When you’re raised up on visions of the promised land, there are a couple of things you take for granted:
The promised land is a place that exists and you can get to; and
That you’ll know it when you arrive.
Leaving your childhood religion is an exercise in splitting. You want to smash the beliefs you once held dear; you need to keep them intact to hold on to a sense of self that’s no longer clear. You end up excising them from the body of your old belief system and grasping the quivering strands of what’s left. You relocate your vision of the promised land. You think it’s still there but you couldn’t find it on a map if you tried.
On Wednesdays, I take my daughter to choir practice. She’s in children’s choir at our church and they’re practicing for the annual Christmas pageant, which is in it’s 100th year. This week we are running late, so I pull up in front of the church and ask if she wants me to drop her off before looking for a place to park. She surprises me by saying yes. She’s never walked around the church by herself before. The staff has strict rules about parents signing their kids in and out of Sunday school and the building was locked down for the last year. I make her talk me through how she’ll get from the front door to the choir room and then let her go, watching from the car to make sure she doesn’t need help with the heavy hundred year old doors and, when she makes it inside, watching the top of her head through the window as she struggles with a second set of doors. She’s so big, I think. And she’s so little. With that, she opens the door to a new level of independence, for both of us.
I find a spot on the street, park the car, gather up my daughter’s hat and gloves, and make my way inside the church building. I offer a chipper hello to the gentleman who works the front desk during the week and he, per usual, buzzes me in without a word. I am still on the first floor when I hear the strains of Joy to the World floating down the stairs. I almost can’t believe it’s the children’s choir and not a recording of some different group altogether. They sound magnificent. And loud. The group doubled in size when we all came back after the pandemic and the kids are all almost two years older than the last time they sang together in person. The choir director is nothing short of a miracle worker. Last year, he stitched together a couple dozen videos to put together a surprisingly watchable virtual pageant. In person, he’s somehow coaxed them into not only singing all of the worlds but hitting most of the right notes.
I pick out my daughter’s voice as I make my way up the stairs and the tears come. I can’t believe we made it. I can’t believe we landed here. Nine years ago I was carrying her inside of me and coming to terms with the fact that I could not raise a daughter in the religion I grew up it, not as I knew it. Seven years ago I was driving my baby to churches all over the city wondering if we’d ever find one that worked for us. Six years ago I carried my toddler out of a chapel for what I swore was the last time. It was so scary. When I tried to picture life after Mormonism, I saw mists of darkness. I imagined my daughter lost and confused. I imagined myself miserable, knowing I’d made the worst mistake. I couldn’t imagine anything good or sweet. My imagination was lacking. The light was always waiting for us on the other side. I just needed to step into it.
These thoughts flash by in the time it takes to ascend two flights of stairs. The third floor is brightly lit against the early dusk outside. The choir lets loose with a series of glorious glorias. I duck my head into practice room to wave at my daughter and then I ease my body into a comfy chair in the room next door, where I will chat with the other choir parents. I think, after five years, I can call them friends.
I feel like I survived something. Like I fled a famished land, crossed a stormy sea, and abandoned a sinking ship to wash up here, in this ordinary life that feels extraordinary. I’ve been here for so long now, I can’t believe I didn’t see it. I’m already in the promised land.
I was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for all of my life until I turned thirty years old. Some members might object to my use of the term “active.” There were a few stretches in college that I didn’t darken a church door for months at a time, but I was always trying. There was always a Book of Mormon on my nightstand. I always prayed. I always answered the door to the missionaries and picked up the phone when my visiting teachers called. Before I ever left the fold, I was already on my way back.
When I made it back to regular church attendance, I tried even harder, but I never saw myself as a full-fledged member in good standing. All I could see were the ways I didn’t measure up to what I thought were the church’s standards:
I went to church but not every week.
I taught Sunday School but I prepared lessons at the last minute.
I did my visiting teaching every month, but I let my companion plan it.
I prayed every night but not on my knees, and never in the morning.
I read the Book of Mormon every day, but nodded off a few verses in. I still hadn’t taken Moroni up on his promise that if I read the book all the way through and prayed, with sincere intent, I would know it to be true, but that was only because I didn’t need to; I already knew.
I subscribed to the church magazines, and read those too, but never all the way through.
I listened to General Conference every six months, but skipped the Saturday morning sessions for brunch, and there was always at least one talk that made me furious.
I quit living in sin but I never confessed anything I did.
I quit using drugs and getting drunk but there were so many slips that I rewrote the Word of Wisdom to make room, as Brigham Young did, for beer and sparkling wine.
I quit drinking coffee but I couldn’t stay away from tea. The truth is, I never tried. After (aspirationally) giving up every other earthly vice, I figured the church could meet me on the other side of the veil and pry my hot cup of leaf water from my freshly resurrected hands.
I wore skirts that went to my knees on Sunday but bared shoulders and legs all summer long.
I put the Family Proclamation on my wall, but the wall was inside a closet.
I got married but not in the temple.
I planned Family Home Evening and family scripture study and family prayer but my husband was never going to join the church.
I had a baby but I couldn’t quit my job.
I was a Mormon who cursed, laughed at dirty jokes, read erotic fiction, and watched R-rated movies and all the shows that aired on HBO.
Mormons pride themselves on their ability to be in the world, but not of the world. Even when I was most ashamed of the church, I was proud to be a Mormon. I also believed it. I knew my purpose was to build God’s kingdom on earth, but I was so afraid belonged better in Babylon.
I know better now. Looking at that list, at all those things I thought were so bad, I see that there’s nothing on there that’s so shocking; they just didn’t fit with the vision of Mormonism that had been bestowed upon me as a child. And why would they? I was a child and as soon as I wasn’t, I was supposed to start having children and raising them up in the church. I never would be exposed to a more mature version of the faith.
Looking at that list, I see so many things that I’m sure other Mormons did; I just didn’t know. And why would I? I kept myself at a distance because I was afraid of what would happen if other members of the church knew the real me. It’s not all on me, though. They kept themselves at a distance too. If anyone ever struggled with the things I did, or laughed at the jokes I did, I never knew, because no one ever told me. That was the fellowship I needed, and the kind of faith I needed, too–the kind that could stand to talk about sex and sin and sorrow (“and all other instruments of faith and sex and God in the belly of a black-winged bird“) and how to move forward through it all. If I ever went back, that’s the kind of fellowship I’d give.
I stopped going to church five years ago. I pulled my name off the records last May. It’s only now that, for the first time, I can claim my former status as an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because the time and separation finally cleared it up for me: that’s exactly what I was. I was not a perfect Mormon, but I sure did live the hell out of my faith.
When I started this blog five years ago I was two days from my last drink and two months out of the Mormon church. Sober Mormon was less description than projection. I wanted to be a person who didn’t need alcohol to feel alive. I wanted to experience life outside what I perceived to be the confines Mormon church. I’d slipped out a side door with no intention of ever going back, but I still considered myself Mormon to my core. I’d heard other people describe themselves as Recovering Catholics/Evangelicals/Baptists, and I thought the application of terminology from the world of addiction to religion made a lot of sense. The last few years before I left, being a feminist in the church felt like being a junkie. Try as I might, and believe me, I tried, I couldn’t stop obsessing over everything I thought was wrong with the institution. I didn’t want to see sexism and racism and bigotry every time I opened the scriptures, everytime I went to church, but I once I saw it I couldn’t put it out of my mind. Fixing the church was a fixation and it was also how I got my fix. I never thought I would be able to leave and when I finally did, I thought I would spend the rest of my life deprogramming from beliefs I never thought to question, grieving the loss of a community I never thought I had, healing from the wound of losing my my worldview. That would be my punishment. That was what I deserved. Six months after I left I went to a yoga workshop for women in recovery. The teachers told us about Akhilandeshvari, a Hindu goddess who rides on the back of a crocodile and whose name means Never Not Broken. I understood that they were trying to convey the power of being broken to pieces and coming together again, but I changed the words around in my head. That’s me, I thought. Never not Mormon. By that logic and the transitive property, to be Mormon was to be broken. Mormonism was my original sin.
The biggest surprise when I left the church was how easy it was. I did so much pre-grieving there was nothing left to recover from when I got out. I’d stopped believing the most gripping doctrine–the One True Church thing–years before. My husband was not a member. My family did not threaten to cut me off. My livelihood was not tied to my membership. I didn’t even have any friends in my ward. Nothing was keeping me in the church except me. Life after Mormonism was just life, but better.
For some time, I tried to connect with other ex-Mormons, but I found little of my own experience in theirs and I imagine they saw not much of theirs in mine. That was the other big surprise about leaving. I realized I’d spent my life identifying with a church I’d barely been a member of. I wasn’t a real Mormon. I didn’t serve a mission. I didn’t receive my endowment. I didn’t wear the garment. I wasn’t sealed in the temple. I drank and cursed and fucked around. I loved coffee and tank tops and R-rated movies. No wonder the church hardly recognized me. I’d been stripping Mormonism off in layers since I was old enough to choose my own clothes.
The other thing I couldn’t stand about the ex-Mormon communities, at least the online ones dominated by ex-Mormon men, was how all they wanted to talk about was the church the church the church. They proselytized against the church with the zeal of a nineteen-year-old in the mission field. The railed against the saints with the vigor of a convert bearing testimony. I’d burned off all my anger sitting in the pews on Sunday and scribbling on the internet at night. Now that I was free, that shit was boring. This was supposed to be a blog about leaving Mormonism, but by the time I left I had nothing left to say.
This was also supposed to be a blog about getting sober. I’d sworn off alcohol because I was tired of thinking about drinking. I’d been doing battle with a beverage for thirteen years. I was waiting for things to get bad enough that someone other than me would step in and revoke my drinking privileges, but on January 30, 2016 I woke up thirty years old and nursing the same hangover I had at seventeen and realized that even if it never got worse, I didn’t want to spend the next decade doing the exact same thing.
I had a lot to say about getting sober, and about doing it as a former Mormon. Having religion will go a long way to support a recovery program that is fundamentally religious in nature, like mine was, but it will fuck it up, too, because you wonder if you would have had a problem without the religion and when you leave the religion you wonder if maybe your problem is gone too. That was the question I asked in my very first post in this blog.
I spent most of the last five years sober but I sure as hell didn’t stop thinking about drinking. Was I doing sobriety wrong or was my belief that I could control my thoughts as misguided as my belief that I could control my drinking?
When I started posting Quarantine Diaries nine months ago, I wondered “how many more identities I will take on and shed before this thing is over? How much of what I claim to be today will fall by the wayside as my life is stripped to the bare essentials?”
Anyway, I drank. Relapse played out exactly as I figured it would and is probably not at all like you’re imagining it to be. Am I sober? I guess so, but it’s more complicated than it used to be. I’m sober today, but not drinking 24 hours at a time is not an identity you can package up and sell (though I know quite a few people who have done just that). For what it’s worth, I am okay. Better than I was before. For the sake of the art, I don’t want to have to say even that, but I’m offering it out of respect for the people in my life who might worry, the ones who’ve heard me talk for the last five years about being in recovery from a deadly disease. I am tired of talking about drinking, though. I don’t want to be doing this five years from now. I realizing that it will take as long as it takes to get through, that this might be my thing for the rest of my life, but this shit is getting boring. I have almost nothing left to say, unless it’s to someone like me (you know who you are).
Sober Mormon is retired, but I’m still here putting words into the world.
It took over a decade for me to fall out of love with my church. I’m an ex-Mormon and my exit narrative is not one of escape. The church was where I was from and where I was going, my home and my promised land, my mother and my father, my sibling and my cherished friend, my first language and the only one I wanted to learn. For ten years I moved from ward to ward and my religious beliefs morphed with me. I was young and impossibly idealistic. I wanted to be an intellectual, a radical, a revolutionary, and I wanted the bohemian lifestyle that came with, and I wanted it all as a Mormon girl. Mormonism was such a part of me, and I was so wrapped up in the fold, that I saw no conflict, though I had to be careful with my beliefs, shape them just right so that they I could fit them neatly in the body of the church and hold them close to my body at the same time. Remake something malleable enough times eventually it becomes formless. That’s what happened to my beliefs. I prayed and read my scriptures and paid my tithing and sat in the pews and took the Sacrament and taught Sunday School and did my visiting teaching and made an honest effort to try to live the life of an active member of the church, but I dared not let another Latter-Day Saint peek into my head for fear they wouldn’t recognize what they saw: universalism, skepticism, a great big formless god.
When I decided to leave the church it was all at once. On November 5, 2015, a few short months after the Supreme Court of the United States recognized marriage as a fundamental right belonging to all God’s children, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints declared same-sex marriage to be apostasy–so anathema to the teachings of the church as to be tantamount to a total renunciation of the religion. The church barred the children of married gay parents from baptism absent special permission from the church president in Salt Lake City and denouncement by the child of her parents’ marriage. I went to church on November 8, 2015 to register with my bishop my disagreement with the policy and walked out never to set foot in the building again.
The November Policy has since been walked back, but I haven’t.
I clung to the trappings of Mormonism in the days and weeks after I left. I read the Book of Mormon and saw myself in the prophet Moroni, the last of his kind who foretold and witnessed the destruction of his people, who wrote their stories and carried them with him to the bitter end. In my grief in the wake of the November Policy, I cried out to God and felt peace in my heart. I prayed for direction and felt the spirit telling me to go. That surprised me. I didn’t expect to hear God outside Mormonism’s brick walls.
I followed this revelation into other churches. I worshipped with the Unitarian Universalists. I liked their spare sanctuary, their earnest intentions, their white take on world music, and their mind-bending sermons, but they didn’t like me, a messy woman with a wiggly toddler, both of us crying in the back row. A woman told me to take my daughter out, because she was distracting, so I did and never went back. I wondered if leaving churches would become my new thing.
I found my way into a United Methodist Church. I trusted the rainbow flag out front and was heartened to see activity bags for children hanging on a coat rack outside the chapel but I was wary of putting my family and my heart on the line again. I kept my emotional distance but brought my body and my daughter’s back week after week month after month until the years piled up and I knew we were safe.
I spent thousands of hours in church basements fortifying myself against the demons that had been threatening to wrest me away from love since I was a teen.
Mormonism became just another place I used to live, an interesting story to tell. I trotted it out at second step meetings. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. “You think you’ve got religious baggage because you grew up an alcoholic Catholic family on Chicago’s west side? Let me tell you about a story that starts in Utah.” I dusted if off when the United Methodists faced their own moral reckoning, threatened to split down the middle over gay marriage. “You think your religion has it out for gay people? Let me tell you a story about Proposition 8.” or “You think it’s hard to feel betrayed by your religion? You’re right. It’s the hardest thing there is.”
By the time I told my stories they’d been drained of all their emotional weight, but I still identified as a Mormon. People asked why I didn’t leave the church for real, pull my name from the records in Salt Lake. I didn’t see any reason to leave. The church stopped hurting me the moment I stopped offering myself up to it. The grief and rage died when I left and my world kept turning. You need love to keep a fire burning. In the after I felt nothing for the church but relief that I was no longer part of it.
I am nothing if not thorough, though, so when I worked the fourth step I dredged up all my old resentments against the church and wrote them down. Prop 8. The November Policy. A lifetime and an eternity of subservience to men. By twelve step logic, my list of fourth step list of resentments I nurtured automatically populated a separate eighth step list of people I’d harmed. I needed to make amends. As I worked to clean up my side of the street, I had to admit I had not been a perfect Mormon. I judged the church for judging me. I picked fights about everything from politics to policy, culture to theology. I insisted I knew better and blew up when people disagreed. I refused to see the forest–shelter and sustenance for millions of people–for the copse of diseased trees poisoning me. I saw that there were other reasons not to leave. The church gave me my family, and my membership meant something to my parents. I might have been a lost sheep but I was still part of the fold. I might be destined for outer darkness but there was a chance we’d be together in heaven. Besides, what could it possibly cost me to keep my name on the rolls of an exclusive heaven I no longer believed in?
A little over two years after I started worshiping with the United Methodists, I decided to finally, formally join the congregation. Early on I’d been nervous about commiting to a new church, but I’d been attending long enough for the church to feel like a safe second home. I was already raising my daughter there. When I realized I was already living out the membership vows–upholding my local congregation with my daily prayers, my weekly presence at services, my gifts of dollars and time, my service to the children’s program, and my witness of God somehow at work in this church, too–I figured I had nothing to lose. It was well past time for me to start checking “member” instead of “visitor” on the sheet inside the welcome folder at the end of each pew. I emailed Mary, the membership coordinator and the first person who’d ever greeted me at church, excited to make it official. Mary’s response was tactful but the message was not. Due to differences in beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation, the United Methodist Church does not recognize Mormon baptisms. To join the congregation, I would need to be re-baptized first. To avoid the apparently dire consequences of double counting, UMC strongly urged me to initiate my formal removal from LDS membership rolls.
I couldn’t believe it! I thought my baptism was good. I’d gone all the way under, like Jesus, at eight years old. The idea of denouncing my Mormon baptism, I was surprised to discover, crushed me. The sensation of finding myself severed from the body of Christ a second time was akin to shock from blood loss. I was pissed, too. The hypocrisy coming from a church that serves communion at an open table–one where all are welcome without regard to age, race or ethnicity, gender identification or sex orientation, without regard even to membership in the United Methodist Church–made me want to scream.
My sorrow and anger told me I’d fallen in love with this new church. “I need some time,” I told Mary, “to think and pray over how I want to proceed. Of course I will still be attending services. I look forward to deepening my involvement with the church and community in whatever form that takes.” Unlike Mormonism, official membership in the United Methodist Church didn’t seem to come with any special privileges, so I decided to stay and act as if I were a member. I wore a nametag, served on committees, showed up early for Sunday School and stayed late for fellowship, volunteered to teach the kids, washed coffee mugs, tithed a portion of my income, put my daughter in the children’s choir and the Christmas Pageant, and went to all the services, even the unpopular weekday ones during Lent. I became a regular church lady and my heart only broke fourteen times a year: on the semi-annual new member Sundays and the first Sunday of every month when the pastor led communion with her open table spiel. People asked why I didn’t join the church for real, put my name on the records as a member. I explained that I couldn’t without cancelling my Mormon baptism, they understood and agreed. Besides, I lied. I don’t see any reason to join.
That I didn’t leave either church is a testament to my twelve-step work. Sobriety taught me to show up for my life and to take responsibility for it too. Inside the church basements I discovered other character defects–festering insecurity, deep-seated fear, and a mean perfectionistic that made parenting terrifically difficult–and worked tirelessly to address them. There was no problem in my life that I couldn’t resolve by taking a long hard look at myself and fixing up what I saw.
I clung to this maxim until January 2020, when a particularly sustained and severe winter depressive episode, when I was scratching tiny frowny faces into the calendar at the front of my planner more days than not, made me admit that I needed to call in reinforcements. I called the number on the back of my insurance card and a week later perched carefully on the edge of my new therapist’s couch. Not sure where to start, I offered that I was sad, deeply, unspeakably, unshakably sad. Not all the time, I told her, but much of the time it felt like I was living in a dark room. My new therapist thumbed around the bruise, trying to find where it hurt the most. I confessed that I was tired of fighting with my husband about our roles, about my job and everything he does at home. I was tired of snapping and screaming in front of my daughter and hating myself after. I was afraid I’d done irreparable damage with our explosive fights with my ruinous temper. I’d ruined so much already. Haltingly, I told her I thought my family was better off without me. Before I left, she told me about suicidal ideation.
In that first session, we honed in on my family relationships, my greatest gift and biggest priority, as a trigger point for all my pain. The problem was with my expectations of my marriage and myself as a mother. They were too high, and when I fell short I went down hard and fast. I mentioned the church only briefly, by way of background. “I left the Mormon church four years ago. They have a few ideas about marriage and family. That might be where some of this is coming from.”
In later sessions, I told my therapist about the church’s teachings about the “ideal” family. My therapist visibly reacted to that word, with a sharp inhale and a straightening up in her chair, but she regained her professional composure quickly and I went on. The ideal family is made up of a husband and wife who have been married in an LDS temple and their children, born and raised in wedlock. In an ideal family, the husband presides over the family and provides for them, while the wife nurtures their children. Not all Latter-Day Saint families are ideal, but they should all strive to be.
My family is not ideal. My husband is not Mormon. I’m not anymore, either, but he never was. We did not marry in the temple. I work and he stays at home. We only have one daughter. We tried to have more but it didn’t happen and we decided not to pursue fertility treatments.
I told my therapist I didn’t believe those teachings anymore, but that I was still convinced my marriage was doomed to end in divorce and that my daughter had no chance at a good life. I was still convinced that families with more than one child were happier than mine. I was convinced that every family was happier than mine.
We talked about the same things week after week after week. Our sessions moved to the phone and then to video when the pandemic hit and I was grateful I’d found a therapist before the world shut down. I was especially grateful for the timing because the pandemic put my most tender hurts on display. On my endless walks around the block I saw so many happy families, so many kids playing together in front yards, so many couples riding bikes together, so many driveways chalked with rainbows and hearts. In our house, all I saw was a tangle of mental health issues, a husband and a wife getting on each others’ last nerves trying to share the same small space all day, and a sad, lonely, and scared little girl. Intellectually, I knew other families were struggling too, that other kids had nightmares, that other moms felt like they were failing, but I couldn’t feel my way out of the lie that mine had it worse, and it was all my fault. On my walks, I started averting my eyes from the happiest looking houses and crossing the street to avoid other families even when it wasn’t strictly necessary to maintain social distance. I pretended not to see my neighbors who were stay-at-home moms. I was walking in the light of day but living in a shadow, hiding in plain sight.
It was on a weekday walk in mid-May, when the sun was starting to shine with a little more warmth and the dogwoods were out in full bloom, that my mind turned off in a darker direction. I was sunk deep in an audiobook and the narrator introduced a new character as a writer, a therapist, and a mom. My ears perked up, as they always do when I hear about working moms who are described in ways that make them sound happy, rather than harried, and I thought “Hey, I’m a mom and a writer! I wonder what she writes about?” Immediately, my brain turned on me, attacking the comparison. “She’s probably a real mom. Not like you.”
What in the world? I’d had some practicing fact-checking the voices in my head from therapy and this particular thought was so blatantly untrue stacked up against the physical evidence of my parenthood–the scar on my pelvis, my daughter watching Puppy Dog Pals at home, the thousands of insurance dollars going to therapy so I could figure out how to be a better mom–that I tested it. What distinction between me and this unknown woman could I possibly have seized upon to feed the idea that I was not, in fact, a mom? My mind supplied the answer in seconds. “She probably has more than one kid. She probably works part time. She’s probably home with her kids right now and you’re out wandering around the neighborhood talking to yourself.” Well then. I had me there. I gave up the fight and walked home, head hung impossibly low.
Back at home, I climbed onto the couch with my daughter and curled up behind her. I held her as the clock ticked past nine, nine-fifteen, nine-thirty. I was supposed to go downstairs and start working, but I stayed by her side until my husband came down from his own appointment ready to start another day of at-home school. Downstairs in my makeshift office I prepared to start by workday, but there was one thing I needed to do first. I pulled out a notebook and made a list of the lessons from Mormonism I thought I’d left behind. Having a family is the most important thing a person can do. God wants parents to have as many children as they can. Raising children is the most important thing a woman can do. Big families are more righteous. Small families are selfish. Women who work are selfish. Fathers who don’t work are lazy. Children whose mothers’ work will suffer.
This is the soil that grew me up, the dirt in which I laid the seeds for my own family. I might have stopped paying tithing but my church membership was not free.
I registered for an account at quitmormon.com that day and filled in the forms to have my names removed from the records of the church. I was dismayed when I realized that the process wasn’t automatic. I got the completed forms back in my email inbox. I’d have to print them, get them notarized, and mail them off to church headquarters in Salt Lake City myself. I looked up the closest notary public. Illinois was still shut down except for essential business, but the UPS store downtown was open. I weighed the risks of possible exposure to the novel against continued exposure to the virus that had already made me sick. I hadn’t been inside a building other than my own home in two months. There had to be a better way. I looked at the forms again and noticed that they’d been prepared for a law firm. I’m a lawyer, too. It occurred to me that I shouldn’t need a lawyer to leave my church. I dug up an email address for the bishop of my old ward and shot him off a note. “I’m writing to tell you that I’d like to end my membership in the church and have my name removed from the church’s records. Please let me know what I need to do to facilitate this process.”
I fell out of love with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on November 4, 2015. On May 20, 2020 I decided to leave. I had my bishop on the phone within a day and a week later I had in my hand a letter dated May 22, 2020. “Per your request, your membership resignation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been accepted and processed. Should you desire to become a member of the Church in the future, the local bishop or branch president in your area will be happy to help you.”
I didn’t have to leave my house to leave the church but I would have if the bishop hadn’t helped me out. If I wanted a chance at sticking around to love the family I made, I needed to start hacking at the roots of the weed threatening to choke off our tree.
A few weeks after I left, I saw on Facebook that the pastor of the United Methodist Church had performed her first pandemic baptism with a garden hose in someone’s front yard. It occurred to me that I was finally eligible to join the congregation I’d been part of for the past four years. I thought about sending off another email, but decided to keep scrolling. Now that I know what essential looks like I know that joining another church is not. I think I’ll just shelter in place.
There is no part of my drinking and sobriety that’s not covered over in religion. I was Mormon for all but the last couple months of my drinking career. I was a Jack Mormon and a Lapsed Mormon and a Cafeteria Mormon and an Unorthodox Mormon and Disaffected Mormon but I was always a Mormon. Much of the time I was a believing Mormon. People have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion of a Mormon alcoholic but that’s what I was. Alcoholism doesn’t discriminate. I was born and raised in a religion that preached abstinence and I loved my church and the good life it gave me but I loved drinking more. Loving booze is not what made me an alcoholic, though. I knew I was alcoholic because drinking was a destructive force in my life and I kept drinking anyway and because when I tried to quit I couldn’t. That’s when I first really leaned into religion. I thought that being a Good Mormon would help me quit drinking. It didn’t. Or, maybe it would have, but I couldn’t quite get there.
My last time in a Mormon church was November 2015. I was serious about quitting drinking by then, too. I’d been to twelve step meetings, admitted I had a problem, started piecing together weeks without alcohol. I convinced myself I deserved to give drinking a shot without the influence of Mormonism, though, so I picked up intentionally on New Years Eve 2015 and drank my way through January. Even those first months of freedom from the religion were not free from religion. I went to the Unitarian Church, shaky, hungover, afraid. The wheels were coming off. My last Day 1 was January 30, 2016
When I quit drinking for good I dove headfirst into spirituality and, eventually, back into religion at a new church. I used to think that was because I needed God to get sober. Now, in the pandemic, I’m unmoored from all that. Not God, but the walls that gave my spiritual life structure. I don’t go to church. I don’t do devotional practices. Without that framework, I tell fewer and fewer stories about God. I really thought I needed all the accouterments of religious ritual and belief to not drink. But here I am not drinking and wondering if God was just something I needed to give my abstinence meaning.
These days, I am less inclined to search for meaning in not drinking. I am less compelled to tell a story with a grand overarching moral narrative about about my sobriety. Not drinking does not need to serve some higher purpose. It need not be preordained. It’s just, for me, a better way to live.
Truth be told, it’s only very recently that I’ve come around to this idea. For most of my sobriety, I was convinced it was the way I was supposed to live–it was an obligation, a duty, a should. I would have said that it was a better way to live but I would not have been talking strictly about life without booze. I would have been talking about the spiritual life I found in sobriety, a life abundant with purpose and connection.
Now, in the pandemic, I’m realizing that the benefits of the dry life stand on their own. Four months in, my spiritual life is drained. Connection is nil. Purpose is I don’t know what. I knew this was a possibility and I was terrified of what would happen if and when I washed up on this shore. Relapse was certain. A mental breakdown for sure. Last month, I came close. Without meetings, without community, without structure, I was starting to falter and fray. Frankly, I was coming apart at the edges.
And then I got sick, really sick, stomach sick. I was in bed for two days. It felt as bad as my first and last hangover and every one in between.
When I came out of it, I couldn’t believe it, how incredible it felt to stand up and walk around without the room spinning. Weeks later, I still can’t believe it. Here I am, clear-headed. Here I am, awake to my life. Here I am, alert to what’s coming down the pike. Here I am, alive.
Why wasn’t this enough before?
I thank God that it’s enough.
I thank God for a worldview that can change shape.
I thank God for a sobriety that doesn’t depend on God.
Something about my quarantine diary has been nagging at me. I keep worrying that the day counts are slightly off. I don’t write every day and my entries aren’t always chronological, so it wouldn’t be obvious if my entries were off by a few days. Hell, I could be off by weeks and nobody would know. The piecemeal nature of the response in the U.S. means you don’t know when I went into lockdown mode, and human nature means that you don’t care about the minutiae of my life. I pulled out my calendar this morning to count up from March 14 anyway and confirmed my suspicions. My count was off, but only by one day. It was bound to happen, especially since fudged the numbers on purpose once or twice. What can I say? I wanted to write about my daughter’s birthday on on Day 40, and I needed the heft of a godly history behind me. I know you get it.
Lately, something else has been bugging me, too. The failure of leadership from the federal government and the resulting state-by-state, town-by-town, person-by-person reaction to the pandemic means that you don’t know what quarantine means to me. What am I even doing over here? Quarantine diary was never a wholly accurate moniker, but it’s starting to feel strained now. For the last two weeks, my daughter has been playing outside with neighbor kids without strict regard to social distancing. This weekend, I met up with friends and went for an early maskless run. I’ve been sheltering-in-place for 94 days, but what does that even mean? I mean, I’ve been trying to tell you what it means to me, but I can’t tell you everything.
What else haven’t I told you? How often I cry. How much it hurts.
What kind of diary is this anyway? I bend the timeline to my will but am compelled to fact-check myself later. I play fast and loose with people, places, and things but find it imperative that I communicate my innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires so accurately and absolutely as to leave no room for possibility that I will be misunderstood.
In the parlance of first year English lit, I tend to think of this diary as being closer to Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography than James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, by which I mean: Could a scholar of my life find some inconsistencies between the way I lived and what I wrote? Probably, but I’d stand by it as memoir even if Oprah herself tried to take me down.
In deep-Mormon vernacular, I’d say that this diary is more like the Doctrine & Covenants than the Book of Mormon, by which I mean: Look at this extraordinary life I lived, the people I’ve known, the things I’ve built. You will know my history. Can I prove I talked to God? Probably not, but you can’t disprove it either.
In my heart of hearts, I believe this diary is more like the Bible than anything else, which is to say: I’ve got a lot of fear, a lot of love, and a lot of nerve.
I am Eve in the Garden, the Woman at the Well, the Boy in the Grove. I am the Finger pointing at the Moon.
Yesterday in therapy my counselor asked if I liked being a lawyer. I said yes, and then went on a tangent about how much harder it was at my previous job at a big firm downtown, where I was petrified of showing my real personality. I established rigid boundaries between my work self and my real self and flattened myself out into a picture of the kind of person I thought people wanted me to be. I spent a lot of time thinking about my work wardrobe, buying the cheapest versions of fancy lawyer clothes I could countenance, and then hating them all. I was too weird, I thought, for the workplace. Of course, with few exceptions, I largely failed connect authentically with my coworkers. It wasn’t my law firm’s fault. I was just insecure, afraid of getting fired. Even then, I liked my job because I like being a lawyer. But I was also suffering deeply from the fragmentation. Seven years is a long time to hide who you are.
Yesterday was also the first day of Lent. I left the office a few minutes early to meet my family for the evening Ash Wednesday service. The elevator doors opened to take me down and there was a man, close to my age, with a dark smudge on his forehead. I did a double take. The mark was jarring.
Stop staring, I told myself. It’s just the ashes. You’re about to go do the same thing.
Yeah, but, I shot back at myself. You would never do it before work.
I want to be a Christian in my heart, but only sometimes, and in my head almost never. I want to wear it on my sleeve–or on my face, as it were–not at all.
At the church, R and I had forty-five minutes to kill while our daughter rehearsed with the children’s choir. You can always count on the children’s choir to be featured at the sparsely attended weekday services. We settled down on a bench outside the chapel and downloaded notes from therapy, notes on parenting. We watched our senior pastor walk the labyrinth in the snowy courtyard and burn last year’s palms to make this year’s ashes. Before she went out in her parka and fuzzy hat she warned, Don’t worry about what you see out there, I’m just making some Jesus magic. When the smoke blew up around her, I wanted to take a picture through the wavy glass windows, but refrained. I thought the ritual might be sacred. Also, I gave up Instagram for Lent, so what would I even do with it? A few minutes later, R pointed out that Pastor Grace had her phone up high, snapping her own photo of the fire. For Facebook, she told us when she came back inside.
Later, when we were settled in the chapel, D in the front row with the choir and R and I few rows back, I tucked myself under R’s arm and we traded jokes and snickered as we waited for the service to start. R doesn’t come to church often, so it’s something a novelty to have him there. Our irreverence continued during the service, when R said something blasphemous and a hymnal in rebuke thudded from the shelf under the pew and landed on his feet. We almost exploded in laughter when the choir sang at the way D thrust her tone chime into the air like a sword, face straining, eyes wild, belting out “Now Is The Acceptable Time.” She seems, so far, to have inherited my deep love of performing and utter lack of awareness about the way I move through the world. When the time came, D and I approached the altar together. We each took a piece of coal to rub in our hands. D tried to pass hers off to me. Here, you can have this. It smells bad. We dropped our coal in a plastic bucket and received our ashy tattoos. R stayed in his seat.
I thought about how, when I was Mormon, it bothered me that R didn’t come to church, but it bothered me even more when he did. It bothered me how he kept his mouth closed during hymns, his eyes open during prayers. It bothered me when he stage-whispered comments about the church leader dozing off behind the pulpit or a too-long talk or a painfully sincere testimony. There’s a way to act in church, I thought, and you don’t have to be Mormon to figure it out. I didn’t like what it said about him, that he couldn’t he get with the program, and I didn’t like what it said about me, that I couldn’t just enjoy having him there. We were, I thought, too worldly to be Mormon. I flattened myself out into a picture of what I thought a Mormon needed to be, straining myself and my marriage in the process. It wasn’t Mormonism’s fault. I was just afraid people would find out who I really was, and the jig would be up. Of course I suffered. Thirty years is a long time to hide who you really are.
I haven’t been to an LDS service in a long time. I am wildly grateful to have found a new church home, something I never expected after leaving Mormonism but, honestly, think the church is getting the better end of the deal. Churches in general, in my view, are blessed to have any members at all. And the fact that my new church gets the realest, most authentic version of me? The silly and the snarky and the deviant and doubtful all rolled up with the serious and faithful and the diligent and sincere? The one that comes with a hilarious and filthy-mouthed husband who doesn’t know how to use his inside voice? The church should thank its lucky stars.
This year was only my second getting ashes. Last year, I was mortified the entire long walk to the altar and back again, convinced everyone was staring at me, especially my ashless husband. It felt horrifying to be revealed for the Christian neophyte and, simultaneously, the religious freak I still am. Somehow, though, I grew more in a year in my new faith than I did in many in my old. This time around I forget about them straight away, not just the stain on my own head, but the one on my daughter’s, and the one that R refused to wear. The ashes don’t matter. The baptism doesn’t matter. The church doesn’t matter. We were all dirty and now, headed into Lent, we are all clean.