Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: codependency (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.

Joan Didion’s Ordinary Alcoholic Family.

Joan Didion smoking in front of her Corvette Stingray, late 1960s.

So today I have a piece out about Joan Didion’s latest book, Blue Nights, in which she talks about the life and early death, at age 39, of her adopted daughter, Quintana. And in which she DOESN’T talk about how Quintana’s alcoholism most likely ended her life.

I wrote the piece because I read the book and couldn’t get Quintana out of my mind. Her mother insists in the book that she was not “privileged.” Didion talks about 14-year-old Quintana learning from Natasha Richardson how to seduce college boys on “spring break” in St. Tropez. She talks about the Spanish-speaking Mexican maid saving Baby Quintana from a rattlesnake in the back yard while Didion herself tries to hide the maid’s presence from the state adoption social worker. She writes about the 60 batiste and lawn baby dresses hung in Quintana’s closet—dresses Didion counted over and over, to prove to herself, apparently, that she had the right equipment to be a mother.

I’m going to quote at length here. She was “not unaware,” she writes, that a number of readers

(more than some of you might think, fewer than the less charitable among you will think) would interpret this apparently casual information (she dressed her baby in clothes that needed washing and ironing, she had help in the house to do this washing and ironing) as evidence that Quintana did not have an “ordinary” childhood, that she was “privileged.”

I wanted to lay this on the table. …

Nor will I even argue that she had an “ordinary” childhood, although I remain unsure about exactly who does.

“Privilege” is something else.

“Privilege” is a judgment.

“Privilege” is an opinion.

“Privilege” is an accusation.

“Privilege remains an area to which—when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later—I will not easily cop.

(Joan, come on: ALL baby clothes need washing. But not all of them need ironing.)

This is maybe the first time I’ve ever read Didion honestly being pissed off.

Most of the rest of the time, she’s pissed off, all right, but not honestly. It’s all hidden by style.

I think of all the years I’ve been reading Didion, studying her prose—I began reading her at 23, and I’m now 47. There were times, especially in my 20s and early 30s, when I’d lay her stuff down, feeling exhilarated at the sheer style and gorgeous intelligence of her writing—but also overcome by waves of despair and dread that I couldn’t explain. This book explains them.

I can see now that reading Didion was like hearing my mother talk: a brilliant stylist, a fascinating mind, a sparkling storyteller, and deeply angry and fearful underneath all that glitter.

That household was just like mine, after all: a plain old “ordinary” alcoholic family.

If you want to read an insightful review of Blue Nights, check out the piece in the London Review.

Can You Help?

This particular experience has weighed on my mind for a few days, and I’m conflicted as to how to respond to it.

Went to a meeting in which there was a person who has been diagnosed with various mental illnesses and who is on a bunch of medications. While reading the steps, this person descended into delusional talk. They really didn’t know what was real.

A couple of us put our hands on the person’s arms, trying to help them stop their rambling, but they just descended further. Finally another person came over and said, “Let’s go outside,” helped the person out of their chair, and escorted them out. And stayed with them for half an hour. And another person took over reading the steps.

This ill person sometimes calls me. And I sometimes call them to check on them.

Sometimes, this person talks as though they might want to end it.

Sometimes, even in Death Valley, flowers bloom.

This touches a still-raw nerve in me: when I was a kid, somebody very important to me, about my age, talked as though they wanted to end it. They had a plan: they had, they said, the materials to carry it out. And at 16 and 17, I was made to be responsible for determining this person’s state of mind. I had to talk with this person and report back what they said to the people who were responsible for them. I did this because I loved them and because I didn’t know, at 16 and 17, how else to behave when asked by adults to do these things.

(I’m talking vaguely on purpose: I don’t want to breach this person’s privacy. But the fact is, what happened back then still impinges on how I feel, how I’m tempted to make decisions, today. Do you know what I mean?)

When I was a kid we had a magnet stuck to our fridge that said, “He Ain’t Heavy / He’s My Brother.” I was taught that I Am My Brother’s Keeper. Cain and Abel.

And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel your brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

(We didn’t read the King James version; we were Catholics; but I like the language)

I said this to a couple of my friends after the close of that meeting the other day.

“I was taught that I’m my brother’s keeper,” I said.

“That’s unfortunate,” said one of my friends. “Because that’s not true. You can’t keep everyone safe. Sometimes you can’t help.”

Sometimes I Can’t Help.

(Can I? Can I? … Trust God, Clean House, Help Others.)

I’ve actually thought about going to this person’s psychiatric appointments with them. They have hardly anybody in their life to look out for them, and I have a lot of experience negotiating health care systems.

I’ve thought about taking them into my house so they’re not so lonely and desperate. I mean, in the old days people took addicts and alcoholics into their houses and helped them out. Right? They did for them what they could not do for themselves.

(Who has delusions of grandeur here? Whose ego is blown to drastic proportions? Who fancies herself The Savior?)

It’s hard for me to admit my powerlessness over other people. It is so difficult for me to resist taking care of other people. It is my first “drug of choice”—saving people, taking care of other people, making other people feel better. It comes from having had responsibilities foisted on me at too young an age.

I was too young, at 17, to be climbing into a suicidal person’s head and reporting back. But the reality is, it made me feel competent, effective. Powerful.

It set me up to want to get high off this power-trip later in life.

My sponsor would say,

The question is not “Why did this happen?” The question is, what are you going to do now?

“But what if they decide to top themselves?” I asked. I could feel my throat constrict and my eyes burn with the memory of the person in the past talking about a cyanide pill they’d said they had. (This person also grew up in an alcoholic family, though they still, to this day, refuse to admit it. Fortunately, they’re still alive and well.)

“Then they will be dead. And that will be very, very sad,” my friend said. “But this program is not to help with mental illness. The best thing you can do is direct them to the people who can help them.”

I know someone else in the program who suffered with mental illness and who ended it recently. People with experience in mental health services tried to help him.

I know another person in the program whose son texted her the other day that he was going to end his life.

I’m thinking about these people today.

My sponsor would say,

Prayer is very powerful.

Part of me scoffs at her and says it’s all bullshit, I prayed my entire childhood and terrible stuff happened, prayer sucks.

Part of me believes her. The part that believes her prays.

Sometimes I want to get even more honest than usual on this blog. I hope you don’t mind.

If you’ve experienced something like this, I’d like very much to hear from you.

Helping Others vs. Helping Yourself

Got a call from someone yesterday who is dealing with her grown child’s addiction. My friend’s desperate concern for her kid—who is an adult now—made me remember my own desire to save my parents from the consequences of their actions. The need to “help” them was a kind of physical need, a feeling that squeezed my belly and choked my throat, made me weep.

Because my friend is recovering from her own addiction, the feeling for her is strong: she understands what it means to want recovery, and she knows the steps to take to get it.

“Can you make your kid want it?” I asked. I was thinking about my father. My mother, too, for that matter. And my son—who does not have an addiction, but who nevertheless I want to “help” all the time.

She sighed.

I can’t make anyone want anything. The time has long passed since I could “make” my kid do anything, and he’s only 13—14 next week.

My program of recovery from addiction tells me to “trust God, clean house, and help others.” Working on the first two seems straightforward; though I’ve always had trouble with step 3, I know what the project is: surrender to a power other than myself. And being my mother’s daughter, I bloody well know how to “clean house,” in all its meanings. (Cleaning the bathroom—the one bathroom in our house, used by five people, including two men—was my job when I lived at home. And my mother didn’t “believe” in rubber gloves. Blech.)

But “helping others”—that part plugs right into my compulsion to Fix People.

I worked an Al-Anon program for 10 years but didn’t grasp this idea until I came out of my own addiction three years ago. I had taken drugs because of the headaches and other physical pain caused in part by the strain of a lifetime of compulsively helping others. My mission in life: making sure my son didn’t experience the difficulties and pain I went through as a kid. Mission impossible.

I thought that, in taking the drugs, I was taking care of myself—helping myself to do my job, which was to Fix It for everyone else. (I wasn’t trusting God or cleaning house. If I trusted God and cleaned house, I’d have known I wasn’t in charge of my kid’s life, and I’d have known where he stopped and I began.)

I came to understand that I have this habit of sticking myself between a rock and a hard place. It’s where I spent much of my childhood and where I feel most at home: squeezed to death.

What if I didn’t have to live that way anymore? What would life be like?

In what other places might I be at home?

What if I could allow other people to take responsibility for their feelings and lives?

I’m at this point with my kid. He’s turning 14, and he made a pitch to buy himself “Call of Duty”—a shoot-to-kill video game that has been compared to video war-games the military uses to train troops. “All” his friends have it, he said.

We’re a Quaker family. “Call of Duty” doesn’t exactly fit with the testimony of peace, for which the Society of Friends was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

When my mother made a decision, she put her foot down: “Not in our family.” And that would have been the end of it.

On the other hand, my husband’s parents apparently allowed him to do what he wanted. “What would your dad have said about ‘Call of Duty’?” I asked him two nights ago. I loved my father-in-law.

“They never supervised me,” he said. This is a boy who was sent away to school at 7 until he graduated from Oxford at 22.

“They just let you do what you wanted? So if you had the money, you could buy whatever—girlie magazines, guns?”

“I had an air rifle, but I never bought girlie magazines,” he said. “They let me make my own mistakes. They trusted me to do the right thing, to come out right.”

I wasn’t allowed to dream, to experiment, to make mistakes. I’m making up for that now. Better late than never.

“It’s rated ‘Teen,’” my husband said, “I think we should let him do it.” We told him we’d trust him to do the right things in playing this game: to be mindful not to play it compulsively; not to allow it to feed into violence. It was an amends to myself to take my son to buy “Call of Duty” last night. I stood in the yarn store waiting for him to pay in the game shop next door.

Then he comes to the door, saying the staff needed me to OK the purchase since it’s rated “Mature.”

“We thought it was rated ‘Teen,’” I said. I got on the horn to my husband to make sure we were still on the same page, while my son stood in the shop, doing a tap-dance, telling me they had it “in the bag” on the counter and I couldn’t go back now. “You’re not seriously calling Dad,” he said. He could see his desire going down the drain.

“I can do what I need to do,” I told him. “As long as you haven’t given them money, they can put it back on the shelf.” Keep the focus on yourself, my Al-Anon sponsor has told me since Day One. Do what you need to take care of you first.

In the end we decided to let him do it. He came home and finished some work before going upstairs to try it out.

Quentin Blake Zagazoo

The kid in Zagazoo turns into a “strange, hairy creature.” Sound familiar?

“Help” is an ancient word with roots all over Scandinavia, Germany, Denmark and other Teutonic countries. It means “to assist, to give aid.” There is a difference between Helping Someone and Fixing Someone. I spent years trying to fix my son, and I was invested in the outcomes. When I help my son, I assist him in seeing his options and then I give him the dignity of his choice and let him live with the consequences. The outcome is his. (It’s really HP’s.) One of the most difficult jobs as a parent: watching a kid deal with the consequences of his mistakes. Better done earlier than later, in my opinion.

But better done late than never.

On a lighter note: one of the best books I’ve read about parenting is Quentin Blake’s Zagazoo.

 

 

On Resentment, Codependency, and Recovery from Addiction

 

Resentments are built from feelings about stuff that’s past—water over the dam. But we choose to feel the feelings over and over again.

Nurturing a real resentment makes me know how much energy it takes to remain angry and hurt about something.

Since I started taking the 12 steps for my addiction in 2008 I’ve worked hard to root out resentment from my life. I’ve taken seriously the direction to pray to be divorced from self-pity or self-seeking motives. I can see now that this prayer has largely been effective. I’ve lived much of the last year, especially, free of resentment. (Fear is another matter. Still praying to be released from fear)

But something happened about 10 days ago that really made me angry. Somebody stepped on me and made accusations that were entirely false, but whose import and assumptions hurt me a great deal. They hurt because my conduct bears strong witness to the contrary.

Actually they hurt because in order to be OK I need people to recognize that G Is Above Reproach. I know this from having done inventories for the last two-and-a-half years. Bullshit pride. If I were really OK within myself, I wouldn’t need other people to recognize it.

My process is this: I get through the initial crisis real well, I’m calm and centered and even cheerful, I encourage THE OTHER PERSON through their feelings, and they get to a place where they find peace, and they’re soooo grateful to me for helping them! (another part of the pride: I can Fix People) Then after everyone settles down, the hatches are all battened, I start feeling really angry. Because I’ve stuffed my own feelings belowdecks and spent a lot of time taking care of someone else, policing the grounds, and making sure the territory is weapon-free.

When everything calms down, I fall apart.

A very old M.O., learned in a chaotic alcoholic family.

I also come down with actual physical pain, headaches, and terrible exhaustion. I’m insomniac. Which is why I started taking the drugs in the first place. Pain, insomnia, and overwhelming exhaustion. The drugs, I remembered clearly this week (with a kind of clarity that made my mouth water)—they took care of all that. I could plow through the pain and exhaustion and take care of bidness, and Not-Care that I was so angry.

I can see clearly, from my vantage point inside my resentment, the difference between resentment and anger. Anger can be OK, it can tell us when something dangerous or threatening has happened, it can motivate us to positive action, it can be energizing and productive and protective. Resentment is just sickness. It’s just picking a scab. It’s putrefying.

It’s also exhausting to stay angry about something that’s over. It takes a lot of energy.

A psychologist told me recently (I may have mentioned this before; forgive me if I have; it’s something I’ve been thinking about) that children are sort of genetically programmed to keep the family together. I can remember now how many times I did this for my mother. She’d have a fight with my father (clarification: she’d fight with my father; my father would just drink and listen to her fighting) and come back to me crying, complaining about what an insensitive bastard he was, etc. ad nauseam, and I’d listen and calm her down and commiserate and encourage her that things would be OK. Then I’d go to my room and absolutely fall apart. I didn’t know what was happening to me, of course. (I also wasn’t fully cognizant that she talked about me behind my back, too, in the same way she talked about my father) What I thought I knew was that I hated my father and loved my mother. After she died and all her crazy behavior stopped, I came to learn that my father was a very gentle man who hardly ever roused himself to anger—it was my mother who incited him to hit us.

Anyhow. All that is water that’s now downstream. It’s OVER.

Except it has carved paths across my terrain that remain very deeply grooved. Every day is a choice to behave in a different way, to FIND a different path, to take steps down this path, to be guided by something more powerful and healing than this sickness.

I had trouble writing my gratitude list last night. Another consequence of resentment: the withering of gratitude. Today I am grateful for:

  • the cloudy sky
  • good friends
  • the hug my son gave me when he first got up this morning
  • watching a movie with my family last night
  • my flower garden
  • my daily bread
  • hot tea
  • my comfortable bed
  • my sobriety
  • this blog, which helps me let things go—and for your willingness to read

What are you grateful for?

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