Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: boundaries (page 1 of 2)

A Sober Thanksgiving.

(Originally published Nov. 25, 2010)


My sister is here for Thanksgiving with her family. We have eight people in the house, and half of them are kids. They’re staying for a week.

A week is a long time to have house-guests.

Especially if you have been raised in an alcoholic family and one of your deepest habits is making your life feel safe by making it the same every day.

Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

My house was built in 1898. It’s a three-story, foursquare brick house with a staircase up the front hall to the third floor and back stairs from the kitchen to the second floor. With four kids here, there are always pounding feet and weird screeching sound-effects echoing throughout the plaster walls and oak floors.

This old house.

This old house.

It’s a different atmosphere from what I was used to as a child. When we were kids, we used to spend Thanksgiving, every single frigging Thanksgiving, with my mother’s parents at her childhood home. My grandfather, who was a violent drunk when my mother was a child, had built his house from scratch in the early 1940s. It was a big ill-designed brick place with a sort-of-Dutch roof and a screened side-porch.

Houae

My mother’s childhood home, via GoogleMaps.

It stood on half an acre of flat land shaded by enormous oaks, whose leaves we spent two days raking during our Thanksgiving visit. We raked leaves. Played endless gin rummy with my grandmother. Occasionally bought a quarter’s worth of penny candy at the corner store a block away, but we weren’t even allowed to walk down the block by ourselves.

The house was a two-and-a-half story place with a full dry basement, but we weren’t allowed to touch anything in it for fear of breaking something or making a mess. There were a few ancient toys in the attic. Mostly, we sat and read. We weren’t allowed to make a racket, except for music. My sister played the piano; I practiced my flute.

We helped in the kitchen. My grandmother always roasted a turkey with plain Wonder-bread stuffing, and made mashed potatoes, corn pudding, and some canned or frozen green beans. Or maybe, as a huge change of pace!!—lima beans (canned). For dessert we’d have pumpkin pie.

Everything was always the same. We always ate at half-past 3. The reason we ate this early was always beyond me—but it was taken for granted that I would never ask why.

Thanksgiving evening would stretch before us, empty.

“Did we ever go anywhere?” my sister asked me this morning as she worked on the turkey.

This house was in Catonsville, a prosperous suburb about 20 minutes from a major historic Eastern seaboard tourist draw, but we only ever once saw the actual city. Once. We visited twice a year for what—18 years?—and we almost never left the property except to go to church.

I can’t remember any real communication over supper. We kids didn’t talk about what we were doing in school, and my grandparents never showed any interest in our lives. My brother sometimes went down to the basement to watch my grandfather fix a radio at his workbench, but I can’t remember ever speaking to my grandfather, though I was forced to sit at his right hand at every meal, and for every family photo I had to sit on his lap, which creeped me out because aside from this requirement, he never showed any interest in me. He no longer drank—he’d given up booze once he was diagnosed with diabetes—but he was not in the least sober. Meanwhile my gregarious dad was dealing with this fucked-up family by putting away can after can of National Bohemian.

Classic alcoholic family behavior. Isolation. Rigidity. Suppression of feelings. Lack of communication.

Addiction is a difficult cycle to break. It’s an intergenerational dysfunction. Its patterns become deeply ingrained from earliest childhood. The deepest, in my case, is taking care of others at my own expense.


I try to do some things differently today.

We open up the entire house to everyone. There are piles of books, toys, cards, and other kid stuff all over the house. Nobody is afraid to touch anything. “This is like my temporary home,” my 9-year-old nephew casually remarked yesterday as he reached into the fridge for some milk. Openness instead of isolation.

Ever since the kids were small I’ve splurged on art supplies, and I pile them onto the dining room table and show them how to make art. It’s like push-ups for the muscles of the imagination. They’re all interested in drawing and painting, and three of them are particularly creatively inclined—so we pay attention to their interests. Flexibility instead of rigidity.

I try to be sensitive to the kids’ feelings. Since they were small, I’ve always taken them on my lap and given them a great deal of physical affection. I want them to know they can rely on me. … Now they’re too big to sit on my lap. My eldest niece, at 13, is taller than I. When I see clouds or tears pass over their faces, I put my arms around them and try to be present to their feelings—or I try to be aware of times to leave them alone.

Most of all, I’m talking with my sister. We were not given the tools to get along with each other when we were young. Growing up in an alcoholic family makes a person emotionally dependent and denies a child the equipment to accept reality: it’s like we’re always wishing for some other life, trapped in some illusion. We always want things to be different—more perfect; closer to some ideal we have in our heads.

Just sharing our experiences has been such a gift. Even disagreeing with each other and remaining close is a gift.

I sit back and give my sister permission to do whatever she wants in my house. She’s a wonderful cook. If she wants to take over the kitchen, I tell her to go ahead. If she wants to get up at 7 and make a cheesecake, I tell her to go ahead. I’m trying for flexibility instead of rigidity. Freedom instead of imprisonment and dependence. Watching her feel comfortable in my house is awesome.

Our menu:

  • Brined turkey
  • Glazed ham (because the boys don’t like turkey: some flexibility is good)
  • My sister’s special stuffing
  • My husband’s amazing oven-roasted potatoes
  • Fresh carrots, green beans, and brussels sprouts
  • My sister’s cheesecake
  • My cherry pie, which my niece helped make

I remember a couple years ago, just after I detoxed, my sister said, “It’s just not Thanksgiving without Mom here to complain about what a shitty job Dad’s doing carving the turkey.”

This year, there has been some anxiety—but no arguing or fighting, no throwing food or objects across the dining room, the way there was after my grandfather died; no gritting teeth; no days-long resentful silences about who’s making what, who pays for what, or who won’t eat what and how that makes that person uncooperative and stubborn and worthy of criticism for daring to express preferences.

A week is a long time to have family in the house, but I’ll tell you what: it seems way shorter than the two days we spent for Thanksgiving each year with my grandparents.

Pack Animals.

In the process of getting rid of stuff. Cleaning out drawers, collecting bags of trash. Things I once valued are now discarded. Things I once used, or thought I could use but never did and saved for years in hopes I might one day use them—or simply because they are beautiful—I now give away to people in my life who I think might like them.

I’ve found some journals I thought I’d lost. Not that I’ve inventoried every journal I’ve ever kept. I have journals going back to age 10, 38 years ago. When I teach journal workshops I sometimes haul cartons of them in, to impress upon students the sheer quantity of material a life can produce.

But this one journal, a small Italian-made book bound in fake red leather, I thought was gone forever. It has some important stuff in it. I started it at the beginning of 2000 and wrote till my mother’s birthday on April 19. Then, in grief (she had died less than a year before, at 58), in despair about my craving for painkillers, and in confusion about whether to have another child (I didn’t want to and felt guilty about not wanting to), I stopped journaling in that book.

But a few pages later I began a record of the eccentric utterances of a 3-year old boy, and that of his “cousin-twin,” a little girl just five days younger than he.

“Laura,” I asked my 3-year-old niece at a nighttime bonfire at my brother’s land in the country, “do you see the stars?” The Milky Way spread its veil above us and the mound of orange logs threw sparks into the night air.

“No, Aunt G,” she said, “I see FIRE BEES!”

Fire bees. These are the moments that infuse the language of family and friendship, the poetics of connection. When I look into her 15-year-old face I see traces of myself—dark eyes tilted upward at the outer corners, dark hair, high cheekbones, olive skin, even little dimples on the septums of our noses that no one else in the family has but us two. And she sees herself when she looks at me. It’s comforting: “I look like her.” I put a photo of us on Facebook and people wrote in: “Uncanny.” Physical, emotional, even intellectual and linguistic resemblances make up the net that holds us together. We might find these resemblances and resonances in blood ties, and we might find them in kindred spirits.

“I remember walking up the hill and seeing the light of the fire,” she tells me on the phone today. We call, we text. She sends me photos of herself before and after (“My new hair! xoxo”) cutting eight inches off her long brown locks. I tell her I will send her the scarf I bought for her the last time I was in New York. We hang up, and I leave her with a text:

You look beautiful, darling

It’s in her phone. So she can look at that idea over and over.

//

My son is in Colorado, skiing, but he is also here with me. (It’s a scientific fact that when a woman bears a child, she forever—FOREVER, till she dies, no joke—carries the microscopic vestiges of that child inside her body. Which is to say, cells from the child’s body continue to course throughout her blood and lymph and flesh, even her brain.) My phone buzzes:

We made it safely to Denver

I text back with photos of the dog.

My dog, Flo, 1 year old. She loves me unconditionally and gives me unlimited kisses.

My dog, Flo, 1 year old. She loves me unconditionally. We give each other unlimited kisses.

I run into his friends on the street, shoot a photo of their smiles, text it to him. From the mountains a text threads its way back to me:

Hahaha, fine young gentlemen

I know we’re close. I don’t need journals or texts to remind me. Why, then, do I page through these old conversations? 

Here is a story in the red journal: in 2002, when he was 4, I came home after his bedtime, having spent a late night judging a literary contest. I rarely missed putting him to bed (one of my signature “codependent” guilt-trips: I always needed to be the one who was “on”; Owl Babies was a book I frequently read to myself as much as to him). I crept into his room to kiss him goodnight, and he woke up. I wrote,

He wraps his arms around my neck and kisses my cheek three times, quick.

“You are back,” he says.

“Yes.”

“Can I have a cuddle?”

I bend down next to him.

“I knew you would be back in time,” he says.

“I always come back—and, you see? I always give you a kiss and a cuddle.”

He sighs. “You are so Mama-ish.”

“What does that mean—Mama-ish?”

“You sound like Mama. You smell like Mama,” he says, pressing his nose into my cheek.

We humans are pack animals. We’re driven to get next to each other; there’s something healing in hearing each other’s howls, in rolling in the texture and scent of each other’s skin the way animals do. We need each other. The trick for me is to accept that need, to allow myself to satisfy it, and even to enjoy it, without allowing it to overtake the rest of my life and make me sacrifice myself.

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.

Kittens

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.

Trudging in Sobriety: Learning Boundaries from Two Stray Kittens

I was finishing up work yesterday afternoon around 4, and the neighborhood cat who my son and I call Urchin, and who sometimes comes to our house for a visit, was curled up next to me, snoozing. Suddenly he sprang up and toward the windows of my study, then bounded downstairs and demanded to be let out the kitchen door.

As I let him out into the 45-degree rain, I heard what he’d been hearing: the screeches coming from under the shed.

I took a flashlight and there they were. Two two-week-old kittens.

Stray kittens

The stray kittens. iPod for scale...

Urchin ran in the opposite direction, hissing.

The rain came down.

“Oh my goodness,” I said as the shed’s roof poured rain down on my head.

My son came out and saw them peeking out from under dry but stony and unforgiving cover.

“Aren’t they so cute, Mama?” (My son, though 13, sometimes still calls me Mama)

“Speaking of Mama, where is Mama?” I said, looking around doubtfully. Mama is the local bobtail cat who is always popping out kittens. She’s feral, and no one has ever been able to trap her to get her spayed; there are two folks in the neighborhood who stubbornly feed her without catching her, and thus enable her to populate the neighborhood with stray babies.

We were due at the orthodontist in 20 minutes.

I went into action, the way I learned from my mother, who could have been an effective military general.

“Darlin. Get the old cat bed off the porch for me,” I said. “And let’s get a big box from the basement. And an old towel, because they probably don’t know how to use any kind of cat box,” not even the shallow disposable aluminum jelly-roll pans I’d bought for the two stray kittens our young neighbor next door had found last week—bobtails just like these, so they were probably from the same litter. This young neighbor had called me at 10 p.m. breathless—“I have kittens in my driveway!” Mama!—what do I do??

Here’s what we did yesterday. We packed the kittens into the old cat bed, with the heated bean-bag that I use for my sore shoulders underneath an old scrap of baby-blanket fleece. We went to the orthodontist. On the way home we picked up two boxes of cat-milk (no lactose; added whatchamacallit for kitties) and a medical syringe because they didn’t have any kitty nursing bottles at the grocery store. And in between getting dressed for the reception for my husband’s colleague whose husband had died two months ago, and shoving pizza in the oven for my son, we fed the kitties.

“Aw, Mama… aren’t they so cute,” he said, shooting video of them with his Nano.

Yes, Darlin, they are so cute. … I love cats. It’s why I let Urchin in whenever he wants. I meet dogs and they see “CAT” tattooed in invisible ink across my forehead and go talk to my husband. I’ve even come to like these kitties despite the fact that they have no tails. It’s great in sobriety to know oneself.

I rediscovered today how hard it is for me to work with babies in the house. They scream. They command attention. To work, I have to concentrate.

I wrote a schedule out for myself this morning at 6 a.m., and as soon as I wrote out the schedule I could hear them start to cry in the basement.

I’ve been thinking about something Irish Friend of Bill said a couple of months ago in a comment. He said,

I have yet to meet an alcoholic who consistently makes helping newcomers their priority who has relapsed. Thats what attracted me to it in the first place. … I mean in conjunction with completing the first 9 steps. I just haven’t met them. all the people I meet who consistently assist newcomers and try to help them stay sober, all stay sober. Its the most consistent thing Ive done in AA.

I’ve met them. I’ve met people who have put other people’s needs before their own, put helping newcomers first, and then drank. It might be more common among women than men. In many societies, women are socialized to put others’ needs before our own, and thus deplete ourselves.

My first sponsor, who helped me tremendously, who gave me a great deal of attention and care, relapsed when I was five months sober. I mean, I say she relapsed at that time because that’s when she went to rehab, but she’d been using before that. All the while she was using, she was helping me—a newcomer—God bless her.

My second sponsor, who also gave me time and attention and much good direction, fired me after two months because she said she had too many sponsees and her sponsor told her she needed to cut everyone loose so she could take care of herself.

Today I’m trying to take care of myself first. They say on airplanes that you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself, then on the newcomer the kitties I mean on your child. I’m still learning how to do this.

Something I’ve been noticing about myself lately is that I expect too much of myself. This is unsober. The schedules I write out are unrealistic. I got up at 5 this morning, and I expected myself to transcribe notes from two interviews (one an hour-long interview, and one 90 minutes) within an hour. This is unrealistic—I started at 6 and by the time I heard my son’s growing feet hit the floor above my head at 7:15, I was not even done with the 90-minute talk.

If I don’t get up at 5 (which I can’t always do—though I’ve heard stories of people who have accomplished their goals by getting up at 4 a.m. to do it, then working a full day; so would expecting myself to do it be so unrealistic?—it would exhaust me and deplete me), I have from about 8:30 to 4 to work. That’s about 7.5 hours. Not counting time to eat, shower, meditate, pray, and pee. Much less exercise or enjoy the sunny day. If I count those things, which constitute the most basic self-care, that cuts it down to about 6 hours. Realistically. And I don’t always have that much because sometimes I have meetings; sometimes I have to volunteer at school; sometimes my kid doesn’t even have school and on those days I squeeze work in when I can.

So on average, on a good week, I maybe have 20-24 hours in which to blog and all that entails; work on creative material, including research, interviewing and archiving, not to mention actual writing; paint (got a painting on the easel right now that I have to finish; another one on commission); and also, by the way, look for work. I mean, work that pays. Which can be a job in itself.

Then there’s cleaning the house; taking care of the garden; mending the clothes; ironing shirts; paying bills; completing paperwork; volunteering for the art association; occasionally spending time with my husband;

Anything else?

The orthodontist. The dentist. The physical therapist (he has patellar tendinitis).

And now the animal shelter.

So today, as a stopgap, I bought a little kitty bottle so I could feed the kitties for one more day because I could not drive all the way to the animal shelter TODAY, because it was not in my plan, because today I was writing and painting. Today I was taking care of bidness. Even though the plan turned out to be slightly pear-shaped because of the kitties. I’m trudging.

I actually relate to any critter that’s motherless… and am happy to take care of it while I can.

Maybe I need instruction in time-management. Maybe I need to scale back, and leave the likewise scaled-back outcome to higher power. If anyone has some great ideas, please let me know. I could use some help.

Father & son: Justin Townes Earle cancels tour for rehab

Justin Townes Earle

Justin Townes Earle

Today’s news: singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle has decided to cancel the rest of his current tour (which means dumping 21 shows in the U.S. this month and next, and 10 shows in the UK through November 14) in order to go to rehab.

Earle, 28, was arrested Sept. 16 in Indianapolis on charges of public intoxication, battery, and resisting arrest in connection with an alleged dispute with a nightclub owner and the owner’s daughter during Earle’s appearance at the club.

Steve Earle

Steve Earle, hardcore troubadour

Earle is the son of singer-songwriter Steve Earle, one of my heroes. I love Steve Earle. Love his music, love his acting in the television series “The Wire” (in which he plays the NA sponsor to the unforgettable homeless police informant, Bubbles), and love his personal story. He was completely beaten by drugs, kicked in jail, and came back to have a prolific creative life and a productive marriage. He BELIEVES in recovery. He knows it works. He lives it, and it is available in his music.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford, Moments of ClarityIf you don’t know about Steve Earle’s story, you must check it out. You can find it in a few places. One place I liked reading it is Chris Lawford’s collection of addicts’ stories, Moments of Clarity: Voices from the Front Lines of Addiction and Recovery. I bought this book in hardcover (I know I keep saying “I bought this book in hardcover” but I, like, never buy hardcovers because I’m so cheap, my mother taught me always to wait for the paperback, but I’ve been trying to do things differently) shortly after I got out of detox almost solely because Steve Earle’s story was in it and at that moment of my life I needed to own Steve Earle’s story, and also Jamie Lee Curtis’s story (she was a Vicodin fiend, like me, she hoarded Vicodin and ate it secretly, only she got free a lot more quickly than I did—good for her), and also Lou Gossett’s and Alec Baldwin’s. But Steve Earle says some fabulous things in his story. Here is one thing he says about forgiveness that I reread this morning… having two years out of detox, out of the daily grind of using, it read differently to me today—it read more compassionately and with more possibility:

I am much more forgiving now, because I frequently have to forgive myself as I just stumble through the wreckage and try to recover. . . . The biggest difference now is that I have to feel stuff and be there for it, and if I hurt somebody’s feelings I have to deal with the consequences. Before, if I hurt somebody’s feelings—and I’m sure I hurt lots of people’s feelings—I was capable of living with it because I was high all the time. That’s why people think we’re assholes, because we are. We aren’t out there operating with all of our senses, and we aren’t operating with our hearts. We’re operating with our brains and our “want to” and that’s it. Recovery doesn’t promise that you won’t be an asshole, but most of the people that practice spiritual principles of recovery in all their affairs, they do get to be better people than they were when they came in. I may still be, relatively speaking, an asshole, but I know I’m better than I was, and that’s because I have to be. It’s absolutely necessary to my survival, and I don’t do it for everybody else, I do it for me.

How does this relate to his son’s going to rehab? Steve Earle knows that the “easier, softer way” doesn’t work. He knows everyone has to get well for himself and find his own way. A few years back, Justin was working for him, playing in his band, and Justin’s drug use got in the way of his performances, so what did Daddy do?—kicked baby boy out of the band. Said, You’re on your own. And by all reports, that was when Justin started looking after himself and his health. Also, his own work took off and earned critical notice. … No pithy blog-summary of their relationship can do its complexities justice, but there are some principles at work in there. Boundaries, for one.

And judging by his website, I don’t think Steve is shutting his own schedule down because of what’s happening with his kid. He’s doing recovery for himself. When he does what he needs to do for himself, it enables others to act on their own behalf as well.

(This is still a difficult concept for me to accept… that I’m doing it for myself—they all say that: they do it for themselves…)

Now: Justin has grown enough that he apparently doesn’t need Daddy to tell him when it’s time to get treatment. Good for him. Reports say he’ll be back on the road before Thanksgiving for the Kent State Folk Festival. Hope so.

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