Quarantine Diaries Day 284: It’s Okay To Blink

“Look at my legs, mama. They won’t stop wiggling.” For a full week leading up to Christmas, my seven-year-old was a hot jangly bundle of nerves. Bouncing up from her chair in the middle of meals and virtual school and racing around the room has been her M.O. for months now, but her energy was off the charts in the week leading up to Christmas. I started preemptively pulling out the mini trampoline before dinner and encouraging her to burn off some energy. She was so excited. She talked about Santa with such fervor that I had to refrain from crooning “Santa’s my boyyyy-friend” every time she asked, “Do you think Santa likes me? Do you think he’ll write me back?” For her dad and me, the days practically fell off the calendar as we rushed headfirst into Christmas trying to get everything done in time. For her, the days dragged: so single-minded was her focus on the big day that she couldn’t do anything wait.

I know what it is to wait like that. I remember waiting like that when I was a kid for Christmas and birthdays and summer vacation. I still know how to wait like that. Once upon a time, I waited like that for family trips and parties. All last year, I waited like that for election day and an effective vaccine. Last month, while my daughter counted down the days to Christmas, I watched the moon shift around in the sky while I waited for the solstice. Admittedly, solstice has been on my mind a lot longer than that. As an early riser, I started missing the sun when it started disappearing from the sky a little bit at a time back in June. As a longtime sufferer of seasonal depression, shit started getting real when daylight saving time ended in November and sky was dark by four. As a lover of ritual, I am always on the lookout for chances to mark the passage of time by stopping it in its tracks, and as a refugee of religion, I am hungry for ways to do it that haven’t been corrupted by colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. How would my northern european ancestors have marked the darkest day of the year? With candles, of course.

I cannot state clearly enough how wholly uninterested my daughter was in the solstice preparations. She tossed the pinecone altar together haphazardly. She wanted to mute the sound on the fake yule log video I had streaming on the TV because the crackling was “annoying.” She eyed the candles nervously, perhaps remembering the time her hair caught on fire when I first started to embrace hygge as a lifestyle a few years ago. Her reluctance turned into full on resistance when we went outside to leave an offering under a tree. She took her irritation out on the squirrels. “You know the squirrels are going to eat ALL of this. They’re not going to leave ANYTHING for the birds. Squirrels are the WORST. By the way, it’s COLD OUT HERE.” I couldn’t help but think of my mom making the whole family wake up early to read the Book of Mormon in the dark. I couldn’t help but think of my mom on her knees next to her bed. I couldn’t help but think about yanking stretched and sagging tights over my little girl legs and shivering in the back of a cold van as we drove to the other side of town for church on dreary winter mornings. In Mormonism, men are supposed to be the spiritual leaders, but it was my mom who set the religious rhythm in our household, who was always trying to nudge us up onto a higher plane. I left Mormonism, but it still feels like I’m trying to haul my family with me into some version of heaven. It doesn’t matter if I’m asking my daughter to give 10% of her allowance to the church or a handful of her snacks to the squirrels, if I’m making her wear a dress to church or a hat on a nature walk. Mom’s rituals are weird and pointless and she doesn’t want to do them.

Fortuitously, my interest in the natural world overlapped with my daughter’s love of all things Christmas when Jupiter and Saturn traveled across the sky and came into alignment in an astronomical event closer and brighter than any humans have seen in nearly eight hundred years. Astronomers called it the Great Conjunction. Believers called it the Christmas Star.

The planets were at their closest on December 21st and I wanted to incorporate them into my solstice observance, but the atmosphere down here did not cooperate with my careful planning. To wit: it was cloudy, we couldn’t see jack. My daughter stomped back inside and I chastised myself for not getting my act together earlier. Both planets had been visible for nearly a week–more dedicated skywatchers than I had already spotted them from Illinois–but I’d put it off. Like a foolish virgin, my lamp was dry. I’d thought I had more time.

The next night was clear when I went for my usual sunset run. I’m mildly embarrassed to admit I wasn’t sure if the conjunction would still be visible to my naked eye. The planets had taken twenty years to get into this position in the sky. What did I expect them to do, bounce off each other like pinballs and disappear from view? Even if the planets moving as slowly as it seems like planets must, I wasn’t sure how bright they would be at twilight or if they’d be high enough in the sky to see over the treeline to the right. I scanned the skies like a magi, rubbernecking every wavering orb and turning away in disgust when they gave themselves away as cell towers and airplanes. For awhile I had my eye fixed on two points of light that seemed promising, but I didn’t trust they way they seemed to be traveling with me as I ran. I know our moon pulls tricks like that, but I thought the gas giants would be more predictable. At last I had to turn away from the southwest horizon to make my way back home, resigned and trying to convince myself that looking for the star and not finding it was more in line with the Christmas story than anything. I didn’t need to see it to know it was there. I didn’t need to witness it to experience the magic of a most singular event.

When I got home, I turned and took one last look at the sky behind me. The two pricks of light I’d spotted on my run were now fixed exactly where they were supposed to be, low over the southwest horizon, but well above the treeline, farther than any airplane and brighter than anything in the sky. I threw open the front door and called up the stairs. “D! Do you want to see the Christmas Star???” “YESSSSS,” she screamed back, barrelling down the stairs and out the front door without a coat. She followed my finger pointing at the sky, finding the lights for herself and letting out a sigh. “We’re just like the magi,” she said. “Yes we are girlie. We found what we were looking for.”

Finding those lights in the sky when I thought it wasn’t possible anymore was the best gift I got this season. The Christian narratives about preparation and blind faith were neat but unsatisfying. Can being a believer mean so little? To drag my child kicking and screaming through ritual that only means something to me? To toil away preparing and afraid of missing out? To hold out hope for things I might never see? I don’t think so. The greatest leap of faith I can take is to believe that the gifts of the universe are here for me too. The greatest act of devotion I can make is to live, to look up, to receive.

Quarantine Diaries Day 271: Burnout

There are some records set in quarantine that are just not that interesting. It’s been nine months since I couldn’t figure out what to do for lunch and ate a Jimmy John’s at my desk. It’s been nine months since I forgot my keys at home and had to ask the receptionist let me into my office. It’s been nine months since I had to scramble to buy a metra pass while the conductor breathed down my neck waiting for me to pull it up on my phone. As the sun’s been dropping earlier so that I’ve been starting my regular afternoon runs at dusk and finishing in the pitch dark, another unremarkable record occurred to me. I checked my Strava to confirm. On March 12, I wrote “Gym is emptying out.” I haven’t been back since, which means it’s been nine months since I’ve worked out at the gym and almost ten since I ran on a treadmill.

The treadmill run is akin to the commute in that it’s not a thing most people miss. Running outdoors, even in poor conditions, is more pleasurable than running on a machine by miles. The treadmill is a chore and a drag and ugh. It’s also incredibly convenient. Access to a treadmill means you don’t need to invest in gear to run in rain and wind and sleet and snow. You don’t need to think about what you’re going to wear the night before and pile on the layers before getting out the door. You don’t need to risk frostbite on the coldest days and dehydration when it’s hot. You don’t need to route long runs by water fountains and bathrooms. You can run hills without having to drive yourself out of your pancake flat hometown. You don’t need to know what your easy pace feels like or use your own effort to make yourself go fast; you just bleep it into the screen.

Unlike a lot of runners I know, I did not have a love/hate relationship with the treadmill. I unabashedly loved it! I loved doing long training runs–sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen miles–and spreading my fuel out on the tray like a buffet. I loved the feel of the belt spinning to a stop under my feet after sixty minutes and immediately smashing the big green “GO” button again. I loved tearing my shirt off when it soaked through with sweat and dropping it on the floor next to me. I being able to stagger to the bathroom to take a shit and making it back in less than two minutes. I loved driving the speed up higher than I knew my legs could move and feeling the machine shake around me. I loved running faster than the person next to me. I loved sticking extra reps into interval workouts and tacking extra miles onto the end of easy runs. I loved finishing a workout and folding myself in half, hands on knees, panting between my legs, feeling on top of the world in a shitty old gym, oblivious to everyone around me. I loved mopping up my sweat from the machine, proof of effort.

Early on in the pandemic, I read an article about a runner, or maybe it was a cyclist, in Australia, or maybe it was New Zealand–forgive me, I’m fuzzier on the details than I thought I would be–who got some blowback for running, or maybe it was cycling, I don’t know how far–around the island, I think?–but it was really far, or maybe just really long, he was on his feet, or his bicycle, for the better part of a day, but not the whole day, which isn’t unreasonable if you’re endurance athlete, but it made people uneasy. They said it was irresponsible to “go to the well” when the public health system was under strain. To be clear, the runner/cyclist was fit to the task and totally fine. Nothing bad happened. He wasn’t even showy about the effort; people got mad after he uploaded the route to a tracking app. This was in March or April. I was in the middle of marathon training, because I was always in the middle of marathon training, and the miles didn’t look like much to me, and what the fuck else were we supposed to do in lockdown? Some people bake bread. Some people learn French. Some people push their bodies to the extreme so they don’t have to feel anything but the blood running under the hood, the thighs shaking themselves free, the lungs burning, proof of health.

I thought the criticism of the runner/cyclist was overwrought. All these months later, I can’t even find the original article because there are so many stories about people running and riding really, really far in the pandemic and that makes sense to me because, really, what better mental and physical training for the marathon that is this pandemic than an actual marathon?

The notion of not taking myself to the well stuck with me, though. It didn’t take long to see that running was more difficult than it used to be. I rely on water fountains April through October but the city never turned them on this year. I use public restrooms but the city never unlocked the doors, and it felt irresponsible–nay, non-essential–to take advantage of the coffee shops and franchise restaurants whose doors were still open. I turn to the treadmill when it’s pushing ninety degrees or when there’s lightning or when it’s slushy and gross outside but this year there were no indoor options. I push myself hard and sometimes my body pushes back; it felt wrong to risk injury or sickness with the hospitals full.

In the end, the challenges of running long in a pandemic–physical, logistical, and emotional–were too much for me. There are people who made it work, and there were probably ways I could have done it, too. I could have pushed myself to go without water and shat behind trees but that would have been decidedly COVID uncool. I could have plotted shorter routes that looped past my house. I could have stashed water along the way. I could have stripped off my wet layers and left them in the bushes to pick up later. I could have overcome the paralyzing anxiety of passing people who might scream at me for daring to be out of my house without a mask or, alternatively, get way too close without masks of their own. I could have pushed through the disabling ennui of running the same routes over and over and over and over. I could have been a different person. I could have spent the last nine months learning French.

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when I found myself tiring more quickly, I slowed down and scaled back, and that’s when something weird happened: running less made me feel better. Having to do all those miles by myself out in the elements in the middle of a global health crisis made me see that I was not drawing from an endless well. My resources were tapped.

I can’t think of a time since I started my career in 2010 that I have not been overwhelmed. I can’t think of a time since I got pregnant in 2012 that I have not been exhausted. Up until March 2020, I prided myself on how much juice I could squeeze out of a day, from the rigid pre-dawn prayer and meditation routine to the commute to the full day of paid work to the non-profit board position to the community service to the active recovery program to the deep involvement at church to the mom’s nights out to the volunteering at my kid’s school, to the multiple weeknight activities, to the mornings and weekends and evenings of parenting the hell out of my kid, and I was obsessively marathon training on top of all that? No wonder I wasn’t writing. No wonder I was fighting with my husband.

Was I an exercise junkie? Maybe, but I don’t like pathologizing myself when it lets the culture off the hook so easily. I know I’m no more addicted to doing more more more to the point of overwhelm and exhaustion than any other woman I know. Are the men tired, too? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think they’ve been conditioned to believe that their value depends on working themselves into non-existence to the extent women have. On the other hand, men aren’t immune to capitalism, and I suspect the reason I’m not hearing about their burnout is because they aren’t allowed to talk about it.

Since March 2020, I’ve stopped basically all of the above. Some of it, like the commute and the in-person activities, stopped all at once when we were ordered to shelter in place. Other parts, like the early morning routine and the all virtual everythings and the long ass runs, have sloughed off like dead skin over the last nine months. The scales are coming off my eyes, too. Nine months off the treadmill, I can see that the convenience of the machine made it easy to ignore how much I was asking of my body just like the year-end bonuses made me forget I was undervalued all year long just like the ten dollar salads and twenty dollar pastas made me forget my job was grueling just like the free cab rides home made me forget I’d missed dinner with my family just like the year sparkly holiday parties made me forget that this is a time of year for turning in.

Strip away the wellness room and the free coffee and the concept of face time there’s no way I’m staying at work past five. Take away the treadmill and the races and the running clubs and there’s no way I’m running more than four miles before sunrise.

Maybe we’re not supposed to be exhausted.

Since March 2020, I’ve started writing regularly, making art, dating my husband, and hanging out with my kid. I’ve started lounging, at all hours of the day too, not just after I’ve collapsed on the couch at the end of the night. I’ve also been going to therapy and, forgive me for what I’m about to say, feeling my stupid feelings. Sometimes I’m restless and sometimes I’m bored because old habits die hard and also there’s nothing the fuck to do, but I’m becoming convinced that this is a better way to live. For what it’s worth, I am still running, always outside, always in the cold, and often in the dark. On election day I ran an unplanned half marathon because I didn’t know a better way to cope (though in hindsight it would have been more productive to spread those miles out over the next four miserable days). I hope I’m doing it because I want to and not because I need to, but I’m okay if running is a need. It’s served me well and I’ll take the endorphins where I can get them.

Quarantine Diary Day 156: Slowdown

Running doesn’t feel the way it used to. I used to run a lot, five to six days a week, forty miles or more, plus strengthening and conditioning and cross training and prehab and rehab, all to support the running. Non-runners in my life probably thought I was sort of a freak how early I went out and how reliably, rain or snow or shine, how far I’d go on a weekend run, half marathons just for fun, how hard I worked to hit my paces on the track, 800 repeats for no reason, how far I drove to run up and down hills until I was just about to puke, again, all just because. There was usually no race on the horizon, and even if there was, I was never in line to take home any prize other than my own satisfaction. Here’s the thing non-runners didn’t get about the running, or about how it was for me. Running was easy. Running was fun. I don’t even really like to work out.

I’ve been a runner for twenty-three years. Almost a quarter century! In seventh grade it killed me that I had to wait until spring for track and field to start because I knew I was an athlete even after getting cut from volleyball in the fall and basketball in the winter. I knew I could run. I knew it from how I finished the mile ahead of every kid in my classes in lower elementary, from how I was the only girl who didn’t walk. I knew it from how laps in P.E. never felt like a drag, never made me tired, from how suicides never felt like their name. It turned out I was right, too. I killed it in track and eventually cross country, earned a duffel bag full of medals and ribbons that I never hung on the wall, qualified for regionals and states, set a few school records, earned a spot on the varsity team my sophomore year.

I quit sports halfway through my junior year when I started drinking cough syrup and stealing pain pills but I never stopped running. I kept running even when I was suicidally depressed freshman year of college and listening to Elliott Smith in a bouncing discman. I kept running even when I was hacking up a lung from smoking a pack a day of unfiltered cigarettes. I kept running even when I was lying to campus health about a fake back injury to score more pills. I couldn’t run fast or far or with any frequency in those years but hitting the road was something I could do when I felt like the biggest most absolute piece of shit because running–unlike addiction and crippling depression and losing my religion–was easy.

Of course, running got a lot easier when I quit smoking and drinking and getting high. I ran my way through all nine months of pregnancy, well past the point when people stared at me with open alarm on the gym treadmill, when people commented that I must be due “any day now,” when people asked if I was carrying twins (nope, just one 9.5 lb baby). I ran my way through postpartum, past the stage when people kept asking if I was pregnant (nope, just a new mom), past the stage when I kept checking to see if my baby was still breathing in the night, past the stage when the depression and constant, soul-clenching anxiety could be attributed to hormones. I couldn’t run all that fast or far in those years either but hitting the road was something I could do when I felt scared or sad or trapped because running–unlike parenting and managing multiple mood disorders–was easy.

I ran my way through the good stuff too. I ran my way into to better apartments, better jobs, a healthier lifestyle. I ran my way through all the days of my marriage and my daughter’s childhood and all the golden moments that make up a life. The road wasn’t always easy–over the years, I’ve suffered my share of shin splints and stress fractures and tendonitis and bursitis and road rash and rolled ankles and run of the mill colds and flus and other illnesses–but the running was. Whenever I was laid up, I felt like that seventh grader chomping at the bit for the weather to turn so I could get on the track and prove myself. Life was hard; running was the easy part.

This summer, running doesn’t feel the way it used to. I got burned out from all the running and going nowhere back in the the early days of the pandemic and realized I needed to rest, so I did. Then, in June, I got sick and running hasn’t been the same since. It’s harder now. It’s hard to get myself out the door. It’s hard to breathe. It’s hard to get my legs to turn over. It’s hard to run far. I used to have to make myself stop as planned. I was always wanting to tack on an extra mile or two. Now I’m looking at my watch for the last half mile of every run asking, can I stop now? It’s hard to run, period. The first mile is hard and so is every mile after that. I’m having stomach issues for the first time in my life. I’m exhausted. I can’t get in any kind of zone.

The running isn’t the hardest part, though. The hardest thing is not knowing what changed.

Am I burned out from twenty-three years of the same sport?

Is the stress of living in a pandemic finally catching up?

Is the endless anxiety loop wearing me down?

Is the prospect that the next twelve months the will look and feel as bad as the last six starting to take a physical toll?

Is it too damn hot and humid outside?

Am I adjusting to the shift of running in the afternoon instead of first thing in the morning?

Am I still getting over whatever illness I had back in June?

Do I have permanent lung and potentially other damage from undiagnosed COVID?

Am I just getting old?

All this not knowing has me pretty sure I know why we humans like our gods to be omniscient. All my powerlessness over how I’ll feel tomorrow, what will happen with school in the fall, when I’ll see my family again has me pretty sure I know why we made them omnipotent too (though as a woman raised under patriarchy, I always had an easier time with all-knowing than all powerful; just give me the answers please and I’ll be fine, a girl like me wouldn’t know what to do with the power to fix things anyway).

You might think the hardest part of this shift would be losing something that reliably brought me purpose and joy for over two decades. I’m doing alright, though. I’m still running, for exercise if not for pleasure, and hoping this will pass. I don’t run as fast or as far as I used to, but I don’t miss it. Now that it’s not easy, I don’t really want to run at all.

In the time I used to give to running, I’m finding new ways to start the day, and new ways to play. I bought a standup paddleboard, for one thing, and I’m living for the challenge of just trying to stay upright, speed and even forward motion be damned. Running got me through a lot of things, but it’s not going to get me through this.

Quarantine Diary Day 87: How To Slow Down Time

img_20200515_135644207-1None of the times I became a runner did I set out to run fast. I joined the middle school track team in seventh grade just wanting to be part of a team, eager to prove myself as an athlete but not caring if the coaches ran me in heat one, two, or three. I started training for a marathon the summer before my second year of law school just wanting to see how far I could go, wanting to prove myself as a person with grit but not caring if I finished in three, four, or five hours. I started running again after I built a career, after I had a kid just wanting to a damn minute to myself, wanting to prove I still existed underneath the suit I wore to court, now covered in baby spit, but not caring how many miles I covered in the forty-five minutes a managed to eke out for myself a few times a week.

Speed crept up on me when a few years of doing the same treadmill workout at the gym got so boring that I started nudging the speed up from my usual 6.2 mph and discovered that I could get a better workout in a shorter amount of time by running as fast as I could for a minute or two or three at a time and then slowing way down to recover and then doing that again and again. Speed crept up on me when I started looking at my watch after running longer distances outside and realized I could hold paces closer to eight minute miles than nine for five, ten, fifteen miles at a time. Speed crept up on me when I started following a marathon training schedule that included weekly workouts that reminded me of high school track practice–100m strides and 400m repeats and yasso 800s–and realized that the burning in my legs and lungs that I’d dreaded and done everything in power to avoid when I was a teenager was a thrilling change of pace from the sedentary lifestyle I’d grown accustomed to since law school. Speed crept up on me and I wanted more.

Speed is not just for running, by the way I do everything fast. I walk fast, dragging my kid along with me; I eat fast, leaving nothing on the plate; I read fast, skimming the page to get to the salient point; I work fast, saving the client money and getting myself home by five; I talk fast, cutting you off because I know what you’re going to say.

This is not the way I set out to live. This is just the way I learned to live.

Once upon a time there was more time. There was so much time it was like there was almost too much time. Whole days and weeks and summers and years stretched out in front of me until I’d get to do the things I wanted to do. I don’t remember when it changed, though if I had to guess I’d say it was around the time I slid from adolescence into early adulthood, around the time I quit using weed to spin hours into days, around the time I quit working low-wage jobs to go to law school, around the time I adopted anxiety as a lifestyle. Now, of course, there is never enough time. I have to move quickly because it’s up to me to save it.

Sometimes it feels like everything in my life is conspiring to slow me down. I bought one dog and then adopted another that both straight up refused to walk. The first dog, the corgi, used to waddle fifty meters down the sidewalk then fall on his belly with his stubby little breadstick legs stuck straight out behind him. The second dog, the reactive staffie mix, used to walks to the corner and then freeze up with his tail between his legs and refuse to budge. I married a man that shuffles his feet on every walk and can’t tell a story without getting lost on the way to the point. And don’t get me started on my kid. My kid is slow. You’re probably thinking that all kids are slow and you’re not wrong, but my kid is really slow. My kid is so slow that her preschool teachers brought up how long it takes her to put on her coat and mittens at parent-teacher conferences. My kid is so slow that she’s never finished a school lunch a day in her life. My daughter is so slow that her teacher doesn’t bother to set the three-minute timer for bathroom trips because she just can’t make it back. My kid is so slow that her preschool class left her behind on the walk from the school to the playground next door. My kid is so slow that her kindergarten class lost her on the walk from the classroom to the exit at the end of the day three days in a row. Of course my rushing puts me in perpetual conflict with my family. In pre-pandemic times, we were always running late to school because my efforts to rush my kid out the door only slowed her down and inevitably resulted in frustrated tears and forgotten backpacks.

Back to running, though. This year was going to be my year for speed. I was coming up on twelve months injury-free and a strong marathon training cycle. I’d been running with a speedy group from my local running club since the fall. The club would be moving to the track once a week for interval workouts in the spring. I was focusing on the half over the full marathon to build my confidence for racing and running fast. I was aiming to try for a new personal record in the marathon in May.

You know what happened next. The pandemic hit and the races were cancelled, the track closed, and the running club scattered. Time slowed down and I slowed down with it. Honestly, I didn’t mind. I was happy to slow down, grateful for the opportunity to rest. After two months of running slow every morning and going nowhere the rest of the day, I was starting to drag, though. You know? You know. I was getting antsy. I wanted to go fast again. I started tentatively introducing speedwork back into my workouts. I did a few interval runs, one minute on, one minute off, and it went well. I felt energized and eager to get back to my old routine. I didn’t exactly know what I was training for, but I didn’t care. I decided to do a workout I’ve done a million times, a 1-2-3-2-1 fartlek. I wasn’t prepared for the challenge of doing a speed workout while maintaining social distancing on the crowded lakefront path, which required me to weave back and forth between pavement, grass, asphalt, packed dirt, and loose sand. The combination of sideways movement and forward acceleration was too much and my calf tore in the last one minute interval. There was no walking it off. I hobbled home and put my foot up on ice for the next ten days. This week I started jogging again, but I’m taking the hint this time. I’ll be going slow for a long while.

Now that I’ve finally given into the pandemic’s demands, the benefits of slowing down are hard to miss. There are fewer family blow-ups in the mornings. We have nowhere to go, nothing to get dressed for, no appointments to keep. There is no reason to rush my daughter and therefore no reason to fight. I still feign my morning commute with a walk around the neighborhood but with no real reason to get to work at any particular time, I can stop and wait for my daughter to stare at a pinwheel turning in the wind or a bird tugging a worm or work up the courage to step over a beetle turned over on its back in the middle of the sidewalk.

I slowed down and time slowed down with me. Time practically stopped. A few weeks ago I took my daughter outside after lunch on a weekday, giving us both a recess from school/work. We hit the basketball court where she’s been riding her scooter almost every day. Mindful of the fact that I needed to get back for calls for her and me by 1:15, I called out “ten more minutes!” at 1:00, and then climbed back onto the child-sized skateboard she’s been letting me roll around on. I’m not very good–my feet are too big for the board and I have weak ankles and poor balance and am in my mid-thirties–but I’m getting better. That day, I got lost in practice, pushing off from the court again and again, rolling farther and farther, and practicing my turns. Is this what they call flow? Eventually my daughter whizzed by me and jolted me out of my concentrated reverie. Shit. What time was it? I looked at my watch, ready to tell my daughter to pack it up, and then stopped. It was only 1:04.

I don’t wake up with panicked thoughts of not enough sleep! not enough time! anymore. I don’t move through my days bookmarking life hacks, optimizing every moment, in an effort to make the most of the time I have. I have all the time there is. The only question is how do I want to live?

Quarantine Diary Day 81: Fulcrum

img_20200515_135647498

Lately all my long runs have been up and down Chicago’s north shore. I start in Evanston and wind my way up through Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, and Glencoe and back down again. This isn’t my usual route. I vastly prefer to run south from Evanston down through Rogers Park, Edgewater, Uptown, Lakeview, Lincoln Park and back up again. The northern route is all mansions and empty streets and private beaches. The southern route is all high rises and crowded sidewalks and public beaches. The northern route is all kayaks and sailboats. The southern route is all kites and bikes. The northern route is all cobblestone and the southern route is all cracked pavement. The northern route is edenic gardens and manicured lawns and the southern route is fairy houses and public art. The northern art is wrought iron gates around the best beaches and the southern route is police cruising the beach for no goddamn good reason on a Saturday afternoon.

The first time I ran north, my eyes popped out of my head every mile as the houses doubled then tripled in size and the yards sprouted statuary that was truly bizarre. The last time I ran south I had to turn back when I hit the police barricade and realized Mayor Lightfoot was serious about closing the lakefront in Chicago. Damn. Since then, like I said, all my runs go north, which means all my runs are an exercise in coping with my class-based anxieties.

The first weekend in May I ran north and my mind was blown not by the wealth on display but by the flagrant disregard for social distancing. It was an unseasonably warm day and the beaches and parks and parking lots were swarming. Outdoorsy types on a stroll. Group yoga classes. Barbeques. Men in tight bike clothes just hanging out shooting the shit. College kids, limbs dangling all over each each other, spilling into the intersections. I wasn’t upset, really, just confused. Evanston was still locked down and this was before the data about the reduced risk of infection outside was being widely reported. Every week, sometimes every day, living on the north shore offers tests my commitment to living according to my values. The point of differentiation might be houses or cars or jobs or schools or summer camps or vacations or politics or religion or it might be the public health risks associated with the coronavirus: the outcome is the same. My family and I will be doing something different.

Still, the neighborhood seeps in. I have house envy and, these days especially, yard envy. I worry my kid isn’t in enough activities, even if they are all Zoom-based now. And when I saw all those families tumbling into each other on the sidewalk on a warm day in early May, something in me shifted, ever so slightly. It was my commitment. I knew that next time the neighbor kids ran up to us on the front porch, I wouldn’t go inside or steer my daughter away. This is how it changes. A person. A family. A city. A world. I hope this isn’t how it falls apart.

Edited to add: White privilege is being able to write a post like this without thinking of Chicago’s long and living history of racial segregation and redlining (refusing to grant mortgages and insurance to Black people, effectively shutting them out of the American dream of homeownership). White silence is the fact that I did think of those things and wrote the post without acknowledging them anyway. White silence is a manifestation of white supremacy. I thought I didn’t know enough to write about housing discrimination but the truth is I know plenty, just not enough to write about it as eloquently as I am able to do about other things. This too–the valuing of the aesthetics of my writing over acknowledging that my class-based anxieties living in Chicago are nothing compared to what any Black person living anywhere in Chicago under any circumstances at any time has had to face–is wrong. If you are a person of color and reading this post, particularly at this time, caused you any harm, I am sorry. I will try not to make this mistake again. If you are white and you want to read more about the devastating effects of discrimination in the housing industry, I highly recommend this extraordinary article by Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Case for Reparations.

Quarantine Diary Day 55

In the parallel timeline in which coronavirus never made it into human bodies, I’d be in the final week of tapering for my fifth marathon, which I was scheduled to run this Saturday. The taper is the final phase of a marathon training cycle when a runner gradually decreases the mileage and intensity of her workouts in the two to three weeks leading up to a race. The taper is critical to recover from the accumulated fatigue, repair muscle damage, and restore the glycogen stores, metabolic enzymes, and hormones that have been depleted during training. A lot of runners have a hard time with the taper. It is kind of a mindfuck to slow down, to back off the training, after months of buildup and go go go. I don’t. The taper, in my humble-braggy opinion, is the best part of marathon training. It is explicit permission–nay, instruction–to rest.

Remember March? Remember what it was like back the early days of our efforts to flatten the curve, when we still thought the kids might go back to school and the we might all keep our jobs? We were babes in the woods. The IOC was still refusing to admit that the Olympics were postponed. The organizers of the marathon I was planning to run certainly weren’t in any rush to cancel their event, a tiny little thing with less than 1,000 runners in all three races (5k, half, and full marathons) an hour and a half outside of Chicago, and still two full months away. If there was a chance the marathon was still on, I was running it. Training, I figured, would be a breeze with all the extra time on my hands. The first Saturday after we started sheltering in place I ran 15 miles.

Running has always been something I had to work to fit into my life, around family and work and recovery, but I worked hard to make it happen, because I love the sport to a degree that borders on obsessive. Ever since I became a mom, I’ve wished there were more hours in the day, assuming that I’d use the time to run, maybe train for an ultramarathon. All I needed was more time, and then the miles would add up faster than I could count them

For the few weeks of shelter-in-place, they did. My usual six miles on Tuesdays and Thursdays turned to eight. An easy four miles on Friday turned to ten. Cross-training on Mondays turned to more running. Even after it became undeniable that the marathon could not possibly go forward in May, I stuck to my routine of running long on Saturdays, twelve, fourteen, sixteen miles.

I was so grateful to be able to run. In those early weeks I thought, “How lucky I am that I have this sport that I can do outside and all alone? How lucky am I that I don’t need a gym or an instructor or a group? How lucky am I that I have this sport as a coping mechanism, a healthy outlet in which to shoot all my screaming fear, skyrocking anxiety, and scary depression? How lucky am I to have an excuse to leave the house? How lucky am I to have something that lets me turn all this time on my hands into time on my feet, a ritual that magics idleness into productivity.

As my weekly mileage started to creep up, something weird happened, at least it was weird for me. Running started to feel less like fun and more like a task. I was starting to dread waking up early for weekday runs. I was starting to get bored on long weekend runs. I was starting to get tired. Lots of experts have written about how the conditions we are currently living under are, counter to intuition, exhausting. Rolling Stone called the phenomena moral fatigue. Health policy wonks chalk it up to stress and anxiety. I knew this was something different, though. Even pre-quarantine, my body and mind had been giving me inklings that I might be pushing too hard. One of the last conversations I had with my therapist before COVID-19 took over all our conversations was about my ambivalence about going out with my local running club. They run fast and all I wanted to do was run long and slow. Also, even though I was training for them, I kept putting off signing up for races, because that level of commitment felt like too much. In hindsight, I can see that these were early indicators that I was burning out on running.

This kind of burnout is new to me. It’s not like I don’t know about rest. I keep a strict bedtime and take two full days a week off from any type of exercise. In quarantine, I am working less, not commuting, eating nothing but home-cooked meals, and getting closer to eight hours a sleep a night than any previous point in my adult life. So I took a hard look at my training schedule and realized I’d been building or maintaining my mileage without scaling back for about six months, and running without any meaningful break for over year. In the past, injuries and life events had forced me to take hiatuses, which I always resent, but I’ve been blessedly injury-free and able to run as much as I want for a long time now. In other words, I forgot about the concept of periodization, or the process of dividing training into smaller periods of varied volume, intensity, and frequency. The body needs easy weeks every three to four weeks. I also forgot about seasons. The body needs time off. I knew I needed a break, but I resisted giving myself one. Running was habit. Running was an escape. Running was, if you’ll forgive me for perpetuating disordered thinking in the name of honesty, an excuse to eat more indulgently than I otherwise might.

A few weeks ago, my body and mind conspired to put a stop to the madness. I woke up early on a Monday morning and put on my tights and sweat wicking gear, instead of heading out the door to run I sat down on the couch to write. My legs were tired but my mind was firing off ideas. 45 minutes later, too late to finish the miles I had planned, I was posting my first Quarantine Diary on this blog. That night, I noticed how much energy I had. I was excited about my new writing project. I was, for once, not completely wiped out. It was hard to get to sleep that night. I couldn’t wait to wake up and write again. Ahhh, I sighed. So this is what I’m meant to be doing right now.

Old habits die hard, though. I wrote frantically for the next two weeks, squeezing in time before and after work and parenting. In the evenings, my husband would call up the stairs, “Am I going to see you tonight?” After bottling up my words for so long, I had no shortage of ideas, until very recently. Yesterday morning, I mined the well in my mind and came up dry. I wasn’t overly worried. Something would bubble up before the day was done.

I turned my attention to my tarot deck. I don’t know how to say that it feeling like a hard left turn or without sounding like a flake, so I’ll just acknowledge it and move on: I have a tarot practice. Usually, I just draw a card for the day without thinking asking a specific question, but yesterday I asked, “What is the next right thing in regards to my writing?” I pulled the four of arrows, or swords. From the guidebooks: “Rest and sleep are vital to restore stamina and vitality.” “It is not a weakness to require rest at times.” “This card may also be advising you to keep some new idea to yourself.” The imagery of the card blatantly subverts the ethos of “I’ll rest when I’m dead” and warns instead “Rest now, or you last long.” Sometimes tarot is so on the nose it’s annoying.

fourofarrows

fourofswords

I’ll admit I could stand to wrote more sustainably, and that I probably should if I want to keep doing. And, fine, since the tarot insists (okay, okay, invites), I’ll grudgingly admit that it’s not just the work or the running or the writing that’s wearing me down. My whole life has been an existential sprint from one thing to the next, from college to law school to big law to marriage to parenthood to homeownership. You might think I slowed down when I got sober, but I didn’t, I just changed directions. That’s when I started waking up at I’ve been at 5:00 am to pray and meditate and exercise. When I slept in, inadvertently or intentionally, I felt like a lazy piece of shit. My discipline in matters both physical and spiritual was not just a point of pride, but a matter of life and death in my mind. If I let go of my vice grip on my schedule, what else would slip?

These days, there’s no reason to wake up that early. Work is slow. Running is slower. I have nowhere to go. What if I slept in? What if I took it easy? What if I stopped running, kept eating, and put on five pounds? What would my life feel like if I ran but not a marathon, if I wrote but not a book, if I worked without trying to impress people, if I parented without trying to be the best, if I gave up my endless quest to achieve? I think it might feel like waking up after a good night’s sleep.

Quarantine Diary Day 49

For most of our relationship, my husband and I were brunch people. This is a claim I make knowing full well it tells you next to nothing about us. After all, who, if pressed, can deny the appeal of brunch? Brunch offers indulgence for any palate at a variety of price points. Brunch works will work with whatever social structure you are embedded in, your gang of drunk girlfriends, your church group, your grandparents. Brunch is a European vacation at the end of a long American workweek, with American portions. What I’m saying is, brunch is basic, but it is basic for a reason.

As brunch people, we went out for brunch almost weekend. Among the many reasons we loved brunch:

Brunch is perfect for young parents because there is bottomless coffee plus your kids can scream pretty loudly and probably no one will notice.

Brunch is perfect for homebodies because you can be home before noon and still feel like you got out there and did something fun.

Brunch is perfect for people with complicated relationships with booze because you have the option of drinking a little or a lot early in the day but it’s not mandatory.

Brunch is perfect for people with social anxiety because it has a defined start and end and also you can always talk about the brunch.

If brunch is for jerks, we are the worst. Sadly, in recent years we gave up our habit. I can’t say for sure why. I could blame the worst aspects of the institution of brunch–long lines, crowded dining rooms, and expensive checks, but we were undeterred by those for so long that it wouldn’t be accurate. If I had to point to one deciding factor I would say it’s that we got pretty good at serving excellent breakfasts at home. Pancakes, waffles, french toast, breakfast sandwiches, eggs any way you like, avocado toast, sweet potato hash, over-the-top oatmeal. Four beverages per person, minimum: coffee, bubbly water, juice, tea. As our family life got increasingly busy, indulging at home in our jammies was just more appealing.
Early this year I got a hankering for real brunch, consisting of both savory and sweet, made and served by someone that wasn’t me. It kept not happening, though. Every Saturday morning I came home from a long desperately hungry, my husband had already signed up for a morning class at the gym. Every Friday night my husband asked, “Are you going to want to get brunch tomorrow?” I stupidly said “No.” I don’t know why. I suspect that at some point during our brunch hiatus I had come to think of breakfast at home as morally superior. Look at us, saving money, cooking our own food, eating vegetables. Brunch was for the morally weak. The last time I turned down brunch on a Friday, I regretted it before 7:00 am on a Saturday. I was finishing up my run, a 14 miler, and I was so hungry. I told my running group, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
That was in March. Since then, I’ve eaten every breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, and coffee at home and I’ve come to see the error of my ways. There is no virtue in denying ourselves the things we love. When this is all over, I swear to the gods of all that is good in this life (Demeter and Dionysus, think) that I will never say no to brunch again. I’m over this hearth and home business (sorry Hestia).

8 Minute Memoir – Day 7 – Finish

The first time I ran six miles out and back from my house, I knew I would run a marathon. There was no question in my mind. If I could run six miles, I could run 26.2. It didn’t matter that I had no aerobic base. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t run regularly in over seven years. It didn’t matter that I’d only almost but not quite quit the smoking habit I picked up in college. I signed up for the Chicago Marathon a few days later and trained with one goal in mind: to finish. And finish I did, in somewhere around five hours. It didn’t even occur to me to characterize this time, as “slow” or “fast” or even “around what I expected.” I had no expectations at all. It did not occur to me to calculate my pace, not once while training, not while I was running, and not when I finished. I did take pride in the fact that I ran the whole thing, except for a pit stop at Charity Village at mile 15 to eat a cupcake with the kid I was sponsoring as a charity runner. Since then, I’ve run three more marathons, with goals that ranged from “finish” to “finish faster” to “finish faster than that.” Each of my marathons has spit me up and chewed me out. It’s a brutal race. But I keep doing them, because there is nothing–nothing–like the feeling of finishing something that feels impossible.

What A Body’s Good For: Part Two

I never could wrap my head around people who loved being pregnant because that’s when they felt their healthiest. Pregnancy made me feel like shit. Besides the nausea that felt exactly like an endless hangover, I spent most of the first trimester wanting to crawl out of my own skin. I tried to commiserate with others who had been pregnant—“You know that feeling where you desperately need to change the way you feel with a drink or a pill but you just CAN’T? THAT’S the worst part of pregnancy!”—and they just stared back. Years later I would come to recognize that sensation as a symptom of untreated alcoholism, not pregnancy.

Even though I felt like garbage, I treated my pregnant body better than I ever had before. I took special prenatal supplements with some kind of oil for the baby’s brain, I ate piles of fruits and veg, I exercised to the very end, eliciting stares and comments at the gym. I slept, no small miracle for a former insomniac (thanks, drugs) and long-standing night owl. I did take a bunch of Category C medications and drink daily caffeine and eat sushi and deli meat and junk food because I’m no saint, but you guys, I didn’t drink! There was a lot of talk in my circles at that time about how a half a glass of wine on special occasions was *just fine* in the second and third trimesters, but I knew that I could not trust myself with half a glass. Not even with a baby inside.

I gave birth to a healthy baby via Caesarean and loved my body like never before. I was a BEAST. I could grow a human and undergo major abdominal surgery and keep that human alive. I resumed drinking as soon as I got home from the hospital, obviously, but continued, for the most part, to treat my body pretty well. I was exclusively breastfeeding, after all. I was inordinately proud of the fact that I was able to pump massive quantities of milk at work, way more than my baby needed, and nurse her morning and night. It upset me when she weaned at fifteen months. The World Health Organization recommended breastfeeding to age two at the time and I wanted to make it at least that long without needing to rely on a cow for milk. That’s what I was for.

I’d read some studies say the ideal spacing between kids is three years so I decided we should start trying to have another child when the oldest was two. I assumed I would get pregnant easily since that’s what happened the first time. When that didn’t happen, I was pissed. I took my anger and disappointment out my body. I dug up the pills that were miraculously still around from the c-section and took those. I drank. I drank especially in the days leading up to my period because I knew I’d have to stop when I got a positive pregnancy test. When the tests came up negative, I drank more. Why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I was pregnant. By that point I knew without question I shouldn’t be drinking but I drank anyway. Alone and in secret and in increasing quantities at increasingly inappropriate times.

This is what happens to women steeped in a toxic culture that says (1) a woman’s worth is in her fertility and (2) alcohol is the answer to a woman’s problems. My body failed me by not making a baby on demand, and I tried to drown.

In my unhappiness, I abused my body in other ways, ways that are far more subtle that I only recognize with hindsight. I skipped meals. I refused to replace my baggy suits with ones that fit because I might be pregnant soon. I sacrificed sleep at the alters of work and television.

It literally never occurred to me that I might do anything at all–let alone something fun or healthy or interesting–with a body that wasn’t pregnant or nursing. I never even thought about running that second marathon, the one I’d been wanting to do for years, the one I’d been training for and cancelled when I discovered I was pregnant the first time.

It was during one of my final few drunks that I was scrolling through Facebook (because being a drunk is actually really lonely and sad and boring) and saw that my friend M had signed up for a Tough Mudder and was looking for teammates. “Nahhhh, not for me,” I thought about both the invitation and the race. I was running semi-regularly at the time, but I didn’t do team sports or anything that required upper body strength. I scrolled on.

The day after my last drunk, I was supposed to have dinner with M but had to cancel because when 5:00 rolled around I was still too hungover to get out of bed. We rescheduled for the next weekend. Seven days later, exactly one week into shaky sobriety, I sat across from M at a fancy pub with a Diet Cola in one hand and a pork shank in the other and told her I’d run the insane race.

We started training together, meeting at a local playground at seven o’clock on freezy Sunday mornings to do tricep dips and assisted pull-ups on the monkey bars, jump squats onto picnic tables, and crunches in the mud. It was a drag and felt somehow like both way too much effort and ridiculously not enough to be putting into training for a six-mile obstacle race. As the weeks wore on, though, I felt worried that I still couldn’t do a pull-up on my own but proud that I had yet to succumb to the Saturday night impulse to text M and cancel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made a commitment and actually followed through on something that I didn’t have to do. Showing up felt good.

Four months after my last drunk I did the race with M and her friends (a triathlete and a U.S. Marine, natch). Two of us were injured so we had to walk a lot of the course but we completed every obstacle, from army crawling through ice-cold mud inches under barbed wire (Kiss of Mud) to hauling ass up a slick quarter pipe (Everest 2.0) to scaling twelve-foot wooden walls (Berlin Walls). My teammates and I took turns yanking each other up and over barrier after barrier, carrying each other piggyback in the heat, and trudging side-by-side through bacteria-laden swamp water to finish filthy and triumphant. Aside from giving birth, I was never so proud of or in love with my body.

I was also hooked. I started running as often and as long as I could after that. My weekend mileage hit the double digits enough that I figured I should get some credit for it, so I registered for and completed my second marathon (my first in seven years) that fall. I got bored with endless long slow runs added speed work to my routine. When I found myself with overuse injuries, I swam and cycled and tried all kinds of yoga. When I healed, I returned to running reinvigorated, renewed, overjoyed at simply being able to run without pain. I tossed out a few 5Ks to raise money with co-workers and with the family on Thanksgiving. I ran through cold wet Chicago springs, muggy Chicago summers, gorgeous Chicago falls, and brutal Chicago winters. I trained with weights. I finished my third marathon, this time fast.

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want a drink or ten. But one of the many things that helps me to go to sleep sober is thinking about how good I’m going to feel on the trail or the treadmill the next morning if I don’t. These days, there is always free beer on the other side of a finish line. I’m not lying when I say that after a race, after I’ve put my body to the test and seen it rise to the challenge, those are the times I want a drink the very least. I’m too happy.

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want another baby. But one of the many things that keeps me from sliding into grief is thinking how good it feels to push my body to do things I want to do.

When I look back on my year of relapse and trying to trying to conceive, the absurdity of what I was doing to myself is almost enough to make me believe in a higher power that saved me from getting pregnant at a time when I wasn’t capable of carrying a child. Of course, that doesn’t explain why I’m not pregnant now, with my 2.5 years of sobriety and a solid recovery program. However, when I look back on the many, many moments over those 2.5 years that I experienced pure joy in moving my body, in getting stronger, faster, freer, well, it’s almost enough to make me believe that my body is a gift for me, not for babies. My body’s worth is in what it can do for me, not you or him or God or future generations. I am meant to enjoy this body for what it can do, not to mourn what it can’t. I can’t get pregnant and I can’t drink but I can and will eat and dance and swim and stretch and fuck and run and run and run.

[You can find my first What A Body’s Good For essay here.]

“We Don’t Do The Same Drugs No More”

I finally went to the OB-GYN last week. I hadn’t been since my post-partum check up, six weeks after my daughter was born. That was four years ago. The CNM scrunched up her face when I told her. “You haven’t had any lady care for four years?

It pisses me off that people are often blasé about the fact that men in their twenties and thirties go to the doctor pretty much never but women who don’t go the the OB-GYN every year are seen as irresponsible. “I thought the USPSTF changed the recommendation for pap screening from one to three years?” It was half question, half half-hearted explanation. That wasn’t why I hadn’t been in, but it made me feel better. “Plus, I’m not on birth control,” I added, realizing I hadn’t adequately justified my hiatus from reproductive health. That one hit a little closer to the truth of the matter. I stopped taking hormonal birth control the year before I got pregnant and never went back on, and absolutely relished the freedom. Yes, I realize that the pill that tied me to a doctor and flatlined my sex drive is the same one that liberated me and millions of other women. I can hold onto both of these truths at the same time. The CNM tucked her leg up onto the chair, tucked a chunk of pink hair behind her ear, chiding me quietly as she pulled up a new chart: “That may be, but you still need exams.”

It’s not like I’d been neglecting my health. I am in tune with my body to an almost freakish degree and I love medicine of both the Eastern and Western variety. Almost as soon as I went back to work after maternity leave, my stress-induced TMJ flared up. I tried acupuncture first, but it didn’t do enough to justify ducking out of work for an hour at a time, so I turned to an internist who was so cute I decided he would be my first-ever adult primary care physician. What I wanted was painkillers. What I got was a referral for PT that ended up being exorbitantly expensive and inordinately time-consuming and not covered by my insurance.

Later that year, I went back to the internist about a strange rash. I made big plans to tell him about my anxiety, too, but couldn’t find the words. I’d never told anybody how my chest tightened up every day when I left the office, or how my stomach roiled before I left the house. Was that anxiety? Was it bad enough to warrant medication or did I just want to get high? What I wanted was to get the ball rolling toward a prescription for Xanax. What I got was a diagnosis of stress-induced eczema.

A few months after that I huffed a chemical inhalant in the middle of my work day. I think the high lasted a few hours but it was hard to tell when it wore off because my head didn’t come back to my body. I remained in a dissociative state that the internet told me was called depersonalization for six days. I remembered that I had a primary care doctor and called his office to beg for an appointment. A different doctor in the same practice group squeezed me in. “Are you under a lot of stress?” he asked, shining a light into my eyes. I nodded. He asked me to turn my head from side to side. “Do you find yourself crying?” “Mhm.” My eyes welled up. What I wanted was somebody to tell me I didn’t have brain damage. What I got was instructions to come back for a full blood workup the next week.

I went to a therapist instead.

I went through a round of CBT.

I got back to running.

I got sober.

In short, I started to get right mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Nine months after I quit drinking, I ran a marathon. A particularly severe bout of post-race tendonitis drove me back to the primary care physician. I’d sustained enough strains and sprains in my two decades as a runner to know that ice and rest would do the trick, but the pain in my hip was bad enough that I figured I could benefit from talking to a physical therapist who specialized in running injuries. Of course, I never would have booked the appointment if I didn’t think I there was a chance I could also get drugs. In the few minutes it took to schedule an appointment online, the pink cloud that had been carrying me for months dissipated. I went from happy sober person, chirping away in meetings about how great it felt to be so present for my family during the holidays to walking zombie. I went from wanting to get better quickly to hoping for something serious–a fracture or a tear. I didn’t think about calling my sponsor. I didn’t think about what I’d do when the pills ran out. I couldn’t think about anything but the possibility of getting high again. I obsessed about what I needed to do to make it happen. The next day, I hobbled to the office and told the doctor with a straight face that the pain was an eight. I told him I could barely walk. I got him worried enough that he wrote out an order for an x-ray, which is when I knew the jig was up because there was a minuscule chance I might be pregnant that I couldn’t ignore, given how long my husband and I had been trying to have a second kid. The doctor sent me home with no x-ray, no drugs, and prescription for ice and rest. “Come back if it still hurts when you get your period.” Fuck.

Once you’ve developed a taste for pharmaceuticals, every doctor’s office is a street corner, every appointment a seedy transaction, every honest ailment immediately supplanted by symptoms of the most plausible path to opiate relief. And when you are sober, every ache is an invitation to go back out. It’s easy to pretend you’re not flirting with relapse because sometimes people need medicine. With my history, the question of how prescription drugs fit into sobriety should be black and white but when I try to hold a picture of my sober life still in my head, there is so much blank space I start filling in the gaps with gray. Of course, most doctors aren’t handing out controlled substances like candy anymore. When you are an ex-pillhead, that almost doesn’t matter. The possibility alone is enough to throw you off course. It’s easier to avoid doctors altogether.

So that’s why I haven’t been to OB-GYN. I can’t trust myself to go in for a pap smear and not drum up enough undiagnosable premenstrual pain to walk out with a low-grade narcotic that will start the slow unspooling of my life. If you jump through enough hoops, the drugs will come. That’s how, last month, I ended up driving myself away from the hospital at 2 AM on a Sunday with a clean bill of health and a unnecessary prescription for Norco tucked in my bag, mind racing with thoughts like:

“A tranvaginal ultrasound is a steep price to pay for a week’s worth of pills;” and

“I guess nobody ever accused a junkie of driving a hard bargain;” and, most importantly,

“What the fuck am I going to do when these pills run out?”

The next 24 hours were mental torture. I had drugs, but I also had a head full of AA, which means I am utterly incapable of convincing myself that taking even one pill (or drink) is not a big deal. I know where one pill (or drink) goes. I’ve been there before and it’s hell. There is no easy way back if you even get a chance to come back.

Of course I was going to fill the prescription anyway. I went to four pharmacies that day. One rejected my (extremely common and accepted everywhere) insurance. The other three were closed, two of them within thirty minutes of me showing up. By 8 PM I had nowhere to go but my usual Sunday night candlelight meeting. Somebody said something about their daughter and I remembered (for the first time in days) that mine was turning four soon and that if I took those pills, I’d be drinking or using or withdrawing on her birthday. I knew enough about myself to know there was simply no way I would not be a fucking mess. I went home knowing what I had to do, knowing exactly how good I would feel when I did it, but still unwilling. The next morning I woke up early and, without giving myself time to think the decision through, turned on the stove and stuck my hand with the paper prescription into the burner. The night before, a doctor friend had told me to just rip it up, which I guess would have done the trick, but I needed this thing gone. The burn was not clean; I was.

The unexplained pain that had precipiated my ER visit disappeared that day.

I kept the OB-GYN appointment I had scheduled a few days earlier anyway. I’ve been trying to have another baby for two years and have reached the point that I can’t pretend doctors don’t exist. The CNM asked me questions as she filled in my chart. “What was the first day of your last period?” “How many days is your cycle?” “Do you drink?”

I looked up from the paperwork I was working on and looked her in the eye and told her what I’ve before never told a medical professional because I was not willing to burn bridges I might want to cross later: “No. I haven’t had a drink since January 30, 2016. I have a history of substance abuse, mostly painkillers and weed. I can’t mess around with that stuff.”

“Congratulations!” she said.

When I left, I felt relieved. Not because I think I am finally going to get pregnant but because I finally have a doctor I can go back to without tearing  open my old wounds.