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 Diaries Day 365: Anniversaries Part 2

One year ago I went into lockdown with my family. It was scary and surreal. Do you remember that part of it? We were afraid to leave the house. We waved at neighbors through the glass. We were afraid to touch things other people had touched. There were long lines and short hours at the grocery store, and we were afraid the food chain would break. Almost everything else was closed. On the anniversary this weekend, I drove north to Lake County and went hiking by myself. I waved at strangers on the trail. I ran my hands on trees and tapped polypores with my feet. I went home and made an elaborate meal for my family. Life is hyperreal. I’m too tired to be scared.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks. What I can say about this last year, about what it’s meant to me, about what it’s done to me, about the lessons I’ve learned, and the kind of person I’ve become? I can’t. I can’t even. It’s too much, too big, too messy to write. The pandemic isn’t over. It’s not even almost over, not for me. Not for most people. Vaccines are trickling into my town, but I’m at the bottom of the list. I realize that’s a good thing. It means my life has been easier than most for the last year. It also means I’m still risking my life and trying to survive. I’m still becoming the person the world will spit out when the pandemic ends.

The truest thing I can say about the last year is this: I got older. That’s it! Hardly unexpected, but it’s still hitting me hard. I tiptoed into early middle age in the early days of the pandemic. I didn’t notice it at first, because I’m in the period of life that has been nudged back and stretched out to the point of being nearly unrecognizable as middle age, thanks to the millenials who didn’t want to grow up and the boomers who didn’t want to let go. The generations have more in common than we like to admit. It’s undeniable, though. At 35, I’m squarely in the middle of my life and last week when I saw a video of myself that just didn’t look right. How could a jawline so indistinct sit beneath smile lines that cut so deep? Like someone turned up the contrast on only half my face. The signs have been piling up all year. I’m softer around the middle and my knees screech at me when I pull myself up from crouching on the ground.

Of course, the last year aged us all in more than the usual ways. The number the pandemic did on my body is nothing to what it pulled on my insides. A year ago, I related more immediately to the girl I was when I was five, fifteen, twenty-five than to the grown up in the room I had to be that day. A year ago, parenting my daughter was like re-parenting a version of myself. COVID slammed down like a wall, cleaving my childhood from hers and severing me from the person I used to be. COVID grew me up.

COVID grew me in in relation to my parents. As a once wayward child, my best trick for making them pleased with me was spending too much on plane tickets and showing up on their doorstep with a suitcase in my hand. I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to travel this year, and I had to say no. Is there anything more adult than disappointing your family to protect the life you’ve built?

COVID grew me up at work. I used to feel restless, resentful that I didn’t have precisely the job I wanted, that my career didn’t travel in the direction I had planned. I couldn’t believe it when the city ordered me to move my legal practice into my home, but I had to say yes. It didn’t matter. I was just grateful to have work. Is there anything more adult than suiting up and showing up for the job you’re paid to do?

COVID gew me up in my marriage. We’ve always been good in a crisis, but day-to-day life could be hard on us, a series of battles over who was sacrificing more. In the year that asked the most of both of us, we acted like partners instead of combatants. Is there anything more adult than setting aside your pride?

COVID grew me up in my friendships. I missed the ease of seeing people around town and didn’t know how to sustain anything over a screen. I waited for the group chats and virtual book clubs to materialize or for somebody to at least check in. The loneliness almost did me in, until one day a friend brought donuts to my door and I realized people had been showing up for me all year long: with birthday signs for my daughter, with playdates outside, with plates of food and loaves of bread, with hand-me-down books and toys, with coffee in the front yard, and, yes, with phone calls and texts and “are you okays?” My friendships don’t exist behind screens, and my friends didn’t disappear during the pandemic; I did. They were there all along. I just had to pay attention and put in a little effort. Is there anything more adult than asking what you can give instead of what you can get?

COVID grew me up for my daughter. She needed me more this year than any point since infancy, and the need was so pressing that I had to gather up every part of myself of myself–the daydreamer child, the rebellious teen, the strident feminist, the serious lawyer, the tired wife–and coalesce them into a single being: mom, right here, right now. The presence of mind parenting demands in a pandemic is unlike anything I have ever known. Is there anything more adult than rising to the occasion?

That’s my anniversary post. It’s been a year. I got older, and so did you. I’m not complaining. When the thing we’ve spent the last year hiding from his death, another year is the most we can ask for. It’s more than what lots of us got.

Quarantine Diary Day 279: Grinch

This is the only time of year I miss working at my old law firm. I hated the mad rush to meet deadlines–both the arbitrary internal ones and the hard dates set by courts and arbitration panels–and I hated not knowing if I would have to be in the office right up until 5 PM on the 23rd or if there would be pressure to work on Christmas Eve but the office was always a little more sparkly at the end of the year. I loved watching the snow flutter past the window in my office. I loved watching the partners make the rounds delivering annual reviews and bonus news. I loved jetting out at noon on a random Tuesday in mid-December for the company-wide holiday party in the big back room at Maggiano’s. I loved the treats that would show up in the kitchen from vendors and signing holiday cards for clients. I loved giving cash to my assistant and I loved her holiday sweaters. I loved having my husband’s gifts delivered to the office and carrying them home in a duffel bag from the firm. I loved walking to the train in the dark and seeing all the skyscrapers all lit up like Christmas trees.

I quit that job in 2019, so this isn’t the first year I’m missing corporate Christmas, but combined with the loss of my the winter party in my daughter’s classroom and the pageant at church and the Nutcracker and Christkindlmarket downtown, the season has felt decidedly dull. And that’s fine. People are getting evicted this month. People are losing contracts and jobs. They are lining up at food pantries. Thousands of people are still dying every day. If the worst thing I can say about the final month of this year that rocked the world is that it was boring, or depressing, I’ll take it.

It has been depressing, though. Last Thursday, we got some disappointing news right before our daughter’s school closed for winter break. The principal emailed to tell us that the school doesn’t have the capacity for all the families that opted into in-person learning when if they start bringing kids back next semester, and our daughter wasn’t included in the first priority group. I understand and don’t dispute the choice and don’t want to get into the equities of getting back to school in this post. I only want to give you the context so you understand that I went to bed feeling like my family was slipping through the cracks.

The next day started off with a win, albeit a small one: for the first time in a week, my daughter willingly changed into clothes that she hadn’t slept in. Technically, she just put on a different pair of pajamas, but they were clean. Her class was having a winter “party” and she was so excited to play games and watch a movie “with” the rest of her class in the iPad. Her mood put the rest of the household in a festive frame of mind, and the day went up from there.

I put out a call for support re: the social isolation my family is facing and half a dozen good friends responded with kind messages and texts. A few kind people offered to set up video hangouts with my daughter. A good friend invited us over for an outdoor playdate.

A neighbor dropped off a big box of LEGO and books that her kids had outgrown and she thought my daughter might like.

A friend brought donuts.

A package from Harry & David, care of my boss, showed up our doorstep: a gourmet dinner, packed in dry ice, which my husband promptly dumped in a bowl for a good hour’s worth of entertainment.

I saw neighbors on my afternoon walk and stopped to chat.

My husband checked the mail and brought in a stack of cards from friends and family across the country.

I directed money to people who needed it, and started talking to my husband about the charities we’re going to support this year.

We ordered takeout for dinner and watched Bad Santa.

After all that, at the very end of the day, I got another email from the principal. The school will have room for my daughter after all when if they start bringing kids back next semester.

I didn’t need to get that email to feel seen and supported. I came by that feeling over the course of the day, when I looked around me and realized I wasn’t alone. Somehow, my world felt festive. I puzzled and puzzled, how could it be so? It came without parties. It came without flashy clothes. It came without bonuses, airplanes, shopping, or shows. I puzzled and puzzled for how long I’m not sure. Then I thought of one thing more. What if friendship, perhaps, doesn’t look like before?

Quarantine Diary Day 109: Yardsticks

We left for our annual family camping trip in Michigan at the end of June. We thought we might have to pusht the trip back or cancel it altogether because I got sick with some weird symptoms and wanted to get a COVID test. When the results came back early and negative, we thought we might be on track to leave on the day planned, and started hustling to get packed. That’s when the lock on cargo box on top of the car broke with half our stuff inside. The cargo box was done for–my husband had to saw it open to get inside–and there was no way we were fitting a week’s worth of camping gear into our hatchback sedan. After some mild panicking at all the ways this trip seemed to be doomed we rented a mid-sized SUV that was available for pickup at noon the next day and, in the end, we ended up on the road only a day late.

As we drove, my husband gave me the lowdown on this year’s site, passing on all the details he’d gleaned from our friends who spearhead and book the trip every year. We were going to a new site in a new campground in a new state park. New to us, I mean. The park has been a Michigan institution for over a century. The campground is situated between two lakes like a set of lungs in Grand Traverse County and we had booked two sites to accommodate three small groups. The rest of our group had set up camp the day before and we’d be rolling in around mid-day.

Five years ago, the first time we went on this trip we were late, too. A hot potato had landed in my lap at work and I had to stay late in the office so that we ended up leaving on Saturday morning instead of Friday afternoon. That year, we had three sites booked, and I worried out loud that I hoped we didn’t end up stuck with the worst site because I had to work late. I hadn’t seen any of the sites yet, had never been to this park, hadn’t camped in years, and had no idea what might qualify a rustic campsite that my friend that had to be booked six months out as “the worst.” Truthfully, I was the one that was “the worst.” I was newly sober, still white knuckling it at five months, dry enough that the billboards for Michigan vineyards were making my mouth water, and I couldn’t stop thinking about everything I couldn’t have. I was still anxious when we arrived late in the afternoon, scouring the simple drawings on the campground map to glean what I could about the place, but I needn’t have been. Two of the sites were right up on Lake Michigan and were big enough for all our tents. We never even used the third site.

This year, I wasn’t worried about where we’d pitch our tent. My only concern leading up to the trip had been whether the water would be swimmable–we’d heard rumors about a nasty sounding something called swimmer’s itch–and how I’d keep my daughter out of it if it wasn’t. After the high drama of getting out of Chicago COVID-free with all our gear in a car that worked, even that mild worry barely registered. All I wanted was exactly what I was going to get: five days of sitting around the fire cooking food and shooting the shit with my family and friends.

There are a few yardsticks by which you can measure a person’s sobriety. There is the time passed, the days, the months, and the years. There are the symbols you can hold in your hand, the plastic chips and the metal coins. There are the milestones, the birthdays, the anniversaries, the holiday seasons. There are the friends you’ve lost and the friends you’ve gained. All of these measures, are meaningful in their own right, but none of them are particularly useful for measuring the quality of sobriety, which is rarely a steady upward climb. It oscillates. It is hills and valleys. It is a fluctuating thing.

There is progress, though, and sometimes it’s visible. I can see mine in five years of tent camping with a kid and some friends.

For me, recovery is going from:

  • Wanting the best spot for your tent no matter what and saying so…
  • to wanting the best spot for your tent but keeping it to yourself because you don’t want to seem selfish…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent but recognizing that other people’s needs matter as much as yours and wanting to be fair…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent but recognizing that other people’s wants matter as much as yours and wanting to be fair…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent and knowing that other people’s needs and wants matter more than yours to and wanting to be generous…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent but not worrying because you know it will work out fine…
  • to just being happy to be there pitching your tent among friends at all.

The campsite was stunning, right on the water. We hopped out of the car, air hugged our friends from six feet away, and threw up our tent in the flattest, shadiest spot we could find. We talked a mile a minute catching up on the last twelve months of life and news. Eventually we made our way down to the water. D jumped right in. I took my time, dipping my feet in and then wading up to my shins and eventually dove all the way under crossing my fingers that we wouldn’t end up itchy. We didn’t. Everything worked out. It always does. I count myself lucky that I get to be there for it.

Quarantine Diary Day 105: Leaving the Bubble

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Next week I’m going off the grid for our fifth annual family camping trip. We’re going with another family and I’m a little nervous about it. I’m not so worried about picking up or passing on a viral load. We’ve been pretty damn careful and so have our friends and camping seems to be fairly low risk as far as activities go what with all the fresh air and separate family spaces. What I’m anxious about is transitioning out of this hermetic life I’ve been living.

I am so, so excited to leave my house, you don’t even know (jk, of course you know). But I’ve also become pretty attached to my couch, to soft clothes, to wrapping myself up in a blanket whenever I want even if its the middle of my workday. What if I’ve become too self-indulgent to rough it in a tent for six days? What if I’ve lost my grit?

I am so, so excited to interact with friends I haven’t seen for almost a year. But I’ve also become pretty wrapped up in myself and what’s right in front of me: my immediate family, my social media feed, the neighbors I see every day. What if I have nothing to talk about around the campfire? My friends might have a different take on the pandemic, on the election, on the racial unrest revolution. What if I’ve lost the ability to tolerate or engage different viewpoints?

My daughter is so, so excited for an adventure. But camping in the north woods is an adventure that comes with driving rain and sunburn pain and swimmer’s itch and biting flies and smokey eyes and long-leggy spiders and hypervigilant parents shouting “watch out for the fire!” She’s going to struggle with the transition, too, and I’m nervous about rising to the parenting occasion.

And, fine, I’ll admit it. I’m a little nervous about the virus. We’re stepping outside our bubble for the first time in months, and it’s bound to feel more scary than liberating to walk into a world with public toilet plumes and more dirt than soap and running water.

Quarantine Diary Day 98: On The Porch

Work is picking up again, leaving me with less time to let my mind wander during the day and less energy to write at night. Parenting remains all-consuming, in a way I didn’t expect. As the physical requirements decrease, the emotional demands run high. Like, we sleep through five nights out of seven, but I have to be emotionally available all day. Like, my kid will eat almost anything I put on the table but bursts into tears if I look at her sideways because “are you frustrated mama?” Like, she talks all the time. On Friday night after a long day at work and at home I put the kid to bed a bit early so I could do some writing. It was still hot outside with another hour of light so I set myself up on the front porch, which is where I’ve been spending the bulk of my time weekends when the weather is nice.

Have I explained where we live yet? I think I need to set the scene, since we’re going to be all summer. We live in a townhouse community with thirty-nine other families. The units on the west side have back porches and the units on the south and east have front lawns but everybody’s outdoor space is small–six feet square, tops. The buildings are arranged in a triangle around a grassy common area shaped like a slice of pie. There’s a driveway that runs between the buildings and then wraps around behind the units on the east. Our neighbors run the gamut from young couples to empty nesters, from single people to single parents, from tiny babies to teenagers, from families in the thick of raising school-aged kids to retirees. Our first year here there were more than twenty kids under the age of ten. Five years later I don’t know how many kids there are, but it’s a lot. Communal living is a dream come true for our little family living as far from we do from grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins; all we have to do is step out the front door and there’s someone to play with or talk to. It’s also worth noting that living in close proximity to dozens of people under an active HOA pushes every single one of my buttons.

The first thing I saw when I went outside on Friday night was a gaggle of kids eating cupcakes in the common area. Immediately I felt bad, first for shuttling my daughter off to bed and then because I realized we hadn’t been invited to join in whatever special occasion precipitated the cupcakes. I still remember the injustice of a summer bedtime before the sun went down and the loneliness of my voice not being part of the evening cacophony. The twin memories linger and sting. I considered returning to the kitchen table to write, but didn’t. I was determined not to cede the last of the light to my childish resentment of people having fun without me, or the night to my deeply maternal habit of projecting my insecurities onto my daughter. I decided to stay outside.

As soon as I opened my tablet, a neighborhood kid, a friend of my daughter’s, buzzed over like a moth to a flame. She paced around my camp chair chatting and chatting and intermittently asking “Where’s D___? Why don’t you go get D___?” and reacting incredulously every time I repeated (also incredulously), “She’s in bed!” At first I resisted the pull of the conversation. I put my own kid to bed so I could write and just think for a goddamn minute and here I was doing neither. I kept looking down at my the keyboard and rifling through the pages of notes also on my lap, but the kid refused to leave for more than a few minutes, and the one kid was followed by another who also wanted to know where D was, and then by the second kid’s mom, who just waved, and then by the first kid’s older sister who just wanted to talk, and then by her father who wanted to check in, and eventually by her mother, a dear friend who I haven’t seen for more than a few minutes since the pandemic started. When I finally closed the computer and gave myself over to the family dynamic spilling onto my front porch, the first kid came back and put an actual puppy on my lap.

I never ended up finding out what the cupcakes were for or if there was some party to which we weren’t invited. I never wrote the essay about being lonely, about struggling to feel like a good mom, about the challenge of maintaining my sense of self when living in close enough quarters to watch other people’s lives unfold. Instead, I spent a few humid
hours being a neighbor, a friend, a trusted adult, making the neighborhood a better place for someone else’s kids. I went inside when everyone else did, sticky bug-bit, and satisfied with the way the summer is going, with my tiny front porch, with my great big life.

Quarantine Diary Day 64: FOMO

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I’ve heard it said a couple of times that being forced to shelter-in-place put an end to fear of missing out. Before this all started, fear of missing out drove us to overcommit and overextend ourselves, to say yes to things when we really wanted to say no, and to stay out longer than we should have. When we did find ourselves at home, fear of being left out drove us to scroll through tagged photos on Instagram and Facebook with knots in our stomachs, and swirling thoughts like, “What was I doing that weekend” and “Why didn’t I know about this?” Now that are our feeds are filled with our immediately family members, at-home graduation, birthday, and anniversary parties, and endless loaves of bread, it’s clear there’s not much going on to be jealous of.

Or is there?

Perhaps I suffer from a more virulent strain of FOMO that everybody else, stemming from a more deeply-rooted insecurity, but I don’t have to look too hard for signs of life carrying on without me.

The underground dinner parties for the DC elite were easy to dismiss; that was never my world and, frankly, I ate up the backlash against people flaunting their privilege in the early days of the pandemic with a healthy side of schadenfreude.

An early suggestion that parents cope with the no playdates guidance by picking a “best friend family” stung a little. There are lots of families with young kids in our area, but we’re no one’s best friend. As my daughter’s budding social life died on the vine, kids from her class reported during Monday Zoom calls that they’d spent the weekend playing with “just one” friend. We tended the hurt with salve we picked up up on the moral high ground and reassurance that this was temporary.

The first time I video chatted my family out west and found my siblings and parents and nephews all together in one place I hung up the phone and cried. They were all outside, all properly socially distanced around the pool, around the firepit. They weren’t doing anything wrong, but they were together and I was starting to come apart.

At the park, I play with my daughter near but not exactly with other families who are less vigilant about keeping their kids apart. Like all kids, my daughter has a violent sense of justice. Usually I try to tamp it down, complicate her view of the world, model empathy and open-mindedness, remind her that we live life in our own lane. Other days, I let her screams of “WHY AREN’T THEY SOCIAL DISTANCING!” go unanswered because I’m as pissed as she is.

In the house, I hear voices drift in from outside, peek out the window and spy my neighbors barbecuing with friends. The good smells good but what I really crave is the conversation.

I attend virtual church with 150+ other people and virtual AA meetings with people who may or may not know my face and my name, but I have yet to be invited to a virtual happy hour.

I know I’m not really missing out. I know we’re all struggling differently, even the people who seem to be taking this all in stride. I know I have a lot and that there are a lot of people who look at the pictures I take and the words that I write about my life and they ache, because they want what I have.

I’m just lonely.

I’m Sorry J

We sat on my dorm room floor, huddled around a Tupperware dish, an immersion blender, a bag of frozen mixed berries, ice, and a stack of plastic cups. There was also a handle of tequila, the only evidence that we were trying to make margaritas, not fruit smoothies. It was Friday night, a few weeks into our freshman year of college, and I was with Saira, Danielle, and Jamie. Saira and Danielle and I had been best friends since since tenth grade, though the strength of our relationships had been tested over the last few months, and would buckle before the semester was through. Jamie had gone to high school with us, too, but we didn’t know her as well. Unlike the three of us, she’d lived her whole life in the same town, and she’d run with a more popular crowd than we did. She was small, with straight, shiny blond hair. She was on the student council and hung out with athletes. I only knew who she was because her dad and stepmom were in my parent’s ward. I never saw her at church, and figured she lived with her mom. We’d connected over the summer when she’d learned that we were all going to UofA, and that our dorms were near each other, and now here we were, mutilating a perfectly good bag of frozen fruit together on the floor.

Having Jamie around made me nervous. She was fun and friendly, but I didn’t like sharing my friends. I didn’t know how to share them. Danielle and Saira and I had been through a lot over the last few years, and I didn’t know how to balance our intimacy with the topical friendliness you extend to someone you don’t trust. And I didn’t trust her. She was Mormon, like me, and I had no idea what she made of our evening’s plans, or if she questioned why I was keeping the bottle in my room and manning the blender. I also felt a nagging sense of obligation to stay sober with her, which was irritating. This instinct was born out of politeness more than out of religious loyalty, because I suspected it couldn’t be fun to watch your three new friends get trashed without you. Because I had no practical experience in turning down libations, I muddled through my preparations without acknowledging either my conscience or my social anxiety. The cheap blender wasn’t liquefying the berries the way a food processor would, only chipping bits of raspberry off of larger chunks. And it wasn’t making a dent in the ice. I decided to switch tactics and used the handle of a butter knife to break the berry cube into a few blocks, which I then mashed into cups. This was as close to smoothies as we were going to get, and smoothies were as close to margarita mix as we knew how to get. I poured a glug of tequila into three cups and paused over the fourth, glancing up at Jamie. “Do you want to drink?” I asked skeptically. She responded with an enthusiastic, “Sure!” so I poured, and then the four of us toasted, drank, and gagged, because the berry slurry I’d concocted was nowhere near sufficient to cut the sting of the bottom shelf liquor we were now choking down.

Four hours later, we were huddled together on the ground again, this time in the parking lot next to a 7-Eleven, shielding Jamie from the street while she emptied the contents of her stomach into the dirt. After margarita night didn’t turn out as planned, Saira and I had stumbled out of the dorm looking for adventure and boys and better drinks, and found a fraternity party that said they would let us in, even though we had no Greek affiliation and were unconventionally attractive at best. We called Danielle and Jamie and gave them directions to join us. For me and Saira, the party was disappointingly uneventful. There was no music, just a mass of people talking in the courtyard of a big white stucco house. I saw one of my neighbors from back home, a tall band geek named Kristen. We talked about our parents, which made the night seem almost wholesome. None of the fraternity brothers showed any interest in speaking to us, and the keg never materialized, so we decided to take off for the second time that night. We didn’t think twice about leaving our friends. For one thing, we didn’t know better. We hadn’t seen anything threatening at the party and, as the daughters of Muslims (Saira) and Mormons (me), didn’t have enough experience to know that frat parties are inherently dangerous for young, drunk women. We were almost home when Saira’s phone buzzed. It was Danielle, begging us to come back. “It’s Jamie. She’s too drunk. They’re making us leave.” Saira and I bitched incredulously the whole way back. What were they thinking, getting so rowdy they got kicked out of the party?! Danielle had sounded really worried, though, so we ran while we bitched. Back at the house, we found our Danielle sitting with Jamie out front, Jamie slumped against Danielle’s shoulder. A few guys hovered behind them, and started yelling as soon as they saw us. We ignored them, and knelt to look at Jamie, while Danielle quickly explained to us that the guys had taken them into a bedroom, and fed them drinks, practically pouring them down Jamie’s throat until she was couldn’t move. Then, when they realized the girls were too drunk to respond to their attempts to hook up, they’d gotten pissed and dragged them out. That’s when Danielle called us. Saira was livid. She screamed right back at the guys, “You can’t do that to girls! You can’t force alcohol down their throats; look at her, she’s tiny!” as she pointed at Jamie. I directed my attention to getting everybody back home. Saira and I put our arms around Jamie and hoisted her up. She could walk, and talk, but didn’t remember anything about the last few hours. We dragged her home, stopping for just the one pit stop puke behind the 7-Eleven.

After we got everyone to their rooms in one piece, and over the next few days, Saira and I talked incessantly about how scary the experience must have been for Jamie and Danielle, how horrible those guys were, and how we would never leave each other in that situation again. We beat ourselves up for missing the danger. We excoriated our parents for our sheltered teenage years that we blamed for our naivete. Privately, I felt especially guilty for my part in corrupting Jamie. Every good Mormon kid knows her role in social situations is to be a good example. If I’d passed on the booze, Jamie might have felt comfortable enough to do the same. Certainly if I’d never stumbled out of the dorm looking for trouble she would never have ended up at that party. I felt like those guys, screaming at us in the middle of the night. They should have known better than to force feed shots to somebody who was already wasted, and I should have known better than to offer the first drink to an unwitting Mormon girl. I did know better, but I did it anyway, and Jamie ended up on the verge of alcohol poisoning with sexual assault lurking in the corner. I wouldn’t have blamed her for never speaking to me again, but a few days later she bounced back to my dorm room like nothing had happened, asking “Where’s tonight’s party?”

As I got to know Jamie better, I learned that she was not as squeaky clean as I’d thought. In fact, she’d been way wilder than me in high school. She had stories about partying with our hometown’s resident hardcore band and then doing improbable things like getting knocked out in a bounce house, with all those flailing limbs. I gathered that at some point between her sophomore and junior year her parents had intervened and she’d cleaned up her act and aligned herself with the popular Mormon kids I’d seen her sitting with in the cafeteria. I allowed this information to ease my guilt. I hadn’t corrupted Jamie. Her rebel years were what I wanted mine to be; instead, I spent my senior year getting stoned by myself and zoning out in front of the television until somebody ratted me out to my parents over spring break. I spent the rest of the school year detoxing, seeing a counselor at LDS Family Services, and counting down the days until I could move out. Clearly, Jamie could teach me a thing or two.

As the semester marched on and my relationship with Saira and Danielle underwent the strain of transition, I spent more and more time with Jamie. Saira and Danielle spent most of their time studying for our honors chemistry class. I was in the same class, but was also lazier and found myself with more time to kill. Jamie was always available. We were unlikely friends, with next to nothing in common besides Mormonism. She was an unquestioning Republican because that’s how her parents voted; I was an increasingly staunch (and obnoxious) Democrat. She was an ambitious chemical engineering student with a clear career path; I was a dreamy English major with unspecified plans; she was flirty and confident; I was introverted with a tendency to be overly serious. Still, I liked being with her. She drew a carefree silliness out of me and we spent many afternoons dancing to tinny indie rock blaring from her laptop speakers and cracking up over stupid jokes. As a thin blonde girl, Jamie also opened up doors I’d never realized had been closed. Boys wanted to talk to her. She asked people to do things for her for no other reason than she wanted them to and they inexplicably said yes. Which is a roundabout way of saying she was really good at getting drugs and alcohol. She pinpointed the men in the drugstore who would buy us booze. She found the freshman living in Coronado dorm who would sell us a bottle of high-end vodka that wouldn’t last two weeks and enough weed to last all semester. She was also generous to a fault. She let me keep the weed in my room even though I always smoked when she was in class or visiting home for the weekend. She borrowed her mom’s van for a camping trip with Saira and Danielle and let us hot box the car on the long, winding drive into the White Mountains. More than once she gave me money that it hadn’t even occurred to me to figure out a way to pay back.

But access wasn’t the most valuable thing Jamie offered. There were plenty of kids selling fun and drugs. Jamie provided something they couldn’t, and that was validation. Mormonism made us different. We weren’t just two college kids making mildly risky life choices; we were breaking with a way of life that demanded strictest obedience. Our parents wouldn’t just be worried if they knew the truth; they would be profoundly disappointed. We weren’t just experimenting; we were gambling with our souls. Jamie understood all that. She understood what it meant to flee a stifling life, but not be able to shake the mindset that made such a life possible. I had other friends who’d made a cleaner break, who’d stopped attending church, moved in with boyfriends, and never called themselves Mormon again. That wasn’t me and Jamie. You couldn’t keep us out of a church if you tried. We were like drunks who couldn’t stop calling our exes, except our ex was Mormonism, and he wasn’t technically an ex. More like on-again off-again. We shared our first joint next to the dumpster behind the LDS student center on campus because it was the safest place either of us could think of. We went to church hungover and lingered for the Sunday afternoon potlucks. We showed up at game nights, flirted with boys at Family Home Evening, an activity that never paid off with Jamie by my side, she was so much cuter than me. We made a game of sniffing out other deviants. It almost always backfired. We met a spacey girl at a pool party who we could have sworn was high but turned out to just be dumb. One night toward the end of freshman year we hit up an ice cream social and met a particularly interesting and good looking guy. His name was Jason, and we stood around with our Styrofoam bowls making pretentious small talk. He read Dostoevsky and thought String Theory was fascinating. I was sweating in the May heat, but was also being particularly charming, and thought I might actually have a chance until I saw Jamie whip out her phone and get his number. I turned on my heel and walked out. It was moments like this that I missed Saira and Danielle. I wouldn’t have to explain to them why that bothered me, and besides, we never liked the same guys. I sent Jamie a passive-aggressive text from my room. “I really liked that guy we were talking to . . . .” She responded immediately. “Then come back, he’s still here! I got his number so we could find out about more activities at church.” I wondered why I was still withholding my trust, nine months after she went all in with me on the margarita sludge and forgave me when it ended in disaster.

A few days later we texted Jason. After some initial “I’m busy-ing” we managed to extract an address and invitation to hang out. We rolled up his driveway slowly, taking in the gravel lawn and concrete walls, not unusual for Tucson, but a far cry from the red brick buildings and olive tree-lined sidewalks on campus. We smelled pot as soon as we stopped up to the front porch. The windows weren’t even open. “Bingo,” said Jamie, as she flashed me a wolfish grin. When he let us in, Jason did not offer any explanation for the smell. Instead, he offered us a seat on a futon and put himself in a desk chair across the room. All of our chemistry from earlier in the week evaporated in the seedy apartment. Jason kept looking back at his computer. We’d clearly interrupted his studying, or gaming, or whatever he was doing. The mystery of the marijuana was solved when a bedroom door opened and a slightly older guy, presumably a roommate, stepped out in a cloud of smoke. The roommate told Jason he was taking off and Jamie and I shared a look that said “too bad.” It became apparent that we would not be getting high at Jason’s house, and also that there was no way to leave gracefully, us having just barged in and forced him to hang out twenty minutes earlier. Jamie asked Jason if he wanted to come to a party with us at our friend Ryan’s house and he said yes. Well, friend is an overstatement. Ryan worked the front desk at my dorm and liked a bunch of the same bands as me and we’d been to his house all of three times. Party is an overstatement, too. There were less than ten people, mostly guys, sitting around the living room when we arrived. They offered us red wine in mugs, which Jamie and I accepted, and which Jason disappointingly declined. Jamie and I folded ourselves onto the second futon of the night while Jason perched uneasily in a dining chair across the room. His location made it hard to talk. As did his utter unwillingness to engage. After a few stilted attempts to start a conversation, I turned my attention to Ryan, who had asked if I’d heard the new Aimee Mann album. My eyes lit up. Music was one of the few things I didn’t need to be drunk to talk about, and I adored Aimee Mann. Ryan waxed on: “There’s definitely a harder edge to the new album than her last….” I took issue with that. “Her last album may have been melancholy, but there was some incredible solo-work with the electric guitar. She isn’t exactly a folkie.” “Just listen,” Ryan said, as he jumped up and put on the album, and I realized what he meant. The first track was more driving than the perfectly self-contained pop ditties of her last album. I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice Jason leaving until he was halfway out the door. “Wait!” Jamie called and we rushed after him. “Where are you going?” “I’ve just got to go,” he said. “Well let us give you a ride, at least. We drove you here! You’re not that close to home.” “I can walk.” He took off down the street. I felt like a jackass. I wondered if he left because we were drinking or because we were ignoring him. I thought about his roommate and how I’d never seen Jason at church before that week and wondered if it had been hard for him to make himself go. I hoped he didn’t derail as easily as Jamie. I stared at my mug of wine and realized that this was the first time I didn’t want to finish my drink.

The summer between freshman and sophomore year did a number on mine and Jamie’s friendship. First, I hit her up for money to buy drugs that never materialized. That was bad but not unfixable. I told her I’d pay her back. But then I screwed everything up for her. My dad smelled smoke on me when I came home late one night and went through my purse while I was sleeping. I woke up in the morning to him sitting next to my bed holding a pipe in his hands. He grilled me about what I’d been using, how much, and with whom. He thought I’d been clean for over a year, and it crushed him to have to tell my mom I wasn’t. I told him I’d been getting high with Jamie. I thought it would make him feel better, knowing I was with a neighbor, a friend, a member of the church. It didn’t occur to me that he would feel obliged to tell her dad or that her dad would threaten to cut her off financially unless she submitted to random drug testing for the rest of the summer. I spent the next month feeling like a horrible person; Jamie spent the next month standing in lines at a drug testing facility and praying she wouldn’t lose her tuition money. I wouldn’t have blamed her for never speaking to me again, but after she somehow, by the grace of God, passed the first drug test, she bounced back into my life like nothing happened. “We may not be able to smoke, but we can still drink! Where’s tonight’s party?”

In August we went ahead with our plan to move into a house off campus together, along with Danielle and Natasha. Natasha was a friend of Jamie’s from the chemical engineering program. She was blonde, blunt, busty, and brilliant. She was a lush, too, and, like me and Jamie, had a complicated relationship with her faith. She also favored the boyfriend analogy. “It’s like . . . God is my boyfriend,” she explained, tracing a stick around in the gravel after a particularly rough night, “and I love him,but I just can’t stop myself from cheating on him all week long.” I was surprised. I didn’t think Catholics had a problem with drinking, which was, for the most part, the worst thing we did.

By contrast, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the Mormon dietary code–called the Word of Wisdom–which prohibits drinking, smoking, drugs, coffee, and tea. The irony is that, historically, members of the early church did not treat the Wisdom as a commandment so much as a nice suggestion. Joseph Smith kicked back with a beer, perhaps from his fully stocked home bar, in Nauvoo. Brigham Young, the second president of the church, ran a distillery in Utah. Ladies in the Relief Society fermented their own peach wine. It is said that, back then, the biggest threat alcohol posed was to the pocketbooks of the Saints at a time when everybody’s resources were needed to build a new Zion. Young’s distillery kept the money from flowing out. Over the years, the Word of Wisdom, originally sent by “greeting,” “not by commandment or restraint,” morphed into a strict test of fellowship, a boundary drawing tool. A cup of coffee a day will keep a member out of the temple, out of heaven, and out of the fold.

Our new house was on Elm Street, and living there was like a nightmare. We drank and smoked and drank and smoked and took pills when they were around. We hosted parties and hit up other parties and broke into swimming pools and drove around town drunk and were inappropriate with each others boyfriends and made out with each other and and fought and bitched our way around ever-shifting alliances. Or maybe it was just me. Maybe I was the nightmare.

Jamie got into a serious long-term relationship with a Mormon man, and stopped partying with me, except whenever he wasn’t around. We still went to church together, sometimes hungover, sometimes high. Sometimes we got so high we forgot to go to church and ate burritos instead. Sometimes we looked at each other and said, What the fuck are we doing? Jamie would swear she was going to quit, and tell me that I should too. You have no idea how good it feels, she said, in reference to the first time she went back after straying from the church, back in high school, how it feels to be clean. I knew she wasn’t talking about being clean from drugs; she was talking about her soul. And she was right. I knew what it was like to abstain from drugs and alcohol against my will, but I had no idea what it was like to be free. To be forgiven. We knew we couldn’t change our ways in Arizona, so we would fantasize about transferring to Brigham Young University, up in Utah, for a fresh start. We would be different in the mountains. We would be pure. We would finally be the Mormons we were supposed to be.

Of course BYU was just a pipe dream. At the end of sophomore year, we let our lease on the Elm Street house expire, but not before I sublet my room for the summer, to another party girl who trashed the place and ran up bills for all the utilities that were in Jamie’s name. Natasha and Danielle moved into a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood and Jamie and I saw the opportunity to get out of dodge, not together, but in different directions as fast as we could. Both of us finished up our four years at the UofA, but we only saw each other two more times. Junior year, I went to a housewarming party at Jamie’s new apartment. I brought my new boyfriend, didn’t get drunk. We left early, after chatting awkwardly with Jamie about her shower curtain and the White Stripes. Senior year, we met at my request in the parking lot of the LDS student center, where we’d smoked that first joint together three years prior. I gave Jamie a check for all the drugs and utilities I remembered I owed her plus a little more for the things I forgot.

It took me nine more years to get sober, and may take nine more than that to make things right with Jamie. After college, I went back to the church and then left again. As far as I know, Jamie never went back at all. I don’t know if she’s sober; I doubt she needed to be. I just hope she found what she had before I sent her spinning off course. I hope she got clean and by clean I mean free.

What Am I Afraid Of?

Now that I am consistently attending the same recovery meetings with the same core group of people, it is becoming increasingly clear that, as much as I love the changes that have occurred in my life since I committed to a specific program for recovery, I remain somewhat ambivalent about the logistics of that program. I haven’t formally “worked” the steps (although I feel comfortable saying I’ve done some version of the first three). I don’t have a sponsor. I don’t do service work. I’ve never picked up the phone. I haven’t shared my story with another member (except in bits and pieces at meetings). I just started reading the Big Book. 

I don’t have any philosophical reservations about these aspects of the program. I don’t question that I could seriously benefit from them, and maybe even need them if I want this run at sobriety to stick. Even if I don’t need them, I want them. I do.

But I am scared to do them. I am scared that if I immerse myself in the program, delve into the literaure, open up to the people in it, I will discover that I don’t belong. I fear that my nagging insecurity that I am not good enough, or, in this case, that I am not bad enough, will be confirmed. 

Every time I read or hear something that challenges my belief that I am truly like other people in the program–in the Big Book, on the internet, at a meeting–old anxiety rises up, squeezing my chest, constricting my throat. 

It is the same feeling I got when Nick G. said that members of the LDS church who support gay marriage aren’t really Mormon. 

It is the same feeling I got when I read a comment on a feminist website saying that Mormons aren’t Christians.

It is the same feeling I get every time somebody questions the reality of my experiences or the accuracy of my perceptions (especially the ones that are already fuzzy): 

When Sarah and Ben referred to my being raped as a “fling”; 

When Stephen said that men and women are equal recipients of the “can’t have it all” rhetoric; 

When John said it was sexist for me to be nervous about being alone in a dark alley with a man but not a woman; 

When my therapist said “but it doesn’t seem like you drank that much.

I don’t care for this feeling, but I am strong today, so I finger the bruise, push a little harder. I learn that this particular wound is shot through with shades of hurt and rejection that are not unlike: 

The feeling I got when the Millers passed me and my daughter in the grass on the way to Heidi and Bob’s house for dinner, having never been invited over ourselves;

The feeling I got when Jake asked if my daughter was going to a birthday party that we’d heard nothing about;

The feeling I got when I realized I was dropped from the group text that’s always going back and forth between the moms in my neighborhood;

The feeling I got when a man at the LDS church let a door swing shut in my face as I was carrying my daughter through and then denied it happened when his wife pointed out how rude he was;

The feeling I got when a woman at the Unitarian church told me I should have taken my wiggly girl outside during the service because we were a distraction.

What am I afraid will happen if I tell my story at a meeting or to a sponsor and someone thinks I don’t qualify for a seat in the rooms?

At first I thought I was afraid that I would drink again. That is sort of true. I really don’t want to drink again, but that’s just how I feel today. 

What’s more true is that, with or without the program, I can’t go back to how I was. It is not an option. What I am really afraid of  is having to do this thing–learning to live a sober life–alone.