Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: AlAnon (page 1 of 3)

Sayings from the Rooms: Take What You Like and Leave the Rest

In AlAnon they say:

Take What You Like and Leave the Rest

In AA they say it a bit differently:

Take What You Need and Leave the Rest

(AA’s version, characteristically, incorporates a bit more desperation)

The idea is, we help each other in meetings by sharing from our personal experience—who knows about alcoholism and addiction better than those who have experienced it, or have lived with it?

From what I’ve heard over the years, the AA version is said less often in AA than the AlAnon version is said in AlAnon. Why?—I think it’s because in AA, the feeling is, we’re trying to save our lives, and in order to do that, we’ve gotta do as we’re bloody well told. We feel like we can’t afford to give people the idea that we can pick and choose anything.

In AA they also say,

Take the Cotton Out of Your Ears and Put It in Your Mouth


I’ve heard it said that this saying is for the kind of drunk/addict who drank or used to enlarge herself—participate in the grandiosity of addiction. But because I used in order to make myself small and shut myself up… because I came to The Rooms with a throat packed with cotton, my sponsors have encouraged me to do the opposite: spit out the gag, speak up and develop my voice. (Thus, dear reader, this blog)

Sometimes the pendulum swings too far in the other direction.

Went to an AlAnon meeting a while back. It had been a month or two since I had been to AlAnon, and I came home a bit irked. (red flag, anyone?) Told my partner that I disagreed with a few things that were said. Particularly the idea that no one should identify herself as an alcoholic in order to protect the idea that “AlAnon is Spoken Here.”

“I mean, there’s a difference between identifying oneself as an alcoholic, and saying ‘Last week at my AA home group we talked about XYZ, lemme tell you all about it,’” I said. “Don’t you think that there might be someone in The Room who might actually be helped by knowing that there’s another person there who’s an alcoholic, considering the fact that lots of us adult-children-of-alcoholics drink and use in order to numb out painful childhoods?”

“I would think—” he began.

“And somebody else called his wife his Qualifier!” I rambled. “I mean, WTF!! I never labeled my dad my Qualifier. I never even called my asshole gun-shooting grandpa my Qualifier—”

He sighed impatiently and waved his hands in my face.

“What part of Take What You Like and Leave the Rest do you not understand?” he said. “It’s not, Take What You Like and Fuckin Argue With Everything Else!”

AHHH-hahahahaha!” I yelped, collapsing on the couch as though he’d nailed me with a pea-shooter. “You got me, babe!”


What writing tons of inventory has shown me: If I’m criticizing other people, I’m probably being twice or three times as critical of myself.

Time to let up on everyone…

Today I’m going to

Listen and Learn

(AlAnon’s equivalent of AA’s cotton-in-mouth saying)

Also paint. Also write.

It’s a wild life.

I Couldn’t Kill the Kittens

News since last Thursday… I dropped my guys off to catch a carpool to a weekend soccer tournament out east, then took the kittens to the shelter, all ready to say goodbye to the little darlings and enjoy an extremely rare weekend on my own, free of engagements.

And the shelter vet stood in front of me with one of the kittens dangling from his hand and said, “They’re too small.”

“Too small for what?” I asked.

“Too small to live here,” he said. “We’re inundated with kittens. If you leave them here, I’ll just put them down.” A friendly euphemism for “kill them.” In my mind’s eye I him push the the needles into their paws, saw their heads slump on their pencil necks.

My jaw pumped up and down on its own for a few seconds, as I tried think what to say to this astonishingly cold greeting.

“That’s just my reality,” he said distantly, directing his eyes sort of past my face.

After dithering for about ten minutes, I took them back home.

Sully closeup

My amazing Sully, 1987-2006. Green eyes and a beauty mark.

I’ve put cats to sleep before. In other words, hired vets to kill them, to put them out of their misery. The first cat I ever owned as an adult, the legendary and devoted Sully, came to me at four weeks old when I was 23 and preparing to move to another state for my second newspaper reporting job. She lived 19 years, eventually developing kidney failure, and I had to “put her down.” If you’ve ever held an animal in your arms and watched the plunger descend and felt the animal stop breathing… well, it’s an experience. It’s necessary when the animal is suffering.

But when the animals aren’t suffering…

“There are already too many kittens in this world,” the vet said. Which is true. A common old-fashioned way of getting rid of kittens is simply to drown them. Some nasty bastards used to crush their heads, I guess. As if they were insects. Maybe they still do these things.

“Why not take them to a meeting?” a friend suggested. In that moment, I realized I had choices. I could do due diligence and try to find them a home before considering other more dire options.

It’s worth noting that this same friend told me they could have put the kittens down with no problem. They have very clear boundaries, and in that moment I admired this person. I’m not always so clear.

Clarity seems to be a situation of accepting who one is, and what one can do. How much one can give at a certain time.

Sully napping

Sully napping / watercolor sketch

So I had to practice discipline about knowing who I was this weekend, and about boundaries. My iPod was an effective boundary-setter. Wore my iPod a great deal so I could not hear the kittens crying as I took care of them—feeding them with a bottle, teaching them to use the litter tray. Kittens and babies cry—it’s what they do, it’s how they’re built. My son’s crying used to kill me… I wrote about this in my first book. Couldn’t take it. Something about hearing him cry reduced my heart to shards, and I didn’t even know why at the time. I thought I must be crazy. I didn’t know how the family disease of addiction was operating in me.

I didn’t know who I was then. So I couldn’t know who he was, which was Simply A Crying Baby.

How I’m built is, there’s something in me that responds to crying. My Emotional emergency-medical tech comes out, complete with portable gurney and heated blankets, and I’m there to relieve the person of their burden. There’s a space in me into which other people’s anger and sadness fit (prepared by my mother, who poured her unhappiness and rage into me from an early age). I have to practice discipline to defend that space so that I don’t admit too much of that suffering into my life.

I was raised to believe that my function was to relieve others’ suffering. Not even to believe it, just to do it. What recovery is teaching me is: I deserve to be happy as much as anyone else does, to do the things I want to do…

My guys were gone this weekend, and I could do as I liked. I worked hard. I gardened a great deal, and mowed the grass. I started the process of redesigning my study and archiving my parents’ documents. I had nobody else to report to. No one else’s expectations (fictional or real) hanging over my head. I stayed up late and ate when I wanted, if I wanted.

Being by myself was an enormous relief. But truth be told, I had expected I’d get a lot more done. My attention kept being drawn back to the babies and I felt a big compulsion always to see if they were OK. I found myself thinking that it would have been “perfect” if the kittens weren’t here. But I couldn’t kill them, and here they were.


The kittens, one month old

“One day at a time,” said my AlAnon sponsor, who was getting ready to fly overseas for a month-long work trip. For chrissake, I said, here you are flying off to some dangerous place, and here I am telling you about some measly kittens.

“Don’t compare,” she said. She’s a huge cat-lover and I could hear the smile in her voice. “You did something KIND today.”

I have to accept reality, and reality is that I’m not the kind of person who can pitch life, even a little life, into the incinerator without at least giving a shot at protecting it. Maybe it makes me kind. Maybe it makes me naïve. I don’t know what it makes me.

But over the weekend they were a constant reminder of my need to put my own priorities first—and also to balance my priorities against other needs.

I need to find them a home soon, though, because they’re getting big, it’s getting cold, and I have lots of shit stuff to do.

Sayings From the Rooms: GOD, and HOW to Recover

People who have trouble with “the God thing” sometimes use this saying:

GOD = Good Orderly Direction

“God” doesn’t have to mean a guy in the sky handing out judgments. It’s been suggested to me that “God” (or “higher power”) can be any power greater than myself that gets me out of my own rat-trap head and into a different mentality, preferably one that tries to do for others instead of myself.

Traffic cop

Accepting direction keeps me safe

Five tools I use to take direction (please add yours below):

1. Meetings—listening to other people’s stories helps get me out of my own head; meeting newcomers presents opportunities to help somebody else

2. Phone—people call it The Ten-Thousand-Pound Phone. Why is it so hard for newcomers and people with lots of sobriety alike to pick up the phone? But calling somebody else with more experience helps bring perspective to a confusing situation… and Gives Orderly Direction.

3. Prayer—the line toward the power, the way I ask for what I need (direction) and …

4. Meditation—the silent line through which the power speaks to me. The way I get Today’s Directive, the Memo: How G Will Do Her Day.

It’s up to me to read the memo, and then to do what it says. This is called Discernment

5. Sponsorship—taking direction from a sponsor gives me practice in Taking Direction. Just doing what I’m told. Because addiction is all about Doing Whatever the Hell I Want… And recovery is about reversing that trend. … Also, in working with another addict/alcoholic, I usually end up giving the very direction I need to hear (surprise, surprise! 🙂 ).

Another saying they use in the rooms is:

You wanna know HOW to recover?
HOW = Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness

I often hear this one misquoted. People often say “Openness,” instead of “Open-mindedness.” I’ve thought about this. Openness is good: being open with people, forthcoming, and willing to share of oneself. But Open-mindedness

Addiction had shut my mind like that steel trap. I had to find ways of opening my mind in order even to approach thinking about some of the things it was suggested that I do (for example: stop using; stop asking myself Why I Became An Addict; one of the hardest: stop using language as a weapon to cut myself as a way of punishing myself for becoming an addict).

I’ve never been TOLD to do anything in order to recover from addiction, including all the years I’ve spent with my AlAnon sponsor, investigating my alcoholic childhood. I’ve been given strong suggestions and was told it was up to me.

It was suggested two days ago that I go about the next week thinking:

What if GOD had my back? What would that feel like?

This person said,

Because GOD does have your back. It’s not that things ARE GONNA BE all right—it’s that things ALREADY ARE all right. Right now.

That’s a hard one. I’ve spent lots of years thinking God didn’t have my back. Believing that, really. I put my faith in GOD not-loving me.

But I’m trying. The ice on the pond of my mind freezes over, and I use the crowbar to crack it open again. It’s hard work, taking direction.

Then I had this moment two days ago: God had my back. I felt it. It was like lying in a hammock with someone who loves you.

15 Lessons learned by kids of alcoholic families

Perfect DaughtersThe following list of lessons learned by daughters of alcoholic families appears in Perfect Daughters: Adults Daughters of Alcoholics, by Robert J. Ackerman, Ph.D. A classic I just now found… in print since 1989, revised in 2002, with tons of comments by adult daughters of alcoholic families. Check it out. His research is based on a study of more than 1,200 women, a bit more than half of them daughters of alcoholic families and the remainder daughters of non-alcoholic families.

If you grew up in a family with addiction, see if some of these resonate… And pass it on to somebody you think it might help.

Did you unintentionally learn any of the following lessons as a daughter in an alcoholic family?

  • If I can control everything, I can keep my family from becoming upset.
  • If I please everyone, everyone will be happy.
  • Whatever happens is my fault, and I am to blame when trouble occurs.
  • People who love you the most are those who cause you the most pain.
  • If I don’t get too close emotionally, you cannot hurt me.
  • My responsibility is to ensure that everyone in the family gets along with each other.
  • Take care of others first.
  • Nothing is wrong, but I don’t feel right.
  • Expressing anger is not appropriate.
  • Something is missing in my life.
  • I’m unique, and my family is different from all other families.
  • I can deny anything.
  • I am not a good person.
  • I am responsible for the success of a relationship.
  • To be acceptable, everything must be perfect.

The other side of the coin: Ackerman says if we have survived our families’ illnesses, we have also learned positive lessons that we may act on less often, or that we may not even have discovered yet. Because we’ve become stuck in survival mode. Here are some positive lessons we may have learned:

  • I’m a survivor. I can survive.
  • I have developed competencies in many areas of my life.
  • I can handle crises.
  • I have a good sense of empathy.
  • I can take care of myself.
  • I’m not easily discouraged.
  • I can find alternatives to problems.
  • I’m not afraid to rely on my abilities.
  • I can be healthy when others are not.
  • I do have choices.
  • People can depend on me.
  • I appreciate my inner strength.
  • I know what I want.
  • I’m a good person.
  • I may not be perfect, but parts of me are great.

“I can be healthy when others are not…” The truth of this struck me today while I was pulling huge weeds in the garden. I’d put my iPod on random play, and a song came on that I used to listen to while I was in withdrawal… a piece of piano music that I used to put on repeat-play, for hours, to calm my nerves until I could get the next refill. One might say, the next “re-up.” The next stash. The next bottle. Like a perfume from a long time ago, like my mother’s Chanel No. 5, the music washed over me and brought back keen memories: I remembered how desperate I used to be toward the end of my addiction, how sick I was, how I used to feel like clawing my own skin off, how I would punch the mattress and scream into pillows in frustration, how I used to sweat and shake, how I used to hide in my room from everyone, whether I was in withdrawal or not—I was always fearful, people always hated me, the cops were always going to arrive at the door, I was always at fault for whatever was happening anywhere. So toward the end I just hid in order to make nothing happen.

I hadn’t heard this song in a while and it’s been quite a while since I’ve been “dope-sick,” two years to be exact, and since then the scales of paranoia and self-seeking have fallen slowly but surely from my skin… So there I was, knee-deep in the weeds I was pulling, covered with honest sweat and soil and sunshine, fit from a summer of cycling and playing tennis, and I’ve been worrying so much about whether I’m doing well enough, whether I’m working hard enough, whether I’m good enough, so many days of “nothing is wrong, but I don’t feel right,” and the piano notes just knocked me over, man. I fell face-first into the grass and as I hit the dirt I thought, This is where my mother is: in the dirt. This is where my father is. I buried both of them.

They can’t watch my kid play soccer today.

They couldn’t celebrate his thirteenth birthday last week.

They’re not here, so: he has no grandparents on this side of the ocean.

But I’m here.

Today, I’m well.

I can be healthy when others are not. Hell, I can be alive.

Letting my mother carry her own bags

My sister sent me a list for her daughter’s birthday yesterday… our first kids were born within five days of each other. My kid first, on the 19th, and hers on the 24th, the day before my original due date.

The two of them are turning 13, they’re totally hormonal (in different ways—estrogen and testosterone are equally powerful, but different), they’re by turns funny and sweet and cuddly and then borderline psychotic, antisocial, and venomous. “When I said I hated you tonight, I still loved you, I just didn’t know it then,” my son told me before he went to bed, kissing me on my face.

He emailed his list to his aunt, and the gift is apparently on it way. But I’ve been having trouble pinning my niece down, even using all Auntie G’s winning charm on her text msgs (“Darling, Auntie G wd like to speak w/u re BD, pls call!! xxxooo”—should have replaced kisses and hugs with dollar signs). So my sister emailed me a half-assed list that she somehow conned out of her daughter that morning over cornflakes or pop-tarts or a naked bagel.

We had a hilarious back-and-forth over this list that included our responses to Justin Bieber and his passing resemblance to Taylor Lautner; the “manorexic” jeans I saw on a website my kid now shops on; and the difficulties of finding a magazine appropriate for a 13-year-old girl (Teen Vogue has Justin Bieber, eeuuw; Anna Wintour Vogue talks about “sex and orgasms and what guys want you to do to them, etc.”). And then she mentioned a few more things her daughter wanted: “a new carpet; UGG sneakers (God help me!)” and she said this:

Maybe I’ve over-indulged them. Not like I buy them anything/everything. But I remember getting practically nothing growing up. Mom would take us to get a donut at Daisy Donuts in the mall like once or twice a year, and we thought it was heaven.

And gray memory’s doors opened before me. The days and days of nowhere to go, stranded on half an acre surrounded by woods in deep suburbia; no friends to hang with, no neighbors, no neighborhood. No one ever called our house or rang our doorbell. Growing up in an alcoholic family was like living in a monastery, complete with matins, vespers and compline, the daily round of work, and the ascetic menu to boot—except for Daddy’s beer.

The trip to get the donut at the mall was like the nuns coming out of cloisters once a year.

To have my sister confirm it brought it back into focus. Because it had been so lonely, so everlastingly fucking boring (filled with my mother’s boring work: painting the house, hanging her wallpaper, tiling her floor, refinishing her cabinets, all in an effort to Save $$$), it was almost as if I MUST have made it up, though of course I knew I hadn’t. I have journals and vivid memory.

BTW, the reason my son had told me he hated me?—I said he had to shut off the computer. And he didn’t want to be “bored.”

It’s commonly said that, in recovery, dealing with boredom is one of the most important skills one can learn to prevent relapse. No wonder I’m, like, a little sensitive to boredom and loneliness. Especially loneliness. I didn’t mind the work so much, but I minded having nobody my age to talk to and nowhere to go. I also did mind always being completely broke and not being allowed to get a job. A bit of self-compassion here for G?

I told my sister:

I cannot tell you how comforting it is to read you say this, because this is what I remember. I simply got used to asking for nothing. I took an online “narcissistic personality inventory” just for kicks the other day, and I scored off the low end of the chart (except for vanity—I AM a vain beeyotch, I know this), and it told me that I expect almost nothing out of my life. I have basically coasted and waited for the next thing to happen.

My sister does not know (yet) that I’m recovering from addiction.

Then she wrote back, asking herself why it was impossible for her to buy herself an iPhone?


This really did it for me. I’ve wanted an iPhone for months and months… probably a couple years, probably ever since they first came out.

I have not yet been able to bring myself to buy an iPhone. It would do many things that would be “convenient”—synchronize my calendar with my address book with my phone; allow me to record phone calls, totally BONUS as a nonfiction writer; produce texts in less time than it would take me to, say, install new brakes on my car, or weed my vast, overgrown, urban garden. I’m not even talking about its camera or video tchotchkes.

I swear to God I have no investment in Looking Swell on this one. The question is, DO I NEEEED IT?

I can hear my mother: “NO!!!” and then, in her calm, erudite historian-cum-philosopher voice (waving her cigarette in the air), “There is a big difference between what one NEEDS and what one WANTS, and what I ascertain is, you WANT this. When you get right down to it, Guinevere”—God, how many times did she used to say this?—“When you get right down to it, Guinevere, one NEEDS very little in life. (blowing smoke in my face)

Here’s where I lost my temper at my mother, which I haven’t done in a long time, partly because she’s been dead for 11 years; also mostly because she didn’t take at all kindly (as you can prolly guess) to people losing their tempers with her, and I sometimes suspect this remains true even in death.

NOT TRUE, MOM! I argued querulously. One NEEEDS those little Tech Deck skateboards I buy for your grandson so one can disassemble them and leave the parts scattered all over the house! One NEEEDS new carpet and Ugg sneakers!! One needs to make mistakes; one needs to spend money and lose it; one needs friends; one needs good food; one at the very least needs a high-functioning phone if one is going to shuttle three kids to three different places at simultaneous times the way your younger daughter does, or hope to do a good job the way I’m doing, and also be happy. O and by the way, one needs to be happy! One needs to want. Get real, Mom!

Silence. I can hear her jaw clenching.

Into the crevasse of my hesitation I fall, pushed by the shortcoming of my self-doubt: the new iPhone has defects; the old iPhones are outdated; should I wait for the new version of the new iPhone? should I buy an old iPhone on eBay and save $$$ (the everlasting Save $$$ Debate)? Should I wait until Apple’s contract expires with the Evil AT&T? … In my hesitation I am lost, and instead of getting a smart-phone I stick with my crappy old stupid-phone that SUCKS and that I HATE, that I want daily to DESTROY, and that instead I pay $50+/month to use.

Insanity still controls G’s life! In my compulsion to Save $$, I Waste $$!!


Also: I don’t even ASK how much an iPhone might cost because I have this IDEA that I’M NOT WORTH AN IPHONE. This is not a fact, it is an IDEA, it is what the Buddhists would call a Concept, and it is classic to kids raised in alcoholic families: You Are Not Worth It.

It is unmanageable through my will alone.

I still have my crappy flip-phone. But by and by, through relying on a will greater than my own, I’m giving up these insane, unmanageable behaviors and starting to treat myself like a human being—a person that I like and respect.

I start taking care of myself, instead of always taking care of other people first, even people who I, sadly, buried a long time ago.

My therapist—who wrote a dissertation on self-forgiveness—says,

Let your mother carry her own bags.

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