Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: recovery from addiction (page 1 of 10)

ASAM Definition of Addiction: How Is Addiction a Family Disease?

Wrote a piece for TheFix.com late last night about the American Society for Addiction Medicine’s statement that addiction is a primary, organic illness of the neurological system that distorts addicts’ thinking and drives them into obsession and compulsive use of substances or behaviors.

The physicians I talked to were happy about this development because it meant that addiction, as a problem they treat, is one step closer to being classified as a medical disease whose treatment can be paid for by insurers. Insurers often refuse to pay for treatment for conditions that could be seen as resulting from the patient’s own poor choices. ASAM’s statement makes clear their position that addicts have no choice about their illness.

When I woke around 6 this morning I started to wonder: if addiction is an illness inside the addict’s neurological system, then how can we “adult children of alcoholics” consider ourselves to be affected by addiction? I’ve heard people in Al-Anon meetings say, “I’m the same as the alcoholic—I just don’t drink.” (I can tell you: for my mother, that was true. She WAS a dry-drunk.)

I often think to myself that I have to try as hard as I can in recovery—not just for myself, but also for my son. I don’t, of course, want him to wind up an addict. But is that one of those “things I cannot change”?

The ASAM statement talks about how addiction is largely an illness of twisted thinking and feeling. The neurological dysfunction affects areas of the brain that mediate memory, emotional response to circumstances, pleasure, aggression (anger), and fear. In speaking with Mark Publicker, a garrulous and very interesting doctor who directs the largest rehab in Maine, I listened to him talk about how addiction twists the circuitry evolved to sustain our life on earth. Survival, in other words.

“We’re really talking about the circuitry that provides reward for engaging in behaviors that promote survival,” he said. “Our brains are designed to give us reward and pleasure for eating food, nurturing children, having sex.”

“Huh,” I said, “that’s not too different from what the Big Book says.”

He paused a second, then asked me to explain.

“Well, the Big Book talks about how alcoholism is about excessive engagement in survival behaviors—ambition, sexuality, personal relationships, the things that make you feel secure in the world,” I said. “And how recovery is about looking at our behaviors in those areas and learning to modulate them.”

“I don’t think there’s daylight between AA’s concept of addiction and the neurobiological explanation,” he said. “It’s one of the things I find interesting: Bill Wilson really intuited a lot of what we understand through the science about addiction today.”

Well, my friend Big Daddy might amend that to add that Lois Wilson provided a lot of the “intuition” behind Bill W.’s writing. (“He cheats her of credit every chance he gets,” Big Daddy sometimes says.)

I tend to agree. I’m fond of Lois; she was the driving force behind Al-Anon, the organization that saved my life in the beginning of my recovery. (I was daydreaming about offing myself when I started going to meetings in 1999; when I got a home group that loved me, these thoughts would be countered gently by the idea that, if I did indeed top myself, the folks my home group—my HP at the time—would think this was a bad decision, and that I might have other options.) Apparently Lois gave Bill a lot of ideas that he took credit for himself.

One of the ideas that Lois had was that alcoholism affects other people, not just the alcoholic. She knew that living with Bill had distorted her own thoughts and feelings, her own perception of reality, maybe as much as alcoholism had distorted Bill’s. In other words, she knew she was also sick.

ASAM’s definition of addiction talks about other factors that can lead to the appearance of addiction. These include:

  • Disruptions of healthy social supports
  • Relationship problems
  • Exposure to trauma or overwhelming stress that incapacitates a person’s ability to cope
  • Distortion in meaning, purpose, and values that guide attitudes, thinking and behavior [BINGO]
  • Distortions in a person’s connection with self, others, and with the transcendent (“referred to as God by many, the Higher Power by 12-steps groups, or higher consciousness by others,” the statement says)

So, yeah: alcoholism can run in families not just because of the genetics (which the statement says accounts for about half the chance a person can become an addict), but also because of the (you should pardon my French) shitty social skills that run in addictive families: poor parenting; isolation from friendships; childhood physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; the child making the crappy parent the higher power (which I did for many years, and still tend to do); and freaky, perverted experiences with religion. For example, being taught that God is a (male) judge who hands down decrees from the bench, who bangs his gavel at you every chance He gets.

LOTS of people in The Rooms for addiction and alcoholism are also children of alcoholic and addictive families. Our perceptions of and ideas about the world are severely distorted not just because of The Drinking or The Using, but also because of all the twisted behaviors and thinking that go along with the use, behaviors we observed and absorbed when we were young and our neurology was still forming.

The 12 steps teach us ways to unravel and iron out that twisted thinking, Publicker said. 

And if they work for alcoholics and addicts, why shouldn’t they work for anyone else?

“I have to tell you, as a non-recovering person, I have a lot of envy for recovering people,” Publicker said. “Look—I’m 61 years old. I live in a small town outside Portland, in a house where I can’t see any other houses. I don’t have any natural circumstances where I’m going to develop any intimate friendships. I can’t just go next door and knock and ask somebody to be my friend.

“And the research shows that nurturing intimate friendships correlates with happiness. My patients in recovery have these lovely supportive friendships. They can see everybody every day. It provides a tremendous reward for them.”

“Neurologically, as well as socially and spiritually,” I said.

“Of course,” he said, “because the body and mind ARE one—they can’t be separated.”

Why Do Some People Get Sober and Some Don’t?

Been praying for a person I know who used recently. Makes me wonder: why do some people get this program and some don’t?

Called a friend of mine who I think of as Big Daddy. He got sober in the late 1980s. He’s really tall, like my dad, and was born around the same time as my dad; Big Daddy has seen a lot of people come and go. He passed along some words from the legendary late Sally M., a woman who seemed to me to be totally batshit on the outside (I’d met her several times outside the rooms: globs of black mascara; scarlet blush; a gash of red lipstick that bled onto her teeth; wild hair; incessant, nervous chatter) but who helped a hell of a lot of people in her time. Larger-than-life in the rooms here. “Sally told me,” he said,

If you hang around these rooms long enough, you’ll see a lot of people die.

He talked about a guy who let a sponsee go because the sponsee wasn’t doing what he suggested, and kept on using. “He told his sponsee, ‘Some people just have to die,’” Big Daddy told me. “It sounds cruel, but it’s a reality—this disease kills people, and people have to know that. If you can deliver that line—‘Some people just have to die’—while letting the person know you love them and don’t want to see that happen to them, it can be a very powerful motivator.”

“I guess I just don’t buy that some people DO have to die,” I said.

But isn’t it true about any disease? Some people have to die of hypertension and stroke. Some people have to die of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer. Addiction.

And anyway, how do you “pray” for somebody? What the hell good does it do?—is what I was thinking as I washed the lunch dishes today. (My kid is home until school starts August 29. August is a long, long month, man. Thank god the heat broke.)

My mother in 1959, the year she started smoking. It killed her 40 years later, at 58.

I’ve wondered about and worried over this question a lot: how to pray for someone. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1994, I sat down that night in my room and tried to pray for her, but what could I possibly pray?—anything that came to mind seemed petulant and childish: “Please keep Mommy safe. Please don’t let her die.” Well—guess what: my mother had to die from cancer. (Actually, she had to die from her nicotine addiction, which caused her cancer.) No “prayer” or “wish” I sent out into the universe was going to change that.

Today as I prayed for this guy who used, I remembered praying for another person to whom I’d tried to make amends. Back in late 2008, early 2009, I wrote this other person a couple of letters, the first of which really pissed him off; he never responded to the second. (Yes: I fucked up the amends. Or so it seemed.) Sponsors told me to leave him the hell alone, and to Pray For Him. What I prayed was, basically, this: “Please give him all the peace and security and happiness I’d want for myself.” Whenever he came to mind, I’d put kind thoughts into my mind around him, and I’m sure it didn’t do a damned thing for him—what could it possibly have done?—but it did something for me. The next time I saw him, two years after I sent the second letter, things were Fine. I mean—the conflict had gone. We were on good terms. I was no longer afraid of him. I saw this person a couple months ago and things were still great. The change was on the order of a miracle, believe me, because for going on two decades the situation between me and this other person had been intractably bad—but it was simply a result of a changed attitude on my part.

With this guy who used it’s a little different. I already care about this person. What I need to realize is, there is nothing I can do to Make Him Stay Sober. No amount of love or understanding or patience, no amount of cajoling or reminding—none of that will make him sober, because that desire and willingness to do what is necessary needs to come from inside him. You can carry the message but you can’t force anyone to hear it or act on it.

(Program skeptics say, There’s no other disease that requires “willingness” and “desire” in order to get well. To the contrary, however: it takes a great deal of willingness and desire to heal from any of those illnesses mentioned above.)

I can still send out the same intention: “Please give my friend all the peace and security and happiness I’d wish for myself.” At the very least maybe it will give me more clarity about how to respond to him whenever I see him.

Sober Life: Avoiding Relapse

flushing pillsOne way to avoid relapse is to take what they call “contrary action.”

But I thought about it for a while before I finally did the right thing. Because last week I was in a bad neighborhood.

Here’s what happened: I got paid last week. It was the biggest paycheck I’ve gotten in a while. I was encouraged to spend a little bit of it on myself. Actually I was encouraged to spend more than a little bit of it on myself, but because I continue to feel bad about myself and my addiction, I made plans to spend only a little bit. What I decided to do was to reorganize my study—the place where I write this blog and other stuff.

It was also the place where, for a long time, I used.

I’ve heard of people making “shrines” and “temples” out of the places where they used, and I didn’t want to enshrine this room, but I wanted to change the way it looks, and to create more storage, because I simply can’t stop collecting books and media.

In the days of detox, in 2008, I’d gone through this place with a fine-tooth comb, looking for every last little bit of stuff I’d hoarded away. You know what I’m saying?

I was on Suboxone at the time and if I’d used what I found, it wouldn’t have done any good. Suboxone blocks the ability of other opioids to stimulate the receptors. I got rid of the stuff and it wasn’t very good stuff (at the time, I was used to Very Good Stuff)—it was crap stuff, and I didn’t feel bad about it. It wasn’t Real Drugs.

So there I was Sunday, with a big huge garbage bag in the middle of the room, cleaning out some drawers, trying to get the place tidied before my husband came back Monday, and I come across some drugs. Some good drugs. Very good drugs.

The feeling was instantaneous—one of elation and relief—FINALLY! Finally I had an insurance policy. The plan that formulated itself immediately in my mind was: I would just put these behind some books on my shelf, or even in the safe deposit box, for the rainy day when, eventually, inevitably, my life would come crashing in on me. I only have 19 months sober, and I still feel like the other shoe could drop at any moment. Many shoes dropping.

How can I describe the feeling in my body when I came across those drugs? My belly squeezed, and I took an involuntary deep inhale. Then held my breath, looking at them, admiring them. Then sighed—FINALLY! … They say your addiction is always somewhere outside, doing push-ups, waiting to ambush you. It’s true. I felt it: big strong bouncer-guy in a muscle-shirt, sweaty, out of breath, peeking around the doorway and grinning at me. My Old Manager.

Another part of me was desperately unhappy, like, Fuckin-A, I thought I’d gotten rid of every last bit of stuff in this room, good things are happening for me, why do I have to find this shit now?

“Because you were ready to learn from it,” my sponsor said today.

And all these memories of my insanity came back. I could taste it on my tongue: it would numb my taste buds, and in feeling the numbing of my tongue I could look forward to the quilted blanket of numbness that would follow. Being totally opioid-naïve, I could look forward to days and days in which I wouldn’t have to feel the fear anymore. My Manager’s vehicle (imagine it: a black-and-yellow Hummer, gaudy, loud, wasteful) would transport me out of that Bad Neighborhood. God knows where we’d finally end up, but I wouldn’t have to worry about that because he would be in control, and I’d be numb anyhow.

(I might even be dead, that’s how strong this stuff is.)

I sat there, looking at what I’d found.

I thought about what Robert Downey Jr. told Rolling Stone last year (I try to learn from anyone who’s trying to stay sober, even a “celebrity”):

The ramifications of a little slip are not what they used to be. It’s not kid-stuff anymore.

Meanwhile my son was sitting downstairs in front of the TV.

I put it all in an envelope, sealed it shut, and went about my business, took my son out to dinner, but I didn’t sleep well that night. I was thinking about Amy Winehouse. I couldn’t fall asleep till 2, and I woke at 5 when a fire truck blasted its horn nearby. And by Monday morning I was really crazy.

“Mom, why are you so angry?” my son asked me at least twice. Making me realize I’m usually pretty calm and even-tempered these days. But not when I have drugs on my mind, in my house. That was when I knew I was either going to choose to use, or I was going to choose to get rid of the drugs.

I’d never thrown away good drugs. When I detoxed, I used until I thought I didn’t have anything left. I’ve had to tell sponsees, “I’ve never thrown drugs away—I don’t know what that feels like.” I tried to imagine it and couldn’t. My brain was fast shrinking into rat-size, worrying only about where I might be able to hide the stuff until I “really needed it.” Which, because I am an addict, could be at any minute.

“Why didn’t I ‘recoil from it as from a hot flame’?” I asked my sponsor this morning. “I must be in pretty bad shape.” She said:

Why don’t you stop using the measuring tape against yourself.

I knew I was either going to keep this all a secret and wind up trapped in the Hummer again, or I was going to be honest about it with someone who would be kind enough to lay out other options.

“You know what you need to do, sweetie,” my friend Jacques said yesterday. I love Jacques; we’ve known each other since he was sober about a year, and he has 25 years.

You need to just get rid of that shit. You’ve busted your ass this past year and a half. You don’t need to go back to square one.

This nudged me away from the spot where the Hummer was idling its engine. Then I told my therapist, and she helped me imagine throwing it away. By last night when I picked up my husband at the airport, sober, I’d told two people, and it was starting to become inconceivable that I could actually use after having told two people I trust. If I imagined using, I’d also have to imagine either lying or telling the truth when they asked me what I’d done about the drugs.

I went to my sponsor’s home group this morning. The chair read from a book about what happens when we get healthy. We start gaining back people’s trust. We find release from care, boredom and worry. (Ha! I thought ruefully.) Our imaginations would be ignited. The most satisfactory years of life would be ahead of us. Back in 2008, when I was in detox and reading this at my first sponsor’s behest, I wrote in the margin, Yeah, this hardly seems real.

Today it’s real. I have good work, the respect of people who know me (and even some who don’t), the love and trust of my family, and freedom from financial insecurity Just For Today. And I still want to use? I thought, sitting in the meeting.

It came my turn to talk and I told the meeting I’d found drugs. A few little gasps escaped people’s lips. I said I had in fact not used (“Look at my pupils,” I told my sponsor), but the drugs were just sitting at home. I said my problem was I couldn’t accept Life’s Good Stuff.

Just plain old self-sabotage but of course I had to make it sound all Dramatic and shit.

My sponsor, whom I love and who is an awesome mentor, said matter-of-factly, “We’re going to my house and getting rid of the Darvocet I’ve had since my surgery last October, and also the Vicodin.” (You have Vicodin?? I said.) “And then we’re going to your house and getting rid of your stuff.”

And that’s what we did. She opened her bottles and dumped them into the toilet, cringing. “I hate doing this,” she said.

“Why?” I asked. She has more than 20 years clean and sober.

“Because I’m an addict!” she said. “You see how we help each other?” Step 12.

Little G.

I cried as I got rid of mine. “Am I going to be OK?” I asked, like a child.

“You’re already OK,” she said.

Now I know what it feels like to throw drugs away. I’ve earned it, and was given the opportunity… But I need to walk the walk pretty carefully. I need to wear it loosely, but wear it.

//

Read the follow-up to this story here.

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

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

Townes Van Zandt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gratitude, man. It’s a choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

//

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New Mexico Dad Busted for Injecting Heroin Into Nine-Year-Old Son’s Neck

Came across this on, of all places, Gawker yesterday.

“Good Christ, that one’s grisly, eh?” my friend Dirk, who runs the news desk at The Fix, said.

Jose Velasquez Jr., who allegedly injected his son with heroin.

Here’s what happened: Jose Paul Velasquez Jr. was alleged to have been injecting his son with heroin through, one presumes, the little boy’s jugular vein. The Gawker story said the 9-year-old boy’s mom noticed “unusual track marks” (as opposed to the “usual” ones? hm) on her son’s neck and took him to hospital. The little boy tested positive for weed and opiates.

 

The cops arrested Velasquez and charged him with child abuse. And here’s what I found interesting about this story: the dad was also charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The dad is pretty obviously an addict, right? And it’s correct to arrest him for abusing his kid, because if he did this, it qualifies as abuse: he will have harmed his son’s body (and psyche). But the charge of “contributing to delinquency” puts addiction back into the sphere of moral degeneracy.

If the guy injected his son with drugs, how is that turning the kid into a degenerate? In my mind, it’s exposing him to sick behavior. Here is how my logic runs: If the kid grows up to do what Daddy did, he’ll grow up to be an addict first—somebody who is sick and needs help—and then, possibly, because of his addiction, a criminal, a “degenerate.”

Most of all, he’ll grow up first to hate himself. He’ll carry on abusing himself the way Daddy abused him.

So let’s hope Velasquez goes to jail. Lots of people have kicked in jail; Steve Earle has a great passage about it in Chris Lawford’s book, Moments of Clarity. And Earle and others have STAYED clean not through the actions of law-enforcement but through programs of recovery, usually involving a component of spiritual development.

Saying the guy’s sick doesn’t absolve him of having to pay for what he did. Part of the payment is accepting help from society—which ought to provide opportunities for people to heal, instead of just punishing them.

Sick is an ancient word with roots all over the North Sea and Teutonic lands. It comes from Old English, Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, Old High German, Old Norse, Icelandic, and Gothic words, and their origins can’t be traced—the condition of sickness in humanity is so old and pervasive. But their meanings are all the same: suffering from illness. People who are suffering need compassion. (See Maté’s video again.)

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