#28 The part where you finally open your mail and pay your taxes
In May of this year my friend Katie came over to my house to co-work. She answered emails on the couch and I sat at the kitchen table with a very large box of mail I hadn’t opened since April 2021, which was the month I gave up trying.
When I say the box of mail I hadn’t opened, I mean literally not figuratively all the mail that came to my address from April 2021 until May 2022 (when I started trying again), I did not open, I threw into a box. Christmas cards. Birthday cards. Valentines cards. (Lots of cards?) Bills. Tax documents. Parking tickets. Bank statements. Checks for money made out to me! Utility statements and credit card bills and renewal notices for the magazines I didn’t bother opening, either.
Thus in May began my very long slog of cleaning up a mess that was pretty unnecessary, and reeked of regression. Years ago I had been a person who didn’t open her mail. Years ago I had transcended that version of myself. Then last year I became her again.
When I got sober nearly a decade ago, I had a similar box1, only it contained 33 years of unopened things. A collection of shames I could not face: maxed out credit cards, unpaid taxes, loans to cover loans to cover loans, collection notices, the whole thing. I started the process of slowly picking through my pile mid-2014, but it honestly wasn’t until 2017 that I started to make any true dent in that box, or to feel like a person who had her shit even somewhat together. I started as a person who did almost everything but look directly at her life, and somehow, bit by bit, I became a person who could look at it all (even the grossest, heaviest parts), who opened her mail when it came, who’d made the necessary arrangements to handle the mess she’d let collect over decades, who faced life and all its terrifying requirements2 to be a functional person. It took four years of recovery to be able to truthfully say, and truthfully mean: “My shit is together.”
Becoming A Person Who Opens Her Mail When It Comes and Does Her Taxes on Time started small, in that excruciating moment where I sat down and just started tearing open envelopes. From there, I did a lot of work, either through the painstaking and terrifying confrontation of what was in that pile, or in the making of phone calls and arrangements to problem solve the pile, or through meeting head on and working through the fears and emotions that gave the pile so much power (weird ideas that money was bad, beliefs that I wasn’t allowed to have any, thoughts that I would always be a mess living paycheck to paycheck or credit card to credit card; so much scarcity stuff). Becoming APWOHMWICADHTOT was a practical overhaul. It was also a completely emotional one. It wasn’t just the clerical work. It was having conversations with dollar bills and thanking them for sticking with me; it was blessing my bills as I paid them and thanking God for the means to send a check; it was changing the belief that money would always allude me into the belief that money wanted to find me and give me relief. It was a lot of bullshit like that! And also, it was just fucking opening my mail.
When I stopped opening my mail last April, I’d already done my 2020 taxes (a month early!). My bills were set up to pay automatically. I have alerts set up to monitor balances and my credit score. Etc. Meaning, because of the work I’d done starting in 2014 as part of my recovery, when I stopped functioning in 2021 and couldn’t get it together until May this year, it wasn’t financially ruinous. Nonetheless, that growing pile of mail wasn’t not on my mind almost all the time for those thirteen months, physical evidence that there’s something broken in me that can’t manage the real world. Like the first time I met that box in 2014, the second time this past May revealed that the stories I had about it and what would happen if I actually opened it were far worse than anything contained in those envelopes. It’s the refusal to look that gets you, that owns you.
Last week when reading Laura McKowen’s second book, Push Off From Here, I read about how in her second year of sobriety she and her daughter Alma got pulled over because her license was suspended; she was a young, single mom and newly sober and just starting to get her life together and then there she was with her kid in the back of a police cruiser. I remember getting that call when it happened; I remember this being the point where she finally started opening her mail, looking at her own shame pile.
This week, my friend Mar was on my other friend Nic’s podcast talking about money (Episode title: "I didn't do any taxes from 2015 until last year. Why? The money was there the whole time.”) on the same topic, the whole not paying their taxes for years, the whole not opening their mail thing. On Instagram, Mar blessedly did an Instagram Live where they just…opened… their….. mail…… to make it less scary for other people who might also have a box, a stack, a shame. The comments are revelatory.
I’m writing about this mostly because I think practically speaking, a good majority of people I know in recovery (outside of it? all people??) have that same actual box. I know many, many people who had a step called “open my mail” that came somewhere after “say no to a drink without explaining” and before “go to dentist for first time in seven years.” So I’m here, in a way, to say me too. I had one of those boxes, I had that step. I confronted it and my life opened up! (HUGELY!) Then I made a box again.
I could go off about a lot of things here. About how cyclical we can be, or how we sometimes zoom through the same lessons to really nail them or go deeper than we could have gone the first time. I could diverge into the lessens I’m picking up from the book Existential Kink and talk about how the part of me that is sexually attracted to organizing chaos is ultimately responsible for creating messes so my shadow gets its thrill. But I think the point of this was made a few paragraphs back: it’s the refusal to look that gets you, that owns you. It’s never what’s in the actual box.
The point is also this: I think there’s a really big juicy lie out there that we’re supposed to have it all together in order to be happy. We are not. Life’s a fucking entropic mess, and everyone has a box.
Ten Things Right Now
A song to run to, how to become a psychedelic therapist, how 12 step programs became a fixture of the US hospital system, an exploration of whether diagnoses are helpful or problematic, a guy feeds raccoons hot dogs.