Heyyyyyy party people! It’s been a few months. Is everyone having an awesome summer?!?!
It’s funny because it’s sad. Ha! Ha!
I generally try to write some words of reflection or wisdom on my soberversaries, something about what I learned in the previous year. But then came the spring of 2020. Fuck, man. I’m not sure I have a lot to offer this time around. Unless you’re low on cortisol, in which case, bring your own barrel and fill it up! No charge.
Seattle went into lockdown early and stayed there for over ten weeks. It was absolutely the right decision. We had America’s first major cluster of infections, and could easily have become a mini NYC. Instead, King County has lost only (“only” being a highly relative term) 624 people to Covid. We reopened very slowly–we’re only halfway there even now, though I’ve gotten my roots done and browsed in a bookstore, so I’m all set–and we’re doing okay. Better than most states.
But my god did it take a toll on my mental health. No one wants to talk about that, have you noticed? You say “Isolation is hard on me. I’m not okay,” and someone will pop out of the woodwork to say “You know what’s really isolating? BEING ON A VENTILATOR.” The ventilator is the “What about Syria” of the pandemic era, meant to drown out all the regular human problems that have gone on, virus or no virus.
Well, I was not on a ventilator and I was still not okay. I slid with frightening speed into a significant depressive episode, cycles of rumination and catastrophic thinking and helplessness and fear. My therapist began asking if I was “committed to living,” and when I said yes I felt like I was lying. I mean no, I was not having suicidal thoughts. I planned to remain alive. But committed? That’s a big word. I thought of saying “I’m willing to live, can we agree that’s enough?” but I didn’t want to waste the precious time I needed to discuss my certainty that we would all be locked in our houses for a minimum of one decade.
In the midst of all that I had to go and turn fifty, which even in better times would seem ludicrous on multiple levels. On my fiftieth birthday my parents told me my mother was very ill (not with Covid), and about a week after that we learned she had maybe a month left in hospice care. I couldn’t fly to her state or visit the hospital, of course. But I did get to speak to her on the phone for a few minutes. She was on some pretty fun drugs. Asked how my four beautiful dogs were doing (I have two and they are doing just great) and then told me her house was being remodeled “in quite an avant-garde style,” which made me laugh because my mother had such a Martha Stewart/Southern Living aesthetic. She was constantly on a mission to get me to wear “fun colors” and I was constantly refusing.
I thanked her for teaching me to read and write at a very young age. For taking me to the library twice a week, and letting me run up huge bookstore tabs. You made me a writer, I told her, though I don’t know how much she could take in at that point.
She slipped away a day or two later. That was in early May, it’s been two months, though if you lied and said it happened last week or last year, I’d believe you.
On my birthday, a long-distance lover described me in a letter as a vast world of interior landscapes. He said there are burned and flooded places within me and that in those burned and flooded places, I’m constantly generating new life. I wept when I read that, because he had articulated something about me that I instinctively knew was true, but had only seen from the corner of my eye. And also because I know how lucky I am to have that skill. Not everybody can just recolonize, as he also put it, after wreckage. But it’s saved me over and over, since I was very young–my resilience, my ability to come back over and over.
It’s happening as we speak. I’m slowly, with the occasional step back (waves at yesterday), moving out of my depression. I can kind of see a future where good things happen again, where I make them happen (because this is not the year to count on the world to do it). I recently told that same man that as I creep gingerly away from the season’s chaos and loss and fear, I feel like a forest that’s been burned down. (Well, actually I said I felt defenestrated, which means like someone who has been tossed from a window–I’m constantly misusing that word to describe treelessness and I probably always will. Do we really need a verb in the 21st century for getting thrown out of a window? Never mind–it was fine, somehow he knew what I meant. )
“It’s like I get to decide what to put back in the forest,” I said, “and I want to be thoughtful about it. Because some of it needs to stay out.”
Just before the pandemic hit Seattle, my husband John was re-watching the great George Clooney film Michael Clayton. At one point, a character’s car explodes and they impulsively toss the keys inside the flaming wreck, recognizing that this disaster is also an opportunity to solve some pretty big problems of their own making. Ever since then, when friends of his or ours have made dramatic career and relationship decisions that were enabled (but not directly caused) by the pandemic, John’s described it as “a Michael Clayton moment.”
I feel like I’m in the moment after the Michael Clayton moment. Not that I had a life of crime to flee, or anything else so dramatic. I’m just clear-cut, and as many times as I’ve done it before, it’s always hard to have faith that I’ll grow new life. But as I told my friend, defenestrated is not the worst thing to be. It just takes patience.
Anyway. It also means I really don’t know what to tell you about sobriety this year, except maybe this: when I first got sober, and for quite a while afterward, I played the what-if game: what if I get diagnosed with cancer? Would I drink then? What if World War Three breaks out? What if [insert other things I don’t even want to type]? Tons of us play that game, right? Through sheer lack of imagination, I never asked “What if I have to stay at home for ten weeks because of a deadly pandemic that the US government is basically ignoring? What if the fear and isolation send me into a full-blown agitated depression where my thoughts tell me vicious lies and I can’t make it stop? Oh, and then what if my mother dies, too? Would I drink?”
Here’s the thing: not only did I not drink, I never even wanted to drink.
Early on I monitored myself for the cravings I assumed were sure to come, but eventually I forgot to be vigilant because they never did show up. I mostly just lived my life as the person I have apparently become: someone who does not spend much time thinking about alcohol. On a few really awful days, I said to myself, “This is so weird–it seems like you should be tempted to drink right now,” and my immediate, visceral response was to shudder at how much worse that would make every single thing, mostly because it would rob me of the clarity I value above all else.
I just saw a Little Richard interview (please go watch it, it’s the greatest interview of all time, I’ll wait! or better, I’ll watch it with you!) where he asserts that people are supposed to wear makeup–“to add a little touch,” just like they toast their bread or put cream in their coffee– and he seems to mean it in the same decreed-by-God way he meant so many things. I think my version of that is that you are supposed to have clarity of mind. Or I am, at least. I’m supposed to, God thinks so, and so logic says I’m also supposed to not consume stuff that fogs it up. So I don’t.
Mind you, I’m not congratulating myself for maintaining sobriety through all of this. I didn’t feel strong, or focused, or like the mountain all the chaos drifts past. I felt like a crazy person some of the time, probably because I was. A few times, it hit me that I didn’t feel sober, emotionally speaking, and that’s an idea I’ll be revisiting for a while. But to not drink took virtually no effort at all.
I’m telling you this because I was once the kind of person who would have been horrified at the idea of dinner out without a drink, or a dry wedding, or dropping off shoes with my skilled but strangely hostile neighborhood shoe-repair guy. Okay, not the last one (but seriously, why is he such a dick). But I absolutely thought I needed to drink in any situation combining other humans with stress and/or fun. So if you are still playing what-if games, or you know you want to stop drinking but you can’t envision sober life as anything but an endurance contest–well, in this one facet I can be a role model today. You can change. You can change at depths you don’t even know you have. You can become a radically new person, and look at her in both bewilderment and wonder.
Stay well out there in all the ways, friends. Waving to you from this year’s soberversary selfie…