Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: family

Finding Myself And My Voice.

A few weeks ago I went to a regional prescription drug abuse “summit” sponsored by the Department of Justice. The DEA was there, and Obama’s top drug-policy person, and the U.S. Attorney, and a bunch of pharmacists (including one who seven years ago had been robbed of OxyContin at gunpoint; she still cries about it). Also on the panel: my old pain physician, who I haven’t seen for two years.

I still have pain. Why haven’t I seen her for two years?—because the stuff I do for my pain has little relation to the therapies she recommended, most of which were drug-oriented. (The last drug she recommended made my hair fall out. I’m pretty much done with drug therapies, unless I’m desperate.)

I sat there and listened to my old doctor talk about how she uses a treatment protocol for every patient, and she tries not to rely on her gut feelings. (She was responding to the pharmacist who had been robbed, who told the audience she could tell which customers were addicts as soon as they walked through the doors.) My doctor talked about monitoring patients, requiring them to come in for pill counts. “It’s not foolproof, but it helps,” she said.

Too right it helps. Advocates for pain patients talk about pill counts, urine samples and other monitoring practices as discriminatory against those who have pain, treating them “like addicts.” If we removed the stigma from addiction, however, monitoring people for signs of another illness would be called good medical practice.

So anyway I went home and banged out an op-ed and sent it to my regional paper. The editor loved it. It’s going to run as early as he could run it—it’s long and he wanted to give it a good ride, he said. The piece outs me as a drug addict, and it calls my late father an alcoholic and my late mother a nicotine addict, and I thought about it carefully and decided I’m pretty much OK with all that, especially since the entire point of the piece is to bust down the stigma surrounding addiction and ask the public for treatment and compassion rather than punishment and censure. I keep reminding myself that both my parents told me before they died that I needed to write what I needed to write.

Dawned on me last night:

The piece is running the weekend my sister is staying here with her family.

Right away the addict in me took over. I wanted to call the editor, tell him to run it a week later. Or a week earlier, to get it over with before they arrive and I have contact with my sister, who I love and who I hardly ever get to see. And with my brother, whom I also love and about whom I never write, because he’s intensely private. Run it a different time, anyhow—because when I begin to panic about other people’s reactions, anything that’s actually happening must be wrong, I have to make sure everyone will be OK with what I say, everyone will be OK with who I am, with my point of view, because to be OK inside myself my first instinct is to make sure the people around me are OK, especially with me.

I’ve often wondered why I don’t get to say what’s real for me without being afraid. This blog is an exercise in doing that.


I’m noticing that the longer I spend sober, the more myself I seem to become. The more I speak in my own voice. The more I have desires and instincts that feel authentic. The more at peace I am with me.

Except when it comes to my family.

It doesn’t make a difference that my parents are dead: they’re still very much present for me.

I think of the things that happened in my family to silence me. (I speak only from my own perspective here; it’s my belief that they worked to silence large parts of all of us, but I’m only speaking for myself.) When I was little: the smackings, the beltings, the screaming. When I was older: the hours-long moral and philosophical inquisitions held at the kitchen table when I disagreed with a principle of my parents’—usually of my mother’s. Never being allowed to have the last word. Being told I had a temper that I had to squash. My mother’s jealousy of my artistic abilities. (Never mind her discourse and behavior around sexuality.)

If I gave my son that treatment, I’d expect he’d do something later in life to numb his feelings out.

My son stood in the kitchen the other day and said:

Mama, thank you for raising me well. I will never take it for granted.

He doesn’t say this for my benefit. He knows he doesn’t have to take care of me.

He says it because it’s true for him.

What a gift.


Many of us have been hurt in childhood.

Saturday in a meeting on steps 3 and 4 a friend told this story: A friend of his in recovery had been sexually abused. “Ultimate victim, right?” my friend said.

No way can you blame a child for his sexual abuse. No way can you hold him accountable. But my friend said: “You know what my part in this abuse is? My part is my willingness to let go of it.”

Each of us has our own ways of letting go and growing through adversity, moving closer to who we were created to be. Some people hold the hurt in their hearts and let it go silently, and other people talk about it—or write songs about it, or paint pictures about it. Or write stories about it.

Rodin: “The Hand of God Creating Woman and Man.” At Rhode Island School of Design’s museum. I love how the man has wrapped both his hands around the woman’s head. … Rodin’s pieces are always so confrontational and inviting that museums have to post signs ordering viewers not to touch.

So I’m going to let the piece run when the boss wants to run it.

To accept myself I have to accept that I’m the kind of person who lets go by expressing herself. I have to be willing to allow other people to have their responses to that.

Reverb10: Party

[Until 31 December I’m participating in reverb10, a month-long challenge to get bloggers to respond to writing prompts designed to help themselves and their readers take stock of the past year—conduct the year’s final inventory—and to imagine possibilities for the coming year.]

Today’s prompt (which is really yesterday’s, because I’m a day behind): Party. What social gathering rocked your socks off in 2010? Describe the people, music, food, drink, clothes, shenanigans.

I went to a funeral

And Lord, it made me happy

Seein all those people that I ain’t seen

Since the last time

Somebody died

—Lyle Lovett, “Since the Last Time”

A pan of kielbasa, Daddy's favorite party food.

What does your family do after a funeral?—My family has big parties. My dad’s family was an extended Eastern European crew and in the old days it was big pots of cabbage rolls and kolbassi and sauerkraut, trays of ham sandwiches with Miracle Whip on buns, pans of baked manicotti or ziti, casseroles full of fried chicken, bowls of potato salad, macaroni salad, cole slaw (didn’t matter if it was the dead of January—to use a small pun—we always had these summer salads at any family gathering). Urns of coffee, and cases of beer, or even kegs.

The custom was to gather to celebrate the person’s life. Must have been the first wake I ever went to, the priest finished with the funeral at the cemetery and we drove back to the church and trooped down into the hall and to my astonishment the floor was covered with tables, and the tables were covered with food, and it smelled like Christmas and Easter all in one, and I saw Daddy walk over to the church kitchen with the choir guys to get a beer (a beer in the church kitchen??), and everybody was talking and laughing, and I said to Mom what’s happening? because I thought Aunt Pearl died and I thought we were all supposed to be crying, and she said Aunt Pearl died, but what we do now is have a party for Aunt Pearl’s life.

After the church hall shut down the party moved to my aunt’s house and went on all night.

I was 9.

Everybody talking

They were telling funny stories

They were saying all those things

That they ain’t said

Since the last time

Somebody died

I was going to write that alcoholism wrecks this ability to celebrate in the midst of grief, but it’s not alcoholism that wrecks it. My dad was an alcoholic, and his mother and uncle were alcoholics, and other people in his family were alcoholics—and people got drunk at these parties and at other parties, at Christmas and especially at weddings, oh my lord the weddings. But my dad had love in his family. His mother drank until she was catatonic sometimes, I’ve been told, but she loved him, and he also had four sisters and a brother who took care of him. He always had what he needed—and all we need is love.

It’s alcoholism + abuse that really wrecks the ability to celebrate.

My mother’s family was different from Daddy’s. Dad was an alcoholic, yeah—but he was Sleepy Drunk. He’d fall asleep (i.e., pass out) at 8:30 or 9 and that would be the end of it. Not to say this didn’t have consequences in and of itself, but they were not as ruinous in many ways as those of the Mean Drunk. Mom’s dad was a Mean Drunk. I’ve heard stories about how he’d kick her brother or throw things at the family. Her mother failed to protect the kids from him. She herself hit the kids, and abused them in other ways; as a child, her barber-father had thought it wise to discipline her with his razor-strop.

This kind of anger and fear never goes away—unless you make a conscious effort to deal with it. … Grandpa quit drinking, but I could always see that anger and fear in his face. That’s called being a Dry Drunk. He died when I was 11—my second funeral, after Aunt Pearl’s, and there weren’t no party after that one. We went back to the house, where we ate a tense meal in the dining room. My grandmother drank a beer—a Michelob poured into a tall pilsner glass. I’d never seen her drink alcohol before. My uncle sat in the chair where my grandfather usually sat. The other kids were in the kitchen; I was somehow the only one allowed to sit with the grownups. We ate roast turkey. And my grandmother and her children argued while the rest of us tried to swallow our food.

Two nights ago, my grandmother died. She was 97—blind, deaf, in dementia. Again, no party. For the first time in my family, someone has died and there’s not even going to be a funeral. Which is my family’s prerogative. In a certain way, it makes sense. My grandmother had practically no community around her.

Another thing alcoholism + abuse does is, it prevents people from talking with each other and speaking truth and feelings.

In thinking about my grandmother’s death the past day or so, I can see that my Dad’s family’s tradition instilled something deeply positive in me. When somebody dies, it’s just instinctual—I need to do something to celebrate life.

What that will be, this weekend, is to focus on what’s before me. To take care of the living. The literal meaning of “party” is a gathering. This weekend is full of gatherings…

Today my beloved Al-Anon sponsor of 12 years arrives with her husband to stay with us overnight. We’ll make supper… or we’ll order in from the wonderful new Indian restaurant up the hill. We’ll sit in front of the fire and talk and laugh and share stories and hold hands.

Tomorrow morning I get to go with my son and my husband to the bar mitzvah of one of my son’s oldest friends. He has known Max and we’ve known his parents since the kids were 3. Ten years! How they grow. Max will read the Torah in Hebrew in the temple on the hill and as I listen to the prayers in a language that I won’t understand, I will say my own prayer for the life and spirit of my grandmother…

Then, tomorrow afternoon I deliver my husband to the airport, where he’ll take off for the UK for the coming week to visit his parents, who are declining in a nursing home. And tomorrow evening I’ll take our son to the bar mitzvah party. And we’ll dance.

A good party song… Lyle grew up in gospel-land and he can see the sunlight in the shadow. Have a listen…

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