The road back

A Pittsburgh writer traces the fascinating keys to recovery
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Jennifer Matesa, a writer living in Friendship, was a well-​dressed, middle-​class junkie. She didn’t score from shady dealers in back alleys, though. Her supplier was the pharmaceutical industry. Starting about 10 years ago, this self-​described “white soccer mom” got hooked on pain-​killers after seeking legitimate treatment for chronic pain. Vulnerable from a family history of legal drug addictions to alcohol and nicotine, she became a full-​blown addict, manipulating the system to get more pills — morphine, fentanyl, hydrocodone — more often.

At the beginning of “The Recovering Body,” Matesa writes about her messy state in the third person. “Her addiction had made her homeless. By ‘homeless,’ I don’t mean she was living under a bridge (like a ‘junkie’). If you think of the body as the place where we live all day, this woman had lost her ability to reside there. She stopped by occasionally to cut the grass and check the heating and plumbing, but the shades were drawn. Nobody was living there.”

Matesa, 50, detoxed in 2008, had a brief relapse in 2010, and has been clean as a whistle ever since. But this book, her third work of nonfiction, should not be filed under Memoir, though she does use her life as a reference point throughout. And despite the subtitle of “Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober,” don’t relegate it to Self-​Help. It should be considered a common-​sense guide, based on up-​to-​date research and expert interviews, to staying out of the claws of addiction. She focuses on getting better in five key zones of life: exercise, nutrition, sleep, pleasure/​sexuality and meditation/​spirituality (or “mindfulness,” an acceptable buzzword in a book blessedly free of mumbo-​jumbo).

Anyone who is personally close to an addict — which means just about everyone reading this — would do well to absorb its 155 pages. They go by briskly thanks to Matesa’s professional chops as a reporter and her skill as a storyteller, coupled with a frank conversational style marked by natural humor and the occasional barnyard epithet.

The writing instructor at the University of Pittsburgh won me over, however, by page eight:

Taking care of my body is a large part of the work I’ve learned to do to stay sober. And yet only once have I heard the body brought up as a topic at a meeting,” she writes, referring to the 12-​step program meetings, the bedrock of modern recovery. “We’ll talk about any spiritual principle, but broach the subject of the body and we find out how fast people can scramble for donuts, coffee, a cigarette or a bathroom break.”

My exposure to the world of addiction treatment may be secondhand, based on regular conversations with good friends in recovery. But as I heard about their rounds of AA and NA meetings and the cornucopia of anti-​depressants and other necessary medicaments, it was a surprise to learn that the docs and shrinks were not also prescribing swimming, jogging, tennis or even ping-​pong. How can anyone be non-​depressed without regular, even modest, exercise? I sure can’t.

In the long term, moving the body beats drugs hands-​down in treating depression and anxiety,” Matesa writes, summarizing the growing body of research. And just like much of the advice she imparts, it applies to all of us in the relatively clean and sober world, too.

* * *

Matesa grew up in semi-​rural Plum Borough in a one-​step-​above-​working-​class Croatian Catholic family that probably did not look dysfunctional by American standards, though her parents died fairly young from smoking (mother) and drinking (father). Brainy and driven enough to get herself to Allegheny College, she went on to Pitt for a master’s in nonfiction writing and has made her way in the rough-​and-​tumble freelance world for decades, with a specialization in health policy. Her expertise in that field gives “The Recovering Body” the authority that merely woeful memoirs of addiction lack.

Exercise is the first and central pillar of a recovering body. Matesa blends her personal achievements as a bicyclist, tennis player, runner, yoga fan and “dive-​bomber” push-​up-​doer with stories of buff former addicts, some who have gone to other extremes as Ironman triathletes. But the message is clear: Start small, join a community such as Masters Swimming that will give structure to your efforts, and get high on organically induced endorphins.

The section on nutrition does not dispense recipes; Matesa presumes the reader already knows what is good to eat. She establishes the addictive properties of a sugar, a habit she has not fully kicked, though I think she’s too hard on herself here. Ultimately, the “ability to hold a conversation with the body’s appetites reduces overwhelming feelings and has the power to teach us what is enough.” And because so many addicts are consumed by self-​loathing, a key to recovery is realizing that your body “deserves to be fed well.”

Sleep is one of the body’s primary detoxifiers,” she writes, citing a University of Pennsylvania researcher who underlines that “sleep is for recovery.” Matesa suffered from insomnia throughout childhood and adulthood; her sleep patterns went nuts after the birth of her son in 1997. The years of addiction were a nightmare, and even newly sober people sleep badly for months. “Today, in order to sleep, I try to tell myself the truth, then I try to tell other people the truth,” she writes. “I practice peace of mind.”

The section on “meditation and awareness” speaks to a well-​known part of the 12-​step program: the surrender to a “higher power.” While Matesa’s childhood churchgoing gave her the ability to discern inner peace (usually as an antidote to boredom), she is definitely not in line with all of the AA program. Two of her literary heroes, former addicts Annie Lamott and Mary Karr, “believe in ‘God,’ and so do a lot of other people. Maybe you do, too — and if you do, I’m totally happy for you, and I would like to know how you do it. Because I don’t.” But her explanation of “the other powers I ‘believe’ in” — Light, Darkness, Gravity, Time, Love — is highly useful language for people uneasy with doctrinaire spiritual prescriptions. Her guidelines for practicing meditation are, once again, universally applicable and memorably phrased: “It puts Teflon coating on the mind’s sticky obsessions and compulsions.”

The section on sexuality contains useful insights on the personal conflicts that recovering addicts face as their physical health returns. “If you’re continuing to bombard the pleasure system with intense, undisciplined, not-​well-​considered acts of pleasure, that system is not going to come back online properly,” says one doctor, himself a former addict. Matesa maintains her confessional standards of personal experience, which yields one of the more revealing passages of the book: “I wish everyone could have the level of acceptance of his or her body that I’ve been given in my sobriety. I especially wish this for women. For most of my life, I’ve hated my body. Now I live so much more comfortably inside it that it’s almost like I’ve moved to a different country altogether.”

Oh, and there’s a coda: Three years after detoxing, Matesa was hit with a yearning: “I needed a dog.” The lifelong cat lover ended up with Lab mix she named Flo, as in “go with the flow,” and all parties could not be happier. Walking a dog, it turns out, is great for a human body.

Short Takes

True Stories, Well Told: From the First 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine

Edited by Lee Gutkind and Hattie Fletcher

InFact Books ($15.95)

The numbers don’t lie: Creative Nonfiction, a national journal edited from an office on Walnut Street in Shadyside, has published 53 issues over 20 years, and shows every sign of carrying on.

It’s a remarkable record for the world of “little magazines,” which may burn brightly but fizzle in a few years. “True Stories, Well Told” is an anthology of the magazine’s “very best of the best.” The book’s title is also the motto of the magazine, willed into life by former University of Pittsburgh teacher Lee Gutkind.

While each issue of Creative Nonfiction includes what they call a “big idea/​fact piece,” most of the 21 pieces in the anthology are memoirs, and many are based in personal trauma. The genre is not everyone’s cup of herbal tea. Gutkind confronts the critics with his closing essay “The Fine Art of Literary Fist-​Fighting,” framed around James Wolcott’s 1997 column in Vanity Fair attacking the emerging creative nonfiction movement as “navel gazers” writing “civic journalism for the soul.” Wolcott’s sneer, calling Gutkind the “godfather” of the cause, may have helped embolden the magazine, which has gone from strength to strength.

For a decade, my brother struggled to save his marriage,” begins an essay by Jerald Walker, “but late one winter night, he accepted that it was over, right after his wife almost cut off his thumb.” How could you not keep reading? “The Heart” practices what Creative Nonfiction preaches: Apply the details of reporting, the techniques of narrative and the grace of style to a personal story to give it universal appeal. Describing one episode from his brother’s marriage to a heroin-​addicted woman, Walker reveals a world of pathologies in just four pages.

Toi Derricotte, the award-​winning poet and essayist who taught at Pitt for decades, shows how it’s done with “Beds.” The unflinching account of the physical and mental abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her father is grounded in a simple structure: “Reimagining the beds I had slept in helped me to locate the writing in specific places and times,” she writes in the brief afterword that each author contributes to the anthology, a welcome touch that serves both readers and students. Meredith Hall’s “Without a Map,” which went on to become a best-​selling memoir, is what the kids would call “epic” these days; her dysfunctional self in her 20s, wandering poor around Europe and the Mideast, getting back on her feet.

Not every piece is for everyone. (“Breastfeeding Dick Cheney,” which comingles venom for the former vice president with Buddhist wisdom and the angst of motherhood, was not for me.) But you don’t have to be a devotee to be impressed by what Creative Nonfiction hath wrought: a place that challenges writers to make their personal stories worth your attention.

The Spirit Bird: Stories

By Kent Nelson

University of Pittsburgh Press ($24.95)

The winner of this year’s Drue Heinz Literature Prize, awarded since 1981 by the University of Pittsburgh Press, knows of what he writes: Kent Nelson has been an avid birder since childhood.

While the prize often goes to up-​and-​coming writers, the 71-​year-​old author of “The Spirit Bird: Stories” is well established but fresh as a breeze. The stories, rooted in the American West, range from title story (which is about birders) to contemporary tales of a desperate married pharmacist looking for some love action (“The Path of the Left Hand”) and a female service technician at a Saab dealership wracked by the recession (“The Beautiful Light”). They all take flight.

West of Sunset

by Stewart O’Nan

The novelist Stewart O’Nan (a Drue Heinz winner in 1993) returned to his native Pittsburgh several years ago to settle down and spread a warm glow through the city’s literary scene. Any novel he writes is an event. His latest, “West of Sunset,” which will be published in January, imagines the slow dissolution of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. Look for a full review in the Spring issue.

John Allison

John Allison reviews books for Pittsburgh Quarterly.

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