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.

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