Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Learning To Be Alpha-Dog: Asking For Help.

Last week I went out and adopted a new puppy from the Humane Society. Nine weeks old today, Black Labrador mix—but people who know dogs tell me she’s almost all Black Lab.

Her name is Florence. Flo for short.


My son bringing our new puppy home.

She’s mine. She’s everyone else’s too, but she knows I’m the Alpha-Dog, I’m the one whose voice and face she hews to most closely, and I’m the one who has slept next to her crate most often.

She jumps on my son.

She retrieves. Took her on a walk to the end of the block the other day (a meandering experience) and I brought back a stick about an inch-and-a-half in diameter, two feet long. She played fetch with it this morning, even though the stick itself is about twice the length of her own body.

She’s smart. Six days in the house, and she’s already mostly house-trained. A feat that I put down to my personal Dog Guru, P. This is P’s Yellow Lab, Ginger:

P's "Ginny-bin."

I fell in love with Ginger over the course of the past 18 months. Ginger was the first dog ever to recognize my voice and come trotting to me with kisses and a smile. (Labs smile.) Ginger was the first dog I’d ever met who didn’t smell like Wet Dog. (My dog doesn’t smell like Wet Dog either. “Yet.”)

In spending the past week training the new dog, I’ve had a lot of memories. One has to do with my family’s dogs. Or rather, my dad’s family’s dogs. None of which were friendly. Sheba was a skittish red Irish setter who snapped at my face when I was 3 and put me off dogs for life. (Or so I thought, before I met P’s Ginger.) Stoney was an angry German shepherd that belonged to my cousin Danny. As a Marine in Vietnam Danny had trained scout-dogs and had seen several of them blown to pieces in front of his face. He came back traumatized with an IV drug-habit. He was very fond of dogs, and still nurtured an abiding desire to have a dog at home, but his addiction got in the way of taking care of it, and Stoney was always chained in the lonely dirty back alley, barking and screaming to be released.

There were other dogs on that (alcoholic) side of the family that were kept in basements all day, or tied to trees. This is how I came to think of dogs: as mean beasts that had to be restrained. This is the way my mother spoke about dogs. Her own alcoholic family never had any pets. “Dogs are a pain in the ass,” my mother always said. “You have to give them baths, you have to walk them every day, they slobber all over you, they stink.” At least we were allowed to have cats. And this is why: they wash themselves; they exercise alone; if you forget to feed them, they simply eat mice and birds. You don’t have to Take Care Of Them.

Another memory that dog-training has brought back is the early days of being a mother.

Eight-week-old puppies are helpless beings. “They’re like babies,” P says. “They ARE babies.”

Taking care of this canine baby I remembered taking care of my son, who is now 14-and-a-half. I remembered all over again, with new perspective, how difficult and draining the work was. My labor was 31 hours long, and it was “natural”: I had no hospital admission, no anesthesia, no epidural, and only a couple shots of painkiller (and boy, as an addict, let me tell you, those helped a hell of a lot: they managed my fear of the pain as well as the pain itself). I went home the same day with an entire human being in my trust. No certification required: Go Forth And Raise Thy Boy. And no extra help once I got home.

Fear crashed in on me.

I had no guru. A woman’s natural child-raising guru is her own mother, and she had taught me to do everything in life on my own. Asking for help betrayed weaknesses: lack of ingenuity, intelligence, persistence, self-reliance. Besides, anyone who gave you help was likely to be mistaken or misguided. And they might Want Something In Return. Safer to do things they way they’ve always been done.

So I tried to do it by myself. We moved to London when he was 3 months old. And I fell down the rabbit hole of addiction.

Sitting on the kitchen floor with this puppy sleeping in my lap, I remembered the overwhelming guilt I had when, while spending days alone in a London flat with a 5-month-old baby—no friends, no family nearby, no community, almost totally isolated, and physically drained but for the few hours a day after I took my codeine—I hired one of my husband’s undergraduates to babysit my son for two hours maybe two or three times a week. Enormous guilt: who should be taking care of this baby?—his mother. Selfish to hire “help” and spend that time either writing or, frankly, sleeping, because I was tired after a 31-hour labor and an overseas move.

Eventually, after my mother died and I began to see how ineffective her model was, I learned to ask for help raising my son. Eventually, after my father died of his alcoholism, I learned to ask for help with my addiction.

It’s impossible to live without asking for help. Asking for help doesn’t make us weak, it makes us human. “The thing we most need to forgive ourselves for,” my sponsor told me this week, “is our humanness.”

I’ve called P every day since adopting this dog, and she has guided me through the basics. Plus, my sister-in-law C, who has raised two big black dogs. Plus other dog-owners I know.

So I adopted the puppy a week ago, and two days ago my beloved mother-in-law had a stroke, and she’s paralyzed on one side and can’t swallow, and news is coming from England every day about her state. And then this afternoon I find out that I have to have surgery tomorrow. I didn’t even recognize how much I need help. I almost didn’t even go to the doctor. I’m still putting out on all cylinders, still pushing through and taking care of the dog and trying to meet deadlines and organizing my son’s life, and meanwhile the bloodwork says I’m anemic and on the verge of needing a transfusion.

Sometimes I lapse into being my mother. One way to counter that is to ask for help with what I can’t do for myself.

I may need to do that this week.


  1. Fabulous stuff! Read your blog frequently and I have to say this piece is one of the most real and authentic ones I’ve read. There’s a real humanity and heart in here. Leave it to dogs to bring that out in us. Congratulations on Flo. What a blessing all the way around.

  2. Powerful. My prayers are with you, your family and MIL. It’s a good time to have a dog.

  3. The youngest member in our household is also a dog. He has a Maori name – Rangi. He is quick to comfort the down at heart and slow to remember past injustices (movie time is his longest time alone). What a blessing he is. Hope the medical stuff goes well.

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