Despite the social distancing, the masks, the contagion paranoia, COVID-19 has brought people together.
I’ve gotten random texts from people I barely know or old comedy comrades I haven’t spoken to in years asking if I was okay. The big theme of multiple online memes has been contacting exes. Social distancing, what a perfect excuse! I’ve been pretty good about not doing that, knowing that my motives wouldn’t be clean, the underlying themes would be either “I hope you have it, you asshole” or “Are you still alive and do you ever miss me?”
What COVID-19 has brought back to me aside from my mild agoraphobia and aggressive napping, is my high school posse. Prior to this I had shunned every high school reunion, refused every monthly dinner with “the girls” because…well…I felt ashamed. Despite writing “fuck shame” in every book I sign, I refused to attend the dinners for fear they would judge me. I believed the gap between their upper middle class lives chock full of PTA meetings and marital anniversaries (or whatever I imagined normalcy to look like) and mine of 24/7 recovery, a criminal record and a tour of rehabs worthy of Ozzy Osbourne, would just be too much to bridge.
My old best friend urged me to join their weekly Zoom meet up. “Nobody’s lives are as perfect as you’d think and everybody knows somebody who’s struggled with alcoholism or addiction. They’d be thrilled to see you. They love you, Amy.”
Might be a nice change from online meetings? And it would be another rare chance to see a group of people without masks. What did I have to lose?
I logged into the meeting and after making a few bad jokes about my past, I broke down and cried. “I am so sorry I’ve been MIA all these years, guys. I was embarrassed about what you would think of me.”
There was a chorus of : “You’re sober”, “It’s amazing”, “We don’t care”, “We love you”, “You wrote a book and you’re helping people”, blah, blah blah. To be honest, I had a hard time taking it in.
Once we’d caught each other up on our lives, we took a drive down memory lane. Thanks to a dozen or so seizures and years of drug use, I couldn’t remember every teacher or boy’s name but they could. We laughed as we recounted juvenile and poignant moments from 13-17 years old: getting our periods, early crushes, first concerts, getting kicked out of classes.
Ironically, the dynamic was the same among us as it had been 30 plus years before: there was the joker (yours truly), the airhead, the organizer, the hippy, the cynic, the athlete and Sheila. Everything had changed yet nothing had changed. It was strange and soothing. During this period when everything is different and terrifying and ambiguous, I found reconnecting with my teenage friends to be surprisingly grounding. It was familiar, taking me back to a time when I was innocent and all my dreams were possible; reminding me of the person I was before I was an addict, the person I STILL am. As a recovery advocate and an addiction writer, my whole life is recovery and my “story”. I wear the label proudly and loudly and that’s great. It is important to remember where I come from but it was refreshing to also remember that I can connect with people apart from and outside of my addiction.
I asked Joe Schrank, social worker, recovery advocate, interventionist and person in long term recovery (www.denialends.com) his thoughts. “Well first off, I think it’s hard to be a professional self-improver. Part of recovery is rejoining the social milieu whether it’s family, coworkers or old friends and not being the outsider. We don’t always have to be the freak.”
“Part of the problem with somebody who’s been in multiple rehabs is that becomes their identity. It’s like a prison. They become institutionalized. They can’t get their mind around who they are outside of that. You’re the defective person. You’re a mentally ill person.”
That hit me hard. It took years for me to shake off those labels and the ducking of responsibility and coddling from others that came with them.
“It’s hard to honor who you are as a recovering person and plug into systems where they really don’t want to hear it,” Schrank said.
When I pressed him for why he thought I had found so much solace in this reunion, he said, “I think everybody is looking for their favorite flannel shirt right now. Everybody is looking for something familiar and know, something comforting, during this time of uncertainty.” What he said next validated my own instincts on why this reunion felt so sweet during the pandemic. “You’re trying to plug into a time of life when things were funnier or simpler and maybe you just have to put that other persona on the shelf to get that.”
I asked my old high school buddies how they felt about my return. One friend said, “I was very touched that you shared those feelings with us and felt awful. I hadn’t realized how difficult it would have been for you to come on Zoom and join us.”
Another said, “I was pretty blown away by how vulnerable you got. It softened the call. I haven’t been part of the group for a while so it created some space for me to feel nervous or unsure about how people would accept me too. So I felt really grateful that you set the precedent.”
And finally, another friend said, “We’re all fulfilling our destinies. You were always funny and a great writer and that’s what you’re doing now. Who cares where you got your material!”
Good point, buddy. Who cares?