Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: humility

Observe These Hands, My Dear.

Arrived at my women’s meeting last night just as the meeting was starting. Came from having a withering argument with someone with whom I’ve had (and/or withstood) withering arguments for a long time. No big deal, right?—we all have folks in our lives who bring out the sharpest claws in us. I’ve had two or three panic attacks in the last couple months and they always begin with an out-of-body thing—it’s almost like I’m standing right next to my body, watching it go through the motions of a panic attack: face blanks out as though to deny the anger (mine; the other person’s); chest tightens, throat chokes, then the body starts to gasp slightly, as if it’s being dragged underwater.

Last night as I walked into the meeting I felt my face go blank and my throat choke and I walked to the chilly little bathroom at the back of the basement room where we have this meeting. At the back of the cold room, near the last wooden stall, under the window, I saw that someone had placed a space heater, and as I leaned my forehead onto the windowsill and a sob escaped the noose around my throat, I felt the heated air gliding up toward my face like a warm blanket.

My friend Tina followed me into the bathroom and called my name.

I fell stone in love with Tina the day two or three years ago that I heard her lead. Tina is one of those astonishing people who got sober at like age 22, and who has never had a drink or drug in the intervening 25 or 30 years. I don’t mean to make it sound as if it’s easy for her. It’s not. She’s a working mom whose partner, a guy with lots of sober-time and his own professional successes, enthusiastically supports her career and her work as a mother. She led me to the ratty little couch in the basement room adjoining the meeting room and as we talked she laid out some options I hadn’t seen before. Then we joined the rest of the meeting.

(What would I do without these women? Prolly drive down to one of the many bridges in this town. It’s their trust that keeps me sober.)


After the meeting, my sponsor, who had been there the whole time, asked me what had happened, and I told her. Again. … Do you never feel as though you must at least take a shot at making the story you’ve told a million times interesting, just to make sure the other person doesn’t scram, or scream, or fall asleep? The story of the conflict that engendered this particular argument I had last night—no way can I make it interesting. It’s the most common, most banal of stories on the face of the earth. “One of these days you’re going to get sick of hearing me talk about this and you’re going to fire me because of how boring all this is,” I told her, rolling my eyes.

(I hate it when people use the word “fire” for leaving a sponsorship. It’s not about hiring and firing. To “fire” someone is to demean them. But I said the word “fire” anyway.)

She shook her head almost in wonder and I realized I was doing it again—indulging in self-recrimination, self-censure, self-self-self, superselfinvolvement. Her eyebrows met above her glasses, and she claimed her best litigator’s stance and diction as she (once again) pointed out that I was being too hard on myself, that I was taking responsibility that wasn’t mine, that I had to cease the criticism and judgment “and, what is the word—opprobrium, shall we say?—that you use against yourself,” and to practice an attitude of gentleness and compassion toward myself and everyone else. Much of my work with my sponsor is about Step 7—humility and self-acceptance.


I want to fix myself. I want to figure out a Way To Be, a Pure Way that upsets no one else—so that I can do what I need to do for my own peace of mind and no one else will be affected. Teflon Woman. I know that the ONLY thing I can change is myself—so let’s get on with it, G, let’s figure out what “needs fixed” (as all my aunts used to say) and get out the toolbox and start in with the hammers and saws. There has to be something I can do to fix it. “It” being myself.

The idea that I’m fine just as I am, that I’m where I need to be right now, still doesn’t feel all that familiar.


Flo (way down the trail) and Ginger chasing each other in snowy Frick Park.

When it comes upon me, however—when I let that attitude overtake me—I experience a state that approaches bliss. The other day for example it snowed, a heavy wet six inches, I ditched my morning plans because my kid’s school was delayed two hours, I drove south to the big hill in the city and walked my dog Flo and my friend P’s dog Ginger (because P is in Holland taking care of her mother) and simply allowed myself to be in the snowy morning without feeling as if I were doing anything wrong, as if I were reneging on any work (I was but amen, so be it), and I watched the dogs chase each other in the snow and heard the robins singing—a sure bellwether of spring—and the happiness welled up a little bit in me because I was right there, just doing the next thing, and it’s those moments I feel no need to change myself, Fix Myself, do anything to myself to make myself different so other people will be OK with me and my actions. Actually it wasn’t happiness, it was just contentment. The opposite of “discontent.”

“Content”—the word comes from the Latin for contain or to hold. In those moments I feel held, safe.

Other times—well, other times I stand in the Lululemon dressing room trying on expensive yoga pants and the rear-view in the three-way makes me pick apart every aspect of my body, makes me want to take out a couple grand so I can join a kickboxing class and finally possess, if never big breasts or booty, at least tiny Buns Of Steel. Still other times, I walk calmly into the church bathroom and sob quietly against the back wall. Quietly, so as not to upset anyone else.


My sponsor regarded me through her glasses and held up her hands. “I wish I could be like Rhett Butler with Scarlett,” she said, shaking her hands in front of my face.

“You mean,” I said, “where he says, ‘Observe these hands, my dear, they could tear you to pieces—’”

“—‘if it would take that stupid, wishy-washy idiot Ashley out of your mind,’” she finished. “I wish I could smash out of your head all that self-hatred and self-criticism. I would do it if I could.”

So she’s looking up at me, shaking her hands into my face. She ain’t no Rhett Butler. My sponsor is like two inches shorter than me—four or five when I am, as I was last night, wearing the awesome John Fluevog boots I bought in November from the Fluevog shop in lower Manhattan. No photo can convey the feeling I get from wearing these boots. They make me taller and über-badass. Impervious to (self-)criticism.

How do you kick the enemy’s ass when the enemy is yourself?


Observe these boots, my dear. They were made for walking. By John Fluevog.

Then she started in about what a fascinatingintelligentspiritual person I am, how I have So Many Wonderful Qualities, blah blah blah, and I stopped listening.

(Scarlett: “Take your hands off me. You drunken fool.” Scarlett is about as adept at resisting real love as I am.)

Because I have to do that work for myself. I have to Love Myself. I can’t make anyone else do that work. (Can I?) I have to come to some kind of dependable right-sized understanding of the person I am. None of that requires Fixing Myself. I can’t screw anything in there that will make it all better. It takes time. Experience. Acceptance of mistakes, of possible mistakes, of myself. Taking steps outside my limits. Risk. Grief. Celebration.


Postscript: Ed died last night, peacefully, at 4:30 a.m. A great privilege to have known him. May you be at peace, Ed, and may your wisdom continue to speak words from The Cloud into our ears.

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:


Learning To Be Alpha-Dog: Asking For Help.

Last week I went out and adopted a new puppy from the Humane Society. Nine weeks old today, Black Labrador mix—but people who know dogs tell me she’s almost all Black Lab.

Her name is Florence. Flo for short.


My son bringing our new puppy home.

She’s mine. She’s everyone else’s too, but she knows I’m the Alpha-Dog, I’m the one whose voice and face she hews to most closely, and I’m the one who has slept next to her crate most often.

She jumps on my son.

She retrieves. Took her on a walk to the end of the block the other day (a meandering experience) and I brought back a stick about an inch-and-a-half in diameter, two feet long. She played fetch with it this morning, even though the stick itself is about twice the length of her own body.

She’s smart. Six days in the house, and she’s already mostly house-trained. A feat that I put down to my personal Dog Guru, P. This is P’s Yellow Lab, Ginger:

P's "Ginny-bin."

I fell in love with Ginger over the course of the past 18 months. Ginger was the first dog ever to recognize my voice and come trotting to me with kisses and a smile. (Labs smile.) Ginger was the first dog I’d ever met who didn’t smell like Wet Dog. (My dog doesn’t smell like Wet Dog either. “Yet.”)

In spending the past week training the new dog, I’ve had a lot of memories. One has to do with my family’s dogs. Or rather, my dad’s family’s dogs. None of which were friendly. Sheba was a skittish red Irish setter who snapped at my face when I was 3 and put me off dogs for life. (Or so I thought, before I met P’s Ginger.) Stoney was an angry German shepherd that belonged to my cousin Danny. As a Marine in Vietnam Danny had trained scout-dogs and had seen several of them blown to pieces in front of his face. He came back traumatized with an IV drug-habit. He was very fond of dogs, and still nurtured an abiding desire to have a dog at home, but his addiction got in the way of taking care of it, and Stoney was always chained in the lonely dirty back alley, barking and screaming to be released.

There were other dogs on that (alcoholic) side of the family that were kept in basements all day, or tied to trees. This is how I came to think of dogs: as mean beasts that had to be restrained. This is the way my mother spoke about dogs. Her own alcoholic family never had any pets. “Dogs are a pain in the ass,” my mother always said. “You have to give them baths, you have to walk them every day, they slobber all over you, they stink.” At least we were allowed to have cats. And this is why: they wash themselves; they exercise alone; if you forget to feed them, they simply eat mice and birds. You don’t have to Take Care Of Them.

Another memory that dog-training has brought back is the early days of being a mother.

Eight-week-old puppies are helpless beings. “They’re like babies,” P says. “They ARE babies.”

Taking care of this canine baby I remembered taking care of my son, who is now 14-and-a-half. I remembered all over again, with new perspective, how difficult and draining the work was. My labor was 31 hours long, and it was “natural”: I had no hospital admission, no anesthesia, no epidural, and only a couple shots of painkiller (and boy, as an addict, let me tell you, those helped a hell of a lot: they managed my fear of the pain as well as the pain itself). I went home the same day with an entire human being in my trust. No certification required: Go Forth And Raise Thy Boy. And no extra help once I got home.

Fear crashed in on me.

I had no guru. A woman’s natural child-raising guru is her own mother, and she had taught me to do everything in life on my own. Asking for help betrayed weaknesses: lack of ingenuity, intelligence, persistence, self-reliance. Besides, anyone who gave you help was likely to be mistaken or misguided. And they might Want Something In Return. Safer to do things they way they’ve always been done.

So I tried to do it by myself. We moved to London when he was 3 months old. And I fell down the rabbit hole of addiction.

Sitting on the kitchen floor with this puppy sleeping in my lap, I remembered the overwhelming guilt I had when, while spending days alone in a London flat with a 5-month-old baby—no friends, no family nearby, no community, almost totally isolated, and physically drained but for the few hours a day after I took my codeine—I hired one of my husband’s undergraduates to babysit my son for two hours maybe two or three times a week. Enormous guilt: who should be taking care of this baby?—his mother. Selfish to hire “help” and spend that time either writing or, frankly, sleeping, because I was tired after a 31-hour labor and an overseas move.

Eventually, after my mother died and I began to see how ineffective her model was, I learned to ask for help raising my son. Eventually, after my father died of his alcoholism, I learned to ask for help with my addiction.

It’s impossible to live without asking for help. Asking for help doesn’t make us weak, it makes us human. “The thing we most need to forgive ourselves for,” my sponsor told me this week, “is our humanness.”

I’ve called P every day since adopting this dog, and she has guided me through the basics. Plus, my sister-in-law C, who has raised two big black dogs. Plus other dog-owners I know.

So I adopted the puppy a week ago, and two days ago my beloved mother-in-law had a stroke, and she’s paralyzed on one side and can’t swallow, and news is coming from England every day about her state. And then this afternoon I find out that I have to have surgery tomorrow. I didn’t even recognize how much I need help. I almost didn’t even go to the doctor. I’m still putting out on all cylinders, still pushing through and taking care of the dog and trying to meet deadlines and organizing my son’s life, and meanwhile the bloodwork says I’m anemic and on the verge of needing a transfusion.

Sometimes I lapse into being my mother. One way to counter that is to ask for help with what I can’t do for myself.

I may need to do that this week.

Tea In Bed: Humility

Next time you buy a teapot, try a British "brown-betty."

We have tea in bed every morning at 7. My husband usually makes it because his dad always made it in his family, but today I did.

I wake up my son at 7:15 in advance of his 7:55 bus (which no longer picks him up on the drug corner). He’s 14 but he still stretches out his long arm, snakes it around my neck, and pulls my head down to his chest. “Mama,” he says, for a minute rubbing his face against my hair. I let him do this even though he’s so big because I know pretty soon he’ll never want to do it any more.

Ten minutes later I’m sitting in bed and he walks in wearing light gray skinny jeans, black belt, and white T-shirt under the neon V-neck turquoise sweater I bought him at Marks & Spencer when we went overseas in February. The sweater is much shorter on him than it was even eight months ago.

My son is now almost as tall as I am. He’s maybe 5-feet-4. His shoulders are very broad and his waist is very small—he wears 28-32 jeans. He has light-brown hair and dark-brown eyes, with full lips and high cheekbones like me, and straight brows and a dimple in his chin like his dad. I know every mom brags about her kids, I know it’s kind of cheesy to do it here, I’m hoping you’ll cut me some slack today, but my kid is a knockout and I’ve begun to prepare myself for the onslaught of girls when he goes to high school next year. It will happen.

“Dude,” I say, “you’re so handsome.”

He is combing his hair in front of my mirror, and he turns to glare at me. He looks back at the mirror, and my husband chops his hand through the air at me, as if to cut me off.

“Why?” I mouth.

The boy stands up and slinks out of the room to get his breakfast.

“Because it is such a burden to be handsome,” my husband says quietly.

Oh for fucking godsake. “Yeah, tell me again about how BURDENED you were!” I goad him.

But it’s true. He grew up handsome from Day One and everyone always commented on how pretty he was and he learned to value the way he appeared rather than who he was, what he felt, how he experienced the world.

This wasn’t my experience. But in a big way, mine was similar. My experience was, I grew up overweight and ugly, and because I was teased and bullied I learned to value the way I looked rather than who I was. I thought if I could just look good, everything would turn out much better. And then at 18 or so I suddenly turned quite pretty, and some things did start to turn out much better, but because of those first 18 years, there’s a little girl inside who still feels ugly. My half-assed “codependent” solution has from time to time been to make the most of my looks (because they can go as quickly as they came), to make sure my outside looks stellar at all times. Serious shortcomings: vanity; superficiality; ego.

In writing this post I realized that, in the back of my mind, behind that remark to my son, was some fear about an agenda item today: an appointment with a high school to talk about my son’s prospects and application for admission.

What kind of impression “should” I make? Would I look “good enough”? Would I make some kind of mistake that would reduce his chances of acceptance or somehow create a bias against him?

(and if i fail him, the subconscious thought went, at least HE always looks fantastic)

My arrogance/vanity/ego has sometimes been like a volcano, exploding outward and destroying entire mountainside ecosystems. Other times—on its flip side, inferiority—it’s like a deep, cold underground river that runs silently under bedrock but, in its insistence and sheer longevity, undermines it, creating sudden subsidence and implosion.

The thing in sobriety about trying to control outcomes is still a bit of a problem for me, obviously. 🙂

We all get to have the dignity of our experience and our choices. Part of my recovery is developing the humility to understand that.


Reading The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Given to me just after I got sober by my old friend Jeff. Reading again at the recommendation of my new friend Gwen.

What are you reading?

What does humility mean to you? How do you learn it?

Robert Downey, Jr.

So yeah, just to get it right up front—he’s hot:


You know what, I always thought he was hot. Even when he was starring in those stupid Brat-Pack flicks; even when he was using. Most of all I thought he was smart and artistically gifted, and I was frustrated when, instead of hearing the next casting announcement, we’d get the next mug shot …

… and I began to keep my eye out for the story about his body turning up in a Dumpster.

Instead, he’s now Iron Man AND Sherlock Holmes. Rolling Stone profiles him in the May 13 issue. Walter Kirn (who wrote the novel Up in the Air, on which the film was based) hangs out with Downey in L.A. for two days and peels the wallpaper back to reveal a bit of the brick and studs of the house that Downey has built. Or recovered.

We get Robert Downey, Jr. talking about being “in the continual process of transcending fear-based rituals,” and about how, “In the moment, when you zero out your board, anything is possible.” 

Wait, what?

Downey has put a great deal of protective infrastructure in place:

Downey reserves two slots a week—paid in advance—with a therapist he calls “the best shrink in America.” One session is devoted to regular maintenance of his relationship with his wife. The other is a “floater” to be used as needed. … The array of problem-solving machinery that Downey relies on to protect himself from his own weaknesses and screw-ups is no mere celebrity-lifestyle amenity. Not in his case, anyway. “The ramifications of a little slip are not what they used to be,” he told me. “It’s not kid stuff anymore.” The truth is that kid stuff, for Downey, was never kid stuff. It was crack cocaine and heroin, publicized courtroom proceedings, incarcerations.

Kinda scary, that, but real: the fact that, at, what, eight years clean, he’s still thinking about “the ramifications of a little slip.”

The best part is the ending, where Downey demonstrates a fact: that every addict—every honest person, really—no matter how far he’s come and how much things have turned around for him, wants to be seen as and appreciated for exactly who he is. And he needs to remind himself how bad it can get, so that “little slip” doesn’t happen.

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