Quarantine Diary Day 103: Peaches in the Summertime

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From the looks of it, things are getting better in Illinois. Testing for coronavirus is up. Case counts are dropping. The entire state is on track to move into phase four of the plan to restore Illinois, which is the final phase until we have a vaccine. We are cautiously optimistic. We are running errands but wearing masks, we are going to restaurants but sitting on the patio at tables six feet apart, we are letting the kids play but only outside. We are resigned to a summer without festivals, concerts, or sports. God willing, my daughter will go to day camp next month. I don’t want to overstate the positive. We have lost almost 7,000 people, and people are still dying every day. But the deaths are slowing and it feels like we’re turning a corner.

I’m not resting easy, though. With the recent surge in the southwest, I feel like the virus is getting closer to hitting where it hurts. I came to the midwest by way of the desert and the desert is where most of my family still lives. Most saliently, it’s where all of my older relatives live, including and especially the ones who will not appreciate being called “older relatives.” My grandma and my great uncle live in Phoenix. My parents live in Mesa. My in-laws live in Houston. They are all high risk.

My worry for my family isn’t unusual or new. We’re all worried about our older relatives. Since March, I’ve been troubled that state and local leaders in less densely packed states were apparently unwilling to make the same politically unpopular decisions that ours have in Illinois. Since March, I’ve been handling my daughter’s recurring nightmares about death by lying to her, reassuring her that her grandparents aren’t leaving the house unless they have to, aren’t seeing people outside their immediate families, and are religious about wearing masks, even though I have no basis for thinking that they are taking the same precautions on an individual level that we are taking in Illinois.

The rise in cases out west isn’t all that surprising. From my admittedly distant perspective, Arizona has basically been wide open since memorial day. From my admittedly biased perspective, it’s incredibly frustrating to hear about folks going to restaurants and churches and showers and parties and parties and bars. Make no mistake: I’m not frustrated because I want to do these things and can’t. I’m frustrated because other people don’t seem to get that they don’t have to do these things. There is a third way, a path between total lockdown and business as usual and we’re doing it in Illinois, which is what makes it hard to watch folks in other states throw up their hands and say, “Well, we tried!” As one science reporter put it: “There are ways to be responsible and socialize, but people don’t seem to be able to draw the line between what’s OK and what is not. For too many people, it seems to be binary — they are either on lockdown or taking no precautions.”

And look, I get it. As an ex-binge drinker, believe me, I get it. Moderation is a mindfuck. When I enjoyed my drinking I couldn’t control it and when I controlled my drinking I couldn’t enjoy it. What even is the point of two drinks? The aphorism isn’t limited to alcohol, either. I’m like this with everything! Food, shopping, television, the internet, cigarettes, sex, drugs, art, religion, other people. If it’s possible to derive pleasure from a thing, I want as much of it as I can get away with taking. This is how a 5k becomes a marathon, how a twenty-minute TV show becomes a Netflix binge, how a new acquaintance becomes an internet obsession, how a new single becomes a band’s entire back catalogue, how two squares of dark chocolate become a bag of Haribo and ice cream, how one Instagram post becomes three hours of scrolling. And you know changing the way I engage with the world feels impossible. It’s easier to just swear things off.

Peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall; if I can’t have you all the time, I don’t want none at all.

Here’s the thing, though. I can’t whittle my life down to one thin, virtuous core. Nobody can. It’s unsustainable. I had to cut my losses with the things that were killing me quickest in the order that I realized they were doing me in (drugs, cigarettes, booze) and figure out how to take a balanced, reasoned approach to the rest. It’s still a work in progress! But also–and this is key–completely doable. I can change the way I live. Life doesn’t have to be a series of wild swings between ego and id. I can suspend my personal desires, whatever they are–to eat at a restaurant, go to a friend’s house, hang around in a crowd of people sharing air without a mask on–to listen to somebody who might know more than me to help somebody who might need it more than me.

If a want monster (HT to my sister for that turn of phrase) can do these things, then you can too. You too can stay home for 103 days and not drink/eat/TV yourself to death. You can mask up at the grocery store. You can see your friends and your kids’ friends outside. You can do it even if your government isn’t forcing you to and when you see the death toll exploding you too can numb your despair with the smug satisfaction that comes with knowing at least you gave a damn.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

What A Body’s Good For: Part Two

I never could wrap my head around people who loved being pregnant because that’s when they felt their healthiest. Pregnancy made me feel like shit. Besides the nausea that felt exactly like an endless hangover, I spent most of the first trimester wanting to crawl out of my own skin. I tried to commiserate with others who had been pregnant—“You know that feeling where you desperately need to change the way you feel with a drink or a pill but you just CAN’T? THAT’S the worst part of pregnancy!”—and they just stared back. Years later I would come to recognize that sensation as a symptom of untreated alcoholism, not pregnancy.

Even though I felt like garbage, I treated my pregnant body better than I ever had before. I took special prenatal supplements with some kind of oil for the baby’s brain, I ate piles of fruits and veg, I exercised to the very end, eliciting stares and comments at the gym. I slept, no small miracle for a former insomniac (thanks, drugs) and long-standing night owl. I did take a bunch of Category C medications and drink daily caffeine and eat sushi and deli meat and junk food because I’m no saint, but you guys, I didn’t drink! There was a lot of talk in my circles at that time about how a half a glass of wine on special occasions was *just fine* in the second and third trimesters, but I knew that I could not trust myself with half a glass. Not even with a baby inside.

I gave birth to a healthy baby via Caesarean and loved my body like never before. I was a BEAST. I could grow a human and undergo major abdominal surgery and keep that human alive. I resumed drinking as soon as I got home from the hospital, obviously, but continued, for the most part, to treat my body pretty well. I was exclusively breastfeeding, after all. I was inordinately proud of the fact that I was able to pump massive quantities of milk at work, way more than my baby needed, and nurse her morning and night. It upset me when she weaned at fifteen months. The World Health Organization recommended breastfeeding to age two at the time and I wanted to make it at least that long without needing to rely on a cow for milk. That’s what I was for.

I’d read some studies say the ideal spacing between kids is three years so I decided we should start trying to have another child when the oldest was two. I assumed I would get pregnant easily since that’s what happened the first time. When that didn’t happen, I was pissed. I took my anger and disappointment out my body. I dug up the pills that were miraculously still around from the c-section and took those. I drank. I drank especially in the days leading up to my period because I knew I’d have to stop when I got a positive pregnancy test. When the tests came up negative, I drank more. Why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I was pregnant. By that point I knew without question I shouldn’t be drinking but I drank anyway. Alone and in secret and in increasing quantities at increasingly inappropriate times.

This is what happens to women steeped in a toxic culture that says (1) a woman’s worth is in her fertility and (2) alcohol is the answer to a woman’s problems. My body failed me by not making a baby on demand, and I tried to drown.

In my unhappiness, I abused my body in other ways, ways that are far more subtle that I only recognize with hindsight. I skipped meals. I refused to replace my baggy suits with ones that fit because I might be pregnant soon. I sacrificed sleep at the alters of work and television.

It literally never occurred to me that I might do anything at all–let alone something fun or healthy or interesting–with a body that wasn’t pregnant or nursing. I never even thought about running that second marathon, the one I’d been wanting to do for years, the one I’d been training for and cancelled when I discovered I was pregnant the first time.

It was during one of my final few drunks that I was scrolling through Facebook (because being a drunk is actually really lonely and sad and boring) and saw that my friend M had signed up for a Tough Mudder and was looking for teammates. “Nahhhh, not for me,” I thought about both the invitation and the race. I was running semi-regularly at the time, but I didn’t do team sports or anything that required upper body strength. I scrolled on.

The day after my last drunk, I was supposed to have dinner with M but had to cancel because when 5:00 rolled around I was still too hungover to get out of bed. We rescheduled for the next weekend. Seven days later, exactly one week into shaky sobriety, I sat across from M at a fancy pub with a Diet Cola in one hand and a pork shank in the other and told her I’d run the insane race.

We started training together, meeting at a local playground at seven o’clock on freezy Sunday mornings to do tricep dips and assisted pull-ups on the monkey bars, jump squats onto picnic tables, and crunches in the mud. It was a drag and felt somehow like both way too much effort and ridiculously not enough to be putting into training for a six-mile obstacle race. As the weeks wore on, though, I felt worried that I still couldn’t do a pull-up on my own but proud that I had yet to succumb to the Saturday night impulse to text M and cancel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made a commitment and actually followed through on something that I didn’t have to do. Showing up felt good.

Four months after my last drunk I did the race with M and her friends (a triathlete and a U.S. Marine, natch). Two of us were injured so we had to walk a lot of the course but we completed every obstacle, from army crawling through ice-cold mud inches under barbed wire (Kiss of Mud) to hauling ass up a slick quarter pipe (Everest 2.0) to scaling twelve-foot wooden walls (Berlin Walls). My teammates and I took turns yanking each other up and over barrier after barrier, carrying each other piggyback in the heat, and trudging side-by-side through bacteria-laden swamp water to finish filthy and triumphant. Aside from giving birth, I was never so proud of or in love with my body.

I was also hooked. I started running as often and as long as I could after that. My weekend mileage hit the double digits enough that I figured I should get some credit for it, so I registered for and completed my second marathon (my first in seven years) that fall. I got bored with endless long slow runs added speed work to my routine. When I found myself with overuse injuries, I swam and cycled and tried all kinds of yoga. When I healed, I returned to running reinvigorated, renewed, overjoyed at simply being able to run without pain. I tossed out a few 5Ks to raise money with co-workers and with the family on Thanksgiving. I ran through cold wet Chicago springs, muggy Chicago summers, gorgeous Chicago falls, and brutal Chicago winters. I trained with weights. I finished my third marathon, this time fast.

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want a drink or ten. But one of the many things that helps me to go to sleep sober is thinking about how good I’m going to feel on the trail or the treadmill the next morning if I don’t. These days, there is always free beer on the other side of a finish line. I’m not lying when I say that after a race, after I’ve put my body to the test and seen it rise to the challenge, those are the times I want a drink the very least. I’m too happy.

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want another baby. But one of the many things that keeps me from sliding into grief is thinking how good it feels to push my body to do things I want to do.

When I look back on my year of relapse and trying to trying to conceive, the absurdity of what I was doing to myself is almost enough to make me believe in a higher power that saved me from getting pregnant at a time when I wasn’t capable of carrying a child. Of course, that doesn’t explain why I’m not pregnant now, with my 2.5 years of sobriety and a solid recovery program. However, when I look back on the many, many moments over those 2.5 years that I experienced pure joy in moving my body, in getting stronger, faster, freer, well, it’s almost enough to make me believe that my body is a gift for me, not for babies. My body’s worth is in what it can do for me, not you or him or God or future generations. I am meant to enjoy this body for what it can do, not to mourn what it can’t. I can’t get pregnant and I can’t drink but I can and will eat and dance and swim and stretch and fuck and run and run and run.

[You can find my first What A Body’s Good For essay here.]