It’s 3 a.m. or so, closer to the end of overnight curfew than its beginning, and the streets of my neighborhood are totally empty. I’m running — drunk, empty wine bottle in hand — toward the apartment of one of my drug dealers. He doesn’t answer my shouts outside his door. Then I speed over to a friend’s place, screaming outside his window in hopes he’ll respond with offers of alcohol. Being out this late alone is scary, but addiction makes me stupidly brazen.
That was the fall of 2017, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, weeks after Hurricane Maria. It was my first government-mandated curfew. Clinging to coping mechanisms amid the bleakness of the post-storm crisis — no electricity, no cell service, scarcity of food, water and gas — put me at serious risk. A temporary dry law made booze hard to procure, and the lack of cell reception meant dealers weren’t easy to reach. Wandering out alone so late and in utter darkness isn’t something I’d suggest anyone, anywhere ever do. But I was deep in dangerous, heavy substance use then. I was desperate, and I ventured out past curfew, alone and wasted, multiple times.
Due to government orders to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, I’m under curfew again — but this time, I’m 17 months sober.
In Puerto Rico, we are to stay at home from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. As with most of the world responding to the pandemic, it’s recommended we don’t leave our homes in the daytime either, except for absolute necessities.
“If booze and drugs were still my priority, nothing would stop me from getting them — not a curfew, not the threat of disease.”
I know without a doubt that if I were not in recovery, right now I’d be in danger, and anyone I came across might be, too. If booze and drugs were still my priority, nothing would stop me from getting them — not a curfew, not the threat of disease. I’d throw social distancing out the window if it meant replenishing my supply of cocaine and beer.
Scrolling through social media lately, it seems like a lot of folks are entertaining themselves with drinking, and maybe drugs too, as they shelter-in-place in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus. I can’t help but wonder: if this is the beginning of humankind’s grand finale, should I forsake sobriety and get a level of fucked-up appropriate for an end-of-days scenario?
Thing is, the world isn’t ending. Thousands of people have died already. More, unfortunately, will likely die in the coming weeks and months. It’s absolutely tragic, and it’s unfair. As alarming and upsetting as that truth is, it’s also true that this pandemic will pass eventually.
I am 34 years old and not immunocompromised. Smoking remains a harmful vice (still working on this one), but generally, I’m in good health. If I do contract the virus, I will probably survive. But that’s not the point. In this major health crisis, protecting other people is paramount in curbing its spread. The more closely the world adheres to the recommended measures of doctors and scientists, the fewer Covid-19 cases we’ll see, and the sooner the pandemic will fizzle out.
And while it hurts to admit this, I know that the active addict version of me would choose drugs over helping flatten the Covid-19 curve.
Looking back at my contributions post-Hurricane Maria, I regret that I didn’t do more, and sooner. Communities pooled resources to help out folks low on food, water, and other supplies. People — not FEMA or government workers — spent those early weeks clearing the streets of debris. They chopped up fallen trees with machetes, untangled limbs from entryways, collected corrugated steel panels of neighbors’ homes from wherever the storm had slung them.
But in those early weeks, I was sinking, miserable not only because of the continued disaster, but also my long-ignored, perpetually deteriorating mental health. Alcohol and drugs afforded me temporary reprieves.
It was nearly a month before I could pull myself out of the self-pitying escapism of heavy drinking and drug use. Eventually, I was able to publish some work, sharing various perspectives of those affected, from animal shelters to independent musicians and young Puerto Ricans who had no other option than to leave the island in hopes of better conditions elsewhere. Still, once the dry law was lifted and electricity returned to some areas, I was back at the 24 to 48-hour binges that would render me utterly useless for days afterward.
A bar near my house was converted into a resource center: It became a soup kitchen and a meeting spot from which aid brigades would deploy to more rural areas of Puerto Rico, where streets remained clogged, preventing access to stores and medical assistance. I eventually reported on these efforts, aiming to spread awareness and boost their fundraising — but I really wish I’d also been helping with my own hands.
Instead, I had to ask my parents for financial help. Saving hadn’t been a priority for the past decade: any extra money I had was almost always used for partying. Those first couple of weeks after the storm were especially expensive: without power at home, I was regularly buying food from restaurants operating with generators. I had access to a gas stove at a friend’s home, and once I stock up on groceries — the line to enter was long, and there were limits on how many of each item you could buy — so I could cook a few meals. I shared those meals with friends, but it was my mom who paid for them. I’d run out of money, and because of my alcoholism and addictions, I wasn’t working often enough to earn what I needed.
“This far into sobriety, though, I am conscious of two realities: I can’t change what happened during a past crisis, but I can control how I respond to this crisis right now. “
Recalling that period, shame is instantaneous. I feel like a disappointment to myself; a burden in a time of crisis, rather than someone contributing to the greater good.
Puerto Rico’s governor recently announced the extension of quarantine through April 12, and with added restrictions: Residents can leave their homes only on certain days, and on Sundays, nobody’s allowed out at all, save for emergencies.
Back in 2017, I qualified a depleted stash of booze and drugs as a genuine emergency. Imagining what this lockdown would look like for me if I weren’t so sturdy in my sobriety is, in all honesty, frightening. The choice to stop drinking and doing drugs wasn’t just about wanting a better life — it was a matter of survival. It’s possible, had I not dragged myself out of the deleterious tarpit of frequent and intense substance use, that I would not have lived to see 2020.
The clarity of mind sobriety brings can be a double-edged sword; tuning out is hard to do, and we all need a brief escape at times, especially lately. As a sober person, I’ve adjusted the ways I quiet my mind — long naps, Netflix binges, exercise, dancing, reading, eating an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Some coping mechanisms are healthier than others — but I’m grateful none of them will alter my mental or physical state in a way that makes me incapable of acting responsibly throughout this pandemic.
This far into sobriety, though, I am conscious of two realities: I can’t change what happened during a past crisis, but I can control how I respond to this crisis right now. I’ve evolved into a new, better person since committing to cutting out substances that made me selfish, that muddied my mind, and that kept me from being who I wanted to be.
I’m not going to stop COVID-19 on my own. I know that, but I can certainly help. Not everyone is able to work, but as a writer, my job hasn’t changed much, so I’m pushing to earn enough extra income to make possible giving to friends and donating to food banks and other aid efforts.
And at the very least, I know I’m not going to exacerbate the pandemic’s spread.