Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: sober parenting (page 1 of 3)

Pack Animals.

In the process of getting rid of stuff. Cleaning out drawers, collecting bags of trash. Things I once valued are now discarded. Things I once used, or thought I could use but never did and saved for years in hopes I might one day use them—or simply because they are beautiful—I now give away to people in my life who I think might like them.

I’ve found some journals I thought I’d lost. Not that I’ve inventoried every journal I’ve ever kept. I have journals going back to age 10, 38 years ago. When I teach journal workshops I sometimes haul cartons of them in, to impress upon students the sheer quantity of material a life can produce.

But this one journal, a small Italian-made book bound in fake red leather, I thought was gone forever. It has some important stuff in it. I started it at the beginning of 2000 and wrote till my mother’s birthday on April 19. Then, in grief (she had died less than a year before, at 58), in despair about my craving for painkillers, and in confusion about whether to have another child (I didn’t want to and felt guilty about not wanting to), I stopped journaling in that book.

But a few pages later I began a record of the eccentric utterances of a 3-year old boy, and that of his “cousin-twin,” a little girl just five days younger than he.

“Laura,” I asked my 3-year-old niece at a nighttime bonfire at my brother’s land in the country, “do you see the stars?” The Milky Way spread its veil above us and the mound of orange logs threw sparks into the night air.

“No, Aunt G,” she said, “I see FIRE BEES!”

Fire bees. These are the moments that infuse the language of family and friendship, the poetics of connection. When I look into her 15-year-old face I see traces of myself—dark eyes tilted upward at the outer corners, dark hair, high cheekbones, olive skin, even little dimples on the septums of our noses that no one else in the family has but us two. And she sees herself when she looks at me. It’s comforting: “I look like her.” I put a photo of us on Facebook and people wrote in: “Uncanny.” Physical, emotional, even intellectual and linguistic resemblances make up the net that holds us together. We might find these resemblances and resonances in blood ties, and we might find them in kindred spirits.

“I remember walking up the hill and seeing the light of the fire,” she tells me on the phone today. We call, we text. She sends me photos of herself before and after (“My new hair! xoxo”) cutting eight inches off her long brown locks. I tell her I will send her the scarf I bought for her the last time I was in New York. We hang up, and I leave her with a text:

You look beautiful, darling

It’s in her phone. So she can look at that idea over and over.

//

My son is in Colorado, skiing, but he is also here with me. (It’s a scientific fact that when a woman bears a child, she forever—FOREVER, till she dies, no joke—carries the microscopic vestiges of that child inside her body. Which is to say, cells from the child’s body continue to course throughout her blood and lymph and flesh, even her brain.) My phone buzzes:

We made it safely to Denver

I text back with photos of the dog.

My dog, Flo, 1 year old. She loves me unconditionally and gives me unlimited kisses.

My dog, Flo, 1 year old. She loves me unconditionally. We give each other unlimited kisses.

I run into his friends on the street, shoot a photo of their smiles, text it to him. From the mountains a text threads its way back to me:

Hahaha, fine young gentlemen

I know we’re close. I don’t need journals or texts to remind me. Why, then, do I page through these old conversations? 

Here is a story in the red journal: in 2002, when he was 4, I came home after his bedtime, having spent a late night judging a literary contest. I rarely missed putting him to bed (one of my signature “codependent” guilt-trips: I always needed to be the one who was “on”; Owl Babies was a book I frequently read to myself as much as to him). I crept into his room to kiss him goodnight, and he woke up. I wrote,

He wraps his arms around my neck and kisses my cheek three times, quick.

“You are back,” he says.

“Yes.”

“Can I have a cuddle?”

I bend down next to him.

“I knew you would be back in time,” he says.

“I always come back—and, you see? I always give you a kiss and a cuddle.”

He sighs. “You are so Mama-ish.”

“What does that mean—Mama-ish?”

“You sound like Mama. You smell like Mama,” he says, pressing his nose into my cheek.

We humans are pack animals. We’re driven to get next to each other; there’s something healing in hearing each other’s howls, in rolling in the texture and scent of each other’s skin the way animals do. We need each other. The trick for me is to accept that need, to allow myself to satisfy it, and even to enjoy it, without allowing it to overtake the rest of my life and make me sacrifice myself.

Getting Sober Young In New York.

I’m about 90 percent past a case of walking pneumonia that lasted more than a month, and while I continue to cough, I’ve been busy, busy, busy.

Please check out my latest today for The Fix, in which my friend “Sophia,” a 23-year-old NYU grad, talks about how her dad made her a deal when she was a kid: he’d buy her booze if she’d purchase pot for him from her friends at high school.

Not really an uncommon scenario, it turns out. A lot of today’s parents, who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, smoke pot at home and let their kids drink, thinking that if it happens under their roofs, the kids will be all right. What happened in Sophia’s case was, she got the distinct impression that her dad thought boozing and drugging was OK, so at about 14 she started boozing and drugging herself, and by the time she got to her senior year at NYU she was an alcoholic.

I was driving my 15-year-old son to school this morning—the same high school Sophia attended for a while. He usually rides his bike, but he’s recovering from a concussion, and I had to deliver medical forms to the office. Walking to the front door I glanced through the basement windows, watching the kids unpack their stuff into their lockers, wondering how much weed was stashed in those skinny metal cupboards. I have a strong strain of naivete and I want to believe there’s not much, the kids seem so “nice,” but I think back to my own rural high school, with the whiff of weed around every distant corner—and fogging the back of every school bus. It’s how many kids got through the boredom of high school, and through their own refusal to rise to certain challenges: they numbed themselves out.

(For how many years did I refuse to rise to challenges and numb out my resentment against myself? Many.)

I know a number of people who overcame addiction at young ages in New York City. Opportunities for recovery are everywhere in Manhattan. They’re easier to find than the subway stops.

Today I talk to my kid openly about addiction—and about sex, and relationships, and feelings. I’ve learned from my journalistic work and from my own experience that I need not only to tell him to manage his feelings but also to model productive ways of doing so.

We can live consciously or unconsciously… It’s the consciousness of this that helps us remain close. And he and I remain extremely close. No wonder: I still carry traces of his body inside mine. We both seem aware of this.

Yesterday for a story I’m working on I spoke with Natalie Angier, author of Woman: An Intimate Geography. She writes,

Years and years after a woman has delivered a child, she continues to carry vestiges of that child in her body. I’m talking about tangible vestiges now, not memories. Stray cells from a growing fetus circulate through a woman’s body during pregnancy … Scientists have found fetal cells surviving in the maternal bloodstream decades after the women have given birth to their children The cells didn’t die; they didn’t get washed away. … A mother, then, is forever a chimera, a blend of the body she was born with and of all the bodies she has borne.

Unlike many young men, my kid expresses his feelings openly. I’m glad I’ve been able to teach him this practice. It may be one that saves him from some of his genetic tendencies.

The boy and his dog. “I love her fiercely, Mom,” he said. A powerful practice, to be able to express our feelings openly. Especially for men.

More From My Talk With Sacha Scoblic

Author Sacha Z. Scoblic.

When she got sober, Sacha Scoblic (a writer and contributing editor for The New Republic) did what a lot of writers do: she went to her bookstore. And there she found a shelf of addiction memoirs that glamorized the wasted days. What she wanted was a story of sobriety—so she wrote one. Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety is the story of a young professional woman in Washington, D.C. looking in every nook and cranny for a good time outside the Adams-Morgan and Georgetown bars.

I spoke with Sacha earlier this summer. Some of my talk with her appears on Renew Magazine‘s site (my full review is in the print edition, available at your local bookstore or by subscribing).

Here’s more from our wide-ranging conversation.

//

I write about addiction under the name “Guinevere.” All my journalism connects me back to “Guinevere.” So it’s easy for people to put my two names together. But I still feel like it’s something of a silly subterfuge.

Yeah, I mean—my father said something to me once that kind of rang true: it’s not just about anonymity in terms of being mistaken for speaking for AA in the press or the media, which of course I wouldn’t claim to do. But his point was that it’s also about humility. And that’s even harder, frankly, to reconcile.

I also think what you’re saying is that, in the Internet age, anonymity is almost non-existent.

I know a number of people who blog about recovery entirely anonymously—but they don’t do journalism. So in that way, on the internet, they’re anonymous. Though I suspect in their communities, people know who they are.

I kind of think that we need to evolve a little on this. The program is inherently flexible; they’re suggestions. There was a lot more reason in the 1930s for anonymity than there is now. And I would never break someone else’s, of course.

I think we can get past a little more of this breaking our own anonymity—to destigmatize it.

That’s one of my motivations. I lectured in front of medical students this fall, and I DON’T look like a drug addict, and it gave me great pleasure to stand in front of them and tell them, “I’m a stone addict.”

I love that, too. I mean, I LOVE that. I love it when I show up.

Yeah: “YOU?”

[laughter]

You’ve talked about how you didn’t lose a great deal, you didn’t hit a deep bottom, but you weren’t necessarily super-productive while you were drinking. How do you look back on the time that you lost? The opportunities, the options for your life?

I regret a lot of it. I know that a lot of people will look at my story and be like, “Wow, she did so much even though this was all going on,” and all I can think is, “Imagine what I WOULD have done!”

Exactly.

I started school at Columbia, and then essentially failed out and ended up at SUNY Binghamton. And I’m really JUST getting over that. I think writing about it really helped. But I used to be really embarrassed when people would ask me where I went to college. Because I would really want to tell them Columbia.

I think that there were a lot of opportunities that I passed up through just being passive. Not because someone came to me and point-blank offered me an opportunity, but because I just didn’t seek them out. And I didn’t take it upon myself to advance. If anything happened, that was good; it was kind of like, because I did as little as I needed to…

I really relate to that. For about 15 years I did that. It’s hard for me to look back on that time, and I think it’s hard for a lot of women because drinking and drug-use makes women very passive—it puts us back into the cultural box that we’re raised to inhabit. So how do you deal with your regret? How do you make amends to yourself?

Part of it is not acting that way anymore. Which is hard—I don’t instinctively do that. I think that the best thing I can do to make amends to myself is to be actively involved in my own life. Live an examined life, live an active life, pursue goals.

I’ll tell you a story. This book was based on an essay I wrote for the New York Times, the “Proof” blog. When I first saw the “Proof” blog, I wasn’t on other people’s radar for it. And I kind of folded my arms, and said, “Why didn’t they call ME?” And Peter, my husband, was like, “Why don’t you give them a call?” And it was that easy.

As women, we get into the habit of being passive, and thinking we can’t go after what we want—we’re not good enough; we’ve wasted so much time already, so what’s the use of trying now?

Right. And the idea was, if they didn’t already ask me to begin with, they’ve already made a choice against me. When in fact they’d just never heard of me—why WOULD they ask me?

That’s the other thing: I didn’t acknowledge my own credentials. But I do have enough experience to do this, to reach out. And that’s in sobriety!—I still need these kinds of reminders.

I wonder how might getting sober been different for you if your own dad had been an active alcoholic all his life, and not gone into AA? Because you’ve said in interviews that you knew AA worked. And I also did, although not from my own dad, who was also an alcoholic, but from other people I knew. How might that have been different for you?

I think I might have lasted longer out there [drinking]. Look, I didn’t know much about alcoholism. I thought you had to look like Nic Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas.” And frankly, that is how my father was. He did not have a high bottom by any means. So I guess that I was always tempted to say, “Well, I don’t look like that.” And yet I also saw the man he became. For the last several years of my drinking I watched him have this new life with his wife and having had a child, and he was so engaged with me. And I did have this example that it could change.

My grandfather quit drinking when he was 65. My dad was 50. I was in my 30s.

That’s a really big statement. It’s turning back the clock inside the family, generation by generation. How has your view of alcoholism and recovery changed since you’ve had your son?

To be frank, I go to less meetings, not as engaged as I used to be, I rely on the Internet a lot—I consume addiction stuff on the Internet. It’s a work-life balance, frankly.

It’s on my mind how to deal with this going forward. I didn’t make a plan before I got pregnant: “How am I gonna talk to my future child about this?” And I mean it’ll be with honesty, but I’m scared.

I got sober when my son was 10. And I remember standing in the kitchen when he was 12 telling him I’d been addicted, and that I’d gotten sober. And he looked me in the eye and clapped and said, “Yo, Mama!”

[laughter]

I couldn’t believe he clapped for me.

That is so vivid! Did you tape it?

I’ve told him since then that addiction is like a switch that gets turned on with chronic exposure to substances, and that he may have inherited the predisposition, so he has to be very, very careful, because you don’t know when the switch has been thrown, and you can’t turn it off. That’s the metaphor I’ve used. He’s now almost 15.

That’s REALLY good advice.

He’s in a new high school. I’m a little scared for him, but just as you had the example of your dad’s recovery, if he does get into trouble, he’ll know it’s an illness and not a moral failing, and he’ll know he can get help.

The real failure is in society, not in individuals, in terms of drinking on campus—I mean, I don’t know about you, but in college, you couldn’t have picked me out as a problem drinker.

You write in UNWASTED about how running a marathon led you to see sobriety not as a prison sentence but as a choice. Can you talk about that choice, and about why as journalists we’re so skeptical about this “God Thing”? this faith thing.

Being a journalist is about unearthing the truth. And this is not a truth that can be unearthed in a tangible way. So right there is a conundrum. And I think it’s a genuine mystery to me. I don’t claim to have a relationship with God, per se, but I do believe there are powers higher than me. And I for sure do not know it all. And I know that that’s easy for people to say, but I feel it. That marathon—I really didn’t think I’d pull it off. And I knew that if I were to, I had to obey every rule. And I discovered that, by obeying every rule, I actually had far more freedom. If I obeyed the rules, I could make it through a long run without dehydrating or getting a migraine, and I could have the freedom to pursue this goal. But I had to submit to some rules. And I think that was the sort of thing I used to resist. And now I like these anchors, these markers in my life that keep me on the straight and narrow. And the 12 steps and other similar things provide these kinds of guideposts in life.

So I did find to a certain degree a kind of faith. A new sense of, “I just did something that I didn’t think was possible—WHAT ELSE is there that’s possible?

Finding Myself And My Voice.

A few weeks ago I went to a regional prescription drug abuse “summit” sponsored by the Department of Justice. The DEA was there, and Obama’s top drug-policy person, and the U.S. Attorney, and a bunch of pharmacists (including one who seven years ago had been robbed of OxyContin at gunpoint; she still cries about it). Also on the panel: my old pain physician, who I haven’t seen for two years.

I still have pain. Why haven’t I seen her for two years?—because the stuff I do for my pain has little relation to the therapies she recommended, most of which were drug-oriented. (The last drug she recommended made my hair fall out. I’m pretty much done with drug therapies, unless I’m desperate.)

I sat there and listened to my old doctor talk about how she uses a treatment protocol for every patient, and she tries not to rely on her gut feelings. (She was responding to the pharmacist who had been robbed, who told the audience she could tell which customers were addicts as soon as they walked through the doors.) My doctor talked about monitoring patients, requiring them to come in for pill counts. “It’s not foolproof, but it helps,” she said.

Too right it helps. Advocates for pain patients talk about pill counts, urine samples and other monitoring practices as discriminatory against those who have pain, treating them “like addicts.” If we removed the stigma from addiction, however, monitoring people for signs of another illness would be called good medical practice.

So anyway I went home and banged out an op-ed and sent it to my regional paper. The editor loved it. It’s going to run as early as he could run it—it’s long and he wanted to give it a good ride, he said. The piece outs me as a drug addict, and it calls my late father an alcoholic and my late mother a nicotine addict, and I thought about it carefully and decided I’m pretty much OK with all that, especially since the entire point of the piece is to bust down the stigma surrounding addiction and ask the public for treatment and compassion rather than punishment and censure. I keep reminding myself that both my parents told me before they died that I needed to write what I needed to write.

Dawned on me last night:

The piece is running the weekend my sister is staying here with her family.

Right away the addict in me took over. I wanted to call the editor, tell him to run it a week later. Or a week earlier, to get it over with before they arrive and I have contact with my sister, who I love and who I hardly ever get to see. And with my brother, whom I also love and about whom I never write, because he’s intensely private. Run it a different time, anyhow—because when I begin to panic about other people’s reactions, anything that’s actually happening must be wrong, I have to make sure everyone will be OK with what I say, everyone will be OK with who I am, with my point of view, because to be OK inside myself my first instinct is to make sure the people around me are OK, especially with me.

I’ve often wondered why I don’t get to say what’s real for me without being afraid. This blog is an exercise in doing that.

//

I’m noticing that the longer I spend sober, the more myself I seem to become. The more I speak in my own voice. The more I have desires and instincts that feel authentic. The more at peace I am with me.

Except when it comes to my family.

It doesn’t make a difference that my parents are dead: they’re still very much present for me.

I think of the things that happened in my family to silence me. (I speak only from my own perspective here; it’s my belief that they worked to silence large parts of all of us, but I’m only speaking for myself.) When I was little: the smackings, the beltings, the screaming. When I was older: the hours-long moral and philosophical inquisitions held at the kitchen table when I disagreed with a principle of my parents’—usually of my mother’s. Never being allowed to have the last word. Being told I had a temper that I had to squash. My mother’s jealousy of my artistic abilities. (Never mind her discourse and behavior around sexuality.)

If I gave my son that treatment, I’d expect he’d do something later in life to numb his feelings out.

My son stood in the kitchen the other day and said:

Mama, thank you for raising me well. I will never take it for granted.

He doesn’t say this for my benefit. He knows he doesn’t have to take care of me.

He says it because it’s true for him.

What a gift.

//

Many of us have been hurt in childhood.

Saturday in a meeting on steps 3 and 4 a friend told this story: A friend of his in recovery had been sexually abused. “Ultimate victim, right?” my friend said.

No way can you blame a child for his sexual abuse. No way can you hold him accountable. But my friend said: “You know what my part in this abuse is? My part is my willingness to let go of it.”

Each of us has our own ways of letting go and growing through adversity, moving closer to who we were created to be. Some people hold the hurt in their hearts and let it go silently, and other people talk about it—or write songs about it, or paint pictures about it. Or write stories about it.

Rodin: “The Hand of God Creating Woman and Man.” At Rhode Island School of Design’s museum. I love how the man has wrapped both his hands around the woman’s head. … Rodin’s pieces are always so confrontational and inviting that museums have to post signs ordering viewers not to touch.

So I’m going to let the piece run when the boss wants to run it.

To accept myself I have to accept that I’m the kind of person who lets go by expressing herself. I have to be willing to allow other people to have their responses to that.

Learning To Be Alpha-Dog: Asking For Help.

Last week I went out and adopted a new puppy from the Humane Society. Nine weeks old today, Black Labrador mix—but people who know dogs tell me she’s almost all Black Lab.

Her name is Florence. Flo for short.

Flow.

My son bringing our new puppy home.

She’s mine. She’s everyone else’s too, but she knows I’m the Alpha-Dog, I’m the one whose voice and face she hews to most closely, and I’m the one who has slept next to her crate most often.

She jumps on my son.

She retrieves. Took her on a walk to the end of the block the other day (a meandering experience) and I brought back a stick about an inch-and-a-half in diameter, two feet long. She played fetch with it this morning, even though the stick itself is about twice the length of her own body.

She’s smart. Six days in the house, and she’s already mostly house-trained. A feat that I put down to my personal Dog Guru, P. This is P’s Yellow Lab, Ginger:

P's "Ginny-bin."

I fell in love with Ginger over the course of the past 18 months. Ginger was the first dog ever to recognize my voice and come trotting to me with kisses and a smile. (Labs smile.) Ginger was the first dog I’d ever met who didn’t smell like Wet Dog. (My dog doesn’t smell like Wet Dog either. “Yet.”)

In spending the past week training the new dog, I’ve had a lot of memories. One has to do with my family’s dogs. Or rather, my dad’s family’s dogs. None of which were friendly. Sheba was a skittish red Irish setter who snapped at my face when I was 3 and put me off dogs for life. (Or so I thought, before I met P’s Ginger.) Stoney was an angry German shepherd that belonged to my cousin Danny. As a Marine in Vietnam Danny had trained scout-dogs and had seen several of them blown to pieces in front of his face. He came back traumatized with an IV drug-habit. He was very fond of dogs, and still nurtured an abiding desire to have a dog at home, but his addiction got in the way of taking care of it, and Stoney was always chained in the lonely dirty back alley, barking and screaming to be released.

There were other dogs on that (alcoholic) side of the family that were kept in basements all day, or tied to trees. This is how I came to think of dogs: as mean beasts that had to be restrained. This is the way my mother spoke about dogs. Her own alcoholic family never had any pets. “Dogs are a pain in the ass,” my mother always said. “You have to give them baths, you have to walk them every day, they slobber all over you, they stink.” At least we were allowed to have cats. And this is why: they wash themselves; they exercise alone; if you forget to feed them, they simply eat mice and birds. You don’t have to Take Care Of Them.

Another memory that dog-training has brought back is the early days of being a mother.

Eight-week-old puppies are helpless beings. “They’re like babies,” P says. “They ARE babies.”

Taking care of this canine baby I remembered taking care of my son, who is now 14-and-a-half. I remembered all over again, with new perspective, how difficult and draining the work was. My labor was 31 hours long, and it was “natural”: I had no hospital admission, no anesthesia, no epidural, and only a couple shots of painkiller (and boy, as an addict, let me tell you, those helped a hell of a lot: they managed my fear of the pain as well as the pain itself). I went home the same day with an entire human being in my trust. No certification required: Go Forth And Raise Thy Boy. And no extra help once I got home.

Fear crashed in on me.

I had no guru. A woman’s natural child-raising guru is her own mother, and she had taught me to do everything in life on my own. Asking for help betrayed weaknesses: lack of ingenuity, intelligence, persistence, self-reliance. Besides, anyone who gave you help was likely to be mistaken or misguided. And they might Want Something In Return. Safer to do things they way they’ve always been done.

So I tried to do it by myself. We moved to London when he was 3 months old. And I fell down the rabbit hole of addiction.

Sitting on the kitchen floor with this puppy sleeping in my lap, I remembered the overwhelming guilt I had when, while spending days alone in a London flat with a 5-month-old baby—no friends, no family nearby, no community, almost totally isolated, and physically drained but for the few hours a day after I took my codeine—I hired one of my husband’s undergraduates to babysit my son for two hours maybe two or three times a week. Enormous guilt: who should be taking care of this baby?—his mother. Selfish to hire “help” and spend that time either writing or, frankly, sleeping, because I was tired after a 31-hour labor and an overseas move.

Eventually, after my mother died and I began to see how ineffective her model was, I learned to ask for help raising my son. Eventually, after my father died of his alcoholism, I learned to ask for help with my addiction.

It’s impossible to live without asking for help. Asking for help doesn’t make us weak, it makes us human. “The thing we most need to forgive ourselves for,” my sponsor told me this week, “is our humanness.”

I’ve called P every day since adopting this dog, and she has guided me through the basics. Plus, my sister-in-law C, who has raised two big black dogs. Plus other dog-owners I know.

So I adopted the puppy a week ago, and two days ago my beloved mother-in-law had a stroke, and she’s paralyzed on one side and can’t swallow, and news is coming from England every day about her state. And then this afternoon I find out that I have to have surgery tomorrow. I didn’t even recognize how much I need help. I almost didn’t even go to the doctor. I’m still putting out on all cylinders, still pushing through and taking care of the dog and trying to meet deadlines and organizing my son’s life, and meanwhile the bloodwork says I’m anemic and on the verge of needing a transfusion.

Sometimes I lapse into being my mother. One way to counter that is to ask for help with what I can’t do for myself.

I may need to do that this week.

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