Science Is Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quarantine Diary Day 417: Tangled Up In Blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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