Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: control

Jewish Wisdom About Addiction.

Rabbi Danny Schiff.

Rabbi Danny Schiff.

I hardly ever cross a bridge in this city of 950 million bridges, but I went to the suburbs to hear a rabbi talk about addiction. Danny Schiff, who splits his time between Pittsburgh and Jerusalem, is the scholar in charge of adult education for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.

As a middle-aged woman who was raised strict Catholic (but let that go more than 30 years ago), I found his remarks refreshing in their recasting of some of the Bible figures I’d grown up with. For example, Schiff said Noah was the world’s first addict.

Noah giving directions for the ark. (Wine not pictured.)

Noah giving orders for the ark. (Wine not in picture.)

Whoa. I either never learned or had forgotten this, but Schiff said that when Noah gets God’s directive to build a sealed boat fit for one pair of every animal on earth so He can go ahead with his plan to demolish the planet (only a male god would think this is an awesome solution to anything, imo), apparently Noah has the same instincts many of us would have had: he runs to the cellar to pick out a few bottles of vino.

And then, Schiff said, “he has shame about what he does when he drinks.”

Think “blackout.”

“Noah had a problem with life,” Schiff said. “He underwent an enormous life-transition.” Well, hell yeah: imagine living conditions inside a sealed boat with the planet’s largest animals doing what they do best.

But then he said: “Something about Noah’s life made the wine seem like the only solution.” Bingo. And addiction does not automatically make people morally bad, he said: Noah is described as “the most righteous man of his generation.”


Schiff has never counseled anyone with addiction, and he doesn’t have addiction in his family. He said Jews have no standard set of texts about addiction the way they do with other problems of life. The problem of addiction, he said, is “at once as old as time, and also has been outside Jewish conversation.”

We have denied that Jews could be involved in addiction. We say, “Jews know how to moderate drinking—just take a little Kiddush wine.” We have Purim—the one time in the year that we’re allowed to overindulge. But we have as many alcoholics as any other group in society.


Addiction, Schiff said, can be seen as a kind of “physical reductionism,” or materialism: we rely on a physical substance to solve problems whose structures are essentially spiritual. He said although most people identify 12-step organizations as Christian, when read through the Jewish lens of “teshuvah” or “return,” “the twelve steps read like a process of how to return my life to God.”

Another stunning statement:

Jews introduced the world to the idea of a personal god who cares about humans.

Wow. I don’t even know how to fact-check that idea, but it’s pretty powerful, simply considering how old the spiritual practice of Judaism is. (That would be more than five millennia.)

To illustrate the idea of “teshuvah,” which he said most Jews misunderstand as “repentance” but which really means a spiritual “return,” he quoted a verse from Genesis:

Behold, I am with you, and I will not leave you until you have returned from whence you came.

The Bible’s various phrasings have God promising to bring the Jewish people back to their land. But the way Schiff interpreted this verse is different: it can be read as God promising to accompany humans on their life’s paths, and not leaving us until we’ve returned to our mysterious origins.

These words draped a little veil of comfort around me. As long-time readers of this blog may remember, I have a little tiny problem with the God-thing. That problem has grown in the last three years or so. When my marriage broke down, I fired God’s ass, and I had security escort Him the hell out of the building. I’ve fired God before, and then rehired God (with more or less lengthy probationary periods). But firing God is pretty unhealthy for me. The first time I fired God was in 1999, the year my mother died at age 58, and that was the beginning of my descent into uncontrollable pill-popping.


The fact that Schiff was so naïve about addiction actually helped him see the problem in the terms he’d see any problem. In that way, he normalized it: it’s a problem, like any of life’s other problems, and we can use the same principles with it that we’d use to think about any problem.

For example, he said:

Ultimately, if you think you’re in control of your life, you are delusional.

He stole this line from “Kung-Fu Panda.” 🙂 One of my best friends quite often quotes Master Oogway’s lecture to Shifu: “You have to let go of the illusion of control.”

Nota bene: you don’t have to let go of control. You have to let go of your illusion (or, as Schiff would say, your delusion).

So Noah went home and got fucked up, but he followed orders and built the ark.

“We are required to get on with life,” Schiff said.

Life is to be lived, not saved.

Shit Happens. And Shit Is Unknown.

A quick post—I am hard at work and have only a few minutes, but I needed to write this for my beloved friend P, who is still in Holland.

P has been going back and forth to Holland for almost a year, tending to her mother, whose health in her mid-80s has been in decline. She bought a ticket three weeks ago when she was told her mother had suffered another setback. Her mother had asked the nursing-home staff to email her daughter a photograph of herself in her nursing-home bed for Mother’s Day:

P's mom in Holland on Mother's Day, 2013.

P’s mom in Holland on Mother’s Day, 2013.

Een dikke kus van Ma!—A big fat kiss from Mom.

Gosh. It has been 14 years since I had a kiss from my mom, who died June 3, 1999.

It’s hard for P to be so far away from her mom. “She’s just worried about ME having a good day,” P said to me during our morning walk and her eyes spilled over. “She’s only thinking of me.”

That’s the kind of mom I want to be. I want to let my kid go and do his life, even if it’s in another country, on another continent, or in the same house. My first real exercise will come this summer. He’s 15 and can go wherever he wants in our city.

P and I have talked a great deal about how we can’t know when life’s great changes will happen, when the shit will finally come down. Useless to walk around holding an umbrella over my head. I have to live and practice enough flexibility, spontaneity and ingenuity to respond to life’s surprises. I meditate to discipline my mind, prying its rigid fingers off the stories it writes before the shit happens. Trying, always, to dictate the story arc (I usually have several running at once).

P booked the ticket. Then, once she got there, she worried: that something would happen.

That, this time, nothing would happen.

//

I was talking with some women in recovery this morning. We meet up early Thursdays and this morning I was talking about some changes in my life, telling them I’m responding with as much flexibility, spontaneity and ingenuity as I can but that I’m still procrastinating on some tasks, that it feels as though I’m letting myself down, Letting God Down, and that when all is said and done, I can’t control everything—Shit Happens.

“But shit is unknown,” one of my friends said. “We can’t know what shit’s going to happen. That’s what makes change so unnerving.”

Yes.

To get out of my head, to stop compulsively controlling The Story, I’ve been walking P’s dog, Ginger, three or four times a week, along with my dog, Flo. I’ve been doing this since P started going away. I herd Flo into the back seat and drive to P’s house at around 8, by which time everyone else in P’s family is at school or work. Ginny jumps on me (I can hear P telling her to get down) and, even though I shouldn’t when she jumps like that, I give her treats and kisses because she smells like P’s perfume and because she loves me, because I miss P and I want to make her dog happy even if I can’t make her happy—even if I can’t see the smile on her face, even if I can’t feel her arm threaded through my elbow as we walk.

Walking Ginger and Flo takes me two hours. They’re big dogs (Flo is only 45 lbs. but she has a big-dog attitude), and I sometimes walk five or six miles to do it. In the summer P and I will spend three or four (sometimes five) mornings each week walking the dogs together.

P taught me that dogs actually smile. Especially Labradors.

Ginger and Flo.

Ginger and Flo.

Natural mood-lifter.

Saturday I walked Flo, and P’s husband, whose name is also P, walked Ginger. The off-leash park is around the corner from their Loft/House and we walked up the hill in chilly, damp air. I’m training wiry Flo to obey and stocky Ginger to jump:

G with Flo, Ginger, and Tyson.

G with Flo, Ginger, and Tyson.

Sunday and Monday I didn’t sleep well. In the small hours Tuesday I woke and checked my phone: an email from P titled “Sad”:

My mom passed away this morning 7:10 Dutch time.

Two hours before I woke.

That morning I walked Ginger and Flo and on my way up the hill passed a sign hanging from an electrical box:

IMG_0629

So I took a “motivator” for P. It was a handwritten poem, maybe put there as a project by neo-hip-hop-folk-rapper students at the school across the street. It’s about Unknown Shit About To Happen.

Running like the wind

Fast, faster, fast as can be

Running to wondrous things

To a life full of possibilities

No more lying around

Sitting and lazing on the ground

Nothing will come to me if I don’t go and get it

So I’ll run towards the things I want to get

And I don’t care anymore if I have to sweat

And as I run I see all new things

Different lands with all kinds of shapes and beings

I feel different airs

Smell different scents

And I can suddenly handle the idea of rent

For as I run I can see what can be

All sorts of fun is waiting for me

So I run and I run, until I can’t anymore

And then I decide to run some more

And although I’ve seen so much more now

I know that there’s so much more to make me go “wow”

And since you worry because I’ve never worked so hard

I’ll send you a letter saying “I’ve found my inner bard”

This bard tells me my journey’s just begun

And I know life’s about to get much more fun

And all because I decided to run

//

“When I come home,” P told me before she left, “I’m not leaving again for a long time.”

But who knows? We can’t know. She might fly off to Barcelona again, or to Siena, or run off to stay in the loft in New York City. I might drive to Boston or fly to Rome, book a train to Ancona and take a ferry to Zadar.

Zadar

Zadar, Croatia.

The fact is, when shit happens, my life usually gets a lot bigger. If I allow it. And I don’t think God cares whether I sail to Zadar, but I think God wants my life to be big.

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