My pandemic nightmares started in AA. In the dream, I was sitting down at a meeting that hadn’t started yet. I knew it was an AA meeting because the room looked like so many basement rooms I’ve been in over the years, shabby and dim and set up with rows of folding chairs. The room was sparsely populated at first, but more and more people started drifting in and taking their seats, and I knew that coronavirus had infected the dreamworld when it started to feel like they were closing in. I tried to talk my dream self down–“Everything is fine, they aren’t that close”–because I knew it was important for me to stay, even if maintaining social distancing was proving to be a challenge. When the meeting finally started, the lights went down, people started grabbing their chairs and scooting them in, closer to the front of the room, closer to me. I panicked. I stood and started awkwardly making my way out of the room, climbing over people and chairs, mortified to be making a scene, chastened by the dirty looks people were throwing my way, but resolute. I knew I couldn’t stay. As I climbed the stairs, making my way from darkness to light, I did not emerge into a church, as I expected, but into the dining room of a fast casual Mediterranean restaurant. I knew I was supposed to go home, but the bustle of the other diners was inviting, and I decided to grab a meal real quick and eat it there.
Fellowship and food. Are there things I worry more about losing to COVID? Obviously. Grandparents. Parents. Aunts and Uncles. Siblings. Neighbors. Friends. Support systems. Jobs. Houses. Retirements. Minds. 100,000 lives, known to me or not. But restaurants and the rooms were the first things to disappear from my life in the shadow of the oncoming pandemic.
In those early weeks, when we were still coming to terms with the fact that we didn’t know what the fallout would look like or how long it would last, when we didn’t know how to cope with that not knowing, it was so easy to let the blank spaces fill up with fear. I was afraid of so many things, big and small, but the one that crept into my subconscious first was the fear I was doing it all wrong. Of course that’s the fear that bubbled up first. It’s the one I’ve been feeding my whole life.
On Friday, March 13, the day my husband and I were scouring the grocery stores for staples and preparing to school our daughter at home, I wanted to go to a meeting, but had no idea if the Alano club was still open. I kicked myself for not having been to a meeting since Monday and missing any announcement that might have gone out. I texted a woman I know. “Is the club still open?” “Closed.” I kicked myself for not having gotten on a phone list and being out of the loop.
On Sunday, March 15 I discovered my daughter had lice and as I settled in for a long night of nitpicking I wished, for the first time in a long time, that I had a glass of wine to make the job easier.
On Monday, March 16 and Tuesday March 17 I wondered what I was going to do. Was I going to white knuckle it until things opened up again? Was I just going to drink? I visited a directory of online AA meetings. The list of women’s meetings that were open to members was limited and they mostly met when I was at work or taking care of my kid. I kicked myself for not prioritizing my recovery.
On Wednesday, March 18 I asked to join and was admitted into two separate email-based groups that I found in the directory. I tried to keep up with the flood of messages welcoming newcomers like me who were desperately seeking for support, but scrolling through my email every night before bed left me feeling more disconnected than ever. I kicked myself for having fallen out of touch with the network of women I’d met online when I’d first started trying to get sober, for dropping out of the online support groups I relied on before I found AA.
On Friday, March 20 a friend texted me a list of Chicagoland meetings that had gone virtual. I scanned the list but didn’t recognize any of them. I wondered what it would be like to dial into a group of strangers. I kicked myself for not having made it to a wider variety of meetings back when I worked in the city. I wondered if any of the meetings I’d been to over the years had gone virtual. I kicked myself for not knowing.
I started forwarding the list of virtual meetings to other sober people, figuring I must not be the only one who felt lost. I called a few people. One friend assured me that she was attending daily meetings with her sponsorship line. I kicked myself for not having that type of relationship with my sponsor, for not having spoken to her in months. Another friend assured me that one of her regular meetings, a small one, had moved to someone’s house. I kicked myself for not having a home group.
On Tuesday March 31, somebody finally texted, told me that local meetings were online. He asked me if I could help chair a meeting. I said yes, but then couldn’t make it work with my work and parenting commitments. I kicked myself for being selfish and for being a flake.
I had no idea how to stay sober without meetings, and I blamed myself for that fact, as though the upheaval weren’t entirely unprecedented and entirely out of my hands. I took personal responsibility for every challenge and every challenging emotion that came my way. If only I’d been more active in AA after I moved my job up to Evanston, if only I hadn’t been waffling in my commitment to the program since the beginning, surely this would be easier. As though that weren’t a total lie. As though this could possibly be easy for anyone.
When I finally started relaxing into this new life and making it to online meetings, my vision cleared. I saw that focusing on my perceived shortcomings, on my petty fear of failure, on all the things I was doing wrong was a useful way of avoiding facing the things that were really scaring the hell out of me, like what if somebody I love gets this disease and doesn’t recover? I realized that in obsessing over everything I didn’t have I missed the most important thing that happened to me in the first few weeks of quarantine: the world fell apart and I didn’t take a drink. I understood that I had what I needed all along: a sponsor who will take my call any time I’m willing to make it; a phone full of sober people I know; an internet full of sober people I don’t know yet; a list of virtual meetings; and who knows how many people who might need my help.