In July 2021, I have a dream. I’m eight months into a relapse and it’s not going the way I wanted it to. I went back out because I wanted to feel part of, but the weed is making me feel depressed and disconnected, and I’m having trouble controlling the booze. I’d had close to five years of sobriety before, enough time to know that life for me is better without drugs and alcohol. I’m starting to miss how good it used to feel. I’m starting to want to go back. There’s one place I absolutely do not want to go, though, and that’s back to Alcoholics Anonymous. I may be flailing emotionally, but I’m not out of control. Things really aren’t that bad.
In the dream, I’m at a conference at a Marriott-like hotel. Somehow I know it has the impersonal feeling of a budget corporate hotel convention center, though I haven’t seen inside. I’m walking around the grounds, which instead of pools and golf courses feature an open air market. Most of the tables are lined with cheap convention schwag. Keychains, water bottles, and pens emblazoned with names and catchphrases that are simultaneously impossibly catchy and so interchangeable it is impossible to tell what services the vendor provides. McCaffey. McKesson. Blue Peak. Blue Wolf. Pinnacle. Navigant. Solutions for You. Outwit Complexity. Intelligence that Works. Knowledge, Experience, Trust.
I don’t want to be here. I’m under the impression that I’m here to enroll in a master’s program but that can’t be because I already have a master’s degree. Dream-me has a master’s, I mean. In waking life, I have an advanced degree, but it’s a JD not a master’s. I realize the distinction doesn’t matter in the dream or the real world.
In the dream, things are glitching. Something isn’t right. There’s a serious disconnect. I’m supposed to be working toward my second degree but I really don’t want to do that because I already did that. I took the classes. I passed the exams. I earned the grades. My career is underway. Just look around! I’m here at the conference! There are so many sessions to attend! So many vinyl stickers to scoop up and slip into nylon bags! Going back to school feels like it will be a tremendous waste of time.
Though, come to think of it, I don’t really want to attend the conference either. The sessions are starting, but they feel extraneous. I’m looking for an AA meeting. I know there’s one happening around here somewhere. They have them at conferences, you know. Just look for Friends of Bill on the agenda. I make my way to a stall set up at the end of the sidewalk. The vendors are hawking t-shirts. It looks like a merch table at a concert, or like a Hot Topic. The meeting is starting but they are making me buy a shirt first. Weird, but fine, whatever. Someone puts an Alice Cooper t-shirt in my hands. I know it doesn’t really matter, I just need to get a shirt and get through the door, but I’m irritated. This isn’t the shirt I want at all. Alice Cooper doesn’t reflect my personality or musical taste. I’m not going to put this on. I start digging through fabric piled up on the table and then flipping through hangers until I find one that says Sex Pistols. This. This is the shirt I’m going to go with. Now I’m ready to go to the meeting, finally. I wake up before I make it through the door.
I wake up with one thought on my mind, and immediately check my phone to see if I’m right. Alice Cooper has been sober for over three decades. Sid Vicious famously overdosed on heroin and died.
It’s early November, and I find myself with nothing to do on a surprisingly, stunningly perfect fall day. After a couple of weeks of gray days and temperatures dipping down into the forties, the sun is out and the air feels as warm as the leaves coloring the trees and crunching under feet. It is a golden afternoon, drenched in goodness. I already spent time outside sitting and sipping coffee and chatting with folks after church while kids ran around on the lawn, but it is too nice to go back inside. I decide to visit the Chicago Botanic Gardens. I haven’t been since last year when it opened back up in the middle of that first pandemic summer.
In July 2020, I was desperate to visit the Gardens–one of Chicago’s most beloved cultural attractions–to get out of the house and give my daughter something nice to do, yes, but also to remind myself that there was still something worthwhile to be found in large cities. On the whole, the trip was disappointing. It was a muggy Midwestern summer day, air so heavy we could hardly breathe through our cloth masks, and my chest tightened every time my daughter asked if she could pull hers down. The paths were crawling with people, making it impossible to maintain six feet of distance, and my anxiety spiked every time she strayed near another family. I was not worried about us getting sick, only about doing something wrong. Year 1 of COVID was a hard time to be a people-pleasing perfectionist because everybody seemed to want something different and the rules were never clear. The day was so at odds with what it means to be in nature that I didn’t go back to the Gardens for over a year.
I am optimistic that things will be different in fall 2021. The Gardens has dropped the mask mandate for the outdoor parts and no longer requires members to book appointments ahead of time. Also, the Gardens are no longer the only place to go. Museums and shops and sports and concerts are all back. Surely, Chicagoans will be doing other things. Surely the Gardens’ nearly 400 acres and six miles of shoreline will offer something in the way of respite, of space.
I’m antsy on the drive up. I pass a cannabis dispensary in the northern suburbs, a shiny building with elegantly curved architectural details that emits distinct wellness vibes, the antithesis of the seedy unfinished warehouse-like space where I bought my weed during the six months or so I dabbled last year. The alluring storefront makes me want to go inside and it is such a gorgeous day, I can’t help but want to get high. People think it’s the bad days that trigger relapse but in my experience it’s the good ones that will get you. I’ve played the tape forward enough times to know that when I’m really in the shit, a drink or a drug is not going to help. When things are bad, I can’t afford to make them worse. Good days are another story. It’s that top-of-the-world feeling that’s dangerous because that’s when I feel invincible. When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I doubled down on 12-step meetings. When he lost in 2020, I wanted to pop champagne. On perfect afternoons, all I want to do is get stoned.
On this day, I have a little more than 30 days clean, so I keep driving and don’t stop until I make it to the Gardens. The parking lot is jammed and so are the paths near the entrance. As usual, the crowds here blow my mind, in both size and constitution. People walk in packs. Every group seems to be at least three generations deep and speaking two languages. I stick headphones in my ears and try to focus on the plants. Happy families are my holy grail and my kryptonite. They remind me of everything I don’t have. To me, every couple walking hand-in-hand, every dad swinging a kid up on his back, looks intensely present and engaged in their lives. I wonder how many of them are sober. Most of them, if I had to guess. I wonder how they all manage it. I still want to get high. Later, I’ll mention this to my therapist and ask her how people get through their lives without wanting to change the way they feel. How do you know they don’t? she’ll volley back.
I’m not really afraid of COVID anymore, but I need to get away from all those happy-seeming people. I peel off from the crowd and find myself on an almost empty path that winds around the back edge of the Gardens. There is a chain of ponds to my left and the highway is to my right. Meadowlands unfurl up ahead. I pull the earbuds out. Ah. Quiet. For a minute anyway. My mind starts chattering right away. I can’t stop thinking about how much better this walk would be if I had something, anything, to enhance the experience. They sell wine in the cafe. Maybe I could knock back a couple of mini bottles and see the leaves through sauvignon blanc colored glasses. The wine is expensive, though, and the glasses are small. Maybe I’d better just hit up the liquor store on the way home.
I hate that I’m still thinking like this. It’s one of my greatest shames, being a sober person who still isn’t sure she wants to be sober. Everyone I know who got sober in a 12-step program swears the compulsion to drink just magically…lifts…like an elevator that only goes up. Everyone I know who got sober outside the rooms swears it’s easy because life really is that much better without booze. What is wrong with me that I still romanticize this thing that hurts me? I thought the problem was depression. I thought it was anxiety. I thought it was OCD. I thought it was bad habits I could unlearn. I thought it was addiction. I thought it was religious baggage. I thought it was childhood wounds. I put in the work, years of work, and my life is better for it but thinking about drinking is the thing I can’t let go.
In the back of the Gardens, I decide to dive headfirst into the thirst, into whatever the fuck is stopping me from being okay being with myself on this beautiful fucking day. I start muttering out loud to myself while I walk along staring at the ground. Ugh. Fine. Hi. Hello. Here I am. What do you want from me? What is this for? What am I supposed to take away from this? I’m here. I’m listening. I’m looking for answers. What I get is clear direction.
Look up. Keep moving.
I lift my head. The green meadow gave way to a dry grass prairie while my head was down and when I look up there’s a hill rising out of the earth in front of me. I want to race to the top but there’s no clear path so I stick to the trail I’m on. To the left I see a bridge that looks like it might lead back to the main part of the Gardens, but I’m not ready to go. The road I’m on looks like it will take me in a circle around the hill and I need to get a closer look. I can’t leave this hill alone. Eventually, an inclined trail curves out of the grass. It was impossible to see until I was on top of it. I climb to the top of the hill. Is this where I’ll find the answers I’m looking for? I drop to my knees and close my eyes as if to pray. I feel nothing, but hear the direction again as clear as day.
Open your eyes. Get up. Keep moving.
I bat my eyes open and take in the view. The acreage spills out around me, fields and forests and marshes and meadows and rocks and rivers and prairies and ponds and gardens and greenhouses all lined up in a row. I see a fuzzy caterpillar inching across the path. I examine it, take a video to show my daughter later. I see a family climbing up a trail I must have missed when I first laid eyes on the hill. They’ll be up here with me if I don’t get going. I pick my way down the hill like a mountain goat. The road up close is rockier than I thought. I end up in front of the bridge I saw before. I’m ready to cross. I end up following not far behind a mom and her young son. I try to lose them but the path takes us around in a little loop and I’m stuck moving at their slow pace. It’s a small island covered with the same prairie grasses I’ve been in for forty minutes. There’s nothing new for me here. I cross back over the bridge and get back on the path I was on before. I’m sure it will loop me back the main entrance. Instead it dumps me out in front of a chain link fence blocking off the staff entrance to the Gardens, a muddy bank, and a row of low office buildings. I’m lost. I heed the instruction I got before and turn around, get a move on. It takes me longer than I expect to find my way back.
By the time I’m back in my car, I don’t want to get high. What I’m thinking about is how drinking is like the little hill that I couldn’t help but climb, the bridge I needed to cross, the island that was smaller than I thought, the lonely path that dead-ended at an ugly, muddy fence. At every turn, the message for me was the same: keep moving. I could keep drinking and drugging, but I’m starting to see that I’ve exhausted my supply. It’s not the booze I’m missing, anyway. It’s the road not taken. I can’t tear my eyes away from all the little detours that might take me to the life I imagine other people are living. But getting stuck behind slow walkers on that that grassy little island in the Gardens reminded me that I’ve already been down that road, many times. Every time I drank over the last year, the last decade, it was variations on the same theme. A few minutes, maybe an hour, of flushed fun before it turned into too much or not enough. Keep moving. There’s nothing new for you here.
Every time I close my eyes and veer off road in pursuit of the fantasy that things will be different this time, I take my self out my real life. And the thing is, my life is good. I’m not trying to escape it so much as trying to live another one in parallel. But I’m starting to see that I can’t squeeze another life into the margins without shaving down the edges of the one I have. I can’t layer a new life on top without burying the one I’m living. I can’t move forward if I keep doubling back.
It’s true that sometimes this life feels too small for me, that I’m still suffering from the disease of more. I’m still working out whether this is a treatable affliction or just the human condition. In any case, I’m not going to find what I’m looking for retreading old ground.
It’s early November, and I find myself on a surprisingly, stunningly perfect fall day.
When I first started experimenting with sobriety in 2014, I didn’t know anybody in recovery. I’d heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, of course, but I knew it wasn’t for me. Did I have a problem with drinking? Sure. Okay, definitely, but I wasn’t an alcoholic. How could I be? I wasn’t even thirty years old, and my drinking hadn’t cost me anything yet. Okay, my self-esteem was non-existent and my sanity was unraveling, but I had a prestigious job and a house and a car and a husband and a baby. Still, my drinking made me uncomfortable enough that I was spending a lot of time online taking quizzes to figure out if I was addicted to alcohol, reading blogs and lurking in forums for people trying to quit booze, and trying to figure out if the concept of “recovery” even applied to someone like me.
My research turned into to rubbernecking when, in late 2014, an internet-famous mom-blogger relapsed after being sober for a number of years. Her downfall was public and dramatic, as she took to Twitter to broadcast her bottoming out in real time. If you’re anything like me, you know it goes without saying: I am a magnet for train wrecks. People who haven’t struggled with substance use and abuse are drawn to messy women because they make them feel better about themselves; I clock these women because I see myself in them. I was a chaos engine, too. This particular writer’s story hooked me because she relapsed on cough syrup, which, of course, was the first drug I ever took. She was after a different active ingredient (DXM, I think) than the one I chased, which was the codeine that slid down my throat and made long days teenager in the sprawling Phoenix suburbs languorous instead of stupefyingly boring, but it didn’t matter. Other people watching this woman–mostly in gossip forums dedicated to scrutinizing and tearing apart bloggers and other online influencers–were seriously concerned about her. Seeing other people take this woman’s relapse with an over-the-counter drug more commonly abused by teens seriously confirmed something I already knew about my NyQuil-swilling, pill-popping self: I was an addict too. I started reading this person’s writing obsessively, looking for more clues about myself, trying to figure out exactly what this sickness was, and how I might get better.
It was at this point that I stumbled on sobriety evangelist’s Holly Whitaker’s manifesto. Today, Whitaker’s digital footprint is significant: she is an author, the founder of an online recovery platform and website, and one of the leaders of a popular sobriety movement. Back then, all I knew was that she had a blog that caught me like one of the the sticky glue traps for the scorpions in my parents’ garage. Whitaker was the first person to tell me I didn’t need to cross some invisible threshold that would tell me that the clock had run out on my relationship with booze. Her writing was the first I found that challenged the notion that moderate drinking should be the goal, and sobriety the sad consolation prize. Sobriety, according to Whitaker, was a privilege and right, and the life I really wanted was just over the other side. Whitaker’s message was notably out of sync with twelve-step-based recovery modalities that dominated my Google search results. She rejected the idea that a person needs to hit rock bottom, that there are people who can drink normally and people who can’t, and that labels like alcoholic or addict have any meaning at all.
In late 2015, Whitaker started a private group on Facebook for women in recovery. I asked for permission to join and was immediately welcomed into a small but rapidly growing fold of women who, like me, were trying to change their lives. Many, if not most, of the group was very newly sober, as evidenced by scores of posts celebrating day, week, and month counts, dramatic “before” and “after” pictures, and and pleas for advice on everything from how to ride out cravings to how to deal with partners, family members, and friends who didn’t support our goal of sobriety.
In addition to swapping stories and milestones, these women loved to share articles about the evils of alcohol. Apparently, it’s not just bad for alcoholics, but for everyone. Apparently, it’s not just dangerous in massive quantities but, studies increasingly show, in any amount at all. Apparently, it wreaks havoc on the human body: cancer, heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, brain damage, digestive issues, anxiety, depression, the list goes on and on, especially for people with underlying conditions. And, most shocking of all, this information is apparently enough to make some people who have trouble moderating their drinking swear off alcohol for good.
I was not some people. Now, I’m a reasonable person and a reasonably educated person, but when it came to drinking, I didn’t give a shit about the facts. I liked poisoning myself. Self-destruction was the point. Chaos engine, remember? I worshiped at the altar of subversive and countercultural and cool, and I thought drinking to excess was a symbol of all that. There’s nothing rebellious about cutting back on drinking for your blood pressure or whatever.
Enter AA. AA gave me exactly what I needed to make sobriety stick, back in early 2016. AA told me that the problem wasn’t with the drink, the problem was with me, and I loved that. I was allergic to alcohol, in body and mind. I had a disease, one that was chronic and incurable and progressive and fatal. A lot of people can’t get past the part of AA that asks them to take on the label of alcoholic, but once I found my way into the rooms, I had zero problem with it. In fact, I derived a tremendous amount of satisfaction from being special. Admitting defeat and aligning myself with ex-junkies and drunks felt a million times more rebellious than carrying on, trying to be a normal woman drinking normal drinks in normal amounts out of totally normal glasses (no whiskey in a water bottle or rum in a mug over here!).
The main problem was I still desperately wanted to fit in. I wanted to drink cocktails with my mom friends and beer with my husband and wine at client dinners. I wanted what passed for a normal life: unwinding after work and blowing off steam on the weekends. I wanted to feel different and I was still convinced alcohol was the thing that would take me there. And so my will kept worming around in the muck of my mind, rooting up excuses and loopholes and reasons why I wasn’t that bad, why I was never really addicted, why recovery, even as I was living it, couldn’t really work for someone like me. When I went back out in 2020, I offered those reasons up like my kid coming at me with a fistful of worms. “This is what I’m doing, don’t bother asking because isn’t it obvious why? NO QUESTIONS, PLEASE.”
My husband, to his eternal credit, listened and nodded and never once asked me to go back to AA. He did buy me a book: “This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discovery Happiness, and Change Your Life” by Annie Grace. He’d just heard about it on a podcast and thought I’d be interested in the scientific case for quitting drinking. Little did he knew I already knew it well and had decided it wasn’t for me. Grace’s book came out in 2015 when I was dipping my toes in the waters of recovery. Whitaker promoted Grace’s work as nothing about of revolutionary and dozens of women who had once made up my de facto support group online swore by it. “Just read the book,” they said, “and you’ll never want to drink ethanol again. It’s the same stuff we use to power cars and lawn mowers!” Obviously I refused for the same reason I’d first refused to try AA: contempt prior to investigation, that serial killer of curiosity and growth.
In early 2021, I still had no interest in the book–I was still feeling out the shape of my new life– but I couldn’t not read it this time around. Not when it showed up on my Kindle with a sweet note from the love of my life. Not when reading it was the only thing he asked me to do besides “stop lying.”
I read the book like I read all non-fiction that’s not memoir: slowly, grudgingly, and wanting only for it to end. I also read it entirely without hope. I’ve been thinking about drinking for twenty years; there was no way this Annie person was going to teach me something I didn’t already know about alcohol.
I wasn’t wrong on that front. There was nothing in the book that blew my mind. We all know alcohol is, like, really bad for you, right? That it’s the deadliest drug and will eventually go the way of cigarettes? We know this. I knew this. But I gotta say, the facts hit different in 2021. Five years ago, I may not have been the kind of person who made major lifestyle decisions based on something as mundane as my health, but that was before we lived through a global pandemic. That was before I personally lived through a COVID scare and a self-harm scare and a cancer scare. That was before family members survived worse. That was before family of friends did not survive. That was before Lauren died. Now alcohol’s death march beats on in a register I can’t ignore.
I made myself a drink a few days after I finished the book and when I got the urge to pour another, I followed it to the cabinet, but this time I didn’t lay the blame on my faulty wiring. The problem may have been mine, but it was never me. Alcohol is an addictive substance. In demanding more, my brain was reacting exactly like it was supposed to.
When I picked up a drink in 2020, the biggest relief was giving up the narrative of terminal uniqueness that had been driving my every move for the last five years. So what if I still couldn’t seem to control or hold my booze? In those ghastly, unprecedented times, what could be more normal than that?
So what’s next and what now? What is the value in proving you can drink just like everybody else if drinking like that still makes you sick? What do you do about a problem that may not be you but is still very much yours? What does recovery look like when you take yourself out of the rooms? It seems I’m right back where I started, wondering whether the concept of recovery is available to someone like me. The difference this time is that I know the answers live inside the questions which are born inside of me. The answer is not in a blog or a book or a Facebook group or a church basement or a Zoom room.
Oh, and one more thing, because I’ll never be too evolved to throw an AA aphorism at a situation: recovery isn’t for people who need it, it’s for the people who want it.
I am still half-vaccinated. I thought I’d feel a measure of freedom after dose 1, but now that I’m so close, I find I can’t justify changing things up until I reach what the CDC has deemed full protection. Is it just me or is the wait between doses interminable?
My husband got his shot last week. We don’t have the type of marriage where I make appointments for him, but I made an exception for the vaccine. He just wasn’t anxious enough about it for my liking. He was content not only to wait his turn but for appointments to become plentiful. He was sure he would get one eventually. What I wouldn’t give for that kind of confidence and trust in the system. I wasn’t about to gamble our family’s summer plans waiting for an appointment to drop into his lap, though. I pestered him into making an account on Walgreens.com and signing in on my phone and commenced with hitting refresh until I scored him a dose last week. Johnson & Johnson. One and done.
In a few weeks, we’ll both be breathing easier. In the meantime, I’m swatting off a new threat, this one coming from down the hall of my own body. I went to the dermatologist to get a mole checked last week. I figured it was nothing–it was pretty and pink and round with smooth edges–but it sprung up practically overnight (before I got vaccinated, to be clear), and what’s the point of having a dermatologist I can’t email her about mysterious new lumps and bumps? She told me to come in and I scheduled an appointment for a few weeks out, after spring break.
I was excited about the appointment because I thought of it as crossing something annoying off my list. I thought the doctor would glance at my mole and send me on my way with a pat on the back for my hypervigilance after concluding that this thing, like all the other things I’ve worked myself up about over the years, was nothing to worry about. Instead, she peered at it closely through what I can only describe as a doctor’s version of a jeweler’s loop and told me she wanted to do a biopsy. “The risks are scarring, infection, and bleeding. There will definitely be a scar. We will tell you what to do if it gets infected. There might be bleeding. Do you have any bleeding disorders or any blood thinning medication?” My voice must have wavered when I gave my informed consent, because the doctor looked up at me and asked, “Is this what you expected to happen today?” “Um, no. Because it just looks like a normal mole? Even the internet told me not to worry.” The doctor didn’t crack a smile. “Well I’m not sure it is a mole. We need to confirm none of the cells are cancerous.” The shape of the mole was not the root of my surprise, though. I was shocked because my experiences with doctors have largely been limited to them telling me the thing I’m worried about is either all in my head or there’s nothing that can be done. There’s a reason I’ve been beating the drum of mental health for so long on this blog. I’m not accustomed to having my fears validated, much less scraped off my body and sent to the lab.
Hearing the word cancer out of a doctor’s mouth made all my invisible conditions–the dragons I’ve been keeping at bay my entire adult life–seem imaginary, like a joke. The first thing I wanted when I walked out of the dermatology office was a drink, but after a year of COVID and years of sobriety before that, I didn’t know where to go, so I went to the dispensary instead. Oh, and I should have led with this: it was a dark and rainy day.
I’m sure it’s nothing, and even if it’s not, I’m sure I’ll be fine. The biopsy is more likely than not to come back normal. If it doesn’t, they’ll go back in and cut out whatever’s bad. The challenge is living in the space where things might not be fine. We know from the last year that fine was never guaranteed. I spent the day after the biopsy reading about all the skin cancers. I texted the worst-seeming one, Merkel cell carcinoma, to my mom, because some of the pictures on the internet looked just like mole papule on my leg, and because I knew she would indulge my worry. When she didn’t text back for a few hours, I wondered what was up and checked my phone again. Oh shit. I hadn’t sent the texts to my mom, but to a long-time friend who happens to be a doctor. She wasn’t having it. “Merkel cell is so rare!! I’ve only seen it with old men. You don’t have it.” I called my sister, who has skin like mine, and pulled a bossy older sibling move. “Go get your skin checked. We’re supposed to be doing it once a year.” Probably she already knew, but maybe not. I didn’t. I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for COVID. After I got sick last year and freaked out because I didn’t know where to go, I found a primary care doctor who took one look at my pale, freckly skin and my family history of cancer and told me to get to a dermatologist. She was so serious about it she referred me to a competing practice group in town so I could get in sooner.
The biopsy results should be back before I’m due for my second dose of the vaccine, which means I’m languishing in a wait within a wait. The four weeks between shots feels longer than the entire preceding year and the four days it’s been since my biopsy feels even longer than that. You’d think I’d be better at waiting by now. You’d think I’d be a pro at passing time, but this particular stretch is stretching me.
The hardest part of coming clean about drinking after a period of extended sobriety is not admitting that you’ve relapsed; it’s telling people that you don’t think you did anything wrong. People expect a mea culpa, a begging on your knees, a criss-cross over the heart that you’ll never do it again. People expect a rehab, maybe a round of meetings if the drinking wasn’t that bad, more a lapse than a relapse, more a slip up than a slide down. They don’t want to hear what you really have to say, which is: I’m not going to do all that again.
There was a time when sobriety felt like a superpower. Waking up every day with a clear head? Bopping around with natural energy? Going out to dinner and spending drink money on apps for the table and dessert? Going out at night and coming back at the exact time I planned and never worrying about the drive home? Watching the days stack up on the counter on my phone and realizing I could, in fact, keep a promise to myself. Come on. It was glorious.
Eventually I acclimated to my powers, and sobriety became just became a fact of life, and that was pretty good, too. Going months without thinking of a drink? Sniffing out other sober people and feeling instantly connected? Showing my kid that alcohol is not a mandatory part of the adult experience? Getting promoted at work and paying my bills and saving for retirement and enrolling my kid in camps and lessons and doing volunteer work. Come on. Waking up day after day and doing the next right thing is its own kind of powerful.
It all the changed in the pandemic. Sobriety became another responsibility I owed the world and, like educating my child and staying productive at work, it was one I was one I had no choice but to shoulder, no matter how hard it got. Instead of freedom, sobriety became duty, a mantle woven with iron.
In recovery, I learned to think of sobriety as the keystone holding up every good thing in my life–my loving family, my great job, my warm house. The mindset is supposed to encourage gratitude, but for me it inculcated fear. I had to keep this sobriety going, at any cost, or I would lose it all. Another thing that happens in recovery is that everybody in your life celebrates when you don’t take a drink, and people who’ve never done it themselves tell you how strong and brave you are. It doesn’t feel strong and brave to exist without engaging in one particular type of self-destruction–it feels baseline, necessary–but the accolades feel amazing. The recognition had a bitter side, though, when sobriety started to feel less like a choice a made and more like a cell I built. When you believe that you earn love through not drinking, the entirety of your self-worth collapses into the units of time you stay dry. To drink is not only to betray yourself, but to let down everyone around you. It’s even worse than that if you subscribe to the twelve-step model of recovery: to drink is to gamble with your life because, as they say in AA, to drink is to die.
That’s a heavy load to carry in the best of times, and during the pandemic it was like walking around with an axe hanging over my head. And with a mind like mine, one that starts looking for an escape hatch whenever the pressure mounts and inevitably slants toward self-harm, that axe looked shiny, easy to wield. It looked like a way out.
1,672 days. That’s the amount of time I had. 4 years, 9 months, and 27 days, excluding November 26, 2020, because that’s the day I took a drink.
I expected to hate myself after breaking sobriety, but I gave myself permission to feel another way. I felt not an ounce of remorse. Of course, there were some feelings I couldn’t logic may way out of. I could not avoid the anxiety, which roared back to life after a long dormant period. For weeks, the beast took up every inch of breathing room inside my chest and all the thinking room inside my head, and it still comes back in the evenings whenever I so much as think about a bottle of wine.
I could not avoid the ensuing obsession with when the next time would be. I’d hoped it would be otherwise, that the nearly five years alcohol free would have cured me of what feels like an insatiable appetite for altering my reality, but the thirst came roaring back to life. That was disappointing. Years and years ago, before I ever set foot in a recovery room, before I even entertained the idea that an alcoholic might look like me, before I understood that substance use disorder is a progressive thing, the thing that I called my dysfunctional “off switch” was the reason I started questioning my drinking in the first place. When I flipped the switch back on a few months ago I felt immediately that it was still sticky.
I could not avoid the shame, at least not at first. I want to be clear. There was no shame in the drinking. Not under these circumstances. What could be more reasonable that returning to an old coping mechanism while living through a reign of chaos and terror in an economic and social system designed to break the human spirit? No. There was shame about the way I was going about it, though. All the secrecy, and the sneaking around. I had to come clean or the slip was going to spiral into something worse.
The problem with coming clean was that I didn’t actually want to get clean. Certainly, I didn’t want to tie my self worth to it. I just wanted to figure out my shit in the clear light of day.
After I admitted it out loud–that I wasn’t sober anymore, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be–another feeling stirred to life, and this one I liked: I felt human. Sobriety, it turns out, is a hell of a drug, and falling off the wagon was like stepping down off a pedestal and rejoining the rest of the messy world.
The hardest part of talking about drinking after a period of extended sobriety is figuring out how to tell the truth instead of what people want to hear. I’m not trying to convince myself I never had a problem or looking for rock bottom. I’m not counting days or trying to claw my way back to what I had before. I’m not justifying the life I lived before or the choices I’m making now. I’m just living, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, and, frankly, not minding not having it all figured out.
Lately, I’m haunted by the ghosts of all the experiences I am not having. That’s what the pandemic did: it robbed us all of the new experiences we would have had and replaced them with a bunch of experiences we never wanted. Of course, I worry about what the isolation means for my daughter first. Even when she seemed fine, the nightmares told me it was making a dent. When she started acting out in new and surprising ways, that made sense. Now she’s just listless. Bored, you know? One of my strengths as a parent is exposing my kid to all kinds of new experiences. Would-be bohemians become adventurous moms. Pre-pandemic, I rolled out of bed with big plans every weekend, took my kid on food tours of Chicago, and stopped at new-to-us playgrounds just because. When the pandemic shut us up indoors and then released us back into the wild as long as we stayed away from other people, I took it as a challenge. I pushed and stretched way outside the box to find of things to do and when my daughter and I flip through photos I took last year, I think, Damn. We made some magic.
But now I’m all out of steam, and it’s too cold anyway. The Adventure Express has ground to a halt. Mom is tired. In the old world, that would be okay. Even without me going out of my way, new experiences would be transmitted to by way of ordinary day-to-day living. My daughter would be feeling the sting of rejection and the sweetness of belonging at school. She’d be sipping cloying grape juice from the communion cup at church. She’d be inhaling the pyramid of fragrant soaps stacked up by the register at the grocery store. She’d be tasting chlorine and steaming or freezing under the wildly unpredictable showers showers at the YMCA. She’d be pressing the cool glass of the window against her cheek on long car rides. She’d know a different kind of boredom waiting in line at the post office and stumble onto the curative properties of people watching. She’s not getting any of that now. She’s not interacting with anyone besides her parents. She’s not seeing anything but the inside of our house. In a turn both welcome and sad, she very recently and suddenly outgrew or tired of the imagination games that colored her world (and mine) for the last year.
Just in time, she turned a corner with reading, and started disappearing into books. We went to the library a few Saturdays ago and she finished a small stack of “Princess in Black” and “Ivy and Bean” and “Billy and the Mini Monsters” by Tuesday. I was delighted–I hadn’t realized she enjoyed reading outside of school–but she was disappointed. “I wish I’d gotten more books. I didn’t think I’d finish them so quickly. And I know we can’t go back so soon.” We’ve only been to the library a handful of times since it reopened last year, a marked change from the trips we used to take every weekend of of her life. Regular trips didn’t seem worth the risk points when we could just stockpile books. “Hey kiddo. It’s okay. We can go back this week.”
The library is open late on Tuesdays, so that’s when we went, after a hasty dinner at home. Bundling up in heavy coats and piling into the car after dark was something we haven’t done for a year. It used to feel like such a hassle. Now it was something to look forward to and something to do in the long stretch between the end of the work day and bed. Driving through the neighborhood, looking at the colored lights at houses hanging on to winter and peeking into people’s windows–hey look, a cat! a happy family!–had something of the familiar to it. “Hey kiddo. Remember when we used to do this every week for swim lessons? It seems absurd to think that we left the house after dark so often.” My kid’s response was matter-of-fact, maybe a little defensive, maybe a little sad. “No it doesn’t.” “Don’t worry, kiddo. You’ll get to take swim lessons again.”
Taking advantage of the library’s late hours ws a stroke of pandemic genius. The people counter glowing on the wall said there were only 5 patrons in the building, out of a maximum capacity of 100. When we went on Saturday it was at 70. We had the run of the place and took our time. We sat on the floor and browsed. We looked at the recommendations from the librarians. We checked out the new titles. My kid grabbed as many chapter books as she was carry, and a few that I forced on her. I even sniffed out the occult shelves on the second floor and picked up a few books on tarot and witchcraft. Why? Because I’m starving for new experiences, goddamnit, and how else am I supposed to get my kicks? Because magic is the exertion of a person’s will to alter their reality, and couldn’t we all use a little more of that right now? Autonomy. Control. A change of fucking scenery.
For a year, I’ve been cataloguing all we lost in the pandemic. Collectively: people, dignity, livelihoods, homes. Personally: relationships, security, purpose, a plan. I’ve written ad nauseum about all the things we used to do and had to stop. It’s harder to keep tabs on the new experiences we might have had but never materialized.
We were supposed to go to North Carolina last year. What would I have seen on that road trip with my family that might have changed me? “You’re going to fall in love with Asheville,” a colleague told me. “You’re going to want to pack up and move.”
My daughter and I had just started a volunteer assignment at the soup kitchen last January. Our first time there, we set up the dining room, and then greeted the guests. We welcomed them as filed in in a line that stretched out the door of the church and then, after the meal, bid them good night with bagged lunches pressed into their hands. The experience was jarring for my daughter, who has never seen poverty or anything like it, and boring because we were there for a long time. What effect might a year service and small talk had on her?
We were supposed supposed to see Josh Ritter play at Fourth Presbyterian. The show scheduled for last March was kicked to September and then canceled indefinitely. It would have been our daughter’s first concert and our first show as a family. How might the music have moved all three of us?
My daughter is the only kid at church who hasn’t been baptized. I was waiting for her to turn eight because that’s how old I was when I was baptized into the Mormon church. My daughter turns eight next month. I can’t say for sure whether she would have taken that step in the church we go to now, but a year ago that’s what she wanted. Baptizing her into a congregation we haven’t seen since then, into a belief system I’ve since deconstructed, seems unfathomable, like crossing the red sea. How might her spiritual path have unfolded if we hadn’t been ripped away from our congregation? How might mine?
I was supposed to celebrate five years of sobriety in January. How many hours would I have spent in church basements listening to people tell stories about traveling to hell and back and finding God, and how might they have helped me along the way?
Last Sunday, I got in my car and cruised for a few hours down Clark Street into Chicago and back up Broadway til it turned into Sheridan. There were so many restaurants, open of course, masked patrons spilling and milling around out front. A friend recently texted about a brunch we ate eight years ago. I had been thinking about it, too. It had popped up as a “memory,” courtesy of my phone. It the best fucking brunch. Decadent. Indecent, even. How many meals might I have tasted that marked me so indelibly?
How many transcendent moments might I have had with strangers and with friends?
I’ve changed in quar, but the change has been a wearing down, a letting go. But erosion doesn’t always leave things smooth. This last year has also seen a crystalizing of every one of my sharp edges.
What would I look like if I’d been in the world mixing it up, knocking into everyone, tasting everything? What if I’d spent the last year filling up on new experiences instead of drying out trying to get by on the old?
Might my life look more like how it used to feel–like an expanding balloon, a gas giant, a star burning off hydrogen and throwing light and heat in every direction–and less like it feels now–like a collapsed lung?
In twelve-step recovery they say the only drink you need to remember is your last, and they say it’s not so much the drink you need to remember as the drunk. My last drunk before getting sober was January 29, 2016. Five years ago today was just another night. I’d just won a big case at work, the biggest case of my career, maybe my life–an asylum petition on behalf of a Cameroonian refugee. I’d just sent my husband out the door to see Josh Ritter at the Riviera by himself because I hadn’t had it in me to find a babysitter. I’d just put my kid to bed so I could get down to the business of drinking as much as I could before my husband got home and gave me side eyes. He knew I’d been worried about my drinking for a long time. I didn’t know the four beers high ABV beers I downed on an empty stomach would get me so drunk. I didn’t know I’d spend the night texting coworkers and tracking down exes on social media. I didn’t know the last bottle I cracked after midnight when my husband got home would be my last. I didn’t know I’d lose control of my limbs and knock the enamel camping mug my husband picked up at the merch table flying across the kitchen. I didn’t know I’d stumble in the bathroom and drop a glass in the sink. I didn’t know that the room would spin so fast, that I wouldn’t be able to sleep, not a wink, that I’d move from the bedroom to the couch so my husband wouldn’t find out. I didn’t know I’d spend the next day with my head in the toilet, rolling around in bed, hiding from my child, wanting to die. I didn’t know that after thirteen years of of wrestling this particular demon I’d wake up one day just *done*.
That was my last drunk before getting sober but it wasn’t my last drunk. I got drunk again on January 3, 2021, less than a month shy of what would have been my fifth anniversary in sobriety. What can I say? I was cooking Mexican food and I wanted to drink a Mexican beer but we didn’t have any, so I dug up a bottle of mezcal in the garage. It was like finding water in the desert and I drank like it was water, too. What can I say? I loved it. I’m not always a happy drunk, but I was that night, and I love that version of myself. I love sweeping around the house and laughing too loud and lavishing love on my family and not looking at the clock. I didn’t love keeping it a secret. I didn’t love when the alcohol wore off. I didn’t love waking up in the middle of the night, heart racing, mind reeling, thinking what the *fuck* did I just do. I didn’t love the shame spiral the next day. I wanted to get drunk again but I didn’t love thinking I had no choice in the matter.
In twelve-step recovery they say there are only two options: accept a spiritual solution and live or die an alcoholic death. They say to drink is to die but I’d I believed that I’d have no choice but to be drinking myself to death right now. I drank and I’m not dead. I drank and I feel free. Tomorrow is not my five-year anniversary, and I might have a beer to honor what didn’t come to pass, but tonight I’m going to bed sober and tomorrow morning I’ll wake up sane. That’s one thing that never did get old.
When I started this blog five years ago I was two days from my last drink and two months out of the Mormon church. Sober Mormon was less description than projection. I wanted to be a person who didn’t need alcohol to feel alive. I wanted to experience life outside what I perceived to be the confines Mormon church. I’d slipped out a side door with no intention of ever going back, but I still considered myself Mormon to my core. I’d heard other people describe themselves as Recovering Catholics/Evangelicals/Baptists, and I thought the application of terminology from the world of addiction to religion made a lot of sense. The last few years before I left, being a feminist in the church felt like being a junkie. Try as I might, and believe me, I tried, I couldn’t stop obsessing over everything I thought was wrong with the institution. I didn’t want to see sexism and racism and bigotry every time I opened the scriptures, everytime I went to church, but I once I saw it I couldn’t put it out of my mind. Fixing the church was a fixation and it was also how I got my fix. I never thought I would be able to leave and when I finally did, I thought I would spend the rest of my life deprogramming from beliefs I never thought to question, grieving the loss of a community I never thought I had, healing from the wound of losing my my worldview. That would be my punishment. That was what I deserved. Six months after I left I went to a yoga workshop for women in recovery. The teachers told us about Akhilandeshvari, a Hindu goddess who rides on the back of a crocodile and whose name means Never Not Broken. I understood that they were trying to convey the power of being broken to pieces and coming together again, but I changed the words around in my head. That’s me, I thought. Never not Mormon. By that logic and the transitive property, to be Mormon was to be broken. Mormonism was my original sin.
The biggest surprise when I left the church was how easy it was. I did so much pre-grieving there was nothing left to recover from when I got out. I’d stopped believing the most gripping doctrine–the One True Church thing–years before. My husband was not a member. My family did not threaten to cut me off. My livelihood was not tied to my membership. I didn’t even have any friends in my ward. Nothing was keeping me in the church except me. Life after Mormonism was just life, but better.
For some time, I tried to connect with other ex-Mormons, but I found little of my own experience in theirs and I imagine they saw not much of theirs in mine. That was the other big surprise about leaving. I realized I’d spent my life identifying with a church I’d barely been a member of. I wasn’t a real Mormon. I didn’t serve a mission. I didn’t receive my endowment. I didn’t wear the garment. I wasn’t sealed in the temple. I drank and cursed and fucked around. I loved coffee and tank tops and R-rated movies. No wonder the church hardly recognized me. I’d been stripping Mormonism off in layers since I was old enough to choose my own clothes.
The other thing I couldn’t stand about the ex-Mormon communities, at least the online ones dominated by ex-Mormon men, was how all they wanted to talk about was the church the church the church. They proselytized against the church with the zeal of a nineteen-year-old in the mission field. The railed against the saints with the vigor of a convert bearing testimony. I’d burned off all my anger sitting in the pews on Sunday and scribbling on the internet at night. Now that I was free, that shit was boring. This was supposed to be a blog about leaving Mormonism, but by the time I left I had nothing left to say.
This was also supposed to be a blog about getting sober. I’d sworn off alcohol because I was tired of thinking about drinking. I’d been doing battle with a beverage for thirteen years. I was waiting for things to get bad enough that someone other than me would step in and revoke my drinking privileges, but on January 30, 2016 I woke up thirty years old and nursing the same hangover I had at seventeen and realized that even if it never got worse, I didn’t want to spend the next decade doing the exact same thing.
I had a lot to say about getting sober, and about doing it as a former Mormon. Having religion will go a long way to support a recovery program that is fundamentally religious in nature, like mine was, but it will fuck it up, too, because you wonder if you would have had a problem without the religion and when you leave the religion you wonder if maybe your problem is gone too. That was the question I asked in my very first post in this blog.
I spent most of the last five years sober but I sure as hell didn’t stop thinking about drinking. Was I doing sobriety wrong or was my belief that I could control my thoughts as misguided as my belief that I could control my drinking?
When I started posting Quarantine Diaries nine months ago, I wondered “how many more identities I will take on and shed before this thing is over? How much of what I claim to be today will fall by the wayside as my life is stripped to the bare essentials?”
Anyway, I drank. Relapse played out exactly as I figured it would and is probably not at all like you’re imagining it to be. Am I sober? I guess so, but it’s more complicated than it used to be. I’m sober today, but not drinking 24 hours at a time is not an identity you can package up and sell (though I know quite a few people who have done just that). For what it’s worth, I am okay. Better than I was before. For the sake of the art, I don’t want to have to say even that, but I’m offering it out of respect for the people in my life who might worry, the ones who’ve heard me talk for the last five years about being in recovery from a deadly disease. I am tired of talking about drinking, though. I don’t want to be doing this five years from now. I realizing that it will take as long as it takes to get through, that this might be my thing for the rest of my life, but this shit is getting boring. I have almost nothing left to say, unless it’s to someone like me (you know who you are).
Sober Mormon is retired, but I’m still here putting words into the world.
Four fat tan doves sitting in a tree. Four gnarly coyotes prowling down the street. Husky robins churning up the dirt right in front of our door. A muted cardinal practically ringing the bell. October rabbits running underfoot. Daytime raccoons trashing it up. Dozens of unleashed dogs and not one wagging finger. This is the rewilding.
I wore lingerie for date night for the first time in I don’t know and as I rifled through the drawer I dangled a bra between two fingers like, “What is this? What is it good for? How long am I going to let it stick around?” I was loathe to peel off the layers now that it’s getting cold, sweatshirt, t-shirt, leggings, all thick cotton, armor against the elements and acceptance of the life I now live. After kid bedtime and before adult dinner I considered a swipe of lipstick, some drama around my eyes, but then I’d have to wash my face against and I already did that in the morning. This is the rewilding.
My daughter is playing with the neighbor girls and their dad is watching over. I’m just back from a run with dinner to make and my kid is the only one without a mask. I make the right noises, put a mask in her hands, and disappear in side my house without so much as a wave at anyone outside my family. Other neighbors stop to talk about the weather. It was so nice until it wasn’t. Their dog, one of the difficult ones, reactive toward animals and children, lunges on his leash and I bolt like an October rabbit. This is the rewilding.
My mom asks if I’m coming to Arizona. No. A lady from church isn’t so sure about Black Lives Matter. No. A lady I don’t know tells me to call her after this meeting is over. No. Another lady offers to be my sponsor. No. A woman I know well offers to take me to a good meeting. No. A friend invites me to come back to Sunday School. No. Another mom asks I have the link to children’s chapel. No. The pastor asks me to join a small group. No. The school asks me to join the PTA. No. The PTA asks me to chalk the walk. No. The district asks me if I feel well-informed. No. My doctor asks me to start a course of physical therapy. No. A friend asks if I’m coming back to running club. No. Three people text in an hour to ask me to phone bank for Biden. No.
I’m still mostly civil. I got my flu shot. I smile behind my mask, force my mouth and cheeks up so it shows in my eyes. I try where it matters–at home, at work–but even there I’m saying yes less and less. My daughter asks if we can go to family swim at the Y. No. My daughter asks if we are going apple picking. No. My daughter asks me to get out of bed before my alarm to look for a missing toy. No. My husband asks me to put nuts in the brownies. No. Are you okay? No.
Last week I drew the strength card reversed. The lion was on top and the woman, brawny and beautiful, hung upside down, hands reaching up. The card said, Maybe you can do this alone, tap that well til it runs dry, but nobody ever said you had to. I put my hand up because, um, excuse me, yeah they did.
I didn’t ask to isolate and I don’t like it, which is only hard to believe because it comes so easily to me. The world asked this of me. In my scrupulosity I said yes and because I said yes I started saying no. This is not the rewilding. This is the disappearing of the lonely from public life, from any semblance of a life at all.
It took over a decade for me to fall out of love with my church. I’m an ex-Mormon and my exit narrative is not one of escape. The church was where I was from and where I was going, my home and my promised land, my mother and my father, my sibling and my cherished friend, my first language and the only one I wanted to learn. For ten years I moved from ward to ward and my religious beliefs morphed with me. I was young and impossibly idealistic. I wanted to be an intellectual, a radical, a revolutionary, and I wanted the bohemian lifestyle that came with, and I wanted it all as a Mormon girl. Mormonism was such a part of me, and I was so wrapped up in the fold, that I saw no conflict, though I had to be careful with my beliefs, shape them just right so that they I could fit them neatly in the body of the church and hold them close to my body at the same time. Remake something malleable enough times eventually it becomes formless. That’s what happened to my beliefs. I prayed and read my scriptures and paid my tithing and sat in the pews and took the Sacrament and taught Sunday School and did my visiting teaching and made an honest effort to try to live the life of an active member of the church, but I dared not let another Latter-Day Saint peek into my head for fear they wouldn’t recognize what they saw: universalism, skepticism, a great big formless god.
When I decided to leave the church it was all at once. On November 5, 2015, a few short months after the Supreme Court of the United States recognized marriage as a fundamental right belonging to all God’s children, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints declared same-sex marriage to be apostasy–so anathema to the teachings of the church as to be tantamount to a total renunciation of the religion. The church barred the children of married gay parents from baptism absent special permission from the church president in Salt Lake City and denouncement by the child of her parents’ marriage. I went to church on November 8, 2015 to register with my bishop my disagreement with the policy and walked out never to set foot in the building again.
The November Policy has since been walked back, but I haven’t.
I clung to the trappings of Mormonism in the days and weeks after I left. I read the Book of Mormon and saw myself in the prophet Moroni, the last of his kind who foretold and witnessed the destruction of his people, who wrote their stories and carried them with him to the bitter end. In my grief in the wake of the November Policy, I cried out to God and felt peace in my heart. I prayed for direction and felt the spirit telling me to go. That surprised me. I didn’t expect to hear God outside Mormonism’s brick walls.
I followed this revelation into other churches. I worshipped with the Unitarian Universalists. I liked their spare sanctuary, their earnest intentions, their white take on world music, and their mind-bending sermons, but they didn’t like me, a messy woman with a wiggly toddler, both of us crying in the back row. A woman told me to take my daughter out, because she was distracting, so I did and never went back. I wondered if leaving churches would become my new thing.
I found my way into a United Methodist Church. I trusted the rainbow flag out front and was heartened to see activity bags for children hanging on a coat rack outside the chapel but I was wary of putting my family and my heart on the line again. I kept my emotional distance but brought my body and my daughter’s back week after week month after month until the years piled up and I knew we were safe.
I spent thousands of hours in church basements fortifying myself against the demons that had been threatening to wrest me away from love since I was a teen.
Mormonism became just another place I used to live, an interesting story to tell. I trotted it out at second step meetings. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. “You think you’ve got religious baggage because you grew up an alcoholic Catholic family on Chicago’s west side? Let me tell you about a story that starts in Utah.” I dusted if off when the United Methodists faced their own moral reckoning, threatened to split down the middle over gay marriage. “You think your religion has it out for gay people? Let me tell you a story about Proposition 8.” or “You think it’s hard to feel betrayed by your religion? You’re right. It’s the hardest thing there is.”
By the time I told my stories they’d been drained of all their emotional weight, but I still identified as a Mormon. People asked why I didn’t leave the church for real, pull my name from the records in Salt Lake. I didn’t see any reason to leave. The church stopped hurting me the moment I stopped offering myself up to it. The grief and rage died when I left and my world kept turning. You need love to keep a fire burning. In the after I felt nothing for the church but relief that I was no longer part of it.
I am nothing if not thorough, though, so when I worked the fourth step I dredged up all my old resentments against the church and wrote them down. Prop 8. The November Policy. A lifetime and an eternity of subservience to men. By twelve step logic, my list of fourth step list of resentments I nurtured automatically populated a separate eighth step list of people I’d harmed. I needed to make amends. As I worked to clean up my side of the street, I had to admit I had not been a perfect Mormon. I judged the church for judging me. I picked fights about everything from politics to policy, culture to theology. I insisted I knew better and blew up when people disagreed. I refused to see the forest–shelter and sustenance for millions of people–for the copse of diseased trees poisoning me. I saw that there were other reasons not to leave. The church gave me my family, and my membership meant something to my parents. I might have been a lost sheep but I was still part of the fold. I might be destined for outer darkness but there was a chance we’d be together in heaven. Besides, what could it possibly cost me to keep my name on the rolls of an exclusive heaven I no longer believed in?
A little over two years after I started worshiping with the United Methodists, I decided to finally, formally join the congregation. Early on I’d been nervous about commiting to a new church, but I’d been attending long enough for the church to feel like a safe second home. I was already raising my daughter there. When I realized I was already living out the membership vows–upholding my local congregation with my daily prayers, my weekly presence at services, my gifts of dollars and time, my service to the children’s program, and my witness of God somehow at work in this church, too–I figured I had nothing to lose. It was well past time for me to start checking “member” instead of “visitor” on the sheet inside the welcome folder at the end of each pew. I emailed Mary, the membership coordinator and the first person who’d ever greeted me at church, excited to make it official. Mary’s response was tactful but the message was not. Due to differences in beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation, the United Methodist Church does not recognize Mormon baptisms. To join the congregation, I would need to be re-baptized first. To avoid the apparently dire consequences of double counting, UMC strongly urged me to initiate my formal removal from LDS membership rolls.
I couldn’t believe it! I thought my baptism was good. I’d gone all the way under, like Jesus, at eight years old. The idea of denouncing my Mormon baptism, I was surprised to discover, crushed me. The sensation of finding myself severed from the body of Christ a second time was akin to shock from blood loss. I was pissed, too. The hypocrisy coming from a church that serves communion at an open table–one where all are welcome without regard to age, race or ethnicity, gender identification or sex orientation, without regard even to membership in the United Methodist Church–made me want to scream.
My sorrow and anger told me I’d fallen in love with this new church. “I need some time,” I told Mary, “to think and pray over how I want to proceed. Of course I will still be attending services. I look forward to deepening my involvement with the church and community in whatever form that takes.” Unlike Mormonism, official membership in the United Methodist Church didn’t seem to come with any special privileges, so I decided to stay and act as if I were a member. I wore a nametag, served on committees, showed up early for Sunday School and stayed late for fellowship, volunteered to teach the kids, washed coffee mugs, tithed a portion of my income, put my daughter in the children’s choir and the Christmas Pageant, and went to all the services, even the unpopular weekday ones during Lent. I became a regular church lady and my heart only broke fourteen times a year: on the semi-annual new member Sundays and the first Sunday of every month when the pastor led communion with her open table spiel. People asked why I didn’t join the church for real, put my name on the records as a member. I explained that I couldn’t without cancelling my Mormon baptism, they understood and agreed. Besides, I lied. I don’t see any reason to join.
That I didn’t leave either church is a testament to my twelve-step work. Sobriety taught me to show up for my life and to take responsibility for it too. Inside the church basements I discovered other character defects–festering insecurity, deep-seated fear, and a mean perfectionistic that made parenting terrifically difficult–and worked tirelessly to address them. There was no problem in my life that I couldn’t resolve by taking a long hard look at myself and fixing up what I saw.
I clung to this maxim until January 2020, when a particularly sustained and severe winter depressive episode, when I was scratching tiny frowny faces into the calendar at the front of my planner more days than not, made me admit that I needed to call in reinforcements. I called the number on the back of my insurance card and a week later perched carefully on the edge of my new therapist’s couch. Not sure where to start, I offered that I was sad, deeply, unspeakably, unshakably sad. Not all the time, I told her, but much of the time it felt like I was living in a dark room. My new therapist thumbed around the bruise, trying to find where it hurt the most. I confessed that I was tired of fighting with my husband about our roles, about my job and everything he does at home. I was tired of snapping and screaming in front of my daughter and hating myself after. I was afraid I’d done irreparable damage with our explosive fights with my ruinous temper. I’d ruined so much already. Haltingly, I told her I thought my family was better off without me. Before I left, she told me about suicidal ideation.
In that first session, we honed in on my family relationships, my greatest gift and biggest priority, as a trigger point for all my pain. The problem was with my expectations of my marriage and myself as a mother. They were too high, and when I fell short I went down hard and fast. I mentioned the church only briefly, by way of background. “I left the Mormon church four years ago. They have a few ideas about marriage and family. That might be where some of this is coming from.”
In later sessions, I told my therapist about the church’s teachings about the “ideal” family. My therapist visibly reacted to that word, with a sharp inhale and a straightening up in her chair, but she regained her professional composure quickly and I went on. The ideal family is made up of a husband and wife who have been married in an LDS temple and their children, born and raised in wedlock. In an ideal family, the husband presides over the family and provides for them, while the wife nurtures their children. Not all Latter-Day Saint families are ideal, but they should all strive to be.
My family is not ideal. My husband is not Mormon. I’m not anymore, either, but he never was. We did not marry in the temple. I work and he stays at home. We only have one daughter. We tried to have more but it didn’t happen and we decided not to pursue fertility treatments.
I told my therapist I didn’t believe those teachings anymore, but that I was still convinced my marriage was doomed to end in divorce and that my daughter had no chance at a good life. I was still convinced that families with more than one child were happier than mine. I was convinced that every family was happier than mine.
We talked about the same things week after week after week. Our sessions moved to the phone and then to video when the pandemic hit and I was grateful I’d found a therapist before the world shut down. I was especially grateful for the timing because the pandemic put my most tender hurts on display. On my endless walks around the block I saw so many happy families, so many kids playing together in front yards, so many couples riding bikes together, so many driveways chalked with rainbows and hearts. In our house, all I saw was a tangle of mental health issues, a husband and a wife getting on each others’ last nerves trying to share the same small space all day, and a sad, lonely, and scared little girl. Intellectually, I knew other families were struggling too, that other kids had nightmares, that other moms felt like they were failing, but I couldn’t feel my way out of the lie that mine had it worse, and it was all my fault. On my walks, I started averting my eyes from the happiest looking houses and crossing the street to avoid other families even when it wasn’t strictly necessary to maintain social distance. I pretended not to see my neighbors who were stay-at-home moms. I was walking in the light of day but living in a shadow, hiding in plain sight.
It was on a weekday walk in mid-May, when the sun was starting to shine with a little more warmth and the dogwoods were out in full bloom, that my mind turned off in a darker direction. I was sunk deep in an audiobook and the narrator introduced a new character as a writer, a therapist, and a mom. My ears perked up, as they always do when I hear about working moms who are described in ways that make them sound happy, rather than harried, and I thought “Hey, I’m a mom and a writer! I wonder what she writes about?” Immediately, my brain turned on me, attacking the comparison. “She’s probably a real mom. Not like you.”
What in the world? I’d had some practicing fact-checking the voices in my head from therapy and this particular thought was so blatantly untrue stacked up against the physical evidence of my parenthood–the scar on my pelvis, my daughter watching Puppy Dog Pals at home, the thousands of insurance dollars going to therapy so I could figure out how to be a better mom–that I tested it. What distinction between me and this unknown woman could I possibly have seized upon to feed the idea that I was not, in fact, a mom? My mind supplied the answer in seconds. “She probably has more than one kid. She probably works part time. She’s probably home with her kids right now and you’re out wandering around the neighborhood talking to yourself.” Well then. I had me there. I gave up the fight and walked home, head hung impossibly low.
Back at home, I climbed onto the couch with my daughter and curled up behind her. I held her as the clock ticked past nine, nine-fifteen, nine-thirty. I was supposed to go downstairs and start working, but I stayed by her side until my husband came down from his own appointment ready to start another day of at-home school. Downstairs in my makeshift office I prepared to start by workday, but there was one thing I needed to do first. I pulled out a notebook and made a list of the lessons from Mormonism I thought I’d left behind. Having a family is the most important thing a person can do. God wants parents to have as many children as they can. Raising children is the most important thing a woman can do. Big families are more righteous. Small families are selfish. Women who work are selfish. Fathers who don’t work are lazy. Children whose mothers’ work will suffer.
This is the soil that grew me up, the dirt in which I laid the seeds for my own family. I might have stopped paying tithing but my church membership was not free.
I registered for an account at quitmormon.com that day and filled in the forms to have my names removed from the records of the church. I was dismayed when I realized that the process wasn’t automatic. I got the completed forms back in my email inbox. I’d have to print them, get them notarized, and mail them off to church headquarters in Salt Lake City myself. I looked up the closest notary public. Illinois was still shut down except for essential business, but the UPS store downtown was open. I weighed the risks of possible exposure to the novel against continued exposure to the virus that had already made me sick. I hadn’t been inside a building other than my own home in two months. There had to be a better way. I looked at the forms again and noticed that they’d been prepared for a law firm. I’m a lawyer, too. It occurred to me that I shouldn’t need a lawyer to leave my church. I dug up an email address for the bishop of my old ward and shot him off a note. “I’m writing to tell you that I’d like to end my membership in the church and have my name removed from the church’s records. Please let me know what I need to do to facilitate this process.”
I fell out of love with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on November 4, 2015. On May 20, 2020 I decided to leave. I had my bishop on the phone within a day and a week later I had in my hand a letter dated May 22, 2020. “Per your request, your membership resignation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been accepted and processed. Should you desire to become a member of the Church in the future, the local bishop or branch president in your area will be happy to help you.”
I didn’t have to leave my house to leave the church but I would have if the bishop hadn’t helped me out. If I wanted a chance at sticking around to love the family I made, I needed to start hacking at the roots of the weed threatening to choke off our tree.
A few weeks after I left, I saw on Facebook that the pastor of the United Methodist Church had performed her first pandemic baptism with a garden hose in someone’s front yard. It occurred to me that I was finally eligible to join the congregation I’d been part of for the past four years. I thought about sending off another email, but decided to keep scrolling. Now that I know what essential looks like I know that joining another church is not. I think I’ll just shelter in place.