Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: self-hatred (page 1 of 2)

“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. 


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.

My Sisters, The Sugar Junkies.


Just back this evening from four days in Minneapolis to let audiences know about my new book. (It’s not officially out for another three days. Look for both the print and electronic editions then.)

While onstage at Garrison Keillor’s hangout, being interviewed by the amazing Dessa (a star in the Minneapolis music scene whose sun is rising nationally), taking questions from the audience, I heard loud and clear that people are struggling not only with drugs and alcohol but also with food, particularly with sugar. But it’s hard to deal with food. “It’s not like drugs and alcohol,” said one woman who is sober and also has an eating disorder:

You can quit drinking and taking drugs, but we have to eat. You can’t just quit eating food.

She wanted to know how I handle my cravings for sugar. BADLY, I wanted to say. But that’s the critical voice in my mind. What I said is that I sometimes eat sugar—too much of it—and then I pick myself up and start again.

But how do I pick myself up? Do I do it the way I would have done it when my son was small and he fell on the playground? I didn’t jerk him to his feet, smack his butt, and tell him how stupid he was for tripping over that rock. I’d ask him whether he was hurt, kiss his scraped knees or palms. I’d tell him to get out there and try again.

One woman said,

I want to say that it’s OK to have a cupcake!

It might be OK for you, I thought, but it ain’t OK for some people. I can’t have cupcakes in the house. The other day I made two batches of chocolate chip cookies for my dear old friend Jeff’s wedding and I could not stop at eating just one.

There were other women who told me after the show that they can’t eat just one, either. Fist-bumps all around: my sisters, the sugar junkies.


During the book signing afterward, a woman with long white hair told me she has 25 years off alcohol and 22 months off sugar. Before those 22 months, she’d been off sugar for four years, but then she “started eating like a middle-schooler again,” she said:

Sugar is absolutely my primary addiction.

She ate sugar for TEN YEARS, she said, and her intake was uncontrollable.

“So you Went Back Out There,” I said, using the language used in 12-step rooms for relapse: Going Out.

“Exactly,” she said. “It was exactly like that.”

I looked at her. Her face was calm and kind. Her body was relaxed, and she looked straight into my eyes.

“How did you manage to stop again?” I asked her. “What made the difference?”

“I just knew what it was to me,” she said.

Let me repeat that:

I just knew what it was to me.

She accepted that sugar destroys her body and makes it hard for her to live in peace. It activates the obsessions and delusions that are part of her nature. Eating sugar, she said, was just like drinking alcohol: it never felt very good after the first one. In fact it felt terrible, not least because she couldn’t stop. In fact the body metabolizes alcohol directly into sugar, and studies show that erratic processing of blood-sugar underlies alcoholism.

She did it to change her feelings, change her head, to “change her shorts, change her shirt, change her life.” (To quote Tom Waits’s lyric.)

I sat there thinking that

(i’m such a fraud i’m such a liar i have a candy bar in my hotel room i wrote in my book that i stopped eating sugar but i’ve started again fraud liar)

when I fall on the playground, I smack my own butt.

I’m fond of beating the shit out of myself. It’s such an ingrained habit. The language of it is so familiar—almost comforting in its familiarity. It’s like my mother hitting me, making me cry, and telling me she’s doing it because she loves me.

It also makes me feel noble: Mea culpa, hair shirts, and all that medieval nonsense that my mother loved so much.

So it’s not eating sugar that’s the most destructive habit. It’s the punishment. Punishing myself makes it ten times harder to make good choices. I can sit there onstage next to Dessa and say that I practice “self-compassion” but really what I practice when I eat sugar and then beat the shit out of myself for eating it (or distract myself with streaming Netflix) is fucking self-hatred.

But when I accept What It Is To Me—basically poison; who eats just A Little Cyanide?—then I can choose not to eat it out of love for myself and my body. When, for example, I open the cupboard full of household cleaners, I don’t stand there beating myself over the head to keep myself from drinking them. I Know What They Are To Me, I tell myself the truth, and I don’t put them in my body.

Of course, a shot of Clorox Cleanup wouldn’t feel nearly as good going down as one of my own homemade chocolate chip cookies. Aye, there’s the rub.


Dessa doing her thing at the NPR offices. You go, girl.

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.



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.

Washing The Body.

Bathing sounds more simple than it is.


Many women have spent years, decades, making their bodies do what other people want or need them to do. When you have a baby, for example, you can’t decide you want a day off from nursing. And nursing is exhausting. Even if you’ve got a person willing to bottle-feed your baby and your baby agrees (which is by no means certain) to take a bottle, your breasts will continue to make milk, and that milk needs somewhere to go. Your milk-ducts do not listen to Siri saying you have an appointment in 20 minutes. A nursing mother is in her body: she has to empty her breasts. It’s just reality: biology is, for a while at least, destiny. As women we can choose to disconnect biology and destiny, but there are costs (the child’s growing immunity being not the least).

And then there are the other choices about what the body does. What work it does, and where. Who gets to decide about the body’s sexuality—when it happens, for how long, in what ways. For what purposes. We live our lives with other people for decades and the methods and purposes of pleasure evolve into something entirely other than what we started with. And we may never talk about it. We may just hope it works out, because we’re tired, there’s a stack of bills on the table, the kids are in bed, we take pleasure where we can get it—it is an age-old urge.

We fake orgasms and hide chocolate under the bed…

Read the rest at Recovering the Body. If you like the posts, please subscribe there.


Mea Culpa: Amending The Age-Old Bitch In Me.

One beauty of keeping a journal is that it provides a record of one’s behavior over the years. “Compare yourself not to others but to yourself,” I have been told by people who are wiser than I am, and glancing at one’s own journals is an efficient way to do this. Even so, I hardly ever do it. It’s just not high on my to-do list.

So this morning I’m in the middle of a painting and I’m rooting through a box of art supplies and I find an old journal.

I have many journals, dated from 1974, when I was 10, through to today. Some of them are digital (which is to say, on the computer), but many of them were written longhand, because I believe in the power of the pen. I mean I don’t just “believe” in it; I experience the tactile beauty of the ink flowing out through the nib, and that experience is part of the fuel. I’ve long used fountain pens to write my journals. It bores me to write a journal with a ballpoint, though in a pinch any pen will do.

(Feeling the writing in the body, by the way, isn’t a preference or experience particular to me. Traditional Chinese writers, for example—who say they “write” their paintings of bamboo because the strokes used in the bamboo are all used in Chinese calligraphy—grind their own ink on fine-grained slate stones and, while grinding, meditate on their words; then, approaching the blank sheet of rice paper, they let the poem rise inside their bodies, from the root chakra as the Indian yogis might call it, up through the heart and out the arm, through the fingers and into the hollow bamboo handle and the pointed wolf-hair bristles of the brush. This is the ancient and spontaneous “chi” and “tao” of writing, which just means the “energy” and the “way,” and its physicality brings the practitioner back to the present moment. Writing can be an effective physical discipline for awareness.)


So I open this journal to a random page and find, from 15 years ago, elegant proof of my astonishing arrogance and blindness:

Went to a party last night & had an argument with Ben. It was hardly even an argument since we go so far back that it’s hard for us to get truly angry with each other. But I was telling him that I have pitied him for years because he’s made so little money & that I believe he subscribes to an artist’s myth that you have to be poor to be A Writer, & that he believes he’s on a faster track toward publication and fame for suffering the deprivation.

Reading only this far, I’m thinking, frankly, Jeeeezus-God, unfuckingbelievable. How could you have said something so mean? Then I read the next sentence, which only clinches it: …

… Read the rest at Recovering the Body.


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