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

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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 66: Down In The Valley

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The first thing I wrote yesterday morning was “Today the rain is falling, as it did all night and as it promises to do all day.” The rain did come down all day yesterday, in buckets, dumping all over everything. I didn’t mind it so much in the morning, waking up to the sound of it splattering against my bedroom window, feeling safe from the gray of it around the kitchen table with my family and a stack of waffles and the crossword. I got out once for a walk during a lull in the early afternoon, but I stayed out too long and came back drenched. “Why did you go so far?” my husband asked? “I read you the minutecast.” It’s true, he did tell me that the rain would be back in precisely twenty-three minutes, and I’d chirped, “Perfect!” like that was all I needed. It’s true, too, that twenty-three minutes is enough time for a walk. But what’s truer than true is that I needed more time. I wanted to stay out longer, walk farther, and feel freer, and I thought that the wanting and the acting on the waniting would be enough to hold the rain at bay until I made it back home. It wasn’t, and I got wet. It was a warm rain, though, and I arrived home to a warm home and dry clothes and my family already snuggled on the couch waiting for me with snack bowls and blankets and Toy Story all cued up. These were the high points of a hilly day.

Down in the valleys, I did battle with my character defects. In a low moment, I gave voice to my shrieking insecurity in the presence of my daughter and then desperately tried to claw it back, because there’s nothing I want more than for her baggage to be all her own. In another low moment, I gave airtime to my selfishness, begging everybody to just be quiet so that I could sit on the couch for an hour and read. The things I do in the valleys make me feel like a bad mom, and that’s a feeling that I drag with me all day. It doesn’t matter how high I get. I could be walking on clouds and I’d still hate the mom from down the hill.

Bedtime rolled around and I cracked. I cried and cried, buckets dumping all over everything. I saw my daughter’s lower lip shake because there’s nothing sadder than watching mama cry, and then I cried some more because there’s nothing sadder than watching your kid watching her mama cry. I pulled myself together, pulled her into my lap, and rubbed her arms and told what I’ve told her hundreds of times, “It’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.” When it felt like she might be starting to believe me, I asked her what she wanted for a bedtime story, and she told me that tonight she would read to me. We settled on the floor, her with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in her lap, and me curled up on my side, arms wrapped around myself, willing myself to believe the promises I keep making.

Quarantine Diary Day 56

A Day In The Life Working From Home

8:30-11:00 – WebEx call with team at work. My home WiFi doesn’t support WebEx calls, so I have to make this call on the desktop computer. The monitor is set up above a standing desk, which means that I spent two and a half hours on my feet. I take selfies with my headset and notice that my short hair has grown out into a pompadour.

11:00-11:45 – Prep for management escalation meeting. I’m working on my own, so I move to the futon with my laptop. I have a laptop table–I had to order it during the first week of quarantine and it arrived late, and damaged–but I prefer to sit cross-legged and pull the computer onto my lap. I think I need to start being more mindful about my posture, though. The last couple of days my arms have been tingly and numb. I suspect carpal tunnel.

11:45-12:00 – Lunch. I heat up a frozen Moroccan empanada from Whole Foods, slice and salt an avocado, and finish off the rest of a head of raw cauliflower. I eat quickly at the kitchen table, where my husband is homeschooling our daughter. I distract her from her work and they both get annoyed at me.

12:00-12:50 – Therapy. I started seeing a counselor in January of this year because I was depressed. Anxious has been my default state for so long that I never even think about seeking outside help for it, though I have in the past, and have a lot of good tools for managing it. Depression is different for me. Depression is scary. I’m so grateful that I found a therapist who was in-network for my insurance, accepting new patients, and who I clicked with before we all found ourselves shut up inside our homes for months on end. I’m so grateful that HHS decided to suspend enforcement of parts of HIPAA to allow mental health providers to provide services over apps that may be less than perfectly secure, like Zoom. Is my lawyer showing? Anyway, I care more about getting the help I need than about privacy, but I guess if you’ve read this paragraph then you already know that. For the first month of quarantine, I did my sessions over the phone while I walked around outside, but now I’m using a video app because I’m more honest when I can see the person I’m talking to. I do these calls on the futon. The home office is cold today so I wrap a blanket around my shoulders and drink a cup of tea.

12:50-1:00 – More meeting prep. Ten minutes is not enough time to shift from COVID-19 nightmares to evaluating risk under FDA regulatory requirements.

1:00-1:30 – Management escalation meeting. This is my first management presentation for this client, and I have been working hard to prepare for it. I have also been very nervous! This meeting takes place over Skype, which does work on my laptop, so I am still on the futon. Surprisingly, I am able to speak intelligently about complicated issues from a futon. The hard work pays off. The presentation was well-received, and my team received positive feedback.

1:30-1:45 – Team debrief via Skype. Hooray! That went well! Congratulations! Lots more to do, but good work everyone! It occurs to me that I really like working with a team.

1:45-2:45 – Walk around the neighborhood. I am thrilled to be done with the escalation meeting, and decide to reward myself with a mid-day break. I walk south and west, trying to go down streets I haven’t seen before. I stop to take pictures of churches. There are a lot of churches in my neighborhood, every one of them empty. Thinking too long about all the people who are not getting together inside the churches breaks my heart so I focus on the buildings themselves. I’m listening to Eat, Pray, Love as an audiobook. I have never read it before because I thought I was above it (I am a snob) but it is absolutely delightful. I resolve to get my daughter’s passport application submitted before quarantine ends. I don’t know when we’ll get to travel again, but I want to be ready for it.

2:45-3:45 – Work. It’s interesting to me but boring to write about so I won’t.

3:45 – 4:30 – Game day with my family. For some reason, I’m not totally clear why, my daughter is supposed to play a game for school today. My husband mentions that I should join them if I have time, and I do, so I do. Husband tells daughter to pick a short game but she picks Ramen Fury, which is long, but I don’t mind. Daughter sits on the mini-trampoline that has been sitting in the middle of our living room since her birthday two weeks ago and bounces up and down. She loves this game, though she spends more time and energy trying to screw things up for the other players than she does trying to win. I do poorly.

4:30-5:00 – Back to work. I have to send some emails.

5:00-5:15 – Write. Usually I spend this time walking around the neighborhood and talking to a family member on the phone, but I’m tired from my long walk this afternoon and eager to finish yesterday’s essay about rest.

Quarantine Diary: Day -1

I’m not the grocery shopper in my family, or the meal planner, or the cook, or a person who really cares to come down from the high drama in my head to pay much attention to what’s going on in such material realms as the kitchen cabinet or the produce drawer. So, when my husband dares to disrupt my reverie with impossible questions like “What we need?” and “What do you want?” because he’s “going to the store,” it is a Herculean task for me to rack my brain and come up with a list things people eat, much less things my particular people like to eat. Full minutes pass and when I offer up the fruits of my effort–bananas, baby carrots, cereal, oat milk, tea–my husband is, in a word, unimpressed. He tosses my contribution aside with a huffy, eye-rolling, “Nevermind.” He already has the basics covered, a skill I am still not even trying to learn.

On March 12, 2020, chatter about the supply chain and an impending shelter-in-place order and word from my husband that our fridge was empty, yanked me down to earth. Realizing I had to change my ways and take responsibility for feeding my family, I took an hour out of my work day to read up on how to shop for more than four meals at a time, and put together the best damn grocery list I’ve ever seen, just row after row of healthful, efficient, easy meals that we could take turns whipping up for the next few weeks, until this whole thing blew over. I sent the list off to my husband and went back to mainlining coronavirus updates work. A few hours later, I got a text back: “Sooo…grocery shopping not going so great.” My conversion to helpful homemaker was too little, too late.

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I knew I wouldn’t be able to work until we had food, so I offered to check the stores near my office. “Should I see what I can find around here?” “Don’t worry about it. I’ll order groceries online.” Obviously, I ignored him. I work within walking distance of a Whole Foods, a downtown Target, and a CVS. I decided to hit them all.

And so it came to pass that I found myself wandering the aisles of a Target in miniature in the middle of the work day, marveling at how quickly the world had gone bleak. The rumors, it turned out, were true: no toilet paper, no sanitizer, no bleach. Also, the men and women to whom preparedness come naturally had already cleared the shelves of all the pantry staples on my beautiful shopping list. No pasta, no rice, no beans, no canned goods, no frozen meals, no flour, no yeast. I grabbed a jar of peanut butter and two bottles of Drano, because it seemed bleach-adjacent. I watched young couples move slowly through the aisles, huddled together, looking for food. I watched people shy away from each other. Everybody seemed lost.

With each empty aisle and averted gaze, I grew increasingly panicky and despondent. This is not a new sensation. I am a highly emotional person, prone to bouts of anxiety, depression, and drama. I have fallen apart in public more times than I can count. Usually, the collapse is internal, a crushing of the soul while my body goes through the motions of putting shampoo in the cart, holding onto my purse, running my card. Nobody knows I am barely keeping it together; I am just some lady shopping. Sometimes the system breaks down, the insides come spilling out, teary, bloody, scary, wet. I scream at the bank teller, tell off the cashier. I make demands. I cry and cry and cry. People see me for who I am.

So, no, there is nothing new about coming unglued in Target. What’s novel is this: this time, I know I am not alone. Every single person I see–stalled out staring at cleaning supplies, puzzling over dwindling options in the pantry, grasping their partner’s hand, frantically texting, all in the middle of a goddamn weekday–they’re all right there with me. We are all anxious and afraid of the exact same thing.

This is the most connected I have ever felt.

I still have no idea that in two days we will be cut off.

What If?

What if I wrote here every day? What if I told the whole story, in real time? What if I let you inside my mind? What if I stopped waiting for the wound to heal? What if I didn’t glamorize or stylize or editorialize?

What if I told you that I talk to God, almost every night. At minimum, “Thanks,” my knees hardly kiss the floor. When I’m feeling virtuous, the St. Francis prayer. Lord grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted; to understand, than to be underatood. I believe it but I don’t know it to be true and also I don’t want it to be true. When I’m feeling lonely, or crushed, or scared, I roll on my side in bed and talk, plead really, to know that someone is there, to know what to do, to feel something more than what I am able to access on my ordinary own. Sometimes it works, and I do feel something unfold inside my body, an expansiveness, a warming, which could be God or simply relief from the pain of being. Kanye said no more drugs for me, pussy and religion is all I need, and man I get that. Is it wrong to lapse into prayer like a fix, to crave worship for the chance to transcend the limitations of my weekday brain, to believe in God because it just feels better than not. I am not steadfast in my faith. Sometimes I empty out, dry up, flatten, harden, sink. I can’t pray. I don’t give a shit about anyone’s will, not even my own, except the will to feel different than I do. God is gone and I don’t want God back. Back before I lost my faith, I thought the absence of God would feel like freedom. Sometimes I still think that. But the fact of the matter is that, for me, falling off the spiritual plane feels like death.

I suspect this is not normal or regular or typical but I don’t know a better way to live.

What I Thought And What I Know About Depression

January blew in and out again in a puff of snow. Seasonal Affective Disorder and Postpartum battled it out in my head. I thought I understood mental illness because when I was a teenager I had a string of bad boyfriends and too many feelings and cried out loudly for help. I thought I understood mental illness because I lack impulse control. I thought I understood mental illness because even after I got a good boyfriend, I still felt sad. I thought I understood mental illness because sometimes I cry on the bathroom floor. I thought I understood mental illness because my aunt tried to kill herself and my other aunt lied about being on the pill because she wanted to get knocked up so she could move out of her parents’ house, and because my mom is a rock from a quarry of dysfunction. I thought I understood mental illness because my good friends are in therapy or on drugs. I thought I understood mental illness because my husband, the good boyfriend, is anxious. I thought I understood mental illness because I know depression is a disease and needs to treated. But I don’t understand this month-sized hole in my chest. And I don’t understand the static in my head. And I don’t understand waking up in the morning and rolling right back over again. And I don’t understand why the usual tricks like focusing on the positive! and giving it some time! aren’t enough to snap me out it. I don’t understand why I thought I’d be immunue. I don’t understand why I’m not immune. This month felt like a year and I hated it for taking me away from my child, my husband, my job.

I wrote the preceding paragraph almost exactly two years ago, in February 2014. Reading it for the first time since then I can’t figure why it took me so long to get help. I quit drinking that year in May, around the same time the weather turned, and my mood lifted considerably, but the blackness returned with the cold in December and I didn’t call a therapist until the following September after months of cycling on and off the wagon, in and out of anxiety, over and over again. The turnaround since then has been incredible. January 2016 wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, I still felt inexplicably sad sometimes, and I cursed the dark days, but I knew what was going on and I knew how to handle it. I didn’t always succeed, but I managed to be present for my family, my job, myself, and today I am happy even though it snowed and I didn’t see the sun. If you are suffering, please know that help is available.