Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: anger

Heart-Opener.

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.

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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Recovery, Step 11: The G-Force and Just Being.

Foxgloves in bloom in G's garden. Standing upright with the help of G-force.

Today in meditation I noticed that my body holds itself in a state of habitual tension, as though it were ready to spring, or as though it were hanging on.

Springing—at what? Not at, but away from. Away from what? Danger. Anger—my own and others’. Fear—of failure, of success, of losing what I have or not getting what I want.

Hanging onto what?—the earth, the world, my place, the small footprint I’ve earned on our planet.

Do you do hold your body in tension? Scan your body right now, and notice where the tension may be.

I took a long in-breath, and as I exhaled I asked my body to let go of whatever it might be holding onto.

As I felt the tendons in my hips and shoulders soften, suddenly I could feel gravity again. The G-force. One of my higher powers. Think about it: gravity does a lot of work for us that we don’t need to pay attention to. It does stuff we can’t do for ourselves.

By holding my body constantly tensed (in a position of fear), I’m fighting gravity. I’m fighting a power greater than myself.

By permitting my body to soften into the G-force, I allow myself to Just Be.

Are you able to Just Be? If so, let me know how.

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.

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