Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: sponsorship (page 1 of 2)

Observe These Hands, My Dear.

Arrived at my women’s meeting last night just as the meeting was starting. Came from having a withering argument with someone with whom I’ve had (and/or withstood) withering arguments for a long time. No big deal, right?—we all have folks in our lives who bring out the sharpest claws in us. I’ve had two or three panic attacks in the last couple months and they always begin with an out-of-body thing—it’s almost like I’m standing right next to my body, watching it go through the motions of a panic attack: face blanks out as though to deny the anger (mine; the other person’s); chest tightens, throat chokes, then the body starts to gasp slightly, as if it’s being dragged underwater.

Last night as I walked into the meeting I felt my face go blank and my throat choke and I walked to the chilly little bathroom at the back of the basement room where we have this meeting. At the back of the cold room, near the last wooden stall, under the window, I saw that someone had placed a space heater, and as I leaned my forehead onto the windowsill and a sob escaped the noose around my throat, I felt the heated air gliding up toward my face like a warm blanket.

My friend Tina followed me into the bathroom and called my name.

I fell stone in love with Tina the day two or three years ago that I heard her lead. Tina is one of those astonishing people who got sober at like age 22, and who has never had a drink or drug in the intervening 25 or 30 years. I don’t mean to make it sound as if it’s easy for her. It’s not. She’s a working mom whose partner, a guy with lots of sober-time and his own professional successes, enthusiastically supports her career and her work as a mother. She led me to the ratty little couch in the basement room adjoining the meeting room and as we talked she laid out some options I hadn’t seen before. Then we joined the rest of the meeting.

(What would I do without these women? Prolly drive down to one of the many bridges in this town. It’s their trust that keeps me sober.)


After the meeting, my sponsor, who had been there the whole time, asked me what had happened, and I told her. Again. … Do you never feel as though you must at least take a shot at making the story you’ve told a million times interesting, just to make sure the other person doesn’t scram, or scream, or fall asleep? The story of the conflict that engendered this particular argument I had last night—no way can I make it interesting. It’s the most common, most banal of stories on the face of the earth. “One of these days you’re going to get sick of hearing me talk about this and you’re going to fire me because of how boring all this is,” I told her, rolling my eyes.

(I hate it when people use the word “fire” for leaving a sponsorship. It’s not about hiring and firing. To “fire” someone is to demean them. But I said the word “fire” anyway.)

She shook her head almost in wonder and I realized I was doing it again—indulging in self-recrimination, self-censure, self-self-self, superselfinvolvement. Her eyebrows met above her glasses, and she claimed her best litigator’s stance and diction as she (once again) pointed out that I was being too hard on myself, that I was taking responsibility that wasn’t mine, that I had to cease the criticism and judgment “and, what is the word—opprobrium, shall we say?—that you use against yourself,” and to practice an attitude of gentleness and compassion toward myself and everyone else. Much of my work with my sponsor is about Step 7—humility and self-acceptance.


I want to fix myself. I want to figure out a Way To Be, a Pure Way that upsets no one else—so that I can do what I need to do for my own peace of mind and no one else will be affected. Teflon Woman. I know that the ONLY thing I can change is myself—so let’s get on with it, G, let’s figure out what “needs fixed” (as all my aunts used to say) and get out the toolbox and start in with the hammers and saws. There has to be something I can do to fix it. “It” being myself.

The idea that I’m fine just as I am, that I’m where I need to be right now, still doesn’t feel all that familiar.


Flo (way down the trail) and Ginger chasing each other in snowy Frick Park.

When it comes upon me, however—when I let that attitude overtake me—I experience a state that approaches bliss. The other day for example it snowed, a heavy wet six inches, I ditched my morning plans because my kid’s school was delayed two hours, I drove south to the big hill in the city and walked my dog Flo and my friend P’s dog Ginger (because P is in Holland taking care of her mother) and simply allowed myself to be in the snowy morning without feeling as if I were doing anything wrong, as if I were reneging on any work (I was but amen, so be it), and I watched the dogs chase each other in the snow and heard the robins singing—a sure bellwether of spring—and the happiness welled up a little bit in me because I was right there, just doing the next thing, and it’s those moments I feel no need to change myself, Fix Myself, do anything to myself to make myself different so other people will be OK with me and my actions. Actually it wasn’t happiness, it was just contentment. The opposite of “discontent.”

“Content”—the word comes from the Latin for contain or to hold. In those moments I feel held, safe.

Other times—well, other times I stand in the Lululemon dressing room trying on expensive yoga pants and the rear-view in the three-way makes me pick apart every aspect of my body, makes me want to take out a couple grand so I can join a kickboxing class and finally possess, if never big breasts or booty, at least tiny Buns Of Steel. Still other times, I walk calmly into the church bathroom and sob quietly against the back wall. Quietly, so as not to upset anyone else.


My sponsor regarded me through her glasses and held up her hands. “I wish I could be like Rhett Butler with Scarlett,” she said, shaking her hands in front of my face.

“You mean,” I said, “where he says, ‘Observe these hands, my dear, they could tear you to pieces—’”

“—‘if it would take that stupid, wishy-washy idiot Ashley out of your mind,’” she finished. “I wish I could smash out of your head all that self-hatred and self-criticism. I would do it if I could.”

So she’s looking up at me, shaking her hands into my face. She ain’t no Rhett Butler. My sponsor is like two inches shorter than me—four or five when I am, as I was last night, wearing the awesome John Fluevog boots I bought in November from the Fluevog shop in lower Manhattan. No photo can convey the feeling I get from wearing these boots. They make me taller and über-badass. Impervious to (self-)criticism.

How do you kick the enemy’s ass when the enemy is yourself?


Observe these boots, my dear. They were made for walking. By John Fluevog.

Then she started in about what a fascinatingintelligentspiritual person I am, how I have So Many Wonderful Qualities, blah blah blah, and I stopped listening.

(Scarlett: “Take your hands off me. You drunken fool.” Scarlett is about as adept at resisting real love as I am.)

Because I have to do that work for myself. I have to Love Myself. I can’t make anyone else do that work. (Can I?) I have to come to some kind of dependable right-sized understanding of the person I am. None of that requires Fixing Myself. I can’t screw anything in there that will make it all better. It takes time. Experience. Acceptance of mistakes, of possible mistakes, of myself. Taking steps outside my limits. Risk. Grief. Celebration.


Postscript: Ed died last night, peacefully, at 4:30 a.m. A great privilege to have known him. May you be at peace, Ed, and may your wisdom continue to speak words from The Cloud into our ears.

Trust: My Sober Family.

Somebody wrote in last week asking me to write more about how to stay sober long-term—when obsessive thoughts about picking up come back, and while the body is healing from the damage substances do. The top three things I do to stay sober long-term are:

  1. Take care of my body (eat mindfully, exercise, get rest).
  2. Take care of my spirit (pray, meditate).
  3. Take care of my mind.

Taking care of my mind means connecting with sober people I can trust to tell me the truth.

In sobriety, my nuclear family is made up of my sponsor and the three women I take through the work.

My sponsor

plumMy sponsor is a 67-year-old woman who grew up in the next borough over from my neck of the boonies.  Our high-school football teams were (still are) fierce rivals—the Mustangs v. the Indians.

PennHillsWhen I talk with my sponsor I usually go to her house, or else we meet at Whole Foods and get something healthy to eat.

One thing I love about my sponsor is that she doesn’t play phone games. We don’t do the work by text or email. We talk over the phone so we can hear each other’s voices, or we meet so we can look into each other’s faces. If the phone goes to voicemail, I trust that she can’t pick up the phone. She doesn’t screen calls. This has taught me not to screen calls with the women I work with. I’m straight-up with them: If I can pick up the phone, I will. If I can’t, I’ll call back as soon as I can.

I tell them something Sluggo told me: always have three women on hand you can trust will take calls from you in the middle of the night. I always have three in mind. My sponsor is one of them.

This connection is important. When I got sober, I had no clue that anyone would want to have anything to do with me, maybe ever. I couldn’t trust myself; why would anyone else want to trust me? I thought poorly of myself (I’m still tempted to think ill of myself; this is part of my alcoholic-addict mind: the warped thinking will somehow pull off any fucked-up contortion to entice me to pick up) and just picking up the phone was difficult. It was easier to pick up a drug or a drink because I didn’t have to risk my pride. Drinking or drugging meant I didn’t have to be vulnerable with anyone.

In sobriety I’ve learned the only way to protect myself from the fear of making mistakes is to avoid all relationships. I can only do that if I use. I’m wired to be social—we all are.

When we make connections with other people, it changes our outlook by changing our neurology. The hormone oxytocin is released when we form a new relationship. Powerful substance, oxytocin: also released during breastfeeding; also, in both sexes, during orgasm. The “afterglow” hormone. The comfort-and-joy chemical.

The women I work with

This comfort-rush is good for me, and I get it when I pick up the phone for the women I work with. There are three right now.

Georgia came first. 24; artist who studied at NYU. (I’ve gotten permission from all four of these women to write about them here.) Went for a while to the (private, expensive) high school my son now attends. Hipster. Vegan, wears no makeup with her simple haircut and skinny jeans. I learn so much from this young woman. The first time we sat down to do the work, I could see she has a very strong internal guide, a kind of compass that invariably swings to True North. The main thing I do when I talk or meet with Georgia is to gently help her stay in touch with this compass. Which helps me stay in touch with mine. We’re all born with this guide. Quakers call it the Inward Light. It can become warped by sitting in the coals of addiction.

Watching Georgia walk the walk gives me so much hope.

Then there’s Phoebe, who used to live in a house I own as a rental property. I mentioned to her that I have three apartments on this one street, and she said, “I used to live on that street.” When we drove by, we determined that the house I own was indeed her old digs—and the place where she used to deal drugs. What a coincidence, huh?

She was busted 20 years ago in the second-floor flat. The cops got her cash and her stash, pulled it all from the kitchen drawers. For Phoebe it’s been hardest to kick the drink. She relapsed hard late in 2011, racked up a bunch of DUIs, and is now on house-arrest. And she’s doing well. What I learn from Phoebe is to take life, even at its most difficult (especially at its most difficult), one small step at a time. At one point Phoebe had been facing jail time. A bunch of us wrote letters to the judge in her support, and today she is not incarcerated. She’s working, volunteering, staying fit (she was a gymnast as a kid) and living a sober life. Phoebe teaches me to be vigilant and persistent. She also reminds me to be grateful for simple things.

And then there’s Dora the Explorer, a 20-something cyclist and yogini who originally comes from the Pacific Northwest. She loves my city—this makes me so happy, that she loves my city.

The meeting place of three rivers.

The meeting place of three rivers.

Dora and I first met online when she wrote Guinevere an email one day. We met IRL (in real life) for a business thing last year; then she decided she wanted to try to quit smoking weed. She popped up at meetings. We’d have coffee. She asked if I’d be her sponsor. Some time passed, after which she looked at me shyly in the Quiet Storm one night and admitted that she had been reading my blog for a year before she’d written me.

“Your online voice sounded a lot like my mother’s,” she said, “except sane, and sober. So I thought of you as my Sober Blogger Mom.”

Turned out that she lived exactly three blocks away from me.

Small world. Or so they say.

I can’t describe how all this makes me feel—the Sober Blogger Mom thing, the woman dodging jail teaching me vigilance and gratitude, the hipster kid whose compass points to True North trusting me with her inventories and her life-story.

I trust all these women, and they trust me.

Trust. That’s what keeps me sober long-term.

Trust, and good organic food, and exercise—yoga, running, strength-training. And prayer and meditation—spiritual strength-training.

Trust is a powerful force. I believe there’s a certain percentage of folks who need “medication-assisted therapy” or what we used to call “maintenance,” folks who can’t stop picking up no matter what they do. But I also think a lot of folks don’t give the spiritual solution enough of a try. It requires me to trust, which is tough for an egomaniac. In addiction I lied a lot. The lies warped my sense of truth.

My sober family helps me sort the truth from lies. Dora and Georgia come to a Buddhist recovery meditation meeting my sponsor leads at the Shambhala Center Tuesday nights. I sometimes see Dora and Phoebe at a Saturday-morning literature meeting. And Friday nights, at a women’s meeting, my sober family and I are quite often all in the same room.

The Ones Who Save Our Lives.

At the meeting Sunday night, my friend H. stood up and announced that his longtime sponsor had died suddenly the previous day of a heart attack. He mentioned a name, which happened to be the name of a different guy, someone I’d known in graduate school. For a moment I thought maybe we were thinking of the same person, but the way he spoke about his sponsor was so contrary to my experience of the guy I knew 25 years ago that it was clear he was talking about someone else.

“When Frank moved away a few years ago,” H. said, “he chose my new sponsor for me, and I took his suggestion, because he knew me very well and because he helped me get sober.” His right hand covered his heart, then he blinked and swallowed hard. “He saved my life,” he said.

I questioned myself again. Was it the same guy? The Frank I’d known had been shy, retiring, unassertive, fearful of criticism. Different Frank, I thought.

I listened as many of the men in the room murmured their recognition and agreement about this guy who had saved H.’s life. If he had saved one life, certainly he had saved others. Maybe they were thinking of the guys who had saved their own lives.

The next day I found out, of course, that H’s Frank and the Frank I knew were the same guy. It has had me questioning my perceptions, my judgments of others and my own limitations.


I used to go to this Sunday-night meeting regularly when I was detoxing in 2008. At that time there were a couple guys I knew who also came every Sunday, an artist who practices yoga, and a teacher, both serious bikers. The artist would come in dressed in full-body zip-up bike armor; the teacher would arrive in leather jacket and black shit-kickers. Tough guys, I thought.

This summer I attended a memorial service at the university where I’m teaching right now. It’s the school where I earned my graduate degree, the school where my brother and sister earned their undergraduate degrees, and the school where my father earned his bachelor’s in engineering—the first person in our entire extended family ever to go to college. The memorial service was in honor of a guy named Buddy, who for more than 20 years taught fiction here. He also taught a journal writing course that, 25 years ago, Frank and I took together.

It occurs to me now: since H. has 25 years, I met Frank just as H. was getting sober. So even as we sat in Buddy’s writing class, unbeknownst to the other people in that room—or maybe just unbeknownst to me, who walked this earth so unconscious for so long—Frank was busy saving H.’s life.

This was before cell phones and texts and emails. Frank and H. would have communicated largely by phone, and of course by meeting face-to-face. “In the flesh,” as it were.

I’d had no clue back then that Frank was a recovering alcoholic, but I knew Buddy was. I can’t remember how I found out about Buddy’s alcoholism. It just seemed to be a known fact: “Buddy’s an alcoholic.” For all I know, Buddy himself may have told me, or he may even have mentioned it in class. Back then, I had no idea what alcoholism was, I had no idea that I’d been raised in an alcoholic family. I thought “getting sober” was about just not-drinking. I thought Buddy must have simply stopped, the way I had set my teeth and stopped drinking after crashing my car in 1988. You wreck your life—you set your teeth and stop drinking and put it all back together, was what I thought.

That wasn’t how it worked out for me, of course, because I wasn’t doing what Buddy and Frank and H. were doing. And also Bill and Monty, two other professors in that department. For decades Monty set up a noon Wednesday meeting there. At 11:30 Wednesdays he could always be seen wheeling the coffee urn from the office to the conference room.

And Bill—he wrote young-adult novels and books about how to teach freshman writing; he ran around the university with a greasy gray ponytail tied at the nape of his neck, nosing into the lives of junior faculty and grad students who had problems finishing their publications and earning tenure or doctorates. “Do you want to keep this job?” he’d ask them. “Do you want to finish your dissertation?” He invented a system of sponsoring these writers: he’d put them on a “contract”—they’d map out their work for the week on Sunday night, then call him every Friday to report whether they’d made their quotas. He’d prescribe prayer each day before and after working. I know several guys who wouldn’t have their tenured university positions today without Bill’s writing contract. Which of course Bill adapted from his experience with the 12 steps.

Some of these guys showed up at Buddy’s memorial service. Most of the people who approached the podium to speak were major writers. Several novelists, a few poets, a nonfiction writer. Then Buddy’s kids; his wife. It was an open mike. And suddenly there was the teacher, the guy from the Sunday-night meeting with the leather jacket and shit-kickers, except he was that day wearing his professorial wardrobe and he was standing at the podium talking about Buddy—how he’d come to grad school to learn to write with another guy (one of the major novelists in the audience), and how he’d run into Buddy, who had recognized he needed help. How Buddy had become his sponsor, how he had done what Buddy told him, how he’d gotten sober after years of trying to quit drinking on his own. Then the tough leather-clad shit-kicker began to cry. “Buddy didn’t just write great books—he also saved lives,” he told the auditorium.

My sponsor was sitting two rows behind me.

Freaks me out, man, the circles in which this life-saving flows.

There are so many more people who have helped save my life. People who have allowed me to connect with the power they’ve found to live sanely and contentedly. People who have told me at wise moments that I’m full of shit and/or that I need to learn to care for myself more gently. People who keep picking up the phone. People who love me.

In gratitude.

Frank J., 1950-2012.

Buddy N., 1939-2012.

Bill C., 1932-2005.

Monty C., 1929-2009.

Recovery, Step 11: Meditation.

The other night I was up in the middle of the night, sleepless, thinking about a letter I had to write. Thoughts

(you haven’t written a letter like this in a long time, what do you know about these issues anyway, ??who the hell do you think you are??)

kept me awake. So I focused on my breath and meditated.

About three minutes later an answer appeared, bubbling up like the fragrant bay leaf in jambalaya.

I’ve been meditating regularly. The intuition muscle is working.

The next morning I wrote down what had come to me in meditation. I thought, “This could be brilliant or it could be bullshit.” So I sent the idea off to a friend of mine who does this kind of writing. She wrote right back:


The power of intuitive thought.

Also: the supportive power of community.


When I meet newcomers to recovery, I notice how fidgety some of them are, and I sometimes ask them if they’re meditating each day. Most are not. They say they don’t know how. They say they’ve tried and can’t. Sometimes they say they’re “not on that step yet.”

When I first worked the steps, I got “previews” along the way, and meditation and prayer were two of those previews. So were amends. Just because I may not yet be taking Step 9 doesn’t mean I can’t make up for something I screwed up yesterday. Right? And just because I may not be on Step 11 doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to pray or meditate.

The other day in my home group I talked about turning problems over to meditation and prayer and a guy approached me after the meeting to talk about meditation. He wanted to know how I did it. Fiftysomething; two weeks sober; he’d been around the New Age Block, had tried various meditation methods and he was interested in getting the lowdown on how to do it the “right” way.

Newsflash: There is no right way.

As Mary Karr might say,

There’s just the application of the ass to the seat. 

As Yoda might say,

Do or do not—there is no try.

Meditation is for the Recovery Warrior.

Yoda knew about The Force.


When I got sober the second time, days after my relapse, I was told to meditate every day.

[I received this direction from Sluggo, a former heroin addict, fellow mom, experienced Zen meditator. She generously pinch-hit as a long-distance sponsor for me for a while when I was between sponsors In Real Life. Her experience with sobriety and Buddhism is here.]

Sluggo taught me this Way To Meditate (one of many):

  • Sit facing a blank wall.
  • Sit with your back held upright and easy. 
  • It’s better to sit crosslegged or kneeling on a cushion on the floor, but if you’re sitting in a chair, sit away from the back.
  • Rest your hands on your thighs.
  • Set a timer for two minutes.
  • Close your eyes halfway and gently unfocus them.
  • Hold still, begin by focusing on your breath. 
  • Each time you notice a thought, let it pass and bring your attention back to your breath.

That’s it.

The hard part is not how to do it. The hard part is actually doing it.

If you’re an addict like me, you’re afraid of your thoughts and you may not drink or use anymore but there are a lot of other things you do or are tempted to do to avoid your mind (eat, shop, gamble, work, clean, exercise, watch Netflix…). Meditation allows me to accept my mind. A powerful tool to correct self-rejection and self-censure.

Sluggo said: Add a minute or two each week or so until you get up to the length of time you want. She said: Do it at the same time every day. She said: I put my kid on the school bus, go upstairs, and meditate.

I don’t “try” to meditate. I either do it, or I don’t.

Sometimes I don’t. On those days, easy does it. I don’t beat up on myself for not doing it or for doing it wrong. I don’t congratulate myself for doing it or for doing it right.

Just now, I put my kid on his bike to soccer practice, and I’m here ready to meditate.

Fifteen minutes.

Let’s do it.

Getting Sober On Vacation In A Spot With No Meetings

Been getting a lot of mail lately. Today I received this email from an American who is overseas in a rural area where she says she can’t get to any meetings. Here is what she says:

Hi Guinevere,

I’m reaching out to anyone right now. For the next month I’m working in Europe in a little town of 5,000, no meetings around. I would have been sober seven years in March but I started drinking in January, when I was working at a high-level political meeting, at which everyone was a glamorous, seemingly functional alcoholic. Since then I’ve gained almost 20 pounds (I was a daily runner), and am screwed out here. I don’t know how to put it down. Stay away from triggers… my trigger is noon! Any advice, words of comfort, wisdom, what to do, how to get it back?

So I called a good friend of mine who just had 19 years on Monday. Here are some options we came up with together:

  1. Are there really NO meetings? you might check with your program’s local information service in Austria or the world service office to make sure. One of my good friends in sobriety stopped drinking/using by driving two hours one way to the meeting at which she got sober.
  2. Have you checked with the local hospital, which might know of resources to help alcoholics/addicts?
  3. Have you checked other recovery programs?—when I’m out of town sometimes I’ll go to a different program if I can’t get to the one I like best.
  4. Have you reached out to your people from your sober life at home? what about your sponsor, your “we,” trusted friends and spiritual mentors. 
  5. Do you have program literature with you? If not, there’s a lot available online.
  6. Have you tried In The Rooms or the various online social networks that help alcoholics/addicts? In The Rooms has daily chat meetings and video meetings via Skype.
  7. Finally, have you tried to get in contact with whatever higher power you were in contact with while sober? If it helps, feel free to write me about how your higher power has helped you in the past.

Does anyone else out there have anything to suggest to our new friend? Please carry the message, dudes.

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