Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: asking for help

Recovery Coaches Need Accountability.

holding hands

Years ago when writing a story for one publication or another about addiction, I had the pleasure of interviewing William White, a researcher and clinician whose experiences with healing addiction go back to 1969. Since then, I’ve followed his blog, which invariably offers cogent and thorough analyses of questions and problems in addiction treatment and the fostering of access to healing. And since he has followed these questions for nearly 50 years, his perspective is unmatched.

Today he published a blog on the quality and need for supervision of recovery coaches.

He investigates a couple questions I’ve been asking myself for a long time, about these two support functions: the question of “ownership” of the person seeking help, and the question of accountability.

Ownership

In one of the many papers he’s previously written on the differences between therapists and coaches, this caught my attention:

Where the sponsor and counselor are prone to take “ownership” of an individual (e.g., “my sponsee” “my client”), the recovery coach (RC) encourages those they work with to fully engage with other sources of recovery support. The “prize” to which the RC role is affixed is not the adoration and eternal gratitude of those they have coached, but the recovery of these individuals within a broad network of recovery support relationships.

As a therapist-in-training, I’m interested in the differences between therapy and recovery coaching. I have heard many recovery coaches use the term “my client” when referring to someone they help. And I have seen some recovery coaches post messages from people they help that express those people’s adoration and eternal gratitude.

Mind you, I’ve also seen many recovery coaches—perhaps more than those mentioned above—express abundant gratitude for the opportunity to make their work helping other people.

But frankly, last year a recovery coach who also holds a clinical license boldly discouraged me from seeking a graduate degree in clinical work—a goal I had carefully researched and assessed for a long time.

This person’s reason?

You can make so much more money doing recovery coaching! You can work with wealthier people. You can work over Skype, so you don’t even have to have an office. And you don’t have to fool with insurance companies. Don’t bother getting a master’s in social work!

Wow.

Accountability

This leads to my second question: who is overseeing all these independent recovery coaches?

I have learned in my short time as a therapist-in-training that supervision is absolutely critical for helping professionals—not just at the beginning of a career, but for the duration. Therapists who work inside agencies are overseen by supervisors. Independent therapists pay other more experienced therapists for supervisory consultations—at least twice monthly, according to the informal accounts I’ve been collecting.

And most important, therapists must be licensed. You can’t just put a meme on your IG or blog that says, “Skype me!”

When White talks about recovery coaches, he refers strictly to those who work within agencies, alongside therapists. These recovery coaches are accountable to their agency’s policies and supervisors. And those supervisors, he urges, must make sure that recovery coaches are not acting as sponsors. Those roles are very different, too.

I’d like to hear from independent recovery coaches. Do you take ownership of the people you try to help? What are the core competencies of a recovery coach? To whom do you hold yourself accountable to meet or exceed these competencies?

The Ones Who Save Our Lives.

At the meeting Sunday night, my friend H. stood up and announced that his longtime sponsor had died suddenly the previous day of a heart attack. He mentioned a name, which happened to be the name of a different guy, someone I’d known in graduate school. For a moment I thought maybe we were thinking of the same person, but the way he spoke about his sponsor was so contrary to my experience of the guy I knew 25 years ago that it was clear he was talking about someone else.

“When Frank moved away a few years ago,” H. said, “he chose my new sponsor for me, and I took his suggestion, because he knew me very well and because he helped me get sober.” His right hand covered his heart, then he blinked and swallowed hard. “He saved my life,” he said.

I questioned myself again. Was it the same guy? The Frank I’d known had been shy, retiring, unassertive, fearful of criticism. Different Frank, I thought.

I listened as many of the men in the room murmured their recognition and agreement about this guy who had saved H.’s life. If he had saved one life, certainly he had saved others. Maybe they were thinking of the guys who had saved their own lives.

The next day I found out, of course, that H’s Frank and the Frank I knew were the same guy. It has had me questioning my perceptions, my judgments of others and my own limitations.

//

I used to go to this Sunday-night meeting regularly when I was detoxing in 2008. At that time there were a couple guys I knew who also came every Sunday, an artist who practices yoga, and a teacher, both serious bikers. The artist would come in dressed in full-body zip-up bike armor; the teacher would arrive in leather jacket and black shit-kickers. Tough guys, I thought.

This summer I attended a memorial service at the university where I’m teaching right now. It’s the school where I earned my graduate degree, the school where my brother and sister earned their undergraduate degrees, and the school where my father earned his bachelor’s in engineering—the first person in our entire extended family ever to go to college. The memorial service was in honor of a guy named Buddy, who for more than 20 years taught fiction here. He also taught a journal writing course that, 25 years ago, Frank and I took together.

It occurs to me now: since H. has 25 years, I met Frank just as H. was getting sober. So even as we sat in Buddy’s writing class, unbeknownst to the other people in that room—or maybe just unbeknownst to me, who walked this earth so unconscious for so long—Frank was busy saving H.’s life.

This was before cell phones and texts and emails. Frank and H. would have communicated largely by phone, and of course by meeting face-to-face. “In the flesh,” as it were.

I’d had no clue back then that Frank was a recovering alcoholic, but I knew Buddy was. I can’t remember how I found out about Buddy’s alcoholism. It just seemed to be a known fact: “Buddy’s an alcoholic.” For all I know, Buddy himself may have told me, or he may even have mentioned it in class. Back then, I had no idea what alcoholism was, I had no idea that I’d been raised in an alcoholic family. I thought “getting sober” was about just not-drinking. I thought Buddy must have simply stopped, the way I had set my teeth and stopped drinking after crashing my car in 1988. You wreck your life—you set your teeth and stop drinking and put it all back together, was what I thought.

That wasn’t how it worked out for me, of course, because I wasn’t doing what Buddy and Frank and H. were doing. And also Bill and Monty, two other professors in that department. For decades Monty set up a noon Wednesday meeting there. At 11:30 Wednesdays he could always be seen wheeling the coffee urn from the office to the conference room.

And Bill—he wrote young-adult novels and books about how to teach freshman writing; he ran around the university with a greasy gray ponytail tied at the nape of his neck, nosing into the lives of junior faculty and grad students who had problems finishing their publications and earning tenure or doctorates. “Do you want to keep this job?” he’d ask them. “Do you want to finish your dissertation?” He invented a system of sponsoring these writers: he’d put them on a “contract”—they’d map out their work for the week on Sunday night, then call him every Friday to report whether they’d made their quotas. He’d prescribe prayer each day before and after working. I know several guys who wouldn’t have their tenured university positions today without Bill’s writing contract. Which of course Bill adapted from his experience with the 12 steps.

Some of these guys showed up at Buddy’s memorial service. Most of the people who approached the podium to speak were major writers. Several novelists, a few poets, a nonfiction writer. Then Buddy’s kids; his wife. It was an open mike. And suddenly there was the teacher, the guy from the Sunday-night meeting with the leather jacket and shit-kickers, except he was that day wearing his professorial wardrobe and he was standing at the podium talking about Buddy—how he’d come to grad school to learn to write with another guy (one of the major novelists in the audience), and how he’d run into Buddy, who had recognized he needed help. How Buddy had become his sponsor, how he had done what Buddy told him, how he’d gotten sober after years of trying to quit drinking on his own. Then the tough leather-clad shit-kicker began to cry. “Buddy didn’t just write great books—he also saved lives,” he told the auditorium.

My sponsor was sitting two rows behind me.

Freaks me out, man, the circles in which this life-saving flows.

There are so many more people who have helped save my life. People who have allowed me to connect with the power they’ve found to live sanely and contentedly. People who have told me at wise moments that I’m full of shit and/or that I need to learn to care for myself more gently. People who keep picking up the phone. People who love me.

In gratitude.

Frank J., 1950-2012.

Buddy N., 1939-2012.

Bill C., 1932-2005.

Monty C., 1929-2009.

Getting Sober Online Or In Real Life

Can you get sober online? or does it have to be IRL?

More and more people are using the Internet to look for help with their addictions. I’m getting mail every day from people who are desperate for help. We heard from the American woman staying in a little town overseas with no meetings; according to the comment she wrote this morning, she cannot put down the booze, and she’d like some help.

Where can she get help?

Here are some other examples:

I’m a single mom, divorcing an abusive alcoholic husband, I have a pill problem and started Suboxone and can’t get off, I’m afraid of depression; what should I do?

I tried tapering off pills and went from 90mg to 15mg but now I’m up to 60mg again, is any benefit I got from tapering lost now that I’ve gone back up, I don’t know where to turn for help; what should I do?

I love an alcoholic who is artistic and sensitive and intense and highly self-aware, here’s the situation: he’s stopped drinking but he still smokes weed every day, and I’m not sure whether his weed thing matters, I just wish he’d place a higher value on himself, I also wish he’d love me more, because I love him so much, I see so many beautiful things inside him that he doesn’t even see; what should I do?

//

Caveat: This blog has its limitations. It is strictly a place where I share personal experience, strength and hope. I’m not a professional, I don’t have all the answers. Quite often I don’t have even one answer. I’m just another addict trying to stay sober today.

But I do know how I got sober.

The first place I reached out was online, at Opiate Detox Recovery. (Fantastic resource for anyone dealing with an opioid drug problem; excellent moderators who protect the community; please check in if you’re trying to quit painkillers or dope.) I was two days into an outpatient medically-overseen detox, I was sick, I was (quite literally) kicking, and I had a shitload of stuff to get done. My first post was all about how I was a pain patient and trying to make my life manageable by reducing my tolerance a bit and how I was in the middle of painting the dining room, how it was Labor Day and I had a bunch of people coming for dinner, I had to cook, I had to clean, I had to take care of my kid and my husband and maybe I’d fucked up my brain chemistry forever with drugs, and blah blah blah poor me, please please please help me.

I got replies right away. Within 20 minutes, in fact. From Jay, who told me yes, I’d fucked up my brain chemistry, but that if I got off drugs it would heal, and from Arlene who told me to drop the fuckin superwoman act.

“It will only lead to continued rationalization to use,” she wrote.

“I don’t know what you mean by the superwoman act,” I wrote back, all high and mighty.

It took me three more weeks to accept the truth in her statement and admit to myself and to one other person that I was an addict. And that person was a person who lives in my city, who met with me in the flesh, whose brown eyes and calm voice conveyed concern and care.

I started going to meetings.

Meanwhile Gettingbetter and Allgood and Sluggo and OnMyWay and a bunch of other awesome people had started writing. Also Bonita, who was detoxing at the same time and who “jumped” (quit taking drugs) on my birthday that year, a couple days ahead of me. My Jump Buddy: we were paratroopers into the Land of the Clean and Sober. (Rough landing for both of us, but we’re both still alive, and both sober.)

Sluggo wrote me a taper schedule that I followed, along with the doctor’s supervision. The doctor, of course, was IRL, and in real life he did not take insurance, so he was expensive.

But how much is my life worth? how much money? how much time? I paid him about $700 to detox me. Cheap at the price.

I’m alive today.

It was after I jumped that the online support became important and ingrained in my daily life. I jumped Nov. 1, 2008, and that Thanksgiving Day I went upstairs every hour or so to write posts to those folks, because I had five house guests and because I felt draggy, restless, irritable and discontent, I had very little recovery, I had no faith, and those online folks answered. Same with Christmas. Same when my first sponsor relapsed; same when my second sponsor ditched me. I could always go to those people, and I’d always get an answer.

//

So in April, while visiting New York, I met OnMyWay, still sober, living in Brooklyn, working in Midtown. It’s ALWAYS amazing to see the faces of people with whom I have shared an online connection. Her face was round and sweet; her eyes were like large peaceful ponds in the fall, after the leaves have dropped and the sun shines into the water and the surface of the water is calm.

Then just before Memorial Day I met Allgood.

Allgood and Dani on either side of G.

Two days ago I drove from Kingston to Providence to meet Gettingbetter, also known as Dani, along with Allgood, who live near each other. They drove two hours to see me, and two hours home. I knew Dani was one tough fellow beeyotch whose backbone had hauled my sorry ass through some difficult shit after detox. In my mind she had grown into a kind of super-neohippie-wisewoman; despite the fact that I’d seen photos of her, I had given her long Joni-Mitchell-style hair, only brown, and lots of suede, maybe even fringes and beads. In real life, Dani is about my height, about 8 years younger than I, and smooth-faced, with eyes the color of yellow topaz, or cat’s eye sapphire. She wore jeans and a T-shirt. She’s fit and strong and healthy and sober.

Allgood kept pushing plates of food my way (his family and mine come from opposite sides of the Adriatic; the custom is to feed those you love), but I just wanted to sit there and look at their faces and listen to their voices and soak it all up. Same with a few others I’ve met IRL who I first met online.

What can I say? They saved my life, man. They keep saving it.

So do the many real-life people in my sober community. It takes an entire village to get sober.

//

Can you get sober online? The answer for me was yes and no. Online support is a real bonus for people getting sober these days. But I need to see real people to be sober. I need to hold someone’s hand; I need to hear someone’s voice; I need to see the whites of their eyes as they help me get honest. We have bodies for a reason, after all.

Now I need to meet Sluggo.

How I Stayed Sober At A Huge Party

A lot of people recovering from addiction and alcoholism don’t do well in crowds or at parties. Maybe it’s something about our sensitive nervous systems, or our propensity for wanting everyone in the room to like us (the proposition becomes more unmanageable when there are several hundred people in the room).

I usually don’t like going to parties. It’s taken me a long time to admit that, because it seems to me that most people like parties. I’d rather have supper at home with no more than five or six friends. When the crowd gets to like 10, I start having trouble. When it gets above 20, I sort of stick to the walls and have a book in my bag.

How many of us started drinking at parties because we didn’t know how to be social? (Or using drugs. Drinking at parties is socially acceptable—but you can’t stand in front of other guests and rummage around in your purse for the Vicodin… or, as a friend of mine jokes, for the Chore Boy to fire up your crack pipe.)

So when I was invited to go to an arts gala a few months back, I kind of had a hard time deciding. I wanted to support the cause, but could I get through a night with lots of other guests (many of whom would be much more well-off than I am)? How would I do it without having “a little something” to relax?

Here’s how I stayed sober and spiritually fit and took care of myself at the party.

Getting ready: deciding what to wear. In the old days I might have gone out and bought a whole new outfit… or stayed home because I had nothing to wear. This time I kept it simple… My friend P (with whom I’d gone to London in the summer and seen Niki de Saint Phalle’s “shooting pictures”) had invited me to this thing and, at my request, texted me some clues on dress: “Artsy-fartsy festive mixed with a touch of chic but not fancy.” I asked for help, and got it. When in doubt, wear black, I always say. So I got out a long black knit T-shirt dress I’d snagged at a thrift shop years back. Metal chain belt at hips, black shawl. Black fishnets and suede kitten-heel Manolos (eBay) for a little “chic but not fancy” confidence. Plus the silver earrings my husband brought back from UK last Christmas. Short sleeves let me show off my new triceps. Because the outfit was so pretty, comfortable and cheap, I could focus on other stuff. Including:

Being social: for a change, assume everyone is nice! In the old days, if you weren’t my best friend, you probably hated me—was my basic assumption, anyhow. The other night, I decided as I walked in to assume that every single person there was a nice person. … You know how much easier conversations go when you just assume everybody’s nice? Of course, not everybody IS nice. But taking that attitude makes all the small-talk easier. It’s easier to be courteous. My Al-Anon sponsor is fond of saying, “Everyone deserves courtesy.” Love is one of my higher powers.

Not drinking: focusing on the moment. As soon as I walked in the door, surprise! a free open bar, and hundreds of people walking around with wine. I knew exactly six people in the room, only two of whom know I’m sober. I thought to myself, I could probably have a drink and nobody would notice. But why? … Just then I ran into P, who advised me to visit the hands-on craft activities. So I stood at the wool counter and wet-felted some wool. Then I discovered the lower level, where all the shops were open—I mean the wood shop and the metal shop. I LOVED shop in school. Banged out a copper bracelet for my kid, with beaten edges and stamped with the word, “SURRENDER.” (He’s actually been wearing it!) … Meditation and prayer (Step 11) have helped me with this. Focusing on being alive each moment helped me enjoy the party. I didn’t have to worry what was going to happen, because I was awake in each moment as it happened.

Taking breaks doesn’t just mean hiding in the corner. When it got too much I sat in a quiet, dark spot for a while. I used to feel bad about myself when parties got too much for me and I had to take breaks. Other girls could go on all night and gain steam with all the noise and talk. … But why take that attitude? I’ve decided that if I need a break, I’ll take one. It means taking care of myself.

Knowing my limits: saying goodbye. I left a little early. It was starting to clear out but there was still a good crowd in there, listening to the auctions. … We never went to parties when I was a kid. I tell you, our house was like a monastery—how many parties do they have in monasteries? … It’s not second-nature for me to know how to handle myself. I tend to run away. I wasn’t with my husband, who grew up with lots of folks always invited to the house, and going to gatherings for his father’s business. I usually depend on my husband in social gatherings. … I said goodbye to my friends who’d invited me and thanked them. Then stood outside to wait for my husband to come by with the car.

Having gratitude. Watching the party carry on from outside the windows, I felt grateful:

for being sober

for having good friends to invite me to such a lovely party

for having learned enough social skills to be appropriate and have fun

for being able to make a bracelet for my son

for being able to be myself today, without shame

 

Friday Roundup: Fear of Stigma Prevents Alcoholics From Seeking Treatment

The news out of Columbia University: People identified as alcoholics at some point in their lifetimes were more than 60 percent less likely to seek treatment if their perception was that they’d be stigmatized once they let people know about their alcoholism. So fear of stigma, the study concluded, was a potential explanation for how few alcoholics who really need treatment actually manage to get it (less than 25 percent).

The study was published in a November issue of American Journal of Epidemiology.

Additional findings…

People who are more afraid of stigma:

  • Men
  • lower-income people
  • people with lower educational achievement
  • Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks

People who are less afraid of stigma:

  • Women
  • Those married or formerly married to an alcoholic

A conclusion the researchers drew from these findings:

Closeness predicts lower perceptions of stigma.

The researchers call for national campaigns to reduce stigma and perceptions of stigma. They point out that evidence shows “stigmatizing attitudes” toward mental illness can be changed, but no national efforts have targeted alcoholism in particular.

This all seems to harmonize with some new work I’m discovering.

Brené Brown

Brené Brown, Ph.D.

Brené Brown, PhD, a research social worker who teaches at the University of Houston, has spent the past 10 years or so studying the dynamics of shame. “Stigma”—which comes from an Old English word meaning “to brand with a pointed stick”—means nothing more than “to mark with shame.”

“Shame” itself is an even more ancient word whose roots mean “to cover oneself.” Essentially, “to disappear” because of self-hatred. Exactly the side-effect I was looking for in painkillers. I wanted to numb out thoroughly, to Get Small, to disappear. The extra-added energy-boost was fun while it lasted, but even after that left me, I continued to use because I just wanted to Go Away. I was also afraid of the physical pain.

Brown, in her recent Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) talk, suggests that we are a numbing-out culture. We are so afraid to be vulnerable, to feel vulnerability, that we numb it out before we can feel it. We use anything: food, Internet, shopping, gambling, alcohol, drugs. She says:

We cannot selectively numb feelings. . . . So when we numb [bad feelings], we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable . . .  And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

Brown says those who allow themselves to “soften into loving someone, to care about something passionately”—to be vulnerable—are the people who are more able to get help when they need it. Which is what these Columbia researchers are saying: Closeness predicts lower perceptions of stigma. People who have close relationships have less fear of shame and are better able to get help.

Listen to her talk this weekend. Makes me want to go back to grad school.

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