Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: God (page 1 of 4)

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.

Into The Cloud: Jump Through The Window.

It’s the small hours of a new day, and I’m awake and thinking about Ed.

Ed is a long-time member of my 12-step group. He’s 74, native of Westchester County, N.Y. Upwards of 40 years sober. He’s got terminal cancer of the bile ducts—the little tiny vessels that allow bile into the liver from the gall bladder—and it looks as if he’s at the end of his life.

Tomorrow is Saturday and Ed, again, will not be at the literature meeting I’ve been going to for a couple years. I went last week and met up with one of his long-time sponsees. I asked him how Ed was. The guy’s smile kind of froze on his face and his eyes welled up, and he said he was only then coming to the realization that Ed would not last long.

Ed has been living with this cancer for more than a year, had received his diagnosis in December 2011, just after retiring from his job. The rounds of chemo and radiation had done their best to stop him from carrying on his life, developing apps and jockeying a weekend radio gig at the university station—Ed is a jazz and blues aficionado—and playing with his grandchildren and his many devices. Ed made friends with all the Apple Store “geniuses” and always brandished the latest Apple product. When I visited him yesterday morning at his nursing home, he was lying back half-asleep on his bed, his tray-table holding a cup of water and his black iPhone 5.

He was forever trying to get me to learn how to navigate The Cloud.

//

One thing I appreciate about Ed is that he’s a solid atheist with a spiritual orientation. He was raised Irish Catholic, and he’s proof that a person who doesn’t believe in any kind of “god” can get sober using a 12-step program.

I’d sit in those meetings bristling about God: what the hell kind of Higher Power gave a shit about whether I used drugs or not? He’d sidle up to me after the meeting and tell me it didn’t matter how I understood the power, as long as I knew it wasn’t myself.

“’Other Power,’ you call it,” I told him yesterday morning, and he nodded.

Ed is a devoted dad who was able to remain close with his kids through divorce and remarriage. One of his daughters showed up at 10:30 yesterday morning, while I was there with Lucy and his wife. When my kid had insomnia; when I fretted about choosing the right school for him; when I’d worry about his someday becoming an addict—Ed would tell me just to focus on today and love my kid the best I could.

He’d tell me I was doing a good job as a mom. I believed him. He’s the age my dad would have been had my dad not died six years ago of his own GI cancer, and my dad used to tell me that.

//

Unlike my dad, who I don’t think enjoyed my writing, Ed always read this blog. It took me a while after he started reading it to accept that he was in fact reading it, because he had so much sober-time—what could I possibly have to say to someone like Ed? I write from “beginner’s mind.” But I know enough people with more than two or three decades of sobriety to know that, at some point, after the thrill is gone, you need to stay alert for ways to keep sobriety new, to keep developing spiritual fitness. You can’t stay physically fit by doing the same workout every day for 10 years.

Roy Eldridge, jazz trumpeter and hepcat.

Roy Eldridge, jazz trumpeter and hepcat.

Once, Ed read a blog post and emailed to tell me it was musical—it reminded him of a jazz tune called “Jump through the Window” by Roy Eldridge, a jazz musician who was born on the North Side of our city, got kicked out of school in ninth grade, and played in bands at Birdland and in Chicago and Paris. Ed said my language conveyed the energy of classic 1940s and 1950s swing-jazz. “Look it up,” he advised, and I bought it from iTunes.

Because I’m still pretty Earthbound, though, it’s on my hard drive instead of in The Cloud.

//

I’ve learned through experience how to say goodbye to people. The most important part is to stay receptive to the quiet requests of my heart. Today I found myself holding Ed’s hand, and also closing my eyes for a minute to find a quiet space inside me.

Still, it’s hard to let go. But there’s peace to be found in the discipline of trying.

 

More From My Talk With Sacha Scoblic

Author Sacha Z. Scoblic.

When she got sober, Sacha Scoblic (a writer and contributing editor for The New Republic) did what a lot of writers do: she went to her bookstore. And there she found a shelf of addiction memoirs that glamorized the wasted days. What she wanted was a story of sobriety—so she wrote one. Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety is the story of a young professional woman in Washington, D.C. looking in every nook and cranny for a good time outside the Adams-Morgan and Georgetown bars.

I spoke with Sacha earlier this summer. Some of my talk with her appears on Renew Magazine‘s site (my full review is in the print edition, available at your local bookstore or by subscribing).

Here’s more from our wide-ranging conversation.

//

I write about addiction under the name “Guinevere.” All my journalism connects me back to “Guinevere.” So it’s easy for people to put my two names together. But I still feel like it’s something of a silly subterfuge.

Yeah, I mean—my father said something to me once that kind of rang true: it’s not just about anonymity in terms of being mistaken for speaking for AA in the press or the media, which of course I wouldn’t claim to do. But his point was that it’s also about humility. And that’s even harder, frankly, to reconcile.

I also think what you’re saying is that, in the Internet age, anonymity is almost non-existent.

I know a number of people who blog about recovery entirely anonymously—but they don’t do journalism. So in that way, on the internet, they’re anonymous. Though I suspect in their communities, people know who they are.

I kind of think that we need to evolve a little on this. The program is inherently flexible; they’re suggestions. There was a lot more reason in the 1930s for anonymity than there is now. And I would never break someone else’s, of course.

I think we can get past a little more of this breaking our own anonymity—to destigmatize it.

That’s one of my motivations. I lectured in front of medical students this fall, and I DON’T look like a drug addict, and it gave me great pleasure to stand in front of them and tell them, “I’m a stone addict.”

I love that, too. I mean, I LOVE that. I love it when I show up.

Yeah: “YOU?”

[laughter]

You’ve talked about how you didn’t lose a great deal, you didn’t hit a deep bottom, but you weren’t necessarily super-productive while you were drinking. How do you look back on the time that you lost? The opportunities, the options for your life?

I regret a lot of it. I know that a lot of people will look at my story and be like, “Wow, she did so much even though this was all going on,” and all I can think is, “Imagine what I WOULD have done!”

Exactly.

I started school at Columbia, and then essentially failed out and ended up at SUNY Binghamton. And I’m really JUST getting over that. I think writing about it really helped. But I used to be really embarrassed when people would ask me where I went to college. Because I would really want to tell them Columbia.

I think that there were a lot of opportunities that I passed up through just being passive. Not because someone came to me and point-blank offered me an opportunity, but because I just didn’t seek them out. And I didn’t take it upon myself to advance. If anything happened, that was good; it was kind of like, because I did as little as I needed to…

I really relate to that. For about 15 years I did that. It’s hard for me to look back on that time, and I think it’s hard for a lot of women because drinking and drug-use makes women very passive—it puts us back into the cultural box that we’re raised to inhabit. So how do you deal with your regret? How do you make amends to yourself?

Part of it is not acting that way anymore. Which is hard—I don’t instinctively do that. I think that the best thing I can do to make amends to myself is to be actively involved in my own life. Live an examined life, live an active life, pursue goals.

I’ll tell you a story. This book was based on an essay I wrote for the New York Times, the “Proof” blog. When I first saw the “Proof” blog, I wasn’t on other people’s radar for it. And I kind of folded my arms, and said, “Why didn’t they call ME?” And Peter, my husband, was like, “Why don’t you give them a call?” And it was that easy.

As women, we get into the habit of being passive, and thinking we can’t go after what we want—we’re not good enough; we’ve wasted so much time already, so what’s the use of trying now?

Right. And the idea was, if they didn’t already ask me to begin with, they’ve already made a choice against me. When in fact they’d just never heard of me—why WOULD they ask me?

That’s the other thing: I didn’t acknowledge my own credentials. But I do have enough experience to do this, to reach out. And that’s in sobriety!—I still need these kinds of reminders.

I wonder how might getting sober been different for you if your own dad had been an active alcoholic all his life, and not gone into AA? Because you’ve said in interviews that you knew AA worked. And I also did, although not from my own dad, who was also an alcoholic, but from other people I knew. How might that have been different for you?

I think I might have lasted longer out there [drinking]. Look, I didn’t know much about alcoholism. I thought you had to look like Nic Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas.” And frankly, that is how my father was. He did not have a high bottom by any means. So I guess that I was always tempted to say, “Well, I don’t look like that.” And yet I also saw the man he became. For the last several years of my drinking I watched him have this new life with his wife and having had a child, and he was so engaged with me. And I did have this example that it could change.

My grandfather quit drinking when he was 65. My dad was 50. I was in my 30s.

That’s a really big statement. It’s turning back the clock inside the family, generation by generation. How has your view of alcoholism and recovery changed since you’ve had your son?

To be frank, I go to less meetings, not as engaged as I used to be, I rely on the Internet a lot—I consume addiction stuff on the Internet. It’s a work-life balance, frankly.

It’s on my mind how to deal with this going forward. I didn’t make a plan before I got pregnant: “How am I gonna talk to my future child about this?” And I mean it’ll be with honesty, but I’m scared.

I got sober when my son was 10. And I remember standing in the kitchen when he was 12 telling him I’d been addicted, and that I’d gotten sober. And he looked me in the eye and clapped and said, “Yo, Mama!”

[laughter]

I couldn’t believe he clapped for me.

That is so vivid! Did you tape it?

I’ve told him since then that addiction is like a switch that gets turned on with chronic exposure to substances, and that he may have inherited the predisposition, so he has to be very, very careful, because you don’t know when the switch has been thrown, and you can’t turn it off. That’s the metaphor I’ve used. He’s now almost 15.

That’s REALLY good advice.

He’s in a new high school. I’m a little scared for him, but just as you had the example of your dad’s recovery, if he does get into trouble, he’ll know it’s an illness and not a moral failing, and he’ll know he can get help.

The real failure is in society, not in individuals, in terms of drinking on campus—I mean, I don’t know about you, but in college, you couldn’t have picked me out as a problem drinker.

You write in UNWASTED about how running a marathon led you to see sobriety not as a prison sentence but as a choice. Can you talk about that choice, and about why as journalists we’re so skeptical about this “God Thing”? this faith thing.

Being a journalist is about unearthing the truth. And this is not a truth that can be unearthed in a tangible way. So right there is a conundrum. And I think it’s a genuine mystery to me. I don’t claim to have a relationship with God, per se, but I do believe there are powers higher than me. And I for sure do not know it all. And I know that that’s easy for people to say, but I feel it. That marathon—I really didn’t think I’d pull it off. And I knew that if I were to, I had to obey every rule. And I discovered that, by obeying every rule, I actually had far more freedom. If I obeyed the rules, I could make it through a long run without dehydrating or getting a migraine, and I could have the freedom to pursue this goal. But I had to submit to some rules. And I think that was the sort of thing I used to resist. And now I like these anchors, these markers in my life that keep me on the straight and narrow. And the 12 steps and other similar things provide these kinds of guideposts in life.

So I did find to a certain degree a kind of faith. A new sense of, “I just did something that I didn’t think was possible—WHAT ELSE is there that’s possible?

What Do You Worship?

David Foster Wallace.

I’m on a DFW kick. David Foster Wallace.

Discovered several of his pieces I hadn’t known about before. Including a short story called “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” which demonstrates to shocking effect his deep grasp of Alice Miller’s theories of fucked-up narcissistic mothering on children. Best to hear him read it himself. Only takes five minutes.

And then there’s this beautiful address called “This Is Water” that he gave to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College, an excerpt of which was published in the Wall Street Journal just after his death.

Did you know that David Foster Wallace had been to rehab? Several times. He got sober in the early 1990s in upstate New York, where he met Mary Karr in the “rooms.” They dated for a while. I don’t think the word “dated” is really the most accurate term, but it’s the term that Wikipedia uses to describe their relationship. Read her most recent book, Lit, a memoir of her alcoholism and recovery, for her story about their 13th-stepping, including a stellar row in which Wallace destroys her coffee table.

After rehab Wallace switched from pot to cigarettes; eventually, because he was also something of an athlete and liked to run, he gave up smoking to protect his lung capacity and started sucking on smokeless tobacco, a habit he tried to quit several times. Like many addicts, he never managed to quit nicotine. He’d come to class (he was a professor of English) lugging a stack of books, a towel, a tennis racquet, and a coffee can into which he spat the juice while he was teaching.

Throughout Wallace’s writings readers can find references not only to suicide (a spooky reality: it even crops up in his address to the graduates) but also to his efforts to understand how to control one’s own mind—in other words, his attempts at mindfulness—as well as his comprehension of the divine. “God.” The “universe.” Whatever. It’s interesting to hear this prodigiously smart guy talk about how atheism doesn’t exist, how we all worship something.

Here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble truths or some intangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

One thing I love about Wallace (apart from his beautiful voice; not all men have beautiful voices but Wallace had one; reading his words and hearing him speak them are two different experiences, and I encourage you to take the time to click on the links above and below that will let you enjoy his voice) is his commitment to investigating the most commonplace aspects of life and finding their extraordinary qualities. It’s not the epiphanies and huge achievements and Life’s Great Orgasms that Wallace thinks offer the most important truths. The ordinary parts of our days—the grocery shopping, the endless standing in line, the fighting traffic—are the moments when we are most “ourselves,” when we bang into our intractable questions and problems. It’s in those moments, Wallace basically says, that we can learn life’s most valuable lessons.

It’s also, he says, in the interactions with the people we love. Sitting down to dinner with them, negotiating who will buy the food, who will cook, who will wipe the crumbs from the table; what to talk about, how to fight, how to resolve conflict—all that stuff most of us think of as life’s detritus. For godsake—another trip to the supermarket, another dinner to cook, another set of dishes to wash, how can I survive under the burden of all this mundane crap?—is usually how my thoughts run, anyway.

Wallace’s point is, we can choose how we think about our ordinary experience, and what meanings we assign to our experience. “Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life,” he tells the kids,

you will be totally hosed.

Exercising that choice is Real Freedom.

What his essay made me realize is, in the end, my choice is Mine. It’s not about finding someone else who can endorse it for me. I get to choose my thoughts, and as Wallace notes, that’s real freedom. (Not having loads of money, or drugs, or attention, or sex, or beauty, or power.)

It’s Real Sobriety. He never used that word, but for me that’s what he means. My addiction was slavery, and my sobriety is freedom.

I think Wallace believed in community, in its most basic sense—from the Latin communis, the word means sharing: time, space, resources. Ourselves. Living with other people. I suspect Wallace was a tough person to live with, but apparently he was never happier than when he moved in with his wife. It supposedly goes against current trends (a recent Time magazine story, on “the 10 ideas that will change our worlds,” reports as the Top World-Changing Idea the trend that increasing numbers of Americans are choosing to live alone… Awesome!! Let’s measure the health effects in 15 years time). His address to the younguns comes straight from his experience of living in community.

Life is a tough thing, man. It’s a hard place to spend decades of time. And it’s even harder to do it all by oneself. I spoke at my local women’s shelter yesterday and heard stories of women being forced to have sex when they were kids, women who’d seen their sons shot up, women who don’t know how to protect their kids from the real-life physical and psychic shit that goes down in their worlds every day. “Mama,” one woman’s 11-year-old daughter asked her about her future boyfriends, “when they hit me, do I call you or Daddy?” I was speaking with my friend Lucy, and we told the women that nobody gets sober alone and nobody gets away from an abusive bastard alone (I know this from experience)—and, frankly, nobody does life alone.

Tempting to isolate, though, because then we don’t have to negotiate anything with anyone. We can, as Wallace notes, be “the lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms. … This freedom has much to recommend it,” he says.

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

What would happen, I wondered, if instead of paying so much attention to having enough money or achievement or security, I worshipped more consistently that real freedom?

A life experiment to try.

My choice to try it is part of the real freedom. Hmm.

Listen.

Don’t Hold My Sobriety Against Me.

Dr. Abraham Twerski, about 10 years ago. Photo via Post-Gazette / Bob Donaldson.

This is what Dr. Abraham Twerski said yesterday at a talk to some of the people who have been helped by Gateway Rehabilitation Centers, the rehab he founded. 

I’ve been hearing about Abe Twerski since I came back here to go to grad school in 1988. A good friend at the time was doing a long-form nonfiction story on the Hasidic Jewish community here, and I remember her mentioning his name.

The first thing I noticed: Abe Twerski’s voice sounded different than I expected it to sound. I expected low-pitched, hoarse, somber. He’s been a rabbi since the 1950s. I heard a tenor voice, clear, energetic, engaged, humorous. I knew he was in his 80s, but he didn’t seem in the least frail. He was dressed in the orthodox manner: long gray coat, black trousers, black velvet yarmulke, and a long white beard that grew into two points.

(“That’s so cool,” my 14-year-old skinny-jeans-clad son said when I told him about it last night at dinner.)

Twerski said he has been going to AA meetings since 1960. “I haven’t been drunk, and I haven’t used drugs, but I go to meetings regularly,” he said. “I tell people, ‘Don’t hold my sobriety against me.’ I need these meetings as much as any of you do.”

We weren’t at a meeting. It wasn’t a couple dozen folks in a church basement. He was standing in front of more than 500 people. The room was silent. Twerski was obviously comfortable with this scene. At the same time, he was spontaneous and fresh, telling 50-year-old stories as if they had just come to his mind for the first time. The middle-aged call-girl-turned-street-hooker and low-bottom drunk, who had detoxed 69 times at his hospital, 23 times at St. John’s, and god only knew how many times at Allegheny General and McKeesport—he couldn’t get the records from those places. So she’d detoxed more than 100 times—medically detoxed. Who knew how many times she’d tried to quit on her own? 

I thought of people I’ve known who have despaired of getting sober, who have quit maybe eight or 10 times. I thought of myself, detoxed just three years ago, outpatient, with the help of a doctor referred to me by Gateway’s people. (When I needed an outpatient detox doctor, I called the best in the city. I called Gateway. When my PCP recommended the same doctor, I knew I had the guy who would help me.) I thought of my parents, who tried many times to quit times and never could.

The big dude sitting next to me, 50-something guy with tattoos and tight faded jeans, wiped his eyes now and then. I thought he had something stuck in one of them, but no.

I was sitting at a table right next to Twerski’s. After the talk I shook his hand and asked if I could speak with him sometime. He smiled and waved at the mob crowding around him. “Yeah, give your number to my people out there,” he said and trudged through the crowd.

So I’ll be running an interview at some point with this very cool physician and rabbi who knows how to talk about God without freaking people out. I have questions lined up. Anything you want me to ask him, let me know.

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