Given that I don’t have children and I’m privileged to work from home, I knew my social distancing wouldn’t be nearly as complex and trying as it would be for others. Still, as the pandemic grew, it became apparent I couldn’t plan more than a day or two into the future, because no one knew what that future was going to look like. After a couple weeks of not knowing what to expect next, situational fatigue set in. Even though I'm self-isolating with my partner, I nursed the ache of missing my other connections, the other relationships that sustain me: my friends, my sisters, my parents.
When you’re used to living your life by looking ahead, being forced to take it day by day—and to be still with your thoughts and feelings, as you do—is a considerable mental adjustment. Especially when you're not supposed to think about the future, and, instead, try to be more present… all while doing what you're doing exactly because the future matters to you.
Even as I struggled under the weight of my feelings, something about the situation felt oddly familiar. One day when I was making lunch, with two dogs trailing me like shadows—if shadows loved treats—it hit me. “Holy shit,” I said, as two sets of ears cocked in my direction. “This is like when I got sober.”
This pandemic is unprecedented, but I recognized in myself the exact coping skill set necessary to keep its weight from crushing me entirely: Knowing how to take my life one day or even an hour at a time; knowing that being alone with my feelings won’t destroy me; and knowing that even though I’m doing something I find super annoying and disruptive to my life, the day-to-day inconvenience is worth the long-term payoff. It’s the overall idea that there’s a future worth all of this hardship now, but that’s a tough sell when you’re struggling to keep your head above water today.
Seven years ago, before this virus and its fallout and the everyday circus that is our new reality, I decided to stop drinking alcohol. At the time, I was living a life in which I’d put all my coping skills and faith into drinking. One spring morning after an embarrassing night out with my co-workers that ended in a fight with my partner, I knew that if I didn’t stop, either a judge or death would do it for me.
Deciding to rid your life of a substance you're abusing forces you to reimagine your existence altogether. For many of us, the change in lifestyle feels shocking: You're suddenly cut off from your former life and have to find a way to make a new one. Without alcohol there to give you the distance of a booze haze, you're left alone with your feelings—and to deal with them, instead of trying to erase them by behaving destructively in the name of short-term relief.
At first, sobriety felt easy because I felt so ashamed of how I’d behaved that I was ready to do anything to convince everyone it wouldn't ever happen again. But the rush of swift and self-imposed penance faded within a couple weeks, and sobriety would feel harder. I wanted so badly to be able to go out and drink my sadness or anger or frustration away, but I also knew that I’d never really been able to do that in the first place.
This same feeling popped up when I was a few weeks into self-isolation and I watched college kids on spring break flout all the rules I was holding myself to—there weren’t yet orders shutting things down and making me stay inside. At that point, it was just me and my idea of what was right, and the feeling of spirited commitment to the higher cause of safety morphed into the day-to-day drudgery of committing to my choices.
Self-isolation is different, of course, because it’s not an individualized situation (even if it feels really lonesome). Instead, it's the fallout of a uniquely shitty situation experienced by everyone, at once, which is complicated further by the federal government’s halting, slow, politicized response.
But people still have to make a choice: to become less comfortable, and more willing to sit with themselves and their feelings, rather than act impulsively for the sake of a quick fix that may be shattering in the long run.
When I gave up booze, I couldn’t blame anyone else for the imposition or feel a sense of righteous indignation at someone telling me how to live (you’ll see that exact furor in the protestors demanding to open up the country again). I had to learn quickly how to stand up to that side of myself when I wanted to get out of line or else I’d end up putting myself and others at risk. I had to be able to firmly tell myself no, when all I wanted to hear was yes.
Social distancing brought this line of reasoning back out for me, like when I tried to convince myself it would be fine to go to brunch or the art museum as long as I didn’t touch anyone or anything. I struggled to find it sometimes, but ultimately, the answer was always no. I knew I could try to rationalize it to myself in a way that gave me the space to avoid personal responsibility, but I also knew I’d hate myself for endangering myself and others after the adventure was over.
One of the best parts of giving up alcohol for me was waking up without that feeling of self-loathing or a hangover or a sense of dread and regret about what I may have done the night before. It felt so good that I knew it was worth feeling annoyed or upset when I didn’t allow myself to drink. It was an investment in eventually getting to a time when things would be less fraught, more stable—an investment I made day by day, moment by moment.
Social distancing is a major change to all of our lives. But the other hardest thing I've ever done taught me: Experiencing day-to-day discomfort is worth the eventual payoff (especially when that means helping to stop the spread of a deadly virus). Staying in control each day after the one before is difficult. It’s a sign of hope to factor in a better future.
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