Quarantine Diary Day 77: How To Stay Sober In A Pandemic (Part 2)

Bandanna Mask

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.

Reach Out

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:

  1. Listening to windchimes while I work from home.
  2. Wearing housecoats and slippers.
  3. Watching birds (and actually learning the names of the birds of the state I’ve lived in for a decade).
  4. Masking with bandanas and feeling like a badass old-timey train robber.
  5. 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.

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