Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: amends (page 1 of 4)

Self-Compassion: Hurting The Ones We Love.

Cross-posted with Recovering The Body.

Today I have a guest-post about self-compassion running on Jill Salahub’s very cool site, A Thousand Shades of Gray. I love following Jill everywhere—on Facebook, in her emails that arrive so often. Jill is a sister on the trail of questions we’re asking together. Thanks for including my work in this wonderful group of essays you’re collecting.


One lesson I’ve learned this year: hurting people I love is inescapable. Unless I decide not to have relationships.

I really don’t see myself as a hermit.

I’ve hurt a few people I love recently. Earlier this year I committed series of acts that gave another person tremendous feelings of hurt. Just yesterday I found out from one of my best friends that I’ve been saying some things that I had no idea were hurting her.


The first hurt is an example of making choices in the service of myself, my own best interests, that just happened to hurt another person. I knew they were going to hurt this person. I avoided taking the actions because I knew it would cause great pain. Day by day, if I were going to stay sober, I had to take the actions, and I was appalled to watch the pain happening, like waves rolling into the shore.

For some weeks I sat at the window watching the waves rolling by, my heart squeezing in empathy and doubt.

I second- (and third-, and fourth-) guessed myself. I didn’t turn back.


In the second example, I found out I’d hurt my friend yesterday only because I’d taken the risk of telling her something she’d said just that minute that had hurt me.

Her hurtful speech had occurred in conversation yesterday. But it turned out that, when I rolled over and showed my belly (when I, in Brené Brown’s parlance that Oprah is now making universal, “became vulnerable”), she bared her teeth and let me know I’d been saying things that had hurt her feelings for a while. And then when I yelped in surprise and pain, she rolled over onto her back. And there we were, two puppies on our backs in the dirt, paws waving in the air, yelping our hurt.

After rolling back up onto our feet and talking about it, we were able to chase each other and play again, as our dogs do on our morning walks.

My friend's yellow lab, and my black mutt.

My friend’s yellow lab, and my black mutt.

“I’m being vulnerable here!” I said. “I have to practice what I read about!! I can’t just read it and not DO IT, right?”

(You’re such a loudmouth, my mind says.)

“If we can’t tell each other these things,” she said, “who can we tell?” A space in my chest opened in gratitude for a friend who is willing to engage in honest conflict. Not many are.

Our dogs are good friends.

Still, I walked away yesterday morning with my throat choked up. Interesting that it was my throat. Was my body trying to squeeze the words I’d said back inside me? Trying to keep myself from ever speaking again?

Or was it just that the throat is the locus of the voice, and this is where the hurts had occurred—with our voices?


I’m learning that the body and mind are in conversation. They’re one, they’re intertwined somehow, and I’m beginning to think that the way they’re intertwined is through this conversation, a kind of discourse. What kind of discourse is it? How is it conducted? These are some of the questions I’ve been asking lately.

The mind tries to force the body to walk away calmly and get on with the day. The body is able to cooperate only so far before rebelling with some action: butterflies in the stomach; pain in the head; fatigue in the flesh. Choking in the throat.

When the mind ignores these statements by the body and tries to push the body through, the body protests in a louder voice. Nausea, inability to eat; cluster headache, chronic daily headache, migraine; chronic fatigue syndrome. An inability to speak up, a silencing of the body’s voice in critical situations. Such as true relationship.

Craving to drink, smoke, use something.

So the mind and body engage in a struggle for domination.

Dr. Sally Gadow, a Ph.D. nurse and leading scholar in health care ethics and the phenomenology of the body, writes about this struggle in a fascinating paper, “Body and Self: A Dialectic.” This paper itself (my friend pointed out yesterday) is an academic paper, so its expression is in the language of the mind, the intellect, and Gadow herself offers this caveat inside the paper. But I think what Gadow enacts in it is an effort to respect and give voice to the body.

To report from the body, which has long been one of my projects.

The struggle for domination is the second of four levels of development Gadow says have to take place if the body and mind are to transcend their “dualism,” their two-ness, and begin to work together as one to express each other’s interests. In this second level, “the two are not only distinct but opposed—each alternately master and slave.”

The second stage describes addiction.

The transcendence describes sobriety. Freedom from slavery.



Yesterday, driving home with my throat choked up, I thought about self-compassion. My mother trained me early to feel compassion for the pain of others. Hurting someone else without knowing it is one of my worst fears in sobriety. I used to numb this fear, as well as the reality that I’d hurt other people, with drugs.

“How will I know I’ve hurt you if you don’t tell me?” I asked my friend.

“You’re right,” she said.

The question underneath the choking is, Does my friend really love me?

My dog Flo kissing my friend's husband.

My dog Flo kissing my friend’s husband.

Doubt rises up. If you’re going to get her to love you, my mind tells my body, you have to fucking SHUT UP.

(And stop swearing so much!! She said I swear too much.)

But anyone who knows me know my language can be strong, fierce. Is it just who I am?

To make things right, I know I have to change my behavior. But do I need to change myself?

Do I need to change to be loved?—an old, old compulsion.

Mea Culpa: Amending The Age-Old Bitch In Me.

One beauty of keeping a journal is that it provides a record of one’s behavior over the years. “Compare yourself not to others but to yourself,” I have been told by people who are wiser than I am, and glancing at one’s own journals is an efficient way to do this. Even so, I hardly ever do it. It’s just not high on my to-do list.

So this morning I’m in the middle of a painting and I’m rooting through a box of art supplies and I find an old journal.

I have many journals, dated from 1974, when I was 10, through to today. Some of them are digital (which is to say, on the computer), but many of them were written longhand, because I believe in the power of the pen. I mean I don’t just “believe” in it; I experience the tactile beauty of the ink flowing out through the nib, and that experience is part of the fuel. I’ve long used fountain pens to write my journals. It bores me to write a journal with a ballpoint, though in a pinch any pen will do.

(Feeling the writing in the body, by the way, isn’t a preference or experience particular to me. Traditional Chinese writers, for example—who say they “write” their paintings of bamboo because the strokes used in the bamboo are all used in Chinese calligraphy—grind their own ink on fine-grained slate stones and, while grinding, meditate on their words; then, approaching the blank sheet of rice paper, they let the poem rise inside their bodies, from the root chakra as the Indian yogis might call it, up through the heart and out the arm, through the fingers and into the hollow bamboo handle and the pointed wolf-hair bristles of the brush. This is the ancient and spontaneous “chi” and “tao” of writing, which just means the “energy” and the “way,” and its physicality brings the practitioner back to the present moment. Writing can be an effective physical discipline for awareness.)


So I open this journal to a random page and find, from 15 years ago, elegant proof of my astonishing arrogance and blindness:

Went to a party last night & had an argument with Ben. It was hardly even an argument since we go so far back that it’s hard for us to get truly angry with each other. But I was telling him that I have pitied him for years because he’s made so little money & that I believe he subscribes to an artist’s myth that you have to be poor to be A Writer, & that he believes he’s on a faster track toward publication and fame for suffering the deprivation.

Reading only this far, I’m thinking, frankly, Jeeeezus-God, unfuckingbelievable. How could you have said something so mean? Then I read the next sentence, which only clinches it: …

… Read the rest at Recovering the Body.


Addiction Is Not A Crime.

So today the op-ed page editor of my city’s paper emailed to say the (very personal) essay I sent him a few weeks back will run this weekend. It’s about how addiction is an illness, not a crime, and it tells a bit of the story of how my parents died of the consequences of their addictions and how I got sober.

The timing of this piece’s publication is a little ironic, because yesterday I was prescribed hydrocodone for a cough that has lasted for more than two weeks.

Drugs really do work for the purposes for which they’re intended. At least, some drugs do. Opioids (known by cops as “narcotics”) are very good at two things:

  1. Dulling some kinds of pain
  2. Slowing autonomic responses—breathing, gut motility, etc.

For this stuff, opioids work wonders, fast. Twenty minutes after I took my first dose, my cough was 80 percent gone.

I had been coughing so long and persistently that I felt as though I were being stabbed in the solar plexus. Even my butt was killing me because every time a spasm hit, my whole body would tense, and I have trigger points in my glutes. The pain of which I used to try to numb out with huge doses of drugs and which I now treat through yoga and aerobic exercise. But when you can’t breathe, it’s hard to do vinyasas or run three miles.

I saw my doctor last week. I’d been through a course of antibiotics, which hadn’t worked. We were speculating it was a virus after all. She looked at my chart. “So, you were on opioids for a long time, right?” she said. “And remind me—do you think you were dependent, or were you addicted?”

“Oh, I was addicted,” I said mildly.

“So you probably wouldn’t like to take an opioid,” she said doubtfully.

“Is there anything else that might work?” I asked.

She prescribed steroids and told me to take Delsym. Which didn’t work. We had another frank discussion about the possibility of my taking an opioid cough syrup.

Her concern did not make me feel like a criminal. I’ve spent time with doctors in whose presence I felt like a criminal, or like a bad person, or like a plain pain in the ass. It’s to be expected: active addiction leads us to deceive ourselves and others, and people feel betrayed. They take it personally.

But in speaking with my PCP yesterday, I felt as though she were looking after me. It seemed to me that she was weighing the risks of two different illnesses against each other—my respiratory problem, and my addiction—and trying to figure out how to treat one without exacerbating the other.

Imagine what it would be like if most doctors demonstrated that attitude. It would be easier for so many more people to get help.

Just because a person has addiction, does that mean they can never be trusted again? Or that they have to suffer?


The dog makes me happy. Beyond happy, really. How did I live before this dog came along?

On the other hand, I spoke to a friend this afternoon who said that, over the phone today, my voice sounded different from normal.

“You sound HAPPY,” she said. “I don’t mean high. You just sound different. You haven’t sounded very happy lately.”

In fact I haven’t been very happy lately. I haven’t exactly been sad; but I have major problems and big life-questions going on here, I’m holding the rudder with one hand and reading the map with the other, and the seas are throwing a lot of spray on deck. I’ve been squinting against the sea-salt.

I took two prescribed doses of hydrocodone cough syrup today. And even at a prescribed dose, this stuff definitely adds almost like a layer of duck down in my head and body. It makes it hard for me to feel at the depth and complexity to which, over the past two or three years, I’ve become used to feeling my life. 

And that’s only at a tiny dose.

Even a small dose makes me not-care to a certain degree. I can see how, at mega-doses, I’d wind up saying, most of the time, just, Fuck It.

Looking back, I can’t believe the enormous amounts of drugs I used to take. It appalls me. How could I have felt anything at all? … I don’t think I did feel much, except fear. I seriously compromised my usefulness in this world.

But: just writing about it in this way, I can now recognize the degree to which I’ve begun to forgive myself. I used to beat the shit out of myself for my mistakes. Now, after some deep inward examination, and after making ongoing reparations for the past four years, I can see that I’m practicing more compassion for the person I was. She wasn’t a criminal. She was pretty ill. She was operating under serious limitations, biological and psychological, and she did the best she could.


I’m still tempted to beat the shit out of myself. Here’s one way I know my new compassionate response is not too lenient: when newcomers sit in front of me and tell me all the mistakes they’ve made, I don’t beat the shit out of them. I show them compassion.

It’s kind of the converse of the Golden Rule. If I’m supposed to love others as I’d love myself, then maybe I can also treat myself with the same compassion I show others.

Look for my op-ed this Sunday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and let me know what you think.

Taking Inventory: Reorganization.

Most of us live with too much stuff. Going through stuff, and getting rid of what we don’t need, is about taking inventory. It’s a real, concrete and useful way of experiencing Step 10.

I bloody hate doing it. Why is it so hard to let go of stuff, even stuff I don’t need, stuff that doesn’t do me any good? There’s this voice in the back of my head that says, You might need this someday. I was raised in a family that had a Depression-era attitude. When we moved my grandmother to a nursing home, we found boxes containing bits of string, ends of pencils, tiny erasers, pieces of chalk, stubs of candles. Stuff no one would ever use. Same when my father died.

Meanwhile, there were things in his house that needed fixing that didn’t get attention.

Yesterday I finally finished building the shelves in my study—the ones whose construction was interrupted back in August when I found drugs.

I also bloody hate spending money and time, especially on myself, but it feels right to have put the shelves up. To have spent the money and time to get them put up.

I’m getting rid of stuff, and reorganizing the stuff I want to keep. It takes time. It takes effort. I have to Decide: Do I Want This? … I’ve been avoiding it. It’s good practice, deciding what I want. It’s an amends to myself. It’s a good time of year to do it—I can donate the stuff I don’t need to others who might need it.

It keeps me on my toes. Reorganizing makes things new for me.

Of those of you who have been sober a long time, I want to ask: How do you keep your recovery new? If you have 5, 10, 20, 30 years, how do you refresh the work?


Here’s what’s on some of my new shelves. Tell me what’s on your shelves. Comment here if you want, or connect with me anonymously.

Click photos for full size.




Recent reads. What are you reading?


A few journals and sketchbooks, and my compact OED, which you can now put on your phone. I like having the paper one.


Charlee took this photo of me when I was five months pregnant. My son is behind my navel. Also: his first hiking boots, given to him the day he was born by his godmother.

One of my nieces, next to a Buddha picked up in a London market. Sitting on a Japanese mat my brother brought me from Tokyo.


Becoming a Thief.

Venus tonight is a diamond next to the pearl of the moon.

On November nights like tonight I remember a particular walk I took at 19 on a clear night through a hillside cemetery. The smell of woodsmoke, curled oak leaves beneath us, me and this boy, a red-headed Irish boy who liked music and books and could play with words. He knew the difference between Bodoni and Baskerville. He became my editor on the school newspaper. We were blood-brothers and could read each other’s minds.

That was a long time ago.


My sister called this afternoon. We talked about kids, then skidded into a conversation about money. Somehow I managed to be honest (or, rather, forthright: I can be honest without revealing much) and admit that I’ve avoided for years my ability to earn money.

“What do you mean you’ve AVOIDED earning money?” she said.

In our alcoholic family, my sister, five years younger than I, shared with me an eight-by-ten-foot bedroom with two bunk beds, two dressers, and a tiny closet. It was on the northwest corner of the house, and in winter the windows froze over; winter mornings I’d wake in the top bunk with ice-foliage etched into thick ice on the panes about a foot from my head.

My sister and I hated each other throughout our entire childhoods. By the time we were both out of school and working, we’d achieved a truce. It was only when we found ourselves pregnant, due quite literally a day apart in September 1997 with our first babies, that we found any closeness. (This was part of the subject of my first book.)

Now, we usually agree on everything. Almost.

With five years between us, my sister and I didn’t have the same experiences in our family. We didn’t really have the same mother. It helped my sister that she wasn’t artistic: my mother couldn’t compete with her. She couldn’t shape the bulk of my sister’s identity and expectations of herself. My sister worked as an environmental engineer before she quit to have kids.

But I was artistic and literary. And my mother had failed out of a top university art program; and what she really wanted to do with her life was write and teach.

I could hardly explain to my sister this afternoon what I meant by “avoiding earning money” but I remembered, in a flash, all the art I’d been asked to give away as a kid—all the times people needed me to draw or paint; all the times my mother wanted me to whip up something in calligraphy on the fake parchment she liked so much: gifts for her friends, favors for the church. I have a steady hand and a good eye. I tried selling my art but with my mother as my manager I never made much any money.

It’s interesting to phrase it this way: “with my mother as my manager.” She was my manager, in so many ways. In recovery we say that drugs or alcohol were “our manager.” The first guy in recovery that I called the day I admitted to myself I was an addict?—he told me 18 months into my recovery,

I could see you were letting go of your old manager.

But I haven’t let go of my mother.

I’m not alone. I know people in their 30s, 40s, 50s who are still afraid of their parents’ censure, who still operate as if to avoid that censure, even though the parents are dead.

My sister sat on the other end of the phone. All this flashed through my mind in half a second’s time. In another half-second, there was other stuff: I began learning calligraphy when I was my son’s age. I was way ahead of everyone else in art class; the teacher let me sit at the back and do whatever I wanted. Art teachers always did. I couldn’t see then but I can see now that I was quite often better than the teacher at whatever we were doing in my ordinary suburban-American public-school art classes.

Rooting through the tall metal storage cupboards I came across some calligraphy nibs and ink and a Speedball instruction book and taught myself cursive hand. I was fascinated: you could combine words and art! I began doodling letterforms in the margins of my algebra notebook.

At home I found some nibs from 1959 in my mother’s old tackle-box in which she stored her college art supplies that she never used anymore, preferring instead to spend her days reading Catherine Cookson and Agatha Christie. I opened the box, which lay in the bottom right-hand side of the hall closet, covered with dust-bunnies, and out blossomed the beautiful fumes of linseed oil and mineral spirits and turpentine. I found several old flat nibs and a wooden pen-holder with a chewed tip (my mother had a habit of chewing pencils and pens, an oral fixation for which she never in her life, unfortunately, found a moment’s satiety). I pulled them out and began writing with them using ink I’d brought home from school.

“Dad,” I told my sister today. “Dad came to me and said Mom had told him she was pissed that I was using her nibs. He told me she wanted me to put them back.”

Classic communication method used in an alcoholic family: someone gets “pissed” at someone else (usually for doing something great) but doesn’t confront that person directly, instead sending a flunky to do the dirty work.

I put the nibs back, feeling not angry but mortified. I had to shell out for my own at the art shop.

Or was that when I became a thief? Did I steal the school’s nibs?

I can’t remember.

Certainly this set up the structure of feeling for me to become a thief later—and not even much later, 18 or 19 during a Christmas job at the mall.

“I know you might not understand this, because you didn’t have the same experience with Mom as I did,” I said slowly to my sister, “but I couldn’t allow myself to get better than her at anything. If I did, she’d get pissed at me.”

And oh God, the world was so unhappy when my mother was pissed.

I expected my sister to laugh at me. (I expect most people to laugh at me.) But you know what?

She didn’t.


Did you know Jimmy Page stole some of his riffs? In this song is a riff Jimmy stole from Bert Jansch (who died the same day as Steve Jobs). Jimmy nicked Jansch’s fingerpicking and hardly even bothered to change the song’s name—”Black Mountainside.” One addict stealing from another. But Jimmy made a ton of money, and Janch died poor.

I heard Jansch play this song when he came to town last year with Neil Young’s wife Pegi. It’s about a girl and her Irish boy:

All through the full part of the night
How we did sport and play
Till this young man arose and he gathered his clothes
Saying, Fare thee well, my dear

That’s not the promise you gave to me
When first you lay on my bed
You could make me believe, with your lying tongue
That the sun rose in the west

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