Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: alcoholism (page 2 of 9)

Amy Winehouse: Dying for Approval

Update 7/24/11: Please see the blog entry about Amy Winehouse’s death.


I love writing this blog: one day I get to think about university-geek doctors researching neuroplasticity, and the next day I get to think about train-wreck celebrities who are flushing their enormous talent down the toilet by saying “no, no, no” to rehab.

Amy Winehouse


In other words, Amy Winehouse. Who today cancelled her European tour after showing up drunk and/or wasted on drugs in Belgrade, Serbia a few days ago.

Amy Winehouse is dying for approval.

Catch this video of Winehouse shot Saturday night, in which the audience boos her:

She stumbles around, stops in mid-verse a few times, and drags a band-mate over to help her finish her lines. Aside from the fact that she’s completely wasted, here’s what I noticed about Winehouse in this video (and this may be simple projection on my part):

  • She gives two of her tall dark and handsome band-mates prolonged hugs and repeatedly seeks their attention during the song.
  • She is wearing a corseted skin-tight sequined tiger-print “dress,” which pushes her breasts up to her collarbones.
  • Her posture: despite the fact that she’s taken off her heels, she still can’t stop jutting her tits out in front and her butt out in back. She has learned to “present” her body in a compulsively sexual way.

What’s driving Winehouse is so obviously her need for other people’s approval. … Extremely insecure. I say this because I notice the tendencies in myself, OK?

So, you’re thinking, Yeah, so what. This is what performers do, this is how they’re motivated—by looking for approval.

It’s not what performers used to do. Performers used to be allowed to focus on their musicianship and their skill, and not sacrifice their health and sanity and life for a buck. Musicians used to be straight when they played gigs and they received fees that were sane and reasonable, which kept ticket prices affordable. Musicians wore suits, and dresses that covered their bodies. Think the Beatles. Think the Supremes, or Aretha. I mean even Janis Joplin, who was also dying for approval, wore clothes! … Then came Madonna, and MTV, and music became as much about using spectacle and voyeurism and pretend narratives—Yesterday I was Marilyn Monroe; today I’m a henna-tattooed Indian yogi; tomorrow I think I’ll be a disco cowgirl—to raise ticket prices. It’s no longer much about the actual music. Because as everyone knows, the art itself never makes you any money. It’s the tours and the merchandise and the peripheral press coverage, the celebrity.

So Amy Winehouse, a dyed-in-the-wool alcoholic and addict with fantastic pipes and something of a knack for songwriting, arrives at 20 years old, just a kid, in the mid-2000s. She’s getting drunk and cutting and starving her body. Of course she can’t agree to go to rehab! Fuckin-A. Her voice is being compared to Sarah Vaughn’s and Ella Fitzgerald’s, which may or may not flatter her and make her aware of her extraordinary potential. What’s important is, she is being called “controversial.” Newsweek is saying she is “a perfect storm of sex kitten, raw talent and poor impulse-control.” She gets this. When poor impulse-control is part of what makes you so top-dollar, what makes people APPROVE OF YOU so much, how can you go to rehab? Rehab is all about regaining impulse-control. It’s all about saying “no, no, no” to things that are going to kill you.

Like, for example, drinking, and smoking crack and ciggies till you come down with emphysema.

Like, making more money at all costs.

I have a couple good friends who enjoy Amy Winehouse’s music. I must admit I’d never heard any of her songs before I listened to “Rehab” this morning. I’m trained in voice, and Amy Winehouse has an amazing gift. The tune is catchy and the words are perhaps more ambiguous and lyrical than they might at first seem. It’s unclear to me, at least, whether the singer in “Rehab” means her lines entirely without irony.

The man said, “Why you think you here?”
I said, “I got no idea
I’m gonna lose my baby
So I always keep a bottle near”

What I notice in the 2006 video for “Rehab” is, she is being produced in the same sleazy way that she performed in her Belgrade concert. She frankly looks like a prostitute. A “slut,” as we used to say in high school. Her lips have been pumped up to porn-star proportions. A year or two later, so will go her breasts.

Stacey Earle in performance in Pittsburgh, 18 June 2011.

On Saturday (ironically, the same night Amy Winehouse was stumbling around in Belgrade) I went to a house concert. Stacey Earle, a sister of Steve Earle, and her husband, Mark Stuart, performed a two-hour gig for 40 people. I took a friend of mine who blogs about rock music. He wrote me later:

Their performance was so beautiful and sincere. Her songwriting and his guitar—why aren’t folks like this more ‘successful’ and others like (fill in the blank) fill stadiums? Its not the songs—the songs are BEAST!

I replied, “Others (fill in blank) are more successful IMO because they sell sex and youth.” What they also sell is spectacle. In Amy Winehouse’s case, it’s the spectacle of sickness. Pete Townshend used to destroy his guitars onstage. Amy Winehouse is destroying herself. When you watch her onstage, you get to feel like you’re witnessing the ruination of something beautiful that has become iconic, as though you were present at, I dunno, the ripping in half of the veil in the temple? the self-immolation of the Vietnamese monk?—plus, as a bonus, if you’re lucky and Winehouse isn’t too wasted, you get to hear a bit of beast entertainment thrown in. Same with Charlie Sheen.

Or you can choose to pay to watch Mark Stuart and Stacey Earle, who wears no makeup and doesn’t dye or even style her hair, and who hasn’t bothered to “fix” her crooked teeth (“I think if she fixed them, her entire way of singing would change, and maybe not for the better,” my friend mused), who has a different and equally powerful vocal gift and who is able to play two hours without losing track of her songs or her lines. She’s not dying for approval. She’s not filling up arenas, because why?—she’s healthy and sincere? “Sincerity” doesn’t necessarily make a million bucks. But it makes great music. And when you’re an addict, it might keep you alive.


Sober Life: How to Stay Sober in a Bar (or Anywhere Else)

Over the weekend I went to my 25-year college reunion. I hadn’t remembered how deep in the boonies this place is. It’s in the middle of friggin nowhere. There are now fake gaslights on the sidewalks and the tiny park has been gussied up, but the place is still cut off from the rest of the world. In a way this is part of its charm, but I felt its isolation even more acutely Saturday night when I went “downtown” to meet my old friends, now middle-aged, who I found throwing back pitchers and playing ping-pong at a dive-bar. I’d prepared myself to go to bars, but I hadn’t remembered just how low-bottom this town’s dive-bars were. And I hadn’t remembered how much beer these guys could put back.

Correction: how much G Herself used to put back. A lot.



Quarters drinking game

How to play Quarters: bounce the quarter... if you miss, you drink. If you win, everyone else drinks.


I drank, I remembered, all the time. Very often, at any rate. WTF else was there for an 18- or 19-year-old to do in the middle of nowhere? We had keg parties in houses, in parks, anywhere we could. We went to the dive-bars and drank cheap happy-hour beer and anything else we could get served. I had a friend from the school newspaper who tended bar in senior year; he used to mix us this blue drink that we sloshed from cleaning-fluid bottles with spouts. We called it the Blue Whale—otherwise known as Windex. We drank it in shots. We played Quarters. We invented drinking games that always involved the loser chugging the beer or bolting the shot. We drank until closing time. We drank away our boredom and our daytime fear about what we’d do once we graduated.

I realized that drinking worked for me. In a way, for a while, it saved my life. If I hadn’t drunk—considering what was happening at home—I might have jumped out a window.

So. I knew ahead of last weekend that I’d be going to bars. I knew everybody else would be drinking. (They weren’t playing Quarters, they weren’t chugging beers, but everybody but me was drinking.) And I was right about all of this, and it was cool with me that they were drinking and I was not.

How did I stay sober?

I asked a young woman, a newcomer I’ve been working with, who also went away last weekend, how she stayed sober. She went to a seaside resort where she knew people would be drinking. She came back and called me yesterday, thrilled to tell me that she’d stayed sober. I could hear the clarity in her voice. She said I could share here how she stayed sober (which turned out to be the same way I stayed sober).

“I set an intention before I left,” she said.

Oh man, this is good, I love this: an intention. You don’t have to say, I got on my knees, I prayed my ass off—you can just Set An Intention.

“I set an intention before I left that I would be present for this person,” she said. She was visiting a friend who’s having some trouble. “And I asked myself what my higher power’s will for me was.”

Aha. Step 3.

But: how did she know what her higher power’s will for her was?

“I’ve done the opposite of my higher power’s will so often that I can tell,” she said, laughing. “I knew that if I drank, I would not be able to be present for this person. Or for myself.”

Exactly. I wanted to be present for these people.

Some of these people (almost all of these people) I hadn’t seen in 25 years. But from the time we started hanging out when we were 17 and 18, we were almost like family. We WERE family—we were the first family-of-choice any of us ever had. We chose to be with each other while we were working on the massive job of earning higher educations and beginning to separate from our parents. I listened to the jokes we told and heard their laughter (so strange, and so familiar), and I felt the spaces these people have carved in me, like water across the earth, and realized those spaces will always be there, forever.

Those spaces prepared the ground for others who came after them.

But some of these people, after four years, I’d left hanging. I’d left school thinking most of them were sick of me and didn’t like me after all. Some of them, I’d hurt. The last time I saw my college boyfriend, for example, was 25 years ago, and I’d picked a fight with him and left him standing in the street and just Never Saw Him Again. Which is the way I’ve left a number of people. … This guy is one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever known. I wrote him a letter years ago to make things right, and we’re cool—and I knew we were cool—but to see him and everyone else face-to-face, to be clearheaded and responsive with these people… it was a shift from the out-of-body Wasted And Fearful Experience of decades ago to an in-body experience of the present moment. It was, I guess, like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, with all the pieces fitting. You can see the seams and some drips of glue, but it’s OK: it rolls. It’s whole.

I sat in the bars and watched them drink good beers—Dos Equis and Corona with fresh lime wedges forced down the throats of the bottles, the foam rising up to meet the fruit (remember that?), beers I used to drink, and my mouth didn’t even water because I was present and I knew what I was there for.

It’s like what my friend C said to me last summer, before I visited my husband’s family in the UK (where they sell codeine over the counter):

If you use, you will abandon yourself, and you’ll be unable just to be present for them, which is a great service in and of itself.

C is the shit, man. So are many, many other people I’ve known who have shared how they stay sober in places where people are drinking. And it’s great to be passing it on and seeing it work for others.

Blackouts: The Alcoholic Litmus Test


I heard a story the other day from a guy who said I could share it here. This guy was talking about how, before he quit drinking and drugging 20 years ago, he wasn’t sure whether his blackouts really qualified him as an alcoholic. An old-timer pulled him aside and told him the story of another guy who wasn’t sure whether he was in fact truly blacking out. The idea is—how can you remember what you don’t remember, right? And the rationalization goes, If I can’t remember what I don’t remember, maybe there’s in fact nothing to remember, maybe I’m not exactly blacking out, maybe I just had a little bit too much and need to “be careful.”

The guy in the story stops at the bar and gets drunk. He wakes up the next morning and realizes he’s not sure exactly how he got home the night before. He checks to see if he’s OK. He gets ready for work and can’t find his car keys. He asks his wife to go down to the garage and check that they’re there. And she goes down, and she screams.

“What’s the matter?” he calls.

She comes upstairs and tells him that, yes, the keys are there. And also: there is a dead child lying on the front of the car.

The guy who told me this story said that the day after hearing it, he got his ass to rehab.

Was it a true story? Who knows. It could have been true, right? I don’t know about you, but I certainly drove while f*@ked up.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how I used to drink heavily. I’m getting ready for my 25th college reunion. College was the moment in my life where I started drinking. I could say: it was where I started doing what I saw people at home doing every day—using chemicals to make themselves feel better. I was able to do it at college because there was nobody around to tell me not to do it. That’s the way I ran my life: I did what I could get away with, I mean, who didn’t live that way?

(Most people.)

At my college, at that time, booze was rampant. You weren’t supposed to have alcohol on campus, but everyone did, and if you were a cute little 20-year-old undergraduate girl, the security guys let you off the hook fairly easily. Off-campus, the kegs rolled. Actually, grain-alcohol punch was the big thing. We made it with fruit slices (reputed to soak up all the alcohol). Or, rather, I never made it myself. I always drank other people’s grain-punch for free.

I had my first drink at 17 at one of those parties. My parents dropped me off on Saturday morning, and by that night I was standing in some strange house, and some upperclass boy was making me a gin-and-tonic, which if I remember correctly—he filled a tall iced-tea glass with gin and splashed a little tonic in. I drank about an inch of it and was pretty gone. Wasted, hammered, trashed.

I remember thinking, Is this the way Daddy feels EVERY DAY? (Of course it was not the way Dad felt every day, Dad drank the five or six or seven or ten beers he drank every day just to keep himself feeling normal, but it was a long time before I realized that in any experiential manner—and it wasn’t with alcohol that I realized it.)

The upperclass boy groped me and sucked my face and it was all very Exotic and Independent, and though I hated the taste of all the drinks I ever had in school, even wine—even wine spritzers (a crappy ’80s invention)—I drank them anyway not because I enjoyed them but:

  • because above all I needed to be like all the other girls, and
  • because I needed to get away from the war in my head.

In fact, as it turned out, I was not like all the other girls. Most of the other girls knew when to stop drinking.

In fact, trying to drink away the war in my head was like trying to douse a fire with—well, Cointreau? Ouzo? something very fume-y and volatile, anyhow.

The year after I graduated from that school I went to my old roommate’s wedding. I was pissed at my date, who had intentionally picked out a truly revolting suit to wear to this wedding—at which some of my old friends would be present, including some young men who had expressed an interest in me; this was the main thing that mattered to me: how people saw me, whether they approved of me. And because the guy I was dating also drank way too much way too often, he knew this about me and bought the suit to take me down a peg or two. Or else, he just didn’t give a shit. Pick one. … And he made fun of these people even though he didn’t know them—like my father he’d get drunk, and like my mother he’d make fun of my friends, and it was this kind person I chose for my first post-college Relationship.

I had made a beautiful linen coat-dress to wear, with tailored seams and asymmetrical buttons and an invisible hand-sewn hem. Moreover I had starved myself to be able to look super-brilliant in this dress—to Make An Impression—and meanwhile this guy with two degrees and a thriving Private Practice bought this vile bullshit suit from a dollar store or somewhere, and there was no way I could deal with the fact that I had to appear with this asshole in church and then at the reception at the exclusive restaurant at the top of the mountain overlooking the city.

It occurs to me now, of course, that I had choices, one of which was either To Be Or Not To Be with this man, another of which was to tell him that after all he couldn’t come with me if he refused to make himself presentable. But the only choice I thought I had at the time was to show up with him, then drink so much that I didn’t feel the war taking place in my head.

And so I drank, and I drank some more, and I became very drunk indeed, in my accustomed manner: on my friend’s open bar at her wedding reception. I became so drunk that I don’t remember crashing my car while driving down the mountain. I woke up in the emergency room, across the river, while one doctor sewed up the half-moon gash on my head and another doctor picked glass out of my knees and arms. My date was in the bed next to me.

“Why did he let you get in the car?” my mother moaned the next day. (My mother was very good at taking other people’s inventory.)

At that time, if you were a cute 20-something professional-looking girl who crashed her car with a sky-high blood-alcohol level, the cops (it was cops now, not just security guards but COPS; it wasn’t just college policy but The Law) didn’t arrest you. They took one look at your face and let you off.

The police report said the other car had crossed the line. Still, I was sued by both people in the other car, and eventually (two years after I dumped him, just before the statute of limitations ran out) by my old boyfriend, and because my blood alcohol level was in fact sky-high, my insurance paid out a great deal of money and my policy was cancelled.

I stopped drinking for a while after that. Then I went to graduate school and began drinking again, although with some trepidation. Pretty soon after that I sought treatment for my intractable migraines (which an MRI proved were not a result of my head injury), and the painkiller dance started.

I never blacked out again. For a long time, even after I detoxed and started going to meetings, I viewed this episode as a youthful misadventure, something that “happens” when you’re young but that you grow out of—sort of like a kid who climbs trees but keeps falling out of them. Denial runs very strong and deep in my family. … Recently I was discussing this car-crash with my sister, five years younger than I. I forget exactly what I said because her reaction was so extreme, but I mentioned in passing the fact that I was drunk at the time of the crash.

“You were DRUNK??!” she screeched, incredulous. This is what, 24 years later? It took me about two seconds to realize that my parents had hidden the truth from her because they were ashamed of me. A lie of omission. I expected to feel overwhelming disgrace, but what I felt was relief. I love my sister deeply, and love can only stand on a foundation of truth.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they hid the most important and embarrassing detail from you,” I said.

It wasn’t long after revealing this truth to my sister that I realized fully that, the evening of that wedding, I had blacked out. I had driven in a BLACKOUT. I cannot remember what happened in that space of time.

“Blackout” is also called, in technical terms, “alcohol-related amnesia.”

It wasn’t just the head injury, the concussion, that carved out that black hole. It was the alcohol. It was the addiction.

Rob Lowe on Sobriety and Charlie Sheen

This is a few days late, but last Thursday Oprah had Rob Lowe on the show to talk about his new autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends… which apparently includes interesting reflections about his addiction and recovery, his continuing sobriety, and how all that relates to his life as a big Hollywood star.

Rob Lowe and Charlie Sheen

Meanwhile Oprah asks him to open up about his longtime friendship with Charlie Sheen, whom Lowe has known since he was 13, and asks him to comment on wtf is going on in Sheen’s head (click link for video):

Rob Lowe: I LOVE him. And he and I agree to disagree on sobriety. I’m like, Dude, we have a chair for you, we’re ready for you over here in the anonymous group that we all go to and that saved my life. He doesn’t want anything to do with it.

Oprah: Is this just the public’s perception that it is out of control, but maybe this is control for him?

RL: He’s always been an iconoclast, and a true character, full of charisma, and WILD. And this is—he’s letting it all loose. He’s like, You know what? I’m really gonna go full throttle with what I’ve been keeping inside my whole life.

O: So when you saw him on all the newscasts and doing all the interviews and stuff, you didn’t think, “Reel it in”—did you just think it was Charlie being Charlie?

RL: Honestly?—it really is Charlie being Charlie. In, obviously, a more advanced, hopped-up version.

This struck me as authentic. He seems to know what’s going on with all this “winning” bullshit.

A sponsor told me that the best amends are changed behavior. … Lowe comes off as surprisingly normal. Everybody’s also talking about how his book mentions his sex-tape scandal, and then there’s the bit where he tells Oprah that the leaked tape helped accelerate his drinking so that he could get help sooner rather than later. The way he handles it (with obvious understanding that what he did was completely fucking stupid, but without going to great lengths either to beat himself up about it or pass it off as somebody else’s mistake) reminds me that sobriety—the kind I want, anyhow—is about accepting that we’ve all fucked up in major-league ways, but that our fuck-ups don’t create our identities. Just as our “successes” don’t create our identities.

There is no “winning.”

Motherhood and My Addiction: By Guest Poster Tara

Guest poster Tara, who blogs about sobriety at The Act of Returning to Normal, writes today about how her alcoholism and her motherhood were intertwined—she drank to soothe her fears that she wasn’t a “good-enough mother”… and, later, she got sober in part out of her desire to give her kids a sober mom. I’m grateful to Tara for this post—I so closely identify with her feelings about motherhood: intimidation; inferiority; setting up the goal of perfection, and never being able to meet it.

Tara, I’m so glad you’re sober today. 🙂 Happy Mother’s Day.

Readers interested in guest-posting can email me at guinevere (at) guineveregetssober (dot) com.


Motherhood and My Addiction

by Tara

Drinking motherDuring the last few months of my drinking in the summer of 2010, I was in a serious funk. Believing that my problem was a depression that had nothing to do with the copious amounts of alcohol I consumed, I considered going to my doctor to ask for anti-depressants. The part of me that was concerned about my drinking was also convinced that if I wasn’t suffering from depression, I would definitely have to cut back. I couldn’t contemplate quitting altogether, largely because it seemed impossible, like running a marathon. So I pondered anti-depressants, but procrastinated about making a plan to take them. Part of me was afraid I would never be able to drink normally, even if I did feel better.

It was summer and I was working from home. My kids were at summer day camp. I drank vodka at lunch every day. Cautious about consuming too much, I measured the portions carefully, stopping after lunch so that I wouldn’t be too drunk to drive to camp to pick them up. Each morning I promised myself that I wouldn’t drink until after they got home. By lunch each day I broke my promise. Later, I would thank God that I had this one small responsibility. I think it was the only thing that prevented a complete downward spiral into absolute drunkenness. I believe if not for that one ten-minute drive each day that I would have started drinking after breakfast.

The weekends were a different story. It was during this summer, on the weekends, that I began drinking before lunch while my family was out grocery shopping and I was home alone cleaning up the house. Looking back, I’m not sure why drinking in the mornings seemed necessary, but I wanted solace from an anxiety I couldn’t shake. I wanted to recapture the wake-and-bake feelings I had in my early twenties—that feeling that all was well with the world. Back then, I lived in San Francisco and smoked pot all the time; then, it seemed okay to chase peak experiences because it aligned with my desire to be more laid back, more “Californian.” I was trying to change myself the only way I knew how, from the outside in, and saw smoking pot as a style choice, on a par with wearing bell-bottomed pants and listening to folk music. I stopped smoking pot in 2001 when I was pregnant with my first child. At the same time, I put away my bell-bottoms. In my mind, getting high was tied to youthful exploration and at odds with my new sense of responsibility to my daughter. It was easy to let it go.

Ten years later it seemed I still wanted the hard edges of life to melt away so that I could be left with a good feeling. I wanted to be there for my kids but I felt like I wasn’t good enough as I was. In order to be a good mother, I believed I had to reshape myself into someone who loved them enough to help them, to listen to their stories, and to automatically have all of the right answers. I wanted to give them a sense of self-confidence and well-being my parents hadn’t given me. When I was drunk—just enough—I thought the “bad mother” parts of me moved into the shadows. I thought that I had to feel good to be a good mother. I thought that to feel bad meant I was bad.

There were many tangible moments that underlined my sense of failure at motherhood: “forgetting” to sign up for sports because practice was scheduled for times I typically drank, and hurrying along the bedtime routine because I needed to get back to my glass. I’m also sure there were embarrassing moments I don’t remember: slurred words,  stumbling, and forgetfulness. I loved my kids more than anything else, but I couldn’t fully accept that my drinking prevented me from connecting deeply with them.

Then two things happened that finally led me to seek sobriety. First, in a fit of pain over my failures in parenting, I tried to hurt myself. I don’t say kill, because I don’t think that was my intention at the time, although clearly it could have been a consequence. Second, my mother-in-law lost her temper because she saw everyone in the house tiptoeing around, pretending we were fine. She now admits that it drove her crazy to be with us, because although she couldn’t put her finger on why, she knew things were not good. Her anger wasn’t specifically directed at my drinking, even though she definitely thought I drank too much and saw through the lies I told her about cutting back. She knew that my life was unmanageable even though she didn’t know the truth about when or how much I drank.

After going through these two things, I was finally able to accept that things were not “fine.” I understood I had lost myself completely and I would never get out of the mess I was in—unless I first stopped drinking. This comprehension humbled me and for the first time in over ten years I asked to be released from my addiction. I prayed every day and counted the minutes. It sounds simplistic, even now, but for the first time in years I was able to put more than one or two days of sobriety together. This simple prayer worked for a few weeks, until I realized I needed help if I were going to put any amount of time together. I found AA and it helps me to stay sober.

After months of drunken contemplation about whether my family would be better off without me, when I got sober I understood the pain my kids would feel if I just disappeared. My memories of the night I tried to hurt myself, and the scars on the inside of my wrist, keep me focused on the fact that no matter how shitty things may seem now, they were truly shitty when I was drinking.

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