Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Narcotics Anonymous

What Are Character Defects? An Open Letter To Dolly.

Got an email overnight from an old friend of mine who has been questioning how much she drinks, and why. She has been going to AA, she said, but she couldn’t understand—and couldn’t stand—the idea of “defects of character.”

She sent me a link to an essay written 25 years ago by a professor of philosophy and religion. The essay argues against the “disease concept” of alcoholism—the author sees alcoholics as suffering from a moral problem based in desire and will. He separates the realms of science and spirituality.

So it would take me ages to put down everything I’d like to say back to this guy’s essay—I’ll save it for another time.

//

But dear Dolly, I wanted to share something I’ve been experiencing with regard to my character defects and how surrendering them to a “higher power” (Step 7) is helping me stay sober.

When I joined Al-Anon 14 years ago I was suffering. I had a 2-year-old kid and a marriage, a house, a job, a car, the whole bit, and I felt like killing myself. I had grown up with active alcoholism my whole life. I was raised by a woman who had been raised by a violent drunk.

The green Lorcet pills I used to take for pain. Actually mine were white—they were the strongest ones.

I was taking one pill per day for pain, but I couldn’t stop taking that one pill. I’d gone to AA and figured I couldn’t call myself an alcoholic because I hadn’t had a drink in three years. I’d gone to NA and told my story and some people looked at me cross-eyed because I was taking just one pill. These were people who had sold everything they had for smack or crack, sold their last remaining possessions in their houses, sold their bodies to cop drugs on the street, faced knives and guns and disease. I bought my measly little pills in the drug store. I thought, “I can’t be an addict—I’m not like these people.” (I don’t think this would happen in NA today. OxyContin and its cousins are too prevalent.)

It would take me a few more years—eight or 10—to meet people who used the way I used. It would also take me some time after that to realize that I’d begun the whole show by drinking my head off when I was 17 and we were in school together. (I had my first drink ever at the Phi Delt house. Gin and tonic. Let some slippery sophomore Phi Delt get me drunk and grope me, and all the girls on my hall laughed at me the next day: I’d let That Guy feel me up. I got so scared about being laughed at and showing how naïve I was that I met a guy the following month and stuck with him for almost four years.)

So when I took the 12 steps in Al-Anon I made a list of things I thought I’d done wrong: I worried about deadlines and put things off because of my worry and annoyed my coworkers. I was judgmental, I thought of myself and other people as either all good or all bad. I’d lost a couple of pieces of jewelry people had given me and this hurt them. And I thought my defects of character were things like anxiety, black-and-white thinking, and carelessness.

I continued to have migraines and terrible physical pain, and after several years I went to the pain clinic and got serious drugs and eventually became an addict. Even so, I carried on with therapy and Al-Anon because I thought if I could just figure out my emotional problems, I’d be able to either quit taking drugs or take them responsibly.

But it worked the other way around. It wasn’t until I stopped drinking and taking drugs (acknowledged my “powerlessness” over them, in Step 1) that I could begin to see my emotional problems clearly enough to remedy them.

Once I got sober I took the 12 steps again, guided by a woman who has been sober for more than 20 years. I saw that my “defects of character” were deeper than what I thought. My primary character shortcoming is not just “anxiety,” it’s a mortal fear of disapproval. I’ll do fucking anything (have done most anything—or sometimes even worse, NOT done most anything) to make the people around me think I’m OK. I will, for example, stick for four years with a boy I like, I might even love, but with whom I’m not really happy, to avoid being lonely; I’ll avoid having other relationships, to avoid being called a slut.

Another defect is putting other people’s judgment and comfort ahead of my own. (Really just a subset of the previous defect.)

Yesterday I was in a meeting when someone told a story about how, when she was drinking and using, she used to use at night because, she said, it helped her sleep. She used to pass out in the house, maybe on the hallway floor or wherever, and her husband would be like, “Why are you sleeping on the floor?” Hearing this story made my defect of character crystal clear.

I didn’t used to do pass out in the hallway. Here’s what I used to do: For years, for more than a decade even, I trained myself not to move in bed, not even to turn over, not to get up and pee, and definitely never to touch my partner, because I was sleeping next to someone who had intractable insomnia. This person is a light sleeper and if I even turned over, I might wake him up. So I trained myself to lie still. I gritted my teeth, literally, in order to do this.

Grit your teeth and bear it, was the way I was raised in my alcoholic family.

Eventually the tooth-grinding became a problem in itself and I had to get a tooth-guard to keep from grinding my teeth to stubs. Also, I had jaw pain. Also, I had neck and head pain, and shoulder pain, and back pain. For which, of course, I took drugs.

Also, I had a lot of suppressed anger and frustration, which it turns out contributes to tooth-grnding.

The drugs helped me sleep and not-move. They helped me not-care about the anger. For a while. Until they didn’t help anymore.

They also helped me ignore my anger and frustration during the day and get done what I needed to get done. They helped me grit my teeth through everything and not-care about the pain.

I didn’t understand I was contributing to my own pain. “Medical science” told me it was an illness, a syndrome, for which I might need to take drugs for the rest of my life. 

Another of my huge character defects is arrogance. I secretly think I’m perfect—or if I try hard enough, I can be perfect. I can do what other people want me to do, or what I think they want me to do, and not “betray” them or let them down. I kept doing life this way for years and years.

Let me admit something to you, Doll. I’ve spent most of the past two weeks on my own. And I’ve been able to get real rest. I wake up without jaw pain. When I wake in the middle of the night, I get up to pee without tiptoeing as though my footfalls might cause an earthquake. It took me a few days to remember I was allowed to turn on the light and maybe even read or write.

And my spiritual discipline tells me that I don’t have to blame this person. No one “made” me do anything. I chose to do all this myself.

And I don’t even have to blame myself.

All I have to do is to see clearly what I’ve done to contribute to the hurt. Take responsibility. Ask for my shortcomings to be removed. And then change the behavior (amends).

Turn on the light in the middle of the night.

The thing is, my thinking is so distorted, I am so arrogant and at the same time so full of self-hatred, that I need another source of power to guide me in changing my behavior. When I rely on my own power, usually I go pretty far down the wrong road before I see how I’ve gone wrong.

I’m learning to trust my own judgment by taking small steps forward, using my own judgment under the guidance of others who have gone before me on this road. I can’t “insight” my way into being healthy, I have to take action. I have to turn on the light. No one’s telling me to do anything. I’m engaged in what Quakers call “discernment.” All I’m doing is using a map. A GPS of sorts. And the GPS might lead me to a swamp, or a desert, or up against a mountain, and it’s always a learning experience.

I learn by doing. Not by figuring everything out beforehand.

It’s scary sometimes. It’s also exhilarating. I feel alive.

My friend P and her daughter with our dogs, Ginger and Flo.

I need to go walk the dog. But I wanted to get back to you.

Love, G

Amy Winehouse Dead Of Addiction At 27

I was driving on the turnpike last evening and saw there was a new text on my phone. It was from my friend P and it said:

I can’t help but the death of Amy makes me sad.

“Wait-wait-wait,” I said to my son. I kept my eyes on the road and passed him my phone. “Check the news on the Guardian app. Is Amy Winehouse dead?”

I mean we all knew it was coming. Russell Brand says so today. If you can get past some of the more deplorable and self-regarding turns of phrase (“I was becoming famous myself at the time and that was an all consuming experience”) and the missing punctuation (“Winehouse, but for her gentle quirks didn’t especially register”), you’ll find he has some smart and helpful points about Amy Winehouse and about addiction in general, one of which is: when we love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction, we await The Call. Either they’ll call to get help, or someone else will call to tell us they’re dead.

I didn’t by any stretch of the imagination “love” Amy Winehouse, but I felt connected to her in that we both suffered from the same deadly illness, and I was hoping against hope that she would get the help we all need in order to keep on living. But she did not.

I’ve already said a lot of what I need to say about Amy Winehouse. I believe her desperate need for approval drove her addiction and ultimately killed her. This is not a personal failing on Winehouse’s part. It is partly the distortion of reality that underlies the disease of addiction, and it is partly the cultural pressure put on women today. (Who knows how her family background played into it.) I can’t tell you how many women seeking recovery I’ve talked to who are plagued, absolutely PLAGUED, by the desire to be seen as perfect—physically, intellectually, emotionally. I understand this myself, having wrought untold hatred upon my body because of its unwillingness to conform itself into the contours of females pictured on magazines and in films. (Especially my breasts. I have hated my breasts. “You’re too unkind to them,” my husband has always said.)

In addition to alcohol and drug addiction, Amy Winehouse suffered from self-mutilation and anorexia, conditions which in their compulsive self-destruction are related to addiction and which demonstrate the hatred she enacted upon her physical body and upon her spirit.

“Now she can join the Twenty-Seven Club,” my son remarked. He hadn’t even read this—he just knew about it. Every 13-year-old today who is half-musical (my son is fully musical; he is a natural guitarist) knows about all the musician-addicts who have died at 27 as the ultimate consequence of addiction.

“They all OD’d,” he said.

“No, they didn’t, darling,” I said. “Cobain shot himself.”

My son “loves” Kurt Cobain. Nirvana ranks high on his playlist. No wonder: Cobain’s lyrics are smart and his musicality complex. His songs are dark, and teenagers are dark people, by and large. I harbor a bit of anxiety that my son might romanticize him and his choices.

“But he was high at the time,” he argued.

“Who knows if he was high at the time?” I said.

“He had no thoughts of suicide before he killed himself,” my son said. “I’ve read the biographies online. I’ve read the Wikipedia entry. They all said he never mentioned killing himself. It was the drugs.

It wasn’t the drugs,” I said firmly, feeling myself slipping uncontrollably into a motherly mini-lecture. “Drugs are not the problem. ADDICTION is the problem. Toxicologically speaking, drugs might kill people, but it’s the addiction that drives them to it. Drugs do not distort reality; addiction distorts reality. Kurt Cobain killed himself not because the drugs made him do it, but because addiction twisted his view of reality. Addiction made him think he couldn’t help himself; it made him think he wasn’t lovable, wasn’t worth anything; it made him think his feelings would never pass. Addiction is a disease that distorts reality. When we can’t see reality clearly, we end up working on incorrect assumptions and we do terrible damage.”

Sigh. Motherly lectures don’t work. I should know better. What I can do best is to let him see me living soberly today.

There’s a smart story in the Guardian about the lack of cultural understanding of what killed Amy Winehouse, which is the disease of addiction. Tanya Gold writes:

There is no meaning here, no wider parable about the relationship between addiction and talent … Winehouse was simply an alcoholic and drug addict who had no idea of her own worth or how to cure herself. … And she died for nothing because she thought she was nothing.

Well, nothing like another addict to understand an addict.

Brand says he was 27 when the folks at a particular rehab introduced him to the 12-step “fellowships for alcoholics and drug addicts . . . without which I would not be alive.” Gold mentions that “only the most enlightened doctors will recommend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, self-help groups that sometimes get results, although no one knows why.”

They’re starting to understand why. The research of people like Brené Brown (also a recovering addict) is showing that 12-step groups can help because telling our stories to others who understand has the power to break shame, and shame—not just for what we’ve done, but more importantly about Who We Be—is one of the key motivators that drive the deep fear inherent in addiction. We start telling the truth to other people like ourselves, and there is something about surrendering our truth, and being understood and accepted, that doesn’t just “suppress cravings” or help us pay bills/keep jobs/approximate “sobriety,” but that heals us.

 

Sober Life: Eminem’s Sober Interview with Rolling Stone

Standing in Whole Foods’ checkout line last night, and there was Eminem on the cover of Rolling Stone, nose peeking out from his (shady) hoodie.

Eminem Rolling Stone 2010

I shelled out. Eminem is currently the music industry’s bestselling and most visible recovering addict. From the glimpses I got waiting to buy my pork chops, I could see that his recovery from addiction was the first subject discussed and the subject most referred to throughout the interview. That, and his kids, and his work.

So I thought I’d share a few tidbits with you guys, in case you’re interested. Because I know you’re interested. Lots of you land here looking for “Eminem sobriety” or “does Eminem go to meetings.”

(For those who may not be familiar with Eminem: birth-name Marshall Mathers, 38; he is a hip-hop artist who grew up and still lives in Detroit; in December 2007 he was hospitalized for an overdose of methadone and the sleep-aid Ambien which nearly killed him. One relapse after that, and he committed to recovery. Also the title of his most recent album, Recovery is expected to be the bestselling album of 2010.)

Ambien is addictive. On his Ambien use:

Toward the end, I don’t think the shit ever put me to sleep for more than two hours. It’s very similar to what I’ve read about Michael [Jackson]. I don’t know exactly what he was doing, but I read that he kept getting up in the middle of the night, asking for more. That’s what I was doing—two, three times a night, I would get up and take more.

On the shooting death of his good friend, Detroit rapper Proof, and how addiction made him self-absorbed in his grief:

I remember days I spent just taking fucking pills and crying. One day, I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t even want to get up to use the bathroom. I wasn’t the only person grieving—he left a wife and kids. But I was very much in my own grief. I was so high at his funeral. It disgusts me to say it, but I felt like it was about me. I hate myself for even thinking that. It was selfish.

On getting high on methadone—a drug that most physicians and even many addiction specialists don’t believe can make you wasted:

I remember I got the methadone from somebody I’d gone to looking for Vicodin. This person said, “These are just like Vicodin, and they’re easier on your liver.” … I remember taking one in the car on the way home, and thinking, “Oh, this is great.” Just that rush.

Eminem’s just like a lot of us who committed to recovery to be here for others:

I knew I had to change my life. But addiction is a fucking tricky thing. I think I relapsed within … three weeks? And within a month it had ramped right back to where it was before. That’s what really freaked me out. That’s when I knew: either get help, or I am going to die. As a father, I want to be here for things. I don’t want to miss anything else.

Eminem apparently does not go to meetings. He wanted to attend meetings but people inevitably recognized him and wanted things from him, which made it difficult for him to be open in the group. On anonymity:

I tried some meetings—a couple of churches and things. It tended not to do me much good. People tried to be cool, but I got asked for autographs a couple of times. It made me shut down. I called a rehab counselor who’d helped me the first time. Now I see him once a week.

It’s well known that Elton John acts as his sponsor:

I speak to Elton [John]. He’s like my sponsor. He usually calls me once a week to check on me, just to make sure I’m on the up-and-up. He was actually one of the first people I called when I wanted to get clean. He was hipping me to things, like, “You’re going to see nature that you never noticed before.” Shit you’d normally think was corny but that you haven’t seen in so long that you just go, “Wow! Look at that fucking rainbow!” Or even little things—trees, the color of leaves. I fucking love leaves now, man. I feel like I’ve been neglecting leaves for a long time.

And this is where I put the magazine down to take a breath, because I enjoyed this guy’s unpretentious poetry so much and I was starting to love his process. There’s no one right way to get sober. But there are some essential ingredients: honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness to do whatever is needed. Especially willingness.

It seems Elton John, sober for 20 years, regularly reaches out to other celebrities with drug problems. Eminem has made it clear that he rang up Elton John for help because he knew Sir Elton would be able to understand the mental distortions that extreme fame exerts on a person, and he wasn’t able to get that in an ordinary meeting. Which is too bad—because when you get right down to it, in Orwell’s words, none of us addicts is “more equal” than any other. Maybe some people might think this choice in itself is grandiose and ego-driven. But I respect it: I see him recognizing the real limitations that he’s presented with, and then seeking help where he can, so that he can save his life and continue to do what he needs to do … stay sober, take care of his kids, and do his work. Each of us has to do this—get help in the way that best fits our life.

“There’s a lot more awareness of addiction these days,” my husband said this morning when I told him about this heretofore homophobic hip-hop singer calling on a flamboyantly gay star. “Imagine who might have been saved in the past if there had been more awareness. I mean, who was looking out for Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison? And so many others.

And here he is on some of the cleanup. On working sober, and the time lost on his CV:

I don’t know, man. I feel like I took a lot of time off. Not doing shit for those four or five years, how lazy I got—it’s time to get back to doing what I love. I feel like I’ve got a lot of gas in the tank. I just want to make up for letting people down.

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Sayings from the Rooms: Take What You Like and Leave the Rest

In AlAnon they say:

Take What You Like and Leave the Rest

In AA they say it a bit differently:

Take What You Need and Leave the Rest

(AA’s version, characteristically, incorporates a bit more desperation)

The idea is, we help each other in meetings by sharing from our personal experience—who knows about alcoholism and addiction better than those who have experienced it, or have lived with it?

From what I’ve heard over the years, the AA version is said less often in AA than the AlAnon version is said in AlAnon. Why?—I think it’s because in AA, the feeling is, we’re trying to save our lives, and in order to do that, we’ve gotta do as we’re bloody well told. We feel like we can’t afford to give people the idea that we can pick and choose anything.

In AA they also say,

Take the Cotton Out of Your Ears and Put It in Your Mouth

Listen

I’ve heard it said that this saying is for the kind of drunk/addict who drank or used to enlarge herself—participate in the grandiosity of addiction. But because I used in order to make myself small and shut myself up… because I came to The Rooms with a throat packed with cotton, my sponsors have encouraged me to do the opposite: spit out the gag, speak up and develop my voice. (Thus, dear reader, this blog)

Sometimes the pendulum swings too far in the other direction.

Went to an AlAnon meeting a while back. It had been a month or two since I had been to AlAnon, and I came home a bit irked. (red flag, anyone?) Told my partner that I disagreed with a few things that were said. Particularly the idea that no one should identify herself as an alcoholic in order to protect the idea that “AlAnon is Spoken Here.”

“I mean, there’s a difference between identifying oneself as an alcoholic, and saying ‘Last week at my AA home group we talked about XYZ, lemme tell you all about it,’” I said. “Don’t you think that there might be someone in The Room who might actually be helped by knowing that there’s another person there who’s an alcoholic, considering the fact that lots of us adult-children-of-alcoholics drink and use in order to numb out painful childhoods?”

“I would think—” he began.

“And somebody else called his wife his Qualifier!” I rambled. “I mean, WTF!! I never labeled my dad my Qualifier. I never even called my asshole gun-shooting grandpa my Qualifier—”

He sighed impatiently and waved his hands in my face.

“What part of Take What You Like and Leave the Rest do you not understand?” he said. “It’s not, Take What You Like and Fuckin Argue With Everything Else!”

AHHH-hahahahaha!” I yelped, collapsing on the couch as though he’d nailed me with a pea-shooter. “You got me, babe!”

Mouth

What writing tons of inventory has shown me: If I’m criticizing other people, I’m probably being twice or three times as critical of myself.

Time to let up on everyone…

Today I’m going to

Listen and Learn

(AlAnon’s equivalent of AA’s cotton-in-mouth saying)

Also paint. Also write.

It’s a wild life.

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