Day 929: Check Engine

I just discovered Tammi Salas’s blog via a friend. It’s great, and you should go read it (after I am done talking at you, of course. That’s right. Sit your ass back down!). This bit about her car’s check engine light hit me right between the eyes:

“My check engine light came on in my car about a month ago.  I thought if I just willed it away, I wouldn’t have to deal with it.  Do any of you do that?  Well, I do.  More than I like to admit.  That frame of mind reminded me of how I used to deal with life when I was drinking.  I put things off until they became urgent or I had to call in my husband to help me handle matters when I’d put things off for too long and desperately needed help…By dealing with my car’s check engine light, it served as a metaphor for how I’m dealing with my life’s check engine light when it comes to my sobriety.”

First of all, uh, yeah. I ignored tons of check engine lights the last few years I drank. You can get away with that for quite a while. Some check engine lights never did come back to bite me, actually. (The problem is that you never know which ones will.) And from talking with other sober people, I know I’m not the only one. A lot of us were playing that toddler game of “If I don’t look at it, it’s not there.” So right away I had that wonderful ping of recognition that reminds me I’m not alone, that lots of perfectly nice people–people with cars! people with blogs!–engaged in acts of lunacy as drinkers.

I had a timelier reason for responding to Tammi’s post, though, which is that so far the month of January can suck it. The weather is grim, as usual–gray and wet and colder than normal for our city. Recent structural changes at work have impacted my ability to get things done and plan my time, which for an overachiever like me is truly crazy-making, and which bleeds anxiety into my home and writing lives.  Some of my personal relationships are in various states of weirdness. And on top of all that I’ve had a fever and cough for over a week, and can’t just stay home and be sick without letting my co-workers down on a major project. And because I’m sick I can’t run to burn off the stress of everything else.

Last week  (which I guess pretty much is January to date) was especially joyless. On Thursday afternoon I was walking downtown and this random sidewalk compliment choked me up because it was the one moment in my day that wasn’t about deadlines and churn  and  exhaustion. sidewalk

I don’t know about you, but sidewalks don’t generally bring me to tears. Jesus, you’re losing it, I thought. But an hour later, I saw Tammi’s post and edited that thought: Wait! You’re not losing it. You’re just ignoring your check engine light.

Of course I was. Because I may be sober, and I may have twice the life force I did before, but I’m still me. When I was drinking, I ignored the check engine light partly out of fatigue, but largely out of fear: the fear that if I checked the engine, the whole car would explode. Well, sober me may be a fairly upstanding girl, but she’s not exactly free of fear, and the idea of checking the engine freaked her out. I imagined the diagnostics looking something like:

  • Cough=rare and aggressive form of lung cancer that will kill you quite soon. Bye!
  • Structural issue at work=no one cares if this is difficult for you; magically solve it somehow or they will happily write you off and never look back. Because you’re really not that good, certainly not good enough to bother helping.
  • Difficult personal relationships=the common factor in all these relationships is you. You must be the problem. Maybe because you are unlovable?
  • Too fried to write=no stamina. You don’t want it enough and if you don’t want it you sure as hell don’t deserve it, not that wanting it means you do deserve it, because you don’t. Also, you are unlovable, a mediocre employee, and dying.

No wonder I didn’t want to check the engine. Who would? (Oddly, the only scary consequence that didn’t enter my mind was relapse–things looked bad, but the idea of putting ethane in my nice clean blood never occurred to me, maybe because it’s just so plainly fucking stupid.)

Nevertheless, I checked. And the diagnostics came back like this:

  • Cough=irritating illness that is going around town right now. No one you know has died of it yet. You could be the very first, but probably not. And if so, at least maybe they will name it after you.
  • Work issue=yeah, it’s wearing you down a bit. You should probably make sure the right people have visibility into how it’s impacted your productivity–you’re so good at the brave face that they might not even know. Surely there’s a creative solution, at least a partial one.
  • Friend/family stuff=it’s very hard to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind if you don’t ask. You could ask. But also, you might still be sad. It happens. It’s not going to kill you.
  • Too fried to write=you were writing like a maniac just five days ago. Now you’re sick and work is extra nuts and five days seems like a really long time, but it’s not. You took ten years off and came back on fire. You’ll be okay.

That’s a much less dramatic set of bullets than the one starting with lung cancer. But man, I’ll take it. I’ll take the mundane, First World problems I can do something about, now that I’ve bothered to acknowledge them.

So how’s your engine light? Is it on? Has it been on for a while? Go check. And then thank Tammi.

Day 929.


10 thoughts on “Day 929: Check Engine

  1. I’m right there with you. Sick and puny with a cough and cold and feeling like the grey weather. Great post, just what I needed. I’ve been thinking I was lacking in self care lately so this was an extra wake up call. Hope you’re better soon. Congrats on 929, I’m not two far behind you.

  2. You are a treat of a writer! Thank you for quoting me here and running with the idea. The check engine light is a strong metaphor for me when it comes to my drinking and my way of moving through the world. I’m paying closer attention to the glowing light when it appears. It’s not always a bright, blinking light – sometimes it’s just a dim light, but I’m aware and eventually I tend to it. I’m so pleased to have found your blog! And, I did read your otter essay recently (can’t remember where!) and I love how I’m connecting the dots with you here in your space. I look forward to catching up on your journey. XO!

  3. I am a fellow Seattleite and yes to all of this. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t trying desperately to find that piece of sidewalk because I love it so much. And now I am off to check my engine light.


    1. Kate, it’s on Western behind the market–near the Spanish Table. Though with all this rain I suppose it’s been washed away by now. :-0 XO, Kristi

  4. Love this. Thank you. Thank John for sharing it. You are a fantastic writer and so far everything I’ve seen made me smile with that weird sense of “yeah, I get it”

  5. Read your riveting article about why women drink and now am reading your blog from end-to-beginning. I hope to never reach the start. You and I share few common life features (I work in a non-creative profession and have a very low alcohol tolerance) but thanks for reminding me that real and relatable folks like you exist beyond my few good friends. I look forward to reading more and will happily buy your work when available.

  6. I’m trying to see the world through your sober eyes. I can laugh with you, I can see what you see in the way sober woman can see. As personally, I never drink in my life or smoke. But I can relate to your views, because of that. I see the life with my womanly sober eyes all my life. In last 5 years I got “sober” from being a woman every man wanted to be. I feel good! I’m married, I have a child…but I’m me. Not what everyone is expecting from me, but just me.

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