I’m Sorry J

We sat on my dorm room floor, huddled around a Tupperware dish, an immersion blender, a bag of frozen mixed berries, ice, and a stack of plastic cups. There was also a handle of tequila, the only evidence that we were trying to make margaritas, not fruit smoothies. It was Friday night, a few weeks into our freshman year of college, and I was with Saira, Danielle, and Jamie. Saira and Danielle and I had been best friends since since tenth grade, though the strength of our relationships had been tested over the last few months, and would buckle before the semester was through. Jamie had gone to high school with us, too, but we didn’t know her as well. Unlike the three of us, she’d lived her whole life in the same town, and she’d run with a more popular crowd than we did. She was small, with straight, shiny blond hair. She was on the student council and hung out with athletes. I only knew who she was because her dad and stepmom were in my parent’s ward. I never saw her at church, and figured she lived with her mom. We’d connected over the summer when she’d learned that we were all going to UofA, and that our dorms were near each other, and now here we were, mutilating a perfectly good bag of frozen fruit together on the floor.

Having Jamie around made me nervous. She was fun and friendly, but I didn’t like sharing my friends. I didn’t know how to share them. Danielle and Saira and I had been through a lot over the last few years, and I didn’t know how to balance our intimacy with the topical friendliness you extend to someone you don’t trust. And I didn’t trust her. She was Mormon, like me, and I had no idea what she made of our evening’s plans, or if she questioned why I was keeping the bottle in my room and manning the blender. I also felt a nagging sense of obligation to stay sober with her, which was irritating. This instinct was born out of politeness more than out of religious loyalty, because I suspected it couldn’t be fun to watch your three new friends get trashed without you. Because I had no practical experience in turning down libations, I muddled through my preparations without acknowledging either my conscience or my social anxiety. The cheap blender wasn’t liquefying the berries the way a food processor would, only chipping bits of raspberry off of larger chunks. And it wasn’t making a dent in the ice. I decided to switch tactics and used the handle of a butter knife to break the berry cube into a few blocks, which I then mashed into cups. This was as close to smoothies as we were going to get, and smoothies were as close to margarita mix as we knew how to get. I poured a glug of tequila into three cups and paused over the fourth, glancing up at Jamie. “Do you want to drink?” I asked skeptically. She responded with an enthusiastic, “Sure!” so I poured, and then the four of us toasted, drank, and gagged, because the berry slurry I’d concocted was nowhere near sufficient to cut the sting of the bottom shelf liquor we were now choking down.

Four hours later, we were huddled together on the ground again, this time in the parking lot next to a 7-Eleven, shielding Jamie from the street while she emptied the contents of her stomach into the dirt. After margarita night didn’t turn out as planned, Saira and I had stumbled out of the dorm looking for adventure and boys and better drinks, and found a fraternity party that said they would let us in, even though we had no Greek affiliation and were unconventionally attractive at best. We called Danielle and Jamie and gave them directions to join us. For me and Saira, the party was disappointingly uneventful. There was no music, just a mass of people talking in the courtyard of a big white stucco house. I saw one of my neighbors from back home, a tall band geek named Kristen. We talked about our parents, which made the night seem almost wholesome. None of the fraternity brothers showed any interest in speaking to us, and the keg never materialized, so we decided to take off for the second time that night. We didn’t think twice about leaving our friends. For one thing, we didn’t know better. We hadn’t seen anything threatening at the party and, as the daughters of Muslims (Saira) and Mormons (me), didn’t have enough experience to know that frat parties are inherently dangerous for young, drunk women. We were almost home when Saira’s phone buzzed. It was Danielle, begging us to come back. “It’s Jamie. She’s too drunk. They’re making us leave.” Saira and I bitched incredulously the whole way back. What were they thinking, getting so rowdy they got kicked out of the party?! Danielle had sounded really worried, though, so we ran while we bitched. Back at the house, we found our Danielle sitting with Jamie out front, Jamie slumped against Danielle’s shoulder. A few guys hovered behind them, and started yelling as soon as they saw us. We ignored them, and knelt to look at Jamie, while Danielle quickly explained to us that the guys had taken them into a bedroom, and fed them drinks, practically pouring them down Jamie’s throat until she was couldn’t move. Then, when they realized the girls were too drunk to respond to their attempts to hook up, they’d gotten pissed and dragged them out. That’s when Danielle called us. Saira was livid. She screamed right back at the guys, “You can’t do that to girls! You can’t force alcohol down their throats; look at her, she’s tiny!” as she pointed at Jamie. I directed my attention to getting everybody back home. Saira and I put our arms around Jamie and hoisted her up. She could walk, and talk, but didn’t remember anything about the last few hours. We dragged her home, stopping for just the one pit stop puke behind the 7-Eleven.

After we got everyone to their rooms in one piece, and over the next few days, Saira and I talked incessantly about how scary the experience must have been for Jamie and Danielle, how horrible those guys were, and how we would never leave each other in that situation again. We beat ourselves up for missing the danger. We excoriated our parents for our sheltered teenage years that we blamed for our naivete. Privately, I felt especially guilty for my part in corrupting Jamie. Every good Mormon kid knows her role in social situations is to be a good example. If I’d passed on the booze, Jamie might have felt comfortable enough to do the same. Certainly if I’d never stumbled out of the dorm looking for trouble she would never have ended up at that party. I felt like those guys, screaming at us in the middle of the night. They should have known better than to force feed shots to somebody who was already wasted, and I should have known better than to offer the first drink to an unwitting Mormon girl. I did know better, but I did it anyway, and Jamie ended up on the verge of alcohol poisoning with sexual assault lurking in the corner. I wouldn’t have blamed her for never speaking to me again, but a few days later she bounced back to my dorm room like nothing had happened, asking “Where’s tonight’s party?”

As I got to know Jamie better, I learned that she was not as squeaky clean as I’d thought. In fact, she’d been way wilder than me in high school. She had stories about partying with our hometown’s resident hardcore band and then doing improbable things like getting knocked out in a bounce house, with all those flailing limbs. I gathered that at some point between her sophomore and junior year her parents had intervened and she’d cleaned up her act and aligned herself with the popular Mormon kids I’d seen her sitting with in the cafeteria. I allowed this information to ease my guilt. I hadn’t corrupted Jamie. Her rebel years were what I wanted mine to be; instead, I spent my senior year getting stoned by myself and zoning out in front of the television until somebody ratted me out to my parents over spring break. I spent the rest of the school year detoxing, seeing a counselor at LDS Family Services, and counting down the days until I could move out. Clearly, Jamie could teach me a thing or two.

As the semester marched on and my relationship with Saira and Danielle underwent the strain of transition, I spent more and more time with Jamie. Saira and Danielle spent most of their time studying for our honors chemistry class. I was in the same class, but was also lazier and found myself with more time to kill. Jamie was always available. We were unlikely friends, with next to nothing in common besides Mormonism. She was an unquestioning Republican because that’s how her parents voted; I was an increasingly staunch (and obnoxious) Democrat. She was an ambitious chemical engineering student with a clear career path; I was a dreamy English major with unspecified plans; she was flirty and confident; I was introverted with a tendency to be overly serious. Still, I liked being with her. She drew a carefree silliness out of me and we spent many afternoons dancing to tinny indie rock blaring from her laptop speakers and cracking up over stupid jokes. As a thin blonde girl, Jamie also opened up doors I’d never realized had been closed. Boys wanted to talk to her. She asked people to do things for her for no other reason than she wanted them to and they inexplicably said yes. Which is a roundabout way of saying she was really good at getting drugs and alcohol. She pinpointed the men in the drugstore who would buy us booze. She found the freshman living in Coronado dorm who would sell us a bottle of high-end vodka that wouldn’t last two weeks and enough weed to last all semester. She was also generous to a fault. She let me keep the weed in my room even though I always smoked when she was in class or visiting home for the weekend. She borrowed her mom’s van for a camping trip with Saira and Danielle and let us hot box the car on the long, winding drive into the White Mountains. More than once she gave me money that it hadn’t even occurred to me to figure out a way to pay back.

But access wasn’t the most valuable thing Jamie offered. There were plenty of kids selling fun and drugs. Jamie provided something they couldn’t, and that was validation. Mormonism made us different. We weren’t just two college kids making mildly risky life choices; we were breaking with a way of life that demanded strictest obedience. Our parents wouldn’t just be worried if they knew the truth; they would be profoundly disappointed. We weren’t just experimenting; we were gambling with our souls. Jamie understood all that. She understood what it meant to flee a stifling life, but not be able to shake the mindset that made such a life possible. I had other friends who’d made a cleaner break, who’d stopped attending church, moved in with boyfriends, and never called themselves Mormon again. That wasn’t me and Jamie. You couldn’t keep us out of a church if you tried. We were like drunks who couldn’t stop calling our exes, except our ex was Mormonism, and he wasn’t technically an ex. More like on-again off-again. We shared our first joint next to the dumpster behind the LDS student center on campus because it was the safest place either of us could think of. We went to church hungover and lingered for the Sunday afternoon potlucks. We showed up at game nights, flirted with boys at Family Home Evening, an activity that never paid off with Jamie by my side, she was so much cuter than me. We made a game of sniffing out other deviants. It almost always backfired. We met a spacey girl at a pool party who we could have sworn was high but turned out to just be dumb. One night toward the end of freshman year we hit up an ice cream social and met a particularly interesting and good looking guy. His name was Jason, and we stood around with our Styrofoam bowls making pretentious small talk. He read Dostoevsky and thought String Theory was fascinating. I was sweating in the May heat, but was also being particularly charming, and thought I might actually have a chance until I saw Jamie whip out her phone and get his number. I turned on my heel and walked out. It was moments like this that I missed Saira and Danielle. I wouldn’t have to explain to them why that bothered me, and besides, we never liked the same guys. I sent Jamie a passive-aggressive text from my room. “I really liked that guy we were talking to . . . .” She responded immediately. “Then come back, he’s still here! I got his number so we could find out about more activities at church.” I wondered why I was still withholding my trust, nine months after she went all in with me on the margarita sludge and forgave me when it ended in disaster.

A few days later we texted Jason. After some initial “I’m busy-ing” we managed to extract an address and invitation to hang out. We rolled up his driveway slowly, taking in the gravel lawn and concrete walls, not unusual for Tucson, but a far cry from the red brick buildings and olive tree-lined sidewalks on campus. We smelled pot as soon as we stopped up to the front porch. The windows weren’t even open. “Bingo,” said Jamie, as she flashed me a wolfish grin. When he let us in, Jason did not offer any explanation for the smell. Instead, he offered us a seat on a futon and put himself in a desk chair across the room. All of our chemistry from earlier in the week evaporated in the seedy apartment. Jason kept looking back at his computer. We’d clearly interrupted his studying, or gaming, or whatever he was doing. The mystery of the marijuana was solved when a bedroom door opened and a slightly older guy, presumably a roommate, stepped out in a cloud of smoke. The roommate told Jason he was taking off and Jamie and I shared a look that said “too bad.” It became apparent that we would not be getting high at Jason’s house, and also that there was no way to leave gracefully, us having just barged in and forced him to hang out twenty minutes earlier. Jamie asked Jason if he wanted to come to a party with us at our friend Ryan’s house and he said yes. Well, friend is an overstatement. Ryan worked the front desk at my dorm and liked a bunch of the same bands as me and we’d been to his house all of three times. Party is an overstatement, too. There were less than ten people, mostly guys, sitting around the living room when we arrived. They offered us red wine in mugs, which Jamie and I accepted, and which Jason disappointingly declined. Jamie and I folded ourselves onto the second futon of the night while Jason perched uneasily in a dining chair across the room. His location made it hard to talk. As did his utter unwillingness to engage. After a few stilted attempts to start a conversation, I turned my attention to Ryan, who had asked if I’d heard the new Aimee Mann album. My eyes lit up. Music was one of the few things I didn’t need to be drunk to talk about, and I adored Aimee Mann. Ryan waxed on: “There’s definitely a harder edge to the new album than her last….” I took issue with that. “Her last album may have been melancholy, but there was some incredible solo-work with the electric guitar. She isn’t exactly a folkie.” “Just listen,” Ryan said, as he jumped up and put on the album, and I realized what he meant. The first track was more driving than the perfectly self-contained pop ditties of her last album. I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice Jason leaving until he was halfway out the door. “Wait!” Jamie called and we rushed after him. “Where are you going?” “I’ve just got to go,” he said. “Well let us give you a ride, at least. We drove you here! You’re not that close to home.” “I can walk.” He took off down the street. I felt like a jackass. I wondered if he left because we were drinking or because we were ignoring him. I thought about his roommate and how I’d never seen Jason at church before that week and wondered if it had been hard for him to make himself go. I hoped he didn’t derail as easily as Jamie. I stared at my mug of wine and realized that this was the first time I didn’t want to finish my drink.

The summer between freshman and sophomore year did a number on mine and Jamie’s friendship. First, I hit her up for money to buy drugs that never materialized. That was bad but not unfixable. I told her I’d pay her back. But then I screwed everything up for her. My dad smelled smoke on me when I came home late one night and went through my purse while I was sleeping. I woke up in the morning to him sitting next to my bed holding a pipe in his hands. He grilled me about what I’d been using, how much, and with whom. He thought I’d been clean for over a year, and it crushed him to have to tell my mom I wasn’t. I told him I’d been getting high with Jamie. I thought it would make him feel better, knowing I was with a neighbor, a friend, a member of the church. It didn’t occur to me that he would feel obliged to tell her dad or that her dad would threaten to cut her off financially unless she submitted to random drug testing for the rest of the summer. I spent the next month feeling like a horrible person; Jamie spent the next month standing in lines at a drug testing facility and praying she wouldn’t lose her tuition money. I wouldn’t have blamed her for never speaking to me again, but after she somehow, by the grace of God, passed the first drug test, she bounced back into my life like nothing happened. “We may not be able to smoke, but we can still drink! Where’s tonight’s party?”

In August we went ahead with our plan to move into a house off campus together, along with Danielle and Natasha. Natasha was a friend of Jamie’s from the chemical engineering program. She was blonde, blunt, busty, and brilliant. She was a lush, too, and, like me and Jamie, had a complicated relationship with her faith. She also favored the boyfriend analogy. “It’s like . . . God is my boyfriend,” she explained, tracing a stick around in the gravel after a particularly rough night, “and I love him,but I just can’t stop myself from cheating on him all week long.” I was surprised. I didn’t think Catholics had a problem with drinking, which was, for the most part, the worst thing we did.

By contrast, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the Mormon dietary code–called the Word of Wisdom–which prohibits drinking, smoking, drugs, coffee, and tea. The irony is that, historically, members of the early church did not treat the Wisdom as a commandment so much as a nice suggestion. Joseph Smith kicked back with a beer, perhaps from his fully stocked home bar, in Nauvoo. Brigham Young, the second president of the church, ran a distillery in Utah. Ladies in the Relief Society fermented their own peach wine. It is said that, back then, the biggest threat alcohol posed was to the pocketbooks of the Saints at a time when everybody’s resources were needed to build a new Zion. Young’s distillery kept the money from flowing out. Over the years, the Word of Wisdom, originally sent by “greeting,” “not by commandment or restraint,” morphed into a strict test of fellowship, a boundary drawing tool. A cup of coffee a day will keep a member out of the temple, out of heaven, and out of the fold.

Our new house was on Elm Street, and living there was like a nightmare. We drank and smoked and drank and smoked and took pills when they were around. We hosted parties and hit up other parties and broke into swimming pools and drove around town drunk and were inappropriate with each others boyfriends and made out with each other and and fought and bitched our way around ever-shifting alliances. Or maybe it was just me. Maybe I was the nightmare.

Jamie got into a serious long-term relationship with a Mormon man, and stopped partying with me, except whenever he wasn’t around. We still went to church together, sometimes hungover, sometimes high. Sometimes we got so high we forgot to go to church and ate burritos instead. Sometimes we looked at each other and said, What the fuck are we doing? Jamie would swear she was going to quit, and tell me that I should too. You have no idea how good it feels, she said, in reference to the first time she went back after straying from the church, back in high school, how it feels to be clean. I knew she wasn’t talking about being clean from drugs; she was talking about her soul. And she was right. I knew what it was like to abstain from drugs and alcohol against my will, but I had no idea what it was like to be free. To be forgiven. We knew we couldn’t change our ways in Arizona, so we would fantasize about transferring to Brigham Young University, up in Utah, for a fresh start. We would be different in the mountains. We would be pure. We would finally be the Mormons we were supposed to be.

Of course BYU was just a pipe dream. At the end of sophomore year, we let our lease on the Elm Street house expire, but not before I sublet my room for the summer, to another party girl who trashed the place and ran up bills for all the utilities that were in Jamie’s name. Natasha and Danielle moved into a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood and Jamie and I saw the opportunity to get out of dodge, not together, but in different directions as fast as we could. Both of us finished up our four years at the UofA, but we only saw each other two more times. Junior year, I went to a housewarming party at Jamie’s new apartment. I brought my new boyfriend, didn’t get drunk. We left early, after chatting awkwardly with Jamie about her shower curtain and the White Stripes. Senior year, we met at my request in the parking lot of the LDS student center, where we’d smoked that first joint together three years prior. I gave Jamie a check for all the drugs and utilities I remembered I owed her plus a little more for the things I forgot.

It took me nine more years to get sober, and may take nine more than that to make things right with Jamie. After college, I went back to the church and then left again. As far as I know, Jamie never went back at all. I don’t know if she’s sober; I doubt she needed to be. I just hope she found what she had before I sent her spinning off course. I hope she got clean and by clean I mean free.

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 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:

  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 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.

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 my 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.

Breakfast for Dinner – Part IV

[This post is the fourth in a series. See Parts I, II, and III.]

When you moved to Ann Arbor, I’d already been there for a year, and you were still just my boyfriend. I added up the years when I told people you were coming, in an effort to authenticate our relationship, even though my answer to the next question seemed to push us backward a step. “Three years. No, he’s not moving in with me.” Three years, though. That’s everything when you’re twenty-three. If we’d been together any longer, we’d be something akin to high school sweethearts, and everybody knows there’s something a little funny about high school sweethearts who go on to get married, simultaneously wholesome and tragic with a touch of small-town fundamentalism thrown in, and we I weren’t any of those things, although we knew people who were.

If we spent two years in Tucson trying to work the other person into our lives, we spent two more in Ann Arbor laying the groundwork for a life together. We approached something close to domestic bliss in our two separate studio apartments. After class, I trudged three-quarters of a mile up the hill to yours and sat cross-legged on an inflatable air bed surrounded by a pile of textbooks while you cooked. Red chili, and chicken soup, and baked macaroni and cheese. Comfort foods to put us through six months of winter. There’s no room for kitchen tables in studios, so we hurt our backs hunching over on the wood floor in front of the TV, leaning in close to garlicky omelets and quiches made with fresh vegetables from the Kerrytown farmers’ market, or biscuits and gravy with sausage from the over-expensive European grocer we’d taken to visiting together on Saturday mornings, or red potatoes dyed redder with smoked paprika from the Spice House. I gave up coffee our year apart, so we sipped the hot tea that you smuggled from your job at the cafe instead, at all times of day, and especially with breakfast for dinner. Again, a little warmth to get through six months of winter. And there were other days when you let your little Ford pickup coast the same three-quarters of a mile downhill to my downtown apartment, and we’d eat ramen or pasta because I only owned one pot and didn’t keep food in the fridge, or we’d rotate between the same three cheap restaurants within a block of my apartment: do you want sandwiches, pizza, or Chinese? You always wanted pizza, and I never wanted any of it, because your cooking was better.

Ann Arbor is where we learned how to eat and live well. Of course, it doesn’t feel like living well when you’re in it, in the midst of 4:00 a.m. wakeups, and icy sidewalks, and broken down cars, and crappy restaurant jobs, and 20+ pounds of textbooks strapped to your back, and too-loud neighbors at my place and too-quiet neighbors at yours, and rejection letter after rejection letter after rejection letter, and groceries on credit at the end of every semester, and walking back and forth and back and forth between two separate apartments and why aren’t we married yet?

I’m supposed to write about our fourth diner now. I started writing about our diners two years ago, but I stopped whenever I got to Ann Arbor, because we never really had one there. We never went to Fleetwood together, that greasy spoon in an old Airstream trailer that my law school friends swore smelled like townies and sweat, but you insisted made a decent hash. And you never joined me at Angelo’s, all the way over on North Campus, where professors ordered poached eggs. And we liked Afternoon Delight quite a bit, with its oversized muffins and amusing name, but not enough to wait in line for over 30 minutes on any kind of regular basis, not when we could grab two almond croissants, a coffee, and a boiling hot peach tea for less than ten dollars in less than ten minutes at the pastry shop on the corner of Stadium and State and sit at the only table talking quietly about exactly what kind of diner we’d open on our own someday.