Month: April 2016

Day 90: Evolution

In the beginning drinking was a gift. It was a superpower. I could change the world anytime I wanted. I could change myself to fit the world. I liked it so much I wanted to keep it all to myself.

Drinking became a secret. It was medicine. I could fix the world anytime I wanted. I thought I could fix myself, but drinking kept breaking me instead. My heart, my head. My cell phone.

Drinking was a wicked pet monkey living on my shoulder, a devil in my eye. It was a curse and I liked it because it made me different and special. Nobody had ever known this curse like I did.

I put the curse in my back pocket and kept it there like a promise. I would save drinking for later. I had a bunch of things I wanted to do first and I knew I couldn’t do them wet.

I did it all. I made a living. I made a family. I made myself. It was amazing until the novelty wore off. I remembered my superpower. I tried to bring it back, to make living like an adult less hard and boring and sad.

But drinking had changed. Drinking was a mutant freak, everything all at once. It was a gift and a secret and a curse and a promise. It was sticky sweet. It was sickening. It was a black hole.

I crawled out and through the muck looking back so hard my head almost fell off. Lot’s wife and then some. Drinking was a monster receding in the distance. Drinking was my ex-best friend. Drinking was a friend of a friend. Drinking was an interesting acquaintance I wish I’d known better. Drinking was a dumb bitch.

Drinking was not for me. It never was. I don’t understand how it works for other people, if it does actually work for other people, but it was never going to work for me. I don’t have the guts for it, or the nerves, or the solid sense of self. Something’s off inside.

But I was never going to go down in flames with it either. Drinking was not my lover. Drinking was not enough. Time and time again I moved toward love and light and life. I swallowed pills and then puked them back up, hoping I’d beaten them to the punch so that I could fall asleep next to my husband for real. I freed myself.

I was never going to hit a bottom low enough to make want to stop because that kind of drinking was not in my path. I am not afraid of jails, institutions, and death.

I was more afraid of never moving up. I was never going to climb a mountain high enough to make drinking okay. I was never going to climb a mountain. I was never going to move.

There are many paths, but for me the only one forward is not drinking. Head forward, no secrets, no medicine, no curse. Blessedly, the path is littered with good gifts, with teachers, and only the occasional wicked monkey. Mostly I walk, but there are times when I fly. Not drinking is my superpower.

Words of Wisdom

The hardest thing about being a Mormon with a drinking problem is that, for Mormons, any drinking is a problem. I think this is common knowledge, but since I am regularly surprised by people whose knowledge of Mormonism taps out at Joseph Smith and funny underwear, it bears spelling out that Mormons do not drink alcohol, full stop. No beer, no liquor, no wine. Even at our sacrament services we sip tap water out of tiny paper cups passed around on stainless steel trays by fidgety 13-year-old deacons in white shirts and ties. Growing up, my mom never even bought cooking wine, and though I know a handful of Mormons now who do, it’s borderline on edgy.

The prohibition derives from a few verses in the Doctrine of Covenants, a Mormon scriptural text, that are collectively called the Word of Wisdom

A Word of Wisdom, for the benefit of the council of high priests, assembled in Kirtland, and the church, and also the saints in Zion—

To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days—

Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.

Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation—

That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him.

* * *

And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.

And again, tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill.

* * *

18 And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones;

19 And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;

20 And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.

21 And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen.

According to Mormon belief, these words passed from God’s mouth to Joseph Smith’s ear, although you wouldn’t think it by how slow the early Mormons were to adopt the advice. In fact, that’s all it was in the beginning. It was explicitly not a commandment, but rather a bit of sound advice, with the promise of blessings attached to those who could follow it. That’s how you end up with weird bits of Mormon trivia like Brigham Young owning a distillery and the Mormon women publishing recipes for strawberry wine in their magazine.

Over the years, this take-it-or-leave-it appendage to the faith became a core component of Mormon practice. It is an effective boundary marker. Drink a beer as a teenager and you go from regular Mormon to Jack Mormon lickety-split. Drink a beer as an adult and you lose permission to worship in Mormon temples. To this day, I’ve never actually met anybody who drinks and still considers themselves Mormon in any meaningful regard.

I was a good Mormon kid. I was a good kid period. I got good grades and played nicely with others, I knew all the answers and followed the rules. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, I was drawn to chaos and oblivion like a moth to flame. One Thanksgiving when I was about ten I drank up about half a bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling cider and then spun myself around in twisty circles outside until the world kept spinning without me. I thought that if that’s what being drunk felt like then it was the best feeling in the world.

Some years later, when I was a teenager, I spent a weekend holed up in my parents’ bed watching movies and drinking codeine cough syrup for a nasty case of bronchitis and realized no, actually that was actually the best feeling in the world.

I revised my estimation again the first time I took Oxycontin, and spent the better part of my senior year of high school disappearing from my life.

By the time I went to college, getting trashed as often as possible was my number one priority. I thought this was normal. It seemed like everybody around me was doing the same thing. Actually, plenty of people seemed to be doing it more often. I was envious of kids who had easier access to booze and drugs, and I resented my parents for making me live in the special (read: boring) dormitory reserved for students at my university’s honors college. The stoner comedies that were were so popular among the freshman set reinforced my perception that binge drinking, blackouts, and drunken hookups were not only normal but the point of college.

Still, I had a sense that things were different for me. I noted how some of my girlfriends could stop after two or three drinks while I inevitably powered on until the booze was gone or I blacked out/got sick and someone took me home. I noted the look of disgust on a resident advisor’s face when he saw me cleaning up vomit that had splashed down the side of a friend’s car in the harsh light of day. Something scratched at the back of my brain when I couldn’t convince any of my roommates to skip class or a night of studying to get high with me. I took nights off, too, when instead of drinking or smoking, I would crush up sleeping pills or drink NyQuil from the bottle. I wasn’t stupid enough not to see something off in that, but I figured the only problem was that I was using embarrassing drugs.

I chalked my questionable relationship with substances up to being Mormon. I wasn’t “ex” so much as “on hiatus” and I needed to cram a lifetime worth of drinking and recreational drug use into a few years, before I went back to church. I was deeply embarrassed by my religion, but deep down I believed it, and I couldn’t shut up about it. “You don’t understaaaand,” I’d drawl at parties after a few too many. “This is different for me. I’m a Mormon.”

Over time, it became clear I needed to stop. It didn’t happen all at once. It was more like a mirror clearing after a hot shower, where every good thing that came into my life offered me a better picture of what life could be, and the morning after each new low was like a hand wiping the steam away, showing me exactly who I did not want to be.

The impetus to stop getting drunk and high came when I fell in love with a man who didn’t. I discovered that there were things I wanted to experience sober–staying up all night talking and drinking bad diner coffee, driving through the desert at sunset, and watching British television on the couch with our hands all over each other. New love is a superior drug.

Still, I kept fucking up with alcohol, and it put my shiny new relationship in jeopardy. I drank too much vodka and hooked up with an ex. I drank a bottle of rum and my best friend’s boyfriend’s best friend raped me. I drank long island iced teas on my 21st birthday and gut-punched my boyfriend when he tried to help me home after picking me up at the bar. I drove. I dropped one, two, three cell phones in the toilet and destroyed a laptop. I lied. I stole. I almost cheated. I relapsed twice on painkillers. I poured a glass of wine and drank a bottle, every time. I lost too many days with my head in the toilet, trying to keep food down while the room spun.

I was chewed up with guilt, but couldn’t quit. I cut back. I even cut way back. I had to if I wanted to keep my relationship. I became so scared of what happened when I drank that I stopped going to parties, stopped going to bars, and stopped keeping alcohol at home. The less I drank, the happier I got. At the same time, soon after I hit the legal age, alcohol started cropping up everywhere. Study groups. Professors’ houses. Work dinners. Vacations with my boyfriends’ family. With all that temptation, it was impossible to make sobriety stick.

Every time I caved, I hated myself a little more. I hated myself for being weak. I hated myself for reneging on my promises. I hated myself for forgetting all the reasons I kept swearing off drinking. I desperately wanted to be free of hangovers and shame, but I didn’t know how to kill the hunger that yawned inside me.

In hindsight, it is fairly obvious that I had a drinking problem, but I didn’t see it as something anybody could help me with. Like all addicts, I was convinced I was different, and in some ways I was, because as much as I wasn’t acting like one, I was still a Mormon.

Being a Mormon, I still didn’t comprehend that my drinking was abnormal. I thought that the world was divided between people who drank and people who didn’t and that all the people who did drink drank exactly like I did. This warped impression was partly due to being young and partly because I gravitated toward people who liked to drink as much as I did, but it was also because I grew up in a dry household without any examples of moderate or healthy drinking. To a Mormon kid, drinking is about the worst thing a person can do, so it made sense to me that it came with such horrific consequences. It never occurred to me that other people didn’t have a laundry list of messed up stories stemming from their alcohol consumption.

Being a Mormon, I was so terrified of being rejected by my family, and later my boyfriend, that I lied about my substance abuse incessantly. I started drinking alone and in secret when I was a teenager and that continued to be my MO for years. I was so adept at hiding my problem, especially as I got older, that nobody called me on it. Certainly nobody suggested I might need help.

Being a Mormon, I thought I was a step ahead, a step above, needing outside help. I knew about AA. I knew about rehab. I knew about addiction counselors, and, in fact, had seen one myself for a short time in high school. However, I thought that help was for people who didn’t know they needed to stop (an idea I may have gleaned from watching too many episodes of Intervention), and that wasn’t me. I already knew that drinking didn’t work for me. I’d known for years. As a Mormon, I should never have been drinking in the first place, and I should be able to give it up on my own.

Being a Mormon, I thought that I knew the path to recovery. Mormonism taught me that all problems can be solved by trying harder and being better. So I went back to church. I prayed constantly. It only sort of worked. Remembering I believed in God made me happier, but it wasn’t enough to keep me sober. I continued to drink, and to lie. I lied to myself, convincing myself that I wasn’t technically breaking any rules, because the Word of Wisdom was never intended to be an absolute prohibition on alcohol. I lied to my parents, so they won’t worry. I lied to my religious community, leading them to believe that I was just like them. Every Sunday, I felt like a fraud, an impostor  in my own church, but I was in a vicious catch-22:  if I could just be a good enough Mormon, then I wouldn’t want to drink anymore, but I would never be a good enough Mormon until I stopped drinking.

The worst part was that, being Mormon, I navigated this tortured relationship with alcohol, with myself, and with the church alone–without any pastoral care, without y family, and without support from my congregation–because I was too afraid to reveal my weaknesses in a religious environment that demands perfection.

While I finally did commit to sobriety, it wasn’t after I stopped going to church. I credit Mormonism for showing me where I needed to go, and for introducing me to the God who got me there, but ultimately I couldn’t do it until I stepped away from the omnipresent pressure to follow the rules, to fit in, and to be good. I needed to be free to ask for help of the non-divine variety. I needed to know the decision was mine. Today, I get the distinct ironic pleasure of introducing myself as a post-Mormon who follows the Word of Wisdom.

This will continue to be the case regardless of whether I ever go back to church because, although I haven’t been in a literally believing member for years, I finally see that the Word of Wisdom is divinely inspired. As one of the “weakest of all saints,” i.e.,  a person who cannot drink alcohol safely, I can see that that the prohibition on drinking is, in fact, adapted to my capacity. As somebody who needs a community of other sober people to stay that way myself, I can see the value, and the noble sacrifice, in an entire church abstaining from alcohol to create a safe haven for those who need it. As somebody who, in sobriety, has found health, wisdom, and “great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures,” I know that the Word of Wisdom is a principle with great promises attached. I run, and I am not weary. I walk, and I do not faint. I know that I will die eventually, but not from drugs or alcohol, and this was not always the case. I used to wonder why God made me a Mormon since in so many ways it was a terrible fit. These days, I’m just grateful that I was raised in a tradition that opened my eyes to a different, clearer way of living.

Day 81

Sometimes I feel like I’m as bad at recovery as I was at alcoholism. My drinking was at its worst in college for Crissake. Whose wasn’t? And even then, the worst part was not any of the ugly memories I conjure up when I want a taste of shame, but the slow leak of potential as my life deflated like a sad balloon. I don’t like to tell my drinking story because it is underwhelming: I drank myself sick and made bad choices and stopped until I forgot what a hangover felt like and then started again. Repeat ad nauseam.

My recovery story is underwhelming, too. There was no dramatic bottoming out. I knew it was going downhill, but I thought I had years ahead of me before I would have to give it up for good. There was no lightbulb moment. I already knew too much and had for too long. Perhaps the most disappointing part of my recovery is that I’m doing it without fanfare. I saw a therapist weekly at first, but I’ve graduated to monthly visits because I don’t have enough going on to fill our hour-long sessions. I exercise. I go to bed early. I go to church, sometimes. I pray, sometimes. God and I are just okay these days, after Mormonism. I write, when I have time. I call people never, though I do talk to my husband. I go to AA meetings, when I feel like I’m about to crawl out of my skin or open a bottle, which is less than once a week.

Which is how, at 81 days, I found myself at something like my sixth AA meeting. It was a well attended lunchtime meeting at the AA office downtown. The chair asked me to read and I said yes because why not. I wasn’t sure whether I had to read a certain part in the page, so I didn’t.. I guess I chose wrong, though, because after I finished, a man sitting next to me gently corrected me for skipping the part I’d wondered about. I hate shit like that. Insane perfectionism is why I drank in the first place. To feel better, I told myself that the only reason he pointed out my mistake was because he was one of those people whose life went so far off course that he needed extreme rigidity to stay sober. Not like me. I was barely a drunk, so I can play fast and loose with the program.

I don’t necessarily think I am wrong about that. I know enough sober people who don’t do AA to know that the only thing that matters is that I don’t drink. This man shared later that he did crack for over a decade. He said he needs to go to meetings every day because he drank and used like it was his full-time job. I don’t, because I didn’t.

I do think it was wrong to be so condescending, though. When the third person welcomed me to the meeting, it occurred to me that making a mistake that marked me as a newcomer could be a good thing. What do I get out of pretending like I’m further along this path than I am? Nothing. Actually, it probably hurts me. Trying to pass always does.

Later, as I was writing this down, it occurred to me that maybe the man who corrected me was just trying to be nice. Maybe he picked up on my obvious discomfort and decided to show me the ropes, to help me fit in. Or maybe he is an addict who likes to hear the sound of his own voice. Or maybe he is a human and he was trying to have a human connection, which is the reason I started going to meetings in the first place. Whatever the case, I can’t complain, because it would be ridiculous to expect that I can have other humans, with all of their kindness and humor and wisdom and charm, without also opening myself up to all of their messy awkwardness, their rudeness, their craziness, their thoughtlessness, and their guile. People are fucking weird, but sobriety is teaching me that’s what makes them fucking wonderful.

40 Years

In my wildest dreams I am a religious wanderer. A holy harlot. A spiritual slut.

In reality, I’ve only acted on that impulse a few times. When I was 21, on the precipice of leaving Tucson for good after graduation, I took the I-19 south into the desert to explore the San Xavier mission and surprised myself by joining evening mass, sitting and kneeling and standing a beat behind everyone else, struggling to make out the words to the unfamiliar hymns, simultaneously recoiling from and grasping toward the touch of strangers murmuring “peace be with you.” Mormons services aren’t nearly so physical.

When I was 29, on the precipice of leaving Mormonism for good after the church started excommunicating feminists again, I took Lakeshore Drive south, set on finding a church that ordained women and served the poor. I sat in on the Sunday morning service at LaSalle Street Church, my heart moved by the presence of the female preacher, while my mind tripped over reference to the Trinity. Mostly I hushed my toddler. Mormon services aren’t nearly so quiet.

I was enchanted by the threads of mystery and wonder I saw glinting in traditions that weren’t my own. Eating latkes by candlelight with a Jewish family in sixth grade. Rock music in a darkened auditorium with an Evangelical youth group in tenth. Stained glass and gold and towering men made of stone on  my honeymoon in Rome. The magic of Mormonism is more practical. A family in my neighborhood growing up surviving their father’s long-term unemployment by the miracle of food storage. Millions of adults miraculously waking up each morning without so much as a drop of coffee.

Even so, my divine dalliances were few and far between. I skipped a lot of church over the years, and while I’d like to think I spent that time in meditation or studying Eastern religious texts, the truth is that I was far more invested in Earthly pursuits. Sleeping in. Sunday brunch. Sex.

I recommitted to more traditional, more visible efforts at worship when my daughter was born. I knew enough to know that she wouldn’t spontaneously absorb my dormant faith. She had to see it. So I practiced the religion I knew. I took her to Mormon sacrament services. I pieced together fragments of melody from my memories of the Mormon children’s hymnbook and sang them to her before bed. I prayed to the Mormon Heavenly Father. I prayed to the Mormon Heavenly Mother, too, when I felt especially lost or heretical.

I meant to raise my daughter Mormon-plus, to give her a community along with the power to walk away from it, by introducing her to other religious traditions and honoring their legitimacy. In so doing I hoped to satisfy both my lust for the unfamiliar and my human need to belong.

Mormonism is so big, though, so all-encompassing, that it’s hard to be Mormon-plus-anything. Hell, it’s hard enough to be Mormon. Before I knew it, I had a calling teaching the women in my congregation that made it logistically difficult to church hop, at least with a baby. Before I knew it, my baby was a toddler, curious and kind but tentative around new people and it took her so long to acclimate to the Mormon nursery program that I couldn’t fathom doing it again with the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Baha’i ad infinitum. We stuck with Mormonism for comfort and convenience and I promised my daughter I’d show her a wider world of worship when we were more settled.

And then the timer running on my relationship with Mormonism hit zero. It was not expected. I’d set the timer myself, but hadn’t realized how little time there had been on it, and had forgotten about it in any case. It was not convenient. I thought we’d have years of dilettante-ing in and out of the other congregations in the neighborhood. Instead, I woke up one morning and realized we had to go.

And, of course, now that I finally have the opportunity to stretch my theological boundaries, to spread my hungry wings, I don’t want it. I didn’t know that community is what I wanted most of all until I was exiled from my own. It wasn’t until I spent Sunday morning fielding dirty looks from church ladies every time my toddler fidgeted in the pew that I discovered that Christianity outside Mormonism isn’t all that family friendly. It wasn’t until I found myself in crisis — struggling mightily not to breathe life into a decade-old monster — that I realized I don’t need freedom. I need a church that will have me. Maybe fix me up when I am ready, but first take me in. After years of wandering around the edges of the desert, romanticizing a life in the sun, now that I’m neck deep in sand no water in sight, all I have to say is fuck wonder. Give me shelter.