Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: adult child of alcoholic (page 2 of 7)

A Love Of My Life: John Copley.

My first night here I took the Metro from Foggy Bottom to Gallery Place, where you come up just across the street from the National Portrait Gallery. I hadn’t seen this guy in ages but I wanted to meet him again. It was 6:15 when I emerged from under the sidewalk, and I ran across the street only to be confounded by a small but lovely little arts festival, strung with lacy white lights and smelling temptingly of funnel cakes, which was blocking one of the main entrances. So I had to walk around to the other side.

It was a long way around and I was late.

I ran up the steps and through the open brass gates into the gleaming white marble museum. I mentioned his name to the front desk receptionist and asked her if she knew where he was. She had no idea.

This I found hard to believe. He is well known. His face (which I flashed for her on my phone—I had several shots) ought to be recognized by anyone who knows about American portrait art. He’s here a lot, I said. All the time, I think.

If he were still here, she said, I might be able to find him hanging somewhere around the early American wing. But she doubted he would still be there.

I was sure I’d find him.

I walked back into the long bright hallway, hung with flat-looking folk-arty portraits of pioneers both political and geographic—Lucretia Mott, Quaker feminist. Daniel Boone, mountain hardcase. Walked past several galleries and there he was, right in the middle under the hottest light, just as I knew he’d be. But with another woman.

My man.

John Singleton Copley at the National Portrait Gallery.

I first saw John Singleton Copley’s self-portrait in 1976. The “Bicentennial” year. We had come to visit my grandmother in Baltimore. My grandfather, a mean drunk who terrorized my mother during her childhood, had died in February of cancer in his liver, and my mother had helped nurse him. She was in bad shape for a while after he died.

When we visited Baltimore—twice a year, Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day—we never left the half-acre plot of suburban-Baltimore land my grandfather had bought after the war. The one exception was to go to church, which was just up the street; but we drove anyway. We never walked anywhere. We were suburban.

But in 1976 my dad, who had grown up in a city, decided we’d go to Washington, D.C. for the July festivities.

I remember my mother bitching in advance that the heat would kill us all. “Washington’s just built on a swamp, anyway,” she’d say. (I sit in “Foggy Bottom” at this moment.) We went anyway. In the end, my mother would always allow my dad to make the decisions, then she’d bitch about them behind his back. Classic alcoholic-family behavior.

In fact the heat was terrible—awesome, in a literal sense. Annihilating. Every time we’d walk out of a museum (the museums were free! We could go to as many as we wanted!!) the heat and humidity would hit us like a hot wet towel in our faces. We’d struggle to breathe and listen to my mother complain about the heat till we reached the doors of the next museum, where my mother would stop for a while and we could finally inhale air and relax. (I’m surprised now that my dad made it so long without a beer. I’m sure he grabbed a six of National Bohemian on the drive back to Grandma’s. He never drank in the car, but he could down a beer pretty quick before getting in.)

The National Portrait Gallery was one of my two favorite museums. (The other was the American History museum.) So many faces of so many people painted and drawn in so many ways. I’d already been drawing faces for some time.

And at 11 years old, I stood in front of John Singleton Copley’s self-portrait for a long, long time.

As far as I can remember, I hadn’t seen the picture since 1976. I wanted to know what I’d liked about it.

A handsome face. Straight nose; full lips; blue eyes with shadows cast over them. Blonde, as far as we can tell—a fair face with light eyebrows. A bit of a five-o’clock shadow. He’s between 45 and 50 in the painting.

I can see now, having painted faces, that what I responded to was the spontaneity in the painting. It’s unfinished. It’s a sketch, almost a vignette. The brushwork is very fresh and alive. The palette is warm—he uses a lot of warm reds tending toward orange, even in shadows. The brushwork is rough and ready, full of movement, spontaneous, sketchy. Unfinished. True.

Also, he’s smart: he’s obviously using mirrors. How else would he get this perspective? Most self-portraits had been drawn full-face.

A smart man. A spontaneous man. A handsome man. A skilled man. A hard-working man.

A man who could see things. And express himself.


For a long time I had a pen that I’d brought home from Washington, a cheap ballpoint pen that had a tall ship floating in a harbor on its barrel. But what I really treasured from that visit, what will never leave me, is seeing that guy. Thank God for the Smithsonian, which makes art free to the people, and for my Dad, who insisted we go do things once in a while.

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.

Step 11 in New York.

Just back from New York, where I talked with Bill Clegg about his new memoir, 90 DAYS: A MEMOIR OF RECOVERY.

Bill Clegg in the West Village, April 3, 2012.

Getting messages from readers who may have seen the Newsweek excerpt, asking what I think about the book, and whether Clegg is “for real.” “Is he sober?” one reader asked.

Check back to find out. I’m splitting the goods between this site and Renew Magazine, for which I review books. Check your bookstore or better yet subscribe—May’s issue will have a review of Kaylie Jones’s LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME and a Q&A with the author.

I like going to New York. I’ve decided to go as often as I can. I used to think I had to have a special reason for going anywhere: a meeting, a conference, a bunch of appointments with important people, Something To Do. My new special reason for going to New York:

Because I want to.

This time, when I wasn’t working, I went to a couple of Al-Anon meetings. One was a Step 11 meeting at Blessed Sacrament church on the Upper West Side. I got there half an hour late because of subway delays; when I opened the door to the meeting place in the rectory at 11:30, there were about 20 people sitting in chairs around the edge of the room. The blinds were drawn, the lights of the huge crystal chandelier were off, and they were meditating. I sat down and joined them.

Afterward I sat in the church to be quiet and look at the candles. It was Wednesday of Holy Week; a homeless guy was lying in a back pew, sleeping; I expected half an hour of quiet time, but suddenly everyone else in the nave stood up and I saw that the priest had walked in and was getting ready to say Mass. So I stayed. I hadn’t been to Mass in—gosh, 25 years? but just like the good Catholic girl I was (and somehow, somewhere inside of me, still am), I knew all the responses; I listened to myself saying them as though it were another person standing inside my skin, talking through my mouth.

Later that day I went to another meeting at Caron in midtown. The weekly topic of this meeting is “intimacy.” It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever been to in my life. They talked frankly about all kinds of ways of being intimate, including sex. I wrote a piece about this experience for another publication and will let you know if and when it’s out… I’m thinking of starting a similar group in my town.

In New York, I stay way downtown. This is my subway stop:

It’s a challenge to maintain my patience in New York because the subway system drives me crazy. Most of the stations are invisible above ground. In London, where I learned to ride subways, the Underground stops are all marked by the ubiquitous and brilliantly designed Tube logo:

In New York you have to morph into a rat to know where the subway stops are. You have to have a nose for holes in the ground. You have to sniff out which stops are uptown-only and which are downtown, and you have to memorize the information in order not to waste time. But once you get inside the stations, you’re likely to see some good art while you’re waiting for the trains.

Just pausing to look at the mosaics is part of recovery for me. It requires me to slow down, be present in my body, be aware. I can appreciate the handiwork of a dedicated artist.

Then just before I left I went to St. Patrick’s and lit a candle for my parents.

The rose window and organ, St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York.

When do you pause to look around you at beauty you take for granted? How do you manage to do it during a busy day?

Joan Didion’s Ordinary Alcoholic Family.

Joan Didion smoking in front of her Corvette Stingray, late 1960s.

So today I have a piece out about Joan Didion’s latest book, Blue Nights, in which she talks about the life and early death, at age 39, of her adopted daughter, Quintana. And in which she DOESN’T talk about how Quintana’s alcoholism most likely ended her life.

I wrote the piece because I read the book and couldn’t get Quintana out of my mind. Her mother insists in the book that she was not “privileged.” Didion talks about 14-year-old Quintana learning from Natasha Richardson how to seduce college boys on “spring break” in St. Tropez. She talks about the Spanish-speaking Mexican maid saving Baby Quintana from a rattlesnake in the back yard while Didion herself tries to hide the maid’s presence from the state adoption social worker. She writes about the 60 batiste and lawn baby dresses hung in Quintana’s closet—dresses Didion counted over and over, to prove to herself, apparently, that she had the right equipment to be a mother.

I’m going to quote at length here. She was “not unaware,” she writes, that a number of readers

(more than some of you might think, fewer than the less charitable among you will think) would interpret this apparently casual information (she dressed her baby in clothes that needed washing and ironing, she had help in the house to do this washing and ironing) as evidence that Quintana did not have an “ordinary” childhood, that she was “privileged.”

I wanted to lay this on the table. …

Nor will I even argue that she had an “ordinary” childhood, although I remain unsure about exactly who does.

“Privilege” is something else.

“Privilege” is a judgment.

“Privilege” is an opinion.

“Privilege” is an accusation.

“Privilege remains an area to which—when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later—I will not easily cop.

(Joan, come on: ALL baby clothes need washing. But not all of them need ironing.)

This is maybe the first time I’ve ever read Didion honestly being pissed off.

Most of the rest of the time, she’s pissed off, all right, but not honestly. It’s all hidden by style.

I think of all the years I’ve been reading Didion, studying her prose—I began reading her at 23, and I’m now 47. There were times, especially in my 20s and early 30s, when I’d lay her stuff down, feeling exhilarated at the sheer style and gorgeous intelligence of her writing—but also overcome by waves of despair and dread that I couldn’t explain. This book explains them.

I can see now that reading Didion was like hearing my mother talk: a brilliant stylist, a fascinating mind, a sparkling storyteller, and deeply angry and fearful underneath all that glitter.

That household was just like mine, after all: a plain old “ordinary” alcoholic family.

If you want to read an insightful review of Blue Nights, check out the piece in the London Review.

Can You Help?

This particular experience has weighed on my mind for a few days, and I’m conflicted as to how to respond to it.

Went to a meeting in which there was a person who has been diagnosed with various mental illnesses and who is on a bunch of medications. While reading the steps, this person descended into delusional talk. They really didn’t know what was real.

A couple of us put our hands on the person’s arms, trying to help them stop their rambling, but they just descended further. Finally another person came over and said, “Let’s go outside,” helped the person out of their chair, and escorted them out. And stayed with them for half an hour. And another person took over reading the steps.

This ill person sometimes calls me. And I sometimes call them to check on them.

Sometimes, this person talks as though they might want to end it.

Sometimes, even in Death Valley, flowers bloom.

This touches a still-raw nerve in me: when I was a kid, somebody very important to me, about my age, talked as though they wanted to end it. They had a plan: they had, they said, the materials to carry it out. And at 16 and 17, I was made to be responsible for determining this person’s state of mind. I had to talk with this person and report back what they said to the people who were responsible for them. I did this because I loved them and because I didn’t know, at 16 and 17, how else to behave when asked by adults to do these things.

(I’m talking vaguely on purpose: I don’t want to breach this person’s privacy. But the fact is, what happened back then still impinges on how I feel, how I’m tempted to make decisions, today. Do you know what I mean?)

When I was a kid we had a magnet stuck to our fridge that said, “He Ain’t Heavy / He’s My Brother.” I was taught that I Am My Brother’s Keeper. Cain and Abel.

And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel your brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

(We didn’t read the King James version; we were Catholics; but I like the language)

I said this to a couple of my friends after the close of that meeting the other day.

“I was taught that I’m my brother’s keeper,” I said.

“That’s unfortunate,” said one of my friends. “Because that’s not true. You can’t keep everyone safe. Sometimes you can’t help.”

Sometimes I Can’t Help.

(Can I? Can I? … Trust God, Clean House, Help Others.)

I’ve actually thought about going to this person’s psychiatric appointments with them. They have hardly anybody in their life to look out for them, and I have a lot of experience negotiating health care systems.

I’ve thought about taking them into my house so they’re not so lonely and desperate. I mean, in the old days people took addicts and alcoholics into their houses and helped them out. Right? They did for them what they could not do for themselves.

(Who has delusions of grandeur here? Whose ego is blown to drastic proportions? Who fancies herself The Savior?)

It’s hard for me to admit my powerlessness over other people. It is so difficult for me to resist taking care of other people. It is my first “drug of choice”—saving people, taking care of other people, making other people feel better. It comes from having had responsibilities foisted on me at too young an age.

I was too young, at 17, to be climbing into a suicidal person’s head and reporting back. But the reality is, it made me feel competent, effective. Powerful.

It set me up to want to get high off this power-trip later in life.

My sponsor would say,

The question is not “Why did this happen?” The question is, what are you going to do now?

“But what if they decide to top themselves?” I asked. I could feel my throat constrict and my eyes burn with the memory of the person in the past talking about a cyanide pill they’d said they had. (This person also grew up in an alcoholic family, though they still, to this day, refuse to admit it. Fortunately, they’re still alive and well.)

“Then they will be dead. And that will be very, very sad,” my friend said. “But this program is not to help with mental illness. The best thing you can do is direct them to the people who can help them.”

I know someone else in the program who suffered with mental illness and who ended it recently. People with experience in mental health services tried to help him.

I know another person in the program whose son texted her the other day that he was going to end his life.

I’m thinking about these people today.

My sponsor would say,

Prayer is very powerful.

Part of me scoffs at her and says it’s all bullshit, I prayed my entire childhood and terrible stuff happened, prayer sucks.

Part of me believes her. The part that believes her prays.

Sometimes I want to get even more honest than usual on this blog. I hope you don’t mind.

If you’ve experienced something like this, I’d like very much to hear from you.

Older posts Newer posts
Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Twitter