Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: recovery (page 2 of 15)

Alive: Third Anniversary of Detox

Foxgloves in G’s garden.

Always feel particularly alive August 29-31. Those were the days I spent in precipitated withdrawal, as fentanyl and Suboxone duked it out in my body.

I’m sitting right now in the same spot where I spent most of those two days: my side of the bed. The weather is the same—80 degrees, cloudless sky arching over the trees—but it looks entirely different today from the way it did for me three years ago.

Back then I was a writhing mess. My son, almost 11 at the time, didn’t know what what happening to me. He kept coming upstairs, asking, “Are you all right, Mama?” I told him I was having a bad reaction to a new medicine. Which was entirely true. And which left out all the rest of the truth.

How to Find a Good Detox Doctor

I’d wanted to go to rehab, but I knew I’d already been too absent from my son to justify being gone an entire month. So I got a detox doctor in the best way I knew, and in my opinion it’s still the best way: by word-of-mouth. I called the offices of a reliable rehab in the region, and when they refused to manage my medical detox on an outpatient basis, I asked who they recommended. They gave me a name; then I called my PCP and asked her, and she named the same guy.

I scheduled an initial consultation with this guy in July 2008. I told him I was a pain patient who was getting tired of the red tape involved in managing Schedule II medications, that I wanted to “reduce my tolerance” (this is how I put it to myself: I’d just reduce my tolerance and get back onto something like Vicodin, pull a feat that would impress my physician and enable me to continue receiving meds—just ones that weren’t so strong or so tightly controlled). I was afraid of how much pain I’d have once I started detoxing.

He said I’d be a perfect candidate for detox, that we could try it and see how it went.

While I sat in the waiting room I watched his patients come and go. The guys were huge, linebacker-types, or scrawny; almost everyone had tattoos; and of course I saw myself as Better Than All Of Them. What was a nice girl like me doing in a place like this? But everyone was quiet and respectful and when the detox doctor came out of his office, a little room in the back of a house on a main street in one of the poshest neighborhoods of the city, he reminded me of no one so much as Mr. Rogers. Actually, I’d met Mr. Rogers years before, and Mr. Rogers was shorter and thinner than this guy, but they both had the same humble, interested attitude: when you sat before either of them, they paid full attention only to you. And these huge biker-guys practically knelt before him like he was one of the prophets.

“He’s really working in the trenches,” the medical director of a big rehab nearby told me recently. “He’s always been on the forefront of treatment in the city. We need more guys like him.”

This medical director told me he estimates about 30 percent of all physicians prescribing buprenorphine for detox or treatment are “entrepreneurs”—physicians who are in Suboxone/Subutex treatment just for the money. They require twice-monthly followups, and they charge upwards of $300-$400 or even more per office visit. They make you pay in cash. And they prescribe large doses that are impossible for patients to quit by themselves. It constitutes exploitation.

You have to be careful to get a good detox doc.

My detox doc didn’t take insurance, but he’d accept a check or a credit card, and his fees were by no means outrageous: $110 for the first visit, and $80 for followups. He usually conducted 3-week detoxes for which he saw patients once per week, but because my drug-use had reached such a high level, he agreed to allow me to go more slowly. My entire two-month detox came to less than $700. By contrast, rehab stays cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The day I was scheduled to start my detox was the Friday before Labor Day. He prescribed something like 10 or 15 Suboxone tabs, gave me detailed directions about how to take them, and gave me his cell phone number in case I had problems.

Precipitated Withdrawal

Because fentanyl hangs around so long in the body’s tissues, and because it’s the only drug that can fight with buprenorphine in the body, I should have waited longer to take the Suboxone. But I took it too soon and wound up in precipitated withdrawal, which means the fentanyl and Suboxone were competing for space on my opiate receptors. Eventually the Suboxone won and kicked the rest of the fentanyl off. But it put me more deeply into withdrawal than I’d ever experienced. I couldn’t sleep but I couldn’t raise my body; I couldn’t stand long enough to take a shower. Of course I could not eat. I couldn’t even tolerate the smell of food without retching. (Severe opioid withdrawal makes the world smell like rot—people often forget to mention this; they mention the goosebumps and the gut-cramps and the sweats, the yawning and sneezing, but this is moderate opiate withdrawal. Severe opiate withdrawal makes the world smell like it’s covered with invisible black mildew. And it absolutely prostrates the body. Nothing works anymore.)

I spent two days like that. And on the third day, a Sunday, yeah. I rose again.


Today I had a massage early and then spent the rest of the day with my son, cleaning his room (school starts tomorrow; his desk was piled with crap from a summer spent drinking San Pellegrino—those little foil tops from the cans—plus gum wrappers, various art supplies and drawings, tangles of earbuds, Nerf darts, tools, and scraps of paper and metal and wood and wire from his handmade projects. I put the drawings to one side and put everything from desk, dresser, and floor into three paper bags, then told him he’d have to sort it out by the time I take him to Milwaukee, otherwise it would go into the trash. “Are you serious?” he said. We ran errands, I took him to his guitar lesson, we picked out some yarn for me to make him some felted socks. We went to Trader Joe’s, where I saw a little boy about 4 come out holding his mom’s hand, five or six stickers plastered across his forehead. I laughed out loud, and he smiled proudly.

The air was hot and smelled of bus exhaust and late-summer grass.

I didn’t care about this stuff when I was using. None of it: not the crap on the desk or cleaning it off, not teaching my son how to take care of his space. Well—I cared about spending time with him, but even that was compromised by my addiction, and there was nothing I could do about it, short of the hard work of getting clean and sober.

My son is a funny guy, and we have a lot of inside jokes; we use silly voices to tell stories, and both of us are very observant. We’re always noticing something: a funny bumper sticker, somebody’s hippie outfit, the numbered purple protractors that people are pasting on bridges and light poles around our city. “I saw another one,” my son said as we pulled out of Trader Joe’s.

“Where?” I asked.

“Back there,” he said.

“Where?” I said again.

“Back there,” he said.

“Yeah, BUT WHERE?” I said, then I realized he was having me on. I ruffled his long hair.

Most of all I feel free today. I am more myself than I ever have been.

If there’s anyone reading this who is wondering if it’s possible to get off a shitload of drugs or quit a destructive habit, I’m here to tell you, it’s not only possible, it’s the best thing you can do for yourself and your world. Make the investment.

This is the song I played “over and over / and over again” while I was detoxing… it came up on random play today, so here it is for you.

There’s no telling where I’ve been,
How I returned here, how much I have seen


What Is Right Action in Recovery?

ActionThey say:

We don’t think our way into right action

We act our way into right thinking

I used to think I used drugs because I was sad: because I had pain—physical and psychological; I had Bad Feelings I needed to resolve (read: Get Rid Of) before I could stop using drugs. If I Got Rid of the Feeelings, then quitting drugs would be easy. Right?

This is partly right. I used drugs in part to numb out certain feelings. I wanted them gone. But no amount of psychotherapeutic intervention was going to get rid of the feeelings that were bugging me. These feeeeelings were dominating my world—I was allowing them to rule my mind.

They needed to be managed, by something other than me. My management strategies were digging me further and further into a hole.

They also say:

Feelings aren’t facts

Part of addiction is the childlike conviction that all feeeeelings are the whole of reality. Also, that they will last forever. Which is why they also say:

This too shall pass


Methadone solution, the way it’s doled out at treatment clinics.

This saying always makes me think of my friend Arlene in L.A. She used to say it all the time: “This too shall pass.” It was the way she got through her methadone detox. Arlene tapered off 225mg methadone per day. Anyone out there have a clue how tough it is to kick long-term methadone—especially that big a habit? She was knocked flat for a long time. But she did it, because she knew, and was repeatedly told by skilled counselors, that the feeeelings of withdrawal meant she was healing, and that they would pass—if she put one foot in front of the other and Took Right Action.

You hear often, “This is a program of action.” Part of right action is taking direction from a skilled counselor, in the form of a sponsor if it’s a 12-step program.

I received some news—what might be called “bad” news—last week. The “bad” part wasn’t the news itself; I expected and welcomed the actual news; but rather the way it was delivered. It was given in a way that made me feel minimized and disrespected. And I copped a resentment.

“So I wrote some inventory,” I told my sponsor the other day.

“Stop that,” she said.

I was surprised. “I’m not supposed to write inventory when I have a resentment?” I said.

“Not when one of your shortcomings is taking too much inventory,” she said.

Ah-ha. Hadn’t even thought of that. True addict that I am, I always think more is better, so I upped the ante on the inventory. “She’s right—you’re way too hard on yourself,” a friend said when I related the story in front of our mutual sponsor.

Instead, I’ve been directed to make daily gratitude lists of at least five items.

“Oh good,” I said. “I have a Gratitude App on my iPod—”

“NO,” my sponsor said. “You have to write it with your own hand. With paper, and an ink-pen.”

There was a slight pause over the phone while I absorbed the insistent tone and tried not to laugh.

“It doesn’t have to be a fountain pen,” she added.

I did laugh. “I have a fountain pen,” I said. In fact I have several.

“I’m sure you do,” she said.


So now a little Black n’ Red journal sits by my bedside; a tiny book, too small to write inventory, but just the right size for little lists. There’s also an ink-pen, so that I can make my daily gratitude list—so that I can take Right Action.

Now I have to DO IT, whether I feeeeel like it or not.

Sober life: Six tips for learning to love ourselves


Mary Karr

Mary Karr, memoirist and poet 

Met Mary Karr the other night. Also heard her speak—a great talk. One thing she said (among a number of things) that stuck with me: She said she is Very Nice To Herself these days.

If you’ve ever read her memoirs, you might understand why this stuck with me. Our mothers might have been the Karma Kousins, the soul sistahs snipped from the same psychic cloth. Growing up with women like these, you learn bad emotional housekeeping. The cobwebs and dust bunnies, as it were, build up. After a while, with me, it wasn’t just fluff in the corners and under the bed. The anger and FEAR got so bad it was regiments of rats chewing through the basement drainpipes and moving up, and eventually entire floors of the house blocked off while I just carried on using, bent over under the eaves and typing, trying to convince myself I was able to “function.” No wonder I had a crick in my back.

Some people ask how, after all the “wreckage” we’ve created, we can learn to love ourselves and treat ourselves well.

After what Mary Karr said the other night, I got thinking and compiled a list (I’m big on making lists these days). Because, at 22 months into recovery and eight months continuously sober, this is one of my big projects: Learning to Love Myself.

I do the 12 steps. If you recover another way, I hope you’ll share about that way…

1. Work the steps, and don’t quit before Step 5. Taking Step 5 a second time after my brain cleared of all the chemicals made it even better, because I could experience the love of another sober person witnessing my attempt at taking stock of the wreckage. This person also reminded me there were considerable goods I needed to keep.

2. Do for myself what I CAN do. They say in the rooms, “God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.” I was taught a couple months ago by a dear friend whom I’ve known since the day I got into detox that God/HP/whatever would not do for me what I CAN DO for myself. I can’t sit back and expect HP to do all the work. … One way I’ve focused my energies on this task: After looking at my shortcomings recently, I was directed to list their opposites, and then act as if The Great Whatever had already removed them. A real eye-opener: For example, if I want more gratitude instead of self-pity, how about making a gratitude list each day? This turns out to be, instead of a chore, a good way of valuing what I have in life … and so a good way begin to treat myself better.

3. Act as if.  You hear this a lot: “act as if.” Fake it till you make it. I have an approach-aversion relationship with this idea because it can become a way into a fake life, and for a long time for me, it was. I faked everything, just waiting for the day I’d make it. However, I’ve been encouraged lately to “act as if” The Big Kahuna has my back. When I see this as an invitation into a mindset—when I bring it into my morning meditation—the result is that I can enter into the state of trust. A way of taking care of myself.

4. Make lists. I can collect all the great ideas I want, but I’m still real good at letting great ideas slip through the cracks. So I make lists. I have an iPod where I could store all kinds of notes but I also keep a little traditional notebook in my bag. It’s the third one since I got out of detox. … I have an electronic to-do list attached to my computer’s calendar, and I make a weekly list of tasks I want to complete. Even if it’s just one item, it’s important to me to be working toward something—it’s means I’m learning to respect what’s important to me. I’ve spent a lot of years showing myself disrespect.

5. Practice discipline.  My to-do list is attached to my calendar, which is enabled with electronic reminders that kick my ass when I’m not looking. These reminders include important things I need to do for others and also myself—things like “get a haircut” and “play tennis.” Sometimes I don’t achieve all my goals… and sometimes that means there’s an underlying issue of self-care that I need to look at. Am I forcing myself to do something I don’t really want to do? Are my expectations realistic? Am I slipping back into the big Egyptian river (De-Nile)?

6. Forgive myself. This is maybe the hardest one for me… I’ve never had any models for it; in many ways, I just don’t know what it looks like. My model is the remorseless judge and merciless critic. I ask often to be able to let go of self-hatred and allow it to be replaced with self-love. Actually, lately I’ve been thinking that it maybe needs to be replaced with divine love, which I’ve begun to suspect is a hell of a lot bigger, shinier, and deeper than human love…

This feels like something I can’t do for myself… Self-hatred is a destructive attitude, and it’s said that, if we ask, God will change our attitudes in order to keep us sober. And so far, it has happened. I’ve become more tolerant of my weaknesses without foisting them onto people, and I actually enjoy my own company more. Then the judgment descends again… They say time heals all ills, and “time” is one of my higher powers…

Some ways Mary Karr says she is good to herself: she exercises every day, going to the gym or practicing yoga every day. She puts herself on a work schedule, shutting off the phone and refusing to answer the door when she needs to. And she prays every day. She meditates every day.

Notice how often the words “every day” appear.

Sayings From the Rooms: GOD, and HOW to Recover

People who have trouble with “the God thing” sometimes use this saying:

GOD = Good Orderly Direction

“God” doesn’t have to mean a guy in the sky handing out judgments. It’s been suggested to me that “God” (or “higher power”) can be any power greater than myself that gets me out of my own rat-trap head and into a different mentality, preferably one that tries to do for others instead of myself.

Traffic cop

Accepting direction keeps me safe

Five tools I use to take direction (please add yours below):

1. Meetings—listening to other people’s stories helps get me out of my own head; meeting newcomers presents opportunities to help somebody else

2. Phone—people call it The Ten-Thousand-Pound Phone. Why is it so hard for newcomers and people with lots of sobriety alike to pick up the phone? But calling somebody else with more experience helps bring perspective to a confusing situation… and Gives Orderly Direction.

3. Prayer—the line toward the power, the way I ask for what I need (direction) and …

4. Meditation—the silent line through which the power speaks to me. The way I get Today’s Directive, the Memo: How G Will Do Her Day.

It’s up to me to read the memo, and then to do what it says. This is called Discernment

5. Sponsorship—taking direction from a sponsor gives me practice in Taking Direction. Just doing what I’m told. Because addiction is all about Doing Whatever the Hell I Want… And recovery is about reversing that trend. … Also, in working with another addict/alcoholic, I usually end up giving the very direction I need to hear (surprise, surprise! 🙂 ).

Another saying they use in the rooms is:

You wanna know HOW to recover?
HOW = Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness

I often hear this one misquoted. People often say “Openness,” instead of “Open-mindedness.” I’ve thought about this. Openness is good: being open with people, forthcoming, and willing to share of oneself. But Open-mindedness

Addiction had shut my mind like that steel trap. I had to find ways of opening my mind in order even to approach thinking about some of the things it was suggested that I do (for example: stop using; stop asking myself Why I Became An Addict; one of the hardest: stop using language as a weapon to cut myself as a way of punishing myself for becoming an addict).

I’ve never been TOLD to do anything in order to recover from addiction, including all the years I’ve spent with my AlAnon sponsor, investigating my alcoholic childhood. I’ve been given strong suggestions and was told it was up to me.

It was suggested two days ago that I go about the next week thinking:

What if GOD had my back? What would that feel like?

This person said,

Because GOD does have your back. It’s not that things ARE GONNA BE all right—it’s that things ALREADY ARE all right. Right now.

That’s a hard one. I’ve spent lots of years thinking God didn’t have my back. Believing that, really. I put my faith in GOD not-loving me.

But I’m trying. The ice on the pond of my mind freezes over, and I use the crowbar to crack it open again. It’s hard work, taking direction.

Then I had this moment two days ago: God had my back. I felt it. It was like lying in a hammock with someone who loves you.

Yesterday’s news: Four beers and four Vikes, and he was dead

A story I heard in a meeting this morning:

Vicodin pillA guy had hired a contractor a couple days ago. The contractor had injured his shoulder, and yesterday went to the doctor, who (you just knew this was coming while you were listening to it) prescribed a bottle of Vicodin. On the way home he picked up a case of beer, never minding the warnings on the bottle not to take Vicodin with alcohol and only to take one or two at a time. He thought his Vicodin would go much better knocked back with a few beers. Because at the end of a hard day, he deserved to have a few beers. And at the end of the evening, he was dead. The speaker said, shaking his head:

Four Vikes, and four beers, and he was dead.

I sat there thinking, hell: four Vicodin and four beers?—that’s, like, nothing compared to the amounts of shit I used to ingest. I’m one lucky so-and-so even to be here, mon, with the shit I pulled and the fire I played with? God-DAMN.

But as they say in (some of) the rooms:

It doesn’t matter what we used,
or how much we used,
or in what ways we used.

In fact: I went to my first meeting back in … maybe 1995? I was taking Stadol nasal spray for migraine, and I was taking too much and running out a bit too soon, and all I knew was that I Liked It. I liked how it knocked me out, how it felled me like a tall tree, with a big crash and then intense stillness afterward, and I didn’t like how I felt after I ran out—desperate, and a bit emotionally shaky. There was another thing they said in the rooms at that time that resonated with me:

One is too many
and a thousand never enough

I sat in the meetings and listened to the down-and-out stories—the ones that focus on the problem, not the solution—about what people drank or used, how much they drank or used, and in what ways they drank or used, and how they felt while they were drinking or using. And I thought, No way in hell do I belong here. I hadn’t sold my furniture; I hadn’t had my kids taken away from me; I hadn’t prostituted my body; I hadn’t gone to jail. I had no clue about how the steps and the meetings worked. Plus: all that focus on using made me want to use, and I buggered off to use my nice clean “safe” white-collar drugs another day.

I didn’t know that not all meetings were created the same, that I needed to look for the meetings that focused on the solution, and that I needed to look for similarities, and not differences.

And in the meantime, I got very lucky, and I lived.

I mean, who knows this guy’s medical history?… I was thinking, if he was a real drinker, maybe his liver was compromised, maybe he had hepatitis or even cirrhosis and his liver couldn’t tolerate the Tylenol; or maybe he was opioid-naïve and between the sedative effect of the alcohol and the respiratory-depressant effect of the hydrocodone, he simply stopped breathing. Option B more likely.

(I remember times when I’d lie in bed and force myself to stay awake, because my diaphragm’s ability to drag in another breath was actually a dodgy proposition. I’d tell myself I’d just screwed up and taken too much “this time,” but as long as I was using there’d always come a time when I’d screw up again.)

Those questions are for the coroner to figure out. What’s real is the bottom line: his family doesn’t have him anymore. No—actual bottom line: HE doesn’t have his own life anymore.


My son and I sat in our local bar the other night waiting for my husband to show up. We just think of it as our local place to get a quick supper—my son loves the wood-fired pizza—but this place is famous regionally for stocking an enormous selection of beer from all over the world; while he was alive it was my father’s favorite place to go when he came to the city to visit us, and in latter years he usually took me there for my birthday lunch. Despite the fact that I would have preferred to eat elsewhere, that was where he liked to drink, so that was where we went.

The waitress came to our table and put down three beer mats in front of my son and me. He picked one up thoughtfully and turned it over in his hands.

“Why are people so obsessed with beer?” he asked, regarding the bar with its row of decorative pulls, and, behind it, the cooler with its soldierly lines of colored bottles, and all the posters on the walls memorializing beer.

“They’re not. I mean, who?” I said, feeling the confusion that comes on when I am cornered into talking about substances with my kid. I always feel as though I need a PR person to help me craft my message and teach me to stick to it. But kids aren’t like that: their discourse is slippery, their questions slide all over the place, and they’re emotionally loaded.

“Well, why do they like to drink it so much? It tastes bad,” he said.

How can I answer this question to a 13-year-old’s satisfaction? How can I tell him that, despite (or perhaps partly because of) growing up in an alcoholic household, at 17 I started drinking not beer but malt liquor (which tasted even worse) because it was free, it was stronger and it took me out of myself—the place where I’d been trapped for nearly two decades—and it was the first time I’d ever felt free, that I could forget everything I needed to forget? How can I tell him that after going to my first meetings in the mid-1990s I knew that I needed to quit drinking and taking drugs and undertake the 12 steps but that the sole thing that prevented me was the idea of being in my thirties and never, ever, ever having a single beer for the rest of my life?

“Did you get drunk?” he asked me.

The first time I drank beer I got so drunk I was ill for two days afterward. I think there may still be some cells in my body that are green from that hangover. … I can remember being 17 and 18 and looking at other kids at parties and wondering, especially when the beer was free, How do they know when to stop? How does anyone know? I’m still asking that question.

Life without beer?—I’d never lived it. I’d never imagined it.

“Yeah, I got drunk, not all the time, but yes; and yeah, it tastes gross, but it’s a taste that kind of grows on you after a while… take it from me,” I said a bit drily. “People drink it because the alcohol in it makes them feel different. Remember how we talked about not using things outside ourselves to deal with feelings? …

“And when Dad gets here, you can ask him why he drinks it. Because I don’t drink it anymore, and he drinks it without it making him weird.”

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