Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: acceptance (page 1 of 2)

G Smells Different: Self-Acceptance.

“Mom, you smell different.”

He was sitting in a chair in the garden, waiting for me to cut his hair. (I’ve sent him to my stylist and I consider it a testament to his trust in me that he prefers to have me cut it.) He leaned forward and hugged me, then wrinkled his nose and pulled it away from my Steelers T-shirt.

“No, I don’t,” I said. I pulled the collar of my shirt away from my neck and hugged him again, sticking his nose against the skin of my collarbone. The scent of your skin never changes.

“Mmm,” he said. “Now you smell like Mama.”

He relaxed his tall skinny frame into the chair and I took the shears out of my pocket and cut his hair while the puppy milled around our feet.

The dog’s name is Flo. As in, Go With The Flo. (When I acquired her last year I could feel that the times they were a-changin, and I figured whatever name I gave her, I’d have to say it dozens of times each day, so I better make it helpful. “Flo,” I say. “Flow, come!” Instant prayer for flexibility. Semiconscious affirmation—flow. Move.)

My clothes smell different because I am living in a different place.

I’ve boxed up the stuff that matters: books (not nearly all of them, of course); files and research materials (including the letters, real letters, my parents wrote each other from 1959-1963, up until days before they were married). Some photographs.

My mother, age 2, on her alcoholic father's lap.

My mother, age 2, on her alcoholic father’s lap.


Artwork: a chiaroscuro pastel self-portrait my son made three or four years ago; a watercolor portrait I made of him five years ago; a bronze nude made by Roxanne Swentzell, one of my favorite artists.


I bought this bronze when I was three months pregnant with my son. Because of the interaction I had with the artist in the parking lot of the Heard Museum, where she sold it to me, the cast has always spoken to me of self-acceptance.

Which is the project here. Self-acceptance.

I’ve also bought stuff for this place. I’ve used money that belongs to me to buy things I need. I’ve been urged not to do this. It has been suggested that I’m wasting money. I’m tempted to believe the things I hear from people I love because I distrust my judgment. What I’m learning is that things can always be resold and that peace of mind is worth more than any amount of cash.

Here’s one example.

The most meaningful of all of my new things is my bed. Buying a new bed for oneself alone is an act freighted with fairly hefty symbolism. … How can I describe this bed? As my Quaker surrogate mom would say, “It’s heaven.” It’s the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. Is this because it’s a queen-sized $1,200 Beautyrest bed (purchased practically new, secondhand, for a fraction of the price—I say this to myself compulsively, defensively, subconsciously throughout the day), or is it because it’s in a space that’s private?

Not secret, private. I’ve pondered the differences between the two a lot since I got sober, especially in the past couple of years.

Here’s the punchline. Since I’ve been sleeping in this bed, I’ve slept the whole night through. I wake up feeling rested.

“A good night’s sleep is really a gift from God,” my friend Benedick said today at a meeting at which only three of us were present. I was able to cry at this meeting and feel in physical and spiritual ways the compassion and support those two friends were giving me.

I can argue with myself, I can withstand the chaos and confusion and catfights in my mind about what I’m doing—my lack of self-acceptance. But there is something incontrovertible about sleeping the whole night through. It tells me that on some deep level I’m experiencing peace. And peace happens when the war is over. Peace is about surrender, and acceptance, including self-acceptance.

It’s hard to believe that I used to think I could experience peace by taking drugs. If I think back, I can remember that it worked, sort of, for a while. I remember, before my son was born, taking a trip that I didn’t really want to take (but I didn’t admit that, even to myself: dishonesty was my contribution to that problem), and using one of my headache drugs to sleep through the night in a situation I didn’t want to be in. It zonked me out, and I woke thinking, “Wow—I slept through the night!”

But I didn’t rest. What I did was, I drugged through the night.

Actually sleeping through the night is so much different.


Maybe it won’t happen every night. Maybe I’ll stop sleeping through the night. Maybe I’ll regret all of this. Maybe, maybe, maybe.


It’s hard to write about this, you know? If I could do all this secretly, I would. My habit is to hide. But I can’t do that anymore. What I mean is, I literally can’t do it: if I carry on hiding, it’ll kill me.

“I can’t write about all this,” I told my therapist recently.

“Don’t you think people need to know what sobriety actually does to marriage?” she said.


The first time I remember having a pleasant sleep, I was 18 and I slept over Robbie’s place. His roommate was sweet enough to crash elsewhere. Robbie and I had played tennis for a few hours and we came back exhausted and happy. We slotted a tape (a tape!) into his cassette player and took off our clothes and slid under the covers. He spooned me, two kids who didn’t even know what “spooning” was, and I slept long and deep.

Once, in college, 30 years ago, when I visited Robbie over a holiday, we were talking late into the night in his king-sized bed (at home I slept in a twin-sized bunk bed, sharing a smoke-stained eight-by-ten-foot room with my sister), and we inadvertently fell asleep like that—he was supposed to be sleeping on the couch in the den—and his mother found us in the morning. She made us promise not to do it again and, good kids that we were, we didn’t.

I couldn’t relax into sleep at home, because I was hit at home, and I was screamed at, and I screamed at others; people drank and smoked and lied and hid and vented rage and love in unequal measure at home; there were chaos and confusion and catfights; the sheets all smelled stale and tarnished.

Of course I slept well in Robbie’s room: his sheets smelled fresh, his arms felt kind, and I felt safe.


I smell different because my bed smells different, and so does my new chest of drawers, and so does my new sofa. The whole place smells different.

Life smells different.

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.”


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:


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, 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.

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.

Into The Cloud: Jump Through The Window.

It’s the small hours of a new day, and I’m awake and thinking about Ed.

Ed is a long-time member of my 12-step group. He’s 74, native of Westchester County, N.Y. Upwards of 40 years sober. He’s got terminal cancer of the bile ducts—the little tiny vessels that allow bile into the liver from the gall bladder—and it looks as if he’s at the end of his life.

Tomorrow is Saturday and Ed, again, will not be at the literature meeting I’ve been going to for a couple years. I went last week and met up with one of his long-time sponsees. I asked him how Ed was. The guy’s smile kind of froze on his face and his eyes welled up, and he said he was only then coming to the realization that Ed would not last long.

Ed has been living with this cancer for more than a year, had received his diagnosis in December 2011, just after retiring from his job. The rounds of chemo and radiation had done their best to stop him from carrying on his life, developing apps and jockeying a weekend radio gig at the university station—Ed is a jazz and blues aficionado—and playing with his grandchildren and his many devices. Ed made friends with all the Apple Store “geniuses” and always brandished the latest Apple product. When I visited him yesterday morning at his nursing home, he was lying back half-asleep on his bed, his tray-table holding a cup of water and his black iPhone 5.

He was forever trying to get me to learn how to navigate The Cloud.


One thing I appreciate about Ed is that he’s a solid atheist with a spiritual orientation. He was raised Irish Catholic, and he’s proof that a person who doesn’t believe in any kind of “god” can get sober using a 12-step program.

I’d sit in those meetings bristling about God: what the hell kind of Higher Power gave a shit about whether I used drugs or not? He’d sidle up to me after the meeting and tell me it didn’t matter how I understood the power, as long as I knew it wasn’t myself.

“’Other Power,’ you call it,” I told him yesterday morning, and he nodded.

Ed is a devoted dad who was able to remain close with his kids through divorce and remarriage. One of his daughters showed up at 10:30 yesterday morning, while I was there with Lucy and his wife. When my kid had insomnia; when I fretted about choosing the right school for him; when I’d worry about his someday becoming an addict—Ed would tell me just to focus on today and love my kid the best I could.

He’d tell me I was doing a good job as a mom. I believed him. He’s the age my dad would have been had my dad not died six years ago of his own GI cancer, and my dad used to tell me that.


Unlike my dad, who I don’t think enjoyed my writing, Ed always read this blog. It took me a while after he started reading it to accept that he was in fact reading it, because he had so much sober-time—what could I possibly have to say to someone like Ed? I write from “beginner’s mind.” But I know enough people with more than two or three decades of sobriety to know that, at some point, after the thrill is gone, you need to stay alert for ways to keep sobriety new, to keep developing spiritual fitness. You can’t stay physically fit by doing the same workout every day for 10 years.

Roy Eldridge, jazz trumpeter and hepcat.

Roy Eldridge, jazz trumpeter and hepcat.

Once, Ed read a blog post and emailed to tell me it was musical—it reminded him of a jazz tune called “Jump through the Window” by Roy Eldridge, a jazz musician who was born on the North Side of our city, got kicked out of school in ninth grade, and played in bands at Birdland and in Chicago and Paris. Ed said my language conveyed the energy of classic 1940s and 1950s swing-jazz. “Look it up,” he advised, and I bought it from iTunes.

Because I’m still pretty Earthbound, though, it’s on my hard drive instead of in The Cloud.


I’ve learned through experience how to say goodbye to people. The most important part is to stay receptive to the quiet requests of my heart. Today I found myself holding Ed’s hand, and also closing my eyes for a minute to find a quiet space inside me.

Still, it’s hard to let go. But there’s peace to be found in the discipline of trying.


Three Years Sober: To Move Or Not To Move?

This morning I slogged off to a very early meeting I’m now doing Thursday mornings. Clear. Cold: 9 degrees. All the adjectives for cold feel threatening: bitter. Biting. Numb. Icy.


The cold morning was beautiful. The cloudless sky was a deep crystalline violet. Absolute stillness at 6:45. The half-moon was shining like a lamp, reminding me of a dream I had on Christmas Eve, a dream that has stayed with me. I dreamed of a moon that kept changing—from fingernail to almost half, growing and growing in brightness—and in the dream I was moving from window to window and realized I was witnessing a clear lunar eclipse.

The windows were like the ones in my house, but I was not in my house. I was somewhere else.

The dream ended with a bright full moon and a sense of growing clarity. I woke with a feeling of peace.

It seems to me that, in the dream, there were obstacles sliding slowly out of the way of the light. In a lunar eclipse what casts the shadow is the Earth. And I am part of the Earth. So (by the transitive property, as my kid would say), what was moving out of the way of the light was me.


The third year of sobriety was hard in my world. Bitter. Biting.


I wanted to get numb over the holidays. I’m tired of life being hard. Two days after Christmas I found myself in the same spot, the same physical location, as the one in which, three years ago yesterday, I stole a Vicodin and ended a relapse. I stood in that room last week, looking at the bottle of Vicodin. The same bottle: it’s still there. I held it in my hand. Tempting. In the end, I heard my friend C.’s voice telling me:

If you use, you will abandon yourself.

In the end I decided I was damned if I was going to take one of those boring little pills and wait to feel the numbness sneak through my body the way it had three years ago, just so I could Be Numb for a few hours and then have to Come Back To Life—or not, because that’s always a possibility. I put the bottle back, unopened. Walked back out to the basement room where everyone (else) was drinking beer in front of the woodstove.

But why did I have to stick my hand in the fire? Huh?


This morning I woke up and for a while actually forgot I was three years sober. How’s that for gratitude. So I put it on Facebook: “3 years.” All these people wrote in. Some of you I know from seeing you every week of my life in some room or other. Some of you I met online and later met In Real Life. Some of you, I’ve never seen your faces. If I had died, I wouldn’t have known any of you.

It’s easy to forget I could have died. I write, “Life is hard,” but life is jammy compared with life in active addiction, which was hell. Which was slavery to lies and isolation and the almighty drug.

Life has been asking me lately to remember that I could have died. For a story I’m writing for The Fix I talked with Dr. David Smith, the founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, who has practically pioneered addiction medicine and has been working with people like us for more than 40 years. “I have a number of patients who have become addicted to fentanyl with serious medical consequences,” he said. “In the latest one, the patient ate a fentanyl patch and died.” This was a nurse. Another ate a patch and had a heart attack, he said; yet another ate fentanyl and fell asleep behind the wheel of the truck he was driving—fortunately before he’d started the ignition. His boss, however, Did Not Like This.

I remember the times I used so much that I could feel my respiration slowing against my will. I remember wondering if a body could force itself to breathe.


Commitment to sobriety forces me to change my ways of doing life. One of my ways of doing life?—passively. Things Will Just Work Out. Take a Chill Pill.

Things don’t Just Work Out. People work them out. People make choices. Not to make a choice is to make a choice.

So in my dream I saw a moon that kept changing—from fingernail to almost half, growing and growing in brightness—and in the dream I was moving from window to window and realized I was witnessing a clear lunar eclipse. The windows were like the ones in my house, but I was not in my house. I was somewhere else.

I was somewhere else. Somewhere like my house, but not, but not.

The dream ended with a bright full moon and a sense of growing clarity. I woke with a feeling of peace. And it seemed to me that, in the dream, there were obstacles sliding slowly out of the way of the light: the Earth. Myself. Moving out of the way of the light.

Moving out of the way.


“You seem stuck,” a friend of mine said the other day. “It worries me that you wanted to use. I think you need to get moving.”

So often, all sobriety asks me to do is to move. “Accept, then move,” Sluggo used to say. So much of what Sluggo used to say is stuff that still works. Sluggo didn’t write to me on Facebook today. But I love Sluggo, and I know she loves me.

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