Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: faith (page 1 of 3)

Step One, Four Years Ago.

G in labor. “If you’re smiling,” my friend Nan said, “you have a long way to go.” I did.

Fifteen years ago this morning I went into labor with my son. How is it that we can remember these events in our bodies when our cells have been replaced twice over? A long labor—31 hours; didn’t give birth till tomorrow morning. … I thought it would never end, the Cheerios and cheese plastered to high-chair and skin; wiping mouths and noses, impaling feet on Tinkertoys and Legos, reading (reciting) The Big Red Barn or Pat the Puppy or Thomas the Tank Engine time after time. But it passed like a fog on the highway that, after I inched to the top of the hill, burned off to reveal the panorama.

And then down the hill again, and around the foggy bend.

The same has been true of recovery. Four years ago today, I admitted to myself, to a higher (other) power, and to another person that I was an addict. I felt trapped in a fog of not knowing how to get myself out of yet another problem; how to clean up the massive pile of wreckage that, it was dawning on me, I’d created. But the fog passes—day by day, as I inched myself to the top of the hill, I saw gaps in the fog, then by times as it burned off I could see vistas.

And then, of course, back down the hill again, and around the foggy bend.

A day at a time.

Poor Hitch: Christopher Hitchens Dies at 62.

Christopher Hitchens

“Have you heard about Hitchens?” I asked a friend one day the summer of 2010.

“What—is he finally in rehab?”

Not exactly the response I expected, but after all a logical one.

“No,” I said. “He has esophageal cancer.”

“Isn’t that the kind of cancer you get when you’re an alkie and you smoke like a chimney?” my friend asked. My friend, a poet, is an “alkie” himself and, at 47, has been sober for more than 25 years.

“Yeah,” I said. “It often has a very poor prognosis—they usually don’t find it until it’s advanced.”

Poor Hitch, we agreed, then we were tempted to take it back, because if there were anyone in the world who wouldn’t stand for anyone’s pity, it might be Christopher Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens, just before he was diagnosed with cancer.

And now Hitch has gone. The world of language and letters and of debate will be the more impoverished for it. He was a brilliant speaker and writer.

Hitch has remained on my mind since I read about his diagnosis the summer he got sick. Just before that, I’d come across this interview with him in the Guardian, in which the writer opens with a portrait of Hitch in hangover and then, after taking him for a pub lunch:

It seems to me so evidently the case that Hitchens is an alcoholic that to say much more feels unnecessary. But for the record, he trots out all the usual self-serving, defensive evasions: “For me, an alcoholic is someone who can’t hold his drink” or, “I’m not dependent, but I’d prefer not to be without it.” The longest he has ever been was a dry weekend “in fucking Libya”, and he claims he drinks only to make other people less boring. So, presumably, he doesn’t drink when he’s with [Martin] Amis? “Er, yuh, I do.”

He was a relatively young man—only 62, not yet out of middle age—but his body had been leveled. Not only by cancer, but also by addiction, the underlying cause of the cancer. Just before he got sick, he’d been taking care of book sales and promotion for his memoir Hitch-22, flying around the world, but he’d not been taking care of himself.

Hitchens was a formidable intellect. He could worst his opponents in debate, gain the upper hand or secure the last word on panels, or engross any assembly for hours on end.  Talk-show hosts worked hard to insert toeholds into Hitch’s monologues. He reveled in performance as much as he enjoyed working out the arguments.

I remember sitting in a bar with Hitchens, listening to him regale me and our partners (Hitch and my partner had been at Oxford, at the same college at the same time) with his opinions and tales of his exploits. This was a while ago, he had just started working for Vanity Fair, and I don’t remember the details of the stories or the arguments; what I remember is his bearing, and his appearance. He knocked back glass after glass of scotch and chain-smoked, holding the cigarette in the same hand as the booze. His shirt was unbuttoned (as always) to show the mat of hair on his chest, and his sandy locks fell across his damp forehead.

I kept looking at him, wondering, Why does this guy think he’s so hot?

He had been much more handsome before the booze and ciggies went to work on him.

Christopher Hitchens as a student at Balliol College, Oxford, around 1970.

Hitch always carried himself as though he were a real dude when in truth, by the early 1990s, he looked blowsy. He wouldn’t have been much to notice had it not been for his voice. Hitch had a gorgeous voice—insistent, seductive; mellow and smooth at the front but with a deep burn at the back, like the Scotch he loved. For a man who had lived and worked in the States for 30 years, his voice was still curiously Oxonian all the way through. How Hitchens preserved his accent is an interesting question. I think Hitch’s voice was where his psyche lived (he may have said and even believed it lived between his legs, but a great part of it lived in his larynx) and I suspect he protected it.

After his diagnosis interesting discussions sprouted up on the Internet about the ethics of praying for Hitch. Should someone who disdains faith and God be prayed for? Would they want prayers? And many people wondered: Could Hitchens possibly remain an atheist, now that his life was in jeopardy?

Of course he remained an atheist, for fook’s sake. Who cares whether Hitch would or would not want anyone’s prayers?

What I always wondered was, would he ever get sober?

I suppose it’s because I lost both parents to addiction that I find this the more important question. Neither of my parents was able to quit their drugs before they died.  … A prescient exchange occurred between Hitchens and Jon Stewart when Hitch appeared on The Daily Show in his 2007 promotion of God is Not Great, his book about atheism.

Stewart: Does [faith] serve a purpose to give comfort to people, because we are a species that knows we’re going to die and leave—isn’t it nice to have something that brings comfort? Is it necessarily a bad thing to have that comfort, if it doesn’t then cause us to attack other species whose comfort we don’t believe in? Let’s say it’s just for our comfort.

Hitch: That’s a very beautiful and sincere question. [audience laughter] I, myself, I’ve always thought—in the death matter—that an exception would be made in my case.

S: Really?

H: Yes. But I must look like an asshole to you when I say that.

S: Not just when you say that.

Uproarious laughter at Stewart’s last jibe. Anyone who was able to get Hitchens’s goat always earned some giggles. Hitchens himself was gracious about it—he was usually (but not always) generous with talk-show hosts who tried to spar with him. And of course Hitchens was joking about living forever, but only half-joking—the carefully chosen language of his response skirted a critical blindness. Let’s face it: his life had been in jeopardy long before he was diagnosed with cancer. You can’t drink and smoke that hard for that long without putting your life on the line. Hitchens said ages ago for the record that many great writers “did some of their finest work when blotto, smashed, polluted, shitfaced, squiffy, whiffled, and three sheets to the wind.”

Well, OK, Hitch, and how long and how well did they live?

Another thing that I noticed during this Daily Show clip: Stewart looks and sounds so calm and spiffy next to Hitchens. Because Stewart is so healthy.

I’m thinking about Hitch’s wife and kids. …

By the way, if you think it’s impossible to get sober and still be an atheist, think again. Lest it be considered in poor taste to offer up my own example, let me mention that a friend of mine turned me on to this interview with Augusten Burroughs, author of the memoir Running with Scissors: he claims to have no religious belief and to have cleaned up with a higher power that was a “cartoon version of Jesus, plucked from the manger with a pet cow.”

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Sober Life: Avoiding Relapse

flushing pillsOne way to avoid relapse is to take what they call “contrary action.”

But I thought about it for a while before I finally did the right thing. Because last week I was in a bad neighborhood.

Here’s what happened: I got paid last week. It was the biggest paycheck I’ve gotten in a while. I was encouraged to spend a little bit of it on myself. Actually I was encouraged to spend more than a little bit of it on myself, but because I continue to feel bad about myself and my addiction, I made plans to spend only a little bit. What I decided to do was to reorganize my study—the place where I write this blog and other stuff.

It was also the place where, for a long time, I used.

I’ve heard of people making “shrines” and “temples” out of the places where they used, and I didn’t want to enshrine this room, but I wanted to change the way it looks, and to create more storage, because I simply can’t stop collecting books and media.

In the days of detox, in 2008, I’d gone through this place with a fine-tooth comb, looking for every last little bit of stuff I’d hoarded away. You know what I’m saying?

I was on Suboxone at the time and if I’d used what I found, it wouldn’t have done any good. Suboxone blocks the ability of other opioids to stimulate the receptors. I got rid of the stuff and it wasn’t very good stuff (at the time, I was used to Very Good Stuff)—it was crap stuff, and I didn’t feel bad about it. It wasn’t Real Drugs.

So there I was Sunday, with a big huge garbage bag in the middle of the room, cleaning out some drawers, trying to get the place tidied before my husband came back Monday, and I come across some drugs. Some good drugs. Very good drugs.

The feeling was instantaneous—one of elation and relief—FINALLY! Finally I had an insurance policy. The plan that formulated itself immediately in my mind was: I would just put these behind some books on my shelf, or even in the safe deposit box, for the rainy day when, eventually, inevitably, my life would come crashing in on me. I only have 19 months sober, and I still feel like the other shoe could drop at any moment. Many shoes dropping.

How can I describe the feeling in my body when I came across those drugs? My belly squeezed, and I took an involuntary deep inhale. Then held my breath, looking at them, admiring them. Then sighed—FINALLY! … They say your addiction is always somewhere outside, doing push-ups, waiting to ambush you. It’s true. I felt it: big strong bouncer-guy in a muscle-shirt, sweaty, out of breath, peeking around the doorway and grinning at me. My Old Manager.

Another part of me was desperately unhappy, like, Fuckin-A, I thought I’d gotten rid of every last bit of stuff in this room, good things are happening for me, why do I have to find this shit now?

“Because you were ready to learn from it,” my sponsor said today.

And all these memories of my insanity came back. I could taste it on my tongue: it would numb my taste buds, and in feeling the numbing of my tongue I could look forward to the quilted blanket of numbness that would follow. Being totally opioid-naïve, I could look forward to days and days in which I wouldn’t have to feel the fear anymore. My Manager’s vehicle (imagine it: a black-and-yellow Hummer, gaudy, loud, wasteful) would transport me out of that Bad Neighborhood. God knows where we’d finally end up, but I wouldn’t have to worry about that because he would be in control, and I’d be numb anyhow.

(I might even be dead, that’s how strong this stuff is.)

I sat there, looking at what I’d found.

I thought about what Robert Downey Jr. told Rolling Stone last year (I try to learn from anyone who’s trying to stay sober, even a “celebrity”):

The ramifications of a little slip are not what they used to be. It’s not kid-stuff anymore.

Meanwhile my son was sitting downstairs in front of the TV.

I put it all in an envelope, sealed it shut, and went about my business, took my son out to dinner, but I didn’t sleep well that night. I was thinking about Amy Winehouse. I couldn’t fall asleep till 2, and I woke at 5 when a fire truck blasted its horn nearby. And by Monday morning I was really crazy.

“Mom, why are you so angry?” my son asked me at least twice. Making me realize I’m usually pretty calm and even-tempered these days. But not when I have drugs on my mind, in my house. That was when I knew I was either going to choose to use, or I was going to choose to get rid of the drugs.

I’d never thrown away good drugs. When I detoxed, I used until I thought I didn’t have anything left. I’ve had to tell sponsees, “I’ve never thrown drugs away—I don’t know what that feels like.” I tried to imagine it and couldn’t. My brain was fast shrinking into rat-size, worrying only about where I might be able to hide the stuff until I “really needed it.” Which, because I am an addict, could be at any minute.

“Why didn’t I ‘recoil from it as from a hot flame’?” I asked my sponsor this morning. “I must be in pretty bad shape.” She said:

Why don’t you stop using the measuring tape against yourself.

I knew I was either going to keep this all a secret and wind up trapped in the Hummer again, or I was going to be honest about it with someone who would be kind enough to lay out other options.

“You know what you need to do, sweetie,” my friend Jacques said yesterday. I love Jacques; we’ve known each other since he was sober about a year, and he has 25 years.

You need to just get rid of that shit. You’ve busted your ass this past year and a half. You don’t need to go back to square one.

This nudged me away from the spot where the Hummer was idling its engine. Then I told my therapist, and she helped me imagine throwing it away. By last night when I picked up my husband at the airport, sober, I’d told two people, and it was starting to become inconceivable that I could actually use after having told two people I trust. If I imagined using, I’d also have to imagine either lying or telling the truth when they asked me what I’d done about the drugs.

I went to my sponsor’s home group this morning. The chair read from a book about what happens when we get healthy. We start gaining back people’s trust. We find release from care, boredom and worry. (Ha! I thought ruefully.) Our imaginations would be ignited. The most satisfactory years of life would be ahead of us. Back in 2008, when I was in detox and reading this at my first sponsor’s behest, I wrote in the margin, Yeah, this hardly seems real.

Today it’s real. I have good work, the respect of people who know me (and even some who don’t), the love and trust of my family, and freedom from financial insecurity Just For Today. And I still want to use? I thought, sitting in the meeting.

It came my turn to talk and I told the meeting I’d found drugs. A few little gasps escaped people’s lips. I said I had in fact not used (“Look at my pupils,” I told my sponsor), but the drugs were just sitting at home. I said my problem was I couldn’t accept Life’s Good Stuff.

Just plain old self-sabotage but of course I had to make it sound all Dramatic and shit.

My sponsor, whom I love and who is an awesome mentor, said matter-of-factly, “We’re going to my house and getting rid of the Darvocet I’ve had since my surgery last October, and also the Vicodin.” (You have Vicodin?? I said.) “And then we’re going to your house and getting rid of your stuff.”

And that’s what we did. She opened her bottles and dumped them into the toilet, cringing. “I hate doing this,” she said.

“Why?” I asked. She has more than 20 years clean and sober.

“Because I’m an addict!” she said. “You see how we help each other?” Step 12.

Little G.

I cried as I got rid of mine. “Am I going to be OK?” I asked, like a child.

“You’re already OK,” she said.

Now I know what it feels like to throw drugs away. I’ve earned it, and was given the opportunity… But I need to walk the walk pretty carefully. I need to wear it loosely, but wear it.

//

Read the follow-up to this story here.

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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