After the decision to leave was made, after we let our intentions be known to our bishop, after I began an honest and open investigation of the place I had centered my life around…
Rick and I stood together, muddling through day-to-day life. But it was a life that had lost it’s definition, and our marriage had lost it’s boundaries, and our parenting had lost the written manual. We were still hiding from most of our loved ones. We lived in California at the time, and my family lived in Colorado, Rick’s in Vermont. We did not need to tell them quite yet, about our radical decision. The ability to secretly flounder our way through those first terrifying months was a factor so gratifying I was both weak with relief and completely wild with the task of hiding the chaos that we had unleashed in our lives.
We had to redefine everything. The names we go by (Brother and Sister Poulin), what we ate (I still love green jello and funeral potatoes) what we drank, and where to charitably contribute now that 10% of our income was not being poured into building more churches. We had to take a look at the kind of art we hung on the walls, the kind of cheap summer t-shirts I filled my cart with at Target (hello tank tops!!!) and even the kind of underwear we wore. (It took me 8 years to buy ANYTHING white again).*
Most importantly, we had to discover what we would tell our children about God and their divine nature, what life is all about, what happens when we die, and who they really are… after all, my stories had just turned to ash in my hands. Luckily, they were still so little, just twenty months old and five months old. They had no idea what was happening to us as a family, though they surely felt the shaky trepidation that filled me countless times a day when the question “what if I am WRONG?” rose in my throat like a bubble and burst in my brain, sending waves of panic and visions of outer darkness (mormon hell).
As babies, they surely sensed my rage and deep sense of betrayal as I explored my entire past, my heritage, the doctrine … with freedom and a more open mind, and found things that made me question every conclusion and idea I had ever had about the nature of Heavenly Father, the prophet Joseph Smith, and all of those Book of Mormon stories. I thought I was just leaving our religion, but mormonism is a culture. A way of life. Of thinking. Of filtering the world.
To lose one’s cultural roots and orientation along with one’s definition of God and the purpose of life was a process, not a simple matter of walking away.
Several months into our life outside of the chapel doors, I was aching to share my fears with someone, but Rick remained adamantly opposed to talking about my research. We did talk a lot about the rules that had been governing our lives. Mormons live by a very long list of rules. They undergo interviews to determine how compliant they are, and whether they are worthy enough to enjoy certain blessings that are tied directly to eternal salvation. Chastity, paying 10% of your income as tithing, and following the Word of Wisdom are crucial for earning entrance to the celestial kingdom (the highest degree of heaven). Additionally, there are a more complex list of cultural rules that are tiptoed around and wrestled with in mormon life. Rules about tattoos, body piercings, the color of shirt the men wear to pass the sacrament, length of hair and facial hair for men, dress codes, the kind of t.v., movies, books, music and magazines you enjoy, the language you use, the activities you engage in on Sundays…. it goes on, and on.
Together, we began to pick through this pile, sorting what stays and what goes like a giant garage sale. It was tedious, and the discussions left us squirming and scared. After a several months, drinking alcohol was brought up.
I had very little experience with drinking in my past, before we had met.
My parents told me my whole life that alcohol was sinful, it would destroy my entire life, and if I took one sip I would certainly be an alcoholic, since I had a few in my family tree. I would unleash a demon that could not be tamed if I broke the Word of Wisdom (the code of rules that includes a forbidding of coffee, tea and alcoholic beverages). Mormon people can not marry in the temple if they do not diligently follow the word of wisdom. It is a strictly enforced rule, and people follow it because it is an easy choice… go to heaven, or have a latte. I was absolutely terrified of alcohol.
Being the stalwart rule follower, I had not had a drink of any kind until my 21st birthday. My boyfriend at the time slid it across the bar table at me. A Killian’s Red. On that same afternoon, Salt Lake City was hit with a destructive tornado, right in the heart of the city. A tornado in the Salt Lake valley surrounded by enormous mountains was an unheard of weather phenomenon, and the mormon girl in me shuddered as I sipped that first beer. It was a sign.
Rick on the other hand, was a seasoned pot head back in the day. As a devotee of the law, this knowledge always shocked my innocent mind.
His stories of graduating from college and moving to Lake Tahoe with his buddies in order to engage in a year submerged in skiing, video games and surrounded in an ever-present cloud of skunky smoke made my head spin in confusion. When Rick would talk about his past, it always left me completely mystified. I had only known the mormon version of Rick, the return missionary. His “before the church” Rick stories did not merge with the man I knew. At all. I felt like he was making it up entirely. The disconnect seemed so distinct, I simply could not understand how a pot smoking ski bum could also be my straight laced math-geek husband who wrote me hand written love letters, went to four hours of additional church meetings on sundays (regular church service is three hours long) with a smile on his face, and made sure we never watched a rated R movie.
Rick grew up with beer in the fridge and did not think twice about it. He probably had the same perception of it as I did with caffeinated sodas…a can of pepsi was an adult beverage in my childhood home. (A lot of mormons will extend the Word of Wisdom to caffeinated beverages of any kind, but this delineation is left for personal interpretation).
Rick never really liked drinking either, which is why weed had been his choice activity in those pre-mormon days. But Rick had given up his pot, alcohol, and coffee, to be a mormon man (amongst other things not related to the word of wisdom). He did it happily, and enjoyed the changes it brought into his life. He told me he never missed it, longed for it, or felt tempted by his past. It is obviously a more healthy way of life, to be free from addictive substances, and it was no problem for him to leave it behind.
Our long discussion ended one night, when Rick put a six pack of Killian’s Red down on the couch between us, and we stared at it silently.
Do we dare?
Fear made my heart pulse in my throat as he handed me one. It felt necessary. Like swinging an axe uncomfortably close to an appendage in order to break the chains. A shedding of controlling beliefs, an opening towards our own ability to choose. The most recent material I had read in my research of the church fueled my boldness. I would not let a church sitting on that newly unveiled foundation control me. We each picked up a cold bottle from the cardboard carrier, clinked them together in the world’s most awkward toast, and headed into purgatory with a few cool gulps…
A Killian’s Red. (Ew).
We each drank one. It felt scary to put the unopened bottles in the fridge next to the bottles of breast milk and applesauce. It felt like we were already raging alcoholics, as I buried the empty bottles in the garage with the dirty diapers. We went to bed, Rick still wearing his garment top as we lay together. He leaned over and kissed me, and I tasted it in his mouth…the Killians Red lurked there, under the toothpaste.
What have I done?
My brain screamed…I have unleashed an unpredictable monster!
Mayday! It’s Pandora’s Box! Evil!
I know mormon Rick. He was a guy I chose to marry. I did not know the Rick that existed before the mormoness. And I had asked him to strip away those mormon pieces. The armor will come off, the rules and regulations will be chipped away…but I did not know what I would find there.
What if he becomes someone completely unrecognizable to me? A stranger? A stranger I can’t love?
What if I became a woman unbearable to Rick? If I lost control of myself entirely and was unable to make these choices for myself?
We kissed, and he tasted cryptic. I pulled off his mormon garment top to touch the real man beneath that cotton barrier, a part of me vowed to pour that evil beer down the sink first thing in the morning. The other part of me, only a tiny bit stronger, softened into the fear and the mystery and freedom of becoming something new. Or perhaps, we would not become something new, but simply discover what we were underneath… once the fear was shed.
*Active, devoted mormon adults wear unique underwear. You must gain a temple recommend, be deemed “worthy,” and go through a secret ritual in a temple before wearing the underwear. The underwear is referred to as garments. It is always white, and considered sacred. Both men and women wear garments, and by design restricts certain kinds of fashion, including sleeveless tops. You must be worthy and wear the garments at all times except to shower, be intimate with a spouse, or swim. in order to enter the highest degree of heaven.