Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

A Sober Thanksgiving.

(Originally published Nov. 25, 2010)

My sister is here for Thanksgiving with her family. We have eight people in the house, and half of them are kids. They’re staying for a week.

A week is a long time to have house-guests.

Especially if you have been raised in an alcoholic family and one of your deepest habits is making your life feel safe by making it the same every day.

Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

My house was built in 1898. It’s a three-story, foursquare brick house with a staircase up the front hall to the third floor and back stairs from the kitchen to the second floor. With four kids here, there are always pounding feet and weird screeching sound-effects echoing throughout the plaster walls and oak floors.

This old house.

This old house.

It’s a different atmosphere from what I was used to as a child. When we were kids, we used to spend Thanksgiving, every single frigging Thanksgiving, with my mother’s parents at her childhood home. My grandfather, who was a violent drunk when my mother was a child, had built his house from scratch in the early 1940s. It was a big ill-designed brick place with a sort-of-Dutch roof and a screened side-porch.


My mother’s childhood home, via GoogleMaps.

It stood on half an acre of flat land shaded by enormous oaks, whose leaves we spent two days raking during our Thanksgiving visit. We raked leaves. Played endless gin rummy with my grandmother. Occasionally bought a quarter’s worth of penny candy at the corner store a block away, but we weren’t even allowed to walk down the block by ourselves.

The house was a two-and-a-half story place with a full dry basement, but we weren’t allowed to touch anything in it for fear of breaking something or making a mess. There were a few ancient toys in the attic. Mostly, we sat and read. We weren’t allowed to make a racket, except for music. My sister played the piano; I practiced my flute.

We helped in the kitchen. My grandmother always roasted a turkey with plain Wonder-bread stuffing, and made mashed potatoes, corn pudding, and some canned or frozen green beans. Or maybe, as a huge change of pace!!—lima beans (canned). For dessert we’d have pumpkin pie.

Everything was always the same. We always ate at half-past 3. The reason we ate this early was always beyond me—but it was taken for granted that I would never ask why.

Thanksgiving evening would stretch before us, empty.

“Did we ever go anywhere?” my sister asked me this morning as she worked on the turkey.

This house was in Catonsville, a prosperous suburb about 20 minutes from a major historic Eastern seaboard tourist draw, but we only ever once saw the actual city. Once. We visited twice a year for what—18 years?—and we almost never left the property except to go to church.

I can’t remember any real communication over supper. We kids didn’t talk about what we were doing in school, and my grandparents never showed any interest in our lives. My brother sometimes went down to the basement to watch my grandfather fix a radio at his workbench, but I can’t remember ever speaking to my grandfather, though I was forced to sit at his right hand at every meal, and for every family photo I had to sit on his lap, which creeped me out because aside from this requirement, he never showed any interest in me. He no longer drank—he’d given up booze once he was diagnosed with diabetes—but he was not in the least sober. Meanwhile my gregarious dad was dealing with this fucked-up family by putting away can after can of National Bohemian.

Classic alcoholic family behavior. Isolation. Rigidity. Suppression of feelings. Lack of communication.

Addiction is a difficult cycle to break. It’s an intergenerational dysfunction. Its patterns become deeply ingrained from earliest childhood. The deepest, in my case, is taking care of others at my own expense.

I try to do some things differently today.

We open up the entire house to everyone. There are piles of books, toys, cards, and other kid stuff all over the house. Nobody is afraid to touch anything. “This is like my temporary home,” my 9-year-old nephew casually remarked yesterday as he reached into the fridge for some milk. Openness instead of isolation.

Ever since the kids were small I’ve splurged on art supplies, and I pile them onto the dining room table and show them how to make art. It’s like push-ups for the muscles of the imagination. They’re all interested in drawing and painting, and three of them are particularly creatively inclined—so we pay attention to their interests. Flexibility instead of rigidity.

I try to be sensitive to the kids’ feelings. Since they were small, I’ve always taken them on my lap and given them a great deal of physical affection. I want them to know they can rely on me. … Now they’re too big to sit on my lap. My eldest niece, at 13, is taller than I. When I see clouds or tears pass over their faces, I put my arms around them and try to be present to their feelings—or I try to be aware of times to leave them alone.

Most of all, I’m talking with my sister. We were not given the tools to get along with each other when we were young. Growing up in an alcoholic family makes a person emotionally dependent and denies a child the equipment to accept reality: it’s like we’re always wishing for some other life, trapped in some illusion. We always want things to be different—more perfect; closer to some ideal we have in our heads.

Just sharing our experiences has been such a gift. Even disagreeing with each other and remaining close is a gift.

I sit back and give my sister permission to do whatever she wants in my house. She’s a wonderful cook. If she wants to take over the kitchen, I tell her to go ahead. If she wants to get up at 7 and make a cheesecake, I tell her to go ahead. I’m trying for flexibility instead of rigidity. Freedom instead of imprisonment and dependence. Watching her feel comfortable in my house is awesome.

Our menu:

  • Brined turkey
  • Glazed ham (because the boys don’t like turkey: some flexibility is good)
  • My sister’s special stuffing
  • My husband’s amazing oven-roasted potatoes
  • Fresh carrots, green beans, and brussels sprouts
  • My sister’s cheesecake
  • My cherry pie, which my niece helped make

I remember a couple years ago, just after I detoxed, my sister said, “It’s just not Thanksgiving without Mom here to complain about what a shitty job Dad’s doing carving the turkey.”

This year, there has been some anxiety—but no arguing or fighting, no throwing food or objects across the dining room, the way there was after my grandfather died; no gritting teeth; no days-long resentful silences about who’s making what, who pays for what, or who won’t eat what and how that makes that person uncooperative and stubborn and worthy of criticism for daring to express preferences.

A week is a long time to have family in the house, but I’ll tell you what: it seems way shorter than the two days we spent for Thanksgiving each year with my grandparents.

She Recovers in NYC: Healing Alongside Our Sisters

She Recovers in NYC

The She Recovers in NYC conference is the first-ever international meeting to pay attention to the particular needs of women in in all kinds of . Aside from being one of the happiest celebrations of recovery on the planet, She Recovers in NYC is built to help us heal from serious problems that compromise our recovery.

It’s just real that, as women, we face some challenges that are different from those of our male counterparts. One of the most prevalent and important is the level of trauma in our histories.

Whereas no more than 20 percent of men in recovery have experienced trauma, one reliable study found trauma in the histories of roughly three-quarters of women. About two-thirds of those have experienced physical trauma, and a significant fraction have experienced sexual trauma, including childhood sexual abuse.

Five hundred of us will cross state and international borders to gather in New York, and three out of four of us will be dealing with trauma in our pasts. And as the long-running Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study has pretty definitively shown, trauma is highly correlated with the ways we drank and used drugs.

We have to take care of this trauma. We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, and we also can’t allow its fallout to tempt us back into that life.

When I heard that Dawn Nickel and Taryn Strong and their team were putting this conference on, I knew I had to go. I wanted to be with my sisters who are struggling with the same problems I and so many others grapple with.

I know what those problems are. I’ve heard about them firsthand. For my last book, Sex in Recovery: A Meeting between the Covers, I interviewed more than four dozen ordinary people in recovery about their sexual histories inside both addiction and recovery.

Men talked about physical abuse, usually from their fathers. But woman after woman—one of my sisters after another—talked about sexual trauma: rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, performing sex-work to get drugs.

I also heard from women in recovery who have been celibate for up to 12 years, who desire relationships and sexual pleasure but have no idea how to go about getting there without drinking or using a drug.

Talking with so many women convinced me that substance abuse has roots in a lack of healthy touch in society and in our failure to talk in reasonable ways to our kids—or even with each other—about sex.

Recovery awakens desires for healthy and loving sexual relationships, but because we don’t talk about sex in the culture, we have no language to talk about any of this.

She Recovers NYC is not just a party—it’s also a balls-out effort to help women heal from serious problems that may compromise our ability to stay clean and sober. Interactive workshops are designed to help women begin to talk about sexuality, desire, trauma, numbing ourselves with sugar, and fear of abundance. Yoga sessions are designed to help us stay inside our bodies. No way could I resist going.

Valentine’s Day: #Sobersex Vid Series!


Since publishing Sex in Recovery, I’ve discovered that so many sober folks want to talk about sex, but they’re scared to start because they don’t know how. We’re raised not to think about sex, much less even talk about it, and to hide our experiments in this rich, healthy world of desire and pleasure. The culture bequeaths us the crazy-ass paradox that sex is dirty and that we should save it for the one we love.

I’ve talked with dozens of sober people about sex, and Lara (pictured above) is enthusiastic, sensible, and fun! My new #sobersex video series goes live on Valentine’s Day—the day I think we should love ourselves first, give ourselves not just chocolate but also self-acceptance and commitment to discover who we are.

Secret Facebook group for women: And if you want to be part of my new secret FB group for women interested in discussing sobersex, follow my Facebook author page and shoot me a DM.

Q & A About #SoberSex.


The Pittsburgh City Paper ran a little thing today about how I wrote my book about sex.

In case you’re doing last-minute shopping, consider Sex in Recovery as a gift for recovering folks on your list.

Author Jennifer Matesa talks about sex after getting sober

“I talked to a number of people in their late 20s and early 30s who had never had sex sober.”

Jennifer Matesa has had a lot of Skype conversations about sex, some of them lasting more than three hours. The Friendship-based author recently released Sex in Recovery: A Meeting Between the Covers (Hazelden Publishing). The 220-page nonfiction book ($15.95) includes oral histories from former substance-abusers about the impact of addiction and recovery on their sex lives, between Matesa’s own essays. It’s her second book on a related topic, after the fitness-focused The Recovering Body. She documents her own story about overcoming addiction to prescription painkillers on her blog

How did you find people to talk to for this book?

I’ve had a blog for six-and-a-half years, so when you have a blog that gets any amount of attention, you meet people on the blog, and they comment, or they email you, and that’s part of my network. [Another] part of my network is recovering people in the city of Pittsburgh. I just put the word out that I was doing this book, and that would lead me to people.

What was the most surprising thing someone told you?

Maria Luz, a trans woman, talked about how she had worked Santa Monica Boulevard [in Los Angeles], which is a notorious tricking place, and how she had been mentored by a drag queen to get into cars and do what guys wanted. In order to do that, she had to get drunk, and in order to live with herself afterward, she had to get wasted. Later in recovery, when she quit drinking and using, she realized …

Read more at the Pittsburgh City Paper.

On G’s Gratitude List: Men.

They’re unfathomable creatures, men. I don’t understand them (and, actually, I do).

I love most things about them: Their hair. Their skin. The fact that they’re bigger and stronger than I am, even the small ones. Their minds. Especially their voices. I love listening to men talk and sing.

Right now I’m listening to Tom Waits … he wrote this beautiful song.

Many of my feelings about men, of course, have to do with my father.

I was NOT daddy’s little girl. That was my little sister. My mother claimed me as her best friend, confidante, and ally—which might be why I think men are such incomprehensible, mysterious, unreachable, alluring beings. I originally wanted to have a girl, but I’m very, very glad I gave birth to a boy.

For most of his life Dad had a big beer-gut, and he was not hairy. (I like men with hair on their arms, their legs, their chests.) When I was growing up, I didn’t consider Dad handsome. I was kind of ashamed of the way he looked, actually, because he didn’t take care of his body.

But this is a picture of my dad in college.

Dad, senior photo, University of Pittsburgh, 1961.

(The flattop and skinny tie kill me.)

He was handsome. He was six-feet-two; he wore a size-12 shoe and a size 46-long coat. He was smart and dependable and spiritual and utterly unafraid of people, and he Read Books. He sang bass in the church choir.

Dad’s message was, “Everything will be OK.” Sometimes (especially when the Dow crashes, or when one of our kids has a real problem) my sister and I call each other and say, “Tell me what Daddy would say.”

His hugs were the best. A hug from Dad was like receiving a hug from the entire planet. Market shares could be tumbling, buildings could be burning, hurricanes could roar through and flood even uplands and when I hugged Dad, the world would be put back together and I’d be standing again on hard, dry ground.

His hands were large but finely boned, with square nails. Like a scientist.

He had blue-gray eyes. Like rain.

My son’s eyes are deep, dark Bournville brown, like my brother’s. His eyebrows are heavy and black, like Dad’s.

My son.

My son.

My son is one of a number of important men in my life. Another is Jacques, who lives in New York and has 30 years sober and who’s like a brother to me. And another is a tall geeky guy with a magnificent sense of humor, who rents out his car because he cycles everywhere within a 20-mile radius of his house. There’s yet another tall guy, with long hair and superb taste in music, whom I’ve known since the last days of post-punk. Both these tall guys are enjoying raising young women. … There’s also my son’s father, who gave our boy that dimple in his chin and who, in both his sons, has raised two good men.

I’ve learned many lessons from men that I could never have learned from women. My son has learned many things from the other men in his life that he could never have learned from me.

I’ve spent much of my life being afraid of men, as if they were bears in old-fashioned zoo cages. My mother taught me that if I trusted men, if I was nice to them, they’d eat me alive. Please Don’t Feed the Bears. My fear was actually not a fear of men but a fear of my own sexuality. One of the primary side-effects of using drugs was the depression of my sex-drive. When I was using, I didn’t look at men. On the whole, I didn’t notice other people. I was immured in my own bubble, within the curved walls of my skull.

Now that I’m sober, I notice men all the time. As a sober straight woman dedicated to honesty and integrity it’s important for me to pay attention to the fact that I have a serious attraction to these bears. Even if I don’t act on that attraction—because to act or not to act, and how to act, are choices recovery gives me—it makes life more alive.

Thank you, all you Bears, for being who you are.

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