“We Don’t Do The Same Drugs No More”

I finally went to the OB-GYN last week. I hadn’t been since my post-partum check up, six weeks after my daughter was born. That was four years ago. The CNM scrunched up her face when I told her. “You haven’t had any lady care for four years?

It pisses me off that people are often blasé about the fact that men in their twenties and thirties go to the doctor pretty much never but women who don’t go the the OB-GYN every year are seen as irresponsible. “I thought the USPSTF changed the recommendation for pap screening from one to three years?” It was half question, half half-hearted explanation. That wasn’t why I hadn’t been in, but it made me feel better. “Plus, I’m not on birth control,” I added, realizing I hadn’t adequately justified my hiatus from reproductive health. That one hit a little closer to the truth of the matter. I stopped taking hormonal birth control the year before I got pregnant and never went back on, and absolutely relished the freedom. Yes, I realize that the pill that tied me to a doctor and flatlined my sex drive is the same one that liberated me and millions of other women. I can hold onto both of these truths at the same time. The CNM tucked her leg up onto the chair, tucked a chunk of pink hair behind her ear, chiding me quietly as she pulled up a new chart: “That may be, but you still need exams.”

It’s not like I’d been neglecting my health. I am in tune with my body to an almost freakish degree and I love medicine of both the Eastern and Western variety. Almost as soon as I went back to work after maternity leave, my stress-induced TMJ flared up. I tried acupuncture first, but it didn’t do enough to justify ducking out of work for an hour at a time, so I turned to an internist who was so cute I decided he would be my first-ever adult primary care physician. What I wanted was painkillers. What I got was a referral for PT that ended up being exorbitantly expensive and inordinately time-consuming and not covered by my insurance.

Later that year, I went back to the internist about a strange rash. I made big plans to tell him about my anxiety, too, but couldn’t find the words. I’d never told anybody how my chest tightened up every day when I left the office, or how my stomach roiled before I left the house. Was that anxiety? Was it bad enough to warrant medication or did I just want to get high? What I wanted was to get the ball rolling toward a prescription for Xanax. What I got was a diagnosis of stress-induced eczema.

A few months after that I huffed a chemical inhalant in the middle of my work day. I think the high lasted a few hours but it was hard to tell when it wore off because my head didn’t come back to my body. I remained in a dissociative state that the internet told me was called depersonalization for six days. I remembered that I had a primary care doctor and called his office to beg for an appointment. A different doctor in the same practice group squeezed me in. “Are you under a lot of stress?” he asked, shining a light into my eyes. I nodded. He asked me to turn my head from side to side. “Do you find yourself crying?” “Mhm.” My eyes welled up. What I wanted was somebody to tell me I didn’t have brain damage. What I got was instructions to come back for a full blood workup the next week.

I went to a therapist instead.

I went through a round of CBT.

I got back to running.

I got sober.

In short, I started to get right mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Nine months after I quit drinking, I ran a marathon. A particularly severe bout of post-race tendonitis drove me back to the primary care physician. I’d sustained enough strains and sprains in my two decades as a runner to know that ice and rest would do the trick, but the pain in my hip was bad enough that I figured I could benefit from talking to a physical therapist who specialized in running injuries. Of course, I never would have booked the appointment if I didn’t think I there was a chance I could also get drugs. In the few minutes it took to schedule an appointment online, the pink cloud that had been carrying me for months dissipated. I went from happy sober person, chirping away in meetings about how great it felt to be so present for my family during the holidays to walking zombie. I went from wanting to get better quickly to hoping for something serious–a fracture or a tear. I didn’t think about calling my sponsor. I didn’t think about what I’d do when the pills ran out. I couldn’t think about anything but the possibility of getting high again. I obsessed about what I needed to do to make it happen. The next day, I hobbled to the office and told the doctor with a straight face that the pain was an eight. I told him I could barely walk. I got him worried enough that he wrote out an order for an x-ray, which is when I knew the jig was up because there was a minuscule chance I might be pregnant that I couldn’t ignore, given how long my husband and I had been trying to have a second kid. The doctor sent me home with no x-ray, no drugs, and prescription for ice and rest. “Come back if it still hurts when you get your period.” Fuck.

Once you’ve developed a taste for pharmaceuticals, every doctor’s office is a street corner, every appointment a seedy transaction, every honest ailment immediately supplanted by symptoms of the most plausible path to opiate relief. And when you are sober, every ache is an invitation to go back out. It’s easy to pretend you’re not flirting with relapse because sometimes people need medicine. With my history, the question of how prescription drugs fit into sobriety should be black and white but when I try to hold a picture of my sober life still in my head, there is so much blank space I start filling in the gaps with gray. Of course, most doctors aren’t handing out controlled substances like candy anymore. When you are an ex-pillhead, that almost doesn’t matter. The possibility alone is enough to throw you off course. It’s easier to avoid doctors altogether.

So that’s why I haven’t been to OB-GYN. I can’t trust myself to go in for a pap smear and not drum up enough undiagnosable premenstrual pain to walk out with a low-grade narcotic that will start the slow unspooling of my life. If you jump through enough hoops, the drugs will come. That’s how, last month, I ended up driving myself away from the hospital at 2 AM on a Sunday with a clean bill of health and a unnecessary prescription for Norco tucked in my bag, mind racing with thoughts like:

“A tranvaginal ultrasound is a steep price to pay for a week’s worth of pills;” and

“I guess nobody ever accused a junkie of driving a hard bargain;” and, most importantly,

“What the fuck am I going to do when these pills run out?”

The next 24 hours were mental torture. I had drugs, but I also had a head full of AA, which means I am utterly incapable of convincing myself that taking even one pill (or drink) is not a big deal. I know where one pill (or drink) goes. I’ve been there before and it’s hell. There is no easy way back if you even get a chance to come back.

Of course I was going to fill the prescription anyway. I went to four pharmacies that day. One rejected my (extremely common and accepted everywhere) insurance. The other three were closed, two of them within thirty minutes of me showing up. By 8 PM I had nowhere to go but my usual Sunday night candlelight meeting. Somebody said something about their daughter and I remembered (for the first time in days) that mine was turning four soon and that if I took those pills, I’d be drinking or using or withdrawing on her birthday. I knew enough about myself to know there was simply no way I would not be a fucking mess. I went home knowing what I had to do, knowing exactly how good I would feel when I did it, but still unwilling. The next morning I woke up early and, without giving myself time to think the decision through, turned on the stove and stuck my hand with the paper prescription into the burner. The night before, a doctor friend had told me to just rip it up, which I guess would have done the trick, but I needed this thing gone. The burn was not clean; I was.

The unexplained pain that had precipiated my ER visit disappeared that day.

I kept the OB-GYN appointment I had scheduled a few days earlier anyway. I’ve been trying to have another baby for two years and have reached the point that I can’t pretend doctors don’t exist. The CNM asked me questions as she filled in my chart. “What was the first day of your last period?” “How many days is your cycle?” “Do you drink?”

I looked up from the paperwork I was working on and looked her in the eye and told her what I’ve before never told a medical professional because I was not willing to burn bridges I might want to cross later: “No. I haven’t had a drink since January 30, 2016. I have a history of substance abuse, mostly painkillers and weed. I can’t mess around with that stuff.”

“Congratulations!” she said.

When I left, I felt relieved. Not because I think I am finally going to get pregnant but because I finally have a doctor I can go back to without tearing  open my old wounds.

Saved

People don’t know what to make of mixed-faith marriages in which one of the partners is Mormon. Mormons can’t fathom how a true believer could put her salvation in jeopardy by marrying outside the faith. Non-Mormons can’t fathom why any normal person would get mixed up in that weird, fundamentalist business.

Knowing (assuming) this was how people looked at my relationship, I offered compulsive, preemptive explanations for how my non-Mormon husband and my Mormon-self came to be a couple, varying the amount of detail depending on the circumstances.

The acquaintance/dinner party version: “You see, I wasn’t practicing when we met.”

The opening up to a friend version: “I wasn’t practicing when we met, but he made me want to be a better person, so after a few years of dating, I went back to the church.”

The girls’ night TMI version: “I wasn’t practicing when we started dating, so of course we slept together, but then I went back to church and told him we had to stop, and he stuck around, and if that isn’t love, you tell me what is.”

The late-night confessional version: “I was a train wreck when we met, addicted and suicidal and spiritually dead, but he made me want to stop getting high, and gave me something to live for, and when the fog cleared I realized I still believed in a Mormon God.”

The story I told myself to justify not getting married in a Mormon temple and breaking my parents’ hearts: “He saved me.”

Whatever the story or the audience, there was a layer of nuance that never made it into any retelling: there wasn’t exactly a clean break between my old messy life and my happy new one.

My new boyfriend was not Mormon, but he definitely did not do drugs and he barely drank. When we were together, drinking seemed like the last thing on his mind. I found this puzzling, since it was always the first thing on mine. I’d spent nearly every day of the last three years drinking or getting high or thinking about drinking or getting high and, at twenty, I was not at all ready to give those things up. At the same time, I sensed that my obsession with (read: addiction to) getting loaded was not only abnormal but incompatible with having a healthy, committed relationship with a clear-eyed, clear-headed person. In fact, I was so sold on the narrative of happily ever after that when the obsession did not diminish after I fell in love, I thought it was a harbinger of doom for the relationship. Or at least a harbinger of me being super fucked up. So I never said a word about the pull I still felt to disappear into a bottle, or how much it hurt when I couldn’t, and I stuffed down uncomfortable questions every time they bubbled up.

Questions like:

  • Why did I feel the need to down a bottle of sake I had stashed under the front seat of my car during the seven minute drive from my house to my boyfriend’s apartment?
  • Why did I keep booze in my car?
  • Why did sitting on the couch watching British sitcoms and drinking tea on a Friday night make me want to crawl out of my skin?
  • Why, on the occasional nights when my boyfriend did suggest a drink, did the single cocktail he inevitably mixed leave me feeling restless and irritable?
  • Why, on the occasional nights when I did still go out with my girlfriends, did I always end up wasted, puking, belligerent, mean?
  • Why, on the occasional nights when I found myself out with other men, did I end up in compromising verging on dangerous situations?
  • Why did I always lie about how much I drank and who I drank with?

Though it would take me years to get a handle on my relationship with alcohol, I only ever got high a few times after we got together. One of the last times, I was taking Percocet that I stole from my roommate, had been taking it for a few days, maybe a week, and was lying in bed next to my boyfriend waiting for the effect to set in when it hit me that I did not want to spend the rest of the night floating, disconnected from the person that I loved. I jumped up and ran to the bathroom, jammed my fingers down my throat, and tried to throw up the pills before they kicked in. It didn’t work, but that night marked the first time that the desire to be present had ever outweighed the desire to be high. When I went through the same thing the next night, I managed to flush the pills. A few years later, we left Arizona and I left the drug years behind for good.

The full story of my transition from party girl to good girlfriend does not go down as easy as the fairy tale. For one thing, the story didn’t end when I landed a partner. My problems persisted. Eventually, I would learn that all of the uncomfortable questions I dodged in the early years of our relationship had one answer: Because I was an alcoholic. And love does not cure alcoholism. In my case, it slowed the progression, but it did not change the effect alcohol had on me and did not change the way I moved through the world.

For another thing, nobody saved me. I saved myself, at least at first. Most people who aren’t ready to give up drinking choose partners that don’t interfere with their lifestyle, if they are able to be in relationships at all. I knew back then that I wanted more, so I detoxed alone, white knuckled my way through cravings, and clawed my way back from relapses, so that I could be with the person I loved.

More Grimms’ than Disney, unsettling lessons lurk at the core of the real story.

Lessons like:

  • I did ugly things; there was nothing fun or glamorous or even interesting about my substance abuse; drugs and alcohol almost destroyed my relationship with my now-husband, the father of my child. These memories become more useful as the shame born from them fades and I am tempted to romanticize the past or convince myself that this whole sobriety thing is an overreaction.
  • I hit the wall with drugs long before I did with alcohol; I learned first-hand they were a dead-end; there is nothing there for me. These memories become more useful as my brain roots around for escape hatches and loopholes to this whole sobriety thing.
  • I didn’t get sober for my husband because I couldn’t get sober for my husband; I tried; it didn’t work. This knowledge is useful when we get in an argument and I start to weigh the pros and cons of drinking at him in revenge.
  • My husband is not my savior. This knowledge is useful because it lets him off the hook. Our relationship stands on its own merits.

I thought my husband would save me. When I fell in love and still wanted to die, I realized that I had to save myself. When I eventually quit all the drugs and booze and still wanted to die, I realized I needed something even bigger than myself. But that’s another story.

Falling

Autumn is a mindfuck, a veritable minefield of triggers. I rake through memories of seasons past and can’t unscramble what is true from how I felt. 

I am spinning madcap in the front yard with my brother on Thanksgiving, pitching back and forth, falling in the leaves, numb fingers fumbling the kid-sized football, wild from chugging Martinelli’s. We are only pretending to be drunk, but hanging on the verge of adolescence, outside without our parents on a cold Ohio night is actually intoxicating. I will reach back to this night and understand that this is when I first knew I was different. I won’t take my first drink for another five years, but the way I creep into the kitchen and empty bottles without abandon, the crush of my wish for them to contain something other than virginal apple cider, so that my actions might mean something, so that I might feel different, so that my life might be real, and the absolute certainty I have that alcohol will give me these things tells me something about myself. I know that when I do pick up a bottle, I will never want to put it down. 

I am stretched out on the floor of a non-descript new construction home in the Arizona suburbs. I don’t know whose house it is, or if anybody I am with lives here. I am face down, then face up, stomach churning, skin burning, head tied to the top of my neck by a thin string. I press my body flush against the tile, cool this time of year, having let go of the summer heat. “I think I have the flu,” I say, to no one in particular. A voice responds, calm but impatient: “No you don’t.” I’ve been taking pills for a few months now, but this is the first time I’ve washed them down with warm beer. I miss the clean high, but notice a new depth to my oblivion. Is this my first drink? I don’t black out often, but when I reach back, this whole year will be a blank. 

I am tripping through a corn maze, the seventh wheel on a date with my roommates and their boyfriends, careening around blind corners into parents and children and preteens holding hands, breaking down stalks to force my way off this course and into the haunted route that cost ten dollars more and features chainsaws and grisley backlit murder scenes. Am I drunk on vodka or does that come later in the night, at the house on Elm Street, the locus of a nine month waking nightmare? Am I high or did that come earlier, before one of the boyfriends drove us out to the farm in the middle of the desert in his wood-paneled PT Cruiser?  Am I annoyed verging on angry at my friends because I am coming down or because they are sharing their affections with all these men who are not me? Am I depressed because I am lonely or because my brain stopped producing serotonin? In a few weeks time, I will cut my own hair and dye it black and my standards will drop so low that I will hook up with a crackhead dressed like Jesus and spend a week pissed when he doesn’t call me back.

I am in law school and just finished with the first major assignment of the semester, a memo for my legal writing class. I take the State Street bus to the quad to turn in my paper and make conversation with an older man, who proceeds to follow and grope me when I climb off at my stop. I’ve been almost all the way dry for a few months, except for the odd bottle of wine or three with my roommate and I do not plan to drink, but am rattled enough that by the time I meet my friends at the bar and get through the line, I am ordering pitchers of Two Hearted. I don’t remember how I get home. Years later, I will read an essay about how women drink because of the patriarchy and think back to this incident and know without a doubt that it is true.

I am newly married and newly graduated and Chicago is leaking color as the months speed past moving into our first home, buying our first furniture that is not composed primarily of particle board, finding our first dog, starting our first grown up jobs. I finally have everything I want and I want to get high so badly I could scream. I have to stop listening to certain songs (by Gillian Welch, by Elliott Smith) on the train because when I put them on I feel like I am sinking. This is when I start to get really scared. Does a few years of bad decisions mean that I will live with this hunger forever?

I am throwing darts with my husband, I am doing a jigsaw puzzle, I am driving my friends to the bar, I am on the train home from work, I am walking my daughter and her cousin to the park, I am revising an expert report, I am on the phone with my boss, I have strep throat and am sick as a dog, I am at a baby shower, I am counting the days until I can take a pregnancy test: I am drunk and no one knows. I am glued to the window above my kitchen sink staring into the mass of vegetation behind my house. The last green thing died a few weeks ago and I could’ve sworn I saw a coyote slinking behind a row of bare trees, but my husband doesn’t believe me. I don’t know if I believe me.

This October, I am ten months sober. I am working an active program to recover and repair the havoc that addiction wreaked on my psyche. I am nourishing a budding spiritual life, after years of starving and then bludgeoning the one that Mormonism gave me. 

I spent this Sunday sprawled on the sun-warmed wood floor of my friends’ apartment like a cat, playing with my daughter, making goo goo eyes at their baby, and laughing at my husband’s jokes. We drink coffee and pour over the details of their upcoming move to another state, which has me depressed, but the buzz of their anticipation is contagious and I know this is a good move for them.  I also know there is a prescription bottle of benzos in the bathroom medicine cabinet but I am keeping my hands off of it. Miraculously, I don’t know what’s in the kitchen cabinets or anywhere else and don’t think to look. I am at peace.

Autumn is still at it with her trickster hijinks, though. A few hours into our visit, we hear a light knock on the front door. I know before I know, because my friends live in a walk up and we don’t hear the buzzer, that it is the downstairs neighbors, the childless hipster couple that hosted a co-ed baby shower for our friends last November. The door swings open and I slip back to the place I was the first time I met them, at the baby shower, when my brain was circling the drain, when my anxiety had me curling in on myself and burning up with shame. In a moment, I am pacing this couple’s first floor apartment, which is artfully layered with plants and paintings and cat memorabilia that is somehow not tacky, and is laid out shotgun style so that I can dart into the dining room and finish the dregs of a few bottles of champagne while the guests are making onesies in the living room and then, when somebody wanders in for food, disappear into the kitchen to dissolve in self-loathing. 

Last year, after the shower, I drove my family home and spent the rest of the day agitated, anxious, and insane.

This weekend, the spectre of those same feelings rose up in my chest when this couple stepped into my perfect day and I found myself wanting to disappear into the bathroom, the kitchen, a disappointing high all over again.

[I love this memory because it lends credence to the stories I need to tell myself to stay sober: (1) I am constitutionally incapable of drinking like a normal person, without lying, without hiding, and without shame; and (2) I can’t manage my life when I am drinking–I either have too much or not enough and and up feeling fucked either way. 

I hate this memory because it is so pathetic it makes my skin crawl.]

When I talk about addiction, I often refer to it as a black hole. Sometimes it is sticky, other times it is gaping, always it is in the context of how I scraped my way out. 

But the truth is, when I think about my addiction, there are times when it the memory of it feels more like a safe corner. A heavy blanket. A womb. And while the gravity of the thing is relative, the pull is never stronger than in autumn. The world goes gray, the veil between past and present thins, and I forget where I am or why anybody would ever want to leave the place that is warm and close and easy.

The difference between this fall and all the others is that this time I tied a thick rope around my waist and told somebody to make sure to pull me back.

Drinking Cough Syrup With Jane Lynch

I’ve been listener of the WTF with Marc Maron Podcast for years now. My comedy-loving husband turned me onto it when I was training for a marathon and burned through the back catalog of This American Life. I dig the long format interviews, and how open Maron’s guests are, especially when the guests are entertainers of the regular famous (as opposed to the super famous) variety. Maron is open about being in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and some of my favorite episodes are the ones with guests who are also sober. Like a lot of people who go on to get sober, I kept close tabs on what other people were drinking, how much, and when, and even closer tabs on the people who weren’t. Like another sobriety blogger said of sober people in her periphery:

These are people who may or may not even remember me, and yet I secretly follow what they post to social media like they’re celebrities.  They’re on my team, whether they know it or not.  Occasionally I can tell that someone’s started drinking again, and I feel a sense of loss for these near-strangers.  Our secret army has lost a comrade.

I did the same thing, with regular people, and also with celebrities. I was fascinated by anybody who had decided to leave the party. I wanted to know everything about them. And listening to not one but two famous (or famous-ish) sober people talk about substance abuse and recovery on WTF was so interesting it felt almost illicit.

These days, I’m pretty burned out on podcasts, but I will tune into WTF for female guests or for episodes that come highly recommended. Recently, Maron had the hilarious Jane Lynch, of Glee and Best in Show fame. Lynch is one of those actresses who seems to be everywhere, and indeed she has been in dozens of other productions, from theater, to film, to TV (including my personal favorite, the brilliant and entirely too short lived Party Down) but I knew almost nothing about her personal life, so I was excited to listen to the interview during my morning commute.

I was interested to learn that Lynch got her start in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theatre, which I’ve never been to because I’m not actually into theater at all, but which I have seen through the window of the brown and purple lines many times as the train crawls north after pitching around Sedgwick to Halstead in a move that always leaves me a little wobbly for the rest of the ride. About halfway through the interview, Maron dropped a few questions about what her drinking was like in the early days of her career, how bad it got, and whether it was related to the fact that she was more or less closeted at the time. It struck me as fairly awkward, as Lynch hadn’t said a word about drinking or about her sexuality at that point in the interview, and though Lynch was an open and gracious guest, Maron didn’t get much traction with that line of questioning.

At that point, I arrived at my office, turned off the podcast, and decided to do a little light Googling before digging into work. “Jane Lynch” and sober. Ah, I see. I gathered pretty quickly that Lynch got sober at 31, while she was still working in theater, and shared some of her story in Happy Accidents, her memoir that came out a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, the entertainment press picked up on the “story” (in quotes because the events that led Lynch to get sober had occurred two decades ago at that point) and ran with it, splashing salacious headlines over gossipy ledes and blurbs from her book.

A few aspects of Lynch’s story stood out to me, mostly because I identified with them:

  • Her bottom was not spectacularly dramatic (“First, I drank only Miller Lite. Second, many of my contemporaries drank far more than I and were fine with themselves and their lives. They did not suffer it the way I did.”);
  • She seems sensitive to this fact (“Relatively speaking, my personal bottom was rather benign.” “Had I know I’d be telling my story over and over again, I would have made it a lot better.”);
  • She nonetheless knew she had to quit (“[W]hen I stopped, I had reached my limit. I knew that my mind, body, and spirit had just had it.”);
  • She drank NyQuil before bed for a period of time after she quit drinking but before she went into a recovery program (“I’d close the drapes of my tiny room, take a swig of NyQuil, toast with a simple ‘Bye-bye,’ and go into a deep sleep.”).

(Sources: The Fix, People, and Perez Hilton.)   I get all of that. I have “drunkalogue envy.” I have imposter syndrome in recovery as much as work. Even after the knowledge that I had to quit was seared onto my consciousness, I dedicated an unreasonable amount of time searching for the elusive third door. (Is it around back? Near the cellar?)  (Hat Tip: Laura McKowen.) Abusing low rent prescription and non-prescription drugs was my gateway into and out of addiction.

So I feel a bit of a kinship with Jane Lynch having read all of this. We’ve walked the same roads, and look where she ended up! Content. Fulfilled. (Rich.) Okay.

An ad pops up on my office computer and I realize I’ve spent too much time on garbage sites. I get to work.

I listen to the rest of the podcast on the way home, picking up where I left off with Maron digging just a little on the subject of her sobriety.

“I’m still…I’m having a glass of wine…but I mean, it’s 25 years, so I think I’m gonna be fine.”

Record scratch.

What makes a person who has been sober for 25 years start drinking?

How does a person who went public with their sobriety only a few years ago act like that’s not a big deal?

How can a person who got sober with AA imply that a drinking problem can just dissolve, if you give it enough time?

The notion that moderation is both achievable and sustainable for a person who has suffered from alcohol addiction is completely at odds with my understanding of twelve step programs. And look, AA hasn’t been an integral part of my path, so I don’t get too broken up when people deviate from it, but it’s still weird, right?

What’s more troubling for me is the crack of light seeping in from the back door that Lynch’s words opened up in my brain. When I was toying around with getting sober playing Russian roulette with my life last year, I kept going back to the idea of sobriety as a “for now” thing. I need to be sober as long as my daughter is young. I need to be sober as long as my husband and I are trying to have another kid. I need to be sober until I get my mental health back on track. Lifelong sobriety sounded like a drag at best, so I nurtured escapist daydreams of myself at 45, drinking an IPA on the porch while my teenage kids are out with their friends, myself at 50, smoking a joint, also on the porch, myself at 65, retired, kids grown, finally free to flip the switch on my latent pill addiction and spend the day nodding off. Okay, that last one is kind of fucked up. Even my moderation fantasies veer off the rails.

When I finally admitted to my counselor that I couldn’t drink safely, I paused and added, “Maybe someday . . . .” She shot back, “Or maybe not. It doesn’t sound like you’ve ever had a healthy relationship with substances.”

“Oh. Right.”

With that, I slammed the door on the last of my reservations, stopped entertaining the idea that this particular aspect of my psychology will ever be “cured,” and haven’t picked up since.

Enter Jane Lynch, breathing life into my dormant daydreams, with her breezy talk of domestic contentment and creative fulfillment and glasses of wine. It sounds so lovely, especially that last bit. And her point about not living your life based on things that happened a quarter century ago is compelling. Maybe time will work the same magic tricks for me as it did for Lynch. Maybe time will work its magic faster for me. There is nothing special about 25 years. I’m feeling great today. Healthy, content, fulfilled. Maybe I can have a glass, too.

I suspect that many newly sober people find themselves standing on this same precipice, peering into the same black chasm, when they encounter somebody who used to have a drinking problem but doesn’t anymore, when they read a trend piece touting the benefits of moderation or trashing AA’s abstinence model, or when they watch a person in long-term recovery go back out. It is destabilizing. It feels weak to admit that, almost embarrassing. I mean, who is Jane Lynch to me anyway? Why should the fact that she can apparently drink change what I know about myself? What does it say about me that I am so easily swayed? It says I haven’t got my sea legs.

Briefly, I wonder what Lynch has given any thought to how her words might sound to a 31 year old girl with six months under her belt, drunkalogue envy, and a restless spirit. I wonder if I should write her a letter. Then I remember that this is old behavior, grasping and manipulative. I don’t like the way it feels.

When I was Mormon, suffocated by the church’s teachings about women but lacking institutional power, I thought I could leverage my emotions to achieve policy change. I thought that if I could just convey the depth of my pain, a church full of such well-meaning people would do anything to make it right. I marched in parades, pleaded with other Mormons, and wrote angsty blog posts. I deluded myself into thinking that this would make a worldwide religion change its foundational doctrines.

Spoiler: it didn’t work. And exploiting myself in an effort to change an institution that wasn’t interested in changing ate away at my self-worth.

The idea of writing a letter to Jane Lynch telling her that her WTF interview made me want to drink cough syrup (in a not-so-subtle attempt to force her back into sobriety because that would somehow make things easier for  me) feels a lot like being a Mormon feminist. Futile. Misguided. Insane.

I said before that the twelve step programs have not played a huge rule in my recovery, and it’s true, they haven’t, though that may change down the line. However, one of the things I’ve noticed in the rooms is that people talk about whether something is worth picking up–drinking or using–over. And let me tell you, people in recovery are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever encountered, often under brutal circumstances. I’ve seen people not pick up over  lost jobs, crumbling relationships, divorce, addicted and estranged family members, cancer, and death. One of the cool things about sobriety and, frankly, adulthood, is that you get to decide what kind of person you want to be and then actually be that kind of person, just by making the choices that kind of person makes. It’s that simple.

I may not want to be the kind of person who doesn’t drink 100% of the time, but I sure as shit don’t want to be the kind of person who drinks over a ten second glimpse into a celebrity’s life that I heard on a freaking podcast. So I won’t.

Wake Up, Girl

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 thix, 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 eveything 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.

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 -29

Let me tell you about New Year’s Eve. I was drinking again, or trying to drink, this time like a normal person after convincing myself it was a good idea to give up on my most recent run at sobriety after only 46 days. I explained the reasoning behind the experiment like this: in November, I’d decided to take a hiatus from Mormonism. Around that same time I’d realized that not drinking was really, really hard. I’d been trying and failing at it for a long time. I figured, if I was going to need to actually work a recovery program (rather than just magically staying sober), I deserved to know whether I was really an alcoholic. I thought there was a chance that my issues with alcohol were all wound up with my religious guilt and that if I could shed the latter, maybe the former would work itself out. Of course, the real reason for the experiment was this: I wanted to get fucked up. Of course, the timing has nothing to do with the party we were attending with all our neighbours and friends where the champagne would be flowing freely. Or course not. That was just a convenient coincidence.

That first night of drinking did not go well. I felt like I hermit crab in a terrarium, everybody was watching me trepadatiously. I felt like I had to sip slowly so as not to sound any alarm bells, to ask for permission to help myself to another drink. After downing a few potent ciders and a disgusting glass of alcohol-free champagne thoughtfully provided by my friend–a week earlier I would have been touched by the gesture, but now that I was drinking again it just pissed me off that I had to waste precious drinking minutes gratefully choking down a glass of the stuff just to be polite–I found myself anxious for more and unsure how to go about getting it. Midnight had come and gone and people were slowing down and nobody was offering me anything. I figured I was going to have to take matters into my own hands if I wanted to get properly trashed. I started popping back to my house (just next door) under the pretense of checking on my daughter and taking swigs from a bottle in the liquor cabinet. Back at the party, I started wandering the kitchen gulping down half-finished drinks that other guests had abandoned. I felt seized by a gnawing hunger, a dark claw pressing down on my heart. By the end of the night I was in the bathroom, faucet running to muffle the sound of me digging around beneath the sink. I knew that my friend had broken her ribs a few months back. I didn’t hit the jackpot, but did find a full bottle of Vicodin–the equivalent of scoring a few bucks on a scratcher lottery ticket. I couldn’t justify taking much, not while I was trying to prove I didn’t have a problem, but at the same time couldn’t bear to leave the bathroom empty handed, so I pocketed a single pill, taking comfort in the fact that I knew where to come if I needed more.

The party wound down around three or four am. I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t want to stop drinking but nobody else seemed interested in prolonging the festivities, probably because they all have kids who would be waking up in a matter of hours. The thought of my own kid stirring at seven or eight seemed strangely irrelevant.

I went home with my husband and we shared a pot of tea before bed. He asked me how I thought the evening had gone, drinking-wise. “It wasn’t perfect,” I confessed. “I had some cravings for more after I started drinking, but I’m proud I didn’t act on them, and I think they will go away as I get used to drinking again.” I knew that first part was a bald-faced lie, but I hoped to God that the last part was true.

The Secret Lives Of Weird Mormon Kids

Growing up Mormon is a good way to feel like an iconoclast without getting into too much trouble. No need to smear on the black eyeliner, turn up the hard rock, I was already weird by virtue of the family I was born into, because we went to church for freakishly long three-hour stretches, worshipped a freakishly handsome American Jesus, sent our teenagers to freakishly early six am bible study classes. Fervent religious beliefs and extreme lifestyles make people uncomfortable well before they are capable of articulating why. Mormonism doesn’t feel extreme when you grow up in it and believing that a 14-year-old treasure-seeker dug up a stack of gold plates and translated them into 19th-century American English doesn’t feel any crazier than believing in a virgin birth, but other kids (and their parents) smell the weird on you and keep their distance.

There are as many ways to handle being a weird Mormon kid as there are weird Mormon kids, but some are more common than others. Some of us retreated to the safety of the church, filling our world with church basketball and stake dances and Wednesday night youth group activities. Mormon kids are so fun you almost forget that you’re an outsider at school, in the neighborhood, turning down invitations for a Sunday afternoon birthday party, aching when kids start pairing off in middle school because you aren’t allowed to go on a date until you’re a freakishly old 16. You could say those kids loved church and feared the world.

Some of us ran away from church screaming, testing the waters first by skipping Sunday School to hang out on the bathroom and scowling through church camp, but pretty soon it’s clear that you aren’t cut out for a mission or BYU and won’t be getting married in the temple anytime soon because it is more fun to get drunk and you are already sleeping with your girlfriend anyway. You could say those kids hated church and loved the world.

The least weird of us, the pretty and outgoing ones, somehow transcended their Mormonness and become popular anyway. They are cheerleaders and soccer players and student council presidents and for the most part people admire or at least politely ignore their religious convictions, and it gives the rest of the Mormon kids a little thrill to not just be associated with these sparkly people, to ride the wave of their rising tide, but to have a special claim on them, because only we know their hearts, only we know what it’s like to feel the warmth spread across your chest when you gather around a a fireplace together late at night to listen to somebody talk about believing in Jesus, or believing Joseph Smith, or knowing that your family will all be together again after you die. That’s why Mormons get so excited about famous Mormons, by the way, about the Ken Jennings and the Jarabi Parkers. They are successful in Mormonism and they are successful in life and not only do they make us all a little better by association, but we also think they would probably be nice to us if they met us on the street because being nice to other Mormons is, like, a rule of Mormonism, or so we like to think. You could say those kids loved church and they loved the world and the world and the church loved them right back.

And then there were those of us who couldn’t quite shake the weird in either world. We had a Mormon best friend and a Catholic best friend and counted down the days to see them both. We had crushes on boys and church and at school and didn’t see much difference between them. But we squirmed in our seats when a Sunday School teacher dismissed the Big Bang Theory as silly, and struggled to explain to our beliefs to kids at school. We recoiled when our parents talked about polygamy in heaven and burned with shame when a kid at school asked us how many moms we had. We skipped Sunday School to lurk around the halls with our friends and felt guilty about it, and we skipped Sunday track meets to go to church and felt guilty about that, too. You could say we were the kids who loved church and the world and never felt at home in either realm.

By the time I was 16, I had more friends outside of the church than in, mostly because my family had moved across the country the year before and the Mormon girls in our new town weren’t very nice to me. They were all category three Mormons, pretty and outgoing, and there were enough of them that they didn’t feel like weirdos and so didn’t feel the need to be nice to somebody just because they happened to be a member of the tribe. I’d always been category four, a weirdo at church as much as everywhere else, but I believed in Mormonism with my whole heart.

Over and over, I tried to explain what this meant to my new best friend, a half-Canadian/half-Egyptian atheist with a strict Muslim father and a mother who read tarot, and I never got farther than my plan to get married to a Mormon man in a Mormon temple, in part because I thought that temple marriage was the pinnacle of achievement for a good Mormon girl, but also because my friend would always stop me there, mind boggled by the fact that I could be so certain about who I would marry. “What if you fall in love with somebody who’s not Mormon?” she would ask, incredulous. I would swear back, “I just won’t.” “But how can you be sure?” “I just am…”

I never told her that there actually was a sure-fire way to guarantee that I’d never stray from the fold, one that I’d been taught for years at church and at home. It’s simple, really. Just date Mormons. I knew this was the answer to my friend’s question and I knew it well, but I could never bring myself to repeat the words, to apply them to my life. It didn’t matter that the boy I spent two years of high school pining over was Mormon, that the first boy I dated when I turned 16 was Mormon, that there was hardly a line of good looking non-members knocking at my door. I could not commit to only dating members of my church because I could not bear to close off so much of the world. As much as I valued my faith, Mormon culture was already starting to fit like a scratchy sweater, and the rest of the world looked big and bright and beautiful from my safe harbor. I couldn’t bear to give that up.

A year later, my world shrunk to the size of a tiny white pill as I found myself buried under the weight of addiction that made me feel simultaneously less weird and more alone.

Three years after that I met and fell in love with a boy who blew the world back open. He was not Mormon.

Five years after that I married him in an old adobe church in the middle of the desert. It was not a temple.

Six years after that I still love Mormonism and the world. Together, they gave me life. They gave me my family, my parents and siblings, and also my husband and my daughter. They gave and took and gave and took and gave again sobriety. At 30, I am still a weird Mormon kid at dis-ease in both worlds, but learning that I have a home here in the borderlands.