Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: serenity

Spirituality = Reality.

Today I’m borrowing this title from my good friend Dani, who has written under it for four years (click here to read her in Freedom From Hell). Thanks, Dani.


My friend Jacques’s dad died four days ago in Tucson.

I’ve known Jacques for 25 years. When I met him in 1988, he had gotten sober two years before, at age 22, and was dating Ben, who was studying in the same writing program I was attending. Jacques and Ben are still both poets and English teachers. We were all born in the same year.

Ben’s mom has been living with terminal cancer for several years; by incredible coincidence, the day after Jacques’s dad died—just three days ago, in other words—Ben’s mom had a setback and began actively dying. These former lovers are losing their second parents within days of each other. I find the resonance strange and beautiful.

When it became clear to Jacques that his dad would not last very long, he told the hospice staff that his dad needed a Catholic priest. The hospice worker told Jacques she’d send a minister, a social worker, they had all kinds of resources.

“I need a CATHOLIC PRIEST,” he said. “My dad wants last rites in the Catholic tradition. Can we please get a Catholic priest?”

“I had no idea why I said that, my dad and I didn’t talk about what he wanted at the end,” Jacques tells me today on the phone. “But my dad was a strict Catholic, G, it was serious with him, it wasn’t mumbo-jumbo.”

Jacques, one of three brothers, was born at St. Francis Hospital (Rabbi Abe Twerski and the nuns later turned it into the city’s haven for drunks and junkies; my cousin Danny spent some time there, I believe—it was notorious in our family that you had hit shameful low-bottom if you were at St. Francis; meanwhile, I was born at Braddock General, which, for a number of years until it closed in 2009, served as a detox and rehab for the river valley’s addicts). Jacques lived around the corner on 44th Street till he was in second grade, when his dad started making enough money to move them out to the suburbs, where they had the split-level and the country-club membership.

On the drive back to his hotel four days ago, the hospice worker called his cell and said the priest had arrived and was ready to give his dad the sacrament, and that she’d put the phone on speaker so Jacques could hear his dad’s responses.

“And this is no shit, G, OK?” he said. “On the very last word—on the ‘Amen’—the hospice worker said, ‘Your dad just took his last breath.’ He died on the last word of the sacrament.”

We sit there in silence, absorbing this.

altar-boysJacques and I were raised strict Catholic in the 1960s and ’70s. Jacques was an altar boy (dunno what my thing is with altar boys, but I can just picture Jacques in red robe with white lace surplice, holding the censer and cracking jokes under his breath). Jacques and I know what sacrament means, even though we no longer receive them ourselves.

“You did that because you were sober,” I remark. “If you hadn’t been sober, do you think you’d have had the presence of mind to be so certain about what your dad wanted, and to act on that leading?”

“You know, I have goosebumps on the back of my neck when you say that,” he says. “Because I’ve been thinking about that. He didn’t tell me he wanted that—I just knew.”

“How old was your dad—86?” I ask. “That’s a hell of a long time to live, and you made sure your dad had what he needed at the end of that long haul in order to let go and be at peace. In doing that for him you showed him great compassion and kindness.”

“I’ve been realizing something about love,” he says. “It’s not a feeling. It’s a commitment, a desire for the other person’s wellbeing such that you’re willing to sacrifice yourself.” Not in a codependent way, he emphasizes; not in a way that fosters the other person’s weakness and insecurity and one’s own security and vanity, but in a way that fosters the other person’s growth and peace.

Jacques has racked up large bills flying from his home in northern Michigan to Tucson every month since August, when his dad fell and had to move into nursing care.

“Love is hard, G!” he says. “It’s so hard!

We pause, considering this weighty truth.

“Well,” he says, and I can hear him stretching, “I’m standing here in the 75-degree sun and I’m gonna go take a swim now.”

“Fuck you, darlin,” I say fondly.


So this is part of the way I stay sober. People in The Program talk about “helping others,” reaching out to the newcomer, and I do that, but I also interact with several people in my life who are oldcomers, who count their sober-time in decades, and I stay active with principles I’ve learned from many years in Al-Anon. Long-time sobriety doesn’t guarantee any results—serenity, peace of mind, happiness, even a good night’s sleep. It starts out one day at a time, and it stays that way.

Meanwhile I tell Ben I’ll take some of his classes if he can’t get back from Dallas in time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reverb10: Achievement Addiction

[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: Achieve. What’s the thing you most want to achieve next year? How do you imagine you’ll feel when you get it? Free? Happy? Complete? Blissful? Write that feeling down. Then, brainstorm 10 things you can do, or 10 new thoughts you can think, in order to experience that feeling today.

A number of potential achievements blizzarded through my brain when I read this prompt:

  • write my next book
  • write my business plan
  • submit the stories I have lined up on my editorial calendar
  • create the paintings that have been rolling around in my mind
  • become truly physically fit
  • create my brand
  • be featured in O magazine (or similar)
  • win Pulitzer prize/Nobel Prize for Literature (or similar)
  • sell film rights, be played by Julia Roberts (or similar)
  • win mass approval, not have to try anymore; Finally Rest Assured

You can see where my mind goes when asked to consider the word “achieve.” Never mind the words “accomplish,” “ambition,” “approval,” “attention,” etc. (Interesting that they all appear under the A file)

“Achieve” = from the Old French “achever,” to come or to bring to a head.

Definitely fantasize about resting at the top of the pile. The “chief.”

I like the feeling of being at the top. I like the feeling of imagining being at the top. The feeling of imagining being

(free happy blissful complete)

(rich famous)

(safe loved safe safe safe)

Brigflatts Meeting House garden

The garden at Brigflatts Quaker Meeting House, Cumbria, England (1675), seen through the meeting house doorway.

at the top is what used to power me through the work. Sometimes still does. I would finally reach the garden, and I could rest there, and Never Have To Try Again.

When I would get to the end of the tunnel on a project and none of that lasted—when I couldn’t make it stay—that’s when I would come down with migraines, I wouldn’t be able to sleep, I’d go to the doctor, secure drugs, and numb myself out. Basically what was happening was, I was living in the future, and when the future suddenly morphed into Now, I’d fall apart.

This is a longstanding habit of mine. Two longstanding habits—three, actually:

  • living in and for the future, for future feelings (I can’t wait to be free/happy/blissful/complete!!!—when I achieve X This Will Finally Happen And I Will Have To Strive No More!!)
  • becoming sick when my expectations are not met, and
  • numbing out because I’m sick, because I can’t stand my feelings. Lots of people addicted to prescription painkillers have the same experience.

So, the thing is. No matter how much my grasping ego may want all that other stuff on the first list? The most important thing for me to “achieve” in 2011 is to stay inside each day. And to make sure each day is a sober day. As my friend Mr. Sponsorpants (I wish I did not have to refer to him by that name; alas) writes, “If, by the end of the day, you don’t drink or use or kill yourself, you win, and the rest of this crap will just have to work itself out. Sobriety is ALWAYS the priority.”

Getting Fit: A Goal

I have committed to a 90-day program of fitness for 2011. My friend Angela, the former pom-pom-girl/non-cheerleader/prom-court-queen/etc. and now-entrepreneur/mom/wife, has committed to being my official coach. So get ready to see updates in the new year about this project. …

Despite the fact that I’ve just critiqued the idea of “achievement,” I still hold with Goals. They keep me moving. They keep me outward-focused, not focused on my own gratuitous status. One goal I have for myself in the new year is to do one unassisted pull-up.

“G,” my friend said to me, doubtfully, this morning as we knitted in her living room, “pull-ups are wicked-ass hard. They’re especially hard for women because they require a great deal of strength right here,” and she pointed to those muscles whose names I do not know, the ones that connect our shoulders to our boobs. (Anyone?)

Well, so be it. I’m going for it. I want to do one pull-up before I die. This is a goal I have. I was always the kid who could not do the Flexed-Arm-Hang in the Presidential Fitness Test, and then I was the teenager who could not run one lap around the football field and got called “Old Lady” by the asshat gym-teacher who, instead of actually teaching fitness, chose instead to be best buddies with the girls who were already fit and demean those of us who perhaps most needed her help. (I guess “asshat” reveals an unmined resentment. Huh.) And then I was the addict who did not exercise but instead took drugs to control her pain. I’ve discovered in the last six weeks that almost total lack of exercise and a generally shitty diet knots up my muscles and makes it hard for me to sleep.

Fitness is a critical component of recovery. I want to discover what it does.

As for Angela. I thought it incredibly generous that she should offer to be my coach. I told my sponsor how nice she is.

“Isn’t that a surprise?” my sponsor said archly. “It’s always a surprise to find out that popular people become popular usually because they are nice.”

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