Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Step 9 (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.


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.

Recovery: From Pneumonia, From Self-Censorship.

Last time I wrote, my editorial about how addiction is not a crime was coming out. (In case you want to read it: here it is.) After it ran, I got really sick. I was ill already, but my cough got worse, I could hardly talk without coughing, and I couldn’t sleep.

I tried everything—antibiotics, steroids, allergy medicine, expectorant, plain Robitussin. So my doctor gave me prescription cough syrup. Not codeine, as I expected, but my very favorite awesomest drug on the face of the planet: hydrocodone, in Hydromet syrup. “Take it for a little while,” she said, “and get some rest and your body will heal.”

I’ve known addicts who, before they got sober, used to carry bottles of hydrocodone syrup around in their purses and take a nip or a slug every so often. I knew one person who had trouble quitting his smoking habit in part because every so often the tar in the butts would give him bronchitis, and this would enable him to get Hycodan (same drug, different name).

I told everyone: sponsor, meetings, a bunch of people on Facebook, anyone who would listen, “I have to take hydrocodone for this cough.” Be careful, they said. The weird thing is, I was taking it when my op-ed ran. So people were writing in to thank me for speaking up for addicts, and there I was, on a drug.

The drug stopped my cough, but my body didn’t heal. The cough came back worse when the drug ran out. It was dry; it strained my back and sides and finally I had to go back to the doctor and tell them I wanted to know what the hell was going on with my lungs. My doctor was on vacation; I saw another doctor who conducted a more thorough history and ruled out a bunch of stuff and decided I had “atypical pneumonia.” Walking pneumonia, from some kind of extraordinary tiny little microbe that produces almost no phlegm. So she gave me a different antibiotic. And she refilled the Hydromet.

I didn’t tell as many people, because there’s only so much patience you can expect addicts to show about how you’re allowed to use your favorite drug. I mean, alcoholics never go to meetings and say, “I’m allowed to drink this week.” I didn’t want to sit in meetings and tell them, “I get to use my drug-of-choice AGAIN!—psych.” Still, I didn’t abuse the drugs, and I didn’t get obsessed with them.

Instead, I just got sad all over again.


The antibiotic and the cough syrup ran out four days ago. The cough mostly went away, and now it’s coming back again. I seem to be powerless over it.

Or am I?

People have volunteered a lot of explanations for why my lungs have been sick for six weeks.

“Are you barking at the world?” someone asked me. “Do you need to be heard? Are you trying to shut yourself up?”

“Lung illnesses are about grief,” another person said. “You must be experiencing delayed grief, or anticipatory grief, or fear of letting go of something.”

“Who’s choking you?” someone else demanded. “Who’s trying to gag you or shove something down your throat?”

One may well ask.

My friend P at first told me I have to “speak up” in situations where I feel silenced. (She consulted her amazing Dutch Medical Bible that gives insights into all human ailments—I love to hear her translations.) The morning after I got the pneumonia diagnosis, on the way to the dog park, I texted her to ask if she could look up “pneumonia” in her bible. I expected like two sentences, but she photocopied a whole page of the book and brought it to me. Under “Longontsteking” (pneumonia), it told me why, apparently, I’m sick (“You’ve ended up in a life which is not appropriate for your real, true nature: an unconscious choice. Thus you must liberate yourself…” it began). And here’s what it said I have to do to heal:

Let yourself not be determined by past roads, or by a partner, etc. Build a new life on a more stable basis than formerly: on your deep, powerful Self. Draw your roots up from the old ground and hurry them elsewhere. Realize your complete existence and its dignity. Become conscious in each cell of your body. Turning away from your own divine source doesn’t let that internal fire heat your body.

It just kept on hitting the nail on the head.

I’m sitting there in the dog park and P is reading this to me sentence by sentence, from Dutch to English. The dogs are chasing each other through the grass, dew is covering everything, including my back and my butt, because we’re sitting on a dew-covered bench (“I don’t care, I’m wet already,” P said), and I’m listening like Nic Cage hearing Cher “tell him his life” in Moonstruck. Except I don’t then jump up and upend the bench and kiss P. I sit there and try to hold back my tears, and I cough.

My Deep, Powerful Self.

Draw my roots up.

The internal fire heating my body.

And get this part:

Babies and children with pneumonia: the above causes are also sometimes the parent’s experience. So when you help yourself, you thus help your child.


Let me tell you a story: Baby G had pneumonia when she was two months old. Normal pneumonia, double-lung pneumonia. The phlegm consolidated under G’s fragile baby-kitten ribs and she couldn’t breathe. It was December 1964, Christmas week. G’s folks drove G back to Braddock General Hospital, where she’d been born, and Dr. Tomlin put tiny baby G (she had been born very small, 6 lbs. 2 oz.) into an oxygen tent. Back then they didn’t have ventilators or even isolettes—they’d make a little cloth tent, and they’d pump oxygen into it. If G’s mother had lit a cigarette (they used to let you smoke in hospitals; the way she told it, she smoked right up until she pushed in each of her pregnancies), she might have blown the whole place sky-high.

The nurses sent G’s folks home, and instead of going home they went to G’s father’s family church—the Croatian church where just a month before G had been baptized. They knelt and prayed in front of the manger (back then, the church doors were open day and night). The church was dark, and the pastor came out and saw that G’s mother was crying. They told the priest about the baby in the tent, and he patted G’s mother’s shoulder. “Go home and go to sleep,” he said in his Slavic accent, “I vill pray for baby. Baby vill be fine.” And G’s parents made their way back to their newlywed apartment, in the latticed shadow of the roller coasters of the old-style amusement park.

Meanwhile, back at Braddock General, Dr. Tomlin was working overtime, monitoring the baby, giving her minute doses of a relatively new drug called penicillin. She was so small and so sick and the drug was so new (less than 20 years old in clinical use at that point) that his pediatric training hadn’t yet taught him how much to give her.

In the morning G’s parents came back, and the baby’s fever had broken.

What saved G—was it “God” and/or G’s parents, and/or the priest, and/or the doctor, and/or the drug??


Who knows. But my mother blamed the pneumonia on my “immature lungs” and someone with a cold. She never took a look at her own contribution to the situation. It was a long time before I considered how dangerous for a baby it might have been to put her in a house full of smoke.

At any rate, I’m alive today. Even if I do have pneumonia.

My mother is not. And neither is my father.

Become conscious in each cell of my body.

Realize my complete existence and its dignity.

And to stay alive, my life has to keep changing. An amends to myself.

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.

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