Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: fear (page 1 of 3)

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

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In yoga yesterday I could see evidence of my heart beating in my chest.

I had bent my back into supported Bridge Pose. Then I rotated my upper arms away from each other and watched my ribcage rise up like an arch. I could see the soft pounding of my heart. There it was, just an inch or so under the flesh covering the bones of my ribs, in the spot where it’s been beating for more than half a century.

I sometimes cry when I do yoga heart-openers. I spend a lot of time with my shoulders hunched in front of a keyboard, or else hunched against the criticisms my own mind levels against me. My massage therapist tells me my shoulders are cranked so tight because I hold my body like a boxer with her gloves up and her elbows drawn against her abdomen. She tells me to practice opening my chest. This un-swaddles my heart, which sometimes makes me cry.

I’ve had to make drastic changes in my life in the past few years. My life today looks little the way it looked three or four years ago. Change brings relief and it also hurts, and it flips me out that I might be making mistakes. And because I’m five years sober, I feel like I’m supposed to know better than to have that kind of fear—all that self-centered garbage I ask each morning to be hauled away from me. As if “God” were a garbage-man, or my personal errand-boy: Take it away!

So I not only have fear, I have shame that I’m feeling fear, and then ancillary shame that I’m asking God/HP to take the fear away. Which makes me hunch even further into myself. Shame Spiral, anyone?

I talked about this in yesterday’s Y12SR yoga meeting. It was Easter Sunday. The topic was gratitude that we’re even alive. One after another, people talked about losing parents, family, friends to addiction.

Sixteen years ago around Easter, I was 34 and driving out to my parents’ house every day to help my dad take care of my mother, who was dying of lung cancer. She had smoked three packs a day for 40 years. When she finally died on June 3 of that year, I was so mortally pissed off at God that I spent the next eight years trying to poison myself. I started by stealing a few of my dead mother’s morphine tablets and ended by committing my last felony prescription forgery in roughly July 2008. Great way to use my artistic skills.

I shouldn’t even be here typing this. I should have overdosed or gone to jail. I remember the first time I took some stolen morphine. I lay in bed feeling as if somebody had stacked a pallet of bricks on my chest. A heart-closing exercise. I would exhale, and it would be a long time before my body wanted to inhale again. It scared the shit out of me and I loved it: I wouldn’t have to feel the fear or the anger.

When I made it into recovery, one of my first feelings was guilt that I’d escaped the death sentence that killed both my parents.

People were talking in yesterday’s yoga meeting about how recovery is like the resurrection in the Easter story. It occurred to me that it was also interesting to remember some elements of the Passover story: we’d taken steps to mark ourselves as ones to be skipped over by the angel of death. Also, each of us in the room had escaped slavery—the root of the word addiction. And we get together to tell our stories, never forgetting that we don’t have to be slaves anymore.

I can see how helpful it might be for a group of people to have some kind of religious ritual to keep remembering that they’re chosen. How many times have I heard, during the course of a meeting, “I was supposed to live!—God has a plan for me”? If that’s true, then God discriminates.

I think God doesn’t have plans for my life.

The only plan is love. And it’s not even a plan, it’s a law of nature, and living with it is an exercise of bringing my little tiny (but enormously fucking perverse) will into line with that force. (Splinters are small, but they hurt like hell, right?) Love is the currency, the current of power, that God/HP/Whatever deals in. Bona fide love is pure, reliable, healing, life-giving, durable, like the sun.

If you think about it, there’s nothing we eat that doesn’t come from the sun. We actually EAT the sun every day, which is a fabulous image: Here, take a bite of this star! When we hug each other’s bodies, it creates electricity that comes, when the trail is traced back to its origin, from the sun.

Can the sun be improved upon? I wondered that the other morning. The sun hangs in delicate balance with the life on this planet, and if we tried to make the Star Experience better (say, get rid of clouds, so we can see the star more often), we’d only be screwing up on a grand scale. Sometimes I have to understand that life is fine as it is.

(It’s tempting to think that “God” puts signs in my way to remind me, but she doesn’t.)

Graffiti in my neighborhood.

Graffiti in my neighborhood.

Lately I’ve been having some experiences in human love that have given me a glimpse of the vast purity and beauty of this superhuman power source. My son is one big part of these experiences. So are some close friends of mine, and the people in my recovery community. All these people provide me with perfect opportunities to give away love, and like the Bridge Pose, this cracks my heart open. And what I give comes back, multiplied.

Of course, I don’t think I “deserve” even the human part of the experience, much less the “divine” one. So, in case it’s not real, or in case I lose it (because guess what? nothing lasts, goddammit!!), I run around with my shoulders hunched. Or I force them back and paint on a tough mask that makes me look bitchy, arrogant, aloof: Throw anything at me, man! Take away whatever you want, I’ll survive, I don’t fucking need ANYBODY!

Fake power. Meanwhile inside the mask, G is hunched: small, scared, in need of arms around her, even temporarily.

Before I got sober I had little idea how to take care of myself when feelings like these struck. I’d try to make them go away by numbing them with drugs. Now, instead, I run with the dog, throw a dinner party for my old friend Nancy whose husband just had cancer surgery (successful!), start the painting another friend asked me ages ago to make, do mental push-ups by studying another language, engage the help of a smart no-bullshit therapist, give my students and their work my attention, compile playlists of beautiful music, ride my bike on this city’s long river trails, make lists of people and things I’m grateful for, practice yoga, take photographs and post them to share the world’s beauty, etc.

I also go to meetings, for the same reason people celebrate Easter or Passover or any holiday, and for the same reason they go to coffee houses and dog parks and book clubs and yoga studios: because I’m part of the tribe of Homo sapiens, and the desire for community is practically encoded in my cells. Because my heart needs to be around other beating hearts. Because cracking my chest open helps me exchange a little more love, which plugs my life into a great big socket of power.

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Red Bull And Radical Self-Acceptance.

Sincere thanks to everyone who has written in asking where in the sam hill G has been. WTF, G?? A month without a blog post? Where the hell are you? You are my sunshine, etc.

You are mine as well. I think about you readers every day. I love the mail I get from you. I mentally formulate blog posts for you as I go about life maniacally trying to patch all the holes in the bricks, and the blog posts back up inside my head and break through the logjam and rush downstream like the water in the Niagara Riverbed in a high-water spring, whitecaps peaking over the eternal bedrock, powering the entire region.

Where G has been: G has been enrolled in Elite Acceptance Dojang.

In April, as she was winding down a spectacularly successful semester of teaching writing, G decided that on May 1 she would quit caffeine, gluten, and (cough) sugar, in all its forms: fructose, sucrose, HFCS, white flour, the whole bit. And G also decided that, on May 2, she would Feel Awesome. G has been learning that this is her SOP: she makes the plan, she secretly writes the story, and then she has to deal with the seismic shocks that arrive when Real Life doesn’t mesh with the narrative. (Back in the day this used to be an awesome excuse to use. Reality not matching narrative = migraine = instant need for drugs.)

In fact G has been having many migraines. In fact, G did not, after quitting sugar and caffeine and gluten on May 1, feel awesome on May 2. She didn’t (yet) feel like fkn shite, either. But early in the morning of May 3, at about half past midnight, as G slept peacefully without the dregs of sugar and caffeine oozing through her blood, G’s leggy, towering 15-year-old son woke, washboard ribs convulsing, screaming that an explosion was taking place inside his skull. He pointed to his right ear.

“Come on,” said G, thinking, Stroke? No, ear infection, sliding into jeans and running shoes. “We’re going to the hospital.” The only place where, in the middle of the night, you can get Auralgan.

“I don’t wanna go to the hospital, Mom,” whined the boy, regressing to age 3, pulling a shirt on.

The boy, age 3.

The boy, age 3.

The boy, age 15. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The boy, age 15. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

“We’re going,” G said, grabbing her keys and poking the boy in the back—the best she can do these days to enact physical force on a young man of five-foot-nine-and-a-half.

It was an ear infection. Diagnosed not by the (young, male) resident, who missed the signs, but by the (middle-aged, motherly, female) attending pediatrician, after we had sat in the ER for two hours.

“You’ve got an ear infection, pal,” she said. “Let’s just say I’ve seen a lot more ear infections than the resident has.” She wrote scripts for antibiotics and Auralgan.

The next day, G decided she needed to renege on her austerity commitment. She drank a cup of strong Yorkshire tea to “get started.”


Did you know caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world? Fact.

Did you know that when we drink coffee or tea, we’re enacting an ancient method of extracting drugs from plants? We’re steeping, with boiling water, legal psychoactive herbs that release their drugs when the steam hits. In old-timey medicinal terms this is called an “infusion.” If you boil the herbs for a long time, it’s called a “decoction.” (I quite like that word: de-cock-shun. There’s the sound of a gun in there, somewhere.) If you let the herbs stand for a long, long time (say, a week, or even a month) in ethanol—which also brings the drugs out of the plants, but more slowly and more thoroughly, like a kindergarten teacher carefully leading her kids out on a field trip—it’s called an “extraction.”

But just because, with coffee or tea, we’re not using booze to do the trick—that doesn’t mean we’re not taking a drug.

Caffeine ain’t gonna kill you, but it can cause significant problems: insomnia, bruxism (tooth-grinding), headaches, chronic anxiety, and adrenal system disruption and depletion. The walnut-sized adrenal glands, one capping each kidney, are key to controlling our metabolisms, hormonal systems, moods and sleep cycles. Sugar stresses out the adrenals in the same way.

Adrenals—meaning, "above the renals," or the kidneys. They help run the metabolism. They crap out on us when we endure too much stress.

Adrenals—meaning, “above the renals,” or the kidneys. They help run the metabolism. They crap out on us when we endure too much stress.

I used to love my morning ritual: a Vicodin, crushed and swallowed; a cup of strong tea; and toast with butter and jam. Opioids, caffeine, and sugar. Dopamine score; adrenal drain. I’d be content for about five hours, then feel like crashing—so I’d take more: Vicodin with afternoon tea and cookies. The drugs would power me through. A lot of women take painkillers this way—to muscle, to steamroll through a big daily agenda. The same way most folks use caffeine and cookies.

Without caffeine and sugar, the pile of cells called G’s Body is not the same as it is when it’s loaded up on caffeine and sugar. My body has become tolerant to the chemical effects.

This bothers me. It means I’m not accepting my body as it is. I push it, with my will, to do things it can’t do, with destructive effects: when I drink caffeine, I crave sugar, so I get several drugs at one time. Processed sugar is a drug. I crash with migraine, fatigue, PMS, and other physical problems.


G's new touring bike.

G’s new touring bike.

I’ve spent more than half the days since May 1 without “getting started” on a cup of caffeine, and it feels good. On those days, I’m not constantly monitoring myself, wondering if I “need something” to keep going.

I accept myself more.

But it’s so habitual not to accept myself. It’s so habitual to do things—carry out actual acts, however seemingly inconsequential (they accrue; their value and power accrues)—that show I REFUSE to accept myself. Drink more tea. Eat more sugar. Beat the shit out of myself mentally, emotionally, tacitly, for wanting to do things (and, actually, doing the things) that I believe I can’t.

So I’m carrying out some contrary actions. My program of recovery asks me to act in ways that grate against the grain of my habits, ways that carve new paths into the neuronal structures. I’m making space for myself where I can do what I’m made to do. I’m investing in that space. I’m cleaning out old spaces and letting things go. (I have to do more of that. It’s like inventory: I don’t feel like mucking out the Augean stables; I’m afraid of what I’ll find; it’s tiring.) I’m working, and I’m trying to get reasonable rest and exercise, despite being extremely anemic.

British-made leather saddle to conserve my body.

Split leather saddle to conserve my body.

Because I’m anemic, and because I’m (habitually) afraid, I sometimes feel numb. It occurred to me the other night while walking the dog that I’ve done everything to get rid of this numbness, this fear, except two things: to use, on the one hand; and, on the other, to accept it. The teacher at the Buddhist center where I meditate advised us, in a workshop on Fearlessness in Everyday Life, to sit with fear, to feel it, to care for it, to sink into it and then finally through it to another place where we are all held by a divine something—who knows what it is or how to talk about it, but it holds us.


I’ve also been reading fellow blogger and sober woman Heather Kopp’s memoir Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk. I love this book. What I appreciate most about it is the candid way Heather talks about finding God—how she talks about the source of her sobriety. She is not a typical Christian. I’ll be reviewing her book here soon and giving away copies to readers who comment, so stay tuned.

I’m also reading Dave Sheff’s Clean and Dirk Hanson’s Addiction Inbox. I have lots of other adventures planned for the summer. Stay with me.

Three Years Sober: To Move Or Not To Move?

This morning I slogged off to a very early meeting I’m now doing Thursday mornings. Clear. Cold: 9 degrees. All the adjectives for cold feel threatening: bitter. Biting. Numb. Icy.


The cold morning was beautiful. The cloudless sky was a deep crystalline violet. Absolute stillness at 6:45. The half-moon was shining like a lamp, reminding me of a dream I had on Christmas Eve, a dream that has stayed with me. I dreamed of a moon that kept changing—from fingernail to almost half, growing and growing in brightness—and in the dream I was moving from window to window and realized I was witnessing a clear lunar eclipse.

The windows were like the ones in my house, but I was not in my house. I was somewhere else.

The dream ended with a bright full moon and a sense of growing clarity. I woke with a feeling of peace.

It seems to me that, in the dream, there were obstacles sliding slowly out of the way of the light. In a lunar eclipse what casts the shadow is the Earth. And I am part of the Earth. So (by the transitive property, as my kid would say), what was moving out of the way of the light was me.


The third year of sobriety was hard in my world. Bitter. Biting.


I wanted to get numb over the holidays. I’m tired of life being hard. Two days after Christmas I found myself in the same spot, the same physical location, as the one in which, three years ago yesterday, I stole a Vicodin and ended a relapse. I stood in that room last week, looking at the bottle of Vicodin. The same bottle: it’s still there. I held it in my hand. Tempting. In the end, I heard my friend C.’s voice telling me:

If you use, you will abandon yourself.

In the end I decided I was damned if I was going to take one of those boring little pills and wait to feel the numbness sneak through my body the way it had three years ago, just so I could Be Numb for a few hours and then have to Come Back To Life—or not, because that’s always a possibility. I put the bottle back, unopened. Walked back out to the basement room where everyone (else) was drinking beer in front of the woodstove.

But why did I have to stick my hand in the fire? Huh?


This morning I woke up and for a while actually forgot I was three years sober. How’s that for gratitude. So I put it on Facebook: “3 years.” All these people wrote in. Some of you I know from seeing you every week of my life in some room or other. Some of you I met online and later met In Real Life. Some of you, I’ve never seen your faces. If I had died, I wouldn’t have known any of you.

It’s easy to forget I could have died. I write, “Life is hard,” but life is jammy compared with life in active addiction, which was hell. Which was slavery to lies and isolation and the almighty drug.

Life has been asking me lately to remember that I could have died. For a story I’m writing for The Fix I talked with Dr. David Smith, the founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, who has practically pioneered addiction medicine and has been working with people like us for more than 40 years. “I have a number of patients who have become addicted to fentanyl with serious medical consequences,” he said. “In the latest one, the patient ate a fentanyl patch and died.” This was a nurse. Another ate a patch and had a heart attack, he said; yet another ate fentanyl and fell asleep behind the wheel of the truck he was driving—fortunately before he’d started the ignition. His boss, however, Did Not Like This.

I remember the times I used so much that I could feel my respiration slowing against my will. I remember wondering if a body could force itself to breathe.


Commitment to sobriety forces me to change my ways of doing life. One of my ways of doing life?—passively. Things Will Just Work Out. Take a Chill Pill.

Things don’t Just Work Out. People work them out. People make choices. Not to make a choice is to make a choice.

So in my dream I saw a moon that kept changing—from fingernail to almost half, growing and growing in brightness—and in the dream I was moving from window to window and realized I was witnessing a clear lunar eclipse. The windows were like the ones in my house, but I was not in my house. I was somewhere else.

I was somewhere else. Somewhere like my house, but not, but not.

The dream ended with a bright full moon and a sense of growing clarity. I woke with a feeling of peace. And it seemed to me that, in the dream, there were obstacles sliding slowly out of the way of the light: the Earth. Myself. Moving out of the way of the light.

Moving out of the way.


“You seem stuck,” a friend of mine said the other day. “It worries me that you wanted to use. I think you need to get moving.”

So often, all sobriety asks me to do is to move. “Accept, then move,” Sluggo used to say. So much of what Sluggo used to say is stuff that still works. Sluggo didn’t write to me on Facebook today. But I love Sluggo, and I know she loves me.

Working Sober In Washington.

I am in Washington for this awesome government fellowship. A bunch of seasoned public speakers are teaching me how to speak in front of audiences. They’re putting me in front of huge camera lenses and telling me, “Talk.” And I am! It’s surprising. I can do this. I can do it largely because I’m sober. Also, they note, because I’m willing to try.


I’m staying in Foggy Bottom. Right around the corner from the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods Market.

Foggy Bottom was always my favorite Metro stop name.

I came to Washington when I first got out of school. Washington was the place a lot of young people who grew up near the east coast went after graduation. It was the mid-1980s and we were in the Great Reaganomics Recession; the steel mills that had hired my uncles and cousins in my childhood had already closed up and other industries were cutting back. It was tough for new grads to get jobs.

So they came to Washington. Because, it was thought, The Government always has jobs.

I came to Washington to see if I could get a job writing. I remember taking the Metro out to Arlington and talking to the people at Gannett, which was starting a newspaper called USAToday. I had set up a bunch of other networking meetings and spent the very hot summer days taking the Metro and learning the layout of Washington.

I stayed with my college friend Angie, who had left school a year ahead of me. She generously let me sleep on her couch. Angie lived on the Hill, in Southeast Washington. It was June and I remember how, when we were walking back from the bars at night (that summer in Washington everyone, it seemed, was drinking Amstel Light; in New York City it was Rolling Rock long-necks), legions of roaches would part like the red sea before our trudging feet. Even the armies of red-backed roaches were exotic and interesting.

Foggy Bottom Metro station

Washington is the place where I learned how to ride a subway. I’d come from the country and had never seen a subway before. Yesterday, when I took the train from Foggy Bottom to Gallery Place, I noticed that the Metro stops look the same inside as they did 25 years ago , they smell the same, the maps are the same, the blinking lights at the track-edges are the same, the turnstiles are the same, they take the same kind of tickets they used to 25 years ago. It’s not like the New York City subway, which used to take metal tokens before they switched to paper tickets. The Metro’s consistency was comforting.

The most romantic date I think I’ve ever had in my life took place that summer in Washington, D.C. Angie’s friend Bruce had a crush on me. He was a legislative aide by day and a singer in a band by night. One Saturday he asked me out. We rented bikes and rode all around Washington under a clear blue sky. I remember red and yellow tulips and blue and purple pansies in the roundabouts; I remember the scent of grilled beef at lunchtime; I remember the boulders and the bridges and the water in Rock Creek Park. I remember how we’d hit a red light and we’d stop and Bruce would lean over his bike bars and kiss me. We wound up in Adams-Morgan at twilight, sharing a bowl of pasta.

I liked Bruce but I was scared of him. I was scared of all those legislative-aide dudes who threw back hard liquor and wore Brooks Brothers button-downs and wanted to drive Beemers before they were 30. They looked destined to get thick in the waist too early in life. Bruce wasn’t like that: he was working-class, his ambitions didn’t include the brand-names of cars; but I was still scared of him. I was scared of most men my age. I didn’t know what they wanted from me. I knew what my mother said they wanted. It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t have to believe everything she said. (In fact, I’m still figuring that out on different levels; I suspect every woman is finding that out about her mother.)

I was scared of life.

After those two weeks in Washington, I ended up moving back to Western Pennsylvania and taking a staff-writer job at a small newspaper. Which was probably the best thing I could have done. I sometimes think every college graduate—at least, every writing student—should work at a community newspaper. It teaches you how to write, and a lot more besides. It teaches you about municipal government, about taxes and the ways money moves, about the law, about politics both petty and major; most of all it teaches you how to ask questions.

I rented a house in the country and my roommate and I drank cases of Gennessee beer.

I’ve worked mostly in print, but somehow I’ve always been trailed by chances to speak in front of audiences and to be on camera. Early on, I’d go out on stories as a print reporter and I’d be there grilling the firemen about the destruction of a house or the cops about some shooting or car-crash, and the video guys from the news channels in the city would be shoving their cards at me. “You need to be on camera, honey,” they’d say. “Call me and we’ll shoot some clips of you.” I never called them because what I wanted to do was write. I didn’t want to be on camera.

I was remembering this today when I was on camera. It’s freaky to stand in front of a big camera lens. It’s weird to have hot lights on your face. But also, I was used to it. I’ve been shot for documentary films. I’ve been interviewed for television news. I had hundreds of still shots of me taken for my first book project. I hate seeing my face onscreen or in photos but other people don’t seem to mind it.


I’m ready to go back to work tomorrow. We’re in another recession, The Great Bush-Cheney Recession, which is lingering into Obama’s second term. There are no armies of roaches in Foggy Bottom in December. I’m older and a bit wiser and a lot more experienced. I’m sober. When I got sober four years ago, I had no work at all. Today I get to wake up and go to work in Washington. Tonight I get to text with my son.

Hijito-hijito, I write.

[“Hijito” is Spanish. “Hijo” means “son”; “hijito” means boy.]

Madre, he writes. He is on his own in the house, 250 miles away. Feeling a bit lonely, he writes.

Let’s do some push-ups together, I write.

OK let’s start at 13, he writes.

So over the next 15 minutes we knock out 13 push-ups, then 12, then 11, all the way down to the last one, which he decides we must do military-style, with hands underneath the shoulders and elbows next to sides.

Good job dude, I write. How many was that?

A moment passes. Then the phone buzzes:


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