Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Addiction and Recovery | In Your Eyes.

First, many thanks to the many people who took 45 seconds over the weekend to connect with me. Lots of great suggestions and feedback, which is valuable to any writer. Will take me some time to process—meanwhile, more always welcome.

Today I’m thinking about eyes.

Someone was telling me the other day about her adult daughter, who she said is living at home with her and is addicted to painkillers. First morphine, now Vicodin. “Now we have to get her off the Vicodin,” she said. Her nose was running. She kept taking a tissue out to blow her nose. A cold, I thought.

“Is she truly addicted? Is she acting out?” I asked.

“She sometimes gets violent,” she said. Then her eyes snapped to my face. “How do you know about this kind of thing?”

“I’m a drug addict,” I said.

“How?” she asked. She looked at my face, my clothes. I don’t “look like” a drug addict. So I told her “how.” She started to cry.

After she blew her nose the third or fourth time, I frankly looked into her eyes.

I’m used to looking at people’s faces and figures. I’m an artist and always on the lookout for subjects. I’m also a writer. In most of the stuff I’ve written or painted, I’ve focused on seeing inside people. Buildings bore me. Landscapes bore me. They don’t have eyes. They don’t have bones.

In my second book, I was hired to see inside a person who had died at a young age of cancer. To do that I interviewed people who had known her, including her parents and husband and surgeon, and I also studied many photographs of her face and figure.

To create an effective portrait or profile, you have to notice things about people. Seeing inside people can feel like an invasive act; it can in fact BE an invasive act. You have to be careful you don’t bring your own projections to the process of seeing. But total objectivity is a myth, and it’s impossible to leave yourself entirely behind.

What I saw when I looked into her eyes was: her pupils were pinned.

The light was by no means bright.

Right away part of me wished I hadn’t looked. Her family life was falling apart, she said; and I didn’t want to know that she herself might have a drug problem.

Pinned pupils are a sentinel indicator of opioid ingestion. A runny nose is a sign of opioid withdrawal. You can hide many of the rest of the signs of opioid drug-use—itching; mania; somnolence (sometimes you can hide this); lack of appetites for food, exercise, sex. You can hide some of the signs of withdrawal—sweating; gut cramps; goose-bumps. You can try to hide a runny nose, but you cannot hide pinned pupils.

Here are my pupils in August 2008, two weeks before I detoxed:

Guinevere's eyes two weeks pre-detox, August 2008.

I look desperate, lost. Dull. Fading away.

When we “get clean,” when we detox from drugs or alcohol, when we recover from any illness, our bodies show the effects.

Last week my friend Dawn shot some photos of me. She has a big-ass camera with lots of pixels. One of the first things I noticed when I looked at the proofs was my pupils. Big, dark pupils. Also: healthy skin. No amount of money can buy these when you’re wrecked.

G's eyes, October 2011.

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There are a few things about people’s bodies that tell their stories without their speaking. I look at a person’s mouth. I look at hands. (The nails, the shapes of the bones, the skin stretched across hands say a great deal about a person’s physical and emotional life. I love looking at hands.) And of course, the life of the eyes is extremely difficult to control. They are almost literally windows. If two people look long enough into each other’s eyes—in real life (“IRL”)—even without speaking, they will break down in tears or some other expression of deep feelings, because the act is so intimate. That intimacy of eye-contact is hard-wired into us. It’s easy to avoid online.

If you look closely enough at the photo of my eyes (click image for full size) you can even see a reflection of Dawn.

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I was thinking over the weekend that many of us addicts and alcoholics get tired of admitting our addictions. “It’s not all I am,” people say. “My addiction is not my whole identity. There’s more to me besides.” True. But I was thinking about how there’s a certain freedom for me these days in being “out.” In not hiding. It allows me not only to help others, but also to accept who I am more fully.

Which means I can move more readily toward the person I am becoming.

What does your body say about you? How much do you try to hide?

6 Comments

  1. I’m going to set the body question aside and focus mostly on the eyes. I generally had trouble maintaining eye contact with others as a kid and young adult. I attribute that to my emotionally and physicaly abusive alcoholic mother whose judgmental looks, along with her cursing, felt deeply rejecting, especially when beating me with a wire hangar or belt. She sincerely believed it was my fault for making her angry or causing her great pain. And I was probably the most well-behaved of my 3 siblings. I don’t talk about that much when telling my story because I don’t want to appear as if I’m blaming my mother or holding her responsible for my recovery or lack thereof. I also don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I was a tough kid and I learned to tolerate it well, and learned to dish it out. It took me years in therapy to allow myself to feel anger toward her. I didn’t see the point. It was much easier for me to feel resentment and anger toward my father who allowed the abuse to continue even when he knew it was going on. I’ve worked that through too, and know that both of my parents did the best they could with what they had. I often feel sorry for both of them. I can see them much more clearly now. I can also see myself more clearly, for the pain I endured and the man I have become. That I am a work in progess that will never be finished, but I am learning to see life more broadly and deeply with each passing day.

  2. Brave and selfless.

  3. In my business, paying close attention to non-verbal signals is part of the process. I do look at they eyes, to watch what happens to pupils. Not sure I worry anymore about hiding things, altho I can move into a professional demeanor, which is focused on listening, and not so expressive. Paul Ekman’s work really is helpful with that.

  4. omg, G. This post gave me chills. As savvy as I think I am, I really did not know about this sign of opioid ingestion – the pinpoint pupils – and this, from the mother of a heroin addict! (who’s in recovery, thank god). These kinds of details about the telltale signs of drug addiction are important for family members to know. My addict daughter was masterful at camouflaging her symptoms and diverting attention. And, she would react so indignantly when carefully scrutinized or questioned, that afterwards, I usually felt guilty for being suspicious. I knew in very general terms about what to look for regarding opioid addiction – but somehow, it either didn’t register – or I was in denial. The runny nose and pinned pupils are a good place to start if you suspect someone is addicted to opioids. I’ve listed a few other clues in my blog post: “Tips for 2010: Things I’ve Learned But Would Rather Not Know” (http://peglud.wordpress.com/2010/01/09/tips-for-2010-%e2%80%93-things-i%e2%80%99ve-learned-but-would-rather-not-know/)
    I, too, am fascinated by people’s hands. I can so clearly remember my grandfather’s hands – and my father’s. I looked at them – admired them – noticed their distinguishing characteristics. My mother’s (age 94), ex-husband’s, children’s, good friends’ hands – their images are seared in to my brain and memory bank, forever.
    One of my early blog posts, “Dirty Fingernails”, (http://peglud.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/dirty-fingernails/) was a sad commentary about the state of my drug addict daughter’s hands. There was a major transformation in her hands after she had been in recovery for a few months. Here’s the post about and photos of her ‘healthy’ hands: http://peglud.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/surrender/
    Didn’t mean for this comment to become a promotion for my own blog – just wanting to relate to your keen observations about people’s hands, eyes, etc. You articulate, so well, what I feel and know to be true.
    Thank you for sharing so much of yourself – for allowing us in – for the strength to be vulnerable. You are the message . . . and the messenger.

  5. I can get stuck in the ‘blame game’ myself. I’m 63 yo, and am still struggling to become myself. I felt invisible as a child – emotionally neglected, is the term I believe. I was brought up in a very strict, conservative, controlled family environment and never felt seen or heard. But thankfully, my mother – for whom I’ve harbored deep anger, resentment, and blame for most of my life, is now 94 yo. Her longevity has allowed me to mature some – and with the role-reversal of an aging parent and child, have come to know her in a different way. This has been liberating for me – and I am so grateful I’ve had this time to come to terms with some things. My mother has also ‘softened’. I, too, am a work in progress. It’s been quite a journey. Thanks for your comments and sharing.

  6. I like to have eye contact. It is intimate, as you wrote. It means that we can connect. I find that if I am uncomfortable with a person, I cannot maintain eye contact. I feel that the person will see my discomfort and even my dislike in my eyes. But I make myself connect now at some level, even to those that I don’t like.

    I like your eyes that have the full pupils. Nice eyes, G.

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