Drinking Cough Syrup With Jane Lynch

I’ve been listener of the WTF with Marc Maron Podcast for years now. My comedy-loving husband turned me onto it when I was training for a marathon and burned through the back catalog of This American Life. I dig the long format interviews, and how open Maron’s guests are, especially when the guests are entertainers of the regular famous (as opposed to the super famous) variety. Maron is open about being in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and some of my favorite episodes are the ones with guests who are also sober. Like a lot of people who go on to get sober, I kept close tabs on what other people were drinking, how much, and when, and even closer tabs on the people who weren’t. Like another sobriety blogger said of sober people in her periphery:

These are people who may or may not even remember me, and yet I secretly follow what they post to social media like they’re celebrities.  They’re on my team, whether they know it or not.  Occasionally I can tell that someone’s started drinking again, and I feel a sense of loss for these near-strangers.  Our secret army has lost a comrade.

I did the same thing, with regular people, and also with celebrities. I was fascinated by anybody who had decided to leave the party. I wanted to know everything about them. And listening to not one but two famous (or famous-ish) sober people talk about substance abuse and recovery on WTF was so interesting it felt almost illicit.

These days, I’m pretty burned out on podcasts, but I will tune into WTF for female guests or for episodes that come highly recommended. Recently, Maron had the hilarious Jane Lynch, of Glee and Best in Show fame. Lynch is one of those actresses who seems to be everywhere, and indeed she has been in dozens of other productions, from theater, to film, to TV (including my personal favorite, the brilliant and entirely too short lived Party Down) but I knew almost nothing about her personal life, so I was excited to listen to the interview during my morning commute.

I was interested to learn that Lynch got her start in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theatre, which I’ve never been to because I’m not actually into theater at all, but which I have seen through the window of the brown and purple lines many times as the train crawls north after pitching around Sedgwick to Halstead in a move that always leaves me a little wobbly for the rest of the ride. About halfway through the interview, Maron dropped a few questions about what her drinking was like in the early days of her career, how bad it got, and whether it was related to the fact that she was more or less closeted at the time. It struck me as fairly awkward, as Lynch hadn’t said a word about drinking or about her sexuality at that point in the interview, and though Lynch was an open and gracious guest, Maron didn’t get much traction with that line of questioning.

At that point, I arrived at my office, turned off the podcast, and decided to do a little light Googling before digging into work. “Jane Lynch” and sober. Ah, I see. I gathered pretty quickly that Lynch got sober at 31, while she was still working in theater, and shared some of her story in Happy Accidents, her memoir that came out a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, the entertainment press picked up on the “story” (in quotes because the events that led Lynch to get sober had occurred two decades ago at that point) and ran with it, splashing salacious headlines over gossipy ledes and blurbs from her book.

A few aspects of Lynch’s story stood out to me, mostly because I identified with them:

  • Her bottom was not spectacularly dramatic (“First, I drank only Miller Lite. Second, many of my contemporaries drank far more than I and were fine with themselves and their lives. They did not suffer it the way I did.”);
  • She seems sensitive to this fact (“Relatively speaking, my personal bottom was rather benign.” “Had I know I’d be telling my story over and over again, I would have made it a lot better.”);
  • She nonetheless knew she had to quit (“[W]hen I stopped, I had reached my limit. I knew that my mind, body, and spirit had just had it.”);
  • She drank NyQuil before bed for a period of time after she quit drinking but before she went into a recovery program (“I’d close the drapes of my tiny room, take a swig of NyQuil, toast with a simple ‘Bye-bye,’ and go into a deep sleep.”).

(Sources: The Fix, People, and Perez Hilton.)   I get all of that. I have “drunkalogue envy.” I have imposter syndrome in recovery as much as work. Even after the knowledge that I had to quit was seared onto my consciousness, I dedicated an unreasonable amount of time searching for the elusive third door. (Is it around back? Near the cellar?)  (Hat Tip: Laura McKowen.) Abusing low rent prescription and non-prescription drugs was my gateway into and out of addiction.

So I feel a bit of a kinship with Jane Lynch having read all of this. We’ve walked the same roads, and look where she ended up! Content. Fulfilled. (Rich.) Okay.

An ad pops up on my office computer and I realize I’ve spent too much time on garbage sites. I get to work.

I listen to the rest of the podcast on the way home, picking up where I left off with Maron digging just a little on the subject of her sobriety.

“I’m still…I’m having a glass of wine…but I mean, it’s 25 years, so I think I’m gonna be fine.”

Record scratch.

What makes a person who has been sober for 25 years start drinking?

How does a person who went public with their sobriety only a few years ago act like that’s not a big deal?

How can a person who got sober with AA imply that a drinking problem can just dissolve, if you give it enough time?

The notion that moderation is both achievable and sustainable for a person who has suffered from alcohol addiction is completely at odds with my understanding of twelve step programs. And look, AA hasn’t been an integral part of my path, so I don’t get too broken up when people deviate from it, but it’s still weird, right?

What’s more troubling for me is the crack of light seeping in from the back door that Lynch’s words opened up in my brain. When I was toying around with getting sober playing Russian roulette with my life last year, I kept going back to the idea of sobriety as a “for now” thing. I need to be sober as long as my daughter is young. I need to be sober as long as my husband and I are trying to have another kid. I need to be sober until I get my mental health back on track. Lifelong sobriety sounded like a drag at best, so I nurtured escapist daydreams of myself at 45, drinking an IPA on the porch while my teenage kids are out with their friends, myself at 50, smoking a joint, also on the porch, myself at 65, retired, kids grown, finally free to flip the switch on my latent pill addiction and spend the day nodding off. Okay, that last one is kind of fucked up. Even my moderation fantasies veer off the rails.

When I finally admitted to my counselor that I couldn’t drink safely, I paused and added, “Maybe someday . . . .” She shot back, “Or maybe not. It doesn’t sound like you’ve ever had a healthy relationship with substances.”

“Oh. Right.”

With that, I slammed the door on the last of my reservations, stopped entertaining the idea that this particular aspect of my psychology will ever be “cured,” and haven’t picked up since.

Enter Jane Lynch, breathing life into my dormant daydreams, with her breezy talk of domestic contentment and creative fulfillment and glasses of wine. It sounds so lovely, especially that last bit. And her point about not living your life based on things that happened a quarter century ago is compelling. Maybe time will work the same magic tricks for me as it did for Lynch. Maybe time will work its magic faster for me. There is nothing special about 25 years. I’m feeling great today. Healthy, content, fulfilled. Maybe I can have a glass, too.

I suspect that many newly sober people find themselves standing on this same precipice, peering into the same black chasm, when they encounter somebody who used to have a drinking problem but doesn’t anymore, when they read a trend piece touting the benefits of moderation or trashing AA’s abstinence model, or when they watch a person in long-term recovery go back out. It is destabilizing. It feels weak to admit that, almost embarrassing. I mean, who is Jane Lynch to me anyway? Why should the fact that she can apparently drink change what I know about myself? What does it say about me that I am so easily swayed? It says I haven’t got my sea legs.

Briefly, I wonder what Lynch has given any thought to how her words might sound to a 31 year old girl with six months under her belt, drunkalogue envy, and a restless spirit. I wonder if I should write her a letter. Then I remember that this is old behavior, grasping and manipulative. I don’t like the way it feels.

When I was Mormon, suffocated by the church’s teachings about women but lacking institutional power, I thought I could leverage my emotions to achieve policy change. I thought that if I could just convey the depth of my pain, a church full of such well-meaning people would do anything to make it right. I marched in parades, pleaded with other Mormons, and wrote angsty blog posts. I deluded myself into thinking that this would make a worldwide religion change its foundational doctrines.

Spoiler: it didn’t work. And exploiting myself in an effort to change an institution that wasn’t interested in changing ate away at my self-worth.

The idea of writing a letter to Jane Lynch telling her that her WTF interview made me want to drink cough syrup (in a not-so-subtle attempt to force her back into sobriety because that would somehow make things easier for  me) feels a lot like being a Mormon feminist. Futile. Misguided. Insane.

I said before that the twelve step programs have not played a huge rule in my recovery, and it’s true, they haven’t, though that may change down the line. However, one of the things I’ve noticed in the rooms is that people talk about whether something is worth picking up–drinking or using–over. And let me tell you, people in recovery are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever encountered, often under brutal circumstances. I’ve seen people not pick up over  lost jobs, crumbling relationships, divorce, addicted and estranged family members, cancer, and death. One of the cool things about sobriety and, frankly, adulthood, is that you get to decide what kind of person you want to be and then actually be that kind of person, just by making the choices that kind of person makes. It’s that simple.

I may not want to be the kind of person who doesn’t drink 100% of the time, but I sure as shit don’t want to be the kind of person who drinks over a ten second glimpse into a celebrity’s life that I heard on a freaking podcast. So I won’t.

Wake Up, Girl

The shrieking preacher man is a staple of the American college experience. Wherever people gather, on the mall, in the quad, you’ll find him, waving his arms and shouting about the Lord. At the big state school where I went for undergrad, the resident Jesus freak occupied a grassy knoll near Modern Languages, on top of the underground Integrated Learning Center. I was boozing too hard to go to church on Sunday mornings, but I felt that it was my duty as a believer to hear him out, so I spent an afternoon early in first semester sitting on the lawn smoking clove cigarettes and listening to him rail. I got lucky; he was telling his salvation story that day. As he told it, he was high on LSD and the flames were everywhere, coming up from the mouth of hell, until the heavens split and Jesus came to him in a beam of light and told him that God would save him from all that pain and destruction, that God had already saved him and that all he needed to do was to carry this good news to the rest of the heathens.

Of course, this is a familiar trope. At the time, though, despite being both a Christian and a big fan of drugs, I found this story ridiculous. As I saw it, God doesn’t talk to people who are stoned and you don’t flip your life upside down on the basis of a hallucination. Also, I didn’t think God would ever be so cruel as to consign one of his children to the fate of a scorned sidewalk preacher. Even so, I sensed a kinship with this strange preacher man to the point that I felt betrayed a few months later when he showed up at his usual spot with a picket sign listing all of the different people who were going straight to hell if they didn’t repent asap and saw “Mormons” scrawled in black marker in between devil worshipers and abortionists. “Fine,” I huffed to myself. “I didn’t like the Jesus you were peddling anyway.”

Although I was skeptical of drug-induced God visions, I did believe that God spoke to sinners. Not just the low-impact sinners, the white liars and the coveters who were mostly trying to do right by God, but also the folks crawling around in the muck not even thinking about divinity or purpose or being a decent human being. There is Mormon precedent for this. God sent an angel to Laman and Lemuel, the prophet Nephi’s shitty older brothers, while they were beating their brothers with a stick. God grabbed Laman and Lemuel by the shoulders and shook when they tried to stop Nephi from taking their family to the promised land. He sent His prophets, His visionaries, His loyal-to-the end disciples, His ride-or-dies into the heart of the most wicked communities and used them as His mouthpiece to call the worst of the worst–the rapists and murderers, even–to repentance.

Like most Mormon kids, I grew up identifying with the good guys,  not the sinners. I was Nephi, born of goodly parents, not Laman and Lemual, who were predisposed to murmur (that’s Book of Mormon-speak for “bitch and whine”) and never seemed to learn.

Until the day God grabbed me by the shoulders and shook hard. I was 22, hungover, head foggy. I had just started law school and was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work, as well as with all the ways I saw myself failing to stack up against my classmates. My long-distance relationship felt like work. I didn’t know how to make friends. I knew drinking wouldn’t fix any of thix, but I was doing it anyway. I was on a low, low road.

I felt so sad I opened the Book of Mormon and spread it out on my lap, because that’s what Mormons do when they do they don’t know where else to go. I was stuck in the beginning of the book, like always. That day, I was reading Lehi’s deathbed speech. Lehi is the Book of Mormon prophet who dragged his family out of Jerusalem into the wilderness, leaving all of their wordly possessions behind, and then set them sailing on a big boat to the Americas on account of a dream he had about a very special tree. In her more human moments, his wife Sariah called him a visionary man, and she didn’t mean in a Steve Jobs way. Lehi was also Laman and Lemual’s dad, who caused him no end of grief, what with their whining about life in the desert and trying to kill their younger brother. Lehi, like any parent, worried for his oldest sons and spent his final days just  begging them to get their shit together. He said:

13 O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe.

14 Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth.

These verses come early enough in the Book of Mormon that I must have read them dozens of times since childhood, and they’d never given me pause before. Hellfire and brimstone did not feature prominently in the Mormonism I grew up with, and I tended to skim those parts on account of their being “boring” and “not real.”

This time, though, for whatever reason–maybe because I was tired of nursing low grade hangovers or maybe because I was tired of making the same less than stellar decisions over and over again–the words stood out, piercing through the fog in my head like a beam from a lighthouse.

I knew God was talking to me.

That sounds trite, so let me try again:

I knew from the expansive warmth in my chest, the sensation of peace in the wake of anxiety, that God was talking to me.

And, because people are often confused about what it means to know something in a spiritual sense, let me try one more time:

I knew God was talking to me on a level that did not require Lehi to be a prophet with a direct channel to God, that did not require Lehi to be a real person, hell, that did not require Joseph Smith to be a prophet or even an honest person. These words, whatever their origin, whatever they would go on to do next, were, in that moment, intended to jolt me awake.

I didn’t wake up just then. I didn’t shake off the dust, let alone the chains. I didn’t see my relationship with alcohol for what it was: a prison. I did open my eyes. I opened them wide enough to see that I had wandered so far off that path that I could no longer claim to be Nephi, the son so obedient he chopped off a man’s head because he thought God wanted him to do it. Instead, I saw that I was Laman and Lemual: oblivious, lascivious, asleep.

Waking up without an alarm isn’t always easy, though. I spent the next few years slipping in and out of consciousness, walking between waking life and dream. I put myself through the gauntlet of milestone after milestone: I graduated from law school. I got married. I worked. I questioned my faith. I had a baby.

That sounds too easy, so let me try again:

I spent three years treading water at one of the best law schools in the country after a lifetime of being a big fish in a small pond, and came out with a degree, a formidable skill set, and a nasty case of imposter syndrome. I married outside of the religious tradition I grew up with and, in the process, broke my parents’ hearts and shattered my childhood illusion of what a marriage looks like. I graduated in the worst recession the US legal market has ever seen, and built a thriving career anyway. Breaking with convention by marrying outside of the church and working full-time opened my eyes to the sexism in my church, and I started agitating for change. I grew another human inside my body for nine months, labored for 30+ hours to bring her into this world, and eventually consented to letting the doctors cut her out of me. There was so much blood.

The lighthouse swung its beam around and around. Sometimes it caught me square in the face and I righted myself, moving toward the light. Other times I was sunk too low to make it out. Still other times, I was having too good a time to discern much at all, Laman and Lemual once again. Even after God sent the angel, even after God shocked them into a temporary stupor, they sailed halfway around the world and spent half the boat ride partying while God roiled up an angry ocean to snap them back to reality, to remind them that they were on their way to the promised land, Me-damnit, that He needed them the focus for once in their lives.

Eventually, the dust from all those years of barreling into adulthood settled, and I surveyed the altered landscape of my life. I had an insane job with deadlines to meet and partners to please. I had sky-high city rent to pay and hungry mouths to feed. I had a cocktail of undiagnosed mental illness, postpartum depression and seasonal affective disorder and anxiety soaring through the roof. I had a shipwrecked faith.

That’s about the time I got my second divine wake up call, seven years after the first. I was 28, head foggy, running on fumes. I had just come back to my job after maternity leave and was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work, as well as with all the ways I saw myself failing to stack up against the other associates. My marriage felt like work. I didn’t know how to make friends. I knew drinking wouldn’t fix any of this, but I was doing it anyway. I was on a low, low road.

I felt so sad I started praying, because that’s what Mormons do when they don’t know where else to go. I don’t know that my prayer was anything special. I didn’t get on my knees or clasp my hands or even close my eyes. I just looked down at my baby daughter, who I was nursing to sleep, and my wordless hope must have pierced the sky because two messages fell into my lap:

  1. I needed to stop treating God like that amorphous blob of love I read about in Proof of Heaven. God was real, concrete, and knew me.
  2. I needed to stop drinking, for real and for good. No more pussyfooting around.

The fog cleared. My heart unlocked. I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt the truth of these words with every sense. I woke up.

It still took me almost two years to get sober. In fact, I poured myself a drink that night. (An hour after the voice of God told me stop. And to think I denied being as obtuse Laman and Lemual. To think I said I wasn’t addicted.)  

Like I said, it’s hard to get going without an alarm. One thing I noticed when I started listening to people in recovery tell their stories is how many of them didn’t find God until they’d plumbed the depths of hell. Perversely, naively, I envied them. I thought it must be easier to give up drinking, or at least to identify alcohol as the poison that it is, when it leaves you with a life that’s only ugly. When I started piecing together my own story, I made a list of all of the terrible things that had happened to me when I was drinking, and I wondered why God hadn’t found me in the more wretched moments. Why didn’t he burn up a bush next to me when I was crawling around in the gutter on Drachmann Ave? Why didn’t he shake me awake when I was losing consciousness with strange men? Why didn’t he turn wine into water when my baby woke up early and started screaming for food and I made her wait for my blood alcohol content to go down instead of giving her formula because I am a good mom, okay? I like to think that if God had come to me then, I would have understood and dedicated the rest of my life to the ministry. If he’d come to me when I was high out of my mind, I might be a shrieking preacher calling drunk girls across America to the light, instead of an anxious lawyer, mired in self-doubt, publishing my story on a secret blog.

God still talks to me, by the way, even though I’ve started to slip back into imagining that he is a big shiny ball of love, instead of the flesh and bone visage Joseph Smith described. I don’t even like to call him he. Sometimes I use she, or they. Mostly, God’s words come in the form of inspiration, a sudden clearing of the mind and a thought thrust into my mind fully-formed from a source unknown. Recently, the message I found was this: 

I am lucky. I didn’t have to go to hell and back to get clean because I am lucky. I am lucky I heard God when I did because I needed eveything that happened to me to keep me on this path. I am lucky to have lived through addiction. Physically lucky, because that shit is deadly, but also spiritually lucky because recovery from that shit woke me up, and there is no going back to sleep. I heard what I heard. I know what I know. Tomorrow, I might know more or different, and that’s okay, because I’ll be here to find out what it is.

Angels In The Woods

Earlier this summer I went camping in the woods in Northern Michigan with my husband, daughter, two friends of ours, and two friends of our friends. I like to think of myself as outdoorsy but the truth is it is more in theory than in practice. My hikes are more like toddler-friendly nature walks that clock in at 60 minutes or less and trips to botanic gardens in my neck of the woods are uniformly preceded by fancy brunch or sushi. The last time I went rustic camping was years and years ago, before I had my daughter, before I met my husband, and  I spent the entire trip dangerously drunk and stoned, stumbling around in the dark doing things I’d like to say I don’t remember because it’s been a decade but in reality never remembered at all. 

The summer–this one,  with my family, not the hellish one I spent breathing fire way back when–has been jammed with work and joy and I had been so looking forward to getting away for a few days that it didn’t occur to me that camping might be a trigger. And then, about an hour after we arrived at our site and set up camp, our friends rolled in and cracked beers before they even set up their tent. They are serious campers but also serious beer drinkers. I felt instantly left out and a craving kicked in. I knew that feeling would intensify when the other couple showed up and the vibe morphed from family trip to party trip.

After we finished pitching the tent, my husband gave me a tour of the “kitchen” he set up in the trunk of our car. He opened the big insulated bag filled with smaller airtight bags of snacks, fruit, and sandwiches. He showed me the plastic bag containing utinsils, spices, and paper towels. He gestured to the cooler stocked with drinks. He warned me to steer clear of the liter-sized metal water bottle tucked near the spare tire. The liquid inside looked like water but reeked of ethanol. He told me it was Everclear, for starting the fire in the camp stove. He joked about the last time we’d spent the night in a tent together, at a music festival in the California desert, when we’d dumped half of the water bottles in the flat we had picked up at Costco and re-filled them with vodka and spent the entire weekend spitting mouthfuls of the stuff into the dirt, after accidentally gulping from the wrong bottle desperate from relief from the sweltering heat. 

I laughed at the memory of our college stupidity,  but carefully filed away the knowledge that there was a bottle of high alcohol content booze that would be poorly accounted for in our very own campsite. In the last months of my drinking, secretly chugging liquor straight from the bottle or, if I was not at home, a water bottle, was my MO. Armed with the comfort of a familiar (albeit fucked up) routine, my brain started re-writing our plan for the weekend. We’d still spend hours looking for petoskey stones on the beach and reading Stephen King by the fire, but we’d do it all tipsy and hope nobody noticed. I pushed away scary thoughts about how Everclear is a guaranteed blackout. I ignored nauseous memories of my last hangover. I figured I’d start after I put my kid to sleep in the tent. 

We got the girl down as the sun was setting. And then, instead of hanging back at our site and drinking alone, in a moment of remarkable honesty and self-preservation, I told my husband that I was feeling shaky. He offered to drink fancy fizzy water with me and we carried a few cans to share around the campfire at our friends’ neighboring site. A few minutes later our friends’ friends, a couple, joined us. Right away, I noticed they were drinking Gatorade. They drank Gatorade the whole night. They laughed and told jokes and shared stories and were, by all accounts, cool as shit. I’d also noticed the two kayaks on top of their car and wondered if they were drinking Gatorade because they had to wake up early. 

Sitting around the picnic table over breakfast the next morning, I learned that both of them were in long-term recovery. They met in the program. They had fifteen years apiece. 

Over the course of the weekend, I learned that they are also kayakers and backpackers. They have tattoos and interesting haircuts and a hyper dog. They are funny and laid back and kind and generous. They were super nice to my daughter, making her pb&j and sneaking her gummy bears. 

Immediately upon learning that this couple was sober, my brain was able to scrap our plans to make the trip sad and lonely and drunk. This couple reminded me that I want to be one of the clear-headed ones, that I am lucky to be one of the clear-headed ones, that this is actually the better path. 

I am back to real life now, with a bag full of rocks (mostly ordinary-looking) that my kid found on the beach and just had to bring home, limbs full of bug bites, and a head full of memories. I am also actively planning my next escape to the woods again, instead of the bottom of a bottle.