Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Al-Anon (page 2 of 5)

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.

 

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?

Step 11 in New York.

Just back from New York, where I talked with Bill Clegg about his new memoir, 90 DAYS: A MEMOIR OF RECOVERY.

Bill Clegg in the West Village, April 3, 2012.

Getting messages from readers who may have seen the Newsweek excerpt, asking what I think about the book, and whether Clegg is “for real.” “Is he sober?” one reader asked.

Check back to find out. I’m splitting the goods between this site and Renew Magazine, for which I review books. Check your bookstore or better yet subscribe—May’s issue will have a review of Kaylie Jones’s LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME and a Q&A with the author.

I like going to New York. I’ve decided to go as often as I can. I used to think I had to have a special reason for going anywhere: a meeting, a conference, a bunch of appointments with important people, Something To Do. My new special reason for going to New York:

Because I want to.

This time, when I wasn’t working, I went to a couple of Al-Anon meetings. One was a Step 11 meeting at Blessed Sacrament church on the Upper West Side. I got there half an hour late because of subway delays; when I opened the door to the meeting place in the rectory at 11:30, there were about 20 people sitting in chairs around the edge of the room. The blinds were drawn, the lights of the huge crystal chandelier were off, and they were meditating. I sat down and joined them.

Afterward I sat in the church to be quiet and look at the candles. It was Wednesday of Holy Week; a homeless guy was lying in a back pew, sleeping; I expected half an hour of quiet time, but suddenly everyone else in the nave stood up and I saw that the priest had walked in and was getting ready to say Mass. So I stayed. I hadn’t been to Mass in—gosh, 25 years? but just like the good Catholic girl I was (and somehow, somewhere inside of me, still am), I knew all the responses; I listened to myself saying them as though it were another person standing inside my skin, talking through my mouth.

Later that day I went to another meeting at Caron in midtown. The weekly topic of this meeting is “intimacy.” It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever been to in my life. They talked frankly about all kinds of ways of being intimate, including sex. I wrote a piece about this experience for another publication and will let you know if and when it’s out… I’m thinking of starting a similar group in my town.

In New York, I stay way downtown. This is my subway stop:

It’s a challenge to maintain my patience in New York because the subway system drives me crazy. Most of the stations are invisible above ground. In London, where I learned to ride subways, the Underground stops are all marked by the ubiquitous and brilliantly designed Tube logo:

In New York you have to morph into a rat to know where the subway stops are. You have to have a nose for holes in the ground. You have to sniff out which stops are uptown-only and which are downtown, and you have to memorize the information in order not to waste time. But once you get inside the stations, you’re likely to see some good art while you’re waiting for the trains.

Just pausing to look at the mosaics is part of recovery for me. It requires me to slow down, be present in my body, be aware. I can appreciate the handiwork of a dedicated artist.

Then just before I left I went to St. Patrick’s and lit a candle for my parents.

The rose window and organ, St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York.

When do you pause to look around you at beauty you take for granted? How do you manage to do it during a busy day?

Who Do You Miss?

In four days it will be my birthday. I’ll be 47, sober for almost two years, in recovery from addiction for three, and in Al-Anon for almost 13. A list of “birthdays.” 

My mother died of lung cancer 12 years ago at 58. I rarely miss her, but there are three days of the year on which I predictably, and sometimes rather desperately, wish she were still alive: her birthday (April 19); my son’s birthday (September 19); and my birthday. Who remembers your birth better than your own mother?

It makes me sad that my son doesn’t get to have a grandma nearby, that my mother never got to see how well my son’s turning out.

(“He’s a good kid,” my father told me before he died. “He’ll be OK. You’re doing a good job.” These words are like the chair in which I put my feet up at the end of the day. I don’t often sit in that chair because when I do, I fall asleep—it’s so comforting.)

The rose window of Nôtre Dame de Paris.

My son used to crawl on her lap and play with her necklace, a gold replica of the rose window in Nôtre Dame cathedral. Dad brought the pendant back from a Paris business trip in 1983. My mother wore it always, and after my mother died Daddy gave it to me. … My son would crawl up onto her lap and stick the disk in his mouth, and she’d let him do it. In the brief time they knew each other, she let him do stuff she’d never have let us do. The grandkids would have mellowed her out.

For our birthdays we got to ask for our favorite dinners and whatever we wanted for dessert. Except for my birthday Mom would make pumpkin pie. And every year I would have preferred to have something chocolate but I could never tell her this, because she somehow got this idea that pumpkin pie was my favorite, or else it was because I was born the day before Halloween. She needed to be the perfect mom who baked the perfect birthday dessert. There was something in me that couldn’t dispel her illusions. That something is the obsessive caretaking thing about me, the thing that’s overly influenced by what other people think, the alcoholic-child-thing. She obsessively took care of me, and I obsessively cared for her right back.

Today I’d be able to find a way to let her know that I like chocolate better than pumpkin. Not so I could have the chocolate, but so we could know each other better. So we could be honest.

I grew up in a family rife with addiction. I lost both parents to it. All my cousins who are still alive have lost people close to them to addiction. Many of us have lost people to addiction—not just family members but also friends, fellows in the rooms, sponsors. The Subversive Librarian wrote a remarkable post about this recently—about how suicides and deaths due to addiction tempt her to relapse, make her desperate with the idea that she might after all have to follow them.

So she takes action to insure that she doesn’t.

Who do you miss? What’s your experience with loss?

The Family Situation Is Bound to Improve

Went to my noon meeting at the university today.

I love this meeting. It’s in one guy’s office, and there’s another guy who usually shows up. Sometimes when I walk in they’re the only two there, which can be very helpful.

Last week I brought a posse of four women. Added to the two guys, plus two other women, plus me, we had nine people squeezed into this little tiny office. Toward the end another woman I’ve known from the rooms for 12 years arrived and lay down on the floor behind everyone else. When she spoke up, it was like the Greek chorus singing from behind the curtain.

Today I brought three women. One of these I met at a literature meeting I try to make on Saturdays. She’s from a place that’s very close to where my sister lives. I hear her accent and am reminded of the upper Midwest and Lake Michigan. I’m reminded that even though nobody else in my family of origin is in recovery, my own efforts can have a positive effect on them. “The family situation is bound to improve,” goes one of the suggested openings. It has improved: my son is going away on a three-night school trip next week, and he’s looking forward to going. As in, “Mum, I can’t wait to go.” Three years ago, when I was getting sober, he was having panic attacks and couldn’t fall asleep in his own bed. Talk about “gifts of the program.”

We talked about “changes” today. How to handle change, how not to avoid it. I sat there thinking about my kid, and the kid I was. I had this startling experience in therapy earlier this week. I’m doing EMDR. (When you’ve been locked in a car overnight at 3; when you’ve been hit with belts and other stuff; when you’ve been personally humiliated by bullies and parents alike; when you’ve learned as a child that it’s too hard or even dangerous to make friends because you’re too busy trying to protect yourself, both at home and at school, you might need to get “extra help,” as my Al-Anon sponsor calls it) I’ve had to revisit several bad scenes before, and resolving them felt straightforward (if grueling) because the feelings came out easily. Three-year-olds HAVE to express their feelings. So I could interact with that kid.

But when I revisited the 14-year-old, something happened that I hadn’t foreseen. She wouldn’t talk to me.

I sat with her in the location of a bad scene that has bothered me off and on for 30 years (everything came back: the smells, the sounds, the crawling feeling of dread in my belly) and what I realized was this: She was entirely numb. From head to foot, from inside out.

“Imagine how hard she had to work at that age to be so totally numb,” my practitioner said.

(Yeah, I thought, and she didn’t even have any booze or drugs to help her.)

My son at 10. He could already talk about his feelings.

Something didn’t make sense. I tried to figure out what it was. When you’re in an EMDR session, things get a little bit hazy. … I was thinking about my kid. All the times I’d sat and listened to him talk about his feelings. All the times he’s crawled on my lap to confess a fear or a wrong or an achievement, all the times he’s spoken back to me when he thinks I’ve said or done something unfair. All our conversations and negotiations, our admissions of fear and anger and love.

“My kid can talk about his feelings. He’s really good at it,” I said.

“Of course he can,” she said. “Who taught him to do that?”

I actually had to think a minute. “I did,” I said.

“Hmm,” she said. “And who taught you?”

“Um,” I said. Really thinking hard now.

“Nobody?” I said.

I couldn’t talk about my feelings until I came to “the rooms” 12 years ago. I mean I had been to therapy, I had learned to negotiate (and even unconsciously to manipulate) the discourse of the therapeutic relationship, I had learned all about transference and about how I made my therapist into a mother-figure. Talk-therapy wasn’t all a head-trip, but a lot of it was. (I’d never heard any practitioner articulate this before I met Servan-Schreiber.) After like eight years of talk-therapy, plus multiple courses of antidepressants and other psych-meds, I still felt as though suicide might really be an option. That’s what I was thinking the night of Jan. 3, 1999, when I drove through an ice-storm and slid into my first Al-Anon meeting. I walked into the church basement and told probably the first person I saw, “I seriously need help, or else I’m gonna kill myself.”

Recovery, the real people I’ve met in those rooms and even in some online rooms, have taught me how to say what I feel, even if it freaks me out, even if it feels as though I SHOULDN’T feel that way.

But that mute, numb teenager who hates herself?—she’s still skulking around somewhere.

One of the best ways I’ve found to interact with her is by bringing her in front of other people who understand, who maybe have their own numb kids living inside them. Which is part of the reason I made this site.

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