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.
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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.
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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 my 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.