Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: courage to change

Recovery: From Pneumonia, From Self-Censorship.

Last time I wrote, my editorial about how addiction is not a crime was coming out. (In case you want to read it: here it is.) After it ran, I got really sick. I was ill already, but my cough got worse, I could hardly talk without coughing, and I couldn’t sleep.

I tried everything—antibiotics, steroids, allergy medicine, expectorant, plain Robitussin. So my doctor gave me prescription cough syrup. Not codeine, as I expected, but my very favorite awesomest drug on the face of the planet: hydrocodone, in Hydromet syrup. “Take it for a little while,” she said, “and get some rest and your body will heal.”

I’ve known addicts who, before they got sober, used to carry bottles of hydrocodone syrup around in their purses and take a nip or a slug every so often. I knew one person who had trouble quitting his smoking habit in part because every so often the tar in the butts would give him bronchitis, and this would enable him to get Hycodan (same drug, different name).

I told everyone: sponsor, meetings, a bunch of people on Facebook, anyone who would listen, “I have to take hydrocodone for this cough.” Be careful, they said. The weird thing is, I was taking it when my op-ed ran. So people were writing in to thank me for speaking up for addicts, and there I was, on a drug.

The drug stopped my cough, but my body didn’t heal. The cough came back worse when the drug ran out. It was dry; it strained my back and sides and finally I had to go back to the doctor and tell them I wanted to know what the hell was going on with my lungs. My doctor was on vacation; I saw another doctor who conducted a more thorough history and ruled out a bunch of stuff and decided I had “atypical pneumonia.” Walking pneumonia, from some kind of extraordinary tiny little microbe that produces almost no phlegm. So she gave me a different antibiotic. And she refilled the Hydromet.

I didn’t tell as many people, because there’s only so much patience you can expect addicts to show about how you’re allowed to use your favorite drug. I mean, alcoholics never go to meetings and say, “I’m allowed to drink this week.” I didn’t want to sit in meetings and tell them, “I get to use my drug-of-choice AGAIN!—psych.” Still, I didn’t abuse the drugs, and I didn’t get obsessed with them.

Instead, I just got sad all over again.

//

The antibiotic and the cough syrup ran out four days ago. The cough mostly went away, and now it’s coming back again. I seem to be powerless over it.

Or am I?

People have volunteered a lot of explanations for why my lungs have been sick for six weeks.

“Are you barking at the world?” someone asked me. “Do you need to be heard? Are you trying to shut yourself up?”

“Lung illnesses are about grief,” another person said. “You must be experiencing delayed grief, or anticipatory grief, or fear of letting go of something.”

“Who’s choking you?” someone else demanded. “Who’s trying to gag you or shove something down your throat?”

One may well ask.

My friend P at first told me I have to “speak up” in situations where I feel silenced. (She consulted her amazing Dutch Medical Bible that gives insights into all human ailments—I love to hear her translations.) The morning after I got the pneumonia diagnosis, on the way to the dog park, I texted her to ask if she could look up “pneumonia” in her bible. I expected like two sentences, but she photocopied a whole page of the book and brought it to me. Under “Longontsteking” (pneumonia), it told me why, apparently, I’m sick (“You’ve ended up in a life which is not appropriate for your real, true nature: an unconscious choice. Thus you must liberate yourself…” it began). And here’s what it said I have to do to heal:

Let yourself not be determined by past roads, or by a partner, etc. Build a new life on a more stable basis than formerly: on your deep, powerful Self. Draw your roots up from the old ground and hurry them elsewhere. Realize your complete existence and its dignity. Become conscious in each cell of your body. Turning away from your own divine source doesn’t let that internal fire heat your body.

It just kept on hitting the nail on the head.

I’m sitting there in the dog park and P is reading this to me sentence by sentence, from Dutch to English. The dogs are chasing each other through the grass, dew is covering everything, including my back and my butt, because we’re sitting on a dew-covered bench (“I don’t care, I’m wet already,” P said), and I’m listening like Nic Cage hearing Cher “tell him his life” in Moonstruck. Except I don’t then jump up and upend the bench and kiss P. I sit there and try to hold back my tears, and I cough.

My Deep, Powerful Self.

Draw my roots up.

The internal fire heating my body.

And get this part:

Babies and children with pneumonia: the above causes are also sometimes the parent’s experience. So when you help yourself, you thus help your child.

//

Let me tell you a story: Baby G had pneumonia when she was two months old. Normal pneumonia, double-lung pneumonia. The phlegm consolidated under G’s fragile baby-kitten ribs and she couldn’t breathe. It was December 1964, Christmas week. G’s folks drove G back to Braddock General Hospital, where she’d been born, and Dr. Tomlin put tiny baby G (she had been born very small, 6 lbs. 2 oz.) into an oxygen tent. Back then they didn’t have ventilators or even isolettes—they’d make a little cloth tent, and they’d pump oxygen into it. If G’s mother had lit a cigarette (they used to let you smoke in hospitals; the way she told it, she smoked right up until she pushed in each of her pregnancies), she might have blown the whole place sky-high.

The nurses sent G’s folks home, and instead of going home they went to G’s father’s family church—the Croatian church where just a month before G had been baptized. They knelt and prayed in front of the manger (back then, the church doors were open day and night). The church was dark, and the pastor came out and saw that G’s mother was crying. They told the priest about the baby in the tent, and he patted G’s mother’s shoulder. “Go home and go to sleep,” he said in his Slavic accent, “I vill pray for baby. Baby vill be fine.” And G’s parents made their way back to their newlywed apartment, in the latticed shadow of the roller coasters of the old-style amusement park.

Meanwhile, back at Braddock General, Dr. Tomlin was working overtime, monitoring the baby, giving her minute doses of a relatively new drug called penicillin. She was so small and so sick and the drug was so new (less than 20 years old in clinical use at that point) that his pediatric training hadn’t yet taught him how much to give her.

In the morning G’s parents came back, and the baby’s fever had broken.

What saved G—was it “God” and/or G’s parents, and/or the priest, and/or the doctor, and/or the drug??

//

Who knows. But my mother blamed the pneumonia on my “immature lungs” and someone with a cold. She never took a look at her own contribution to the situation. It was a long time before I considered how dangerous for a baby it might have been to put her in a house full of smoke.

At any rate, I’m alive today. Even if I do have pneumonia.

My mother is not. And neither is my father.

Become conscious in each cell of my body.

Realize my complete existence and its dignity.

And to stay alive, my life has to keep changing. An amends to myself.

Sober Life: Negotiating Transitions

Today is the first day of school.

Addicts always have a tough time with transitions, or so it’s said.

transition n. the process or period of changing from one state or condition to another

Makes sense. I hear a lot of people talk about how they drank or used in an effort to stabilize their feelings, to achieve some kind of steady state or condition. At first we want to feel the way we felt in the beginning, when we took the first drink or pill or whatever; then we just want to feel not-sick. Or we just want to not-feel. Constantly.

The operative word in the definition: “change.” Transition is about when the drug or dopamine spike starts coming down. Or the moment when we want to stop feeling one way and start feeling another.

Haven’t written lately about “things they say in the rooms,” but one thing my sponsor is fond of saying is:

You can’t feel your way into right action

You act your way into right thinking

My Al-Anon sponsor is also fond of saying:

Feelings aren’t facts

I felt a bit pissed this morning when I discovered the school district had changed my son’s bus stop to an intersection that’s a known drug corner. Don’t the people at the district keep track of this stuff? where the hell do they live? On one side of the corner there’s a beer distributor; on another side there’s a nuisance bar; across the street, where he’d catch the bus, there are abandoned houses and a boarded-up Kentucky Fried Chicken. There’s some major development happening on this street, and I haven’t driven down there at 8 a.m. for a while so I don’t know if it’s still the case, but it used to be that you could watch hookers trailing home in the early morning all along that stretch.

This was the peak of my pique; it had begun last week when the bus-stop notice came in the mail, with my son’s name on it and all the other slots (pickup location, time, bus number) blank—and when I tried to call the district, no answer, not even a voicemail.

And BTW, the first day of school means all of us working moms have a ton of work to catch up on.

It helps to look at the facts: I have a car I can use to drive my kid to school. (Additional fact: many other parents don’t.) I don’t have to report to an office at a certain time. I’ve been able to give my kid a cell phone so he can call if he runs into problems. Also: yes, this bus stop is not too far from our house, which means, yes, drugs are being dealt three or four blocks away—but our neighborhood is relatively safe, with a great deal of development taking place on the main drags—three major medical centers; a Whole Foods shop; an enormous supermarket; excellent restaurants that book weeks ahead. Many abandoned storefronts are being reopened, and our neighborhood is officially “happening.”

So the drug-corner bus-stop is what they call a “luxury problem.” Nobody is on fire, here, and we can wait for it to be solved.

Shit happens, and sometimes when shit happened I used to call my dad. (Calling my mother was like opening a backdraft into a house fire. Explosions; emergencies; orders barked on bullhorns.) Dad was an alcoholic, he died in 2007 of his alcoholism, but he was a placid drinker—he didn’t fire guns, punch faces, break bones or glass or furniture; he drank because he “liked beer,” he said, and also to “relax.” (He would, admittedly, become so “relaxed” that he would fall asleep weeknights around 8:30 or 9.)

But Dad had a couple primary messages that stuck. One was: There are two ways to look at everything—the positive way and the negative way. I used to hate it when he said this, because it branded me as “negative,” and I didn’t know how to change. … I now think there are more than two ways to look at everything, and I teach my son this; but I get his point, and I also teach that to my son.

The second was: It will all work out OK.

I mean, I could get cynical here and say, How does it all work out OK, Dad, when your wife dies at 58 and you yourself die at 68? When my kid has no grandparents nearby at all? (His other grandparents are overseas; and one of them died this year. So he has one left, and though she’s an amazing Granny, with a killer sense of humor and a big heart, she’s 3,000 miles away. My parents, on the other hand, lived 15 miles down the road.)

It all DOES work out OK, though. If I look at reality as it is, and accept it, I am forced to say that it is working out OK. Maybe not as I’d have wanted it to 10 or 20 years ago (or even, with regard to the bus stop, last week), but it IS OK.

One way it works out OK: I stay in today. Another way: I ask other people for help. My sister and I sometimes call each other to tell each other it’ll all work out OK.

“His bus stop is now on a drug-corner,” I told my sister, who lives in suburban Wisconsin.

“There ARE some things to be said for the suburbs,” she said, chuckling.

Sometimes we ask each other: What would Daddy say?

“It’ll all be OK,” the other one will reply.

(We skip over the fact that, most times, he also would have said, “How about a beer?”)

The Beach Boys.

Here’s a song that reminds me of my Dad and his message… I discovered after Dad died that he loved the Beach Boys. Found a bunch of Beach Boys tapes in a kitchen drawer and in the red Mustang convertible with white leather seats that he bought after my mother died. Makes sense… He liked doo-wop music and fifties culture, and he taught all his kids to hear harmonies—a skill that, for me, translated from music into literature and the rest of life. At Christmas we’d often sing carols in five-part harmony, with Dad singing bass, standing in back and rocking on his heels. I like to sing Mike Love’s bottom part, the one that goes:

Now, don’t—don’t you worry, babe

 

Addiction Is a Medical Illness: Bill Clinton Shows How

Quote for the day:

Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.—George Carlin

Addiction is the disease of “more”…

Since I passed one year last week, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. Last year when I relapsed it seemed impossible that I’d be able to put together another year clean, much less Really Sober. Using again took me by surprise. … I’ve wondered what it is that makes it possible for some people to choose to keep moving in healthy ways, while others continue to pick destructive paths. Part of it, I think, is having people around you who believe in you, or on whom you can’t give up. A lot of people, for example, say they get sober for their families, in particular their kids.

But I also believe there has to be a kind of deep central belief in oneself. A love for oneself. I never thought I had this. When men would tell me they loved me, I’d be like, “Why?” I could never see why, and I could never get enough of hearing it.  …

But I’m finding out I have it. Self-respect.

A Quaker friend sent me a story from the NYT’s Well Blog about the China Study—a book about how eating plant-based whole foods will reverse heart disease, prevent diabetes, and work all sorts of other health wonders. I checked it out. I read as much of it on Amazon as I could, then ordered the book, which will come tomorrow. The author, T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., talks about these facts: medicine has become an industry in this country, just the way food-production has, and both industries protect profits before the wellbeing of their patients/customers. They will do everything they can, including plant spies, to silence even good science so that profits will keep rolling in.

The China Study is a 25-year-partnership between Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine in Beijing. It has demonstrated two things:

  • eating lots of animal-based foods (including dairy and eggs) is linked with more chronic illness, and
  • eating lots of plant-based foods is linked with greater health.

Simple, as most effective practices are. And Campbell wanted to lay out his story, his evidence, and let readers make up their own minds, he said.

But when he tried to publish it, he said, his agent shopped it around New York and all the editors (probably guided by their sales reps) wanted Campbell to make more than two-thirds of the pages recipes. They didn’t care about the science, they just wanted to make the book pretty so it would be guaranteed to Sell More Books. So they would Make More Money.

“They wanted to dumb it down,” he said. As usual, with systems driven by addiction.

So he said, Screw that, and he took it to a little tiny publisher down in Texas where they published the book as it was (although admittedly with the façade of a Workman or Rodale title).

And it has sold half a million copies. Now that it’s appeared in Tara Parker-Pope’s column, it will likely sell another several truckloads. I bet Workman and Crown are biting their knuckles.

Bill Clinton closeupWhat I wanted to tell you about though was this story: Bill Clinton decided to become a vegan after reading The China Study. He’s 64, he lost 24 lbs., he’s back to weighing what he weighed in high school and is hoping to reverse his heart disease. He says he wants to be around to see his grandchildren.

Now this really got me. Because my parents are not around to see their grandchildren. They knew they weren’t in great health, but they didn’t take charge of their situations and make changes so they could be around.

Bill researched this big change. Of course, unlike addiction, heart disease itself does not include a component that tells you that you don’t actually have a disease—however, many people with heart disease are addicted to the foods that have caused their disease, making it difficult for them to make the changes necessary to kick-start their innate healing powers.

Bill has done some stupid and compulsive things in his career, things that I’ve heard some people say make him an addict or like an addict. Whatever—apparently, he loves his daughter. She asked him to lose 15 lbs. for her wedding. An amazing request. (I can just picture asking my dad, who had a lifelong enormous beer-belly, to lose weight for my wedding—or for any reason.)

And he did. He lost 20 lbs.

The stents, designed to keep his coronary veins open, were already clogging up with cholesterol. He started out by evaluating his options. Here is Bill talking about his plant-based eating:

So I did all this research and I saw that 82 percent of the people since 1986 who have gone on a plant-based, no dairy, no meat of any kind—no chicken, turkey—I eat very little fish, once in a while I’ll have a little fish, not often—if you can do it, 82 percent of the people who’ve done that have begun to heal themselves. Their arterial blockage clears up. The calcium deposits around their heart breaks up. … We now have 25 years of evidence. And so I thought . . . I’ll become part of this experiment. I’ll see if I can be one of those that can have a self-clearing mechanism.

Operative phrase: “If you can do it.” Operative power: one greater than yourself.

Addicts who contemplate joining a 12-step program that requires abstinence from addictive substances usually balk first at the abstinence part. Why do I have to abstain? Then they balk at all the hard work they have to do while they’re working to abstain. Why do I have to do all this hard work? Why can’t I just be cured?

Well, Holy Fried Pork Rinds, Batman. Change is hard.

How is Bill Clinton’s story of abstaining from all animal-based food for the past year any different from any alcoholic’s or addict’s story of abstaining from all alcohol and drugs? Bill was a Southern boy raised, no doubt, on fried chicken and biscuits made with lard, slathered with butter and gravy; I grew up in a house always stocked with beer, with people who drank and smoked all the time, as a way of life. Now we’re making changes so we can be around for other people, and for ourselves…

Both Bill and I are making nutritional changes.

We’re both exercising.

We’re both taking care of business.

To get back to T. Colin Campbell Ph.D. for a second. This story exemplifies the way in which addiction is a “medical illness.”

It’s a medical illness NOT because there’s a pill or gene out there, yet to be discovered, that will cure addicts and make drug manufacturers rich.

It’s a medical illness because it is a condition that can be treated by simple changes—in what we put into our bodies, and how we use them, and why.

Sayings From the Rooms: Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes

They say,

Nothing changes
if
nothing changes

Another way of saying this is another thing they say:

If you do what you always did,
you’ll get what you always got

A lot of us wrestle with habits other than “drugs” or “alcohol.” We eat sugar. We shop online. We have sex. We smoke. We don’t think these are problems until we bump  into walls.

Lots of people don’t think smoking is drug-use. It’s been well established, ever since Jeffrey Wigand testified against Big Tobacco, that cigarettes are nicotine-delivery devices scientifically crafted to maximize the effects of nicotine on the neurological system. Nicotine is an addictive drug.

I was at a meeting the other night where a friend of mine was talking about how she gave up smoking. She’d quit drinking and gotten sober and had changed her life, she said, and saved her cigs for the times when she really needed to control her “stress.” … I’ve heard so many people with addiction talk about how kicking nicotine was harder than quitting heroin or booze. My friend said she’d never thought that her smoking was a problem until her kid piped up one day:

Oh, look, Mommy! There’s the cigarettes you smoke when you’re mad!

She gave up cigarettes after that.

SugarThis made me think about the times I eat sugar. I eat it when I’m upset. I eat it habitually. I eat it because I’ve always eaten it. I eat it because it’s what I do. … It makes me feel good for a while, it comforts me, then it makes me tired; it gives me headaches. It makes me sad: classic sugar-crash. I could give you a technical rundown on what happens with the insulin overload, but it would be boring.

I have to give up sugar.

It’s the last thing.

It would be cool not to be a slave to anything anymore.

It would also be cool to eat real food. Not to hunt through the cupboards for “fun” trash all the time. It would require me to plan meals, to balance my life so that I pay attention to what I eat.

Mindfulness practice—meditation—brought me here… I’ll write about that next time.

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