Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: smoking (page 1 of 3)

Sober Life: Being A Sober Mom

Said goodbye this morning to my 13-year-old, watching him shamble down the front steps into the first mild morning we’ve had this year. There was something about how he looked walking toward the school bus, wearing the new coat that he calls his “rock-star coat,” which he bought on his own when he walked with his friends from our house down to the shops last week… I watched him from behind, and coupled with that feeling that he’s no longer my little boy came a regret that I’d spent a number of years of his early childhood unsober.

I shut the door, locked it, walked back into the kitchen and started washing the dishes from breakfast before settling down to work. Pretty soon my tears were dripping into the dishwater. Sometimes I can’t do anything about it: I Regret The Past and Wish To Shut The Door On It.

Thirteen years ago, I was a fearful new mom. The fear settled on me as soon as I knew I was pregnant. I knew I was pregnant even before I took the drugstore test. I could feel it in my body. I’d gotten pregnant by accident and after the second line in the pregnancy test’s window confirmed what I already knew, I stood in the front hall and burst into tears—I was sure I had no idea how to raise a kid, and I had no confidence that I could figure it out. I read lots of books, and I even wrote a book about my pregnancy (which was great—my pregnancy, that is), but books didn’t give me that sense of Being Right inside myself.

My son, at a couple weeks old. From my first book. (Photo by Charlee Brodsky.)

When my son was born, and I saw his face, I knew he was the one I was supposed to meet. You know what I mean? His eyes were open. They were stone-colored, and he looked hard at me. I was absolutely flattened by love. I swore to myself I’d do my best.

My best turned out to be several years of addiction.

I got sober when he was turning 11.

As I finished washing the dishes I thought to myself how I can’t turn the clock back. My kid is one person I have to make living amends to. You can’t go to a child and tell him the ways you’ve harmed him… The facts of parenthood force me to live as an example of sobriety, to live as healthily and as spiritually-directed as I can today. Letting the rest go is the hard part. The self-recrimination. The thoughts, when I look into his face, of “what if?” What if he’d been given a different mother. What if I’d been able to get sober earlier. Blah blah blah, self-pity.

I know how I’m supposed to think. I’m supposed to stay in the present moment.

Doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen always makes me think of my own mother. She taught me specific ways of house-cleaning. She did not tolerate drips or crumbs on the countertop. She did not tolerate leaving dishes in the sink. We didn’t have a dishwasher. She used to point to her piano (which is now in our front hall) and say, “There’s my dishwasher”—to emphasize the point that she’d chosen to invest in a musical instrument rather than a kitchen appliance.

I used to think at those moments that, actually, I was the dishwasher, and so was my sister, but I never said so.

We didn’t even have a sink-sprayer. There was a little cup by the faucet that we used to rinse out the sink. (Of course, we had no disposal.)

This morning as I wiped the countertop clean I thought of my mother. She’s been dead of lung cancer from smoking, it’s been almost 12 years.

Recently my father-in-law died, and my husband, on the first night after his dad’s death, curled up next to me in bed and asked, “Where do you think we go after we die?” It was a childlike question borne of childlike feelings. I thought of my mother then. There is nothing left of my mother’s body, surely, except her bones. Her grave is on a hillside 15 miles to the east of here. But can it be said that there is nothing left of her, when I so diligently empty the sink, when I wipe the countertop clean… when I beat myself over the head for making mistakes—the way she taught me?

Instead of doing my yoga at home today, I went to my friend Jenn’s class. I needed to get out of the house, and I needed to hear Jenn’s voice. As I walked in, she was already leading the students in opening meditation. I sat down on my mat, and Jenn said, “Now think of a place of comfort,” and the first thing that came to my mind was my  mother’s lap when I was a child. I could feel her shoulders under the blue-and-brown flannel shirt and I could smell her cigarette smoke, and I could hear her voice. Though my mother hit me when I was small, I also remember how much I used to love it when she sometimes held me on her lap. She also sometimes sang, or read books.

I held my son, I sang to him, I read to him… even when I was not sober…

I started to cry in the yoga studio. (I was in the back…)

One problem I’ve had is that I made my mother my higher power. I did everything she said, down to wiping the countertops clean in a certain way. I am a good reporter and student because I can remember conversations and lectures verbatim, because I was trained to remember things my mother said (or else).

I can see that my son won’t have some of these problems. I’m not his higher power. He is not my confidante. He has privacy, and a good relationship with his father, and productive friendships. There are appropriate boundaries between us.

Driving home from yoga I was thinking that, at the very least, I’m here. I’m alive and well, if not perfect. (By now you will have noticed that I’d like to be perfect… 🙂 ) I think kids are hardwired to forgive their parents, especially if their parents make an effort. If my mother had gotten well, and had lived to see my son grow up, I could have let go of everything that had gone before.

I mean, by the time she died, I had let go of it anyway. … Anyone know what I mean?

But who knows how much possibility for growth, how much joy we might have had?

And she would have been here. Priceless.


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Are Cigarette Smokers “Really” Addicts?

SmokingWhile I was in the UK for my father-in-law’s funeral last week, I had an interesting talk with someone who has tried and failed for some years to quit smoking.

This guy has been smoking for half his life. He started at about 16, and he’s 32. (Studies show that when people start smoking as teens—or using any drug, including alcohol—it’s much harder to quit later.) When he was 18 or 20, back when nicotine patches were prescription-only, his father paid for patches. And the patches worked to help him stop. But then he started smoking again. Since then he’s quit “a bunch of times,” as he said, but has never been able to stay quit.

I remember asking him after the first time, when he was maybe 21, why he found it so hard to stop smoking. This was around the time my mother died of lung cancer, and before my own addiction became entrenched—before I understood the ways addiction becomes woven throughout the fabric of life, the ways it changes the neurological system.

He had given me simple answers: He was always desperate for the first morning cigarette with his coffee. He missed having a cigarette with his friends when he went for a beer. He wanted a cigarette when he smelled other people having cigarettes. Smoking helped him deal with stress.

So, as the author of an addiction blog I was thinking to myself, here’s some reasons he found it hard to quit:

  • the morning hit of nicotine potentiating the caffeine—people have always used drugs together; addicts get used to using them together; think Speedball, think alcohol and Valium (a combination that has killed many people), think ecstasy and speed. Hell, think Four Loko, the crazy-ass combination of caffeine and booze that has landed college kids in the hospital in the past year.
  • the social aspect of using—he missed smoking with the people he drank and smoked with. When he went out drinking, it was natural also to smoke. He couldn’t do one without the other. (In fact, he might not have been able to socialize without drinking. I mean holy God, I understand this.)
  • simple sensory triggers—cigarette smoke creating what we addicts call “euphoric recall.” He sniffed the smoke, he suddenly remembered the burn at the back of his throat, his mouth watered, he just needed a cigarette. Alcoholics feel the fire down their throats when they see someone drinking; opiate addicts feel the spreading warmth in the bottom of their bellies when they come across “paraphernalia” or actual drugs.

And then, of course, the all-time biggest “trigger” of them all: stress. (When I was using, getting up in the morning was stress enough to make me use. Vikes with morning coffee, anyone?)

We were on a walk in a park with a group of family and I heard a particular, very familiar loose bronchial cough come out of his mouth.

“You’re not STILL smoking?” I said.

He unzipped a jacket pocket and showed me a packet of Marlboros. UK law dictates one entire side of the package be printed with the warning, “SMOKING KILLS.”

“Dude,” I said, “you have to stop.” He knows all about my mother, blah blah blah. And there we were, standing with some of his closest family.

“I know,” he said.

I asked him what was making it hard for him. He said he found it impossible not to smoke when he goes out drinking with his buddies, “and also smoking spliff makes it hard. I mean, smoking anything would make it hard,” he said. Bingo. Using other drugs. Alcohol and weed.

What’s necessary? Well, how about total abstinence and a program of spiritual fitness… But most smokers don’t see themselves as “real addicts” so they don’t think going that far is necessary.

“I’m gearing up to create the Master Plan for quitting for good,” he said. “But I don’t know what it’ll be yet.”

We talked about Chantix, which he hadn’t heard about. I told him Chantix had worked for friends of mine for whom all else had failed.

Chantix might get him clean, but staying clean is another matter. As every recovering addict knows.

He was speaking really laconically, as though he had all the time in the world to quit, as though the warning printed on the packet in his pocket were just an ad he didn’t have to pay attention to. Addicts have very selective attention. And most smokers don’t consider themselves addicts.

In fact: in trawling through some research today, I found this astonishing paper published in the journal Addiction. In this paper, “Believing in Nicotine Addiction: Does It Really Make Quitting More Likely?”* the researchers suggest that it’s counterproductive for smokers to think of themselves as “addicts” because, in some studies, those who did “expressed weaker intentions to stop smoking and had much lower expectations regarding their perceived ability to do so.”

I was amazed. They’re paying these guys to sit in a room and tell people who can’t quit a lethal substance to deny they have a real addiction. I mean, take the logic a step further: if smokers should not “believe” in their addictions, why shouldn’t alcoholics and heroin users also take the same strategy? Why don’t they just do away with rehabs and tell us all, “You’re not really addicted—believing you’ve got an addiction just takes away your power and responsibility to quit.” Unbelievable.

Nicotine addiction is real. I’ve seen it. It killed my mother. She was a prodigiously intelligent and beautiful woman who died at 58, after having lost her hair (three times), her balance, her hearing, the use of the muscles on one side of her face, and eventually her speech and her mind. She should be here today, 70 years old, playing with her grandchild. But she’s not. Because of nicotine addiction.

No one told her she had an addiction. Her physicians told her to quit but never told her she was an addict. She herself would have been mortified at the term and would have rejected it.

But in my experience, the truth sets free.

Of course, this is just “anecdotal.” 🙂

*Addiction, 106:3, 678-679, March 2011.

Surgeon General’s New Report: No Safe Level of Smoking

Secondhand smokeSurgeon General Regina M. Benjamin released a report yesterday declaring there is absolutely no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke, whether from smoking or from secondhand smoke.

The 700-page report, “How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Diseases,” is the thirtieth surgeon general’s report on tobacco since the first landmark report linking smoking with lung cancer in 1964. This week’s report details the specific pathways by which tobacco smoke damages the body and lays out the scientific evidence for a number of conclusions I hadn’t heard before:

  • The toxins in tobacco smoke quickly damage blood vessels throughout the body and make blood more likely to clot, causing heart attacks, strokes and even sudden death
  • Tobacco’s toxins interfere with the functioning of the fallopian tubes—the little tubes that carry the woman’s egg from her ovary to her uterus—increasing the risk for poor pregnancy outcomes such as ectopic pregnancy (when the egg implants inside the fallopian tube), miscarriage and low birth-weight. Toxins also damage the DNA in sperm, which can reduce fertility or harm fetal development
  • Tobacco’s chemicals screw up the body’s blood-sugar regulation. Those with diabetes who smoke have a higher risk of heart and kidney disease, amputation, eye disease resulting in blindness, nerve damage and poor circulation

Obviously I haven’t had time to read the entire report! 🙂 so relying on the fact sheet from yesterday’s National Press Club event. But the sheet also said that adolescents’ bodies are “more sensitive to nicotine.” I wish they’d given details about this “sensitivity” that causes them to be “more easily addicted than adults.”

The fact sheet said about 1,000 teenagers become daily smokers each day. Hard to believe—that’s more than one-third of a million each year.

Am I Really Clean and Sober?

A reader wrote in a comment yesterday,

My 31-year-old heroin-addict daughter has now been clean and sober for 6 months—today! It’s a bloody miracle. She smokes, and it kills me to see her slowly killing herself every day. Yet—she’s not shooting up or smoking crack. In fact, she has started exercising again and is almost fanatic about getting her daily workout in at the gym. And, she’s constantly eating—especially candy. … I know all these things are filling up the addiction hole—so, is she really in recovery? Just wondering.

Congratulations to your daughter on six months free of heroin and crack. Yesssss.

SmokingFirst, about smoking: I’m rabid about it because I watched my mother lose her life in a nasty death to lung cancer. You’d have thought it would have gotten her by attacking her lungs, but no: in the end it attacked her brain, and she lost her mind. She was a prodigiously intelligent woman, and it took away the strength she valued most. Classic. … People smoke without really believing it’ll kill them. Or they think it might kill them but they do it anyway. My sister and I used to talk about how, in the year or so after our mother’s death, we wanted to approach every smoker we saw on the street and beg them to stop. So ya mon, I use this blog to preach against the perils of nicotine. It IS a drug.

Second, to the question of whether your daughter is “really” in recovery: a question each of us answers for ourselves…

I’ve had friends who got free of heroin, alcohol, crack, kratom, bupe, oxy/roxy/fentanyl/you-name-it, and saved their lives, and who then discovered, in the process of discernment and gaining greater spiritual clarity, that they needed to stop other chemicals or compulsive behaviors. Friends have stopped smoking, stopped eating or throwing up compulsively, stopped compulsive shopping or gambling or having anonymous sex. Some have struggled to stop and haven’t always been able to. Some have stopped one behavior only to have another one pop up, like whack-a-mole.

I’m trying to stop compulsively eating sugar. I’ve managed to cut out the ice cream <sigh>, cookies, candy, etc. Now I’m looking at prepared foods that contain sugar. I don’t eat a lot of prepared foods, but then again, I don’t eat a lot—another habit I have to look at. I need to eat more nutritiously. I need to feed my body, not just my brain and spirit. It’s one of my shortcomings, habitually ignoring my body—not living inside this skin, but instead living somewhere about a foot above and to the right of my head: where the crazy teachers at our Croatian Sunday school taught me that my “guardian angel” lived. (I guess somewhere along the line I decided to move out of my body and hang with my angel. Not that it did much good—my body took over and decided, by times, to eat whatever the hell it wanted in my mind’s absence.)

As I’ve made some progress in the steps, and being happy and clear and taking care of myself, I’ve come to notice some roadblocks to clarity and happiness, and my lifelong habitual consumption of sugar is one of them.

Sugar does all kinds of things drugs do. It increases dopamine the way cocaine does. It stimulates the mu opioid receptors in the same ways heroin or any other opioid does, albeit more mildly. (When I read this 2008 study out of Princeton proving this, my deep affinity for sterling rock-my-world pharma-grade opioids made sense.) Sugar makes me energized for a while, then puts me to sleep, just like my favorite drugs did. It might even kill pain for a while. Certain kinds of pain.

Plus it tastes good. It gives me the sweetness that I missed as a child.

Can I be sweet to myself in other ways? Can I be sweet to others? Can I accept the sweetness that others show me without habitually feeling unworthy?

Monty Python's God

Every time I try to talk to someone it’s “sorry this” and “forgive me that” and “I am not worthy.”—Monty Python’s “God”

I have the kind of body-type that allows me to eat however much sugar I like and not gain weight.  “High metrabolism,” as one of the bimbos in Legally Blonde said. I’ve always used this as an excuse to eat lots of chocolate. But I need to take care of this metabolism, and feeding it sugar is like feeding it a supper out of a landfill. It’s like feeding it garbage. Well: it IS feeding it garbage.

I sometimes wonder what I’d be capable of, physically and intellectually, if I ate a truly nutritious diet.

How fit and strong I might become.

Which is another question in my recovery: How strong am I willing to become?

I am afraid of being strong and fit.

I’ve heard a lot of women say this. In the same meeting about “fear” the other night, another woman talked about how she wasn’t afraid of failing—she expected to fail, and she even welcomes the rejections and failures when they come because they validate her idea of herself as not such a great person. What she’s afraid of is being accepted, getting the job, making progress, being strong. Because it means she has to step up and become active. And this means that somebody is inevitably going to be disappointed in the way she handles situations.

I understood: failing is a good way of avoiding this conflict.

So have I “really” been in recovery? Am I “really” sober?

None of these questions would even pertain if I were still taking drugs. I had moments of clarity during my drug-taking, moments that allowed me to be a functional mother, perform in my job, write books, experience “success.” But through that time, I was afraid, angry and selfish.

I couldn’t act on my own behalf. I was taking drugs because I was afraid of what you might think of me, afraid I wasn’t as good/pretty/rich/smart/successful as you, afraid even to talk to you. Selfish. Hiding.

Or else I was all up in your face, acting out, convincing myself I was being very articulate and smart. But mostly, I was afraid, and hiding.

I’m a real beginner at all this. What I can say is, right now, “real” healing is taking productive and responsible action on my own behalf, so I can fit myself for service the best I can.

I mean, sure when I was using drugs, I had some good ideas (o yeah, i had sooo many good ideas), a few “intuitive thoughts,” some plans that seemed really “inspired.”

But how many did I act on?

And when I did manage to act, how fit for service was I?

Friday Roundup: Scanning Smokers for Lung Cancer; How Smoking Wrecks the Body (In Pictures)

Finally, a national agency is coming out with study results that seem to suggest it might be good to screen smokers and former smokers for lung cancer.

The National Cancer Institute yesterday announced that conducting regular low-dose computed tomography (CT) scans to screen for lung cancer on heavy smokers and former smokers resulted in 20 percent fewer deaths from lung cancer than those who received conventional chest X-ray.

Bonus result: deaths from all causes (such as emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, etc.—but including lung cancer) were 7 percent lower than those who were X-rayed.

The study, called the National Lung Screening Trial, was designed to compare CT screening with chest X-ray (which has long been thought not to be an effective way to screen for lung cancer).

The data still have to be examined further and put through peer-review; some researchers are concerned about the negative effects of the CT scans themselves.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. by a long shot for both men and women. Many folks believe more women die of breast cancer. More women are diagnosed with breast cancer: while 255,000 women were estimated to have been diagnosed last year with breast cancer, 40,000 of those cases were fatal. With lung cancer, about 106,000 women are expected to be diagnosed this year, while 71,000 women will die. Lung cancer has one of the lowest cure-rates in cancer treatment because it’s difficult to diagnose early—which is the reason scientists have been looking for a good screening tool.

And yet lung cancer is the single most preventable form of cancer death. The addiction to nicotine has to be stopped. What that takes is asking for help.

(You know that little pink ribbon for breast cancer? My dream is to have one for addiction. Awareness helps people to get help.)

I’ve written about this before, about my old friend the longtime alcoholic and drug addict who saved quitting smoking for last. He had an active 12-step program in place, which has since morphed into a Buddhist recovery program. Within six weeks, his physician’s nurse had tapered him off his nicotine program and he was entirely drug-free.

In case anyone needs an extra bit of motivation, or is curious: Came across this interesting slide-show called “Surprising Ways Smoking Affects Your Looks and Life.” The split photos of twins are especially cool—they so clearly show the effects of the myriad chemicals in cigarettes on the skin, eyes, teeth, and hair. They also illustrate how dangerous smoking is for nonsmokers exposed to smoke.

Twin smokers

Which one do you think is the smoker?

Smoking wrinkles and darkens the skin.

Also found these statistics appealing: I’d always known there are at least 80 million smokers and former smokers in the U.S. They broke it down: 45 million Americans smoke, and 48 million have quit.

Finally: A maximum of only 7 percent could do it without help.

Get help. And check out the excellent resources from Bobby Venicchio’s Stop Smoking Now Aids.

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