Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: self-compassion (page 1 of 2)

Heart-Opener.

In yoga yesterday I could see evidence of my heart beating in my chest.

I had bent my back into supported Bridge Pose. Then I rotated my upper arms away from each other and watched my ribcage rise up like an arch. I could see the soft pounding of my heart. There it was, just an inch or so under the flesh covering the bones of my ribs, in the spot where it’s been beating for more than half a century.

I sometimes cry when I do yoga heart-openers. I spend a lot of time with my shoulders hunched in front of a keyboard, or else hunched against the criticisms my own mind levels against me. My massage therapist tells me my shoulders are cranked so tight because I hold my body like a boxer with her gloves up and her elbows drawn against her abdomen. She tells me to practice opening my chest. This un-swaddles my heart, which sometimes makes me cry.


I’ve had to make drastic changes in my life in the past few years. My life today looks little the way it looked three or four years ago. Change brings relief and it also hurts, and it flips me out that I might be making mistakes. And because I’m five years sober, I feel like I’m supposed to know better than to have that kind of fear—all that self-centered garbage I ask each morning to be hauled away from me. As if “God” were a garbage-man, or my personal errand-boy: Take it away!

So I not only have fear, I have shame that I’m feeling fear, and then ancillary shame that I’m asking God/HP to take the fear away. Which makes me hunch even further into myself. Shame Spiral, anyone?

I talked about this in yesterday’s Y12SR yoga meeting. It was Easter Sunday. The topic was gratitude that we’re even alive. One after another, people talked about losing parents, family, friends to addiction.

Sixteen years ago around Easter, I was 34 and driving out to my parents’ house every day to help my dad take care of my mother, who was dying of lung cancer. She had smoked three packs a day for 40 years. When she finally died on June 3 of that year, I was so mortally pissed off at God that I spent the next eight years trying to poison myself. I started by stealing a few of my dead mother’s morphine tablets and ended by committing my last felony prescription forgery in roughly July 2008. Great way to use my artistic skills.

I shouldn’t even be here typing this. I should have overdosed or gone to jail. I remember the first time I took some stolen morphine. I lay in bed feeling as if somebody had stacked a pallet of bricks on my chest. A heart-closing exercise. I would exhale, and it would be a long time before my body wanted to inhale again. It scared the shit out of me and I loved it: I wouldn’t have to feel the fear or the anger.

When I made it into recovery, one of my first feelings was guilt that I’d escaped the death sentence that killed both my parents.

People were talking in yesterday’s yoga meeting about how recovery is like the resurrection in the Easter story. It occurred to me that it was also interesting to remember some elements of the Passover story: we’d taken steps to mark ourselves as ones to be skipped over by the angel of death. Also, each of us in the room had escaped slavery—the root of the word addiction. And we get together to tell our stories, never forgetting that we don’t have to be slaves anymore.

I can see how helpful it might be for a group of people to have some kind of religious ritual to keep remembering that they’re chosen. How many times have I heard, during the course of a meeting, “I was supposed to live!—God has a plan for me”? If that’s true, then God discriminates.

I think God doesn’t have plans for my life.

The only plan is love. And it’s not even a plan, it’s a law of nature, and living with it is an exercise of bringing my little tiny (but enormously fucking perverse) will into line with that force. (Splinters are small, but they hurt like hell, right?) Love is the currency, the current of power, that God/HP/Whatever deals in. Bona fide love is pure, reliable, healing, life-giving, durable, like the sun.

If you think about it, there’s nothing we eat that doesn’t come from the sun. We actually EAT the sun every day, which is a fabulous image: Here, take a bite of this star! When we hug each other’s bodies, it creates electricity that comes, when the trail is traced back to its origin, from the sun.

Can the sun be improved upon? I wondered that the other morning. The sun hangs in delicate balance with the life on this planet, and if we tried to make the Star Experience better (say, get rid of clouds, so we can see the star more often), we’d only be screwing up on a grand scale. Sometimes I have to understand that life is fine as it is.

(It’s tempting to think that “God” puts signs in my way to remind me, but she doesn’t.)

Graffiti in my neighborhood.

Graffiti in my neighborhood.


Lately I’ve been having some experiences in human love that have given me a glimpse of the vast purity and beauty of this superhuman power source. My son is one big part of these experiences. So are some close friends of mine, and the people in my recovery community. All these people provide me with perfect opportunities to give away love, and like the Bridge Pose, this cracks my heart open. And what I give comes back, multiplied.

Of course, I don’t think I “deserve” even the human part of the experience, much less the “divine” one. So, in case it’s not real, or in case I lose it (because guess what? nothing lasts, goddammit!!), I run around with my shoulders hunched. Or I force them back and paint on a tough mask that makes me look bitchy, arrogant, aloof: Throw anything at me, man! Take away whatever you want, I’ll survive, I don’t fucking need ANYBODY!

Fake power. Meanwhile inside the mask, G is hunched: small, scared, in need of arms around her, even temporarily.

Before I got sober I had little idea how to take care of myself when feelings like these struck. I’d try to make them go away by numbing them with drugs. Now, instead, I run with the dog, throw a dinner party for my old friend Nancy whose husband just had cancer surgery (successful!), start the painting another friend asked me ages ago to make, do mental push-ups by studying another language, engage the help of a smart no-bullshit therapist, give my students and their work my attention, compile playlists of beautiful music, ride my bike on this city’s long river trails, make lists of people and things I’m grateful for, practice yoga, take photographs and post them to share the world’s beauty, etc.

I also go to meetings, for the same reason people celebrate Easter or Passover or any holiday, and for the same reason they go to coffee houses and dog parks and book clubs and yoga studios: because I’m part of the tribe of Homo sapiens, and the desire for community is practically encoded in my cells. Because my heart needs to be around other beating hearts. Because cracking my chest open helps me exchange a little more love, which plugs my life into a great big socket of power.

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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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Self-Compassion: Hurting The Ones We Love.

Cross-posted with Recovering The Body.

Today I have a guest-post about self-compassion running on Jill Salahub’s very cool site, A Thousand Shades of Gray. I love following Jill everywhere—on Facebook, in her emails that arrive so often. Jill is a sister on the trail of questions we’re asking together. Thanks for including my work in this wonderful group of essays you’re collecting.

//

One lesson I’ve learned this year: hurting people I love is inescapable. Unless I decide not to have relationships.

I really don’t see myself as a hermit.

I’ve hurt a few people I love recently. Earlier this year I committed series of acts that gave another person tremendous feelings of hurt. Just yesterday I found out from one of my best friends that I’ve been saying some things that I had no idea were hurting her.

//

The first hurt is an example of making choices in the service of myself, my own best interests, that just happened to hurt another person. I knew they were going to hurt this person. I avoided taking the actions because I knew it would cause great pain. Day by day, if I were going to stay sober, I had to take the actions, and I was appalled to watch the pain happening, like waves rolling into the shore.

For some weeks I sat at the window watching the waves rolling by, my heart squeezing in empathy and doubt.

I second- (and third-, and fourth-) guessed myself. I didn’t turn back.

//

In the second example, I found out I’d hurt my friend yesterday only because I’d taken the risk of telling her something she’d said just that minute that had hurt me.

Her hurtful speech had occurred in conversation yesterday. But it turned out that, when I rolled over and showed my belly (when I, in Brené Brown’s parlance that Oprah is now making universal, “became vulnerable”), she bared her teeth and let me know I’d been saying things that had hurt her feelings for a while. And then when I yelped in surprise and pain, she rolled over onto her back. And there we were, two puppies on our backs in the dirt, paws waving in the air, yelping our hurt.

After rolling back up onto our feet and talking about it, we were able to chase each other and play again, as our dogs do on our morning walks.

My friend's yellow lab, and my black mutt.

My friend’s yellow lab, and my black mutt.

“I’m being vulnerable here!” I said. “I have to practice what I read about!! I can’t just read it and not DO IT, right?”

(You’re such a loudmouth, my mind says.)

“If we can’t tell each other these things,” she said, “who can we tell?” A space in my chest opened in gratitude for a friend who is willing to engage in honest conflict. Not many are.

Our dogs are good friends.

Still, I walked away yesterday morning with my throat choked up. Interesting that it was my throat. Was my body trying to squeeze the words I’d said back inside me? Trying to keep myself from ever speaking again?

Or was it just that the throat is the locus of the voice, and this is where the hurts had occurred—with our voices?

//

I’m learning that the body and mind are in conversation. They’re one, they’re intertwined somehow, and I’m beginning to think that the way they’re intertwined is through this conversation, a kind of discourse. What kind of discourse is it? How is it conducted? These are some of the questions I’ve been asking lately.

The mind tries to force the body to walk away calmly and get on with the day. The body is able to cooperate only so far before rebelling with some action: butterflies in the stomach; pain in the head; fatigue in the flesh. Choking in the throat.

When the mind ignores these statements by the body and tries to push the body through, the body protests in a louder voice. Nausea, inability to eat; cluster headache, chronic daily headache, migraine; chronic fatigue syndrome. An inability to speak up, a silencing of the body’s voice in critical situations. Such as true relationship.

Craving to drink, smoke, use something.

So the mind and body engage in a struggle for domination.

Dr. Sally Gadow, a Ph.D. nurse and leading scholar in health care ethics and the phenomenology of the body, writes about this struggle in a fascinating paper, “Body and Self: A Dialectic.” This paper itself (my friend pointed out yesterday) is an academic paper, so its expression is in the language of the mind, the intellect, and Gadow herself offers this caveat inside the paper. But I think what Gadow enacts in it is an effort to respect and give voice to the body.

To report from the body, which has long been one of my projects.

The struggle for domination is the second of four levels of development Gadow says have to take place if the body and mind are to transcend their “dualism,” their two-ness, and begin to work together as one to express each other’s interests. In this second level, “the two are not only distinct but opposed—each alternately master and slave.”

The second stage describes addiction.

The transcendence describes sobriety. Freedom from slavery.

Ginny-Flo03

//

Yesterday, driving home with my throat choked up, I thought about self-compassion. My mother trained me early to feel compassion for the pain of others. Hurting someone else without knowing it is one of my worst fears in sobriety. I used to numb this fear, as well as the reality that I’d hurt other people, with drugs.

“How will I know I’ve hurt you if you don’t tell me?” I asked my friend.

“You’re right,” she said.

The question underneath the choking is, Does my friend really love me?

My dog Flo kissing my friend's husband.

My dog Flo kissing my friend’s husband.

Doubt rises up. If you’re going to get her to love you, my mind tells my body, you have to fucking SHUT UP.

(And stop swearing so much!! She said I swear too much.)

But anyone who knows me know my language can be strong, fierce. Is it just who I am?

To make things right, I know I have to change my behavior. But do I need to change myself?

Do I need to change to be loved?—an old, old compulsion.

Addiction Is Not A Crime.

So today the op-ed page editor of my city’s paper emailed to say the (very personal) essay I sent him a few weeks back will run this weekend. It’s about how addiction is an illness, not a crime, and it tells a bit of the story of how my parents died of the consequences of their addictions and how I got sober.

The timing of this piece’s publication is a little ironic, because yesterday I was prescribed hydrocodone for a cough that has lasted for more than two weeks.

Drugs really do work for the purposes for which they’re intended. At least, some drugs do. Opioids (known by cops as “narcotics”) are very good at two things:

  1. Dulling some kinds of pain
  2. Slowing autonomic responses—breathing, gut motility, etc.

For this stuff, opioids work wonders, fast. Twenty minutes after I took my first dose, my cough was 80 percent gone.

I had been coughing so long and persistently that I felt as though I were being stabbed in the solar plexus. Even my butt was killing me because every time a spasm hit, my whole body would tense, and I have trigger points in my glutes. The pain of which I used to try to numb out with huge doses of drugs and which I now treat through yoga and aerobic exercise. But when you can’t breathe, it’s hard to do vinyasas or run three miles.

I saw my doctor last week. I’d been through a course of antibiotics, which hadn’t worked. We were speculating it was a virus after all. She looked at my chart. “So, you were on opioids for a long time, right?” she said. “And remind me—do you think you were dependent, or were you addicted?”

“Oh, I was addicted,” I said mildly.

“So you probably wouldn’t like to take an opioid,” she said doubtfully.

“Is there anything else that might work?” I asked.

She prescribed steroids and told me to take Delsym. Which didn’t work. We had another frank discussion about the possibility of my taking an opioid cough syrup.

Her concern did not make me feel like a criminal. I’ve spent time with doctors in whose presence I felt like a criminal, or like a bad person, or like a plain pain in the ass. It’s to be expected: active addiction leads us to deceive ourselves and others, and people feel betrayed. They take it personally.

But in speaking with my PCP yesterday, I felt as though she were looking after me. It seemed to me that she was weighing the risks of two different illnesses against each other—my respiratory problem, and my addiction—and trying to figure out how to treat one without exacerbating the other.

Imagine what it would be like if most doctors demonstrated that attitude. It would be easier for so many more people to get help.

Just because a person has addiction, does that mean they can never be trusted again? Or that they have to suffer?

//

The dog makes me happy. Beyond happy, really. How did I live before this dog came along?

On the other hand, I spoke to a friend this afternoon who said that, over the phone today, my voice sounded different from normal.

“You sound HAPPY,” she said. “I don’t mean high. You just sound different. You haven’t sounded very happy lately.”

In fact I haven’t been very happy lately. I haven’t exactly been sad; but I have major problems and big life-questions going on here, I’m holding the rudder with one hand and reading the map with the other, and the seas are throwing a lot of spray on deck. I’ve been squinting against the sea-salt.

I took two prescribed doses of hydrocodone cough syrup today. And even at a prescribed dose, this stuff definitely adds almost like a layer of duck down in my head and body. It makes it hard for me to feel at the depth and complexity to which, over the past two or three years, I’ve become used to feeling my life. 

And that’s only at a tiny dose.

Even a small dose makes me not-care to a certain degree. I can see how, at mega-doses, I’d wind up saying, most of the time, just, Fuck It.

Looking back, I can’t believe the enormous amounts of drugs I used to take. It appalls me. How could I have felt anything at all? … I don’t think I did feel much, except fear. I seriously compromised my usefulness in this world.

But: just writing about it in this way, I can now recognize the degree to which I’ve begun to forgive myself. I used to beat the shit out of myself for my mistakes. Now, after some deep inward examination, and after making ongoing reparations for the past four years, I can see that I’m practicing more compassion for the person I was. She wasn’t a criminal. She was pretty ill. She was operating under serious limitations, biological and psychological, and she did the best she could.

//

I’m still tempted to beat the shit out of myself. Here’s one way I know my new compassionate response is not too lenient: when newcomers sit in front of me and tell me all the mistakes they’ve made, I don’t beat the shit out of them. I show them compassion.

It’s kind of the converse of the Golden Rule. If I’m supposed to love others as I’d love myself, then maybe I can also treat myself with the same compassion I show others.

Look for my op-ed this Sunday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and let me know what you think.

What Do You Want That You Don’t Ask For?

Early text this morning from an adult child of an alcoholic family also in recovery from addiction. “I need help,” it said. It seems several friends are in the same position: while holding our own addictions at bay, we’re hearing the old voices from our childhoods in alcoholic families. What they tell us is this:

You are not good enough
You aren’t worth it

All of us, every single one of us, has these words running in the back of our minds, the way those neon electronic ticker-tapes wrap around the sides of buildings in Times Square. They tick by, endlessly screaming for our attention.

“It feels like that voice is me,” she said. “I can’t stop it. How can I stop it?”

“How did you quit drinking?” I asked.

“Praying, going to meetings, talking to people, reading,” she said.

“One day at a time,” I said.

My friend is struggling because she’s coming to some realizations about herself and her life that she doesn’t want to accept. I recognized the problem. It’s easier for me to allow myself to be squeezed to death than to state my bottom line in words that are clear, courteous, and unambiguous: “I can’t do this job anymore / I won’t accept this behavior / I love you, now please leave.”

(“Everyone deserves courtesy,” my Al-Anon sponsor taught me. Even people I don’t like, who step on my toes or cheat me blind, or who otherwise piss me off. I don’t always succeed with the courtesy thing because I have a big mouth.)

I have stayed in jobs for years past the time I could do them with any satisfaction. I’ve stayed in relationships that were emotionally, physically and sexually damaging. I’ve been afraid to press the “publish” button on this blog for fear of making a statement that someone might call wrong, stupid, somehow imperfect.

My boy, shortly after he was born. Intense guy from day one.

It’s my son’s 14th birthday today. We took him out to dinner last night (did my parents ever take me out to dinner on my birthday? Hell no), to his favorite restaurant (did I have a “favorite restaurant” as a kid? Hell no) where he ordered udon noodles with chicken and vegetables. As I scanned the menu it occurred to me that I grew up in such an isolated way that I was 23 before I knew I could go to a Chinese restaurant.

I’ve always had difficulty with menus. Menus are lists that invite us to choose.

To make a choice is to make a statement: I like this. I’ll try this. I WANT THIS.

I wanted something on the menu, but it didn’t have enough vegetables. I wanted it with broccoli added. I asked the waiter: can you add broccoli? He said,

It might be an extra charge.

“Fine,” I said, my mother immediately keying in her message on the ticker-tape in the back of my mind about the “waste” of money, about how “special” I think I am to ask for a change in the menu.

My dinner came, and it was exactly what I wanted. My appetite was satisfied. I was happy, and it was a simple accomplishment.

I practice saying what I want in small ways first.

What do you want that you’re afraid to ask for?

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