Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: gratitude (page 1 of 3)

On G’s Gratitude List: Men.

They’re unfathomable creatures, men. I don’t understand them (and, actually, I do).

I love most things about them: Their hair. Their skin. The fact that they’re bigger and stronger than I am, even the small ones. Their minds. Especially their voices. I love listening to men talk and sing.

Right now I’m listening to Tom Waits … he wrote this beautiful song.


Many of my feelings about men, of course, have to do with my father.

I was NOT daddy’s little girl. That was my little sister. My mother claimed me as her best friend, confidante, and ally—which might be why I think men are such incomprehensible, mysterious, unreachable, alluring beings. I originally wanted to have a girl, but I’m very, very glad I gave birth to a boy.

For most of his life Dad had a big beer-gut, and he was not hairy. (I like men with hair on their arms, their legs, their chests.) When I was growing up, I didn’t consider Dad handsome. I was kind of ashamed of the way he looked, actually, because he didn’t take care of his body.

But this is a picture of my dad in college.

Dad, senior photo, University of Pittsburgh, 1961.

(The flattop and skinny tie kill me.)

He was handsome. He was six-feet-two; he wore a size-12 shoe and a size 46-long coat. He was smart and dependable and spiritual and utterly unafraid of people, and he Read Books. He sang bass in the church choir.

Dad’s message was, “Everything will be OK.” Sometimes (especially when the Dow crashes, or when one of our kids has a real problem) my sister and I call each other and say, “Tell me what Daddy would say.”

His hugs were the best. A hug from Dad was like receiving a hug from the entire planet. Market shares could be tumbling, buildings could be burning, hurricanes could roar through and flood even uplands and when I hugged Dad, the world would be put back together and I’d be standing again on hard, dry ground.

His hands were large but finely boned, with square nails. Like a scientist.

He had blue-gray eyes. Like rain.

My son’s eyes are deep, dark Bournville brown, like my brother’s. His eyebrows are heavy and black, like Dad’s.

My son.

My son.


My son is one of a number of important men in my life. Another is Jacques, who lives in New York and has 30 years sober and who’s like a brother to me. And another is a tall geeky guy with a magnificent sense of humor, who rents out his car because he cycles everywhere within a 20-mile radius of his house. There’s yet another tall guy, with long hair and superb taste in music, whom I’ve known since the last days of post-punk. Both these tall guys are enjoying raising young women. … There’s also my son’s father, who gave our boy that dimple in his chin and who, in both his sons, has raised two good men.

I’ve learned many lessons from men that I could never have learned from women. My son has learned many things from the other men in his life that he could never have learned from me.

I’ve spent much of my life being afraid of men, as if they were bears in old-fashioned zoo cages. My mother taught me that if I trusted men, if I was nice to them, they’d eat me alive. Please Don’t Feed the Bears. My fear was actually not a fear of men but a fear of my own sexuality. One of the primary side-effects of using drugs was the depression of my sex-drive. When I was using, I didn’t look at men. On the whole, I didn’t notice other people. I was immured in my own bubble, within the curved walls of my skull.

Now that I’m sober, I notice men all the time. As a sober straight woman dedicated to honesty and integrity it’s important for me to pay attention to the fact that I have a serious attraction to these bears. Even if I don’t act on that attraction—because to act or not to act, and how to act, are choices recovery gives me—it makes life more alive.

Thank you, all you Bears, for being who you are.

Getting Sober Young In New York.

I’m about 90 percent past a case of walking pneumonia that lasted more than a month, and while I continue to cough, I’ve been busy, busy, busy.

Please check out my latest today for The Fix, in which my friend “Sophia,” a 23-year-old NYU grad, talks about how her dad made her a deal when she was a kid: he’d buy her booze if she’d purchase pot for him from her friends at high school.

Not really an uncommon scenario, it turns out. A lot of today’s parents, who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, smoke pot at home and let their kids drink, thinking that if it happens under their roofs, the kids will be all right. What happened in Sophia’s case was, she got the distinct impression that her dad thought boozing and drugging was OK, so at about 14 she started boozing and drugging herself, and by the time she got to her senior year at NYU she was an alcoholic.

I was driving my 15-year-old son to school this morning—the same high school Sophia attended for a while. He usually rides his bike, but he’s recovering from a concussion, and I had to deliver medical forms to the office. Walking to the front door I glanced through the basement windows, watching the kids unpack their stuff into their lockers, wondering how much weed was stashed in those skinny metal cupboards. I have a strong strain of naivete and I want to believe there’s not much, the kids seem so “nice,” but I think back to my own rural high school, with the whiff of weed around every distant corner—and fogging the back of every school bus. It’s how many kids got through the boredom of high school, and through their own refusal to rise to certain challenges: they numbed themselves out.

(For how many years did I refuse to rise to challenges and numb out my resentment against myself? Many.)

I know a number of people who overcame addiction at young ages in New York City. Opportunities for recovery are everywhere in Manhattan. They’re easier to find than the subway stops.

Today I talk to my kid openly about addiction—and about sex, and relationships, and feelings. I’ve learned from my journalistic work and from my own experience that I need not only to tell him to manage his feelings but also to model productive ways of doing so.

We can live consciously or unconsciously… It’s the consciousness of this that helps us remain close. And he and I remain extremely close. No wonder: I still carry traces of his body inside mine. We both seem aware of this.

Yesterday for a story I’m working on I spoke with Natalie Angier, author of Woman: An Intimate Geography. She writes,

Years and years after a woman has delivered a child, she continues to carry vestiges of that child in her body. I’m talking about tangible vestiges now, not memories. Stray cells from a growing fetus circulate through a woman’s body during pregnancy … Scientists have found fetal cells surviving in the maternal bloodstream decades after the women have given birth to their children The cells didn’t die; they didn’t get washed away. … A mother, then, is forever a chimera, a blend of the body she was born with and of all the bodies she has borne.

Unlike many young men, my kid expresses his feelings openly. I’m glad I’ve been able to teach him this practice. It may be one that saves him from some of his genetic tendencies.

The boy and his dog. “I love her fiercely, Mom,” he said. A powerful practice, to be able to express our feelings openly. Especially for men.

On G’s Gratitude List: Our Kids.

My baby sister is in the kitchen singing with Sinatra: I Get a Kick out of You. I sing a few bars with her. We’re both altos and we both sang a cappella in our college choirs; she went to school five years behind me.

“Have you always liked Old Blue Eyes?” I ask. She shakes her head, still singing, pointing a Nerf gun in my general direction as my son fiddles with another, trying to get the clip to fit right. My 10-year-old nephew, Kevin, four years younger than my son, stands behind him; both boys wear knit caps pulled down to their eyebrows. Kevin copies my son all the time.

(“The Jonathan-hands,” my sister says, rolling her eyes and gesticulating.)

“Why do girls love animals so much?” my son asks as my elder niece, five days younger than my son, cuddles their new dog.

“And why do we love to shoot each other so much?” Kevin asks in a silly voice.

Earlier I dropped my younger niece, 12, off at the high school for a two-and-a-half-hour swim practice. This summer she swam and ran a sprint biathlon; she just made the state cut in her event, the 50-meter breaststroke. States are in February. I pull into the dark parking lot and watch her walk into the huge suburban high school, remembering how small she was when she was born, feeling contentment in being a massively proud aunt.

Four kids between 10 and 14.

They’re mine, too. All of them. My sister shares them with me, thank God, and I share mine with her. And genetically, they’re as much mine as they are my sister’s. After all my sister and I share 99.9 percent of our DNA. Temperamentally, my elder niece and I are cut from the same bolt of cloth (make it thick silk charmeuse, in scarlet or royal purple; or else slate-gray heathered cashmere, spun and woven extra-fine; and on other choice occasions, hard-wearing denim, in black—cotton with 2 percent spandex).

For my birthday recently I received a card signed by my sister’s three kids, plus Kevin’s best friend Tom. “I love that Tom signed my birthday card,” I tell my sister.

“I love that you even remember who Tom is,” she says. We never had kids over our house when we were growing up. Well: that’s not true. My sister had birthday parties; I didn’t. But we never had kids just hanging. Our parents are gone; my sister and I are trying to raise our kids differently. We open the doors and let people in.

Especially kids.

There are so many important kids in my life. Not just these four; there are also the kids my son goes to school with; kids he plays soccer with; kids he’s known since he was in preschool and with whom he’s still friends. There are the girls who are beginning to notice my son (“I like your glasses!” one of them tells me when I see her; “I like your coat!”). There are more kids all the time.

When I got pregnant I was terrified to become a mother. Afraid I’d screw it up. “Will I be able to love him well enough?” was the question I asked. In her new book, Blue Nights, Joan Didion says people don’t ask themselves this question but I beg to differ: I asked it of myself constantly, and I still ask it. Do I love him well enough? Am I able?

In sobriety I’m learning that my best efforts are good enough.

I’m grateful to my sister for sharing her kids with me, and for loving my son as if he were her own.

Tonight: off to an awesome Al-Anon meeting.

Sleep, Drugs, and Surrender

Talked with a friend yesterday who is taking a drug to help her sleep. The drug she’s taking is a drug usually used for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but it’s prescribed “off-label” as a sleep aid. Beware the drugs that are prescribed off-label: my friend wants to quit, but she’s having trouble.

I recognize her thinking. I’ve done this myself. One reason painkillers were a solution in the beginning was that they helped me sleep. I’d get to the end of the day and I couldn’t face getting into bed without knowing I’d get at least six uninterrupted hours. Of course, once massive tolerance builds, the solution goes out the window. In the end, I couldn’t fall asleep until 2 a.m.

Immediately after detox, my desperation for sleep soared to heights I’d never before imagined. When I jumped off Suboxone three years ago, I went to greath lengths to guarantee a good night’s sleep. I exercised every day, I stayed away from caffeine, I meditated. But I didn’t surrender. Instead I tried other external stuff: Valerian; Lyrica (an anticonvulsant also approved for fibromyalgia); Neurontin (an anticonvulsant also prescribed for chronic pain); antihistamines; melatonin.

I still take a small dose of Neurontin each day, for pain. The amount I take doesn’t help me sleep. And when it comes to sleep, for half the month, I’m screwed. I’m 46. My hormones are constantly shifting. I know my hormones are on the downswing the day my breasts start to hurt, and usually that night I’ll wake up at 3:30, and every night thereafter I’ll wake at 3:30, until my cycle starts.

In the beginning of the month I can wake for five minutes and get back to sleep. But not last night.

Last night when I woke I tried my mental gratitude list trick, and when that didn’t work I began to feel frustration, panic, a desire to control the problem.

“Part of it is brain-chemistry,” my friend had said.

I couldn’t agree more. When my estrogen levels are rising, I sleep well. When they fall, I wake up at 3-fucking-30.

Does this mean I have to take a drug?

Sleep is the time of day we surrender. You can’t TRY to sleep. You have to let go. … If I panic, if I allow myself to panic, this puts my body and mind into fight-or-flight mode and dumps a bunch of adrenal hormones into my blood. Adrenal hormones are the ones to which sky-divers and rock-climbers and other extreme-sport enthusiasts can become addicted. Adrenaline helps when you’re falling from 8,000 feet and even helps when you’re climbing a sheer rock-face, but it feels like shit when you’re stuck awake at 3-fucking-30.

I’ve stopped drawing a line between the body and mind. I don’t even say they’re “connected” anymore. They’re the same. The body has all kinds of little “brains” distributed throughout its geography. It’s a fact that people who meditate regularly can change the ways their bodies behave. It’s a fact that our neurology is not set in stone—it’s plastic.

How do you surrender (or practice Step 1) when you’re in the middle of extreme feelings?

Gratitude—The Antidote to “Restless, Irritable and Discontent”

I had a piece all planned out and half-drafted about David Foster Wallace’s addiction and the reasons he could not escape his depression; also another piece about a new magazine about recovery called Renew, whose editor has asked me to be the book and media reviewer; and I still plan to write those pieces, but I’ve wandered into a bad neighborhood this week. You know you’ve wandered into a bad neighborhood when it’s 9 in the morning and you’ve just dropped the kids off for camp and you’ve cranked up Lyle Lovett singing Townes Van Zandt, and you’re crying in the car.

Townes Van Zandt

Driving home and leaking a few scalding tears of self-pity, I was thinking how sick I am of being in early sobriety: that I’d like very much, thank you, to be one of those people you see at meetings who has 30 or 40 years (will I ever have 30 or 40 years?—I cleaned up pretty late, I might be dead before then) and who can stay sober seemingly without trying. One of those people who says they no longer need to go to meetings—that they just come to “give the message to the newcomer” (me). You ever run into those people?

Me, I have to try real hard sometimes. And then I try too hard. I can’t get the balance right. I can go a long time doing tricks on the bar, then I fall off, and it hurts.

I’ve been restless, irritable and discontent. My behavior yesterday pointed this out to me. Went to the library to pick up some books that were being held for me, and the hold on one of them had been cancelled because I was a day too late. One day. The book was sitting right there in front of her. I said, “Can’t I still take it out?” I take books out of the library to save money. If I were rich as Croesus, I would be buying all these books and supporting their authors, but I can’t afford to do that (poor me), so I support the public library instead. And the librarian checked the screen and said, “No, there’s another hold on this book.”

I said: “Isn’t there another copy in the system?”

She checked the screen and said: “No—this is the ONLY COPY in the entire system.” The entire frigging system, I thought, has only one copy of this title, and I can’t have it because I was 12 hours too late. If I’d been in the right frame of mind (i.e., sober) I would have thanked the librarian for her help, but as it was, I snatched the two books she allowed me to take and slammed the door on my way out.

On the curb, I thought, What the hell are you doing, slamming doors? You don’t behave like this anymore.

But yes, it turns out, I do behave like this. When I resent my own failings, I blame other people for it and slam doors.

Went home, opened my computer and saw that my battery had drained to 20 percent. Checked the cable and found the transformer had burned out on me. Looked for the spare and couldn’t find it anywhere. Called my husband, who is overseas, taking care of his family—but yesterday, he was by himself in the countryside, staying at a pub, having a sweet little holiday in the mild Yorkshire sunshine. And there I was, I thought, in this infernal heat, dealing with his inability to leave the spare charger where I could see it.

And in the back of my mind was the thought that, the last time I had a little tiny holiday by myself—exactly 72 hours away from home—I caught hell about it for a week. Resentment.

“I gave the spare to my sister,” he said. So he’d secretly taken it with him, and there was no spare in the house, and my computer was ready to die.

I let him hear about it, for 30 seconds, then told him to “have fun” in the country and hung up on him. Total bitch.

I mean yeah, it would have been nice if he’d told me he was giving away our spare charger. But would it have changed things in the least?—no. The reality is, I have money enough to buy a charger. Thank goodness.

Gratitude, man. It’s a choice.

Yesterday’s meeting wound up being about gratitude. Trudged through the 96-degree heat to the meeting and nobody had a topic, and my friend Benedick who was chairing said he wanted to talk about Step 4 and character defects—whether they actually get “removed,” whether we can truly change and become better people, or whether the defects stick around and we remain big bad addicts and have to struggle against them forever. He opened it up and a woman said, “What I really wanted to talk about is gratitude,” and this little moan went around the room—the way it quite often does, I notice, outside of Thanksgiving-Time Gratitude Meetings. Even at Thanksgiving you sometimes hear people mumble, “I fucking HATE gratitude meetings.” I’ve said it myself.

I hate gratitude meetings. Because they have a way of pointing out my weaknesses.

I want life to be easy. When it’s easy I think I’m safe.

Gratitude is the antidote to all this… even active drunks and addicts can understand this. Townes wrote:

You will miss sunrise if you close your eyes
That would break my heart in two

He wrote this while he was killing himself drinking. Beautiful things can come out of suffering and devastation.

At the meeting yesterday I confessed that during these 96-degree days I sometimes wish I could have a cold beer. Drugs, I said, were for serious medication of suffering and pain; beer was for kicking back and having fun, cooling off, and having a laugh like everybody else. I remember the taste: a bit sweet at the front and bitter at the back, with the bubbles prickling my tongue and making my mouth water. And then the hit, first in my belly, which is also where the drugs always hit, but in a different way. I liked pale ale, or bitter. Fuller’s is (was) nice. … There is beer in the house, and a distributor up the block, a specialty pub two blocks away, and I am the only adult here, no one would know, but I haven’t had a drink.

My friend Benedick, a 30-year-alcoholic who just passed a year, talked at the meeting yesterday about how he’d been outside the day before from noon to 11 at night, and he’d gone through three shirts and after he knocked off work at 11, his colleagues all said, “Let’s go get a beer!”

“This sounded like the best idea that anyone had ever proposed in the history of civilization,” he said. “It didn’t sound like temptation. It sounded like a reasonable and intelligent response to a long day in the heat. I would pound the beer and I would go to Heaven, and Jesus would be there to meet me at the bar.”

If that ain’t temptation, I thought. “I will turn these desert stones into bread… all you have to do is Ask.”

“Except after the beer, I would have a shot, and then another few shots and a beer, and then a shot and a beer and a shot,” he said, and then he would be wasted and wake up with a hangover.

He told his friends this. He said it helped him to be honest. Thinking it through, surrendering to the reality of his alcoholism, helped him to stay sober that night.

So I tell you, my friends, today: I am in a bad neighborhood. I’m not obsessed with drinking or using but I am obsessed with worry—getting everything done, perfectly; proving I’m a Good Girl so I can be Safe Forever. Called Benedick last night and told him that I believe what my friend Sluggo has told me a lot of times: that addiction and character defects just cover up the divine beauty that is inside us; that it’s not up to us to Fix Ourselves but to allow that beauty to be revealed. God doesn’t come in, God comes out. Steps 6 and 7.

So, rest easy. I used to sing this song to my son to lull him to sleep.

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