Our first Christmas together, R gave me a pen, translucent titanium gray with polished gold trim and my full name etched on the conical panel cap. It was gorgeous. My grandmother was stunned. What kind of twenty-year-old boy gives his girlfriend such an old-fashioned gift? Of course, I lost the pen. I lost it many times, in fact, only to find it a few days or weeks later in the bottom of my backpack or buried deep in a rarely-carried purse or rolling around in the back of my car. The pen always came back to me, though, so often that I stopped worrying when it went missing. I knew I could count on it to stick with me. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the pen. For a time, I suspected it disappeared into the crack between the cushions of my sponsor’s couch, where I sat every Sunday for almost two years, reading the big book and working the steps. For a time, I assumed that she would find it on her own and return it to me, but now I’m not so sure. I’m not worried, though. I know it will turn up when I least expect it. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. I don’t need to mourn the loss of the first really gorgeous gift R gave me because the pen is nothing compared to the many things he’s given me since.
Growing up, I spent way too much time worrying about the impact that Mormonism would have on my dating life for somebody who didn’t go on a lot of dates. In a lot of ways, my parents were not typical, by the book, Mormons. Perhaps the simplest way to explain my family’s commitment to the church is like this: we went to church every Sunday, but never on vacation. We never drank coffee but the Dr. Pepper flowed so freely that I was surprised when I moved from Ohio to Arizona and heard a seminary teacher refer to it as “sin juice.”
But there was one area where my parents were practically fundamentalists: boys. In Ohio, school dances started in sixth grade, so my friends were going to dances for two full years before I was allowed to join them when I turned 14. This was so embarrassing to me that the one time a boy asked me if I would be at a dance, in seventh grade, I just said yes, and then when he called me from the pay phone at school to ask where I was, I lied and told him that I had been there earlier, but that I got sick and had to leave, and hadn’t he seen me there?
My parents were equally firm on the rule that I wasn’t allowed to date before I turned 16. Or, at least, I think they were. Nobody actually asked me out between the ages of 12 and 16, so I didn’t have the opportunity to put the rule to the test, but they reminded me about it often enough, simultaneously amplifying my embarrassment about my datelessness and ensuring that I knew they would never budge on the rule.
When I did start dating, my parents constantly reminded me about the importance of going on group dates, warned me against the dangers of just “hanging out,” and, most importantly, drilled it into my head that I should only date boys who “shared my standards,” which, of course, is a nicer, less exclusive, way of saying don’t date outside the church. All of these rules were just build up to the biggest, most important rule, which was not so much a rule as a deeply ingrained fact of life: I would get married in the temple. Of course I would. In my mind, that was what Mormonism boiled down to, and even though I started chafing at the boundaries of Mormonism early on, getting married in the temple was the one thing I knew I would do. When I was in high school, my best friend, a half-Canadian/half-Egyptian atheist with a strict Muslim father challenged me on this certainty constantly. “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…”
You know where this story is going, right? I fell in love with a non-member. Of course I did. His name was R and he was funny and sharp and artsy and shorter than me but had these amazing arms. I was 19, he was 20. He wasn’t the ideal non-member, just waiting for the missionaries to share the good news of the gospel. No. He was an atheist. He didn’t like organized religion. He’d read Krakauer and, you know, the internet and he had some serious questions about Mormonism. Not the kind of questions I wanted him to have, like “What happens after we die?” or “Does God have a body?” I could have answered those questions. No, he had questions like, “How could Joseph Smith have carried all those gold plates?” and “How did they end up in upstate New York if the Book of Mormon went down in Central America?” “Why is the Angel Moroni so buff?” He asked harder questions, too, like “Why didn’t God answer my prayers when my brother died?”
I couldn’t answer those questions. I was too naive to realize it was because they were unanswerable. I thought it was because I just didn’t know enough about the gospel. I wasn’t the picture of a good Mormon girl when we met. Shortly after I turned 16 and proclaimed to my best friend that I’d never fall in love with somebody who wasn’t Mormon (a conversation during which I also swore I would never give a blow job because that sounded disgusting), my life took a hard turn. By the time I met R, I hadn’t been to church regularly in over two years and on the rare occasions that I did make it to my student ward I was either hungover, high, or still drunk from the night before. I don’t know why I ever thought it was a good idea to get loaded and then go to church. I guess something in me just couldn’t leave Mormonism alone. I didn’t know if I believed in God anymore, but if I did, I knew that he looked like Heavenly Father. This is what I told R the first night we met. I told him that I didn’t know what the future held, but that for me, it was Mormonism or nothing. Mormonism was how I was raised and it was how the world made sense.
The beginning of our relationship was an intense, storybook romance. That first night we stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking about our baggage and our shared obsession with Bob Dylan. Our second and third dates were also middle of the night affairs, eating hashbrowns and pie at the dingy Waffle House diner on the edge of town, and then driving into the desert to smoke clove cigarettes. Our third date found us at the Waffle House again. It was 2005, which happened to be the year that the Waffle House was celebrating its 50th anniversary and giant posters are hanging across windows on two sides of the restaurant were emblazoned with the slogan “Here’s to the next 50 years!” There are two old guys on the signs and they are raising their coffee cups in a toast and I think they are funny so I lift my own mug of bad diner coffee and read off of one of the signs, “Here’s to the next 50 years!” and give R a cheesy grin, waiting for him to laugh. He just stares at me, until it slowly dawns on me that the signs were only visible from my seat and he thinks I am a psychopath toasting to our next 50 years the morning after our first kiss.
He did some pretty embarrassing things early on, too, though. The first time he drove up to visit me at my parent’s house, a few hours away from our college town, he was so excited to see me that he left his Ford Ranger parked a full three feet away from the curb, driver’s side door hanging, and keys in the ignition. Later that summer, he used all of the airline miles he’d accumulated when his family lived abroad during his teenage years to come visit me in New Orleans, where I had an internship. Remember when I mentioned that it was 2005? The week he visited happened to be the week that one of the hurricanes that hit the gulf coast right before Katrina landed. The city was evacuated, but we couldn’t afford a rental car with the exorbitant insurance rates for drivers under 25 so R found us a room in a tall hotel and we stocked up on junk food. We probably would have died if that had been Hurricane Katrina, but Dennis turned out to be a bust, so instead we spent the weekend wandering around the French Quarter in the drizzle. That was also the weekend that I asked R what would happen if we got pregnant and he said, we’ll have a baby and name it Dylan.
One of the things I liked best about R was that he rarely drank and didn’t get high. It was also the most annoying thing about him because I wanted to do those things all the time. Spending time with somebody who had such a healthy relationship with substances made me realize that maybe I didn’t. Being with him made me want to be a better person. After we’d been together for about a year, I decided I wanted to go back to church. Cue flashbacks to middle school, when I was so embarrassed about my religion that I pretended I was at the school dance so I wouldn’t have to tell my boyfriend I couldn’t go. I was terrified that R would want to break up with me if I started practicing again, or that he would resent me for tricking him into a relationship with a freaky Mormon. So I made my religion as unobtrusive as possible. I would pray silently in my head as we lay next to each other in bed. I would make up excuses to stay at my house on Saturday night and wake up early for sacrament meeting and be back at his house with two iced Americanos from the drive through espresso shack before he woke up. I would read the Book of Mormon surreptitiously while he was in the shower, slamming it shut and stuffing it in my bag when he walked in the room.
My parents loved R. They didn’t even mind that he wasn’t Mormon, because they saw how much happier, not to mention healthier, I was with him. Of course, they wanted him to join the church. And, if I’m being honest, I did, too. Being in a serious relationship with a non-member who wasn’t taking the missionary discussions and had no intention of doing so put me in a weird no-man’s land at church. I was attending a single’s ward, where almost every other member’s single-minded focus was on searching for his or her eternal companion and getting to the temple. Except for me. I’d already found my eternal companion and I felt like my life was moving forward–since I’d met R, I’d gone from a being a drunk and a drug addict to landing a prestigious internship, working as a teaching assistant, and deciding to apply for law school–but I couldn’t figure out where the temple fit into my future. In fact, when I pictured my future with R, I drew a blank. Without a temple marriage, what was there?
We started having these intense conversations about the church that would end in me begging him to just read the Book of Mormon already and pray about it. I was certain that the Angel Moroni would sweep in and uncross our stars. I also asked him to meet with the missionaries, but he never got past clicking on the “Chat with a Missionary” button on mormon.org and signing off in frustration when the missionaries couldn’t answer his questions about the church’s racist past.
The conversations got easier as I kept going to church. I accepted callings that forced me to talk about the church with other people (ward missionary, gospel doctrine teacher), and so I re-learned the language of Mormonism. Eventually I learned how to talk about it with R, too, without feeling crushed by disappointment every time he rejected my invitations. I even convinced him to start parking his bike at the institute, telling him it was safer than the bike racks on campus and reassuring him that nobody would talk to him. I took this as a good sign that he actually did it. I didn’t know what to do when faced with evidence that he still wasn’t comfortable at church, like the time that he showed up at the institute wearing a t-shirt that he’d borrowed from me. It had the name of a painting company owned by a family in my parents’ ward on it, and they were known for printing up tons of shirts and passing them out for free to all the teenagers in the ward for fun and for free advertising. Lang Painting, it said. So one day R showed up at the institute wearing a Lang Painting shirt, and a group of kids, including a set of missionaries’ accosted him. “Hey, you know the Langs?” “Uh, no, this is my girlfriend’s shirt.” R tried to tell them he wasn’t Mormon, mistakenly thinking this would make them lose interest in him, rather than piquing it. They were particularly interested in the fact that he was dating a Mormon, and took this as a sign that he would be an easy target. They progressed from complimenting his shirt to asking him if he wanted to take the missionary discussions in five minutes. He ran out of there and when we talked later that night, he was pissed.
Other times, R seemed like he was softening toward the church, and I LIVED for that. Once, after I moved into a new ward, he came to watch me give a talk. He sat in the second row, over to the side of the chapel, and I sat on the stand. The person speaking after me, a man of course, said a few words about how everybody in the room of a child of Heavenly Parents, and is loved by them. After the meeting, a girl I knew who was sitting near R told me that she saw him tear up when he heard that and she knew, she just KNEW that he felt the spirit. Of course she blew it by pouncing on him immediately after sacrament and asking him to take the missionary discussions.
One of the reasons I was so obsessed with whether or not R would join the church is because of my patriarchal blessing. I got it when I was 14 from my grandfather, who was a stake patriarch, right before he died. I ignored it at first, because it was not particularly interesting, but when I came back to church after those years of wandering through the wilderness, it took on totemic importance. I carried it with me from apartment to apartment, reading it when I felt lost to remind me that I had divine worth, even after all the bad things I’d done. I didn’t know what to do with the promises about my future. I was afraid that I’d fucked up so badly that I’d forfeited the right for them to come true. One thing my patriarchal blessing said was that I would have the opportunity to be married in the temple to a companion of my choosing. I hated this phrasing. It was so imprecise. It didn’t say I would get married in the temple, it said I would have the opportunity. What if I already blew this opportunity? What if I was in the process of blowing it by wasting my best years with R, a boy, actually, by this point, a man who had no interest in or ability to taking me to the temple?
Years passed without the situation resolving itself. After graduation, I moved to Michigan for law school, and R stayed behind to finish an extra semester required by his journalism program. We didn’t split up, but shortly before I left we had the most depressing conversation of our relationship, where we took a long walk through the desert wash behind our house and I told him that I couldn’t see a future with him, not because I didn’t want one, but because I literally couldn’t see what it would look like, and we both cried. After he graduated, while I was plugging away in my first year of classes, he went on a soul-searching solo bike trip around the country from his parents house in Texas to Manhattan. I asked him to take a Book of Mormon, but he said he didn’t have enough weight on his bike. We still didn’t break up but I wondered if we would ever live in the same city again.
In summer 2008, his bike broke down and he ran out of money and he decided to join me in Michigan. He got his own apartment even though most couples that had been together as long as we had would be living together. He stayed even after the local newspaper folded and he couldn’t find a journalism job and ended up working in the restaurant industry. He stayed even after my faith journey back to Mormonism led me to start excising the fun things from my life one by one, first coffee, then booze, then sex. He stayed even after I got an internship in Chicago and left him alone in the small town that he’d moved to only to be with me. Over time, I realized that while they may not be on par with converting to Mormonism, the sacrifices R made to be with me were no small thing. He left his family, his friends, he gave up his career, and he supported me 100% in every thing I did, no matter how weird he thought it was. That had to count for something.
About a year after R followed me to Michigan, my younger brother got engaged to a girl he had known for less than 6 weeks in 6 weeks. He would be the of my siblings to get married. My mom called to tell me the news. She wanted me to be in the temple for the ceremony. I felt sick to my stomach. I wasn’t even close to be temple worthy. I was also angry. If I couldn’t go to the temple with the love of my life, I wasn’t about to go without him to watch my brother marry a stranger. That was a turning point for me. I realized I wanted R more than the temple. My mom sensed what I was thinking about and brought up something I hadn’t thought about in awhile: my patriarchal blessing. “Your blessing says that you will have the opportunity to marry the companion of your choosing. I know you’ve already chosen.” She didn’t exactly sound thrilled–her voice was breaking–but it was remarkable that for all these years I’d been focusing on the temple part of the blessing, when she was focusing on the part about it being my choice. And I thought they were the orthodox ones. R proposed a few weeks later.
I still didn’t know what our wedding would look like. Neither did our families. His parents wanted an open bar and my parents wanted the whole thing to be dry. We decided to piss them both off by doing a toast with champagne and Martinelli’s non-alcoholic apple cider. We ended up getting married in a tiny chapel in the middle of the desert. Moments before the ceremony my dad pulled R over to the side and said “R, I want to tell you something.” R steeled himself. My dad continued. “Doesn’t this church look exactly like the one in Kill Bill.” R decided not to take the reference to the extremely violent movie where the entire wedding party including the groom is brutally slaughtered as a threat. We got married in a vaguely religious ceremony performed by the bishop of my parents’ ward. After the ceremony, we exited the chapel to Bob Dylan’s Forever Young.
At some point in the next year or so, I was sitting in Relief Society listening to a lesson about the temple. The teacher was a wedding photographer because of course she was (that’s one of the two professions that Mormon girls are foreordained to do, the other one being seller in a multi-level marketing company) and she was talking about how she sometimes photographs non-LDS ceremonies and it breaks her heart because she can tell that the married couple knows something is missing. There is no light in their eyes.
That’s what I was afraid non-temple marriage would be like. I thought it would be like living a B-version of life, or painting with a paler set of colors. I pictured my life the way a sober alcoholic first pictures a future without booze. But my non-temple marriage taught me that this is bullshit. My marriage taught me that love is love to the point that when the church amped up its anti-gay agenda, I knew I had to leave. My marriage taught my family, too. A few years ago, I visited my family back in Arizona and my dad told me with tears in his eyes that he knows R and I will be together forever, temple marriage or no. That’s right, my former bishop, former CES teacher dad told me that he doesn’t believe the ordinances are necessary. He told me that he and my mother are thankful every day that I married R, because he is perfect for me, and because he such an incredible stay-at-home father to our daughter, Dylan, and that he is all of those things precisely because he’s not Mormon. He’s right of course. I wouldn’t be who I am without the church and R wouldn’t be who he is with it. I don’t go to the Mormon church anymore, but I thank God every day that I found R and managed see past what I was taught to build a family with him.
I thought that marrying the boy would make up for sleeping with him.
I thought converting my husband would make up for marrying outside the church.
I thought that having a baby would make up for out-earning my husband.
I thought that hating my job and changing my job and still hating my job and changing my job again would make up for being a working mom.
I thought that quitting drinking would make up for being a bad Mormon.
I thought that finding God in the rooms would make up for leaving the church.
I thought that writing my life like it was a story would make it all make sense.
What if I never had to do any of that?
What if I was already redeemed?
What if I’m still glad I tried?
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.
- 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.
- 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.