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.

Three Years and a New Day One

This past Wednesday, January 29, 2019 marked three years since my last drank. I celebrated quietly, at home, not even making it to a meeting, on account of the Polar vortex that shut most of Chicago down for two days.

Today, February 1, 2019 marked a new day one. Not of sobriety, thank God. I joked darkly with my husband about warming up with some whiskey when our heater started to fail and it was nearing negative thirty degrees outside, but I didn’t actually take a drink. (If you’re wondering, he did not laugh at that joke, because husbands of alcoholics don’t laugh at jokes like that, and also because it was less of a joke than a testing of the waters, which, if we’re being honest, is just a symptom of an alcoholic mind.) Rather, after seven years at my last firm, today was my first day at a new job.

As far as day ones go, this one was not too different from early sobriety, insofar as it was both underwhelming and anxiety-producing and consisted almost entirely of waiting. The plan was for me to set up my new office and get oriented on my new computer in the morning and then spend the afternoon in training sessions. As it happened, when I arrived at my office, I discovered that all of my office equipment, including my computer, and the majority of my office furniture, were still in transit, again, on account of the Polar vortex. I unpacked a few office supplies, set up a desktop lamp and speakers, looked for an AA meeting, because I’ve learned that’s what you do when you don’t know what else to do, and then killed time twirling in my desk chair until I could leave for the meeting without being too early (because I’m a good AA member, but not that good). As it happened, when I arrived at the meeting at 11:50, I discovered that the meeting didn’t start until 12:30, so I planted my butt in a metal chair and waited forty minutes for the meeting to start. Back at the office, I took care of the logistical items I could, and then decided to head out for the day at 3:00, on account of there was nothing else for me to do. I planned to squeeze in a workout before getting home at 5:00. As it happened, the red and purple lines were significantly delayed due to mechanical failures, I’m guessing on account of the Polar vortex, and I ended up waiting over an hour at two different train stations before making it home at 5:00 with no workout at all. When I arrived at home, I discovered I’d missed the UPS delivery of my new computer by three minutes and I wouldn’t be able to pick it up until Monday afternoon (after all my rescheduled training sessions).

It is hard for me not to revert to old patterns of thinking and construe everything that happened today as a sign that this new job is going to be, if not a disaster, at least an unpleasant, anxiety-producing detour. I don’t subscribe to that kind of magical thinking anymore, though. Instead, I’m going to hope that this day one, like my last one, turns out to be the start of a journey, along a path varied with enough exhilarating highs to justify all the disappointing lows and a good deal of boring middle ground to keep me sane, but above all else takes me somewhere new.

Quiet

It’s been quiet around here, no?

I started this secret blog because I had an ocean of stories I needed to tell, a loud head I needed to quiet, and, honestly, a violent interior life I needed to quell. I had nobody to talk to and no way to make sense of what was happening in my life or my mind except to write it out. I expected this to become a diary of my recovery, something I would be able to look back to and track where I was at on Day -29, Day 90, Day 180, and so on, never mind that I didn’t have a clue about the concept of “recovery,” and certainly didn’t think it was something I qualified for, or was capable of, or deserved. Today is Day 704 without a drink or a mood or mind altering drug. I’ve had so much to say this last one year eleven months and four days. I had so much to say in the ten, twenty, thirty years that led to my last Day 1. I still have so much to say. And yet, this place has been quiet.

I want to account for my silence. Not because I need to. I know I don’t owe the seven readers of my anonymous blog anything. I know even if I had a lot more readers, I wouldn’t owe them an explanation as to why the record of my emotional life on the internet is not as meticulous as it could be. The truth is, I want to write about about my silence because it is interesting to me that somebody as verbose and teeming with creative energy and intellectually excited by and curious about the radical spiritual journey I’ve been on these last few years as I am would consciously avoid the blog she set up for the express purpose of channeling that excess energy and exploring those wild ideas. I mean, something’s got to be going on there, right?

There are two basic reasons for my absence. The first one is pretty straightforward.

I started the blog because I thought I needed it and I did need it, until I didn’t. I posted my last big milestone post when I was six months sober. Then I almost relapsed and got my ass into AA. And you guys, AA meetings don’t consist solely of coffee and donuts and folding chairs. There are actual people there, and they are nice. Also, as it turns out, if dredging up your past and regaling a crowd with drunkalogues and agonizing over your relationships with everything from booze to food to your mom to yourself to your obnoxiously well-dressed co-worker is your thing, AA is, like the perfect place to do that. I occasionally see advice to newcomers along the lines of, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to talk, just listen,” but after over a lifetime of thinking that I was the only person in the world who walked around feeling like a stranger in my own life, that nobody enjoyed that first drink, the one that turned the lights on, quite as much as I did, that I alone struggled with the apparent inability to drink like a grown up, I was desperate to talk. I used up every bit of the three minutes or so I got to talk at meetings. It was enough just to unload on kind-eyed strangers, and it was like Christmas morning when I saw women nodding when I talked about trying to figure out how to nurse my baby after I’d had to much to drink (forced to choose, literally, between feeding my addiction and feeding my child) because they got it. Forget about making a roomful of people laugh with a story about my unsuccessful suicide attempt; that was like gold, because they understood that it was tragic and funny. In AA I found a place to excavate my past, to shine a light on my drinking behaviors, on all that shamed me, really, and, as a result, to arrive at the conclusion that, yes, I really did have a problem with alcohol and, yes, I really did need to quit and, yes, I might actually be able to quit and not be too mad about it, if I just did the things that the darkly funny people with the kind eyes did. Once I had those things, I didn’t need to muddle my way to sobriety via a blank page and an internet connection.

That’s not the whole story, though. I may not need writing the way I used to, but I miss it. I want to tell these stories, to layer my experiences and memories and ideas together with words and, in so doing, make them into something more than what they were. What I really want is to give them to somebody who might need them, but I’ll settle for somebody who might find them halfway interesting. So why do I go months without writing anything longer than an Instagram caption?

The answer is that writing here doesn’t feel good. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t feel right. I certainly try to write. I’ll open up the computer, spool out a few lines, and spin out, triggered. Writing about my drinking days, more often than not, makes me want to drink. Writing about drugs makes me to get high. They don’t scrape out your taste buds when you get sober; I will always like these things. Or, I’ll labor over a piece for days, or weeks, and hit publish, only to be seized with anxiety. Should I share it with my online recovery community? With my friends? With my family? If no one is reading my work, why am I even writing?

That this is the reaction I have to my own writing, to the act of writing, baffles me. I see so many people navigating the waters of recovery by writing about it. Writing seems to bring them a measure of relief, even freedom. This is not my experience. Why not? I see that these people call themselves truth tellers and I worry. Do I not tell the truth when I write? Is that why it makes me anxious? I see these people using their platforms to carry a message of hope to others suffering in addiction. Are my reasons for writing too selfish? Is that why writing publicly fills me up with guilt? Or maybe the guilt comes from the fact that anonymity is part of twelve-step philosophy. I used to be comfortable being out-of-step but lately I’ve found more peace falling in line.

Another theory is that a lot of the sober writers I read lost their voices in addiction, or never knew the joy of speaking freely in the first place. Not me. I’ve been speaking my truth for years. Not the whole truth, and certainly not to the degree I do now, but I have been writing online about uncomfortable topics in one form or another for years, from the Xanga and Blogspot accounts where I explored my nascent sexuality to the WordPress site where I documented my feminist awakening and ensuing critiques of the Mormon church. While I’d be happy if the drivel I wrote in my angsty teenage years never saw the light of day, I’m pretty proud of the writing I did about gender and marriage and religion and identity over last ten years or so. So much so that it pains me to admit that much of that writing came from the same place as my drinking.

Take this clever feminist critique and see how smart I am.

Peruse this painful account of sexual harassment and see how hard I’ve had it.

Absorb this liberal manifesto and see how progressive I am.

Read this funny account of a road trip with my husband who is not Mormon and see how happy we are.

Listen to me delineate the travails of breastfeeding and see that I am a good mom.

Hear my plea to the Mormon church to change–to acknowledge LGBTQ relationships, to person women–and change your mind about everything you’ve ever believed.

My writing was an exercise in character defects: grandiosity; self-loathing; arrogance; self-pity; anger; fear; pride; intolerance–the list goes on and on.

And here’s the rub. My writing, as often as not, is still colored by, maybe even rooted in, these same defects.

Take this critique of a hackneyed recovery aphorism and see how smart I am.

Read this alcoholic’s experience of drinking culture and change your views on booze.

Parse this painful account of one of my many bottoms and see how hard I’ve had it.

Enjoy this tale of triumph over drugs and alcohol and religious dogma and see how strong I am.

Hear my plea to lookatme lookatme lookatme and know I am special, or least a damn good writer.

I write because I can’t not, because it is how I understand my place in the world, but I can’t stop myself from using my writing to seek validation, to control how people see me, to make myself into somebody I can like myself.

It’s all futile.

Writing like this won’t give me what I need and it won’t feel good in the end but it still gives me something so I guess I’ll see you here until something changes.

“We Don’t Do The Same Drugs No More”

I finally went to the OB-GYN last week. I hadn’t been since my post-partum check up, six weeks after my daughter was born. That was four years ago. The CNM scrunched up her face when I told her. “You haven’t had any lady care for four years?

It pisses me off that people are often blasé about the fact that men in their twenties and thirties go to the doctor pretty much never but women who don’t go the the OB-GYN every year are seen as irresponsible. “I thought the USPSTF changed the recommendation for pap screening from one to three years?” It was half question, half half-hearted explanation. That wasn’t why I hadn’t been in, but it made me feel better. “Plus, I’m not on birth control,” I added, realizing I hadn’t adequately justified my hiatus from reproductive health. That one hit a little closer to the truth of the matter. I stopped taking hormonal birth control the year before I got pregnant and never went back on, and absolutely relished the freedom. Yes, I realize that the pill that tied me to a doctor and flatlined my sex drive is the same one that liberated me and millions of other women. I can hold onto both of these truths at the same time. The CNM tucked her leg up onto the chair, tucked a chunk of pink hair behind her ear, chiding me quietly as she pulled up a new chart: “That may be, but you still need exams.”

It’s not like I’d been neglecting my health. I am in tune with my body to an almost freakish degree and I love medicine of both the Eastern and Western variety. Almost as soon as I went back to work after maternity leave, my stress-induced TMJ flared up. I tried acupuncture first, but it didn’t do enough to justify ducking out of work for an hour at a time, so I turned to an internist who was so cute I decided he would be my first-ever adult primary care physician. What I wanted was painkillers. What I got was a referral for PT that ended up being exorbitantly expensive and inordinately time-consuming and not covered by my insurance.

Later that year, I went back to the internist about a strange rash. I made big plans to tell him about my anxiety, too, but couldn’t find the words. I’d never told anybody how my chest tightened up every day when I left the office, or how my stomach roiled before I left the house. Was that anxiety? Was it bad enough to warrant medication or did I just want to get high? What I wanted was to get the ball rolling toward a prescription for Xanax. What I got was a diagnosis of stress-induced eczema.

A few months after that I huffed a chemical inhalant in the middle of my work day. I think the high lasted a few hours but it was hard to tell when it wore off because my head didn’t come back to my body. I remained in a dissociative state that the internet told me was called depersonalization for six days. I remembered that I had a primary care doctor and called his office to beg for an appointment. A different doctor in the same practice group squeezed me in. “Are you under a lot of stress?” he asked, shining a light into my eyes. I nodded. He asked me to turn my head from side to side. “Do you find yourself crying?” “Mhm.” My eyes welled up. What I wanted was somebody to tell me I didn’t have brain damage. What I got was instructions to come back for a full blood workup the next week.

I went to a therapist instead.

I went through a round of CBT.

I got back to running.

I got sober.

In short, I started to get right mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Nine months after I quit drinking, I ran a marathon. A particularly severe bout of post-race tendonitis drove me back to the primary care physician. I’d sustained enough strains and sprains in my two decades as a runner to know that ice and rest would do the trick, but the pain in my hip was bad enough that I figured I could benefit from talking to a physical therapist who specialized in running injuries. Of course, I never would have booked the appointment if I didn’t think I there was a chance I could also get drugs. In the few minutes it took to schedule an appointment online, the pink cloud that had been carrying me for months dissipated. I went from happy sober person, chirping away in meetings about how great it felt to be so present for my family during the holidays to walking zombie. I went from wanting to get better quickly to hoping for something serious–a fracture or a tear. I didn’t think about calling my sponsor. I didn’t think about what I’d do when the pills ran out. I couldn’t think about anything but the possibility of getting high again. I obsessed about what I needed to do to make it happen. The next day, I hobbled to the office and told the doctor with a straight face that the pain was an eight. I told him I could barely walk. I got him worried enough that he wrote out an order for an x-ray, which is when I knew the jig was up because there was a minuscule chance I might be pregnant that I couldn’t ignore, given how long my husband and I had been trying to have a second kid. The doctor sent me home with no x-ray, no drugs, and prescription for ice and rest. “Come back if it still hurts when you get your period.” Fuck.

Once you’ve developed a taste for pharmaceuticals, every doctor’s office is a street corner, every appointment a seedy transaction, every honest ailment immediately supplanted by symptoms of the most plausible path to opiate relief. And when you are sober, every ache is an invitation to go back out. It’s easy to pretend you’re not flirting with relapse because sometimes people need medicine. With my history, the question of how prescription drugs fit into sobriety should be black and white but when I try to hold a picture of my sober life still in my head, there is so much blank space I start filling in the gaps with gray. Of course, most doctors aren’t handing out controlled substances like candy anymore. When you are an ex-pillhead, that almost doesn’t matter. The possibility alone is enough to throw you off course. It’s easier to avoid doctors altogether.

So that’s why I haven’t been to OB-GYN. I can’t trust myself to go in for a pap smear and not drum up enough undiagnosable premenstrual pain to walk out with a low-grade narcotic that will start the slow unspooling of my life. If you jump through enough hoops, the drugs will come. That’s how, last month, I ended up driving myself away from the hospital at 2 AM on a Sunday with a clean bill of health and a unnecessary prescription for Norco tucked in my bag, mind racing with thoughts like:

“A tranvaginal ultrasound is a steep price to pay for a week’s worth of pills;” and

“I guess nobody ever accused a junkie of driving a hard bargain;” and, most importantly,

“What the fuck am I going to do when these pills run out?”

The next 24 hours were mental torture. I had drugs, but I also had a head full of AA, which means I am utterly incapable of convincing myself that taking even one pill (or drink) is not a big deal. I know where one pill (or drink) goes. I’ve been there before and it’s hell. There is no easy way back if you even get a chance to come back.

Of course I was going to fill the prescription anyway. I went to four pharmacies that day. One rejected my (extremely common and accepted everywhere) insurance. The other three were closed, two of them within thirty minutes of me showing up. By 8 PM I had nowhere to go but my usual Sunday night candlelight meeting. Somebody said something about their daughter and I remembered (for the first time in days) that mine was turning four soon and that if I took those pills, I’d be drinking or using or withdrawing on her birthday. I knew enough about myself to know there was simply no way I would not be a fucking mess. I went home knowing what I had to do, knowing exactly how good I would feel when I did it, but still unwilling. The next morning I woke up early and, without giving myself time to think the decision through, turned on the stove and stuck my hand with the paper prescription into the burner. The night before, a doctor friend had told me to just rip it up, which I guess would have done the trick, but I needed this thing gone. The burn was not clean; I was.

The unexplained pain that had precipiated my ER visit disappeared that day.

I kept the OB-GYN appointment I had scheduled a few days earlier anyway. I’ve been trying to have another baby for two years and have reached the point that I can’t pretend doctors don’t exist. The CNM asked me questions as she filled in my chart. “What was the first day of your last period?” “How many days is your cycle?” “Do you drink?”

I looked up from the paperwork I was working on and looked her in the eye and told her what I’ve before never told a medical professional because I was not willing to burn bridges I might want to cross later: “No. I haven’t had a drink since January 30, 2016. I have a history of substance abuse, mostly painkillers and weed. I can’t mess around with that stuff.”

“Congratulations!” she said.

When I left, I felt relieved. Not because I think I am finally going to get pregnant but because I finally have a doctor I can go back to without tearing  open my old wounds.