As a 24-year-old Mormon alcoholic, Bob Morris experiences those white-knuckle moments when he has to hang on to his sobriety. “I still have tough times,” he admits, his green eyes grave as he talks. “Sometimes I’m biting my nails to not think the way I used to think.”
These days, Morris spends his evenings at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, a radical change from the life he lived only seven months ago. Back then, he hung out drinking with his friends and cruising around Provo in a foggy beer-soaked haze. Several nights a week he would jettison himself into oblivion as he drank until he was unconscious.
He’s not alone in his struggle. Alcoholism is the leading reason Utahns are placed in drug recovery programs.
Alcoholism is a strange phenomenon in Utah, because the prominent faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, eschews alcohol, whether it’s beer, wine or hard liquor. It’s especially strange in Utah County, where over 80 percent of the population is considered Mormon, but also where, according to statistics supplied by the Utah Division of Substance Abuse (DSA), around 45 percent say they have experimented with alcohol.
In the past few years, the treatment admissions rate for alcoholics in Utah County has more than doubled, going from 304 in 1998 to 644 admissions in 2000. And these are just the people who were lucky enough to get treatment. The DSA reports that in 1995 (the most current statistics available), 6,559 people in Utah County needed treatment for alcohol abuse.
Bob Morris’ life changed with a DUI charge seven months ago. At first he was devastated. “I thought my life was over,” he recalled about the moment when the reality of the DUI sunk in. But now he’s grateful that his alcoholism was caught early. Morris knows what all Alcoholics Anonymous devotees know: Alcoholism is a progressive disease. It sneaks up and takes over, choking the free will out of its victims until some are in a continuous stupor. “It was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I’m glad I got caught.”
A State of Extremes
Utah County is a place of extremes when it comes to alcohol. “On the one hand, there’s good news about alcoholism in Utah County,” said Bruce Chandler, a program manager for Utah County Human Services. “On the other hand, there’s bad news.”
Chandler moves throughout the drug and alcohol addiction programs, working with in-house residential programs and treatment programs at the jail.
“The good news is that far less people imbibe here,” Chandler said. “The bad news is that for those who are in a state of rebellion, who dive in head-first to the point it becomes a crusade for them, the likelihood of them developing an addiction is higher.”
It’s a feeling that, since they’ve already tarnished their lives, they may as well go all the way. These are the people who drink until they see double, then drive. Then they face the stigma. “They have to look at themselves and say ‘My life is out of control,’” Chandler said. “There’s an obsession and compulsion with using it. They come face to face with the fact that they have to give it up or change. The problem is that they like it and it takes away the pain.”
For some, the drinking escalates until their pursuit of good times through alcohol becomes an addictive craving. “They drink to celebrate and commiserate,” said Richard Nance, director of Human Services for Utah County. “Then some move to the point that they’re drinking to be drinking,” Chandler said. “They become alcoholic. They drink because they can’t not drink. They get sick if they don’t.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 71 percent of Utahns abstain from alcohol. But it’s not a totally dry state: 36 percent of men and 23 percent of women in Utah could be found lifting up wine glasses for a toast or drinking beer when watching Monday Night Football.
When the number-crunchers total the statistics, they find that Utah drinkers imbibe more on average than those who drink in California, Massachusetts, New York and 27 other states. The average consumption of a Utah drinker is 4.56 drinks. In California, it’s only 3.67. In Massachusetts it’s 3.75 and in New York it’s 3.62.
Most who drink to excess in Utah County started drinking in their teenage years. “When I hold a therapy session, I ask them when they started drinking,” said Eric Schmidt, a program director for Utah County Human Services. “When I ask how many started between the ages of 12 and 14, two-thirds of the hands go up. By the time I get to asking how many started by 18, 99 percent of the hands have gone up.”
This reflects a national trend. By the time students reach their senior year in high school, 80 percent across the country have experimented with alcohol. One of the biggest problems in alcoholics is the frequent inability to recognize it. “One of the cardinal presenting problems for anyone in drug and alcohol treatment is denial,” said Nance.
The Mormon Alcoholics Group
Larry, a businessman in Utah County, remembers the denial. “I was a perfect closet alcoholic,” he said. “Deception was my middle name.”
That was one of the main reasons he stood up in his Mormon church meeting two years ago and shared the secret he had been carrying around for 23 years. He felt that getting rid of the denial was part of his recovery.
“Hi, I’m Larry and I’m an alcoholic,” he told his fellow elders at a quorum meeting. “My life is going down the tubes. I’ve hated drinking for years but I couldn’t stop. This is who I am. I hope you can still love me.”
He had been arrested for a DUI while on a business trip in Washington. While driving on that trip, he remembers feeling “10 feet tall and bulletproof.” After the arrest, he spent 36 hours in jail. “I had no idea how my wife was going to learn to trust me again,” he said, as he agonized in his jail cell.
But in the midst of his agony, he, too, was grateful he had been caught.
“I laid in bed all night praying I could get through this without losing my family,” he said. “On the other hand, I was grateful that now it was going to come out. I realized that the only way I was going to get through this was to let everyone know I had a problem.”
Larry was ordered to undergo two years of rehabilitation and drug testing. He’s been dry now for two and a half years. Currently, he helps with the LDS 12-Step family services substance abuse recovery meetings. The LDS group has meetings running every night at several locations throughout Utah County, often held in the high council meeting rooms in the ward buildings.
Kirsten, Larry’s wife, goes with him to the meetings to support him.
“It makes us look a little more human together,” she said. “It’s important that people know that other people are suffering with this and there’s a way to get help.”
She’s had her own journey of recovery from co-dependency. “I had probably done more to hide his drinking problem than anyone else,” she said.
Larry didn’t want to drink at home, so he would drink before he came home. If he came home late, drunk, Kirsten would pretend to be asleep. She kept thinking that if she just kept the house clean enough, or get a job so they didn’t have as many money worries, or if things just went well enough at home, then Larry wouldn’t drink. Her whole life revolved around the co-dependency. “Finally, we got to the point where we realized that he had a problem,” she said.
They feel fortunate that their bishop and neighbors were supportive. For them, the process of fighting the addiction has been a spiritual experience. “There is no greater spiritual healing than an addict being healed,” said Kirsten.
The Booming AA
Patty, a 72-year-old recovering alcoholic, knows about healing and also about the intense addiction of alcoholism. She works as the manager of the Provo Alcohol Anonymous district office.
“You make your own jail, your own prison,” she says of the trap of alcoholism. “Drugs and alcohol can build the toughest walls you’ve ever seen.”
Alcoholics Anonymous runs group meetings every day of the week in Utah County, sometimes with five sessions running simultaneously. Recently, Patty sat in the white-walled Provo office and spoke with an older woman in a flower-print dress. She gave the woman some pamphlets and told her where she can get help. The woman’s grown daughter sat close by. When Patty finished talking, the older woman rose and Patty instinctively hugged her. “You hang in there and keep coming back,” Patty said.
The woman and her daughter were soon replaced by other recovering alcoholics, who plunked down on the gray sofas and chairs scattered around. They all have stories. They can all recite the exact day they had their last drink, their anniversary of soberness.
Mike, in his 30s with long hair and a baseball cap, sits on one of the sofas. Melanie, a pretty, doe-eyed pregnant woman, sits on another. Then Kay, a 43-year-old Mormon mom comes in and sits with the others. Their stories are similar. They started drinking as part of their teenage years; a wild joy ride of parties and social drinking. Then the fun went away, and they drank to wipe away the pain. Finally, they got to the point that they were drinking just in an attempt to feel good again. It became an obsession, where every waking thought was centered on how to get that next drink.
They wonder about the liquor laws in Utah and Utah County. “I would know that I couldn’t buy beer in Utah County on a Sunday, so every Saturday night I would stock up and keep it hidden,” Mike said. Then he would look at the stockpile and drink it all.
They all know how harmful the concept of ‘stocking up’ was in their lives. They also know about denial. “The disease is centered in the mind,” Kay said. “It lies to us and tells us that we don’t have it. Everyone else can see it but we can’t.”
As part of recovering, they have to give up thinking patterns and faulty ways of relating to others.
“Some alcoholics are in a rebellion,” Kay said, “but even if they’re not, they feel different from other people. It’s the stinkin’ thinking. It’s either ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m better than they are.’ It’s never fitting in. In relationships, it’s like being outside a candy store, looking in the window and never being able to go in.”
For her, the worst part of the disease is not knowing why you’re different and what’s wrong with you. It’s the feeling that someone else can lead a good life, “while everything I do is wrong —it never seems to turn out.”
Kay gave up drinking and joined the Mormon church in 1986. Then after three years, she had a relapse when she had a drink at a county fair. Two weeks later, she regained consciousness in a mud puddle in a relative’s back yard. Her 10-year-old daughter was standing over her. “Mommy, please stop,” her daughter cried. “Mommy, please don’t do this to me. It’s my birthday.”
Kay still lives with the guilt of that relapse, and the guilt of having given birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome. “There’s such guilt,” she said. “Every day I have to look my child in the eye.”
She has to fight the negative feelings because it can lead to more drinking.
Patty looks around Utah County and wishes more people would get help. “People are not getting help,” she said. “They’re running away from themselves and the problem. Too many people don’t get help. It makes me sick to think about it.”
She sees alcoholism as an undercurrent in the consciousness of the community.
“Unless they see someone who is a fall-down drunk, they don’t see that there’s a problem in Utah County,” Patty said.
The Invisible Man
Gary Whiting, a former member of the Mormon church, philosophizes as he sits at a barstool at ABGs in downtown Provo. He’s owned the bar, officially called “A Beuford Gifford’s Club” for seven years. A self-described “big man,” Whiting’s silver hair is gathered in a ponytail and his blue eyes look out thoughtfully from behind oval-shaped glasses. It’s a Friday afternoon and Whiting drinks coffee with cream in a tall beer mug. The bar is quiet now, very different from how it’s going to be later in the evening when a band will start blaring and a crowd will gather. Some will play pool at the two tables in the back. Early in the evening, they may saunter over and choose songs from the jukebox.
Some will simply drink and perch at the high round tables and talk and listen to the band. As Whiting looks around on these evenings, he senses that many of the patrons are like him: people who were raised in the LDS church but somehow changed along the way. Also, there are the imports, the new move-ins who are of different faiths or no faith at all. And then there’s the business he gets from the local hotel guests who walk over in the evenings looking for a drink.
Why does he think some Mormons, who were raised in a religion that shuns alcohol, start drinking? And then drink to excess? “To relax,” he shrugs.
He thinks for a moment and sighs. He’s reflected a lot about his former faith. He says he sees stress, fear and pain in his community. “They’re afraid they’re not living their life right,” he says. “They’re afraid they’re not doing their duty to God right, afraid they’re not doing their job right, afraid they’re not raising their kids right. They’re living a religion where you can’t ever totally add up until after you die.”
He also shakes his head at the state’s quirky liquor laws, although he’s seen worse in the Bible Belt. Sometimes he wonders if the laws make things worse, like the law that says he can’t pour a half a shot from a bottle—he has to pour a full shot or none at all, with liquor counted and controlled as it’s dispensed.
There’s a certain mindset in Utah County: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
“Everybody wants us to be here because we serve the community,” Whiting said. “But nobody wants us to be seen.”
He lives as an invisible man in the midst of church-going Utah County. And in the evenings, he moves among the other invisible people of Utah County, as they drink in dark-walled, closed-in bars with smoke wafting upward from cigarettes held in invisible fingers.