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 60: How I Got My Kid To Go Back To Sleep

Let’s talk about the nightmares. Not the waking nightmare that is life in a pandemic, but the regular sleeping kind, and not my nightmares (though they are wild these days), but my kid’s. Pre-COVID, my seven-year-old went to bed easily after an involved but mostly pleasant bedtime routine, sweetly sang and chattered to herself for fifteen minutes or so after I left the room, and then promptly passed out. She slept through the night, every night, and generally didn’t disturb the household until she popped out of bed refreshed and ready to play at 6:30 the next morning. She averaged maybe a nightmare a year.

A few weeks into COVID, that all changed. First she had one bad dream: I had given her an owl for a pet and she kept it in a cage in her room, and after a week she realized it was dead, that it had been dead the whole time. We got her back to bed without too much drama, but the memory of it lingered, and scared her off sleep for the next week. Just as the fear was starting to dissipate, she had another , and then another a few days after that, and then it was three nightmares three nights in a row, and then there was one hideous night where she had three separate nightmares, each necessitating a trip to my room, my husband and I trading off increasingly drawn-out and unsuccessful attempts to comfort her, and much begging to just sleep in our room. Bedtime became an anxious, pleading affair. She desperately wanted to sleep in our room or us to sleep in hers. I tried to be her soft place. I held her in my arms, sang songs, prayed, breathed deeply, and talked her through guided meditations, but turned to stone when she tried to disrupt the family sleeping arrangements. I am the jealous guardian of sleep: of my own, my daughter’s, and everybody else’s. I know about kids climbing into bed and never getting out, and wasn’t about to let that happen on my watch. Even with me policing the parental bed, none of us were sleeping much. Most nights I spent hours lying in bed, wired with adrenaline, just waiting for the next scream.

The nightmares were all variations on that first bad dream: dead owls, dead squirrels, a dead guinea pig, a dead anthropomorphic fried egg named Gudetama. It was the animals that threw me off, made me slow on the uptake. That and the exhaustion. What is going on??? I fumed. Why is this happening to us now??? How can we make it stop???

It wasn’t until the specter of the nightmares manifested in the middle of our daylight hours that I realized. D had been resisting taking walks outside with me for days. I knew she had seen a dead squirrel in the park with her dad and was afraid of seeing another one, so we kept strictly to the sidewalks. Still, every time we saw a squirrel scamper in the distance, she flinched. “The squirrels aren’t going to hurt you, kiddo. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.” She looked up at me with fear in her eyes: “What if a squirrel runs up to us and dies?” I started to respond—“Why would a squirrel run up to us and d_____”—and then trailed off when it hit me. She knew all about the virus. She knew she wasn’t allowed to touch anything outside because it lingered on surfaces. She knew we had to cross to the street when we saw the neighbors coming because it traveled through the air. For all she knew, coronavirus was everywhere, all the time, infecting all the animals she ever loved, and probably all the people too.

This, of course, was the result of us trying to keep our kid informed while shielding her from the worst truths about the pandemic. We didn’t talk about the death toll. We reassured her that most people who got sick got better. But kids aren’t stupid. They know life doesn’t shut down for a bad cold. I asked my therapist what to do. “It might be time to talk to her about death.”

I did start talking to my kid about death, but those conversations are complicated and controversial so I’m not going to get into it now. Instead, I’m going to tell you the bedtime hack for anxious kids that I discovered while I was trying to sort out what I could possibly say to my daughter about death that would provide her with comfort and security given that my belief system has been abstracted to the point of being unrecognizable to believers and non-believers alike.

This is how I tricked my daughter into going to bed relaxed and happy instead of working herself into the kind of fearful frenzy that only breeds bad dreams–i.e., how I taught my daughter to stop worrying and learn to love bedtime:

Every night, the moment I hear the words start to come out of her mouth–“Mama, I’m scared I’m going to have a bad dream”–I shush her and say, “Echo: play music by the Beach Boys.”

Every night, without fail, the lush harmonies and dulcet tones of “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B,” which now form the soundtrack for entire evenings in our house, sometimes beginning right after dinner, lull her my daughter into a sense of well-being better than any drug I’ve ever taken. She dances and sings and climbs into bed at ease. I promise to stay outside her room for five minutes in case she needs me and listen to her chatter herself to sleep. If I stay longer than five minutes it’s only because I’m writing these diary entries. She hasn’t had a nightmare in about two weeks now. I’m still having freaky dreams on the reg, but can’t complaint. At least we’re all sleeping through the night.

sunrise sunset

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.

Ashes To Ashes

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Yesterday in therapy my counselor asked if I liked being a lawyer. I said yes, and then went on a tangent about how much harder it was at my previous job at a big firm downtown, where I was petrified of showing my real personality. I established rigid boundaries between my work self and my real self and flattened myself out into a picture of the kind of person I thought people wanted me to be. I spent a lot of time thinking about my work wardrobe, buying the cheapest versions of fancy lawyer clothes I could countenance, and then hating them all. I was too weird, I thought, for the workplace. Of course, with few exceptions, I largely failed connect authentically with my coworkers. It wasn’t my law firm’s fault. I was just insecure, afraid of getting fired. Even then, I liked my job because I like being a lawyer. But I was also suffering deeply from the fragmentation. Seven years is a long time to hide who you are.

Yesterday was also the first day of Lent. I left the office a few minutes early to meet my family for the evening Ash Wednesday service. The elevator doors opened to take me down and there was a man, close to my age, with a dark smudge on his forehead. I did a double take. The mark was jarring.

Stop staring, I told myself. It’s just the ashes. You’re about to go do the same thing.

Yeah, but, I shot back at myself. You would never do it before work.

I want to be a Christian in my heart, but only sometimes, and in my head almost never. I want to wear it on my sleeve–or on my face, as it were–not at all.

At the church, R and I had forty-five minutes to kill while our daughter rehearsed with the children’s choir. You can always count on the children’s choir to be featured at the sparsely attended weekday services. We settled down on a bench outside the chapel and downloaded notes from therapy, notes on parenting. We watched our senior pastor walk the labyrinth in the snowy courtyard and burn last year’s palms to make this year’s ashes. Before she went out in her parka and fuzzy hat she warned, Don’t worry about what you see out there, I’m just making some Jesus magic. When the smoke blew up around her, I wanted to take a picture through the wavy glass windows, but refrained. I thought the ritual might be sacred. Also, I gave up Instagram for Lent, so what would I even do with it? A few minutes later, R pointed out that Pastor Grace had her phone up high, snapping her own photo of the fire. For Facebook, she told us when she came back inside.

Later, when we were settled in the chapel, D in the front row with the choir and R and I few rows back, I tucked myself under R’s arm and we traded jokes and snickered as we waited for the service to start. R doesn’t come to church often, so it’s something a novelty to have him there. Our irreverence continued during the service, when R said something blasphemous and a hymnal in rebuke thudded from the shelf under the pew and landed on his feet. We almost exploded in laughter when the choir sang at the way D thrust her tone chime into the air like a sword, face straining, eyes wild, belting out “Now Is The Acceptable Time.” She seems, so far, to have inherited my deep love of performing and utter lack of awareness about the way I move through the world. When the time came, D and I approached the altar together. We each took a piece of coal to rub in our hands. D tried to pass hers off to me. Here, you can have this. It smells bad. We dropped our coal in a plastic bucket and received our ashy tattoos. R stayed in his seat.

I thought about how, when I was Mormon, it bothered me that R didn’t come to church, but it bothered me even more when he did. It bothered me how he kept his mouth closed during hymns, his eyes open during prayers. It bothered me when he stage-whispered comments about the church leader dozing off behind the pulpit or a too-long talk or a painfully sincere testimony. There’s a way to act in church, I thought, and you don’t have to be Mormon to figure it out. I didn’t like what it said about him, that he couldn’t he get with the program, and I didn’t like what it said about me, that I couldn’t just enjoy having him there. We were, I thought, too worldly to be Mormon. I flattened myself out into a picture of what I thought a Mormon needed to be, straining myself and my marriage in the process. It wasn’t Mormonism’s fault. I was just afraid people would find out who I really was, and the jig would be up. Of course I suffered. Thirty years is a long time to hide who you really are.

I haven’t been to an LDS service in a long time. I am wildly grateful to have found a new church home, something I never expected after leaving Mormonism but, honestly, think the church is getting the better end of the deal. Churches in general, in my view, are blessed to have any members at all. And the fact that my new church gets the realest, most authentic version of me? The silly and the snarky and the deviant and doubtful all rolled up with the serious and faithful and the diligent and sincere? The one that comes with a hilarious and filthy-mouthed husband who doesn’t know how to use his inside voice? The church should thank its lucky stars.

This year was only my second getting ashes. Last year, I was mortified the entire long walk to the altar and back again, convinced everyone was staring at me, especially my ashless husband. It felt horrifying to be revealed for the Christian neophyte and, simultaneously, the religious freak I still am. Somehow, though, I grew more in a year in my new faith than I did in many in my old. This time around I forget about them straight away, not just the stain on my own head, but the one on my daughter’s, and the one that R refused to wear. The ashes don’t matter. The baptism doesn’t matter. The church doesn’t matter. We were all dirty and now, headed into Lent, we are all clean.

“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.

Need Versus Want Versus Deserve

One of my first big steps toward recovery was making an appointment with a counselor. Initially, I tried to find somebody whose experience spoke directly to my very special and unique circumstances. My first run at sobriety through a twelve-step program left me convinced that I was different (better) than the folks who needed God and daily meetings and inane “literature” to keep clean. In reaction to this, and in a simultaneous act of desperation and ego, I sent my first inquiry out to a woman who advertised herself as specializing in working with “high functioning” individuals seeking to address career-related anxiety. I considered it a bonus that she specialized in career transitions as I was convinced that the bulk of my problems emanated from my insanely high pressure job. I pretended that I liked the fact that she was herself in the process of transitioning from counselor to bona fide life coach, even though that struck me as if not a red flag, then at least a pink one.

I also searched for counselors That specialized in substance abuse, but not, like, serious substance abuse. I was only drinking except for that one time in February when I took what was left of the hydrocodone from my c-section because I was annoyed at my husband and spent the next day ransacking medicine cabinets until I broke down and realized I needed to get myself a dealer, a prescription, or into an NA meeting (they are right when they say you don’t realize you are an addict until the drugs run out). I pretended not to notice that many of the addiction counselors that I found online specialized in something called “harm reduction,” which is the clinical term for “drinking less, but still drinking (thank God).” I pretended not to notice the crawling in my arms, the way my insides lurched in anticipation when I read those words, which I took as permission. Nothing red about those flags flapping furiously in the wake of my denial.

In the end, the high end life coach didn’t have any openings and the addiction specialists worked across town and I ended up going with the first local counselor who saw clients late into the evening, because as a full-time working parent of a young child, that was the only time I had. I made the call from the back porch, whispering into the phone because I didn’t want my neighbors to overhear. I told her I was anxious all the time and afraid of falling back into old, dangerous habits. She told me she could help. I booked five days out and cried with relief into the cool autumn air.

By the time I made it to the appointment I was high out of my mind and couldn’t look the counselor in the eye. At her suggestion, we walked up and down Lake Michigan and I told her, in halting, unemotional tones, what was going on. I told her about my long hours and my toxic co-workers and my dead dog and my oppressive religion and my transgressive marriage to a non-Mormon and my clingy toddler. I told her about my expectation that I would be perfect in all aspects my life, explaining that it was not as unreasonable as it sounded because I’d pulled it off pretty well for 30 years. I told her how the anxiety started in my head and worked its way into my chest until I was on the verge of panic. I told her how the depression started in my chest and worked its way into my head until I was on the verge of tears. I told her I didn’t know what to do.

When I finished unloading, the counselor said a few things that stuck. She said that she was not surprised that I got high. She said that I was burning the candle at both ends for my family and my job but that I wasn’t doing anything for me. She told me I needed some new coping mechanisms. Together, we came up with an action plan that looked something like this:

  1. Go to bed early.
  2. Stop looking at my phone before bed.
  3. Exercise.
  4. Join a mom’s basketball league.
  5. Meditate.
  6. Start a blog.

That’s right. I paid a counselor $150 an hour to fix my brain and came out with a list of New Year’s resolutions.

As with any list of resolutions, this one needed a bit of tweaking. I never could muster the nerve to play basketball with a group of stranger moms, particularly since I had it on good authority that at least one of the moms was a former collegiate player, so I decided to train for a race instead. I never made it past the first meditation session using the Headspace app, so I ditched developing a regular meditation practice in favor occasionally reminding myself to breathe.

For the next few months, I treated this list like a prescription, and the items on it like medicine, because that’s what they were. I dutifully turned off the TV after a single episode of Walking Dead and went upstairs at 10 PM. I stopped asking myself if I had time to go to the gym and just went. I submitted a proposal for a blog on women’s issues to a local collective and forced out content for content’s sake. If you’d asked me before I went to therapy whether I had time for myself, I would have laughed. Sure, if you count trying to see how much work I can cram into my 25 minute train rides to and from work and playing LEGO with my two-year-old as time for myself. I wanted to read fiction and write essays and play music and run along the lake, but somewhere along the line I convinced myself that I didn’t deserve to do the things that made me come alive unless they were in the service of my employer or my family. I’d bought into the idea that women can’t have it all, that by having a good job and a happy family I was already taking too much, and that if I dared to ask for more I’d lose it all. By re-framing my dumb hobbies as mechanisms for coping with anxiety that was driving me to self-destruct, my counselor took want and deserve out of the equation. As she pointed out, I wouldn’t be able to do my big job or take care of my family if I went to rehab. I made time to read and write and run because I had to.

The other thing my counselor recommended is that I go to recovery meetings. She started with gentle suggestions, emailing me dates and times of meetings vouched for by her colleagues, meetings with professionals, other lawyers, women. After yet another lapse, one that left me so sick I was begging my husband to take me to the hospital and finally willing to do anything to stop ingesting poison, my counselor gave me the gift of telling me that it was time to get serious about finding a recovery community. I’d tried to stay sober myself and failed. I needed help.

I balked. I questioned whether I could call myself an alcoholic. I questioned whether I had time. When the memory of the last hangover receded into the distance, I questioned whether I still needed to go to what I perceived as the extreme lengths of taking time out of my busy schedule to sit in musty rooms listening drunks read from an outdated book, listening to drunks talk about their problems, holding hands with drunks, listening to drunks recite the Lord’s prayer. That’s how I described the experience of participating in AA when I was convincing myself I wasn’t sick enough to continue with the program. During these negotiations with myself, I discounted the way I felt every time I walked out of a meeting, which was always, inevitably, without fail, better than I felt going in. Meetings made me feel lighter, seen, renewed. The truth was that I liked stepping outside of my routine, which had become staid and soul-sucking. I liked listening to people work through their shit. I liked thinking about how to live a better life. I especially liked the drunks, who showed me that I was not insane, or at least that I was not alone in my particular brand of insanity. And oh how I envied people who dropped casual references to home group and who laughingly confessed to being kicked in the ass by a sponsor, which told me that I did want a recovery community, and badly.

As usual, as a woman, a Mormon, a mom, a martyr to the end, wanting it wasn’t enough. Want didn’t justify tucking my kid into bed early to make a 7:30 meeting for young people on Thursday night or losing an hour better spent billing to check in with a Monday nooners group. And, it turned out that need wasn’t enough either, at least not after a decade spent hiding from the truth, lying to myself about what it is that I really need.

A close call and a sobriety angel cleared things up. I posted a cry for help in an online group for women working toward sobriety. I owned up to needing an IRL community, and whined that I had no time to attend meetings. A serious wise woman weighed in.

First, she handed down some knowledge. She said, “For years, I used drinking to hold together an unsustainable life. Like duct tape. When I took alcohol out of the equation, something had to give.”

Next, she put me in my place. She said, “I have two kids and a high pressure job and I go to six meetings a week. Anybody that is not okay with me taking the hour a day I need to not drink myself to death can fuck off.”

In the end, she made me cry. She said, ” You deserve a life that isn’t killing you.”

She was right, of course. This is both obvious and revolutionary. Within days, I found a meeting that I loved, that I attend and look forward to as often as I can up to three times a week.

I deserve to take 30 minutes to run a few miles because I want to move my body, not because I need it to quell the anxiety that makes me slam doors and scream at my family.

I deserve a job that does not require me to sacrifice my sanity, my safety, and my health at the alter of the billable hour and client service.

I deserve an elevated life in which I deal in wants not needs, in which I do the things I like because I like them, not because I need them to cope.

I deserve to feel like I want to live instead of like I need to die. 

Anybody that is not okay with me doing what it takes to shape that life (including, mostly, myself) can take a seat.

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.