Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Step 12 (page 1 of 8)

On G’s Gratitude List: Men.

They’re unfathomable creatures, men. I don’t understand them (and, actually, I do).

I love most things about them: Their hair. Their skin. The fact that they’re bigger and stronger than I am, even the small ones. Their minds. Especially their voices. I love listening to men talk and sing.

Right now I’m listening to Tom Waits … he wrote this beautiful song.


Many of my feelings about men, of course, have to do with my father.

I was NOT daddy’s little girl. That was my little sister. My mother claimed me as her best friend, confidante, and ally—which might be why I think men are such incomprehensible, mysterious, unreachable, alluring beings. I originally wanted to have a girl, but I’m very, very glad I gave birth to a boy.

For most of his life Dad had a big beer-gut, and he was not hairy. (I like men with hair on their arms, their legs, their chests.) When I was growing up, I didn’t consider Dad handsome. I was kind of ashamed of the way he looked, actually, because he didn’t take care of his body.

But this is a picture of my dad in college.

Dad, senior photo, University of Pittsburgh, 1961.

(The flattop and skinny tie kill me.)

He was handsome. He was six-feet-two; he wore a size-12 shoe and a size 46-long coat. He was smart and dependable and spiritual and utterly unafraid of people, and he Read Books. He sang bass in the church choir.

Dad’s message was, “Everything will be OK.” Sometimes (especially when the Dow crashes, or when one of our kids has a real problem) my sister and I call each other and say, “Tell me what Daddy would say.”

His hugs were the best. A hug from Dad was like receiving a hug from the entire planet. Market shares could be tumbling, buildings could be burning, hurricanes could roar through and flood even uplands and when I hugged Dad, the world would be put back together and I’d be standing again on hard, dry ground.

His hands were large but finely boned, with square nails. Like a scientist.

He had blue-gray eyes. Like rain.

My son’s eyes are deep, dark Bournville brown, like my brother’s. His eyebrows are heavy and black, like Dad’s.

My son.

My son.


My son is one of a number of important men in my life. Another is Jacques, who lives in New York and has 30 years sober and who’s like a brother to me. And another is a tall geeky guy with a magnificent sense of humor, who rents out his car because he cycles everywhere within a 20-mile radius of his house. There’s yet another tall guy, with long hair and superb taste in music, whom I’ve known since the last days of post-punk. Both these tall guys are enjoying raising young women. … There’s also my son’s father, who gave our boy that dimple in his chin and who, in both his sons, has raised two good men.

I’ve learned many lessons from men that I could never have learned from women. My son has learned many things from the other men in his life that he could never have learned from me.

I’ve spent much of my life being afraid of men, as if they were bears in old-fashioned zoo cages. My mother taught me that if I trusted men, if I was nice to them, they’d eat me alive. Please Don’t Feed the Bears. My fear was actually not a fear of men but a fear of my own sexuality. One of the primary side-effects of using drugs was the depression of my sex-drive. When I was using, I didn’t look at men. On the whole, I didn’t notice other people. I was immured in my own bubble, within the curved walls of my skull.

Now that I’m sober, I notice men all the time. As a sober straight woman dedicated to honesty and integrity it’s important for me to pay attention to the fact that I have a serious attraction to these bears. Even if I don’t act on that attraction—because to act or not to act, and how to act, are choices recovery gives me—it makes life more alive.

Thank you, all you Bears, for being who you are.

Spirituality = Reality.

Today I’m borrowing this title from my good friend Dani, who has written under it for four years (click here to read her in Freedom From Hell). Thanks, Dani.

//

My friend Jacques’s dad died four days ago in Tucson.

I’ve known Jacques for 25 years. When I met him in 1988, he had gotten sober two years before, at age 22, and was dating Ben, who was studying in the same writing program I was attending. Jacques and Ben are still both poets and English teachers. We were all born in the same year.

Ben’s mom has been living with terminal cancer for several years; by incredible coincidence, the day after Jacques’s dad died—just three days ago, in other words—Ben’s mom had a setback and began actively dying. These former lovers are losing their second parents within days of each other. I find the resonance strange and beautiful.

When it became clear to Jacques that his dad would not last very long, he told the hospice staff that his dad needed a Catholic priest. The hospice worker told Jacques she’d send a minister, a social worker, they had all kinds of resources.

“I need a CATHOLIC PRIEST,” he said. “My dad wants last rites in the Catholic tradition. Can we please get a Catholic priest?”

“I had no idea why I said that, my dad and I didn’t talk about what he wanted at the end,” Jacques tells me today on the phone. “But my dad was a strict Catholic, G, it was serious with him, it wasn’t mumbo-jumbo.”

Jacques, one of three brothers, was born at St. Francis Hospital (Rabbi Abe Twerski and the nuns later turned it into the city’s haven for drunks and junkies; my cousin Danny spent some time there, I believe—it was notorious in our family that you had hit shameful low-bottom if you were at St. Francis; meanwhile, I was born at Braddock General, which, for a number of years until it closed in 2009, served as a detox and rehab for the river valley’s addicts). Jacques lived around the corner on 44th Street till he was in second grade, when his dad started making enough money to move them out to the suburbs, where they had the split-level and the country-club membership.

On the drive back to his hotel four days ago, the hospice worker called his cell and said the priest had arrived and was ready to give his dad the sacrament, and that she’d put the phone on speaker so Jacques could hear his dad’s responses.

“And this is no shit, G, OK?” he said. “On the very last word—on the ‘Amen’—the hospice worker said, ‘Your dad just took his last breath.’ He died on the last word of the sacrament.”

We sit there in silence, absorbing this.

altar-boysJacques and I were raised strict Catholic in the 1960s and ’70s. Jacques was an altar boy (dunno what my thing is with altar boys, but I can just picture Jacques in red robe with white lace surplice, holding the censer and cracking jokes under his breath). Jacques and I know what sacrament means, even though we no longer receive them ourselves.

“You did that because you were sober,” I remark. “If you hadn’t been sober, do you think you’d have had the presence of mind to be so certain about what your dad wanted, and to act on that leading?”

“You know, I have goosebumps on the back of my neck when you say that,” he says. “Because I’ve been thinking about that. He didn’t tell me he wanted that—I just knew.”

“How old was your dad—86?” I ask. “That’s a hell of a long time to live, and you made sure your dad had what he needed at the end of that long haul in order to let go and be at peace. In doing that for him you showed him great compassion and kindness.”

“I’ve been realizing something about love,” he says. “It’s not a feeling. It’s a commitment, a desire for the other person’s wellbeing such that you’re willing to sacrifice yourself.” Not in a codependent way, he emphasizes; not in a way that fosters the other person’s weakness and insecurity and one’s own security and vanity, but in a way that fosters the other person’s growth and peace.

Jacques has racked up large bills flying from his home in northern Michigan to Tucson every month since August, when his dad fell and had to move into nursing care.

“Love is hard, G!” he says. “It’s so hard!

We pause, considering this weighty truth.

“Well,” he says, and I can hear him stretching, “I’m standing here in the 75-degree sun and I’m gonna go take a swim now.”

“Fuck you, darlin,” I say fondly.

//

So this is part of the way I stay sober. People in The Program talk about “helping others,” reaching out to the newcomer, and I do that, but I also interact with several people in my life who are oldcomers, who count their sober-time in decades, and I stay active with principles I’ve learned from many years in Al-Anon. Long-time sobriety doesn’t guarantee any results—serenity, peace of mind, happiness, even a good night’s sleep. It starts out one day at a time, and it stays that way.

Meanwhile I tell Ben I’ll take some of his classes if he can’t get back from Dallas in time.

Stranded.

Manhattan_bridge_snowWe landed at LaGuardia and arrived at the midtown hotel early Thursday morning, and even before we sat down we were strategizing about how to get back out. The “storm of the century” (O how the media love to whip up enthusiasm), a northeaster packing snow, was cooking up and we reserved rooms for an extra night, the first in a long line of contingencies we worked out over the course of the day. We sat in the little European lobby drinking tea and considering our options.

“That guy’s checking you out,” my friend said. She’s 73, she’s been married for 50 years, to one guy. What does she know about anyone checking anyone out?

I scanned the lobby and couldn’t see who she meant. We were sitting near two young men speaking German.

“Him,” she said, nodding toward the guy sitting three feet from me. He was maybe 10 or 15 years younger than I and his long curly brown hair was half-hidden by a woolen watch cap.

Nein,” I told her.

“Oh yes,” she said.

Then he glanced into my face.

What do I know about anyone checking anyone out? Apparently not much.

//

0By 3 p.m. we were stranded.

We sat in a coffee shop west of Times Square, she working her iPhone, I working mine, peering at flight schedules and train timetables. The wait-times to speak to agents were upwards of three hours. At 4 I put my name in a queue for a call-back from Delta. I kept my phone on during the play, expecting a call at 7; the phone rang back at 11. I filed email queries and Twitter queries. They’d cancelled 3,000 flights and all buses out. The snow was due not that night but the following: 10-15 inches.

Hell, I thought, that’s not the storm of the century. The storm of the century was western New York Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2000, when three feet fell in a single lake-effect afternoon. My three-year-old son woke from his nap and ran from window to window, clapping and hollering, “Mama! It’s snowing and thundering and lightning-ing all at the same time!”

The storm of the century was the Ohio valley the winters of 1977 and 1978, when three feet fell in a couple days, trees lost their branches, power lines snapped and lay live in the road, deer ate the bushes around the house to keep from starving, and school was shut for a week. We played Clue and charades forever. I took my sister sledding, in the sodden days before microfiber outerwear or even waterproof boots. Back then, a measly ten inches by no means guaranteed a snow-day: they’d just run the plows and wrap the bus-tires in heavy chains and make the morning world sound like sleigh-bells.

“Stranded” has an interesting sound to it. A “strand” of pearls, a “strand” of hair—a long, thin, ribbony sound. We sat “stranded” in the middle of Manhattan, millions of people milling around us. The word comes from a Viking word, strond, for beach or riverbank. When their boats were “stranded,” they were scattered, washed up on the beach, the bank, the strand. A famous street in London called The Strand is named after the shore of the tidal River Thames, which for millennia was wide and shallow, accommodating barge-travel; then in the nineteenth century the Victoria Embankment and the Albert Bridge were built in Chelsea, deepening the channel by erasing the strand.

We were beached on the banks of Midtown. We needed to shove offshore.

We made plans to leave Saturday but as time marched on, it became clear Saturday would be too late. I tossed in bed Thursday night, thinking I may not get back in time for a job interview (my first job interview in 18 years; I’ve been doing business by word-of-mouth for almost two decades) on Monday morning. I’d be sleepless with dark Gypsy circles under my eyes, unable to Be Awesome, as the kids say. So I bought Amtrak tickets at 6 this morning and here we are, crossing the banks of the Delaware, following the shores of the Susquehanna, the strands, rolling on the steel river.

//

It occurred to me this morning, sitting in the hot Amtrak lounge at Penn Station, talking with my friend Lucy (“Are you OK? Are you stranded?” she texted), that having grown up in an alcoholic family I have a habit of stranding myself. In order to make myself feel safe, I try to control outcomes. I go into situations with the opposite of what my Al-Anon sponsor has advised. “High hopes, low expectations,” she always says. A recipe for optimism: thinking positively, surrendering outcomes. When my expectations are high and my hopes are low, however, I get into trouble. I attach myself to a specific outcome with little belief that it’ll happen. Because it usually doesn’t happen. I can’t control outcomes. So my boat runs aground, because I’m essentially powering it with unsustainable fuel.

Since I’m usually ashamed when I run aground, I don’t call people. It takes Lucy texting me (Are you stranded?) to wake me up and allow me to relax and let the tears fall in the hot Amtrak Lounge at Penn Station, throngs of people waiting for trains outside.

The strand of communication saves me. (I needed a meeting today.) Phones used to be wired: strands of wires strung throughout communities, between communities, connecting each other, an actual network. Now the networks are digital, virtual, cellular, whatever that really means, and though they’re less visible or tangible they’re no less real or helpful. Lucy was 600 miles away but she sat with me in Penn Station, listening to my tears fall and it was her act of love and acceptance that allowed me to collect my scattered self and move back onto the river. To take care of myself.

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.

Getting Sober Online Or In Real Life

Can you get sober online? or does it have to be IRL?

More and more people are using the Internet to look for help with their addictions. I’m getting mail every day from people who are desperate for help. We heard from the American woman staying in a little town overseas with no meetings; according to the comment she wrote this morning, she cannot put down the booze, and she’d like some help.

Where can she get help?

Here are some other examples:

I’m a single mom, divorcing an abusive alcoholic husband, I have a pill problem and started Suboxone and can’t get off, I’m afraid of depression; what should I do?

I tried tapering off pills and went from 90mg to 15mg but now I’m up to 60mg again, is any benefit I got from tapering lost now that I’ve gone back up, I don’t know where to turn for help; what should I do?

I love an alcoholic who is artistic and sensitive and intense and highly self-aware, here’s the situation: he’s stopped drinking but he still smokes weed every day, and I’m not sure whether his weed thing matters, I just wish he’d place a higher value on himself, I also wish he’d love me more, because I love him so much, I see so many beautiful things inside him that he doesn’t even see; what should I do?

//

Caveat: This blog has its limitations. It is strictly a place where I share personal experience, strength and hope. I’m not a professional, I don’t have all the answers. Quite often I don’t have even one answer. I’m just another addict trying to stay sober today.

But I do know how I got sober.

The first place I reached out was online, at Opiate Detox Recovery. (Fantastic resource for anyone dealing with an opioid drug problem; excellent moderators who protect the community; please check in if you’re trying to quit painkillers or dope.) I was two days into an outpatient medically-overseen detox, I was sick, I was (quite literally) kicking, and I had a shitload of stuff to get done. My first post was all about how I was a pain patient and trying to make my life manageable by reducing my tolerance a bit and how I was in the middle of painting the dining room, how it was Labor Day and I had a bunch of people coming for dinner, I had to cook, I had to clean, I had to take care of my kid and my husband and maybe I’d fucked up my brain chemistry forever with drugs, and blah blah blah poor me, please please please help me.

I got replies right away. Within 20 minutes, in fact. From Jay, who told me yes, I’d fucked up my brain chemistry, but that if I got off drugs it would heal, and from Arlene who told me to drop the fuckin superwoman act.

“It will only lead to continued rationalization to use,” she wrote.

“I don’t know what you mean by the superwoman act,” I wrote back, all high and mighty.

It took me three more weeks to accept the truth in her statement and admit to myself and to one other person that I was an addict. And that person was a person who lives in my city, who met with me in the flesh, whose brown eyes and calm voice conveyed concern and care.

I started going to meetings.

Meanwhile Gettingbetter and Allgood and Sluggo and OnMyWay and a bunch of other awesome people had started writing. Also Bonita, who was detoxing at the same time and who “jumped” (quit taking drugs) on my birthday that year, a couple days ahead of me. My Jump Buddy: we were paratroopers into the Land of the Clean and Sober. (Rough landing for both of us, but we’re both still alive, and both sober.)

Sluggo wrote me a taper schedule that I followed, along with the doctor’s supervision. The doctor, of course, was IRL, and in real life he did not take insurance, so he was expensive.

But how much is my life worth? how much money? how much time? I paid him about $700 to detox me. Cheap at the price.

I’m alive today.

It was after I jumped that the online support became important and ingrained in my daily life. I jumped Nov. 1, 2008, and that Thanksgiving Day I went upstairs every hour or so to write posts to those folks, because I had five house guests and because I felt draggy, restless, irritable and discontent, I had very little recovery, I had no faith, and those online folks answered. Same with Christmas. Same when my first sponsor relapsed; same when my second sponsor ditched me. I could always go to those people, and I’d always get an answer.

//

So in April, while visiting New York, I met OnMyWay, still sober, living in Brooklyn, working in Midtown. It’s ALWAYS amazing to see the faces of people with whom I have shared an online connection. Her face was round and sweet; her eyes were like large peaceful ponds in the fall, after the leaves have dropped and the sun shines into the water and the surface of the water is calm.

Then just before Memorial Day I met Allgood.

Allgood and Dani on either side of G.

Two days ago I drove from Kingston to Providence to meet Gettingbetter, also known as Dani, along with Allgood, who live near each other. They drove two hours to see me, and two hours home. I knew Dani was one tough fellow beeyotch whose backbone had hauled my sorry ass through some difficult shit after detox. In my mind she had grown into a kind of super-neohippie-wisewoman; despite the fact that I’d seen photos of her, I had given her long Joni-Mitchell-style hair, only brown, and lots of suede, maybe even fringes and beads. In real life, Dani is about my height, about 8 years younger than I, and smooth-faced, with eyes the color of yellow topaz, or cat’s eye sapphire. She wore jeans and a T-shirt. She’s fit and strong and healthy and sober.

Allgood kept pushing plates of food my way (his family and mine come from opposite sides of the Adriatic; the custom is to feed those you love), but I just wanted to sit there and look at their faces and listen to their voices and soak it all up. Same with a few others I’ve met IRL who I first met online.

What can I say? They saved my life, man. They keep saving it.

So do the many real-life people in my sober community. It takes an entire village to get sober.

//

Can you get sober online? The answer for me was yes and no. Online support is a real bonus for people getting sober these days. But I need to see real people to be sober. I need to hold someone’s hand; I need to hear someone’s voice; I need to see the whites of their eyes as they help me get honest. We have bodies for a reason, after all.

Now I need to meet Sluggo.

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