I’m a doubting teenager

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Archival column from FRIDAY, JAN 18, 2008 03:38 AM PST

My experience contradicts what I have been taught. I feel guilty and alone.


Dear Reader,

Please read this thoughtful, well-written question from a high school student and imagine growing up in her house with her parents. Try to see the world through her eyes. She didn’t ask to be raised by the people who raised her. She didn’t ask to start having doubts about what they taught her. But she was, and she is.

Remember when you first doubted what your parents had always told you? Remember when your beliefs stopped giving you comfort and started filling you with doubt? Remember high school? I do.

Dear Cary,

I’m a high school student and I’m experiencing a habitual and hidden internal conflict. I live with both my parents, who are both fairly conservative. My mom is a religious Christian who has taught me values based on Christianity. And until recently, I accepted her views and saw myself as a conservative as well. About a year ago, I started developing different social and political values. I’m not really sure what happened, but somehow I became more liberal. Silently, I started questioning the ideas my mother instilled into me.

The way I see the world has changed. Suddenly, people who were “degenerate” aren’t so sinful anymore. I listened to degenerate music and I enjoyed it. I tried masturbating and found that I liked it. Every Sunday, I went to church but I stopped listening to the sermons. I asked myself blasphemous hypothetical questions: “Could I see myself in a homosexual relationship? Would I ever consider getting an abortion? Did I see myself as agnostic?” More often than not, I gave myself blasphemous responses.

My friends and I rarely discuss social mores. People in my family assume that we have the identical principles that all pious, good Christians should have. Our opposing views confuse me. Now I carry around feelings of guilt about thinking the way I do. Sometimes, I feel like my liberal views are well justified. Other times, there’s a voice that’s telling me I’ll burn in hell when I die. I also doubt the sincerity of my thoughts: Are my liberal views my independent thoughts, or are they just a silent way of rebelling against my parents and fitting in with more liberal-minded people?

Admittedly, I’m not chronically depressed about my problem. Most days end with me feeling happy about myself. I love my friends and my family. But in the midst of my normal pleasant life there’s just always some inkling of this internal conflict that reminds me of my guilt. I feel like I’ve nobody to confide to, and I was even reluctant to write you this letter. I’m in a moral quandary and I don’t know what to do.

Young and Confused


Dear Young and Confused,

It sounds like you are experiencing an ancient phenomenon. It is an awakening.

It is not rebelliousness. It is not the devil. It is the human spirit of inquiry and seriousness. It is the beginning of adulthood.

Adults experience doubt. Doubt arises naturally as experience calls doctrine into question. Your parents told you one thing. Your experience tells you another. You face apparent contradictions. The contradictions and doubts you are experiencing are the hallmarks of burgeoning adulthood.

Beware of the temptation, at this crucial moment, to replace one dogma with another. Instead, you must learn to synthesize what you are experiencing with what you have been taught.

For instance, on the question, say, of marijuana. Parents may tell children that marijuana is bad, period. No question about it. They may make dire warnings whose terrifying images keep children from trying marijuana. Then a kid smokes a joint. He experiences no immediate ill effects. He may decide that marijuana is therefore not harmful at all. He rejects one wholesale fiction for another. The balanced truth is that everything you do has an effect, and anything you do to excess has a cost.

The danger of teaching a child only one absolute and inviolable set of rules is that when the child meets contradictions she has no way to integrate those contradictions into her world. Integrating your direct experiences into your world of faith requires nuance. When your experience seems to contradict what you have been taught, you have to move beyond the literal and toward the metaphorical and the subjective. In a world of absolutes, those words may sound like the devil’s words. But they represent experience as we know it, not as we wish it were so.

Meeting apparent contradiction also spurs growth.

But grow carefully. Grow, but grow carefully. In my early life I grew but not carefully. I grew with cataclysmic abandon. I experienced many sharp discontinuities of belief, as though I had been uprooted and transplanted several times; literally, I was transplanted. But also intellectually and spiritually, in the 1960s, my whole generation experienced cataclysmic rejections and rebirths; we denounced and we proclaimed; we attempted to create whole new worlds in the desert out of nothing but ideas and bags of seed. This too was the beginnings of adulthood — our adulthood, in which by hard struggle we would eventually see how these jarring rejections and sudden embraces gave no time for mature ideas and faith to set.

So if you can gain from my experience, go slowly. If you are smart, and you apparently are, you will absorb information rapidly with remarkable retention; you will find yourself gorging on the world and its information; it will feel to you as though no problem is too complex; mathematics and science promise unhindered progress in understanding. And especially when you are young and your brain is growing, there seems no end to what you can understand. And yet you can spend your whole life absorbing information and solving problems and be no closer to the truth. This is a bedeviling and implacable realization. It sends some people into dejection. But it needn’t. It is our world as it is. Beyond everything we know there is always still more. You cannot possibly read everything or know everything or see everything. There is not enough time. The universe is too big.

So adults recognize limits and nuance and complexity. The devout, the profane, the atheistic and agnostic, the meditators and seekers and followers and leaders, the political and the spiritual, the addicted and the sane, the lost and the saved, the doomed, the pragmatic, we all walk the same earth and face the same mortality. We are not the same but we are in the same situation. Some of us believe we have the solution, that we will be saved while others burn. But no one knows for sure what lies behind the curtain.

Life at its core is a mystery. Christianity offers a compelling explanation for this mystery. So do many other religions. So do science and philosophy. The mystery remains, compelling and terrifying.

I myself believe that the world is holy. Perhaps this makes me a pagan. I believe that we take signs from the world, that the world is speaking to us and that it is infused with mystery and power and that if we defy it it will crush us and we will be always walking against the wind in a sandstorm, but if we work with its currents, tacking with it, running parallel with it at times and across it at times but rarely swimming backward against it, taking the weather as it comes, covering up in rain and snow and exposing our flesh to the sun when it is warm, then we are in harmony with the world, humbly a part of it not apart from it. Whatever you call this is up to you. You might call it God or you might call it reason or practicality. You might call it atheism or pantheism or paganism or rootless agnosticism. I prefer to think of it as adulthood.



Am I being used?

Dear Cary:

Thank you for bringing humaneness to advice columns. I hope you’ll consider taking time to help me figure out a problem. I was raised in a tribal culture where women keep things to themselves in order to keep others from worrying. I have trouble speaking to friends back home to help me work this out, and I am in a very rural area with no therapists close by.

I do not have any friends where I am living.

In 2010 I started doing dissertation research in a small community far from my home. I met a man who was 62. I was 33. He seemed very young, was outdoorsy, and we spent a lot of time together on my project. He has been married and divorced four times. Only one of the marriages lasted a while, with “Sherry” (nineteen years). I have been married once (together for about twelve years, married for five)–the ex had an affair, and I will admit I have trust issues. My ex and I raised his son together, and I promised the son to love him like my own no matter what, and I do. Stepson still lives close to my “home”–far from the research community.

This older man and I started dating as a fling. We discussed that I was going to leave, write my dissertation, and seek an academic job. I’m of mixed heritage — American Indian, black, and white —  and I’m the first on my mom’s side of the family to have a doctorate, so this was a big deal, not just to me, but to my parents and Indian community. I actually did leave the research community and drove back home, to work and write my dissertation. However, a couple days after I left, a mutual friend called to say Manfriend had a heart attack and was in ICU. I immediately went back to take care of him and ended up moving in. His health generally declined from another condition, although he hides it well. He is now on disability, but it is not enough to support him at the level he likes.

Somehow helping him stretched out to three years. I love Manfriend — by which I think I mean I could not stand for him to be alone and killing himself trying to work, which is what he would do if it weren’t for my income.  I have supported him, cared for him, taken him to the hospital and to traditional healers, worried over him, taken care of all the work he can’t do around the house, advocated for him with doctors, etc. His kids rarely visit. He says he loves me, but he does not want to get married.  I did finish writing my dissertation, very slowly, while working two jobs to support both of us. There are no academic jobs here. I do other work in a high-stress but boring profession that does not pay well here.

Here are the hangups. He calls me “Sherry” sometimes. He speaks about Sherry to others and tells them how pretty she is, even shows off pictures of her and their daughter together and refers to her as “my old lady.”  Manfriend comments about how other men who are “shacked up” with women do so because they do not respect their girlfriends enough to marry them. About two years ago, Manfriend made comments about wanting oral sex from another woman in front of me and whispered to her something apparently salacious in front of me. He has not taken me out in about a year, so I no longer see him interact with other women, although he claims that the hitting on the other woman was only when we were “not as committed” (we had been living together and I was supporting him even then). He tells me that he thinks it is funny to tell people in town who ask about me and him (it’s a small town, and the age difference as well as my profession and race make us a curiosity for gossips) that he doesn’t even know me.

Manfriend is not as bad a boyfriend as it might sound. What I haven’t said is that he is also kind when he’s not being disrespectful. He cooks for me, listens to my frustrations with my job and my worries about Stepson and my elderly grandfather, and is very affectionate. When we are OK we laugh a lot together. We never go out together anymore. He does go out when I’m at work. By the time I get home and on the weekends, he says he is too tired or that I am too insecure and will get mad at him for looking at other women. But he doesn’t want me to go out by myself, so I have made no friends here other than “work friends,” not people I would share personal issues with.

I know I’m insecure and bringing my own old issues with trust into things. But I can’t get over the feeling that despite all this if Manfriend respected me or were committed to me much he would never have hit on other women (especially not in front of me), could manage not to call me Sherry during intimate moments, and could stop bragging about Sherry to other people. They’ve been divorced 15 years but apparently, according to her religious beliefs, she and he are still married since she does not believe in divorce. I also tend to think he would want to get married since, according to him, not getting married is a sign of disrespect. That we are racially different does not help. Sometimes I really think that if I were white he would not act like he was ashamed of living with me or try to shame me.

This is all very far from my family, and I’m now 36–getting old if I did want to settle down and have a child other than Stepson. I’m terrified that I’m losing precious time with my parents, elderly grandfather, and stepson and obviously weakening my relationships with all of them because we rarely see one another, and that I gave my beloved and also now elderly dogs back to Exhusband (Manfriend is violently allergic), all to be with a man who I sometimes suspect is using me. But, again, I hate the thought of leaving him alone, or of not having him in my life, and I think I find satisfaction in caring for someone.

How do I make a decision I can live with or let wanting a more stable relationship go? We are wearing each other out fighting. When we argue that pain and humiliation of him hitting on that other woman in front of me and telling people he lived by himself and didn’t know me just bubbles up as if they were new. I want to talk about it, and he doesn’t, which means I usually unload it all it once when I figure we’re already in for an argument–not good for either of us–and he responds with sarcasm and exaggeration, which tends to make it hard for me to keep “fighting fair.” The last fight ended with me vomiting up all these worries, crying, and telling him I was scared and him telling me I was making him sick with my “tantrum,” so I’m sleeping at my office for a while.

Any advice would be very appreciated.


Not Sure if I’m Being Used or Just Poisoning My Relationship With My Old Issues


Dear Longest Pseudonym Ever in the History of this Advice Column and that Means 12 Years,

Thank you for your letter. I don’t think it’s helpful to simply say you’re being used. It’s more complicated than that.

You are in an unusual relationship. You get a lot from this relationship. You also give a lot. You sacrifice. It is an unequal relationship. But you are not powerless in it. You have some power that you are not using. You have the power of refusal and of withholding. I don’t mean withholding sex. I mean withholding yourself, and the things you do for him.

Rather than be doctrinaire, strategically cut back. Stop doing certain things for him, while still maintaining the essential bond between you. The services you provide are not just practical. They are emotional. You supply him with approval and esteem; you allow him to believe that he is king. It’s OK for him to be king some of the time. But he is not all-powerful. He needs to know that his powers are limited.

I think you’re smart and compassionate and deserving of more than this man is giving you, but it is your responsibility to even things out with him. So pull back. Let him see that he can’t just get whatever he wants from you whenever he wants it. Retire into yourself a bit. Let him feel some tension. Let him wonder. Let him see that his lack of respect has consequences.

You say you are living in a small community far from home. You are isolated. You depend on this man more than you would if you had friends to confide in. So you need to make some friends. If that means breaking certain customs, by confiding things that in your tribe generally are not confided, and by on occasion denying him the pleasure of your company while you go and be among people in more equitable power relationships, so be it. In other words, branch out. Find some friends.

As to the essential question of whether to leave him in order to find a man to have a child with, that is a deep, challenging and far-reaching question I can’t presume to answer. But I do know that though you feel responsible for this man, you are not ultimately responsible for him. If you leave him, he will be OK. He will survive.

I sense that there is something deep between you and him. It is clouded and sullied by his crude lapses. That is a shame. I sense that he is not crude morally necessarily; he is a man of a certain time and he is used to getting away with certain things with women. But it is not too much to ask that he not call you Sherry, and not make crude comments to other women. It doesn’t matter whether you are there to hear it or not. You should insist that he not do this. It is disrespectful to women everywhere. It is wrong. He should be chastised when he does this.

We have a long way to go in this culture; our history of violence and subjection of peoples echoes in the present. To be a woman, an African-American and an Indian is to be thrice blessed and thrice cursed. Most blessings are also curses. This is nothing new.

So go inside yourself and be strong inside yourself. Do not give yourself away to him so freely. Let him see what he has to do. Let him see if he can make it up to you for his crude lapses, his arrogance, his pomposity. You obviously are drawn to a deeper side of him. He is not just an arrogant, pompous man. He is someone you love.

Just don’t be a sucker. Be strong. Make him work for it.


My molester financed my college education

Archival column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 9, 2008

Now I’m depressed and suicidal and very few people know why.


I am unsure of how to articulate the reason I am writing you. There is an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” I have been experiencing a soul-crushing depression that I can only utter through vague quotes and other people’s words. I’m 24 and am not experiencing your typical quarter-life crisis that seems to plague everyone I know. I have I guess been working through an unconscious drama of screwing up everything that I do. I can’t hold down a job, almost failed out of college, and seem to tarnish every interpersonal relationship that I have.

Last year I was engaged and in graduate school. This year, I am still living at my parents’, didn’t complete my grad school application even, and am in the process of losing a crappy retail job that I can’t seem to go to without a panic attack. It feels as if my life has been a serious of continuous failures starting from childhood. I was only marginally praised for academic achievements, so I focused my attention on excelling in school. I had a dream of going to some big fancy schmancy Ivy League school and becoming the next Susan Sontag.

In high school, I let all of that fall away. My dreams and aspirations vanished and I clung on to anything remotely stable. On top of that, I was sexually molested by a close family member and similarly aged acquaintances. I have told only very few people about this; my parents do not know and I don’t think that to say anything would make anything better. The family member is a patriarch; he financed my college education and I am forced to interact with him often.

So in this quarter-life crisis that is so much more, I turn to suicide. On a daily basis I try to talk myself out of it, stating that my current boyfriend would probably be scarred by my dying, and my best friend would be sad. Everyone around me seems to just be manipulative in a guise of trying to make me happy: quit your job, don’t quit your job, dump your boyfriend, go out with me. Move to D.C., move to NYC, move anywhere and be with me. Yet I am completely paralyzed; I don’t want to do these things. I don’t know what I want to do or where to start.

I don’t have health insurance, and I really don’t have anyone to turn to, so I’ve turned to you. I’m honestly at the bottom of the barrel. In the middle of the night I wake up wanting to cry. The past two days I’ve cried continually in private, over what I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m asking you to solve my problems, as they are far too huge to be addressed in an advice column. I guess all I am asking for is an empathetic ear and some sort of inspiring advice that perhaps I could keep inside me.

Three O’Clock in the Morning All the Time


Dear Three O’Clock in the Morning,

You are a beautiful, strong, smart and courageous person who was abused. The abuse was a crime. You are suffering the effects of this crime, as surely as if you were mugged on the street and landed in the hospital. If you were mugged on the street and landed in a hospital the doctors and nurses would take care of you. They would say, Did the perpetrator get away? Did the cops catch him? Will you have to testify?

But this crime was different. It happened in secret. The criminal is writing checks for your tuition. He is right there, standing in the window, writing you a check, smiling at you, saying here is your tuition. This tuition you gratefully accept. Yet you know what he did. So you are in a bind. You are being tortured. It is a silent, secret torture. No one must know that the man writing the checks for your tuition is the man who sexually abused you. So the torture works on you in silence.

You cannot reveal the man who did this. It might destroy people you love. It might destroy you. It might destroy him. So you shut the door on it. Behind the door you have shut there is rage. It is frightening to contemplate the dimensions of this rage. If you gave vent to it no one knows what might happen.

But it is a lot of work containing it, and containing it does not make you happy but tires you out and wears you down and fills your sleep with nightmares and you grow depressed. You fail. Your failure feels good in a way because that is how you feel. You have been destroyed and your failure expresses your destruction. You cannot speak of the destruction but you can act it out. You think of suicide. You think if you die it might solve things.

But dying wouldn’t solve things.

And if anybody is to die because of what happened it shouldn’t be you. You are innocent. You are good. This isn’t your fault. Somebody harmed you. Somebody betrayed your trust. Somebody committed a secret crime against you and walked free and wrote you checks for tuition.

Dying wouldn’t solve things. It would only make the tragedy worse. So you need to find a solution to this tragedy.

You are going to find a person who will understand what happened to you and help you. You deserve a beautiful life. You are going to have a beautiful life. You are going to overcome what happened to you.

So write these words down and keep them with you and say them to yourself: I am a strong and beautiful person who was abused. I am going to find a person who will understand and help me. I am going to have a beautiful life.

This is the voice of the strong and beautiful person who was abused. She is still with you. Let her speak. Let her speak through you.

By speaking these words you will find the strength to act. You may not believe me. Just try it. Even if I am wrong, what is the harm? Try it. Try speaking these words of hope: I am a strong and beautiful person who was abused, and I am going to find someone who will understand me and help me.

Then take action.

Find a crisis center near you. Visit it. Just go there. Just go there and sit in one of their chairs and fill out their forms, and say you need to talk to somebody. Tell them you’ve been crying and thinking about suicide. Just tell them. They will know what you’re talking about. It has happened to many people, and anyone it has happened to knows what it’s like and will recognize your voice and will hear her story in your story and will nod and say yes, that happened to me too, and yes, I got depressed too, and I got suicidal, and I protected the family member who did it, too, just like you did. But here I am now. The secret came out and things got better.

You will hear these words and you will find a new family of the similarly abused, a family of similar survivors. So don’t leave the crisis center until you talk to someone. Wait at the crisis center as long as you have to until you can talk to someone. Sit in their chairs. Look at the posters on the wall and the people coming in and out. Wait for someone to talk to. It is a life-and-death situation. If you wait all day and they are closing up and turning off the lights, don’t get up and leave. If you have to wait outside until they turn off the lights and lock up the building, don’t leave until you talk to someone. Wait in the parking lot for someone to come out and get into her car if you have to. Don’t leave until you talk to someone. Say what happened. Say how you’ve been feeling.

I say go to the center, not just call, because your parents’ house is the house of lies and fear and you may need to get out of that house to speak the truth. But what if you are too depressed and afraid to leave the house of lies and fear? Then go into your room and use your phone. Call 1-800-656-4673. Tell them you’ve been crying every day and thinking about suicide.

You need to do this. It will not be easy at first but after you do it you will feel a glimmer. You might not know what to call the glimmer. It will be a glimmer of how you felt before all this happened, simple and innocent, no big deal, piece of cake, just a kid, what a kid feels before the door slams shut and dark things occur. After you take some action you will feel a glimmer of something you remember. You will see that there is a way out of this. There is a beautiful life waiting for you. No one can take it away from you. It is yours.





How do I stop being a know-it-all?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, FEB 23, 2009


My boss and boyfriend say I act like I’m omniscient.


Dear Cary:
In the last 12 hours both my boyfriend and my boss have accused me of being a know-it-all (one of them did it politely and gave me a raise, but the other puts up with me a lot more). One of my grad school teachers (again, very politely) said the same thing when giving me my grade in his class.

I feel that I am alienating everyone. That my tendency to open my big, stupid mouth is going to lose me my job, my boyfriend, my school friends: everything! At 27, I guess I am no longer the cute precocious girl who ingratiated herself with adults while her peers hated her. Suddenly there are no more adults, and everyone is my peer.

I grew up in a very small town. There was no bookstore (or record store, or place to buy comics, or place that showed art films). I was lucky enough to have educators for parents, so there were books in my house, and lucky that I lived in the same town as the county library. My high school graduating class had about 200 students, and there were more than 20 girls who either had children or were pregnant when they picked up their diplomas. While growing up, I always figured that if people thought I talked too much or was obnoxious, it was because they just had retrograde politics concerning smart women, or had no interest in hearing liberal or scientific points of view. Now, however, it seems like they may have been right.

I’ve always considered myself to be an autodidact and took great pride in the fact that I went to a great college in a major city (where I live now) and am continuing with a master’s degree. And I feel there are lots of things I don’t know (technical skills, how to speak a foreign language, how to go to a cocktail party without having an anxiety attack) that I suspect I never will, and I regret that. I feel that I know a few things (mostly facts, but I guess a lot of opinions too), but I think most of the people I know, know more than I do. I try to be helpful, or share my opinion or viewpoint, and it just seems to backfire and be a disaster.

I have tried to talk less, but I think better when I talk, but then I ramble on and on. I have tried to talk less in the past, but at some point I just burst and it seems like I talk even more (or in not entirely appropriate places/times/ways).

I just feel awful and don’t know how to change myself or these perceptions of me. Should I see a therapist? (Will someone paid to listen be able to help me learn to talk less?) Should I just take a vow of silence? I just really don’t want people to be mad at me (that sounds pathetic, but every time I erase it, it feels like I am lying).



Dear Know-It-All,

I say take the vow of silence. Dig deep into the silence. Be quiet beyond that point where you feel you are going to burst, beyond the point where you would break in with an ill-timed clarification or “interesting point.” Go beyond, intrepid explorer of silence! Go past that! Work the silence! Work it!

Zip it up big time! Zip it for peace! Zip it for humanity! Zip it for your own soul!

Relax. People don’t have to know how smart you are. Who gives a fuck? Be cool. Relax. Try to be wrong. Yep, just be wrong. Be wrong a lot — but silently! Be wrong but in the secret aura of your own thoughts! Allow yourself the luxury of extravagant error in the vast field of silence you have cleared for yourself!

How does it feel to be wrong? Does it annihilate you? Of course not. So rise up and oppose the tyranny of the need to be right! Tear down the boring oppression of standard test results! What a boring world it is, if filled with timid souls in fear of the next exam! What a boring world it is, if we all carry the same 20 facts about the founding of our nation lest we be deemed illiterate by self-appointed guardians of the nation’s civic probity!

Be wrong, I say! And if you must speak, speak only erroneous facts! Speak only absurdly incorrect facts! Be loudly wrong! Be loudly wrong and quietly right! Be proudly wrong and humbly right! Be out, be proud and wrong! For only in error lies the hope of correction!

Besides, it’s cool to be silent. Nod in the presence of loudmouths. Let the chatterers chat and chatter. Let the mumblers fumble and mumble.

Oh, it’s hard at first, all right. It’s really hard. But once you do it for a while you begin to notice what you are feeling in that urge to speak: You want something from people. You want them not to be mad at you. You want love and acceptance. So ask yourself: Who can give you this? Who is likely to give you the appreciation you crave? Not your boss. Not your boyfriend. It most likely will come from you, your relationship with yourself. Ask yourself this, too: If your vast cistern of esteem were full to bursting, what, then, would you want most desperately? What project would you embark upon? Would you still desire to go about loudly explaining string theory? Or is there something else higher and more noble you would turn to if only this nagging need for approval were not upon you so viciously?

Then turn to that! You have much talent and there is little time! Turn to your most urgent dreams!



Breaking Down the Breakup (I think I should leave but I’m not sure how)


Write for Advice

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your letters for years, and usually I can find plenty of guidance through your responses to others. This time, I would like your thoughts directly.

I am a divorced mom of an elementary school child. I was married for a long time, and got divorced after my husband revealed years and years of extramarital affairs. It was a nightmare, but it’s been about six years now. I have rebuilt my life with much help from counselors, friends, and supportive family. I am starting to regain my professional life (I was once an incredibly high-achiever), and am used to the regular hassles of having to raise a child with a man who continues to treat me without much regard. I found much to relate to in your letter to a woman in a similar situation, and found comfort in your metaphor of a ferris wheel where everyone has turns on the highs and lows.

I do things slower than many, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I was ready to try dating. I met a lovely, sensitive, artistic man, and we’ve been through a lot together, between my wariness to date again and his health issues. We’ve struggled through because we have a lovely and deep connection. But after many ups and downs, we are parting ways. Or trying too. We have broken up a number of times, but this time at least for me, I can’t figure out any other ways forward. And I don’t think there’s anything to do about that. But I’m writing to you for your reflections because you are very insightful about these particular issues.

The man struggles with both mood issues and alcohol. He has suffered many different health problems, and has diligently trudged from doctor to doctor in search of answers, through traditional medicine, holistic health, and back to traditional medicine. He has had diagnoses of food allergies, depression, anxiety, and more recently, fibromyalgia. suffered a pretty large breakdown after his last switch between systems, and has worked hard to regain stability. He sees many different doctors regularly, is taking medicines and having his psychiatrist adjust them when problems arise. He works with a counselor, a psychiatrist, a family doctor, and a specialist. And he is working through his drinking issues, although he does not have them figured out. He has spent some time in AA, but didn’t last long there (for some semi-legitimate reasons, like a distaste for higher-power-culture, as well as for some less compelling reasons that point to him just not being ready yet).

All through our relationship, we have maintained an incredible friendship. I am so much myself with him, and I can talk to him about anything. When he is feeling well, I love thinking of our life together. But of course, he is unpredictable. He has been working at his health and well-being much longer than I’ve known him, but so many of his issues have responded to his past six months of work–but not enough that I feel confident moving forward. His drinking is a large concern for me, but is not something that I see in my daily life with him. That is, I know he struggles because he tells me so; but I am not with him when he drinks. The issue that I see most, and that is the cause for my lack of hope more directly, is his mood. When he is not feeling well, he cannot communicate effectively or, even, normally. It looks like he doesn’t know the rules for fair fights, but it turns out it is much more than that. He can’t hear what I say. He’ll be upset about something that happened two days ago, he’ll let it fester, and when we speak again, he’ll throw in kitchen sink complaints about all the things I do that drive him nuts. And there’s no speaking to him at this point, because he cannot hear. He takes anything I say in these conversations and turns all the words around. He has these problems with everyone in his life, at work, with family, with friends.

The heartbreaking part is that he knows this is a problem. He doesn’t want to be this way. He sees doctors and tries treatment and apologizes. He is a lovely, sincere person with a lot of beauty inside him, and a lot of struggles. But he doesn’t have it figured out, yet. That, and his drinking. And perhaps they are connected. We’ve hit the point in our relationship where we would move forward in some kind of larger commitment, which I can’t do under these circumstances.

My friends and family like this new man. And they also wish for something easier for me. They say things like, “He’s such a lovely fit for you, but you’ve also been through so much already. I wish it were easier.”

Cary, I’m not sure there’s any answer here beyond the one facing me, which is to continue to say no to circumstances I cannot manage. But it is heartbreaking. I find it difficult not to compare. My daughter’s father calls several times a week to talk to her, piping Facetime scenes of him and his cooing, round-faced sons into my kitchen. He has stomped on every significant relationship in his adult life, leaving a trail of heartache, debt, and lawsuits. But he is funny and charismatic. His reward? Marrying a smiling rich woman, and having babies. I see that, and then I see this man who can’t win for trying (that’s not to take away levels of personal responsibility). And I also see me–I am trying to work my way through this crap with honesty and without taking the easy way. Things are mostly fine in my life, but I have given up hope for another child, which I always wanted (I’m about to turn 40). And after this dating relationship, I feel so sad. I feel sad about the world, and how it works.

You should probably know that I am an INFJ. I realize I feel things bigger than most people.


A Possibly Dramatic Empath


Dear Possibly Dramatic Empath,

I think that this man is not suitable for you because of his many problems. I think you will need to let him go. This is not a workable relationship.

So how can I help? Maybe you need help implementing the breakup. So let’s break down the breakup.

First, whatever regular communication you have ceases. Communication changes from something you do routinely for emotional satisfaction to something you do only to tie up loose ends related to concrete commitments you have made during the relationship. That means if you feel like talking to him, don’t. That means if you have the thought that a certain performer he likes is in town and maybe he would like to go, don’t. That means if you want to explain something to him about why you feel sad it’s over or how you think he might improve, don’t. It means not communicating with him.

Second, it means physically disentanglement. If you have entangled monetary accounts and property, separate the accounts. If you owe him money, pay it; if he owe you money, collect it. Distribute or dispose of any joint property. If things he owns are left at your house return them. If things you own are at his house go and get them. Be thorough.

Third, any standing arrangements you have, such as meeting regularly at a cafe or going to the same bar: renounce them. Enact a new routine that takes you to places he doesn’t frequent. This isn’t because there’s anything traumatic or problematic about seeing him. It’s just the concrete way that a relationship is taken apart so that it no longer exists.

Often in seeking to know when a relationship is over one will wait to feel some subjective state of completion. But the relationship is not about your inner state; it is a tangible thing made up of interactions, commitments and property. You take away the interactions, commitments and property and the relationship is over.

You will still have feelings but that’s OK. You’re always going to have feelings. The important thing is to separate the feelings from the relationship. You will do better dealing with your feelings once you can deal with them as your own feelings, rather than as problems in the relationship.

I wonder if you will feel guilty. You might. I know you’d like to help him. The sad fact is that you can’t. Al-Anon is useful for that. It is also useful to take stock of both your inclinations to help others and your history of helping others and being victimized by them, starting with your ex-husband. Al-Anon can help you with that as well. We, the readers of your letter, don’t know exactly what happened but it is clear that he deceived you for years. So one thing you will need to do in the future is enact security precautions: In relationships with men, insist on knowing what the ground rules are. If it is supposed to be an exclusive relationship, be like an arms inspector: demand proof. That may sound crazy but it is simple logic: A man you knew intimately deceived you regularly for years. His deceptions were probably discoverable. Unless he was a trained spy with excellent trade-craft, his deceptions were discoverable. There was a trail. You didn’t see it because you didn’t look hard enough for it. Had you proceeded on the assumption that men regularly deceive women, you would have discovered it. So let that experience form the basis for a new, less trusting, more security-conscious practice regarding men and sex.

I’ll bet your ex-husband is some kind of narcissist or sociopath. So try not to date a narcissist. Try not to date a sociopath. If you’re not sure, ask up front. Say, “Excuse me, but before we date, can you tell me: Are you a narcissist, or a sociopath? Do you routinely lie to women to manipulate them into sleeping with you and then hide your other affairs from them for years just so you can feel powerful and in control? Because if so, maybe I’m not your gal.” Now, I know that sounds silly, and the narcissist or sociopath of course will act baffled and confused, or maybe compassionate and understanding, but the relationship won’t go very far. He will decide that you’re not the woman for him. Some non-sociopathic guys will just think you’re too weird, but some will find it interesting and will want to know more.

Also try not to date anyone who has a problem with alcohol.

That is my advice to you: Break up with this man completely. Visit Al-Anon at least six times, enough times to really be able to decide if it can be helpful to you. And exercise some security measures with men.




Voices from the Workshops: “Write a Beginning”

Note: Occasionally here on carytennis.com we publish raw first drafts written to prompts in our Amherst Writers and Artists workshops; they are not finished pieces, and so are not open to comment, but nevertheless are often interesting to read, and stand as evidence of the kinds of creative acts that occur more or less spontaneously, and often with tremendous energy, in the workshops. Click here to learn more about the workshops.–Cary T.

Well, this prompt is new. The emptiness that precedes the idea can be excruciating. And the idea is not always prompt. But here goes.

Already 3 sentences on my non-idea.

Isn’t that what they claim the brilliance of “Seinfeld” to be? A show about nothing. The first draft about nothing.

8 sentences.

The page almost half full. Anne Lamott says you have to keep your butt in the chair through the shitty first draft. And she’s right. Beginning the piece is the hardest part, committing to an idea and being willing to begin to flesh it out. No guarantees on where it will go.

13 sentences.

All the while beating back the inner critic who says no one will read it or appreciate it or find it clever or interesting. Eking out these first words is a struggle to begin and a triumph when complete.

15 sentences.

Well, it’s a beginning.

Maria Rodgers O’Rourke


I let my friends stay with me and now they’re evicting me!

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 10, 2007


This couple is about to have a baby and there’s no room for me — but it’s my place!


Dear Cary,

About three years ago, a good friend of mine from college needed a place to live … fast. As it turned out, I needed a roommate. I was living in a really nice apartment I could not afford on my own, so it seemed like a perfect solution. He has been a great roommate; we’ve had a ton of fun; I thought things were going well.

Earlier this year, he told me his girlfriend was pregnant and he wanted her to move in with us so they could cut expenses, save money for the baby, etc. I agreed. The girlfriend was a good roommate as well and I tried to be as supportive as possible while she was here. For example, my roommate came down with a bad flu. I let him sleep in my room (so she wouldn’t catch it), and I slept on the couch for a week. I even drove her to a couple of her appointments while he was down. It wasn’t a big deal, I was very happy to do it and I never felt inconvenienced by it, so I didn’t really expect a great deal of thanks. Again, I thought things were going well.

The baby is due in less than a month. I’m no expert, but looking at the girlfriend it seems to me she could go anytime now. Last week they sat me down because they wanted to “talk” about how things were going to go after the baby arrived. I told them I was pretty sure I could live with a baby in the place and did not anticipate any major problems. That’s when they told me I misunderstood their meaning and that they wanted me to move out, preferably before they brought the baby home.

I was stunned. They assured me it wasn’t because of anything I’d done, but now that they were a family they didn’t think it was appropriate for me to be on the scene. I told them that if that was the case, perhaps the solution was for them to move. They made it clear they did not consider that an option. I asked if they intended to defer any of the costs I would ring up moving on such short notice. They said they would help as much as they could, but with the baby on the way, things were tight. I didn’t need to ask what that meant.

I don’t know how to think about this rationally, let alone formulate a solution. I feel completely betrayed. My dad used to always say, “No good deed goes unpunished,” and now I know what he meant. Part of me wants to say “Tough luck” and stay. The other parts of me feel like that sort of tension and conflict would be bad for the kid, and I really don’t want to do that to the baby. But I don’t want to feel my good nature was taken advantage of to get me out of my own home.

Opinion is divided in my immediate circle of friends. Some think I should tough it out. The others think whether the request is reasonable or not, I have to leave and that it makes no sense to dwell on it (easier said than done). One friend had an interesting take. He thinks my mistake was letting her move into the apartment in the first place. By letting her move in, letting him sleep in by bed, driving her about, etc., I’d signaled I’d agree to any request they made, and only now have they gotten around to making one too unreasonable for me to go along with.

I suppose I’ll have to go, but I hate the way this all feels. Any thoughts, advice, perspective I haven’t considered?

Almost Homeless


Dear Almost Homeless,

What I really want to say is that this is outrageous. It is wrong. It is offensive. I want to say that you should kick these folks out and let them find their own place to have a baby and raise a family, that this is your apartment. You have done everything for them, and this is how they repay you?

I want to say that these folks obviously conned you, maneuvered you into a corner, took advantage of your kindness, and that you should kick them out.

But I don’t think I can say that. Instead, it looks like you are going to have to find a new place.

I hate to say that. It doesn’t sound right. But I’m no landlord-tenant attorney. I’m just a guy who thinks he knows what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s outrageous. So I called somebody who is a landlord-tenant attorney. He groaned. He gnashed his teeth. He cursed the gods. And then he, too, said it: The best thing to do is probably to go.

How can this be? Where is the justice in this world?

Well, without venturing into the troublesome area of possibly appearing to give legal advice, I will just say that throwing a mother and infant out on the street never looks that good. You knew the woman was pregnant when you let her live there. That’s not going to look so good either if you have to explain to anyone why you threw them out on the street. Finally, I will just say some words that the landlord-tenant attorney said to me: “Housing discrimination against families with children.” I’m not sure exactly what those words mean in your case, but they have a certain ring to them, don’t they?

Now, I don’t know what laws govern your situation, and I’m not giving legal advice. I’m just saying that throwing mothers with infants onto the street does not play well in front of any kind of audience, and living with a squawling infant and the squawling infant’s cranky parents in cramped quarters that used to be yours alone — out of which you increasingly feel squeezed and displaced! — could drive you to alarming extremes of rage and despair.

So I think you’d better start looking for a new place. (If you really want to fight them on this, talk to a lawyer before you do anything.)

When disputes arise over housing, primal emotions surface. The milk of human kindness mysteriously evaporates and is replaced by poisonous venom. This is not so hard to understand. When you start wondering where you will shelter your head in the rain, you get in touch with deep survival fears. Watch a lifetime of socialization fly out the window. It’s “Lord of the Flies” time.

And you, my friend, got yourself into this. I don’t see any way out but to find a new place — unless you could somehow demonstrate to this new family that their best interests are served by moving. I don’t have any idea how you could do that, but it’s worth a thought. If, for instance, there were to be free childcare available to them somewhere, or … I dunno. You say this is a great place. It probably is. You’re just going to have to find another great place. Maybe you have great instincts in this regard. If you did it once, you can do it again.

So go out and get yourself a new place. Use whatever skills you used the first time you got a place.

Here is something else the attorney said to me, in a more general way. He routinely advises tenants to watch for and avoid a couple of situations: Do not live in the same building as your landlord. And avoid tenancies where you are the obvious underdog. That would include situations in which you are outnumbered by people with different views or strong interpersonal connections, or in which, as in your case, you find yourself ceding privileges to others because of their presumably greater needs, and you end up in the role of a caretaker. This is sort of what your friend was saying to you. You placed yourself in a situation in which they were almost invited to take advantage of you.

In a larger sense, you may want to think about the caretaking role that you have played in this situation. Try to become conscious of the motives and personal history that bring this caretaking behavior into play. Query yourself about the assumptions you may have made that justify it, the situations in which this behavior arises. You say it was no trouble to sleep on the couch for a week, and perhaps it wasn’t. But think about the message it sent. Who sleeps on the couch? A person who is moving out! So perhaps to them, unconsciously, it was as though you were already moving out. Ask yourself what you wanted from this friend of yours that you would give up so much for him. Were you perhaps trying to replace something lacking in your own life, perhaps trying to re-create a happy family? If so, this is a sad paradox, that by seeking a family through kindness you would find yourself displaced. But think about it, in reference to your own history. Maybe there is something significant there.

And consider this as well: It is not always good to be kind. It is not good to be kind, for instance, when being so gives people the wrong idea. Your friends evidently got the wrong idea — that you would do whatever you needed to do to take care of them. They should have had the personal strength to resist such an impression, to see that you were simply a little weak in the area of saying no, that you would say yes even to your own detriment. But they didn’t resist. They took your kindness for granted. And now look where you are.

So kindness is not always so good.

Try some blatant unkindness. You might be amazed at the results.




I stood on principle and was harshly reprimanded

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 16, 2008

I refuse to apologize for taking a stand that is in the best interests of the company.

Dear Cary,

I am having a little difficulty knowing where the line dividing personal assistant and administrative staff lies. I’ve been harshly reprimanded for questioning or challenging a principal on a matter that I felt was an abuse of company resources and the administrative staff.

After I utilized the open-door policy by questioning said principal regarding a particular task, I was promptly told that I was out of line and then reprimanded by the operations manager, who explicitly said never to question a principal.

That comment makes me very uncomfortable.

As a fellow employee of this company, I assume the best interest of the company should be my first priority. If I believe that a particular task is an abuse of the company or I have a few concerns about it, I should feel free to confront the person ordering that task and ask questions, I think. Am I wrong? They make it seem as if we’re a family in this office and the doors are always open, but that is clearly not the case.

Shouldn’t an administrative assistant, as well as every employee, have the right to question a superior without fear of wounding an ego, inevitably resulting in an H.R. violation — usually “insubordination,” the vague corporate offense that encompasses anything not pleasing to a superior.

Caste, caste, caste … it is everywhere we look. At the grocery store, on the playground and most obviously at work, where you can be reprimanded and even fired for not bending over and taking it with a smile.

I am not apologizing! Maybe it would save me from an H.R. report to do so but I refuse to compromise my integrity. Am I being just as irrational as this jerk with a title? Refuse to



Dear Refuse to Apologize,

My answer to you is a simple thing but hard to grasp. It is abundant, ancient and commonplace but sighted at a distance more often than caught. It is the truth and it is like a fish. There are big fish and small fish, and there are big truths and small truths but there are more small ones than big ones. The biggest ones are mostly mirages sprung from the exhausted minds of seekers who have grown weary, hungry and full of wishes. They see things that aren’t there. If wishes were fishes, as they say … (or is that “if wishes were horses”?).

This is all by way of delaying a small, blunt truth: Companies are made of people trying to get what they want. Everyone you are working for is a person trying to get what he or she wants. You can either stand in their way, in which case they will treat you as an obstacle, or you can aid them in getting what they want, in which case they might treat you as an ally.

So put aside for a moment your thoughts about how the company should be and what the company should want, and ask yourself what each individual with whom you are in conflict wants. There is nothing in the company but that. There is no company God who is going to decide who is right and wrong. There is no company parent who is going to step in and, after hearing both sides, punish the wrongdoer. The people in H.R. are just more people trying to get what they want. If getting what they want means nodding in agreement about abstract principles and then sabotaging you behind your back, then they will do that.

This description of reality may be offensive to you. But I didn’t make this up. I observed it. Maybe you can benefit from my experience by seeing, now, what it took me years to learn.

So what do your co-workers and superiors want? One way to learn what people want is to look at what they have. If your boss has a shiny red sports car, she wants shiny red sports cars. If she has three children, she wants children. If she has a position of power she wants power.

If she wants power and you are challenging her, then you are threatening to deprive her of what she wants, and naturally she will do things to thwart you so she can continue to get what she wants.

In trying to determine what your co-workers want, you must also ask what they want from you. Have they asked you to keep a close eye on them so as to prevent them from going to excess? Have they asked you to police their actions lest they exceed the bounds of their authority? Have they asked you to notify them if you feel they are failing to live up to the company’s values? Ask yourself what they have actually asked you to do. Literally: What have they asked you to do? Then try just doing that. Try doing just what they have asked you to do.

Do they want you to be on time? Do they want you to lecture them on the company’s policies and ideals? What have they asked you to do? What they have asked you to do is what they are paying you to do.

No matter what you understood when you were hired, you are now being paid to do what certain individuals want you to do. If you do these things they will pay you. If you don’t, they will try to make you go away. So try just doing these things and see if you can live with that. It may be that you can’t live with that.

It may be that you want to run things. If you want to run things, then find a job running things. Not everyone is good at running things. Not everyone wants to run things. People are needed who want to run things and are good at it. You can surely find a job doing that if that is what you want. But that does not appear to be the job you have.

If you find a job running things then you will confront a host of subordinates, each of whom wants something. Some of them may want to also run things. If you let them run certain things they will work hard for you. If you hoard all the running of things for yourself, then they will work against you.

You have to figure out what people want. It isn’t complicated. Just look at what they have. Look at what they try to get. The things people have and the things people try to get are the things people want. If you help them get these things, they will be your allies. If you try to thwart them, they will be your enemies. This is a simple and commonplace truth, yet like a fish it can be slippery to grasp.



I’m the Peggy Olson of my office

Write for Advice


Dear Cary,

I work for a small office in a large organization. I like my job and I believe in the work we are doing. The problem is, I don’t like my co-workers. Or rather, they don’t like me.

I work in a male-dominated field, so I’m used to being the odd woman out. That wasn’t a problem early in my career when I was a junior employee working with people my own age. But my work has been good and promotions have brought me into areas dominated by older workers. As a result, the cultural differences have become much more noticeable.

The men I typically work with now don’t really DO anything that I can point out—they just give me a perpetual cold shoulder. Their days are filled with private jokes, communicated via email or social messaging, that I’m not part of. When I make jokes, they fall flat. In some cases, I think these men don’t “get” all of my cultural references (never a problem with people my own age). But sometimes, it feels passive-aggressive. I mean, I don’t “get” their obsession with sports, but at least I’m polite enough to make small talk or laugh at jokes. I don’t stop and stare them into an uncomfortable silence.

After trying far too long to be accepted, I came to believe that these older male colleagues are probably—though maybe unconsciously—uncomfortable with a somewhat younger female (15 to 20 years’ difference) succeeding mid-career at the level they’ve worked their whole careers to achieve.

In other words, I’m the Peggy Olson of my office.

It’s 2014. I’m neither interested nor equipped to spend my life waging office warfare.

Should I stay in this job I like, with these people I increasingly don’t, grit my teeth and wait 10 years until these “old guys” start retiring? How do I resolve this without getting promoted past them—or at least avoid this problem in my next job?

PS: The answer can’t be “talk to the boss.” The boss—whom I otherwise like working for—has made it clear that employee socializing is not his department. He simply expects us to work as a team. If I’m complaining, then I’m the one who’s not fitting in and that makes me the problem. Or maybe he’s right—I’m not sure I know anymore.

Not a Kid, Not a Baby Boomer


Dear Not a Kid, Not a Baby Boomer,

I think you should look for another job.

If your boss wanted to address your grievances it might be different. But look at the situation. Consider the possible ways it might improve and think about their likelihood:

1) Your boss changes and decides to take an active interest in team-building. An outside consultant takes you on a team-building retreat to the Idaho wilderness and your co-workers’ attitudes suddenly shift. They see that they’ve been unfair and realize what a marvelous and talented person you are.

2) All on their own, without any outside consultant or team-building exercises or pressure from management, your co-workers change and make an effort to include you.

3) A catastrophic event pulls you together as a team.

4) You magically and unexpectedly gel as a team for no apparent reason.

5) Your boss promotes you over their heads quickly and you don’t have to deal with them anymore.

Are any of these events likely enough that you would stake the next 10 years of your life on them? The last one is at least something you could work toward. But in none of these cases is there a clear path to an achievable goal. It’s all out of your hands.

Here are two things you can do in the here and now. 1) work to get promoted out of this boomer network and 2) at the same time, conduct a vigorous job search.

Then, when you find something that looks promising, if you still haven’t been promoted, have a frank conversation with your boss. Ask for what you want. If you don’t get it, then take the other job.

Now, on a personal note, intuitively speaking, being expected to work as a team with people who obviously don’t like you, and having no support from your boss will take its toll on you emotionally. You don’t need that. What you need is to feel secure and respected and liked. Furthermore, the higher you go in this company, the more dependent your success will be on the subjective assessments of your superiors. The more important it will be to belong the network. So it just feels like you should get out and seek employment at a place where you fit and are happy.

After all, what did Peggy Olson do?


My business trip ended with me in four-point restraints!


Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 5, 2008

I drank some wine, took my pills, boarded the plane and woke up on a gurney!

Dear Cary,

I am writing to you because I have been through what feels like a very traumatic experience and I need to find a way to put it behind me. Recently, I was on a flight from my local airport to another destination for work purposes. The flight was to be three hours in duration. As is my normal pre-flight ritual, I took two Klonopin (strong tranquilizer also known as Clonazepam) of a low dosage prescribed for anxiety around flying, and I had two glasses of white wine at the airport bar. Aside from drinking before a flight, I drink rarely. This is my ritual every time I fly and I never veer from it. I also take a daily anti-anxiety medication to help address this same flying issue. Lastly, I take Topamax, an anti-seizure medication.

Historically, I have been unable to fly due to an intense phobia. This debilitating phobia presented around the time I was 24 and was intensified by the close proximity — three blocks away and 30 stories up — from which I witnessed the 9/11 tragedy. Prior to that I had no issue flying and enjoyed travel immensely. A year ago, I took a job with a minimal travel requirement. As a longtime non-flier, I have always gotten where I needed to go by other means, so that was no problem, but my new boss insisted on air travel after I accepted the job and started the role. She even threatened to fire me if I didn’t plan to travel by air. Not to be beaten, I consulted the appropriate professionals, and began regular treatment by medication.

With that history in place, allow me to revisit the date of my most recent travel. I performed my pre-flight ritual, went through security and boarded the flight. I must have fallen asleep immediately in my seat and the next thing I knew, I was in a wheelchair outside the plane with police officers who were handcuffing me. I demanded to know what happened and was hysterical. I slipped my left hand through the handcuff on two occasions. I asked to be released several times, and was permitted to phone my husband, who said he could barely understand me due to my crying. He asked the police to wait for him to arrive, but I was then transported to a local area hospital. I am informed that I kicked hospital security as they tried to move me to a bed. I was then tied down in four-point restraints, with one arm pinned above me. I know that I screamed to be let go. I was never arrested.

My husband and parents arrived shortly thereafter. I was not charged or arrested and was immediately released from the hospital. My family is full of well-connected attorneys, and though my body is bruised, particularly my ankles and wrists from the restraints, legal action is not an option — according to some very astute resources we have consulted.

I fought for the emotional strength to get back on an airplane. I performed my pre-flight ritual no differently than I would have otherwise. The airline had every right to remove me if they believed I wasn’t fit to fly, and I do not disagree. The trouble started after I was removed from the plane, handcuffed and physically thrown down on gurneys and then tied up in four-point restraints. My problem is that I now have this horrible feeling about myself. Am I a crazy person, or was I just treated like one? How do I make peace with flying again? Not suing anyone is fine by me as it means the whole thing will be over faster. But I need help putting this trauma behind me. I’m a pretty stoic person, and that allows me to deal with a lot of the pain and frustration that I feel at work. I need that stoic person back ASAP.

No Longer Afraid of Flying


Dear No Longer Afraid,

I hope you will forgive me if I just talk freely about what I feel, for I sometimes feel before I think, and my feeling leads me to thinking before I know what it is that is being thought.

So what bothers me is how your boss coerced you into flying and you went along with it in order not to be “beaten.” I don’t like that.

I don’t like this whole business of your agreeing to fly because you did not want to be beaten by your boss. What you call stoicism sounds to me like acquiescence in your own mistreatment.

I mean, you have been through hell, and I sympathize. It’s not your fault. You were victimized and traumatized. But I think, at the same time, crazy as it sounds, your unconscious was trying to protect you by sabotaging your flight.

But let’s back up. You took a job with the understanding that you would not have to fly, and then after you were hired your boss pressured you to fly anyway, with the threat of termination. Basically, your boss lied to you and betrayed you.

And then, rather than protest and risk losing your job, you attempted, on the advice of professionals, to chemically short-circuit your own perhaps well-grounded fears. And things went haywire. It sounds like you had an overdose or you mixed medications that had dangerous interactions.

So, again, pardon me for just following my instincts on this, but it feels like you introjected, or took into yourself, the mistreatment by your boss. And this is what you refer to as trying to be stoic.

Let’s talk about your stoicism for a moment. When legitimate demands conflict with our own desires or plans, sometimes we have to suck it up. That is a good kind of stoicism. But should we be stoic when people lie to us and mistreat us? I do not think so. I think such stoicism is a betrayal of the innocent person in us who believes what he or she is told, and trusts others, and feels deeply and rebels upon the shock of recognition.

In fact, maybe I am stretching here, but isn’t it possible that underneath this traumatic event is a hidden wish to prove that you can’t fly, to be prevented from flying, or forced to not fly? I mean, I don’t want to push my theory, but neither do I want to minimize the power of this trauma and fear you have about flying. It’s deep down, right? It’s a very powerful fear. And because its actual mechanism operates below your awareness, it is capable of arranging events below your awareness, that is, by causing you to take too many pills.

The result is in certain ways positive: You now have a very good reason not to fly. You are now saved, in a way. You are safe. You won’t have to get back on that airplane.

I do not mean to minimize your trauma, but to suggest that unconscious forces sometimes succeed where more above-board methods have failed. Is it not possible that working its subterranean routes your deep, primal, unconscious fear pushed you to overdose and wrought, in its own crazy, anarchic way, the very result that you wished for?

Of course you also suffered real trauma. That would be the price your unconscious was willing to pay to achieve its objective. And the trauma is now affecting you and you would like to make your peace with it. If I can be of any help at all, I would urge you to be calm and systematic about seeking out a therapist to help you get over the trauma, to accept what has happened and to examine the forces in your life that brought about this calamity. You were tied down and manhandled. You have been mistreated and taken advantage of. Such treatment does not have to be unlawful or unjustified to be traumatic. Nor does the fact that there is some meaning to it mitigate the effect of the trauma.

I suggest being calm and systematic because while there are many therapists and many therapies, you strike me as someone who has been through a lot and may feel compelled to seize the first option that becomes available.

But let me spell out this unconscious thing a little more.

If you have a primal fear, then your instincts are going to try to protect you. There is no bargaining with this fear. It will do everything it can to protect you.

Your unconscious thinks it sees the future. It thinks it knows. It thinks it is protecting you. It’s like a dog. I spend a lot of time with dogs, and they do not fool around with what they fear. If they fear it, they fear it. Your unconscious is like a dog. You can explain all you want, but if it’s afraid to get on a plane, and you get on a plane anyway, it’s going to tear shit up. That’s what dogs do. They tear the place up. They’re like our unconscious minds.

So I’m not blaming you for this, or saying you set it up. I’m saying: Do not underestimate the power of your unconscious mind to manipulate events. Respect it. Respect your own fears. Do not underestimate the power of the unconscious to achieve what it needs through subterfuge if it cannot achieve what it needs through rational, verbal channels.

Look what happened when you made a rational, businesslike deal with your boss, agreeing to work there with the understanding that you do not fly on airplanes: You got betrayed. You got lied to. Telling your boss honestly, in a rational, aboveboard way, that you don’t fly did not work. You told them that you don’t want to fly. You were aboveboard about it. They disregarded that. How would your unconscious interpret this? It would see that rational, verbal, aboveboard behavior is not heeded. And so it would say, OK, if they aren’t going to listen to rational, reasonable information and talk, watch this! It found it necessary to precipitate a breakdown. And now you are safe.

There are numerous treatments for the aftereffects of trauma and stress. As I said, I suggest you carefully evaluate the doctors and the available treatments, paying close attention to your own feelings about it. Take notice that your stoicism may minimize the wisdom of your feelings. Put your stoicism on hold and go with your instincts about what you need. Find a therapist who you know in your heart is the right person.

And tell your boss you really, really, really do not fly on airplanes.