Today was the last day of school, for my daughter and for my husband who was conscripted into being a homeschooling parent. All three of us are feeling the absence of fanfare that ordinarily comes from the school. There was no fun run or field day or end-of-year picnic or class party. It’s bittersweet to watch my daughter try to navigate the transition by creating her own rituals: specifically, a special meal, a party with confetti and balloons, posed pictures, and a certificate for her favorite stuffed dog, who totally coincidentally “graduated from obedience school” the same week that she finished first grade. “Golden is so excited to be done with school!” she’s been saying all week, over and over again.Last night before bed, she got quiet and I wondered if she was feeling sad that her dad and I weren’t making a big a deal of her last day of school. “Hey, D,” I said as I tucked her into bed, “What do you want for your special dinner tomorrow? Pizza? Burgers? Sushi?” “I don’t know,” she mumbled. A moment later, she burst into tears “I’m just going to miss having papa as my teacher.” I didn’t even know what to say. I’ve been so worried that she is sick of her parents and suffering from the absence of any meaningful interaction with other adults and kids that it didn’t occur to me that this time has been as much a gift for her as it is for us. I thought about pointing out that she has a long summer ahead of her at home with no camps and the decent odds that she won’t get to go back to school in the fall, but thought better of it. Rites of passage exist for a reason; the least I can do is not yank her through them just because I’m uncomfortable. “You and papa had a really special time together, didn’t you? You’re a pretty lucky kid.” My words were cold comfort. After I left the room, I stood outside her door and listened to her cry herself to sleep.Somehow, even without having set foot in a classroom for almost three months or a clear idea of what summer will like this year, she woke up today as exuberant any other kid the last day of school. She put on a pretty summer dress without any parental pleading to please change out of her pajamas already. She picked out all the letters to spell out “D’s last day of first grade” lightening fast. Oddly (or not) She put on her backpack, the one that’s been hanging empty by the front door since March, and wore it while she skipped and jumped around the neighborhood on our morning walk. At least a dozen times I told her, “I’m so proud of you” and every time she responded, “I know. I’m proud of me too.”Her dad and I did try to import a little ritual into the day. He printed out a certificate and presented it to her while I played pomp and circumstance on YouTube and clapped. We took pictures and she posed with a real smile. We did order a special dinner (pizza). The best part of the day was wholly impromptu, though. After dinner, we headed outside with a soccer ball and some candy and found a bunch of kids from the neighborhood running around, all buzzy from being cooped up for so many months and the prospect of being released for the summer. We stayed outside, playing near enough but not-quite-next-to other families for an hour and a half. I chatted with the other parents, asking everybody, “What are your plans this summer?” and nodding as all of them answered in the same way. “None. Nothing. We’ll be here.” I wondered if, against all odds and expectations, if this could be the best summer ever, for a kid at least, with nothing to do and nowhere to go and a bunch of neighborhood kids in the same boat.
Lately all my long runs have been up and down Chicago’s north shore. I start in Evanston and wind my way up through Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, and Glencoe and back down again. This isn’t my usual route. I vastly prefer to run south from Evanston down through Rogers Park, Edgewater, Uptown, Lakeview, Lincoln Park and back up again. The northern route is all mansions and empty streets and private beaches. The southern route is all high rises and crowded sidewalks and public beaches. The northern route is all kayaks and sailboats. The southern route is all kites and bikes. The northern route is all cobblestone and the southern route is all cracked pavement. The northern route is edenic gardens and manicured lawns and the southern route is fairy houses and public art. The northern art is wrought iron gates around the best beaches and the southern route is police cruising the beach for no goddamn good reason on a Saturday afternoon.
The first time I ran north, my eyes popped out of my head every mile as the houses doubled then tripled in size and the yards sprouted statuary that was truly bizarre. The last time I ran south I had to turn back when I hit the police barricade and realized Mayor Lightfoot was serious about closing the lakefront in Chicago. Damn. Since then, like I said, all my runs go north, which means all my runs are an exercise in coping with my class-based anxieties.
The first weekend in May I ran north and my mind was blown not by the wealth on display but by the flagrant disregard for social distancing. It was an unseasonably warm day and the beaches and parks and parking lots were swarming. Outdoorsy types on a stroll. Group yoga classes. Barbeques. Men in tight bike clothes just hanging out shooting the shit. College kids, limbs dangling all over each each other, spilling into the intersections. I wasn’t upset, really, just confused. Evanston was still locked down and this was before the data about the reduced risk of infection outside was being widely reported. Every week, sometimes every day, living on the north shore offers tests my commitment to living according to my values. The point of differentiation might be houses or cars or jobs or schools or summer camps or vacations or politics or religion or it might be the public health risks associated with the coronavirus: the outcome is the same. My family and I will be doing something different.
Still, the neighborhood seeps in. I have house envy and, these days especially, yard envy. I worry my kid isn’t in enough activities, even if they are all Zoom-based now. And when I saw all those families tumbling into each other on the sidewalk on a warm day in early May, something in me shifted, ever so slightly. It was my commitment. I knew that next time the neighbor kids ran up to us on the front porch, I wouldn’t go inside or steer my daughter away. This is how it changes. A person. A family. A city. A world. I hope this isn’t how it falls apart.
Edited to add: White privilege is being able to write a post like this without thinking of Chicago’s long and living history of racial segregation and redlining (refusing to grant mortgages and insurance to black people, effectively shutting them out of the American dream of homeownership). White silence is the fact that I did think of those things and wrote the post without acknowledging them anyway. White silence is a manifestation of white supremacy. I thought I didn’t know enough to write about housing discrimination but the truth is I know plenty, just not enough to write about it as eloquently as I am able to do about other things. This too–the valuing of the aesthetics of my writing over acknowledging that my class-based anxieties living in Chicago are nothing compared to what any black person living anywhere in Chicago under any circumstances at any time has had to face–is wrong. If you are a person of color and reading this post, particularly at this time, caused you any harm, I am sorry. I will try not to make this mistake again. If you are white and you want to read more about the devastating effects of discrimination in the housing industry, I highly recommend this extraordinary article by Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Case for Reparations.
Last week, like a lot of white people I know, I dipped my toes into the murky pools of clicktavism, posting content and engaging people on social media as a means of showing that I support the Black Lives Matter movement and am anti-racist. Back in my progressive Mormon days, the internet was the primary locus of my activism, at least in regards to the church. As a woman, I didn’t have any real power to change the church, and as a feminist living far outside the Mormon corridor, the internet was critical to finding like-minded people. After leaving the church and especially after getting sober, I largely stopped acting like an activist online. I didn’t know how to engage political causes on social media without triggering a cascade of character defects–self-centeredness, self-importance, insincerity, intolerance, and anger–so I stopped, stayed silent, and told myself I was protecting my sobriety. Of course, my silence was ego-driven, too, insofar as it shielded me from guilt and criticism over saying the wrong thing, and served to calcify my
Last week, like a lot of white people I know, I cracked. That’s when I did all the things I’d sworn off in sobriety. I shared articles on Facebook and got all lit up when I saw my notification count go up. I talked about race and politics with family. I debated and disagreed. It didn’t feel like an emotional relapse. It felt like freedom from the bondage of self, that thing I plead for every morning with the third-step prayer. I didn’t get sober that I could languish in the land of self-help and healing and surface-level spirituality. I got sober so I could suit up and show up and live life on life’s terms.
Living life on life’s terms is a messy business it turns out. The demonstration in Evanston this weekend wasn’t messy–it was as impressively-organized an event as I’ve ever been too–but the world is. When I was in law school, I participated in a clinic that represented juveniles–kids–facing criminal charges. Our first client was young–fifteen I think, with a bag of skittles in his pocket–and facing charges of assault and attempted homicide of a police officer, though nobody was hurt. It was a hard case, with no witnesses except the police, and no evidence except the gun that the police claimed to have recovered while chasing our client down. The charges were trumped up and there was heaps of reasonable doubt but I remember hating that there had been a gun. It would just be so much easier if there wasn’t a gun. My client went on to get a sentence that would see him turning sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one in detention. I went on to graduate from law school and accept an offer from a prestigious law firm, where I learned that all the cases–civil, criminal, family, immigration–are hard. The easy cases settle out, often before lawyers even get involved.
The reason I want my cases to be easy is not because I can’t handle the legal issues. I like the challenge of a complicated set of facts and a nuanced body of law. I want my cases to be straightforward because it’s easier to defend people that are above reproach. I don’t mean it’s easier to sleep at night; I sleep fine. I mean, literally, it’s easier to tell stories about perfect people than it is to tell stories about people who are flawed. It’s harder to talk about people who are real.
But we are not saints. I’ve been writing publicly about my mess for a decade and it only makes people love me more. Maybe that’s because I write about it in a way that makes me seem reformed. I’m not. I scream at my daughter. I seethe with jealousy at my neighbors and friends. The other white people I got sober with have been liars, cheats, thieves, abusers, manipulators, and criminals. Rapists and racists. White people did those things and no one thinks we deserve to die. Our lives matter, flawed and fucked up as they are.
Black lives matter, too. I’m talking about real black lives and black lives as they really are. Black people deserve to be as complicated and complicit and bad as your favorite white anti-hero and still be fundamentally worthy, valued, and good. They deserve to be seen as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, children, friends, neighbors, artists, leaders, business owners, enthusiasts, gardners, comedians, smart alecks, intellectuals, church goers, strivers, do-gooders, and change-makers. I believe, and some of the people who read by writing probably believe that black people are children of God.
As the eminent Roxane Gay pleaded on Sunday, white people “demand perfection as the price for black existence while harboring no such standards for anyone else.”
Perfection doesn’t exist. Black people are flawed and fully human, just like you. Stop demanding perfection before they deserve your empathy and regard.
Yesterday I left the house armed with a ventilated mask and blue rubber gloves and two neon signs that I made with my daughter to march for black lives and protest police brutality. It was my first time gathering with people outside my household since mid-March and there were a few thousand more than the ten of us now permitted to gather under Illinois’ phased reopening plan. The event was peaceful, family-friendly even, though I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel dangerous to be gathered en masse while the coronavirus is still ravaging the country, if I didn’t admit that I wrestled with whether or not to go after abiding by the stay at home order so strictly for so long, that I figured I’d leave if there were too many people to remain socially distanced throughout.
I went because the fight for black lives is the first truly essential thing I’ve had to do since this started.
I stayed, even though it was immediately clear that I could not stay six feet clear in any direction, because every time I felt a jolt of fear–when somebody bumped up against me or cleared a throat after chanting–I knew that my fear was nothing compared to what black people feel living under the threat of white supremacy on any given day in America, nothing to the constant fear black moms carry every single day they have to send their kids out into a racist world.
I stayed because the odds are higher I have the virus today than yesterday, but the odds of my family’s survival are higher than the odds of my black neighbors with or without the virus.
When I got home I stripped my mask off and scrubbed my hands and threw my clothes in the laundry. My scientist neighbor says coronavirus is easy to kill (“just some RNA, proteins, and lipids that fall apart in soapy water”), so I went back to my family confident I’d done all I could to keep them safe. Have I done everything I can to wash off the blood on my white hands, the racism baked into my beliefs, the after effects of breathing in and benefitting from white supremacy all my life? Have I done everything I can to keep my black friends safe? My neighbors? My community? Not even close, but I’m going to do better.
I had all kinds of contingency plans when I first started trying to get sober. I’d drink if my husband left me. I’d drink of he cheated. I’d drink if my daughter became gravely ill. I’d drink if I lost my parents. I’d drink if I lost my job. I’d drink if my sponsor drank. I never planned for what’s happening now. I had no “I’d drink if the entire world turns upside down and the schools shut down and I can’t go to work or church or meetings and I have no idea when I’ll see my grandma, parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, or in-laws again” loophole, though if I’d known what was coming I certainly would have considered it bad enough to drink over.
Well, now it’s happening and, yes, a drink sounds better to me today than it did three months ago, but I know that even if I want to drink, I don’t have to. I’m one of the lucky ones. When society shut down to contain the killer disease, I might have done the same thing if I didn’t have my own killer disease. The thing about alcoholism is that I already know how to treat it, and when I do what I’m supposed to, I not only don’t drink, but I’m also relieved of the fear that might otherwise take me down.
I went 1,504 days without alcohol in the free world and another 77 under lockdown. Here’s what worked for me:
Maintain Your Routines
The first thing I did when I started working with a therapist was institute an evening routine with a strict bedtime and good sleep hygiene (no screens!). The first thing I did when I started working with a sponsor was adopt a morning routine with an early wake-up call and practices that are good for my body, mind, soul. The first thing I did when the pandemic hit was throw both routines out the window! For a week, I stayed up late eating ice cream and watching TV and scrolling scrolling scrolling and for a week I slept in skipping morning prayer, meditation, writing, and workouts. I thought I deserved the break to compensate for everything else I was losing in the moment, but I felt terrible, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It took talking it over with my therapist to understand how beneficial maintaining routines can be in times of crisis, but once I brought them back (albeit with a little more time to sleep built in) I felt a lot better. I still eat ice cream a lot of nights but I’m not having panic attacks anymore.
Try Something New
During the first week of quarantine I didn’t have access to AA meetings. If groups were meeting in-person or online, I didn’t know about it. So I took what I could find. I saw an advertisement for an online sobriety support group hosted by a sober influencer and I signed up for it, even though I’m wildly skeptical of most influencers. The meeting was totally unlike any other I’d ever been to. The host read poems and led us in meditation. The invited speaker shared a wild yet totally relatable story about getting off opiates with physical fitness and without working the steps or going to meetings. After an hour, I felt at peace, connected, and hopeful about the prospect of staying sober in a strange new world.
Ditch What Doesn’t Work
During that first week of quarantine I also signed up for two email-based AA groups, which are essentially listservs that members can use to read and share messages relating to sobriety at their convenience. I was overjoyed when I was admitted to the groups quickly and thought the format would be perfect for me since, at that time, I was spending most of my days at work and all of my free time battling lice and reading live news updates. Within days I received dozens of welcome emails from other sober women and I felt instantly buoyed by their support. One message took me by surprise, though. The woman said she hoped I’d stick around long enough to see what a great group it was. I scratched my head, and not just because of the lice. I’d mentioned in my intro email that I’m not new to the program. Why wouldn’t I stick around? A few days later, I understood. There were just too many emails. I couldn’t keep up with all the new women coming in and the old women sharing out. I couldn’t follow a thread of conversation or an individual email address long enough to feel connected to either the message or another person. I tried filtering all the emails into separate folders to check later but ended up feeling guilty for ignoring them. As soon as I realized the groups were making me feel worse instead of better. Within a few weeks I found myself asking to be removed from both groups. I made amends to the administrators for taking up their time, but felt no guilt upon leaving. If I didn’t find a meeting, it wouldn’t be because I didn’t try.
Go To A Zoom Meeting
It took a minute, but the alcoholics finally got on Zoom. It took another minute for me to find them, but I finally did. Now I have access to meetings every day of the week any time of day. I can go to meetings anywhere in the world! Apparently this is a terrific feature for sober alcoholics who are well-traveled, which I am not. I am meeting virtually with the group that was my first home group, where I got my first phone numbers, met my sponsor, made my first friends, first stuck my hand up, first shared my story, and celebrated by first, second, and third sober anniversaries. They only meet ten or so miles away in downtown Chicago, but I haven’t seen them since I moved my law practice up to Evanston and seeing them again was like stepping out into a spring day after a long, miserable midwestern winter. Folks who were shipping off to rehab and struggling to string more than ten days together a few years ago are celebrating anniversaries now. Folks with decades of sobriety are still around. Virtual meetings are one of the greatest pleasures of quarantine, and I hope they stick around even when the restrictions lift. Message me if you need help finding one.
In quarantine, I’ve mourned the loss of my support networks–my group of mom friends, my church community, folks from my twelve-step meetings. I’ve thrown myself many pity parties over the fact that most of my friendships haven’t transcended past the level of hanging out in an organized group setting. I wondered why nobody from the neighborhood or church or AA was calling me. I didn’t have to wonder too long before I realized that lots of people had called (and texted and emailed) in the months before the pandemic and, er, I hadn’t called them back. Shit. I needed to make some tenth step amends. I called one friend who I’d blown off and then another and then I started texting anybody I hadn’t heard from in awhile on the theory that they might be as lonely and freaked out as I was. I apologized when it was called for and didn’t when it wasn’t. Nobody held a grudge or acted like it was weird that I was reaching out after so long. Instead, I had a bunch of great conversations. I also started taking evening walks and calling a different family member every night. I’m close with my family but, with the exception of my mom, don’t call any of them unless it’s a special occasion. In the last few months I’ve spoken to my grandma, my brothers, my sister, and my mom more than I did in the entire preceding year. I still feel lonely, and I still hate that I can’t see anyone, but I know I’m not alone, not really.
Be of Service
In my old life, I found plenty of ways to be useful in my community. I made sack lunches with my daughter at church. I volunteered in the soup kitchen. I chaired AA meetings. In my new life, it’s almost impossible for me to be physically of service to anyone except my immediate family and I’m not spiritually mature enough to find peace in picking up my daughters toys or unloading the dishwasher or folding the laundry for the millionth goddamn time. Of course, the greatest act of service I can perform now is to stay at home and reduce the chances that I will be a vector for this disease. You don’t need me to tell you that. But I will say that reminding myself that none of this is to protect myself and my family and all of it is for the greater does make staying home a hell of a lot less depressing. I wish I had a long list of examples of other ways I’ve found to be of service over the last few months but I don’t. I can count them on one hand. I shared information about meetings with other alcoholics. I donated money to a few organizations. I gave away toilet paper (that I had HOARDED). These things are so insignificant they wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that in each instance they shifted something in me enough to pull me out of some of the darkest places I’ve ever been. If something as small as donating $5 to a mental health organization for a friend’s birthday fundraiser can ward off suicidal thoughts for me, imagine what a little service could do for you.
Remember You Are More Than Your Addiction
In my case, I am also my anxiety and depression and trauma! I wish this wasn’t the case, but one positive aspect of quarantine is that I’ve had time and opportunity to explore and heal other aspects of my mental health. With the time saved from not commuting and fewer AA meetings and a bit of a slowdown at work, I am able to attend weekly therapy sessions for the first time in my life, and thanks to changes in the healthcare system in response to the pandemic, I can access my sessions via telemedicine and they are covered by my insurance. It’s not fun work by any means, but it’s productive, and if I stick with it I stand to come out of this quagmire healthier than I went in.
Start A Gratitude Practice
I write a list of five things every day. I do it in the morning before I start work. Here is a list of five things I am grateful for about quarantine:
- Listening to windchimes while I work from home.
- Wearing housecoats and slippers.
- Watching birds (and actually learning the names of the birds of the state I’ve lived in for a decade).
- Masking with bandanas and feeling like a badass old-timey train robber.
- Eating homemade food for every meal.
Writing things down helps me see my life is good, which means I am less apt to throw it away.
Get A Hobby
When I tell my story at AA meetings, I usually say that the first thing I did when I decided to quit drinking for good was get my ass to a meeting. That’s only sort of true. I went to an AA meeting on my second full day of sobriety, not my first. The first day, I went to an art museum, and I made or looked at art as often as possible for the first year of my sobriety while I was still working out how I felt about AA. Getting sober was like waking up, and art gave me something worth waking up for.
Art saved me again a year later. When all my friends were losing their minds after the 2016 election and after Trump took office, I unsubscribed from all the lefty political podcasts and lost myself in words. I had always been a reader as a kid but I lost the capacity to concentrate on a novel when I became a drinker. In sobriety, I recovered the love of reading and books gave me a way to escape the world for a little while without losing myself.
Art is saving me again now. There is so much time and only so much TV to watch. I pass the hours listening to music, dancing, playing guitar. I’m learning to watercolor. Art is opening up a whole world inside my own house.
Know This Won’t Last Forever
As the world is reshaping itself around me and I am resituating myself in response, my relationship with my sobriety is changing. Sobriety was once the solid center that held my life together. It doesn’t feel that way anymore. It feels less important, less inspired, more fragile. But I know that won’t always be the case. In this time we have lost so much, individually and collectively. I don’t know what the world will look like when we come out of this, and I don’t know what I will have lost, but I know I will regret it if I lose this thing I’ve worked so hard for. Let’s not lose more than we have to.
Many of the last 77 days have been difficult and all of them have been long. But one of these days we won’t have to count days anymore. In the meantime, counting days is only torture when you’re doing it alone. Together, it’s a triumph.
Why does an alcoholic drink? I don’t know, why does a fish swim? Because booze is like water? Like air? After four years of sobriety, I mostly don’t think about drinking but the want resurfaces from time to time for reasons that are myriad and varied. Sometimes I’m anxious and want to relax. Sometimes I’m lonely and want to fit in. Sometimes I’m bored and want to be a little wild. Sometimes I want to drink for no reason at all.
During the pandemic, I’m finding all new reasons to want to drink. They aren’t the ones you might think. It’s not the other moms raising a glass at wine o’clock on Facebook or the New York Times reminding me in every goddamn morning briefing that good wine is my birthright, or something, that make me antsy. It’s not the promise of delivery to my door in an hour or less. I know what it’s like to get drunk at home by myself and it’s not pretty or fun.
The reasons, like a good drink, are more subtle, nuanced, and complex. The reasons, like a good drink, are strong enough to drag me under.
The world is so different now. I’m so different now. Can’t I just have a glass of wine? Can’t this one thing go back to normal? I know normal is an illusion. Normal was never on the list of words I’d use to describe my drinking. It’s never happened before, but I guess I’m wishing I could drink and get a different outcome.
At the same time, in this great unmooring from the way things were, I want the same outcome. I want to drink and I want it to end badly. I know what to do when I hit rock bottom. I know exactly where to go, and I know what I will find when I get there. Open arms. Healing. Answers. Quitting drinking, asking for help, it all made me feel so much better. Can’t I just do it all over again? Maybe do it better this time? Can’t I take a break from standing on my own two feet and lean on the group for awhile? Can’t I take a break from worrying about my family and the world and take care of myself? I guess I’m wishing I could fall off the wagon and climb right back on again.
I shouldn’t be writing this post. Talking about relapse makes people uneasy, the people I love, and the people in my program of recovery. It scares me too. When I think about the options–I take a drink and everything’s fine or a take a drink and everything goes to shit–I’m not sure what scares me more. If I’m cured, I lose a big piece of my identity. If everything’s not fine, and the relapse stories are to be believed, I might not be lucky enough to hit bottom on this side of the ground. I might lose it all.
The outcome that actually scares me the most is the one that lands somewhere in the middle of these two scenarios. I have three or four drinks and get pissy at my husband. I scroll too much on my phone, send a few sketchy texts. I go to bed and wake up sick with shame, with anxiety, with myself. I make myself a promise it’s done. And then I do it all over again and it’s Groundhog Day for the next ten years. This, of course, is the most likely result. This is the real nightmare.
My pandemic nightmares started in AA. In the dream, I was sitting down at a meeting that hadn’t started yet. I knew it was an AA meeting because the room looked like so many basement rooms I’ve been in over the years, shabby and dim and set up with rows of folding chairs. The room was sparsely populated at first, but more and more people started drifting in and taking their seats, and I knew that coronavirus had infected the dreamworld when it started to feel like they were closing in. I tried to talk my dream self down–“Everything is fine, they aren’t that close”–because I knew it was important for me to stay, even if maintaining social distancing was proving to be a challenge. When the meeting finally started, the lights went down, people started grabbing their chairs and scooting them in, closer to the front of the room, closer to me. I panicked. I stood and started awkwardly making my way out of the room, climbing over people and chairs, mortified to be making a scene, chastened by the dirty looks people were throwing my way, but resolute. I knew I couldn’t stay. As I climbed the stairs, making my way from darkness to light, I did not emerge into a church, as I expected, but into the dining room of a fast casual Mediterranean restaurant. I knew I was supposed to go home, but the bustle of the other diners was inviting, and I decided to grab a meal real quick and eat it there.
Fellowship and food. Are there things I worry more about losing to COVID? Obviously. Grandparents. Parents. Aunts and Uncles. Siblings. Neighbors. Friends. Support systems. Jobs. Houses. Retirements. Minds. 100,000 lives, known to me or not. But restaurants and the rooms were the first things to disappear from my life in the shadow of the oncoming pandemic.
In those early weeks, when we were still coming to terms with the fact that we didn’t know what the fallout would look like or how long it would last, when we didn’t know how to cope with that not knowing, it was so easy to let the blank spaces fill up with fear. I was afraid of so many things, big and small, but the one that crept into my subconscious first was the fear I was doing it all wrong. Of course that’s the fear that bubbled up first. It’s the one I’ve been feeding my whole life.
On Friday, March 13, the day my husband and I were scouring the grocery stores for staples and preparing to school our daughter at home, I wanted to go to a meeting, but had no idea if the Alano club was still open. I kicked myself for not having been to a meeting since Monday and missing any announcement that might have gone out. I texted a woman I know. “Is the club still open?” “Closed.” I kicked myself for not having gotten on a phone list and being out of the loop.
On Sunday, March 15 I discovered my daughter had lice and as I settled in for a long night of nitpicking I wished, for the first time in a long time, that I had a glass of wine to make the job easier.
On Monday, March 16 and Tuesday March 17 I wondered what I was going to do. Was I going to white knuckle it until things opened up again? Was I just going to drink? I visited a directory of online AA meetings. The list of women’s meetings that were open to members was limited and they mostly met when I was at work or taking care of my kid. I kicked myself for not prioritizing my recovery.
On Wednesday, March 18 I asked to join and was admitted into two separate email-based groups that I found in the directory. I tried to keep up with the flood of messages welcoming newcomers like me who were desperately seeking for support, but scrolling through my email every night before bed left me feeling more disconnected than ever. I kicked myself for having fallen out of touch with the network of women I’d met online when I’d first started trying to get sober, for dropping out of the online support groups I relied on before I found AA.
On Friday, March 20 a friend texted me a list of Chicagoland meetings that had gone virtual. I scanned the list but didn’t recognize any of them. I wondered what it would be like to dial into a group of strangers. I kicked myself for not having made it to a wider variety of meetings back when I worked in the city. I wondered if any of the meetings I’d been to over the years had gone virtual. I kicked myself for not knowing.
I started forwarding the list of virtual meetings to other sober people, figuring I must not be the only one who felt lost. I called a few people. One friend assured me that she was attending daily meetings with her sponsorship line. I kicked myself for not having that type of relationship with my sponsor, for not having spoken to her in months. Another friend assured me that one of her regular meetings, a small one, had moved to someone’s house. I kicked myself for not having a home group.
On Tuesday March 31, somebody finally texted, told me that local meetings were online. He asked me if I could help chair a meeting. I said yes, but then couldn’t make it work with my work and parenting commitments. I kicked myself for being selfish and for being a flake.
I had no idea how to stay sober without meetings, and I blamed myself for that fact, as though the upheaval weren’t entirely unprecedented and entirely out of my hands. I took personal responsibility for every challenge and every challenging emotion that came my way. If only I’d been more active in AA after I moved my job up to Evanston, if only I hadn’t been waffling in my commitment to the program since the beginning, surely this would be easier. As though that weren’t a total lie. As though this could possibly be easy for anyone.
When I finally started relaxing into this new life and making it to online meetings, my vision cleared. I saw that focusing on my perceived shortcomings, on my petty fear of failure, on all the things I was doing wrong was a useful way of avoiding facing the things that were really scaring the hell out of me, like what if somebody I love gets this disease and doesn’t recover? I realized that in obsessing over everything I didn’t have I missed the most important thing that happened to me in the first few weeks of quarantine: the world fell apart and I didn’t take a drink. I understood that I had what I needed all along: a sponsor who will take my call any time I’m willing to make it; a phone full of sober people I know; an internet full of sober people I don’t know yet; a list of virtual meetings; and who knows how many people who might need my help.
On March 5, 2020, my brain was waging an internal war against my feet over whether or not I should go to an AA meeting. My feet, which had been reliably carrying me to and from the meetings that have kept me sober for the last four years, knew the drill. When the clock hits quarter to noon, they stand up and march me to the nearest church basement, where I sit my ass in a chair. That day, my brain, wily and willful, was whispering that I didn’t need to go to meetings anymore. I’d read the big book cover to cover and worked the steps with a sponsor. I had better things to do with the next hour than sit in a small stifling room listening to the same people rambling about the same problems I’ve heard hundreds of times before. I’m good. I’ve got this.
Lucky for me, my feet are smarter than my brain, and they walked me out the door. I was ten minutes late to the meeting, but I caught the end of the speaker and when it was my turn to share, I did. I don’t remember what I said. I know I hoped my words were helpful to someone else–there was a newcomer in the room that day–but it’s more likely they were most helpful to me. They always are. I do remember that there was only one other woman there, and that I hung onto her every word. I always do. After the meeting, the woman came up to me and asked me if I would be willing to share my story at a meeting that Saturday. I said yes, even though it meant rearranging my Saturday schedule and texting my husband to make sure he be on bedtime duty for our daughter. I always say yes. I know I left the meeting feeling better than when I went in. That always happens. I went back to work at peace, my mind and body no longer at war, my heart recommitted to the way of life that saved my life. I think this is what people mean when they talk about serenity.
That weekend, on March 7, I went to the “Saturday Night Live” meeting at the Alano club in my town and shared my story. I marveled at how, after four years, I could still walk into a meeting I’d never been to before, sit down among people I’d never met, and feel right at home. This particular meeting was a riot. Ten minutes before it started, a few members got into a heated discussion about the wording of an announcement that had been added to the meeting script. The dispute had to do with whether the group should adhere to the tradition of holding hands during the prayer at the end of the meeting in light of the spreading coronavirus. The woman chairing the meeting was adamant that she would not be holding anyone’s hand, because she was had a compromised immune system, and she thought that the announcement did not adequately address her concerns. The man she was talking to was was equally adamant about…something…it was not entirely clear what, because the group ended up deciding to suspend hand holding until the pandemic subsided. I remember laughing about how alcoholics always seem to find a way to make things difficult, even when the right way to do things is obvious, and eminently reasonable, and everybody agrees. Somebody else recommended that we update our phone lists, in the event in-person meetings were also suspended. I nodded, but couldn’t fathom that actually happening, couldn’t imagine around a world in which in which the churches and hospitals and community centers closed their doors on sick and desperate people. No more meetings was, to my mind, unthinkable, an idea more shocking even than closing down public schools and postponing the Olympics.
Meetings are the lifeblood of sobriety for me and millions of other members of AA. “Meeting makers make it” is the aphorism I hear most often in the rooms, and the one I hate the most. I hate it because I don’t hear the hope it offers–with the help of the group, you can not drink one day at a time. I only ever hear the dark flipside–if you don’t go to enough meetings you won’t make it; if you don’t go to meetings, you’ll drink; if you don’t go to meetings, you’ll die. This is AA law, based on the transitive property and the other big saying, the one that says, “to drink is to die.”
I hate the “meeting makers make it” mentality, too, because it’s imprecisem. How many meetings is enough meetings? How regularly do you have to go to be a regular? Three times a week? Five? Seven? Think you don’t have time for that kind of commitment? Old timers have a quick comeback for that excuse: “You had time to drink every day, didn’t you?” What if you didn’t drink every day? I didn’t. What if five meetings a week is fine, but you’re competitive, like me, and want to earn gold stars, on top of all your chips for 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, a year?
Of course, the thing I hate the very most the claim that meetings will keep me sober is that I don’t know if it’s true. I prefer ideologies I can swallow whole can embrace or reject outright. Nuance, ambiguity, the entire notion of different strokes for different for folks–it’s all breeding ground for anxious overthinking, ruinous rumination. I know there are people who get and stay sober without AA–or rather, I know of such people. Am I one of those people? Or do I need the fellowship of the group of drunks? I have supporting both hypotheses. On the right, my angel-voiced better self reminds me: I tried for years to quit drinking on my own and couldn’t do it, but haven’t taken a drink since my first meeting in January 2016. On the left, my independent side tallies up all the days I’ve gone without a meeting and presents me with indisputable proof: I can survive long stretches of time. I can’t know if “meeting makers make it” or if “meeting dodgers don’t” because I’ve never had the chance to really test the theory. When I go more than a few days without a meeting, I get squirrely, and when I go more than two weeks–well, I don’t know. I’ve never gone more than two weeks. Before March 2020, whenever I got squirrely, I knew exactly where to go.
Three months ago, I couldn’t wrap my mind around a world with no meetings because, in the most fearful reaches of my mind, this was nothing short of a death sentence.
Getting back to the meeting on March 7, Saturday Night Live at the Alano club, once the issue of hand-holding was resolved, the meeting, as I mentioned, was a lot of fun. When I talk about my drinking sober outside the rooms, it sounds so serious, and so sad. Inside the rooms, people laugh at my stories about raiding the medicine cabinets in my dry Mormon household for cough syrup, my failed suicide attempt, and the insanity of my efforts to manage my addiction after I had a baby. Inside the rooms, my life feels normal, instead of like a sad morality tale. After the meeting, we went out for dinner to a restaurant where the servers knew we were coming, and had set up a long table in the middle of the dining room. Old timers regaled me with tales from their own drinking days, and stories about the history of group. I caught up with an old friend who I met early in sobriety. A few woman banded together to shield me from being thirteenth-stepped. I walked home late that night feeling happy, joyous, and free, recommitted to the people who saved my life. “I want to keep going to that meeting,” I told my husband, “and going out for fellowship after.”
Of course, you know the rest of the story. The next week, the Alano club shut its doors, along with every other meeting in town, and I haven’t been to an in-person meeting since.
My work from home situation works like this. I work from the futon in our extra room, a pseudo-den/office/guest room/home gym that doesn’t have its own door, but is the only room on the first floor of our townhouse and so is pretty cut off from everything else. Up on the second floor, my husband home schools our kid at the kitchen table, which sits right in the middle of our living room/dining room/kitchen in the type of space that dummies on HGTV call “open concept” and that families sheltering in place call “a nightmare” and “a terrible idea.” We have a third floor, too, with two bedrooms. Our WiFi network is called ThreeStoryLuxury, which is a 66.67% accurate description.
I work from 8:30/9:30 to 5:00 with a lunch break at 12:00 that I eat at the table upstairs with my family. Home school is in session 10:00 to 4:30. Husband runs a tight ship with a strict schedule except from 2:00 to 3:00, which he tries to call Choice Time because that’s what they called it at our daughter’s school, but sometimes he slips up and calls it Quiet Time, because what it really is is his only break during the day. Every day during Quiet/Choice Time, husband “meditates” (naps) on the couch in the living room and daughter plays in her bedroom upstairs. Usually I come up at some point during this stretch for coffee or a snack and I also visit daughter upstairs, just a quick hello and check-in to see how she’s doing, and then I go back to work. Quiet/Choice Time is the most peaceful part of the day.
Until last week, that is, which is when my daughter realized that Quiet/Choice Time presents a prime opportunity for her to sneak past her teacher/dad and venture down to my office to visit me at work. She doesn’t hang around long, and she doesn’t say much. What she does is deliver notes–interoffice memos, really–with detailed questions and precise instructions about how and when to answer. She leaves them on a shelf just outside of the office and then stands there silently until I’ve stood up and retrieved and read the note. The notes go like this:
- “Hi Mama I love you. Here’s a dog. Leave me a note bake pleas at 2:24. Hope you like the dog.”
- “Mama, every day I will send you a dog and then you send me a leter bake I will send you 1 home for it then we will both send letrs to each other.”
- “Hi Mama I love you Please leve notes on the bike sete downstairs.”
- “Hi Mama wold you like a Golopigos turtel or a sea turtel. I love you. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Of course I respond, with words and pictures and inside jokes. On average, we exchange five to six notes a day. I hang the pictures she draws me up on the window next to the futon and tuck the notes in my planner. I know she is saving my letters back to her in a special box in her room. The process is all very adorable and highly distracting. Sometimes the notes come during conference calls. Once she dropped off a note during a call with a client and only gave me six minutes to respond. After the second day of this, I considered whether I should put an end to it, remind husband that 9 to 5 is his jurisdiction as the stay-at-home (hahahaha) parent, remind daughter that I need to be able to focus on my job. By this point, it should not be lost on anyone that I am the fun police in my family, and that I am fairly compulsive about maximizing my productive time.
Luckily, something else occurred to me before I acted on my impulse to strip this delightful bit of family life from my workday, which is this. Fielding notes from my daughter is not all that different from engaging with a chatty coworker or friendly receptionist. It’s true that when I’m hyper-focused on work, I find all of these things annoying, because they slow me down, but it’s also true that slowing down and taking the time to talk to another person is what makes a day–a life–worth living. It’s not easy to have your actual family become your work family, but I know I’ll miss it when it’s gone. I can’t imagine I’ll be able to persuade anybody in my actual office to deliver me little bowls of cheez-its and drawings of wiener dogs and carefully, dreadfully written letters telling me over and over again what a great mom I am and wishing me a Happy Valentine’s Day in May.
Our daughter didn’t cry the day we gave our rescue dog back. We were expecting tears, had been bracing for them for over a month, since the day the dog bit a family friend and we knew that we might not be able to keep him. We only kept Study for six months, but that half year was huge to our four-year-old, almost as big as “forever” which is how long we thought we thought he’d be part of her family. Heartbreak doesn’t always look the way we expect it to, though. Our daughter was crushed, but she didn’t cry. Instead, she quickly constructed a vaguely dog-shaped structure using pieces from a magnetic building set and cradled it in her arms. I admired her creativity and complimented her skill and tried, urgently, to get her to put the “dog” down before her dad returned from delivering the dog back to the family that fostered him. Of course she refused, and I spent the next few hours trying to turn my own heartbreak into comedy. “It’s so weird,” I told anybody who would listen. “The dog is made of magnetic tiles. It’s not even soft, and it falls to pieces if you handle it wrong, but she won’t stop loving on it. We really fucked up.”
It’s been a few years now, and our daughter still adores critters and creatures don’t love her back, can’t even emote. She set up a sprawling “slug garden” on our back porch and begged us to let her spend her own money on a second basil plant intended exclusively to attract and feed slugs. Her goal this summer is to see a snail. She cradles rolly polly potato bugs and admires spiders. She even likes centipedes. We can’t take a walk in the rain without staging a worm rescue operation; it stresses her out to see them inching along in the wrong direction, away from mud, or toward a sewer, and she likes to pick them up and put them back in the dirt. And just last week, I walked in on a Zoom session with her class just in time to hear her announce, “I have a tamagotchi, which is kind of like a brother! And these are my stuffed dogs, which are kind of like pets!”
A month ago, we stopped to watch a worm work its way across the sidewalk for a solid fifteen minutes. It was raining hard and the worm looked pretty ordinary to me, but my daughter was smitten. She bent down low and cooed things like, “It’s such a cuuuuutttieeee” and “What a cutie lil’ adorable lil’ worm.” On the outside, I melt. She’s such an adorable little weirdo, and I love her. Inside I recoil, as I always do at shows of affection that put my failings on display, that make me relive the day with the Magformer dog and curse myself for not giving her something better to love.
Needing new eyes, I pull out my phone to take a video. At first I focus on my daughter, and then I zoom in close on the worm. The worm is taking me for a ride, too, and the journey is compelling. The longer we stand there, the closer I get to seeing what my daughter sees, which is, of course, a life. It occurs to me, for the first time, that maybe the trauma of loving a difficult pet and then having it taking away under even more difficult circumstances gave my daughter something good–a tremendous capacity for love and empathy.
I turn this over in my mind for a few weeks, meaning to write about it but not knowing how. I don’t know how to articulate my deepest fear in a way that’s respectful of my daughter, in a way that’s meaningful to others, in a way that’s more palatable than the truth: I’m afraid I will fuck it all up. I’m afraid I already did. I want to write about it, though, because the worm the depth of my daughter’s love for the worm gives me hope that she will be okay.
The worm gives me hope, too, that the trauma of COVID-19 will leave its own gifts behind. Perhaps, having had half a year or more of life as she knows it stolen away, being forced to shelter at home with her crazy parents, won’t fuck my daughter up. Maybe she will emerge into the world so ready to engage that she never knows my social anxiety, my reluctance to participate, my reliance on substances for connection. Maybe the looseness of schooling at home, of playing with Lego bricks for hours at a time, of staying up late dancing around the living room and hitting a balloon back and forth will free her to become the person she was meant to be. Maybe bearing witness to so much suffering at such a young age will buttress that tremendous capacity for love and empathy.
Please don’t take this as a long-winded way of saying everything happens for a reason, that other people died so we could thrive. If I could give my daughter back her dog I would. If I could go back in time and wipe out coronavirus I would. What I’m saying is that I’ve lived my whole life waiting for the other shoe to drop. Is that a Mormon thing? A religious thing? A human thing? What I’m saying is when I find myself with entire swaths of time with nothing to do but watch my girl tenderly care for creepy crawlies that make me want to run and hide I wonder if maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. Maybe we will be okay.