Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Step 3 (page 1 of 2)

Jewish Wisdom About Addiction.

Rabbi Danny Schiff.

Rabbi Danny Schiff.

I hardly ever cross a bridge in this city of 950 million bridges, but I went to the suburbs to hear a rabbi talk about addiction. Danny Schiff, who splits his time between Pittsburgh and Jerusalem, is the scholar in charge of adult education for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.

As a middle-aged woman who was raised strict Catholic (but let that go more than 30 years ago), I found his remarks refreshing in their recasting of some of the Bible figures I’d grown up with. For example, Schiff said Noah was the world’s first addict.

Noah giving directions for the ark. (Wine not pictured.)

Noah giving orders for the ark. (Wine not in picture.)

Whoa. I either never learned or had forgotten this, but Schiff said that when Noah gets God’s directive to build a sealed boat fit for one pair of every animal on earth so He can go ahead with his plan to demolish the planet (only a male god would think this is an awesome solution to anything, imo), apparently Noah has the same instincts many of us would have had: he runs to the cellar to pick out a few bottles of vino.

And then, Schiff said, “he has shame about what he does when he drinks.”

Think “blackout.”

“Noah had a problem with life,” Schiff said. “He underwent an enormous life-transition.” Well, hell yeah: imagine living conditions inside a sealed boat with the planet’s largest animals doing what they do best.

But then he said: “Something about Noah’s life made the wine seem like the only solution.” Bingo. And addiction does not automatically make people morally bad, he said: Noah is described as “the most righteous man of his generation.”


Schiff has never counseled anyone with addiction, and he doesn’t have addiction in his family. He said Jews have no standard set of texts about addiction the way they do with other problems of life. The problem of addiction, he said, is “at once as old as time, and also has been outside Jewish conversation.”

We have denied that Jews could be involved in addiction. We say, “Jews know how to moderate drinking—just take a little Kiddush wine.” We have Purim—the one time in the year that we’re allowed to overindulge. But we have as many alcoholics as any other group in society.


Addiction, Schiff said, can be seen as a kind of “physical reductionism,” or materialism: we rely on a physical substance to solve problems whose structures are essentially spiritual. He said although most people identify 12-step organizations as Christian, when read through the Jewish lens of “teshuvah” or “return,” “the twelve steps read like a process of how to return my life to God.”

Another stunning statement:

Jews introduced the world to the idea of a personal god who cares about humans.

Wow. I don’t even know how to fact-check that idea, but it’s pretty powerful, simply considering how old the spiritual practice of Judaism is. (That would be more than five millennia.)

To illustrate the idea of “teshuvah,” which he said most Jews misunderstand as “repentance” but which really means a spiritual “return,” he quoted a verse from Genesis:

Behold, I am with you, and I will not leave you until you have returned from whence you came.

The Bible’s various phrasings have God promising to bring the Jewish people back to their land. But the way Schiff interpreted this verse is different: it can be read as God promising to accompany humans on their life’s paths, and not leaving us until we’ve returned to our mysterious origins.

These words draped a little veil of comfort around me. As long-time readers of this blog may remember, I have a little tiny problem with the God-thing. That problem has grown in the last three years or so. When my marriage broke down, I fired God’s ass, and I had security escort Him the hell out of the building. I’ve fired God before, and then rehired God (with more or less lengthy probationary periods). But firing God is pretty unhealthy for me. The first time I fired God was in 1999, the year my mother died at age 58, and that was the beginning of my descent into uncontrollable pill-popping.


The fact that Schiff was so naïve about addiction actually helped him see the problem in the terms he’d see any problem. In that way, he normalized it: it’s a problem, like any of life’s other problems, and we can use the same principles with it that we’d use to think about any problem.

For example, he said:

Ultimately, if you think you’re in control of your life, you are delusional.

He stole this line from “Kung-Fu Panda.” 🙂 One of my best friends quite often quotes Master Oogway’s lecture to Shifu: “You have to let go of the illusion of control.”

Nota bene: you don’t have to let go of control. You have to let go of your illusion (or, as Schiff would say, your delusion).

So Noah went home and got fucked up, but he followed orders and built the ark.

“We are required to get on with life,” Schiff said.

Life is to be lived, not saved.

Step Carefully Or You Could Be Eaten.

american-alligator

I know a woman who is writing a book about various practices of “self-care.” From time to time, she posts requests on Facebook asking for people to reveal their practices. It makes for some interesting reading. Today she asked people to write about what they “do for spiritual self-care.” “How do you transcend the self, surpass the ego and face existential realities that we are all going to die?” she asked.

Wow.

“Meditation? Hiking? Going to church? Twirling like a Dervish? Analyzing dreams? AA meetings?”

People were writing about angels, crystals, goddesses; meditation and prayer; reading the Bible and listening to music; walking in the woods; watching birds, watching the moon.

They also talked about how they don’t do their chosen disciplines enough. “I need to find myself again,” one person wrote.

I thought about what I do. I don’t hike but I walk the dog. I don’t go to church. I don’t twirl like a dervish or analyze my dreams.

But I go to meetings.

//

“Meetings won’t keep you clean and sober,” I was told when I started going to meetings, by an awesome spiritual seeker of a sponsor who a few weeks later started using drugs again.

I learned a lot from that woman. I think she’s right: meetings don’t keep me off drugs, and when people say “just don’t pick up, and go to meetings,” I cringe because I don’t buy it. If I could “just not pick up,” I wouldn’t even be sitting in that folding chair trying not to eat the cookies/doughnuts/other high-fructose garbage-food on the table next to the shitty Maxwell House coffee.

I go to meetings because it lets me spend time with people I love. And it forces me to spend some time taking the steps.

The steps are suggestions, all of them, so none are compulsory. But practiced with discipline, their result is not guaranteed happiness but spiritual enlargement.

Every day, I try to turn my will and my life over to the care of forces greater than I am. Most people focus on the word “greater,” but for me the operative word is “care.” I totally get that there are lots of forces greater than I am (time, light, gravity, Google, etc.). But having grown up with addiction and depression in the house, it has been an ongoing effort throughout my life to remember that there are great forces in the world that can and will CARE for me—without expecting anything in return—if I diligently practice surrender of my will.

//

Harambe

My will is wild. Some news stories of late have reminded me how wild the will is: the kid who wiggled into the Cincinnati gorilla enclosure; the Nebraska toddler who was eaten by a Florida alligator on Disney property; the Oregon guy who went to Yellowstone, decided he’d step past the barrier and walk across the fragile mineral crust, and fell into the hot springs. The water in those springs is so acidic that nothing was found of his body.

Os desaparecidos.

I think perhaps books like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and films like “Into the Wild” have “popularized” the idea of wilderness and made some people think that the wild is entertainment. Safe wildness. But there end up being holes in the zoo fences, gators in the peaceful tropical lagoons. (Disney’s will was to earn money, and not to spoil the fantasy with warning signs.)

And toddlers (and even adults) just seem to want to go wherever they want to.

The wild is certainly beautiful and strong and glorious, but it is also unpredictable and deadly if we do not abide by some rules and apply discipline.

The will is wild. My will can very well drag me underwater if I do not let go of it and follow some rules for safety.

  • Trust “The God Thing,” as my friend Em likes to call it.
  • Clean the dog hair out of my house.
  • Help other people.
  • Be grateful. Write those down.

Also eating good food and drinking clean water. Because I don’t Stop Drinking, I just don’t drink the stuff that hurts me.

It’s hard to practice every day, because I Just Don’t Feel Like It, you know what I’m saying?

And as every spiritual practitioner of every discipline has ever recorded in their meditations, there can be long spiritually dry spells. AND THAT’S NORMAL. But because our self-help culture has sold us the idea that we should always be happy, we think it’s abnormal to practice, and then be unhappy, and then to keep practicing.

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Shit Happens. And Shit Is Unknown.

A quick post—I am hard at work and have only a few minutes, but I needed to write this for my beloved friend P, who is still in Holland.

P has been going back and forth to Holland for almost a year, tending to her mother, whose health in her mid-80s has been in decline. She bought a ticket three weeks ago when she was told her mother had suffered another setback. Her mother had asked the nursing-home staff to email her daughter a photograph of herself in her nursing-home bed for Mother’s Day:

P's mom in Holland on Mother's Day, 2013.

P’s mom in Holland on Mother’s Day, 2013.

Een dikke kus van Ma!—A big fat kiss from Mom.

Gosh. It has been 14 years since I had a kiss from my mom, who died June 3, 1999.

It’s hard for P to be so far away from her mom. “She’s just worried about ME having a good day,” P said to me during our morning walk and her eyes spilled over. “She’s only thinking of me.”

That’s the kind of mom I want to be. I want to let my kid go and do his life, even if it’s in another country, on another continent, or in the same house. My first real exercise will come this summer. He’s 15 and can go wherever he wants in our city.

P and I have talked a great deal about how we can’t know when life’s great changes will happen, when the shit will finally come down. Useless to walk around holding an umbrella over my head. I have to live and practice enough flexibility, spontaneity and ingenuity to respond to life’s surprises. I meditate to discipline my mind, prying its rigid fingers off the stories it writes before the shit happens. Trying, always, to dictate the story arc (I usually have several running at once).

P booked the ticket. Then, once she got there, she worried: that something would happen.

That, this time, nothing would happen.

//

I was talking with some women in recovery this morning. We meet up early Thursdays and this morning I was talking about some changes in my life, telling them I’m responding with as much flexibility, spontaneity and ingenuity as I can but that I’m still procrastinating on some tasks, that it feels as though I’m letting myself down, Letting God Down, and that when all is said and done, I can’t control everything—Shit Happens.

“But shit is unknown,” one of my friends said. “We can’t know what shit’s going to happen. That’s what makes change so unnerving.”

Yes.

To get out of my head, to stop compulsively controlling The Story, I’ve been walking P’s dog, Ginger, three or four times a week, along with my dog, Flo. I’ve been doing this since P started going away. I herd Flo into the back seat and drive to P’s house at around 8, by which time everyone else in P’s family is at school or work. Ginny jumps on me (I can hear P telling her to get down) and, even though I shouldn’t when she jumps like that, I give her treats and kisses because she smells like P’s perfume and because she loves me, because I miss P and I want to make her dog happy even if I can’t make her happy—even if I can’t see the smile on her face, even if I can’t feel her arm threaded through my elbow as we walk.

Walking Ginger and Flo takes me two hours. They’re big dogs (Flo is only 45 lbs. but she has a big-dog attitude), and I sometimes walk five or six miles to do it. In the summer P and I will spend three or four (sometimes five) mornings each week walking the dogs together.

P taught me that dogs actually smile. Especially Labradors.

Ginger and Flo.

Ginger and Flo.

Natural mood-lifter.

Saturday I walked Flo, and P’s husband, whose name is also P, walked Ginger. The off-leash park is around the corner from their Loft/House and we walked up the hill in chilly, damp air. I’m training wiry Flo to obey and stocky Ginger to jump:

G with Flo, Ginger, and Tyson.

G with Flo, Ginger, and Tyson.

Sunday and Monday I didn’t sleep well. In the small hours Tuesday I woke and checked my phone: an email from P titled “Sad”:

My mom passed away this morning 7:10 Dutch time.

Two hours before I woke.

That morning I walked Ginger and Flo and on my way up the hill passed a sign hanging from an electrical box:

IMG_0629

So I took a “motivator” for P. It was a handwritten poem, maybe put there as a project by neo-hip-hop-folk-rapper students at the school across the street. It’s about Unknown Shit About To Happen.

Running like the wind

Fast, faster, fast as can be

Running to wondrous things

To a life full of possibilities

No more lying around

Sitting and lazing on the ground

Nothing will come to me if I don’t go and get it

So I’ll run towards the things I want to get

And I don’t care anymore if I have to sweat

And as I run I see all new things

Different lands with all kinds of shapes and beings

I feel different airs

Smell different scents

And I can suddenly handle the idea of rent

For as I run I can see what can be

All sorts of fun is waiting for me

So I run and I run, until I can’t anymore

And then I decide to run some more

And although I’ve seen so much more now

I know that there’s so much more to make me go “wow”

And since you worry because I’ve never worked so hard

I’ll send you a letter saying “I’ve found my inner bard”

This bard tells me my journey’s just begun

And I know life’s about to get much more fun

And all because I decided to run

//

“When I come home,” P told me before she left, “I’m not leaving again for a long time.”

But who knows? We can’t know. She might fly off to Barcelona again, or to Siena, or run off to stay in the loft in New York City. I might drive to Boston or fly to Rome, book a train to Ancona and take a ferry to Zadar.

Zadar

Zadar, Croatia.

The fact is, when shit happens, my life usually gets a lot bigger. If I allow it. And I don’t think God cares whether I sail to Zadar, but I think God wants my life to be big.

The Key To The Loft.

I am by myself in this New York apartment.

The people who own this loft have lived here since 1974. They’re friends of my friends P and P. One of the Ps is my dear friend P, who reads my posts and sends me useful links. The other P is a native New Yorker who grew up on the Upper East Side.

P and P and their kids were the ones we met up with in London last year. I’ve come to love them all like family.

This is hard for me to say: “I’ve come to love them like family.” Because I don’t love them the way I loved my family—much less the way my family loved me.

Here’s how our love works: I told P at a soccer game last year that we were going to London, and she said, “Why don’t we take the Chunnel and meet you?” This sounded exotic and impossible—something that never happened in my childhood. Could I make it happen in my son’s childhood? Would I give in to fear (of spending money, spending time; that they didn’t “really” care about us)? My family never went anywhere (my sister will confirm this), and we certainly did not meet other families for vacation anywhere, to say nothing of meeting in <gasp> “foreign” cities.

But they took the Chunnel and there they were!—in Kensington. We went to the Tate, the Design Museum, Tower Hill, Chelsea.

(If I could live anywhere in the world for a while, it might be Chelsea, London’s Chelsea, specifically Tite Street, where Sargent located his studio)

P’s husband has become a mentor to my kid, who thinks he may want to study what P’s husband does for a living.

Then when I told P and P a few weeks ago that I was planning on going to New York and was investigating places to stay, they said, “You must stay with our old friends downtown.”

I’ve never stayed downtown. I’ve always stayed in Midtown or on the Upper West Side.

The way this love works is, P calls his friends in downtown New York and says, “I have a friend who needs a place to stay.” Then I email these people and they say, “Great! Let us know when you get in.” And when I show up on their doorstep, they entrust me, a stranger, with the key to their house.

This is impossible without the key ingredient of love. The love that circulates between us and P & P, the love that has circulated for decades between P & P and their downtown friends. Only connect.

“It’s a little funky,” P said. “I was a bit concerned—”

“Are you kidding?” I stopped him. “It’s full of their personalities. It’s been lived in for almost 40 years. I love the fact that the piano is covered with their art supplies. The walls are his gallery.”

“It touches me so much that you’re saying this,” he said.

Then he gave me the address of his favorite record shop, around the corner, so I can pick up something for my son.

And he told me to eat at the sandwich shop across the street.

//

I could have stayed in the Midtown hotel where the meeting is. I could have afforded a room by myself; or I could have tried to cut the cost by looking for a roommate to share the fee with me. But being entrusted with the key to this place is special.

The word “key” is so old that its origin is practically untraceable. It can refer to a “metal piece that works a lock,” or more figuratively “that which serves to open or explain.”

Classic: I like the figurative sense better. Addiction and alcoholism isolate and deny access. I’ve often felt shut out. The key lets me in.

What a relief to be accepted.

Now: what can I give back?

Dreaming About Drugs Or Drinking—What To Do About It?

I’ve had a couple drug dreams lately. It’s been a stressful time—school let out, my kid is home all day, I’ve had to negotiate lots of scheduling issues with my partner. Transitioning into summer is always hard—in fact, any transition is hard for me. Addicts, in general, do not like transitions. I’m the kind of person who likes to eat the same things at the same time of day; I order the same menu items from the few restaurants I go to; I wear the same clothes—dependable ones that look good on me—until they wear out.

The other night I dreamed I had a bunch of fentanyl patches. Part of me doesn’t want to describe what I tried to do with them, because I don’t want to give anybody ideas about how to abuse medication (especially fentanyl, because abusing it can kill you), and I also don’t want to send anybody into euphoric recall. … But another part of me wants to tell you how my senses responded in the dream. Because it helps to be honest with people about what I used to do, and how it used to feel.

When I first detoxed off fentanyl, back in November 2008, I had drug dreams pretty often. It seems to me they happened almost every night, but I don’t think they were actually that frequent—it just SEEMED like they were. My using dreams back then were frantic: in the dream, I’d be searching through stuff in the house, looking for something to make me feel better, and when I found it, my whole body would yearn toward the drugs. (I tried thinking of a better and less corny word than “yearn,” but this is what it felt like. “Yearn” comes from an old Germanic word meaning “eager.”) My whole body bent itself toward the stuff it knew would make it feel better.

It was partly a chemical thing: withdrawal just takes time to get through, and during withdrawal it’s very hard to sleep. Sleep-deprivation is one of the things that prevents a lot of people from making it through to the other side of withdrawal—it’s hard to function during the day if you can’t sleep at night, and when your body knows what will make it easier, it naturally gravitates toward that.

But it was also partly a psychological thing. Pavlovian. I’d trained myself to cope with problems (and also joyful situations) by using drugs. I’d managed the way I felt with chemicals, instead of allowing the feelings to pass. I didn’t want the painful feelings to persist, so I used chemicals to get rid of them; I didn’t want the joyful feelings to leave me, so I used chemicals to try to prolong them—or else to get rid of the fear of the joy leaving me. Of course, in the end, the drugs stopped working, but I clung to the hope that they would work again someday—which is the delusion of addiction, and the insanity, the breakdown of health and wholeness.

And when I’d wake up from the dream, I’d feel mortally disappointed that I hadn’t actually found drugs, that I was on my own again, trying to manage life by myself. (This was before I learned to depend on another power than my own will.) Sometimes I’d cry.

I hadn’t had a dream about using drugs for a long time before I had one a couple weeks ago. In the dream I found these fentanyl patches. Brand-new, shiny-clean, pure drugs. But somehow in the dream I couldn’t touch them. I’d try to touch them and they’d dissolve from view, disappear. Then I’d pull my hand away and they’d reappear. Ephemeral.

So this dream wasn’t actually about USING drugs… it was about the temptation, and the presence of drugs in my mind and consciousness. The fact that my addiction is always with me. The aliveness of it. I don’t exactly imagine it, as they say, “doing push-ups in the parking lot” while I’m at meetings. But as Eminem raps,

This f*cking black cloud still follows me around
But it’s time to exorcise these demons
These motherf*ckers are doing jumpin-jacks now

It’s around. It’s not Gone.

I was sick for a long time, and it takes a lot of discipline to recover from a chronic sickness. People who undergo treatment for cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and other illnesses have to organize their lives around managing their problems. And I don’t buy the argument that people with addiction caused their own problems and people with other illnesses didn’t. Many people with obesity and diabetes today have made a hefty contribution to their problems through their reluctance or refusal to face the fact that they eat too much and they eat foods that cause ill-health. It’s being shown that cancer and hypertension are caused by the disastrous ways Americans eat and drink and use their bodies—or don’t use them.

Blaming is useless, but figuring out the cause-effect relationship leads to the ability to strategize about solutions.

So what do I do when I dream about drugs? Today I first of all wake up and send up a statement of thanks to the Higher Power Of The Day (today my HP is Time) that I didn’t actually use. And then I let it go. My friend Arlene in L.A. used to tell me all the time, when I was newly detoxed, “This Too Shall Pass.”

Life is not about what you feeeel, baby girl,

she’d say, and she was right.

When I was newly detoxed and dreaming about drugs, I used to cling to those feelings of maybe Finding Something Someday. Today I try to let it all slide off me. I hand it over to Time, which will eventually make me forget. I hand it over to Love, which will help me take care of my body and spirit. I hand it over to Common Sense, which tells me:

It’s just a dream.

What do you do when you dream about drugs or drinking?

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