Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: adult child of alcoholic (page 1 of 7)

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.

Houae

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.

Pack Animals.

In the process of getting rid of stuff. Cleaning out drawers, collecting bags of trash. Things I once valued are now discarded. Things I once used, or thought I could use but never did and saved for years in hopes I might one day use them—or simply because they are beautiful—I now give away to people in my life who I think might like them.

I’ve found some journals I thought I’d lost. Not that I’ve inventoried every journal I’ve ever kept. I have journals going back to age 10, 38 years ago. When I teach journal workshops I sometimes haul cartons of them in, to impress upon students the sheer quantity of material a life can produce.

But this one journal, a small Italian-made book bound in fake red leather, I thought was gone forever. It has some important stuff in it. I started it at the beginning of 2000 and wrote till my mother’s birthday on April 19. Then, in grief (she had died less than a year before, at 58), in despair about my craving for painkillers, and in confusion about whether to have another child (I didn’t want to and felt guilty about not wanting to), I stopped journaling in that book.

But a few pages later I began a record of the eccentric utterances of a 3-year old boy, and that of his “cousin-twin,” a little girl just five days younger than he.

“Laura,” I asked my 3-year-old niece at a nighttime bonfire at my brother’s land in the country, “do you see the stars?” The Milky Way spread its veil above us and the mound of orange logs threw sparks into the night air.

“No, Aunt G,” she said, “I see FIRE BEES!”

Fire bees. These are the moments that infuse the language of family and friendship, the poetics of connection. When I look into her 15-year-old face I see traces of myself—dark eyes tilted upward at the outer corners, dark hair, high cheekbones, olive skin, even little dimples on the septums of our noses that no one else in the family has but us two. And she sees herself when she looks at me. It’s comforting: “I look like her.” I put a photo of us on Facebook and people wrote in: “Uncanny.” Physical, emotional, even intellectual and linguistic resemblances make up the net that holds us together. We might find these resemblances and resonances in blood ties, and we might find them in kindred spirits.

“I remember walking up the hill and seeing the light of the fire,” she tells me on the phone today. We call, we text. She sends me photos of herself before and after (“My new hair! xoxo”) cutting eight inches off her long brown locks. I tell her I will send her the scarf I bought for her the last time I was in New York. We hang up, and I leave her with a text:

You look beautiful, darling

It’s in her phone. So she can look at that idea over and over.

//

My son is in Colorado, skiing, but he is also here with me. (It’s a scientific fact that when a woman bears a child, she forever—FOREVER, till she dies, no joke—carries the microscopic vestiges of that child inside her body. Which is to say, cells from the child’s body continue to course throughout her blood and lymph and flesh, even her brain.) My phone buzzes:

We made it safely to Denver

I text back with photos of the dog.

My dog, Flo, 1 year old. She loves me unconditionally and gives me unlimited kisses.

My dog, Flo, 1 year old. She loves me unconditionally. We give each other unlimited kisses.

I run into his friends on the street, shoot a photo of their smiles, text it to him. From the mountains a text threads its way back to me:

Hahaha, fine young gentlemen

I know we’re close. I don’t need journals or texts to remind me. Why, then, do I page through these old conversations? 

Here is a story in the red journal: in 2002, when he was 4, I came home after his bedtime, having spent a late night judging a literary contest. I rarely missed putting him to bed (one of my signature “codependent” guilt-trips: I always needed to be the one who was “on”; Owl Babies was a book I frequently read to myself as much as to him). I crept into his room to kiss him goodnight, and he woke up. I wrote,

He wraps his arms around my neck and kisses my cheek three times, quick.

“You are back,” he says.

“Yes.”

“Can I have a cuddle?”

I bend down next to him.

“I knew you would be back in time,” he says.

“I always come back—and, you see? I always give you a kiss and a cuddle.”

He sighs. “You are so Mama-ish.”

“What does that mean—Mama-ish?”

“You sound like Mama. You smell like Mama,” he says, pressing his nose into my cheek.

We humans are pack animals. We’re driven to get next to each other; there’s something healing in hearing each other’s howls, in rolling in the texture and scent of each other’s skin the way animals do. We need each other. The trick for me is to accept that need, to allow myself to satisfy it, and even to enjoy it, without allowing it to overtake the rest of my life and make me sacrifice myself.

Stranded.

Manhattan_bridge_snowWe landed at LaGuardia and arrived at the midtown hotel early Thursday morning, and even before we sat down we were strategizing about how to get back out. The “storm of the century” (O how the media love to whip up enthusiasm), a northeaster packing snow, was cooking up and we reserved rooms for an extra night, the first in a long line of contingencies we worked out over the course of the day. We sat in the little European lobby drinking tea and considering our options.

“That guy’s checking you out,” my friend said. She’s 73, she’s been married for 50 years, to one guy. What does she know about anyone checking anyone out?

I scanned the lobby and couldn’t see who she meant. We were sitting near two young men speaking German.

“Him,” she said, nodding toward the guy sitting three feet from me. He was maybe 10 or 15 years younger than I and his long curly brown hair was half-hidden by a woolen watch cap.

Nein,” I told her.

“Oh yes,” she said.

Then he glanced into my face.

What do I know about anyone checking anyone out? Apparently not much.

//

0By 3 p.m. we were stranded.

We sat in a coffee shop west of Times Square, she working her iPhone, I working mine, peering at flight schedules and train timetables. The wait-times to speak to agents were upwards of three hours. At 4 I put my name in a queue for a call-back from Delta. I kept my phone on during the play, expecting a call at 7; the phone rang back at 11. I filed email queries and Twitter queries. They’d cancelled 3,000 flights and all buses out. The snow was due not that night but the following: 10-15 inches.

Hell, I thought, that’s not the storm of the century. The storm of the century was western New York Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2000, when three feet fell in a single lake-effect afternoon. My three-year-old son woke from his nap and ran from window to window, clapping and hollering, “Mama! It’s snowing and thundering and lightning-ing all at the same time!”

The storm of the century was the Ohio valley the winters of 1977 and 1978, when three feet fell in a couple days, trees lost their branches, power lines snapped and lay live in the road, deer ate the bushes around the house to keep from starving, and school was shut for a week. We played Clue and charades forever. I took my sister sledding, in the sodden days before microfiber outerwear or even waterproof boots. Back then, a measly ten inches by no means guaranteed a snow-day: they’d just run the plows and wrap the bus-tires in heavy chains and make the morning world sound like sleigh-bells.

“Stranded” has an interesting sound to it. A “strand” of pearls, a “strand” of hair—a long, thin, ribbony sound. We sat “stranded” in the middle of Manhattan, millions of people milling around us. The word comes from a Viking word, strond, for beach or riverbank. When their boats were “stranded,” they were scattered, washed up on the beach, the bank, the strand. A famous street in London called The Strand is named after the shore of the tidal River Thames, which for millennia was wide and shallow, accommodating barge-travel; then in the nineteenth century the Victoria Embankment and the Albert Bridge were built in Chelsea, deepening the channel by erasing the strand.

We were beached on the banks of Midtown. We needed to shove offshore.

We made plans to leave Saturday but as time marched on, it became clear Saturday would be too late. I tossed in bed Thursday night, thinking I may not get back in time for a job interview (my first job interview in 18 years; I’ve been doing business by word-of-mouth for almost two decades) on Monday morning. I’d be sleepless with dark Gypsy circles under my eyes, unable to Be Awesome, as the kids say. So I bought Amtrak tickets at 6 this morning and here we are, crossing the banks of the Delaware, following the shores of the Susquehanna, the strands, rolling on the steel river.

//

It occurred to me this morning, sitting in the hot Amtrak lounge at Penn Station, talking with my friend Lucy (“Are you OK? Are you stranded?” she texted), that having grown up in an alcoholic family I have a habit of stranding myself. In order to make myself feel safe, I try to control outcomes. I go into situations with the opposite of what my Al-Anon sponsor has advised. “High hopes, low expectations,” she always says. A recipe for optimism: thinking positively, surrendering outcomes. When my expectations are high and my hopes are low, however, I get into trouble. I attach myself to a specific outcome with little belief that it’ll happen. Because it usually doesn’t happen. I can’t control outcomes. So my boat runs aground, because I’m essentially powering it with unsustainable fuel.

Since I’m usually ashamed when I run aground, I don’t call people. It takes Lucy texting me (Are you stranded?) to wake me up and allow me to relax and let the tears fall in the hot Amtrak Lounge at Penn Station, throngs of people waiting for trains outside.

The strand of communication saves me. (I needed a meeting today.) Phones used to be wired: strands of wires strung throughout communities, between communities, connecting each other, an actual network. Now the networks are digital, virtual, cellular, whatever that really means, and though they’re less visible or tangible they’re no less real or helpful. Lucy was 600 miles away but she sat with me in Penn Station, listening to my tears fall and it was her act of love and acceptance that allowed me to collect my scattered self and move back onto the river. To take care of myself.

What Are Character Defects? An Open Letter To Dolly.

Got an email overnight from an old friend of mine who has been questioning how much she drinks, and why. She has been going to AA, she said, but she couldn’t understand—and couldn’t stand—the idea of “defects of character.”

She sent me a link to an essay written 25 years ago by a professor of philosophy and religion. The essay argues against the “disease concept” of alcoholism—the author sees alcoholics as suffering from a moral problem based in desire and will. He separates the realms of science and spirituality.

So it would take me ages to put down everything I’d like to say back to this guy’s essay—I’ll save it for another time.

//

But dear Dolly, I wanted to share something I’ve been experiencing with regard to my character defects and how surrendering them to a “higher power” (Step 7) is helping me stay sober.

When I joined Al-Anon 14 years ago I was suffering. I had a 2-year-old kid and a marriage, a house, a job, a car, the whole bit, and I felt like killing myself. I had grown up with active alcoholism my whole life. I was raised by a woman who had been raised by a violent drunk.

The green Lorcet pills I used to take for pain. Actually mine were white—they were the strongest ones.

I was taking one pill per day for pain, but I couldn’t stop taking that one pill. I’d gone to AA and figured I couldn’t call myself an alcoholic because I hadn’t had a drink in three years. I’d gone to NA and told my story and some people looked at me cross-eyed because I was taking just one pill. These were people who had sold everything they had for smack or crack, sold their last remaining possessions in their houses, sold their bodies to cop drugs on the street, faced knives and guns and disease. I bought my measly little pills in the drug store. I thought, “I can’t be an addict—I’m not like these people.” (I don’t think this would happen in NA today. OxyContin and its cousins are too prevalent.)

It would take me a few more years—eight or 10—to meet people who used the way I used. It would also take me some time after that to realize that I’d begun the whole show by drinking my head off when I was 17 and we were in school together. (I had my first drink ever at the Phi Delt house. Gin and tonic. Let some slippery sophomore Phi Delt get me drunk and grope me, and all the girls on my hall laughed at me the next day: I’d let That Guy feel me up. I got so scared about being laughed at and showing how naïve I was that I met a guy the following month and stuck with him for almost four years.)

So when I took the 12 steps in Al-Anon I made a list of things I thought I’d done wrong: I worried about deadlines and put things off because of my worry and annoyed my coworkers. I was judgmental, I thought of myself and other people as either all good or all bad. I’d lost a couple of pieces of jewelry people had given me and this hurt them. And I thought my defects of character were things like anxiety, black-and-white thinking, and carelessness.

I continued to have migraines and terrible physical pain, and after several years I went to the pain clinic and got serious drugs and eventually became an addict. Even so, I carried on with therapy and Al-Anon because I thought if I could just figure out my emotional problems, I’d be able to either quit taking drugs or take them responsibly.

But it worked the other way around. It wasn’t until I stopped drinking and taking drugs (acknowledged my “powerlessness” over them, in Step 1) that I could begin to see my emotional problems clearly enough to remedy them.

Once I got sober I took the 12 steps again, guided by a woman who has been sober for more than 20 years. I saw that my “defects of character” were deeper than what I thought. My primary character shortcoming is not just “anxiety,” it’s a mortal fear of disapproval. I’ll do fucking anything (have done most anything—or sometimes even worse, NOT done most anything) to make the people around me think I’m OK. I will, for example, stick for four years with a boy I like, I might even love, but with whom I’m not really happy, to avoid being lonely; I’ll avoid having other relationships, to avoid being called a slut.

Another defect is putting other people’s judgment and comfort ahead of my own. (Really just a subset of the previous defect.)

Yesterday I was in a meeting when someone told a story about how, when she was drinking and using, she used to use at night because, she said, it helped her sleep. She used to pass out in the house, maybe on the hallway floor or wherever, and her husband would be like, “Why are you sleeping on the floor?” Hearing this story made my defect of character crystal clear.

I didn’t used to do pass out in the hallway. Here’s what I used to do: For years, for more than a decade even, I trained myself not to move in bed, not even to turn over, not to get up and pee, and definitely never to touch my partner, because I was sleeping next to someone who had intractable insomnia. This person is a light sleeper and if I even turned over, I might wake him up. So I trained myself to lie still. I gritted my teeth, literally, in order to do this.

Grit your teeth and bear it, was the way I was raised in my alcoholic family.

Eventually the tooth-grinding became a problem in itself and I had to get a tooth-guard to keep from grinding my teeth to stubs. Also, I had jaw pain. Also, I had neck and head pain, and shoulder pain, and back pain. For which, of course, I took drugs.

Also, I had a lot of suppressed anger and frustration, which it turns out contributes to tooth-grnding.

The drugs helped me sleep and not-move. They helped me not-care about the anger. For a while. Until they didn’t help anymore.

They also helped me ignore my anger and frustration during the day and get done what I needed to get done. They helped me grit my teeth through everything and not-care about the pain.

I didn’t understand I was contributing to my own pain. “Medical science” told me it was an illness, a syndrome, for which I might need to take drugs for the rest of my life. 

Another of my huge character defects is arrogance. I secretly think I’m perfect—or if I try hard enough, I can be perfect. I can do what other people want me to do, or what I think they want me to do, and not “betray” them or let them down. I kept doing life this way for years and years.

Let me admit something to you, Doll. I’ve spent most of the past two weeks on my own. And I’ve been able to get real rest. I wake up without jaw pain. When I wake in the middle of the night, I get up to pee without tiptoeing as though my footfalls might cause an earthquake. It took me a few days to remember I was allowed to turn on the light and maybe even read or write.

And my spiritual discipline tells me that I don’t have to blame this person. No one “made” me do anything. I chose to do all this myself.

And I don’t even have to blame myself.

All I have to do is to see clearly what I’ve done to contribute to the hurt. Take responsibility. Ask for my shortcomings to be removed. And then change the behavior (amends).

Turn on the light in the middle of the night.

The thing is, my thinking is so distorted, I am so arrogant and at the same time so full of self-hatred, that I need another source of power to guide me in changing my behavior. When I rely on my own power, usually I go pretty far down the wrong road before I see how I’ve gone wrong.

I’m learning to trust my own judgment by taking small steps forward, using my own judgment under the guidance of others who have gone before me on this road. I can’t “insight” my way into being healthy, I have to take action. I have to turn on the light. No one’s telling me to do anything. I’m engaged in what Quakers call “discernment.” All I’m doing is using a map. A GPS of sorts. And the GPS might lead me to a swamp, or a desert, or up against a mountain, and it’s always a learning experience.

I learn by doing. Not by figuring everything out beforehand.

It’s scary sometimes. It’s also exhilarating. I feel alive.

My friend P and her daughter with our dogs, Ginger and Flo.

I need to go walk the dog. But I wanted to get back to you.

Love, G

Gifts of the Program: Tact.

One of the things I love about Al-Anon in our region is that during the holidays many of the groups have “gifts of the program” meetings. They put up pine branches and candles and bake ziti and cookies and pass out little “gifts.” I’ve been going to one particular Gifts of the Program meeting since 1999. That year they gave out paper bookmarks, and mine said, “Joy.”

It was the year my mother died, and I kept waiting to feel joy. And the times I did were few and far between.

I’ve learned in my program of recovery from addiction that I get what I give. I sat in the meeting the other night thinking that I probably didn’t feel much joy because I wasn’t giving much out. It had no chance to come back to me.

This year it was bookmarks again—beaded ones on string. And mine said, “Tact.”

Frankly, at first I was disappointed to draw “tact” as a gift. Much more hopeful to get “peace” or “serenity” or “self-care,” or even “sponsorship” or “forgiveness.” These are all gifts I’ve drawn in the past.

The more I sat with the gift, the more I liked it.

Tact is the gift of being able to handle difficult or delicate situations with sensitivity.

The root of the word is the Latin tactus, “a sense of touch,” from tangere, “to touch.”

Tactile. Contact.

I grew up in a household that was sadly devoid of tact, except for my father’s ability to smooth over conflicts and stop verbal sparring without screaming himself. Part of the way he did this was through touch. Dad had huge hands, with the square nails of a scientist. But though they were large, they weren’t heavy; sensitively boned, tough and capable of work but free of meanness or brutality. As far as I know, Dad was never in a fight. I never saw him punch anyone; he whipped me and my brother a few times, but it was mostly my mother who used her hands (and other tools) against our bodies.

Dad didn’t need to do that to teach us. He had tact.

//

I haven’t been writing as much on this blog in recent months because my life is undergoing enormous changes. I’m coming to the end of my third year of sobriety. It feels almost as though the ground is shifting underneath my feet; as though vast weather-systems are moving through, washing out the land and changing the very terrain. I appreciate your patience with me.

I’ve been able to stay sober. Sometimes, just barely. Other times, I feel solidly sober, unable to be knocked off my sober boots (thanks to my friend Heather for the allusion) by any amount of wind or seismic shocks.

I’m grateful to be sober.

I’m terribly lonely, though.

It’s hard for me to call people, even my sponsor, because I want to look like a good girl. I don’t like leaning on folks. I don’t like showing weakness. I’m afraid that showing weakness will lead me to indulge in self-pity, and I can’t afford that indulgence.

I go whole days without touching another person.

I sat in the meeting thinking, What I really want is to be touched.

So instead of waiting for Tact to come to me, the way I waited for Joy 13 years ago, I’m going to have to engage in the difficult practice of giving contact, giving human touch. And maybe some of that will come back to me—if I keep myself open to it.

 

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