to get high. Wanting the best education for my daughter is not like wanting to quit my job. Even so, they all belong on the same list of things I wanted to but did not do because in every instance, they were external things that I hoped would change me. They were escape hatches from my life.
This is why I can’t have nice things.
One of these days, I may very well move or join a new church or even get a pet, but not until I’m sure I want those things for their own sake and not because I’m looking for a fix.
I never could wrap my head around people who loved being pregnant because that’s when they felt their healthiest. Pregnancy made me feel like shit. Besides the nausea that felt exactly like an endless hangover, I spent most of the first trimester wanting to crawl out of my own skin. I tried to commiserate with others who had been pregnant—“You know that feeling where you desperately need to change the way you feel with a drink or a pill but you just CAN’T? THAT’S the worst part of pregnancy!”—and they just stared back. Years later I would come to recognize that sensation as a symptom of untreated alcoholism, not pregnancy.
Even though I felt like garbage, I treated my pregnant body better than I ever had before. I took special prenatal supplements with some kind of oil for the baby’s brain, I ate piles of fruits and veg, I exercised to the very end, eliciting stares and comments at the gym. I slept, no small miracle for a former insomniac (thanks, drugs) and long-standing night owl. I did take a bunch of Category C medications and drink daily caffeine and eat sushi and deli meat and junk food because I’m no saint, but you guys, I didn’t drink! There was a lot of talk in my circles at that time about how a half a glass of wine on special occasions was *just fine* in the second and third trimesters, but I knew that I could not trust myself with half a glass. Not even with a baby inside.
I gave birth to a healthy baby via Caesarean and loved my body like never before. I was a BEAST. I could grow a human and undergo major abdominal surgery and keep that human alive. I resumed drinking as soon as I got home from the hospital, obviously, but continued, for the most part, to treat my body pretty well. I was exclusively breastfeeding, after all. I was inordinately proud of the fact that I was able to pump massive quantities of milk at work, way more than my baby needed, and nurse her morning and night. It upset me when she weaned at fifteen months. The World Health Organization recommended breastfeeding to age two at the time and I wanted to make it at least that long without needing to rely on a cow for milk. That’s what I was for.
I’d read some studies say the ideal spacing between kids is three years so I decided we should start trying to have another child when the oldest was two. I assumed I would get pregnant easily since that’s what happened the first time. When that didn’t happen, I was pissed. I took my anger and disappointment out my body. I dug up the pills that were miraculously still around from the c-section and took those. I drank. I drank especially in the days leading up to my period because I knew I’d have to stop when I got a positive pregnancy test. When the tests came up negative, I drank more. Why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I was pregnant. By that point I knew without question I shouldn’t be drinking but I drank anyway. Alone and in secret and in increasing quantities at increasingly inappropriate times.
This is what happens to women steeped in a toxic culture that says (1) a woman’s worth is in her fertility and (2) alcohol is the answer to a woman’s problems. My body failed me by not making a baby on demand, and I tried to drown.
In my unhappiness, I abused my body in other ways, ways that are far more subtle that I only recognize with hindsight. I skipped meals. I refused to replace my baggy suits with ones that fit because I might be pregnant soon. I sacrificed sleep at the alters of work and television.
It literally never occurred to me that I might do anything at all–let alone something fun or healthy or interesting–with a body that wasn’t pregnant or nursing. I never even thought about running that second marathon, the one I’d been wanting to do for years, the one I’d been training for and cancelled when I discovered I was pregnant the first time.
It was during one of my final few drunks that I was scrolling through Facebook (because being a drunk is actually really lonely and sad and boring) and saw that my friend M had signed up for a Tough Mudder and was looking for teammates. “Nahhhh, not for me,” I thought about both the invitation and the race. I was running semi-regularly at the time, but I didn’t do team sports or anything that required upper body strength. I scrolled on.
The day after my last drunk, I was supposed to have dinner with M but had to cancel because when 5:00 rolled around I was still too hungover to get out of bed. We rescheduled for the next weekend. Seven days later, exactly one week into shaky sobriety, I sat across from M at a fancy pub with a Diet Cola in one hand and a pork shank in the other and told her I’d run the insane race.
We started training together, meeting at a local playground at seven o’clock on freezy Sunday mornings to do tricep dips and assisted pull-ups on the monkey bars, jump squats onto picnic tables, and crunches in the mud. It was a drag and felt somehow like both way too much effort and ridiculously not enough to be putting into training for a six-mile obstacle race. As the weeks wore on, though, I felt worried that I still couldn’t do a pull-up on my own but proud that I had yet to succumb to the Saturday night impulse to text M and cancel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made a commitment and actually followed through on something that I didn’t have to do. Showing up felt good.
Four months after my last drunk I did the race with M and her friends (a triathlete and a U.S. Marine, natch). Two of us were injured so we had to walk a lot of the course but we completed every obstacle, from army crawling through ice-cold mud inches under barbed wire (Kiss of Mud) to hauling ass up a slick quarter pipe (Everest 2.0) to scaling twelve-foot wooden walls (Berlin Walls). My teammates and I took turns yanking each other up and over barrier after barrier, carrying each other piggyback in the heat, and trudging side-by-side through bacteria-laden swamp water to finish filthy and triumphant. Aside from giving birth, I was never so proud of or in love with my body.
I was also hooked. I started running as often and as long as I could after that. My weekend mileage hit the double digits enough that I figured I should get some credit for it, so I registered for and completed my second marathon (my first in seven years) that fall. I got bored with endless long slow runs added speed work to my routine. When I found myself with overuse injuries, I swam and cycled and tried all kinds of yoga. When I healed, I returned to running reinvigorated, renewed, overjoyed at simply being able to run without pain. I tossed out a few 5Ks to raise money with co-workers and with the family on Thanksgiving. I ran through cold wet Chicago springs, muggy Chicago summers, gorgeous Chicago falls, and brutal Chicago winters. I trained with weights. I finished my third marathon, this time fast.
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want a drink or ten. But one of the many things that helps me to go to sleep sober is thinking about how good I’m going to feel on the trail or the treadmill the next morning if I don’t. These days, there is always free beer on the other side of a finish line. I’m not lying when I say that after a race, after I’ve put my body to the test and seen it rise to the challenge, those are the times I want a drink the very least. I’m too happy.
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want another baby. But one of the many things that keeps me from sliding into grief is thinking how good it feels to push my body to do things I want to do.
When I look back on my year of relapse and trying to trying to conceive, the absurdity of what I was doing to myself is almost enough to make me believe in a higher power that saved me from getting pregnant at a time when I wasn’t capable of carrying a child. Of course, that doesn’t explain why I’m not pregnant now, with my 2.5 years of sobriety and a solid recovery program. However, when I look back on the many, many moments over those 2.5 years that I experienced pure joy in moving my body, in getting stronger, faster, freer, well, it’s almost enough to make me believe that my body is a gift for me, not for babies. My body’s worth is in what it can do for me, not you or him or God or future generations. I am meant to enjoy this body for what it can do, not to mourn what it can’t. I can’t get pregnant and I can’t drink but I can and will eat and dance and swim and stretch and fuck and run and run and run.
[You can find my first What A Body’s Good For essay here.]
I sit in recovery groups, literal circles, and listen to people talk about their feelings. “I couldn’t feel my feelings,” they say, shaking their heads in disbelief, like that explains everything. Or they say, “I can sit with my feelings now,” and nod in satisfaction, like it’s all better now. Newcomers confess with their heads hung low, “I’m feeling my feelings, and I don’t like it,” like it’s the worst thing that ever happened, or they say, “I’m learning to feel my feelings,” like it’s the fucking best. Men and women with a decade or more of sober time, people who figured out how to drink but still don’t like the choices they are making, let the air whoosh out of their mouths and put it out there, “I’m still numbing,” with chocolate or exercise or home renovations, like looking for something that takes a person outside herself is a problem in and of itself, as if those things could do a fraction of the damage drugs and alcohol did to their lives.
I get this and I don’t. Of course I used drugs and alcohol to change and amplify and dull my feelings. But I have never suffered from a lack of feelings and I did not have to “learn” to feel them. I always felt them, for better or worse, usually worse. For years, I thought anxiety was God or my gut telling me I’d fucked something up. For practically my whole life, I thought the crushed feeling in my chest meant I was special and sensitive and too good for this world. I thought the sinking in my stomach meant I’d been grievously wronged and needed to do something drastic to put things right–cut someone out of my life or scream or painstakingly explain why people had things all wrong. I thought a racing mind meant I had to act, now. I thought burning shame meant I was the one who did wrong. All those feelings had to mean something. They couldn’t be for nothing, right?
Wrong. If there is anything I’ve learned from therapy and meditation and working the steps, it’s this: my feelings are not to be trusted. They change, for one thing. Like, all the time. For another, as often as not, they are a product of fucked-up, dysfunctional thinking. Frankly, I don’t see the value in giving them any time or attention at all. And I certainly don’t see the harm in throwing myself into a good book or a long run or a new project or a box of cookies of it makes it all a little less painful. Fuck my feelings.
Maybe I’m not enlightened. Maybe I’m in denial. Maybe all this repression is going to blow up in my face in a year or ten. Maybe I’m not sober, just “dry.” Or maybe this is what it means to be human.