I Won’t Drink Today, and I Won’t Get the Virus Today

Alcoholics Anonymous prepared me for the pandemic.

Getty / The Atlantic

Allow me to brag for a minute: I’m a pandemic-shutdown champion. I sit in my apartment day after day, week after week, focused on getting through the next few hours and not allowing myself to worry too much about, or even think too much about, the future. For this superpower, I have to thank Alcoholics Anonymous.

I joined AA at 19 mostly because I loved cocaine, truly loved cocaine, but also because I loved vodka and cheap white wine and diet pills and valium in enormous quantities. I wanted to not die, so joining was an easy decision, helped along by the knowledge that I came from a family of female alcoholics: My mother had written novels about her drinking, and my grandmother was famous for her drunken vomiting at various fine restaurants throughout Manhattan. So, on November 1, 1997, I boarded a plane for the Hazelden treatment center in Minnesota. Soon after, I began attending AA meetings, which I still attend to this day, though on Zoom right now. AA saved me. I’ve been sober through numerous life experiences—my 21st birthday, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (I went to a meeting that night), my wedding, the births of my three children, and now months and months and months of a pandemic that may go on for months and months longer.

I guess I’m not supposed to talk about this. One of the founding principles of AA is anonymity, which is stated in Tradition Eleven: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.“ I regularly break my anonymity at the level of “press, radio, and films.” I am careful not to out others, but I feel that I can help people by talking publicly about my sobriety, and that’s why I do it. Also, I wrote a novel when I was 21 about getting sober, Normal Girl, which got a terrible review in The New York Times Book Review that still haunts me. I’d feel silly pretending I’m not sober when I’ve written an entire book about it.

Another AA principle—though not an official tradition—is living a day at a time. My sponsor explained it to me after a meeting in December 1997, during a walk to Starbucks so I could get an enormous cinnamon bun the size of my head. This was before Starbucks started putting the calorie counts on food.

“How am I going to stay sober forever?” I asked, and I took a bite of my cinnamon bun. “How am I going to stay sober and go back to college? How am I going to stay sober and live in the dorms? How am I going to stay sober and turn 21? How am I going to stay sober at my wedding?”

I didn’t know at the time, but young people, even if they’re single, always talk about wanting to drink at their wedding. My sponsor kindly chose not to point this out.  She simply said, “You’re just going to stay sober today, just right now.”

I paused. I thought she was kidding. “Sure, sure, but what about tomorrow?”

“Maybe we’ll drink tomorrow; maybe there’ll be a nuclear apocalypse and then you and I can drink. But for today, for today, let’s just not.”

I heard some version of this formula often. An older fellow in my meetings used to say he lived “in a day-tight compartment,” the idea being that he concerned himself only with the activities of the current 24 hours.

Like so many things in AA, the “One day at a time” mantra seemed nonsensical at first and later became gospel. Thinking I can’t have a drink ever again or even I can’t have a drink this week is sometimes too much, but I can’t have a drink today is manageable. Over the past 23 years, I’ve worked to trick my brain into staying in the moment, and not dwelling on the future or the past.

Which brings me to 2020. In March, I covered the Conservative Political Action Conference, always an anxiety-inducing event for me, but especially so this year because an attendee who did a lot of glad-handing later tested positive for COVID-19. I had to quarantine for two weeks, but I didn’t think of it as two weeks; I thought of it as one day and then another day and another. The two weeks passed, but the pandemic did not. So I continued to live “in a day-tight compartment.” I still do. Every night at 8 p.m., I attend my Zoom AA meeting. Every morning, I think, Today I won’t drink and Today I’ll stay home and not contract the coronavirus.

Look, I’m as obsessed with “getting back to normal” as everyone else is, but I try not to worry about when that will be possible. I’ll lose it if I think in terms of hanging on until there’s a vaccine. Some people may find it helpful to tell themselves, It’s not forever. It’s just a few months. In my experience, though, when there’s no firm deadline for the end of an ordeal—and no one really knows when the pandemic will end—it’s better to focus on getting through the day. Life isn’t lived two weeks from now, or two months from now. Life exists in the moment and nowhere else.

I’m not stupid, at least not about this. I know that this winter will be one of the hardest, saddest winters of my lifetime. We all know it. The ousted Department of Health and Human Services official Rick Bright testified in March that this could be the “darkest winter in modern history.” That was tens of thousands of deaths ago, and America still has no federal testing program, no mask mandate, no plan. But it’s not winter 2020; we don’t live in winter 2020 until we do. All any of us have is right now. The only time we can possibly occupy is this moment of this day, and today I can drink my coffee, not my vodka, try to get my teenagers to talk to me, and do the next right thing.