Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: perfectionism

“Watch Amal Clooney Eloquently Argue Her Case!!”

Amal Clooney in Athens, Greece - 14 Oct 2014

I came across this video posted to Facebook by a woman whose journalism and thinking I respect.

In the comments under the post, another woman had written of Amal Clooney, “She’s a great role model.”

So I clicked on the link. I’d seen a lot of pictures of The Movie-Star’s Wife but I had never heard her speak. And I found out a few things about Amal Clooney, and (again) about the problems of growing up as a girl in this society.

I found out that I respect the work Amal Clooney does. Realistically, though, would TIME have run a video clip of her in high-court action if George had decided to marry someone less spectacular to look at?

Within the first minute of this clip, two things crossed my mind:

1) She’s smart!—listen to her marshal the evidence.

2) She’s fucking gorgeous!—it’s easy to continue to watch her.

Subheads under No. 2:

  1. Look at her bone-structure, her black hair, the way the light falls across her cheekbones! She’s hot… Does this make me hear more or less of what she’s saying?
  2. Her high-court robes make her look like a nun.

And in those two sets of conflicting examples lies the tension upon which the publishers rely to get us to watch, as if she were un grand spectacle. An entertainment.

Even the headline is telling: “WATCH Amal Clooney.”  Not, “LISTEN to Amal Clooney.” Watch. 

Spectacle.

I suppose, having chosen to marry a guy with worldwide celebrity, that Amal Clooney has bought into this whole deal. She may be negotiating her new status on something of her own terms, while also giving the press something of what they want. So as for her being held up as a “role model,” I have to think about that one.

//

I know a 17-year-old, the daughter of someone I care about, who is at this moment in inpatient hospital treatment for anorexia and bulimia—fatal illnesses on the addiction “spectrum.” This girl is every bit as lovely, intelligent, and articulate as Ms. Clooney. She has from earliest childhood been led, by the same culture that manufactured and published this video clip, to watch images of beautiful women being held up in some way as models—fashion models, role models—people after whom she has been led to “form” or “model” herself. She has not been allowed the cultural space to look inside herself and find her own beauty, intelligence, strength. And she’s not yet old enough to claim that space by force.

Aside from this girl I’m also thinking of an extremely intelligent 18-year-old high-school valedictorian/homecoming queen/babe currently in one of my freshman writing classes who couldn’t stop reading her teachers’ minds in order to “succeed.” I asked the class to read Cheryl Strayed’s essay “Heroin/e,” one of the cornerstones upon which Strayed built her blockbuster book Wild, which became a film last year, etc. In the essay, Strayed loses her mother to cancer and herself to heroin use. I asked the students to write about a time when they’d lost themselves. Shortly after I posted the assignment, this student emailed me saying she’d never lost herself. She was panicking: What if everyone else in the class has had a moment of traumatic loss and I haven’t?—I won’t be able to compete. “I cannot stop thinking about how I have never had a moment when I felt truly lost,” she wrote.

I am suddenly wishing that I had been lost.

I told her, Awesome: so you’ve never been lost. I said, Write about the fact that, while all around you, people are losing their way, you have managed to retain possession of yourself. … In fact, two weeks before, she had written about her compulsive perfectionism—classic addictive behavior encouraged in our society. And for the Strayed assignment she was so consumed with reading my mind and Giving Teacher What She Wants that she had abandoned her own experience.

I took a little risk and wrote her,

Perfectionism is a delusion that, in my experience, has taken me away from myself for years. You may not have lost quite so much time, or gone quite so deeply into it as I (and others) have. But even now you confess, “I am suddenly wishing that I had been lost.” That’s the wish of a perfectionistic woman. 🙂

The words “intimacy” and “vulnerability” are bandied about a lot these days, so I’ll use them advisedly. But this is the kind of “intimate” dialogue I enjoy having with writing students. I extend myself a little bit by telling the truth, and I see if they reach back. She wrote an essay that broke a little shard out of my heart. It ended,

My idea of success is currently defined by other people’s expectations. Until I can look past what others think of me, I may never find who I am, but the fear of failing while finding myself is too great of a risk. For now, I am content with being lost.

I sat there trying to stick the shard back into my heart (always an impossible task, but I’m human—I try anyway), and I reminded myself that the longest-lasting change happens in small steps. And always with radical truth-telling.

//

Amal_ClooneyTo the extent that Amal Clooney acts according to her own mind and conscience, I think I can accept her as a “role model” for young women. But I’m afraid most young women won’t see that far. After all, Amal Clooney is a high-court attorney with a thigh-gap.

Most—not all, but many—young women’s eyes have been trained to see only as deeply as the thinness between the surface of the glass on the mirror and the silver-gilt on the back.

Or even thinner.

Renee Zellweger And The Fallacy Of “Total Abstinence.”

Ceci n'est pas Renee Zellweger.

Ceci n’est pas Renee Zellweger. And Our World Is Rocked.

So apparently we should be paying attention to the fact that Renee Zellweger has further fucked up her face. Whatever she did this time—and there are a million writers out there trying to scratch out a measly buck tracking down doctors willing to speculate about what it was—clearly it wasn’t the first time she commissioned knife and/or needle against herself. She’s been bingeing on Botox for years.

A lot of the publications that are running this shit have surprisingly venerable histories. The Atlantic, for example. I mean The Atlantic published Emerson, Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson and Mark Bleeding Twain, for godsake. What the hell are they doing? Playing vulture to the carrion of our voyeurism. We wrote snarky shit about her Lemon-Head face and that made her fuck herself up, and to top it off it makes you read what I’m writing now, because don’t you wish you had her rich-and-famous life? etc.—this is how Big Media make their money.

I used to read Time Magazine when I was a kid. It was practically the only non-religious publication, besides the Pittsburgh Press, that used to come to the house. That was back in the 1970s, when the magazine first spun People off its “lifestyle” pages, since Time, Inc. was no longer publishing Life. Way back when, for chrissake, Time used to publish James Agee. His novel A Death in the Family and his nonfiction account of southern tenant-farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, were books whose language and commitment of their author (admittedly ill with alcoholism and probably more besides) shaped my idea of what it meant to be a writer: You had to do a good job, not just for yourself but also for your sources, for your readers, and for the writers who had come before you.

Now nobody owes anybody anything. It’s a free-for-all—market laissez-faire.

//

Let Us Now Praise Famous MenAgee had been under contract with Fortune to write a piece about cotton sharecroppers, but after spending time with the impoverished “Gudgers” he found he no longer had it in him to use these poor people as tools to produce the shiny happy piece that Madison Avenue required, so he said Fuck It: I’ll make a book instead. You know how many copies he sold?—1,000. In nine years. The publisher waited nine years before putting it out of print. Today a sales record like that wouldn’t last six months.

The 1960s civil rights movement resurrected the book, and it hasn’t been out of print since then. Because its excellent language and deep integrity speak for themselves. They teach people how to be human.

By the same token, the headline for the Time story about Zellweger’s latest cosmetic “fix” lacks integrity—”Leave Renee Zellweger’s Face Alone!” It’s a manipulative, “hurry-up-and-wait” kind of line: Hey everybody, I’m gonna set fire to myself, so DON’T look at me!

But what pisses me off so much about this Renee Zellweger “story,” if you can call it that, has nothing to do with Renee Zellweger herself but with the fact that the media perpetuate this self-destructive thing that women do to ourselves—this compulsive looking in the mirror, the constant examination of ourselves, a fixation on self. Which is one of the roots of addiction: selfishness, self-centeredness. Obsessive self-reference. My bro David Foster Wallace wrote in “This Is Water”:

And the so-called Real World will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.

We read about Renee Zellweger but we’re really thinking about ourselves. You can bet that next week her face will be on the cover of People. We might read People in the grocery store line and go home and eat a big bowl of ice cream, because even if Renee Zellweger has fucked up her face, she’s rich-and-famous and automatically has a better life than we do. Automatically. Then sometime in the not-too-distant future we (automatically) go to the doctor and ask for Celexa so we can be not-depressed, or we steal or cop some Adderall so we can lose some weight and regain our “concentration.” Or whatever.

If you have kids in your life, and if any of the kids are American girls, you have been watching the progression of true insanity from generation to generation due to this kind of snowball effect between the media and its consumers. I mean until the 1970s, at which time society had sustained a 15- or 20-years’ barrage of Twiggy-style ad images, anorexia presented only in isolated cases. If the media produce this garbage, there will be huge audiences to eat it up; the audiences won’t stop buying it (will we?), and Time, Inc. will definitely not stop producing it if they can “brand” and sell it. The same with Kraft, Inc. If they can produce this “pasteurized processed cheese-food,” otherwise known as “American cheese,” they will create a market for it, and we will eat it up.

The same with the drug companies. If they can brand and sell this stuff—the drugs—they will create a market for it, and we will eat it up. “Got PMS? Ask your doctor for Sarafem.” Or whatever.

A couple weeks ago I told my first-year students to read David Foster Wallace’s essay “This Is Water” and to write an essay exploring ways they had become enslaved by some attitude. It shouldn’t have surprised me (but it did) that so many of the women wrote about their obsession with their weight or some other aspect of their appearances. With “beauty.” The few men I have in this class wrote about their obsession with “success.”

Plus ça change, and all that.

//

Recovering Body_smallWhen I sat in front of an audience of 1,000 a couple weeks ago to talk about my new book and took questions about physical recovery from addiction, the first was from a woman who wanted to know how I “deal with food”: I have put into print my compulsion to eat sugar, and the questioner wanted to know how I manage to feed myself. We can quit drinking alcohol, the logic goes, but human beings can’t just starve.

In mulling this question over it has occurred to me that in fact I am not completely abstinent from all drinks—just drinks that hurt me. And that includes soda. … I can’t be completely abstinent from all food or drugs—but I can choose not to put food or drugs in my mouth if they’re going to change my reality (in other words, the truth). If a shot or a beer distorts the truth for me, then should I never drink ANYTHING, even water? If sugar screws with my head, should I not eat ANYTHING?

I can’t quit eating or drinking altogether, but I can quit putting into my body stuff that hurts me—stuff of all kinds, including the smorgasbord of “stories” that tempt me to Feed My Head, telling me how to think about the ways Renee Zellweger has fucked up her face.

I can’t abstain from the mirror. But I can choose to stop talking shit about the person I see when I look there.

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Blowing Up Midtown.

I wend my way down Third Avenue away from the Lex Ave subway stop (I call them “stops,” not “stations,” because that’s what I’ve trained myself to call them—I learned to ride the Tube in London and native Londoners on the street laugh at me when I ask where the nearest Tube “station” is—It’s a stop, innit? This is how afraid I am of being laughed at: I change my language, change my shorts, change my shirt, change my life, as Tom Waits sings, so that I can avoid even minor disapproval) and toward the midtown offices of this famous treatment center whose headquarters are in my state but which also maintains a location here. I wonder what it looks like.

It’s small. It’s narrow. It’s a little glass door sandwiched between skyscrapers in the tall steelconcrete windtunnel that is Midtown.

Caron, midtown.

Caron, midtown.

The meeting is downstairs. It’s big. Lots of people, it turns out, are “family and friends” of alcoholics and addicts in this town. I arrive five minutes late because the train was running late, I’m not used to building in time for the constant subway delays in this city, actually I’m not used to building in time for any malfunction ever, I always expect myself to be running at top speed in perfect condition, nuts tightened, pump primed, engine lubed and idling, ready to go. That perfectionism, in fact, is one reason I’m here, sitting at the back of this meeting, digging my knitting out of my bag and listening to the speaker give a “qualification.”

This is a meeting whose weekly theme is “intimacy.”

The speaker talks, to my great surprise, about sex.

No one at any meetings in my town talks about sex.

But sex, sober sex, truthful sex, Real Sex, is so important and so critical to this process they call “recovery.” Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about sex? I wonder to myself. The answer is obvious: people are embarrassed to be open about their sexual “issues” in what used, in my parents’ cocktail era, to be called “mixed company.”

But I need to know what sober sex means. Honest sex.

What does it mean? What does it look like?

(My sponsor says: Making love doesn’t always have to mean sex. It can be other things.)

The speaker makes an analogy that sounds crazy and gross but is actually, upon second thought, fairly sane: this person wants a relationship that’s so intimate that it looks the way primates look when they’re grooming each other, weeding through each other’s hair and cleaning each other down.

stock-footage-cu-monkeys-grooming-each-other-at-the-monkey-temple-in-kathmandu-nepal

Total acceptance.

We’re primates, aren’t we? I think. Don’t we have this instinct somewhere in our DNA, this need to be so accepted and cared for not just by ourselves but by someone else as well?

//

I raise my hand. I talk about sex. I cry afterward, unwillingly. I don’t take long to talk, the “spiritual timekeeper” doesn’t even signal me to shut up, but I feel stupid, like a stupid freak as I root my Kleenex out of my bag and blow my nose. I’m the only one crying—at least, I think so.

Stupid freak. This is the language that my mind uses to address myself when I talk about dangerous subjects, the language that is second-nature and feels comfortable, like a threadbare flannel shirt. It’s garbage but it keeps off the draft.

I’ve been thinking about language all day. I’ve spent the day writing for an editor I like, a guy in this city in fact. But I also, paradoxically, found myself going to Mass. I’d gone to another meeting at a church, it happened to be the holiday they call (I used to call) Holy Week, I’d gone inside the cool stone nave to be quiet and “maintain conscious contact,” and suddenly the priest showed up. He said Mass. And I knew all the responses. I spoke the language. It burbled out of some deep well inside me that I thought I’d banged the cover on long ago. I am taken aback by some of the phrases. Particularly:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you
But only say the word and I shall be healed

I shall be healed. Healed. Had I ever thought about that idea, that this “sacrament” could Heal Me? Not as such; I’d gone to church to please my parents, to look like a Good Girl, to maintain appearances, keep the varnish bright, and to somehow Meet God in “God’s house”—my mother’s term for church. I’d memorized the responses to the Mass the way I memorized my “times tables” in fourth grade; later all this memorization helped me commit calculus to short-term memory, and the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales to long-term memory, in Middle English, with spelling, and accent:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour …

Aprille. It’s April already. I’m ahead in getting my taxes done but already behind in so many other things. In Work. In Money. In Appearances. In Sex. In Life.

//

After the meeting I thank the speaker. Women and men alike express appreciation for my “share.” A guy tells me not to feel alone, that what I said about sexuality is probably a lot more common than I think. I nod my head and thank him and climb the stairs to the lobby.

I ask the woman behind the desk if Dr. Paul works here.

Paul Hokemeyer, MD, JD, clinical consultant to Caron Treatment Centers, NYC.

Paul Hokemeyer, MD, JD, clinical consultant to Caron Treatment Centers, NYC.

 

She regards me with a patient smile usually reserved for very young children. “He’s not here right now,” she says kindly, checking her watch—it’s 8:30 p.m.—“he’s left for the day.” Of course, I say; I just wondered; I’ve talked with him several times over the phone; I’m a journalist and sober blogger and I’d just wondered if these were his offices. I’m rambling a bit. I’m out of business cards; I don’t take myself seriously enough. I’m looking around at the lobby. People routinely do business over distances these days but something in me likes to place people, place faces, I’ve got quite an earthbound mind, I like to look into people’s eyes, I’m an artist

I paint portraits.

I paint portraits.

but I also wind up defending myself in situations where I needn’t. Why explain myself with the receptionist?

(because i explain defend myself with everyone)

Isn’t it time to open up a bit? to trust? … I think back to the interview I held with the Famous Author the day before. I was showing him my paintings on my new iPad; I felt as though I was not supposed to be showing him art on a fancy expensive consumerist design tool, I could hear the voice of my mother

(goddammit, who the hell do you think you are?)

but I showed him anyway; he said he recognized one of the paintings from my blog.

You read my blog? I asked.

I told you I read your blog,

he said.

I didn’t believe you, I blurted, placing my fingertips on his arm. He regarded me with slight reproach. He’d guessed my age as younger than his, though in fact I’m six or eight years his elder.

I try to live a life of rigorous honesty these days, my friend,

he said.

//

Bloomingdales_flags

Wind whipping Bloomingdale’s flags. Photo by Woody Campbell.

I walk out of the Midtown treatment center offices. The wind through Bloomindale’s flags has built to tornado force. I mechanically scan the sliver of sky for tornadoes, but of course they never experience cyclones here. I’m blowing up Third Avenue in Midtown. I’m steadying myself to keep from pitching over when a hand touches my left shoulder. I turn; it’s a woman from the meeting where they talked about sex. She asks the name of my blog. She has heard me speaking with the receptionist, saying I’m a sober blogger. She plugs the name of my blog into her smartphone and it comes up, smack, right there, in the wind, on the corner of 58th and 3rd, in Midtown.

She smiles and tells me this was her second meeting and she was glad to hear me speak. Both of her parents are addicts. Both of my parents were addicts, too, I say. She says her mother has just gotten out of rehab and her father is on methadone—not “really clean,” but still.

I tell her I’m glad they’re alive.

I touch her hand. People are so alone in this town—in this world—skin rarely touches skin. We’re evolved to receive these electric charges. We need them to power up.

She tells me that she’s been trying to change her attitude and give back to people by being a clown.

A clown? I say.

“I dress up as a clown,” she says, “and I meet people around town.”

Her face is beautiful—round cheeks, full lips, framed by dark curls.

Actually, I remember, all faces hold beauty—experiencing it requires deep looking.

A witness.

Motherhood and My Addiction: By Guest Poster Tara

Guest poster Tara, who blogs about sobriety at The Act of Returning to Normal, writes today about how her alcoholism and her motherhood were intertwined—she drank to soothe her fears that she wasn’t a “good-enough mother”… and, later, she got sober in part out of her desire to give her kids a sober mom. I’m grateful to Tara for this post—I so closely identify with her feelings about motherhood: intimidation; inferiority; setting up the goal of perfection, and never being able to meet it.

Tara, I’m so glad you’re sober today. 🙂 Happy Mother’s Day.

Readers interested in guest-posting can email me at guinevere (at) guineveregetssober (dot) com.

***

Motherhood and My Addiction

by Tara

Drinking motherDuring the last few months of my drinking in the summer of 2010, I was in a serious funk. Believing that my problem was a depression that had nothing to do with the copious amounts of alcohol I consumed, I considered going to my doctor to ask for anti-depressants. The part of me that was concerned about my drinking was also convinced that if I wasn’t suffering from depression, I would definitely have to cut back. I couldn’t contemplate quitting altogether, largely because it seemed impossible, like running a marathon. So I pondered anti-depressants, but procrastinated about making a plan to take them. Part of me was afraid I would never be able to drink normally, even if I did feel better.

It was summer and I was working from home. My kids were at summer day camp. I drank vodka at lunch every day. Cautious about consuming too much, I measured the portions carefully, stopping after lunch so that I wouldn’t be too drunk to drive to camp to pick them up. Each morning I promised myself that I wouldn’t drink until after they got home. By lunch each day I broke my promise. Later, I would thank God that I had this one small responsibility. I think it was the only thing that prevented a complete downward spiral into absolute drunkenness. I believe if not for that one ten-minute drive each day that I would have started drinking after breakfast.

The weekends were a different story. It was during this summer, on the weekends, that I began drinking before lunch while my family was out grocery shopping and I was home alone cleaning up the house. Looking back, I’m not sure why drinking in the mornings seemed necessary, but I wanted solace from an anxiety I couldn’t shake. I wanted to recapture the wake-and-bake feelings I had in my early twenties—that feeling that all was well with the world. Back then, I lived in San Francisco and smoked pot all the time; then, it seemed okay to chase peak experiences because it aligned with my desire to be more laid back, more “Californian.” I was trying to change myself the only way I knew how, from the outside in, and saw smoking pot as a style choice, on a par with wearing bell-bottomed pants and listening to folk music. I stopped smoking pot in 2001 when I was pregnant with my first child. At the same time, I put away my bell-bottoms. In my mind, getting high was tied to youthful exploration and at odds with my new sense of responsibility to my daughter. It was easy to let it go.

Ten years later it seemed I still wanted the hard edges of life to melt away so that I could be left with a good feeling. I wanted to be there for my kids but I felt like I wasn’t good enough as I was. In order to be a good mother, I believed I had to reshape myself into someone who loved them enough to help them, to listen to their stories, and to automatically have all of the right answers. I wanted to give them a sense of self-confidence and well-being my parents hadn’t given me. When I was drunk—just enough—I thought the “bad mother” parts of me moved into the shadows. I thought that I had to feel good to be a good mother. I thought that to feel bad meant I was bad.

There were many tangible moments that underlined my sense of failure at motherhood: “forgetting” to sign up for sports because practice was scheduled for times I typically drank, and hurrying along the bedtime routine because I needed to get back to my glass. I’m also sure there were embarrassing moments I don’t remember: slurred words,  stumbling, and forgetfulness. I loved my kids more than anything else, but I couldn’t fully accept that my drinking prevented me from connecting deeply with them.

Then two things happened that finally led me to seek sobriety. First, in a fit of pain over my failures in parenting, I tried to hurt myself. I don’t say kill, because I don’t think that was my intention at the time, although clearly it could have been a consequence. Second, my mother-in-law lost her temper because she saw everyone in the house tiptoeing around, pretending we were fine. She now admits that it drove her crazy to be with us, because although she couldn’t put her finger on why, she knew things were not good. Her anger wasn’t specifically directed at my drinking, even though she definitely thought I drank too much and saw through the lies I told her about cutting back. She knew that my life was unmanageable even though she didn’t know the truth about when or how much I drank.

After going through these two things, I was finally able to accept that things were not “fine.” I understood I had lost myself completely and I would never get out of the mess I was in—unless I first stopped drinking. This comprehension humbled me and for the first time in over ten years I asked to be released from my addiction. I prayed every day and counted the minutes. It sounds simplistic, even now, but for the first time in years I was able to put more than one or two days of sobriety together. This simple prayer worked for a few weeks, until I realized I needed help if I were going to put any amount of time together. I found AA and it helps me to stay sober.

After months of drunken contemplation about whether my family would be better off without me, when I got sober I understood the pain my kids would feel if I just disappeared. My memories of the night I tried to hurt myself, and the scars on the inside of my wrist, keep me focused on the fact that no matter how shitty things may seem now, they were truly shitty when I was drinking.

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