I Had My First Drink at 36 After I Left the Mormon Church

published May 21, 2017
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(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

I had my first baby at age 21 and my first drink of alcohol at 36 — and no, that’s not a typo. I was born and raised a Mormon and, as part of adherence to my faith, I abstained from alcohol. Entirely. I never touched so much as a drop until several months after I left Mormonism at 36 with my husband and our two sons.

Mormonism is a high-intensity religion (like, even more than SoulCycle), demanding equal parts obedience and belief. Obedience was never the hard part for us, but belief? Over time, that part became impossible.

Leaving the church came with a lot of changes for us and a period of reevaluating rules by which we lived, including rules about drinking.

Part of my motivation to try drinking was motherhood, which sounds like a punchline from a Facebook meme, but bear with me. Here’s the thing: How could I expect to help my children responsibly navigate a world of alcohol as they came of age if I had no knowledge or experience myself?

I determined that learning about alcohol was a must, and if I happened to enjoy it? Gravy! Gravy in a wine glass.

As I was discussing this very idea via text with a neighbor of mine, she showed up at my door with a bottle of Fireball cinnamon whiskey in a brown paper bag and asked if I was ready. I was. It was a weekday afternoon, the kids were still at school, and we sat at my kitchen island sipping a half-shot of whiskey out of plastic juice glasses from IKEA.

I waited to feel the great forbidden mystery of intoxication. The first thing I noticed, of course, was the burn at the back of my throat and, later, a very faint fuzzy feeling in the tip of my nose. (Although in retrospect, that could have been imagined through a hyper-focus on all physical sensations happening in that moment.) That’s it. The experience wasn’t amazing or horrible, but crossing the threshold did feel important and necessary, not unlike getting my first training bra.

It was a weekday afternoon, the kids were still at school, and we sat at my kitchen island sipping a half-shot of whiskey out of plastic juice glasses from IKEA.

But a half-shot of Fireball does not an education make, so I suggested to my husband that we get ourselves a wine mentor. (I figured we did not need liquor mentors, as that role was being filled by roughly 95 percent of the Real Housewives on my DVR.) He had just the person in mind — a colleague at work named Doug, a man with a PhD in psychology who claimed to know more about wine than he’s ever known about psychology.

Doug generously accepted his new role and began leaving old copies of Wine Spectator in my husband’s work mailbox before inviting us to the annual sale at his favorite wine store. On our way there to meet Doug, I was chatting with my husband about how it would be fun to pick up a bottle of white, a bottle of red, or perhaps a bottle of rosé instead, since my entire knowledge of wine was limited to exactly one Billy Joel song. We pulled up to the store and did a double-take. The outside aesthetic looked more like a murder-y truck stop than the incredible wine store our distinguished wine mentor Doug touted. Had we not seen his car parked near the front door, we might have fled.

First lesson learned: Do not judge a wine store by its murder-y truck stop exterior.

(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

Inside, the store opened into a well-organized, well-stocked wine store organized by geographic region and staffed by people who loved wine as much as their unassuming cargo shorts and sneakers, and who knew Doug by name. Rather than the one to three bottles I envisioned picking up that day, I found a shopping cart full of wine bottles, each hand-picked by Doug with a short primer about the region and grape and why this particular bottle was a good representation of its particular type, giving us a smart place to start learning the wines of the world. This was a private Wine 101 course that cost roughly $384 (for the wine, Doug didn’t charge us anything for his lessons). An outstanding value.

Second lesson learned: Alcohol, and wine specifically, can be a wonderful, intellectual endeavor! Who knew? (Smart-aleck answer: everyone but Mormons!) Thirty-six years of Diet Coke could never make that claim.

Doug also invited us to wine tastings he thought we’d like, introduced us to friends to widen our circle, occasionally left a bottle we “just had to try” in my husband’s office, and never once made us feel like a carnival attraction freak show. In addition to a year’s worth of curated wine, he gave us some valuable tools to learn our own preferences.

  • Taste two bottles against each other to compare.
  • Don’t get caught up in food pairings — they’re overrated.
  • A good bottle does not need to be expensive.
  • Get to know the staff at your wine store because they’ll get to know you and your tastes, too.

But, really, the greatest gift Doug gave us was his kindness entirely void of judgement. Wine mentors — if you don’t have one, get one!

A quick note about beer: Beer is gross. People only like it because it is associated with happy, youthful memories when beer was the only (or easiest) alcohol available. I cannot be convinced otherwise. And yes, I have tried your favorite [insert local hipster small-batch award-winning craft brew]. Ruling stands.

The Surprising Benefits of Learning to Drink at 36

While one could argue that 36 is not an ideal time to start drinking, it did come with some benefits. A 36-year-old body has some advantages that a teenage or even 21-year-old body does not. Yes, it is less forgiving, but I had more experience reading the signs and signals from my own body, making it easy to learn and assess my limits. Plus (bonus!) no peer pressure! No embarrassing college photos with red solo cups! No drunk dialing anybody!

In fact, I’ve only been drunk one time, which happened entirely by accident when the waitress at the tiny, exclusive BYOB restaurant we went to on our anniversary kept refilling our glasses and I lost track of how much I’d had. It was not a sexy drunk, unfortunately. It was a head-spinning, think-I’m-going-to-puke drunk. (Happy anniversary, honey!) Yet another lesson learned.

I’ve been drinking for a handful of years now, an activity I enjoy as a piece of the rich, full experience of normal adulthood. I love our Friday night cocktails, sometimes made in our kitchen, sometimes ordered at our favorite restaurants. I love our Sunday night bottles of wine chosen by my husband to go with the dinner I’ve made (without getting too fussy about it because pairings are overrated). I love the weekly happy hour at the office, a time to relax and get to know my work friends. Most of all, I love knowing that I’m better equipped to help my now-teenaged sons navigate these waters when the time is right … when they are 36. They’re waiting until then, right? Right?