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 thix, 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 eveything 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.

Angels In The Woods

Earlier this summer I went camping in the woods in Northern Michigan with my husband, daughter, two friends of ours, and two friends of our friends. I like to think of myself as outdoorsy but the truth is it is more in theory than in practice. My hikes are more like toddler-friendly nature walks that clock in at 60 minutes or less and trips to botanic gardens in my neck of the woods are uniformly preceded by fancy brunch or sushi. The last time I went rustic camping was years and years ago, before I had my daughter, before I met my husband, and  I spent the entire trip dangerously drunk and stoned, stumbling around in the dark doing things I’d like to say I don’t remember because it’s been a decade but in reality never remembered at all. 

The summer–this one,  with my family, not the hellish one I spent breathing fire way back when–has been jammed with work and joy and I had been so looking forward to getting away for a few days that it didn’t occur to me that camping might be a trigger. And then, about an hour after we arrived at our site and set up camp, our friends rolled in and cracked beers before they even set up their tent. They are serious campers but also serious beer drinkers. I felt instantly left out and a craving kicked in. I knew that feeling would intensify when the other couple showed up and the vibe morphed from family trip to party trip.

After we finished pitching the tent, my husband gave me a tour of the “kitchen” he set up in the trunk of our car. He opened the big insulated bag filled with smaller airtight bags of snacks, fruit, and sandwiches. He showed me the plastic bag containing utinsils, spices, and paper towels. He gestured to the cooler stocked with drinks. He warned me to steer clear of the liter-sized metal water bottle tucked near the spare tire. The liquid inside looked like water but reeked of ethanol. He told me it was Everclear, for starting the fire in the camp stove. He joked about the last time we’d spent the night in a tent together, at a music festival in the California desert, when we’d dumped half of the water bottles in the flat we had picked up at Costco and re-filled them with vodka and spent the entire weekend spitting mouthfuls of the stuff into the dirt, after accidentally gulping from the wrong bottle desperate from relief from the sweltering heat. 

I laughed at the memory of our college stupidity,  but carefully filed away the knowledge that there was a bottle of high alcohol content booze that would be poorly accounted for in our very own campsite. In the last months of my drinking, secretly chugging liquor straight from the bottle or, if I was not at home, a water bottle, was my MO. Armed with the comfort of a familiar (albeit fucked up) routine, my brain started re-writing our plan for the weekend. We’d still spend hours looking for petoskey stones on the beach and reading Stephen King by the fire, but we’d do it all tipsy and hope nobody noticed. I pushed away scary thoughts about how Everclear is a guaranteed blackout. I ignored nauseous memories of my last hangover. I figured I’d start after I put my kid to sleep in the tent. 

We got the girl down as the sun was setting. And then, instead of hanging back at our site and drinking alone, in a moment of remarkable honesty and self-preservation, I told my husband that I was feeling shaky. He offered to drink fancy fizzy water with me and we carried a few cans to share around the campfire at our friends’ neighboring site. A few minutes later our friends’ friends, a couple, joined us. Right away, I noticed they were drinking Gatorade. They drank Gatorade the whole night. They laughed and told jokes and shared stories and were, by all accounts, cool as shit. I’d also noticed the two kayaks on top of their car and wondered if they were drinking Gatorade because they had to wake up early. 

Sitting around the picnic table over breakfast the next morning, I learned that both of them were in long-term recovery. They met in the program. They had fifteen years apiece. 

Over the course of the weekend, I learned that they are also kayakers and backpackers. They have tattoos and interesting haircuts and a hyper dog. They are funny and laid back and kind and generous. They were super nice to my daughter, making her pb&j and sneaking her gummy bears. 

Immediately upon learning that this couple was sober, my brain was able to scrap our plans to make the trip sad and lonely and drunk. This couple reminded me that I want to be one of the clear-headed ones, that I am lucky to be one of the clear-headed ones, that this is actually the better path. 

I am back to real life now, with a bag full of rocks (mostly ordinary-looking) that my kid found on the beach and just had to bring home, limbs full of bug bites, and a head full of memories. I am also actively planning my next escape to the woods again, instead of the bottom of a bottle.

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. 

Day 90: Evolution

In the beginning drinking was a gift. It was a superpower. I could change the world anytime I wanted. I could change myself to fit the world. I liked it so much I wanted to keep it all to myself.

Drinking became a secret. It was medicine. I could fix the world anytime I wanted. I thought I could fix myself, but drinking kept breaking me instead. My heart, my head. My cell phone.

Drinking was a wicked pet monkey living on my shoulder, a devil in my eye. It was a curse and I liked it because it made me different and special. Nobody had ever known this curse like I did.

I put the curse in my back pocket and kept it there like a promise. I would save drinking for later. I had a bunch of things I wanted to do first and I knew I couldn’t do them wet.

I did it all. I made a living. I made a family. I made myself. It was amazing until the novelty wore off. I remembered my superpower. I tried to bring it back, to make living like an adult less hard and boring and sad.

But drinking had changed. Drinking was a mutant freak, everything all at once. It was a gift and a secret and a curse and a promise. It was sticky sweet. It was sickening. It was a black hole.

I crawled out and through the muck looking back so hard my head almost fell off. Lot’s wife and then some. Drinking was a monster receding in the distance. Drinking was my ex-best friend. Drinking was a friend of a friend. Drinking was an interesting acquaintance I wish I’d known better. Drinking was a dumb bitch.

Drinking was not for me. It never was. I don’t understand how it works for other people, if it does actually work for other people, but it was never going to work for me. I don’t have the guts for it, or the nerves, or the solid sense of self. Something’s off inside.

But I was never going to go down in flames with it either. Drinking was not my lover. Drinking was not enough. Time and time again I moved toward love and light and life. I swallowed pills and then puked them back up, hoping I’d beaten them to the punch so that I could fall asleep next to my husband for real. I freed myself.

I was never going to hit a bottom low enough to make want to stop because that kind of drinking was not in my path. I am not afraid of jails, institutions, and death.

I was more afraid of never moving up. I was never going to climb a mountain high enough to make drinking okay. I was never going to climb a mountain. I was never going to move.

There are many paths, but for me the only one forward is not drinking. Head forward, no secrets, no medicine, no curse. Blessedly, the path is littered with good gifts, with teachers, and only the occasional wicked monkey. Mostly I walk, but there are times when I fly. Not drinking is my superpower.

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.

Day 81

Sometimes I feel like I’m as bad at recovery as I was at alcoholism. My drinking was at its worst in college for Crissake. Whose wasn’t? And even then, the worst part was not any of the ugly memories I conjure up when I want a taste of shame, but the slow leak of potential as my life deflated like a sad balloon. I don’t like to tell my drinking story because it is underwhelming: I drank myself sick and made bad choices and stopped until I forgot what a hangover felt like and then started again. Repeat ad nauseam.

My recovery story is underwhelming, too. There was no dramatic bottoming out. I knew it was going downhill, but I thought I had years ahead of me before I would have to give it up for good. There was no lightbulb moment. I already knew too much and had for too long. Perhaps the most disappointing part of my recovery is that I’m doing it without fanfare. I saw a therapist weekly at first, but I’ve graduated to monthly visits because I don’t have enough going on to fill our hour-long sessions. I exercise. I go to bed early. I go to church, sometimes. I pray, sometimes. God and I are just okay these days, after Mormonism. I write, when I have time. I call people never, though I do talk to my husband. I go to AA meetings, when I feel like I’m about to crawl out of my skin or open a bottle, which is less than once a week.

Which is how, at 81 days, I found myself at something like my sixth AA meeting. It was a well attended lunchtime meeting at the AA office downtown. The chair asked me to read and I said yes because why not. I wasn’t sure whether I had to read a certain part in the page, so I didn’t.. I guess I chose wrong, though, because after I finished, a man sitting next to me gently corrected me for skipping the part I’d wondered about. I hate shit like that. Insane perfectionism is why I drank in the first place. To feel better, I told myself that the only reason he pointed out my mistake was because he was one of those people whose life went so far off course that he needed extreme rigidity to stay sober. Not like me. I was barely a drunk, so I can play fast and loose with the program.

I don’t necessarily think I am wrong about that. I know enough sober people who don’t do AA to know that the only thing that matters is that I don’t drink. This man shared later that he did crack for over a decade. He said he needs to go to meetings every day because he drank and used like it was his full-time job. I don’t, because I didn’t.

I do think it was wrong to be so condescending, though. When the third person welcomed me to the meeting, it occurred to me that making a mistake that marked me as a newcomer could be a good thing. What do I get out of pretending like I’m further along this path than I am? Nothing. Actually, it probably hurts me. Trying to pass always does.

Later, as I was writing this down, it occurred to me that maybe the man who corrected me was just trying to be nice. Maybe he picked up on my obvious discomfort and decided to show me the ropes, to help me fit in. Or maybe he is an addict who likes to hear the sound of his own voice. Or maybe he is a human and he was trying to have a human connection, which is the reason I started going to meetings in the first place. Whatever the case, I can’t complain, because it would be ridiculous to expect that I can have other humans, with all of their kindness and humor and wisdom and charm, without also opening myself up to all of their messy awkwardness, their rudeness, their craziness, their thoughtlessness, and their guile. People are fucking weird, but sobriety is teaching me that’s what makes them fucking wonderful.

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.