Quarantine Diaries Days 58, 65, 72, 79, 86, and 93: The Great Fall

This post is the fourth in a series about church in the time of the pandemic. You can find the first, second, and third posts here, here, and here.

May 10: Today is Mother’s Day. After breakfast in bed, my husband asks me if I want to watch church. He had the whole day planned, including alternate variations to take into account me watching church or not. “Do whatever ever you want,” he says, and I can tell he means it. It wasn’t always this easy for us. He used to assume that special occasions were an automatic guaranteed day off from church. He was the opposite of other lapsed Catholics. He’d go to church with me any old Sunday, but Christmas was better spent at home and Easter and and Mother’s Day were for brunch brunch. He couldn’t imagine that I might want to mark significant days in the year in community, with a bit of ritual. I couldn’t fathom why he thought it was okay to make grand plans about how we’d spend our Sundays without at least giving me, his wife and the religious one, besides, a say in the matter. Things changed when our daughter developed her own relationship with the church. She expected and wanted to go every Sunday and didn’t understand days off just because. I signed her up for the Christmas Pageant and the Children’s Choir with performances all throughout the Easter season and on Mother’s Day too. I became a regular church lady and my husband joined us for every special occasion. Obviously our daughter would not be signing with the Children’s Choir this year. All the practices and performances after Ash Wednesday were scrapped when church went virtual. THe Mother’s Day service, like every other service since March 15 would be streamed live to my Chromebook. The choir would sing through my tethered bluetooth speaker. I’d be stranded in pajamas on a chair floating in the sea of LEGO that had overtaken our living room floor the last two months. (Neither my husband nor I had the heart or nerve to clean it up, take away the one thing stopping our daughter from going mad with boredom.) This is not the Mother’s Day service I want, but my husband asks if I wanted to watch because he knows that virtual church has been my lifeline. He knows I liked watching the number of viewers tick up in the left corner of the screen, seeing names pop up in the chat box from all over the country, and listening to the pastor weave the Jesus story around COVID, around racism, around all the death and destruction in our times. I think maybe he likes it, too. Religion is doing the only thing it can do in a supposedly enlightened society–giving me connection and meaning. I don’t remember the sermon that day, or the songs the choir sang, or the postcards from home. Whatever the pastor said pales against the beautiful day my family gave me. Not going doesn’t feel like a choice, though. Church is still my bulwark against isolation and despair.

May 17: Today started badly. Nobody wanted to go outside in the rain so I skip my morning walk but arguing about it is enough to make us late for children’s chapel on Zoom. My daughter doesn’t want to do it but I make her anyway, drag the little green chair–overstuffed with the white dots and her name embroidered on the back, a gift from her Texas grandparents when she turned one that she still uses today–over to the tablet, and go to sign her in. “Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon.” This is typical and it makes sense to use a waiting room for meetings with kids, but the message irks me. We’re already late. How long is the host going to let us languish in the waiting room while my daughter misses out on questionable but, to my mind, critical approximations of human interaction? Ten of the meeting’s scheduled twenty minutes, apparently. I send a nice enough note to the teacher–“Hi ___, can you let us into the meeting please?” but I am livid. “I can’t believe this. Leaving kids out a church meeting. Do they know how that feels?” I have a history of turning on religion, of throwing churches under the bus when they fail to live up to the impossibly high ideals they set for themselves (and I, like an idiot, believe), but I haven’t breathed a bad word against my new church, not to myself, not on this blog, and definitely not in front of my daughter. Until now. Now I am spitting venom. “This is absolutely the most careless, thoughtless, heartless way to treat people. If they can’t let everybody into the meeting, they shouldn’t have it.” My daughter cuts me off. “They’re probably just having technical difficulties, mama.” Oh, shit. I guess I have some work to do if I don’t want to pass my religious baggage on to my daughter. A few minutes later, my daughter’s face pops up on the screen, one square alongside a dozen or so others containing confused kids and parents. The teacher is frazzled. “I’m so sorry. There was a global Zoom outage. We’ve been trying to let people in for fifteen minutes.” She reads a quick story and then sends everybody off so we can show up on time for the main service. Worship that day is led by the Northern Illinois Conference Bishop and Cabinet. I don’t begrudge our local pastors a break, but seeing all those strangers in strange buildings singing the hymns, saying the Lord’s prayer, and the preaching the word leaves me cold. Before service ends, the children’s ministry has sent an email apologizing profusely for the issues with Zoom. The church sends another email later that day. Of course, the damage is done, most of it by me.

May 24: I’m watching church alone today. I don’t know where my family is. I open my tablet and click the link to in my email to watch the service on YouTube. I see from the timestamp on the video that virtual services were pre-recorded and uploaded seven hours ago and I feel a ripple of resentment and revulsion. I want to slam the laptop shut. It was a battle to get here on time in the first place after a vicious argument in the thirty minutes before children’s chapel. My daughter has stopped changing out of her pajamas in the morning. Today she is wearing one of my old band t-shirts and flashed her underwear to the Sunday School class standing up to answer a question. I didn’t much care and neither did she but I’m not about to force her to watch the main service with me today. I don’t light the candle. I don’t make a coffee or crack a can of LaCroix. I don’t follow along with the worship bulletin. I don’t sing. I don’t close my eyes for prayer. I put my feet up, cross my arms across my chest, and stare up at the ceiling. I look back down and notice my tablet sitting on top of the Sunday Times. I pull out the arts section. Art saved me once before you know, when I was numb to everything else. On January 31, 2016, Day 2 without booze after my last and worst drunk, I took my daughter to the Art Institute. I lingered over Stamford after Brunch before I ever went to my first AA meeting, before I found a church.

May 25: Police in Minneapolis murder George Floyd in cold blood.

May 31: The email from the children’s chapel teacher asks all the kids to wear red for pentecost, which sounds ominous to me. I still don’t really know what pentecost is. This is around the time of year my mind wanders off outside the chapel. I think my daughter said no when I asked if she wanted to watch chapel or maybe I didn’t even offer. I still want to stream the sermon, but can’t get the link to work. I play around with it for a few minutes and give up. It doesn’t matter. We need to make signs for the march.

June 7: I go to church. It’s fine. It’s Trinity Sunday. Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity and I’m still not sure how to think about the more mystical aspects of mainline Christianity. A line from a hymn catches my ear. “Holy, holy, holy…Only Thou are holy.” Oh! I don’t need to be holy? What a relief. It’s hard to sit still today. I want to busy myself with cleaning but I make myself sit. My legs jiggle against my chair. My hands fidget for the paper, my pen. I wonder why I want to be a Christian if I don’t believe it, if I don’t need Christianity to be good. I guess I want a mind full of stories, a life full of people. I’m not getting that from the screen.

June 14: I don’t know what we do today, but I know we don’t go to church. I won’t stream another service for the rest of the summer.

Saved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions like:

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons like:

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

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