Roads Not Taken

It’s early November, and I find myself with nothing to do on a surprisingly, stunningly perfect fall day. After a couple of weeks of gray days and temperatures dipping down into the forties, the sun is out and the air feels as warm as the leaves coloring the trees and crunching under feet. It is a golden afternoon, drenched in goodness. I already spent time outside sitting and sipping coffee and chatting with folks after church while kids ran around on the lawn, but it is too nice to go back inside. I decide to visit the Chicago Botanic Gardens. I haven’t been since last year when it opened back up in the middle of that first pandemic summer. 

In July 2020, I was desperate to visit the Gardens–one of Chicago’s most beloved cultural attractions–to get out of the house and give my daughter something nice to do, yes, but also to remind myself that there was still something worthwhile to be found in large cities. On the whole, the trip was disappointing. It was a muggy Midwestern summer day, air so heavy we could hardly breathe through our cloth masks, and my chest tightened every time my daughter asked if she could pull hers down. The paths were crawling with people, making it impossible to maintain six feet of distance, and my anxiety spiked every time she strayed near another family. I was not worried about us getting sick, only about doing something wrong. Year 1 of COVID was a hard time to be a people-pleasing perfectionist because everybody seemed to want something different and the rules were never clear. The day was so at odds with what it means to be in nature that I didn’t go back to the Gardens for over a year. 

I am optimistic that things will be different in fall 2021. The Gardens has dropped the mask mandate for the outdoor parts and no longer requires members to book appointments ahead of time. Also, the Gardens are no longer the only place to go. Museums and shops and sports and concerts are all back. Surely, Chicagoans will be doing other things. Surely the Gardens’ nearly 400 acres and six miles of shoreline will offer something in the way of respite, of space.

I’m antsy on the drive up. I pass a cannabis dispensary in the northern suburbs, a shiny building with elegantly curved architectural details that emits distinct wellness vibes, the antithesis of the seedy unfinished warehouse-like space where I bought my weed during the six months or so I dabbled last year. The alluring storefront makes me want to go inside and it is such a gorgeous day, I can’t help but want to get high. People think it’s the bad days that trigger relapse but in my experience it’s the good ones that will get you. I’ve played the tape forward enough times to know that when I’m really in the shit, a drink or a drug is not going to help. When things are bad, I can’t afford to make them worse. Good days are another story. It’s that top-of-the-world feeling that’s dangerous because that’s when I feel invincible. When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I doubled down on 12-step meetings. When he lost in 2020, I wanted to pop champagne. On perfect afternoons, all I want to do is get stoned.

On this day, I have a little more than 30 days clean, so I keep driving and don’t stop until I make it to the Gardens. The parking lot is jammed and so are the paths near the entrance. As usual, the crowds here blow my mind, in both size and constitution. People walk in packs. Every group seems to be at least three generations deep and speaking two languages. I stick headphones in my ears and try to focus on the plants. Happy families are my holy grail and my kryptonite. They remind me of everything I don’t have. To me, every couple walking hand-in-hand, every dad swinging a kid up on his back, looks intensely present and engaged in their lives. I wonder how many of them are sober. Most of them, if I had to guess. I wonder how they all manage it. I still want to get high. Later, I’ll mention this to my therapist and ask her how people get through their lives without wanting to change the way they feel. How do you know they don’t? she’ll volley back.

I’m not really afraid of COVID anymore, but I need to get away from all those happy-seeming people. I peel off from the crowd and find myself on an almost empty path that winds around the back edge of the Gardens. There is a chain of ponds to my left and the highway is to my right. Meadowlands unfurl up ahead. I pull the earbuds out. Ah. Quiet. For a minute anyway. My mind starts chattering right away. I can’t stop thinking about how much better this walk would be if I had something, anything, to enhance the experience. They sell wine in the cafe. Maybe I could knock back a couple of mini bottles and see the leaves through sauvignon blanc colored glasses. The wine is expensive, though, and the glasses are small. Maybe I’d better just hit up the liquor store on the way home.

I hate that I’m still thinking like this. It’s one of my greatest shames, being a sober person who still isn’t sure she wants to be sober. Everyone I know who got sober in a 12-step program swears the compulsion to drink just magically…lifts…like an elevator that only goes up. Everyone I know who got sober outside the rooms swears it’s easy because life really is that much better without booze. What is wrong with me that I still romanticize this thing that hurts me? I thought the problem was depression. I thought it was anxiety. I thought it was OCD. I thought it was bad habits I could unlearn. I thought it was addiction. I thought it was religious baggage. I thought it was childhood wounds. I put in the work, years of work, and my life is better for it but thinking about drinking is the thing I can’t let go.

In the back of the Gardens, I decide to dive headfirst into the thirst, into whatever the fuck is stopping me from being okay being with myself on this beautiful fucking day. I start muttering out loud to myself while I walk along staring at the ground. Ugh. Fine. Hi. Hello. Here I am. What do you want from me? What is this for? What am I supposed to take away from this? I’m here. I’m listening. I’m looking for answers. What I get is clear direction.

Look up. Keep moving.

I lift my head. The green meadow gave way to a dry grass prairie while my head was down and when I look up there’s a hill rising out of the earth in front of me. I want to race to the top but there’s no clear path so I stick to the trail I’m on. To the left I see a bridge that looks like it might lead back to the main part of the Gardens, but I’m not ready to go. The road I’m on looks like it will take me in a circle around the hill and I need to get a closer look. I can’t leave this hill alone. Eventually, an inclined trail curves out of the grass. It was impossible to see until I was on top of it. I climb to the top of the hill. Is this where I’ll find the answers I’m looking for? I drop to my knees and close my eyes as if to pray. I feel nothing, but hear the direction again as clear as day.

Open your eyes. Get up. Keep moving.

I bat my eyes open and take in the view. The acreage spills out around me, fields and forests and marshes and meadows and rocks and rivers and prairies and ponds and gardens and greenhouses all lined up in a row. I see a fuzzy caterpillar inching across the path. I examine it, take a video to show my daughter later. I see a family climbing up a trail I must have missed when I first laid eyes on the hill. They’ll be up here with me if I don’t get going. I pick my way down the hill like a mountain goat. The road up close is rockier than I thought. I end up in front of the bridge I saw before. I’m ready to cross. I end up following not far behind a mom and her young son. I try to lose them but the path takes us around in a little loop and I’m stuck moving at their slow pace. It’s a small island covered with the same prairie grasses I’ve been in for forty minutes. There’s nothing new for me here. I cross back over the bridge and get back on the path I was on before. I’m sure it will loop me back the main entrance. Instead it dumps me out in front of a chain link fence blocking off the staff entrance to the Gardens, a muddy bank, and a row of low office buildings. I’m lost. I heed the instruction I got before and turn around, get a move on. It takes me longer than I expect to find my way back.

By the time I’m back in my car, I don’t want to get high. What I’m thinking about is how drinking is like the little hill that I couldn’t help but climb, the bridge I needed to cross, the island that was smaller than I thought, the lonely path that dead-ended at an ugly, muddy fence. At every turn, the message for me was the same: keep moving. I could keep drinking and drugging, but I’m starting to see that I’ve exhausted my supply. It’s not the booze I’m missing, anyway. It’s the road not taken. I can’t tear my eyes away from all the little detours that might take me to the life I imagine other people are living. But getting stuck behind slow walkers on that that grassy little island in the Gardens reminded me that I’ve already been down that road, many times. Every time I drank over the last year, the last decade, it was variations on the same theme. A few minutes, maybe an hour, of flushed fun before it turned into too much or not enough. Keep moving. There’s nothing new for you here.

Every time I close my eyes and veer off road in pursuit of the fantasy that things will be different this time, I take my self out my real life. And the thing is, my life is good. I’m not trying to escape it so much as trying to live another one in parallel. But I’m starting to see that I can’t squeeze another life into the margins without shaving down the edges of the one I have. I can’t layer a new life on top without burying the one I’m living. I can’t move forward if I keep doubling back.

It’s true that sometimes this life feels too small for me, that I’m still suffering from the disease of more. I’m still working out whether this is a treatable affliction or just the human condition. In any case, I’m not going to find what I’m looking for retreading old ground.

It’s early November, and I find myself on a surprisingly, stunningly perfect fall day.

Show Don’t Tell

Everyone needs a low stakes hobby. Lately, mine is painting. I’ve always only ever dabbled in the arts. When I was a little girl, one of my favorite ways to pass the time was playing “artist” with my sister. We’d pool our supplies and churn out piece after piece until we had a gallery-worthy collection. We usually trashed them before the day was out because the game was more about the process than the finished product. Mostly, I used markers and oil pastels to make abstract works like I imagined on the walls in art museums. I didn’t paint because I didn’t own paints. I didn’t set foot in an art museum until I took myself in college. My family wasn’t anti-art. My parents gave me supplies and enrolled me in classes. They are both creative, expressive people. My dad was a teacher by day but a musician at heart. He played the guitar like a man obsessed, in seemingly every spare moment. My mom loved to dance. However, other than an intricate sketch of the La’ie Hawai’i Temple by one of their old friends that hung in a place of honor in every home we lived, they weren’t much for the visual arts. Most of the pieces we had came from Deseret Book or the portrait studio at Sears. So, I muddled along, doodling in my notebooks, bringing home lumpy mugs, and taking pictures of clouds with a cheap point and shoot. I taught myself to paint with acrylics after my parents to busted me with weed and grounded me for the summer. I started decoupaging furniture around the same time. When I moved out, I obsessively colored and collaged while stoned. I didn’t keep a thing.

I quit making art when I quit getting high. Painting, poetry, writing songs, almost all of it fell by the wayside. It wasn’t a conscious choice. I just wasn’t inclined toward it. Or maybe I forgot how to access the more abstract parts of myself. Cleaning up kicked off years of sprinting toward the life I thought I wanted. Graduating from college with a double degree. Law school at a top ranked university. Prestigious job. Married by twenty-five. An updated apartment in the city that turned into a house in the suburbs. A baby by twenty-seven and plans for more. I didn’t have time for art. I was too busy making my life. I never stopped writing of course, but I hardly thought of myself as a writer. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that becoming a lawyer, a wife, and a mom meant sacrificing any other identities I might once have had.

Time slowed back down when my daughter and I crawled out of the baby stage. Do you know how long a weekend is with a toddler? Together, we discovered that art projects were the most effective way to while away a Saturday afternoon. I started taking her to the Art Institute in the morning and when we got home I’d pull out a box of acrylics and let her go to town on canvases if we had them, plain printer paper if we didn’t. It would have been cheaper to use washable paints for kids but I didn’t know those existed. We ruined a lot of clothes. The navy sweatshirt I’m wearing as I write this is flecked in yellow all over the front and there’s a splotch of red on the sleeves that looks like ketchup, or blood. Our dining table is permanently discolored with streaks of shimmer copper and purple glitter. I should care but it’s gorgeous. Besides paints, we used crayons and markers and gel pens and colored pencils and stencils and stamps and construction paper and cardboard and magazines and scissors and tape and pipe cleaners and modeling clay and Shrinky-Dinks and watercolors. It was play in its purest form, for both of us. When my daughter was done with a project, I’d dutifully put away the supplies and not think about art again until the next time we went to the museum or happened upon a long stretch of time. I proudly displayed my daughter’s work on shelves and walls. I put mine in drawers. Most everything we made disappeared eventually. Chalk on the sidewalk, play-dough creations, dried flower bouquets, scribbled pictures on the back of restaurant menus–most of it wasn’t made to last and the things that might have (paintings, drawings, constructing paper crafts) there was too much of. I couldn’t possibly keep it all.

My relationship to art changed again in the pandemic. First, Robert gave me a set of watercolors. I’d seen them at a bespoke art supply store in Andersonville and practically drooled over the little lumps of pigment wrapped up in muslin cloth. They were too beautiful for words. Also, too expensive, and wholly impractical. I eagerly accepted the shop owner’s offer of a demonstration. I had to see how these paints–practically works of art themselves–worked. “Are you artists?” the shopkeeper asked as my daughter tested out pens and I took a pause from grazing my fingers over everything in the store to watch her work. The knocked me outside the flow of typical shopping banter. I didn’t know what to say. We, my daughter and I, weren’t artists like the shopkeeper was an artist, but I wanted us to be. Yes and no felt like equally dishonest answers, but the yes inside of me thrummed more loudly. “Well, we make art every day. So, I guess we’re artists.” When, six months later I unwrapped a set of paints from my husband for my birthday, complete with water brushes and a ceramic dish and thick, pulpy paper, I felt like I’d been waiting for them my whole life.

Shortly after my birthday, I ordered a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I can’t remember what I was thinking when I decided to buy this book. I certainly was not trying to become a painter. I was doing a lot of writing at the time. I’d been blogging sporadically for over ten years, and hacking away at a memoir for what felt like the same length of time though in reality it was only months. My best guess is that I hoped that the book would unlock in me the discipline and consistency to become a real writer–that is, a writer whose words people want to read. The Artist’s Way is structured as a twelve-week course. You read a chapter a week, work through exercises, and respond to prompts in a journal. You start writing morning pages every day on waking. You take yourself on weekly artists’ dates. Sometimes the work was incredible exciting. I could feel my mind expanding and my creativity pulsing in the center of my chest. Other times it felt like homework. By the time I reached the end of the book, the words were pouring out of me. I was also painting and drawing and dancing and singing and playing guitar, often with my daughter, but equally as often on my own, after she went to bed or while she lingered over dinner or played with her dad. The biggest change was that I no longer had any qualms about calling myself an artist. I figured out that it didn’t matter if anyone read my words. It didn’t matter if I never finished my book. What makes me a writer is the fact that I write. What makes me an artist is the act of sitting down and making art. Art is process of trying again and again to transform my experiences and the world around me into something lasting that can be experienced my someone other than me. All I had to do to be an artist was to show up and lay claim.

A few months after finishing up the Artist’s Way the afterglow wore off and the well of words dried up. I was going through something. Often, struggle and pain are what I write about write about, but this struggle wasn’t generative. Often, writing helps me process difficult emotions, but this time I wasn’t finding any answers on the page. Trying to write was like chasing the monkeys around in my mind. It was painful to see my neuroses and unresolved issues all splayed out on the page day after day. There was no clearing out, only adding to the noise. And then there as this: I didn’t trust myself to say what was true. So I stopped writing and got to work on healing instead. I’ll write about what I mean by “healing”–what I was healing from and how I did it–at some point but I’m not a wellness influencer yet and this post is about art, so for now we’re going to leave it at that. My blogs, Instagram captions, my many Google docs stood silent. My works in progress, my beautiful drafts, refused to budge. This time, I didn’t stop calling myself a writer, or an artist. Like a lot of people battling through pandemic-induced burnout, this is was a year about accepting and respecting my limitations. Taking vacation doesn’t make me any less of a lawyer, just like being done having babies doesn’t make me any less of a mom. Even people with dream jobs take vacations, sabbaticals, breaks. Artists aren’t machines. Our gifts don’t exist for us to churn out content on demand. We have to make art, like everything else, in a sustainable way if we want to do it for the long haul.

The result of the healing work I’ve done this year, which is still very much in process, is that my mind is quieter. Meditation and therapy and exercise work wonders; so does an SSRI. In this quieter phase, the words are not spinning out of my brain at the pace they once did. Where writing was a compulsion, it’s now a choice. If writing was emergency medicine, now it’s play. In the space that remains is a primal urge to record the world in a new way. In my work, I want to see more of the world and less of me in it. I want to never forget the things I am lucky enough to have seen. The curve of the angels wing. The angle of the downtown buildings in a 4 PM winter sheen. The depth of the evergreen against the powder blue brick of the abandoned church on Oak Street. The stark raving beauty of a dog running free on an abandoned beach. Every type of fruit cut cleanly in half. The gas station sign I saw some fifteen years ago and never got out of my head.

A few weeks ago, I pulled my paints out and haven’t been able to stop. I’m watching tutorials on YouTube and Instagram. I’m keeping a list of things I want to paint. I’m daydreaming about what I could do with better brushes, what could happen if I kept this up for a year. I fall asleep thinking about lines on the page. When I finish a picture, I’m giddy like a kid and want to show it off. I need someone to frame my work or hang it on the fridge for me, though, because I can’t do it myself. I went on a painting bender after Thanksgiving and wanted to share my work on Instagram, but when I went to post something stopped me. Shame, I think. Only a moment before, my paintings were beloved masterpieces. I couldn’t believe how much better I’d gotten in a year. But when I thought of sharing them with anyone else, they seemed painfully amateur. Clicking on a hashtag filled my screen with stunning images and suddenly I felt disappointed and embarrassed that I put so much time and excitement into a hobby that yields only mediocre results. I had to tell myself that the finished paintings were not the point. The point was how much I enjoyed making them. But also, I really liked the finished paintings. I had to remind myself of that.

I closed Instagram that day, actually deleted the app off my phone altogether, but I keep revisiting the idea of sharing my art. I know there’s something of value here. It’s not the finished work. It’s the idea that a mom can have a hobby that’s not exercise or drinking wine. It’s the idea that a lawyer can have a hobby that doesn’t come with a networking benefit. It’s the idea that person can try something new and be bad at it. It’s the idea that showing up makes you better. It’s the idea a serious adult has time to play. It’s the idea that the things that moved you as a child never stop moving you. It’s the idea that you can bring things you love back into your life. It’s the idea that there are things out there that can light you up and get you out of bed in the morning that aren’t drugs and don’t depend on other people and you might not even know about them yet. It’s the idea that you can give yourself beautiful things. It’s the idea that you can make a beautiful life.

Maybe being an artist is not about the art you make or about the process. Maybe it’s a way of seeing and being in the world. Maybe art is about how we live. Maybe it’s about love. Maybe our hobbies are not so low stakes after all.

The Stories We Tell

I thought my story was about meeting my star-crossed lover, falling in love young, and getting married against the odds.

I thought my story was about becoming a Mormon feminist, working inside the system, and being the change I wanted to see.

I thought my story was about being a working mom, defying expectations, and making an unjust world work for me.

I thought my story was leaving the Mormon church, breaking my own heart, and voting with my feet.

I thought my story was about getting sober, doing the unexpected and impossible-seeming thing, and getting free.

I thought my story was about getting mentally well, untangling myself from the narratives that I wove into the fabric of my life after other people handed them to me.

I thought my story was about losing God and finding God and losing God and finding God in the places I never expected God to be.

I’ve lived other stories that I knew, even as I was going through them, were not for me: self-harm; bad men; infertility; pain upon pain upon pain.

My story is all of these things but none of these stories are all of me.

Destination Unknown

When you’re raised up on visions of the promised land, there are a couple of things you take for granted:

  1. The promised land is a place that exists and you can get to; and
  2. That you’ll know it when you arrive.

Leaving your childhood religion is an exercise in splitting. You want to smash the beliefs you once held dear; you need to keep them intact to hold on to a sense of self that’s no longer clear. You end up excising them from the body of your old belief system and grasping the quivering strands of what’s left. You relocate your vision of the promised land. You think it’s still there but you couldn’t find it on a map if you tried.

On Wednesdays, I take my daughter to choir practice. She’s in children’s choir at our church and they’re practicing for the annual Christmas pageant, which is in it’s 100th year. This week we are running late, so I pull up in front of the church and ask if she wants me to drop her off before looking for a place to park. She surprises me by saying yes. She’s never walked around the church by herself before. The staff has strict rules about parents signing their kids in and out of Sunday school and the building was locked down for the last year. I make her talk me through how she’ll get from the front door to the choir room and then let her go, watching from the car to make sure she doesn’t need help with the heavy hundred year old doors and, when she makes it inside, watching the top of her head through the window as she struggles with a second set of doors. She’s so big, I think. And she’s so little. With that, she opens the door to a new level of independence, for both of us.

I find a spot on the street, park the car, gather up my daughter’s hat and gloves, and make my way inside the church building. I offer a chipper hello to the gentleman who works the front desk during the week and he, per usual, buzzes me in without a word. I am still on the first floor when I hear the strains of Joy to the World floating down the stairs. I almost can’t believe it’s the children’s choir and not a recording of some different group altogether. They sound magnificent. And loud. The group doubled in size when we all came back after the pandemic and the kids are all almost two years older than the last time they sang together in person. The choir director is nothing short of a miracle worker. Last year, he stitched together a couple dozen videos to put together a surprisingly watchable virtual pageant. In person, he’s somehow coaxed them into not only singing all of the worlds but hitting most of the right notes.

I pick out my daughter’s voice as I make my way up the stairs and the tears come. I can’t believe we made it. I can’t believe we landed here. Nine years ago I was carrying her inside of me and coming to terms with the fact that I could not raise a daughter in the religion I grew up it, not as I knew it. Seven years ago I was driving my baby to churches all over the city wondering if we’d ever find one that worked for us. Six years ago I carried my toddler out of a chapel for what I swore was the last time. It was so scary. When I tried to picture life after Mormonism, I saw mists of darkness. I imagined my daughter lost and confused. I imagined myself miserable, knowing I’d made the worst mistake. I couldn’t imagine anything good or sweet. My imagination was lacking. The light was always waiting for us on the other side. I just needed to step into it.

These thoughts flash by in the time it takes to ascend two flights of stairs. The third floor is brightly lit against the early dusk outside. The choir lets loose with a series of glorious glorias. I duck my head into practice room to wave at my daughter and then I ease my body into a comfy chair in the room next door, where I will chat with the other choir parents. I think, after five years, I can call them friends.

I feel like I survived something. Like I fled a famished land, crossed a stormy sea, and abandoned a sinking ship to wash up here, in this ordinary life that feels extraordinary. I’ve been here for so long now, I can’t believe I didn’t see it. I’m already in the promised land.

Microaggressions

Me: If we ever move into a bigger house, I want a studio. For my art.

Husband: What’s your art?

Me: What do you mean, what’s my art? I write, I paint, I play music.

Husband: I know, I know, I’m just wondering what do you consider to be your main art?

Me: My writing, duh.

Husband: Like, your books? The ones you haven’t written?

Me: Sure, those, and you know I am working on them, but I’m thinking more about my essays.

Husband: You mean your blog posts?

Me: Yes! The creative non-fiction I post on my blog.

Husband: Huh. I didn’t realize your blog posts were…art.

Me: That’s because you haven’t read them.

Making Excuses

COVID risk is manageable enough for me to do all the things I really want to do while remaining enough of a threat for me to skip out on the things I didn’t want to do anyway. Yeah, I understand people are still dying, but on my personal risk map, the levels are near perfect. In August, I passed up tickets to see the Mountain Goats at SPACE because I didn’t want to risk a breakthrough infection when Delta was peaking. We saw the Drive-By Truckers at an outdoor venue in September and I spent the next week two weeks second waiting for every tickle in my throat to morph into something worse. Somehow I stayed healthy; plenty of people didn’t. In recent weeks, my reticence is dropping with the case rates. Here’s what I am doing these days: working out at the gym, hosting indoor play dates, going to book club, going to church, eating in restaurants, getting massages, and going to the doctor. Here’s what I’m not doing: getting my hair done, shopping when I don’t need anything, traveling for work, traveling for the holidays, hosting dinners, going to the dentist, or seeking out crowds. COVID is a lot like religion, it turns out. A convenient excuse to live exactly as you were going to live, a way to justify decisions you were already going to make, and a source of moral high ground to judge anybody who’s doing it differently.

Life’s not exactly back to normal. Yesterday I dropped my daughter off at Sunday School and found myself with nowhere to go because the group I used to meet up with on Sunday mornings is still meeting virtually. They met weekly all through the pandemic and, from what I hear, became closer than ever. I wouldn’t know. I logged in all of twice. As my friend J says, Zoom is for the birds. I’m not about to complain about an hour to myself, though. I thought about settling into the pews early to do some writing and maybe strike up a conversation with church people but I really didn’t want to spend the rest of the morning sweating behind my mask while the radiators worked overtime to heat up the old stone building. Also, truth be told, I wanted to be with people, but didn’t really want to talk to them. I walked out the door, feeling brazen, and into the coffee ship across the street, where I ordered a small drip, parked myself in a seat by the window, and read a magazine mask- and guilt-free.

Last summer, my friend M stopped by for a few hours on her way from Michigan to Iowa. We sat outside in camp chairs, distanced and masked, and she told me what she’d been up to the last few months, which was a lot. Besides quitting her job and moving cross country she was planning a wedding and had gone home for a funeral. She told me about what it was like to fly during lock down. “Nobody wanted to wear masks for that long, so we bought food and took a really long time pretending to eat.” I loved that story. I laughed out loud when she said. It was so honest. And if I was being honest, I could relate. Wasn’t I on my third beverage of the night? Looking for loopholes, taking cues from people around you to see what you can get away with while staying with in the bounds of social acceptability, what could be more human? Acknowledging that the new restrictions were deeply shitty while making an 80% effort to adhere to them was a relief after striving for 100% and perpetually falling short. Yet when I shared my friend’s story with other people, they didn’t get it. To me it was an offering of absurdity and relatability. “That’s horrible,” they said, wagging their fingers. “That’s why I’m not flying. That’s why people keep getting sick.”

My god. Can we not admit that this sucks? Can we not talk about what’s going on without squeezing out every opportunity to shame somebody who made a different choice? Even if it was a morally questionable one? I used to get off on being morally impeccable too, but that way of living is not sustainable, especially if your values are not your own, and the rules keep changing. It’s also unbelievably isolating. You might think you’ve found a pack in the people who hate the same things you do, but they’ll turn on you as soon as you crack. And you will crack, believe me. You’ll find a way to live the way you want to live, and it might meet your standards, but if you’re honest about your motivations somebody else will shake their head.

On Sunday, I wanted a coffee but I also wanted to sit inside with other people without a mask. I reckon plenty of other people did, too. Actually, I know they did, because I saw them, and when I saw them I smiled.

Quarantine Diaries Day 457: Worth The Wait

I’m back in the Midwest after an epic eight-day excursion to the desert and I expect that I’ll be processing the experience of seeing my family for the first time in eighteen months for awhile. In the meantime, what I want to say about the trip is this: I’m so glad I waited. 

I’m glad I waited until both my husband and I were fully vaccinated. I’m glad I waited until my daughter was done with school. I’m glad I waited until everyone in family who wanted a shot had the opportunity to get one. I’m glad I waited until Arizona fell off the orange list in Chicago’s travel advisory for people traveling stateside. I’m glad I waited until the CDC updated its guidance for vaccinated folks. I’m glad I waited until the country re-opened. 

It was almost impossible to say no when my family asked me to fly out back in November to celebrate my dad’s sixtieth, and only slightly less difficult to say no when my sister asked if she could come visit in March. It killed me to watch my daughter turn seven and then eight without hugging her grandparents or playing with her cousins. I missed them all so much I re-visited the decision to raise my own family in Chicago–a decision I once held fast and firm and close to my heart–on a near-daily basis. I may have been a black sheep, but my family always wanted me around, and I hated being stranded on the other side of the country from them. I hated staying put. I hated being stuck at home. I spent every minute of the quarantine gnawing the bars of my self-imposed cage and now that the latch has been lifted, the only thing I can think is that it was worth it. 

It was worth waiting so that I could sit with my 88-year-old grandma at her kitchen table instead of outside in the hundred-degree heat. It was worth it so we could huddle together over old family photo albums instead of passing them back and forth between lawn chairs spaced six feet apart. It was worth it so she didn’t have to nod along pretending to hear me while I tried to make myself heard through a mask. It was worth it watching my daughter approach her so tentatively, nervous in the way that kids often are, and lean in anyway for a hug.

It was worth waiting so that when my sister hesitantly asked if I was up for taking the kids to an outdoor pool, I could scream “YES!” before she finished her sentence. It was worth it so I could let all four kids cling onto me like sea monkeys without worrying about germs. It was worth it so we could crash around with our eyes closed playing Marco Polo with strangers. It was worth it so we could line up like sardines waiting for the tube slide and the high dive.

It was worth waiting so that when my brother made reservations in downtown Gilbert, I could go along and enjoy the meal instead of freaking out, forcing him to cancel, or staying home while everyone else dined inside. It was worth it getting dressed up in my dressiest shorts and squeezing around a too-small table to eat too much food with my too-big family.   

It was worth waiting so that I could walk around the swap meet in Mesa without passing judgment on the maskless hordes. It was worth it so that instead of boiling over when I walked past the double-wide stall hawking Trump memorabilia, all I did was laugh. 

It was worth waiting so that I could flip through records at Zia and play heirloom guitars at Acoustic Vibes without feeling like an asshole, without having to reassure myself “at least I’m shopping local.”

It was worth waiting so that I could say yes to an impromptu invitation to from a dear friend.

It was worth waiting so that I could stay as long as I wanted and stay up as late as I wanted night after night without feeling like I was pushing my luck.   

It was worth waiting until the trip back home felt like a reunion instead of a calculated risk.

For all the havoc it wreaked on our lives over the last year and a half, except for the occasional mask in businesses that required them, the pandemic barely registered last week. June in Arizona may be scorching, but the trip wasn’t all sunny. When COVID cropped up in conversation it was for the worst reasons. An old family friend on a ventilator, for more than ten days, improving only incrementally, according to the text updates my mom read out loud throughout the week.  She didn’t trust the vaccine. My dad’s colleague also in the hospital, and doing even worse. In his case, it was his wife that was anti-vax. It’s senselessly tragic that they are suffering in the final stages of the disease for no reason at all. 

I’m glad I waited long enough to know I’m not contributing to any of that.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 18 – Drive Bys

I used to drive by the houses of the boys I had crushes on, and the houses of all their friends, and–one desperate night–the pizza place where my crush’s girlfriend’s friend worked as a server. Once I got stuck parked in the dark pool between two street lights watching in horror as my crush pressed his girlfriend up against her car in an extended make-out session in the middle of the street. Once on a drive-by past my crush’s friend’s house I hit the curb the curb and got a flat. I had to walk to his house and ask for help changing the tire. “What were you even doing here?” he asked. “This is a gated neighborhood.” Thank god my parents moved a few years back. Now I can visit them without the crush of memories that comes from driving by the high school where I spent two years trying to fit in and my final year nodding off on opiates, from driving by the portrait studio where I worked for two summers cold-calling strangers to book sessions and once called the police to report a sexual assault, from driving by the houses of all the people who never loved me the way I wanted them to. So eager was I to escape the memories that take hold when I set foot in my hometown that I took myself out of state entirely. It wasn’t far enough to stop the drive-bys. I still cruise around those places, those days, dredging up the person I am in the rubble of the person I was.

Quarantine Diaries Day 447: Dis-Ease

Tonight I’m flying to see my family for the first time in eighteen months. I’ve been dying for this day to come, cried buckets of tears over not seeing my grandma and parents and little brothers and sister and nephews for so long, and now that it’s here I’m uneasy. 

I’m uneasy about leaving my town. I thought I’d grown to loathe it over the last year, but last night I took my daughter to the library to stock up on books for the plane and as we walked around downtown I felt a pang thinking of not seeing all the little restaurants and storefronts even for a week. 

I’m uneasy about leaving my plants. It’s going to be hot as hell here next week. Will my husband remember to water the vegetables? Will he think to drag the hose all the way through the house to hit the decorative plants in the front? Will he know to move the impatiens into the shade when they wilt? Will be remember to sun the little cactus our daughter bought with four of her very own dollars (crusty with tooth fairy glitter, natch)? I iced the orchids, so they should be good for the week, but they’re precious and finicky enough that leaving them doesn’t feel quite right.

I’m uneasy about navigating the airport. We’re leaving absurdly early because it’s impossible to predict when Chicago will be a snarl of traffic and when it will clear shot. Will we be racing through security or will I be scraping the bottom of my bag for ways to entertain my kid for three-plus hours? Will we eat? 

I’m uneasy about being out of my element. I poked fun at my daughter for packing ten stuffed animals and nary a sock for an eight day trip, but I packed three housecoats, three sets of joggers, a pile of soft shorts and tees, and every mask in the house. I considered the risks of flying with edibles–legal in the state I’m leaving and the one I’m flying too, but apparently still frowned on by TSA–from every angle. We’re both clinging to comfort. 

As many times as I’ve wished I could uproot my life in the Midwest to rejoin my family in the desert, I’m uneasy about being with them again. Eight days is a long time. Will we remember how to act with each other? Will we have anything to say? Will they like the person I’ve become? Will I accept the ways they’ve changed or stayed the same? Am I prepare for the more likely scenario: that the week will fly by and I’ll find it impossible to leave. 

Science Is Real

When I first started experimenting with sobriety in 2014, I didn’t know anybody in recovery. I’d heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, of course, but I knew it wasn’t for me. Did I have a problem with drinking? Sure. Okay, definitely, but I wasn’t an alcoholic. How could I be? I wasn’t even thirty years old, and my drinking hadn’t cost me anything yet. Okay, my self-esteem was non-existent and my sanity was unraveling, but I had a prestigious job and a house and a car and a husband and a baby. Still, my drinking made me uncomfortable enough that I was spending a lot of time online taking quizzes to figure out if I was addicted to alcohol, reading blogs and lurking in forums for people trying to quit booze, and trying to figure out if the concept of “recovery” even applied to someone like me.

My research turned into to rubbernecking when, in late 2014, an internet-famous mom-blogger relapsed after being sober for a number of years. Her downfall was public and dramatic, as she took to Twitter to broadcast her bottoming out in real time. If you’re anything like me, you know it goes without saying: I am a magnet for train wrecks. People who haven’t struggled with substance use and abuse are drawn to messy women because they make them feel better about themselves; I clock these women because I see myself in them. I was a chaos engine, too. This particular writer’s story hooked me because she relapsed on cough syrup, which, of course, was the first drug I ever took. She was after a different active ingredient (DXM, I think) than the one I chased, which was the codeine that slid down my throat and made long days teenager in the sprawling Phoenix suburbs languorous instead of stupefyingly boring, but it didn’t matter. Other people watching this woman–mostly in gossip forums dedicated to scrutinizing and tearing apart bloggers and other online influencers–were seriously concerned about her. Seeing other people take this woman’s relapse with an over-the-counter drug more commonly abused by teens seriously confirmed something I already knew about my NyQuil-swilling, pill-popping self: I was an addict too. I started reading this person’s writing obsessively, looking for more clues about myself, trying to figure out exactly what this sickness was, and how I might get better.

It was at this point that I stumbled on sobriety evangelist’s Holly Whitaker’s manifesto. Today, Whitaker’s digital footprint is significant: she is an author, the founder of an online recovery platform and website, and one of the leaders of a popular sobriety movement. Back then, all I knew was that she had a blog that caught me like one of the the sticky glue traps for the scorpions in my parents’ garage. Whitaker was the first person to tell me I didn’t need to cross some invisible threshold that would tell me that the clock had run out on my relationship with booze. Her writing was the first I found that challenged the notion that moderate drinking should be the goal, and sobriety the sad consolation prize. Sobriety, according to Whitaker, was a privilege and right, and the life I really wanted was just over the other side. Whitaker’s message was notably out of sync with twelve-step-based recovery modalities that dominated my Google search results. She rejected the idea that a person needs to hit rock bottom, that there are people who can drink normally and people who can’t, and that labels like alcoholic or addict have any meaning at all.

In late 2015, Whitaker started a private group on Facebook for women in recovery. I asked for permission to join and was immediately welcomed into a small but rapidly growing fold of women who, like me, were trying to change their lives. Many, if not most, of the group was very newly sober, as evidenced by scores of posts celebrating day, week, and month counts, dramatic “before” and “after” pictures, and and pleas for advice on everything from how to ride out cravings to how to deal with partners, family members, and friends who didn’t support our goal of sobriety.

In addition to swapping stories and milestones, these women loved to share articles about the evils of alcohol. Apparently, it’s not just bad for alcoholics, but for everyone. Apparently, it’s not just dangerous in massive quantities but, studies increasingly show, in any amount at all. Apparently, it wreaks havoc on the human body: cancer, heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, brain damage, digestive issues, anxiety, depression, the list goes on and on, especially for people with underlying conditions. And, most shocking of all, this information is apparently enough to make some people who have trouble moderating their drinking swear off alcohol for good.

I was not some people. Now, I’m a reasonable person and a reasonably educated person, but when it came to drinking, I didn’t give a shit about the facts. I liked poisoning myself. Self-destruction was the point. Chaos engine, remember? I worshiped at the altar of subversive and countercultural and cool, and I thought drinking to excess was a symbol of all that. There’s nothing rebellious about cutting back on drinking for your blood pressure or whatever.

Enter AA. AA gave me exactly what I needed to make sobriety stick, back in early 2016. AA told me that the problem wasn’t with the drink, the problem was with me, and I loved that. I was allergic to alcohol, in body and mind. I had a disease, one that was chronic and incurable and progressive and fatal. A lot of people can’t get past the part of AA that asks them to take on the label of alcoholic, but once I found my way into the rooms, I had zero problem with it. In fact, I derived a tremendous amount of satisfaction from being special. Admitting defeat and aligning myself with ex-junkies and drunks felt a million times more rebellious than carrying on, trying to be a normal woman drinking normal drinks in normal amounts out of totally normal glasses (no whiskey in a water bottle or rum in a mug over here!).

The main problem was I still desperately wanted to fit in. I wanted to drink cocktails with my mom friends and beer with my husband and wine at client dinners. I wanted what passed for a normal life: unwinding after work and blowing off steam on the weekends. I wanted to feel different and I was still convinced alcohol was the thing that would take me there. And so my will kept worming around in the muck of my mind, rooting up excuses and loopholes and reasons why I wasn’t that bad, why I was never really addicted, why recovery, even as I was living it, couldn’t really work for someone like me. When I went back out in 2020, I offered those reasons up like my kid coming at me with a fistful of worms. “This is what I’m doing, don’t bother asking because isn’t it obvious why? NO QUESTIONS, PLEASE.”

My husband, to his eternal credit, listened and nodded and never once asked me to go back to AA. He did buy me a book: “This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discovery Happiness, and Change Your Life” by Annie Grace. He’d just heard about it on a podcast and thought I’d be interested in the scientific case for quitting drinking. Little did he knew I already knew it well and had decided it wasn’t for me. Grace’s book came out in 2015 when I was dipping my toes in the waters of recovery. Whitaker promoted Grace’s work as nothing about of revolutionary and dozens of women who had once made up my de facto support group online swore by it. “Just read the book,” they said, “and you’ll never want to drink ethanol again. It’s the same stuff we use to power cars and lawn mowers!” Obviously I refused for the same reason I’d first refused to try AA: contempt prior to investigation, that serial killer of curiosity and growth.

In early 2021, I still had no interest in the book–I was still feeling out the shape of my new life– but I couldn’t not read it this time around. Not when it showed up on my Kindle with a sweet note from the love of my life. Not when reading it was the only thing he asked me to do besides “stop lying.”

I read the book like I read all non-fiction that’s not memoir: slowly, grudgingly, and wanting only for it to end. I also read it entirely without hope. I’ve been thinking about drinking for twenty years; there was no way this Annie person was going to teach me something I didn’t already know about alcohol.

I wasn’t wrong on that front. There was nothing in the book that blew my mind. We all know alcohol is, like, really bad for you, right? That it’s the deadliest drug and will eventually go the way of cigarettes? We know this. I knew this. But I gotta say, the facts hit different in 2021. Five years ago, I may not have been the kind of person who made major lifestyle decisions based on something as mundane as my health, but that was before we lived through a global pandemic. That was before I personally lived through a COVID scare and a self-harm scare and a cancer scare. That was before family members survived worse. That was before family of friends did not survive. That was before Lauren died. Now alcohol’s death march beats on in a register I can’t ignore.

I made myself a drink a few days after I finished the book and when I got the urge to pour another, I followed it to the cabinet, but this time I didn’t lay the blame on my faulty wiring. The problem may have been mine, but it was never me. Alcohol is an addictive substance. In demanding more, my brain was reacting exactly like it was supposed to.

When I picked up a drink in 2020, the biggest relief was giving up the narrative of terminal uniqueness that had been driving my every move for the last five years. So what if I still couldn’t seem to control or hold my booze? In those ghastly, unprecedented times, what could be more normal than that?

So what’s next and what now? What is the value in proving you can drink just like everybody else if drinking like that still makes you sick? What do you do about a problem that may not be you but is still very much yours? What does recovery look like when you take yourself out of the rooms? It seems I’m right back where I started, wondering whether the concept of recovery is available to someone like me. The difference this time is that I know the answers live inside the questions which are born inside of me. The answer is not in a blog or a book or a Facebook group or a church basement or a Zoom room.

Oh, and one more thing, because I’ll never be too evolved to throw an AA aphorism at a situation: recovery isn’t for people who need it, it’s for the people who want it.

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