Bayer’s phenomenal invention, which they touted as a “cure” for morphine/laudanum addiction. As Vonnegut might have said, “And so it goes.”
Last Sunday my local paper published an epic piece about four people who OD’d on heroin last year. The writer ran a journalistic marathon following these survivors to see how they fared. That’s hard to do, it takes dedication, and I respect him for it. One subject is doing well. Two are struggling. And one, a 21-year-old man, fatally OD’d in his own bedroom.
His mother found him. She is suffering the grief of the world, and my heart is with her.
It’s important in journalism to get facts right.
They got two wrong.
First, he quoted a person with active addiction saying that if you don’t share needles and don’t OD, then “heroin is the perfect drug.” The perfect drug!! Well, hell. OK, it’s easier to control not sharing needles, but not overdosing?? Good luck with that. Easier (but not impossible) not to OD with pharma drugs, because you know what dose you’re getting. Heroin’s a total craps shoot.
It’s easy to justify this quotation by saying, “The subject said it—not me.” But it’s the journalist’s responsibility to check facts and provide perspective to skewed opinions.
For example, in terms of not being “perfect,” you may as well write sex off the list of stuff you’ll be doing as long as you’re shooting heroin. Also, women have a decent chance of going into early menopause, meaning they’ll wind up with thinning bones at, say, 35. This isn’t guaranteed because how many of us have heard stories of babies being born addicted to heroin?—another reason heroin ain’t “perfect” by a long shot.
Second, and this is the one that bothered me more: they said the autopsy showed the young man had “only” two track-marks on his arm, “which likely meant that the young man was no addict.” Holy Moses, Allah, Jesus and Buddha. The writer had just talked about how much pharma shit the guy had blown through for YEARS. His addiction to expensive pills he could no longer get was what drove him to the street to buy heroin.
These errors are such a sad commentary on the pervasive ignorance of the press and other powerful voices in our society about what addiction is and how it works. Hopefully in his next piece the writer will reach out to some expert voices to check out his speculations.
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I hardly ever cross a bridge in this city of 950 million bridges, but I went to the suburbs to hear a rabbi talk about addiction. Danny Schiff, who splits his time between Pittsburgh and Jerusalem, is the scholar in charge of adult education for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.
As a middle-aged woman who was raised strict Catholic, I found his remarks refreshing in their recasting of some of the Bible figures I’d grown up with. For example, Schiff said Noah was the world’s first addict.
Noah giving orders for the ark. (Wine not in picture.)
Whoa. I either never learned or had forgotten this, but Schiff said that when Noah gets god’s directive to build a sealed boat fit for one pair of every animal on earth so god can go ahead with his plan to demolish the planet (only a male god would think to do this), apparently Noah has the same instincts many of us would have had: he runs to the cellar to get a few bottles of vino.
And then, Schiff said, “he has shame about what he does when he drinks.”
“Noah had a problem with life,” Schiff said. “He underwent an enormous life-transition.” Well, hell yeah: imagine living conditions inside a sealed boat with the planet’s largest animals doing what they do best.
But then he said: “Something about Noah’s life made the wine seem like the only solution.” Yeah, bingo. And addiction does not automatically make people morally bad, he said: Noah is described as “the most righteous man of his generation.”
Schiff has never counseled anyone with addiction, and he doesn’t have addiction in his family. He said Jews have no standard set of texts about addiction the way they do with other problems of life. The problem of addiction, he said, is “at once as old as time, and also has been outside Jewish conversation.”
We have denied that Jews could be involved in addiction. We say, “Jews know how to moderate drinking—just take a little Kiddush wine.” We have Purim—the one time in the year that we’re allowed to overindulge. But we have as many alcoholics as any other group in society.
Addiction, Schiff said, can be seen as a kind of “physical reductionism,” or materialism: we rely on a physical substance to solve problems whose structures are essentially spiritual. He said although most people identify 12-step organizations as Christian, when read through the Jewish lens of “teshuvah” or “return,” “the twelve steps read like a process of how to return my life to God.”
Another stunning statement:
Jews introduced the world to the idea of a personal god who cares about humans.
Wow. I don’t even know how to fact-check that idea, but it’s pretty powerful, simply considering how old the spiritual practice of Judaism is. (That would be more than five millennia.)
To illustrate the idea of “teshuvah,” which he said most Jews misunderstand as “repentance” but which really means a spiritual “return,” he quoted a verse from Genesis:
Behold, I am with you, and I will not leave you until you have returned from whence you came.
The Bible’s various phrasings have god promising to bring the Jewish people back to their land.But the way Schiff interpreted this verse is different: it can be read as god promising to accompany humans on their life’s paths, and not leaving us until we’ve returned to our mysterious origins.
These words draped a little veil of comfort around me. As long-time readers of this blog may remember, I have a little tiny problem with the god-thing. That problem has grown in the last three years or so. When my marriage broke down, I fired God’s ass, and I had security escort Him the hell out. I’ve fired god before, and then rehired god (with more or less lengthy probationary periods). But firing god is pretty unhealthy for me. The first time I fired god was 1999, the year my mother died at age 58, and that was the beginning of my descent into uncontrollable pill-popping.
The fact that Schiff was so naïve about addiction actually helped him see the problem in the terms he’d see any problem. In that way, he normalized it: it’s a problem, like any of life’s other problems, and we can use the same principles with it that we’d use to think about any problem.
For example, he said:
Ultimately, if you think you’re in control of your life, you are delusional.
He stole this line from “Kung-Fu Panda.” 🙂 One of my best friends quite often quotes Master Oogway’s lecture to Shifu: “You have to let go of the illusion of control.”
Note: you don’t have to let go of control. You have to let go of your illusion (or Schiff would say delusion).
So Noah went home and got fucked up, but he followed orders and built the ark.
“We are required to get on with life,” Schiff said.
On the screen—some of the ways we can use language to reconceive of what we’re doing in fighting addiction. With Michael Genovese, MD, JD, addictions psychiatrist, integrative healer, and CMO of Sierra Tucson.
I’ve been saying for years that language matters. I’ll line up some of these posts for you:
here, a post about my spiritual soul-brah Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, who wrote books teaching people how to look for the innate healing power (HP) inside themselves
here, about Christopher Hitchens’s death—”Poor Hitch,” who used language to deceive himself and others about his addiction-driven illnesses that killed him
here, after a NYC AlAnon meeting—the first time I wrote about sober sex (very cool ending!!)
here, about my discovery that most people in recovery do not have language to express the unspeakable sexual transgressions many of us endured in childhood. This also denies them access to language for the joy they experience, or imagine, in adulthood
There are many more. Go search “language” on Guinevere Gets Sober.
I’ve been writing about language’s bearing on addiction and recovery for five years. Now, thank goodness, people (especially the youngsters, like Holly and Laura) are finally paying attention to language and its implications for recovery success. I went to amazing meetings in NYC last week in which a clinician said, “We don’t call urine testing ‘dirty’ or ‘clean,” we call it ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ for presence of opioids.” Sigh. About time.
I have never called myself “clean.”
Michael Botticelli, the new director for the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, has said he is not an “addict” or “alcoholic” but “a person in long-term recovery.”
I can hear old-timers say, “Yet.” The “yets” are the things that haven’t yet happened. “He shouldn’t be up there saying he’s in recovery because what if he relapses?” Michael Botticelli could drive his beemer or whatever to suburban Virginia and ask a bartender to line up some shots, or he could cop some heroin, where east of DC it’s said to be 65 percent pure (if it’s not spiked with fentanyl). He could crash his car.
But the fact is that by articulating that he is “a person in long-term recovery,” or when I say in a meeting, he is living in the present moment, and he gives hope for other people.
In meetings I now say, “I am sober and awake today,” and that declares what I am—what I want to be, what I’m working toward. Hell, it gives myself hope.
“I’m Joe and I’m a miserable lying cheating powerless alcoholic”
That ritual was born of early rehab culture, I was told, when residents (mostly men) were told they had to submit to “ego-deflation” (or “ego-puncturing” as it’s sometimes called in The Literature).
This term—”ego-puncturing”—came up in a women’s meeting yesterday. We were passing around the 12-and-12 and reading Chapter 7 together. Chapter 7 is awesome in that it promises—PROMISES, a big word in traditional recovery—that we will be able to use not only the strengths we’ve started to gain but also all our stumbles and past fuck-ups (with which we identify much more strongly) to actually help people.
The fuck-ups, in particular, are our key to recovery. I mentioned in that meeting (or Saturday’s, I can’t remember) that I had been arrested and stuck in jail with a pocket full of fentanyl that the cops never found. This story is always helpful for newcomers because they look at me, all put-together with mascara and shit, and talking calmly about jail, and it proves we may have some things in common.
What seem like sexual fuck-ups in particular can help other people, and ourselves, if only we can find the language for them.
One 40-something guy named Tom told me he’d started having sex with a woman whose grass he cut when he was 16. It sounds like something out of a Stephen King novel, right? And it was basically statutory rape. Because 30-something women are not supposed to fool around with 16-year-old boys. He was sixteen, right?
When I would have sex with someone all I cared about was making sure they had pleasure, because I wasn’t sure I could get pleasure from it, because I was too scared.
BOOM: into language, the feeling most 16-year-olds (and 40-year-olds, and 50-year-olds) are afraid to say.
Then he started rolling his mower over to her house. Drinking some lemonade in the kitchen led to her taking him to her bedroom.
She showed me how to please a woman. She showed me ways to manipulate her body, mostly with my hands, and taught me about breathing exercises to take your partner through so you could mutually breathe together. At certain points she would take my hand and place it on her solar plexus and she would reach out and touch mine when she was close to orgasm. She taught me certain areas within the vagina, about the nervous system—I mean, she was very extensive in her education. It was weird, but it was also kind of cool, because she was showing me things with which I literally had instantaneous results in my later life.
I laughed at this story. Tom looked at me askance. I said, “It’s not a prurient laugh at all.” He recognizes this because clearly he understands that an irony stands as one of the pillars of our recovery: within the strange, fucked-up illegal shit that happens to us and that we cause to happen to others are the nuggets of gold that we later mine and hammer into gifts for ourselves and for others.
If we can put language to it. It’s little good to us or to others without language. But language and labels are not the same. We need to ditch the labels.
The people who know their stuff are liking my new book.
“Sex In Recovery is a work long overdue. In a frank, personal and highly personable way Jennifer Matesa opens a topic usually only whispered about: the essential role of sexual healing in sobriety. Many readers will be grateful to her.”—Gabor Maté M.D., author, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction
“In this beautifully written work, Jennifer Matesa accomplishes a herculean task. For decades, clinicians have struggled to assist patients to integrate healthy sex lives into robust recovery programs. At the same time, traditional 12 Step programs have promulgated rules that shamed and denied their members’ sexuality. Sex in Recovery resolves this disconnect. Through compelling narrative descriptions, it gives its readers a map to navigate, resolve and embrace their sexuality in its most rewarding expression.”—Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, Senior clinical fellow at Caron Treatment Centers
I know a woman who is writing a book about various practices of “self-care.” From time to time, she posts requests on Facebook asking for people to reveal their practices. It makes for some interesting reading. Today she asked people to write about what they “do for spiritual self-care.” “How do you transcend the self, surpass the ego and face existential realities that we are all going to die?” she asked.
“Meditation? Hiking? Going to church? Twirling like a Dervish? Analyzing dreams? AA meetings?”
People were writing about angels, crystals, goddesses; meditation and prayer; reading the Bible and listening to music; walking in the woods; watching birds, watching the moon.
They also talked about how they don’t do their chosen disciplines enough. “I need to find myself again,” one person wrote.
I thought about what I do. I don’t hike but I walk the dog. I don’t go to church. I don’t twirl like a dervish or analyze my dreams.
But I go to meetings.
“Meetings won’t keep you clean and sober,” I was told when I started going to meetings, by an awesome spiritual seeker of a sponsor who a few weeks later started using drugs again.
I learned a lot from that woman. I think she’s right: meetings don’t keep me off drugs, and when people say “just don’t pick up, and go to meetings,” I cringe because I don’t buy it. If I could “just not pick up,” I wouldn’t even be sitting in that folding chair trying not to eat the cookies/doughnuts/other high-fructose garbage-food on the table next to the shitty Maxwell House coffee.
I go to meetings because it lets me spend time with people I love. And it forces me to spend some time taking the steps.
The steps are suggestions, all of them, so none are compulsory. But practiced with discipline, their result is not guaranteed happiness but spiritual enlargement.
Every day, I try to turn my will and my life over to the care of forces greater than I am. Most people focus on the word “greater,” but for me the operative word is “care.” I totally get that there are lots of forces greater than I am (time, light, gravity, Google, etc.). But having grown up with addiction and depression in the house, it has been an ongoing effort throughout my life to remember that there are great forces in the world that can and will CARE for me—without expecting anything in return—if I diligently practice surrender of my will.
My will is wild. Some news stories of late have reminded me how wild the will is: the kid who wiggled into the Cincinnati gorilla enclosure; the Nebraska toddler who was eaten by a Florida alligator on Disney property; the Oregon guy who went to Yellowstone, decided he’d step past the barrier and walk across the fragile mineral crust, and fell into the hot springs. The water in those springs is so acidic that nothing was found of his body.
I think perhaps books like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and films like “Into the Wild” have “popularized” the idea of wilderness and made some people think that the wild is entertainment. Safe wildness. But there end up being holes in the zoo fences, gators in the peaceful tropical lagoons. (Disney’s will was to earn money, and not to spoil the fantasy with warning signs.)
And toddlers (and even adults) just seem to want to go wherever they want to.
The wild is certainly beautiful and strong and glorious, but it is also unpredictable and deadly if we do not abide by some rules and apply discipline.
The will is wild. My will can very well drag me underwater if I do not let go of it and follow some rules for safety.
Trust “The God Thing,” as my friend Em likes to call it.
Clean the dog hair out of my house.
Help other people.
Be grateful. Write those down.
Also eating good food and drinking clean water. Because I don’t Stop Drinking, I just don’t drink the stuff that hurts me.
It’s hard to practice every day, because I Just Don’t Feel Like It, you know what I’m saying?
And as every spiritual practitioner of every discipline has ever recorded in their meditations, there can be long spiritually dry spells. AND THAT’S NORMAL. But because our self-help culture has sold us the idea that we should always be happy, we think it’s abnormal to practice, and then be unhappy, and then to keep practicing.
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"Already an award-winning blog, Guinevere Gets Sober is as good as it gets. As a professional with two degrees and a track record of success, Guinevere’s viewpoint reflects the reality that not all addicts fit the stereotypes. She has the guts to take a public stand for addiction advocacy and rehab success. She fights to reduce the stigma that prevents people from seeking treatment, and with a blog like this, she is surely succeeding."
When in 2008 I decided to recover from addiction, I started writing under the pseudonym "Guinevere." An ancient name meaning "white" or "fair," Guinevere is Welsh for my given name, Jennifer. And Queen Guinevere—though lovely, powerful, and rich—still lied and cheated to satisfy her desires.
A writer by habit and profession, I started this blog to examine issues of addiction in the culture. I'm especially interested in reducing social stigma that prevents people from getting timely help, and in supporting the many people who write to me looking for help in reducing their chemical load in life.
I love books, film, and art, and I review all of these here, along with the ongoing appearance of addiction and recovery in the news ... and of course I tell great stories.
Please share your comments here, or email me at guinevere (at) guineveregetssober.com.