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.

Quarantine Diary Day 76: What If I Did Drink?

Why does an alcoholic drink? I don’t know, why does a fish swim? Because booze is like water? Like air? After four years of sobriety, I mostly don’t think about drinking but the want resurfaces from time to time for reasons that are myriad and varied. Sometimes I’m anxious and want to relax. Sometimes I’m lonely and want to fit in. Sometimes I’m bored and want to be a little wild. Sometimes I want to drink for no reason at all. 

During the pandemic, I’m finding all new reasons to want to drink. They aren’t the ones you might think. It’s not the other moms raising a glass at wine o’clock on Facebook or the New York Times reminding me in every goddamn morning briefing that good wine is my birthright, or something, that make me antsy. It’s not the promise of delivery to my door in an hour or less. I know what it’s like to get drunk at home by myself and it’s not pretty or fun. 

The reasons, like a good drink, are more subtle, nuanced, and complex. The reasons, like a good drink, are strong enough to drag me under. 

The world is so different now. I’m so different now. Can’t I just have a glass of wine? Can’t this one thing go back to normal? I know normal is an illusion. Normal was never on the list of words I’d use to describe my drinking. It’s never happened before, but I guess I’m wishing I could drink and get a different outcome.

At the same time, in this great unmooring from the way things were, I want the same outcome. I want to drink and I want it to end badly. I know what to do when I hit rock bottom. I know exactly where to go, and I know what I will find when I get there. Open arms. Healing. Answers. Quitting drinking, asking for help, it all made me feel so much better. Can’t I just do it all over again? Maybe do it better this time? Can’t I take a break from standing on my own two feet and lean on the group for awhile? Can’t I take a break from worrying about my family and the world and take care of myself? I guess I’m wishing I could fall off the wagon and climb right back on again. 

I shouldn’t be writing this post. Talking about relapse makes people uneasy, the people I love, and the people in my program of recovery. It scares me too. When I think about the options–I take a drink and everything’s fine or a take a drink and everything goes to shit–I’m not sure what scares me more. If I’m cured, I lose a big piece of my identity. If everything’s not fine, and the relapse stories are to be believed, I might not be lucky enough to hit bottom on this side of the ground. I might lose it all. 

The outcome that actually scares me the most is the one that lands somewhere in the middle of these two scenarios. I have three or four drinks and get pissy at my husband. I scroll too much on my phone, send a few sketchy texts. I go to bed and wake up sick with shame, with anxiety, with myself. I make myself a promise it’s done. And then I do it all over again and it’s Groundhog Day for the next ten years. This, of course, is the most likely result. This is the real nightmare. 

Quarantine Diary Day 75: How To Stay Sober In A Pandemic (Part 1)

My pandemic nightmares started in AA. In the dream, I was sitting down at a meeting that hadn’t started yet. I knew it was an AA meeting because the room looked like so many basement rooms I’ve been in over the years, shabby and dim and set up with rows of folding chairs. The room was sparsely populated at first, but more and more people started drifting in and taking their seats, and I knew that coronavirus had infected the dreamworld when it started to feel like they were closing in. I tried to talk my dream self down–“Everything is fine, they aren’t that close”–because I knew it was important for me to stay, even if maintaining social distancing was proving to be a challenge. When the meeting finally started, the lights went down, people started grabbing their chairs and scooting them in, closer to the front of the room, closer to me. I panicked. I stood and started awkwardly making my way out of the room, climbing over people and chairs, mortified to be making a scene, chastened by the dirty looks people were throwing my way, but resolute. I knew I couldn’t stay. As I climbed the stairs, making my way from darkness to light, I did not emerge into a church, as I expected, but into the dining room of a fast casual Mediterranean restaurant. I knew I was supposed to go home, but the bustle of the other diners was inviting, and I decided to grab a meal real quick and eat it there.

Fellowship and food. Are there things I worry more about losing to COVID? Obviously. Grandparents. Parents. Aunts and Uncles. Siblings. Neighbors. Friends. Support systems. Jobs. Houses. Retirements. Minds. 100,000 lives, known to me or not. But restaurants and the rooms were the first things to disappear from my life in the shadow of the oncoming pandemic.

In those early weeks, when we were still coming to terms with the fact that we didn’t know what the fallout would look like or how long it would last, when we didn’t know how to cope with that not knowing, it was so easy to let the blank spaces fill up with fear. I was afraid of so many things, big and small, but the one that crept into my subconscious first was the fear I was doing it all wrong. Of course that’s the fear that bubbled up first. It’s the one I’ve been feeding my whole life.

On Friday, March 13, the day my husband and I were scouring the grocery stores for staples and preparing to school our daughter at home, I wanted to go to a meeting, but had no idea if the Alano club was still open. I kicked myself for not having been to a meeting since Monday and missing any announcement that might have gone out. I texted a woman I know. “Is the club still open?” “Closed.” I kicked myself for not having gotten on a phone list and being out of the loop.

On Sunday, March 15 I discovered my daughter had lice and as I settled in for a long night of nitpicking I wished, for the first time in a long time, that I had a glass of wine to make the job easier.

On Monday, March 16 and Tuesday March 17 I wondered what I was going to do. Was I going to white knuckle it until things opened up again? Was I just going to drink? I visited a directory of online AA meetings. The list of women’s meetings that were open to members was limited and they mostly met when I was at work or taking care of my kid. I kicked myself for not prioritizing my recovery.

On Wednesday, March 18 I asked to join and was admitted into two separate email-based groups that I found in the directory. I tried to keep up with the flood of messages welcoming newcomers like me who were desperately seeking for support, but scrolling through my email every night before bed left me feeling more disconnected than ever. I kicked myself for having fallen out of touch with the network of women I’d met online when I’d first started trying to get sober, for dropping out of the online support groups I relied on before I found AA.

On Friday, March 20 a friend texted me a list of Chicagoland meetings that had gone virtual. I scanned the list but didn’t recognize any of them. I wondered what it would be like to dial into a group of strangers. I kicked myself for not having made it to a wider variety of meetings back when I worked in the city. I wondered if any of the meetings I’d been to over the years had gone virtual. I kicked myself for not knowing.

I started forwarding the list of virtual meetings to other sober people, figuring I must not be the only one who felt lost. I called a few people. One friend assured me that she was attending daily meetings with her sponsorship line. I kicked myself for not having that type of relationship with my sponsor, for not having spoken to her in months. Another friend assured me that one of her regular meetings, a small one, had moved to someone’s house. I kicked myself for not having a home group.

On Tuesday March 31, somebody finally texted, told me that local meetings were online. He asked me if I could help chair a meeting. I said yes, but then couldn’t make it work with my work and parenting commitments. I kicked myself for being selfish and for being a flake.

I had no idea how to stay sober without meetings, and I blamed myself for that fact, as though the upheaval weren’t entirely unprecedented and entirely out of my hands. I took personal responsibility for every challenge and every challenging emotion that came my way. If only I’d been more active in AA after I moved my job up to Evanston, if only I hadn’t been waffling in my commitment to the program since the beginning, surely this would be easier. As though that weren’t a total lie. As though this could possibly be easy for anyone.

When I finally started relaxing into this new life and making it to online meetings, my vision cleared. I saw that focusing on my perceived shortcomings, on my petty fear of failure, on all the things I was doing wrong was a useful way of avoiding facing the things that were really scaring the hell out of me, like what if somebody I love gets this disease and doesn’t recover? I realized that in obsessing over everything I didn’t have I missed the most important thing that happened to me in the first few weeks of quarantine: the world fell apart and I didn’t take a drink. I understood that I had what I needed all along: a sponsor who will take my call any time I’m willing to make it; a phone full of sober people I know; an internet full of sober people I don’t know yet; a list of virtual meetings; and who knows how many people who might need my help.

Quarantine Diary Day -8: Meeting Makers Make It

AA During The Pandemic

On March 5, 2020, my brain was waging an internal war against my feet over whether or not I should go to an AA meeting. My feet, which had been reliably carrying me to and from the meetings that have kept me sober for the last four years, knew the drill. When the clock hits quarter to noon, they stand up and march me to the nearest church basement, where I sit my ass in a chair. That day, my brain, wily and willful, was whispering that I didn’t need to go to meetings anymore. I’d read the big book cover to cover and worked the steps with a sponsor. I had better things to do with the next hour than sit in a small stifling room listening to the same people rambling about the same problems I’ve heard hundreds of times before. I’m good. I’ve got this.

Lucky for me, my feet are smarter than my brain, and they walked me out the door. I was ten minutes late to the meeting, but I caught the end of the speaker and when it was my turn to share, I did. I don’t remember what I said. I know I hoped my words were helpful to someone else–there was a newcomer in the room that day–but it’s more likely they were most helpful to me. They always are. I do remember that there was only one other woman there, and that I hung onto her every word. I always do. After the meeting, the woman came up to me and asked me if I would be willing to share my story at a meeting that Saturday. I said yes, even though it meant rearranging my Saturday schedule and texting my husband to make sure he be on bedtime duty for our daughter. I always say yes. I know I left the meeting feeling better than when I went in. That always happens. I went back to work at peace, my mind and body no longer at war, my heart recommitted to the way of life that saved my life. I think this is what people mean when they talk about serenity.

That weekend, on March 7, I went to the “Saturday Night Live” meeting at the Alano club in my town and shared my story. I marveled at how, after four years, I could still walk into a meeting I’d never been to before, sit down among people I’d never met, and feel right at home. This particular meeting was a riot. Ten minutes before it started, a few members got into a heated discussion about the wording of an announcement that had been added to the meeting script. The dispute had to do with whether the group should adhere to the tradition of holding hands during the prayer at the end of the meeting in light of the spreading coronavirus. The woman chairing the meeting was adamant that she would not be holding anyone’s hand, because she was had a compromised immune system, and she thought that the announcement did not adequately address her concerns. The man she was talking to was was equally adamant about…something…it was not entirely clear what, because the group ended up deciding to suspend hand holding until the pandemic subsided. I remember laughing about how alcoholics always seem to find a way to make things difficult, even when the right way to do things is obvious, and eminently reasonable, and everybody agrees. Somebody else recommended that we update our phone lists, in the event in-person meetings were also suspended. I nodded, but couldn’t fathom that actually happening, couldn’t imagine around a world in which in which the churches and hospitals and community centers closed their doors on sick and desperate people. No more meetings was, to my mind, unthinkable, an idea more shocking even than closing down public schools and postponing the Olympics.

Meetings are the lifeblood of sobriety for me and millions of other members of AA. “Meeting makers make it” is the aphorism I hear most often in the rooms, and the one I hate the most. I hate it because I don’t hear the hope it offers–with the help of the group, you can not drink one day at a time. I only ever hear the dark flipside–if you don’t go to enough meetings you won’t make it; if you don’t go to meetings, you’ll drink; if you don’t go to meetings, you’ll die. This is AA law, based on the transitive property and the other big saying, the one that says, “to drink is to die.”

I hate the “meeting makers make it” mentality, too, because it’s imprecisem. How many meetings is enough meetings? How regularly do you have to go to be a regular? Three times a week? Five? Seven? Think you don’t have time for that kind of commitment? Old timers have a quick comeback for that excuse: “You had time to drink every day, didn’t you?” What if you didn’t drink every day? I didn’t. What if five meetings a week is fine, but you’re competitive, like me, and want to earn gold stars, on top of all your chips for 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, a year?

Of course, the thing I hate the very most the claim that meetings will keep me sober is that I don’t know if it’s true. I prefer ideologies I can swallow whole can embrace or reject outright. Nuance, ambiguity, the entire notion of different strokes for different for folks–it’s all breeding ground for anxious overthinking, ruinous rumination. I know there are people who get and stay sober without AA–or rather, I know of such people. Am I one of those people? Or do I need the fellowship of the group of drunks? I have supporting both hypotheses. On the right, my angel-voiced better self reminds me: I tried for years to quit drinking on my own and couldn’t do it, but haven’t taken a drink since my first meeting in January 2016. On the left, my independent side tallies up all the days I’ve gone without a meeting and presents me with indisputable proof: I can survive long stretches of time. I can’t know if “meeting makers make it” or if “meeting dodgers don’t” because I’ve never had the chance to really test the theory. When I go more than a few days without a meeting, I get squirrely, and when I go more than two weeks–well, I don’t know. I’ve never gone more than two weeks. Before March 2020, whenever I got squirrely, I knew exactly where to go.

Three months ago, I couldn’t wrap my mind around a world with no meetings because, in the most fearful reaches of my mind, this was nothing short of a death sentence.

Getting back to the meeting on March 7, Saturday Night Live at the Alano club, once the issue of hand-holding was resolved, the meeting, as I mentioned, was a lot of fun. When I talk about my drinking sober outside the rooms, it sounds so serious, and so sad. Inside the rooms, people laugh at my stories about raiding the medicine cabinets in my dry Mormon household for cough syrup, my failed suicide attempt, and the insanity of my efforts to manage my addiction after I had a baby. Inside the rooms, my life feels normal, instead of like a sad morality tale. After the meeting, we went out for dinner to a restaurant where the servers knew we were coming, and had set up a long table in the middle of the dining room. Old timers regaled me with tales from their own drinking days, and stories about the history of group. I caught up with an old friend who I met early in sobriety. A few woman banded together to shield me from being thirteenth-stepped. I walked home late that night feeling happy, joyous, and free, recommitted to the people who saved my life. “I want to keep going to that meeting,” I told my husband, “and going out for fellowship after.”

Of course, you know the rest of the story. The next week, the Alano club shut its doors, along with every other meeting in town, and I haven’t been to an in-person meeting since.

Quarantine Diary Day 62: Yes, Still

As other states start to open up while Illinois residents remain under a stay-at-home order through the end of May, I’m starting to field questions from my friends and family in less densely populated areas.

  • “You’re still working from home?”
  • “You’re still getting your groceries delivered?”
  • “You’re still homeschooling?”
  • “You don’t think you’ll want to travel this summer?”

The questions are new, but the sentiment–“Is this all really still necessary?” & “Don’t you think you’re taking things a little too far?”–is not. It’s the same tone people take when they find out that I still go to AA meetings after years of sobriety.

  • “You’re still doing that AA thing?”
  • “You still go to how many meetings a week?”
  • “Exactly how long does it take to work the steps?”
  • “You haven’t had a drink in how long?”

Though the questions are different, the answer is the same.

  • Yes, I’m still sheltering-in-place/going to meetings. We’re talking about a deadly disease. As long as it’s still out there, I’m going to do what it takes to keep people safe, and I’m not just talking about myself.

Speaking of deadly diseases, some of the questions people are asking about coronavirus are the same questions I reckoned with when I first started trying to get sober:

  • How bad is this really?
  • How long is this going to last?
  • Will things ever go back to normal?

As it turns out, the answers are the same whether we’re talking about the coronavirus or alcoholism:

  • It’s bad.
  • It’s going to last a long time.
  • Your life will never be the same again.

It’s not all bad news, though. If tearing down and rebuilding my whole life taught me anything it’s that we’re going to come out of this better than we were before.

Quarantine Diary Day 41

Pre-pre-pre-quarantine, I lived in a prison of my own making. As is always the case with prisons of our own making, I had the keys, two sets in fact, to two different doors. One door had a sign on it that said “Keep drinking.” I really wanted to open that door. It was sleek and shiny and papered in notes that said, “Get it, girl!” and “You’ve got this!” and “Everybody else is doing it!” I knew exactly what was on the other side of that door. First a warm and fuzzy welcome home party, then a black tunnel, then death (“then prison/then the madhouse/then the grave“). The other door said “Stop now,” and looked like it would open into a house in the suburbs in the desert of my youth. It looked like my parents’ front door. In other words, worse than death. I wanted nothing to do with it. I had no idea what was on the other side.
Some four and a quarter years ago, I opened the boring door. Counterintuitively, I started counting days when I left the prison. I guess it took me a long time to realize I was free.
There are a lot of people to worry about right now: the dying, the grieving, the at-risk, the sick, the starving, the stretched, and the scared. Right up at the very top of my list are the people who are counting days. The people who were trying like hell to get sober when the rug of their lives was ripped out from under them. The people who are trying like hell to stay sober without support. The people who are bottoming out right now or who will in the coming months. The people for whom sobriety still looks like a black cloud on the horizon, a fate worse than death. These are my people–the ones who are now living in prisons inside of of prisons, who are isolated in isolation, who are trying to shelter inside the storm.
The good news: I’m pretty sure we still have all the keys. We just need some help finding them, and each other. You don’t have to leave your house or your prison to find a sober alcoholic who will help you. We’re everywhere.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 10 – Messes

Before I got sober, I was afraid of my past. I had a hard time listening to certain music, watching certain movies, seeing certain people pop up in my social media feeds because of the way they opened a floodgate of memories. I’m not talking about traumatic memories, the kind that are a nightmare to relive. I’m talking about the ones that just kind of hang around, replaying themselves over and over again in your mind. The haunting kind. I’m talking about mistakes. I’m talking about vicious words and punches thrown and selfish actions and bad decisions. I’m talking about messes. For a long time, I didn’t think I needed to clean up my messes. I thought, if I could just stop making them, it would be enough to cover them up and leave them behind. And for awhile, I did stop making certain kinds of messes. I stopped being an asshole. I stopped getting into trouble. I really did change. What I didn’t know is that, in my hasty efforts to cover my tracks as I ran/hid from my past, I had stuffed every haunting memory into a pillowcase that I dragged with me everywhere I went. Eventually I made it into the rooms and sat down. I finally had time to breathe. I inhaled, exhaled, emptied my mind. That’s when I noticed the smell. My messes were starting to stink. It was time to get to work.

Day 1,460

FOUR YEARS sober today. Not drinking isn’t hard anymore. That wasn’t always the case. For years, not drinking was impossible. Then, for many long months, it was excruciatingly difficult. Now it’s easy. Life isn’t easy, but not drinking is. Here’s the thing I didn’t know, though. Life is better now. I thought a sober life would be the most boring. But it’s not! Quitting the thing I thought I loved the most opened the door to having all the things I actually love the most. Peace of mind. A happy family. Solid friendships. A job I love. Hobbies! I don’t think not drinking makes you a better person. (Though if you’re anything like me it might. Booze/drugs had a way of making me lie/cheat/fight/steal/hurt/generally annoy everyone around me.) I didn’t quit drinking to become a better person. I quit because I wanted a better life. And I got it! I’m not here to convert you though. I’m here because for years and years I thought I was the only Mormon girl who couldn’t stop drinking and the only party girl who hated herself in the morning and my whole world opened up when I realized I wasn’t alone. If the last four years have taught me anything it’s that neither are you, whatever your thing is.

Girl Paces In Front Of A Dispensary

Legal weed finally made its way to Illinois. It’s not cool to talk about this like it’s a big deal, to admit that it changes anything. Everybody I know who gets high was smoking or vaping or eating edibles in Illinois was doing it before January 1, 2020. Most everybody I know who doesn’t get high continues to have little interest in doing so in the new year, notwithstanding the change in legal status. In my life, over the last year or so, the subject of the impending legalization came up reliably, in tones of anticipation both eager and afraid, in only two places. The first was the local news articles I obsessively searched out on the internet, covering politicians eager for tax dollars and other politicians afraid of slippery slopes. The second was the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, where people insisted in hushed tones that the new law didn’t change anything in terms of their sobriety while simultaneously admitting that it just might test their commitment because while the traditions tell us to limit our comments in meetings to our problems with alcohol, the truth is that a lot of us also really liked pot.

For almost a year, as long as J.B. Pritzker has been governor and recreational weed has been on the horizon, I’ve assumed I would get high. Before that, I occasionally looked into the requirements to get a permit to use it medicinally for, I dunno, my near-constant TMJD pain? My occasionally crippling anxiety? But alas, the list of qualifying medical conditions in Illinois is short and restrictive and I (blessedly, truly, because the conditions are severe) didn’t have any of them. Once the January 1 deadline was locked in, I stopped trolling the internet in the name of research because there was no longer any question about it: I was definitely going to partake.

I have not shared this with anyone. How can I, after almost four years of complete sobriety? Fine, almost complete. I ate one useless cannabis gummy on vacation in Colorado in 2018, but I haven’t had a sip of alcohol or swallowed a pill since January 30, 2016. Getting high, even legally, would be a big deal for me. Even before I quit drinking, it had been almost a decade since I smoked pot. The last time was in 2007, I think, in Tucson, under circumstances that I am both embarrassed and afraid to put in print (some things are better left for my fifth step or, let’s be real, my memoir). Even before that, I hadn’t been smoking regularly for awhile. I quit when I started dating the man who is now my husband in 2005. He is not a fan of pot, or drugs in general, or maybe he just wasn’t a fan of me on drugs. We only got high together once, or rather, I got high in front of him at Coachella and that trip culminated in me seeing barely any bands, missing the headliners to hang out in the medical tent, and, on the last day, smoking a joint that I picked up off the ground in the EDM tent and freaking out in full-blown paranoia the likes of which I’d never experienced before. Pot, for me, had always been just fun.

When I quit daily smoking and got a little distance from the drug, my life changed in such a dramatic way that it became hard for me to see pot like I used to, as harmless. In the course of less than a year, I transformed from being severely depressed–wholly unmotivated and lethargic on my best days and suicidal on my worst–to happy more days than not and, weirdly, ambitious. I applied for internships and part-time jobs and scholarships and eventually law school. I built a career, and a family with the man I quit for. Would I have done these things if I hadn’t quit? Maybe, eventually, though it’s hard to picture how that would have happened when the only thing I cared about was getting stoned. It’s even harder to picture how my life would have come together when the harder I chased feeling good the more my life unraveled.

So, why I am thinking about picking up now, after all these years, knowing how good I have it, and how lucky I am to have it? That one’s easy. I loved getting high. Specifically, I loved a marijuana high. After opiate addiction, drinking never satisfied me, but weed did. Or, I think it did? As I sit here, writing this out, I am transported to my last night in my dorm room freshman year, where I holed up for 12? 18? 24? hours smoking bowl after bowl, trying to pack my suitcases and clean my room and watching Magnolia on repeat, getting nowhere close to where I wanted to go. Cut to the house on Elm Street, where I hit the pipe before bed every night and still had to chase it down with half a bottle of NyQuil. Flash forward and back to all the nights I planned to just smoke a little weed and ended up out of my mind drunk and high careening around the house pissing off my roommates, falling down in the neighborhood, scaring men away, driving down major roads with no lights, getting pulled over with a stash and a cloud of smoke in my car and jumping out and charging the cop and only walking away with my life and no record because of the color of my skin.

Can I honestly say that marijuana was fine for me? That it mellowed me out? That it was anything but blood in the water for the hungry beast in my brain?

So, why do I still want to get high, knowing what it does to me, knowing what it could do to my life. Part of it is that, unlike with alcohol, I never got to the point that I wanted to stop. I “quit” when I fell in love with a man who was not compatible with my drug habit. I quit for real when I moved across the country for law school. I quit, but I never wanted to.

So, recreational weed has been legal in Illinois for seven days, and I’ve been back in town after traveling over the holidays for four, and there is a dispensary that is mere blocks from my home, steps from my office. I know the hours (they are annoying, 10:00 am to 2:00 pm), I know what they sell and I know what I’d buy. So why haven’t I done it yet, when I want to so badly.

I’m afraid.

I’m not afraid of losing my sobriety. I’m not afraid of jeopardizing my marriage or my job. I’m not afraid I will like the drug way too much and go overboard like I did back then or of not liking it enough and feeling like I threw away my four years for nothing.

I’m afraid of losing my sanity, my grip on this life. I’m afraid of psychosis. I know, that sounds so over-the-top, so uncool. When I was working the steps with a sponsor, she liked to point out that I might not have had gotten into trouble every time I drank, but every time I got in trouble I was drunk. Apply that to drugs and it goes something like, I might not have lost my mind every time I got high, but every time I lost my damn mind, I was pretty damn high. The last handful of times I smoked, after I knew it wasn’t good for me or my relationships, I was a mess. Back in 2015, when I was trying to quit drinking and doing weird things like huffing household chemicals, I inhaled my way into a dissociative panic attack that lasted a week and feared would last forever and I never want to feel that way again. Then there’s that anxiety and depression, which I manage for the most part pretty well, but are with me always and can still spin out of control. I’ve heard it said that the fears about cannabis-induced psychosis are overblown, that it’s only a concern for people who are predisposed to schizophrenia or who are mentally fragile. I may not be the former, but I don’t know, and I may not seem like the latter, but I do know that my mental health is a finicky finely-tuned thing, and my experience with alcoholism tells me that my body is one of those that cannot use certain substances safely, even when it seems like everyone else can.

I value my sanity, my mind, my health over everything. Will I do what I know it takes to protect myself from myself?

How To Sit Still

2018 was an exercise in restraint. Here is a short list of things I wanted to do and seriously considered doing at various points over the course of the year:

Quit my job

Start fertility treatments

Adopt a pet

Get a tattoo

Run a fourth marathon

Run an ultramarathon

Drink alcohol

Move to Arizona

Move to Denver

Move to Michigan

Move back to the city

Smoke pot

Ingest technically legal but definitely questionable addictive substances

Pull my daughter from her class at the neighborhood elementary school and enroll her in private school

Officially resign from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints by having my name removed from the records of the church

Officially join the Methodist Church I’ve been attending for over two years

Quit going to AA after over two years of sobriety

I did not do any of these things despite, at times, wanting to very badly.

Why not?

Because the things I want are not always good for me. The fact that I, in the moment, see no correlation between wanting to quit AA and wanting to get drunk, smoke weed, and buy kratom is clear evidence that I can’t trust my first instincts or my subsequent rationalizations.

I recognize that some of the things on that list are not like the others. Wanting another baby is not like wanting to get high. Wanting the best education for my daughter is not like wanting to quit my job. Even so, they all belong on the same list of things I wanted to but did not do because in every instance, they were external things that I hoped would change me. They were escape hatches from my life.

This is why I can’t have nice things.

One of these days, I may very well move or join a new church or even get a pet, but not until I’m sure I want those things for their own sake and not because I’m looking for a fix.