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.
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?
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.”
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.
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?
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.
I’ve always been curious about other people’s morning routines, in a nosy let me take a peek behind the curtain sort of way. This one chick I used to follow on Instagram washes her face with cold water every morning. Another lady I read about on Into The Gloss takes hot baths at 5 a.m. Tammi Salas, an artist and woman I really looked up to in early sobriety, starts the day with a song and a cup of tea and then makes these stunning gratitude lists. Various family members have dabbled in Wim Hof breathing (again, with the cold water!). Wellness influencers over the years have touted the benefits of hot lemon water and apple cider vinegar and vigorous exercise and green juice and fasting, just like beauty influencers swear by twelve step skincare routines but I don’t care about what you put in your body or on top of it, I just want to know what your days feel like, and mornings are where the whole thing kicks off.
Before the pandemic, my mornings used to look like this: alarm goes off between 4:45 and 5:15 a.m. (never hit snooze; can’t, no time); change into the running clothes sitting on a little pile next to my bed; fumble down the stairs; gulp 2 full glasses of water quickly enough to give myself a stomach ache; fall onto my knees in front of the couch (pillow under my aching knees, blanket around my shoulders, happylight blasting in my face); recite prayers from a sheet my sponsor gave me in 2016 (worse than dog eared; crumpled, creased, torn, worn soft); clamber up to sit cross-legged on the couch; read pp. 83-88 in the Big Book (try not to skim); meditate for 5 to 20 minutes (try not to fall asleep); 5-10 minutes of dynamic warm-ups in the middle of the living room; guzzle more water; gear up and head out the door to run 4 to 8 miles (outside or at the gym, weather depending); back home and collapse on the floor for core on the living room rug (maybe put a mat down for sweat, maybe not; this is where my child might enter the picture and start crawling all over me while I try to extend the number of seconds I could hold a side plank); eat a piece of fruit and spoonful of peanut butter; head upstairs for a scalding hot shower; scrunch my hair; apply no-makeup makeup; suit up for the day in a literal suit; wake up my husband; go back downstairs to make breakfast for my daughter; eat with my family; pack a lunch for the day; and leave the house by 8 a.m. to catch a train downtown.
I remember my old morning routine down to the minute because minute-by-minute was how I used to structure my life and because those were the minutes of the day from which I derived most of my well-being and all of my import. To my intense irritation, I couldn’t talk about what I did before I got to work. Sure, I could proselytize about prayer and meditation in recovery groups and share my workout with other runners, but I could never accurately convey just how much I did in a morning. It would be too braggy! Look at my incredible discipline! Look at how spiritually fit I am, and have you seen my banging bod?
The morning routine meant more to me than that, though. Ruth Ann Snow, a writer with a day job that looks a lot like mine, once wrote about taking your cut off the top, and she was talking about making the thing you want to do most, whether it’s writing or walking outside or whatever, the thing that you do first, before life takes over and drains all your good juices. I loved the early hours because they were the ones that were mine for the taking, before my family woke up and my colleagues got online belonged to me suddenly everyone but me was deciding how I spent your day.
When the pandemic hit, I knew it was reasonable to let some of my habits evolve in response to the new, extremely stressful, conditions under which we were living. The morning routine was one that morphed, and morphed is putting it lightly. What happened to the morning routine is that it shriveled up and died. I tried to get it back as the months wore on, I really did, but in the light of day, that old morning routine was not a routine, it was a gauntlet! There’s so much in there I can’t make my spirit or my body do anymore. Waking up at the crack of dawn is just the beginning. It’s the thought of cracking the big book and whispering those rote prayers that makes me go all stiff and brittle inside. The concept of core work makes my stomach turn.
The world turned and I turned with it, into a different kind of person. It’s harder to force things. I can’t sit or walk or dance my through things I find intolerable. My old morning routine was far from empty, but going through the motions now would be.
In so many ways, I fall short of the person I once was. My stomach is soft. My mind is wild. But there is progress on this path, too. There are days when I can sit still long enough to consider whether I actually want to do the thing someone somewhere once told me I had to do (so many committee meetings missed). Occasionally, I can take a beat before swan diving into the thing that I think I have to do (so many angry emails unsent). Now, I am the kind of person who pays close enough attention to my body to realize that the pelvic pain I’ve been ignoring for 18 months is a muscle tear that isn’t going to going away on its own if I don’t stop doing crunchy abs and scissor kicks on my living room floor. The sensation of a quiet mind is familiar enough that I notice when it starts spinning again and what kinds of things set it off. The twelve step program that saved my ass became one of the things that lit a fuse in my brain; that’s why I stopped going to the meetings.
These days, my mornings look like this: Sometimes I wake up early. Sometimes I sleep in as late as my husband. I write morning pages. Sometimes I meditate for three minutes max. If it’s an early day, I might stretch a little bit and brew a cup of tea and write some more. If it’s a later day, I might stay in bed and read. I shoo my kid away when she pops into my space before I’m ready to talk. I skip the shower, get dressed and ready in five minutes flat, and pull a tarot card. I head downstairs for breakfast at a different time every day. I eat breakfast with my family, sometimes with candles, because breakfast is the nicest meal.
What about my cut? Don’t worry, I’m still taking it. Those morning hours are still mine, and now I’m using them to do exactly what I want to do. When I stay in bed it’s because that’s where I want to be, and when I wake up early to write it’s because putting words on the page matters more to me than stacking miles or meditation minutes or sober days. Don’t worry, I still do the other stuff too. The difference is I’m not trying to squeeze it into a window of time before the world wakes up. Bitch, I own all the hours of the day! I have a flexible job; I can finish an essay in the middle of the day. Most men I know exercise after work, before they go home to their families; I can do that. Now, I do do that.
When do I shower? I used to do it late at night because I felt guilty about delaying dinner and not hanging out with kid the second I stepped in the door, so I’d put it off until after bedtime and spend the evening sweaty and cold. By the time I made it to the shower–if I wasn’t too tired to give up on the notion altogether–the hot water would be gone. Now I shower before dinner. I say hello to my family and head straight up stairs, make the water as hot as I can stand it, and stay until I can smell garlic or onions or bacon well enough to know dinner will be on the table when I go back down. I deserve to luxuriate when people are awake, when people are at work, when the world is turning. I live here, too.
This one hurts. My siblings are ridiculous. Talented. Intelligent. Hilarious. Successful. Good looking. Kind. Fundamentally GOOD people. They were my world when we were growing up. Who needs friends when you have siblings? Who needs neighbors? Who needs allies or even enemies? We were each other’s everythings. I’m not saying I didn’t literally, physically sit on top of my brother when he challenged my authority when mom left me in charge. I’m not saying I wasn’t a big bitch to my little sister. I’m not saying I didn’t overlook my littlest brothers when I when I was a teenager. I’m not saying I call them all the time now. We are spread too far and all of us too thin. What I’m saying, and what I never expected, is that over the years every complicated memory and twisty thread of emotion coalesced into thick rope of love and pride. I think of my siblings and it is all GOOD.
The snow that blanked the ground at the start of March melted suddenly this month. We had a few warm springy days in the sixties. I walked around without a coat, went running in shorts and a t-shirt. It was glorious, but I knew not to trust it. I warned everybody who dared to talk to me about the weather about the couple of big snows coming our way in April, guaranteed, and kept mentioning that meme about the many stages of winter and only being in fools’ spring. Sure enough, it got cold again the next week, but not as cold as it was in January and not cold enough to keep me from my first hike of the season. This last weekend it warmed up again, not really enough for my daughter to play in the mud without a coat on, but I let her do it anyway because there were other kids outside with their parents and we were both hungry for a little human interaction. We went for another hike and I warned my daughter not to expect much more than “dead leaves on the dirty ground” but an older couple stopped us in our tracks to point out a patch of purple crocuses blooming on the side of the trail. Not too long after that, we spotted a red-tailed hawk in flight. All weekend, I struggled to wrap my head around it. I was giddy, but also confused. I’d convinced myself we wouldn’t get a spring this year. Not that the world would stop turning, but that winter would be brutally long and then one day we’d slip into a disappointing summer, still miserable, still scared, still stuck at home. I really couldn’t see anything good on the other side of what we’d been through. Certainly not anything as earnestly hopeful as spring. I can admit when I’m wrong. All week, I’ve been cooking, playing, fucking, sleeping with the windows open wide.
The other thing that happened this weekend was that I snagged an appointment for a vaccine. I didn’t think that could be real either. Certainly I didn’t expect it to happen so easily or so soon. I didn’t even wake up early on Saturday, but when I checked the Walgreens website around eight o’clock in the morning, there were at least a dozen appointments only three days away. I tapped one and then it was gone. Damn. Too slow. I tried again and it went through. I slid through the screens filling in my information until I reached a confirmation page. Tuesday at 12:00 PM. All weekend, I struggled to wrap my head around it. I was giddy, but also confused. I’d convinced myself I wouldn’t be vaccinated for many months. I prepared myself to be turned away. I’d read about glitches in the enrollment system. I’d read that some pharmacies were declining to vaccinate people with appointments, notwithstanding their eligibility, to prioritize people over 65. I would understand if that happened. They need it more than me. I was doubly ashamed about the basis on which I’d qualified: former smoker. Usually, I’m proud of the fact that I quit a half pack a day habit, but realizing it made me eligible for a precious dose of the vaccine felt like sneaking in through a loophole. I think I would have felt more legitimate if I was still sneaking cigarettes on the sly like I did the first three years after I “quit.” I was prepared to be turned away, but I wasn’t about to count myself out. Nothing about the last year has been fair. It’s been a lot of short straws and shit luck, for others more than me. I don’t know how to draw a circle that leaves out my hatred of the fact that the system is rigged for people like me and captures my profound gratitude that the wheel spun in my favor for getting a vaccine. The best I can do is this: Getting the vaccine feels like welcoming another spring. I could never earn this embarrassment of life-giving, life saving riches, but I deserve it just the same.
When I went to get the vaccine on Tuesday, I quadruple checked for my state ID, insurance card, confirmation email, and eligibility documentation and doubled up on masks. Anticipating a long wait before and after the shot, I also packed a laptop (for my MEMWAAHS), my phone (for the ‘gram), and a slim volume of Emily Dickinson (for appearances). At the pharmacy I got in line behind a handful of people. I read a few pages before closing the book over my fingers and trying to strike up a conversation with the gentleman in front of me. “Hey. How far did you have to travel to get here today?” Once upon a time I was the kind of person who shit talked on small talk but after a year of isolation I can’t resist it. My line buddy was game and we chatted amiably about our respective neighborhoods until he made it to the front of the queue.
When it was my turn, the young man working as a pharmacy technician passed a thermometer over my head. I’ve been through this drill dozens of times in the last year and never clock over 99, but this time the pharm tech pulled back like he’d put his hand on the stove. “Okay, lady. I’m going to need you to take off your coat and hat. Sit down. Breathe.” He had a point. I was coming in hot in more ways than one. I stripped off as many layers as I could get away with in public. I fanned my armpits and willed my body to cool down. I snuck water under my mask. I filled out the forms and checked the boxes indicating my eligibility with zero guilt or qualms. After an interminable wait, the technician handed me a vaccine card and cleared me to advance to the next waiting area. After that, it was only a few minutes before he called me from behind the privacy screen set up in the corner of the room. As he was giving me my shot, I asked, “Do people ever cry back here? From, like, emotion?” “Yeah,” he said, as he smoothed the red Walgreen’s bandaid over my arm. “I’ve had a few people break down.” I stood up to leave. “Thank you. Just…thank you. Thank you so much.” When he saw the tears in my eyes, he “awwwed” at me like I was a cute puppy but the smile on his face was sincere.
I didn’t have time to process what had just happened or take a vaccine selfie before I saw my line buddy waiting for me on the other side of the screen. We were supposed to stick around under observation for 15 minutes in case of adverse reactions and we were glad to have each other’s company. As we talked, we discovered we work in the same industry. When he told me where he worked, I couldn’t believe it. His company had been my biggest client for over seven years at my last law firm. When he told me the name, I jerked my head around and said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” any shred of decorum I might once have maintained in a situation with a potential professional colleague destroyed by the last year of living like an emotional animal. The 15 minutes passed and then some. We stayed put, talking and talking. The only reaction we were experiencing was the thrill of human contact, but we couldn’t tear ourselves away. By the time I’d left, we’d exchanged emails and made plans to meet for drinks. We promised to look for each other in line for our second doses in three weeks. I didn’t crack the Dickinson in my bag again, and I don’t think there’s a more fitting image for coming out of quarantine than choosing an hour with a stranger over the vast interiority of myself.