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I lost my leg in an accident

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Cary’s classic column from

I’m pretty. I’m 23. I’m in a wheelchair. Now what?


Dear Cary,

Due to an accident, my leg and part of my hip had to be amputated.

As you can imagine, this completely devastated me … I was only 22 when it happened. I’m doing OK with coming to terms with the things I will never do again (a prosthetic isn’t an option due to the damage done). I’m getting pretty good with my wheelchair and I am finally willing to venture out of the house with an attendant for short trips. My issue is … the outside world. People stare. They gape. They gasp. They hurry their children along as if I’m some sort of monster. Surprisingly, it is young children who are the most kind and easy to handle when I go out. They are usually very upfront about their question (“Why is your leg gone?”) or they stare not with horror but curiosity … usually a bright smile and a wink is enough to get them smiling back and moving on to whatever it was they were doing.

The adults have been pretty horrible, overall, and I just don’t know how to deal with it. People avoid me, they whisper about me, they point, they stare, they ignore me and talk to my attendant even when I’m the one who asked a question … it just hurts. What are people really thinking when they do that? Is it that they are afraid of me? Pity me? Something else? How do I make friends, and (God forbid) go about looking for a relationship when everyone I see treats me like a mobile freak show or a pity party on wheels? I really am not scary looking — pre-accident I had no trouble getting dates. What remains of my hip is a little freaky, but honestly sex isn’t even a worry for me now … I’d just be happy to have a nice date and maybe a kiss at the door at this point. Unfortunately, taking me out requires a lot of planning (can the chair fit in the car, are there accessible bathrooms where we are going, are there stairs, etc.), and frankly it sets it up as a caregiver-patient relationship more than a potential romantic one, especially if I get tired and need to be pushed (which is often).

Is it possible for a disabled, sort-of disfigured 23-year-old woman to have a relatively normal life? Or should I just resign myself to being alone with my books? Where do the disabled fit in with the regular workings of society? I am sad to say I’ve never met anyone disabled before. I just don’t know if longing for what others my age have is setting myself up for failure, you know? I just don’t want to be lonely, sitting at home while others go out to parties and concerts and all those other things I had skipped in college to focus on my studies (I said to myself, “I’ll party when I graduate” … and then this all happened). I appreciate any advice you have. I just don’t know how to deal with all this.

Not Quite Merrily Rolling Along

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Not Quite Merrily,

If this were the 1950s, you might be out of luck. When Ed Roberts, paralyzed by polio in 1952, started attending the University of California at Berkeley in 1962, he broke new ground for disabled people. If you read about his life, and about the institutions that now exist in part because of his efforts, it may lift your spirits. A remarkable array of assistance, both human and mechanical, is available today for disabled people who want to live full, rich lives. So I suggest you investigate the worldwide community of disabled people who are learning to do things they never dreamed possible. They will probably tell you that your fears are normal, that everyone has similar thoughts: How will I ever lead a fulfilling life? Why do people stare at me and act so strangely now that I’m in a wheelchair? Will I ever have a normal dating life?

People who have gone through what you are going through are the ones who can help you deal with the rudeness, shallowness and ignorance of people around you. They’re the ones who can help you learn to live with strength, dignity and humor. And they’re the ones who have experience with tricky questions like how to tell potential dating partners that you will need wheelchair access, how to deal with issues that arise around sex, and, basically, how to “fit in with the regular workings of society.”

As you approach this community, you may also find, to your delight or chagrin, that you are now part of a movement. Now, you may not be a politically minded person. Some of us are, some aren’t. But it does help to know when our choices have been narrowed for the profit of others. Like it or not, you now belong to a class of people who have had to fight for their rights — partly because extending those rights and accommodations has required work and expense. Some of what you see in the faces of people who do not look you in the eye, who talk to your attendant instead of to you, who hurry away, is the wish simply not to confront your needs, not to admit that you exist and are entitled to the same things as any other person.

So whether you are passionate about politics and government or not, I would think that knowing the history of the Americans With Disabilities Act would help you see where you stand as a member of a class. Understanding how the laws that mandate accessible facilities in a great and growing number of public and private buildings followed logically the successes of the civil rights movement may give you a new perspective on social justice. Had disabled people remained silent, you would be worse off today. You have many choices because of political action.

Imagine if every now and then a middle-class white man had a car accident that turned him into a ghetto youth. Imagine if white women were known to trip and fall occasionally and turn into undocumented aliens. In other words, how might the civil rights struggle have been affected if people regularly experienced the sudden loss of privileges they had come to believe were their inalienable rights? I can’t help observing that through your accident you have been given the opportunity to cross over into a formerly protected region of consciousness. You know what it’s like to take mobility for granted. Now you know what it’s like to lose it.

I’m not trying to insist that you become an activist, or minimize your pain and suffering, or make light of any one category of humanity. I don’t pretend that losing your leg was a lucky break. But in adversity lies opportunity, however hidden or dim. And we must find that dim or hidden opportunity and seize it. Otherwise, despair swallows us whole.

So I hope you can not only get by in life but find new purpose. For one thing, you can educate the rest of us; you can remind us that the ramps and the wide bathroom stalls and the raised streetcar platforms and the blue-marked parking spaces actually mean something profound about civilization and the human spirit: that humans do strive against all odds for greater freedom and mobility and rights. Keep reminding us of that, so that should we become disabled we will not look back at our former ignorance with shame but instead can say, Yes, because the community of disabled people has been visible and vocal I was aware, I knew that disability was one of the risks of being human, and I recognize the contributions of the disabled people who paved the road for those who follow. Further, I must say, when I see people in wheelchairs going about the city, I’m not glad they’re disabled, but I’m glad that they’re living life. Seeing the disabled accomplishing the tasks of daily living means that we as a society have made some progress. It means there is a little less unhappiness, failure and isolation in the world. It means that, should I myself become disabled, there is hope that I can continue doing much of what I love.

So when I see you whizzing by, I will say a little thank you that you’re whizzing by. I know it’s not your choice to be in a wheelchair. But I have to find evidence of human victory over adversity wherever I can, or surely I’ll sink into madness.

 

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I finally found my dad — drunk on skid row

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Cary’s classic column from

I thought I could bring him home, but he got loaded and disappeared


Dear Cary,

Recently — within the past couple of months — I went on a search to find my father. I can count how many times I’ve seen him in my life and it’s only a handful. He’s been an alcoholic his whole life and has been in and out of prison.

One of the main reasons for my search was to find my sister that I never met. So I finally reached his cousin, then his sister, then him. When I talked to his sister she said he’s living in a homeless treatment facility. So I had to call and leave messages and then he would call me back. We started talking more and more. At first it was a little strange and uncomfortable because I didn’t know how to respond or what to talk about, but somewhere within me, I felt something I never felt before. It was like a little space within was filling.

During this time I was having car problems. I actually had one car in the shop and borrowed my grandmother’s extra truck and it broke down too. So my dad had experience fixing cars so he volunteered to fix the truck. I went and picked him up and he met one of my daughters (the other one was at her dad’s) and he stayed the night and fixed the car the next day. We had a pretty good day. We had a good dinner, and overall good visit. Besides the fact he was hitting on my friends, which was weird and creepy LOL.

But anyway, we continued to talk on the phone more and more. One mistake I made was offering to let him stay at my house when he was done with his treatment. So after a couple of weeks go by the place he was staying at moved his job to a different facility. That’s when he came to me and said he would rather stay with me. He said, “I am just getting further from you.” Well, I had already offered but knew it was too soon, so I said, “OK, when do you want me to pick you up?” It was like a day or two. Then I went after work to pick him up.

He was with some of his friends he must have met and was completely drunk, not just a little drunk but can’t-walk-straight drunk. I was furious. I was so angry that he did that, and I couldn’t believe my other daughter was waiting at home to meet him and was so excited and here I have this drunk grandpa? Different things were going through my mind, like how could he do this? How could he do this to my kids? So I said to him, “So you’re drunk?” He said, “No, I just had a beer.” I said, “NO, you are drunk.” He said, “Well, I don’t have to be.”

I was angry. He went behind a building and I left him there. I felt like punching him. So I went home and thought about why I was so angry. One reason is because that’s what he chose his whole life over me. Drinking is the reason I didn’t have a dad. So I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that he met us and then still chose to do that. He didn’t think to himself, Look at what I’ve been missing out on.

I figured he would just go back to his facility and maybe call me when he was sober and I haven’t talked to him. I left a couple of messages and he hasn’t returned my call. I called the facility yesterday and a guy told me that he never came back and he’s living on the streets and he’s always drunk. Now, in some twisted way, I feel bad. I don’t think I should but I do. Should I go find him and try to help him? What should I do?

R

Cary Tennis' Loire Valley Writing Retreat

Dear R,

Here I am writing about alcoholism again.

Outrage and sadness arrive fresh daily. How could anyone get used to news in a letter such as yours? How could anyone be unmoved by this tale? How could anyone shrug it off?

There is always hope. But hope is a kind of torture. It deprives us of a tidy exit. It will not let us turn our backs.

He can always try again. Chances are, he will. No matter how many times he goes back to drinking, he can always walk into an AA meeting and be welcome there. Men sometimes try 10, 15, 20 times, drinking, sober, drinking, sober, in and out.  The doors of AA are always open to anyone who wants to quit drinking. You don’t have to be sober to go there, or clean, or employed, or even awake.

Your father has hurt you deeply. He has not behaved well. He has spent time in prison. Many alcoholics have done this. Yet when we hear their stories, we do not hear the voices of criminals. We do not hear the voices of unfeeling psychopaths. We hear frightened, lonely voices; we hear the voices of small children afraid of the world and uncertain how to proceed. We hear the voices of people who got trapped in something they didn’t understand and could not escape, who spent years in agonized struggle against an enemy that kept defeating them through trickery and brute force. We hear the voices of people who wanted to do the right thing, who were drawn to feelings of happiness and contentment, the esteem of their comrades, joy, laughter, ease, success, comfort, fulfillment. But something went wrong.

It tears you up. There’s no way around that. And again and again the thought that comes to mind is, We should do something about this! What might that be? Is there anything we can do?

If we are drunks who have recovered, we can do things. We can spend more time in the world of wet drunks, salvaging whom we can. Yes, we can do that. And perhaps part of my outrage is my private knowledge that I am not doing enough, that I could do more. It is difficult work picking drunks up and trying to get them sober. There is no guarantee of success. But what is our outrage for if not to spur us into action?

And what can you do? That’s another good question. I wonder if it might help you to work as a volunteer to help other alcoholic men who have lost everything.

How do you arrive at the truth that is big enough and bright enough that you decide to take action? Might this moment be an instance in which your own outrage spurs you to some kind of social action? What if it were possible for you to spare some other son or daughter your particular grief? What if you could help someone else’s father sober up and get off the streets? Might that give your soul some cherished respite? Might it bring some feeling of justice to this bleak scene?

We know what we can do and what we cannot do. We can make ourselves available to individuals and to social service agencies to bring a little comfort and possibly recovery to the many alcoholic men and women who live and die on our streets every day. We can learn as much as possible about the effects of alcoholism and take steps where possible to avert its bloom in those who can still turn back. We can advocate for more resources for those agencies and group that seem to have some success. We can advocate for more research into the medical aspects.

What we cannot do is cure it the way we cure an infection with antibiotics, or the way we set a bone so it will heal straight and be as strong as it was before. Perhaps one day a sure cure will be found. Until then, our methods are the well-known ones: the 12 Steps, rehabilitation facilities, medical interventions, psychotherapy, harm reduction, etc.

Alcoholism, like cancer, remains mysterious and resistant.

I’m going on a bit. I know that. I am speaking my own opinions. I am speaking my own outrage born of compassion for you and what you have had to suffer. It makes me mad. It makes me mad and I wish I could fix it. I wish I could take you in my arms and make it better. I wish I could clean up your dad, put him in a suit and send him home to rest up for a few weeks before taking on a new job on the railroad, or in construction, or as a scientist or labor representative or clerical worker or insurance man or mechanic or ship’s mate or any of a million other roles the world has waiting, even in a time of high unemployment.

I wish I could fix it but I can’t. So it makes me angry. The world shouldn’t be like this.

But it is.

So do this for me: Seek solace in those around you. Cry when you need to. Admit that it makes you angry and cry at the gods when you need to. If it helps you to go out and work as a volunteer so that this story is not repeated more often than it has to be, then do so.

One last thing: Embrace this. This is not merely a bad thing that happened to your otherwise perfect life. It is in fact your story. It is what your life is about. It will bring you strength if you face it and allow it to shape your future. So carry it proudly. You are part of a world of people who have seen this and know what it is like, and it is possible, I swear it is possible, to draw strength from this.

 

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Travel at from Paris to Angers at a speed of up to 200mph on the TGV!

Easy ways to get to Le Chateau du Pin

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Would you like to come to the Chateau du Pin writing retreat with a well-planned route that is easy to follow? My wife Norma is a great planner, plus she reads French, German and Italian, so she has figured it all out for you.

First: Would you like to fly into Paris, or into Nantes? The advantage of flying into Paris is that it’s Paris. Paris is an amazing, life-changing city. Nothing can describe Paris. If you haven’t been there, you owe it to yourself to come a couple of days early and see Paris. The advantage of flying into Nantes is that it is easier to get to the chateau from Nantes than from Paris.

Paris_-_Charles_de_Gaulle_(Roissy)_(CDG_-_LFPG)_AN1959872

Charles de Gaulle airport

Getting to the Chateau du Pin from Paris

To get to the chateau from Paris, you will need to take the TGV from Gare Montparnasse to the city of Angers. To get to the Gare Montparnasse directly from Charles de Gaulle Airport, take the Les Cars Air France shuttle (16.60€) to Gare Montparnasse. (If you are spending a few days in Paris, take a taxi or other form of transport to Gare Montparnasse.) From Gare Montparnasse take the one-hour and forty-minute TGV ride to the city of Angers (book via Raileurope.com: $88 U.S. and up. Trains travel at speeds up to 200mph. They depart every one to two hours.) Then from the train station in Angers, take a fifteen-minute local train ride to the village of Champtocé-sur-Loire. Trains depart from Angers to Champtocé-sur-Loire at 12:30 pm arriving 12:45 pm; 3:37 pm arriving 4:00 pm; and 6:05 pm arriving 6:30 pm. Depending on which train you take, we can pick you up at the Champtocé-sur-Loire train station at 1:00 pm, 4:00 pm, or 6:30pm. If you arrive and have not made prior plans to be picked up, or you don’t see anyone there waiting for you, call or text Norma at 415 317-4460. We are here to help!

Nantes Atlantique

Nantes Atlantique airport, Hall 1

Getting to the Chateau du Pin from Nantes

It’s easier and quicker to get to the village of Champtocé-sur-Loire if you fly into Nantes, and the total prices are comparable, once you add up all the train travel. In Nantes Airport, Hall 1, buy a 7.00€ shuttle ticket  for Gare de Nantes. At Gare de Nantes, buy a ticket to Champtocé-sur-Loire, 17.00€. Take train from Nantes to Champtocé-sur-Loire (7:41 am arrive 8:30, 12:11 pm arrive 12:58 , and 5:35 pm arrive 6:30 pm).  (You can also buy this ticket in advance through RailEurope.) We can pick you up at the train station at Champtocé-sur-Loire at 8:45 am, 1:00 pm, or 6:30 pm. Or call or text Norma at 415 317-4460. If you have any questions please let us know–we are here to help!

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I seem to be moving in with my boyfriend — but why?!

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Cary’s classic column from

His 9-year-old has Tourette’s and ADHD, and I’m still a student … is this a good idea?


Hello,

I’m a 23-year-old student and I am moving in with my boyfriend (29) and his son (9) this week. I’ve realized as the date draws nearer that my ambivalence about this situation is much deeper than I thought.

Let me tell you first about the kid: He’s very sweet, very bright, but he is by no means an easy child to take care of. He has Tourette’s and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which although well medicated cause him to have more trouble listening and following directions than even the average 9-year-old. And although I have never witnessed one firsthand, he has had a few pretty violent temper tantrums — throwing and breaking things, biting and hitting his dad, etc. Also, his mom is not in the picture. She had him when she was 16, and when he was 3 didn’t show up for a visit. She’s been out of the picture since and has expressed no desire to be back in, although her parental rights are still intact. The fact that she is gone is probably for the best, since she didn’t take good care of him during her time with him when he was little.

Anyway, my main concerns are as follows: school, my relationship with the kid and my social life. Although my boyfriend has assured me that he won’t ask me to give up studying to take care of the kid, I’m still worried that my grades will slip given the decreased amount of time I’ll have on weekends; also, the guy will have a very high-powered and demanding job, and I can’t help but suspect that his promise is hyperbole. I’m worried also that I won’t have the patience for it — when I get home from a long day of class and work I would much rather take a nap, go to the gym, watch TV, smoke a bowl or have a beer, not play Scrabble with a kid who has a penchant for peeking at my letters or make a dinner that will probably get less-than-stellar reviews if it’s not mac and cheese from a box. (Cooking is the other thing — I learned to cook from a chef, I love cooking and experimenting with food, and I’m dreading having to accommodate the child’s picky eating habits. I’m experimenting with ways to expand his culinary horizons, but it won’t be easy.) I’m worried that I’ll get territorial and that I just won’t have the patience or the selflessness to help care for him properly.

My social life is the other concern. None of my friends have kids, nor do any of their significant others. I know I won’t be able to go out as much as I’d like anymore, and that I’ll have to spend a few Friday nights watching the house while my boyfriend sees his friends. His parents and my parents both live in town, so we may have some willing weekend baby sitters. And we both have friends who are willing to watch him, but no matter how much people help the presence of a kid will still crimp my style. This is anticipated, but also not something I’m particularly excited about.

And, hell, I just can’t believe I’m even dealing with this right now. Being a young parent was never something on my to-do list, and I’ve worked since I became sexually active to eliminate my risk of having kids, even having an abortion when I was 18. While I love my boyfriend, I resent him for not wrapping it up all those years ago and for not exercising more discretion in his partners. I know it’s wrong to hold mistakes against someone for the rest of their life, but this particular mistake is now impacting my life, and no matter how much the boyfriend has cleaned up his act — he graduated from law school a year ago — it doesn’t really help with my dilemma.

The books I’ve skimmed about dating men with kids assume that the children are the result of a terminated marriage and hence that there’s a mother in the picture; they don’t discuss how to achieve the right balance of distance and friendliness in the girlfriend-kid relationship. They assume that their audience is middle-aged, has long since finished school and is by and large done being young. There is no good advice for my situation that I’ve been able to find; what’s yours?

Soon to Be Too-Soon Domesticated

France_Ad_fix

Dear Soon to Be Too-Soon Domesticated,

My advice is: Don’t do it.

You’ve presented it as a deal that has already been done, but I don’t see why it has to be done. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t see a cogent argument for doing this. It doesn’t make sense.

Since it doesn’t make sense, one starts to wonder why you decided to do it.

You do say that you don’t believe your boyfriend is going to hold up his end of the bargain. You also say he just graduated from law school. What do lawyers study? They study how to argue. They study how to persuade. So my guess is that he talked you into it. It serves his interest, not yours.

It’s possible you didn’t really think this thing through. You’re just starting to do that now. So before you go to all the trouble of moving, see if you can’t delay it. Cancel the move. Wait a year or two. See how things play out. Renegotiate.

Everything you say about yourself — your preferences, your prior decisions, your situation in life — everything says that you need control over your time and an unencumbered living situation. You don’t need this responsibility, nor are you suited for it. It sounds like a bad deal all around. So I urge you to renegotiate. You are not the right person to bring in to mother this kid. Chances are, if you move in, it’s going to put such a strain on your relationship with your boyfriend that you two will break up. And it won’t be doing the kid any favors. If the kid needs support, he needs trained, professional support.

Again, that’s my take: Cancel. Renegotiate. Delay. Look for other options.

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My new boyfriend’s mom has cancer

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Hi Cary,

I am seeing a great guy, but things have recently become very ambiguous between us and I’m not sure the best course of action for me.

We were dating for a little over two months, it was a slowly deepening fantastic and mature relationship, and I care for him, he clearly cares for me, we were falling in love. But as it happened, on our second date he found out his mom has a widespread and fast moving cancer with unknown prospects for treatment.

He didn’t seem much affected by it at first, and he consistently deflected my offers of support and my concern. But over the weeks I felt like he was holding back, being emotionally distant, reluctant to fall for me, and eventually started contacting me less and being less available to see me.

I asked him about it, and he came back and said that due to his mother’s illness something fell apart in him and he can’t manage to be in a relationship right now, that things were great with me and it isn’t me, but he can’t tolerate the contrasting pleasure and pain, he can’t be there for me, he can’t uphold his end of a relationship, and he doesn’t want to hurt me or let me down, that he has to do this alone, that it’s simpler and a relationship would complicate things. He didn’t say the words break-up or just-be-friends, but he made it clear we are no longer in a relationship. Since three weeks we are still in almost daily contact and see each other around once a week, we have joint projects and plans to do things together, he’s still affectionate. Last time I saw him we were overwhelmed by our mutual attraction and made love all night, but in the morning he was distant and bothered by my presence. His behavior is quite clear that it’s no longer a relationship, but something else and rather ambiguous.

We have both handled this situation quite delicately, thoughtfully, and I want to be there for him as much as he will accept me, as much as he needs, but I feel tortured and confused about what that means for us. We have feelings for each other, we are attracted to each other, we enjoy each other’s company, we have joint projects together… but he isn’t available for a relationship.

How can I find a way for me to continue to be there for him without torturing myself always pining for more, how can I find a peaceful sustainable existence in this ambiguity? How can I ride this out with him, deepening our connection, our intimacy, and be there in the months or years when he is ready for a serious relationship? How can I give my support and love, but not expect him to reciprocate ? Should I invest myself in my single non-romantic life? Should I move on and date other people ?

Thanks for your help :)

G

France_Ad_fix

Dear G,

Just tell him, clearly and often, that you are there for him during this time and that he does not need to right the balance sheet. There is no balance sheet. There is just you. You are there for him and that’s the end of it. That’s what he needs and it’s what you can give him.

You say you feel tortured and confused about what this means for you. It’s not surprising that you’re confused. One set of rituals has collided with another.

But there is no mystery about what is required. What is required is that you behave like a good, caring human being. If you make love you make love. If you don’t talk for a while you don’t talk for a while. The rules of romance are suspended. If you have needs for companionship or sex that he cannot meet, do not feel bad about meeting them in other ways. Being there for him doesn’t mean you put your life on hold. Just be there for him when you can be. Contact him regularly and don’t require him to call you back. Just remind him regularly that you are there.

Relationships deepen when one partner suffers a loss. In unguarded moments your friend will reveal hidden strengths and weaknesses. His core beliefs will come to the fore. You will see who he is.

It’s possible that you will be surprised by what you see. It’s possible, likewise, that he may not be able to be intimate with you in any meaningful way while he is facing the possible loss of his mother.

What I meant when I said that two sets of rituals had collided is that the ritual of dating has collided with the ritual of friendship. The confusion that results shows just how artificial the expectations of the dating relationship are. It seems to presume that no unforeseen human events will occur. When they do occur, the dating ritual participants are thrown into indecision.

This illustrates how dating rituals distort our natural instincts toward compassion and caring. It’s very interesting: If he were a friend, even a friend you’ve only just met, you would not be confused about how to respond to this event in his life. You would express your concern and make yourself available to him. But because you are following a dating ritual, each of you feels strangely compelled to apologize for the disruption.  It is as though people date in a vacuum, excluding all real-life events.

So the important thing is to act in the human sphere, to act in friendship. Put “the relationship” on hold.

Let go of your hopes and expectations for a relationship and just be there. Be a good human being and a good friend. You know how to do that.

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Inherited money turned my friends into idiots

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Cary’s classic column from

Since they got suddenly rich, all they talk about is how hard it is to get good help


Hi, Cary –

In a nutshell, the problem is that my three best friends have all inherited substantial money in the past two years. My husband and I have no hope of ever again being their financial equals.

And I’m jealous as hell. So jealous, I don’t really want to talk to them. Their conversations seem to be all about their new houses, their trips, their toys, and things I can never hope to have.

These three are all my best friends — friends of over 30 years whom I went to school with. We danced at each other’s weddings and laughed through college and adulthood together. They have been dear friends and a source of comfort and joy. But I just can’t relate to their new problems (how hard it is to find a good cleaning lady, the price of a designer handbag, yada yada).

We’re not “working poor” — we’re probably in the middle of the middle class — but suddenly they’ve leapt up several notches in net worth, and it depresses me to know I’ll never be there.

I can’t really afford to lose three good friends, but I hate the jealousy I feel every time we visit any of them or they visit us. What’s my solution? Is there one? They are not rubbing my nose in it — I am.

Jealous of the Newly Rich

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

Dear Jealous,

If we’re just fine, if we’re just as good as the next person, then why should we care if someone has something we don’t have?

And if we’re not fine, what’s wrong? What do we need to be content in our own lives?

You probably can’t force the heavens to rain money on you. But you can use this opportunity to look at your own life and ask what you can do to make your own life so satisfying that you don’t care about other people and their inherited wealth.

So what do you need? What is missing in your own life? Really. I mean, sure, maybe it’s the Audi sports car that you think is missing. But what is that about? Is it about excitement and fun? Is it about the feeling of being admired? Do you crave the sensual feel of luxury upholstery?

Once you can identify the actual cravings, you can find those things in experience. You don’t need to own an expensive luxury sports car to enjoy some of its qualities. If your friends have acquired expensive luxury sports cars, you can ask them to drive you around. They probably would be happy to do that. Then you can feel the expensively sure and quiet click of the glove compartment and know that you are in the presence of the world’s finest engineering — unless the glove compartment is locked, perhaps because it contains diamonds, or a gun, or both. Then you can enjoy the thought of what is hidden in the glove compartment of the expensive luxury sports car belonging to your old friend who has just inherited quite a bit of money.

Or maybe what is missing is a sense of security. Maybe it grinds you down to have to work so hard, not knowing where the next rent check will come from, wondering how you will maintain your own comfortable existence into old age.

These are real concerns. They are what our lives are made of. They are worth thinking about.

In this way you can allow your friends’ good fortune to enrich your own life, without having to pay the insurance premiums or the inheritance taxes.

Your desires are real and legitimate. You would be wise to pursue their satisfaction. But your jealousy is a perversion of those desires, based in a belief that you can’t have what you want, and that the world is unfair, and you are unloved.

Jealousy is different from desire. Desires can be satisfied. Jealousy involves a painful, grinding feeling of unworthiness. When I’m jealous and it leads to depression, that’s because I feel things are hopeless: I’ll never have what they have, hence I’ll never be happy or loved.

In jealousy we sense injustice: Why should that jerk have a boat? He doesn’t deserve it! If a person worked hard all his life and finally bought a boat, would we be jealous? Probably not. But if his rich mother bought him a boat and he appeared on deck in his captain’s hat and blazer, knowing nothing about maintenance or navigation, we might feel a murderous twinge.

We have no control over who inherits what. But we do have some control over our own lives, and how we treat our own psyches.

The cure is to know that we are loved, and to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. Not having wealth is not a shortcoming. But obsessing over it is. So we forgive ourselves, and we remind ourselves of our own worth.

If I told you to write, “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” on your bathroom mirror like that “Saturday Night Live” character Stuart Smalley, it might send you into a real suicidal depression. We have to maintain some dignity! But if you are honest about the things you enjoy, and if you pursue them, and if you give yourself the pleasures you deserve, and if you allow yourself to plot secretly to acquire the pleasures that only you know you want, then you can live a fairly happy life without inheriting millions of dollars.

Self-esteem does not mean self-satisfaction. It isn’t egotism. It is love. And it must come with humility. That means loving ourselves as we are, with our shortcomings.

So my wish for you would be that you change your attitude to one of grateful amazement that your friends could have such good fortune.

Well, maybe that’s a tall order.

OK, how about this:

My wish for you would be that you can continue to love your friends and forgive them for their newfound and boring interest in the challenges of maintaining mundane comforts, and that you would get to the point where can say to them, “Enough talk about the perils and misfortunes of inherited wealth; now let’s grill some ribs.”

Preserve the friendship by being open but lighthearted about this. It’s a touchy subject, and it may happen that at times your true feelings show a little. But that’s OK. As long as you don’t belabor it. Like, don’t get into a long self-justifying drunken spiel about how your friends have become insufferable since they got a little dough. Just rib them about it and maintain your own dignity.

In other words, stop rubbing your own nose in it.

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I have a secret I have to tell

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Cary’s classic column from

 


I’ve never told anyone what my dad did to me when I was 10. Should I just keep it bottled up?


Dear Cary,

Well first of all, man, I’ve never done something like this, ever, so it’s kinda scary. But here’s the deal. I’m a guy and when I was in the fourth grade, age 10 I suppose, I was raped. I was raped by my dad. It wasn’t good, to say the least. I suffered some damage to my anal sphincter muscle then which is with me to this day. Of course, not as bad; it’s healed but there is a leftover consequence. After that happened things went from bad to worse in my family. All the gory details aren’t necessary for the purpose of this letter.

Anyway I think that I have suffered something like maybe post-traumatic stress from that time. I am now gay, and yeah maybe that’s an attempt at workin’ this whole sorry shit out. I’ve thought about that. In fact I fought being gay for most of my life because I really truly saw it as just fuckin’ evil madness. That’s true. In my earlier years I sorta made a pact with myself that I’d off myself if I ever acted on my impulses.

But it wore me down I guess and I gave in. Now I’ve talked to some counselors about this, really just hints and not the full story. For years and years I couldn’t even talk about it at all. But then I tried and no sooner than I’d start I’d break down and just sit there and bawl like a baby, totally unable to go on. And I was all grown up then. So I’ve never ever told anyone the full fuckin’ story from beginning to end. The thing about counselors is that in my opinion they are just doin’ their job, that they really don’t give a shit about me, at least in the way that I want. And I’d die before I’d ever tell a woman because they would just get all motherly on me and treat me like a child, a fuckin’ baby. No, I always figured that if I told someone, really told someone and not just throw out hints, that it would have to be a guy. I think that a guy would get it more and that I’d get the response that I want, which is basically, “Man! that fuckin’ sucks! I’m sorry you had to go through that shit!” End of story.

Now I want to know just why I have this overwhelming urge to tell somebody, to come clean? This fuckin’ urge drives me nuts. I always thought that when I found the right guy, Mr. Right, that he would be the guy I told. But I haven’t found that guy yet. I’ve thought about seeing another counselor and being completely open and honest when I do, but truthfully I have no stomach for that. I’ve had both good and bad counselors in my life. They’re not all good. Plus I’d be just another interesting, at best, case in their career. So like I fought being gay, now I’m fighting this maddening urge to really open up. I don’t know why? Talkin’ about the past can’t change it! It’s fuckin’ done with! I don’t want anybody to “do” something about it because nothing can be done! But it seems to haunt me all the time.

I now have this friend, a straight guy, whom, I guess, that I can say that I love. Not in a gay way. I’m not into him that way, but more like a brother. When I started coming out, especially at work, I had some good experiences and, of course, some bad. I found that my women friends could roll with it much better, but my guy friends had a real difficult time. Even though I told them straight out they would deny it and act like I was totally wrong. You see, I’m, as they say, “straight acting, straight appearing.” The trouble is that I figure that I’ve been gay since junior high. Some of my friends are now, at best, my former friends, but this guy whom I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph stuck by me. Later when I tried to end our friendship because I figured that no straight guy could ever really get a gay guy, he told me to “fuck off, he was gonna be my friend no matter what the fuck!” Man, you can’t help but love a guy like that. But anyway, I’ve been thinkin’ about tellin’ this guy, this friend, my story, but I’m really really afraid of loading him down. I love the guy. I don’t want to do anything wrong here. So some days I feel close to tellin’ him but other days an alarm goes off in my head and says, “Don’t! don’t fuckin’ do it!”

If I really love the guy then I’ll do what’s best for him, not what may give me some relief. So my question or questions: Why am I plagued with this urge to open up, to spill my guts, to bleed in public? And: What should I do about it? Ignore it? Wait and see if our friendship can take it? You’ll probably say see another counselor. That truly is last on my list. I’d rather ignore and fight it than go through that shit again.

Well man, I appreciate your ear. And I’ll appreciate any thoughts on this fucked up story. You know, it’s pitiful but I think I may know the answer, man. I’ll see if you agree with me. But probably the right answer is: Just hang in there, keep your mouth shut, and find Mr. Right! Because it’s just not about tellin’ your story, it’s about finding love. Oh Jesus! What a fucked up world!

Love ya, man. Keep doin’ good!

Sign me “Steve,” there are a lot of fuckin’ Steves in this world!

Oh P.S.: Now don’t think of tellin’ me to go straight! I had this counselor once who told me, “You’re NOT gay, you’re just hurt!”  I thought, “Tell that to my dick!” No man, I’m gay, no doubt about it! And after all this time I’m just startin’ to be happy with it. It’s startin’ to feel really good.

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Dear Steve,

We’re not just mechanical beings. We live in a moral and spiritual universe and you had a moral and spiritual crime done to you and so you’re in a moral and spiritual hell. And that’s the truth. And you’ve glimpsed what it might be like to start climbing out of that hell, and you want to climb out of that hell, but you’re scared, and I don’t blame you. There are a lot of cruel, ignorant, unfeeling people in this world who cannot deal with the truth of others’ suffering.

Some people could not deal with this. But then there’s this friend of yours. He is genuinely a good person. You can tell him. He’s not going to walk away from you. He probably already senses your pain. For all we know, he may have a story of his own to tell. So I say find a quiet, private place and tell your story. If it helps to write it out first, then write it all out and then read it to him.

He is not going to think less of you for telling him what was done to you, nor for feeling the pain in front of him and crying it out.

I’m walking a thin line here between sounding like I even pretend to know what you’re going through and just stating the facts. I think the fact is, once you tell your story you will be on a journey. Your life will change. You will see that as a part of humanity, you do have a moral and spiritual core, and it operates in powerful ways. That’s about all I want to say. The point is that we are not just mechanical. You share your story because life is not just about the mechanical, much as we’d like to stick to it being all mechanical. There is a moral and spiritual universe. We are living in it. When evil is done to us, it affects us, and we then are put on a course of correcting that effect. That’s where you are now. You’ve begun the process of correcting that evil, by writing to me. Now, I’m just a bystander, cheering you on. I’m shouting, Go, tell it, brother! Tell what happened! Tell it and get it out of you!

We use all these metaphors for the changes that happen as we tell our stories, and a lot of the metaphors don’t sound right. Of course they don’t sound right, because they’re only metaphors for what actually happens. But basically, there are reasons for us wanting to tell our stories; there is something that happens when we do that, and we do change, and life does get better, and I hesitate to try to put it in words because it will sound like more metaphors for things that don’t really seem real to you now.

I can say that I have walked through life with similar locked-up feelings and locked-up stories, afraid to even mention them. I had them locked up and I had some hazy notions of terrible things that would happen if I ever said them. But eventually life just got intolerable and I started saying some of them. And I felt weak and overwhelmed when I said them but I was in  a safe environment so it was OK to crumple up in a ball for a little while; it was OK to whimper and sob. It is almost funny now, saying “whimper” and “sob” but that’s what it sounded like, just like a stupid little kid bawling. And it still happens. I’ll be talking and something will come up and all of a sudden I’m that stupid little kid bawling again, and I want to be strong, or stop bawling before someone starts laughing at me, but it’s a safe place and nobody’s there but my protector so I just bawl and then I learn another new thing, another layer, another vulnerability, another thing I’d pretended I didn’t feel or that hadn’t really happened.

If you trust this friend of yours then go ahead and tell him. I don’t think he’ll refuse to be your friend. But you may want to structure it somehow. Or you may want to go to a group like Sex Addicts Anonymous, not because you’re a sex addict, but because these 12-step groups have a structured approach to telling your story. You do an inventory and you share it with someone and it’s completely private. And you share your whole story. You don’t leave anything out. You go at it in a kind of thorough, almost mechanical way, just listing all the things. I haven’t actually participated in this group but I have a friend who has described the process to me. It might work for you.

But I say definitely share it either with your friend or in a structured 12-step setting. Once you do, you will feel better. You may find the world looks a little differently to you.

Whether you’re gay or straight is not an issue for me. The issue for me is that you’re walking around with this awful pain and fear and this awful memory and you don’t have to do that. You can choose to take a courageous step and just tell it and experience what it’s like to tell it instead of always keeping it hidden. You can get some relief.

You will probably feel some things; perhaps for a few moments it might feel like you are back there having it happen again, but that will pass.

On the positive side, you might also experience the emergence of another part of you, the strong part that could reach back into time and protect that poor kid; you might feel in your body the strong part of you that would have fought this off if you could, or would fight it off today. You might also connect with who you were before this happened, and you might find that part of yourself is still there with you, the part of you that you love, that innocent kid.

It might be scary how strong the feelings are. And you might for a few moments, as I said, feel like you’re literally re-experiencing it. But that will only be memory. You will be safe. Just make sure you find a private place where you can talk with your friend and won’t be interrupted for an hour or so, where you can experience whatever you have to experience, and be accepted.

I say do it. Don’t hold it in. Just do it with someone you trust. And then, having said it, you can begin living your life with this event in mind, knowing how it has affected you, and how similar events have affected other young men. It may lead you in many different ways. You may want to make a private peace with it and move on, or you may find it gives you a purpose in life, that you want to work to help others, to give strength to others, to ensure that this doesn’t happen to them. You might find your best way to be useful in the world is to be a role model, and walk with your head held high, and do some good in the world, and redeem this experience, and help to ensure that other people have a place to go to tell their stories. That’s up to you.

The important thing is, you don’t have to live with this. You did nothing wrong. This is something that was done to you. You are innocent. You don’t have to keep it a secret.

Tell somebody.

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I punched my sister in the head. How can I forgive myself?

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Dear Cary,

I love reading your column. You write straight to the point with witty remarks yet underline it with great depth and advice. I’m in desperate need of advice.

So, here goes. I’m in my late twenties, done a lot of introspection and I’ve finally forgiven most of my stupidity and traumas. According to my therapist I was just unlucky and met a lot of sadistic people in my life, starting at a very young age. Thankfully I have the parents that I have, without their love I probably would be very different. And not in a good way. There is just one thing I can’t forgive, and that’s myself for what I’ve done to my little sister.

A couple of years ago (she’s in her late teens now) she hung out with the wrong crowd, guys came in the house and stole a lot of things. She kept bringing people who would break stuff, throw cans at my dog, she’d yell at my parents all the time and my father was very ill. One day I just lost it and we fought. I don’t mean sisters fighting, I mean I hit her back with a blow to the head. It was horrible. It was very violent. And I regret it every day. I’ve asked for her forgiveness, and she gave it without question, I love her with all my heart but I can’t forgive myself. We have a history of epilepsy in the family, and I am terrified what I did brought on hers . . . because a year later she started having signs.

I know I have anger issues, and I’m working on them. My older sister (half sister) did the same to me, she was a bit abusive. Mentally more than physically although she also hit me on the head after I broke her sunglasses, since then I suffer migraines.

I could never talk to her, because she’d always get angry at me. When I tried to talk to her about when I had been assaulted or that I was being bullied, about my eating disorder (which I have finally gotten rid off, the need to throw up still creeps back from time to time but I’ve learned tricks on how to keep that at bay), when part of our family was showing me how little I meant compared to her, etc. She would explode. She’s told me ‘she’s sorry she never loved me’ on my birthday and after I told her how horrible a human being she was she acted like a victim from then on. Even when I got very sick, she acted as if I was a total stranger. Today, someone who even smells like her makes me physically ill. I tremble, feel queazy and feverish and instantly dislike that person.

This does not excuse anything in my behavior towards my little sister. I try my hardest to be the opposite of what my older sister was. My little sister is an amazing person, highly intelligent, she’s always been funny and philosophical in her remarks ! I just don’t know what to do, as much as I love her she easily angers me and I’m so scared of being violent again when I lose control. It’s not as often as it used to be but it still happens. The reasons why I get angry at her and start yelling are brought on by the stupidest things, usually at the end of my stay at our parent’s house. Immediately after I realize “What is wrong with me ? There’s no reason ! She’s just being a teenager !”. I’m scared I traumatized her and now, with her epilepsy, I’m scared she’ll end up in dangerous situations because there are some bad people in the world who easily take advantage.

Friends have told me how amazing they think I am or my work ethics blablabla… I still feel like a failure and impostor because instead of protecting my sister, instead of being someone she could trust… I ended up being her biggest bully. She forgave me, but I can’t forgive myself because every day I have this flashback and I feel like I ruined her life.

My mother thought I was bipolar and we checked and that’s not the case. She thought I was autistic, still not the case. I know her “theories” are just excuses, she didn’t even want to help me when I told her about my eating disorders. Don’t get me wrong, she’s very loving and intelligent, she just never could deal with me. To be honest I know what’s wrong with me : I’m just angry. I come less and less to the house because of what could happen. I worry every day for my sister’s safety. If she goes to a concert she gets so tired because of the lights. Her friends smoke weed around her (and she probably does too) which brings seizures. Drinking alcohol is the most dangerous for her, which she still does. It’s normal for a teenager, I did worse ! It’s as if I’ve robbed her of her normal teenage years ! You’re supposed to have fun at that age !

What can I do, why am I so angry at her ? How can I stop feeling like a monster ?

All the best,

Horrible Sister with only one regret

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

Dear Horrible Sister,

Maybe you are waiting for the symptoms of trauma and guilt to go away before you forgive yourself. But it works the other way around. You have to perform the action of self-forgiveness first. Then the symptoms will begin to dissipate.

I suggest you do this: Find a quiet moment when you are alone and look at yourself in the mirror. Really look at yourself. Say to yourself, “I forgive you.”

You must say this: “I forgive you. You did what you did because you are a human and are imperfect but I forgive you.”

Forgiveness does not wipe clean the past. It does not undo what has been done. It does not mean that the symptoms of regret and trauma go away. But it announces that you release the other from your ongoing claim of wrongdoing and continuing resentment. In this case, self-forgiveness means you release yourself of this ongoing claim of wrongdoing and continuing resentment.

It’s not the same as excusing a person for his or her actions. Nor does it relieve all your symptoms. You will still feel regret. You will still be responsible for your actions. How could that be otherwise? You are the one who punched your sister. But you must release yourself from this ongoing claim of wrongdoing and continuing resentment. Why? Why do you have that obligation? Because you are not God.

You were made, by whatever means, an imperfect human. 

Not being God is a forgivable shortcoming all humans share. To blame ourselves for not being God is unwise. We truly had no say in the matter.

Not being God, you make mistakes. Your nervous system is the nervous system of an animal that reacts with violence to preserve its own life. Some of these reactions, honed genetically over millennia, are, in the moment of threat, beyond conscious control. You make errors. You have an ego. You have desire and ambition and fear and anger. You were constituted to respond to threats with violence and you will not always win the battle within yourself about when to respond with violence and when to respond with knowing calm. You are going to make mistakes.

Look at yourself in the mirror and forgive yourself for being human.

Now, it may be complicated. I suggest you also explore what other thoughts you have about why you cannot forgive yourself. For instance, in reading your letter over again, something occurs to me. I wonder if your inability to forgive yourself is related to your inability to forgive your older sister. Maybe you believe that she should suffer for what she did to you, without fully realizing the corollary: That you must suffer for what you did to your younger sister. Think about it. If what you did is forgivable, then what your sister did to you might also be forgivable.

This is a way of opening a door. Forgive yourself. It does not mean you have to forgive your sister. But it may open the door to forgiving others. And that may open the door to greater kindness and acceptance in your own heart.

Sometimes to become able to forgive someone we must first pray for them to get everything they want. Yes, we must pray for them. Pray for our enemies and those who have harmed us. This makes us larger. It makes us benevolent and wise. It elevates us above our own petty concerns. Try it. It sounds crazy but try it. What harm can it do? If praying has no effect then certainly it can do no harm. If it does have an effect, then why should your older sister not get everything she wants? —unless what she wants is to bash your head in. You might include that eventuality in any prayer: I pray my older sister gets everything she wants except if she wants to bash my head in.

It’s worth practicing forgiveness toward people we think don’t really deserve it. What you are really saying with forgiveness is that you accept imperfection—your imperfection and the imperfection of others.

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

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Can we flee my husband’s family?

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Cary’s classic column from

They’ll drive us crazy if we stay. We want to move to Colorado!


Dear Cary,

This is hardly a new topic, but here goes.

My husband and I have been married about a year and a half. We met, instantly fell in love and got married a short time later. We are in our mid-30s and know ourselves well, so there was no reason to wait. And we are crazy happy with each other. Unfortunately, this whirlwind courtship and wedding situation didn’t give me as much time in retrospect as I could have used with his family. Not that I would have ditched my honey, but I probably wouldn’t be living where we are now, which is the crux of the problem. Here’s the cast:

His mother: where fun goes to die. Literally. My husband’s father, whom he dearly loved, killed himself about 15 years ago rather than continue being married to her, although only my husband knows this and she wouldn’t believe it anyway. She is the typical old Catholic, martyr, misery-loves-company type. Refuses to say anything positive to my husband. Couldn’t congratulate him on our wedding day, much less contribute a dime toward it and she is very, very comfortable financially. I am polite to her, but I don’t see us getting particularly chummy when every time I see her, she unloads about something my husband did 20 years ago. She’s 70 years old and no, she’s not mentally ill — she’s just a bitch. When I lost my job about a year ago and our fridge died in the summer, we asked for help. Her answer? “Well, you’ll just have to wait for a sale and get it yourself!”

His brother: AKA Golden Boy. Which I find ironic since he has done nothing of note in his entire life except get married in the Catholic Church and pop out a couple of kids, so he gets the lifetime free pass for whatever bullshit he wants to pull. He’s lazy, uneducated, a freeloader, thief, cheats on his wife, and everything out of his mouth is a lie. His best skill is probably getting his mother to pay for whatever he wants by pointing at the kids and saying, “I really need ____, but it’s so expensive with the kids …” Total con man and he plays his mother like a fiddle. He just stole my husband’s golf clubs out of our garage and I can’t wait for how his mother justifies it so it’s my husband’s fault.

His maiden aunt: She owns the house we rent. She’s pretty nice although she believes family comes before all else, meaning we should dismiss every stupid thing the brother does because “That’s just the way he is!” She’s 75.

So we all live about two blocks apart. We moved into this house because it was sort of a wedding present from the aunt, the rent was affordable, and we were planning on having kids. Not a good idea in the 450-square-foot apartment we were already sharing with two cats in the city. Now, after a year and a half, we are ready to bolt. Except that we can’t just yet — any apartment we can find is even more per month. So we are saving our money and plan to move to Colorado in a couple of years. Great, right?

Except that MIL and aunt are expecting us to hang around and take care of them in their old age like they did with their mother. MIL can kiss my ass and we have no problem leaving her to Golden Boy — he more than owes it to her. But the aunt … she’s kinda nice and we don’t know how to handle that. She HAS given us a place to live and all. Should we be preparing her for this ahead of time (which will undoubtedly lead to endlessly complaining about how we don’t appreciate family and more of the MIL’s bitching) or just keep it all quiet and tell them after we’ve bought the house and the moving truck is packed? The grandmother died at 95 and there’s no way in hell I’m staying here 20 years in this situation. And I know this sounds really petty, but let’s be honest — the aunt and MIL make it very clear that my husband and I just don’t “count” as much as Golden Boy because he has kids, so you know where the inheritance is going.

So do we prep them or gleefully skip out?

Desert Gal

Cary's Loire Valley Writing Retreat

Dear Desert Gal,

I hear something in your voice. I hear a self-assured quality that seems at odds with what you are actually asking, or saying. You are saying that you have married into a family that you find intolerable. It is not something you can gleefully skip out on, even if you go to the moon. Nor can these characters be neatly labeled and placed in boxes. You can divorce your husband if you want out of the situation. But otherwise, you’re in. This is the family you married into.

So here is what I first suggest. Take the long view. And try the high road.

Your mother-in-law may be a truly impossible individual. But try the high road. Go to her and say that you love her son very much, that you recognize that you may not live up to her ideal of a daughter-in-law, that you would like to be accepted as a part of the family, but that your dreams for such a life are taking you to Colorado. Tell her that you recognize that she and the aunt (her sister?) will need some help in the years to come, and ask her if there is a plan in place, and what her hopes and expectations are for your role in that plan. Tell her that if she hasn’t thought it through yet, that you hope she will. Offer to help her come up with a plan if she does not have one.

Give it a shot. Like many people, she and her sister might prefer not to think about the future and plan for it but just wait until it happens and then hope their families take care of them, and make life holy hell for everyone just on general principle. But you have a chance, now, to put everything on the table and see what happens. You have a chance, now, to start the conversation. You can offer to help by creating a plan. And you can make it nonnegotiable that you and your husband are moving to Colorado.

I also hear something else that I think is significant: Your husband’s father killed himself when your husband was a teenager or young man. It is understandable that because of the enormity of this event one might wish to reduce it to ironic dimensions: that he killed himself, literally, to get away from his wife. But suicide reverberates through a family in many ways no matter what explanation we give it. Each person in this family was without a doubt affected by his suicide in ways that they may not understand and probably cannot or will not communicate. It is there, that suicide, in your husband’s psyche and in the dynamics of the family.

You say you and he know yourselves well, so there was no reason to wait to get married. But if you truly knew yourselves well, you would have known that, perhaps because of the pain and chaos of your early lives, you tend to make impulsive decisions. Knowing that you tend to make impulsive decisions, you might have waited. But you plunged yourselves into a situation from which you now wish to escape. So you want to escape to Colorado. That may be yet another impulsive move. So if you truly want to know yourselves well, you should know this: that you tend to make big decisions on impulse.

It sounds like I am scolding you, doesn’t it? I apologize. I have no place to scold. I have no right. Let me try to get at what truly bothers me. My guess is that your husband was deeply affected by his father’s suicide, and that it is present in your relationship today in ways you are not aware of. And I sense that this unresolved pain is pushing you to vacate the premises. But it will go with you. Unless you and he examine how his father’s suicide has affected him, and how his current family relationships are affecting both of you, my guess is that no matter what you do, eventually you will experience emotional upheavals that seem to come out of the blue, and you will not know how to deal with them.

I feel this in your tone: You want a quick solution. And yet your actual situation calls for exactly the opposite.

I’m not saying don’t move to Colorado. By all means move to Colorado. Get out of there. But no matter where you go, you will be blindsided by events in the evolving family drama unless you begin working now to understand how that dynamic operates.

How about this: You have the conversation with your mother-in-law, the two of you move to Colorado as planned, but then you promise me to embark on a course of self-exploration so you can bring to consciousness the ways that his father’s suicide is operating today in your relationship.

Here is a very quick gloss on that. You say that your husband shared a secret with you, which is that his father killed himself to get away from his wife. If your husband is relying on such a story to cover over the enormous feelings he must even to this day be experiencing as a result of that suicide, then he has some work to do. It will be painful but liberating work. It will involve facing the loss of his father. It will involve facing his own guilt about the ways he might have prevented that suicide if only he were a better son, if only he had loved his father more, etc.

If he clings to this story that his mother is to blame for his father’s suicide, then in the years to come when his mother truly needs his help, it will be hard for him to play the role of loving caregiver and son, of protector and provider. Unless he takes some action to reconcile, he may also feel constant guilt for having, in a sense, abandoned his mother after his father’s suicide.

This sounds fine on paper. It is easy to say but hard to get. You have to get it. 

For instance, a few months back I was driving the truck along Lincoln Boulevard by Golden Gate Park in the fog, bellyaching to myself as usual, when something “became real” for me. I felt in my chest something that I had perhaps known intellectually for some time: That my frail, demented 85-year-old father was never going to get up out of his bed and give me the warm, encouraging pat on the shoulder or the wise, clear, practical advice that I for so many years resented him for not giving me. Holy shit. What have I been thinking? There was no more father out there to blame. The only father I had was within me. The only father I needed, also, was within me. Whatever fatherly support or strength or advice I felt I needed, I would have to create for myself, or find somewhere within me. I had to embody that strength.

It was a visceral thing. With agonizing slowness, the heart learns.

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. You can know the facts of this suicide, but certain things must be felt. So I suggest you find someone to help you and your husband work through his father’s suicide now, so it doesn’t creep up on you two for the next few years until you feel like you are losing your mind because lately you’ve been breaking down in tears at unexpected moments and some depression has overtaken your husband and he’s angry and resentful and drinking too much and getting violent and suicidal and you cannot find him in the gloom and you are wondering, where the hell did this come from?

Don’t wait for that. Confront this now. Go ahead and move to Colorado and find somebody to work with about this. You can have a good life and make all this work out. But you cannot ignore it. It will not work itself out on its own.

 

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My brother retreated to a basement apartment with his dog

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Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from

He’s had some tough blows lately, but I’m concerned he’s really losing it.


Dear Cary,

My younger brother, 40, is an anxious, depressed social recluse. He lives with his dog in a basement apartment alone. He never answers his phone. He only returns calls if it’s urgent. He is getting more obese by the day, smokes and hacks and coughs, may be drinking. He now smells, doesn’t cut his hair. He’s so anxious, he’ll do anything to avoid discussing real issues (his) and talks only about superficial things.

I’m in the unenviable position of being the one who can intervene — or not. Although we have an older brother who would support me, he’s not prepared to lead the way. I’ve had many talks with my younger brother, pleading with him to see a doctor to get help. I’ve had my own mental health and addiction problems over the years, and I’ve shared my experience with him, including how much better I’m doing as a result of an SSRI I’m taking. I’ve offered to go with him to the doctor, to get him the names of people who can help. I’ve even told him I’d have to have him forcibly removed from his place if I felt he was becoming suicidal. He laughed it off. He still seems rational to talk to, but his life is crazy.

He lost his job about a year ago. It was a media job, pretty high profile. He’d been working at the same place basically since finishing college. He’s talented and attractive, but not proactive in the least; he got as far as he did mostly because others pushed and made opportunities for him. In his first serious relationship (with someone from work, a “star”), he allowed himself to be treated with a lot of disrespect and completely deferred to her needs. In the end, she ended it and got married to someone who could provide what she needed. Soon after that, my brother rebounded with another woman, also from work but not a high-profile girl. Instead, she was a sweet but impulsive, gregarious, high-energy party type. Within six months, he’d proposed and they soon married.

From almost the day after their marriage, my brother seemed to abdicate and begin retreating. He didn’t seem to worry anymore about putting effort into being positive, energetic, doing things. He became a lazy, withdrawn and bitchy guy who saw his work as his main obligation. True, his work required a lot of social energy; it required interacting with a lot of people; but he didn’t seem to have anything left for his wife. After years of this and a general decline that saw him more and more withdrawn — never returning calls to family or friends, so that eventually he had no friends left — his wife left him. A week or two later, our father, whom he also neglected over the past years, died; months later, he was fired.

I don’t fear that he’s suicidal at this point. What makes me angry is that I know, in one way, where this will end up, and it means I’ll be cleaning up for him because he’s refusing to take my help now. He’ll run out of money and become destitute, and I’ll have to either take him in or otherwise “solve his life” for him. I get exasperated often as I wonder how someone who is being served up help on a platter can be so damned stubborn and insist they’re “not ready for it” — knowing it’s going to get worse. On the other hand, I guess he might make some change once he hits the real rock bottom — who knows? I’m torn about whether I should intervene now or whether he should be left to go through this?

Big Sis

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Big Sis,

What strikes me about your brother is that within a matter of months he lost his wife, his father and his job. That would be a setback for anyone. Some people would bounce back fairly soon. They would get another job and work through their loneliness and grief on their own time. Others might be seriously shaken, but would at least maintain their standard of living and basic hygiene. He went into a tailspin. I wonder why.

It could be that he is clinically depressed. If at all possible, have him examined. The stress of events may have triggered an episode. But I must be careful with such speculation; not only am I unqualified to diagnose, but as a writer, my bias is toward meaning, not pathology. So perhaps this is not illness at all. Perhaps it is a kind of journey.

What kind of journey could it be? You say that he is talented and attractive, but not proactive, and that his success at work was largely due to the favorable actions of others. You say that in his first relationship he deferred to the needs of his partner. That leaves the impression that he is affable and charming but somewhat passive. Perhaps in the past whenever he faced adversity he would give up until someone came along to rescue him. This time there is no one to help him to his feet — not his dad, not his wife, not his co-workers — only you, big sister, only you.

I always look for signs that the soul is seeking knowledge. The soul seeks knowledge through adversity. Sometimes that adversity is self-generated. People break the law and get locked up; we call it acting out; we call it antisocial, as if in a perfect world none of it would happen. We do not often pause to consider the value of our dark journeys, the priceless material we carry back with us when we return, shaken but sobered by what we have seen.

While we are sometimes too quick to assume that abnormality is illness, that deviation is pathology, as I say, I am no kind of doctor. (If I were, I would be a crazy doctor crawling in the muck, a scary bearded banger of bells, a gonger, a shouter, a vibrating and unreliable sage. I would be applauding the insane as they are led away in wagons. I would not be the kind of doctor you want to mend an arm or fix a tooth.) So, again, you should have a real doctor find out if he’s clinically depressed, if he needs to be treated. If he is physically in danger, if he becomes suicidal, then perhaps to save a life a doctor has to intervene.

But perhaps he is struggling to accept adversity on his own. Perhaps, stricken by grief, alone in the world for the first time, he is trying to find out what difference it makes if he smells bad or not, if he answers the phone or not, if he succeeds or just sits alone in the dark with his dog. Perhaps he is on a twisted journey toward self-reliance. Perhaps in this way he is trying to become a man! As much as I want him to be OK, I also want to honor his decision to descend into a kind of funky, ugly madness.

In the meantime, what is your role? If you determine that he’s not in imminent danger, you stand by. You stand by like a tug when a ship is in distress, like a spotter for a gymnast attempting a difficult flip. Do not assume that simply because he has chosen to retreat to the basement with his dog that he is irretrievable. After he has gone where he has to go, he may emerge one day, blinking in the sunlight, looking strangely radiant, saying, Look, look what I found, I may have paid too much for it but look how it shines!

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