Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: higher power (page 1 of 8)

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.

 

Stranded.

Manhattan_bridge_snowWe landed at LaGuardia and arrived at the midtown hotel early Thursday morning, and even before we sat down we were strategizing about how to get back out. The “storm of the century” (O how the media love to whip up enthusiasm), a northeaster packing snow, was cooking up and we reserved rooms for an extra night, the first in a long line of contingencies we worked out over the course of the day. We sat in the little European lobby drinking tea and considering our options.

“That guy’s checking you out,” my friend said. She’s 73, she’s been married for 50 years, to one guy. What does she know about anyone checking anyone out?

I scanned the lobby and couldn’t see who she meant. We were sitting near two young men speaking German.

“Him,” she said, nodding toward the guy sitting three feet from me. He was maybe 10 or 15 years younger than I and his long curly brown hair was half-hidden by a woolen watch cap.

Nein,” I told her.

“Oh yes,” she said.

Then he glanced into my face.

What do I know about anyone checking anyone out? Apparently not much.

//

0By 3 p.m. we were stranded.

We sat in a coffee shop west of Times Square, she working her iPhone, I working mine, peering at flight schedules and train timetables. The wait-times to speak to agents were upwards of three hours. At 4 I put my name in a queue for a call-back from Delta. I kept my phone on during the play, expecting a call at 7; the phone rang back at 11. I filed email queries and Twitter queries. They’d cancelled 3,000 flights and all buses out. The snow was due not that night but the following: 10-15 inches.

Hell, I thought, that’s not the storm of the century. The storm of the century was western New York Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2000, when three feet fell in a single lake-effect afternoon. My three-year-old son woke from his nap and ran from window to window, clapping and hollering, “Mama! It’s snowing and thundering and lightning-ing all at the same time!”

The storm of the century was the Ohio valley the winters of 1977 and 1978, when three feet fell in a couple days, trees lost their branches, power lines snapped and lay live in the road, deer ate the bushes around the house to keep from starving, and school was shut for a week. We played Clue and charades forever. I took my sister sledding, in the sodden days before microfiber outerwear or even waterproof boots. Back then, a measly ten inches by no means guaranteed a snow-day: they’d just run the plows and wrap the bus-tires in heavy chains and make the morning world sound like sleigh-bells.

“Stranded” has an interesting sound to it. A “strand” of pearls, a “strand” of hair—a long, thin, ribbony sound. We sat “stranded” in the middle of Manhattan, millions of people milling around us. The word comes from a Viking word, strond, for beach or riverbank. When their boats were “stranded,” they were scattered, washed up on the beach, the bank, the strand. A famous street in London called The Strand is named after the shore of the tidal River Thames, which for millennia was wide and shallow, accommodating barge-travel; then in the nineteenth century the Victoria Embankment and the Albert Bridge were built in Chelsea, deepening the channel by erasing the strand.

We were beached on the banks of Midtown. We needed to shove offshore.

We made plans to leave Saturday but as time marched on, it became clear Saturday would be too late. I tossed in bed Thursday night, thinking I may not get back in time for a job interview (my first job interview in 18 years; I’ve been doing business by word-of-mouth for almost two decades) on Monday morning. I’d be sleepless with dark Gypsy circles under my eyes, unable to Be Awesome, as the kids say. So I bought Amtrak tickets at 6 this morning and here we are, crossing the banks of the Delaware, following the shores of the Susquehanna, the strands, rolling on the steel river.

//

It occurred to me this morning, sitting in the hot Amtrak lounge at Penn Station, talking with my friend Lucy (“Are you OK? Are you stranded?” she texted), that having grown up in an alcoholic family I have a habit of stranding myself. In order to make myself feel safe, I try to control outcomes. I go into situations with the opposite of what my Al-Anon sponsor has advised. “High hopes, low expectations,” she always says. A recipe for optimism: thinking positively, surrendering outcomes. When my expectations are high and my hopes are low, however, I get into trouble. I attach myself to a specific outcome with little belief that it’ll happen. Because it usually doesn’t happen. I can’t control outcomes. So my boat runs aground, because I’m essentially powering it with unsustainable fuel.

Since I’m usually ashamed when I run aground, I don’t call people. It takes Lucy texting me (Are you stranded?) to wake me up and allow me to relax and let the tears fall in the hot Amtrak Lounge at Penn Station, throngs of people waiting for trains outside.

The strand of communication saves me. (I needed a meeting today.) Phones used to be wired: strands of wires strung throughout communities, between communities, connecting each other, an actual network. Now the networks are digital, virtual, cellular, whatever that really means, and though they’re less visible or tangible they’re no less real or helpful. Lucy was 600 miles away but she sat with me in Penn Station, listening to my tears fall and it was her act of love and acceptance that allowed me to collect my scattered self and move back onto the river. To take care of myself.

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.

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?

Recovery, Step 11: Meditation.

The other night I was up in the middle of the night, sleepless, thinking about a letter I had to write. Thoughts

(you haven’t written a letter like this in a long time, what do you know about these issues anyway, ??who the hell do you think you are??)

kept me awake. So I focused on my breath and meditated.

About three minutes later an answer appeared, bubbling up like the fragrant bay leaf in jambalaya.

I’ve been meditating regularly. The intuition muscle is working.

The next morning I wrote down what had come to me in meditation. I thought, “This could be brilliant or it could be bullshit.” So I sent the idea off to a friend of mine who does this kind of writing. She wrote right back:

FABULOUS, GO W/IT!!

The power of intuitive thought.

Also: the supportive power of community.

//

When I meet newcomers to recovery, I notice how fidgety some of them are, and I sometimes ask them if they’re meditating each day. Most are not. They say they don’t know how. They say they’ve tried and can’t. Sometimes they say they’re “not on that step yet.”

When I first worked the steps, I got “previews” along the way, and meditation and prayer were two of those previews. So were amends. Just because I may not yet be taking Step 9 doesn’t mean I can’t make up for something I screwed up yesterday. Right? And just because I may not be on Step 11 doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to pray or meditate.

The other day in my home group I talked about turning problems over to meditation and prayer and a guy approached me after the meeting to talk about meditation. He wanted to know how I did it. Fiftysomething; two weeks sober; he’d been around the New Age Block, had tried various meditation methods and he was interested in getting the lowdown on how to do it the “right” way.

Newsflash: There is no right way.

As Mary Karr might say,

There’s just the application of the ass to the seat. 

As Yoda might say,

Do or do not—there is no try.

Meditation is for the Recovery Warrior.

Yoda knew about The Force.

//

When I got sober the second time, days after my relapse, I was told to meditate every day.

[I received this direction from Sluggo, a former heroin addict, fellow mom, experienced Zen meditator. She generously pinch-hit as a long-distance sponsor for me for a while when I was between sponsors In Real Life. Her experience with sobriety and Buddhism is here.]

Sluggo taught me this Way To Meditate (one of many):

  • Sit facing a blank wall.
  • Sit with your back held upright and easy. 
  • It’s better to sit crosslegged or kneeling on a cushion on the floor, but if you’re sitting in a chair, sit away from the back.
  • Rest your hands on your thighs.
  • Set a timer for two minutes.
  • Close your eyes halfway and gently unfocus them.
  • Hold still, begin by focusing on your breath. 
  • Each time you notice a thought, let it pass and bring your attention back to your breath.

That’s it.

The hard part is not how to do it. The hard part is actually doing it.

If you’re an addict like me, you’re afraid of your thoughts and you may not drink or use anymore but there are a lot of other things you do or are tempted to do to avoid your mind (eat, shop, gamble, work, clean, exercise, watch Netflix…). Meditation allows me to accept my mind. A powerful tool to correct self-rejection and self-censure.

Sluggo said: Add a minute or two each week or so until you get up to the length of time you want. She said: Do it at the same time every day. She said: I put my kid on the school bus, go upstairs, and meditate.

I don’t “try” to meditate. I either do it, or I don’t.

Sometimes I don’t. On those days, easy does it. I don’t beat up on myself for not doing it or for doing it wrong. I don’t congratulate myself for doing it or for doing it right.

Just now, I put my kid on his bike to soccer practice, and I’m here ready to meditate.

Fifteen minutes.

Let’s do it.

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