Update 4/23/2018: Eminem celebrated 10 years sober a couple days ago by posting this photo to his Instagram feed.
An example of how opioid addiction does not wreck a person’s neurology for life. We heal.
[Originally published 11/19/2010]
Standing in Whole Foods’ checkout line last night, and there was Eminem on the cover of Rolling Stone, nose peeking out from his (shady) hoodie.
I shelled out. Eminem is currently the music industry’s bestselling and most visible recovering addict. From the glimpses I got waiting to buy my pork chops, I could see that his recovery from addiction was the first subject discussed and the subject most referred to throughout the interview. That, and his kids, and his work.
So I thought I’d share a few tidbits with you guys, in case you’re interested. Because I know you’re interested. Lots of you land here looking for “Eminem sobriety” or “does Eminem go to meetings.”
In yoga yesterday I could see evidence of my heart beating in my chest.
I had bent my back into supported Bridge Pose. Then I rotated my upper arms away from each other and watched my ribcage rise up like an arch. I could see the soft pounding of my heart. There it was, just an inch or so under the flesh covering the bones of my ribs, in the spot where it’s been beating for more than half a century.
I sometimes cry when I do yoga heart-openers. I spend a lot of time with my shoulders hunched in front of a keyboard, or else hunched against the criticisms my own mind levels against me. My massage therapist tells me my shoulders are cranked so tight because I hold my body like a boxer with her gloves up and her elbows drawn against her abdomen. She tells me to practice opening my chest. This un-swaddles my heart, which sometimes makes me cry.
I’ve had to make drastic changes in my life in the past few years. My life today looks little the way it looked three or four years ago. Change brings relief and it also hurts, and it flips me out that I might be making mistakes. And because I’m five years sober, I feel like I’m supposed to know better than to have that kind of fear—all that self-centered garbage I ask each morning to be hauled away from me. As if “God” were a garbage-man, or my personal errand-boy: Take it away!
So I not only have fear, I have shame that I’m feeling fear, and then ancillary shame that I’m asking God/HP to take the fear away. Which makes me hunch even further into myself. Shame Spiral, anyone?
I talked about this in yesterday’s Y12SR yoga meeting. It was Easter Sunday. The topic was gratitude that we’re even alive. One after another, people talked about losing parents, family, friends to addiction.
Sixteen years ago around Easter, I was 34 and driving out to my parents’ house every day to help my dad take care of my mother, who was dying of lung cancer. She had smoked three packs a day for 40 years. When she finally died on June 3 of that year, I was so mortally pissed off at God that I spent the next eight years trying to poison myself. I started by stealing a few of my dead mother’s morphine tablets and ended by committing my last felony prescription forgery in roughly July 2008. Great way to use my artistic skills.
I shouldn’t even be here typing this. I should have overdosed or gone to jail. I remember the first time I took some stolen morphine. I lay in bed feeling as if somebody had stacked a pallet of bricks on my chest. A heart-closing exercise. I would exhale, and it would be a long time before my body wanted to inhale again. It scared the shit out of me and I loved it: I wouldn’t have to feel the fear or the anger.
When I made it into recovery, one of my first feelings was guilt that I’d escaped the death sentence that killed both my parents.
People were talking in yesterday’s yoga meeting about how recovery is like the resurrection in the Easter story. It occurred to me that it was also interesting to remember some elements of the Passover story: we’d taken steps to mark ourselves as ones to be skipped over by the angel of death. Also, each of us in the room had escaped slavery—the root of the word addiction. And we get together to tell our stories, never forgetting that we don’t have to be slaves anymore.
I can see how helpful it might be for a group of people to have some kind of religious ritual to keep remembering that they’re chosen. How many times have I heard, during the course of a meeting, “I was supposed to live!—God has a plan for me”? If that’s true, then God discriminates.
I think God doesn’t have plans for my life.
The only plan is love. And it’s not even a plan, it’s a law of nature, and living with it is an exercise of bringing my little tiny (but enormously fucking perverse) will into line with that force. (Splinters are small, but they hurt like hell, right?) Love is the currency, the current of power, that God/HP/Whatever deals in. Bona fide love is pure, reliable, healing, life-giving, durable, like the sun.
If you think about it, there’s nothing we eat that doesn’t come from the sun. We actually EAT the sun every day, which is a fabulous image: Here, take a bite of this star! When we hug each other’s bodies, it creates electricity that comes, when the trail is traced back to its origin, from the sun.
Can the sun be improved upon? I wondered that the other morning. The sun hangs in delicate balance with the life on this planet, and if we tried to make the Star Experience better (say, get rid of clouds, so we can see the star more often), we’d only be screwing up on a grand scale. Sometimes I have to understand that life is fine as it is.
(It’s tempting to think that “God” puts signs in my way to remind me, but she doesn’t.)
Graffiti in my neighborhood.
Lately I’ve been having some experiences in human love that have given me a glimpse of the vast purity and beauty of this superhuman power source. My son is one big part of these experiences. So are some close friends of mine, and the people in my recovery community. All these people provide me with perfect opportunities to give away love, and like the Bridge Pose, this cracks my heart open. And what I give comes back, multiplied.
Of course, I don’t think I “deserve” even the human part of the experience, much less the “divine” one. So, in case it’s not real, or in case I lose it (because guess what? nothing lasts, goddammit!!), I run around with my shoulders hunched. Or I force them back and paint on a tough mask that makes me look bitchy, arrogant, aloof: Throw anything at me, man! Take away whatever you want, I’ll survive, I don’t fucking need ANYBODY!
Fake power. Meanwhile inside the mask, G is hunched: small, scared, in need of arms around her, even temporarily.
Before I got sober I had little idea how to take care of myself when feelings like these struck. I’d try to make them go away by numbing them with drugs. Now, instead, I run with the dog, throw a dinner party for my old friend Nancy whose husband just had cancer surgery (successful!), start the painting another friend asked me ages ago to make, do mental push-ups by studying another language, engage the help of a smart no-bullshit therapist, give my students and their work my attention, compile playlists of beautiful music, ride my bike on this city’s long river trails, make lists of people and things I’m grateful for, practice yoga, take photographs and post them to share the world’s beauty, etc.
I also go to meetings, for the same reason people celebrate Easter or Passover or any holiday, and for the same reason they go to coffee houses and dog parks and book clubs and yoga studios: because I’m part of the tribe of Homo sapiens, and the desire for community is practically encoded in my cells. Because my heart needs to be around other beating hearts. Because cracking my chest open helps me exchange a little more love, which plugs my life into a great big socket of power.
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I am in Washington for this awesomegovernment fellowship. A bunch of seasoned public speakers are teaching me how to speak in front of audiences. They’re putting me in front of huge camera lenses and telling me, “Talk.” And I am! It’s surprising. I can do this. I can do it largely because I’m sober. Also, they note, because I’m willing to try.
I’m staying in Foggy Bottom. Right around the corner from the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods Market.
Foggy Bottom was always my favorite Metro stop name.
I came to Washington when I first got out of school. Washington was the place a lot of young people who grew up near the east coast went after graduation. It was the mid-1980s and we were in the Great Reaganomics Recession; the steel mills that had hired my uncles and cousins in my childhood had already closed up and other industries were cutting back. It was tough for new grads to get jobs.
So they came to Washington. Because, it was thought, The Government always has jobs.
I came to Washington to see if I could get a job writing. I remember taking the Metro out to Arlington and talking to the people at Gannett, which was starting a newspaper called USAToday. I had set up a bunch of other networking meetings and spent the very hot summer days taking the Metro and learning the layout of Washington.
I stayed with my college friend Angie, who had left school a year ahead of me. She generously let me sleep on her couch. Angie lived on the Hill, in Southeast Washington. It was June and I remember how, when we were walking back from the bars at night (that summer in Washington everyone, it seemed, was drinking Amstel Light; in New York City it was Rolling Rock long-necks), legions of roaches would part like the red sea before our trudging feet. Even the armies of red-backed roaches were exotic and interesting.
Washington is the place where I learned how to ride a subway. I’d come from the country and had never seen a subway before. Yesterday, when I took the train from Foggy Bottom to Gallery Place, I noticed that the Metro stops look the same inside as they did 25 years ago , they smell the same, the maps are the same, the blinking lights at the track-edges are the same, the turnstiles are the same, they take the same kind of tickets they used to 25 years ago. It’s not like the New York City subway, which used to take metal tokens before they switched to paper tickets. The Metro’s consistency was comforting.
The most romantic date I think I’ve ever had in my life took place that summer in Washington, D.C. Angie’s friend Bruce had a crush on me. He was a legislative aide by day and a singer in a band by night. One Saturday he asked me out. We rented bikes and rode all around Washington under a clear blue sky. I remember red and yellow tulips and blue and purple pansies in the roundabouts; I remember the scent of grilled beef at lunchtime; I remember the boulders and the bridges and the water in Rock Creek Park. I remember how we’d hit a red light and we’d stop and Bruce would lean over his bike bars and kiss me. We wound up in Adams-Morgan at twilight, sharing a bowl of pasta.
I liked Bruce but I was scared of him. I was scared of all those legislative-aide dudes who threw back hard liquor and wore Brooks Brothers button-downs and wanted to drive Beemers before they were 30. They looked destined to get thick in the waist too early in life. Bruce wasn’t like that: he was working-class, his ambitions didn’t include the brand-names of cars; but I was still scared of him. I was scared of most men my age. I didn’t know what they wanted from me. I knew what my mother said they wanted. It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t have to believe everything she said. (In fact, I’m still figuring that out on different levels; I suspect every woman is finding that out about her mother.)
I was scared of life.
After those two weeks in Washington, I ended up moving back to Western Pennsylvania and taking a staff-writer job at a small newspaper. Which was probably the best thing I could have done. I sometimes think every college graduate—at least, every writing student—should work at a community newspaper. It teaches you how to write, and a lot more besides. It teaches you about municipal government, about taxes and the ways money moves, about the law, about politics both petty and major; most of all it teaches you how to ask questions.
I rented a house in the country and my roommate and I drank cases of Gennessee beer.
I’ve worked mostly in print, but somehow I’ve always been trailed by chances to speak in front of audiences and to be on camera. Early on, I’d go out on stories as a print reporter and I’d be there grilling the firemen about the destruction of a house or the cops about some shooting or car-crash, and the video guys from the news channels in the city would be shoving their cards at me. “You need to be on camera, honey,” they’d say. “Call me and we’ll shoot some clips of you.” I never called them because what I wanted to do was write. I didn’t want to be on camera.
I was remembering this today when I was on camera. It’s freaky to stand in front of a big camera lens. It’s weird to have hot lights on your face. But also, I was used to it. I’ve been shot for documentary films. I’ve been interviewed for television news. I had hundreds of still shots of me taken for my first book project. I hate seeing my face onscreen or in photos but other people don’t seem to mind it.
I’m ready to go back to work tomorrow. We’re in another recession, The Great Bush-Cheney Recession, which is lingering into Obama’s second term. There are no armies of roaches in Foggy Bottom in December. I’m older and a bit wiser and a lot more experienced. I’m sober. When I got sober four years ago, I had no work at all. Today I get to wake up and go to work in Washington. Tonight I get to text with my son.
Hijito-hijito, I write.
[“Hijito” is Spanish. “Hijo” means “son”; “hijito” means boy.]
Madre, he writes. He is on his own in the house, 250 miles away. Feeling a bit lonely, he writes.
Let’s do some push-ups together, I write.
OK let’s start at 13, he writes.
So over the next 15 minutes we knock out 13 push-ups, then 12, then 11, all the way down to the last one, which he decides we must do military-style, with hands underneath the shoulders and elbows next to sides.
Man U and Liverpool on’t telly downstairs. I’m up here by myself on a cold Saturday morning. The waterbed is warm.
“What Labrador ate those balls?” the pro asked us yesterday.
“They’re pink, for breast cancer,” S said.
They were also half-flat. And they were the fuzziest balls I’d ever seen. They did look dog-eaten. But S liked them, so I didn’t pop the new can I’d brought.
I’m writing about this today because I played with S yesterday afternoon, and I can’t get it out of my mind or body how much I enjoyed hitting with her. She’s fairly new to tennis but she doesn’t hit like a beginner. S is a beautiful Jamaican woman maybe two inches taller than I, so she’s on the tall side, and she’s been working out for years: spinning, weight-lifting, yoga. Her upper body is bigger than mine, and she has the quads of a track star. Plus she’s just totally voluptuous and beautiful. I’m a gamine (read: small tits) and that’s all there is to it.
Yesterday was the second time I’d hit with her and I heard myself thinking like a coach: She’s got some bad habits, she plays inside the baseline and she swings at her volleys and she has trouble sticking to a decision to come to the net, she winds up in no-man’s land (wasn’t this what Robbie called it when I got caught flatfooted behind the service line?), but she’s fast and she’s smart, she’s got good instincts, and she runs every shot down.
“It’s hard on the glutes,” she said.
“I do a lot of squats and lunges,” I said.
I’m working on my down-the-line shots, my inside-out shots. I drove her back and forth. She ran, she was willing, and she made some good gets.
Eventually I was chomping to play some points. But S can’t serve.
“It’s my next lesson,” she said. We both take lessons from a guy named, funnily enough, Rob. She’d played ages ago in Jamaica, she said, and she’d been picking it back up for the last year or so.
“Let me see your serve,” I said.
Her feet were all wrong. Her toss was loopy. She hadn’t worked out the rhythm of the backswing and her ball popped 30 feet in the air.
S NEEDS to serve, I decided. Her ground strokes are too powerful for her to go any longer with a dinky serve.
(I mean who the fuck am I to decide what someone else needs, right?)
“Put your front foot at a forty-five degree angle,” I said. “Now hold your racquet like you’re scratching your back.”
“But what about going like this?” she asked, swinging her racquet back.
“Don’t worry about that right now,” I said. “Just put your racquet back there. Now toss the ball and swing the racquet forward.”
She did. The ball fired and hit the tape. She tried another: the ball landed in the service-box. A decent serve.
Now, I thought, all you have to do is practice that about 200 times a day. (Don’t get me wrong. I love practicing my serve. Robbie would fill up a hopper and let me go at it. He’d spend 45 minutes just returning my serves. I’d do the same for him—which is how I got used to playing with men. I prefer hitting against men, unless I’m playing my sister, which is like playing a man. She’s six feet tall and entirely unafraid on court. A lot of women are afraid to hit hard, and I’ve never been a dinky hitter, in anything.)
I went back to my side of the court and fired off a few serves. S had trouble returning them, but she tried, and in watching her try so damn hard, I was reminded of myself, how hard I tried, how hard I always try, how much I dread failure, how afraid I am of being detected as a fucking fraud, and how little I think I have to give anyone.
The difference was, S was smiling the whole time.
“Wow!” S said when we knocked off. “You really taught me a lot today! I’m going to practice what you taught me.”
Motherhood has gone a little way toward letting me know that I can help someone else—even if it’s just one person. But I was unsober for so much of my kid’s life. One of the side-motivations of drug-use was that it numbed me out to the deep fear that lives in my belly that I am, after all, a shitty mother, from a long line of shitty mothers, world without end, amen. It also numbed me out to reality: I help people. I’m still just learning that I can help other people. I’m usually afraid of stepping on the other person’s toes.
S tells me she wants my advice and I think, Oh right: four or five years ago, when I was unsober and when S was applying for her Ph.D. program, I helped her with her application essays.
Robbie emailed me a while back:
And you – well, you basically taught me how to write – which served me well in law school and beyond. I still remember some forgotten freshman english teacher commenting on my second paper (after you got to me) “you’ve suddenly learned how to write!”
I gave S my serve and she hit some returns and I thought about how it’s nice and everything that I still have Robbie’s voice in my mind, it’s sweet that he taught me, and it blows me away that I can now help someone else.
As we walked out of the facility a private girls’-school team was arriving for their practice session. S said hello to several of the girls. S has three boys, ages 18, 16 and 14; they’re all drop-dead knockouts, the eldest one has dated several chicks on that team, he probably knows every 17-year-old girl within a five-mile radius; and the youngest boy is one of my son’s best friends. “S is The Coolest Mom,” my son told me recently.
“Huh,” I said. “What about me?” (The eternal dipshit question, which will always out.)
“You’re cooler than most of the moms,” he said nonchalantly, “but S is sooo cool. She NEVER gets out of the car to say hi to the parents when she’s dropping someone off.”
Which isn’t true. S often winds up in our front hall to say hi. But I agree, S is very cool. The coolest thing about S is not her beauty or her speed or her three amazing gorgeous smart polite cheeky boys or the fact that she is doing it all as a single mom, plus writing her diss. It’s her willingness, and her humility.
Physical recovery doesn’t have to be P90X. Just as spiritual fitness doesn’t have to be found in The 12 Steps. Whatever works for you, find that, and do it.
There are many parallels between spiritual fitness and physical fitness. But don’t take my word for it—try it for yourself.
Get yet skates on.
Bamboo bikes are becoming more common. They're sturdy, lightweight, and cool.
Or get a Cannondale hybrid
Or find a Fisher—he's merged with Trek bikes, so if you want a real Fisher, you'll have to get one used. Cheaper, and great value. This is the bike I own (Utopia) and I can testify to its speed and versatility
Or try yoga: mats are cheap, and you can learn from a book or a DVD from the library.
There's also core work. Gunnar Peterson's Core Secrets, for example, is a reliable workout for beginners.
And then there's meditation. Sitting for long periods of time requires physical, mental and spiritual conditioning—it is a workout. I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Pema Chodron--all of whom sell books, CDs, tapes, and even DVDs in order to share their wisdom and experience. ... As they say, Don't just do something... sit there.
"Already an award-winning blog, Guinevere Gets Sober is as good as it gets. As a professional with two degrees and a track record of success, Guinevere’s viewpoint reflects the reality that not all addicts fit the stereotypes. She has the guts to take a public stand for addiction advocacy and rehab success. She fights to reduce the stigma that prevents people from seeking treatment, and with a blog like this, she is surely succeeding."
When in 2008 I decided to recover from addiction, I started writing under the pseudonym "Guinevere." An ancient name meaning "white" or "fair," Guinevere is Welsh for my given name, Jennifer. And Queen Guinevere—though lovely, powerful, and rich—still lied and cheated to satisfy her desires.
A writer by habit and profession, I started this blog to examine issues of addiction in the culture. I'm especially interested in reducing social stigma that prevents people from getting timely help, and in supporting the many people who write to me looking for help in reducing their chemical load in life.
I love books, film, and art, and I review all of these here, along with the ongoing appearance of addiction and recovery in the news ... and of course I tell great stories.
Please share your comments here, or email me at guinevere (at) guineveregetssober.com.