Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: exercise (page 1 of 2)

The Secret My First Yoga Teacher Gave Me.

My first yoga teacher in this city was a woman named Rae Kline. I can’t remember when I started taking Rae’s classes—it was either around 1996, before I had my son, or in 1998, when he was a baby. Anyway it was a long time ago, almost 20 years.

Rae used to teach at the Friends Meeting House—the Quaker house, where my recovery home-group is now and where I’ve been going on Sundays for silent Meeting since 1992.

I was a yoga novice when I began studying with Rae—I still am a novice, really—so I don’t know what her discipline was. Yoga was so new back then that nobody talked about Iyengar or Bikram or Ashtanga or gurus or whatever. There was no Athleta or Lulu’s Crackhouse; yoga pants hadn’t been invented, much less recalled for being “too sheer.” Yoga was yoga. Vanilla. Generic. You brought your mat (there were no yoga studios in this city back then) and you did your Sun Salutations and your triangles and your downward dogs.

I learned one thing from Rae that has stayed with me all these years: Yoga is not about performance and twisting yourself into a pretzel. It’s about breath and coming back inside the body.

I did my first down-dog under Rae’s instruction. It was painful. I have broad shoulders and a persistent knot in my left shoulder blade that prevented me from achieving the flat back she wanted to see. “You may have some involvement in that shoulder,” I remember her telling me. I still have it.

But the center of Rae’s practice was the breath. She insisted we breathe into our lower bellies while inside the pose. She’d demonstrate what she wanted: She would sink deeply into the pose and show us that if a woman in her mid-60s could do this, then we could.

Then, after we’d spent what felt like some hours breathing into our lower bellies, she would tell us to “empty the breath from the lower belly,” and we emptied the breath from the belly—all the way. Completely empty. Then start again: breathe into the belly.

The same as what Thich Nhat Hanh says about breathing:

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.

I remember, around the time I was studying with Rae, being invited to join a friend for a yoga session at her gym. My friend told me it would be a combination of yoga and aerobics. I was like, Huh? But I went. And the session made absolutely no fucking sense to me. Here we were, a bunch of women in Lycra leggings and running shoes, dancing around in semi-triangles and quasi-warriors. I’d put my body into these half-poses, and all it wanted to do was sink in all the way and be still. And breathe into the lower belly.

I didn’t go back. I went home and put my body into downward dog the way Rae had taught me, and I breathed. And even though I was using drugs and headed into addiction, the practice stayed with me. It was a valuable foundation.

//

This morning I Googled Rae’s name just to see where she might be. Frankly I didn’t even know whether she was still alive. But I should have known better. Her body in her 60s is more awesome than mine is now in my late 40s, and she swore that yoga kept her youthful not only physically but also mentally and emotionally.

It turns out she’s now in California—teaching yoga, of course. Here is a photo of her from earlier this year, from a series of photos National Geographic did of folks who are living well into their old age.

Rae Kline, my first yoga teacher.

Rae Kline, my first yoga teacher.

She’s 83. Look at her!! And no Botox, no implants, nothing except her bright red lipstick.

That kind of flexibility can’t be confined to the body. When I become flexible in body, I also become flexible in mind and heart. (Of course the opposite is also true: when I become rigid in body, I also become rigid in mind and heart.)

Rae is the Athena of Yoga and she demonstrates the reasons a basic level of physical fitness is so important to our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. How lucky I was to have studied with her even for a short time.

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Introducing “Recovering the Body.”

Thanks to all those who, in my absence from this space, have been commenting on posts and writing in. I’m keeping up as much as I can while I begin a brand-new project that I think I can now announce—though the contract isn’t signed, it’s almost signed and I’ve been assured it’s happening.

In June, I was invited by Hazelden Publishing to write a new book about physical recovery from addiction. 

In fact there’s no book in the market like this, so it’s an awesome idea. They found me through this story I wrote last year for The Fix (sadly, now defunct) about four elite athletes who use exercise to stay sober. The idea for that story came from an exchange I had with a friend of mine, a writer, athlete and sober guy I met two years ago when he emailed Guinevere. In the way life works now, we have become close and he has given me a ton of moral and practical support.

So the help just goes around in a big circle. You catch it and you pass it on, a big game of Karmic Hot Potato. Is what I tell my kid, anyway. And what I tell my kid is usually what I need to hear.

The editor asked me to write a proposal, so one night I came up with an elegant design that has five chapters—exercise, nutrition, sleep, and sex, along with a chapter on meditation—to help readers understand the particular ways in which addiction to drugs and alcohol fucks up the body, and what physical discipline and care can do to restore not just physical health but also mental wellbeing and spiritual fitness.

"A Moment in Time," bronze cast by Roxanne Swentzell.

They bought it immediately. As in, within days. The contract is being finalized, and I will spend this fall and winter writing the manuscript. The book will be released as a lead title Fall 2014.

Amidst all that work it hadn’t even occurred to me to start a new site. I was too busy feeling crappy about not having time to push to this one. But a friend, a senior publicist at a big house in NYC, suggested over coffee at the café up the street—she lives in NYC but her boyfriend lives here, in fact five blocks from me—that I (duh) buy the domain name to my working title and make a space for my ideas, questions, stories, connections. A kind of online sketchbook, as my friend Paul said.

This way, you guys can have a way to contribute to the process. There’s a lot I don’t know, and I want to learn from you.

My intention is to keep publishing here when issues arise that concern the subject of this blog—getting and staying sober, as well as pet issues of mine (Suboxone use and abuse, for example, is still a massive blinking dot on my radar).

But I will be publishing stuff more often on my new site. I’ll ask you to share your ideas and experiences. I’ll be talking to some high-level athletes and professional experts and researchers, but mostly I’ll be talking to ordinary folks who squeeze (or who, like me, sometimes fail to squeeze) their exercise and nutrition regimens into their days, along with everything else they do, including working, parenting, and whatever constitutes their recovery programs. I’ll be talking with folks who feel like they might be going overboard, substituting exercise, food, sleep or sex for the drugs they used to use.

If you follow me on Facebook as Guinevere, I hope you’ll click the button below and follow me under my real name. That’s where I’ll be posting stuff about this new project. And if you have ideas and questions, please please please let me know.

Connect with Jen.

Running Uphill.

Clinging for dear life: A door-handle on a course I run.

I’ve come to like running as an exercise discipline for the same reasons I liked doing P90X last year: I don’t have to join a gym to do it, and it requires only minimal equipment. It’s easier to fit into a busy and unpredictable schedule than, say, kickboxing, or Tae Kwon Do, or yoga classes at a studio.

The other day I had half an hour to squeeze in a run before taking my kid to soccer practice. I was running one of a couple of courses I’ve mapped out. The city where I live is hilly, and this course has moderate inclines. I run down the avenue, around the right side of the park behind a hospital, and up a sharp hill to the front of the children’s hospital, then I turn left and run back home through the town’s old Italian section.

I was keeping up a decent pace because I wanted to run as far as I could in a strictly limited amount of time (he couldn’t be late for practice, the coach had hollered at the kids a few weeks back for being late, I could hear my mother’s voice grating, calling me late, late, “consistently late”—the fact is, I’m always trying to jam one or two more things into small slots of time), and in the last five minutes of the workout something happened that pissed me off: I had trouble keeping up. My legs felt tired. I don’t get stitches in my side anymore, that’s gone, but as I kept an eye on the clock and ran to keep up my pace, I became more and more irritated: I was lagging. Even though I was running a shorter distance than I usually run, my body was tired.

Then I noticed that, for some time, I’d been running up a long grade.

In that moment it was as though I woke up. A bright scarlet male cardinal swooped in front of me and disappeared into a bush, like a stoplight changing to green.

The fact is, I was irritated because my struggle to run up the grade had dragged my attention away from a lot of other things I was thinking about instead of my run. Instead of where in the world I was, what I was doing.

It’s interesting how habitually I leave my body and retreat inside the walls, the lonely little castle of my mind. Even while exercising, while pushing my body to do something important to me, something beyond its limits, I may not strictly BE inside the body I’m driving; I might be going over lists of other things to do. Or things other people do better than I. Or people who do things I do better than I do them. Or things I should have done by now that I may never do because I fucked up was in my addiction for so long.

Meanwhile, I’m running uphill. I’m forcing my body to keep pace up a long grade and expecting myself to feel as if I were running on the level.

The point is not that I need to slow down. I’m allowed to run as fast as I want to. But however quickly or slowly I run, it’s better to be conscious about it. It’s OK to keep a steady pace up a long grade, as long as I know that’s what I’m doing. I mean, how I can I force myself to keep this steady pace up a hill AND expect myself to feel the same as though I were running a level road? How is that reasonable?

//

I have a whole scenario in my mind of Where G Should Be By Now that will never happen because I was in my addiction. I lost time. My life changed, I got older, things happened to me and I did things to others while I was in that slavery. I’m still making amends and people tell me I’m right where I need to be, they say it blithely the way they remind me I ought to live “one day at a time” and that I’m lucky to be alive.

“You shouldn’t even be here,” my first sponsor once told me soon after I detoxed in 2008.

“Damn right,” I said, thinking about all the things I should have been doing, the job I should have had, the money I should have been making, the independence I should have been enjoying. I shouldn’t have been sitting there with her, I should have been someplace much richer and more important. Then as she continued to stare at me I realized what she meant. She meant that the way I used drugs, I should have been dead.

Part of me accepts the idea that I’m just where I need to be as a truth self-evident; meanwhile another part wants proof; and yet another part continues to climb into some costume, draw the castle bridge, work on the mural, my Pretend Life, and try to get my “real” life to match that picture.

Running uphill.

Self-rejection.

Singing Ah-la-la-la-de-day.

Tennis High: Things Robbie Gave Me (Part 1)

Played tennis last night.

How can I describe how much I love playing tennis? I’ve loved playing tennis ever since I first picked up a racquet when I was 18.

I’ve had this experience with tennis that for me supports the existence of some kind of higher power. Or “other” power, as one of my atheist friends in recovery likes to call it.

Growing up, I was the kid who got picked last for every gym-class team. Physically I wasn’t a promising specimen of the female sex. In high-school I couldn’t run around the track even once, and I had exactly two dates, both pretty disappointing. Then, about two weeks into freshman year of college, I met Robbie.

Lean Midwestern boy, five-foot-ten. Scots on his father’s side, German on his mother’s: shiny dark hair, hazel eyes with black lashes, fair skin that flushed pleasantly in his cheeks. He was fucking gorgeous. And he liked me. (As did, somehow, a lot of the other guys.)

Somehow—somehow—in the three short months between stumbling out of the arid, dateless wasteland of my public-school education and into this new college life, my speedometer had gone from zero to, say, 85 or 90.

(I would like to say it had managed a steady thrumming 120 but the truth is that Robbie didn’t give a shit about some of the things I deeply cared about, and vice-versa. Plus he was just totally nice. As a descriptor, as a working piece of language, “nice” sucks, it’s general and vague, but it perfectly describes Robbie and the fact is, the only guys who ever put me over 120 for any period of time are the ones who show promise at handling language and who also have a slippery, tarnished groove of bad-boy dug into them. Along with some understanding of life’s true tragedies. Perhaps to my detriment. Nevertheless.)

Bad boy “Johnny Mac,” Robbie’s favorite in the mid-1980s. (Ladies: don’t you miss those short-shorts athletes used to wear?)

Robbie was maybe the only entirely nice guy I’ve ever been with. He was not at all personally acquainted with the dark side—except of course through Star Wars. And through John McEnroe, the player he followed at the time. And after a while I began to feel bored.

I did my best to convince myself it wasn’t happening. Classic behavior of a girl raised in an alcoholic family—either pick the nasty boy (the guy who superseded Robbie was ultra-nasty) to avoid “boredom”; or pick the safe boy and stick with him for way too fucking long.

(Have you ever felt that way with someone you love—that you stayed too long at the fair?)

In my first year at school, however, while everything was still new, Robbie taught me to play tennis. How the hell did he manage it?

It was the first time in my entire life that I’d ever exercised in a sustained way, and it was the first time I’d ever fallen in love and felt it returned to me. I’d never believed either one could happen, and together they turned out to be an ideal chemical combination for an addict like me.

He drew from an enormous fund of patience and generosity in his instruction. After I got the hang of it, we’d play for three hours at a time, then go share a pile of french fries and a tall orange slush. Then we’d climb up the wall of his dorm, through the window of his room, and crash in his bed. I’d never had so much fun in my entire life.

And I found out that I was pretty good at, among other things, tennis.

Robbie had been playing since he was 8 or 10, and by the end of the first year I could sometimes ace him with my serve.

Today, each time I play tennis I can hear Robbie’s voice. I heard it last night—

Loosen your grip

Watch the ball

Follow through

Relax

Don’t be afraid

(all statements I needed to hear, and still need to hear)

Most of the time it’s even spookier than that: I can feel the old movements and instincts he taught me still living inside my body.

Do you ever have experiences like that—where someone you used to love is still somewhere inside you?

Robert Plant sings about it below.

Stay tuned for where God shows up in muscle-memory in Part 2 later this week.

 

NIDA Director Nora Volkow: Please Scan My Brain

Dr. Nora Volkow, with her brain scans.

It was announced yesterday that Nora Volkow, M.D. was given this year’s Joan and Stanford Alexander Award in Psychiatry by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

 

The Medscape story talks about how Volkow got interested in studying addicts: she has a family history of addiction on her maternal side. She said,

On my mother’s side of the family there is a history of alcoholism. My uncle was an alcoholic. He was an extraordinary person, but when he was intoxicated his behavior was so profoundly disrupted, and I wanted to understand that. So I had that scientific curiosity about the brain, and then I had this person I loved very much, so I wanted to figure out how to help someone overcome the overpowering drive to drink alcohol. That’s why I ended up in the whole area of drug addiction.

Her comments make me think of the “profoundly disrupted” behavior of my grandfather, who scared the shit out of his kids (my mother and her brother) when he got drunk, throwing glass against the wall and grabbing the rifle from the pantry, where he kept it loaded. I think of the many alcoholics on my dad’s side (including my dad himself). After my dad died of his alcoholism, I learned that his mother was prone to drinking cheap whisky till she sat at the kitchen table, unable or unwilling to speak. My Grandma, a catatonic alcoholic.

Volkow’s work is pioneering in that she established with scientific evidence that addiction is a “disease of the brain” and that drugs (of which alcohol is one) change brain chemistry and functioning in ways that lead to drug-taking that is compulsive despite harm—the clinical definition of addiction. Twelve-step programs had been calling addiction and alcoholism a “disease” for a long time, and Volkow has PET scans of active addicts’ brains to back up this assertion. But because of the emphasis on the “medical” evidence for the disease of addiction, the resulting emphasis in treatment has been “medical”—that is, developing and/or studying drug approaches to arrest drug addiction.

Dear Dr. Volkow, if I could speak with you, what I’d want to ask is this: Now that you’ve studied the brain chemistry of addicts inside their disease, have you thought about scanning the brains of addicts who have found recovery from this disease—people who have been sober for a while? What brain-changes might you find?

Please study people in recovery. I’ll be first in line. And I’ve got lots of friends who have lots of sober-time. Shoot me an email: Guinevere (at) guineveregetssober (dot) com.

 

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