Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: relapse (page 2 of 3)

In Real Life: Meeting Allgood.

Have you ever met anyone online who means a whole lot to you—you’d take their middle-of-the-night calls, you’d give them food or shelter, you love them, but you’ve never seen their face?

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A couple weeks ago I get this Facebook message:

Hey, so I’ll be driving through your state next week. I’ll be on I-80 heading east… could we meet for lunch? I would like that. Let me know. Love

It is “Allgood” writing.

Mid-30s, Mark Wahlberg-ish accent, former heroin addict, one of my mainstays when I was first getting sober. “Allgood” is his screen name.

Stoked to try to work this out. End of school year; teaching, writing, driving the boy around; schedule has been impossible. But this dude was one of the first and most dependable folks I met when I started looking for sober people online. He tells it like it is. He was so honest and direct that he freaked me out. He’s kind, and he’s no-bullshit: two qualities I admire in anyone. (Sometimes the no-bullshit comes before the kindness; sometimes vice-versa, as with anyone, right?)

//

I met Allgood on Opiate Detox Recovery, the place where I became Guinevere, when I was in detox in 2008. Allgood is a former East Coast stocks trader and IV addict who has been sober since spring 2008. Just before I detoxed, he was Getting It after many, many, many tries. He had been looking at jail time. He picked sobriety instead.

How he stays sober: he helps other people. He has written almost 5,000 posts to people (including myself) trying to kick drugs of one kind or another. He is busy changing his work and moving across the country so he can help more people.

And the people online who helped him?—they were telling him their stories, they were giving him their numbers, they were offering to take his dog while he went to rehab, for chrissake. The help just goes around and around.

//

It’s in the back of my mind: Allgood will be here in a couple days, he’s coming in north of my town and this is a bridge-and-tunnel city, I never venture into the suburbs, so I kind of wait for some burst of inspiration about a meeting place till I’m sitting at a soccer match last week and my phone lights up with a text:

Is our gathering happening, G?

Yes, dammit. It is. I sit there at dusk in the dewy skeeter-ridden grass and watch my kid score a goal, then I use an app to nail down a place. I text him the address so in case he has GPS he can plug it in. He writes:

Sweet! Can’t wait!!! See u there

//

It’s 85 degrees at 5 p.m. in the shady parking lot of this restaurant, and I am on the phone with a 20-something woman in the program when I see him open his car door. He has already warned me he’s in “super-duper driving-cross-country casual dress” and I see that he’s wearing three or four days’ growth of black beard and black flip-flops. He tells me to take my time with this girl and my conversation winds down, and then Allgood is standing in front of me, and I put my arms around him, and it was like the time my son and I hugged one of the redwoods in Marin County. We just leaned in.

In Marin County with my boy, four months out of detox.

Marin County and the redwoods—that was three years ago, March 2009.

Allgood was steady.

When I relapsed in January 2010, I told my friends on the forum. A lot of people were surprised and some expressed shock, disappointment, and even feeling “doomed” if Someone Like G could relapse (for godsake). Because I can talk a good talk, I sounded most of the time as though I were doing real well. (I’m still learning how to apply the principle of rigorous honesty to my relationship with myself, and also how to ask for help and then to accept it.)

Allgood’s boat wasn’t rocked. Allgood had tried to quit and had relapsed many times himself. Here’s what he wrote (in Post No. 999 on my thread) to the people who were disappointed and to me:

We are never “cured” from this disease of alcoholism and drug addiction. What we have is a daily reprieve contingent on our spiritual condition.

Sure, this is disappointing to hear. Am I surprised? Certainly not…

G—what was missing in your program this time? Are we willing to move forward and seek more this time? I’m hand in hand with you my friend. Much love

//

“So, in my family we just kind of order, and share everything,” Allgood told me as we looked at the dinner menu. “Is that cool with you?”

I’m, like, hardly ever really hungry. I didn’t care much about the food. I wanted to see him smile. (It’s impossible to see someone smiling while writing to them over the Internet.) He told me some of his story I hadn’t heard before. I was having a very, very tough week last week, and he listened with deep attention and asked me questions about my experience.

I’d spoken to Allgood over the phone before and his years out West had taken the edge off his Marky-Mark accent. I ordered a crab cake on salad and he had scallops and salmon and at the end we split a funnel cake with cream on top, and we shared stories, and it was all good.

//

I’ve met other sober people In Real Life who I’d first met online. Two in particular mean a lot to me, and they both live in New York. There are one or two on Long Island I’d like to meet. There’s another one in Jersey who I’ve never met but for whom I’ve made some art, and another in New Hampshire I want to make a date with in July. (These two have helped save my life.) There’s a guy in Iowa I wish I could connect with, a former fentanyl addict whose every post I read for several years before I even logged on as Guinevere. There’s one in L.A., one in San Diego, and one in Washington, D.C.

Have you ever met a sober person in real life who has helped you online? Are there sober people you know only online who are part of your sober community? Would you be willing to tell us about them?

Who Do You Miss?

In four days it will be my birthday. I’ll be 47, sober for almost two years, in recovery from addiction for three, and in Al-Anon for almost 13. A list of “birthdays.” 

My mother died of lung cancer 12 years ago at 58. I rarely miss her, but there are three days of the year on which I predictably, and sometimes rather desperately, wish she were still alive: her birthday (April 19); my son’s birthday (September 19); and my birthday. Who remembers your birth better than your own mother?

It makes me sad that my son doesn’t get to have a grandma nearby, that my mother never got to see how well my son’s turning out.

(“He’s a good kid,” my father told me before he died. “He’ll be OK. You’re doing a good job.” These words are like the chair in which I put my feet up at the end of the day. I don’t often sit in that chair because when I do, I fall asleep—it’s so comforting.)

The rose window of Nôtre Dame de Paris.

My son used to crawl on her lap and play with her necklace, a gold replica of the rose window in Nôtre Dame cathedral. Dad brought the pendant back from a Paris business trip in 1983. My mother wore it always, and after my mother died Daddy gave it to me. … My son would crawl up onto her lap and stick the disk in his mouth, and she’d let him do it. In the brief time they knew each other, she let him do stuff she’d never have let us do. The grandkids would have mellowed her out.

For our birthdays we got to ask for our favorite dinners and whatever we wanted for dessert. Except for my birthday Mom would make pumpkin pie. And every year I would have preferred to have something chocolate but I could never tell her this, because she somehow got this idea that pumpkin pie was my favorite, or else it was because I was born the day before Halloween. She needed to be the perfect mom who baked the perfect birthday dessert. There was something in me that couldn’t dispel her illusions. That something is the obsessive caretaking thing about me, the thing that’s overly influenced by what other people think, the alcoholic-child-thing. She obsessively took care of me, and I obsessively cared for her right back.

Today I’d be able to find a way to let her know that I like chocolate better than pumpkin. Not so I could have the chocolate, but so we could know each other better. So we could be honest.

I grew up in a family rife with addiction. I lost both parents to it. All my cousins who are still alive have lost people close to them to addiction. Many of us have lost people to addiction—not just family members but also friends, fellows in the rooms, sponsors. The Subversive Librarian wrote a remarkable post about this recently—about how suicides and deaths due to addiction tempt her to relapse, make her desperate with the idea that she might after all have to follow them.

So she takes action to insure that she doesn’t.

Who do you miss? What’s your experience with loss?

David Servan-Schreiber on Higher Power, Meditation, and Relapse.

David Servan-Schreiber

David Servan-Schreiber, M.D.

Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, the French physician and neuroscientist and a pioneer of “integrative” medicine, died Sunday at 50 of the cancer he’d been fighting for 20 years.

Servan-Schreiber was the author of the worldwide bestselling book Anticancer: A New Way of Life, in which he recounts his experience of finding by accident that he had a malignant brain tumor at age 30. He underwent conventional chemotherapy and radiation, and then a few years later suffered what he called a “relapse.”

Usually Americans with cancer call these “recurrences,” but Servan-Schreiber, a Frenchman, always called his a “relapse.” He used the same word addicts use when their illness becomes active again, and his word-choice always struck me as interesting. Language is powerful, and Servan-Schreiber’s language makes me think of addiction as just another chronic illness, like cancer.

After his relapse, Servan-Schreiber underwent chemo and radiation again, then decided to improve his chances of survival by taking control of his lifestyle choices. He had been told by his physicians that his “lifestyle”—what he ate and drank; how much he exercised; his habits of work and rest; his relationships—wouldn’t make a difference in terms of his cancer’s outcome. But Servan-Schreiber, a neuroscientist as well as a psychiatrist, dove into the medical literature and discovered a great deal of evidence that certain foods (particularly sugar) promote cancer growth, and that exercise, meditation, and loving relationships all support the body’s ability to heal itself and to work along with the conventional treatments to fight cancer and other illness.

His chapters on “The Anticancer Mind” and “Defusing Fear” are worth the price of the book. I covered the chapter about “the anticancer mind” with notes in the margins. Because in my opinion, the “anticancer mind” and the “anti-addiction mind” are synonymous. For example, he writes:

When people have the feeling that their life is no longer manageable, or that it leads to more suffering than joy … the neurological response to this stress is the release of stress hormones like noradrenaline and cortisol. 

(Emphasis mine: Step 2.)

He goes on to say that these hormones suppress the immune system and make it more difficult for people to fight illnesses such as cancer. In my experience, they also make an addict like me more likely to want to control these feelings by using drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, etc.—thus the term “self-medication.” I suppose it’s just another way of saying that these feelings make it more difficult for people to fight illnesses such as addiction.

To combat this physiological response, he advocates a form of calming the body-mind called “cardiac coherence,” and says practices such as Tai Chi, yoga, and meditation all end up with the same result.

(I use the term “body-mind” because I used to think they were connected, but my experience tells me that they’re actually the same fabric… the science is showing up to support this.)

David Servan-Schreiber The Instinct to HealMy favorite book of his is called The Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy. In it he describes my original concept of Higher Power: the idea that the body-mind has an inborn urge toward healing that, if it’s supported—or at least not interfered with—can help us achieve wholeness and contentment.

He lays out the data for seven non-pharmacological methods for easing depression and anxiety. This is what I loved best about him (aside from the facts that he was brilliantly smart, and beautiful inside and out). He wasn’t woo-woo: he was data-oriented, but he also had an enormous heart and a great deal of compassion for people who suffer.

Servan-Schreiber helped found the Center for Integrative Medicine at Shadyside Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh, which, amazingly, is three blocks from where I live. I had a chance to interview him in 2009. A celebrity author in Europe, he called himself “the Andrew Weil of France and Germany” and said he wasn’t out to gain fame and fortune:

My goal is not about reputation. My goal is to influence how people manage their own health and how we in medicine treat them in that respect.

Here is some more of what he told me:

On addictions

DSS: I don’t focus on attacking addictions head-on. One of the things that surprised me very positively and I think is a sign, is that several people have written to me saying, “I read your book Anticancer, and even though it never talks about smoking”—and it doesn’t—“I stopped smoking.” Which is a really interesting consequence. As they became interested in what they were eating and in their relationship to their own bodies, then at some point it just dawned on them that it’s sort of silly to be paying attention to what you eat three times a day and then continue to smoke. So there was a change in their relationship to their body and a new way of managing stress for them to stop smoking.

On the benefits of meditative practices (step 11) for adults and kids

DSS: Cardiac coherence hasn’t met the mainstream yet. Although in some ways it has been in the mainstream for 10,000 years. Because when you do Tai Chi exercises, or qi gong, or yoga, you’re inducing cardiac coherence. So there have been a variety of folk methods that have been widely practiced for thousands of years that are a form of cardiac coherence; we just didn’t know they were.

It’s a short-cut. A lot of people do tai chi and they don’t feel anything. One of the reasons is we’re so out of touch with our body and our sensations that we do a few tai chi movements, and so what? If I can show you [through data] that it actually impacts in a highly visible and profound manner the one health parameter that is most linked to long-term benefits such as reduction of mortality—there is no other health parameter that is so powerfully linked to health. Cholesterol is peanuts compared to cardiac coherence. 

For children, the immediate benefit is a better management of their emotional states, which a lot of what we’re trying to teach our kids is about. To delay gratification, to not fight back in anger, to not curse, to not hit, and so on. We’re trying to teach them about emotional management. … We forget about this, but kids identify with stress very readily. They have exams, they have other kids who [bully] them or spurn them—they have a lot of stress. And when you tell them about stress and about how to manage their emotions so as to let stress glide on them like water on a duck’s back, they get it immediately, and they’re very interested.

Does everyone have access to the Instinct to Heal?

DSS: I think it’s part of how we’re made up. I think sometimes it can be very strongly inhibited or constrained. Because of what people have lived through, for example. Multiple traumas in childhood; estrangement from parents; abandonments—all of these impair the instinct to heal in some way.

G: You can’t just say “cut down on tobacco and alcohol”—if you’re an addict, you have to quit and change your life.

DSS: I completely agree. Which is the main problem of the mainstream message about prevention and cancer. They just say, “Well, don’t be obese, don’t drink, and don’t smoke.” Which is precisely what people cannot do. They have no control over that. They use their relationship to food, to alcohol, and to smoking as a way to manage their emotions. And you can’t strip that off of them. So you need to teach them new ways to manage their emotions. And then progressively teach them things they can add to their lifestyle instead of focusing on what they need to remove from their lifestyle.

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.

Targeting brain circuits for addiction, relapse

Big Associated Press story today: let’s treat drug addiction with more drugs!

Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse is urging researchers at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting to get creative by developing new “therapies” to change the neuro-circuitry of addicts and alcoholics.

The word “therapies” is often code for “drugs.” Nine-tenths of the story is about how promising naltrexone looks in treating opioid addiction. Which is logical, since naltrexone (strangely enough, already prescribed to treat alcoholism) binds to the body’s opiate receptors. Instead of stimulating them the way opiates do, however, it is an “antagonist”—it kicks opiates off the receptors and reverses their effects. Which is why it’s used in ERs for opiate overdose.

I’m all for any “therapy” that helps anyone stay sober, and I admire how Volkow’s focus on the neurology of addiction has served to emphasize the illness aspect of addiction, and to break some of its moral stigma. However, I think scientists sometimes privilege certain “therapies” over others.

Buried at the bottom of the story:

Medication isn’t the only option. Biofeedback teaches people with high blood pressure to control their heart rate. [Dr. Charles] O’Brien’s colleagues at Penn are preparing to test if putting addicts into MRI machines for real-time brain scans could do something similar, teaching them how to control their impulses to take drugs.

“It’s controlling your own brain,” O’Brien says. While the idea is extremely early-stage, “we think that it’s very promising.

It’s great that the Associated Press included these two grafs at all. I had to chuckle at the doctor’s insistence that a meditative approach to controlling one’s impulses is an “extremely early-stage” idea. Strictly in terms of recovery from addiction, it’s been around since the 1930s. In broader terms—Buddhists have been practicing meditative impulse-control and release from suffering for the past 6,000-8,000 years. And then there’s yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and mindfulness meditation, which has been studied specifically for its effects on stress and pain reduction—but perhaps not for its effects on addiction and recovery. It’s about time.

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