Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: suicide

Robin Williams, Alone.

Robin Williams

This morning I read a transcript of the coroner’s press conference about the scene of Robin Williams’s suicide. (I came across it on Facebook, where it was posted by Salon’s social media person with the strange warning, “Proceed with caution.” Badly done, Salon. Linking to a gruesome description of someone’s hanging body with a note that sounds flippant is at the very least mean.)

I read the transcript three times. I read it the second time because, the first time around, I couldn’t understand how his body was positioned. I still can’t. Frankly the first thing I thought of was that scene in season 2 of “The Wire” when D’Angelo is strangled to death by Stringer’s guy, but Dee’s body is left to look as if he’d hanged himself by a belt suspended from a door. It doesn’t work: there’s not enough gravitation to cut off the airway.

But I read the transcript a third time because I couldn’t understand how Williams could have been left alone for so long. In other words, how he could have been found so many hours after he had died.

He was living in a house in Tiburon, on San Francisco Bay, with his wife of three years. The report said she’d last seen her husband at 10:30 p.m. Sunday night, when she went to bed. Or, as the report said,

when she retired for the evening in a room of the home. 

By herself, is the tacit qualification here. I mean, if she’d been sleeping in the same room, to say nothing of the same bed, as her husband, it would have been more likely that she’d have noticed him getting out of bed in the middle of the night and scurrying off down the hall to loop a belt around his neck, shove the other end between the door and the jamb, and somehow—I don’t understand how, probably because I don’t really want to understand—suspend his body to hang himself.

So they were probably sleeping in separate rooms.

And here’s the thing. He wasn’t found by his wife. He was found by his personal assistant. The employee knocked on the door at 11:45 a.m., more than 12 hours after Williams’s wife had last seen her husband, and couldn’t raise his boss. So the assistant went into the room, the assistant found the body.

Robin Williams and Matt Damon

I’m thinking about this report in this way because I think a lot these days about the commonalities of people who are suffering for various reasons. If Williams died in this supremely lonely way, then you can bet there are hundreds, thousands of others who have died this way: sneaking off to loop belts around their necks, suck on exhaust pipes, take too many pills, shoot too much dope. Stick guns in their mouths. Jump off bridges.

I’m also thinking about the fact that Williams went back to drinking after having quit for more than 20 years. One of my friends, who has several more years sober than I do, wrote on Facebook yesterday afternoon:

It’s hard to describe the agoraphobic, upside-down sensation that strikes me when I read the words “falling off the wagon after 20 years of sobriety.”

That’s what the press kept saying about Williams: he’d fallen off the wagon after 20 years.

(They also kept saying he went into rehab last year to “fine-tune” his sobriety. Which doesn’t mean a damn thing. The fact that this statement by his publicist was accepted without question is proof of the huge gray area in which addiction treatment is allowed to operate.)

But most of all I’m thinking that stories like this one—which are emblematic of the untold stories of ordinary people who die similar deaths, who wade through similar struggles to stay sober, do their work, love their kids, pay their bills, survive divorces, and just be human—make me grateful for a quiet, ordinary life. Famous people can’t go anywhere without people recognizing them and wanting a piece of them. While this may not generally be something to pity them for, it puts real restrictions on recovery practices. Eminem, for example, doesn’t go to meetings, because when he does, people want shit from him all the time. This is true of most famous people. When Williams went to rehab last year he clearly couldn’t even buy an ice cream cone without the dipper asking him to pose for a picture and without some fucking journalist (we pain in the ass journalists, oh man) writing a bit about it.

Robin Williams Dairy Queen Minnesota

When I was using I used to think that no amount of fame or money would be enough to make me safe and prove I was worth the space that my feet take up on the planet. I used to lie in bed, eyes riveted open by hunger and whacked out diurnal cycles and fear, wondering what was the amount that would make me safe—$1 million? $5 million?

Any amount is too much, and no amount is enough.

Of course on the other side of this statement is the quiet little whispering voice that Williams himself called “the lower power,” the voice that whispers You can have just one little bottle of Jack Daniels or You can steal those Vicodin and be OK. Or: $5 million, I think about $5 million would do it. Which is exactly the reason I go to meetings, because none of those options are possible. Even if I had $5 million, which I don’t, $5 million would be way too much and not nearly enough to solve the problem of the kind of sickness Williams had. That I have.

Williams (Winehouse, Houston, Ledger, Jackson, Hoffman) had big houses, cars, fans, millions of Twitter followers, check-mark-verified social media accounts. They had personal assistants or private physicians or physical trainers who shot them up with drugs (in Jackson’s case) and knocked on their doors in the morning, couldn’t rouse them, called the cops (or strangely enough, in Ledger’s case, called either Mary Kate or Ashley Olsen—I can’t remember which. As if it matters).

They had all that stuff. But they didn’t have the component of life that, in Stephen King’s words, “stills the demons.”

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Recovery, Step 1: How Not to Jump Off A Bridge.

A couple weeks ago I felt an intolerable urge to jump off a bridge. I even had a specific bridge in mind, the oldest still-standing bridge here, one of my favorites in this “city of bridges.” It’s especially beautiful at night

though the image that looped in my mind was of jumping off the side (specifically, the west/downstream side, the side pictured above) during the day.

In other words, while everyone around could see me. Performance of a lifetime.

This was the week that Allgood visited. I hadn’t confided my urge to jump off the bridge to Allgood because, at the time, the desire was so weird, so true, that I hardly recognized it was happening. Just like the bleeding—I’d been bleeding for three weeks before life forced me to recognize that I was actually bleeding OUT.

I’d confided other things to Allgood, because he cares about me, and because I thought that if I talked to him, the pain that I thought maybe was making me think about jumping off the bridge would ease. But I also told a few other people about my urge. For example, I called my sponsor. And I told a therapist, who fortunately recognized how much trouble I was in and asked me to guarantee my safety to her—to promise that I would commit myself to a psychiatric facility rather than waiting for someone else to do it. (Or, of course, jumping.)

These acts—telling other people what I was thinking and promising someone else I’d take care of myself first—are the same as telling someone before I use. Because, as a commenter said here recently, what we’re all engaged in doing in recovery is “keeping from killing ourselves”—whether it’s jumping off a bridge (quickly) or drinking/using (sometimes, though not always, more slowly).

I began to be suicidal on a Wednesday afternoon, and I don’t know why it was that the act of jumping off a bridge was the one that overtook my imagination. There are less painful and messy ways to die. It was only two days later, when I found myself looking at a story on the San Francisco Chronicle’s website about what happens to the body when it hits the water, what the Coast Guard has to deal with, what the medical examiners usually find inside, that I knew I was really off my rocker. By then I’d been crying most of the day for two days and unable to work much.

I was also unable to make the simplest of decisions. I couldn’t decide what to have for lunch. I couldn’t decide whether to accept my friend P’s weekend invitation to join her and her daughter and another friend, with my dog and three other dogs, at her house in the country. It seemed like a massive decision, an un-scalable mountain.

“You know, P,” I said over the phone, “I’m not really doin too well.”

“I hear that in your voice,” she said kindly. “L and I don’t mind. You can just sit all weekend and watch the dogs.”

“But what if Flo doesn’t get along with the big dogs,” I asked. There would be Ginger and L’s two adult male dogs, Cooper and Simon.

“She’ll be fine,” P said.

In fact, she was fine. Here she is, being fine:

 

For most of the weekend we sat and watched The Dog Movie. We also ate—the four of us women cooked for each other. We cleaned up. We rested. It was very hot, in the 90s, and the puppy and I would go into our dark little room and she would laminate her belly to the cool wood floor and I’d lie down on the bed and turn the fan on my body, and we’d nap.

Sunday the tide turned, I could get through the day without weeping, I began to laugh again. I brought Flo home Monday.

And when I got back, I realized this is what happened to make me nuts: I’d stopped, on schedule, taking the massive dose of progesterone prescribed to me to make me stop bleeding. I’d read Ayelet Waldman’s recent piece in the New York Times Magazine about her desire to top herself when her progesterone began crashing in perimenopause; I spoke to my doctor about it, she confirmed my analysis. I’ve put safeguards in place to help me through this month.

But it was a shock.

I began speaking about it in meetings. To make it real. To avoid hiding it out of shame. And I was amazed by the responses I received. My 73-year-old friend Martha (who is one of my surrogate mom figures) told me, inside a meeting and with tears in her eyes, that she wanted me to stick around because I was very important to her and she couldn’t do without me. My friend Big Daddy, also 73 and six-foot-four, put his arms around me and let me cry on him. “I want you to learn to be more permissive with yourself, Baby,” he said.

But you have to exert discipline around these thoughts. They are unacceptable.

My friend E called me and listened while I told him what happened. Which humbled me because E, also in his 70s, is having chemo for cancer. He sees himself as being in recovery from two life-threatening illnesses. And here I am, comparatively “healthy” and engaging in this thinking.

Then there was Allgood, who I eventually told over email that I’d been in real trouble. I got a series of replies, among them this one the other night while I was at my son’s graduation from middle school:

Dear G—you have helped me enormously. Promise me you will call me before you visit any bridges …..please.  Love, A

Always strange to hear I’ve helped someone. But why shouldn’t I be able to help someone?—it’s selfish to think I can’t.

It’s also selfish to beat myself up for having these thoughts. Or for any reason, really.

Can You Help?

This particular experience has weighed on my mind for a few days, and I’m conflicted as to how to respond to it.

Went to a meeting in which there was a person who has been diagnosed with various mental illnesses and who is on a bunch of medications. While reading the steps, this person descended into delusional talk. They really didn’t know what was real.

A couple of us put our hands on the person’s arms, trying to help them stop their rambling, but they just descended further. Finally another person came over and said, “Let’s go outside,” helped the person out of their chair, and escorted them out. And stayed with them for half an hour. And another person took over reading the steps.

This ill person sometimes calls me. And I sometimes call them to check on them.

Sometimes, this person talks as though they might want to end it.

Sometimes, even in Death Valley, flowers bloom.

This touches a still-raw nerve in me: when I was a kid, somebody very important to me, about my age, talked as though they wanted to end it. They had a plan: they had, they said, the materials to carry it out. And at 16 and 17, I was made to be responsible for determining this person’s state of mind. I had to talk with this person and report back what they said to the people who were responsible for them. I did this because I loved them and because I didn’t know, at 16 and 17, how else to behave when asked by adults to do these things.

(I’m talking vaguely on purpose: I don’t want to breach this person’s privacy. But the fact is, what happened back then still impinges on how I feel, how I’m tempted to make decisions, today. Do you know what I mean?)

When I was a kid we had a magnet stuck to our fridge that said, “He Ain’t Heavy / He’s My Brother.” I was taught that I Am My Brother’s Keeper. Cain and Abel.

And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel your brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

(We didn’t read the King James version; we were Catholics; but I like the language)

I said this to a couple of my friends after the close of that meeting the other day.

“I was taught that I’m my brother’s keeper,” I said.

“That’s unfortunate,” said one of my friends. “Because that’s not true. You can’t keep everyone safe. Sometimes you can’t help.”

Sometimes I Can’t Help.

(Can I? Can I? … Trust God, Clean House, Help Others.)

I’ve actually thought about going to this person’s psychiatric appointments with them. They have hardly anybody in their life to look out for them, and I have a lot of experience negotiating health care systems.

I’ve thought about taking them into my house so they’re not so lonely and desperate. I mean, in the old days people took addicts and alcoholics into their houses and helped them out. Right? They did for them what they could not do for themselves.

(Who has delusions of grandeur here? Whose ego is blown to drastic proportions? Who fancies herself The Savior?)

It’s hard for me to admit my powerlessness over other people. It is so difficult for me to resist taking care of other people. It is my first “drug of choice”—saving people, taking care of other people, making other people feel better. It comes from having had responsibilities foisted on me at too young an age.

I was too young, at 17, to be climbing into a suicidal person’s head and reporting back. But the reality is, it made me feel competent, effective. Powerful.

It set me up to want to get high off this power-trip later in life.

My sponsor would say,

The question is not “Why did this happen?” The question is, what are you going to do now?

“But what if they decide to top themselves?” I asked. I could feel my throat constrict and my eyes burn with the memory of the person in the past talking about a cyanide pill they’d said they had. (This person also grew up in an alcoholic family, though they still, to this day, refuse to admit it. Fortunately, they’re still alive and well.)

“Then they will be dead. And that will be very, very sad,” my friend said. “But this program is not to help with mental illness. The best thing you can do is direct them to the people who can help them.”

I know someone else in the program who suffered with mental illness and who ended it recently. People with experience in mental health services tried to help him.

I know another person in the program whose son texted her the other day that he was going to end his life.

I’m thinking about these people today.

My sponsor would say,

Prayer is very powerful.

Part of me scoffs at her and says it’s all bullshit, I prayed my entire childhood and terrible stuff happened, prayer sucks.

Part of me believes her. The part that believes her prays.

Sometimes I want to get even more honest than usual on this blog. I hope you don’t mind.

If you’ve experienced something like this, I’d like very much to hear from you.

How I Meditate.

A guy I know said the dean of his college once told him that if he had the Psalms and the works of Shakespeare, he would have all the literature he needed to express life’s joys and pain.

Sonnet 66 begins:

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry

Yesterday I found out someone in my recovery communities committed suicide. Carbon-monoxide poisoning. Long-time member, I witnessed his working the program. I can hear his voice in my mind. … Lots of addicts and alcoholics and “adult-children” have known people who have killed themselves. A reader not long ago emailed me to say he was having trouble stopping himself from thinking about a recent suicide.

In my mind it’s not evidence of the failure of recovery programs. Sometimes people need more help than they’re getting, or than it’s possible to get. There are significant and growing holes in social safety nets. … I’ve certainly had to get extra help. When I came to the 12 steps in 1999, I was ready to top myself—and I had what you might call a good life. I had a healthy kid, a house, resources. For folks who don’t have all that, it can be much more difficult to heal.

Tired with all these, from these would I be gone …

//

Meditated this morning. It’s sometimes a fucking drag to meditate because I tell myself I’m not doing it “right.”

There is no “right way,” though. That’s just my addict-voice talking.

Here’s how I meditate: I close the door. I kick my cushion to a spot on the floor in front of a blank space.

I sit at the edge of the cushion, with my knees pointed outward, my heels pulled in together. This is a modified lotus position. The full lotus position requires each foot to rest on the opposite thigh, but this isn’t relaxing for me. My legs go to sleep that way.

This stock photo shows a woman sitting in the position I use:

 

If it’s cold, I cover my legs with a blanket.

I turn off the phone’s ringer.

I set my phone’s timer for 12 minutes. That’s how long I meditate; I’ve worked up from 2 minutes, and I don’t give myself any shit for not doing it longer. I set the ringer for a harp sound and make sure it’s going to ring just loud enough for me to hear—so I can relax and know I don’t have to watch the clock, and I’m not shocked when the alarm rings.

When the timer is set, I rest my palms on my thighs, close my eyes, inhale into my belly, and begin to watch my breath. Then, partway through, I open my eyelids to half-mast. This was a suggestion from my friend Sluggo, who helped me online when I first started getting sober, and who meditates regularly. She says it’s important “not to go to dreamland” while we’re meditating.

The idea of meditation is to stay in the world, not to escape it,

she told me.

Words from Thich Nhat Hanh usually scroll through my mind:

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in
Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out

Or else, he sometimes says:

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in
Breathing out, I smile

This is from the last in a series of recordings I listened to while my mother was dying 12 years ago—Disc 2 on this site.

When I get lost in thoughts

(how will i be able to choose the right school for my son, how will i be able to pay the bills, how can i get all the work done, how could so-and-so have killed themselves, how could my mother have smoked herself to death, i miss daddy, i’m worried about so-and-so who called yesterday and is in trouble is being evicted wants to drink is suicidal and i don’t know what to do to help them there’s nothing i can do nothing i can do nothing)

I lead my attention back to my breath. It’s hard, man. It’s hard. I just keep doing it.

My experience of meditation is not nirvana. I don’t do it to “feel” anything. It’s an exercise. It’s about just carrying on leading my attention back to my breath. Letting go of the compulsive thoughts. Making space for the “intuitive thought” to rise.

//

I want to “help” everyone. I want to save people I can’t save. I want to bring people back to life who have been dead for a long time. I want to turn back the clock, take back things I’ve said, put things back the way they were before. I want to do impossible things, be God.

Breathing like this counters all that compulsion and magical thinking. It’s a discipline that changes the body’s neurology. It’s scientifically proven that if you do this regularly, if you meditate and focus on your breath and if, in particular, you focus on thoughts of “loving-kindness” toward fellow beings, you change your nervous system permanently, you foster an optimistic attitude, and you prolong your life.

Which means you increase your chances of helping others and serving the higher power of your choice.

Step 11: the way I get the day’s memo. It’s among a few simple ways that give me any hope of discerning true impulses and thoughts from the distortions of addiction. (The other two are prayer and checking my thoughts with a mentor, a sponsor, therapist, pastor, friend, whatever.)

I can’t do this online or over texts. I can’t eat online, I can’t pray online, I can’t hug my son via text, I can’t make love in a text. I can try, I’m sometimes tempted to fulfill these appetites in a virtual way, but it is not the same. All the stuff that nurtures me has to be done in real life (“IRL”).

So that when the opportunity arose to go to New York, I took it to meditation and I could go with peace of mind. So that when P called me two hours ago and asked whether I wanted to go for a walk with her and her dog, I could say Yes because I wasn’t grasping at the compulsion to Get Just A Few More Things Done. So that when I miss Mom and Dad I can know that there was nothing I could do to save my parents and I can put down my self-blame. So that I can trust I can do the next right thing (pick a school/take a job/help a friend/let go of a situation), to the best of my ability, in whatever given situation. Mostly, so I can stop obsessing and start living.

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