Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: shame

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.

Friday Roundup: Fear of Stigma Prevents Alcoholics From Seeking Treatment

The news out of Columbia University: People identified as alcoholics at some point in their lifetimes were more than 60 percent less likely to seek treatment if their perception was that they’d be stigmatized once they let people know about their alcoholism. So fear of stigma, the study concluded, was a potential explanation for how few alcoholics who really need treatment actually manage to get it (less than 25 percent).

The study was published in a November issue of American Journal of Epidemiology.

Additional findings…

People who are more afraid of stigma:

  • Men
  • lower-income people
  • people with lower educational achievement
  • Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks

People who are less afraid of stigma:

  • Women
  • Those married or formerly married to an alcoholic

A conclusion the researchers drew from these findings:

Closeness predicts lower perceptions of stigma.

The researchers call for national campaigns to reduce stigma and perceptions of stigma. They point out that evidence shows “stigmatizing attitudes” toward mental illness can be changed, but no national efforts have targeted alcoholism in particular.

This all seems to harmonize with some new work I’m discovering.

Brené Brown

Brené Brown, Ph.D.

Brené Brown, PhD, a research social worker who teaches at the University of Houston, has spent the past 10 years or so studying the dynamics of shame. “Stigma”—which comes from an Old English word meaning “to brand with a pointed stick”—means nothing more than “to mark with shame.”

“Shame” itself is an even more ancient word whose roots mean “to cover oneself.” Essentially, “to disappear” because of self-hatred. Exactly the side-effect I was looking for in painkillers. I wanted to numb out thoroughly, to Get Small, to disappear. The extra-added energy-boost was fun while it lasted, but even after that left me, I continued to use because I just wanted to Go Away. I was also afraid of the physical pain.

Brown, in her recent Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) talk, suggests that we are a numbing-out culture. We are so afraid to be vulnerable, to feel vulnerability, that we numb it out before we can feel it. We use anything: food, Internet, shopping, gambling, alcohol, drugs. She says:

We cannot selectively numb feelings. . . . So when we numb [bad feelings], we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable . . .  And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

Brown says those who allow themselves to “soften into loving someone, to care about something passionately”—to be vulnerable—are the people who are more able to get help when they need it. Which is what these Columbia researchers are saying: Closeness predicts lower perceptions of stigma. People who have close relationships have less fear of shame and are better able to get help.

Listen to her talk this weekend. Makes me want to go back to grad school.

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