Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: character defects (page 1 of 2)

Three Years Sober: To Move Or Not To Move?

This morning I slogged off to a very early meeting I’m now doing Thursday mornings. Clear. Cold: 9 degrees. All the adjectives for cold feel threatening: bitter. Biting. Numb. Icy.


The cold morning was beautiful. The cloudless sky was a deep crystalline violet. Absolute stillness at 6:45. The half-moon was shining like a lamp, reminding me of a dream I had on Christmas Eve, a dream that has stayed with me. I dreamed of a moon that kept changing—from fingernail to almost half, growing and growing in brightness—and in the dream I was moving from window to window and realized I was witnessing a clear lunar eclipse.

The windows were like the ones in my house, but I was not in my house. I was somewhere else.

The dream ended with a bright full moon and a sense of growing clarity. I woke with a feeling of peace.

It seems to me that, in the dream, there were obstacles sliding slowly out of the way of the light. In a lunar eclipse what casts the shadow is the Earth. And I am part of the Earth. So (by the transitive property, as my kid would say), what was moving out of the way of the light was me.


The third year of sobriety was hard in my world. Bitter. Biting.


I wanted to get numb over the holidays. I’m tired of life being hard. Two days after Christmas I found myself in the same spot, the same physical location, as the one in which, three years ago yesterday, I stole a Vicodin and ended a relapse. I stood in that room last week, looking at the bottle of Vicodin. The same bottle: it’s still there. I held it in my hand. Tempting. In the end, I heard my friend C.’s voice telling me:

If you use, you will abandon yourself.

In the end I decided I was damned if I was going to take one of those boring little pills and wait to feel the numbness sneak through my body the way it had three years ago, just so I could Be Numb for a few hours and then have to Come Back To Life—or not, because that’s always a possibility. I put the bottle back, unopened. Walked back out to the basement room where everyone (else) was drinking beer in front of the woodstove.

But why did I have to stick my hand in the fire? Huh?


This morning I woke up and for a while actually forgot I was three years sober. How’s that for gratitude. So I put it on Facebook: “3 years.” All these people wrote in. Some of you I know from seeing you every week of my life in some room or other. Some of you I met online and later met In Real Life. Some of you, I’ve never seen your faces. If I had died, I wouldn’t have known any of you.

It’s easy to forget I could have died. I write, “Life is hard,” but life is jammy compared with life in active addiction, which was hell. Which was slavery to lies and isolation and the almighty drug.

Life has been asking me lately to remember that I could have died. For a story I’m writing for The Fix I talked with Dr. David Smith, the founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, who has practically pioneered addiction medicine and has been working with people like us for more than 40 years. “I have a number of patients who have become addicted to fentanyl with serious medical consequences,” he said. “In the latest one, the patient ate a fentanyl patch and died.” This was a nurse. Another ate a patch and had a heart attack, he said; yet another ate fentanyl and fell asleep behind the wheel of the truck he was driving—fortunately before he’d started the ignition. His boss, however, Did Not Like This.

I remember the times I used so much that I could feel my respiration slowing against my will. I remember wondering if a body could force itself to breathe.


Commitment to sobriety forces me to change my ways of doing life. One of my ways of doing life?—passively. Things Will Just Work Out. Take a Chill Pill.

Things don’t Just Work Out. People work them out. People make choices. Not to make a choice is to make a choice.

So in my dream I saw a moon that kept changing—from fingernail to almost half, growing and growing in brightness—and in the dream I was moving from window to window and realized I was witnessing a clear lunar eclipse. The windows were like the ones in my house, but I was not in my house. I was somewhere else.

I was somewhere else. Somewhere like my house, but not, but not.

The dream ended with a bright full moon and a sense of growing clarity. I woke with a feeling of peace. And it seemed to me that, in the dream, there were obstacles sliding slowly out of the way of the light: the Earth. Myself. Moving out of the way of the light.

Moving out of the way.


“You seem stuck,” a friend of mine said the other day. “It worries me that you wanted to use. I think you need to get moving.”

So often, all sobriety asks me to do is to move. “Accept, then move,” Sluggo used to say. So much of what Sluggo used to say is stuff that still works. Sluggo didn’t write to me on Facebook today. But I love Sluggo, and I know she loves me.

What Are Character Defects? An Open Letter To Dolly.

Got an email overnight from an old friend of mine who has been questioning how much she drinks, and why. She has been going to AA, she said, but she couldn’t understand—and couldn’t stand—the idea of “defects of character.”

She sent me a link to an essay written 25 years ago by a professor of philosophy and religion. The essay argues against the “disease concept” of alcoholism—the author sees alcoholics as suffering from a moral problem based in desire and will. He separates the realms of science and spirituality.

So it would take me ages to put down everything I’d like to say back to this guy’s essay—I’ll save it for another time.


But dear Dolly, I wanted to share something I’ve been experiencing with regard to my character defects and how surrendering them to a “higher power” (Step 7) is helping me stay sober.

When I joined Al-Anon 14 years ago I was suffering. I had a 2-year-old kid and a marriage, a house, a job, a car, the whole bit, and I felt like killing myself. I had grown up with active alcoholism my whole life. I was raised by a woman who had been raised by a violent drunk.

The green Lorcet pills I used to take for pain. Actually mine were white—they were the strongest ones.

I was taking one pill per day for pain, but I couldn’t stop taking that one pill. I’d gone to AA and figured I couldn’t call myself an alcoholic because I hadn’t had a drink in three years. I’d gone to NA and told my story and some people looked at me cross-eyed because I was taking just one pill. These were people who had sold everything they had for smack or crack, sold their last remaining possessions in their houses, sold their bodies to cop drugs on the street, faced knives and guns and disease. I bought my measly little pills in the drug store. I thought, “I can’t be an addict—I’m not like these people.” (I don’t think this would happen in NA today. OxyContin and its cousins are too prevalent.)

It would take me a few more years—eight or 10—to meet people who used the way I used. It would also take me some time after that to realize that I’d begun the whole show by drinking my head off when I was 17 and we were in school together. (I had my first drink ever at the Phi Delt house. Gin and tonic. Let some slippery sophomore Phi Delt get me drunk and grope me, and all the girls on my hall laughed at me the next day: I’d let That Guy feel me up. I got so scared about being laughed at and showing how naïve I was that I met a guy the following month and stuck with him for almost four years.)

So when I took the 12 steps in Al-Anon I made a list of things I thought I’d done wrong: I worried about deadlines and put things off because of my worry and annoyed my coworkers. I was judgmental, I thought of myself and other people as either all good or all bad. I’d lost a couple of pieces of jewelry people had given me and this hurt them. And I thought my defects of character were things like anxiety, black-and-white thinking, and carelessness.

I continued to have migraines and terrible physical pain, and after several years I went to the pain clinic and got serious drugs and eventually became an addict. Even so, I carried on with therapy and Al-Anon because I thought if I could just figure out my emotional problems, I’d be able to either quit taking drugs or take them responsibly.

But it worked the other way around. It wasn’t until I stopped drinking and taking drugs (acknowledged my “powerlessness” over them, in Step 1) that I could begin to see my emotional problems clearly enough to remedy them.

Once I got sober I took the 12 steps again, guided by a woman who has been sober for more than 20 years. I saw that my “defects of character” were deeper than what I thought. My primary character shortcoming is not just “anxiety,” it’s a mortal fear of disapproval. I’ll do fucking anything (have done most anything—or sometimes even worse, NOT done most anything) to make the people around me think I’m OK. I will, for example, stick for four years with a boy I like, I might even love, but with whom I’m not really happy, to avoid being lonely; I’ll avoid having other relationships, to avoid being called a slut.

Another defect is putting other people’s judgment and comfort ahead of my own. (Really just a subset of the previous defect.)

Yesterday I was in a meeting when someone told a story about how, when she was drinking and using, she used to use at night because, she said, it helped her sleep. She used to pass out in the house, maybe on the hallway floor or wherever, and her husband would be like, “Why are you sleeping on the floor?” Hearing this story made my defect of character crystal clear.

I didn’t used to do pass out in the hallway. Here’s what I used to do: For years, for more than a decade even, I trained myself not to move in bed, not even to turn over, not to get up and pee, and definitely never to touch my partner, because I was sleeping next to someone who had intractable insomnia. This person is a light sleeper and if I even turned over, I might wake him up. So I trained myself to lie still. I gritted my teeth, literally, in order to do this.

Grit your teeth and bear it, was the way I was raised in my alcoholic family.

Eventually the tooth-grinding became a problem in itself and I had to get a tooth-guard to keep from grinding my teeth to stubs. Also, I had jaw pain. Also, I had neck and head pain, and shoulder pain, and back pain. For which, of course, I took drugs.

Also, I had a lot of suppressed anger and frustration, which it turns out contributes to tooth-grnding.

The drugs helped me sleep and not-move. They helped me not-care about the anger. For a while. Until they didn’t help anymore.

They also helped me ignore my anger and frustration during the day and get done what I needed to get done. They helped me grit my teeth through everything and not-care about the pain.

I didn’t understand I was contributing to my own pain. “Medical science” told me it was an illness, a syndrome, for which I might need to take drugs for the rest of my life. 

Another of my huge character defects is arrogance. I secretly think I’m perfect—or if I try hard enough, I can be perfect. I can do what other people want me to do, or what I think they want me to do, and not “betray” them or let them down. I kept doing life this way for years and years.

Let me admit something to you, Doll. I’ve spent most of the past two weeks on my own. And I’ve been able to get real rest. I wake up without jaw pain. When I wake in the middle of the night, I get up to pee without tiptoeing as though my footfalls might cause an earthquake. It took me a few days to remember I was allowed to turn on the light and maybe even read or write.

And my spiritual discipline tells me that I don’t have to blame this person. No one “made” me do anything. I chose to do all this myself.

And I don’t even have to blame myself.

All I have to do is to see clearly what I’ve done to contribute to the hurt. Take responsibility. Ask for my shortcomings to be removed. And then change the behavior (amends).

Turn on the light in the middle of the night.

The thing is, my thinking is so distorted, I am so arrogant and at the same time so full of self-hatred, that I need another source of power to guide me in changing my behavior. When I rely on my own power, usually I go pretty far down the wrong road before I see how I’ve gone wrong.

I’m learning to trust my own judgment by taking small steps forward, using my own judgment under the guidance of others who have gone before me on this road. I can’t “insight” my way into being healthy, I have to take action. I have to turn on the light. No one’s telling me to do anything. I’m engaged in what Quakers call “discernment.” All I’m doing is using a map. A GPS of sorts. And the GPS might lead me to a swamp, or a desert, or up against a mountain, and it’s always a learning experience.

I learn by doing. Not by figuring everything out beforehand.

It’s scary sometimes. It’s also exhilarating. I feel alive.

My friend P and her daughter with our dogs, Ginger and Flo.

I need to go walk the dog. But I wanted to get back to you.

Love, G

Gratitude—The Antidote to “Restless, Irritable and Discontent”

I had a piece all planned out and half-drafted about David Foster Wallace’s addiction and the reasons he could not escape his depression; also another piece about a new magazine about recovery called Renew, whose editor has asked me to be the book and media reviewer; and I still plan to write those pieces, but I’ve wandered into a bad neighborhood this week. You know you’ve wandered into a bad neighborhood when it’s 9 in the morning and you’ve just dropped the kids off for camp and you’ve cranked up Lyle Lovett singing Townes Van Zandt, and you’re crying in the car.

Townes Van Zandt

Driving home and leaking a few scalding tears of self-pity, I was thinking how sick I am of being in early sobriety: that I’d like very much, thank you, to be one of those people you see at meetings who has 30 or 40 years (will I ever have 30 or 40 years?—I cleaned up pretty late, I might be dead before then) and who can stay sober seemingly without trying. One of those people who says they no longer need to go to meetings—that they just come to “give the message to the newcomer” (me). You ever run into those people?

Me, I have to try real hard sometimes. And then I try too hard. I can’t get the balance right. I can go a long time doing tricks on the bar, then I fall off, and it hurts.

I’ve been restless, irritable and discontent. My behavior yesterday pointed this out to me. Went to the library to pick up some books that were being held for me, and the hold on one of them had been cancelled because I was a day too late. One day. The book was sitting right there in front of her. I said, “Can’t I still take it out?” I take books out of the library to save money. If I were rich as Croesus, I would be buying all these books and supporting their authors, but I can’t afford to do that (poor me), so I support the public library instead. And the librarian checked the screen and said, “No, there’s another hold on this book.”

I said: “Isn’t there another copy in the system?”

She checked the screen and said: “No—this is the ONLY COPY in the entire system.” The entire frigging system, I thought, has only one copy of this title, and I can’t have it because I was 12 hours too late. If I’d been in the right frame of mind (i.e., sober) I would have thanked the librarian for her help, but as it was, I snatched the two books she allowed me to take and slammed the door on my way out.

On the curb, I thought, What the hell are you doing, slamming doors? You don’t behave like this anymore.

But yes, it turns out, I do behave like this. When I resent my own failings, I blame other people for it and slam doors.

Went home, opened my computer and saw that my battery had drained to 20 percent. Checked the cable and found the transformer had burned out on me. Looked for the spare and couldn’t find it anywhere. Called my husband, who is overseas, taking care of his family—but yesterday, he was by himself in the countryside, staying at a pub, having a sweet little holiday in the mild Yorkshire sunshine. And there I was, I thought, in this infernal heat, dealing with his inability to leave the spare charger where I could see it.

And in the back of my mind was the thought that, the last time I had a little tiny holiday by myself—exactly 72 hours away from home—I caught hell about it for a week. Resentment.

“I gave the spare to my sister,” he said. So he’d secretly taken it with him, and there was no spare in the house, and my computer was ready to die.

I let him hear about it, for 30 seconds, then told him to “have fun” in the country and hung up on him. Total bitch.

I mean yeah, it would have been nice if he’d told me he was giving away our spare charger. But would it have changed things in the least?—no. The reality is, I have money enough to buy a charger. Thank goodness.

Gratitude, man. It’s a choice.

Yesterday’s meeting wound up being about gratitude. Trudged through the 96-degree heat to the meeting and nobody had a topic, and my friend Benedick who was chairing said he wanted to talk about Step 4 and character defects—whether they actually get “removed,” whether we can truly change and become better people, or whether the defects stick around and we remain big bad addicts and have to struggle against them forever. He opened it up and a woman said, “What I really wanted to talk about is gratitude,” and this little moan went around the room—the way it quite often does, I notice, outside of Thanksgiving-Time Gratitude Meetings. Even at Thanksgiving you sometimes hear people mumble, “I fucking HATE gratitude meetings.” I’ve said it myself.

I hate gratitude meetings. Because they have a way of pointing out my weaknesses.

I want life to be easy. When it’s easy I think I’m safe.

Gratitude is the antidote to all this… even active drunks and addicts can understand this. Townes wrote:

You will miss sunrise if you close your eyes
That would break my heart in two

He wrote this while he was killing himself drinking. Beautiful things can come out of suffering and devastation.

At the meeting yesterday I confessed that during these 96-degree days I sometimes wish I could have a cold beer. Drugs, I said, were for serious medication of suffering and pain; beer was for kicking back and having fun, cooling off, and having a laugh like everybody else. I remember the taste: a bit sweet at the front and bitter at the back, with the bubbles prickling my tongue and making my mouth water. And then the hit, first in my belly, which is also where the drugs always hit, but in a different way. I liked pale ale, or bitter. Fuller’s is (was) nice. … There is beer in the house, and a distributor up the block, a specialty pub two blocks away, and I am the only adult here, no one would know, but I haven’t had a drink.

My friend Benedick, a 30-year-alcoholic who just passed a year, talked at the meeting yesterday about how he’d been outside the day before from noon to 11 at night, and he’d gone through three shirts and after he knocked off work at 11, his colleagues all said, “Let’s go get a beer!”

“This sounded like the best idea that anyone had ever proposed in the history of civilization,” he said. “It didn’t sound like temptation. It sounded like a reasonable and intelligent response to a long day in the heat. I would pound the beer and I would go to Heaven, and Jesus would be there to meet me at the bar.”

If that ain’t temptation, I thought. “I will turn these desert stones into bread… all you have to do is Ask.”

“Except after the beer, I would have a shot, and then another few shots and a beer, and then a shot and a beer and a shot,” he said, and then he would be wasted and wake up with a hangover.

He told his friends this. He said it helped him to be honest. Thinking it through, surrendering to the reality of his alcoholism, helped him to stay sober that night.

So I tell you, my friends, today: I am in a bad neighborhood. I’m not obsessed with drinking or using but I am obsessed with worry—getting everything done, perfectly; proving I’m a Good Girl so I can be Safe Forever. Called Benedick last night and told him that I believe what my friend Sluggo has told me a lot of times: that addiction and character defects just cover up the divine beauty that is inside us; that it’s not up to us to Fix Ourselves but to allow that beauty to be revealed. God doesn’t come in, God comes out. Steps 6 and 7.

So, rest easy. I used to sing this song to my son to lull him to sleep.


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Sober life: Practicing habitual contentment

My friend Nora wrote in a comment on my last post:

I used to think being happy meant being happy all the time…

Now I focus on being content. I wrote on ODR the other day that one of my character flaws is habitual discontent… It’s a habit I learned in my alcoholic family: expecting life to be unenjoyable, not to go well, just expecting to be unhappy. Expecting melancholy. Sometimes I feel melancholy without even knowing why, without having any reason—I feel as though I ought to just sit down and cry because it’s the thing to do. …

Since it’s just me practicing this, I can’t expect higher power to remove this, so I’ve been trying to practice habitual contentment. Satisfaction as a habit. Why not smile because it’s the thing to do? Why not be content, just because?

Mona Lisa

A half-smile of contentment.

Nora also wrote:

Isnt the hardest thing in life to just ‘be’?! To be in the hard times as well as in the good times.

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling like I have to play catch-up ball because of the time I’ve “wasted” on my addiction. It’s a terrible feeling, the compulsion to make up for lost time. Because it’s impossible, really. It’s an impossible bind. One can’t make up for lost time.

It’s my failure to accept myself that drives this compulsion—that drives any compulsion. One of the hardest things in life IS just to be. And the only way I’ve found to do that is to be completely honest—first with myself, then with others. …

I was speaking with a person who can’t stop using. They simply can’t stop. Boy, I knew what they felt like. They lied about their clean date, because they couldn’t accept the fact that they used—the fact that they’d used made them feel like a “failure,” and this led them to lie, which made them feel more like a failure, and the lies just snowballed. … For me, my lies snowballed into thievery and all sorts of other deviant behavior—and it was all because I could not accept who I be.

The only way I got out of the sticky web of lies was to be “rigorously honest” at meetings and with a mentor who I trusted. I wanted what they had, and I trusted that if I got honest and did what they told me, I’d be able not only to quit, but to live with contentment. And it happened.

But I had to be ready and willing. It took years for this… I had to be through. Finis.

Now I try to see life less in terms of “good” and “bad” times, and just in terms of times. All times. I might have difficulties, but I have tools to get through them. Even the so-called “good” times can present difficulties. I try not to label… I’ve gotten myself into so much trouble by labeling the Times of My Life because it creates massive expectations and I end up living in the cold and lonely Desert of Times That Are Never Good Enough.

I try to be content. The word is from the French, which comes from the Latin meaning “to be satisfied.” The old root means “to contain.” Which for me has connotations of self-possession. I contain myself. That is sobriety.

It’s so haaarrrd. My addiction carps at me me that I need to be rescued, that I’m helpless, needy, defective…

But it’s also pretty simple. A lot of times I just remember that if I don’t use today, and if I help one other person, I’ve made it to a finish line and can wipe the sweat off my brow with a bit of self-respect.

When I do my 14 minutes of meditation in the morning, I try to put a half-smile on my face, as Thich Nhat Hanh advises. Just for exercise. You know what? It works.

Step 7: How does it feel when shortcomings are removed?

Rufus Wainwright, amazing musician and sober for eight years.

Rufus Wainwright in concert, August 2010.

Saw Rufus Wainwright in concert the other night.

Rufus used to use crystal meth. With the help of Elton John, who reportedly helps Eminem and also many other musicians with addiction, Rufus went to Hazelden for a month back in 2002 and got sober. He’s stayed sober since then and has continued to write songs and release albums… in short, to be the person he was born to be. To put his abilities to good use. He reaches people.

We were in a very old, beautiful venue: the proscenium arch was rimmed with antique red globe-lights, the single balcony still bore its fancy curved gilt-painted balusters and polished wood rails, and Rufus himself commented on how lovely the space was. He’d played it before.

I was enjoying this sitting next to my husband. I could not have appreciated any of this if I’d been using.

Rufus appeared with his sister Martha Wainwright, who had people helping her backstage with her new baby. Throughout the concert they were memorializing their mother, the musician Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer in January. They also talked about their father, the musician Loudon Wainwright. They sang songs in French and joked about what it was like to sing together at holidays. Rufus made Martha laugh so hard during a song that for a moment she couldn’t perform.

Opportunity, and performance anxiety: a story

Watching him be so comfortable on that stage, knowing he’d had opportunities to be there from a young age, I was reminded of another similar space where I took art lessons as a kid. The routine was, 300 kids would show up at 8 a.m. each Saturday morning and sit in the audience while five chosen kids would reproduce their drawings from the previous week onstage in pastel on paper set up at enormous wooden easels. These were the Easel Artists.

In my first year, at 10 years old, I was picked as an Easel Artist. In Malcolm Gladwell’s terms, it was an Opportunity. I was up there onstage, performing. But because I was given no idea that this was something I should try to repeat, I never repeated it. My family’s philosophy was fatalistic—The Judges had picked G on some fluke, was the way they thought of it. So I learned not to connect with those people: they were faceless and imperious; unreachable, not really even people. My mother didn’t come and show me how to shake the instructor’s hand and introduce myself. I was taught not to take myself seriously.

Emotional self-portrait

White conté crayon on black paper; age 15

But I had serious ability that needed to go somewhere.

You better let that boy boogie-woogie
Because it’s in him and it’s gotta come out
—John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillun”

I continued to perform throughout junior high and high school. I was first-chair flute in bands and symphonies. I had art in shows; I had solos, and I was the flute in the pit when we put on Rodgers and Hammerstein or Cole Porter. I won medals. But I had to be careful how often I drew attention to myself. To do so too often would be to violate the cardinal sin of Pride.

On the other hand, to create anything meaningful in the fields of music, art, or writing, you have to reach audiences. You have to connect. It’s not like sitting in a room, building circuit-boards or inventing new glass-making processes (what the rest of my family does for a living).

My family discouraged me from thinking in terms of how these abilities could connect me to the rest of the world—how I could put them to use. As Gladwell says, my music, art and writing were simply the cute things that made me “G.” They didn’t connect me to anything outside myself. The best thing they fitted me for, in my mother’s opinion, was playing for the church folk-group (which I also did).

Well, I’m sure Rufus could play for his church folk-group. But he wouldn’t reach very many people that way.

When I went to college I started writing seriously. I had bylines and received letters from readers. And I was beginning to think I wanted to write for a living. And after college, I did for a while. I won awards; went to graduate school; wrote a book; went to New York; got it published; was asked to write the greater part of another one. And I didn’t “promote” either one because I didn’t want to Stand Out; and all the while, the migraines and fear got worse because my self-doubt never disappeared. The more my skills improved, the more, somehow, the big black bag of self-doubt dragged behind.

And I started using more and more because the drag of my self-involvement and selfishness and fear was just so painful.

I used in order to make myself small. To shut myself up. Eventually, to put myself to sleep.

This ring a bell for anyone?

Step 7—How it feels for the defects to be removed

I’m working on this Step 7 exercise right now. It asks,

What might it look like in my life when my “character” defects are not standing “in the way”?

You know what that looks like? I was thinking about this while listening to Rufus and Martha last night. It looks like white light. It feels like I’ve stuck a fork into the 225-volt socket in my mother-in-law’s kitchen and I’ve become incandescent—the bushel removed. It feels like a smooth new clean train, packed, on the Jubilee Line streaking through a tunnel under Thames.

Rufus Wainwright performing August 2010.

What "letting go" looks like to me.

It looks the way Rufus looks when he plays the piano, or the way Martha looks when she plays the guitar, and the music rolls through their bodies and they don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re totally in charge.

It looks fast and powerful and harmonious and it gets shit done, man!

But it’s also sometimes scary as all hell.

Now I’m talking like my mother, and I better quit.

I just need to say: for me, one thing that takes the fear away is asking for help. Admitting that it’s scary, and having other people say it’s OK to be scared. …

Also, prayer and meditation. Query: If higher power believes in me, can I?

What does it look like for you when your defects are removed?

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