Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Al-Anon (page 1 of 5)

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.

Blowing Up Midtown.

I wend my way down Third Avenue away from the Lex Ave subway stop (I call them “stops,” not “stations,” because that’s what I’ve trained myself to call them—I learned to ride the Tube in London and native Londoners on the street laugh at me when I ask where the nearest Tube “station” is—It’s a stop, innit? This is how afraid I am of being laughed at: I change my language, change my shorts, change my shirt, change my life, as Tom Waits sings, so that I can avoid even minor disapproval) and toward the midtown offices of this famous treatment center whose headquarters are in my state but which also maintains a location here. I wonder what it looks like.

It’s small. It’s narrow. It’s a little glass door sandwiched between skyscrapers in the tall steelconcrete windtunnel that is Midtown.

Caron, midtown.

Caron, midtown.

The meeting is downstairs. It’s big. Lots of people, it turns out, are “family and friends” of alcoholics and addicts in this town. I arrive five minutes late because the train was running late, I’m not used to building in time for the constant subway delays in this city, actually I’m not used to building in time for any malfunction ever, I always expect myself to be running at top speed in perfect condition, nuts tightened, pump primed, engine lubed and idling, ready to go. That perfectionism, in fact, is one reason I’m here, sitting at the back of this meeting, digging my knitting out of my bag and listening to the speaker give a “qualification.”

This is a meeting whose weekly theme is “intimacy.”

The speaker talks, to my great surprise, about sex.

No one at any meetings in my town talks about sex.

But sex, sober sex, truthful sex, Real Sex, is so important and so critical to this process they call “recovery.” Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about sex? I wonder to myself. The answer is obvious: people are embarrassed to be open about their sexual “issues” in what used, in my parents’ cocktail era, to be called “mixed company.”

But I need to know what sober sex means. Honest sex.

What does it mean? What does it look like?

(My sponsor says: Making love doesn’t always have to mean sex. It can be other things.)

The speaker makes an analogy that sounds crazy and gross but is actually, upon second thought, fairly sane: this person wants a relationship that’s so intimate that it looks the way primates look when they’re grooming each other, weeding through each other’s hair and cleaning each other down.

stock-footage-cu-monkeys-grooming-each-other-at-the-monkey-temple-in-kathmandu-nepal

Total acceptance.

We’re primates, aren’t we? I think. Don’t we have this instinct somewhere in our DNA, this need to be so accepted and cared for not just by ourselves but by someone else as well?

//

I raise my hand. I talk about sex. I cry afterward, unwillingly. I don’t take long to talk, the “spiritual timekeeper” doesn’t even signal me to shut up, but I feel stupid, like a stupid freak as I root my Kleenex out of my bag and blow my nose. I’m the only one crying—at least, I think so.

Stupid freak. This is the language that my mind uses to address myself when I talk about dangerous subjects, the language that is second-nature and feels comfortable, like a threadbare flannel shirt. It’s garbage but it keeps off the draft.

I’ve been thinking about language all day. I’ve spent the day writing for an editor I like, a guy in this city in fact. But I also, paradoxically, found myself going to Mass. I’d gone to another meeting at a church, it happened to be the holiday they call (I used to call) Holy Week, I’d gone inside the cool stone nave to be quiet and “maintain conscious contact,” and suddenly the priest showed up. He said Mass. And I knew all the responses. I spoke the language. It burbled out of some deep well inside me that I thought I’d banged the cover on long ago. I am taken aback by some of the phrases. Particularly:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you
But only say the word and I shall be healed

I shall be healed. Healed. Had I ever thought about that idea, that this “sacrament” could Heal Me? Not as such; I’d gone to church to please my parents, to look like a Good Girl, to maintain appearances, keep the varnish bright, and to somehow Meet God in “God’s house”—my mother’s term for church. I’d memorized the responses to the Mass the way I memorized my “times tables” in fourth grade; later all this memorization helped me commit calculus to short-term memory, and the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales to long-term memory, in Middle English, with spelling, and accent:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour …

Aprille. It’s April already. I’m ahead in getting my taxes done but already behind in so many other things. In Work. In Money. In Appearances. In Sex. In Life.

//

After the meeting I thank the speaker. Women and men alike express appreciation for my “share.” A guy tells me not to feel alone, that what I said about sexuality is probably a lot more common than I think. I nod my head and thank him and climb the stairs to the lobby.

I ask the woman behind the desk if Dr. Paul works here.

Paul Hokemeyer, MD, JD, clinical consultant to Caron Treatment Centers, NYC.

Paul Hokemeyer, MD, JD, clinical consultant to Caron Treatment Centers, NYC.

 

She regards me with a patient smile usually reserved for very young children. “He’s not here right now,” she says kindly, checking her watch—it’s 8:30 p.m.—“he’s left for the day.” Of course, I say; I just wondered; I’ve talked with him several times over the phone; I’m a journalist and sober blogger and I’d just wondered if these were his offices. I’m rambling a bit. I’m out of business cards; I don’t take myself seriously enough. I’m looking around at the lobby. People routinely do business over distances these days but something in me likes to place people, place faces, I’ve got quite an earthbound mind, I like to look into people’s eyes, I’m an artist

I paint portraits.

I paint portraits.

but I also wind up defending myself in situations where I needn’t. Why explain myself with the receptionist?

(because i explain defend myself with everyone)

Isn’t it time to open up a bit? to trust? … I think back to the interview I held with the Famous Author the day before. I was showing him my paintings on my new iPad; I felt as though I was not supposed to be showing him art on a fancy expensive consumerist design tool, I could hear the voice of my mother

(goddammit, who the hell do you think you are?)

but I showed him anyway; he said he recognized one of the paintings from my blog.

You read my blog? I asked.

I told you I read your blog,

he said.

I didn’t believe you, I blurted, placing my fingertips on his arm. He regarded me with slight reproach. He’d guessed my age as younger than his, though in fact I’m six or eight years his elder.

I try to live a life of rigorous honesty these days, my friend,

he said.

//

Bloomingdales_flags

Wind whipping Bloomingdale’s flags. Photo by Woody Campbell.

I walk out of the Midtown treatment center offices. The wind through Bloomindale’s flags has built to tornado force. I mechanically scan the sliver of sky for tornadoes, but of course they never experience cyclones here. I’m blowing up Third Avenue in Midtown. I’m steadying myself to keep from pitching over when a hand touches my left shoulder. I turn; it’s a woman from the meeting where they talked about sex. She asks the name of my blog. She has heard me speaking with the receptionist, saying I’m a sober blogger. She plugs the name of my blog into her smartphone and it comes up, smack, right there, in the wind, on the corner of 58th and 3rd, in Midtown.

She smiles and tells me this was her second meeting and she was glad to hear me speak. Both of her parents are addicts. Both of my parents were addicts, too, I say. She says her mother has just gotten out of rehab and her father is on methadone—not “really clean,” but still.

I tell her I’m glad they’re alive.

I touch her hand. People are so alone in this town—in this world—skin rarely touches skin. We’re evolved to receive these electric charges. We need them to power up.

She tells me that she’s been trying to change her attitude and give back to people by being a clown.

A clown? I say.

“I dress up as a clown,” she says, “and I meet people around town.”

Her face is beautiful—round cheeks, full lips, framed by dark curls.

Actually, I remember, all faces hold beauty—experiencing it requires deep looking.

A witness.

Spirituality = Reality.

Today I’m borrowing this title from my good friend Dani, who has written under it for four years (click here to read her in Freedom From Hell). Thanks, Dani.

//

My friend Jacques’s dad died four days ago in Tucson.

I’ve known Jacques for 25 years. When I met him in 1988, he had gotten sober two years before, at age 22, and was dating Ben, who was studying in the same writing program I was attending. Jacques and Ben are still both poets and English teachers. We were all born in the same year.

Ben’s mom has been living with terminal cancer for several years; by incredible coincidence, the day after Jacques’s dad died—just three days ago, in other words—Ben’s mom had a setback and began actively dying. These former lovers are losing their second parents within days of each other. I find the resonance strange and beautiful.

When it became clear to Jacques that his dad would not last very long, he told the hospice staff that his dad needed a Catholic priest. The hospice worker told Jacques she’d send a minister, a social worker, they had all kinds of resources.

“I need a CATHOLIC PRIEST,” he said. “My dad wants last rites in the Catholic tradition. Can we please get a Catholic priest?”

“I had no idea why I said that, my dad and I didn’t talk about what he wanted at the end,” Jacques tells me today on the phone. “But my dad was a strict Catholic, G, it was serious with him, it wasn’t mumbo-jumbo.”

Jacques, one of three brothers, was born at St. Francis Hospital (Rabbi Abe Twerski and the nuns later turned it into the city’s haven for drunks and junkies; my cousin Danny spent some time there, I believe—it was notorious in our family that you had hit shameful low-bottom if you were at St. Francis; meanwhile, I was born at Braddock General, which, for a number of years until it closed in 2009, served as a detox and rehab for the river valley’s addicts). Jacques lived around the corner on 44th Street till he was in second grade, when his dad started making enough money to move them out to the suburbs, where they had the split-level and the country-club membership.

On the drive back to his hotel four days ago, the hospice worker called his cell and said the priest had arrived and was ready to give his dad the sacrament, and that she’d put the phone on speaker so Jacques could hear his dad’s responses.

“And this is no shit, G, OK?” he said. “On the very last word—on the ‘Amen’—the hospice worker said, ‘Your dad just took his last breath.’ He died on the last word of the sacrament.”

We sit there in silence, absorbing this.

altar-boysJacques and I were raised strict Catholic in the 1960s and ’70s. Jacques was an altar boy (dunno what my thing is with altar boys, but I can just picture Jacques in red robe with white lace surplice, holding the censer and cracking jokes under his breath). Jacques and I know what sacrament means, even though we no longer receive them ourselves.

“You did that because you were sober,” I remark. “If you hadn’t been sober, do you think you’d have had the presence of mind to be so certain about what your dad wanted, and to act on that leading?”

“You know, I have goosebumps on the back of my neck when you say that,” he says. “Because I’ve been thinking about that. He didn’t tell me he wanted that—I just knew.”

“How old was your dad—86?” I ask. “That’s a hell of a long time to live, and you made sure your dad had what he needed at the end of that long haul in order to let go and be at peace. In doing that for him you showed him great compassion and kindness.”

“I’ve been realizing something about love,” he says. “It’s not a feeling. It’s a commitment, a desire for the other person’s wellbeing such that you’re willing to sacrifice yourself.” Not in a codependent way, he emphasizes; not in a way that fosters the other person’s weakness and insecurity and one’s own security and vanity, but in a way that fosters the other person’s growth and peace.

Jacques has racked up large bills flying from his home in northern Michigan to Tucson every month since August, when his dad fell and had to move into nursing care.

“Love is hard, G!” he says. “It’s so hard!

We pause, considering this weighty truth.

“Well,” he says, and I can hear him stretching, “I’m standing here in the 75-degree sun and I’m gonna go take a swim now.”

“Fuck you, darlin,” I say fondly.

//

So this is part of the way I stay sober. People in The Program talk about “helping others,” reaching out to the newcomer, and I do that, but I also interact with several people in my life who are oldcomers, who count their sober-time in decades, and I stay active with principles I’ve learned from many years in Al-Anon. Long-time sobriety doesn’t guarantee any results—serenity, peace of mind, happiness, even a good night’s sleep. It starts out one day at a time, and it stays that way.

Meanwhile I tell Ben I’ll take some of his classes if he can’t get back from Dallas in time.

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

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