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.

A Semi-Mormon Love Story

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.   

Redeemed

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?

Featured

The Unpeeling OR How To Leave The Mormon Church When You Don’t Really Want To OR That One Clash Song Even Your Mom Knows

Stay

Everybody leaves. At least, that’s how it feels when you are a progressive Mormon trying to make it work in the church. You are defensive of your Mormon identity and hopeful you can be the change you want to see, but it’s hard to do either when it feels like everybody who thinks like you stops coming around and a good chunk of the people who don’t think like you want you gone. You worry that 2012-2013 was high tide for unorthodox Mormons. You envision a time that you will look around the chapel and wonder, where have all the feminists gone? You know your daughter will leave. You know it will be because of what you teach her about her worth and about God, about how He or She or They or It love everyone the same.

Even way back when, at the very beginning of my journey into the Mormon hinterland, before the decade-plus I spent traversing the boundary, meandering the liminal space–in and out and in again–I was always envious of the people who came and went easily.

  • The boy who found Bud Heavy and decided right away that a life with beer was better than one of deprivation.
  • The girl who shacked up with her college boyfriend and wondered what was so bad about living in sin, anyway.
  • The Jack Mormons who realized they could ditch the moniker altogether, the first part and the last, and move through their lives like normal people, not transgressive, not special, but also not Other, no longer marked at all.

Go

I liked booze and boys as much as the next mostly straight teenage girl and didn’t even feel guilty about it. (Shame would come later on, when I tried to quit drinking and found I couldn’t, when I fell in love with an atheist and found I couldn’t fall out.) I liked them enough that I understood why people left. I entertained the idea myself. I wanted to want to leave. What I didn’t understand was how people who were raised in the church could just…go. Like it was nothing. Like it never meant anything at all.

As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t leave Mormonism alone. I would show up at church high or hungover, reeking of sweat and sex and booze and sit in the pew and try to focus on the ceiling while the room pitched and lurched around me in an effort not to hurl. The wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling of chapels crisscrossing the country from Tucson to New Orleans to Seattle to Ann Arbor looked like the hull of a great ship and I’d be carried away in visions of myself as the brother of Jared, rocking around in an ark bound for the promised land.

Why did I keep going? I guess I just believed.

That pissed me off, by the way. Making bad decisions on Friday is much less fun when you spend Sunday worrying about how to be good.

Stay

Years passed and I kicked the drugs and cut back on the drinking and married the atheist and went back to church. I couldn’t ignore the pull I felt toward Mormonism. We were tethered, naval to pulsing, bloody mass. It wasn’t perfect or anywhere near, but I put together a life that looked Mormon enough. I went to church most weeks. I taught a Sunday School class. I visited the women in my congregation that I was assigned to visit and shared uplifting messages about Jesus. I gave people rides. I tithed thousands of dollars to the church. I read the Book of Mormon every day. I read church magazines. I listened to General Conference twice a year. I prayed constantly. Mormonism made me happy, much happier than I’d been before.

But I still tracked the people who left, and wondered how they did it.

  • The husband who read mysterious things about the church on the Internet and decided that while he had spent the last thirty years perfectly content to believe Joseph Smith translated gold plates using a pair of spectacles and a breastplate, the notion of the boy sticking his face in a hat to read words flashing across a rock was a bridge too far.
  • The young man fresh off his mission who discovered the number–and the ages–of Joseph’s wives and couldn’t wrap his head around this sordid new information about the prophet he revered.
  • The woman who lifted her veil and saw for the first time where she fell in the hierarchy of woman, man, and God.
  • Entire families that passed out fliers supporting Prop 8 but freaked out when the church invested in a mall in downtown SLC.

I’d spent so long trying and failing at being a good Mormon it never occurred to me that I might not want the church I came back to.

Go

Of course the red flags had been there all along. Once, when I was still very precarious in regard to the church, only sporadically attending a student ward at university, a Sunday School teacher, a woman, college-aged and educated, made the bizarre pronouncement in the middle of a lesson that the Big Bang Theory was “stupid.” I didn’t know church was a place I could disagree yet, so I spent the rest of class silently fuming and called my mom in a rage as soon as it was over. On the surface, I was angry because literal, biblical, six-day Creationism is not even required Mormon doctrine. Sure, some Mormons believe that stuff, but the official party line is that religion and science work together. Mormons aren’t the kind of fundamentalists who tear pages out of biology textbooks. My anger was defensive, on account of my membership in the group. Mormons are already so weird; who did this woman think she was, putting our cultural relevance in further jeopardy by perpetuating backward anti-science gobbledygook without anybody even saying she had to?

On a deeper level, I was hurt and baffled. Here I was, at church, during the Sunday school class that meets at the end of a three-hour worship service no less, for the first time in who know how long, desperately trying to inject some spirituality into a life that felt poisonous, and this woman, who was supposedly called by God, who was supposed to be leading the class by inspiration, was using her platform to engage a culture war that had been out of date for decades? A war that was never ours to fight in the first place? Church was a hospital and I was dying and this was the first time I sensed that I might show up and get something that made the hurt worse.

Stay

So, yes, I came back to church with questions. How could I not, having been blessed with a brain that works and a family that told me to use it? How could I not, having been raised in a church that taught me that all are alike before God, black and white, bond and free, male and female? How could I not, after years of living and studying and working alongside women with astonishing resumes, men who treated me like an equal, atheists who were kinder than any Christian I’d ever known? Of course I came back with questions. The fact that I’d already come back once, that I’d come back at all, after living through my own approximation of hell, stilled the part of me that wanted to abandon the faith altogether. Even so, I had enough questions to understand why other people did.

What I didn’t understand was how people could do it so quickly, with so much certainty. Like it was so black and white.

Like many people, I found information that challenged my faith online. It started with the mixed-orientation marriage forums. I found my way there looking for resources for people in mixed-faith relationships after I decided to marry my non-LDS boyfriend. I needed reassurance that we could make it, in spite of our religious differences. What I found–lots of women trying to stay in marriages to gay men–was neither especially relevant to my situation, not especially comforting. How had all these men ended up married to women anyway? What were they going to do, faced as they were with choosing between the deepest longings of their hearts and the church they lived and a family hanging in jeopardy in the middle? I couldn’t fathom the difficulty and thanked God I didn’t have to choose.

Next came the blogs. I devoured a secret personal blog by a closeted gay Mormon man. He was married to a woman and they had four children. He kept writing that he wanted to stay, with his wife, in the church, but when he wrote about blossoming friendships with other men, about exploring intimacy outside the confines of his marriage, I thought it was painfully obvious that wasn’t exactly the case.

I couldn’t relate to anything this man was experiencing but I was fascinated by this glimpse into the mind of another tortured Mormon soul.

A friend from law school turned me onto Feminist Mormon Housewives. He was giving a presentation on Proposition 8 in our Critical Legal Theory class and he was careful to mention that not all Mormons are socially conservative, glancing over at me, and citing FMH as proof. I’d never heard of the website and ran home to type the words into my web browser. I was gobsmacked. It was a group blog run by Mormon women and the tagline in the header read, “angry activists with diapers to change.” Who were these ladies, writing about canning jam and fighting the patriarchy? They were simultaneously eerily regressive (absolute piles of children) and wildly radical (there’s a Heavenly…Mother?). Post after post challenged fundamental Mormon beliefs and practices. They questioned the idea that God told the early Mormons to practice polygamy. They suggested that Mormon women once held a version of the priesthood and perhaps the day would come when they would again. They aired horrific accounts of ecclesiastical abuse. They talked in circles around temple ceremonies that broke their hearts they were so inequitable.

This was the most absorbing content I’d ever read. I felt like I’d walked into a conversation I’d spent my whole life wanting to have.

FMH led me to the semi-Mormon Mommy Bloggers, Mormon women with personal websites that were snarky, and funny, and intellectual, and irreverent. I hadn’t realized that Mormon women could be smart and cool. Chalk it up to internalized misogyny or to me not ever giving Mormon women a real chance, I was willing to atone. I had finally found my people.

After the blogs came the podcasts. Hungry for stories about other Mormon misfits, I tore through the archives of Mormon Stories and Mormon Expressions and Mormon Matters, honing in on women’s stories. Dark as they often were, with self harm and loss and painful encounters with religious authority, these were the stories of women steeped in the same tradition as me making it work, often after watching their religious world disintegrate around them.

  • Claudia Bushman forced out of publishing the Exponent II after her husband became stake president.
  • Sonia Johnson excommunicated after pushing for the ERA.
  • Maxine Hanks and Lavina Fielding Anderson and Margaret Toscano and others excommunicated after writing and editing books about the history and theology of Mormon women.

In addition to the giants of Mormon feminism, I discovered dozens of women with far less storied histories sharing about the personal undoing they experienced when they caught onto a loose thread of inequality and followed it into the rich and tangled web of unorthodox Mormonism. Often, this undoing was followed by a re-weaving of their lives into the Mormon whole, by which I mean: they kept going to church. Theirs were stories of betrayal, loss, and redemption.

After years of ambivalence around the church, torn between feeling like I should be a better Mormon despite not really wanting to be Mormon, it was the Mormon feminists that drew me in, and it was the Mormon feminists who would show me how to stay.

As I read more and more accounts of people who disaffected from Mormon orthodoxy, I noticed that my experience diverged from the typical story in one major way: none of the information I was learning about Mormonism shocked me.

Among the many gifts my parents gave me is a Mormonism that is malleable. A Mormonism that, when I was a teenager, easily accommodated bikinis and short shorts and protest songs. A Mormonism that opposed the Iraq invasion. A Mormonism that drew back in horror when, that same year, the ward choir director announced that the Easter program would shock and awe us, in an obvious reference to the campaign in the Middle East, but loved that choir director just the same. A Mormon community that smiled, bemused, at my hot pink hair in college and applauded when I graduated from law school before getting married.

This kind of Mormonism would readily expand to make room for fallible prophets and bishops behaving badly and confusing and incomplete doctrines about women, people of color, and gay people when the time came. This kind of Mormonism not only tolerated but welcomed big questions. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? What do we do when people claiming to be God’s servants get it seriously wrong.

Make no mistake: I had a healthy fear of “anti-Mormon literature,” which is what my Mormon parents called books and websites that were critical of the church in the 1990s and early aughts. I fretted when my non-LDS boyfriend read things about the church online, worried he’d stumble into something so profoundly ugly that it would ruin any chances of him ever joining the church. Well into my twenties, when I was Hoovering in stories of people who had doubts about the veracity of the church’s teachings, who had had negative experiences in the church, and who, whether as a result of their particular makeup or their unique history, were on their way out, I nervously avoided seeking out information about the church that wasn’t filtered through the lens of a personal story.

Vacuum cleaner that I was, I picked up the bad news anyway. Bad news like:

  • Anachronisms in the Book of Mormon–e.g., references to horses and coins when there is no archaeological record of such things having existed in the Americas during the time periods covered by the Book of Mormon. For some people, this is all the proof they need that Joseph Smith faked the whole thing–the One True Church is a scam. It made me want to learn more about the art of translation and how a translator’s worldview impacts the subject text.  
  • DNA studies–e.g., evidence that ancestors of American Indians migrated from Central Asia and not, as it happens, ancient Israel. For some people, this information undermines everything they thought they knew about the origins of the Americas as told in the Book of Mormon. I couldn’t get through more than 30 minutes of academic discussion on the subject, because it’s dry as hell. Also, everybody gets killed off at the end of that book; it made sense to me that they wouldn’t have left a significant genetic record.  
  • The Mountain Meadows Massacre–e.g., that time (1857) when a band of Mormon settlers murdered 120 men, women, and children emigrating by wagon from Arkansas to California. This one threw me a little more than the others. I honestly had no idea my people were capable of that. On further thought, though, it is tragic but not senseless. The Mormons were isolated and hysterical, persecution memories were fresh, and tensions were high. Plus, there is evidence that Brigham Young helped orchestrate the attack, and Mormons are nothing if not obedient. History is a bloody mess and I was a natural apologist.

Because nothing shocked me, there was no turning point, no clear demarcation between then and now. I learned something new and it was like I’d always known it. I polished off the whole apple without realizing I’d even taken a bite. I did everything short of walking out of the garden.

My Mormonism was, in addition to being malleable, porous. Teachings that made no sense slid along the membrane and slipped right out. So Joseph Smith married a 15-year-old. My qualms with wrapping my head around the idea of a prophet fucking up to such a monumental degree were few. But I was not about to twist my conscience up in knots pretending that God told him to do that. Or that God just changed his mind about black people in 1978. Or that God cries anything but tears of joy when two men, or two women, fall in love and decide to be family.

Each new, unpleasant pebble of church history dissolved smoothly into the bubble of my belief, as though I had always known it. Those that didn’t passed through. The new information did not rock my faith so much as change the composition and the shape of it, slightly, over time. If anything, these revelations made me more attached to the church. A moody, complicated faith suited my rebellious nature. I knew I’d stick around longer if I could fight for something within the faith, even while I defended it on the outside.   

What I didn’t expect is that the church would fight me back.  

Go

The first shots rang out in 2012, when I marched with a contingent of LDS supporters of gay marriage in the Chicago Pride Parade. The men wore white shirts and ties and the women wore pioneer dresses and we walked quietly with the other religious groups armed with rainbow flags and signs announcing our allyship. The event organizers were generous enough to put all us Jesus freaks at the front of the parade, and the moment I went from grinning my face off waving at drag queens to rounding a bend and being booed by the Westboro Baptist Church remains one of the most powerful of my life. Humans built bridges that day and God was pleased. A month later, a friend and former law school classmate called me to repentance. He told me that I couldn’t hide my sin by slapping a progressive label on it. He told me that my dissent made me something other than a real Mormon.  

The firestorm came later that year, when a ragtag band of Mormon feminists organized Wear Pants to Church Day. What started off as a day for us to show solidarity and raise awareness by wearing pants instead of the customary skirts or dresses to church blew up into an international event with press coverage in major outlets from the New York Times to the Huffington Post to NPR. I got emails from other Mormons, strangers, condemning me.

  • Anyone who supports this protest is revealing more about your feeling jipped for being born a woman than it is showing you are proud of womanhood.
  • I have you to thank for the hate that is overcoming my facebook today. You incited a verbal riot. Is this what you intended? If not, please remove your event.
  • If you wanted to create contention with your page, you have succeeded marvelously. What does the scripture say, “Contention is of the devil”. I wonder what you thought you would accomplish with this. If it was anything other than dividing the membership of the church, you were sadly mistaken.
  • Shame on you for trying to make a place of worship, and women in the church feel even more divided and making an issue out of one that really shouldn’t be there. Church leaders have said nothing about wearing pants. This distracts from Christ and being united. It’s not right. People should not be judging others for wearing pants if necessary, as well as those who choose to wear skirts. This idea and day to wear pants is just wrong. Are you truly following Christ and uniting and loving, or are you like the great divider….you decide.

Stephanie L., the woman who started the movement, received a death threat. My mom accused me, with hurt and fear in her voice, of wanting the priesthood–the ability to act in God’s name with God’s power, a privilege available to all Mormon men but only to Mormon men–for myself. I responded to every email graciously, practically begging the question, “What would Jesus do?” I quoted liberally from the Book of Mormon, determined to show them I was the better Christian.

I was besieged in 2013, after I had my baby. I dutifully took her to church on Sundays, alone, desperate for support and reassurance that I was making the right choices as a mother, that I wasn’t doing permanent damage to my daughter by going back to work while my husband stayed home, that I hadn’t already screwed her up royally by marrying outside of the church in the first place. What I got was people asking me when I was going to quit my job, was leaders reminding me that a woman’s job is to nurture and a man’s to provide, that women and men are different but equal.

In the spring of that year, Kate Kelly launched her website advocating for the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Mormon church and members pushed back. Feminists tried to attend the all-male priesthood session of the church’s semiannual general conference in the fall and were turned away at the door. I quietly posted a profile on ordainwomen.org and didn’t share it with anybody because I didn’t want my family to be ashamed.

The war waged in 2014, when the church excommunicated Kelly for her role in pushing for ordination. I wrote about being crippled after watching the body of Christ self-amputate, draining good women like so much lost blood. Up to this point, I’d been crawling along the boundary of what was acceptable in Mormonism, pushing against it and enjoying the way it flexed and stretched. There was always more room, it seemed, for me and for the people I loved. In 2014, the skin snapped back. The pores clogged. My once airy bubble sealed shut, in the world but not of it, a place unto itself. At church, I watched my daughter watch the deacons pass the sacrament. Those twelve-year-old boys had more power in the church than she would ever have. I lived six days a week as a human and went to church on the seventh a failed mom. I could not breathe.

I started drinking again. I got high.

People have been leaving the church for as long as there’s been a church to leave but in 2014 my people started leaving in droves. My friends in Chicago. The women I planned Wear Pants to Church Day with. Women I’d admired from afar. For the first time since I’d come back to the church in my twenties, I wanted out.

Why did I keep going? It wasn’t because I got a thrill out of being an iconoclast. I mean, I did, but it’s not the life I would have chosen for myself. I went because I still believed.

But what did I believe? That the church was “true,” whatever that means? In my heart of hearts, I’d been a universalist for years. I had to be. I was married to a non-believer. My grandmother is an atheist. I had too many friends who would never join the Mormon church in large part because of the irredeemable positions it took on social issues. I had to believe that things would work out for these people or I’d have drunk myself to death years ago over the tragedy of it all.

My belief system was big and slippery, but only for other people. When it came to my own salvation, I was certain that I would live and die in the Mormon bubble. I remembered what my life had been like without the church, how lucky I was to have survived addiction, depression, and insanity, and knew I couldn’t go back. I remembered the experiences that had led me back to the church, the angels that lined my path, the voice of God in my head, and knew I couldn’t discard their power. Mormonism was the only place, the only language, God had ever spoken to me and so I believed it was the only place God would. I believed Mormonism was where and who I was supposed to be. My God was as big as my mind was small.

The irony is that, although it was the church’s rejection of the movement to ordain women to the priesthood that was pushing me to the edge, I never wanted to be a priest. How could I? The notion of a woman acting with authority in the church, in any church, was beyond my wildest imagination. Plus, submitting to the laying on of hands would mean giving up my spot in the cheap seats and my identity a fringe Mormon.

Some months after Kelly’s excommunication, I had a vision of myself in robes. It was during my morning commute. I rode the red line from my neighborhood on the north side. My mind, at that point, was a minefield of anxiety, alcoholism, and fear. The train descended from the elevated tracks to the tunnels below. I couldn’t think of work or family or church without tripping the wire that told me I was failing, that I was falling apart, across the board. The doors slid open and I pushed out into the dark. A comedian’s voice buzzed in my ears; I’d taken to listening to podcasts to muffle the noises in my head, to blunt the existential dread. The escalator closest to my office was under repair so I took the long way to the stairs at the other end of the tunnel and emerged blinking in the bright morning light. I couldn’t get myself to and from work without courting disaster. I stepped off the curb ready to cross State Street, ready to walk out of my life, when it happened. I saw myself standing shin-deep in the water, draped in white, with an embroidered stole. My arms waved, beckoning somebody to join me. I didn’t need more context to know that I was not being baptized into another church; I was doing the baptizing.

Something clicked into place and the pressure in my chest released, breathing life into my cramped vision of how women relate to God. As a Mormon woman, I had been fighting for something that women of other faiths already have. I’d spent so long convinced that, for me, the options were Mormon or nothing, and vacillated wildly between the two. In a moment, I saw that could go somewhere else, and that that place would be filled with light, and that my passions and talents and questions would not just be tolerated, but received.

Is revelation ever easy to take? The vision dissolved into the bubble with every other unsettling thought I’d ever had. Like Jonah, I fled and spent the next year in the belly of the beast.

In November 2015, the LDS church updated its handbooks to include a new policy. Per the policy, members of the church in same-sex marriages were apostates subject to excommunication from the church. Children of same-sex couples were forbidden from being blessed as babies and baptized into the church as children. Instead, they had to wait until they turned eighteen, moved out of their parents’ homes, disavowed gay marriage, and obtained approval from First Presidency–the prophet and his two counselors, the highest leaders in the church.

The policy came as a shock after half a decade during which many progressive Mormons perceived the church as softening its stance toward gay and lesbian members and the larger LGBTQ community. The effects were immediately devastating. Church members across the spectrum expressed bewilderment, hurt, and sorrow, online, at family members. Thousands gathered in Salt Lake City to submit letters resigning their membership in the church. Many more just stopped going. Those committed to the church circled the wagons. Straight people reached out to their gay friends to tell them they were welcome. Bishops and other church leaders offered to meet with their congregants to answer their questions. Ward members invited people into their homes, to hold each other, and to talk. I drank rye whiskey from the bottle and wept.

As with most people, it was the aspect of the policy that barred children from being baptized that hit me hardest. I knew the church sometimes made people leave. I’d seen it in my own lifetime, with Kelly, and others. This was the first time I’d known the church, my church, a young and eager church, a proselytizing church, turn people away who, against all odds, actually wanted to join. The policy dangled the possibility of baptism at a later date, and some kids will probably grab for that chance, but others won’t. I was baptized when I was eight years old. It was an easy choice. Back then, thinking about the church was like wrapping myself in a warm blanket. By the time I was eighteen, all I wanted to do was to get high–I never would have gotten baptized at that point. The new policy told me that the church was okay with losing kids like me. The policy told me that the baptismal covenant wasn’t the essential, life-saving ordinance the church proclaimed it to be. The policy told me that, for some of us, a life inside the church was negligible.

Word of the policy spread like a contagion, and I had an appointment with my bishop within days. He struggled to put into words the reasons for church’s new position. “The church respects families,” he said. “We don’t want to put children in the confusing position of receiving conflicting messages about the sacred doctrine of marriage at church and at home. We don’t want to undermine the parents of those families.”

“But that’s my family. I married outside the faith, outside the temple. And my husband and I believe that people have the right to marry whoever they want and we are teaching our daughter to do the same. How are we different?”

He looked at me with compassion and concern and a profound inability to answer my question. “I want you to know that you and your family are always welcome in our ward.”

But I wasn’t looking for permission to stay. I didn’t need that. Mormonism was my birthright. I’d rejected it and gotten it back and now my heart and my mind were a mess with it. Nobody could take Mormonism from me. I was looking for permission to go, and in the policy I finally had it, from the mouth of the Lord’s anointed.

Gone

A few days later, I went for an early morning run outside. It was warm for November. The sidewalks were wet with rain from the night before and the sun was coming up gold over Lake Michigan. I was glad nobody was up yet because every few blocks my face would crumple and I’d let out a horrific barking sob. My relationship with Mormonism had been an agonizing intellectual head game for so long it bizarre to hear my body finally emit the grief. I needed to get away from where people might be so I ran to Lake Michigan and followed the trail out to a little peninsula with a dock that looks south to the city. I dropped to my knees and traced the shoreline past all the neighborhoods I lived before, untethered from them all. A vee of geese knifed through the sky. It seemed late for them to be leaving, but when I looked it up later, I learned that the migrations are nothing to set your watch by. Canada Geese pass through Chicago most of the winter and, thanks to warmer winters and urban feeding, some never leave it all.

These days, I don’t know what to call myself. I don’t go to church anymore, but it’s different than before, when I was still a Mormon living in the land of should. Ex-Mormon is too harsh, Post-Mormon too smug. I still envy the people who know how to rip the Band-aid off. I could never be so rash. My relationship with Mormonism was a long, slow unpeeling. Mormonism wasn’t adhesive. It was epidermis and it pulled the follicles of my faith up and out one by one. Once I called Mormonism my whole heart, but that was wrong. Mormonism was skin. I can live without it, but I will be raw for years.

 

 

Take Me Home

You don’t grow up Christian in America without hearing a thing or twenty about the “straight and narrow” path. As a rebellious Mormon, I loathed this concept. I could imagine nothing more dreary and oppressive than a life spent following a road laid out by someone else, following orders, moving forever forward while looking longingly at the roads less travelled. 

As a perfectionist who never could manage to live up to that trait, I hated the concept equally but for a different reason. A narrow path offered too many opportunities to fall off. I’d never make it, so better to never bother stepping on, better to pretend I never wanted anything to do with your stupid straight road anyway. 

A few months after I stopped attending the Mormon church, I started hearing the phrase crop up in recovery meetings, usually from old timers describing how the path of sobriety narrows the longer they’re on it. This scared me. Had I stepped into a way of living that was going to end up feeling as oppressive as Mormonism?

Today, more than a year into this life, I found some clarity around this concept. The straight and narrow path isn’t the one laid down and blessed by the church. It’s the path that carries each of us forward. Once you’ve found purpose and direction, it becomes increasingly intolerable to live in a manner that is inconsistent with those things. Your mind and body and soul won’t tolerate straying for long. It’s too painful. When my mind wanders to relapse, my chest tightens. When I entertain the notion of going back to the old way of living for much longer than that, my cells start screaming apart. It’s not freedom; it’s chaos. The narrowing of the path is the price we pay for finding it. The cost of learning how to live is that you can’t stop doing it.

My road doesn’t pass through the same valleys as yours. Mine is a highway through the middle of the US. The road is mostly well-paved paved but it cuts a dusty path through the desert and winds through a few mountain towns.  

Our roads don’t take us through the same cities or countries or churches. Some roads don’t have a church on them at all. They are all long, though, and I suspect that our maps are all the same. Do unto others. Love your neighbor. Lose yourself. And I’ll be damned if we don’t all end up in the same place.

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.

Passing Time

When I started practicing law, I started measuring time in billable hours, broken down into six- and fifteen-minute intervals, depending on how the client wanted time reported. Marking time in this scale made my heart race, made me cut off my husband mid-sentence, made me power-walk to Sunday brunch.

When I became a mom, I started measuring time in weeks, switching over to months when the numbers got too big and non-parents had to start doing math just to figure out how old my daughter was. Compared to the down-to-the-minute accountability of legal practice, motherhood felt like strolling through an actual sunlit meadow. Time slowed and stretched and I lost hours looking at my baby, bouncing her on my knees, pushing the stroller for two unplanned hours in the afternoon and coming home with nothing to show for my time except for a bubble tea and a sleeping baby.

When I got sober, I started counting days. I hated days. Days made my skin crawl. They were too long to properly account for the suffering that occurred on a minute-by-minute basis in a single twenty-four hour period: the dozens of times I white-knuckled my way through a craving, the hundreds of minutes spent turning the critical question (Do I really need to do this?) over in my head, the hours of shame-wallowing as I forced myself to re-live the worst of the experiences alcohol gave me, examining each bottom in exacting detail in a Sysphean struggle to determine whether I had, in fact, sunk low enough. At the same time, days were too short for one passing to feel like progress, not when I kept starting over at Day One, not when I found myself questioning my decision at Day 90, and especially not when I had only double digits to show after trying to starve the beast for a decade. Counting days is torture. I’ve been doing it steadily for 180 of them.

180 days, or six months, doesn’t feel like much. It’s not even the longest stretch of sober time I’ve put together. A few years ago, I went nine months without touching a drop of alcohol, nine months that conveniently coincided with pregnancy. I felt so proud of myself, but also a little bit like I was cheating, so I planned on using the forced dry spell to jump start a new and better life. Then, a few days after my daughter was born, I read some enabling pseudoscience on the internet about using beer to stimulate milk production and decided that the new life could wait awhile longer.

I tried again after my daughter’s first birthday and I guess it sort of worked because I went nine more months without drinking. I don’t count that time, though, and don’t like to think about it either, because I spent most of it unraveling. I was dry as a bone and crazy as a loon and, worst of all, lonely. I still hadn’t told anyone how badly I wanted to quit, or how inexplicably hard I was finding it to be. By the end, I was losing hours in creepy online forums trying to figure out a way to relapse into a decade-old drug problem without blowing up my beautiful relationships with my husband and daughter or accidentally killing myself. (Apparently law school turned me into the kind of risk averse person who does “research” before getting high instead of just swallowing whatever I can get my hands on.)

So what’s different this time? It’s harder, for one thing. The days are heavy with forever. That goes against the old school “one day at a time” alcoholic logic, but one day at a time doesn’t work for me. It offers too many opportunities to question the decision, and I am a master of delayed gratification. Tell me I can get loaded tomorrow and eventually I will. So, forever it is.

If you know me in real life, it probably comes as a surprise to learn that not drinking is a choice I have to make every day. I don’t look like a person who used to have a drinking problem. To quote John Mulaney, “I don’t look like a person who used to do anything.” I have a good job and a loving family and a cute little townhouse. Oh, and I’m a Mormon, at least if you define the term loosely.

Growing up in a religion that preaches complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol simultaneously amplifies and obscures the warning signs that mark the path to addiction. I grew up oblivious to the distinction between normal and abnormal drinking. Spiritually speaking, sharing a bottle of wine with friends was on par with getting shit-faced by myself, and because I didn’t see a marked difference between the two, it didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t normal to prefer the latter. Drinking in any quantity was so transgressive that I also got in the habit of hiding my habit. First from my parents, which is not so unusual for a teenager, but later from my roommates, friends, and boyfriends. Because I was so used to lying to people, it didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t normal to carry a water bottle full of vodka in my purse on a first date.

Mormonism continued to complicate matters after I realized I needed to quit. Growing up Mormon, I learned that perfectionism is not just an attainable goal but the purpose of life. I thought that I could do anything if I prayed hard enough. Every time I found myself with a drink in my hand days, sometimes even hours, after waking up with yet another debilitating hangover and swearing the stuff off for good, I chalked it up to moral weakness and vowed to pray harder, be better. My faith blinded me to the reality of physical and psychological addiction. I believed so absolutely in an omnipotent God–or maybe in my  own omnipotent self–that it never occurred to me that another person might have something useful to offer.

Over the years, I dedicated a not insignificant amount of time trying to sniff out other people like me. I cozied up to new converts to the church and asked questions about their lives before Mormonism, desperate for a hint that they missed drinking, that they’d had a hard time kicking it, or, better, that they hadn’t given it up at all. I contorted the phrasing of the religious text underlying the ban on alcohol to suit my evolving preference for craft beers over hard liquor and to rationalize the blatant hypocrisy of showing up at church after spending the night at the bar. I searched endless iterations of the phrase “Mormon alcoholic” and “Mormon addict” and, later, “sober Mormon” and “Mormon in recovery,” in janky 1990s forums for Mormon apologists,  in subreddits for bitter ex-Mormons, in secret Facebook groups for the faithful Left. It is worth noting here the one thing I did not do is attend a meeting of the church’s addiction recovery program–i.e., the one thing guaranteed to put me in the same room as other Mormons who knew precisely what I was going through–because that was the one thing that would have required me to want to change.

When the time finally came that I did want to change, I knew religion wouldn’t work. I’d been approaching the problem from that angle for years and all I had to show for it was knees worn out from praying so hard and a big bag of shame I’d been dragging around for so long I couldn’t fathom the relief that would come from setting it down. 

Here are a few things that did work:

I asked for help of the non-divine variety. By which I mean I got my ass to a twelve step meeting. When I felt my heart break open, I kept going. When I felt annoyed by the dumb and crazy things people said, I kept going. I kept going until I felt grounded and even though I don’t go regularly anymore, I make an effort every time I feel the floor of my commitment shift beneath my feet. 

I started seeing a therapist.

I went back to things that I used to like more than drinking. I started running again. I started a new blog. I put new strings in my guitar and started re-learning the songs I used to play with my dad, CCR, BoDyl, a little Grateful Dead. I ran slow and wrote clunky blog posts and fumbled over strum patterns that I used to pound out in my sleep, but I kept going, even when the existential boredom of doing all those things sober made my skin hurt.  

I found new things that I liked more than drinking. I  signed up and trained for a Tough Mudder. I joined a post-Mormon storytelling group. I started researching emerging legal issues and publishing articles. I bought an adult coloring book.

I made a genuine effort to get eight hours of sleep a night as often as I realistically could.

I started drinking coffee after seven years off the sauce on account of the Mormon prohibition. A girl can only take so much denial.

I purged every aspect of Mormonism that felt like dead weight, tasted like poison, looked like hate, or somehow just didn’t smell right from my personal theology. Goodbye perfectionism. Good riddance, patriarchy. Farefuckingwell to the marriage doctrine that’s got all those nice Mormons wound up jealously guarding the institution, the culture, the right to live and love according to the dictates of one’s heart and conscience from the gays. 

Essentially, after years of conflating the two, of thinking the only force powerful enough to make me want to get and stay sober was the pull of the church I grew up in, I finally began the messy process of disentangling my sobriety from my religion. I needed my sobriety to stand on its own, rather than ebbing and flowing with the tides of my fickle faith. If I was going to have a spiritual life, it needed to be for reasons other than it was the thing keeping me sober.

Many of the last 180 days I have not been especially spiritual. Many of the last 180 days I have not been especially good. All of the last 180 days I have been sober, which means that all of the last 180 days I have been fully present and engaged in my life. Many of the last 180 days I have even been happy, so I’ll keep counting. 

Words of Wisdom

The hardest thing about being a Mormon with a drinking problem is that, for Mormons, any drinking is a problem. I think this is common knowledge, but since I am regularly surprised by people whose knowledge of Mormonism taps out at Joseph Smith and funny underwear, it bears spelling out that Mormons do not drink alcohol, full stop. No beer, no liquor, no wine. Even at our sacrament services we sip tap water out of tiny paper cups passed around on stainless steel trays by fidgety 13-year-old deacons in white shirts and ties. Growing up, my mom never even bought cooking wine, and though I know a handful of Mormons now who do, it’s borderline on edgy.

The prohibition derives from a few verses in the Doctrine of Covenants, a Mormon scriptural text, that are collectively called the Word of Wisdom

A Word of Wisdom, for the benefit of the council of high priests, assembled in Kirtland, and the church, and also the saints in Zion—

To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days—

Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.

Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation—

That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him.

* * *

And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.

And again, tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill.

* * *

18 And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones;

19 And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;

20 And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.

21 And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen.

According to Mormon belief, these words passed from God’s mouth to Joseph Smith’s ear, although you wouldn’t think it by how slow the early Mormons were to adopt the advice. In fact, that’s all it was in the beginning. It was explicitly not a commandment, but rather a bit of sound advice, with the promise of blessings attached to those who could follow it. That’s how you end up with weird bits of Mormon trivia like Brigham Young owning a distillery and the Mormon women publishing recipes for strawberry wine in their magazine.

Over the years, this take-it-or-leave-it appendage to the faith became a core component of Mormon practice. It is an effective boundary marker. Drink a beer as a teenager and you go from regular Mormon to Jack Mormon lickety-split. Drink a beer as an adult and you lose permission to worship in Mormon temples. To this day, I’ve never actually met anybody who drinks and still considers themselves Mormon in any meaningful regard.

I was a good Mormon kid. I was a good kid period. I got good grades and played nicely with others, I knew all the answers and followed the rules. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, I was drawn to chaos and oblivion like a moth to flame. One Thanksgiving when I was about ten I drank up about half a bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling cider and then spun myself around in twisty circles outside until the world kept spinning without me. I thought that if that’s what being drunk felt like then it was the best feeling in the world.

Some years later, when I was a teenager, I spent a weekend holed up in my parents’ bed watching movies and drinking codeine cough syrup for a nasty case of bronchitis and realized no, actually that was actually the best feeling in the world.

I revised my estimation again the first time I took Oxycontin, and spent the better part of my senior year of high school disappearing from my life.

By the time I went to college, getting trashed as often as possible was my number one priority. I thought this was normal. It seemed like everybody around me was doing the same thing. Actually, plenty of people seemed to be doing it more often. I was envious of kids who had easier access to booze and drugs, and I resented my parents for making me live in the special (read: boring) dormitory reserved for students at my university’s honors college. The stoner comedies that were were so popular among the freshman set reinforced my perception that binge drinking, blackouts, and drunken hookups were not only normal but the point of college.

Still, I had a sense that things were different for me. I noted how some of my girlfriends could stop after two or three drinks while I inevitably powered on until the booze was gone or I blacked out/got sick and someone took me home. I noted the look of disgust on a resident advisor’s face when he saw me cleaning up vomit that had splashed down the side of a friend’s car in the harsh light of day. Something scratched at the back of my brain when I couldn’t convince any of my roommates to skip class or a night of studying to get high with me. I took nights off, too, when instead of drinking or smoking, I would crush up sleeping pills or drink NyQuil from the bottle. I wasn’t stupid enough not to see something off in that, but I figured the only problem was that I was using embarrassing drugs.

I chalked my questionable relationship with substances up to being Mormon. I wasn’t “ex” so much as “on hiatus” and I needed to cram a lifetime worth of drinking and recreational drug use into a few years, before I went back to church. I was deeply embarrassed by my religion, but deep down I believed it, and I couldn’t shut up about it. “You don’t understaaaand,” I’d drawl at parties after a few too many. “This is different for me. I’m a Mormon.”

Over time, it became clear I needed to stop. It didn’t happen all at once. It was more like a mirror clearing after a hot shower, where every good thing that came into my life offered me a better picture of what life could be, and the morning after each new low was like a hand wiping the steam away, showing me exactly who I did not want to be.

The impetus to stop getting drunk and high came when I fell in love with a man who didn’t. I discovered that there were things I wanted to experience sober–staying up all night talking and drinking bad diner coffee, driving through the desert at sunset, and watching British television on the couch with our hands all over each other. New love is a superior drug.

Still, I kept fucking up with alcohol, and it put my shiny new relationship in jeopardy. I drank too much vodka and hooked up with an ex. I drank a bottle of rum and my best friend’s boyfriend’s best friend raped me. I drank long island iced teas on my 21st birthday and gut-punched my boyfriend when he tried to help me home after picking me up at the bar. I drove. I dropped one, two, three cell phones in the toilet and destroyed a laptop. I lied. I stole. I almost cheated. I relapsed twice on painkillers. I poured a glass of wine and drank a bottle, every time. I lost too many days with my head in the toilet, trying to keep food down while the room spun.

I was chewed up with guilt, but couldn’t quit. I cut back. I even cut way back. I had to if I wanted to keep my relationship. I became so scared of what happened when I drank that I stopped going to parties, stopped going to bars, and stopped keeping alcohol at home. The less I drank, the happier I got. At the same time, soon after I hit the legal age, alcohol started cropping up everywhere. Study groups. Professors’ houses. Work dinners. Vacations with my boyfriends’ family. With all that temptation, it was impossible to make sobriety stick.

Every time I caved, I hated myself a little more. I hated myself for being weak. I hated myself for reneging on my promises. I hated myself for forgetting all the reasons I kept swearing off drinking. I desperately wanted to be free of hangovers and shame, but I didn’t know how to kill the hunger that yawned inside me.

In hindsight, it is fairly obvious that I had a drinking problem, but I didn’t see it as something anybody could help me with. Like all addicts, I was convinced I was different, and in some ways I was, because as much as I wasn’t acting like one, I was still a Mormon.

Being a Mormon, I still didn’t comprehend that my drinking was abnormal. I thought that the world was divided between people who drank and people who didn’t and that all the people who did drink drank exactly like I did. This warped impression was partly due to being young and partly because I gravitated toward people who liked to drink as much as I did, but it was also because I grew up in a dry household without any examples of moderate or healthy drinking. To a Mormon kid, drinking is about the worst thing a person can do, so it made sense to me that it came with such horrific consequences. It never occurred to me that other people didn’t have a laundry list of messed up stories stemming from their alcohol consumption.

Being a Mormon, I was so terrified of being rejected by my family, and later my boyfriend, that I lied about my substance abuse incessantly. I started drinking alone and in secret when I was a teenager and that continued to be my MO for years. I was so adept at hiding my problem, especially as I got older, that nobody called me on it. Certainly nobody suggested I might need help.

Being a Mormon, I thought I was a step ahead, a step above, needing outside help. I knew about AA. I knew about rehab. I knew about addiction counselors, and, in fact, had seen one myself for a short time in high school. However, I thought that help was for people who didn’t know they needed to stop (an idea I may have gleaned from watching too many episodes of Intervention), and that wasn’t me. I already knew that drinking didn’t work for me. I’d known for years. As a Mormon, I should never have been drinking in the first place, and I should be able to give it up on my own.

Being a Mormon, I thought that I knew the path to recovery. Mormonism taught me that all problems can be solved by trying harder and being better. So I went back to church. I prayed constantly. It only sort of worked. Remembering I believed in God made me happier, but it wasn’t enough to keep me sober. I continued to drink, and to lie. I lied to myself, convincing myself that I wasn’t technically breaking any rules, because the Word of Wisdom was never intended to be an absolute prohibition on alcohol. I lied to my parents, so they won’t worry. I lied to my religious community, leading them to believe that I was just like them. Every Sunday, I felt like a fraud, an impostor  in my own church, but I was in a vicious catch-22:  if I could just be a good enough Mormon, then I wouldn’t want to drink anymore, but I would never be a good enough Mormon until I stopped drinking.

The worst part was that, being Mormon, I navigated this tortured relationship with alcohol, with myself, and with the church alone–without any pastoral care, without y family, and without support from my congregation–because I was too afraid to reveal my weaknesses in a religious environment that demands perfection.

While I finally did commit to sobriety, it wasn’t after I stopped going to church. I credit Mormonism for showing me where I needed to go, and for introducing me to the God who got me there, but ultimately I couldn’t do it until I stepped away from the omnipresent pressure to follow the rules, to fit in, and to be good. I needed to be free to ask for help of the non-divine variety. I needed to know the decision was mine. Today, I get the distinct ironic pleasure of introducing myself as a post-Mormon who follows the Word of Wisdom.

This will continue to be the case regardless of whether I ever go back to church because, although I haven’t been in a literally believing member for years, I finally see that the Word of Wisdom is divinely inspired. As one of the “weakest of all saints,” i.e.,  a person who cannot drink alcohol safely, I can see that that the prohibition on drinking is, in fact, adapted to my capacity. As somebody who needs a community of other sober people to stay that way myself, I can see the value, and the noble sacrifice, in an entire church abstaining from alcohol to create a safe haven for those who need it. As somebody who, in sobriety, has found health, wisdom, and “great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures,” I know that the Word of Wisdom is a principle with great promises attached. I run, and I am not weary. I walk, and I do not faint. I know that I will die eventually, but not from drugs or alcohol, and this was not always the case. I used to wonder why God made me a Mormon since in so many ways it was a terrible fit. These days, I’m just grateful that I was raised in a tradition that opened my eyes to a different, clearer way of living.

The Secret Lives Of Weird Mormon Kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trouble With Getting Sober Young

Did you catch that episode of This American Life about the girl who got sober at 14? As she tells it, she has memories of filching wine at 5 and pouring a big glass of tequila at 9 and becoming an AA poster child shortly after completing a month of rehab at 13. She traded in the shock value hitting rock bottom so early throughout adolescence and early adulthood. She sponsored teenagers like her and adults she thought were like her by the dozen and inspired many more. True to the big book, she accepted responsibility for her actions and her addiction, refusing to lay any blame at the feet of her cruel and neglectful parents or unstable childhood to a point that seems like downright willful denial (she was raised in a cult, for Chrissake!). I don’t remember how she figured it out, because I could see the plot twist from the earliest moments of the episode, but of course she is not an alcoholic. She has no memories of actually abusing alcohol, just sipping incongruously large servings at shockingly young ages. Her mom committed her to an institution for 30 days purportedly for behavioral issues, but really because she wouldn’t let her daughter get away with attempting to call her parental bluff. She did the hard work of unpacking her troubled childhood and her journey to “recovery” with the first people who made her feel safe, and understood, and capable, and discovered that she is absolutely, perfectly capable of drinking in moderation. She even taps out after two glasses of wine because she gets too sleepy.

The trouble with self-diagnosed addiction at a young age is that you can’t trust the label to stick. You don’t know what’s normal. You can’t trust the memory of your experiences. You don’t know how much irrational behavior was due to your underdeveloped teenage brain or to the misfiring neurons of a junkie. What if you are fully capable of drinking like a normal person and you don’t know it because you never tried?

These questions are compounded when you’re talking about a squeaky clean born and bred Mormon girl who took her first drink at 17. Is the first part of the story, the descent, the typical preacher’s daughter trope? In Mormonism, everyone is a preacher’s kid, and binge drinking squealing off the rails is the natural result of growing up in a dry household, sheltered, with no examples of healthy, moderate alcohol consumption. Does the second part of the story, the recovery, merely reflect the uniquely Mormon tendency to label every tempting vice an addiction in order to avoid having to make tough moral choices? Is the goal of total abstention informed more by religious beliefs than by psychological necessity?

This is the shaky foundation of my sobriety story. I’m putting pen to paper in an attempt to answer these questions and rid myself of the seedy, nagging will to self-destruct that started me down this path in the first place.