Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Serenity Prayer

Recovery: From Pneumonia, From Self-Censorship.

Last time I wrote, my editorial about how addiction is not a crime was coming out. (In case you want to read it: here it is.) After it ran, I got really sick. I was ill already, but my cough got worse, I could hardly talk without coughing, and I couldn’t sleep.

I tried everything—antibiotics, steroids, allergy medicine, expectorant, plain Robitussin. So my doctor gave me prescription cough syrup. Not codeine, as I expected, but my very favorite awesomest drug on the face of the planet: hydrocodone, in Hydromet syrup. “Take it for a little while,” she said, “and get some rest and your body will heal.”

I’ve known addicts who, before they got sober, used to carry bottles of hydrocodone syrup around in their purses and take a nip or a slug every so often. I knew one person who had trouble quitting his smoking habit in part because every so often the tar in the butts would give him bronchitis, and this would enable him to get Hycodan (same drug, different name).

I told everyone: sponsor, meetings, a bunch of people on Facebook, anyone who would listen, “I have to take hydrocodone for this cough.” Be careful, they said. The weird thing is, I was taking it when my op-ed ran. So people were writing in to thank me for speaking up for addicts, and there I was, on a drug.

The drug stopped my cough, but my body didn’t heal. The cough came back worse when the drug ran out. It was dry; it strained my back and sides and finally I had to go back to the doctor and tell them I wanted to know what the hell was going on with my lungs. My doctor was on vacation; I saw another doctor who conducted a more thorough history and ruled out a bunch of stuff and decided I had “atypical pneumonia.” Walking pneumonia, from some kind of extraordinary tiny little microbe that produces almost no phlegm. So she gave me a different antibiotic. And she refilled the Hydromet.

I didn’t tell as many people, because there’s only so much patience you can expect addicts to show about how you’re allowed to use your favorite drug. I mean, alcoholics never go to meetings and say, “I’m allowed to drink this week.” I didn’t want to sit in meetings and tell them, “I get to use my drug-of-choice AGAIN!—psych.” Still, I didn’t abuse the drugs, and I didn’t get obsessed with them.

Instead, I just got sad all over again.

//

The antibiotic and the cough syrup ran out four days ago. The cough mostly went away, and now it’s coming back again. I seem to be powerless over it.

Or am I?

People have volunteered a lot of explanations for why my lungs have been sick for six weeks.

“Are you barking at the world?” someone asked me. “Do you need to be heard? Are you trying to shut yourself up?”

“Lung illnesses are about grief,” another person said. “You must be experiencing delayed grief, or anticipatory grief, or fear of letting go of something.”

“Who’s choking you?” someone else demanded. “Who’s trying to gag you or shove something down your throat?”

One may well ask.

My friend P at first told me I have to “speak up” in situations where I feel silenced. (She consulted her amazing Dutch Medical Bible that gives insights into all human ailments—I love to hear her translations.) The morning after I got the pneumonia diagnosis, on the way to the dog park, I texted her to ask if she could look up “pneumonia” in her bible. I expected like two sentences, but she photocopied a whole page of the book and brought it to me. Under “Longontsteking” (pneumonia), it told me why, apparently, I’m sick (“You’ve ended up in a life which is not appropriate for your real, true nature: an unconscious choice. Thus you must liberate yourself…” it began). And here’s what it said I have to do to heal:

Let yourself not be determined by past roads, or by a partner, etc. Build a new life on a more stable basis than formerly: on your deep, powerful Self. Draw your roots up from the old ground and hurry them elsewhere. Realize your complete existence and its dignity. Become conscious in each cell of your body. Turning away from your own divine source doesn’t let that internal fire heat your body.

It just kept on hitting the nail on the head.

I’m sitting there in the dog park and P is reading this to me sentence by sentence, from Dutch to English. The dogs are chasing each other through the grass, dew is covering everything, including my back and my butt, because we’re sitting on a dew-covered bench (“I don’t care, I’m wet already,” P said), and I’m listening like Nic Cage hearing Cher “tell him his life” in Moonstruck. Except I don’t then jump up and upend the bench and kiss P. I sit there and try to hold back my tears, and I cough.

My Deep, Powerful Self.

Draw my roots up.

The internal fire heating my body.

And get this part:

Babies and children with pneumonia: the above causes are also sometimes the parent’s experience. So when you help yourself, you thus help your child.

//

Let me tell you a story: Baby G had pneumonia when she was two months old. Normal pneumonia, double-lung pneumonia. The phlegm consolidated under G’s fragile baby-kitten ribs and she couldn’t breathe. It was December 1964, Christmas week. G’s folks drove G back to Braddock General Hospital, where she’d been born, and Dr. Tomlin put tiny baby G (she had been born very small, 6 lbs. 2 oz.) into an oxygen tent. Back then they didn’t have ventilators or even isolettes—they’d make a little cloth tent, and they’d pump oxygen into it. If G’s mother had lit a cigarette (they used to let you smoke in hospitals; the way she told it, she smoked right up until she pushed in each of her pregnancies), she might have blown the whole place sky-high.

The nurses sent G’s folks home, and instead of going home they went to G’s father’s family church—the Croatian church where just a month before G had been baptized. They knelt and prayed in front of the manger (back then, the church doors were open day and night). The church was dark, and the pastor came out and saw that G’s mother was crying. They told the priest about the baby in the tent, and he patted G’s mother’s shoulder. “Go home and go to sleep,” he said in his Slavic accent, “I vill pray for baby. Baby vill be fine.” And G’s parents made their way back to their newlywed apartment, in the latticed shadow of the roller coasters of the old-style amusement park.

Meanwhile, back at Braddock General, Dr. Tomlin was working overtime, monitoring the baby, giving her minute doses of a relatively new drug called penicillin. She was so small and so sick and the drug was so new (less than 20 years old in clinical use at that point) that his pediatric training hadn’t yet taught him how much to give her.

In the morning G’s parents came back, and the baby’s fever had broken.

What saved G—was it “God” and/or G’s parents, and/or the priest, and/or the doctor, and/or the drug??

//

Who knows. But my mother blamed the pneumonia on my “immature lungs” and someone with a cold. She never took a look at her own contribution to the situation. It was a long time before I considered how dangerous for a baby it might have been to put her in a house full of smoke.

At any rate, I’m alive today. Even if I do have pneumonia.

My mother is not. And neither is my father.

Become conscious in each cell of my body.

Realize my complete existence and its dignity.

And to stay alive, my life has to keep changing. An amends to myself.

Addiction and Recovery Stories Out The Wazoo

So a couple weeks ago I got a comment from someone who called this site “egotistical” (though to be fair, the person also said they’d gotten help from reading here while in early sobriety). Which made me think about the site’s recent content. I suppose it could be seen as more self-referential than it used to be when I started writing two years ago. Back then I was reviewing books and interpreting medical studies and conducting interviews with interesting people.

In fact I have a bunch of interesting people that I want to interview for this site. Including, for example, Dr. Abraham Twerski, founder of internationally recognized Gateway Rehab and author of a gabillion bestselling books. He has recovery stories out the wazoo. Catching up with this rabbi and addictions-specialist later today. … I have more books to review than I know what to do with. But most of the reviews, interviews, and feature stories now go into other publications that have a wider readership than this blog (plus, they pay).

For example my interview with Marianne Warnes, the mother of Carrie John, a University of Maryland Ph.D. addictions researcher whose boyfriend and lab partner helped her shoot some drugs he’d bought from an online pharmacy—and who subsequently died of anaphylactic shock, because the drugs weren’t actually drugs but a contaminant. New York Times writer David Carr (author of a memoir of addiction/recovery, The Night of the Gun) liked that story:

 

Also my review of Kaylie Jones’s helpful and eloquent book about her recovery from alcoholism, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, which appeared last week in Renew Magazine. My Q&A with Kaylie is online, but to read the review you have to buy the print edition (which rocks, by the way. Please subscribe. Next issue: Bill Clegg).

I get lots of mail from readers these days, too. An interventionist recently wrote me asking what I thought about this idea:

I am passionate about my intervention work, and I stumbled upon the following recently re: “eIntervention.”

He provided a bunch of links to studies about getting sober online that I haven’t yet looked at, but this is an interesting phenomenon—the fact that more and more people are getting sober, or at least beginning their journeys toward sobriety, via the Internet. I did the same, which is how I became Guinevere.

More stories: I’m in the process of putting faces to the avatars/usernames I’ve known for four years. I met up with one woman last month in New York; in a few days I’m meeting up with another guy who’s moving from the Rocky Mountains back to the East Coast. This summer I hope to connect with one or two more of these amazing, open, dedicated, sober people with whom I’ve been “eRecovering” for four years. It’s interesting to feel so close to people you’ve never met. Until this year I’d never met any of them, but I’d trust each one of these folks with the keys to my house.

Plus I have non-addiction stories coming out my ears. I have ideas for paintings (as well as commissions) lined up like a row of beans to be picked. I just gotta get in there and pick them. I also have to get used to planting seeds in the next bed over while the current bed is bearing.

As always, trying to take life and its opportunities and challenges one day at a time. Until last week I’d spent five weeks losing blood. Seriously anemic. Hard to do much without enough hemoglobin, you know? Tough to get oxygen. But yesterday I went running for the first time in maybe three weeks. Can I tell you how good that felt?—I could feel my lungs expanding, I could feel my muscles stretching and powering me over the hills, I felt the medicine. Drugs always worked for me (until, as they say, they didn’t anymore). And exercise works for me, too. I sometimes wonder when or if it might stop working.

If you have thoughts about beginning your journey to sobriety online, or if you have an interesting addiction/recovery story of your own, please comment below or email me at guinevere (at) guineveregetssober (dot) com.

Reverb10: How to Choose A Chinese Name

[Until 31 December I’m participating in reverb10, a month-long challenge to get bloggers to respond to writing prompts designed to help themselves and their readers take stock of the past year and to imagine possibilities for the coming year. I think of it as conducting the year’s final inventory…]

Prompt: New name. Let’s meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why?

I’ve been Guinevere for the past two-and-a-half years. Guinevere is not the name that appears on my checks or my Social Security card, but when people who know me as Guinevere call my cell and say hello to “Guinevere,” or to “G,” I answer. And it’s funny… I was watching the movie “The Duchess” the other day, in which Keira Knightley plays Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and when Ralph Fiennes kept calling her “G,” I felt that tug inside my chest, the way you do when someone is calling your name.

I am G.

I am also this name:

My chosen Chinese name: Ma Zhe Ning, scrawled by G

Phonetically, it reads “Ma Zhe Ning.”

I happened upon this name 10 years ago because I had taken up Chinese painting as a meditative artistic practice. (Highly recommended: Ning Yeh’s series of books and videos at Oriental Art Supply.) I decided I wanted a chop—one of those lovely carved stone seals that mark your painting with your name in red cinnabar ink. Chinese names are usually two or three characters. The first character is the surname. I chose the first syllable of my last name—Ma, a common surname in China, which also means “horse.” Except I altered it a bit, with the little extra radical to the left, which means “woman.” These two characters together mean “mother.” The sound “Ma,” in many languages and cultures the world over, means mother.

Then, with the help of the wonderful Chinese dictionary at ZhongWen, I chose two other characters with phonetic sounds similar to my name—Zhe and Ning. Zhe means “wise.” Ning means “serene”—a word that, in recovery, has come to mean a great deal to me:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change
courage to change the things I can
and wisdom to know the difference.

Ma Zhe Ning… Wise and Serene Mother. This name came to me when my son was about 3 years old. I had lost my own mother to lung cancer the year before, I was deep in grief, and I was headed into an addiction of my own. Deep down, I knew I was in trouble. I didn’t feel like I really deserved the name.

Still, it sounded right… “Ma Zhe Ning.” I practiced writing it and it felt right. I visited a man in San Francisco, in Chinatown, who carves chops. I’d come his shop before and bought some brushes there…

Asian painting brushes I've picked up during my travels.

And I asked him if he would please carve me a chop that said “Ma Zhe Ning.” I wrote the characters for him.

“Wrong Ma,” he said, tapping my paper, and he wrote the character for horse.

“I want this Ma,” I said, pointing to mine. “I know it’s wrong, but this is what I want. Is that OK?”

Is that OK? I’m paying for it. 🙂 But I have a habit of asking if what I want is OK. Because children of alcoholic families often feel like we don’t deserve to have what we want.

My dragon chop

He shrugged—he’d carve whatever I wanted, even if no Chinese person would ever speak it. I paid him his fee—a paltry 30 bucks or something, and chose a beautiful red soapstone with a dragon carved in the top—because I was born in the year of the dragon.

Three weeks later I received a package in the mail… a red silk box holding my finished chop.

Ma Zhe Ning is a name to live up to. It reminds me: progress, not perfection. The wisdom and serenity are in us. The Light is within us. A good friend of mine often says,

Recovery is not about getting stuff from outside of you. God is already in you. Recovery is about allowing the God within you to come out.

Buddhism meets the 12 steps

The Wisdom to Know the DifferenceEileen Flanagan’s book about the Serenity Prayer, The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change—and When to Let Go, was reissued in paperback yesterday. In preparing the book for reissue, she combed through her archives looking at outtakes… Since one of my favorite interviewees of hers was Park Dong-Sun, a Korean Buddhist monk and recovering alcoholic, Eileen gave an outtake from her interview with Park for the readers of Guinevere Gets Sober.

Eileen brings an honest and deeply thought Quaker perspective to the Serenity Prayer, but not necessarily a perspective from recovery—the community that, from a cultural perspective at least, perhaps gives this prayer the most sky-miles. No one can “own” a prayer… but for hundreds of thousands of people on the planet, the Serenity Prayer brings to mind “the rooms.” Eileen relies on her subjects to provide the personal perspective she herself lacks… and Park Dong-Sun, a longtime Buddhist practitioner, is an entertaining and wise subject. It’s brilliant that she found him.

If you’re looking for a book to teach the principles of discernment between the time to change and the time to accept things as they are, then this book is worth the price. In my review I recommended the chapter about “seeking divine assistance” for people who have trouble with “the God thing” in 12-step programs… But I also recommend the chapter on “letting go of outcomes.” Eileen’s Quaker practice of stillness gives her prose a calm and steady tone and provides the lubricant that helps the medicine go down… Especially when she’s telling me, for example, that I need to let go of my image of what I assume I should be doing, because it may close my mind to divine guidance that contradicts that picture. Something I need to hear right now…

Thanks to Eileen for the text below.

Happy Labor Day weekend.

***

Park Dong-Sun, a Buddhist monk and recovering alcoholic, on the 12-step path

Park Dong-Sun came to the United States decades ago to establish business contacts as an exporter/importer. Now in his late 60s, he notes that it was very common for people to drink socially in his native Korea, but not to get drunk. In the United States, however, he started getting drunk, especially when his business failed, and his drinking accelerated. “I used alcohol as a lubricant for socializing,” he explains, though he did not like the effects.

A turning point came when he watched a friend’s son struggle with addiction and then get sober with help from the recovery community. Park was inspired to go himself, first to Al-Anon and then AA, where he observed people who had successfully stopped drinking, something he had been unable to do on his own. “I wanted to be part of it and use their program to quit drinking, and that’s what I did the last 25 years, and I haven’t had a drink since,” he explains.

As Park studied the Twelve Step Program, he had to translate some of the language from the Judeo-Christian tradition into Zen Buddhist concepts. “It was a struggle,” he recalls, but it rekindled his desire to study and practice his own tradition, which he has done for more than 20 years now, along with working the AA program. He does walking meditation about two hours every day. “I haven’t made much progress,” he says laughing. “But I did spend lots of time studying the teachings, over and over and over.”

He takes the saying Let go and let God and relates it to the Zen teaching Let go of all your concepts of life, explaining that this is a powerful teaching, though difficult to practice. “Ultimately the Zen training and practice is to stop conceptualizing. As soon as we conceptualize we limit ourselves, and with that limitation, we cannot see the whole.” For example, you can’t become enlightened by effort. It only comes when you’ve let go of any ambition to be enlightened, which is why so few do it. Park notes that it is difficult to let go completely, especially all of a sudden, “so we move progressively one step after another.” He compares it to doing the Twelve Steps. “There is no beginning, and no end,” he says, like the Serenity Prayer, which he says helps people to get to a higher level.

Park explains that Buddhism recognizes that there are different levels of spiritual practice. A typical church or temple service only requires an elementary level, but the Twelve Steps require an intermediate or even advanced level of spiritual practice, which is why he says they are so difficult for newcomers. One thing that helps in both Buddhism and recovery is community, which Park compares to a nurse that administers the medicine we need. He expresses gratitude for his own communities and thanks all his teachers, including the Buddha.—Eileen Flanagan

A Quaker explores the Serenity Prayer.

Full disclosure: Eileen Flanagan and I are acquainted through Quaker circles.

Flanagan’s subject here is a prayer that is spoken during the tens of thousands of recovery meetings that take place around the world every day.

We recite so frequently that we may no longer even think about the words. Do we grasp their power to help us discern who we are and what God/higher power/Spirit/Universe means us to be doing with the gifts and resources we’ve been given?

Flanagan has interviewed nearly 30 people who have grappled with these questions, and she uses the Serenity Prayer to illuminate their stories.

One of my favorites among her subjects is Park Dong-Sun, a Korean who immigrated to U.S. 25 years ago, at 40. Dong-Sun soon experienced a bunch of business failures and started drinking alcoholically. He joined AA; since he had studied Zen Buddhism in Korea, he brought this to bear on his experience of the 12 steps. Eventually he became a monk. Flanagan writes that one of Dong-Sun’s central questions that the Serenity Prayer helps illuminate is, “Change from what to what?” In other words, as she writes,

Millions of self-help books are sold every year to people hoping to change, but we have to ask ourselves, change in what way, for what purpose? Are we hoping to put on a new False Self, one that will make us more successful or popular? Or do we seek a deeper change, one that realigns our priorities and helps us to live more authentically? This is where listening within and knowing ourselves is crucial. It takes discernment to know what you should accept in yourself and what you should try to change.

Discernment is a major Quaker practice—one that has been central to my own recovery, and one with which Flanagan spends a lot of time in this book. She starts by giving us the original edition of the Serenity Prayer as credited to Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, give us grace
To accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things that should be changed,
And the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

That last line is all about discernment. Discernment is both a listening for and a testing of leadings, and can be compared to the activity we undertake when we engage in Step 11: how do we know what Higher Power’s will is for us? How do we carry that out? … For those who have tried 12-step meetings and have difficulty with “the God-thing,” Flanagan’s explorations of discernment and “seeking divine guidance” are well worth a read.

Woven throughout the book is an exploration of the concept and practice of accepting what we cannot change, including—unexpectedly, and perhaps with comfort for those who were raised in overly critical alcoholic families—the greatness instilled in us by our creators. This is a superbly powerful notion: that one of the things I cannot change is my own essential nature … Who I Be. The more I accept my inherent gifts and resources, Flanagan and her subjects’ stories reveal, the greater the likelihood I can use those to serve the good of society and create positive change in the world. My beloved AlAnon sponsor would agree.


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