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.
It’s been quiet around here, no?
I started this secret blog because I had an ocean of stories I needed to tell, a loud head I needed to quiet, and, honestly, a violent interior life I needed to quell. I had nobody to talk to and no way to make sense of what was happening in my life or my mind except to write it out. I expected this to become a diary of my recovery, something I would be able to look back to and track where I was at on Day -29, Day 90, Day 180, and so on, never mind that I didn’t have a clue about the concept of “recovery,” and certainly didn’t think it was something I qualified for, or was capable of, or deserved. Today is Day 704 without a drink or a mood or mind altering drug. I’ve had so much to say this last one year eleven months and four days. I had so much to say in the ten, twenty, thirty years that led to my last Day 1. I still have so much to say. And yet, this place has been quiet.
I want to account for my silence. Not because I need to. I know I don’t owe the seven readers of my anonymous blog anything. I know even if I had a lot more readers, I wouldn’t owe them an explanation as to why the record of my emotional life on the internet is not as meticulous as it could be. The truth is, I want to write about about my silence because it is interesting to me that somebody as verbose and teeming with creative energy and intellectually excited by and curious about the radical spiritual journey I’ve been on these last few years as I am would consciously avoid the blog she set up for the express purpose of channeling that excess energy and exploring those wild ideas. I mean, something’s got to be going on there, right?
There are two basic reasons for my absence. The first one is pretty straightforward.
I started the blog because I thought I needed it and I did need it, until I didn’t. I posted my last big milestone post when I was six months sober. Then I almost relapsed and got my ass into AA. And you guys, AA meetings don’t consist solely of coffee and donuts and folding chairs. There are actual people there, and they are nice. Also, as it turns out, if dredging up your past and regaling a crowd with drunkalogues and agonizing over your relationships with everything from booze to food to your mom to yourself to your obnoxiously well-dressed co-worker is your thing, AA is, like the perfect place to do that. I occasionally see advice to newcomers along the lines of, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to talk, just listen,” but after over a lifetime of thinking that I was the only person in the world who walked around feeling like a stranger in my own life, that nobody enjoyed that first drink, the one that turned the lights on, quite as much as I did, that I alone struggled with the apparent inability to drink like a grown up, I was desperate to talk. I used up every bit of the three minutes or so I got to talk at meetings. It was enough just to unload on kind-eyed strangers, and it was like Christmas morning when I saw women nodding when I talked about trying to figure out how to nurse my baby after I’d had to much to drink (forced to choose, literally, between feeding my addiction and feeding my child) because they got it. Forget about making a roomful of people laugh with a story about my unsuccessful suicide attempt; that was like gold, because they understood that it was tragic and funny. In AA I found a place to excavate my past, to shine a light on my drinking behaviors, on all that shamed me, really, and, as a result, to arrive at the conclusion that, yes, I really did have a problem with alcohol and, yes, I really did need to quit and, yes, I might actually be able to quit and not be too mad about it, if I just did the things that the darkly funny people with the kind eyes did. Once I had those things, I didn’t need to muddle my way to sobriety via a blank page and an internet connection.
That’s not the whole story, though. I may not need writing the way I used to, but I miss it. I want to tell these stories, to layer my experiences and memories and ideas together with words and, in so doing, make them into something more than what they were. What I really want is to give them to somebody who might need them, but I’ll settle for somebody who might find them halfway interesting. So why do I go months without writing anything longer than an Instagram caption?
The answer is that writing here doesn’t feel good. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t feel right. I certainly try to write. I’ll open up the computer, spool out a few lines, and spin out, triggered. Writing about my drinking days, more often than not, makes me want to drink. Writing about drugs makes me to get high. They don’t scrape out your taste buds when you get sober; I will always like these things. Or, I’ll labor over a piece for days, or weeks, and hit publish, only to be seized with anxiety. Should I share it with my online recovery community? With my friends? With my family? If no one is reading my work, why am I even writing?
That this is the reaction I have to my own writing, to the act of writing, baffles me. I see so many people navigating the waters of recovery by writing about it. Writing seems to bring them a measure of relief, even freedom. This is not my experience. Why not? I see that these people call themselves truth tellers and I worry. Do I not tell the truth when I write? Is that why it makes me anxious? I see these people using their platforms to carry a message of hope to others suffering in addiction. Are my reasons for writing too selfish? Is that why writing publicly fills me up with guilt? Or maybe the guilt comes from the fact that anonymity is part of twelve-step philosophy. I used to be comfortable being out-of-step but lately I’ve found more peace falling in line.
Another theory is that a lot of the sober writers I read lost their voices in addiction, or never knew the joy of speaking freely in the first place. Not me. I’ve been speaking my truth for years. Not the whole truth, and certainly not to the degree I do now, but I have been writing online about uncomfortable topics in one form or another for years, from the Xanga and Blogspot accounts where I explored my nascent sexuality to the WordPress site where I documented my feminist awakening and ensuing critiques of the Mormon church. While I’d be happy if the drivel I wrote in my angsty teenage years never saw the light of day, I’m pretty proud of the writing I did about gender and marriage and religion and identity over last ten years or so. So much so that it pains me to admit that much of that writing came from the same place as my drinking.
Take this clever feminist critique and see how smart I am.
Peruse this painful account of sexual harassment and see how hard I’ve had it.
Absorb this liberal manifesto and see how progressive I am.
Read this funny account of a road trip with my husband who is not Mormon and see how happy we are.
Listen to me delineate the travails of breastfeeding and see that I am a good mom.
Hear my plea to the Mormon church to change–to acknowledge LGBTQ relationships, to person women–and change your mind about everything you’ve ever believed.
My writing was an exercise in character defects: grandiosity; self-loathing; arrogance; self-pity; anger; fear; pride; intolerance–the list goes on and on.
And here’s the rub. My writing, as often as not, is still colored by, maybe even rooted in, these same defects.
Take this critique of a hackneyed recovery aphorism and see how smart I am.
Read this alcoholic’s experience of drinking culture and change your views on booze.
Parse this painful account of one of my many bottoms and see how hard I’ve had it.
Enjoy this tale of triumph over drugs and alcohol and religious dogma and see how strong I am.
Hear my plea to lookatme lookatme lookatme and know I am special, or least a damn good writer.
I write because I can’t not, because it is how I understand my place in the world, but I can’t stop myself from using my writing to seek validation, to control how people see me, to make myself into somebody I can like myself.
It’s all futile.
Writing like this won’t give me what I need and it won’t feel good in the end but it still gives me something so I guess I’ll see you here until something changes.
I don’t remember the day my mom said she hated me.
Calm down. She doesn’t actually.
She told me the story a few weeks ago of how I was four or five years old and I was so upset I screamed, “I hate you,” and she was so upset she screamed, “I hate you, too.” I know. And the worst part is, somebody heard her, and not just anybody, but her father, my grandfather. He didn’t say anything, but she saw him slip out the back door after it all went down and she knew.
She told me the story because she needed something, anything, to calm me down when I called her a few weeks ago in hysterics because a stranger had seen me lose it with my preschooler, saw me scream at her, and then yank her back from the street when she tried to run into traffic, and then get down on her level and in her face and yellhiss at her to “never, never do that again.”
The stranger watched this go down, and then she lost her cool, walked too close to us and muttered loud enough for me to hear, “fucking bitch, I fucking saw you.”
It all devolved from there. I cried. The stranger pulled out her phone to record my meltdown, threatened to call CPS.
My mom told me the story of how she said she hated me because she wanted me to know she understood, that we’ve all been there, but what I took away is that I don’t remember. I don’t remember her screaming at me. I don’t remember what she said.
I hope my daughter doesn’t remember the things I do.
I remember when I was baptized.
I stood waist deep in the font, small like a hot tub, water warm like a bath. I was dressed in neck to ankle white, my jumpsuit—baggy and sexless—cinched only slightly at the waist. The zipper flipped up at my neck. I remember it bothered me that you could notice it sticking up in the picture of me and my dad taken just before or just after—it must have been just before, my hair was dry—the main event. I remember my dad standing next to me in the water. I remember his hand in mine and his other hand–I get the lefts and rights mixed up trying to figure out how it all went, it’s been so long since I’ve seen anyone baptized this way–behind my head when I went under. I don’t remember what he said. I don’t remember what I thought. I remember plugging my nose. I remember meeting with my bishop a few weeks earlier, to be interviewed and found worthy to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There’s a twist in my perception. In my memories of the baptism, I might as well be a teenager. I am autonomous, grown. I am the same person I am now. In my memories of the bishop’s office, I am a little girl.
I was eight-years old.
Everybody leaves. At least, that’s how it feels when you are a progressive Mormon trying to make it work in the church. You are defensive of your Mormon identity and hopeful you can be the change you want to see, but it’s hard to do either when it feels like everybody who thinks like you stops coming around and a good chunk of the people who don’t think like you want you gone. You worry that 2012-2013 was high tide for unorthodox Mormons. You envision a time that you will look around the chapel and wonder, where have all the feminists gone? You know your daughter will leave. You know it will be because of what you teach her about her worth and about God, about how He or She or They or It love everyone the same.
Even way back when, at the very beginning of my journey into the Mormon hinterland, before the decade-plus I spent traversing the boundary, meandering the liminal space–in and out and in again–I was always envious of the people who came and went easily.
- The boy who found Bud Heavy and decided right away that a life with beer was better than one of deprivation.
- The girl who shacked up with her college boyfriend and wondered what was so bad about living in sin, anyway.
- The Jack Mormons who realized they could ditch the moniker altogether, the first part and the last, and move through their lives like normal people, not transgressive, not special, but also not Other, no longer marked at all.
I liked booze and boys as much as the next mostly straight teenage girl and didn’t even feel guilty about it. (Shame would come later on, when I tried to quit drinking and found I couldn’t, when I fell in love with an atheist and found I couldn’t fall out.) I liked them enough that I understood why people left. I entertained the idea myself. I wanted to want to leave. What I didn’t understand was how people who were raised in the church could just…go. Like it was nothing. Like it never meant anything at all.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t leave Mormonism alone. I would show up at church high or hungover, reeking of sweat and sex and booze and sit in the pew and try to focus on the ceiling while the room pitched and lurched around me in an effort not to hurl. The wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling of chapels crisscrossing the country from Tucson to New Orleans to Seattle to Ann Arbor looked like the hull of a great ship and I’d be carried away in visions of myself as the brother of Jared, rocking around in an ark bound for the promised land.
Why did I keep going? I guess I just believed.
That pissed me off, by the way. Making bad decisions on Friday is much less fun when you spend Sunday worrying about how to be good.
Years passed and I kicked the drugs and cut back on the drinking and married the atheist and went back to church. I couldn’t ignore the pull I felt toward Mormonism. We were tethered, naval to pulsing, bloody mass. It wasn’t perfect or anywhere near, but I put together a life that looked Mormon enough. I went to church most weeks. I taught a Sunday School class. I visited the women in my congregation that I was assigned to visit and shared uplifting messages about Jesus. I gave people rides. I tithed thousands of dollars to the church. I read the Book of Mormon every day. I read church magazines. I listened to General Conference twice a year. I prayed constantly. Mormonism made me happy, much happier than I’d been before.
But I still tracked the people who left, and wondered how they did it.
- The husband who read mysterious things about the church on the Internet and decided that while he had spent the last thirty years perfectly content to believe Joseph Smith translated gold plates using a pair of spectacles and a breastplate, the notion of the boy sticking his face in a hat to read words flashing across a rock was a bridge too far.
- The young man fresh off his mission who discovered the number–and the ages–of Joseph’s wives and couldn’t wrap his head around this sordid new information about the prophet he revered.
- The woman who lifted her veil and saw for the first time where she fell in the hierarchy of woman, man, and God.
- Entire families that passed out fliers supporting Prop 8 but freaked out when the church invested in a mall in downtown SLC.
I’d spent so long trying and failing at being a good Mormon it never occurred to me that I might not want the church I came back to.
Of course the red flags had been there all along. Once, when I was still very precarious in regard to the church, only sporadically attending a student ward at university, a Sunday School teacher, a woman, college-aged and educated, made the bizarre pronouncement in the middle of a lesson that the Big Bang Theory was “stupid.” I didn’t know church was a place I could disagree yet, so I spent the rest of class silently fuming and called my mom in a rage as soon as it was over. On the surface, I was angry because literal, biblical, six-day Creationism is not even required Mormon doctrine. Sure, some Mormons believe that stuff, but the official party line is that religion and science work together. Mormons aren’t the kind of fundamentalists who tear pages out of biology textbooks. My anger was defensive, on account of my membership in the group. Mormons are already so weird; who did this woman think she was, putting our cultural relevance in further jeopardy by perpetuating backward anti-science gobbledygook without anybody even saying she had to?
On a deeper level, I was hurt and baffled. Here I was, at church, during the Sunday school class that meets at the end of a three-hour worship service no less, for the first time in who know how long, desperately trying to inject some spirituality into a life that felt poisonous, and this woman, who was supposedly called by God, who was supposed to be leading the class by inspiration, was using her platform to engage a culture war that had been out of date for decades? A war that was never ours to fight in the first place? Church was a hospital and I was dying and this was the first time I sensed that I might show up and get something that made the hurt worse.
So, yes, I came back to church with questions. How could I not, having been blessed with a brain that works and a family that told me to use it? How could I not, having been raised in a church that taught me that all are alike before God, black and white, bond and free, male and female? How could I not, after years of living and studying and working alongside women with astonishing resumes, men who treated me like an equal, atheists who were kinder than any Christian I’d ever known? Of course I came back with questions. The fact that I’d already come back once, that I’d come back at all, after living through my own approximation of hell, stilled the part of me that wanted to abandon the faith altogether. Even so, I had enough questions to understand why other people did.
What I didn’t understand was how people could do it so quickly, with so much certainty. Like it was so black and white.
Like many people, I found information that challenged my faith online. It started with the mixed-orientation marriage forums. I found my way there looking for resources for people in mixed-faith relationships after I decided to marry my non-LDS boyfriend. I needed reassurance that we could make it, in spite of our religious differences. What I found–lots of women trying to stay in marriages to gay men–was neither especially relevant to my situation, not especially comforting. How had all these men ended up married to women anyway? What were they going to do, faced as they were with choosing between the deepest longings of their hearts and the church they lived and a family hanging in jeopardy in the middle? I couldn’t fathom the difficulty and thanked God I didn’t have to choose.
Next came the blogs. I devoured a secret personal blog by a closeted gay Mormon man. He was married to a woman and they had four children. He kept writing that he wanted to stay, with his wife, in the church, but when he wrote about blossoming friendships with other men, about exploring intimacy outside the confines of his marriage, I thought it was painfully obvious that wasn’t exactly the case.
I couldn’t relate to anything this man was experiencing but I was fascinated by this glimpse into the mind of another tortured Mormon soul.
A friend from law school turned me onto Feminist Mormon Housewives. He was giving a presentation on Proposition 8 in our Critical Legal Theory class and he was careful to mention that not all Mormons are socially conservative, glancing over at me, and citing FMH as proof. I’d never heard of the website and ran home to type the words into my web browser. I was gobsmacked. It was a group blog run by Mormon women and the tagline in the header read, “angry activists with diapers to change.” Who were these ladies, writing about canning jam and fighting the patriarchy? They were simultaneously eerily regressive (absolute piles of children) and wildly radical (there’s a Heavenly…Mother?). Post after post challenged fundamental Mormon beliefs and practices. They questioned the idea that God told the early Mormons to practice polygamy. They suggested that Mormon women once held a version of the priesthood and perhaps the day would come when they would again. They aired horrific accounts of ecclesiastical abuse. They talked in circles around temple ceremonies that broke their hearts they were so inequitable.
This was the most absorbing content I’d ever read. I felt like I’d walked into a conversation I’d spent my whole life wanting to have.
FMH led me to the semi-Mormon Mommy Bloggers, Mormon women with personal websites that were snarky, and funny, and intellectual, and irreverent. I hadn’t realized that Mormon women could be smart and cool. Chalk it up to internalized misogyny or to me not ever giving Mormon women a real chance, I was willing to atone. I had finally found my people.
After the blogs came the podcasts. Hungry for stories about other Mormon misfits, I tore through the archives of Mormon Stories and Mormon Expressions and Mormon Matters, honing in on women’s stories. Dark as they often were, with self harm and loss and painful encounters with religious authority, these were the stories of women steeped in the same tradition as me making it work, often after watching their religious world disintegrate around them.
- Claudia Bushman forced out of publishing the Exponent II after her husband became stake president.
- Sonia Johnson excommunicated after pushing for the ERA.
- Maxine Hanks and Lavina Fielding Anderson and Margaret Toscano and others excommunicated after writing and editing books about the history and theology of Mormon women.
In addition to the giants of Mormon feminism, I discovered dozens of women with far less storied histories sharing about the personal undoing they experienced when they caught onto a loose thread of inequality and followed it into the rich and tangled web of unorthodox Mormonism. Often, this undoing was followed by a re-weaving of their lives into the Mormon whole, by which I mean: they kept going to church. Theirs were stories of betrayal, loss, and redemption.
After years of ambivalence around the church, torn between feeling like I should be a better Mormon despite not really wanting to be Mormon, it was the Mormon feminists that drew me in, and it was the Mormon feminists who would show me how to stay.
As I read more and more accounts of people who disaffected from Mormon orthodoxy, I noticed that my experience diverged from the typical story in one major way: none of the information I was learning about Mormonism shocked me.
Among the many gifts my parents gave me is a Mormonism that is malleable. A Mormonism that, when I was a teenager, easily accommodated bikinis and short shorts and protest songs. A Mormonism that opposed the Iraq invasion. A Mormonism that drew back in horror when, that same year, the ward choir director announced that the Easter program would shock and awe us, in an obvious reference to the campaign in the Middle East, but loved that choir director just the same. A Mormon community that smiled, bemused, at my hot pink hair in college and applauded when I graduated from law school before getting married.
This kind of Mormonism would readily expand to make room for fallible prophets and bishops behaving badly and confusing and incomplete doctrines about women, people of color, and gay people when the time came. This kind of Mormonism not only tolerated but welcomed big questions. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? What do we do when people claiming to be God’s servants get it seriously wrong.
Make no mistake: I had a healthy fear of “anti-Mormon literature,” which is what my Mormon parents called books and websites that were critical of the church in the 1990s and early aughts. I fretted when my non-LDS boyfriend read things about the church online, worried he’d stumble into something so profoundly ugly that it would ruin any chances of him ever joining the church. Well into my twenties, when I was Hoovering in stories of people who had doubts about the veracity of the church’s teachings, who had had negative experiences in the church, and who, whether as a result of their particular makeup or their unique history, were on their way out, I nervously avoided seeking out information about the church that wasn’t filtered through the lens of a personal story.
Vacuum cleaner that I was, I picked up the bad news anyway. Bad news like:
- Anachronisms in the Book of Mormon–e.g., references to horses and coins when there is no archaeological record of such things having existed in the Americas during the time periods covered by the Book of Mormon. For some people, this is all the proof they need that Joseph Smith faked the whole thing–the One True Church is a scam. It made me want to learn more about the art of translation and how a translator’s worldview impacts the subject text.
- DNA studies–e.g., evidence that ancestors of American Indians migrated from Central Asia and not, as it happens, ancient Israel. For some people, this information undermines everything they thought they knew about the origins of the Americas as told in the Book of Mormon. I couldn’t get through more than 30 minutes of academic discussion on the subject, because it’s dry as hell. Also, everybody gets killed off at the end of that book; it made sense to me that they wouldn’t have left a significant genetic record.
- The Mountain Meadows Massacre–e.g., that time (1857) when a band of Mormon settlers murdered 120 men, women, and children emigrating by wagon from Arkansas to California. This one threw me a little more than the others. I honestly had no idea my people were capable of that. On further thought, though, it is tragic but not senseless. The Mormons were isolated and hysterical, persecution memories were fresh, and tensions were high. Plus, there is evidence that Brigham Young helped orchestrate the attack, and Mormons are nothing if not obedient. History is a bloody mess and I was a natural apologist.
Because nothing shocked me, there was no turning point, no clear demarcation between then and now. I learned something new and it was like I’d always known it. I polished off the whole apple without realizing I’d even taken a bite. I did everything short of walking out of the garden.
My Mormonism was, in addition to being malleable, porous. Teachings that made no sense slid along the membrane and slipped right out. So Joseph Smith married a 15-year-old. My qualms with wrapping my head around the idea of a prophet fucking up to such a monumental degree were few. But I was not about to twist my conscience up in knots pretending that God told him to do that. Or that God just changed his mind about black people in 1978. Or that God cries anything but tears of joy when two men, or two women, fall in love and decide to be family.
Each new, unpleasant pebble of church history dissolved smoothly into the bubble of my belief, as though I had always known it. Those that didn’t passed through. The new information did not rock my faith so much as change the composition and the shape of it, slightly, over time. If anything, these revelations made me more attached to the church. A moody, complicated faith suited my rebellious nature. I knew I’d stick around longer if I could fight for something within the faith, even while I defended it on the outside.
What I didn’t expect is that the church would fight me back.
The first shots rang out in 2012, when I marched with a contingent of LDS supporters of gay marriage in the Chicago Pride Parade. The men wore white shirts and ties and the women wore pioneer dresses and we walked quietly with the other religious groups armed with rainbow flags and signs announcing our allyship. The event organizers were generous enough to put all us Jesus freaks at the front of the parade, and the moment I went from grinning my face off waving at drag queens to rounding a bend and being booed by the Westboro Baptist Church remains one of the most powerful of my life. Humans built bridges that day and God was pleased. A month later, a friend and former law school classmate called me to repentance. He told me that I couldn’t hide my sin by slapping a progressive label on it. He told me that my dissent made me something other than a real Mormon.
The firestorm came later that year, when a ragtag band of Mormon feminists organized Wear Pants to Church Day. What started off as a day for us to show solidarity and raise awareness by wearing pants instead of the customary skirts or dresses to church blew up into an international event with press coverage in major outlets from the New York Times to the Huffington Post to NPR. I got emails from other Mormons, strangers, condemning me.
- Anyone who supports this protest is revealing more about your feeling jipped for being born a woman than it is showing you are proud of womanhood.
- I have you to thank for the hate that is overcoming my facebook today. You incited a verbal riot. Is this what you intended? If not, please remove your event.
- If you wanted to create contention with your page, you have succeeded marvelously. What does the scripture say, “Contention is of the devil”. I wonder what you thought you would accomplish with this. If it was anything other than dividing the membership of the church, you were sadly mistaken.
- Shame on you for trying to make a place of worship, and women in the church feel even more divided and making an issue out of one that really shouldn’t be there. Church leaders have said nothing about wearing pants. This distracts from Christ and being united. It’s not right. People should not be judging others for wearing pants if necessary, as well as those who choose to wear skirts. This idea and day to wear pants is just wrong. Are you truly following Christ and uniting and loving, or are you like the great divider….you decide.
Stephanie L., the woman who started the movement, received a death threat. My mom accused me, with hurt and fear in her voice, of wanting the priesthood–the ability to act in God’s name with God’s power, a privilege available to all Mormon men but only to Mormon men–for myself. I responded to every email graciously, practically begging the question, “What would Jesus do?” I quoted liberally from the Book of Mormon, determined to show them I was the better Christian.
I was besieged in 2013, after I had my baby. I dutifully took her to church on Sundays, alone, desperate for support and reassurance that I was making the right choices as a mother, that I wasn’t doing permanent damage to my daughter by going back to work while my husband stayed home, that I hadn’t already screwed her up royally by marrying outside of the church in the first place. What I got was people asking me when I was going to quit my job, was leaders reminding me that a woman’s job is to nurture and a man’s to provide, that women and men are different but equal.
In the spring of that year, Kate Kelly launched her website advocating for the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Mormon church and members pushed back. Feminists tried to attend the all-male priesthood session of the church’s semiannual general conference in the fall and were turned away at the door. I quietly posted a profile on ordainwomen.org and didn’t share it with anybody because I didn’t want my family to be ashamed.
The war waged in 2014, when the church excommunicated Kelly for her role in pushing for ordination. I wrote about being crippled after watching the body of Christ self-amputate, draining good women like so much lost blood. Up to this point, I’d been crawling along the boundary of what was acceptable in Mormonism, pushing against it and enjoying the way it flexed and stretched. There was always more room, it seemed, for me and for the people I loved. In 2014, the skin snapped back. The pores clogged. My once airy bubble sealed shut, in the world but not of it, a place unto itself. At church, I watched my daughter watch the deacons pass the sacrament. Those twelve-year-old boys had more power in the church than she would ever have. I lived six days a week as a human and went to church on the seventh a failed mom. I could not breathe.
I started drinking again. I got high.
People have been leaving the church for as long as there’s been a church to leave but in 2014 my people started leaving in droves. My friends in Chicago. The women I planned Wear Pants to Church Day with. Women I’d admired from afar. For the first time since I’d come back to the church in my twenties, I wanted out.
Why did I keep going? It wasn’t because I got a thrill out of being an iconoclast. I mean, I did, but it’s not the life I would have chosen for myself. I went because I still believed.
But what did I believe? That the church was “true,” whatever that means? In my heart of hearts, I’d been a universalist for years. I had to be. I was married to a non-believer. My grandmother is an atheist. I had too many friends who would never join the Mormon church in large part because of the irredeemable positions it took on social issues. I had to believe that things would work out for these people or I’d have drunk myself to death years ago over the tragedy of it all.
My belief system was big and slippery, but only for other people. When it came to my own salvation, I was certain that I would live and die in the Mormon bubble. I remembered what my life had been like without the church, how lucky I was to have survived addiction, depression, and insanity, and knew I couldn’t go back. I remembered the experiences that had led me back to the church, the angels that lined my path, the voice of God in my head, and knew I couldn’t discard their power. Mormonism was the only place, the only language, God had ever spoken to me and so I believed it was the only place God would. I believed Mormonism was where and who I was supposed to be. My God was as big as my mind was small.
The irony is that, although it was the church’s rejection of the movement to ordain women to the priesthood that was pushing me to the edge, I never wanted to be a priest. How could I? The notion of a woman acting with authority in the church, in any church, was beyond my wildest imagination. Plus, submitting to the laying on of hands would mean giving up my spot in the cheap seats and my identity a fringe Mormon.
Some months after Kelly’s excommunication, I had a vision of myself in robes. It was during my morning commute. I rode the red line from my neighborhood on the north side. My mind, at that point, was a minefield of anxiety, alcoholism, and fear. The train descended from the elevated tracks to the tunnels below. I couldn’t think of work or family or church without tripping the wire that told me I was failing, that I was falling apart, across the board. The doors slid open and I pushed out into the dark. A comedian’s voice buzzed in my ears; I’d taken to listening to podcasts to muffle the noises in my head, to blunt the existential dread. The escalator closest to my office was under repair so I took the long way to the stairs at the other end of the tunnel and emerged blinking in the bright morning light. I couldn’t get myself to and from work without courting disaster. I stepped off the curb ready to cross State Street, ready to walk out of my life, when it happened. I saw myself standing shin-deep in the water, draped in white, with an embroidered stole. My arms waved, beckoning somebody to join me. I didn’t need more context to know that I was not being baptized into another church; I was doing the baptizing.
Something clicked into place and the pressure in my chest released, breathing life into my cramped vision of how women relate to God. As a Mormon woman, I had been fighting for something that women of other faiths already have. I’d spent so long convinced that, for me, the options were Mormon or nothing, and vacillated wildly between the two. In a moment, I saw that could go somewhere else, and that that place would be filled with light, and that my passions and talents and questions would not just be tolerated, but received.
Is revelation ever easy to take? The vision dissolved into the bubble with every other unsettling thought I’d ever had. Like Jonah, I fled and spent the next year in the belly of the beast.
In November 2015, the LDS church updated its handbooks to include a new policy. Per the policy, members of the church in same-sex marriages were apostates subject to excommunication from the church. Children of same-sex couples were forbidden from being blessed as babies and baptized into the church as children. Instead, they had to wait until they turned eighteen, moved out of their parents’ homes, disavowed gay marriage, and obtained approval from First Presidency–the prophet and his two counselors, the highest leaders in the church.
The policy came as a shock after half a decade during which many progressive Mormons perceived the church as softening its stance toward gay and lesbian members and the larger LGBTQ community. The effects were immediately devastating. Church members across the spectrum expressed bewilderment, hurt, and sorrow, online, at family members. Thousands gathered in Salt Lake City to submit letters resigning their membership in the church. Many more just stopped going. Those committed to the church circled the wagons. Straight people reached out to their gay friends to tell them they were welcome. Bishops and other church leaders offered to meet with their congregants to answer their questions. Ward members invited people into their homes, to hold each other, and to talk. I drank rye whiskey from the bottle and wept.
As with most people, it was the aspect of the policy that barred children from being baptized that hit me hardest. I knew the church sometimes made people leave. I’d seen it in my own lifetime, with Kelly, and others. This was the first time I’d known the church, my church, a young and eager church, a proselytizing church, turn people away who, against all odds, actually wanted to join. The policy dangled the possibility of baptism at a later date, and some kids will probably grab for that chance, but others won’t. I was baptized when I was eight years old. It was an easy choice. Back then, thinking about the church was like wrapping myself in a warm blanket. By the time I was eighteen, all I wanted to do was to get high–I never would have gotten baptized at that point. The new policy told me that the church was okay with losing kids like me. The policy told me that the baptismal covenant wasn’t the essential, life-saving ordinance the church proclaimed it to be. The policy told me that, for some of us, a life inside the church was negligible.
Word of the policy spread like a contagion, and I had an appointment with my bishop within days. He struggled to put into words the reasons for church’s new position. “The church respects families,” he said. “We don’t want to put children in the confusing position of receiving conflicting messages about the sacred doctrine of marriage at church and at home. We don’t want to undermine the parents of those families.”
“But that’s my family. I married outside the faith, outside the temple. And my husband and I believe that people have the right to marry whoever they want and we are teaching our daughter to do the same. How are we different?”
He looked at me with compassion and concern and a profound inability to answer my question. “I want you to know that you and your family are always welcome in our ward.”
But I wasn’t looking for permission to stay. I didn’t need that. Mormonism was my birthright. I’d rejected it and gotten it back and now my heart and my mind were a mess with it. Nobody could take Mormonism from me. I was looking for permission to go, and in the policy I finally had it, from the mouth of the Lord’s anointed.
A few days later, I went for an early morning run outside. It was warm for November. The sidewalks were wet with rain from the night before and the sun was coming up gold over Lake Michigan. I was glad nobody was up yet because every few blocks my face would crumple and I’d let out a horrific barking sob. My relationship with Mormonism had been an agonizing intellectual head game for so long it bizarre to hear my body finally emit the grief. I needed to get away from where people might be so I ran to Lake Michigan and followed the trail out to a little peninsula with a dock that looks south to the city. I dropped to my knees and traced the shoreline past all the neighborhoods I lived before, untethered from them all. A vee of geese knifed through the sky. It seemed late for to be leaving, but when I looked it up later, I learned that the migrations are nothing to set your watch by. Canada Geese pass through Chicago most of the winter and, thanks to warmer winters and urban feeding, some never leave it all.
These days, I don’t know what to call myself. I don’t go to church anymore, but it’s different than before, when I was still a Mormon living in the land of should. Ex-Mormon is too harsh, Post-Mormon too smug. I still envy the people who know how to rip the Band-aid off. I could never be so rash. My relationship with Mormonism was a long, slow unpeeling. Mormonism wasn’t adhesive, it was epidermis and it pulled the follicles of my faith up and out of my one by one. Once I called Mormonism my whole heart, but that was wrong. Mormonism was skin. I can live without it, but I will be raw for years.