Like other people with substance use disorders, the pandemic has tested me. On the other side of my relapse, however, I found an identity I’d been looking for.
I set up my computer at the tall bar-top table in the dining room just off the living room in my new sober living house. Every day during assigned chores in the morning, someone would polish it. It was still shining.
I had just finished unpacking after driving an hour from rehab to start my recovery in a supported environment—the type where they make you pee in a cup and get a paper signed to prove you’ve been to 12-step meetings. Sitting at the shiny dining room table across from the assistant house manager, I decided to develop a creative outlet. I had a story to write about the uncharted territory of visiting a residential drug rehab in the middle of a pandemic, and I was going to have it published somewhere.
I had always been told to write but had generally avoided writing as a medium, perhaps as an act of defiance. My mother is a poet, so I made sure to grow up to be anything but a writer. I worked in banking for 10 years, but I quit my job as a part-time teller to stay home with my children after the birth of my third. I had dabbled in freelance writing on and off for about 10 years, mostly taking on content writing assignments from friends who were overbooked. Briefly, before COVID-19, I had tried working in the restaurant industry again. The shifts allowed me to work opposite my husband’s schedule so we wouldn’t need daycare. A few weeks before the stores sold out of hand sanitizer and toilet paper, I was fired. “You’re just not a good fit for the restaurant,” my manager said. In fact, she said I was probably a bad fit for the whole industry.
The COVID-19 pandemic continued to test me. I lost my aunt to the virus in April. Like many other people with the disease of addiction, the isolation of the lockdown led me to a relapse in my substance use disorder. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. My usual recovery meetings shut down, and I started detaching from my network. The grief, restlessness, and general sense of impending doom were too much. I needed to take the edge off. So I picked up. I ended up in a treatment center, baffled as to how I came to be here again, but I was determined to make use of the time. While in treatment, I realized that I had a story that no one else had: the unique experience of visiting a residential addiction treatment center during a pandemic. I started jotting notes.
When I left treatment four weeks later, my children’s grandparents brusquely informed me my children would stay with them for a while so that I could focus on my recovery. Any argument by me that it had been a short-term slip was brushed off. I was to focus on myself, and we would figure out the details later.
I moved into my new sober living house and promised myself that I would use the time to focus not only on my recovery but on turning writing, a mostly inert hobby, into a career. I wrote a personal essay detailing exactly how it was to be in a residential drug rehab during a pandemic. The assistant house manager previewed the draft for me before I started pitching it to publications. A small recovery publication noticed my pitch and asked me to send the draft. They accepted my essay and sent me some freelancer paperwork. Just like that, I had sold my first story about 45 days into my sobriety.
I continued to pitch stories. A small nonprofit newsroom assigned me my first reported piece in September. I found a thrill in tracking down sources and cold-calling leads. I landed an interview with a lead, and I called them from my kitchen, nervous that they would sense my newness over the phone. When I submitted the finished piece, it felt powerful to put a story out that might not have been otherwise told.
I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about how I wrote research papers in college. I sat and pieced together facts to tell a story, and no one had told me you didn’t have to have a Ph.D. in sociology to make a career of this. People had always told me to write, but I assumed they meant fiction, which was never something that naturally came to me. Using my research skills to tell stories was always something that I had a knack for, and I wish I had found journalism as a medium sooner. I have been working as a freelance journalist for about six months now. My reporting has been mostly about public health and drug policy, but I’ve ventured out into other areas of interest as well—particularly topics relating to racism and education.
The pandemic has been incredibly stressful for people in recovery, as their normal sanctuaries have been closed down or limited or are simply unsafe. I have primarily stopped attending in-person support groups due to people’s casual attitudes toward masking. Meanwhile, there has been a national spike in overdose deaths—the provisional overdose count released by the CDC predicts the highest death count in history. The Addiction Policy Forum found that more than a third of people with substance use disorders have had trouble accessing treatment or support. In my home state of Illinois, Cook County has seen it’s deadliest year ever for opioid overdoses, with Latinos and Black people accounting for 63% of the deaths.
COVID has had a devastating effect on our world, and I suspect that none of us will ever be the same. I turned to writing as an outlet for the anger and sorrow I felt over a mismanaged pandemic, growing polarization in our country, and the effects of racism as a public health crisis. It has given me meaning and purpose and something to think about outside of the pity parties that I regularly throw for myself.
We expect to have our family reunited by the spring of 2021, but my family is still working out the details. For now, I know that learning to develop an identity outside of motherhood is essential, and I will continue to develop and nurture my best self like my life depends on it.