Conversation with Jennifer Matesa
This week, Liv speaks to Jennifer Matesa. She is the author of four nonfiction books about body, mind, and human wellbeing, including Sex in Recovery: A Meeting Between the Covers (October 2016) and The Recovering Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober (2014), both from Hazelden Publishing. She speaks and writes widely, and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh.
She began her recovery journey in 2008, and has been sober since January 3, 2010. Jennifer founded the blog “Guinevere Gets Sober”, one of the first blogs of its kind—a site dedicated not just to recounting the drunkalog or being the oracle of inspiration to stay sober, but also to giving the public reliable information about addiction, recovery, treatment, public policy, and other complex issues. Her commitment to removing the stigma from addiction and recovery earned Jennifer a fellowship at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Kitchen Table Conversation
Liv: Let’s kick off with food…What have you had for breakfast today?
Jen: I always have a cup of Yorkshire tea with milk and one or two slices of Ezekiel toast with butter. I gave up putting any sweetener in my tea about six weeks ago.
Liv: Moving to your story, you detoxed from fentanyl in 2008 and had a brief relapse before getting sober in January 2010. Tell me about the relapse and how that led to a sustained period of recovery?
Jen: Detoxing from fentanyl is not something many people accomplish. The fact is that fentanyl usually kills people. I was determined to recover, but I wasn’t prepared for the fact that I had weakened my body so much, and I also didn’t know that my post-acute withdrawal would be so protracted. I felt pretty shitty for a year after I got sober.
I relapsed the day after New Year’s Day 2010, when I saw a photograph of my cousin who had been killed by her drug dealer the previous summer. He had beaten and strangled her to death and left her body rolled up in a carpet in high summer. It destroyed my aunt, her grandmother. That cousin lost custody of all three of her kids because she could not recover from addiction. And before anyone says anything about getting her on Suboxone, let me say that she tried that. Drugs like Suboxone are not a cure-all for opioid addiction. Her downfall was mostly her inability to recover from the PTSD of a chaotic childhood. Her own father had died of the results of his own heroin addiction when she was 8, and after that, she saw her own mother turn tricks to earn money. … I remember looking at that photograph and thinking, “I don’t deserve love. I’ll never be able to earn love. This is the tribe I belong to: the people who die of their addictions.” Both my parents had died of the consequences of addiction, and my family has also lost others to addiction, including that cousin.
Liv: How have you chosen to recover?
Jen: I go to a 12-step community. After I stole a Vicodin the day after Near Year’s Day 2010, my sponsor in that community told me to give myself a limited amount of time to beat myself up, and then to get on with the work. For me, on a daily basis, that work involves asking for guidance and help, telling the truth, avoiding keeping secrets while also respecting my own privacy, and fitting myself to help other people.
Guinevere Gets Sober
Liv: Let’s move on to your website, Guinevere Gets Sober. Tell me about its initial purpose; was it a tool for your recovery? What has it given you?
Jen: I originally uploaded that site in the summer of 2009. I remember I did it the week Michael Jackson died of fatal overdose. I created the site because the way I understand my life is to write. I’ve been a writer my entire life—I have journals going back to when I was 10—and I’ve been a professional writer for 30 years. I also teach writing. I teach my students that language doesn’t just transcribe thoughts; it actually forms our realities as we grapple with words, idiom, and phrasing to create a story, essay, or even just a memory.
I originally started Guinevere Gets Sober as a totally anonymous site, not because of the anonymity of my recovery fellowship but because I wasn’t sure I could even recover, and I didn’t know what might be the consequences of branding myself with the “Scarlet A” for Addict. So Guinevere Gets Sober gave me an alternate identity, as well as permission to explore my experience frankly and honestly. It was also super fun to start one of the first blogs to treat addiction and recovery as a subject to be investigated and reported on in serious ways. When I started Guinevere, almost no one else, except for Sober Julie, was writing regularly about addiction. So Julie and I have been around the block together.
Liv: In what way does providing reliable information about the important topics of addiction, recovery, treatment, public policy assist in breaking the stigma?
Jen: When I entered recovery, which was less than a decade ago, stories that named addiction as the primary problem—cause of death and so on—very rarely made the news. I think my first post was about Michael Jackson’s death, and outlets were reporting that he had died of an overdose, but nobody was reporting that he had lived with the illness of addiction, and that was only seven-and-a-half years ago.
I think “providing reliable information” starts with language and naming. As the great poet Adrienne Rich wrote in her book On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, “In a world where language and naming are power, silence is oppression, is violence.” Since establishing my site, for example, I’ve stopped calling myself and others by the pejorative term “addict.” I say I’m recovering from addiction. I say people have the illness of addiction. Reclaiming power over the language I use—and that others use—to name and characterize myself and my experience is the most powerful demonstration of breaking stigma that I can provide.
Liv: You talk about the recovering person’s relationship with the body in your book, The Recovering Body. You say,
“In our former lives as practicing alcoholics and addicts, we likely punished our bodies as much as our minds. And yet, recovery programs often neglect the physical, focusing primarily on the mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of staying sober.”
In your opinion, tell me the physical aspects of recovery and how neglecting that relationship with the body might impact one’s recovery.
Jen: The first physical act of recovery is recognizing that I live inside my body. Have you ever met someone who, when you look at her, you just know she doesn’t actually recognize the needs of her own body? I’m a human animal. I need food, clothing, and shelter. I may treat my recovery with practices of spiritual enlargement, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the needs of my body. Part of that spiritual enlargement is recognizing that I need food, rest, exercise and movement, and sex, touch, and pleasure. And also stillness or meditation. Actually meditation is a great example of the way people overlook the physical aspects of a spiritual discipline. Meditation is a supremely physical exercise!—this is why Buddhist monks incorporate walking meditation with sitting meditation. It’s hard and even painful to sit for hours! When we meditate, we don’t just bring our minds to the mat; we also bring our bodies, and it’s the interaction of body with mind and mind with body that enlarges the spirit. The spirit enlivens both.
If I neglect the physical aspects of recovery, I risk relapse. Even if I don’t relapse, I’ll certainly live a much less joyous, empowered, refreshing, and free life than if I choose to live inside my skin.
Sex in Recovery
Liv: Moving on to Sex in Recovery, Dr Hokemeyer said:
“In this beautifully written work, Jennifer Matesa accomplishes a herculean task. For decades, clinicians have struggled to assist patients to integrate healthy sex lives into robust recovery programs. At the same time, traditional 12 Step programs have promulgated rules that shamed and denied their members’ sexuality. Sex in Recovery resolves this disconnect. Through compelling narrative descriptions, it gives its readers a map to navigate, resolve and embrace their sexuality in its most rewarding expression.” —Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, America’s Family and Addictions Therapist
Tell me what a healthy sex life looks like?
Jen: Dr. Paul is awesome. J Have you read my book? It’s “a meeting between the covers” because it uses “topic” chapters and “speaker” chapters to begin to break the silence around the huge issue of sex in recovery. The last three speakers—Tom, Olivia, and Gabriel—say better than I can here what healthy sex lives can look like.
Liv: Leading on from the previous question, tell me about that disconnect?
Jen: I think what Paul was talking about is the way folks in 12-step communities are warned not to have sex for a year after getting sober. Not everyone gets this advice, and some people are warned that they shouldn’t enter into a new relationship until they have a year of continuous recovery. Of course, both these suggestions are for single people, so married people quite often get no suggestions at all about how recovery might change their sexuality and sex life!
Neither of these suggestions is in the literature of the fellowships themselves. They’re just in the oral history that’s passed from one member to another. It can be difficult for 23-year-olds or 30-year olds (or even 45-year-olds!) to hear that they can’t have sex for a year if they want to participate in a recovery program.
The One-Year Rule is one of the top two suggestions that prevents people from staying in spiritual recovery systems. The other is what I call The God Thing. Both of these suggestions can be negotiated. A lot has been written about how to negotiate The God Thing—but Sex in Recovery is the only resource out there that offers ways about how to negotiate the sex thing.
And there you have the disconnect: people are a lot more willing to talk about “God” than they are to talk about sex. Americans in particular—as well as the British and northern Europeans—have a really hard time talking about sex. (In the book, I talk with scientists who say why.) I designed the book to help readers develop ways to become more comfortable with exploring their sexuality in terms of recovery, so we can get to know that critical part of our lives.
Health and Wellness in Recovery
Liv: How have you changed your relationship with your physical self in recovery?
Jen: I became addicted to painkillers after seeking treatment at a pain clinic for fibromyalgia and migraine, two very painful neurological disorders. I used painkillers—everything from codeine to Oxy to morphine to fentanyl—to push myself through work and ignore the needs of my body: good food, reasonable exercise, decent rest, and pleasure. How often we ignore our need for pleasure!
In recovery I have had to completely revise the way I treat my body. I no longer push myself to meet unreasonable expectations. I no longer work at the computer for four hours straight without a break. I practice yoga, ride my bike, and walk the dog—or even just pet her. (In the book I explain why looking into your dog’s eyes feels as good as looking into a baby’s face!) I ask for help, and I let some things go. For example, for a couple weeks now there have been dust-bunnies of dog-hair on my stairs. I don’t leave dishes in the sink, and I pay my bills and meet my deadlines, but these dust-bunnies of my dog’s hair have been teaching me not just to “accept my imperfections” but to actively practice being imperfect. These days, I shoot for imperfection! Soon I’ll vacuum them up and then something else will teach me how to live with and be grateful for the fact that I’m human.
Liv: How has your relationship with food changed in recovery?
Jen: I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, but throughout my 20s and 30s I was very vigilant about my weight. In fact the only sustained time I got any heavier than my weight at age 18 was the year I was pregnant, and even that freaked me out. I think it’s a good thing that I’ve never put on a lot of weight, because at 52 my knees are still in great condition, and I can cycle, play tennis, practice yoga, and walk or run for miles with my dog. But earlier in my life, keeping my weight down cost me a lot of peace of mind, and it’s a habit that still invades my consciousness: I don’t like it—I don’t like myself—when my jeans get too tight.
In my region, a lot is made of “the promises” of recovery, and one of the greatest gifts recovery has brought me is the ability to think for myself and to know my own mind. In recovery I have learned to feed myself not to lose weight or to look a certain way for a certain person, but to feel strong and comfortable inside my own skin and to look and feel the way I want in order to please myself.
Liv: What is your favourite meal/dish?
Jen: Bob Greene has a recipe for chicken-sausage jambalaya. I’ve adapted it for pork Andouille, and I drain the sausage within an inch of its life. It’s not an authentic jambalaya but it has tomatoes, red peppers, onion and garlic. I often eat it without rice because it gives me vegetables and protein. It’s perfect!
Also, recently I’ve become very partial to roasted winter vegetables, especially parsnips and garlic, with horseradish sauce.
Liv: Last, what are your top five recovery tools?
Jen: Prayer, meditation (including exercise), therapy, community, and actively practicing being imperfect. Also, talking with awesome, motivated, healthy people like you, Liv. Thanks for all you do.
Thank you for taking part in Kitchen Table Conversations.