Eadweard Muybridge, Animal locomotion. Plate 461, ca. 1887.

More than once, I have almost blinked out of this world.

One time I was railing lines of cocaine and didn’t feel like I was getting high enough. Rubbing it on my gums, complaining to my friends about how weak it was, blowing a line and then sitting still and waiting for my veins to constrict and my face to go numb. I was drunk, too, as people often are when they snort too much cocaine, and I didn’t realize I’d done too much until I had, and then my heart swelled in my chest, my field of vision narrowed, and my nose dripped blood. I shut myself in the bathroom and held my head in my hands and asked my null-God—the God I called on in life-or-death situations but otherwise didn’t believe in—that I please be allowed to recover from this and if I did I would promise to stop doing drugs. And I did. And some time passed, and I did more drugs.

I was raised in a progressive atheist home by a mother who grew up Episcopalian and a father who grew up Jewish. My father, a doctor, told me that we are all matter and that death is the end. My mother, a spiritualist, told me that there were no coincidences but there was also no Old Testament God. I didn’t believe in a God—couldn’t bring myself to believe in a God—until I started using drugs. Then I had to name something, find something to pray to when I was sweating over a toilet bowl or collapsed face-down in the grass. So I chose null-God: God-but-not, a thing I could name but not define. A capricious ghost in the sky. Null-God provided a convenient armature on top of which I could drape my guilt.

One time I took research chemicals of unknown origin that made my friend puke and made me see two moons and nearly walk into traffic. One time I split a bottle of whiskey and did several lines of Adderall with another friend, and I felt as if my entire body was being flattened between two sheets of lead and my vision dimmed and I heard a small voice—my friend’s? null-God’s?—calling my name repeatedly. One time I smoked too much K2 in the middle of the night, became acutely manic, and ran to the ER wearing only socks and pajamas, demanding to see a doctor who could defibrillate me. One time I took twelve pills of gabapentin and dropped to all fours in my kitchen while the tiles of the floor dematerialized. Each time my thread was nearly snipped and then for some reason it wasn’t, and then I did drugs again.

One time, the worst time, I got behind the wheel of a car. I was very high and far from home and, wanting to sleep in my own bed, I reasoned that I had driven high once before—as if having some precedent for risking my life and the lives of others was reason enough to do it again. While I was driving, I became aware that this time was worse than the time before, that I was not going to be able to stay awake. This wasn’t a matter of wanting to nod off; my body would do it whether I liked it or not, and I could find no place to pull over.

My grandmother had been killed by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel, my father’s stepfather, and my father never forgave him. Because of this, I spent my adolescence furious with people who drove intoxicated—and I had right to be, though it would take me years to understand how compulsion colonizes the brain, how my desperate homing instinct would prevail through the fog of chemical disturbance, how I would get high so many times that I would no longer feel high anymore. As I blinked once, heavily, I realized that my best-case scenario would be a felony DUI. I fought until I couldn’t, and then I fell asleep.

When I woke up, I was still driving. I had no idea how long I’d been out: Seconds? A minute? Two? The car had drifted, but I hadn’t crashed. There were no other cars around me. A surge of adrenaline, or some kind of miracle, saw me home.

That night I dreamed of being arraigned. I dreamed of wearing handcuffs; I’d worn them before, though only once, and not in court. I dreamed of my mother annihilated by humiliation, my father pale with anger. I dreamed of what haunts the lives of millions of Americans, some of whom look like me but many of whom don’t: my freedom curtailed. The apocalypse of the cage.

When you’re an addict, the world ends and begins again a million times over.

*

Today, many Americans in the grip of panic over the apocalypse—COVID-shaped, Trump-shaped, climate-shaped, or a combination of all three—seem unaware that our country has always been an apocalyptic place to live. There have been the apocalypses of colonization and slavery, of state-sanctioned racism and homophobia, of AIDS and mass incarceration and the plundering of essential resources. But to many, these are apocalypses concerning the “underprivileged” and “unlucky.” They are cataclysms to be read about in passing, their bleakness briefly considered, and then forgotten. While the threats to global health and safety are now impossible to ignore, there are marginalized Americans for whom the structures of support currently failing our country have never existed in the first place, for whom the threat of sudden death has always been a part of being alive. Those Americans who have not had to eke out a life under these broken systems are only now beginning to understand their brokenness.

A Queer Nation manifesto distributed to those marching with the ACT UP contingent in the 1990 New York City Gay Pride Day parade read: “You as an alive and functioning queer are a revolutionary. There is nothing on this planet that validates, protects, or encourages your existence. It is a miracle you are standing here reading these words. You should by all rights be dead.” By the end of that year, 120,453 people had died of AIDS.

It is a miracle I am sitting here typing these words. I should by all rights be dead. But mine is a different apocalypse: personal, not systemic. Or at least personal until it becomes systemic, which it never has for me. I have a middle-class job. I drive around, responsibly now, in a hybrid Corolla on which I make monthly payments. I take medication that regulates my moods. My privileges make these things easier to achieve than they would be for many. But I know I can still fall. Cushioned, yes, but a fall nevertheless: into hospitals, into rehab. And there will always be the specter of falling farther: into handcuffs, into an orange jumpsuit, into homelessness, into death.

When I lived in Chicago, a woman camped outside my apartment complex. She wore a shawl over her matted hair and had a cart that held clothes, shoes, and packets of Ramen, among other things, stuffed awkwardly in plastic bags. Unfailingly, she asked me for money, and whenever I had it I gave it to her. Once, when I didn’t have any on me and felt particularly bad about refusing her, I ushered her into a bodega where I bought chocolate for myself and a lighter at her request and asked for cash back. She whispered to herself the entire time about aliens and airplanes. When I gave her the lighter and a $10, feeling a sour mixture of pride and guilt and resentment, she pocketed the money and said “God bless you” under her breath. Then she held up the lighter like a totem and announced to me and the cashier that weed was going to be legal someday and all the motherfuckers who were trying to get her down could go to hell.

The cashier, nonplussed, turned around and began arranging cigarette cartons that looked to be already arranged. I said, That’s good. And then I said, “Well, I’ve got to get to work.” The woman followed me out but stopped and watched as I rode the escalator up to the train. I looked down at her from the platform. She had begun asking for money again, this time from impassive people making the commute to their office jobs in the Loop. She leaned on her cart for support; I had come to learn that standing upright for long periods of time was difficult for her. The more she was ignored, the more wounded I felt—for her, yes, but for myself as well.

A 2003 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey concluded that 38 percent of homeless people were dependent on alcohol and 26 percent abused other drugs. A more recent Annual Homelessness Assessment Report from HUD stated that 257,000 homeless people have a severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, or a chronic substance abuse issue. (In a 2018 report to Congress, HUD estimated the total homeless population on a single night to be roughly 553,000.) The data are scattered and inconsistent: the homeless population is ever-shifting, and funding to conduct such surveys isn’t exactly plentiful, but the prevalence of addiction and mental illness is indisputable.

It is the homeless population that serves as the canary in the coalmine during national crises. The shuttering of shelters and mental health centers as a result of Reagan-era fiscal conservatism; cultural paternalism towards those who sell drugs and trade sex (as evidenced by frequent denial of public or affordable housing to these populations); and gentrification—rooted in an obsession with appearances, and the subsequent introduction of hostile architecture into the urban landscape—have all disproportionately affected the homeless. Whatever disasters those hoarding toilet paper and tweeting anxiously about the end of the world anticipate will befall them will befall the homeless tenfold.

I have never been denied my freedom or been assaulted or lost my home. But I have done things that, without the luck of the circumstances into which I was born, might have resulted in all three. There are many of us, disguised as professors and auto mechanics and lawyers and chefs, who could have easily been ground to dust between the gears of our broken mental health and corrupt criminal justice systems. When we meet someone in rehab or on the street or in the psych ward, who talks to themselves or has served prison time or is desperately angry and heartbroken, and we learn that they, too, are bipolar and popping pills, or schizophrenic and alcoholic, or majorly depressed and shooting heroin, it gives us pause. They are like us, but not like us. The circumstances under which they live are evidence that the world has been ending for a long time. And yet somehow the woman in the shawl and I lived to have the same exchange of hellos and money and God bless yous day after day, for years.

*

I have always been quiet in NA meetings. “Your pain is just as valid as anyone else’s pain in the rooms,” a friend and fellow addict told me, and I know this is true, but I still don’t talk.

In these rooms, I’ve met the following people: A man and his wife, both accountants, who held hands through every meeting. A construction worker who was kicked in the head as a kid and once paid a fellow inmate a pack of Ramen to take the GED for him. A nurse who witnessed a 17-year-old kid burn up in his car when his meth lab exploded. A man whose entire family, from his aunt to his little brother, was involved in gang activity. A woman with muscular dystrophy who attended meetings with her little sister. A trucker who smoked meth to stay awake while traveling across the country. A woman who worked in HR at the local university and “only trusted drugs that came from a bottle.” A woman who showed me an elaborate tattoo of a bass clef she got after she finally quit heroin for good and started joining her friends at sober karaoke. An old man who said sadly that he didn’t know anyone in town anymore because he couldn’t go to any bars. A mother whose daughter attended meetings with her and spent the time coloring pictures of characters from Frozen.

The running theme is always gratefulness for having been spared. A man who lived with his niece recounted a teary-eyed fight he’d had with her about her boyfriend. “I told her he couldn’t come around anymore smoking weed in my house,” he said. “And it was amazing. It was so incredible to be having this fight with her instead of what I’ve been doing the past fifteen years.” Someone else was incredulous that he was able to work even ten hours a week in construction, and spent his share time outlining his goals to increase that to twenty hours and make amends with his girlfriend, whose purse he’d once stolen to score. A woman rhapsodized about drinking a raspberry Slushee with her daughter: “I like to chew on the little pieces of ice especially. I know it’s bad for my teeth, but I do it anyway.” I spent my first few months in NA thinking, These people deserve more. And then I stopped thinking that and started thinking, It’s an incredible thing to be alive.

In an essay about the end of the world in The Point, philosopher Agnes Callard argues that humanists must shift from endlessly contributing to “the human project”—the building of cathedrals and writing of concertos and studying of metaphysics—to preparing for the end of that project altogether:

The humanist was never really in the business of making progress. Her job is to acquire and transmit a grasp of the intrinsic value of the human experience; this is a job whose difficulty and importance rises in proportion to the awareness that all of it will be lost. It is the humanist’s task to ensure that, if and when [the end of the world] should arise, things will not stop mattering to people. We must become the specialists of finitude, the experts in loss, the scientists of tragedy.

Callard’s humanist, I think, could learn something from the addict, whose primary “project” has been to survive the multiple apocalypses of her existence. The building of cathedrals and writing of concertos comes second; first comes the miracle of not blinking out of this world with a needle in your arm. Getting sober—being able to argue with your niece, look for construction work, and drink a raspberry Slushee without the mind-shattering interruptions of active addiction—means being able to enjoy the human experience. I would like to believe that, having survived numerous threats to my existence, I will always understand the human experience as a thing that matters, that continues to matter in the worst-case scenarios, that can’t stop mattering even at the end of the world—as long as I manage to stay sober, with the full force of my hard-won life in all its wretchedness and wildness and beauty broadcast bright and clear before my eyes.

Early in my sobriety, I asked my sponsor whether she’d do drugs if she knew she was going to die. She told me she wouldn’t, because she didn’t want the toxicology report to show that there had been drugs in her body—she didn’t want her relapse to be part of her death, even if it wasn’t the thing that ultimately killed her. We were walking one of her horses around a pasture, pausing every now and then to watch him shake flies from his mane and chew lazily on the few patches of grass that had survived the winter. “What if we were all going to die?” I asked. She looked at me quizzically, then looked back out into the pasture. “Then I don’t know,” she said. She put her hand on her horse’s side and encouraged me to as well; I felt the steady beating of his heart. We were silent for a long time, and then she said, “Honestly, I still wouldn’t do drugs, even then. Why let the addiction win?”

I asked her how she knew that, and she said she’d prayed about it. Prayed while sober and healthy and just going about her life; what a concept! “Do you know what your higher power is?” she asked. I shrugged and mumbled something about “love and grace.” She nodded understandingly. “Pray to those things,” she said. And I tried to, but they were too vague to feel like real objects of prayer. Equally unworthy of prayer was capital-G God, whose abstract and disorienting presence-but-non-presence I still didn’t believe in.

*

When I open Twitter these days, I see something like the following:

it’s year five of the pandemic. america is in shambles. half my family is dead. elections are over and trump is king forever. but because of my small business, i still qualified for a $250 tax credit. thanks dems.

now that the world is over, who wants to finally admit that tulsi gabbard is hot?

i fucking knew it would be capitalism that killed us all. i just didn’t know it was going to be this soon or this obvious.

The takes come fast and acerbic and self-assured. After stumbling upon some Trump supporters while canvassing, my colleague groaned, If there are Trumpers in our neighborhood, it’s not looking good for the rest of the country. My poet friend told me, Don’t worry, this virus is going to kill all us boomers and then Bernie will be elected president. A friend I used to get high with texted me a photo, a fake drug test that reads: “Benzodiazepines/Positive; Cocaine/Positive; Marijuana/Positive; COVID-19/Negative.” The messages poured in: I hate this fucking country; Of course this was going to happen, our superweak infrastructure isn’t equipped to handle this presidency, let alone a pandemic; Now that the world’s over, do you wanna just die starting a revolution?

Pessimism signals worldliness, mental acuity. In the literary and academic circles I frequent, it’s gauche—simple-minded, even—to think about the positive. Even when we’re not facing a global health crisis, it feels inhumane to be optimistic: what right do you have to be grateful for your car or your house or your dog when there are people without cars and houses and dogs? This is not an entirely bad thing, as considering what’s wrong can spur action towards making things right: canvassing for a humane candidate, for instance, or participating in a climate strike, or donating to a community bond fund. But what about the optimism that comes from knowing you’ve been spared? What about the incontrovertible fact that you are lucky to be alive and facing a global apocalypse at all? What if the world can “end,” as your life has many times, and then begin again?

In the brilliant Netflix series Russian Doll, a woman named Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne, attends her 36th birthday party—only to die at the end of the night and wake up in the same bathroom at the same party. She proceeds to do this again and again and again, each time to the brightly aggressive piano of Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up,” discovering each time that things have changed for the worse: her friend berates her, the party has emptied of people, she vomits blood. Lyonne, a recovering addict herself, has said the show is about the “quantum consequences” of getting high, that as you use up your “allotted runs,” those consequences “might come in the form of all of a sudden your face looks fucked up or you have Hepatitis C or they take your kid from you. You can keep doing it, it’s just that different aspects of the world as you know it will start falling apart.”

This might feel disastrous if applied to our world—we have used up our “allotted runs” with global capitalism, having drained the resources and exhausted the infrastructure meant to support us—but the recovering addict knows something about how this works. Toward the end of Russian Doll, Nadia realizes how to break the loop: by asking for and offering help.

The way I broke my loop was by entertaining the idea that I didn’t have to use up my allotted runs; that I could choose not to live in a smirking chemical fugue; that I could give myself over to dumb, awkward optimism. That I would let the man who’d been kicked in the head help me, and the woman with the bass clef tattoo help me, and my sponsor help me, and some abstract version of a higher power help me. That I would give someone with a lot of sober time a hug and they would give me a weird little keychain marking my own scant sober time; that I would stand in parking lots in the freezing cold talking about the time one guy nearly flipped his truck; that I would say my name and that I am an addict and everyone would say, “Hi, Rebekah,” knowing me without knowing me.

The situation is dire: COVID-19, Trump, climate change, late-stage capitalism. Warnings about all four should be heeded. But so, too, should offers of help. We can keep working at the small, meaningful things that will preserve our world and each other, whether that be 3-D printing respirator valves, or bringing food to homeless and immunocompromised people, or writing a story that gets readers thinking about rising sea levels. We, the lucky, can wake up each day and break the loop in some small way. We will do this for as many days in a row as we can. And the project of living will continue on until it can’t anymore.

*

Many of my smart, sardonic, literary-and-academic friends are proud of me for going to NA but tell me they couldn’t imagine doing it themselves, whether they’re addicts or not. “It’s the whole higher power thing,” they say. “I know that it doesn’t have to be God, or a god, but it just feels kind of cultish.” There has been much ink spilled over whether the 12 steps, unscientific and faith-based, are effective at all. The idea that every addict can shoehorn their recovery into a 12-step program is absurd—it’s by no means right for everyone—and certainly, prescriptions for naltrexone and acamprosate and hours of cognitive behavioral therapy can be just as effective. I’ve arrived at meetings to find the language in the Blue Book fraught, the eyes of other addicts intimidating, the structure of our hour spent together emotionally exhausting.

But I am still drawn to the idea of a group of people whose worlds have ended time and time again, sitting together in a room and talking to one another. I have yet to find a doctor or a counselor who can nod knowingly when I describe the night I fell asleep at the wheel—who can say, instead of, “You have a substance abuse problem,” that they love me and I never have to feel that way again. I would be content to do this with just one person, even; to share our personal apocalypses and then promise to offer each other help.

Recently, to break up my long stretch of self-isolation, I walked my dog in the rain and thought about null-God. Specifically, what is it? Or rather, what are they? I spent the entire walk thinking and came up blank.

On the doorstep when we returned home, I fumbled with my keys. My umbrella had broken and I was drenched. My dog shook herself off loudly and sat down, bowing her head under the rain. Years ago, this would have been occasion to ram my key into the lock, burst into my living room in a state of sopping annoyance, and smoke a bowl or snort a Xanax. But now I couldn’t find my key, so I stopped trying. I turned my face up to the rain.

I hadn’t looked at a sky like this in a long time: a hostile sky, a sky no one wants to be under. My clothes were soaked; I felt drenched on an atomic level. And it occurred to me, as it often does nowadays, that I was alive, and that the thing reminding me that I was alive was this rain. When I realized this, the frenzied electricity in my mind dimmed to a bearable hum, and I could feel each raindrop hitting my skin. This rain, in this moment, was null-God. The rain would be gone tomorrow, and something else would remind me that I was alive: gasping for breath from a difficult run, or my dog licking my face, or a book I’d both want to keep reading forever and pitch across the room. Those things could all be null-God.

Could our infected globe and crumbling democracy mean the end of our world altogether, or the end of what plagues our world? These are harrowing times, to be sure, and we need to take extreme measures to protect the lives of those more vulnerable than we are, and our own lives as well. But there are signs of a global shift away from American hegemony: the failures of our healthcare system and our comically evil president have reached such a peak of obviousness to the rest of the world that a Norwegian university warned against our “poorly developed health services” and “poorly developed collective infrastructure.” Maybe the previously complacent will recognize the need for life-saving social change. Maybe those of us who could have been ground to dust can actively address the senseless systemic inequality that buoys us, this problem of better outcomes for sick people who happened to draw the right cards. Maybe—and perhaps now this is the dumb optimism talking—the needle will have to move.

Robust democracy and universal healthcare, not populism and authoritarianism, are attracting international attention as life-saving systems. “The countries that responded early and successfully to [COVID-19], such as Korea and Taiwan, have been democracies,” writes political analyst Shivshankar Menon, “not those run by populist or authoritarian leaders.” The world is also seeing some unmistakable evidence that exploitation of labor leads to exploitation of the planet. There may be hope for some resistance when it comes time to return to standard operating procedure; our world has been cast into chaos and will need to be reorganized around different social and economic principles than it was before. In the meantime, we need to try and save as many lives as we can.

What’s happening on the micro level suggests a move away from capitalist hyper-individualism toward mutual aid: Louisiana officials using three state parks to house homeless COVID-19-positive individuals; local efforts to get vulnerable community members what they need in the time of social distancing; a food depository providing increased assistance for children who have lost their lunches due to school closures. And then, on the smallest scale of all: strangers in the park keeping six feet apart but still wishing each other health and happiness just because they want to talk; kids FaceTiming with their grandparents so they can be with them without being with them; the man walking one way on the jogging path while I was running the other telling me, “Keep up the good work. I know it’s hard, but you’ll make it.” A shift, global and local, away from the myopic death-loop, toward life and help and care. I see null-God in this, too.

I found the key, opened the door, and led my dog inside. I dried her paws and fed her dinner. I watched TV with her in bed next to me, then read, then dropped off to sleep. Tomorrow we would wake up and do it all over again.

Rebekah Frumkin

Rebekah Frumkin's fiction, nonfiction, journalism, and criticism have appeared in GrantaThe Paris Review, The Washington PostMcSweeney’s, and Best American Nonrequired Reading, among other places.  Her novel, The Comedown, was published by Henry Holt in 2018. She lives in Illinois, where she is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Southern Illinois University.

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One Comment on “The Optimist’s Apocalypse

  1. I loved Rebekah Frumpkin’s article. During my 40 some years in a Twelve Step program, it titilates me to think sometimes of it “saving the world.” Here’s someone who eloquently says it right out!

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