The Covid Rules

It must be tough to be an addict right now.

I can’t imagine it.

When the pandemic began, my newborn fears about something that would whip and whorl its way through humanity like a rusty knifeblade were often peppered with a slight and quiet excitement about all that isolation.  Introverts unite!  I have three kids, the girls as you know.  Pandemic life has, to say the least, traversed a mixture of seasons over the course of the past year, none of which adhere to my definition of isolation.  I can adamantly say that all humans have felt the rift in a planet that has always, as we have known it, taken care of us.  Like a patient parent, Earth can get us by.  Mortality became a moot point, what with impossible deadlines that forced themselves onto our digital minds which don’t follow the rules of time.  We let ourselves feel invincible because we just didn’t have time to sit and ponder death.  Our busyness became our business and that was that.  We hold these mobile devices, windows into some sort of netherworld that can disguise itself among greener grass and digital bliss, with neither understanding nor too much wonder about how they work.  We hold these truths to be self evident as we peer like wolves into your life and his life and her life and those lives and the shut the fuck ups and the I can’t believe she said thats and the did you knows, thats too bads, I’m dones.  The trouble is, the windows aren’t windows at all as much as they are tiny levies of hope on which we balance in an effort to validate our own “not-enough” lives against the backdrop of computerized hell and real world serious shit.  They are, in effect, our check-out stations.

It’s human nature to want to forget, to unfeel the pain, to peel the feelings back and air out the cuts.  I imagine most live complex organisms have some innate need to either avoid the pain of the accident or else work to avoid the pain of the memory.  Either way, survival depends on our ability to simply avoid pain.  Or does it?

I’m a recovering bulimic.  I hope you haven’t forgotten that.

At the beginning, last March, we all adjusted to these weird face shirts that were somehow supposed to keep you and me safe.  Suddenly, we had a new accessory to pine over lest we sit long enough to truly grasp the gravity of what was really happening.  “This one has leopard spots.  I think I’ll wear that to the meeting next week as it matches my outfit.  This one is breathable.  The gym.”  They often became soaked with our spit as we found ourselves attempting to really learn the meaning of eNUNciATE.  We developed a societal “Covid Rules” of sorts.  An unspoken set of etiquettes that wove their ways into the ones we were already forgetting because we were too busy staring into the non-windows at the greener grass.  It was fascinating to me, to watch this unfold with the assistance of culture, evolution, and mere biology.  I took stellar notes.  

First came the unlearning of the handshake. That was a big one and one of the most awkward for me.  I don’t like shaking hands, per se, as rubbing my clammy hand skin against your clammy hand skin is not exactly at the top of my life-appeal list.  But I always do it.  Always.  Men, women, kids (especially the kids), I shake, I meet their qi with mine and our souls remember (REMEMBER) each other like tribes.  It is a spiritual event.  So the handshake ending hurt quite a bit.  Next, the hugs.  I loathe these even more than the hand shake.  You’re lucky if I decide to hug you, let’s just leave it at that.  I don’t mind the touching, the perfect cup shape of a person’s shoulder that nestles your whimpering chin, the slow squeeze around the shoulder that is filled with anticipation about who is going to let go first…and what that would mean. I don’t mind any of that.  What I don’t like about hugs is the pretentiousness of them, the insincerity, the incredible awkwardness that is invading a stranger’s space, and their invading yours.  It’s a shit show for my sensitive self.  So happy, obligatory hugs got banned.  Boo.  Down the list of the “Covid Rules”  we travel: walk on exact other side of aisle, follow freshly stuck floor stickers with company logos and arrows herding us like cattle reminding us how far away we are to remain from our brothers and sisters, help cashier with plexiglass while speaking repeatedly at each other through mask and said glass until verbal understanding is reached and transaction is complete, learn what an “eye smile” is and how to do it, wipe down every damn thing you touch before you leave a business establishment (this is not required but has become social etiquette to do so), the neverleaving that becomes The Lifestyle, the cute home office setups, bedroom stage lightings, digital backdrops, favorite sweatpants, pounds of coffee, home gym investments, fucking toilet paper.  It all just began to matter so much more.  We no longer presented ourselves to the world, in the outside world.  We were now required to let the world in.  Into our safe spaces, and corners, and cobweb-laden secrets.  Suddenly, everything had to be dressed up around us while we kept sleeping from the waist down.  Zoom meetings became the norm and most of us just stopped trying to look the part.  We hunkered down amid the fear and the fake news and one of the most stress-laden weeks of my life as I know it while waiting for election results.  Schools shut down, and those of us mothers who had worked tirelessly to keep their kids’ screen exposure to a minimum for years upon years were suddenly thrust into a forced video culture where our kids look into the non-windows, at the non school that doesn’t really have them, can’t really take them, won’t really keep them, as they learn how to be three dimensional humans in this two dimensional world.  Black Lives Matter started breathing heavily and the cultural irony between the Leader and the People was beyond palpable.  

The final part of the Covid Rules involved the integration of all this shit into the unsaid as we worked to transform our knowledge of what peer trust looks like.  This illustrated itself as incessant small talk, across open windows while safely sitting in our own parked cars still with the face shirts, that was not only filled with weather and baseball, but now littered with Covid numbers, which counties had it bad and our silent unspoken judgement of their leaders, how do you feel, how do I feel, what should we feel, I can’t believe they won’t mask up, I can’t believe they mask up, rights, and lefts, and polarization, and death.  The same number of people have died whether you think this is a hoax or not.  Maybe read that again.  Everything all went to shit and it shoved in our faces the real mechanisms of what we seem to falsely claim democracy is in this country of OURs.  

In this said small talk I found myself nervously mentioning the addicts and trying to possibly pay a homage of sorts if, for no other reason, to simply do the small uncourageous favor of speaking up for them in soft conversations.  I would say, “I can’t imagine being an addict during all of this,” while receiving head nods and downward gazes in return as if to put words or stares into the mouth of it, it would suddenly come alive for them.  If they didn’t talk about addiction, then it couldn’t happen to them.  Even the masks could protect them from it.  Like, if you just ignore racism you’re somehow not racist.  Simple, right?  We intellectually know these things don’t work that way, but our spirit selves get scared of change, of difference, of labels, of shame.  Shame, in effect, becomes the disease from which we run.  And while masks can’t necessarily protect us from shame, they can certainly hide the fact that we may feel it.  

There is this collective silence in society against the contagion of addiction, this feeling that if we get too close to it or say it too many times then it will happen to us like cancer, so it goes largely unnoticed, largely untold, while the silent sick move through their lives as misunderstood conjecture.  I kept stating this “I wonder about the addicts” manifesto in my conversations like some sort of unceremonious icebreaker that always ended up preceding an awkward veil of silence which held itself, heavy like stale tobacco, among the space between us.  No one really knew WHAT to say.  And I would almost immediately regret it, apologize to the space for making it heavy, for making you wonder, for creating discomfort.  But I just couldn’t stop myself.  I acted, for a time, within a specific guise.  I somehow wanted to hide my identity or hope you’d forgotten it while desperately wanting you to remember all of it because I, the addict in recovery, was sinking.  This nevertalk that happened was my outcry.  Most people didn’t catch on.  Most people, in their unspoken vow of silence with regard to such a topic, didn’t ask how I had been doing.  Not in THAT way.  I pretended I couldn’t imagine how difficult these times could be for an addict, being sure to let on that I assumed those addict lives were simply impossible to understand, all in an effort to smear the fact that I didn’t have to imagine at all.  I knew exactly what all this isolation was like.  For us.

We are social creatures, even if we don’t mean to be.  My introverted self took much solace in an actual EXCUSE to be home, alone, not with you, or him, or her.  I spent a lot of time in my bed, with my computer, doing “work,” or writing or watching tv.  A depression had set in and I hadn’t even noticed it.  I was forced to close my acupuncture practice as not enough patients felt comfortable seeing me in person to warrant my office rent.  And, quite frankly, I wasn’t sure how comfortable I felt with this arrangement either.  Regardless, I plucked a big source of my identity right out of my life and it mattered to me more than I realized.  I didn’t really deal with it as instead I was thrust into a steel mold of “new normalcy” and The Covid Rules.  I don’t think I’ve fully recovered from the fact that I spent so much time and so much work and so much MONEY into my study and practice of medicine and here I was, out of practice and grasping at straws.  Feelings happened, most within range, some out of it, all very real and triggering my built-in-forgetters of how damn far I’ve come.  

I started to slip.  Slowly.  Ed is a master and he’s no idiot.  The farther down the hole you’ve been, the sneakier he becomes in his seductive attempts at chaining your arms again.  I’ll hand him that.  He is pretty fucking charming.  I felt the need to invest in gym equipment as gyms across the country shut down and widespread panic settled in for the long haul among the masses who were now thrust into a forced way of innovative thinking about how they were going to care for their bodies.  Some got a Peleton.  Some took up running.  Some (I am the some) created a haven of racks and barbells and plates and dumbbells in their welcoming basement because it was a part of their recovering identity.  Not a day goes by where I don’t recognize my incredible privilege to be able to do that.  And, still, I can say without one shred of doubt that I most likely would be dead right now if I hadn’t made this investment, if I hadn’t acquired the stuff that had literally been saving my life for the past few years.  My addict self would have given up.  My relapse would have been incredible.  I would have been hospitalized, most likely with a heart attack.  The funeral would have been uneventful–Covid Rules.  My kids would be broken.

It really is that serious.

And yet, I wonder how the addicts are doing.

One of my favorite adages from the 12 step rooms is a question/answer combination which tends to illustrate the gravity of addiction in a simple phrase.  It goes like this:  A recent addict enters the rooms, distraught, downtrodden, hopeless.  He or she asks another member, “How do I know when I’ve hit rock bottom?”  The member simply replies, “When you stop digging.”  The bottom is bottomless and real actual rock bottom is death.  And I have to make very good friends with the simple yet oft elusive fact that I am indeed an addict and always will be.  So how are we doing?

For me, I’m doing better than I was in 2018 which was when my horrific relapse sent me to inpatient treatment.  In 2018, I was vomiting upwards of 50 times a day, collapsed on the floor in a haze, dragging myself to work where no one knew, waiting outside for the dollar store to open in cold windy weather with my 4 year old so I could raid the cheap shelves of cake mixes and cookies and soda, strategizing visits to different gas stations for junk food to get multiple hits so I could get high for ten minutes before I went back out and before picking my kids up from school.  It was no different from drug addiction.  I ate for the purge.  I got high from the purge.  This was way beyond body image.  I was seriously sick.  

But I am acutely aware that if I don’t watch it, history will repeat itself.  Addiction is activated as soon as we have the THOUGHT that we want to use.  We always have a choice.  When we choose what we think is the least painful way (because feeling our feelings is really fucking painful) and abuse whatever substance helps us to forget, we are swiftly reminded (like within the first 5 seconds of the hit) how much of a wrong choice that is for us.  This self-disappointment just spirals down into shame which yells at us, “how in the world did you let this happen AGAIN?”  So we pick up and use AGAIN in a vain attempt at interrupting the shame-sadness synapse that has taken hold of our entire nervous system.  We’re paralyzed.  Completely controlled by the chatter in our heads.  The only way to quiet it is to use.  Or get help.  And, at this point of addiction, most of us are alone.  No one really knows we NEED help.  So relapse gets cozy next to us in bed and we slowly join the walking dead.  Isolation is the perfect way for Ed to get away with this.  And he fucking knows it.

I’ve had many many bottoms.  I’ve yet to find the courage to share them publicly.  But I will share some others in another post so that you can understand that bulimia really can be that bad and really is as serious as any other kind of addiction.  I have beef with the fact that society just doesn’t believe this.  There are thousands of treatment centers for addicts all around the country.  Centers for eating disorders are few and far between and I’ve only found ONE that treats them as addictions.  I’ve struggled up and down and out and around to find my own way. I know what to do now. I just have to wake up each day and CHOOSE to do it. Recovery is, and always will be, a daily choice. Falling back into bulimia is my other choice. I’m thankful I haven’t forgotten how far I’ve come so that I can choose recovery one day at a time. And now I’m here to help.

But back to Covid Times.  How are the addicts doing?  I imagine not well.  Most of their lives changed drastically as they were told not to keep busy doing the busy things that kept them away from their drugs.  Their routines changed, their desire to create new ones simply snuffed and deadened.  Meetings went virtual, there was no human contact, drugs were available, food was available, free money came which could be used for said substances, the list goes on.  Do you know how courageous it is for us to finally ASK for the help?  Most of us spend years knowing we have a problem, misery sleeping next to us in our unchanged beds, and then after THOSE years we spend more years wanting help but terrified to ask or unsure of where to go.  Sometimes the help can be the wrong kind of help for us and then we are thrust back into the digging until we muster even more courage to ask again.  We are taught as a society to suck it up.  And this pandemic has added to that notion one-thousand-fold.  Suddenly, when we reach out to say we are struggling, we are met with the asshole insensitive response of, “Well, everyone is struggling Steph.  We are in a pandemic.”  This is the worst phrase in the history of phrases for an addict.  It makes them sicker.  Plain.  Simple.  This is an argument I will not have.  It is true.  Stop saying it, for the love of GOD unless you, too, are an addict.  My struggle to keep the food down, to not literally take calories from my kids’ mouths, to eat normally three times a day, to handle being alone is NOT akin to your struggle with why your sip and paint got cancelled.  Stop it.  Now.  Addicts need your help.  Your recognition.  Your ability to take your head out of the sand and look at them.  We are masters at lying, at hiding our self-evident truths, and making green grass on the other sides of windows so you don’t bother us all the while needing to be bothered.  We need you to read up on and then notice the signs that we are struggling and then ask to help us.  When we say no, we need you to persist (women know how to do this, right?).  We need your love, your REAL hugs, your hand shakes, your friendship.  Call us up.  Grab coffee, or don’t.  Zoom chat, for fuck’s sake.  Get us outside.  Show us that our built-in-forgetters need to be broken.  Let us not forget where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.  Be with us.  Be thinking of us when you’re without us.  Don’t cry into your soggy hands when we die after you know you could have changed it for us.  We are everywhere.  On the streets, in the city, in rich suburbia, coaching your kids, treating your medical ails, sitting next to you in church.  There are probably more of us now.  So next time you wonder how the addicts are doing, just ask us.  And then help.

If you or someone you know is battling addiction, there is help for you.  You’re not alone and you are worthy of recovery.  Your gifts for this world will never go unnoticed and there is someone out there literally dying for you to share them with it.  Get help.  Put yourself on the list.  I promise it will feel scary but your relief and newfound love for yourself will feel bigger than that.  You can do it.  I can do it.  Nothing changes if nothing changes.

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