Science Is Real

When I first started experimenting with sobriety in 2014, I didn’t know anybody in recovery. I’d heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, of course, but I knew it wasn’t for me. Did I have a problem with drinking? Sure. Okay, definitely, but I wasn’t an alcoholic. How could I be? I wasn’t even thirty years old, and my drinking hadn’t cost me anything yet. Okay, my self-esteem was non-existent and my sanity was unraveling, but I had a prestigious job and a house and a car and a husband and a baby. Still, my drinking made me uncomfortable enough that I was spending a lot of time online taking quizzes to figure out if I was addicted to alcohol, reading blogs and lurking in forums for people trying to quit booze, and trying to figure out if the concept of “recovery” even applied to someone like me.

My research turned into to rubbernecking when, in late 2014, an internet-famous mom-blogger relapsed after being sober for a number of years. Her downfall was public and dramatic, as she took to Twitter to broadcast her bottoming out in real time. If you’re anything like me, you know it goes without saying: I am a magnet for train wrecks. People who haven’t struggled with substance use and abuse are drawn to messy women because they make them feel better about themselves; I clock these women because I see myself in them. I was a chaos engine, too. This particular writer’s story hooked me because she relapsed on cough syrup, which, of course, was the first drug I ever took. She was after a different active ingredient (DXM, I think) than the one I chased, which was the codeine that slid down my throat and made long days teenager in the sprawling Phoenix suburbs languorous instead of stupefyingly boring, but it didn’t matter. Other people watching this woman–mostly in gossip forums dedicated to scrutinizing and tearing apart bloggers and other online influencers–were seriously concerned about her. Seeing other people take this woman’s relapse with an over-the-counter drug more commonly abused by teens seriously confirmed something I already knew about my NyQuil-swilling, pill-popping self: I was an addict too. I started reading this person’s writing obsessively, looking for more clues about myself, trying to figure out exactly what this sickness was, and how I might get better.

It was at this point that I stumbled on sobriety evangelist’s Holly Whitaker’s manifesto. Today, Whitaker’s digital footprint is significant: she is an author, the founder of an online recovery platform and website, and one of the leaders of a popular sobriety movement. Back then, all I knew was that she had a blog that caught me like one of the the sticky glue traps for the scorpions in my parents’ garage. Whitaker was the first person to tell me I didn’t need to cross some invisible threshold that would tell me that the clock had run out on my relationship with booze. Her writing was the first I found that challenged the notion that moderate drinking should be the goal, and sobriety the sad consolation prize. Sobriety, according to Whitaker, was a privilege and right, and the life I really wanted was just over the other side. Whitaker’s message was notably out of sync with twelve-step-based recovery modalities that dominated my Google search results. She rejected the idea that a person needs to hit rock bottom, that there are people who can drink normally and people who can’t, and that labels like alcoholic or addict have any meaning at all.

In late 2015, Whitaker started a private group on Facebook for women in recovery. I asked for permission to join and was immediately welcomed into a small but rapidly growing fold of women who, like me, were trying to change their lives. Many, if not most, of the group was very newly sober, as evidenced by scores of posts celebrating day, week, and month counts, dramatic “before” and “after” pictures, and and pleas for advice on everything from how to ride out cravings to how to deal with partners, family members, and friends who didn’t support our goal of sobriety.

In addition to swapping stories and milestones, these women loved to share articles about the evils of alcohol. Apparently, it’s not just bad for alcoholics, but for everyone. Apparently, it’s not just dangerous in massive quantities but, studies increasingly show, in any amount at all. Apparently, it wreaks havoc on the human body: cancer, heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, brain damage, digestive issues, anxiety, depression, the list goes on and on, especially for people with underlying conditions. And, most shocking of all, this information is apparently enough to make some people who have trouble moderating their drinking swear off alcohol for good.

I was not some people. Now, I’m a reasonable person and a reasonably educated person, but when it came to drinking, I didn’t give a shit about the facts. I liked poisoning myself. Self-destruction was the point. Chaos engine, remember? I worshiped at the altar of subversive and countercultural and cool, and I thought drinking to excess was a symbol of all that. There’s nothing rebellious about cutting back on drinking for your blood pressure or whatever.

Enter AA. AA gave me exactly what I needed to make sobriety stick, back in early 2016. AA told me that the problem wasn’t with the drink, the problem was with me, and I loved that. I was allergic to alcohol, in body and mind. I had a disease, one that was chronic and incurable and progressive and fatal. A lot of people can’t get past the part of AA that asks them to take on the label of alcoholic, but once I found my way into the rooms, I had zero problem with it. In fact, I derived a tremendous amount of satisfaction from being special. Admitting defeat and aligning myself with ex-junkies and drunks felt a million times more rebellious than carrying on, trying to be a normal woman drinking normal drinks in normal amounts out of totally normal glasses (no whiskey in a water bottle or rum in a mug over here!).

The main problem was I still desperately wanted to fit in. I wanted to drink cocktails with my mom friends and beer with my husband and wine at client dinners. I wanted what passed for a normal life: unwinding after work and blowing off steam on the weekends. I wanted to feel different and I was still convinced alcohol was the thing that would take me there. And so my will kept worming around in the muck of my mind, rooting up excuses and loopholes and reasons why I wasn’t that bad, why I was never really addicted, why recovery, even as I was living it, couldn’t really work for someone like me. When I went back out in 2020, I offered those reasons up like my kid coming at me with a fistful of worms. “This is what I’m doing, don’t bother asking because isn’t it obvious why? NO QUESTIONS, PLEASE.”

My husband, to his eternal credit, listened and nodded and never once asked me to go back to AA. He did buy me a book: “This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discovery Happiness, and Change Your Life” by Annie Grace. He’d just heard about it on a podcast and thought I’d be interested in the scientific case for quitting drinking. Little did he knew I already knew it well and had decided it wasn’t for me. Grace’s book came out in 2015 when I was dipping my toes in the waters of recovery. Whitaker promoted Grace’s work as nothing about of revolutionary and dozens of women who had once made up my de facto support group online swore by it. “Just read the book,” they said, “and you’ll never want to drink ethanol again. It’s the same stuff we use to power cars and lawn mowers!” Obviously I refused for the same reason I’d first refused to try AA: contempt prior to investigation, that serial killer of curiosity and growth.

In early 2021, I still had no interest in the book–I was still feeling out the shape of my new life– but I couldn’t not read it this time around. Not when it showed up on my Kindle with a sweet note from the love of my life. Not when reading it was the only thing he asked me to do besides “stop lying.”

I read the book like I read all non-fiction that’s not memoir: slowly, grudgingly, and wanting only for it to end. I also read it entirely without hope. I’ve been thinking about drinking for twenty years; there was no way this Annie person was going to teach me something I didn’t already know about alcohol.

I wasn’t wrong on that front. There was nothing in the book that blew my mind. We all know alcohol is, like, really bad for you, right? That it’s the deadliest drug and will eventually go the way of cigarettes? We know this. I knew this. But I gotta say, the facts hit different in 2021. Five years ago, I may not have been the kind of person who made major lifestyle decisions based on something as mundane as my health, but that was before we lived through a global pandemic. That was before I personally lived through a COVID scare and a self-harm scare and a cancer scare. That was before family members survived worse. That was before family of friends did not survive. That was before Lauren died. Now alcohol’s death march beats on in a register I can’t ignore.

I made myself a drink a few days after I finished the book and when I got the urge to pour another, I followed it to the cabinet, but this time I didn’t lay the blame on my faulty wiring. The problem may have been mine, but it was never me. Alcohol is an addictive substance. In demanding more, my brain was reacting exactly like it was supposed to.

When I picked up a drink in 2020, the biggest relief was giving up the narrative of terminal uniqueness that had been driving my every move for the last five years. So what if I still couldn’t seem to control or hold my booze? In those ghastly, unprecedented times, what could be more normal than that?

So what’s next and what now? What is the value in proving you can drink just like everybody else if drinking like that still makes you sick? What do you do about a problem that may not be you but is still very much yours? What does recovery look like when you take yourself out of the rooms? It seems I’m right back where I started, wondering whether the concept of recovery is available to someone like me. The difference this time is that I know the answers live inside the questions which are born inside of me. The answer is not in a blog or a book or a Facebook group or a church basement or a Zoom room.

Oh, and one more thing, because I’ll never be too evolved to throw an AA aphorism at a situation: recovery isn’t for people who need it, it’s for the people who want it.

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Quarantine Diaries Day 439: Summer In The Suburbs

A few years ago, I started cataloging idyllic summer weekends with a little mental hashtag: #summerinthesuburbs. This last weekend was one of those. I walked to the farmers’ market with my daughter and a few of our neighbors. At first the kids sprinted up ahead of us until they got to big intersections or, in my daughter’s case, until her shoes fell off. We just bought her a pair of kiddie crocs to combat a permanent case of Mama, my feeeeeet are hooooootttt. Her feet are still hot and her shoes fall off, but they are bright blue, so she is obsessed with them. Then the kids got tired and slowed down to hold our hands. We weren’t halfway there when they stopped to inspect a Hercules beetle and held the whole group up for a solid ten minutes. They flipped the bug right-side up and were relieved to see it was still alive, but my daughter noticed it had a bum leg and worried about it for the rest of the day. Mama, do you think the beetle will be okay?

At the farmers’ market we bought cheese, asparagus, and scones the size of a child’s head, and took them to a patch of grass on the other side of the street where we could strip off our masks and feast. The grownups talked about books. I confessed my tendency to read books that are a huge bummer and then complain about being depressed. The kids ran around flapping their arms and pretended to be birds. A toddler watched from down the way and the toddler’s grandma told us this was the most exciting day of the child’s young life. She was a quarantine baby and had never seen kids at play.

I went to the garden center with my husband and daughter. The sign out front said “I’m so happy spring is here, I went my plants.” My husband pointed out that they missed the obvious joke about soiling yourself. My daughter asked Does soil mean poop, mama? but she was already dying laughing, so I didn’t answer. We got cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, cilantro, sage, basil, mint, six little coleus plants, and, for the first time ever, a flower: impatiens. I’m a fairly utilitarian patio gardener; I like highly productive plants and growing things that I can eat. With the exception of a money tree I picked up at Ikea in college and kept alive through the end of law school, I’ve never bought a plant just because it looked pretty. We keep most of the plants on our back patio, but we planted the coleus out front and put the impatiens in a pot right next to the front door. I’m hoping it will distract the neighbors from the peeling paint and piles of rocks and sticks my daughter brings back from every walk.

I stayed up way late on Saturday night. Date night, you know.

My daughter and I rode our new long boards in the high school parking lot, which was littered with crushed red and yellow carnations from graduation a few days before. My daughter kept stopping to watch ants and chase squirrels. I rode in huge circles, around and around. I could go on like this forever, I thought, but we left pretty soon after that when my daughter’s feet got hot.

I went out to the lake for the first SUP of the year. It was hot when I left the house but the wind blew in and the temperature dropped twenty degrees in the ten minutes it took to inflate my board. People were streaming away from the beach while I made my way in. The waves were high and I didn’t want to fall off because I’d left my life jacket at home and am still healing the excision site on my leg, so I spent a lot of the ride on my knees. At one point, I went cross-legged on the board and was just paddling around with a stupid grin on my face. I saw a fuchsia petal floating next to my board and a little while later I saw another, and then another. I was far from shore and there were three other people on the water. A man on a SUP and two men on a catamaran. Where did the flowers come from? What do they mean?

I slathered my arms and legs and face with SPF 50 and went for my first run in a month. It was eighty degrees and steamy and my lungs gave out fast. I trotted by a man teetering on a bicycle, moving almost as slowly as I. Is this just what life is? Do I just get to decide how I want to fill my days? Was it always like this? My recollection of my days before the pandemic is getting hazy, but I don’t remember experiencing this kind of autonomy. I was always living according to someone else’s agenda. The law firm. The program. The group. The influencer. The church. Will it always be like this? Maybe it can be. I still work. I still parent. I still exist in community. But the minutes and the hours and the days are mine.

Quarantine Diaries Day 425: End Days

Tomorrow, May 14, marks fourteen months since my city’s shelter in place order went into effect. My grandma will turn 88. I will turn 36 a day later and the world I’m being re-birthed into is bigger than the one I was sinking into. The time to start thinking about wrapping up this series is here, if not a bit overdue. I’m not exactly living like a monk anymore. In last few weeks alone I’ve been to my office twice, eaten in a restaurant, taken my family to the aquarium, taken myself to the art museum, shopped at Chicago Music Exchange, hosted a birthday party, attended a birthday party, been to multiple in-person medical appointments, had an energy healing session, taken my daughter to school, enrolled her in summer camp, walked maskless with a friend, stepped inside another friend’s house, and purchased plane tickets to see my family in June. All of it has been eventful, but not in the way that venturing out of my house last year was the height of drama. COVID protocols are only a minor irritation. Other people don’t freak me out. My challenges now are in helping my daughter navigate emotionally charged and socially challenging situations without projecting onto her my own baggage and fears, dealing with my physical and mental health, making time for my marriage, reconnecting with family and friends, taking my career to the next level, and figuring out what I want to write next. In other words, my problems are back to what they were before the virus dropped into our lives.

I get that the pandemic isn’t over yet. In the last few weeks that have seen me practically frolicking through town, I’ve also worked mostly from home, attended a virtual conference, pitched new clients on Teams, hosted birthday parties on Zoom, Facetimed with family, texted with friends, supervised my daughter during remote learning, felt awkward talking to people with different COVID risk profiles, been annoyed at people still wearing masks, been pissed at people not wearing masks, searched desperately for reasonable, science-based, non-alarmist guidance about COVID protocols for kids under twelve, fretted about what school will look like for my daughter next year, and zoomed right out of a store when I heard a wet, hacking cough. We’ll be living with COVID aftershocks for a long time, but I’m training myself to stop bracing for them, and to stop second guessing the ways I respond to each new wave. All I can do is what I learned over the last year, which is to make decisions that are consistent with my values and within my capabilities, even if they take me out of lockstep my friends, family, neighbors, and the amorphous crowd of peers and perceived authority figures of whom I used to live in fear.

It’s time to turn my creative mind to other topics. The way this blog goes, I’ll probably have something to say about life in what I hope will be COVID’s end-days the week after I close out the series, sort of the way I, embarrassingly, ironically, keep writing about spirits months after shedding the moniker Sober Mormon. When I started this series, I asked, “how many more identities I will take on and shed before this thing is over?” How much of what I claim to be today will fall by the wayside?” You could say I’ve changed a lot. I would say I’m fundamentally the same person except that I see and move through the world in fundamentally different ways. I also figured out I want to try my hand at fiction. I think it might be a way to tell even more of the truth. I’m sure I’ll be back here, though. I’ve been swearing I’ll stop writing on the internet for almost as long as I’ve been at it.

Mormon Girls

Being a Mormon girl means knowing you need a husband to get to heaven.

Being a Mormon girl means overhearing your young, healthy mom make your dad swear he won’t marry anyone else if she dies because she doesn’t want to be a plural wife.

Being a Mormon girl means telling your mom you’ll make sure your dad doesn’t remarry after she’s gone.

Being a Mormon girl means not wondering why your dad never tried to exact the same promise even though, statistically speaking, he’ll die first.

Being a Mormon girl means having that same conversation with every person you date, Mormon or not.

Being a Mormon girl means not knowing what your family will look like in heaven. Exactly how many moms and grandmas will you have?

Being a Mormon girl means wondering if your family is good enough to get to heaven in the first place and whether you’ll like being tied to each other for the rest of forever.

Being a Mormon girl means missing every family wedding, thinking it’s what you deserve, and knowing it’s a preview of what’s waiting for you in the world to come.

Being a Mormon girl means hiding who you are, hiding who you love, and making commitments to a church you don’t even like because you’re afraid of ruining your family’s afterlife.

Being a Mormon girl means worrying about your own moral failings, and your husband’s too, because you need him to get where you’re trying to go.

Leaving the church means living a life that is no longer ruled by made up rules about what might happen after you die.

Quarantine Diary Day 417: Tangled Up In Blue

After waiting so long for COVID to abate and for winter conditions to end, I thought this spring would feel like waking up. Other people may be afraid or ill-equipped to venture outside of their pandemic routines, even when it’s safe, but I was convinced I would need no convincing, or time to acclimate. The tulips would open and the magnolia would unfurl and I would shed my layers (coat, mask) and step into the carefree life of which I’ve always dreamed. “All I ever wanted was to be someone in life that was just like ‘All I want is to just have fun, live my life like a son of a gun.'”

Maybe that sense of sweet freedom and relief is still in the cards for me, but I spent March and April tangling in the weeds, waiting for the world to turn green.

I waited to become eligible for a vaccine. I waited for appointments to open up. I waited four weeks between doses one and two. I waited for the side effects to show up and then I waited for them to subside. I waited two more weeks for immunity to take hold.

Within the eight-week intermission between becoming eligible for the vaccine and being fully protected, an entire other drama played out. I waited to call the doctor about that mole that was really growing at an alarming rate. I waited for an appointment. I waited two weeks for biopsy results on the “neoplasm of uncertain behavior” the dermatologist scraped off my thigh. I waited a week for surgery to excise the rest of the “the spitz nevus with moderate to severe atypia” from inside my skin. I waited a week for the lab results on the margins. The news was good: “A residual melanocytic lesion was not identified.” I got that email yesterday. Today marks two weeks since I received the second dose of Pfizer’s life-saving COVID vaccine. I’m still going to die, but these won’t be the things that kill me.

During the month of waiting to know what was happening with my skin, inchoate fear subsumed all the worries I once pinned to COVID. After I got the initial biopsy results, I channeled my fear into research, an instinct that’s served me well in my life as lawyer and a writer and a joiner and leaver of institutions of all kinds. I learned about atypical moles and melanoma diagnosis, staging, and treatment. I found my way to the skin cancer forums and picked up terminology for parsing pathology reports. Before I knew it, a week had passed, and I looked up from the screen red-eyed, shoulders around my ears, scared to death of shadows in my lymph nodes.

“Here’s the thing about worrying about things outside of your control. It feels productive, but it’s not. Not really.”

That’s what my therapist said when I told her how I’d spent the week between biopsy results and surgery looking for answers online.

I wanted to defend my obsessive trawling. It felt necessary, it really did–the research led to be questions I wouldn’t have known to ask, and the answers put my mind at ease–but I knew she was right. There’s a world of information and support out there for people with skin cancer, but that wasn’t my world yet, and there was no comfort there for me. I wasn’t going to find my pathology results in an archived thread of British melanoma patients chatting in 2013, and reading stories from people with advanced stages of the disease only made me more scared.

As an anxious person, I want to believe there’s value in my vigilance. I want to believe that worry is useful, that fear keeping me alive. Of course, I also want to banish my anxiety to hell for all the trouble it’s caused, and seeing how I’ve been feeding it like an obsequious host gives me some understanding as to why it’s not going away.

Is there anything more useless than anxiety over everything that ever happened and may never come to pass? Maybe depression. I’ve been babying that beast too, and it never did me a lick of good. Certainly, it never spurred anyone to to action the way anxiety can do. It almost pains me to admit that depression may serve no purpose. That it’s anything worse than a glamorous drag. That it’s neither vice nor virtue, but illness, and a common one at that. That there was never a point to all that pain. That there was nothing admirable in sinking so low. As a depressive, I want to believe there is some redeeming quality to my depth of feeling, but sadness never saved anyone.

I’m COVID-proof and cancer-free, but I’m still me. Maybe I’ll always feel the same, or maybe this time I’ll see it from a different point of view. March and April were for waiting, but there’s still time to wake up in May. It’s still spring. The tulips are still wide open.

Quarantine Diaries Day 412: Distilled

In a tarot deck, there are a handful of cards that have a bad reputation. Folks having their cards read see these babies in a spread and they get scared. A few of these cards derive their power over our imaginations from their objectively frightening names: Card 13, Death; Card 15, The Devil. Tarot readers tend not to be those cards, though, because the meanings they carry are not inherently bad. Death means change. The Devil means freedom and choice. There is one card that has the power to strike fear into the hearts of readers and querents alike, and that is Card 16, The Tower. The name is innocuous enough, though the imagery is generally upsetting. Traditional decks show lightening splicing a black sky, flames pouring from windows, a fallen crown, people tumbling headfirst toward a rocky ground, and, of course, the eponymous tower, cracking and crumbling down. The real trouble with this card is what it means in a reading, and that is destruction, disorientation, and shocking change. The card is not all ugly, though. Framing the chaos are dabs of yellow gold that could be flames but are actually golden yods–the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, signifying the presence of the divine. The crown, representing spiritual consciousness, is tipped over but still intact. The figures in the foreground are falling but they are not dead. The tower will burn but who’s to say what will be rebuilt in its place.

This last year was a Tower year. The pandemic ripped us from our lives and stripped our focus down to the barest essentials. Soap. Toilet paper. Daily breath and daily bread. For a time, everything that was deemed non-essential fell away. Businesses. Acquaintances. Routine physical maintenance.

My life certainly simplified in ways I didn’t expect it could. When I walked away from partnership at a traditional law firm to join a virtual firm in 2019, I insisted on still working out of an office. My new employer bought me a suite of all white office furniture–a large desk and bookcases and filing cabinets and multiple chairs–and all the IT I thought I’d need–a landline, a wide monitor, a printer/scanner, and a shredder for client PHI. I couldn’t imagine doing legal work without binders of documents, without stacks of paper, without a cup full of pens. I couldn’t imagine feeling like a lawyer without my law school textbooks lined up behind me and my diploma hanging over my head. I’ve been in my office exactly once since March 14, 2020. I take meetings at home. I print out nothing. And far from feeling like a pause, the last year saw me doing some of the most sophisticated, high impact work of my career. I don’t need the trappings of a traditional corporate job. All I need my brain, my training, my relationships, and time to work.

When my daughter was in preschool, we started throwing birthday parties. We don’t have family nearby, so we went all out to make her feel special and celebrated, renting party rooms at local play places and inviting every kid she knew. I found the whole event-planning experience–from selecting a date months in advance to plunking down a not insignificant chunk of cash, sending invites to parents I’d never met, tracking RSVPs, and acquiring snacks, cake, decorations, and favors all oriented around a theme–to be incredibly taxing, to the point that I was relieved when I realized that the COVID restrictions in place last April would make any sort of party impossible. When her birthday started to creep up on us this year, I was relieved again. Things had opened enough that we could probably get away with throwing a party, but certainly no one would expect it, least of all my daughter. Until my wonderfully thoughtful, generous, and unselfish husband opened his big genius mouth and suggested she invite a few of her friends over for cupcakes outside. April might seem like a reasonable month for an outdoor birthday party, but in Chicago it is not. In Chicago, April is cold, blustery, rainy, and, most importantly, wildly unpredictable. Without fail, it has snowed the week of her birthday every year since the year our daughter was born, sometimes a few flakes but usually a few inches. In other words, planning an outdoor party in April is an anxious person’s nightmare. Our daughter turned eight last week. We celebrated with family via Zoom on Friday and with friends outside on Saturday. In spite of my worst fears, it came together easily, if not entirely without effort. We invited all of the neighbor kids and a couple of friends from school and church. We scrapped paper and emailed invitations in favor of texts sent a week and a half out. We skipped serving any food other than cake. We briefly considered and then rejected a pinata. We were going to skip favors too, until my aforementioned thoughtful, generous, and genius husband scooped up some bouncy balls and finger skateboards at Target. We did not offer even try for a theme, or decorations. Rainstorms were on the radar, but we didn’t worry about the weather because outdoors was our only option. We didn’t worry about whether people would come because we understood if they didn’t want to. Day of, we put out bubbles and sidewalk chalk and kiddie corn hole and, what do you know, the sun came out and our friends showed up, and our daughter had the best time. She didn’t need the trappings of a traditional suburban birthday party. All she needed was her family, her friends, and time to play.

When the stay-at-home orders first went into place, I added new routines to my days to keep some structure in place, and keep myself sane. Mostly, I kept my body moving. A little yoga flow when I first woke up. A walk around the block before and after work, and a bigger loop around the neighborhood during lunch. Two minute planks and push-ups in the middle of the day. Running four to five days a week plus cross-training on the rower or with weights. This week, I had surgery to remove a precancerous mole from my leg and the most shocking thing about it, other than the size of the scar, was when the surgeon told me I wouldn’t be able to exercise for three weeks. Not even yoga! Not even walking! The version of me that clung to running as an identity and to fitness as a signifier of health and discipline as a hallmark of my self worth would not have coped well with this development. When I got the news, I felt around for that version of myself, for the anxious lady that I was certain was lurking just under my skin, and, to my surprise, I couldn’t find her. She died when Lauren died. She died when my doctor told me the mole in my leg might morph into melanoma. She died when the tower went down. Since the surgery, my days feel eerily like the early days of the pandemic in that I’m not really leaving my house, but this time around I’m not losing my mind. I don’t need a million routines. I don’t need to always be moving and doing. I don’t need to be the best, healthiest version of myself. All I need is to, you know, be. Is this enlightenment? Is this what it’s like to be distilled into the most essential version of yourself?

Quarantine Diaries Day 404: Excision

On April 6, 2021, my magnificent and magnetic friend Lauren and her dear husband Kamel were killed in a horrific car wreck. Lauren died less than a week before she turned 36. Kamel was 38. I met Lauren when I started writing about my life online in 2010. We never met in person, but it didn’t matter. I talked to her more than I talk to members of my own family, more than I talk to my best friends from high school and college combined. I watched her plan wedding and navigate the tricky early years of marriage and career and parenthood. I watched raise two babies into brilliant and beautiful kids. Her oldest was born a month before my daughter, and from what I can tell they are a lot a like. He turned eight weeks before his parents died. His little sister is five. I watched Lauren and Kamel build the kind of life that might have inspired envy except they were so warm and genuine that they only inspired me to live my best life. She inspired me to print out Instagram photos and frame them on my wall. She inspired me to go adventuring with my daughter almost every weekend. She inspired me to start up stay-at-home date nights during the pandemic. She inspired me to try out new recipes on Sunday afternoons. I still can’t wrap my mind around their absence, not from my life but from their own. What their children lost is devastating; as a parent, it’s almost beyond comprehension. But when I think about what Lauren and Kamel will miss it makes me sick. The woman who caused the accident was twenty-six years old, a mom with a toddler in the car, and drunk.

On April 8, 2021, I went to the dermatologist for what I thought was a routine exam and walked out with a biopsy wound the size of a dime.

On April 11, 2021, a police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, ten miles from where Derek Chauvin was standing trial for the murder of George Floyd. Daunte was twenty years old, a young man and a dad. His little boy is only two.

On April 12, 2021, I found out about Lauren and Kamel when I saw a link to a GoFundMe in someone’s Instagram profile. I saw their names and feared the worst: that something had happened to one of their kids. “Nononononono” I pleaded as I scoured the internet for information. When I realized they were gone I grabbed my own face and fell on the floor. “Nononononono.”

On April 15, 2021, a gunman walked into a FedEx facility in Indianapolis and opened fire, putting four people in the hospital and killing eight dead.

On April 15, 2021, city officials released video footage of a police officer shooting and killing Adam Toledo in Chicago. Adam was thirteen years old, in seventh grade, and lived in Little Village. Adam has a little brother, who is only eleven, and Adam liked to play with his littler cousins.

From April 12-16, 2021, I got high every day. I told myself I wasn’t avoiding anything. Devastation was an appropriate emotion. I just needed something to take the edge off.

On April 17, 2021, I stayed sober for date night. I felt stabs of happiness and even laughed out loud, but when I touched down everything still hurt.

On April 18, 2021, I made an overly ambitious meal, one with polenta, because that’s something Lauren made. I cooked the roast in red wine and the leeks in beer and got a little bit drunk.

On April 19, 2021, I called the dermatologist’s office. “It’s been a week and a half and I was just wondering if my results were in?” The receptionist was polite but firm. “Sometimes it can take the whole two weeks. Sometimes even longer.”

On April 19, 2021, a friend texted that her floofy dog, beloved to my family as well as to hers, was sick. Something is wrong with his kidneys. He has months to live. She hadn’t told her kids yet, so I’m sure as hell not going to tell mine.

On April 20, 2021, I was scheduled to get my second dose of the vaccine, but I had a low-grade fever. That, along with fatigue, achiness, and general malaise not infrequent for me these days. My heart rate went up and I dipped down into panic. What if they wouldn’t let me get the vaccine? What if I have cancer that’s already metastasized? That would explain why I’ve felt like shit all year. My Outlook calendar dinged, reminding me I was supposed to call a friend from work. My friend told me that ten days ago her dad was diagnosed with cancer, and it didn’t look good. He’s facing chemo, radiation, and possibly surgery. His tumors are terribly positioned. Her mom is disabled, so she has to take him to all his appointments. I had to get off the phone earlier than I wanted to to make my vaccine appointment. The pharm tech didn’t love my fever, but he didn’t turn me away. This time I didn’t talk to anybody else in line. I took a selfie, bought a Vitamin water and a birthday card for my daughter, and got out of there.

On April 20, 2021, police in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant. Ma’Khia was sixteen. She liked doing hair and makeup and making videos on TikTok.

On April 20, 2021, the jury returned guilty verdicts across the board. I couldn’t figure out how to react. We already knew Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.

On April 21, 2021, I waited for Pfizer’s side effects to swim over me. I waited for the dermatologist to call. I told my therapist I can’t see a world in which the news is good. The news is never good. I thought about writing in this blog. Instead, I took a nap in the middle of the day.

On April 22, 2021, I emailed the dermatologist. “It’s been two weeks.” She called me right away. “It’s not cancer but the abnormalities are severe. We have to go back in and cut deeper and wider and send it to the lab again to make sure it’s clear. It’s not cancer but it’s one step away.” “Well, what is it?” I asked. “Basal cell? Squamous?” The doctor took a breath. “It’s pre-melenoma. One step away. We caught it early.” I texted everybody who was waiting with me, but with fewer exclamation points than I’d been hoping to use. It was hard to feel hopeful when the doctor had sounded so serious. I thought I’d feel relieved, but I also thought the results would be more clear. More definitively not cancer or more definitively cancer but a less deadly kind. I was prepared for the worst but expecting the best: nothing at all or cancer that had already spread. I wasn’t ready for more waiting or for this stretched out middle ground

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the ways that I might die. I’ve been deathly afraid of car wrecks and guns and men in the dark. I’ve been afraid of neurodegenerative disease and, yes, COVID-19. I have been afraid of the police but not as afraid as if I were not white. I’ve been afraid of dying at my own hand and of dying from drugs. The biggest threat to me was always me. But I was an idiot kid who didn’t know what she had, or what it would look like to leave a family behind. When I think about what I’d miss it makes me sick. The dermatologist warned me that the scar would be big, even alarming. “I don’t care about scars,” I spat back. “That’s a death wish bubbling up under my skin. Cut as deep as you need.”

Quarantine Diary Day 394: I’m Sure It’s Nothing

I am still half-vaccinated. I thought I’d feel a measure of freedom after dose 1, but now that I’m so close, I find I can’t justify changing things up until I reach what the CDC has deemed full protection. Is it just me or is the wait between doses interminable?

My husband got his shot last week. We don’t have the type of marriage where I make appointments for him, but I made an exception for the vaccine. He just wasn’t anxious enough about it for my liking. He was content not only to wait his turn but for appointments to become plentiful. He was sure he would get one eventually. What I wouldn’t give for that kind of confidence and trust in the system. I wasn’t about to gamble our family’s summer plans waiting for an appointment to drop into his lap, though. I pestered him into making an account on Walgreens.com and signing in on my phone and commenced with hitting refresh until I scored him a dose last week. Johnson & Johnson. One and done.

In a few weeks, we’ll both be breathing easier. In the meantime, I’m swatting off a new threat, this one coming from down the hall of my own body. I went to the dermatologist to get a mole checked last week. I figured it was nothing–it was pretty and pink and round with smooth edges–but it sprung up practically overnight (before I got vaccinated, to be clear), and what’s the point of having a dermatologist I can’t email her about mysterious new lumps and bumps? She told me to come in and I scheduled an appointment for a few weeks out, after spring break.

I was excited about the appointment because I thought of it as crossing something annoying off my list. I thought the doctor would glance at my mole and send me on my way with a pat on the back for my hypervigilance after concluding that this thing, like all the other things I’ve worked myself up about over the years, was nothing to worry about. Instead, she peered at it closely through what I can only describe as a doctor’s version of a jeweler’s loop and told me she wanted to do a biopsy. “The risks are scarring, infection, and bleeding. There will definitely be a scar. We will tell you what to do if it gets infected. There might be bleeding. Do you have any bleeding disorders or any blood thinning medication?” My voice must have wavered when I gave my informed consent, because the doctor looked up at me and asked, “Is this what you expected to happen today?” “Um, no. Because it just looks like a normal mole? Even the internet told me not to worry.” The doctor didn’t crack a smile. “Well I’m not sure it is a mole. We need to confirm none of the cells are cancerous.” The shape of the mole was not the root of my surprise, though. I was shocked because my experiences with doctors have largely been limited to them telling me the thing I’m worried about is either all in my head or there’s nothing that can be done. There’s a reason I’ve been beating the drum of mental health for so long on this blog. I’m not accustomed to having my fears validated, much less scraped off my body and sent to the lab.

Hearing the word cancer out of a doctor’s mouth made all my invisible conditions–the dragons I’ve been keeping at bay my entire adult life–seem imaginary, like a joke. The first thing I wanted when I walked out of the dermatology office was a drink, but after a year of COVID and years of sobriety before that, I didn’t know where to go, so I went to the dispensary instead. Oh, and I should have led with this: it was a dark and rainy day.

I’m sure it’s nothing, and even if it’s not, I’m sure I’ll be fine. The biopsy is more likely than not to come back normal. If it doesn’t, they’ll go back in and cut out whatever’s bad. The challenge is living in the space where things might not be fine. We know from the last year that fine was never guaranteed. I spent the day after the biopsy reading about all the skin cancers. I texted the worst-seeming one, Merkel cell carcinoma, to my mom, because some of the pictures on the internet looked just like mole papule on my leg, and because I knew she would indulge my worry. When she didn’t text back for a few hours, I wondered what was up and checked my phone again. Oh shit. I hadn’t sent the texts to my mom, but to a long-time friend who happens to be a doctor. She wasn’t having it. “Merkel cell is so rare!! I’ve only seen it with old men. You don’t have it.” I called my sister, who has skin like mine, and pulled a bossy older sibling move. “Go get your skin checked. We’re supposed to be doing it once a year.” Probably she already knew, but maybe not. I didn’t. I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for COVID. After I got sick last year and freaked out because I didn’t know where to go, I found a primary care doctor who took one look at my pale, freckly skin and my family history of cancer and told me to get to a dermatologist. She was so serious about it she referred me to a competing practice group in town so I could get in sooner.

The biopsy results should be back before I’m due for my second dose of the vaccine, which means I’m languishing in a wait within a wait. The four weeks between shots feels longer than the entire preceding year and the four days it’s been since my biopsy feels even longer than that. You’d think I’d be better at waiting by now. You’d think I’d be a pro at passing time, but this particular stretch is stretching me.

Quarantine Diaries Day 388: Not In Evanston Anymore

We crept out of town for spring break without telling anyone last week. We even opted to let the trash rot in our garage for a week over asking our neighbors to take the cans out for us. At first I kept our trip quiet because it seemed so extravagant. Who am I to leave town just because I can? Was there ever a time when vacations were a normal part of life? After I told a few people about our plans and was met with reactions that ranged from underwhelmed to visibly disappointed, I saw that there was another reason to fly under the radar: our spring break extravaganza was actually boring as hell. When got back last weekend, our next door neighbor’s face lit up: “Did you get to see your family?!” When I said no, she sighed and slumped her shoulders along with me. “We drove to Michigan and stayed in a vacation rental in the middle of the woods. We saw no one and did next to nothing. We’re still waiting for everybody to get vaccines.”

I was playing up the simplicity of our trip for drama and virtue points. In truth, it was pleasant and picturesque and exactly what we needed. We rented a two-bedroom cottage with a wood burning fireplace at the edge of a gin clear lake. We took meals in the big eat-in kitchen and played games in front of a picture window with a view of the lake and kept a fire going at all times. There was a touch of adventure, too. We crashed around in the woods and plunged our hands in the cold water to fish out pearly shells and built bonfires in the backyard. My daughter scratched her arm on a piece of rusty metal on the dock and shrieked bloody murder when she almost stepped in a dead mouse exploring a pitch dark outbuilding. One day we even drove into town and went quiet as we passed one red-framed flag after another. We should’ve realized it when we booked the place, but didn’t. We didn’t live in Michigan long enough to get to know the state outside of the college town where we lived, and we left a long time ago. Anyway, we were deep in Trump country.

Howard City was a shit town with a terrific restaurant and we planned to get takeout. We pulled up behind the one other car on the main strip. The “Redneck” bumper sticker jumped out at us first, and then the rest materialized like shapes popping out of a stereogram. “Trump 2020.” “Make America Great Again.” “Beard Lives Matter.” “Let’s park somewhere else,” I told my husband. Was there really a time when differing political opinions weren’t cause for alarm? Or at least unease about my personal safety? You could be forgiven for not remembering if there was. You’d have to go back to before Trump tried to steal the election. Before domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol. Before a Michigan militia attempted to kidnap the governor. If you’re Black, you’d have to go back way before that, back before the beginning of this country. There was a time when I thought anti-Black racism was always coded to sound like a secret, or a joke. That’s how it was the way I grew up: white, suburban, middle class. There are places where and people for whom the hatred was always overt. There are people who have never been safe in small towns.

We didn’t mean to eat in the restaurant. It happened by accident, when we drove into town and realized there was nothing else to do and the wind was whipping us around and we looked in the dining room window and saw there was no one there. It was a weird time to be eating, too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but, like I said, there was nothing to do. It was our first time eating indoors in a restaurant in over a year. When we walked in, there was nobody waiting at the host station. We waited for a long time, watching college basketball play on five different TVs. “This is awkward,” my daughter announced, loudly. I would have been embarrassed, but the host didn’t come for a full five minutes after that and I was pleased that my daughter had used the word correctly. Being able to identify situations that call for a joke is a skill that will serve her well.

In the car on the way to town, my daughter had asked, “What’s a forager?” That was the name of the restaurant where we were eating. “It’s a person that gathers food from nature, kiddo. You know, nuts and berries and plants.” Sitting at a table on the edge of the dining room, my daughter stared at something around a corner and out of my sight. “What’s a forager again, mama?” She didn’t look away from whatever she was staring at. I repeated the definition I’d given her in the car, referencing nuts and berries. “Then, um, what’s that person holding?” I craned my neck around the corner to see what she was looking at. There was a flat metal silhouette of a hunter on the wall next to what looked like the restaurant’s front door. Ah. We had come in the back. That explained the awkward wait. The hunter had a gun slung over one shoulder and an axe hanging low in the other hand. He was absolutely draped in game. There was what looked like a bison on his back, birds in the hand with the axe, and two good-sized fish dangling from the front of the gun. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know my daughter’s had a hard time with death this year, with dead animals inspiring especially great distress. We’re raising her to be an ethical meat eater, though, so she knows where her food comes from. I adjusted the answer I’d given her before. “Oh. I guess he’s foraging for meat.” She didn’t balk, and ordered a burger with bacon and cheese from the adult menu.

We wore masks until the food came. The server brought out a bowl of steaming hot french onion soup first. My husband and I dug in and burned our tongues. My daughter slipped her mask down to try a bite but didn’t love it. “Why is it so scummed over?” she asked, pulling her mask back up until her meal came. I have friends who brag about their kids’ diligence with masking, holding them up as examples to either inspire or shame adults into behaving better, depending on your perspective. Believe me, that’s exactly the kind of self-righteous mom I am, and I’d brag about my kid’s masking too if there was anything to brag about. She hates wearing masks, though. Last year, she whined when I ask her to put one on and begged to take it off after playing hard for a long time. She says it makes it hard to breathe. Often, she simply chose to stay inside over going to the park or going for a walk. That changed when she started going to school in February. Now she puts her mask on as soon as she leaves the house and doesn’t breathe a bad word against them. I think she realized what she was missing and doesn’t want to risk losing it again. Masks are the trade off. I told my neighbor we didn’t see anyone in Michigan, but that’s not entirely true. We saw proprietors and patrons of small businesses and travelers and most of them were unmasked. We should have planned for it but we didn’t. Our love for Michigan is outsized. We see the forests but not the people. Anyway, the people walking around unmasked indoors with casual disregard for our comfort or safety made me see my daughter’s willingness to wear the masks she detests without complaint in a new light. There are ways in which my coddled city kid is tougher than the burly backwoods Michiganders I was afraid to park behind.

Back to the Forager. The waitstaff there were all masked, though our server’s cloth face covering drooped unfortunately below her nose. We reassured herself that she was probably vaccinated. As a restaurant worker, she would have been eligible, and I’d heard that vaccines were easier to come by in Michigan than Illinois. We told ourselves she was not an anti-vaxxer. We told ourselves she was someone who cared. She seemed like she cared about her job, anyway. We were genuinely unworried. We let our daughter take her time finishing her monster burger. While we waited, my husband wrote out a grocery list. He was making biscuits and gravy for breakfast the next day. The list, when it was finished, was pure Michigan, topped off with Clancy’s Fancy Hot Sauce. I’ve always hated the “Pure Michigan” slogan. It conjures up old Sunday School lessons about used gum and white temples and the squirmy feeling I get when adults talk about adolescent sexuality. The revamped “Two Peninsulas, One Pure Michigan” slogan is even grosser. Loving how much it gives me the creeps, he scrawled “Pure Michigan” at the top of the grocery list, except he wrote it in slanty cursive, so it looked like it said, “Purl Michigan.” That gave me an idea. I grabbed the paper and drew a quick sketch of a quintessential lake girl with a flippy ponytail and a mask drooping underneath her nose. We giggled and when our daughter realized why we were laughing I put my finger to my lips and asked her not to say anything about the mask. I didn’t want to hurt our server’s feelings.

When it was time to go, I grabbed my daughter and danced in the empty dining room to the electropop that had been making me shake my shoulders all afternoon. We’d danced our way out of the almost empty beer garden at Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids the day before, too. Our server at the Forager watched us and I think she was smiling.

We stopped for firewood and groceries before going back to the lake house. I waited in the car with our daughter, knowing we didn’t have any more risk points to spend, if we ever had them in the first place. When my husband got back in the car he said, “I hope I got everything. I left the grocery list at the restaurant.” I thought about our server turning over the paper and recognizing seeing herself in the lake girl with the droopy mask. I thought about how she would have seen our Illinois address when she ran the credit card. For the first time all day, I wondered, Are we the assholes?

It’s a good joke to end this post on that note, but I don’t really think it’s true. We live in a liberal bubble, but we never tried to insulate ourselves here. We have a way of seeing the world that’s influenced by where we live but we don’t pretend it’s the only way to live. We try to venture out with respect and live our values wherever we are. I never fail to think of ways we could do it better, but that doesn’t mean we’re not doing our best. We’re trying, you know?

Quarantine Diaries Day 357: Hello Human

The hardest part of coming clean about drinking after a period of extended sobriety is not admitting that you’ve relapsed; it’s telling people that you don’t think you did anything wrong. People expect a mea culpa, a begging on your knees, a criss-cross over the heart that you’ll never do it again. People expect a rehab, maybe a round of meetings if the drinking wasn’t that bad, more a lapse than a relapse, more a slip up than a slide down. They don’t want to hear what you really have to say, which is: I’m not going to do all that again.

There was a time when sobriety felt like a superpower. Waking up every day with a clear head? Bopping around with natural energy? Going out to dinner and spending drink money on apps for the table and dessert? Going out at night and coming back at the exact time I planned and never worrying about the drive home? Watching the days stack up on the counter on my phone and realizing I could, in fact, keep a promise to myself. Come on. It was glorious.

Eventually I acclimated to my powers, and sobriety became just became a fact of life, and that was pretty good, too. Going months without thinking of a drink? Sniffing out other sober people and feeling instantly connected? Showing my kid that alcohol is not a mandatory part of the adult experience? Getting promoted at work and paying my bills and saving for retirement and enrolling my kid in camps and lessons and doing volunteer work. Come on. Waking up day after day and doing the next right thing is its own kind of powerful.

It all the changed in the pandemic. Sobriety became another responsibility I owed the world and, like educating my child and staying productive at work, it was one I was one I had no choice but to shoulder, no matter how hard it got. Instead of freedom, sobriety became duty, a mantle woven with iron.

In recovery, I learned to think of sobriety as the keystone holding up every good thing in my life–my loving family, my great job, my warm house. The mindset is supposed to encourage gratitude, but for me it inculcated fear. I had to keep this sobriety going, at any cost, or I would lose it all. Another thing that happens in recovery is that everybody in your life celebrates when you don’t take a drink, and people who’ve never done it themselves tell you how strong and brave you are. It doesn’t feel strong and brave to exist without engaging in one particular type of self-destruction–it feels baseline, necessary–but the accolades feel amazing. The recognition had a bitter side, though, when sobriety started to feel less like a choice a made and more like a cell I built. When you believe that you earn love through not drinking, the entirety of your self-worth collapses into the units of time you stay dry. To drink is not only to betray yourself, but to let down everyone around you. It’s even worse than that if you subscribe to the twelve-step model of recovery: to drink is to gamble with your life because, as they say in AA, to drink is to die.

That’s a heavy load to carry in the best of times, and during the pandemic it was like walking around with an axe hanging over my head. And with a mind like mine, one that starts looking for an escape hatch whenever the pressure mounts and inevitably slants toward self-harm, that axe looked shiny, easy to wield. It looked like a way out.

1,672 days. That’s the amount of time I had. 4 years, 9 months, and 27 days, excluding November 26, 2020, because that’s the day I took a drink.

I expected to hate myself after breaking sobriety, but I gave myself permission to feel another way. I felt not an ounce of remorse. Of course, there were some feelings I couldn’t logic may way out of. I could not avoid the anxiety, which roared back to life after a long dormant period. For weeks, the beast took up every inch of breathing room inside my chest and all the thinking room inside my head, and it still comes back in the evenings whenever I so much as think about a bottle of wine.

I could not avoid the ensuing obsession with when the next time would be. I’d hoped it would be otherwise, that the nearly five years alcohol free would have cured me of what feels like an insatiable appetite for altering my reality, but the thirst came roaring back to life. That was disappointing. Years and years ago, before I ever set foot in a recovery room, before I even entertained the idea that an alcoholic might look like me, before I understood that substance use disorder is a progressive thing, the thing that I called my dysfunctional “off switch” was the reason I started questioning my drinking in the first place. When I flipped the switch back on a few months ago I felt immediately that it was still sticky.

I could not avoid the shame, at least not at first. I want to be clear. There was no shame in the drinking. Not under these circumstances. What could be more reasonable that returning to an old coping mechanism while living through a reign of chaos and terror in an economic and social system designed to break the human spirit? No. There was shame about the way I was going about it, though. All the secrecy, and the sneaking around. I had to come clean or the slip was going to spiral into something worse.

The problem with coming clean was that I didn’t actually want to get clean. Certainly, I didn’t want to tie my self worth to it. I just wanted to figure out my shit in the clear light of day.

After I admitted it out loud–that I wasn’t sober anymore, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be–another feeling stirred to life, and this one I liked: I felt human. Sobriety, it turns out, is a hell of a drug, and falling off the wagon was like stepping down off a pedestal and rejoining the rest of the messy world.

The hardest part of talking about drinking after a period of extended sobriety is figuring out how to tell the truth instead of what people want to hear. I’m not trying to convince myself I never had a problem or looking for rock bottom. I’m not counting days or trying to claw my way back to what I had before. I’m not justifying the life I lived before or the choices I’m making now. I’m just living, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, and, frankly, not minding not having it all figured out.