Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: AA (page 1 of 5)

The Ones Who Save Our Lives.

At the meeting Sunday night, my friend H. stood up and announced that his longtime sponsor had died suddenly the previous day of a heart attack. He mentioned a name, which happened to be the name of a different guy, someone I’d known in graduate school. For a moment I thought maybe we were thinking of the same person, but the way he spoke about his sponsor was so contrary to my experience of the guy I knew 25 years ago that it was clear he was talking about someone else.

“When Frank moved away a few years ago,” H. said, “he chose my new sponsor for me, and I took his suggestion, because he knew me very well and because he helped me get sober.” His right hand covered his heart, then he blinked and swallowed hard. “He saved my life,” he said.

I questioned myself again. Was it the same guy? The Frank I’d known had been shy, retiring, unassertive, fearful of criticism. Different Frank, I thought.

I listened as many of the men in the room murmured their recognition and agreement about this guy who had saved H.’s life. If he had saved one life, certainly he had saved others. Maybe they were thinking of the guys who had saved their own lives.

The next day I found out, of course, that H’s Frank and the Frank I knew were the same guy. It has had me questioning my perceptions, my judgments of others and my own limitations.

//

I used to go to this Sunday-night meeting regularly when I was detoxing in 2008. At that time there were a couple guys I knew who also came every Sunday, an artist who practices yoga, and a teacher, both serious bikers. The artist would come in dressed in full-body zip-up bike armor; the teacher would arrive in leather jacket and black shit-kickers. Tough guys, I thought.

This summer I attended a memorial service at the university where I’m teaching right now. It’s the school where I earned my graduate degree, the school where my brother and sister earned their undergraduate degrees, and the school where my father earned his bachelor’s in engineering—the first person in our entire extended family ever to go to college. The memorial service was in honor of a guy named Buddy, who for more than 20 years taught fiction here. He also taught a journal writing course that, 25 years ago, Frank and I took together.

It occurs to me now: since H. has 25 years, I met Frank just as H. was getting sober. So even as we sat in Buddy’s writing class, unbeknownst to the other people in that room—or maybe just unbeknownst to me, who walked this earth so unconscious for so long—Frank was busy saving H.’s life.

This was before cell phones and texts and emails. Frank and H. would have communicated largely by phone, and of course by meeting face-to-face. “In the flesh,” as it were.

I’d had no clue back then that Frank was a recovering alcoholic, but I knew Buddy was. I can’t remember how I found out about Buddy’s alcoholism. It just seemed to be a known fact: “Buddy’s an alcoholic.” For all I know, Buddy himself may have told me, or he may even have mentioned it in class. Back then, I had no idea what alcoholism was, I had no idea that I’d been raised in an alcoholic family. I thought “getting sober” was about just not-drinking. I thought Buddy must have simply stopped, the way I had set my teeth and stopped drinking after crashing my car in 1988. You wreck your life—you set your teeth and stop drinking and put it all back together, was what I thought.

That wasn’t how it worked out for me, of course, because I wasn’t doing what Buddy and Frank and H. were doing. And also Bill and Monty, two other professors in that department. For decades Monty set up a noon Wednesday meeting there. At 11:30 Wednesdays he could always be seen wheeling the coffee urn from the office to the conference room.

And Bill—he wrote young-adult novels and books about how to teach freshman writing; he ran around the university with a greasy gray ponytail tied at the nape of his neck, nosing into the lives of junior faculty and grad students who had problems finishing their publications and earning tenure or doctorates. “Do you want to keep this job?” he’d ask them. “Do you want to finish your dissertation?” He invented a system of sponsoring these writers: he’d put them on a “contract”—they’d map out their work for the week on Sunday night, then call him every Friday to report whether they’d made their quotas. He’d prescribe prayer each day before and after working. I know several guys who wouldn’t have their tenured university positions today without Bill’s writing contract. Which of course Bill adapted from his experience with the 12 steps.

Some of these guys showed up at Buddy’s memorial service. Most of the people who approached the podium to speak were major writers. Several novelists, a few poets, a nonfiction writer. Then Buddy’s kids; his wife. It was an open mike. And suddenly there was the teacher, the guy from the Sunday-night meeting with the leather jacket and shit-kickers, except he was that day wearing his professorial wardrobe and he was standing at the podium talking about Buddy—how he’d come to grad school to learn to write with another guy (one of the major novelists in the audience), and how he’d run into Buddy, who had recognized he needed help. How Buddy had become his sponsor, how he had done what Buddy told him, how he’d gotten sober after years of trying to quit drinking on his own. Then the tough leather-clad shit-kicker began to cry. “Buddy didn’t just write great books—he also saved lives,” he told the auditorium.

My sponsor was sitting two rows behind me.

Freaks me out, man, the circles in which this life-saving flows.

There are so many more people who have helped save my life. People who have allowed me to connect with the power they’ve found to live sanely and contentedly. People who have told me at wise moments that I’m full of shit and/or that I need to learn to care for myself more gently. People who keep picking up the phone. People who love me.

In gratitude.

Frank J., 1950-2012.

Buddy N., 1939-2012.

Bill C., 1932-2005.

Monty C., 1929-2009.

More From My Talk With Sacha Scoblic

Author Sacha Z. Scoblic.

When she got sober, Sacha Scoblic (a writer and contributing editor for The New Republic) did what a lot of writers do: she went to her bookstore. And there she found a shelf of addiction memoirs that glamorized the wasted days. What she wanted was a story of sobriety—so she wrote one. Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety is the story of a young professional woman in Washington, D.C. looking in every nook and cranny for a good time outside the Adams-Morgan and Georgetown bars.

I spoke with Sacha earlier this summer. Some of my talk with her appears on Renew Magazine‘s site (my full review is in the print edition, available at your local bookstore or by subscribing).

Here’s more from our wide-ranging conversation.

//

I write about addiction under the name “Guinevere.” All my journalism connects me back to “Guinevere.” So it’s easy for people to put my two names together. But I still feel like it’s something of a silly subterfuge.

Yeah, I mean—my father said something to me once that kind of rang true: it’s not just about anonymity in terms of being mistaken for speaking for AA in the press or the media, which of course I wouldn’t claim to do. But his point was that it’s also about humility. And that’s even harder, frankly, to reconcile.

I also think what you’re saying is that, in the Internet age, anonymity is almost non-existent.

I know a number of people who blog about recovery entirely anonymously—but they don’t do journalism. So in that way, on the internet, they’re anonymous. Though I suspect in their communities, people know who they are.

I kind of think that we need to evolve a little on this. The program is inherently flexible; they’re suggestions. There was a lot more reason in the 1930s for anonymity than there is now. And I would never break someone else’s, of course.

I think we can get past a little more of this breaking our own anonymity—to destigmatize it.

That’s one of my motivations. I lectured in front of medical students this fall, and I DON’T look like a drug addict, and it gave me great pleasure to stand in front of them and tell them, “I’m a stone addict.”

I love that, too. I mean, I LOVE that. I love it when I show up.

Yeah: “YOU?”

[laughter]

You’ve talked about how you didn’t lose a great deal, you didn’t hit a deep bottom, but you weren’t necessarily super-productive while you were drinking. How do you look back on the time that you lost? The opportunities, the options for your life?

I regret a lot of it. I know that a lot of people will look at my story and be like, “Wow, she did so much even though this was all going on,” and all I can think is, “Imagine what I WOULD have done!”

Exactly.

I started school at Columbia, and then essentially failed out and ended up at SUNY Binghamton. And I’m really JUST getting over that. I think writing about it really helped. But I used to be really embarrassed when people would ask me where I went to college. Because I would really want to tell them Columbia.

I think that there were a lot of opportunities that I passed up through just being passive. Not because someone came to me and point-blank offered me an opportunity, but because I just didn’t seek them out. And I didn’t take it upon myself to advance. If anything happened, that was good; it was kind of like, because I did as little as I needed to…

I really relate to that. For about 15 years I did that. It’s hard for me to look back on that time, and I think it’s hard for a lot of women because drinking and drug-use makes women very passive—it puts us back into the cultural box that we’re raised to inhabit. So how do you deal with your regret? How do you make amends to yourself?

Part of it is not acting that way anymore. Which is hard—I don’t instinctively do that. I think that the best thing I can do to make amends to myself is to be actively involved in my own life. Live an examined life, live an active life, pursue goals.

I’ll tell you a story. This book was based on an essay I wrote for the New York Times, the “Proof” blog. When I first saw the “Proof” blog, I wasn’t on other people’s radar for it. And I kind of folded my arms, and said, “Why didn’t they call ME?” And Peter, my husband, was like, “Why don’t you give them a call?” And it was that easy.

As women, we get into the habit of being passive, and thinking we can’t go after what we want—we’re not good enough; we’ve wasted so much time already, so what’s the use of trying now?

Right. And the idea was, if they didn’t already ask me to begin with, they’ve already made a choice against me. When in fact they’d just never heard of me—why WOULD they ask me?

That’s the other thing: I didn’t acknowledge my own credentials. But I do have enough experience to do this, to reach out. And that’s in sobriety!—I still need these kinds of reminders.

I wonder how might getting sober been different for you if your own dad had been an active alcoholic all his life, and not gone into AA? Because you’ve said in interviews that you knew AA worked. And I also did, although not from my own dad, who was also an alcoholic, but from other people I knew. How might that have been different for you?

I think I might have lasted longer out there [drinking]. Look, I didn’t know much about alcoholism. I thought you had to look like Nic Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas.” And frankly, that is how my father was. He did not have a high bottom by any means. So I guess that I was always tempted to say, “Well, I don’t look like that.” And yet I also saw the man he became. For the last several years of my drinking I watched him have this new life with his wife and having had a child, and he was so engaged with me. And I did have this example that it could change.

My grandfather quit drinking when he was 65. My dad was 50. I was in my 30s.

That’s a really big statement. It’s turning back the clock inside the family, generation by generation. How has your view of alcoholism and recovery changed since you’ve had your son?

To be frank, I go to less meetings, not as engaged as I used to be, I rely on the Internet a lot—I consume addiction stuff on the Internet. It’s a work-life balance, frankly.

It’s on my mind how to deal with this going forward. I didn’t make a plan before I got pregnant: “How am I gonna talk to my future child about this?” And I mean it’ll be with honesty, but I’m scared.

I got sober when my son was 10. And I remember standing in the kitchen when he was 12 telling him I’d been addicted, and that I’d gotten sober. And he looked me in the eye and clapped and said, “Yo, Mama!”

[laughter]

I couldn’t believe he clapped for me.

That is so vivid! Did you tape it?

I’ve told him since then that addiction is like a switch that gets turned on with chronic exposure to substances, and that he may have inherited the predisposition, so he has to be very, very careful, because you don’t know when the switch has been thrown, and you can’t turn it off. That’s the metaphor I’ve used. He’s now almost 15.

That’s REALLY good advice.

He’s in a new high school. I’m a little scared for him, but just as you had the example of your dad’s recovery, if he does get into trouble, he’ll know it’s an illness and not a moral failing, and he’ll know he can get help.

The real failure is in society, not in individuals, in terms of drinking on campus—I mean, I don’t know about you, but in college, you couldn’t have picked me out as a problem drinker.

You write in UNWASTED about how running a marathon led you to see sobriety not as a prison sentence but as a choice. Can you talk about that choice, and about why as journalists we’re so skeptical about this “God Thing”? this faith thing.

Being a journalist is about unearthing the truth. And this is not a truth that can be unearthed in a tangible way. So right there is a conundrum. And I think it’s a genuine mystery to me. I don’t claim to have a relationship with God, per se, but I do believe there are powers higher than me. And I for sure do not know it all. And I know that that’s easy for people to say, but I feel it. That marathon—I really didn’t think I’d pull it off. And I knew that if I were to, I had to obey every rule. And I discovered that, by obeying every rule, I actually had far more freedom. If I obeyed the rules, I could make it through a long run without dehydrating or getting a migraine, and I could have the freedom to pursue this goal. But I had to submit to some rules. And I think that was the sort of thing I used to resist. And now I like these anchors, these markers in my life that keep me on the straight and narrow. And the 12 steps and other similar things provide these kinds of guideposts in life.

So I did find to a certain degree a kind of faith. A new sense of, “I just did something that I didn’t think was possible—WHAT ELSE is there that’s possible?

What Are We “Allowed” to Do in Recovery Groups?

A friend of mine I met years ago through the ether admitted she was dealing with some ambivalence about AA. She said:

It seems like you’re not allowed to just “take a break” from AA if you can’t figure out what its function is in your life. I owe every single thing I have to the steps and AA. I would have no good things if recovery hadn’t been at the core and the forefront of my life. And I know this, and that’s what I struggle with. How does recovery change for us? Where should it go?

Since starting this blog I’ve encountered this question a bunch of times in different ways. Another reader talked about the question of how to find new ways of growing after spending a long time in recovery:

to me it is strange how addiction science and medical science in general knows all about the phenomenon of tolerance—wherein treatments (or dosages) lose effectiveness over time. yet when it comes to the exploding population of addicts with long-term sobriety, there is often little effort to reach beyond the obvious—go to more meetings, work the steps harder—for possible new paths to growth or survival. i have seen old timers drink, briefly, just to recapture that hope they had as newcomers.

I’m tempted here to mention how much “time” these people have, whether or not they’ve “gone out and come back” or whether they’ve had a huge amount of continuous sobriety—some of those seemingly indelible marks, like brands burned into us, that in 12-step groups for addictions people often use to track others’ credibility.

(Are you wondering these things? Would it change your view of what these people said if you knew how much “time” they have, or whether they’ve “gone out” at some point?)

My Unofficial Home Group

I go to a meeting at a university that isn’t an official meeting. It isn’t in the meeting list. We don’t take up a collection, we don’t contribute to the local, regional or world-services offices, we don’t have a group representative and don’t participate in the running of the local office. But there’s “real” recovery going on at this meeting, and I consider it one of my home groups.

“I love this meeting,” people say, and they bring other people to it the next week.

More and more people are hearing about this meeting (this is what happens with healthy meetings where there’s recovery that’s alive) and we’re growing out of the little tiny space. We might have to hold a group conscience to figure out what to do about it.

Are we “allowed” to go to this group? Are we “allowed” to think of it as a home group?

Are we “allowed” to have more than one home group?

The principles say no, but I do anyway; are we “wrong”? Are we hurting the fellowship?

(Am I being a “taker”?)

I know a number of people who go out and come back, go out and come back. Is it a possibility that some people might be able to abstain for a long time, while other people will wind up going out and coming back?

Are we “allowed” to keep going out, coming back, going out, coming back?

Are we “allowed” to take breaks away from meetings?

When have you felt censored or judged in meetings? How do you respond to that?

Don’t Hold My Sobriety Against Me.

Dr. Abraham Twerski, about 10 years ago. Photo via Post-Gazette / Bob Donaldson.

This is what Dr. Abraham Twerski said yesterday at a talk to some of the people who have been helped by Gateway Rehabilitation Centers, the rehab he founded. 

I’ve been hearing about Abe Twerski since I came back here to go to grad school in 1988. A good friend at the time was doing a long-form nonfiction story on the Hasidic Jewish community here, and I remember her mentioning his name.

The first thing I noticed: Abe Twerski’s voice sounded different than I expected it to sound. I expected low-pitched, hoarse, somber. He’s been a rabbi since the 1950s. I heard a tenor voice, clear, energetic, engaged, humorous. I knew he was in his 80s, but he didn’t seem in the least frail. He was dressed in the orthodox manner: long gray coat, black trousers, black velvet yarmulke, and a long white beard that grew into two points.

(“That’s so cool,” my 14-year-old skinny-jeans-clad son said when I told him about it last night at dinner.)

Twerski said he has been going to AA meetings since 1960. “I haven’t been drunk, and I haven’t used drugs, but I go to meetings regularly,” he said. “I tell people, ‘Don’t hold my sobriety against me.’ I need these meetings as much as any of you do.”

We weren’t at a meeting. It wasn’t a couple dozen folks in a church basement. He was standing in front of more than 500 people. The room was silent. Twerski was obviously comfortable with this scene. At the same time, he was spontaneous and fresh, telling 50-year-old stories as if they had just come to his mind for the first time. The middle-aged call-girl-turned-street-hooker and low-bottom drunk, who had detoxed 69 times at his hospital, 23 times at St. John’s, and god only knew how many times at Allegheny General and McKeesport—he couldn’t get the records from those places. So she’d detoxed more than 100 times—medically detoxed. Who knew how many times she’d tried to quit on her own? 

I thought of people I’ve known who have despaired of getting sober, who have quit maybe eight or 10 times. I thought of myself, detoxed just three years ago, outpatient, with the help of a doctor referred to me by Gateway’s people. (When I needed an outpatient detox doctor, I called the best in the city. I called Gateway. When my PCP recommended the same doctor, I knew I had the guy who would help me.) I thought of my parents, who tried many times to quit times and never could.

The big dude sitting next to me, 50-something guy with tattoos and tight faded jeans, wiped his eyes now and then. I thought he had something stuck in one of them, but no.

I was sitting at a table right next to Twerski’s. After the talk I shook his hand and asked if I could speak with him sometime. He smiled and waved at the mob crowding around him. “Yeah, give your number to my people out there,” he said and trudged through the crowd.

So I’ll be running an interview at some point with this very cool physician and rabbi who knows how to talk about God without freaking people out. I have questions lined up. Anything you want me to ask him, let me know.

The Dutch Begin Studying Baclofen For Addiction

So here we are again, back at the baclofen question. My Dutch friend sends me a link to a news story (in Dutch!) about the University of Amsterdam starting a study of baclofen as a treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction. Managed to cobble some sense out of the story, which begins:

Is this the wonder pill which will bring rescue to, among others, alcoholics, junkies and smoke-drug addicts?

“Smoke-drug addicts”—very much like that one. My mother, a die-hard smoker for 30 years before she died at 58 of lung cancer, was definitely a “smoke-drug addict.”

(Another interesting tidbit: the Dutch word for “addiction” is “verslaving”—which, my friend says, means “a slave to a substance.”)

Baclofen is a derivative of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and is a GABA-receptor agonist—just like, as it happens, alcohol. Surprise, surprise! they work in the same way. … Baclofen is prescribed as a muscle-relaxant for spasticity in conditions such as multiple sclerosis. It is also prescribed off-label to reduce addictive cravings. And it’s dependency-producing. You can’t just quit baclofen—it must be tapered up and down when getting on or off it; stopping use suddenly leads to the same kind of (prolonged, painful) detox that benzos induce.

So they’re gonna study us alcoholics, junkies and smokers, BUT: not gamblers, because apparently there’s no medical evidence that gambling addiction actually exists. The researchers are, according to the story, somehow really hoping it works for drug-addicts. Leading us to believe “junkies” are maybe worse than the other types?

The story quotes a guy from a drug-rehab who has administered baclofen to 100 patients addicted to alcohol, cocaine, cannabis, GHB and benzos, and, apparently, about half of them no longer use their (other) drugs.

The best part of the story: the researchers are speculating that baclofen works better on addicts who use out of “angst.” The story reads (according to my Dutch friend–thanks P):

“With people who use substances from a more positive emotion we do not believe baclofen to be very effective,” according to [Professor Reinout] Wiers [of Amsterdam University]. One assumption of the researchers is that the muscle relaxer also has a calming effect on addicts who try to mask and conquer their fear.

Which would make sense. I mean, what real alcoholic doesn’t drink out of conscious or unconscious “angst”?

Also: I was not fully aware of this, but angst is the Germanic word for fear. So, take a pill, and my fear is relieved. … This brought back the words of my first sponsor, a deeply spiritual woman and former “junkie” who once advised me, as I detoxed off fentanyl and started work on my Fourth Step only to discover that I had a few bits of “angst” going on:

DON’T call it “anxiety.” It’s plain old fuckin fear, OK? If you call it “anxiety,” you can go to the doctor and get a pill for it. It’s OK to medicate “anxiety.” But nobody goes to the doctor and says, “I’m having some FEAR, I need a pill.”

I took her point.

But maybe now, with baclofen, you’ll be able to do that.

Olivier Amiesen, M.D., who controls his alcoholic cravings with Baclofen

The whole baclofen business started with Olivier Ameisen, a French cardiologist who for 15 years practiced in New York and taught medicine at Cornell’s Weill Medical College. Unable to stay sober despite following up on all his practitioners’ recommendations, going to rehab, and sitting in two AA meetings per day for seven years, Ameisen experimented on himself: he started taking high doses of baclofen, which, he wrote in his 2008 book The End of My Addiction, eradicated his cravings and allowed him to become a social drinker. Ameisen called for randomized studies of baclofen’s effectiveness—of which, presumably, the Amsterdam study is one.

One wonders if it would even be OK to become a social drinker while taking high-dose baclofen. Though not classified as a benzo, baclofen basically has a benzo profile and the same kinds of OD risks. In addition, though it seems not to have any tolerance effect (unlike alcohol), dosages have to be closely monitored, because over 80mg/day baclofen can interfere with functioning and cause drowsiness. Ameisen uses baclofen at doses of 200mg+.

I once brought my questions about baclofen up at a meeting early in my sobriety. I got a number of very interesting responses. One was from a young man, maybe 28 or 29, who had been clean for about a year or so. Smart guy and very physically fit. His face lit up like a torch when I mentioned baclofen. After the meeting he said:

It’s funny when people talk about using baclofen to get rid of cravings. My experience was, when I used baclofen WITH alcohol, the combination was juuuuust right. If you know what I mean.

I knew what he meant.

For me, using a chemical to fight chemical addiction is like using water to avert a flood.

Ameisen’s statistic sounds so disappointing: 5,000 meetings over seven years failed to keep him sober. Another friend, a former heroin addict who got sober the way I did, bristled when I mentioned this statistic:

For an addict like me, sitting in two AA meetings per day for seven years ISN’T the solution.

What this person meant was, for an addict like her, the solution = taking the steps. Meetings alone don’t keep her sober.

I can buy, along with Gabor Maté (one of my true addiction-treatment heroes), that some people just can’t get sober with the steps and may need to take “maintenance” drugs to escape the “junkie” lifestyle. That’s cool. In Stephen King’s words, there’s more than one way to de-fur a feline. But if they want to research the addiction-treatment possibilities of baclofen, on which the patent has expired and from which ain’t nobody gonna make no big bucks, why don’t they also research the effectiveness of other cheap and non-patentable “solutions” that have worked for millions of people for much longer?

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