Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: addict

Finding beauty in the battle with addiction

Sobriety gave me back my artistic practice.

That’s why I love this story in the Canadian North Shore News about women artists rediscovering their creativity after getting sober.

The story is about an exhibition called Artists of Avalon: Women in Recovery from Addiction Discover their Creativity. The mixed media show opened in Vancouver April 13 and features the work of 17 women artists who are also healing from addiction. The women have been helped by Avalon Women’s Centre of West Vancouver and Vancouver.

The story quotes artist Gwen Dirks, 48, sober for seven years:

I never felt that I had something to say, to put down in my own painting. So basically what sobriety has given me is this gift of getting to know myself sufficiently, to say ‘I have something to say,’ and . . . that what I have to say is valuable and something that I can show other people.

When Gwen was drinking, like many of us, she only ever had the courage to be creative when someone asked her to. She couldn’t be spontaneous.

Lots of people who drink or use drugs—especially people who like to write, play music or make art—start out because they think it’ll loosen up their creativity. They think it’ll help them be more spontaneous. And one myth about addiction that drives me nuts is that drugs make you more creative—and that giving up drugs and getting sober means you’ll be condemned to live a boring life.

These women blow that myth to pieces.

I’d like to hear from some sober people living interesting lives…

If you’re in Vancouver, go see the show, which runs until May 2 at the Ferry Building Gallery.


Knitting for Sobriety

Logged onto one of my Facebook groups one day—a group called Knitting for Peace—and found a plea from Joanne Pearl, a clinical supervisor at Odyssey House, an outpatient substance abuse facility in the South Bronx:

I have started a knitting/crochet group to teach healthy leisure skills. My folks love it. I am writing as I have run out of supplies. I am hoping you can all dig into your stashes and donate those odds and ends you know you will not be using. I am also looking for needles.

Well, it just so happens that I have a HUGE “stash”—of yarn, and lots of knitting needles. Aside from my own yarn, we had cleaned out my father’s house after he died in 2007 and I’d found a bunch of unfinished crochet projects my mother had left when she died in 1999. I don’t crochet and neither does my sister, and, unable to consign them to the landfill since my mother had started them with her own hands, I’d been holding them until the right opportunity presented itself.

I sent them in a big box to Joanne.


Later we talked about her work teaching recovering addicts to knit and crochet…

G: What are the drugs the women you’ve worked with have used most?

Joanne: In outpatient, by far the biggest is cannabis, because in the community it’s just seen as so socially acceptable.  Then cocaine, alcohol, heroin. … When they come in saying that smoking cannabis isn’t really drug-use, I just nod and say, “OK … And while you were smoking that cannabis, did you lose your job? Did you fail to graduate from high school? How many goals did you abandon while you were smoking?”

G: When did you first start working with people struggling with addiction?

Joanne: I was a non-academic dean at a liberal arts college in Westchester County in the late 1990s, when heroin was making a resurgence in New York—it was even on Wall Street. At my school, we had the poorest of the poor to very wealthy students. And I learned that individuals are stunted in personal development because of drug use.

G: How did you come up with the idea of using crafts to help people recover?

Joanne: I was working in inner-city Yonkers, at an outpatient day-rehab for women and children. That was where I started the crafts. The director there was a very “crafty” woman and she was open to the idea.

Boredom is the hugest trigger for relapse and drug-use: “I’m bored, I don’t know how to fill up my time.” When addicts are bored, the first thing they think of is going to a bar and getting drunk, finding their drug of choice, or going to a club, which means they have to spend money. They don’t have healthy leisure skills. They don’t think about watching a movie, talking with friends, reading, or just taking a walk. They haven’t learned to develop that alone-time. They don’t want to think or feel. Boredom comes on very quickly in those recovering from addiction—in a matter of five or 10 minutes.

G: What do the women you work with like about knitting and crochet?

Joanne: One beautiful thing—knitting and crafting is something you can do by yourself. Around here, there are like ten 99-cent stores where you can pick up some yarn and needles—so it’s not cost-prohibitive. It can be a lifelong skill.

It can include all age-groups. I had two girls here of 8 and 10 [relatives of a recovering addict]. They came to me one day: “Miss Joanne, what are those sticks and balls of string?”

G: So there’s something healing about making things and being creative…

Joanne: It teaches them to be patient. There’s a woman who graduated several years ago who keeps coming back to show me what she’s made. She’s learn to turn her mistakes into design elements, and she’s actually designing her own garments now. She says, “I never feel alone or bored—when I start feeling bad, I put on my shawl and my hat and I pick up my needles, and I feel better.”

It also becomes a forum where therapy goes on. It frees up the mind so they can speak. They talk about their remorse over losing a child, or past domestic violence or sexual abuse.  They offer each other support. It’s a magical tool.


My mother’s unfinished projects have gone to Amanda, a 60-year-old recovering addict who came to Odyssey House after residential treatment. “She’s a crocheter,” Joanne says. “She always came to the group, even when it wasn’t too stable.” I can’t think of a better person to finish my mother’s work.

Visit Odyssey House’s website

Become a fan of Odyssey House on Facebook

Join Knitting for Peace on Facebook

The addict in the drugstore

Stopping by the pharmacy yesterday afternoon, I walked to the counter at the back of the store and that’s when I saw her. I recognized her immediately. The addict.

It wasn’t her fishnet knee-highs that told me, or her messy black hair, or her bare navel. It was the color of her skin.

Also the way she fidgeted.

And the way she trained a keen eye on the three pharmacists whose heads knocked together, scrutinizing a printed paper script behind the counter. The way she bit her fingernails, and tried not to rock on the balls of her feet.

I had handed my script for Topamax to the technician and was lining up my questions since it’s a new medication for my migraines. I was also distracted by the fact that this was one of the pharmacies where I used to get my drugs. Used to sit in one of the vinyl chairs and keep an eagle eye trained on the pharmacist, just like this woman.

She was standing next to me, black curly hair unkempt, green T-shirt riding above a slack belly, fingertips with bitten nails constantly adjusting black-fishnet knee-highs. She looks like an addict, I thought latently, and told myself I was wrong. Then I looked at her face, the colorlessness of her cheeks, the dark circles beneath her haunted eyes, and I was sure I was right.

The staff came to a kind of agreement and the head pharmacist (whose face I recognized) brought the script back to her, and I heard her breath draw in between clenched teeth. Because she knew she would not get what she was so obviously desperate for.

I’ve had multiple pharmacists working over one of my scripts in days gone by. And the four words she spoke were words that I myself used to try to inflect with neutrality and intelligence:

“Is there a problem?”

The pharmacist said the doctor’s intent had been clear: he MEANT three per day, but he had not written a total count, so they could not fill the prescription. They could not write it in; they could not call him, he could not fax a new one, because the drug called for was (I was not surprised to hear him say) “a Schedule II narcotic” and federal law prohibited any of those changes.

She’d have to take the script back to the doctor and get him to write a new one.

I remembered being in similar binds: my physician forgetting to sign the script, specifying the wrong dosage, the wrong total amount, the wrong date. Every detail on a Schedule II opioid script has to be letter-perfect. When you’re in desperate straits, sweating, withdrawing, it’s difficult to focus on the details. You just want what you want.

As the technician processed my Topamax order the girl snatched her script and left the pharmacist speaking in mid-sentence, not even bothering to hide her rage. Two minutes later, outside, I looked for her, hoping to talk with her, but of course she was gone.

Getting ready for work: Chewing Vicodin

I didn’t plan on writing about Michael Jackson again, but the news today (via the Associated Press, see story) is pretty shocking:  Jackson paid a physician to administer the anesthetic propofol intravenously every night for two years so he could get a full night’s sleep.

On the one hand, it’s appalling; on the other, predictable. I did the same sort of thing myself. And I’m hardly unique: I’m a 44-year-old white middle-class American addict.

What’s predictable is the fact that Jackson was so desperate for sleep.  If he was taking as many drugs every day as they say he was (two heavy-duty opioids, a benzodiazepine, a muscle relaxant, and more), he was definitely screwing up his body’s ability to regulate its sleep-wake cycles, also called “circadian rhythms.”

When I made it into detox last year, I was taking 100mcg/hr fentanyl—usually more, because I sometimes took more than prescribed. That’s roughly equivalent to 400mg morphine. (To give you some perspective, after routine surgery, patients are usually given 5mg Percocet, which is about equal in strength to morphine.  I was taking about 80 times that, every day.)

Fentanyl is the strongest opioid available by prescription. It’s commonly used for cancer patients. I was prescribed it for migraine and fibromyalgia.

Any opioid addict will tell you that addiction wrecks your sleep.

Morphine was named after Morpheus, the god of sleep, and heroin addicts have made the image of the “nod” a cliché.  But there’s another side to opioids that many non-addicts don’t realize: a spike in blood-levels can give you extra energy.

I started taking Lorcet 10mg for headaches about eight or nine years ago. (Lorcet is the same as Vicodin: it contains hydrocodone and Tylenol.) I was given 30 per month—an amount that seemed enormous then. So I took about one per day. As soon as I discovered I could get refills a bit earlier than exactly 30 days, I started taking maybe one-and-a-half per day. Here’s why: on Lorcet, I could Get Everything Done.

I could get up at 6 with my son, get breakfast, do the dishes, get him dressed, get myself dressed, get his lunch packed and get him out the door to daycare, and I was showered and in my chair ready to work by 9.

I could work at a computer for hours and never move. I could get an amazing amount of work done in the half-day I had to do it. I could get my son, put him down for a nap, get more work done, get him up, clean the house, get dinner, and after dinner, weed the garden or do other chores.

For someone like me, that level of control was central to my ability to feel like I could survive in this world.

About 18 months or two years into my run with Lorcet, I was taking two tablets per day (and facing the consequences: I’d face several days per month when I was out of medication). Because, as with any drug that results in dependence, after 18 months at the same dose, the effects of one tablet weren’t as powerful. So I increased the dose—not under supervision. Just on my own. Because, of course, I knew best.

So I could “function.”

Many addicts take drugs so they can function.  For us, it was a solution.  For many years, I reasoned—rationalized—that I wasn’t an addict because I had a common image of addiction: Real Junkies lay around on the couch, eating Doritos and watching soap operas.

I was Working.  I was Productive. Just like Michael Jackson. Right?

The press often mentions that Jackson was taking all these drugs to “prepare” himself for the 50 London shows he’d signed for.  As if it is a truth universally acknowledged that a celebrity musician—or anyone—needs drugs as part of his “preparation” for his work. Even the press continues to enable him in his death.

My habit of “preparing” for my work each day was to chew a pill or two before I even got out of bed.  I chewed them to maximize their effects: most addicts discover that taking drugs in some manner “not as prescribed” is the best way to manipulate their effects. The practice led me into a deep well, out of which I’ve climbed step by step in the past nine months. I’m seeing the light, and for that I’m grateful.

What’s shocking is that there is a health professional on the face of this earth who would be so greedy for money and so interested in exploiting his association with a celebrity that he or she would agree to carry out something so harmful one time, much less over the course of two years.  Not only did the practice apparently finally kill Jackson, but also the drug itself had to be stolen: propofol, an anesthetic designed for hospital use, is not available by prescription.

Where is the word “addiction”?

For this first post I was planning on introducing myself but instead I’m sitting here reading the New York Times and being gobsmacked all over again about the fact that folks STILL don’t get addiction.

The New York Times’s “Well” column today tells us we really, really shouldn’t be afraid of the Tylenol in Vicodin and Percocet. All we have to do is take it as prescribed.

BTW today’s column is a followup to a July 1 piece about a federal advisory panel’s recommendation to the Food and Drug Administration to ban Vicodin and Percocet, “two of the most popular prescription painkillers in the world,” because of the toxic effect on the liver of massive doses of Tylenol.

I was floored when I read this. Banning Vicodin for the Tylenol would be like banning hot dogs for the preservatives. There would be a strong outcry, especially from the owners of, say, baseball teams?

One wonders how much influence a possible complaint from McNeil, Tylenol’s wealthy manufacturer, could wield over the editorial content of the NYT’s website. Because a statement on, issued last week by the senior medical director, Edwin K. Kuffner, M.D., offers pretty much the same viewpoint as today’s “Well” column: Don’t worry about Tylenol.

But a word of caution: if you are someone who has ever used Vicodin or Percocet “not as prescribed”—notice how little this physician’s statement either understands (or admits) why enough folks are taking too much to worry the federal government.

Where is the word “addiction” in all these statements?  Absent, as usual.

The word “addict,” in the public imagination, conjures a low-life waste-case heroin junkie cooking and shooting under a bridge. A sad-sack patient in an early-morning queue at the methadone clinic that nobody wanted in their neighborhood. Even yuppie partiers snorting coke off a toilet lid in a dirty downtown club might not be “real addicts”—they’re just “having fun.”

An addict surely can’t be an ordinary person with a very common illness that has psychological, neurological and behavioral components, who buys her drugs at—a drugstore.

It is very difficult to get good statistics on how many people use drugs because of the stigma still surrounding drug addiction. The Monitoring the Future survey, which the federal government claims is one of the most reliable, polls school kids ages 12 and up. The 2007 results on Vicodin: 2.7% of 8th graders, 7.2% of 10th graders, and 9.6% of 12th graders had used Vicodin for “nonmedical purposes” at least once in the previous year. Which, if anything, points to how accessible the drugs are. All that stuff’s just out there, waiting to be picked up.

And our society has become so used to taking a pill for every condition.

Why we take too much Vicodin or Percocet: our head hurts; the site of our injury/surgery/chronic condition hurts; it helps us deal with stress; it calms us and stimulates us; it helps us sleep; it helps us wake up; it helps us get through boring parts of the day; it helps us not explode in impatience when our spouse or kids irritate us—

I invite you to add your own below.

If you want to stop taking these drugs but can’t imagine how, I post on a forum with tons of experience. One of the best and most popular spots is the board about Detoxing from Pain Meds.

If you’re already free of opioids or other substances, please tell us how you did it.

And tomorrow I’ll tell you who I am, what I do, and why I’m here…


Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Twitter