The shrieking preacher man is a staple of the American college experience. Wherever people gather, on the mall, in the quad, you’ll find him, waving his arms and shouting about the Lord. At the big state school where I went for undergrad, the resident Jesus freak occupied a grassy knoll near Modern Languages, on top of the underground Integrated Learning Center. I was boozing too hard to go to church on Sunday mornings, but I felt that it was my duty as a believer to hear him out, so I spent an afternoon early in first semester sitting on the lawn smoking clove cigarettes and listening to him rail. I got lucky; he was telling his salvation story that day. As he told it, he was high on LSD and the flames were everywhere, coming up from the mouth of hell, until the heavens split and Jesus came to him in a beam of light and told him that God would save him from all that pain and destruction, that God had already saved him and that all he needed to do was to carry this good news to the rest of the heathens.
Of course, this is a familiar trope. At the time, though, despite being both a Christian and a big fan of drugs, I found this story ridiculous. As I saw it, God doesn’t talk to people who are stoned and you don’t flip your life upside down on the basis of a hallucination. Also, I didn’t think God would ever be so cruel as to consign one of his children to the fate of a scorned sidewalk preacher. Even so, I sensed a kinship with this strange preacher man to the point that I felt betrayed a few months later when he showed up at his usual spot with a picket sign listing all of the different people who were going straight to hell if they didn’t repent asap and saw “Mormons” scrawled in black marker in between devil worshipers and abortionists. “Fine,” I huffed to myself. “I didn’t like the Jesus you were peddling anyway.”
Although I was skeptical of drug-induced God visions, I did believe that God spoke to sinners. Not just the low-impact sinners, the white liars and the coveters who were mostly trying to do right by God, but also the folks crawling around in the muck not even thinking about divinity or purpose or being a decent human being. There is Mormon precedent for this. God sent an angel to Laman and Lemuel, the prophet Nephi’s shitty older brothers, while they were beating their brothers with a stick. God grabbed Laman and Lemuel by the shoulders and shook when they tried to stop Nephi from taking their family to the promised land. He sent His prophets, His visionaries, His loyal-to-the end disciples, His ride-or-dies into the heart of the most wicked communities and used them as His mouthpiece to call the worst of the worst–the rapists and murderers, even–to repentance.
Like most Mormon kids, I grew up identifying with the good guys, not the sinners. I was Nephi, born of goodly parents, not Laman and Lemual, who were predisposed to murmur (that’s Book of Mormon-speak for “bitch and whine”) and never seemed to learn.
Until the day God grabbed me by the shoulders and shook hard. I was 22, hungover, head foggy. I had just started law school and was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work, as well as with all the ways I saw myself failing to stack up against my classmates. My long-distance relationship felt like work. I didn’t know how to make friends. I knew drinking wouldn’t fix any of this, but I was doing it anyway. I was on a low, low road.
I felt so sad I opened the Book of Mormon and spread it out on my lap, because that’s what Mormons do when they do they don’t know where else to go. I was stuck in the beginning of the book, like always. That day, I was reading Lehi’s deathbed speech. Lehi is the Book of Mormon prophet who dragged his family out of Jerusalem into the wilderness, leaving all of their wordly possessions behind, and then set them sailing on a big boat to the Americas on account of a dream he had about a very special tree. In her more human moments, his wife Sariah called him a visionary man, and she didn’t mean in a Steve Jobs way. Lehi was also Laman and Lemual’s dad, who caused him no end of grief, what with their whining about life in the desert and trying to kill their younger brother. Lehi, like any parent, worried for his oldest sons and spent his final days just begging them to get their shit together. He said:
13 O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe.
14 Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth.
These verses come early enough in the Book of Mormon that I must have read them dozens of times since childhood, and they’d never given me pause before. Hellfire and brimstone did not feature prominently in the Mormonism I grew up with, and I tended to skim those parts on account of their being “boring” and “not real.”
This time, though, for whatever reason–maybe because I was tired of nursing low grade hangovers or maybe because I was tired of making the same less than stellar decisions over and over again–the words stood out, piercing through the fog in my head like a beam from a lighthouse.
I knew God was talking to me.
That sounds trite, so let me try again:
I knew from the expansive warmth in my chest, the sensation of peace in the wake of anxiety, that God was talking to me.
And, because people are often confused about what it means to know something in a spiritual sense, let me try one more time:
I knew God was talking to me on a level that did not require Lehi to be a prophet with a direct channel to God, that did not require Lehi to be a real person, hell, that did not require Joseph Smith to be a prophet or even an honest person. These words, whatever their origin, whatever they would go on to do next, were, in that moment, intended to jolt me awake.
I didn’t wake up just then. I didn’t shake off the dust, let alone the chains. I didn’t see my relationship with alcohol for what it was: a prison. I did open my eyes. I opened them wide enough to see that I had wandered so far off that path that I could no longer claim to be Nephi, the son so obedient he chopped off a man’s head because he thought God wanted him to do it. Instead, I saw that I was Laman and Lemual: oblivious, lascivious, asleep.
Waking up without an alarm isn’t always easy, though. I spent the next few years slipping in and out of consciousness, walking between waking life and dream. I put myself through the gauntlet of milestone after milestone: I graduated from law school. I got married. I worked. I questioned my faith. I had a baby.
That sounds too easy, so let me try again:
I spent three years treading water at one of the best law schools in the country after a lifetime of being a big fish in a small pond, and came out with a degree, a formidable skill set, and a nasty case of imposter syndrome. I married outside of the religious tradition I grew up with and, in the process, broke my parents’ hearts and shattered my childhood illusion of what a marriage looks like. I graduated in the worst recession the US legal market has ever seen, and built a thriving career anyway. Breaking with convention by marrying outside of the church and working full-time opened my eyes to the sexism in my church, and I started agitating for change. I grew another human inside my body for nine months, labored for 30+ hours to bring her into this world, and eventually consented to letting the doctors cut her out of me. There was so much blood.
The lighthouse swung its beam around and around. Sometimes it caught me square in the face and I righted myself, moving toward the light. Other times I was sunk too low to make it out. Still other times, I was having too good a time to discern much at all, Laman and Lemual once again. Even after God sent the angel, even after God shocked them into a temporary stupor, they sailed halfway around the world and spent half the boat ride partying while God roiled up an angry ocean to snap them back to reality, to remind them that they were on their way to the promised land, Me-damnit, that He needed them the focus for once in their lives.
Eventually, the dust from all those years of barreling into adulthood settled, and I surveyed the altered landscape of my life. I had an insane job with deadlines to meet and partners to please. I had sky-high city rent to pay and hungry mouths to feed. I had a cocktail of undiagnosed mental illness, postpartum depression and seasonal affective disorder and anxiety soaring through the roof. I had a shipwrecked faith.
That’s about the time I got my second divine wake up call, seven years after the first. I was 28, head foggy, running on fumes. I had just come back to my job after maternity leave and was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work, as well as with all the ways I saw myself failing to stack up against the other associates. My marriage felt like work. I didn’t know how to make friends. I knew drinking wouldn’t fix any of this, but I was doing it anyway. I was on a low, low road.
I felt so sad I started praying, because that’s what Mormons do when they don’t know where else to go. I don’t know that my prayer was anything special. I didn’t get on my knees or clasp my hands or even close my eyes. I just looked down at my baby daughter, who I was nursing to sleep, and my wordless hope must have pierced the sky because two messages fell into my lap:
- I needed to stop treating God like that amorphous blob of love I read about in Proof of Heaven. God was real, concrete, and knew me.
- I needed to stop drinking, for real and for good. No more pussyfooting around.
The fog cleared. My heart unlocked. I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt the truth of these words with every sense. I woke up.
It still took me almost two years to get sober. In fact, I poured myself a drink that night. (An hour after the voice of God told me stop. And to think I denied being as obtuse Laman and Lemual. To think I said I wasn’t addicted.)
Like I said, it’s hard to get going without an alarm. One thing I noticed when I started listening to people in recovery tell their stories is how many of them didn’t find God until they’d plumbed the depths of hell. Perversely, naively, I envied them. I thought it must be easier to give up drinking, or at least to identify alcohol as the poison that it is, when it leaves you with a life that’s only ugly. When I started piecing together my own story, I made a list of all of the terrible things that had happened to me when I was drinking, and I wondered why God hadn’t found me in the more wretched moments. Why didn’t he burn up a bush next to me when I was crawling around in the gutter on Drachmann Ave? Why didn’t he shake me awake when I was losing consciousness with strange men? Why didn’t he turn wine into water when my baby woke up early and started screaming for food and I made her wait for my blood alcohol content to go down instead of giving her formula because I am a good mom, okay? I like to think that if God had come to me then, I would have understood and dedicated the rest of my life to the ministry. If he’d come to me when I was high out of my mind, I might be a shrieking preacher calling drunk girls across America to the light, instead of an anxious lawyer, mired in self-doubt, publishing my story on a secret blog.
God still talks to me, by the way, even though I’ve started to slip back into imagining that he is a big shiny ball of love, instead of the flesh and bone visage Joseph Smith described. I don’t even like to call him he. Sometimes I use she, or they. Mostly, God’s words come in the form of inspiration, a sudden clearing of the mind and a thought thrust into my mind fully-formed from a source unknown. Recently, the message I found was this:
I am lucky. I didn’t have to go to hell and back to get clean because I am lucky. I am lucky I heard God when I did because I needed everything that happened to me to keep me on this path. I am lucky to have lived through addiction. Physically lucky, because that shit is deadly, but also spiritually lucky because recovery from that shit woke me up, and there is no going back to sleep. I heard what I heard. I know what I know. Tomorrow, I might know more or different, and that’s okay, because I’ll be here to find out what it is.