Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: sobriety (page 1 of 6)

A Sober Thanksgiving.

(Originally published Nov. 25, 2010)


My sister is here for Thanksgiving with her family. We have eight people in the house, and half of them are kids. They’re staying for a week.

A week is a long time to have house-guests.

Especially if you have been raised in an alcoholic family and one of your deepest habits is making your life feel safe by making it the same every day.

Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

My house was built in 1898. It’s a three-story, foursquare brick house with a staircase up the front hall to the third floor and back stairs from the kitchen to the second floor. With four kids here, there are always pounding feet and weird screeching sound-effects echoing throughout the plaster walls and oak floors.

This old house.

This old house.

It’s a different atmosphere from what I was used to as a child. When we were kids, we used to spend Thanksgiving, every single frigging Thanksgiving, with my mother’s parents at her childhood home. My grandfather, who was a violent drunk when my mother was a child, had built his house from scratch in the early 1940s. It was a big ill-designed brick place with a sort-of-Dutch roof and a screened side-porch.

Houae

My mother’s childhood home, via GoogleMaps.

It stood on half an acre of flat land shaded by enormous oaks, whose leaves we spent two days raking during our Thanksgiving visit. We raked leaves. Played endless gin rummy with my grandmother. Occasionally bought a quarter’s worth of penny candy at the corner store a block away, but we weren’t even allowed to walk down the block by ourselves.

The house was a two-and-a-half story place with a full dry basement, but we weren’t allowed to touch anything in it for fear of breaking something or making a mess. There were a few ancient toys in the attic. Mostly, we sat and read. We weren’t allowed to make a racket, except for music. My sister played the piano; I practiced my flute.

We helped in the kitchen. My grandmother always roasted a turkey with plain Wonder-bread stuffing, and made mashed potatoes, corn pudding, and some canned or frozen green beans. Or maybe, as a huge change of pace!!—lima beans (canned). For dessert we’d have pumpkin pie.

Everything was always the same. We always ate at half-past 3. The reason we ate this early was always beyond me—but it was taken for granted that I would never ask why.

Thanksgiving evening would stretch before us, empty.

“Did we ever go anywhere?” my sister asked me this morning as she worked on the turkey.

This house was in Catonsville, a prosperous suburb about 20 minutes from a major historic Eastern seaboard tourist draw, but we only ever once saw the actual city. Once. We visited twice a year for what—18 years?—and we almost never left the property except to go to church.

I can’t remember any real communication over supper. We kids didn’t talk about what we were doing in school, and my grandparents never showed any interest in our lives. My brother sometimes went down to the basement to watch my grandfather fix a radio at his workbench, but I can’t remember ever speaking to my grandfather, though I was forced to sit at his right hand at every meal, and for every family photo I had to sit on his lap, which creeped me out because aside from this requirement, he never showed any interest in me. He no longer drank—he’d given up booze once he was diagnosed with diabetes—but he was not in the least sober. Meanwhile my gregarious dad was dealing with this fucked-up family by putting away can after can of National Bohemian.

Classic alcoholic family behavior. Isolation. Rigidity. Suppression of feelings. Lack of communication.

Addiction is a difficult cycle to break. It’s an intergenerational dysfunction. Its patterns become deeply ingrained from earliest childhood. The deepest, in my case, is taking care of others at my own expense.


I try to do some things differently today.

We open up the entire house to everyone. There are piles of books, toys, cards, and other kid stuff all over the house. Nobody is afraid to touch anything. “This is like my temporary home,” my 9-year-old nephew casually remarked yesterday as he reached into the fridge for some milk. Openness instead of isolation.

Ever since the kids were small I’ve splurged on art supplies, and I pile them onto the dining room table and show them how to make art. It’s like push-ups for the muscles of the imagination. They’re all interested in drawing and painting, and three of them are particularly creatively inclined—so we pay attention to their interests. Flexibility instead of rigidity.

I try to be sensitive to the kids’ feelings. Since they were small, I’ve always taken them on my lap and given them a great deal of physical affection. I want them to know they can rely on me. … Now they’re too big to sit on my lap. My eldest niece, at 13, is taller than I. When I see clouds or tears pass over their faces, I put my arms around them and try to be present to their feelings—or I try to be aware of times to leave them alone.

Most of all, I’m talking with my sister. We were not given the tools to get along with each other when we were young. Growing up in an alcoholic family makes a person emotionally dependent and denies a child the equipment to accept reality: it’s like we’re always wishing for some other life, trapped in some illusion. We always want things to be different—more perfect; closer to some ideal we have in our heads.

Just sharing our experiences has been such a gift. Even disagreeing with each other and remaining close is a gift.

I sit back and give my sister permission to do whatever she wants in my house. She’s a wonderful cook. If she wants to take over the kitchen, I tell her to go ahead. If she wants to get up at 7 and make a cheesecake, I tell her to go ahead. I’m trying for flexibility instead of rigidity. Freedom instead of imprisonment and dependence. Watching her feel comfortable in my house is awesome.

Our menu:

  • Brined turkey
  • Glazed ham (because the boys don’t like turkey: some flexibility is good)
  • My sister’s special stuffing
  • My husband’s amazing oven-roasted potatoes
  • Fresh carrots, green beans, and brussels sprouts
  • My sister’s cheesecake
  • My cherry pie, which my niece helped make

I remember a couple years ago, just after I detoxed, my sister said, “It’s just not Thanksgiving without Mom here to complain about what a shitty job Dad’s doing carving the turkey.”

This year, there has been some anxiety—but no arguing or fighting, no throwing food or objects across the dining room, the way there was after my grandfather died; no gritting teeth; no days-long resentful silences about who’s making what, who pays for what, or who won’t eat what and how that makes that person uncooperative and stubborn and worthy of criticism for daring to express preferences.

A week is a long time to have family in the house, but I’ll tell you what: it seems way shorter than the two days we spent for Thanksgiving each year with my grandparents.

Eminem Officially Named God (of Rock).

GQ has named Eminem a God of Rock.

(My man Robert Plant is in there too. Also three women!—Deborah Harry, Erykah Badu, P.J. Harvey.)

Shady says he couldn’t have done the last two albums, much less stayed alive, without being sober.

The GQ portrait. Dude: nice necklace.

On the ways the things that made him push himself also made him into a junkie:

The thing sobriety has taught me the most, is the way I’m wired—why my thought process is so different. I’ve realized that the way I am helps with the music. Sporadic thoughts will pop into my head and I’ll have to go write something down, and the next thing you know I’ve written a whole song in an hour. But sometimes it sucks, and I wish I was wired like a regular person and could go have a fuckin’ drink. But that’s the biggest thing about addiction: When you realize that you cannot—for fuck’s sake, you can NOT—fuck around with nothing ever again. I never understood when people would say it’s a disease. Like, ‘Stop it, dickhead. It’s not a disease!’ But I finally realized, Fuck, man—it really is.

On being a freak in rehab:

Look, every addict in rehab feels like everyone’s staring at them. With me? Everyone WAS staring at me. I could never be comfortable. There were people there that treated me normal. Then there were a bunch of fucking idiots who aren’t even concentrating on their own sobriety because they’re so worried about mine. They’re stealing my hats, my books—it was chaos. Everything was drama in there. And at the time, I didn’t really want to get clean. Everybody else wanted me to. And anyone will tell you: If you’re not ready, nothing is going to change you. Love, nothing.

On caring too much what other people think about you:

I would hear people saying this and that about Relapse. Certainly I’m not going to sit on the Internet all day and read what Sam from Iowa is saying about me. But I’m a sponge. I’ve always been a sponge.

Read the interview

More on Eminem

Sober Life: Avoiding Relapse

flushing pillsOne way to avoid relapse is to take what they call “contrary action.”

But I thought about it for a while before I finally did the right thing. Because last week I was in a bad neighborhood.

Here’s what happened: I got paid last week. It was the biggest paycheck I’ve gotten in a while. I was encouraged to spend a little bit of it on myself. Actually I was encouraged to spend more than a little bit of it on myself, but because I continue to feel bad about myself and my addiction, I made plans to spend only a little bit. What I decided to do was to reorganize my study—the place where I write this blog and other stuff.

It was also the place where, for a long time, I used.

I’ve heard of people making “shrines” and “temples” out of the places where they used, and I didn’t want to enshrine this room, but I wanted to change the way it looks, and to create more storage, because I simply can’t stop collecting books and media.

In the days of detox, in 2008, I’d gone through this place with a fine-tooth comb, looking for every last little bit of stuff I’d hoarded away. You know what I’m saying?

I was on Suboxone at the time and if I’d used what I found, it wouldn’t have done any good. Suboxone blocks the ability of other opioids to stimulate the receptors. I got rid of the stuff and it wasn’t very good stuff (at the time, I was used to Very Good Stuff)—it was crap stuff, and I didn’t feel bad about it. It wasn’t Real Drugs.

So there I was Sunday, with a big huge garbage bag in the middle of the room, cleaning out some drawers, trying to get the place tidied before my husband came back Monday, and I come across some drugs. Some good drugs. Very good drugs.

The feeling was instantaneous—one of elation and relief—FINALLY! Finally I had an insurance policy. The plan that formulated itself immediately in my mind was: I would just put these behind some books on my shelf, or even in the safe deposit box, for the rainy day when, eventually, inevitably, my life would come crashing in on me. I only have 19 months sober, and I still feel like the other shoe could drop at any moment. Many shoes dropping.

How can I describe the feeling in my body when I came across those drugs? My belly squeezed, and I took an involuntary deep inhale. Then held my breath, looking at them, admiring them. Then sighed—FINALLY! … They say your addiction is always somewhere outside, doing push-ups, waiting to ambush you. It’s true. I felt it: big strong bouncer-guy in a muscle-shirt, sweaty, out of breath, peeking around the doorway and grinning at me. My Old Manager.

Another part of me was desperately unhappy, like, Fuckin-A, I thought I’d gotten rid of every last bit of stuff in this room, good things are happening for me, why do I have to find this shit now?

“Because you were ready to learn from it,” my sponsor said today.

And all these memories of my insanity came back. I could taste it on my tongue: it would numb my taste buds, and in feeling the numbing of my tongue I could look forward to the quilted blanket of numbness that would follow. Being totally opioid-naïve, I could look forward to days and days in which I wouldn’t have to feel the fear anymore. My Manager’s vehicle (imagine it: a black-and-yellow Hummer, gaudy, loud, wasteful) would transport me out of that Bad Neighborhood. God knows where we’d finally end up, but I wouldn’t have to worry about that because he would be in control, and I’d be numb anyhow.

(I might even be dead, that’s how strong this stuff is.)

I sat there, looking at what I’d found.

I thought about what Robert Downey Jr. told Rolling Stone last year (I try to learn from anyone who’s trying to stay sober, even a “celebrity”):

The ramifications of a little slip are not what they used to be. It’s not kid-stuff anymore.

Meanwhile my son was sitting downstairs in front of the TV.

I put it all in an envelope, sealed it shut, and went about my business, took my son out to dinner, but I didn’t sleep well that night. I was thinking about Amy Winehouse. I couldn’t fall asleep till 2, and I woke at 5 when a fire truck blasted its horn nearby. And by Monday morning I was really crazy.

“Mom, why are you so angry?” my son asked me at least twice. Making me realize I’m usually pretty calm and even-tempered these days. But not when I have drugs on my mind, in my house. That was when I knew I was either going to choose to use, or I was going to choose to get rid of the drugs.

I’d never thrown away good drugs. When I detoxed, I used until I thought I didn’t have anything left. I’ve had to tell sponsees, “I’ve never thrown drugs away—I don’t know what that feels like.” I tried to imagine it and couldn’t. My brain was fast shrinking into rat-size, worrying only about where I might be able to hide the stuff until I “really needed it.” Which, because I am an addict, could be at any minute.

“Why didn’t I ‘recoil from it as from a hot flame’?” I asked my sponsor this morning. “I must be in pretty bad shape.” She said:

Why don’t you stop using the measuring tape against yourself.

I knew I was either going to keep this all a secret and wind up trapped in the Hummer again, or I was going to be honest about it with someone who would be kind enough to lay out other options.

“You know what you need to do, sweetie,” my friend Jacques said yesterday. I love Jacques; we’ve known each other since he was sober about a year, and he has 25 years.

You need to just get rid of that shit. You’ve busted your ass this past year and a half. You don’t need to go back to square one.

This nudged me away from the spot where the Hummer was idling its engine. Then I told my therapist, and she helped me imagine throwing it away. By last night when I picked up my husband at the airport, sober, I’d told two people, and it was starting to become inconceivable that I could actually use after having told two people I trust. If I imagined using, I’d also have to imagine either lying or telling the truth when they asked me what I’d done about the drugs.

I went to my sponsor’s home group this morning. The chair read from a book about what happens when we get healthy. We start gaining back people’s trust. We find release from care, boredom and worry. (Ha! I thought ruefully.) Our imaginations would be ignited. The most satisfactory years of life would be ahead of us. Back in 2008, when I was in detox and reading this at my first sponsor’s behest, I wrote in the margin, Yeah, this hardly seems real.

Today it’s real. I have good work, the respect of people who know me (and even some who don’t), the love and trust of my family, and freedom from financial insecurity Just For Today. And I still want to use? I thought, sitting in the meeting.

It came my turn to talk and I told the meeting I’d found drugs. A few little gasps escaped people’s lips. I said I had in fact not used (“Look at my pupils,” I told my sponsor), but the drugs were just sitting at home. I said my problem was I couldn’t accept Life’s Good Stuff.

Just plain old self-sabotage but of course I had to make it sound all Dramatic and shit.

My sponsor, whom I love and who is an awesome mentor, said matter-of-factly, “We’re going to my house and getting rid of the Darvocet I’ve had since my surgery last October, and also the Vicodin.” (You have Vicodin?? I said.) “And then we’re going to your house and getting rid of your stuff.”

And that’s what we did. She opened her bottles and dumped them into the toilet, cringing. “I hate doing this,” she said.

“Why?” I asked. She has more than 20 years clean and sober.

“Because I’m an addict!” she said. “You see how we help each other?” Step 12.

Little G.

I cried as I got rid of mine. “Am I going to be OK?” I asked, like a child.

“You’re already OK,” she said.

Now I know what it feels like to throw drugs away. I’ve earned it, and was given the opportunity… But I need to walk the walk pretty carefully. I need to wear it loosely, but wear it.

//

Read the follow-up to this story here.

Harry Potter Star Daniel Radcliffe Gets Sober After Years of Teenage Booze Binges

G has been away on vacation with family for the past 12 days… Whole lotta shakin goin on, and got lots to tell you, but it’ll take a few days for me to get back up and running.

I promise not to make every post about a celebrity, but this one is interesting. Imagine Harry Potter, trashed: a few days ago Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays the young wizard, admitted he’s been sober for almost a year after having become “reliant” on booze. Radcliffe, 21, tells British GQ:

There were a few years there when I was just so enamored with the idea of living some sort of famous person’s lifestyle that really isn’t suited to me.

He also admits that he wishes he were the kind of person who could go out and enjoy a couple of drinks, but “that doesn’t work for me,” he says.

Daniel Radcliffe on his 21st birthday

Radcliffe talks about having gotten away with a great many drunken binges without paparazzi capturing him on film, but it’s easy enough to find pictures of Radcliffe’s 21st birthday at the end of last July, celebrated with lots of vodka shots in St. Petersburg (as in Russia, where they make the best vodka).

Salon, HuffPo and others are marveling at Radcliffe’s uncanny ability to conceal his habit (News Flash: Alcoholics Hide Their Drinking!).

“The real surprise is how well he hid it,” Mary Elizabeth Williams writes in Huffington Post.

But… is it possible that, like so many other stars who’ve been given so much so soon, he’ll seek consolation again in substance abuse? … It’s one thing to calm down when you’re an older, partied-out Robert Downey Jr. or Eminem. It’s another when you’re barely out of your teens and the character who’s made you famous is retiring.

The character made him very rich, too. Radcliffe is estimated to be worth £48 million ($77 million). And yeah, he’s been “given” a lot, but he’s also earned a lot: Radcliffe has devoted more than half his life to maintaining this film franchise.

Nobody’s looking at Radcliffe’s sobriety date: August 2010, just after the pictures were published of his sodden birthday party. He obviously went out and got rip-roaring drunk in front of somebody’s lens, he saw the photos (or, likely, a parent or handler forced him to look at the photos), he decided it was bullshit, and he hasn’t picked up a drink since. Who knows if he’s in AA or what, but he’s sober.

IMO, the real news flash happens when ANYONE is able to get sober and stay there. One key is being teachable.

Radcliffe seems to be someone who is able to learn from the mistakes of others. He tells GQ:

There’s no shame in enjoying a quiet life, and that’s been the realization of the past few years for me. I’d just rather sit at home and read, or go out to dinner with someone, or talk to someone I love, or talk to somebody that makes me laugh.

To many other 21-year-olds, this kind of life sounds—well, fucking boring, quite frankly. It’s hard to get sober at the point when you’ve just reached legal drinking age and can buy your booze without having to sneak around anymore. I’ve known some people who have managed it (usually people, like Radcliffe, who started drinking alcoholically in their teens, sometimes even before their teens).

I have so much respect for the young people I see trying to get sober. To me, having gotten sober at 44, their lives look like an open road with lots of interesting places to visit along the way.

But to them, in the middle of the hard work of early sobriety, the road usually looks like a path through a Vietnamese forest in 1968—or else monotonous, like a blank road through a Kansas cornfield. I’ve talked to lots of young people about the difficulties of giving up drinking and using at their age. A lot of their questions come from the stress of being at the verge of adulthood and not knowing how to make decisions—and no longer having alcohol to blunt the resulting fear.

Of course, owning £48 million and houses in London and New York, as Radcliffe does, are responsibilities that bring their own “stresses.” But when you have a lot less than £48 million in the bank and you live in an obscure apartment that you can’t afford to furnish or even stock with food, in a small town that feels like (or even is) nowhere—when you’re still struggling to get a college degree and are facing an uncertain career picture in the middle of a deep recession—giving up the one way you cope with hard feelings is like cutting off a part of your body: your lips, say, or another equally sensitive part.

“How will I ever have fun again?” I’ve been asked by young newcomers.

Opportunity is worth more than any money in the bank or any deed to the most valuable real estate. You can’t buy opportunity, even opportunity to have fun. But there are sure and certain ways to squander it when it comes along.

Sober Life: How to Stay Sober in a Bar (or Anywhere Else)

Over the weekend I went to my 25-year college reunion. I hadn’t remembered how deep in the boonies this place is. It’s in the middle of friggin nowhere. There are now fake gaslights on the sidewalks and the tiny park has been gussied up, but the place is still cut off from the rest of the world. In a way this is part of its charm, but I felt its isolation even more acutely Saturday night when I went “downtown” to meet my old friends, now middle-aged, who I found throwing back pitchers and playing ping-pong at a dive-bar. I’d prepared myself to go to bars, but I hadn’t remembered just how low-bottom this town’s dive-bars were. And I hadn’t remembered how much beer these guys could put back.

Correction: how much G Herself used to put back. A lot.

 

 

Quarters drinking game

How to play Quarters: bounce the quarter... if you miss, you drink. If you win, everyone else drinks.

 

I drank, I remembered, all the time. Very often, at any rate. WTF else was there for an 18- or 19-year-old to do in the middle of nowhere? We had keg parties in houses, in parks, anywhere we could. We went to the dive-bars and drank cheap happy-hour beer and anything else we could get served. I had a friend from the school newspaper who tended bar in senior year; he used to mix us this blue drink that we sloshed from cleaning-fluid bottles with spouts. We called it the Blue Whale—otherwise known as Windex. We drank it in shots. We played Quarters. We invented drinking games that always involved the loser chugging the beer or bolting the shot. We drank until closing time. We drank away our boredom and our daytime fear about what we’d do once we graduated.

I realized that drinking worked for me. In a way, for a while, it saved my life. If I hadn’t drunk—considering what was happening at home—I might have jumped out a window.

So. I knew ahead of last weekend that I’d be going to bars. I knew everybody else would be drinking. (They weren’t playing Quarters, they weren’t chugging beers, but everybody but me was drinking.) And I was right about all of this, and it was cool with me that they were drinking and I was not.

How did I stay sober?

I asked a young woman, a newcomer I’ve been working with, who also went away last weekend, how she stayed sober. She went to a seaside resort where she knew people would be drinking. She came back and called me yesterday, thrilled to tell me that she’d stayed sober. I could hear the clarity in her voice. She said I could share here how she stayed sober (which turned out to be the same way I stayed sober).

“I set an intention before I left,” she said.

Oh man, this is good, I love this: an intention. You don’t have to say, I got on my knees, I prayed my ass off—you can just Set An Intention.

“I set an intention before I left that I would be present for this person,” she said. She was visiting a friend who’s having some trouble. “And I asked myself what my higher power’s will for me was.”

Aha. Step 3.

But: how did she know what her higher power’s will for her was?

“I’ve done the opposite of my higher power’s will so often that I can tell,” she said, laughing. “I knew that if I drank, I would not be able to be present for this person. Or for myself.”

Exactly. I wanted to be present for these people.

Some of these people (almost all of these people) I hadn’t seen in 25 years. But from the time we started hanging out when we were 17 and 18, we were almost like family. We WERE family—we were the first family-of-choice any of us ever had. We chose to be with each other while we were working on the massive job of earning higher educations and beginning to separate from our parents. I listened to the jokes we told and heard their laughter (so strange, and so familiar), and I felt the spaces these people have carved in me, like water across the earth, and realized those spaces will always be there, forever.

Those spaces prepared the ground for others who came after them.

But some of these people, after four years, I’d left hanging. I’d left school thinking most of them were sick of me and didn’t like me after all. Some of them, I’d hurt. The last time I saw my college boyfriend, for example, was 25 years ago, and I’d picked a fight with him and left him standing in the street and just Never Saw Him Again. Which is the way I’ve left a number of people. … This guy is one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever known. I wrote him a letter years ago to make things right, and we’re cool—and I knew we were cool—but to see him and everyone else face-to-face, to be clearheaded and responsive with these people… it was a shift from the out-of-body Wasted And Fearful Experience of decades ago to an in-body experience of the present moment. It was, I guess, like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, with all the pieces fitting. You can see the seams and some drips of glue, but it’s OK: it rolls. It’s whole.

I sat in the bars and watched them drink good beers—Dos Equis and Corona with fresh lime wedges forced down the throats of the bottles, the foam rising up to meet the fruit (remember that?), beers I used to drink, and my mouth didn’t even water because I was present and I knew what I was there for.

It’s like what my friend C said to me last summer, before I visited my husband’s family in the UK (where they sell codeine over the counter):

If you use, you will abandon yourself, and you’ll be unable just to be present for them, which is a great service in and of itself.

C is the shit, man. So are many, many other people I’ve known who have shared how they stay sober in places where people are drinking. And it’s great to be passing it on and seeing it work for others.

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