Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: self-acceptance (page 1 of 4)

“Watch Amal Clooney Eloquently Argue Her Case!!”

Amal Clooney in Athens, Greece - 14 Oct 2014

I came across this video posted to Facebook by a woman whose journalism and thinking I respect.

In the comments under the post, another woman had written of Amal Clooney, “She’s a great role model.”

So I clicked on the link. I’d seen a lot of pictures of The Movie-Star’s Wife but I had never heard her speak. And I found out a few things about Amal Clooney, and (again) about the problems of growing up as a girl in this society.

I found out that I respect the work Amal Clooney does. Realistically, though, would TIME have run a video clip of her in high-court action if George had decided to marry someone less spectacular to look at?

Within the first minute of this clip, two things crossed my mind:

1) She’s smart!—listen to her marshal the evidence.

2) She’s fucking gorgeous!—it’s easy to continue to watch her.

Subheads under No. 2:

  1. Look at her bone-structure, her black hair, the way the light falls across her cheekbones! She’s hot… Does this make me hear more or less of what she’s saying?
  2. Her high-court robes make her look like a nun.

And in those two sets of conflicting examples lies the tension upon which the publishers rely to get us to watch, as if she were un grand spectacle. An entertainment.

Even the headline is telling: “WATCH Amal Clooney.”  Not, “LISTEN to Amal Clooney.” Watch. 


I suppose, having chosen to marry a guy with worldwide celebrity, that Amal Clooney has bought into this whole deal. She may be negotiating her new status on something of her own terms, while also giving the press something of what they want. So as for her being held up as a “role model,” I have to think about that one.


I know a 17-year-old, the daughter of someone I care about, who is at this moment in inpatient hospital treatment for anorexia and bulimia—fatal illnesses on the addiction “spectrum.” This girl is every bit as lovely, intelligent, and articulate as Ms. Clooney. She has from earliest childhood been led, by the same culture that manufactured and published this video clip, to watch images of beautiful women being held up in some way as models—fashion models, role models—people after whom she has been led to “form” or “model” herself. She has not been allowed the cultural space to look inside herself and find her own beauty, intelligence, strength. And she’s not yet old enough to claim that space by force.

Aside from this girl I’m also thinking of an extremely intelligent 18-year-old high-school valedictorian/homecoming queen/babe currently in one of my freshman writing classes who couldn’t stop reading her teachers’ minds in order to “succeed.” I asked the class to read Cheryl Strayed’s essay “Heroin/e,” one of the cornerstones upon which Strayed built her blockbuster book Wild, which became a film last year, etc. In the essay, Strayed loses her mother to cancer and herself to heroin use. I asked the students to write about a time when they’d lost themselves. Shortly after I posted the assignment, this student emailed me saying she’d never lost herself. She was panicking: What if everyone else in the class has had a moment of traumatic loss and I haven’t?—I won’t be able to compete. “I cannot stop thinking about how I have never had a moment when I felt truly lost,” she wrote.

I am suddenly wishing that I had been lost.

I told her, Awesome: so you’ve never been lost. I said, Write about the fact that, while all around you, people are losing their way, you have managed to retain possession of yourself. … In fact, two weeks before, she had written about her compulsive perfectionism—classic addictive behavior encouraged in our society. And for the Strayed assignment she was so consumed with reading my mind and Giving Teacher What She Wants that she had abandoned her own experience.

I took a little risk and wrote her,

Perfectionism is a delusion that, in my experience, has taken me away from myself for years. You may not have lost quite so much time, or gone quite so deeply into it as I (and others) have. But even now you confess, “I am suddenly wishing that I had been lost.” That’s the wish of a perfectionistic woman. 🙂

The words “intimacy” and “vulnerability” are bandied about a lot these days, so I’ll use them advisedly. But this is the kind of “intimate” dialogue I enjoy having with writing students. I extend myself a little bit by telling the truth, and I see if they reach back. She wrote an essay that broke a little shard out of my heart. It ended,

My idea of success is currently defined by other people’s expectations. Until I can look past what others think of me, I may never find who I am, but the fear of failing while finding myself is too great of a risk. For now, I am content with being lost.

I sat there trying to stick the shard back into my heart (always an impossible task, but I’m human—I try anyway), and I reminded myself that the longest-lasting change happens in small steps. And always with radical truth-telling.


Amal_ClooneyTo the extent that Amal Clooney acts according to her own mind and conscience, I think I can accept her as a “role model” for young women. But I’m afraid most young women won’t see that far. After all, Amal Clooney is a high-court attorney with a thigh-gap.

Most—not all, but many—young women’s eyes have been trained to see only as deeply as the thinness between the surface of the glass on the mirror and the silver-gilt on the back.

Or even thinner.

My Sisters, The Sugar Junkies.


Just back this evening from four days in Minneapolis to let audiences know about my new book. (It’s not officially out for another three days. Look for both the print and electronic editions then.)

While onstage at Garrison Keillor’s hangout, being interviewed by the amazing Dessa (a star in the Minneapolis music scene whose sun is rising nationally), taking questions from the audience, I heard loud and clear that people are struggling not only with drugs and alcohol but also with food, particularly with sugar. But it’s hard to deal with food. “It’s not like drugs and alcohol,” said one woman who is sober and also has an eating disorder:

You can quit drinking and taking drugs, but we have to eat. You can’t just quit eating food.

She wanted to know how I handle my cravings for sugar. BADLY, I wanted to say. But that’s the critical voice in my mind. What I said is that I sometimes eat sugar—too much of it—and then I pick myself up and start again.

But how do I pick myself up? Do I do it the way I would have done it when my son was small and he fell on the playground? I didn’t jerk him to his feet, smack his butt, and tell him how stupid he was for tripping over that rock. I’d ask him whether he was hurt, kiss his scraped knees or palms. I’d tell him to get out there and try again.

One woman said,

I want to say that it’s OK to have a cupcake!

It might be OK for you, I thought, but it ain’t OK for some people. I can’t have cupcakes in the house. The other day I made two batches of chocolate chip cookies for my dear old friend Jeff’s wedding and I could not stop at eating just one.

There were other women who told me after the show that they can’t eat just one, either. Fist-bumps all around: my sisters, the sugar junkies.


During the book signing afterward, a woman with long white hair told me she has 25 years off alcohol and 22 months off sugar. Before those 22 months, she’d been off sugar for four years, but then she “started eating like a middle-schooler again,” she said:

Sugar is absolutely my primary addiction.

She ate sugar for TEN YEARS, she said, and her intake was uncontrollable.

“So you Went Back Out There,” I said, using the language used in 12-step rooms for relapse: Going Out.

“Exactly,” she said. “It was exactly like that.”

I looked at her. Her face was calm and kind. Her body was relaxed, and she looked straight into my eyes.

“How did you manage to stop again?” I asked her. “What made the difference?”

“I just knew what it was to me,” she said.

Let me repeat that:

I just knew what it was to me.

She accepted that sugar destroys her body and makes it hard for her to live in peace. It activates the obsessions and delusions that are part of her nature. Eating sugar, she said, was just like drinking alcohol: it never felt very good after the first one. In fact it felt terrible, not least because she couldn’t stop. In fact the body metabolizes alcohol directly into sugar, and studies show that erratic processing of blood-sugar underlies alcoholism.

She did it to change her feelings, change her head, to “change her shorts, change her shirt, change her life.” (To quote Tom Waits’s lyric.)

I sat there thinking that

(i’m such a fraud i’m such a liar i have a candy bar in my hotel room i wrote in my book that i stopped eating sugar but i’ve started again fraud liar)

when I fall on the playground, I smack my own butt.

I’m fond of beating the shit out of myself. It’s such an ingrained habit. The language of it is so familiar—almost comforting in its familiarity. It’s like my mother hitting me, making me cry, and telling me she’s doing it because she loves me.

It also makes me feel noble: Mea culpa, hair shirts, and all that medieval nonsense that my mother loved so much.

So it’s not eating sugar that’s the most destructive habit. It’s the punishment. Punishing myself makes it ten times harder to make good choices. I can sit there onstage next to Dessa and say that I practice “self-compassion” but really what I practice when I eat sugar and then beat the shit out of myself for eating it (or distract myself with streaming Netflix) is fucking self-hatred.

But when I accept What It Is To Me—basically poison; who eats just A Little Cyanide?—then I can choose not to eat it out of love for myself and my body. When, for example, I open the cupboard full of household cleaners, I don’t stand there beating myself over the head to keep myself from drinking them. I Know What They Are To Me, I tell myself the truth, and I don’t put them in my body.

Of course, a shot of Clorox Cleanup wouldn’t feel nearly as good going down as one of my own homemade chocolate chip cookies. Aye, there’s the rub.


Dessa doing her thing at the NPR offices. You go, girl.

Monday Discipline: Downward Dog.


Children are naturally flexible and in alignment with life. They laugh at funny things, they cry when they have discomfort or hunger, they don’t think about what The Critic might say—until they get to be about 4 or 5 and it begins to dawn on them that they’re not the center of the world.

My friend Richard let me use the photo above of his son at 1, doing a natural downward dog. (“Just don’t tell him you’re using it,” he said. His son is now 15.)

The little boy’s forward bend is so “natural” because he’s so flexible. Children who have just learned to balance on the soles of their feet love to play with gravity: they naturally stand on their heads with their feet flat on the ground. They push themselves all the way onto the crowns of their heads and then they roll over, and because their bodies are so loose, so unsprung—unlike mine (and maybe yours, too), which always seems tensed and ready to leap out of danger—they don’t get hurt.

They laugh at mistakes. Life is an experiment.

And truly, until I become like a child, I can’t experience that joy. Said, I think, one of those wise guys who really knew his shit.


Downward-facing Dog is one of the core poses of any yoga practice because it puts the entire body to work. Since I began studying yoga while I was living in London with my baby boy in 1998 (I started by taking him to Baby Yoga classes, then realized this might be something that could benefit me), I’ve had periodic cravings to put my body into this pose. It’s hard to do right, and if it’s done right it’s a full-body workout. It asks your arms and shoulders to hold most of the weight of your torso and hips while you maintain stillness in an upside-down V. It’s also a great stretch for the hamstrings and glutes, and best of all, it activates the core. If it’s done right.

Here’s what it looks like when it’s done right: …

Read the rest at Recovering the Body. And please subscribe there.

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.


G Smells Different: Self-Acceptance.

“Mom, you smell different.”

He was sitting in a chair in the garden, waiting for me to cut his hair. (I’ve sent him to my stylist and I consider it a testament to his trust in me that he prefers to have me cut it.) He leaned forward and hugged me, then wrinkled his nose and pulled it away from my Steelers T-shirt.

“No, I don’t,” I said. I pulled the collar of my shirt away from my neck and hugged him again, sticking his nose against the skin of my collarbone. The scent of your skin never changes.

“Mmm,” he said. “Now you smell like Mama.”

He relaxed his tall skinny frame into the chair and I took the shears out of my pocket and cut his hair while the puppy milled around our feet.

The dog’s name is Flo. As in, Go With The Flo. (When I acquired her last year I could feel that the times they were a-changin, and I figured whatever name I gave her, I’d have to say it dozens of times each day, so I better make it helpful. “Flo,” I say. “Flow, come!” Instant prayer for flexibility. Semiconscious affirmation—flow. Move.)

My clothes smell different because I am living in a different place.

I’ve boxed up the stuff that matters: books (not nearly all of them, of course); files and research materials (including the letters, real letters, my parents wrote each other from 1959-1963, up until days before they were married). Some photographs.

My mother, age 2, on her alcoholic father's lap.

My mother, age 2, on her alcoholic father’s lap.


Artwork: a chiaroscuro pastel self-portrait my son made three or four years ago; a watercolor portrait I made of him five years ago; a bronze nude made by Roxanne Swentzell, one of my favorite artists.


I bought this bronze when I was three months pregnant with my son. Because of the interaction I had with the artist in the parking lot of the Heard Museum, where she sold it to me, the cast has always spoken to me of self-acceptance.

Which is the project here. Self-acceptance.

I’ve also bought stuff for this place. I’ve used money that belongs to me to buy things I need. I’ve been urged not to do this. It has been suggested that I’m wasting money. I’m tempted to believe the things I hear from people I love because I distrust my judgment. What I’m learning is that things can always be resold and that peace of mind is worth more than any amount of cash.

Here’s one example.

The most meaningful of all of my new things is my bed. Buying a new bed for oneself alone is an act freighted with fairly hefty symbolism. … How can I describe this bed? As my Quaker surrogate mom would say, “It’s heaven.” It’s the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. Is this because it’s a queen-sized $1,200 Beautyrest bed (purchased practically new, secondhand, for a fraction of the price—I say this to myself compulsively, defensively, subconsciously throughout the day), or is it because it’s in a space that’s private?

Not secret, private. I’ve pondered the differences between the two a lot since I got sober, especially in the past couple of years.

Here’s the punchline. Since I’ve been sleeping in this bed, I’ve slept the whole night through. I wake up feeling rested.

“A good night’s sleep is really a gift from God,” my friend Benedick said today at a meeting at which only three of us were present. I was able to cry at this meeting and feel in physical and spiritual ways the compassion and support those two friends were giving me.

I can argue with myself, I can withstand the chaos and confusion and catfights in my mind about what I’m doing—my lack of self-acceptance. But there is something incontrovertible about sleeping the whole night through. It tells me that on some deep level I’m experiencing peace. And peace happens when the war is over. Peace is about surrender, and acceptance, including self-acceptance.

It’s hard to believe that I used to think I could experience peace by taking drugs. If I think back, I can remember that it worked, sort of, for a while. I remember, before my son was born, taking a trip that I didn’t really want to take (but I didn’t admit that, even to myself: dishonesty was my contribution to that problem), and using one of my headache drugs to sleep through the night in a situation I didn’t want to be in. It zonked me out, and I woke thinking, “Wow—I slept through the night!”

But I didn’t rest. What I did was, I drugged through the night.

Actually sleeping through the night is so much different.


Maybe it won’t happen every night. Maybe I’ll stop sleeping through the night. Maybe I’ll regret all of this. Maybe, maybe, maybe.


It’s hard to write about this, you know? If I could do all this secretly, I would. My habit is to hide. But I can’t do that anymore. What I mean is, I literally can’t do it: if I carry on hiding, it’ll kill me.

“I can’t write about all this,” I told my therapist recently.

“Don’t you think people need to know what sobriety actually does to marriage?” she said.


The first time I remember having a pleasant sleep, I was 18 and I slept over Robbie’s place. His roommate was sweet enough to crash elsewhere. Robbie and I had played tennis for a few hours and we came back exhausted and happy. We slotted a tape (a tape!) into his cassette player and took off our clothes and slid under the covers. He spooned me, two kids who didn’t even know what “spooning” was, and I slept long and deep.

Once, in college, 30 years ago, when I visited Robbie over a holiday, we were talking late into the night in his king-sized bed (at home I slept in a twin-sized bunk bed, sharing a smoke-stained eight-by-ten-foot room with my sister), and we inadvertently fell asleep like that—he was supposed to be sleeping on the couch in the den—and his mother found us in the morning. She made us promise not to do it again and, good kids that we were, we didn’t.

I couldn’t relax into sleep at home, because I was hit at home, and I was screamed at, and I screamed at others; people drank and smoked and lied and hid and vented rage and love in unequal measure at home; there were chaos and confusion and catfights; the sheets all smelled stale and tarnished.

Of course I slept well in Robbie’s room: his sheets smelled fresh, his arms felt kind, and I felt safe.


I smell different because my bed smells different, and so does my new chest of drawers, and so does my new sofa. The whole place smells different.

Life smells different.

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