Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

A Different Prince.

Prince-pinned

Prince, pupils pinned v.01. (When you’re addicted to opioids, you can hide a lot, but you can’t hide your pinned pupils.)

When they said Prince had been saved by a shot of naloxone on the plane home from a show, I knew he’d been using something stronger than Percocet, and I was right.

I didn’t say this out loud, or write it here, because some people who loved Prince were screaming on social media that anyone “standing by to call him ‘addict'” were “haters.”

I don’t want to be a hater. I just want to tell the truth. I knew he was on something stronger than Percocet. He must have been, for a long time. Otherwise, the Tylenol in Percocet would have shut his liver down long ago.

“The decedent self-administered fentanyl,” the medical examiner wrote.

By all rights, I should have gone the way of Prince. For three and a half years I was prescribed fentanyl for migraine and fibromyalgia, and, as he did, I took too much (aka, “overdosed”). Many times.

Fentanyl is the strongest painkiller known. It comes in lollipops and in patches that you’re supposed to stick on your skin, but people who abuse the drug often suck on the adhesives. I did.

Mixed with heroin, fentanyl has killed dozens in the Northeast and Midwest United States.

Fentanyl is not as commonly prescribed for chronic pain as Vicodin, Percocet or OxyContin, for the simple reason that it’s much more lethal. Fentanyl is about 80 times stronger than morphine or heroin. From the variety of estimates given in the press and in professional literature, it’s clear that scientists have not even determined the precise bioequivalencies.

It’s just fucking STRONG.

Fentanyl’s particular pharmacologic qualities allow it to zip into the brain like a high-speed train, flooding receptors and stopping autonomic functions, including breathing.

Prince was apparently saved at least once by a shot of naloxone, or Narcan, a drug that kicks any painkiller off the receptors and reboots respiration. To help save lives in the opioid addiction epidemic, Narcan must be made more widely available.

But when dealing with fentanyl, the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network notes that EMS staff generally don’t have enough time to use Narcan “because this highly potent opioid can quickly cause death.”

//

ct-prince-photos-20160421

Prince, pupils pinned v.02.

I know how Prince would have felt when he was overdosing. He would have felt as if someone were stacking a pallet of bricks on his chest. Brick by brick, he would have exhaled, maybe closing his eyes, and it would have been a long time before his body wanted to inhale again. He might have wondered whether his body would remember to breathe.

He died alone on the floor of an elevator. Just sit and hold that image for a minute.

If he were in excruciating or intractable pain, which by many accounts he was, respiratory depression might, sadly, have come as a relief. For 30 years Prince performed acrobatic stunts in high-heeled boots, and the hip surgery he had about 10 years ago reportedly did not resolve his pain.

As a serious performer, Prince wanted above all to show up as the sequined spectacular of Paisley Park, The Purple One, The Artist. American society is competitive, and it values only what we’ve done lately, and those of us who grow up inside it—as children, being bullied by its bullies—learn to identify ourselves primarily with what we can DO. If we can’t perform, if we cannot work construction, sit for hours in front of a computer, carry our children—or sing the songs we ourselves have written and do splits with a hardwood guitar strung across our chest—without debilitating pain, we may begin to feel there’s little reason to live.

Often, our solution is to find a way to control or numb our feelings about the pain so we can do whatever the hell we want.

No: it’s up to scientists and physicians to find ways to control pain. We ought to surrender that job to them. When we play around with doctors’ tools, we risk our very lives.

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My detox from fentanyl in 2008 was a hard, year-long slog, and it taught me my job is to find ways to treat my body so I don’t hurt it in the first place. We all need to live inside our mortal bodies and learn to accept their earthly limitations.

Drugs—the doctors’ and pharma corporations’ solutions to problems—give us the ability to power through pain, but at what cost?

To be sure, no one really knows what crossed Prince’s mind when he put the extra patch on his skin, plastered it inside his cheek, or sucked the extra fentanyl lollipop.

Ostensibly being a devout Jehovah’s Witness, he may have wished he could quit the drugs. His staff apparently called in an addictions specialist shortly before he died—a California doctor who was sending his son to Minneapolis to conduct an addiction intervention—so it sounds as if Prince, and/or the people who surrounded him, might have known he had a serious drug problem.

Not many people have ever taken fentanyl. Having unfortunately been there, I can say it’s beyond hard to quit. Anyone using fentanyl to feed their addiction—or even to numb chronic pain—is in dire straits and will be slowly backed against a wall. Whether quitting the drug and getting sober or continuing to take the drug to control pain—either decision requires a transformation of one’s life, an acceptance of real limitations, physical and psychological. 

Prince might have been saved by Suboxone—the partial-agonist opioid drug used in detox and medication-assisted treatment, which the California doctor’s son was reportedly bringing to Prince the day he died. In fact, Suboxone helped me detox—but I’m glad I didn’t wind up taking it indefinitely.

Ironically, Suboxone or Subutex may also have controlled Prince’s pain. But never again would he have been able to leap off risers and cavort in high heels.

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Prince

Prince, pupils pinned, v.03.

I remember dancing with my hazel-eyed college boyfriend to “Little Red Corvette.” (Ahhh.) That song is like a scent that forever hangs in the hallways of my brain, preserving my personal history. Little Red Corvette.

Those memories get filed away, and we move on. Right?

In order to live, Prince would have had to file those memories of landing in splits and accept his body’s demand that he transform his idea of himself—that he find a different way to be Prince. And we still would have loved him.

The Prince is dead. Long live the Prince..

The Prince is dead. Long live the Prince..

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Prince.

Prince

I’ve been waiting to comment about Prince, because the tox screens aren’t yet in.

It’s not like it was with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead with the rig still in his arm and drugs all over the house.

But today the New York Times is running a front-page feature about Prince’s apparent addiction to painkillers. Associates have been saying since the day he died that he’d had hip surgery because of his acrobatic performances onstage, in high heels.

princesplits_1bi2hnl-1bi2hnq

Prince was a short guy—five-feet-two. He was slim and lithe, and he spent decades bounding onstage with guitars strapped around his torso. Guitars are basically pieces of solid hardwood. They’re heavy, man.

prince-guitar

And the high heels—they look awesome, but they hurt the whole body, not just the feet.

prince-high-heels

In the years I’ve been running this blog, I’ve heard from so many people who became addicted to painkillers because they felt the need to push themselves past the limits of their bodies. Speaking for myself, I sought treatment for two painful neurological conditions in the early 2000s, when OxyContin was being jammed onto the medical market. I was assured by high-level pain experts that there was little risk of my becoming addicted because I had “legitimate pain,” but within a couple of years I was being prescribed massive doses of fentanyl, and I was abusing it.

Not many people make it off fentanyl alive.

I’m able to manage my pain without dependency producing drugs, because I have learned to work within my limitations. It has been a frustrating and humbling experience. My constant pain reminds me every day that I have to take care of myself in ways that are different from what I learned as a kid, and also ways that are different from what the culture would have me do—which is take drugs.

When the CDC last month issued new guidelines for opioid prescribing, Center for Disease Control Director Thomas Frieden M.D. noted in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Initiation of treatment with opioids is a momentous decision and should be undertaken only with full understanding by both the physician and the patient of the substantial risks involved.”

Drugs are not inherently evil, but they carry particular dangers. We live in a culture in which these very powerful chemicals are prescribed by doctors, many of whom do not understand their powers. And that ignorance is then passed to patients, who then learn not to respect the powers of the chemicals.

In Prince’s case we still do not know the autopsy findings, but reports from associates serve to remind the public of the importance of considering one’s penchant for using substances to drive oneself past one’s own limits. The artist formerly and belovedly known as Prince was a true original—as a friend of mine put it, “his own freak.” He was also a human being and a businessman, and he wanted to keep doing what he was doing despite the limits of age and physical injury. Unfortunately the human animal is not built to jump off stage risers in high heels for more than three decades without sustaining chronic injury. However artistically independent Prince was, a little humility is called for to accept the limitations of the human body and mind.

I’ve always found it pretty ironic that when Pink Floyd was writing their song “Comfortably Numb,” the working title was “The Doctor.”

Come on, now
I hear you’re feeling down
Well, I can ease your pain
And get you on your feet again …

Can you stand up?
I do believe it’s working good
That’ll keep you going through the show
Come on, it’s time to go

Prince-1

 

Sex in Recovery: Making Breasts Legal.

venusdemilo

The Venus de Milo. Greece, 100. B.C.E.

Several young people in recovery who I know have been putting up seriously badass feminist posts on Facebook. One such post—a story about how it’s legal in our state to go topless—was removed by Facebook. Maybe some jerkwad decided to flag it as obscene. Maybe the flagger felt intimidated by the photo on the story that showed actual female breasts (four of them, if I remember rightly).

Or else, Facebook’s algorithms trawled through and caught the post because it had tits in it. And the poster was banned from the platform for 24 hours.

It ought to be legal to show breasts in public. We ought to be able to look at breasts and think “sexual” or “womanly” without thinking “porn.”

A while ago I wrote a biography of a breast-cancer patient who had a double mastectomy at age 30 and you know what?—the local paper could run a photo of her naked torso AFTER surgery because it was a family newspaper and there was nothing recognizable as breasts in the photo. Editors are running businesses so they have to meet their readers’ needs, but it’s just too bad that American readers feel safer looking at the scars and mutilation caused by treatment of disease than at a healthy female body.

Having researched this book about sexuality and recovery that’s coming out in a few months (please stay tuned), it’s clearer to me than ever that our culture is bound by insane moral judgments about sexuality that distort people’s sexual response, leading to abuse of substances and, worse, of women and children (by both men and women). The young women I know have such badass courage to be posting the feminist stuff that they’ve been posting recently! They have my admiration.

I feel strongly about making human bodies legal. So ladies, when it gets warm, let’s go down by the river and take off our shirts. Feeling safe and accepted inside our bodies is, by the way, the best way to overcome trauma and to avoid relapse.

And here are all the places in the U.S. where you can Go Topless.

topless_map_with_MX_clean_1

Report From The Body: Venus de Milo.

When I was a kid I used to pore through my mother’s art books she’d bought for the one term she’d spent as a fine art student at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University. On the bookshelf behind the end table next to the chair lived a red cloth-bound art-history volume that had black-and-white reproductions of great works of art throughout Western European civilization. Because at this time, African and Native American and “oriental” art didn’t count.

Of all the photos I pored over—even more than Michelangelo’s David (which I’m not sure was represented in its entirety, I think they must have cropped the photo at the waist, the way CBS cropped Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show) I think I most closely studied the Venus de Milo.

Venus-de-Milo

At 10 or 11 I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I didn’t understand that all cultures formulate their ideas of beauty. I didn’t even half-comprehend the irony that as I was studying this photo, my own culture was coming up with these images of sexual beauty:

farrah-fawcett-pinup Bo-Derek

And then Karen Carpenter starved herself to death, and the first stories about anorexia started appearing in the Time Magazines that used to come to the house.

Now, I understand, YouTube has videos giving instructions to girls and women about how to do it well. That is, how to starve yourself.

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I found this amazing shot of the Venus de Milo today.

venusdemilo

At 10 or 11 I didn’t understand how to look at this sculpture, but today here’s what I notice from this shot: Aphrodite has abs. Her strength shows. And she has quite a nice bit of padding underneath her skin. Her belly looks like mine (or, my belly looks like hers).

She’s well-fed. She’s fit. She would not fit into a Size 2, or even into a size 6.

She doesn’t have cleavage. Her collarbones aren’t sticking out.

Her posture is upright. She’s confident. (She’s a goddess, right? But still.)

And her face. Her gaze isn’t seductive. She’s not thinking about what other people think about how she looks.

She’s not trying to sell herself to any bidder. She’s occupying her own body.

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The other day my friend Noah, who has 20-some years sober, said to me that he’d been living in his head. “I’m way up in my head these days,” is the way he put it, and he sounded trapped.

“Can you get down into your body?” I blurted, only half-knowing what I was asking.

He fastened his blue eyes on my face. “I don’t know what that means,” he said, surprised, thinking.

When do you live in your head? When do you live in your body? 

(Originally published August 30, 2013.)

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Toward A Healthy Sexuality In Recovery.

spotlight-2015-directed-by-tom-mccarthy-movie-review

I watched Spotlight last night and it had a profound effect on me, not just as a writer whose background and first awards were in print journalism, but also as a woman raised in a strict Catholic family in which sex, sexuality, and people who were sexual were judged sinful and evil.

One of the sanest voices in the film is Richard Sipe, a guy who abandoned the priesthood and now works as a therapist and researcher (and it’s always noted that he married a former nun!!). Before the Globe team ever put together the story that broke the Boston Catholic child-sex-abuse scandal, Sipe wrote a rather obscure academic study called Sex, Priests, and Power. It confirms ideas that have been living inside me for decades in an inchoate way, I think because my upbringing put such a stringent prohibition on sex and sexual enjoyment. I’ve simply doubted my ideas and my ability to think them through. Sipe writes:

Sex, pleasure, sin, and women were [in the fourth century] woven into a theological equation that solidified the celibate/sexual structure of the Roman Catholic Church and influence every aspect of its development. Power was consolidated in sexual terms. That structure is crumbling under the weight of its own hypertrophy, if not corruption. . . . The sexual behavior of priests must be understood against the clear and unbending sexual moral doctrine of Catholic Christianity, namely: Every sexual thought, word, desire, and action outside marriage is mortally sinful. Every sexual act within marriage not open to conception is mortally sinful. Sexual misbehavior constitutes grave matter in every instance [emphasis his]. No other area of moral life, including murder, is treated with this same moral rigidity. The majority of Catholics simply do not believe this teaching, nor do they think that natural law [meaning science] supports it.

So the prohibitions on sex were at the very heart of the way this religion developed from the start.

My parents, each of whom had themselves considered taking clerical vows before they met each other, were not among this majority who Sipe says do not buy catholicism’s sexual strictures. They promulgated them in their own family. I was the eldest and expected to be an example for the younger two, especially my sister. When my parents discovered that I was having sex, they disowned me in a five-hour Spanish-Inquisition-style interview at their kitchen table. No thumbscrews or rack, but because I refused to say I thought I was evil just because I was having sex, they told me never to come home again for help. Expelled. I was 23—a grown woman.

And I’d already been drinking for five years. I had my first drink, not coincidentally, the night I had my first sexual encounter. Dude just wanted to make out with me. No taking my clothes off, nothing, but still, I wasn’t so sure. I was nervous (no kidding!!), and I didn’t know how to negotiate that stress, so I drank his gin.

The fact about this extreme response that supports Sipe’s ideas is this: four months before my parents issued this edict, I had crashed my car in a blackout. I realize now that because my dad drank enormous amounts, they could hardly disown me for that behavior. Not much would have driven them to this extreme.

But sex sure did.

I was never raped. Thank goodness. (So many women and girls have been. And so many boys.) But my parents’ expulsion of me hurt me deeply. I’ve worked for years on forgiving them because I no longer want to be trapped by my anger.

//

Sex In Recovery revised 2c

My new book is part of that work of forgiveness.

For the past year I’ve been interviewing people in recovery from addiction about their sexual histories for a book that will be published this fall. Exactly zero people have turned me down for interviews for this very intimate and anonymous look into how we negotiate sex after we no longer have drugs to control our fear and shame about it.

I’m so grateful to my sources. Their stories are amazing.

Many of the people I’ve interviewed across the country have been not just physically abused, but also sexually abused. As adults, and many as children. Believe me, I did not choose them for this characteristic. I just started talking with them, and out it came:

My uncle had sex with me from the age of 8 to 13.

My stepfather used to take my clothes off and put his hands on my genitals. I think my mother knew.

My neighbor, after school, would force me into his basement make me go down on him.

It wasn’t everybody. The studies say upwards of 50 percent of women (maybe more) and about 20 percent of men in recovery have experienced childhood sexual abuse. Stephanie Covington, who conducted some of the groundbreaking research on women and sexual abuse in recovery, found 75 percent of women recovering from addiction have survived sexual abuse of some kind. Self-reports of sexual trauma are usually considered to be low.

This means that at any given recovery meeting anywhere, in any modality (12-step, SMART, LifeRing, Women in Sobriety, Hip Sobriety, or just your morning coffee klatch), most of the people around you have experienced sexual abuse.

I mean, what the fuck, man. It haunts me. Listening to these stories has changed me.

It doesn’t matter whether kids grow up catholic or protestant; Sipe writes. If it’s christian, it’s fucked up around sex. And this country is largely christian.

In 2,000 years no Christian church has developed an adequate theology of sexuality—that is, no one has worked out an overarching, comprehensive, and integrative understanding of the nature and place of sexuality within the scheme of salvation and theological system [emphasis mine]. . . . Practical reality, scientific development, and spiritual awareness of the origins and meanings of sexuality, life, and love expose the inadequacy of the system to sustain its own stated goals.

A lot of us parents are not physically or sexually abusing our kids. But we’re definitely not talking to them about sexuality, either. Clearly Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug-use slogan “Just Say No” (which is NOT what abstinence-based recovery systems are about, btw—they’re about working out this understanding of the nature and place of sexuality) came from christianity.

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What’s so amazing about the people I’ve interviewed is that recovery has enabled them not only to quit drinking and using but also, in great measure, to heal from the super-bad shit that was foisted on them. To the last one, they said they talked with me so they could help other people know that this healing was possible.

My book is called Sex in Recovery: A Meeting Between the Covers. It’s structured like a recovery meeting. There are about a dozen speakers and topics. The book is designed to:

  • help people who don’t know how to talk about their sexual conflicts and pleasures to begin to find language for them
  • give people a sense of the breadth of sexual experience—before, during, and after active addiction—among people in recovery
  • provide a tool that can be used to suggest topics in meetings, and to begin to talk with therapists, sponsors, friends, and family
  • show that sexuality and pleasure are normal, natural, joyful, superfun and awesome parts of a whole life

Most of all I hope it makes people understand none of us is alone. None of us has to think we’re looking at friends who have secretly figured everything out, while we ourselves have a super-fucked-up sex life. We also don’t have to feel forced to shut up about our healing when sharing would be so helpful.

None of us has to keep up a deadly silence.

Stay tuned! If you want to know more, leave a comment or email me.

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