CHLOE: My calculation is moving more and more towards staying home, because I don't - I don't know what the right thing to do is.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
And this is a listener who emailed us last week. She’s 32, and lives alone in Virginia. And she’s been sober for a little less than a year and a half.
C: One of our, like, cliche slogans that you hear people say and - was one of the songs in Frozen 2 - is like "Do the Next Right Thing." Right?
ANNA SALE: I love that song!
C: It’s so good! And you know, Kristen Bell's husband is in recovery, and I was like, they totally stole one of our things.
[MUSIC: "The Next Right Thing" from Frozen 2]
"Do the next right thing!" I’m not kidding. I really do love this song. And after two weeks at home with my daughters I have been hearing a lot of it.
Anyway, we’ve been hearing a lot from you about some of the challenges of being forced to stay home, particularly for those of you who are in recovery or are sober. So I wanted to talk with this listener about that. Her job is in social services and she didn’t want to use her real name.
C: We can do "Chloe." It's the name I used to give guys I didn't want to talk to at bars when I was still drinking.
Regular 12-step meetings helped Chloe stop drinking. But that routine, along with everything else, is in flux.
“Addiction thrives in isolation,” she wrote in her email to us. “For some of us, being around people on the regular is the thing that keeps us alive.”
Last week, I gave Chloe a call from my new makeshift studio in my back bedroom.
AS: So if you hear anything that doesn't sound like it would regularly happen in a radio studio, it's because I'm at home.
C: Sure! Sheltering in place.
AS: Sheltering in place. I'm so I want to talk to you about your email. But first I want to understand - so you're you're in Virginia right now. How much are you staying at home right now?
C: I'm staying at home as much as possible. If I need to go to the grocery store, I'll go to the grocery store and things like that. I'm going for a lot of walks outside when the weather is nice and warm, but -
AS: Yeah. Before you were spending most of your time at home, how often were you going to meetings?
C: Depending on how difficult things were in my life at that time, anywhere from twice a day to three times a week, four times a week.
AS: Yeah, and what's happened since you're spending time mostly at home? Have you noticed that your community has—your recovery community is sort of scattered and it's trying to figure out other ways of staying in touch?
C: So, you know, a lot of recovery groups are held in hospitals or in churches and where I am those things are closing down.
C: So a lot of groups have been asked, you know have lost their place to meet. You know, I know some groups are moving outside, but for me personally, it's really balancing the extreme fear of isolation—what isolation has meant for me and can mean for me—with a sense of responsibility to other people who are you know, are 30 days into this process when your brain is still, you know, going crazy and screaming at you all the time and who are craving that in-person interaction so badly—with my you know concern about spreading virus that can turn fatal. Which one do I prioritize? And it's really hard.
AS: What have you noticed about - like how are you staying in touch since you've been spending more time at home?
C: So I went to a meeting yesterday. I went to actually two different kinds of meetings yesterday. One was a place that was physical, where I was there and that was a really hard decision for me to make, to go. I was really glad that I was there in spite of the amount of guilt that I felt throughout the rest of the day. Kind of questioning my decision because there were a lot of people in that room who talked about how much more afraid they are of their addiction then they are of coronavirus.
And so I did that and then I also did an online meeting yesterday night and they were really really different experiences, but they both gave me something. I was glad I did both of them and showed up for both of those things. But I would say that it's bringing me back to early recovery in a way that I wasn't expecting. Because I have to think about the things that keep me sober for, like, today. For right now. Because like we have no idea what tomorrow is going to look like and that's always true. But it's particularly evident to me right now.
AS: Yeah. And all of the sort of systems that you've been developing over the past 500 plus days are in flux.
C: Right, so, you know, it's like I have I have my things I do. I talk on the phone a lot. You know, I still have to work which feels a little unreasonable in some ways to try to get the same amount of things done. But I still have to do all the same things. And so yeah, it's just it's changing all the time.
AS: What was the physical space of the meeting? Did you notice were chairs further apart than usual? Were people not touching in the way that they usually do when they greet each other? What was different in the physical meeting?
C: Yeah, some things were exactly the same. It is really hard to get people who are in recovery to give up coffee. And so you know, they had disposable coffee cups, but were still serving coffee. I was like, "So you're all your all touching the same coffee pot. How is that better?" But the chairs were a little further apart. The meeting was a lot smaller. But it was, you know, the people who are there I felt like probably really were afraid of needed to be there, so.
AS: What's different about being in the same space physically with people compared to a virtual meeting where you're coming and gathering intentionally, but not—but online?
C: I mean the first thing that comes to mind is - the difference between those things. It's just like, technology is annoying. Like impossible. It's constantly breaking up and people are unmuting themselves and so there's that, it's aggravating. But you know people drive you crazy in person too. Because they're like getting up and walking around or clearing their throat really loud, spilling coffee everywhere like eight times and like cursing loudly under their breath. And you know, people are aggravating everywhere and that's, I know that that's about me on my inside, right? More than it is on the outside. But I don't feel as connected to other people through a screen.
AS: Mmhm. Does that feel - is there something, like, is it harder to compartmentalize when you're living at home and you're having a work call and then you're having a call with somebody who's in recovery with you? Like, is there something that feels more...I don't know, weird about that?
C: Um, I don't know if it's harder to compartmentalize it. Maybe it is. I haven't actually thought about that before. But I think what's hard, I guess, about it for me is that people in my life know that I live alone. But they may not know that I live alone and am in recovery and how important social interaction is and recovery communities are to so many people's recovery. And so I think there's - it reminds me of kind of that pain that I felt before I got sober. Where I really wanted people to see and understand how hard it was and somebody to see, "Oh, she's really struggling. Maybe she needs help," and offer help. And fortunately, I'm familiar with that feeling. I've done this before and I can say, oh, I know that. I'm, I'm sitting here quietly like a good girl, hoping somebody will intuit that I'm in a lot of pain and will know and will call or will say the thing or will ask me if I need help. And I've learned through experience that you have to raise your own hand and say, "Excuse me. I'm in a lot of pain right now."
AS: And when you say - when you're raising your hand right now, what does that look like?
C: Calling people and saying, you know, "I'm scared or I'm lonely or I'm having this feeling." Texting people. Being able to say out loud, "I feel lonely," is hard. I don't like saying it to you right now. It is very uncomfortable. But I know that people feel lonely all the time and if we don't acknowledge it, then we can't move through it. You know, people who have been doing this for longer than I have talked about, you know, not putting your head down and running through the things that you're afraid of. But standing up and, you know, looking at the thing and walking through your fears.
AS: Do you think that being in recovery has helped you? Like, do you feel like you're - you are armed with more tools than people who haven't had the experience of going through recovery of dealing with this time?
C: Maybe. [Laughs] I don't want to assume what anybody has or hasn't - does or doesn't have, but I've had to practice so many things that are uncomfortable for me around reaching out to people I don't know very well. Calling people and checking in on them. And also just building community, which is something that I find fascinating how people successfully build good communities that I think I just maybe practiced it more then some folks have.
AS: Yeah, well, you've had the experience of having a lot fall away, you know.
AS: And then you've had to like, you know, sometimes people build community because of - just, it just happened spontaneously, but you've had the experience of having to really intentionally figure out how to communicate, ask for help, lend help in ways that I think is really useful right now. Because we're not just going to run into each other, you know,
C: Right. And I think the thing for me that is useful to folks who are in recovery and out of recovery is that this doesn't come easy for most people, you know, reaching out to people, calling people that you don't normally talk to, that's not comfortable or easy. It wasn't comfortable or easy for me. But to know that, you know, calling other people and asking them about their day or telling them about your day or talking about really anything other than the coronavirus or listening to them talk about the coronavirus, all of those things. You can just practice that stuff. Anybody can do it. It's not, you know, it's not some kind of given talent. It's just - it's just practice.
That’s a listener we’re calling Chloe. Before we got off the phone together, she wanted to tell me one more thing...about an episode we did years ago, with married musicians Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires.
C: I used that podcast with my clients.
AS: Oh you did!
C: I did.
AS: That's really beautiful.
C: I did, and it really helped them and it really helped me.
In that conversation, Jason and I talked about his sobriety and, coming up, I check in with him about how he and his family are handling isolation—and what music they’re listening to.
JASON ISBELL: Hello?
AS: Hi Jason, it’s Anna Sale.
JI: How are you?
AS: I’m okay, how are you?
JI: I’m doing fine, just fine today.
When I talked with musician Jason Isbell last Friday, he’d been self-quarantining at his home outside Nashville with his wife Amanda Shires, their four-year-old daughter, and some family friends for about the past week.
JI: We've got three, uh, extra folks and a dog in here. They had had a bunch of tornado damage in their neighborhood. So we just moved them into the house for the time being. Yeah.
AS: Well, you mentioned the tornado. I've been thinking about that. Like, you're in Nashville. Tennessee is just still reeling from those tornadoes earlier this month. I mean, how, what have you noticed about how that's changed with people not being able to be as physically together? That recovery?
JI: Um, you know, it, it, I do kind of feel like the efforts for tornado recovery and dealing with that, um, kinda got swept under the rug. You know, and that's just the way things are. It's not like we can change that. It's just sort of disaster piled on top of disaster for those folks. You know, the last show that I played, um, before the virus knocked everything out was a benefit show for tornado victims. You know, we raised a lot of money, but there were three or four more scheduled that week that got canceled. So that was, yeah, I mean, seeing the quarantine cancel a bunch of tornado relief shows was very sad for me.
AS: Yeah. Can you give me like a visual of what you all have done with these three extra people in dog in your house? Like what have you all been doing to pass the time?
JI: [Laughs] Well, last night, Amanda cooked a big dinner. Luckily we had parsley. The parsley is starting to come up and it's usable. We have a big garden outside. So she went out and got some herbs from the garden and, and we found a couple of lemons and, I grated up a bunch of cheese and she cooked a big dinner. Um, she has like a pasta dish that has lemon it, which I never would have thought would work, but it's, it's amazing. She's, she's a really good cook.
Amanda was supposed to be out on tour right now. Jason also had some tour dates coming up this month too. They’ve both got new music to promote. Jason has a whole new album coming out in May. And now, like a lot of musicians, their tours and revenue streams are really up in the air.
JI: You know, I'm really lucky in my situation because I have a little bit of a safety net and, you know, missing out on a few shows or having to reschedule a few shows or even a lot of shows is not going to cripple me financially. But, everybody at the level right under me, uh, is suffering right now because they, you know, they don't have the same kind of safety net. So, um, you know, I'm trying to not focus on my own issues with having shows canceled and moved, and trying to think about the folks who really seriously can't afford to miss work right now.
AS: You just said you're trying to think about what other people need, but one thing I'm wondering for you, um, have you noticed at all how, like does changing up your routine suddenly—does it make you think about your recovery and sobriety in a different way for you? That's something we've heard about from listeners.
JI: Yes. Well, I, I have been thinking about that. But, um, just for me personally, you know, I'm used to changing up my routine. And I've been doing that for the last 20 years of my life. You know, going through periods of time where I'm on the road and I'm around people and then coming home and being somewhat isolated. Um, but I mean that's a huge, it's a huge change. Um. You know, when you go out on tour and you're playing for a few thousand people every night, and then you come home and you're vacuuming, you know. [Laughs] So I personally am, you know, I've been working a long time on adapting to those changes. And as a sober person, um, that was one of the biggest challenges for me and, and one of the real focal points of me getting sober and staying that way.
AS: When you've, since you've had so many years practicing this, like when you, when you have those very quick changes in momentum and, um, being surrounded by people and then all of a sudden not, did you find anything in particular that helped you with those transitions?
JI: Yeah, I mean, establishing rituals in both, um, settings for me, really. You know, um, when I'm on the road, if I do essentially the same things throughout the day. And then when I'm home, there are different things, but they're also scheduled at essentially the same times. Um, a big thing for me was just making sure I got exercise every day. That was, that was a huge part of recovery and it was a huge part of, you know, acclimating myself to the different types of life that I have. Um, you know, whether I'm on the road or home, I try to take a couple hours every single day to work out and, and keep myself active. You know, I'm also, I'm a man in my forties so I'm going to turn into an apple on a couple of popsicle sticks if I'm not careful. [Both laugh]
AS: Um, the other question I was thinking about for you, like does being home and off the road, like do you, you know, you have this new album coming out, you've just, you're releasing new singles, so you're in this period of new music coming out into the world, but being home, do you feel a sort of pressure to be writing new songs because you have this space and time?
JI: No, I don't, I don't feel a pressure. That particular, that very specific pressure is something that I, that is like, it's like tying my shoes. You know, it's something I've been dealing with for a long, long time. Um, because as a songwriter, as somebody who could essentially sit down and start working at any point, you're never, you're never out of the office. So I had to teach myself early on to not go crazy thinking I could be writing a song right now. Um, with that being said, I, you know, I always feel better after I've written one. So when I have the time and the opportunity and, uh, can actually sit down and give in to that, I try to do it.
AS: What music have you been listening to around the house these last few days?
JI: My, my wife keeps me very current. Um, uh, so she listens to new music. New Weeknd is big today. And last night it was, uh, Clairo. That Clairo album is really, really good. And Lennon Stella, um, her newest work is, is really, really good pop music. The songs that FINNEAS has, or at least, uh, from his solo project are really good. Um, and then I, when nobody else is around, I go back and listen to old R&B music called all day, um, or blues.
AS: Like who?
JI: Yesterday, I listened to Freddie King lot. And, you know, Otis Redding and, and, Aretha, and The Staple Singers, and Albert King. I think that that Born Under A Bad Sign record is probably one of my five favorite albums ever made.
AS: Hm. I've been listening a lot to your two new songs, and I just like - I'm just so—"Be Afraid" and "What Have I Done To Help" and listening to them when I'm stuck in my house and thinking about the way the world is just uncertain and wild and who knows what tomorrow's gonna bring—like, they're pretty appropriate anthems for this moment. And I just wonder how you think about that?
JI: Like you, it reminds me that the world is always, always in a mess. Because like, I remember, going to see John Prine. You know, we, Amanda and I have played with John many times and seen a lot of his shows. One night he was playing here in Nashville at a little small club, um, as part of the, uh, AmericanaFest thing a few years ago. And he was playing his first album, um, his debut album all the way through, and he had to go on eBay and buy a copy of it on vinyl just so he could set it up in front of him on the stage. And he remarked on that, I think he had to pay like 70 or 80 bucks for it, he was shocked. [AS laughs]
But, uh, when he got to "Sam Stone," the song about the Vietnam war, you know. He said, "I thought that this was going to be over with, you know, this song is, this came out in '71. You know, I thought that when I wrote it in '70 that the war was about to end and that people would look back on this song with nostalgia." But you know, he was saying he didn't realize that, that, that the, the, the theme of that song and the meaning behind it would be something that was so important to people for so long. And, and I think partially as a songwriter, especially somebody who writes protest music or music that's a call to action. I think there's a big part of you that hopes that the world won't need those songs in six months or in a year. But the truth of it is, you know, those songs wind up meaning things to people for a long time because we're not really doing a great job of sorting out our problems.
AS: Hm. Well, those are all my questions for you. It's always so fun to talk to you. I'll be thinking about apples on popsicle sticks for a long time.
JI: [Laughs] Oh, apples on popsicle sticks. Yeah.
That’s Jason Isbell. And this is one of his new singles, called "What’ve I Done To Help." It’s off of his forthcoming album called Reunions. And while he and Amanda are quarantined at home, they’re going to be performing live on the internet from their barn at 5 pm Central. You can watch those daily performances on YouTube. Just search for Amanda Shires.
And we’re going to refeed my 2014 conversation with Jason and Amanda tomorrow. In the show notes there and here, we’ll have a link to a Spotify playlist of the songs they’re listening to at home—plus "The Next Right Thing" from Frozen 2, because we may all need that song right now.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.