1 ginger beer, 1 glass cyanide-looking tarragon flavored Russian soda pop, 1 glass vanilla orange Russian soda pop, 2 glasses liquid raspberry kompot, 1 shot bitters, 3 cups hot black tea, 1 non-alcoholic beer (to wash down the salted fish). No water. Not one sip of the beer, wine, champagne, vodka or cocktails that flowed for six hours straight.
2018 was an exercise in restraint. Here is a short list of things I wanted to do and seriously considered doing at various points over the course of the year:
Quit my job
Start fertility treatments
Adopt a pet
Get a tattoo
Run a fourth marathon
Run an ultramarathon
Move to Arizona
Move to Denver
Move to Michigan
Move back to the city
Ingest technically legal but definitely questionable addictive substances
Pull my daughter from her class at the neighborhood elementary school and enroll her in private school
Officially resign from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints by having my name removed from the records of the church
Officially join the Methodist Church I’ve been attending for over two years
Quit going to AA after over two years of sobriety
I did not do any of these things despite, at times, wanting to very badly.
Because the things I want are not always good for me. The fact that I, in the moment, see no correlation between wanting to quit AA and wanting to get drunk, smoke weed, and buy kratom is clear evidence that I can’t trust my first instincts or my subsequent rationalizations.
I recognize that some of the things on that list are not like the others. Wanting another baby is not like wanting to get high. Wanting the best education for my daughter is not like wanting to quit my job. Even so, they all belong on the same list of things I wanted to but did not do because in every instance, they were external things that I hoped would change me. They were escape hatches from my life.
This is why I can’t have nice things.
One of these days, I may very well move or join a new church or even get a pet, but not until I’m sure I want those things for their own sake and not because I’m looking for a fix.
I never could wrap my head around people who loved being pregnant because that’s when they felt their healthiest. Pregnancy made me feel like shit. Besides the nausea that felt exactly like an endless hangover, I spent most of the first trimester wanting to crawl out of my own skin. I tried to commiserate with others who had been pregnant—“You know that feeling where you desperately need to change the way you feel with a drink or a pill but you just CAN’T? THAT’S the worst part of pregnancy!”—and they just stared back. Years later I would come to recognize that sensation as a symptom of untreated alcoholism, not pregnancy.
Even though I felt like garbage, I treated my pregnant body better than I ever had before. I took special prenatal supplements with some kind of oil for the baby’s brain, I ate piles of fruits and veg, I exercised to the very end, eliciting stares and comments at the gym. I slept, no small miracle for a former insomniac (thanks, drugs) and long-standing night owl. I did take a bunch of Category C medications and drink daily caffeine and eat sushi and deli meat and junk food because I’m no saint, but you guys, I didn’t drink! There was a lot of talk in my circles at that time about how a half a glass of wine on special occasions was *just fine* in the second and third trimesters, but I knew that I could not trust myself with half a glass. Not even with a baby inside.
I gave birth to a healthy baby via Caesarean and loved my body like never before. I was a BEAST. I could grow a human and undergo major abdominal surgery and keep that human alive. I resumed drinking as soon as I got home from the hospital, obviously, but continued, for the most part, to treat my body pretty well. I was exclusively breastfeeding, after all. I was inordinately proud of the fact that I was able to pump massive quantities of milk at work, way more than my baby needed, and nurse her morning and night. It upset me when she weaned at fifteen months. The World Health Organization recommended breastfeeding to age two at the time and I wanted to make it at least that long without needing to rely on a cow for milk. That’s what I was for.
I’d read some studies say the ideal spacing between kids is three years so I decided we should start trying to have another child when the oldest was two. I assumed I would get pregnant easily since that’s what happened the first time. When that didn’t happen, I was pissed. I took my anger and disappointment out my body. I dug up the pills that were miraculously still around from the c-section and took those. I drank. I drank especially in the days leading up to my period because I knew I’d have to stop when I got a positive pregnancy test. When the tests came up negative, I drank more. Why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I was pregnant. By that point I knew without question I shouldn’t be drinking but I drank anyway. Alone and in secret and in increasing quantities at increasingly inappropriate times.
This is what happens to women steeped in a toxic culture that says (1) a woman’s worth is in her fertility and (2) alcohol is the answer to a woman’s problems. My body failed me by not making a baby on demand, and I tried to drown.
In my unhappiness, I abused my body in other ways, ways that are far more subtle that I only recognize with hindsight. I skipped meals. I refused to replace my baggy suits with ones that fit because I might be pregnant soon. I sacrificed sleep at the alters of work and television.
It literally never occurred to me that I might do anything at all–let alone something fun or healthy or interesting–with a body that wasn’t pregnant or nursing. I never even thought about running that second marathon, the one I’d been wanting to do for years, the one I’d been training for and cancelled when I discovered I was pregnant the first time.
It was during one of my final few drunks that I was scrolling through Facebook (because being a drunk is actually really lonely and sad and boring) and saw that my friend M had signed up for a Tough Mudder and was looking for teammates. “Nahhhh, not for me,” I thought about both the invitation and the race. I was running semi-regularly at the time, but I didn’t do team sports or anything that required upper body strength. I scrolled on.
The day after my last drunk, I was supposed to have dinner with M but had to cancel because when 5:00 rolled around I was still too hungover to get out of bed. We rescheduled for the next weekend. Seven days later, exactly one week into shaky sobriety, I sat across from M at a fancy pub with a Diet Cola in one hand and a pork shank in the other and told her I’d run the insane race.
We started training together, meeting at a local playground at seven o’clock on freezy Sunday mornings to do tricep dips and assisted pull-ups on the monkey bars, jump squats onto picnic tables, and crunches in the mud. It was a drag and felt somehow like both way too much effort and ridiculously not enough to be putting into training for a six-mile obstacle race. As the weeks wore on, though, I felt worried that I still couldn’t do a pull-up on my own but proud that I had yet to succumb to the Saturday night impulse to text M and cancel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made a commitment and actually followed through on something that I didn’t have to do. Showing up felt good.
Four months after my last drunk I did the race with M and her friends (a triathlete and a U.S. Marine, natch). Two of us were injured so we had to walk a lot of the course but we completed every obstacle, from army crawling through ice-cold mud inches under barbed wire (Kiss of Mud) to hauling ass up a slick quarter pipe (Everest 2.0) to scaling twelve-foot wooden walls (Berlin Walls). My teammates and I took turns yanking each other up and over barrier after barrier, carrying each other piggyback in the heat, and trudging side-by-side through bacteria-laden swamp water to finish filthy and triumphant. Aside from giving birth, I was never so proud of or in love with my body.
I was also hooked. I started running as often and as long as I could after that. My weekend mileage hit the double digits enough that I figured I should get some credit for it, so I registered for and completed my second marathon (my first in seven years) that fall. I got bored with endless long slow runs added speed work to my routine. When I found myself with overuse injuries, I swam and cycled and tried all kinds of yoga. When I healed, I returned to running reinvigorated, renewed, overjoyed at simply being able to run without pain. I tossed out a few 5Ks to raise money with co-workers and with the family on Thanksgiving. I ran through cold wet Chicago springs, muggy Chicago summers, gorgeous Chicago falls, and brutal Chicago winters. I trained with weights. I finished my third marathon, this time fast.
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want a drink or ten. But one of the many things that helps me to go to sleep sober is thinking about how good I’m going to feel on the trail or the treadmill the next morning if I don’t. These days, there is always free beer on the other side of a finish line. I’m not lying when I say that after a race, after I’ve put my body to the test and seen it rise to the challenge, those are the times I want a drink the very least. I’m too happy.
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want another baby. But one of the many things that keeps me from sliding into grief is thinking how good it feels to push my body to do things I want to do.
When I look back on my year of relapse and trying to trying to conceive, the absurdity of what I was doing to myself is almost enough to make me believe in a higher power that saved me from getting pregnant at a time when I wasn’t capable of carrying a child. Of course, that doesn’t explain why I’m not pregnant now, with my 2.5 years of sobriety and a solid recovery program. However, when I look back on the many, many moments over those 2.5 years that I experienced pure joy in moving my body, in getting stronger, faster, freer, well, it’s almost enough to make me believe that my body is a gift for me, not for babies. My body’s worth is in what it can do for me, not you or him or God or future generations. I am meant to enjoy this body for what it can do, not to mourn what it can’t. I can’t get pregnant and I can’t drink but I can and will eat and dance and swim and stretch and fuck and run and run and run.
[You can find my first What A Body’s Good For essay here.]
I finally went to the OB-GYN last week. I hadn’t been since my post-partum check up, six weeks after my daughter was born. That was four years ago. The CNM scrunched up her face when I told her. “You haven’t had any lady care for four years?”
It pisses me off that people are often blasé about the fact that men in their twenties and thirties go to the doctor pretty much never but women who don’t go the the OB-GYN every year are seen as irresponsible. “I thought the USPSTF changed the recommendation for pap screening from one to three years?” It was half question, half half-hearted explanation. That wasn’t why I hadn’t been in, but it made me feel better. “Plus, I’m not on birth control,” I added, realizing I hadn’t adequately justified my hiatus from reproductive health. That one hit a little closer to the truth of the matter. I stopped taking hormonal birth control the year before I got pregnant and never went back on, and absolutely relished the freedom. Yes, I realize that the pill that tied me to a doctor and flatlined my sex drive is the same one that liberated me and millions of other women. I can hold onto both of these truths at the same time. The CNM tucked her leg up onto the chair, tucked a chunk of pink hair behind her ear, chiding me quietly as she pulled up a new chart: “That may be, but you still need exams.”
It’s not like I’d been neglecting my health. I am in tune with my body to an almost freakish degree and I love medicine of both the Eastern and Western variety. Almost as soon as I went back to work after maternity leave, my stress-induced TMJ flared up. I tried acupuncture first, but it didn’t do enough to justify ducking out of work for an hour at a time, so I turned to an internist who was so cute I decided he would be my first-ever adult primary care physician. What I wanted was painkillers. What I got was a referral for PT that ended up being exorbitantly expensive and inordinately time-consuming and not covered by my insurance.
Later that year, I went back to the internist about a strange rash. I made big plans to tell him about my anxiety, too, but couldn’t find the words. I’d never told anybody how my chest tightened up every day when I left the office, or how my stomach roiled before I left the house. Was that anxiety? Was it bad enough to warrant medication or did I just want to get high? What I wanted was to get the ball rolling toward a prescription for Xanax. What I got was a diagnosis of stress-induced eczema.
A few months after that I huffed a chemical inhalant in the middle of my work day. I think the high lasted a few hours but it was hard to tell when it wore off because my head didn’t come back to my body. I remained in a dissociative state that the internet told me was called depersonalization for six days. I remembered that I had a primary care doctor and called his office to beg for an appointment. A different doctor in the same practice group squeezed me in. “Are you under a lot of stress?” he asked, shining a light into my eyes. I nodded. He asked me to turn my head from side to side. “Do you find yourself crying?” “Mhm.” My eyes welled up. What I wanted was somebody to tell me I didn’t have brain damage. What I got was instructions to come back for a full blood workup the next week.
I went to a therapist instead.
I went through a round of CBT.
I got back to running.
In short, I started to get right mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Nine months after I quit drinking, I ran a marathon. A particularly severe bout of post-race tendonitis drove me back to the primary care physician. I’d sustained enough strains and sprains in my two decades as a runner to know that ice and rest would do the trick, but the pain in my hip was bad enough that I figured I could benefit from talking to a physical therapist who specialized in running injuries. Of course, I never would have booked the appointment if I didn’t think I there was a chance I could also get drugs. In the few minutes it took to schedule an appointment online, the pink cloud that had been carrying me for months dissipated. I went from happy sober person, chirping away in meetings about how great it felt to be so present for my family during the holidays to walking zombie. I went from wanting to get better quickly to hoping for something serious–a fracture or a tear. I didn’t think about calling my sponsor. I didn’t think about what I’d do when the pills ran out. I couldn’t think about anything but the possibility of getting high again. I obsessed about what I needed to do to make it happen. The next day, I hobbled to the office and told the doctor with a straight face that the pain was an eight. I told him I could barely walk. I got him worried enough that he wrote out an order for an x-ray, which is when I knew the jig was up because there was a minuscule chance I might be pregnant that I couldn’t ignore, given how long my husband and I had been trying to have a second kid. The doctor sent me home with no x-ray, no drugs, and prescription for ice and rest. “Come back if it still hurts when you get your period.” Fuck.
Once you’ve developed a taste for pharmaceuticals, every doctor’s office is a street corner, every appointment a seedy transaction, every honest ailment immediately supplanted by symptoms of the most plausible path to opiate relief. And when you are sober, every ache is an invitation to go back out. It’s easy to pretend you’re not flirting with relapse because sometimes people need medicine. With my history, the question of how prescription drugs fit into sobriety should be black and white but when I try to hold a picture of my sober life still in my head, there is so much blank space I start filling in the gaps with gray. Of course, most doctors aren’t handing out controlled substances like candy anymore. When you are an ex-pillhead, that almost doesn’t matter. The possibility alone is enough to throw you off course. It’s easier to avoid doctors altogether.
So that’s why I haven’t been to OB-GYN. I can’t trust myself to go in for a pap smear and not drum up enough undiagnosable premenstrual pain to walk out with a low-grade narcotic that will start the slow unspooling of my life. If you jump through enough hoops, the drugs will come. That’s how, last month, I ended up driving myself away from the hospital at 2 AM on a Sunday with a clean bill of health and a unnecessary prescription for Norco tucked in my bag, mind racing with thoughts like:
“A tranvaginal ultrasound is a steep price to pay for a week’s worth of pills;” and
“I guess nobody ever accused a junkie of driving a hard bargain;” and, most importantly,
“What the fuck am I going to do when these pills run out?”
The next 24 hours were mental torture. I had drugs, but I also had a head full of AA, which means I am utterly incapable of convincing myself that taking even one pill (or drink) is not a big deal. I know where one pill (or drink) goes. I’ve been there before and it’s hell. There is no easy way back if you even get a chance to come back.
Of course I was going to fill the prescription anyway. I went to four pharmacies that day. One rejected my (extremely common and accepted everywhere) insurance. The other three were closed, two of them within thirty minutes of me showing up. By 8 PM I had nowhere to go but my usual Sunday night candlelight meeting. Somebody said something about their daughter and I remembered (for the first time in days) that mine was turning four soon and that if I took those pills, I’d be drinking or using or withdrawing on her birthday. I knew enough about myself to know there was simply no way I would not be a fucking mess. I went home knowing what I had to do, knowing exactly how good I would feel when I did it, but still unwilling. The next morning I woke up early and, without giving myself time to think the decision through, turned on the stove and stuck my hand with the paper prescription into the burner. The night before, a doctor friend had told me to just rip it up, which I guess would have done the trick, but I needed this thing gone. The burn was not clean; I was.
The unexplained pain that had precipiated my ER visit disappeared that day.
I kept the OB-GYN appointment I had scheduled a few days earlier anyway. I’ve been trying to have another baby for two years and have reached the point that I can’t pretend doctors don’t exist. The CNM asked me questions as she filled in my chart. “What was the first day of your last period?” “How many days is your cycle?” “Do you drink?”
I looked up from the paperwork I was working on and looked her in the eye and told her what I’ve before never told a medical professional because I was not willing to burn bridges I might want to cross later: “No. I haven’t had a drink since January 30, 2016. I have a history of substance abuse, mostly painkillers and weed. I can’t mess around with that stuff.”
“Congratulations!” she said.
When I left, I felt relieved. Not because I think I am finally going to get pregnant but because I finally have a doctor I can go back to without tearing open my old wounds.
I am so, so sorry.
I know what it’s like to be betrayed by your body, to rage against it. In Feb 2014, I relapsed after 9 months of not drinking because I did not know how to cope with the fact that I couldn’t just will my body to make another baby. I wanted to disconnect from myself and from my desire to grow my family so badly that drugs seemed like the only option. I spent the rest of that year trying to get pregnant and cycling between trying very hard to be good for two weeks at a time and then promising myself that I could get drunk when my period came. I usually ended up getting drunk before that even because I knew that as soon as a pregnancy test confirmed it, I’d have to quit. When my period came late, as it did often but only after we started trying, only after 15+ years of running like clockwork because biology is a funny bitch, I drank even more, in preemptive defense, to kill my disappointment by killing my hope.
I know what it’s like to blame yourself. Almost two years later, I still can’t get pregnant, and it is an ongoing battle to fight off the looming despair and the lure of the idea that infertility is my punishment for not treating my body better, for drinking and drugging away my prime fertile years, for succumbing to anxiety, for losing sleep to work and worry.
I know what it’s like to hate your husband for not giving you what you want, which is permission to break a promise you made to yourself, to want to leave a good man so that you can get shitfaced.
The good news is that I also know what it’s like to be solid enough in my sobriety that even the worst news can’t derail it. I know what it’s like to take care of myself, with food and sleep and hot fucking showers (and I am somebody who still recoils at the phrase “self-care” and the cheesy image of a woman in a bath inhaling essential oils). I know what it’s like to say no, not today to the invitation to wallow in grief and what-ifs. I know what it’s like to keep moving forward, with dark humor and grim determination and a tiny bit of hope and pint of nothing but a ginger beer.
I’m proud of you for not drinking, and for looking for help instead. You will make it through this and be all the stronger, more complicated, and more interesting for it. You’ve got layers, baby. Let’s keep them dry.
All my love,
I’ve been listener of the WTF with Marc Maron Podcast for years now. My comedy-loving husband turned me onto it when I was training for a marathon and burned through the back catalog of This American Life. I dig the long format interviews, and how open Maron’s guests are, especially when the guests are entertainers of the regular famous (as opposed to the super famous) variety. Maron is open about being in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and some of my favorite episodes are the ones with guests who are also sober. Like a lot of people who go on to get sober, I kept close tabs on what other people were drinking, how much, and when, and even closer tabs on the people who weren’t. Like another sobriety blogger said of sober people in her periphery:
These are people who may or may not even remember me, and yet I secretly follow what they post to social media like they’re celebrities. They’re on my team, whether they know it or not. Occasionally I can tell that someone’s started drinking again, and I feel a sense of loss for these near-strangers. Our secret army has lost a comrade.
I did the same thing, with regular people, and also with celebrities. I was fascinated by anybody who had decided to leave the party. I wanted to know everything about them. And listening to not one but two famous (or famous-ish) sober people talk about substance abuse and recovery on WTF was so interesting it felt almost illicit.
These days, I’m pretty burned out on podcasts, but I will tune into WTF for female guests or for episodes that come highly recommended. Recently, Maron had the hilarious Jane Lynch, of Glee and Best in Show fame. Lynch is one of those actresses who seems to be everywhere, and indeed she has been in dozens of other productions, from theater, to film, to TV (including my personal favorite, the brilliant and entirely too short lived Party Down) but I knew almost nothing about her personal life, so I was excited to listen to the interview during my morning commute.
I was interested to learn that Lynch got her start in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theatre, which I’ve never been to because I’m not actually into theater at all, but which I have seen through the window of the brown and purple lines many times as the train crawls north after pitching around Sedgwick to Halstead in a move that always leaves me a little wobbly for the rest of the ride. About halfway through the interview, Maron dropped a few questions about what her drinking was like in the early days of her career, how bad it got, and whether it was related to the fact that she was more or less closeted at the time. It struck me as fairly awkward, as Lynch hadn’t said a word about drinking or about her sexuality at that point in the interview, and though Lynch was an open and gracious guest, Maron didn’t get much traction with that line of questioning.
At that point, I arrived at my office, turned off the podcast, and decided to do a little light Googling before digging into work. “Jane Lynch” and sober. Ah, I see. I gathered pretty quickly that Lynch got sober at 31, while she was still working in theater, and shared some of her story in Happy Accidents, her memoir that came out a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, the entertainment press picked up on the “story” (in quotes because the events that led Lynch to get sober had occurred two decades ago at that point) and ran with it, splashing salacious headlines over gossipy ledes and blurbs from her book.
A few aspects of Lynch’s story stood out to me, mostly because I identified with them:
- Her bottom was not spectacularly dramatic (“First, I drank only Miller Lite. Second, many of my contemporaries drank far more than I and were fine with themselves and their lives. They did not suffer it the way I did.”);
- She seems sensitive to this fact (“Relatively speaking, my personal bottom was rather benign.” “Had I know I’d be telling my story over and over again, I would have made it a lot better.”);
- She nonetheless knew she had to quit (“[W]hen I stopped, I had reached my limit. I knew that my mind, body, and spirit had just had it.”);
- She drank NyQuil before bed for a period of time after she quit drinking but before she went into a recovery program (“I’d close the drapes of my tiny room, take a swig of NyQuil, toast with a simple ‘Bye-bye,’ and go into a deep sleep.”).
(Sources: The Fix, People, and Perez Hilton.) I get all of that. I have “drunkalogue envy.” I have imposter syndrome in recovery as much as work. Even after the knowledge that I had to quit was seared onto my consciousness, I dedicated an unreasonable amount of time searching for the elusive third door. (Is it around back? Near the cellar?) (Hat Tip: Laura McKowen.) Abusing low rent prescription and non-prescription drugs was my gateway into and out of addiction.
So I feel a bit of a kinship with Jane Lynch having read all of this. We’ve walked the same roads, and look where she ended up! Content. Fulfilled. (Rich.) Okay.
An ad pops up on my office computer and I realize I’ve spent too much time on garbage sites. I get to work.
I listen to the rest of the podcast on the way home, picking up where I left off with Maron digging just a little on the subject of her sobriety.
“I’m still…I’m having a glass of wine…but I mean, it’s 25 years, so I think I’m gonna be fine.”
What makes a person who has been sober for 25 years start drinking?
How does a person who went public with their sobriety only a few years ago act like that’s not a big deal?
How can a person who got sober with AA imply that a drinking problem can just dissolve, if you give it enough time?
The notion that moderation is both achievable and sustainable for a person who has suffered from alcohol addiction is completely at odds with my understanding of twelve step programs. And look, AA hasn’t been an integral part of my path, so I don’t get too broken up when people deviate from it, but it’s still weird, right?
What’s more troubling for me is the crack of light seeping in from the back door that Lynch’s words opened up in my brain. When I was
toying around with getting sober playing Russian roulette with my life last year, I kept going back to the idea of sobriety as a “for now” thing. I need to be sober as long as my daughter is young. I need to be sober as long as my husband and I are trying to have another kid. I need to be sober until I get my mental health back on track. Lifelong sobriety sounded like a drag at best, so I nurtured escapist daydreams of myself at 45, drinking an IPA on the porch while my teenage kids are out with their friends, myself at 50, smoking a joint, also on the porch, myself at 65, retired, kids grown, finally free to flip the switch on my latent pill addiction and spend the day nodding off. Okay, that last one is kind of fucked up. Even my moderation fantasies veer off the rails.
When I finally admitted to my counselor that I couldn’t drink safely, I paused and added, “Maybe someday . . . .” She shot back, “Or maybe not. It doesn’t sound like you’ve ever had a healthy relationship with substances.”
With that, I slammed the door on the last of my reservations, stopped entertaining the idea that this particular aspect of my psychology will ever be “cured,” and haven’t picked up since.
Enter Jane Lynch, breathing life into my dormant daydreams, with her breezy talk of domestic contentment and creative fulfillment and glasses of wine. It sounds so lovely, especially that last bit. And her point about not living your life based on things that happened a quarter century ago is compelling. Maybe time will work the same magic tricks for me as it did for Lynch. Maybe time will work its magic faster for me. There is nothing special about 25 years. I’m feeling great today. Healthy, content, fulfilled. Maybe I can have a glass, too.
I suspect that many newly sober people find themselves standing on this same precipice, peering into the same black chasm, when they encounter somebody who used to have a drinking problem but doesn’t anymore, when they read a trend piece touting the benefits of moderation or trashing AA’s abstinence model, or when they watch a person in long-term recovery go back out. It is destabilizing. It feels weak to admit that, almost embarrassing. I mean, who is Jane Lynch to me anyway? Why should the fact that she can apparently drink change what I know about myself? What does it say about me that I am so easily swayed? It says I haven’t got my sea legs.
Briefly, I wonder what Lynch has given any thought to how her words might sound to a 31 year old girl with six months under her belt, drunkalogue envy, and a restless spirit. I wonder if I should write her a letter. Then I remember that this is old behavior, grasping and manipulative. I don’t like the way it feels.
When I was Mormon, suffocated by the church’s teachings about women but lacking institutional power, I thought I could leverage my emotions to achieve policy change. I thought that if I could just convey the depth of my pain, a church full of such well-meaning people would do anything to make it right. I marched in parades, pleaded with other Mormons, and wrote angsty blog posts. I deluded myself into thinking that this would make a worldwide religion change its foundational doctrines.
Spoiler: it didn’t work. And exploiting myself in an effort to change an institution that wasn’t interested in changing ate away at my self-worth.
The idea of writing a letter to Jane Lynch telling her that her WTF interview made me want to drink cough syrup (in a not-so-subtle attempt to force her back into sobriety because that would somehow make things easier for me) feels a lot like being a Mormon feminist. Futile. Misguided. Insane.
I said before that the twelve step programs have not played a huge rule in my recovery, and it’s true, they haven’t, though that may change down the line. However, one of the things I’ve noticed in the rooms is that people talk about whether something is worth picking up–drinking or using–over. And let me tell you, people in recovery are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever encountered, often under brutal circumstances. I’ve seen people not pick up over lost jobs, crumbling relationships, divorce, addicted and estranged family members, cancer, and death. One of the cool things about sobriety and, frankly, adulthood, is that you get to decide what kind of person you want to be and then actually be that kind of person, just by making the choices that kind of person makes. It’s that simple.
I may not want to be the kind of person who doesn’t drink 100% of the time, but I sure as shit don’t want to be the kind of person who drinks over a ten second glimpse into a celebrity’s life that I heard on a freaking podcast. So I won’t.
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
1 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—
2 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—
3 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.
4 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—
5 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.
* * *
7 And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.
8 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.
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.
Let me tell you about New Year’s Eve. I was drinking again, or trying to drink, this time like a normal person after convincing myself it was a good idea to give up on my most recent run at sobriety after only 46 days. I explained the reasoning behind the experiment like this: in November, I’d decided to take a hiatus from Mormonism. Around that same time I’d realized that not drinking was really, really hard. I’d been trying and failing at it for a long time. I figured, if I was going to need to actually work a recovery program (rather than just magically staying sober), I deserved to know whether I was really an alcoholic. I thought there was a chance that my issues with alcohol were all wound up with my religious guilt and that if I could shed the latter, maybe the former would work itself out. Of course, the real reason for the experiment was this: I wanted to get fucked up. Of course, the timing has nothing to do with the party we were attending with all our neighbours and friends where the champagne would be flowing freely. Or course not. That was just a convenient coincidence.
That first night of drinking did not go well. I felt like I hermit crab in a terrarium, everybody was watching me trepadatiously. I felt like I had to sip slowly so as not to sound any alarm bells, to ask for permission to help myself to another drink. After downing a few potent ciders and a disgusting glass of alcohol-free champagne thoughtfully provided by my friend–a week earlier I would have been touched by the gesture, but now that I was drinking again it just pissed me off that I had to waste precious drinking minutes gratefully choking down a glass of the stuff just to be polite–I found myself anxious for more and unsure how to go about getting it. Midnight had come and gone and people were slowing down and nobody was offering me anything. I figured I was going to have to take matters into my own hands if I wanted to get properly trashed. I started popping back to my house (just next door) under the pretense of checking on my daughter and taking swigs from a bottle in the liquor cabinet. Back at the party, I started wandering the kitchen gulping down half-finished drinks that other guests had abandoned. I felt seized by a gnawing hunger, a dark claw pressing down on my heart. By the end of the night I was in the bathroom, faucet running to muffle the sound of me digging around beneath the sink. I knew that my friend had broken her ribs a few months back. I didn’t hit the jackpot, but did find a full bottle of Vicodin–the equivalent of scoring a few bucks on a scratcher lottery ticket. I couldn’t justify taking much, not while I was trying to prove I didn’t have a problem, but at the same time couldn’t bear to leave the bathroom empty handed, so I pocketed a single pill, taking comfort in the fact that I knew where to come if I needed more.
The party wound down around three or four am. I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t want to stop drinking but nobody else seemed interested in prolonging the festivities, probably because they all have kids who would be waking up in a matter of hours. The thought of my own kid stirring at seven or eight seemed strangely irrelevant.
I went home with my husband and we shared a pot of tea before bed. He asked me how I thought the evening had gone, drinking-wise. “It wasn’t perfect,” I confessed. “I had some cravings for more after I started drinking, but I’m proud I didn’t act on them, and I think they will go away as I get used to drinking again.” I knew that first part was a bald-faced lie, but I hoped to God that the last part was true.
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.