Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: surrender (page 2 of 4)

Into The Cloud: Jump Through The Window.

It’s the small hours of a new day, and I’m awake and thinking about Ed.

Ed is a long-time member of my 12-step group. He’s 74, native of Westchester County, N.Y. Upwards of 40 years sober. He’s got terminal cancer of the bile ducts—the little tiny vessels that allow bile into the liver from the gall bladder—and it looks as if he’s at the end of his life.

Tomorrow is Saturday and Ed, again, will not be at the literature meeting I’ve been going to for a couple years. I went last week and met up with one of his long-time sponsees. I asked him how Ed was. The guy’s smile kind of froze on his face and his eyes welled up, and he said he was only then coming to the realization that Ed would not last long.

Ed has been living with this cancer for more than a year, had received his diagnosis in December 2011, just after retiring from his job. The rounds of chemo and radiation had done their best to stop him from carrying on his life, developing apps and jockeying a weekend radio gig at the university station—Ed is a jazz and blues aficionado—and playing with his grandchildren and his many devices. Ed made friends with all the Apple Store “geniuses” and always brandished the latest Apple product. When I visited him yesterday morning at his nursing home, he was lying back half-asleep on his bed, his tray-table holding a cup of water and his black iPhone 5.

He was forever trying to get me to learn how to navigate The Cloud.


One thing I appreciate about Ed is that he’s a solid atheist with a spiritual orientation. He was raised Irish Catholic, and he’s proof that a person who doesn’t believe in any kind of “god” can get sober using a 12-step program.

I’d sit in those meetings bristling about God: what the hell kind of Higher Power gave a shit about whether I used drugs or not? He’d sidle up to me after the meeting and tell me it didn’t matter how I understood the power, as long as I knew it wasn’t myself.

“’Other Power,’ you call it,” I told him yesterday morning, and he nodded.

Ed is a devoted dad who was able to remain close with his kids through divorce and remarriage. One of his daughters showed up at 10:30 yesterday morning, while I was there with Lucy and his wife. When my kid had insomnia; when I fretted about choosing the right school for him; when I’d worry about his someday becoming an addict—Ed would tell me just to focus on today and love my kid the best I could.

He’d tell me I was doing a good job as a mom. I believed him. He’s the age my dad would have been had my dad not died six years ago of his own GI cancer, and my dad used to tell me that.


Unlike my dad, who I don’t think enjoyed my writing, Ed always read this blog. It took me a while after he started reading it to accept that he was in fact reading it, because he had so much sober-time—what could I possibly have to say to someone like Ed? I write from “beginner’s mind.” But I know enough people with more than two or three decades of sobriety to know that, at some point, after the thrill is gone, you need to stay alert for ways to keep sobriety new, to keep developing spiritual fitness. You can’t stay physically fit by doing the same workout every day for 10 years.

Roy Eldridge, jazz trumpeter and hepcat.

Roy Eldridge, jazz trumpeter and hepcat.

Once, Ed read a blog post and emailed to tell me it was musical—it reminded him of a jazz tune called “Jump through the Window” by Roy Eldridge, a jazz musician who was born on the North Side of our city, got kicked out of school in ninth grade, and played in bands at Birdland and in Chicago and Paris. Ed said my language conveyed the energy of classic 1940s and 1950s swing-jazz. “Look it up,” he advised, and I bought it from iTunes.

Because I’m still pretty Earthbound, though, it’s on my hard drive instead of in The Cloud.


I’ve learned through experience how to say goodbye to people. The most important part is to stay receptive to the quiet requests of my heart. Today I found myself holding Ed’s hand, and also closing my eyes for a minute to find a quiet space inside me.

Still, it’s hard to let go. But there’s peace to be found in the discipline of trying.


Sober Mothering: Letting Him Go.

I’m coming up on two years sober, it’s like a sing-song in my head, “two-years, two-years.” In the end, who really gives a shit?

My son, for one. He told me the other day: “Mama, it’s good to see that you have so much POWER.”

He said it like that. “so much POWER.”

I was like, “Dude. What do you mean, POWER?”

(We’d been talking about how my mother had died when he was a baby, and how having three kids was driving my sister nuts sometimes, and how I’d made a conscious choice to have only one child. I know you feel lonely sometimes, Dude, being the only kid in this house, I said, but I knew early on I could not have handled more than one. For one thing, I just loved you so much, and I didn’t want anyone else messing that up. We connected strongly, very early on, you and I. For another thing, I knew I was trying to change a lot of things my own mom had done, and I wanted to boost my chances of success. I knew I couldn’t have done what Aunt J did and had three. She’s doing an amazing job and I couldn’t have done that. So I stayed home with you the first year, and I made sure you had friends from when you were like 2. And I’ve driven you everywhere and never complained about driving. I want you to have friends.)

We were sitting on the couch in the living room. He looked into my face, with his deep brown-velvet eyes, and said, “How many people do you know who have been able to overcome their addiction?”

He hardly ever brings up that subject. Addiction.

(A lot, I thought. Then I thought about my parents, some of my cousins, my other family.)

He held my gaze and said, “How many people do you know who have made helping other people with this their work?”

“There are a lot of people who help other people with their addictions,” I said.

“How many people do you know who have DIED from their addiction?” he retorted.

So that’s what it comes down to: I’m here for him. I didn’t die. He knows that, and that’s what matters.

The boy at 5, bearing flowers.

“I remember when I was like 10 or 12, I don’t remember how old,” he said

(ten, it was when you were ten, the year grandpa died and i lost it)

“you stayed in your room like ALL DAY and never came out.”

I pushed a lank lock of hair off his forehead. “I’m sorry about that,” I said.

“But you’re always out of your room now,” he said.

He was just accepted to the creative and performing arts public high school today.

The boy licking the bowl.

He still drapes himself across me in the mornings. He’s as tall as I am, bigger-boned, oily-skinned, with a peach-fuzz-baby-boy-mustache. He burrows his face into my belly. He knows it’s where he came from. Yesterday I went to a meet-and-greet at the (private, expensive) high school he really wants to go to next year, and I studied the girls on the “student panel”—the swotty girl with braces and brass-buttoned jacket who comes from 45 minutes away; the sexy theater-studies girl in white rag-dress and combat boots; the girl kitted out in little black number and platform spike heels. Isn’t there a friggin dress-code at this place? I thought. They all have long hair and black-varnished fingernails and possibly piercings and tattoos and they have CURVES, and when he goes up to high school next year, braces off and looking all hot and angular in his skinny brown cords and tobacco-suede Gravis chukkas, he will belong to them—las chicas. And that’s cool—maybe not cool, it’s fine, I’ll suck it up and be the Cool Mom when it happens. It will happen.

But for now I’m still Mama.


The boy, age 3.

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.

On G’s Gratitude List: Our Kids.

My baby sister is in the kitchen singing with Sinatra: I Get a Kick out of You. I sing a few bars with her. We’re both altos and we both sang a cappella in our college choirs; she went to school five years behind me.

“Have you always liked Old Blue Eyes?” I ask. She shakes her head, still singing, pointing a Nerf gun in my general direction as my son fiddles with another, trying to get the clip to fit right. My 10-year-old nephew, Kevin, four years younger than my son, stands behind him; both boys wear knit caps pulled down to their eyebrows. Kevin copies my son all the time.

(“The Jonathan-hands,” my sister says, rolling her eyes and gesticulating.)

“Why do girls love animals so much?” my son asks as my elder niece, five days younger than my son, cuddles their new dog.

“And why do we love to shoot each other so much?” Kevin asks in a silly voice.

Earlier I dropped my younger niece, 12, off at the high school for a two-and-a-half-hour swim practice. This summer she swam and ran a sprint biathlon; she just made the state cut in her event, the 50-meter breaststroke. States are in February. I pull into the dark parking lot and watch her walk into the huge suburban high school, remembering how small she was when she was born, feeling contentment in being a massively proud aunt.

Four kids between 10 and 14.

They’re mine, too. All of them. My sister shares them with me, thank God, and I share mine with her. And genetically, they’re as much mine as they are my sister’s. After all my sister and I share 99.9 percent of our DNA. Temperamentally, my elder niece and I are cut from the same bolt of cloth (make it thick silk charmeuse, in scarlet or royal purple; or else slate-gray heathered cashmere, spun and woven extra-fine; and on other choice occasions, hard-wearing denim, in black—cotton with 2 percent spandex).

For my birthday recently I received a card signed by my sister’s three kids, plus Kevin’s best friend Tom. “I love that Tom signed my birthday card,” I tell my sister.

“I love that you even remember who Tom is,” she says. We never had kids over our house when we were growing up. Well: that’s not true. My sister had birthday parties; I didn’t. But we never had kids just hanging. Our parents are gone; my sister and I are trying to raise our kids differently. We open the doors and let people in.

Especially kids.

There are so many important kids in my life. Not just these four; there are also the kids my son goes to school with; kids he plays soccer with; kids he’s known since he was in preschool and with whom he’s still friends. There are the girls who are beginning to notice my son (“I like your glasses!” one of them tells me when I see her; “I like your coat!”). There are more kids all the time.

When I got pregnant I was terrified to become a mother. Afraid I’d screw it up. “Will I be able to love him well enough?” was the question I asked. In her new book, Blue Nights, Joan Didion says people don’t ask themselves this question but I beg to differ: I asked it of myself constantly, and I still ask it. Do I love him well enough? Am I able?

In sobriety I’m learning that my best efforts are good enough.

I’m grateful to my sister for sharing her kids with me, and for loving my son as if he were her own.

Tonight: off to an awesome Al-Anon meeting.

Sleep, Drugs, and Surrender

Talked with a friend yesterday who is taking a drug to help her sleep. The drug she’s taking is a drug usually used for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but it’s prescribed “off-label” as a sleep aid. Beware the drugs that are prescribed off-label: my friend wants to quit, but she’s having trouble.

I recognize her thinking. I’ve done this myself. One reason painkillers were a solution in the beginning was that they helped me sleep. I’d get to the end of the day and I couldn’t face getting into bed without knowing I’d get at least six uninterrupted hours. Of course, once massive tolerance builds, the solution goes out the window. In the end, I couldn’t fall asleep until 2 a.m.

Immediately after detox, my desperation for sleep soared to heights I’d never before imagined. When I jumped off Suboxone three years ago, I went to greath lengths to guarantee a good night’s sleep. I exercised every day, I stayed away from caffeine, I meditated. But I didn’t surrender. Instead I tried other external stuff: Valerian; Lyrica (an anticonvulsant also approved for fibromyalgia); Neurontin (an anticonvulsant also prescribed for chronic pain); antihistamines; melatonin.

I still take a small dose of Neurontin each day, for pain. The amount I take doesn’t help me sleep. And when it comes to sleep, for half the month, I’m screwed. I’m 46. My hormones are constantly shifting. I know my hormones are on the downswing the day my breasts start to hurt, and usually that night I’ll wake up at 3:30, and every night thereafter I’ll wake at 3:30, until my cycle starts.

In the beginning of the month I can wake for five minutes and get back to sleep. But not last night.

Last night when I woke I tried my mental gratitude list trick, and when that didn’t work I began to feel frustration, panic, a desire to control the problem.

“Part of it is brain-chemistry,” my friend had said.

I couldn’t agree more. When my estrogen levels are rising, I sleep well. When they fall, I wake up at 3-fucking-30.

Does this mean I have to take a drug?

Sleep is the time of day we surrender. You can’t TRY to sleep. You have to let go. … If I panic, if I allow myself to panic, this puts my body and mind into fight-or-flight mode and dumps a bunch of adrenal hormones into my blood. Adrenal hormones are the ones to which sky-divers and rock-climbers and other extreme-sport enthusiasts can become addicted. Adrenaline helps when you’re falling from 8,000 feet and even helps when you’re climbing a sheer rock-face, but it feels like shit when you’re stuck awake at 3-fucking-30.

I’ve stopped drawing a line between the body and mind. I don’t even say they’re “connected” anymore. They’re the same. The body has all kinds of little “brains” distributed throughout its geography. It’s a fact that people who meditate regularly can change the ways their bodies behave. It’s a fact that our neurology is not set in stone—it’s plastic.

How do you surrender (or practice Step 1) when you’re in the middle of extreme feelings?

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