I open the Sober app on my phone and watch the ticker scroll. 8 months, 7 days, 14 hours, 51 minutes, 3 seconds. I hadn’t checked the stats in months, but since the governor issued a stay at home order, life with all its illusions of forward progress has ground to a halt. I am lucky to be healthy and employed, grateful for the internet and takeout and toilet paper. The news is grim, but my hands are clean.
I start watching Survivor, which holds my interest and distracts me from the survival saga unfolding in real life. Contestants on the show live on a remote island for 39 days and compete against each other for a million-dollar prize awarded to the player who “outwits, outplays, and outlasts” the competition. Each episode features reward and immunity challenges and a tribal council meeting where one contestant gets voted off the island. But my favorite parts of the show are the scenes of life at camp. “Castaways,” as the contestants are called, must build their shelter from bamboo and palm fronds, eat whatever protein they can find—muscles, snails, and termites depending on the environment. From what I can tell, no one is given any sunscreen or allowed to change out of a wet bathing suit, which seems dangerous, but not as dangerous as the deadly virus ravaging the planet.
Alcohol sales are up 75% from this time last year. Quarantine would be a terrible time to start drinking again, but I still long for a glass of wine, an old fashioned, anything to soften the daily death toll, the plummeting stock-market, graduations that won’t be happening, my fear of getting sick.
In quarantine, my brain functions on a reduced frequency, or perhaps at hyper-speed, wherein nothing of meaning or value holds my interest for longer than 30 seconds. I haven’t left my house for two weeks. I crave what comes easily. Spider solitaire. Survivor. A tube of Toll House cookie dough eaten with a spoon. I am invited to a Zoom happy hour meeting. We talk about how bad our necks look on the Zoom camera, our failed attempts to homeschool our kids, our inability to stop eating, the latest terrifying news. I sip my coffee and watch with envy as my friends drink wine. We are together in our forced isolation, which doesn’t ease our fear, but somehow helps to take the edge off.
Contestants on Survivor must form alliances with other castaways to avoid being voted off the island early in the game. But with any hope of winning, they must also be willing to break those alliances when it serves them. I think of the skills necessary to play such a game—charisma, compromise, patience. But also guile, perseverance—the ability to lie.
A writing school friend organizes a “Decameron” in the tradition of Boccaccio’s book of novellas by the same name. Written during the Black Death of 1348, The Decameron is structured as a group of stories told by ten friends as they shelter in place in a villa outside Florence to wait out the plague. Our storytelling hour will not be held in an Italian villa, but from our living rooms on a Zoom meeting. As the date approaches, I want to cancel, but quarantine has robbed me of my usual excuses. I force myself to show up for the meeting even though I have no writing to share, no clever Italian phrases to sprinkle into the conversation. I try to pretend the “Decameron” is part of a Survivor challenge, and I log into the meeting as though I’m competing for a reward. These people are part of my alliance, I tell myself. They will help me survive.
To make it on Survivor, you must be strong and agile, but not so dominant that you appear as a physical threat. You must be patient and resilient in the face of rationed food and foul weather and annoying people. And above all, you must have the mental strength to keep going when your body wants to quit.
Ten years ago, my boyfriend invited me to train for a marathon with him. I smoked about a pack a day back then, although my boyfriend didn’t know. I’d met him online and lied about a bunch of things in my dating profile, including the fact that I smoked and hated to exercise. But I liked this man, and I desperately wanted to quit smoking, so I used the marathon as an incentive, and I created a reward system to ween myself off the cigarettes. I kept a calendar of my training schedule and allowed myself to smoke only if I adhered to it. One mile. One cigarette. Two miles. Two Cigarettes.
Eventually, I had to choose between smoking and running, between the real me and the version I was trying to become. I chose the latter. Even without the promise of a cigarette reward at the end of a long run, I kept training and finished the race. A few years later, I even married the boyfriend. But in the weeks after I quit smoking, my calendar, with a list of all the miles I’d finished and all the miles I had left to run, became a reward in itself. A record of progress. An accumulation of something immeasurable.
All 40 seasons of Survivor are available for streaming on Amazon Prime. In just four weeks, I’ve spent as much time watching the show as many of the contestants spend living on the island. My husband is annoyed by my viewing habits. “I’m going to vote you off the island,” he says when he finds me watching the show on my phone in the middle of the night.
“That’s not how it works,” I tell him. “You need a majority vote from the tribal council.”
I start running again because it makes me feel good, but also because I want to prove to my husband that I have other interests besides watching television. Maybe, when all of this is over, I’ll train for another race. I create a playlist with artists and bands that start with each letter of the alphabet, the way I did when I trained for the marathon. I even set a goal of running from A to L on my first run, but my plan falls apart by letter C. I like The Avett Brothers and Lana Del Ray, but their songs only make me want to lie on the couch. Instead, I play Flo Rida, who is secretly and truly my favorite singer in the world. Even though his lyrics about blow jobs and stripper “booties” are in conflict with my feminist values, Flo Rida makes me want to run.
Every night I dream about Survivor—where all the stresses of my waking life are reimagined on an island in my mind. One night, I am at tribal council with my two dogs and must choose which one of them to vote off the island. The dream ends before my vote is cast, but I feel guilty just the same when I look at the dogs the next morning.
I stopped drinking as part of a 30-day elimination diet last summer, and I did the elimination diet to help my husband combat some inflammation issues he was having. My reasons for continuing not to drink after the diet ended were more personal, similar to my reasons for quitting cigarettes all those years ago. I know my life is better now, but if anything is keeping me from drinking in quarantine, it is the self-awareness that I wouldn’t want to stop.
I have always found comfort in counting. Calories consumed and burned. Pounds lost and left to lose. I counted the months and weeks and days until my babies were born, the dollars and cents I had in the bank until payday. Miles finished and miles left to run. I have made lists of things to be grateful for and other lists, far easier to write, of the things I need to fix. I have counted all the ways I have failed in this life. I have counted all the reasons I should keep trying. And even now, especially now, I count to find a sense of purpose, something solid to hold onto while the world is in freefall.
I dream again that I am a contestant on Survivor, this time with Flo Rida, although no one knows he’s Flo Rida because the host, Jeff Probst, introduces him by his real name, Tramar Dillard. When the other castaways go in search of bamboo to use for our shelter, I let Flo Rida know he’s my favorite singer, and that his tunes alone have inspired me to run again. He asks me to keep his identity on the downlow until the show is over, and we form an alliance. Because I’m good at puzzles and Tramar is good at lifting heavy objects and hitting targets, we dominate the challenges. But camp life isn’t easy. Food becomes scarce, our bodies grow weak. A tropical storm hits the island and we huddle together in the tiny shelter, our feet and hands wrinkled like raisins.
One by one the tribe dwindles, and eventually, Tramar and I find ourselves competing against each other in the finale. We are each given the chance to plead our case to the jury as to why we deserve to win. I point to my mental strength, my strong alliances, and the 600 hours of Survivor I watched during quarantine in preparation for this competition. When it’s his turn to speak, Tramar reveals his true identity and asks the jury to award me the million-dollar prize because, obviously, he doesn’t need the money. After the votes are read and I am crowned winner, Flo and I say our goodbyes. I thank him for helping me win and encourage him to write a few songs that portray women in a more positive light. He invites me to stop by his house in Miami if I’m ever in town and reminds me to keep running.
Survivor is looking for contestants for the next season of the show. I have survived eight weeks of quarantine without the aid of alcohol. Surely, I can live on a deserted beach for a few weeks without sunscreen or cookie dough. I have formed solid alliances, even on Zoom. I have grown stronger and faster from running. And I have tracked my progress. If being sober during quarantine has taught me anything, it is how to sit with discomfort, how to wait out boredom and despair until it passes, how to keep counting when the finish line is nowhere in sight. 9 months, 13 days, 18 hours, 29 minutes, 5 seconds.
Reading recommendation? Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Kelly Harwood is a writer, artist, and creator of The Rosie Pages. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2015 and is currently at work on a book length memoir. Her work has appeared in Quaint Magazine, Detours: A Cabin Anthology, Queen Mob’s Teahouse and Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Kelly lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband, a bunch of kids and two dogs. Sadly, she is allergic to cats. Find her on Instagram @therosiepages.