Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: anonymity

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?

A Talk With Melody Beattie

Melody Beattie (credit: Hay House).

When I call her, Melody Beattie (pronounced bee-tee) is in a house near Two-Bunch Palms, near Desert Hot Springs, near Palm Springs, in the southern California desert. She is working on another writing project, a new and different kind of work than the self-help books she’s written for the past 25 years. And ever since the success of her 1986 book Codependent No More, which helped cement “self-help” as a Library of Congress category, Beattie has always come to this wasteland (no matter how beautiful it may be: the Latin origin of the word “desert” is a place “left to waste”) to start writing.

Come to think of it, the book also secured the LC category of “codependence.”

“I hate the word codependence,” she says. “It’s nothing you can wrap your hands around.”

Too late now.

Beattie’s voice has rough edges. It’s like a boat with lots of barnacles. Beattie has been through rough weather in her life—has “been though some stuff,” as they say in meeting rooms and in the rooms of therapy. She has “dealt with some issues.” Now 63 and the author of 17 books that spring from the survival skills she has honed—not all of them productive, she says—Melody Beattie recounts that she got sober at 24, in 1973, and that, by then, she had been drinking half her life. As soon as she became a teenager she was sexually approached or abused by a number of men, including neighbors, corner-boys, guys at her church, and even the husband of the woman for whom she babysat. Not long after she started drinking, she also began using drugs, eventually shooting heroin and working as a stripper to keep the supply going.

Codependent No More WorkbookOne of the more interesting things she says in her most recent book, the Codependent No More Workbook, is that drinking and drugging saved her life: if it hadn’t been for the emotional numbness that had resulted, she might have killed herself. Though I wasn’t kidnapped or raped as a child, this analysis—that what might have killed us actually, for a time, saved us—struck a certain authentic chord in me and I wanted to ask her about this and other views she takes that draw attention and sometimes criticism.

I ask her: Don’t people have problems with this idea—that drugs saved us?

She replies easily, “You know what? I don’t care what people think.”

Most of her books get very high reviews from readers, but there are inevitably a few who take issue with her ideas. For example, from an unhappy Amazon reader review of her 2010 book, Make Miracles in Forty Days:

This is the biggest bunch of hooey I have ever read. One is supposed to express “gratitude” for everything that makes their lives miserable and that will bring a miracle from God?! If I were God, I would think, if this person is so grateful for the hardships in their life, I might as well give them more misery since they are so “grateful.”

Right. The return of The God Thing.

Below is a blog-sized collection of excerpts from our conversation… starting with a question about The God Thing.

Guinevere: You write, “No greater feeling exists for me than to see proof that God knows my name, knows where I live, and cares about my life.” If that were so, how could God have let such difficult things happen to you, including the loss of your son 20 years ago, at 13 years old?

Melody Beattie: I was gonna go use that week. I just wanted 10 minutes of not feeling that. And as it happened, just then I got a phone call from a friend who had relapsed. He said, “I’ll come get you.” And when he came, I told him I wanted new syringes; so we went to a pharmacy that sold them. And then I told him: I can’t use cocaine because it’s too unpredictable. And the heroin is cut with shit. Dilaudid has that horrible orange dye in it.

And in talking this way, the other part of me kicked in. The healthy part. My friend was getting a bit upset with me: I was not behaving in the way that addicts generally think and behave. But I realized: what I really wanted was the freedom to choose.

G: But I mean, didn’t you get pissed at God when your son died?

MB: I don’t even know that I’ve totally forgiven God. It’s like I’ve tabled that issue. It’s like I’ve said, “There are some thing we’re gonna talk about later, God.”

G: You say prayer and meditation are how we get our power. But it seems to be the last thing most people think of in terms of solving a problem.

MB: I prayed a lot after Shane died. People don’t realize that the 12 steps is a bag of tools. Most people work them once while they’re cleaning up, but the 12 steps work incredibly well on everyday problems. You can work them again and again. And as tools go, they’re very responsive. If we take even half a step toward them, they move across the universe for us.

G: You write, “The biggest shortcoming of the codependency recovery movement is that codependents frequently don’t take working the steps as seriously as alcoholics and addicts. They think it’s an option, because they haven’t been the ones using drugs or drinking.” —This is a pretty big indictment.

MB: I like to ask codependents if they’ve worked the steps. Seriously—have you ever done this? Gone up to a codependent and asked them if they’ve actually worked the steps? Lots of codependents go to meetings [and think this is enough to recover]. If you read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, it doesn’t say you have to go to meetings. But it does say you have to work the steps. I’m not putting down going to meetings—but you won’t get better if you don’t do the steps.

G: It’s pretty clear that you go or have gone to AA meetings. Is it OK that people know you go to AA? What about anonymity?

MB: In my books I handle that a lot of times by doing it as quoting other people’s experience with particular programs. But yeah, part of me feels guilty. Another part feels like this: sometimes rules are made to be broken. …

You know, recovery has been institutionalized.  We’ve taken the experimentalism and spontaneity out of it.

G: You write in your workbook, “The AA program taught me that God is real. Codependency recovery taught me that I’m real and that I deserve to be loved. I can fully express the person I am.” I’m interested in what you’ve learned about yourself from recovering from addictive relationships that maybe recovering from alcoholism and drug-addiction didn’t teach you.

MB: When I wrote Codependent No More they didn’t have self-help shelves in the bookstore. … My codependency took me to my knees. I thought to myself, “Here I’ve been given this fantastic gift of sobriety and I want to kill myself.

I was dirt-poor the first 15 years of sobriety. I was so filled with guilt—another survival mechanism. The majority of codependent behaviors actually resemble grief. I once had the opportunity to talk with Elisabeth Kubler Ross [author of On Death and Dying], who came up with the five stages of grief. I remember thinking, as I spoke with her, that if you add obsession and guilt to the five stages of grief, you have codependence.

You know, self-esteem can save us. A few years back I was asked to speak at my old high school, Minnehaha Academy. I was a full-blown alcoholic by the the time I went to that school. I had thought something was fundamentally wrong with me. … I don’t do many speaking engagements anymore. When I arrived, I saw that a number of teachers had come back to hear me talk. One was 90 years old! I looked at these people and realized that I hadn’t felt that kind of love and care back then. And this was a very good private school—they specialized in the creative arts. …

The principal had found a photograph of me. You have to realize, there were no photographs of me from childhood, from the time I was abducted off the street when I was 4. But this guy had managed to find one. And he put this picture of me up on the screen behind where I was speaking. It was enormous. I looked at that picture and the memories of what I’d gone through came over me. Seeing that picture of myself started a process of healing. Life will provide us the therapy we need.

Sober Life: Eminem’s Sober Interview with Rolling Stone

Standing in Whole Foods’ checkout line last night, and there was Eminem on the cover of Rolling Stone, nose peeking out from his (shady) hoodie.

Eminem Rolling Stone 2010

I shelled out. Eminem is currently the music industry’s bestselling and most visible recovering addict. From the glimpses I got waiting to buy my pork chops, I could see that his recovery from addiction was the first subject discussed and the subject most referred to throughout the interview. That, and his kids, and his work.

So I thought I’d share a few tidbits with you guys, in case you’re interested. Because I know you’re interested. Lots of you land here looking for “Eminem sobriety” or “does Eminem go to meetings.”

(For those who may not be familiar with Eminem: birth-name Marshall Mathers, 38; he is a hip-hop artist who grew up and still lives in Detroit; in December 2007 he was hospitalized for an overdose of methadone and the sleep-aid Ambien which nearly killed him. One relapse after that, and he committed to recovery. Also the title of his most recent album, Recovery is expected to be the bestselling album of 2010.)

Ambien is addictive. On his Ambien use:

Toward the end, I don’t think the shit ever put me to sleep for more than two hours. It’s very similar to what I’ve read about Michael [Jackson]. I don’t know exactly what he was doing, but I read that he kept getting up in the middle of the night, asking for more. That’s what I was doing—two, three times a night, I would get up and take more.

On the shooting death of his good friend, Detroit rapper Proof, and how addiction made him self-absorbed in his grief:

I remember days I spent just taking fucking pills and crying. One day, I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t even want to get up to use the bathroom. I wasn’t the only person grieving—he left a wife and kids. But I was very much in my own grief. I was so high at his funeral. It disgusts me to say it, but I felt like it was about me. I hate myself for even thinking that. It was selfish.

On getting high on methadone—a drug that most physicians and even many addiction specialists don’t believe can make you wasted:

I remember I got the methadone from somebody I’d gone to looking for Vicodin. This person said, “These are just like Vicodin, and they’re easier on your liver.” … I remember taking one in the car on the way home, and thinking, “Oh, this is great.” Just that rush.

Eminem’s just like a lot of us who committed to recovery to be here for others:

I knew I had to change my life. But addiction is a fucking tricky thing. I think I relapsed within … three weeks? And within a month it had ramped right back to where it was before. That’s what really freaked me out. That’s when I knew: either get help, or I am going to die. As a father, I want to be here for things. I don’t want to miss anything else.

Eminem apparently does not go to meetings. He wanted to attend meetings but people inevitably recognized him and wanted things from him, which made it difficult for him to be open in the group. On anonymity:

I tried some meetings—a couple of churches and things. It tended not to do me much good. People tried to be cool, but I got asked for autographs a couple of times. It made me shut down. I called a rehab counselor who’d helped me the first time. Now I see him once a week.

It’s well known that Elton John acts as his sponsor:

I speak to Elton [John]. He’s like my sponsor. He usually calls me once a week to check on me, just to make sure I’m on the up-and-up. He was actually one of the first people I called when I wanted to get clean. He was hipping me to things, like, “You’re going to see nature that you never noticed before.” Shit you’d normally think was corny but that you haven’t seen in so long that you just go, “Wow! Look at that fucking rainbow!” Or even little things—trees, the color of leaves. I fucking love leaves now, man. I feel like I’ve been neglecting leaves for a long time.

And this is where I put the magazine down to take a breath, because I enjoyed this guy’s unpretentious poetry so much and I was starting to love his process. There’s no one right way to get sober. But there are some essential ingredients: honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness to do whatever is needed. Especially willingness.

It seems Elton John, sober for 20 years, regularly reaches out to other celebrities with drug problems. Eminem has made it clear that he rang up Elton John for help because he knew Sir Elton would be able to understand the mental distortions that extreme fame exerts on a person, and he wasn’t able to get that in an ordinary meeting. Which is too bad—because when you get right down to it, in Orwell’s words, none of us addicts is “more equal” than any other. Maybe some people might think this choice in itself is grandiose and ego-driven. But I respect it: I see him recognizing the real limitations that he’s presented with, and then seeking help where he can, so that he can save his life and continue to do what he needs to do … stay sober, take care of his kids, and do his work. Each of us has to do this—get help in the way that best fits our life.

“There’s a lot more awareness of addiction these days,” my husband said this morning when I told him about this heretofore homophobic hip-hop singer calling on a flamboyantly gay star. “Imagine who might have been saved in the past if there had been more awareness. I mean, who was looking out for Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison? And so many others.

And here he is on some of the cleanup. On working sober, and the time lost on his CV:

I don’t know, man. I feel like I took a lot of time off. Not doing shit for those four or five years, how lazy I got—it’s time to get back to doing what I love. I feel like I’ve got a lot of gas in the tank. I just want to make up for letting people down.

This site is free. If this helped you, the best thing you can do is pass it on via the little social buttons below. And please subscribe.

Also, please visit my new site: Recovering the Body.

Principles above personalities: Anonymity

Anonymity maskMy friend Syd’s recent post on Anonymity has me thinking.

A while ago I posted a column by Roger Ebert about how he got sober… I’ve thought about this column a lot, because it gets a lot of hits, and my opinions on his breaking his own anonymity go back and forth.

Sometimes I agree with Ebert, that he’s working the 12th step and sharing his experience, strength and hope with a view toward helping someone else get sober.

Sometimes I wonder about how it affects him, as an author, to break his own anonymity this way… whether he’s even aware it affects him—ego has a tendency to blind us to its own effects … and whether it affects the fellowship he attends.

This column drew 1,300 comments when it was published. It’s easy to look at a statistic like that (the way I did) and say, “Wow—he’s doing a great service, reaching so many people.” So instead, after reading Syd’s piece, today I did a search on the word “anonymity” among the comments on Ebert’s column, and read a sampling. The ones that mentioned anonymity or talked about Ebert’s violation of the tradition of anonymity amounted to a real argument about the tradition.

I hope you guys will weigh in on this. I really hope people will comment…

Some people thought his column did a service by showing guts and bringing the message to more people.

Good stuff Roger. … As to the personal anonymity question, I don’t see how you “coming out” as an alcoholic in any way could hurt AA. This gives people like me a reminder that great things can be done despite my shortcomings. Thank you.

Others thought he was “pompous and overblown” and only looking for praise for his own struggles.

Roger, Breaking your anonymity breaks AA’s 12th tradition. Reread it. Nowhere in the tradition does it provide exceptions. Even for those with over 30 years. Now that it is broken you cannot unbreak it. AA is a program of attraction not promotion and did not need you to recruit new members. Breaking anonymity is an ego-feeding proposition, in effect you are saying, “Look at me, I’m sober.” Did it occur to you that there may be alcoholics who find your persona pompous and insufferable? Now they will associate AA with you and have another reason to postpone going to a meeting. AA’s green card says that the greatest reward is to do a good deed in secret and have it discovered by accident.

I must say I did not read the column that way the first time… One of the first things that went through my head when I found Ebert’s column was, “Jeez, if Roger Ebert’s a recovering alcoholic, then it can’t be so awful to be an addict—and there might be some hope for me.” Maybe I thought this way only because I “like” Roger Ebert. Which means I might be putting a personality before a principle.

But if I resolutely put the principle before the personality, I can see how it could be read the other way. If there are people who do not “like” Roger Ebert and see him as the “face” of AA, or in any way representing the organization, it could have negative consequences (“another reason to postpone going to a meeting,” as the guy above says).

(Does that mean I should take it down off my site?)

Success

One thing I’ve been thinking about is the issue of “success” in the comments.

Your story is among the best I’ve read about Alcoholics Anonymous and its impact on our lives. I celebrated 38 years of sobriety in February. And like you, I have broken my anonymity. A recently published memoir tells the story of my journey from a curbside on skid row in New Orleans to award-winning reporter and my ten year tenure as Senior Investigative Correspondent for CNN’s Special Assignment Unit. My success in collecting multiples of every major broadcast journalism award, including four Peabody medallions, is intertwined with the principles I learned in the fellowship—foremost being the principle of self-honesty we begin developing from the day we first walk through the doors with “a desire to stop drinking.” I am a hard-nose when it comes to AA Traditions, but there are times when it is necessary to publicly share our stories and success in order to help the still-suffering alcoholic/addict who has not found AA. Thirty-eight years gives me confidence that that the breach will not result in AA police repossessing my chips. Congratulations again on a superb article.

This guy makes a big deal of the program rocketing him out of his disease into a fourth dimension not only of, he says, spiritual awareness and personal integrity but also of professional success. He mentions his “multiple” awards and a memoir and attributes all this experience (helping others? earning money and attention?) to having practiced the principles in all his affairs—the implication being, “YOU CAN HAVE THIS, TOO!” … This is pretty attractive… maybe even seductive. Many of us (including myself) have come to the rooms without jobs, hoping someday to get or make good work for ourselves—work that not only supports ourselves and our families but also enables us to use our gifts to help others and contribute.

Then we have this comment:

Rogert Ebert is pompous, overblown and overrated. Who cares about his struggles. There’s literally thousands of people who have succssfully beat drug and/or alcohol addiction and their stories never make the papers. They just get up everyday and go to work or carry on as best they can. Ebert is seeking admiration and accolades for his problems, only because he is prominent and a celeb…big deal!

This kind of brings it back to the primary purpose: AA is about getting sober and helping others get sober. All the rest is gravy. …

But it also sounds a bit like sour grapes.

Telling one’s story

I think it’s important to tell one’s story. Maybe I feel so strongly about it because it’s second-nature to me. I tell stories. … It’s true that thousands of people get sober every day, and go about their lives—helping others get sober—without putting it in the papers (or on a blog, for that matter). However, there are also many who die, equally or even more obscurely, without getting help. … There’s a misconception out there that the 11th and 12th Traditions dictate that we have to be anonymous in everyday situations. How could this work?—we couldn’t possibly carry a message of hope if we had to remain anonymous in personal situations.

A sponsor once told me that I could never go wrong if I shared my own story in a meeting. … I think I can probably stay within the principles if I share my own story outside a meeting, as long as I:

  • don’t identify myself with one fellowship or another, or
  • don’t reveal my name or face.

Some time ago, for that reason, I changed my picture here to obscure my face.

It’s a problem… I loved Mary Karr’s Lit—she doesn’t mention which fellowship she attends. But I also loved Carolyn Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, and she mentioned she went to AA.

OK, so now please tell me what you think…

Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Twitter