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.

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.