Blooming in Darkness: Thriving During the Pandemic

2020 will go down as a shitty year. I know, I know, it’s only August. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if nothing else bad happens, 2020 will still be a shitty year.

In March, COVID-19 plunged us into a global recession. At present count, it has killed nearly 170,000 Americans. As we approach six million cases with an average of more than 60,000 new cases each day, it seems the worst is still ahead of us. 

We’re out of work, out of money, shuttered in our homes, going slowly crazy from isolation, but still terrified to hug our friends, lovers, parents or children. Many of my friends have lost grandparents, parents, or friends. A nurse I know has lost three people to COVID. When George Floyd was murdered by police on May 25th, it set off the largest social protest in our country’s history. That protest has not ended. With the veil finally, irrevocably pulled back on systemic racism and police brutality, our President heard the concerns of his constituents, calmly considered the evidence … and sent DHS troops to Portland to tear gas a group of moms. A storm cloud of disease, death, and destruction seems to shadow us all. Through all of this, I’m somehow not just staying sober and surviving, but thriving. And for that, I feel hideously guilty. 

I think many of us went through similar stages with COVID-19: denial, disbelief, shock, terror, and paralysis. In many ways, it reminds me of the first fist fight I was in as a little kid. I was terrified of fighting, terrified of getting hit. When the first punch didn’t end my world, I felt stunned. That was it? Then came the second punch, and the third. They didn’t knock me down, but the experience was scary and it hurt. Punches kept coming. Finally, I realized that the only solution was fighting back.

First, COVID neatly dispatched my planned summer tour, playing music all over the UK, Spain, and the Netherlands. Then it wiped out my writing workshop at Yale and my tour of the Northeast and Canada. Then it derailed the one-person show at a theater in New York I’d been planning for a year. I calculated my losses at around $20,000, a huge amount for an independent artist. But it seemed gauche to gripe about it when so many people were dying, sick, or losing everything.

Flights were grounded, states shut down. I broke up with my girlfriend. It quickly became clear that I would spend a long, hot, brutal summer alone in Phoenix in my 92 year old house with an AC unit that just can’t keep up. But finally, after many days lost to depression or anxiety attacks, some shameful panic buying, and one weird early morning conversation about death with my mom where I made us both cry, I started getting my shit together. 

I took a black Sharpie and wrote on my bathroom mirror “PMA.” It felt corny and teenage, but I knew I needed a positive mental attitude more now than ever. And whaddya know, it worked. Every morning when I woke up and dragged myself to the bathroom, overflowing with nihilistic despair, there was the reminder I needed: chin up, fucker—life is still sweet. 

There were no masks available, so I tracked down a box of shop towels at an Autozone and my mom got some elastic from a neighbor. She fired up her old sewing machine and turned out mask after mask, enough for everyone in our bubble. I installed bidets for us both and, yeah, I eventually got used to that weird butthole squirt gun. On a sleepy morning, that jet of cold water on my most sensitive bits woke me up better than a mug of black coffee. 

I put every nonessential guitar I owned up for sale on That ‘extra’ pickup truck that I’d been meaning to sell forever? I took a bath on it, but I finally got rid of it. I started offering one-on-one streaming concerts for my fans, where they picked the set list. I was stunned by how many people took me up on it, how many people overpaid, and how many people just sent money and expected nothing in return. I promoted my music, I promoted my merch, and I promoted my books. I finally overcame my resistance and started a Patreon. I couldn’t believe how much people wanted to give and how little they wanted in return. I applied for grants. For the first time in my life, I applied for unemployment assistance. It wouldn’t come close to making up for the income I’d lost but I realized that, as much as I’d wanted that money, wanted to teach and tour and perform, that I would survive without it. No one was stoked about quarantine but I recognized that I had what we’ll call ‘quar privilege.’ I had it way easier than most of my old friends in New York City. I tried to be grateful for my privilege every day.

The shutdown had hit when I was halfway through getting a root canal and crown so I brushed, flossed and used mouthwash after every meal, the best dental health I’ve ever exercised in my life. I’d been meaning to be better about vitamins since, well, basically since I’d achieved sentience. But now there was something at stake, so I got in the habit of religiously taking vitamins every morning and night. I wouldn’t be able to get a massage when my back freaked out every six weeks, so I worked to improve my posture and lay on my hard lacrosse ball to work the knots out when it got bad. I started getting up at five every morning to run before it got too hot. I worked on the house and the yard until the temperature got up to 100, then I worked inside. I finished and released an EP I’d been dragging my feet on for months, got another record of demos and outtakes ready to pop, and dug out an old live recording from Vancouver that I’ll release this fall, my third record this year. 

Four and a half months into quarantine, I’m doing great. I’ve toured like a madman for most of my adult life. Fans told me I loved it and I told myself it was my life’s work. But I didn’t realize how much it was ruining me and endangering my sobriety until COVID forced me to stay home. Now I wake up early to run, take my vitamins, brush my teeth. I’ve lost the weight I gained in the first month of shutdown and gained a lot of strength and endurance. The new normal is lonely for us all, but entering into a monogamous relationship with my cat has been surprisingly fulfilling. I chase her around the house and then she chases me back. When I roll her on her back and rub her tummy and she grins at me and makes biscuits in the air with her white paws, I feel joy, a sensation I thought had died in me. 

I miss my friends and my old life so much it hurts. But mostly when I think about life pre-COVID, I marvel at how fucking lucky I was. I feel grateful to have had such a fun, chaotic, unsanitary life. I suffered from depression and anxiety before COVID and no, COVID didn’t cure me. But my depression is greatly diminished because preparing for the end of the world has given my life new purpose. It’s ironic, but the anxiety-inducing nightmare of our new normal has given my natural anxiety something to dig in to, like a mouth guard for someone who grinds their teeth at night. I’m thriving during this pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and made us all suffer, and for that, I feel horribly guilty. But I’m not alone.

When I did an informal poll of my Facebook and Twitter friends who have found themselves thriving during this big pause, I quickly saw patterns emerge. We’ve been forced to slow down. Many of us are learning to eschew empty consumerism and the meaningless cycle of working and spending and working and spending. For many of my comic/musician/artist friends, they’re making more from unemployment than they did when they were working. In the absence of our friends, our jobs, and group socializing, we’re learning to value solitude, creativity, and family. We’re finally picking up a lot of ‘one day’ stuff. You know: one day, I’ll learn to play piano; one day, I’ll finish restoring this old car; one day, I’ll get in shape.

Ali Musa is a comic in Tucson: “I haven’t had a drink in 6 months. I lost almost 30 pounds, in almost the best shape of my life. I started a successful podcast that gets hundreds of downloads a week and I’ve gotten paid to produce content and stream on multiple platforms that reached out to me. I’ve saved more money than I have in years and find I’m appreciating life and the little things more than ever.”

Rachael Warner is a sustainable designer in NYC: “I’m exercising every day and I’ve lost more than 30 pounds so far. I finally have time to relax, get ample sleep, and stop and enjoy life, instead of feeling like I’m running around like a crazy woman. I’m catching up on all my projects that I haven’t had time for and putting together new strategies for my business. It’s been great, to be honest. I needed a god damn break.”

Mat Alano-Martin is a comic from Indiana: “I returned to my first love of sitting in a room and writing music. I taught myself a new recording software, made an album, taught myself Final Cut Pro and made videos for the songs. I learned to appreciate being home and just being/being sober/being enough.”

Brandy Bryant is a tattoo artist in Denver: “During the stay-at-home order, my girlfriend and I started an LLC for our entertainment production company. We wrote multiple scripts for movies and a web series, we completed a short film, and animated the first portion of a cartoon series. Since returning to work, we haven’t had time to do much. I kinda miss the shutdown, to be honest.”

Jerad Grossaint is a boilermaker from Washington: “I started working with the boilermakers union (which falls into the category of welding I was studying until COVID shut down the college in March). Between the union wages and the CARES act unemployment compensation, I can actually afford to live during my lay off. I’ve lost around 70 pounds in the last six months, I’m making great progress on the 52’ Ford hot rod I’m building, and I still have money in savings from my last two boilermaker jobs.”

Danielle Onderdonk was a beverage manager in Reno: “My partner Greg is home and spending more time with our son than he has his entire life. Because of our jobs at Amazon, I am lean and muscular. We have more money and top notch medical, dental and vision insurance. At 53, Greg is finally getting a finger up his ass to check his prostate and I can laugh at him the night before his first colonoscopy!”

Lizzie No is a folk singer from Queens, NY: “I’m embarrassed to admit that, for me personally, this is one of the best times in recent memory. I went through a major breakup but have found that the pandemic has changed the dating game. People seem more willing to engage in meaningful conversation and Facetime dates turn out to be a helpful way to screen people. Pre-pandemic times involved constant hustling (which I was happy to do—I chose this life!) but since canceling my summer tours, I’ve been able to make ends meet via online subscriptions and it has improved my quality of life dramatically.”

It’s not my intent to minimized the death and suffering COVID-19 has wrought, in America and around the world. We’ve lived through a long, bad time and we have a longer, worse time ahead of us. COVID has transformed our lives, it will continue to transform our lives, and some of those transformations will be permanent. But not all of those transformations are negative. 

Americans work too much. Or rather: we work too much for financial gain and then piss that money away on crap we don’t need. We don’t work enough for our health and personal fulfillment. People always ask me if there’s something that would make me relapse. I tell them that if I had to go back to working 40 hours a week in a cubicle job, that I would drink the first day, that I wouldn’t be able to relapse fast enough. Obviously, I hope we’re able to emerge from this crisis with more faith in science and a greater investment in public health, but I also hope it redefines our relationship to work. We don’t need jet skis, we don’t need naked sushi. We need our friends and our families, we need hugs, we need our health.

So what to do about my ‘quarantine privilege,’ about doing so well when so many others are suffering? Feeling guilty about privilege never helped anyone. I do what I can to help others where I can, whether it’s writing a check or just checking in. But there’s no way to donate my health or my relatively cushy life. I was able to go out for a run in the desert this morning, and there’s no way to Venmo twenty percent of that experience to someone dead, dying, or grieving. So I try to feel grateful for the good life that I have. The best way to honor the dead is by living.

Sobriety During a Global Pandemic

“Weird” and “crazy” are two words that are used so commonly, so indiscriminately that they have lost some of their meaning but Jesus H. Christ, what a weird, crazy time we are living in.

There’s never been a harder time to stay sober… and there’s never been a better time to stay sober. We need to keep our wits about us, as individuals, as a country, as a species. 

I’m in Arizona, which hasn’t been particularly hard hit by coronavirus but still, the pandemic has overpowered me several times in the last month: powerless fury in a Costco parking lot; sudden tears at the absence of traffic at a busy stoplight during rush hour; laying paralyzed on my kitchen floor after too much coffee, unable to start my day. 

Which is to say sobriety during a pandemic is mostly just business as usual. People in recovery begin each day faced with the insurmountable task of negotiating this insane world sober, and each day we somehow manage to do it. No, it’s not great to lay face down on your grimy old hardwood floor for so long that your cat’s vocalizations begin to sound like entreaties (“Will you try to get up meow?”) But I’ve been sober for nearly eleven years now. I’ve lain on dirtier floors longer for much less serious reasons. Though I worry about the pandemic, I don’t worry about making it through the pandemic sober. I know I have the tools I need. If anything, it’s made me grateful to be a sober alcoholic because recovery has given me more tools to get through this pandemic than folks who haven’t struggled with addiction.

I am not an AA guy and I am very much an anti-theist but it would be dumb to deny the wisdom found in what’s become known as ‘The Serenity Prayer,’ credited to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

“grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.”

Like most of you, I don’t have the power to save the world. I’m not a scientist, I have no medical training, I can’t even sew masks. Constantly checking the news on my iPhone—News app, Reddit, Facebook, repeat ad nauseum—doesn’t help frontline health care workers, it doesn’t speed up vaccine research, it doesn’t protect my friends in New York and Atlanta and New Orleans, it doesn’t keep my mother healthy. What constantly refreshing the news on my phone does is keep my anxiety at a maximum. 

I switched to reading the news in the morning, at dinner, and before I go to bed. And I’m steering myself away from online news, especially news targeted for smartphones. I was redlining when the first issue of my new subscription to the New Yorker showed up. I threw my phone across the room, my thumb already sore from scrolling, and cracked open the magazine. Almost instantly, everything felt different. Online news was like a can of Pringles—all that first chip was going to do was make me want another one and I was going to keep eating and eating until they were all gone and even then, nauseated and disgusted and dehydrated, I wouldn’t feel sated. By reading the print version of the New Yorker, I was still getting the information I needed, but through in-depth, responsible, thoughtful reportage instead of clickbait headlines, screaming in capital letters.

I recognize that the pandemic falls largely into the category of “things I cannot change.” But the first thing I can change is how I react to the things I can’t change. In order to get through the pandemic sober and sane, I’m embracing the art of benevolent selfishness: self-care. To protect my physical health, I eat as well as I can when only buying food once a week, I take my vitamins, I drink lots of water, I exercise almost every day, I get sunshine every day. I was training for a marathon but that meant wearing myself down so I’m back to running six miles three or four days a week instead of cranking out big double-digit runs on the weekend. To protect my mental health, I’m not trying to eat perfectly (and then beating myself up when I fail). I allow myself treats when I’ve worked out hard or just had a rough day. I allow myself to binge on TV or video games, but only after the sun’s gone down. To protect my physical health, I set my alarm for an hour later in the morning. But to protect my mental health, I haven’t turned my alarm off completely. Public businesses are shut down, but I am not shut down. I’m not going to attempt something massive like Feng shui’ing my hoarder’s heaven or get in the best shape of my life, but I still need to get up and I still need to get stuff done.

As a form of self-care, I express care for the people I love the most because I know that always lifts my spirits. My sister works at Target and she recently came down with a dry, barking cough. She suffers from allergies and she often starts coughing this time of year so we weren’t too freaked out, but she was immediately sent home from work for two weeks to recover. I brought her over a bunch of groceries and my old Xbox to keep her entertained. My mother is a spry 73-year-old who needs my help less often than I need hers but installing a bidet for her and bringing her the occasional onion or can of curry powder when she needs it has buoyed us both. 

My greatest grounding influence, though, has been my cat. She can’t read the news, she doesn’t watch TV, she has no idea what’s going on. Every morning, she carefully pokes me with a claw or two to tell me it’s time to make her breakfast. Every evening, she flounces dramatically over to the kitchen for half a can of wet food. Every day, she insists that I run around the yard with her and scratch her cheeks and her chin and her tummy. Every day, she does something silly and reminds me that fun and laughter are integral parts of any recovery program. Every day, I have to scoop her stinky poops out of her cat box. Our day-to-day life together reminds me that while it feels like the world is on fire, these are still normal days. The cat needs to get fed, her cat box needs to get cleaned, I need to not drink. 

Let the banalities of life keep your feet on the ground. We all love to hate social media because it’s become a substitute for hanging out in real life. But when we can’t hang out in real life, social media suddenly becomes an important tool. Use it to keep yourself honest, use it to find a virtual workout buddy, join a challenge, start a challenge. My #WriteQuarantine writing group on Facebook isn’t just therapeutic, it’s also generated some truly moving writing (and past challenges with this group have helped me finish books). I’m not a big gratitude person but I’ve committed to #gratefulApril on my Instagram: posting a picture of something I’m grateful for each day. Social media rarely brings me joy but it has provided a useful buffer, it’s kept me out of the doldrums.

Doing these little things to take care of your head and your heart and your health… it feels kind of inconsequential, doesn’t it? It’s not. The greatest contribution you can make to the world right now is by staying well, not getting sick. If you’re not in need of emergency health care, those resources will be available for someone else. By offering and accepting help as part of my self-care, I’m able to lift up people around me. I’m not naïve enough to suggest that positive vibes will make everything okay because I honestly believe the coronavirus pandemic will be the defining event of our time, our ‘Great War.’ But staying apart, staying sane, and staying healthy is how we are flattening the curve and it’s how we will squash the curve. Over a long enough period of time, we may see that accepting that thing we couldn’t change and instead focusing on the things we could actually change the course of a global pandemic. If you’re already in recovery, you have the tools you need. Let’s get to work.


Why We Drink, and Why We Quit: An Excerpt from the Audible Original ‘Cold Turkey’ by Mishka Shubaly

Mishka Shubaly’s Audible Original, ‘Cold Turkey: How to Quit Drinking by Not Drinking,’ is out today. Read an excerpt here, then listen to the whole story on Audible.

Grab your notebook and pen and make a list of why you drink.

Here are some reasons why I drank: I drank to help me sleep. I drank as a reward after a hard day. I drank because my back hurt. I drank so I’d be able to talk to people, to socialize. I drank to get laid because I felt that I couldn’t talk to women unless I was drinking. I drank to be tough. I drank to be cool. I drank because it was expected of me because it’s what I understood men do. I drank because writers drank. I drank because all my friends drank; it was what we did together. I drank to unwind, I drank to wake up, I drank to get loose, I drank because I thought it made me a better musician, a better writer, a better performer. I drank because I was hurt by my father’s abrupt abandonment of our family when I was fifteen. I drank because I was heartbroken over an ex or two or three. I drank because I was bored or anxious. I drank to quell my anxiety and panic attacks. I drank because I was happy or sad or because I wanted to feel happy or sad. I drank because I was angry. I drank to feel good and not feel bad. I drank because I felt like I was going to die or because I wanted to die or because I wanted to feel like I was dying. I drank when I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t drink because I was afraid of failure–failure quickly became very comfortable for me—I drank because I was afraid of trying and failing.

When you’re finished with that list, I want you to write about why you don’t want to stop drinking. I did an informal poll of my drinking friends on Twitter and Facebook, and their number one reason for not quitting was the same as my only reason for not quitting: fear. I was afraid of going through life without alcohol, from the first couple of rough days of acute withdrawal to not being able to celebrate with a beer to not being able to anesthetize myself through an exhausting work week to not being able to drown my sorrows in a vat of liquor when something bad happened. How would I leave the house, how would I be able to deal with other people, how would I be able to socialize, how would I have fun, how would I be able to have sex? I was afraid of selling out, of growing up, of changing.

You’re worried that your life as a drunk has not prepared you for a life sober but your life as a drunk has absolutely prepared you for a life sober.

You may feel weak and powerless, terrified of quitting, but you probably have no reason to be afraid of anything. You’re worried that your life as a drunk has not prepared you for a life sober but your life as a drunk has absolutely prepared you for a life sober. Think of what you’ve endured before this point. How many days have you crawled to work and worked a full day—in a stuffy office, in the blazing hot sun, in the freezing cold, with a crowd of people yelling at you—while you were incredibly hungover? To get to a point where you’re ready to quit, you must have survived innumerable horrors. I fried 50 pounds of bacon during the graveyard shift, I dug ditches, I moved furniture, I answered phones, I processed sensitive visa and passport applications, I interviewed at the New Yorker, I cleaned out sub-basements and parking garages in Queens in February. The thought of doing any one of those things with a hangover now scares the shit out of me. But I did them, every one of them. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know I would have to chop chicken wings that were going bad when I popped the cap on that plastic bottle of Gordon’s gin. What matters is that when the time came, I got up on four hours of sleep and I got the job done.

Don’t for one minute make the mistake of thinking alcoholics are weak. Alcohol made you feel weak, but alcoholism has absolutely made you strong. How many stories have you heard about alcoholics who have gone on to set insane endurance records, running or biking for days and days, for hundreds and hundreds of miles? Alcoholics live against tremendous resistance for years and years—we have unmatched tenacity and determination. It takes a tremendous amount of strength to live with alcohol. It’s taken a considerable amount of strength for you to get this far. That strength will serve you well now that it’s time to live without it. I thought I was weak and useless but when the time came, I had it in me to do that fearsome thing. You do, too. The only thing you’re afraid of right now is the unknown.

Alcoholics live against tremendous resistance for years and years—we have unmatched tenacity and determination.

No one knows more about the nature of fear than the master of horror, Stephen King: “Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door… The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. ‘A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible,’ the audience thinks, ‘but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.’”

It’s no coincidence that King is also a sober alcoholic. No one knows more about fear than addicts, by capitulating to it and seeking shelter in oblivion, we give our lives over to it entirely. King’s point in the above quote is that nothing is more terrifying than the unknown. Our brain puts something in that closed closet that is scarier than anything we can actually see. When the closet finally bursts open, yes, there’s fear but also relief because no amount of blood or slime or razor-sharp fangs is scarier than the unknown. I had a right to feel fear and you have a right to feel fear. But when you do stop drinking and you swing that closet door open, you need to know that nothing you find there will be as scary as what you imagine it to be. After ten years sober, the only thing that scares me is the thought of falling back into my old drinking life.