Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 20, 2005
I didn’t want to start a fight, so I told her it wasn’t so bad. But I hate what she’s doing. What should I do?
OK, so a couple of weeks ago, somebody took a big, runny dump on the hood of my car, parked on the street near my house.
Gross. Really, really gross. I assumed it was just a disgusting yet random act, donned rubber gloves and cleaned up the best I could.
But then I go out after a snowstorm and someone has obviously urinated on the snow on the hood of my car. It’s not a great car by any means — just a little blue subcompact, circa 1990. But still, I feel targeted and I don’t know what to do with this anger at an anonymous pooper who has decided I deserve this harassment.
For background, I own a home in one of those white-ethnic working-class neighborhoods that time forgot; last year people filmed a movie that took place in the ’70s and all they had to do was move the cars. “The pooper” is no doubt one of the many Kevin Federline look-alikes found on every corner; the brown-stained wife-beater undershirt he left behind says as much.
I’m friendly with a few people on the block, but I don’t exactly fit in. One neighbor calls me and my fiancée “the quiet couple.”
But I still don’t know what I could have done to deserve this.
I guess this isn’t a big deal; my house is now sold. My fiancée and I are moving to a bright, sunny house in a diverse, progressive middle-class neighborhood in a few weeks. But it’s not just the pooper that’s got me down. I want to hit somebody and I don’t know whom to hit.
What do I do with all the anger that piles up from all the anonymous jerks who make life so unpleasant?
Feeling Pooped On
Dear Feeling Pooped On,
I had a 1959 Chevrolet Apache long-bed pickup truck. It was rusty and didn’t run well and I loved it. It didn’t fit in my garage, so it was always on the street. It was beautiful like a sculpture. I’m no mechanic. I tried to keep it running. My friend and I had gone in on it together, $400 apiece, so we would have a pickup truck to use on occasion. As it turned out, we hardly used it. It wasn’t too reliable.
One day I had parked it near the beach and went out to move it for the street sweeper and both the right-side tires were flat. They had been slashed. I had to replace them. It was expensive. Then the same thing happened the next week — well, this time the air was let out of the tires on the curb side. I had to have AAA come out and pump them up. Then I went away on a trip and so parked it in another part of the neighborhood, and when I came back the air had been let out of the front right tire again.
There wasn’t much I could do. Someone was doing this to me. I had to let it go — the truck, I mean. And I had to live with the mystery of who did it and why, and was it the same person — even in a different part of the neighborhood? — and was I somehow to blame, was there something wrong with parking a beat-up truck on the street, and if so what did I just not understand about life?
My wife says there are people in the world who think an old beat-up truck parked on the street brings down property values and that making such trucks go away, by any means necessary, is a high civic act. She didn’t especially like that truck, but I don’t think she slashed the tires. She just claims to be able to see into the minds of people unlike us.
I hear what she says but it doesn’t register. The way I look at it is more like this: Whales and old men have scars and barnacles. They carry their history on their bodies — things they have brushed up against, parasites that have attached to them, places they shouldn’t have gone but went anyway and got stabbed or shot or just roughed up. An old man will lift his shirt and he’ll have at least one nasty old scar somewhere, from an appendix operation or heart surgery, or a bullet wound or knife wound, or a scar above his eye from a fall or a bad car accident. And if ugly old whales could talk I think they’d say, Here’s where a shark took a chunk out of me off of Port Angeles! Here’s where I got run over by an Evinrude!
If you stick around long enough you’re going to get some scars. You’re going to get your stuff stolen out of your locker or out of your car. Somebody is going to insult you at a party and you’re not going to have a comeback. People are going to shit on the hood of your car.
Can you retaliate in a meaningful and satisfying way, and is retaliation wise? Some would say you can and that revenge is sweet indeed, and they will show you how in books available on the Internet and in certain bookstores. But maybe you believe in karma — that the heavens house a large but remarkably efficient bureau of eventual retaliation and just humiliation, where experts of arcane arts transform princes into pigs and embezzlers into moles.
If you’re in an organized religion or have any moral program or philosophy that works for you, then I guess you follow that. But no matter what you do, whether you believe things are always taken care of in some way without your personal intervention or not, whether you believe that “everything happens for a reason,” you’re still going to have some uncharitable feelings toward persons unknown who have fucked with your stuff in the dead of night.
How do you deal with that? Thinking doesn’t make such feelings disappear.
You just have to live with it. That’s the best I’ve got. There are numerous ways of living with it — ways to regulate the mind and the passions, ways to channel it, such as exercise and taking your mind off it and meditating about it and going shopping and throwing the ball out in the back yard and chopping some wood and a million other activities to capture the mind in its darkest, most vengeful moods. Whatever works. But there are going to be times that for whatever reason, your heart is just full of murder. You just have to be big enough to carry it.
Everybody carries murderous thoughts; everybody carries big scars.
Write for Advice
It seems like every other letter you answer has implications of alcoholism. The common theme that I see in your letters is that people can get by just fine day to day, but have trouble achieving anything in the long run. I’m deathly afraid of that and I realize it’s time to get sober.
My social network is built around drinking. Everything I do involves happy hour or beer. I ended a yearlong relationship because I didn’t know how to have sober fun with my significant other. I like the thought of becoming sober, but I don’t like the thought of being the bitter guy who insists that he’s having fun when everyone else is drinking. Ideally I would still like to drink once a week.
Do you have tips for someone that wants to cut out alcohol? I don’t want to start going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for many petty reasons not worth listing here. Is it possible to maintain the same group of friends and stay sober? Is it possible to still go bowling and stay sober? Can I get drunk once a week and still declare sobriety? Running and weightlifting take up a decent amount of my time, but I’m still presented with ample drinking opportunities. I love my job and do it well. I love my city. Do I need to give them up and move away?
P.S. I don’t really need advice. I really just wanted to ask you if you think a lot of the people that write to you have alcohol problems.
Dear Ambivalent Alcoholic,
You can quit drinking today if you want to. Don’t worry what your drinking buddies think. It’s your damned life. You know what’s best for you.
If want to quit drinking but don’t want to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, I would suggest you first try to quit on your own. See how that goes. If you can quit on your own, then what do you need A.A. for?
Quitting means quitting, though. Say you quit playing golf. And somebody asks you, “You play golf?”
You say, “No, I gave it up.”
“But weren’t you playing Sunday?”
“Yeah, I play every Sunday.”
“But you don’t play golf?”
“No, I gave it up. Except for every Sunday.”
That kind of thing doesn’t make sense to people. If you drink every Sunday, you are a drinker. That doesn’t mean you’re an alcoholic. But you’re a drinker. A sober person doesn’t drink.
If you try to quit on your own and find you do need help, there are many approaches other than A.A. There is Rational Recovery, for instance. You might try that. It has had some notable success. They use a method called addictive voice recognition technique. There are rehabs, there is therapy, there are drugs. You’re the consumer. You’re the patient. You’re in charge. Go see if there’s something out there that will work for you. Don’t sell yourself short.
As to not being that bitter guy: You don’t have to be that bitter guy. But let’s be frank: When you stop drinking, your drunk friends do get stupider. Weird but true. They don’t make as much sense as they used to. They get in your face with their big wet eyes and it’s just annoying. The danger is that there is a solution: Get drunk again! That’s the danger of hanging around the bar trying to have as much fun as you used to.
Do a lot of people who write to me have alcohol problems? I would say that alcohol is often among the complex of interrelated problems people write to me about. That is not surprising. Alcohol is a good problem-solver. It can solve the problem of shyness, for instance. You’re shy, you have a few drinks, you’re not shy. It can solve the problem of not being able to express feelings. You feel cold and distant, have a few drinks, you’re feeling expansive and emotional. Problem solved.
People with problems aren’t stupid. When they find something that works, they like to take advantage of it. The problem behind the solution is, of course, that the solution becomes the problem. I assume that’s why you’re writing — you’ve realized that although alcohol helps solve certain problems, it’s also starting to hurt you.
So yes, you can quit, you don’t need to go to A.A. if you don’t want to, and if you think you can do it on your own, I urge you to try. If you can’t do it on your own, there is lots of help out there. You don’t have to drink ever again if you don’t want to.
You recently wrote about when “to change your life.” I think I’m there now. And it isn’t a problem with my problem that I’m writing about.
Where I need help is in steps to follow.
I was raised in foster homes from birth to first grade, then I was returned to my family. I left there at age 15. There was no change from one scenario to the other. There was abuse of all types, and kids doing their best to be adults, while adults did their best to ignore the kids.
I learned nothing from them, except that (life skills-wise) I was on my own.
So my problem is that I’m real bad at “being.” And for many years I’ve felt like a fraud in not knowing so many basic things. Now, I want to, literally, come clean. I never go into my bathroom for showers or baths or teeth brushing. I’m plagued with very bad demons of violence and rape that happened in bathrooms. These go back to age 2, but maybe even farther, so they are very deep and still seem real.
Where can I “learn” the basics of health and hygiene habits that all little kids seem brought up with? What are the steps to follow that all other people (as adults) seem to take for granted in this area of life?
Can you point me to a resource that can re-teach adults all the things that were missed in a history like mine?
Dear Ready Now,
Something happened when you were 2 in a room you called the bathroom.
You have a room in your house today that is called a bathroom. But it is not the same room as the room where something happened when you were 2.
What happened when you were 2 is never going to happen again. The past in which that occurred is gone. Those circumstances are gone.
Take my hand.
Let’s take that 2-year-old into your bathroom.
Your bathroom is not that other bathroom. Your bathroom is safe.
Let’s not even call it a bathroom. Let’s give it a different name.
Let’s call it Tokyo. And let’s not call it brushing your teeth. Let’s call it something silly, like a peppermint mouth vacation. Let’s say you are taking a peppermint mouth vacation in Tokyo. And I will be your travel agent.
This 2-year-old is still with you. Only you are the adult now, and you take care of her in a way that she was not taken care of before. You now take care of her because you are a hero and a survivor. So you take the 2-year-old by the hand and start to walk down the hall and she gets scared and tries to stop but you say that it’s OK, you are just going to Tokyo for a peppermint mouth vacation. You go into that room where there are plumbing fixtures and possibly some tile, and an overhead light, and you explore that room, giving different names to all the things in it. You can give them people names or place names or whatever.
Also you do a security check. Because you are having a whole new life now and your new life is secure. In your new life, you have boundaries and you have choices and you have rights. So you check the front door to make sure no one can break in. You see if there is a lock on the door. Why not rename your house too? If the bathroom is Tokyo, then your house can be Japan, where everyone is very ceremonial. They wear robes and do lots of bowing. So your house becomes Japan where everyone is very ceremonial and does lots of bowing, and the location of your peppermint mouth vacation is Tokyo, which has a very low crime rate.
This is an extreme and indulgent example. I try to make a point, I do. I try to make a point that terrible things happen to us and we have to find ways to emerge from the prison of those things and imprint on ourselves the knowledge that everything in this moment is new and fresh. We are not prisoners of what has happened to us. We can rename anything we like, in order to avoid making it a repetition of the past. We can make everything we do completely new.
What you have today are feelings. Your feelings are real and they are good. They tell you that at one point your life was threatened, and they tell you that never, ever again will you allow that to happen. Your feelings tell you that now you are an adult and you never have to let that happen again. Events happen and then they are gone. What remains is memory. Memory is holy. Memory is love. Memory is the gift of the past to us in the present. We can open these gifts and look at them because they are just stories, photographs and sounds. They are not the event itself.
Your memories are not assault. When you go in your mind back to that time, you may feel a jolt. You may feel as though it is happening again. But it is not happening again. That is just the wisdom of your body, giving you the strength to resist such a thing.
I wish I could sit on the floor with you and say this: “The year is 2010 and you are a strong adult and what happened to you when you were 2 can never happen again.” Whether you are sitting on the floor in your new bathroom, or standing on the edge of the tub looking out the window, or standing at the sink looking at yourself in the mirror, or brushing your teeth, you can know that this is 2010 and what happened to you when you were 2 can never happen again.
You are a survivor. You have an adult life now. You can go to the store and buy any toothbrush you want. You can buy any brand of toothpaste you want. You can brush your teeth upside down, standing on your head, in the shower, at the sink, however you want.
If you need concrete information about how to brush your teeth, you can look here.
And here are a few more things. Have you read, or heard of, Antwone Fisher’s book “A Boy Should Know How to Tie a Tie”? I’m quite moved by what he has to say.
I was also moved by my discovery of the group FACT — Fostered Adult Children Together. Here is what they say: “As children we stood by and watched helplessly as our worlds crumbled apart, depending on strangers to come to our rescue and decide our fate, a fate which many times was worse than what we were delivered from.”
Coming together with others to share your experience, strength and hope is a powerful way to overcome the effects of the past.
I know this, too: You are capable of healing, of being whole and of being OK. That I know. You have taken the first step, by writing this letter.
I hope you’ll remember what this is about. I wrote last year about falling in love with the wrong person at college, an atheist Jew, the polar opposite of what my conservative Muslim family has always wanted for me. I wrote about worrying about telling my parents, and how’d they react and whether my relationship with my partner would succeed.
I told my parents last year and they reacted surprisingly well. No anger, no yelling, certainly none of the violence some commenters thought I’d see. They were surprised, and asked for some time to consider it. Eventually, they refused ‘permission’ for me to marry him, or at least said that they couldn’t give me their blessings because even though he has converted to Islam, he only did so for me and would probably not be a real Muslim. More than that, I think my dad worries about what people are going to say, and that they’re going to gossip about us and my family. I spent 6 or 7 months trying to get my parents on board at least agree to come to my wedding, and my dad took some strides towards coming around in that he talked to some people who have been in similar situations, but seemed reluctant to go further than that. His response when I asked him seemed to be ‘I’ll deal with it soon’. One day, after a few months of this, I kind of snapped and sent an emotional message about how I felt stuck, and I wanted to move on with his blessings, and would he please consider that this is what is right for me. He responded by calling my mom and relented: I could marry him, but it would have to be after my older sister got married so it wouldn’t affect her prospects. There will be a small ceremony in the U.S. at some Islamic center, but only my mother and one of my siblings will come, and my father won’t participate.
My sister sent me some texts about this, saying that I couldn’t have both my family’s support and this marriage, and I’m heart broken because that’s what I came home from college to get. I wanted to spend my time here to show them that I am still committed to my heritage and beliefs, and that I wanted to include them in the process as much as possible, that this isn’t an attack on them but a decision for myself that I am sure is right for me. I can’t imagine a wedding without my family, but I don’t know how to get them on board beyond keeping the dialogue going for the next six months or so that will inevitably pass before I can begin to plan for my wedding (my sister is about to get engaged to be married). I’m heartbroken because my parents are mad at me, and I feel a little guilty because I feel like a terrible daughter.
Thanks for listening.
Love’s Got me Looking So Crazy Right Now
Dear Love’s Got me Looking So Crazy,
I’m sorry to hear that your father is being intransigent. I answered your original letter on Sept. 13, 2013, a few weeks before I left Salon.
As this commenter says (there were 135 comments to the original), I really didn’t give you an answer, in the sense of concrete instructions on how to proceed.
I didn’t know what you should do. I still don’t. That’s not unusual. It’s just honest.
In your 2013 letter it sounded as though he was going to pretend to convert. It now appears that he has indeed converted to your faith. You are going to go ahead with the wedding. You are going to live in the United States.
Well, congratulations. I hope you will keep us informed. What interested me in 2013 still interests me: How we Americans perceive your situation, and the story we tell ourselves about what you say. I still think I said some interesting meta-things:
This is the kind of story that Americans love. But underneath the happy American myth of blending cultures is the dark fact of sacrifice and loss. … Yours would be an unusual marriage but such marriages fit the American mythos. Consequently, you would have many people on your side — people who believe in the virtue of blending cultures. We are charmed by the idea of Muslims at bar mitzvahs and so forth. We think it’s cute. In other words, we don’t get the dark side of our own mythology.
The dark side of our mythology of self-reinvention is the charge of unseriousness. I mean, all the real cultural and psychic differences we overlook. Our silly millennial hope. Our political and economic evangelism. Our brittle, anxious faith. All that stuff. All that stuff that if you know what I’m talking about you know what I’m talking about.
I can say this, though: Here in America you can be married and forge your own life. Psychologically, you can’t escape your past or your families. You can’t escape who you are. But you can arrange the material conditions of your life together. You can choose what religious services to attend, and what to tell your children about what you believe. You can choose the schools your children go to. You can choose what to wear on your head.
Good luck. Please keep us informed!–Cary T.
I was born in the States to a conservative Muslim Indian family. My mother, younger brothers and I moved back to India when I was around 11, while my (very religious) dad stayed on in the States as a small business owner and came to see us three to four times a year. I came back to the States when I was around 18 to go to a small liberal arts college in the Northeast, graduated and moved back to India with my mom and brothers.
Although I didn’t realize it growing up, I was in the middle of a hot identity mess. While I have an American passport and have somehow retained the accent I had growing up, I’d always considered myself more Indian than American, and felt distinctly out of place in “white” cultural settings. I have a lot of white friends — black, Filipina and Asian too for that matter — but my closest are a group of brown girls at college who are similar to me — they have parents who grew up in Pakistan/Bangladesh and moved to the States and raised their kids there. The only difference is that they stayed there, and don’t really have meaningful relationships with people back home — “home” for them.
This is confusing for a lot of reasons to do with identity. Add to the mix a headscarf and a definitive non-Muslim boyfriend with whom I fell in love and it is all the more tricky. We decided to stay together and do the long-distance relationship thing after I moved back to India with my mom because we love each other, because we want to make this work, even though the only way for this to function with my parents’ blessings is for him, a raging Jewish atheist, to convert to Islam. And believe it or not, he’s learning. Semi-enthusiastically and slowly, but he is learning. And for his part he’s agreed to go through the motions and participate in rituals so long as our lives afterward have minimal interference from my family, which I imagine to be the case judging by the level of involvement my parents had and have in my younger brother’s marriage (he married quite young by choice). They are very hands-off once we’re out of the house. I eventually met his parents and we got along well although they were initially horrified at the idea of their son being with a Muslim. I think they’ve accepted us, and have an idea it’s serious.
Yes, it’s serious. We’ve talked seriously about marriage a few years down the road — he’s in the middle of applying to Ph.D. programs, and I want to start an MFA. He also wants to wait till he’s of a socially acceptable age in his family to marry. I don’t really have the luxury of time (my parents made me consider a total of four proposals while he and I were dating and they’re not slowing down). We’ve talked about telling my parents at the end of the year and when he’s learned enough to convert to Islam.
There are obviously a number of problems that I need to address, like, for instance, the ethics of this man pretending to be a Muslim so that he can marry me, the strain of the compromises we’d be making on us individually, and on myself — I’d have to leave my mental health nonprofit plans (inspired by own bouts of depression and rage during our relationship) in India behind to settle down in the States and give up ever really living there. He’s made it clear he can’t, which makes sense — it’s not politically very safe for a Jewish man to be married to a Muslim girl from the hood, ya know?
I’d have to make some lifestyle changes as well. The most important to me is that I dislike alcohol for religious reasons and he likes his occasional drink. He’s very controlled when he drinks, so I don’t ever mind if he does when I’m around and I’ve agreed to continue that policy. But truthfully I don’t know if I can live my married life rejecting a value that I grew up so observant of, even if I’m not quite as religious as I used to be. Not to mention that I’d be married to a man who doesn’t have any kind of religious ideals besides his cultural values, which are very different from mine. He says he’ll fast and pray with me, but how long can I realistically expect that to last? This strikes me as vaguely hypocritical at least — I’ve compromised other values by the sheer fact of dating him and I am in practice not very religious at all despite what the headscarf might imply — but I do believe in God and I am attached to my faith and culture.
Now, our relationship is wonderful. Despite being from such a radically different background (or is it really all that different? I spent my formative years in the States after all), and his belonging to the “white” culture at the school I spoke of earlier, I was instantly comfortable around him. Even though we had different tastes in everything, we’re similar people in personality and we connected, and expanded our interests to learn about the other. We’ve also had major trouble, and I had my serious doubts about him earlier on when he was more self-absorbed and less communicative, but he’s changed a lot, and he’s put up with a lot of my own flaws. Also remarkable about him is how he handled my depression when the first symptoms emerged and I started seeing a therapist. Despite having no exposure to this from within his own family, he didn’t scarper as I was afraid he might, and is supportive and involved in my treatment.
The best way I can describe it without going on for pages at length is that we’ve been through a lot, enjoy each other’s company immensely, have changed and grown a lot from our experiences together, and are deeply committed to one another. And from another perspective, the people who know me best and have watched my relationship with him evolve think we make sense together. His friends apparently really like me as well. And no man I’ve met since has made me want to put everything on hold to spend the rest of my life with him.
But even then, the reality of what I am proposing to do is weighty. Let’s not forget the religious father and relatives who might pick up on the fact that he’s not a real Muslim and reject our marriage on the grounds that Shariah doesn’t recognize a marriage between a non-Muslim man and Muslim woman? Even if that were to work, what about the reality of the lifestyle and religious adjustments I’d inevitably have to make to make this marriage work? What of our children, who will be confused as eff, caught between two cultures and worldviews? I cannot begin to imagine telling my parents that we’d need to have a Jewish wedding ceremony too, to respect his parents’ wishes, or that their grandkids would eventually probably have a bar mitzvah and go to the mosque. What of him and his potential resentment toward me for making him convert? And what of me and my potential resentment toward him when he inevitably fails to fast and pray with me? What of my scarf, and the multitudes of spiritual, social and political complexities of dating him and wearing the hijab at the same time? What of this long distance? We’ve been apart for three months, and we’ve been good with communication so far, but I’m terrified I won’t see him again for a long time, and that distance will drive a wedge between us eventually, especially considering that communication is not his natural strong point. Also consider the alternative — that if things don’t work out between us, I’d have to marry a Muslim man who’d accept that I dated a Jewish guy before I married him, and while those guys exist, they’re not exactly the proposals my religious family is drawing in. And I have no idea if those guys exist anywhere near where I live or work.
Sorry for the spiel but I’d love to hear how you wrapped your brain around this. Is this worth it? Do you see such a marriage working out without long-term bitterness and resentment? How?
Love’s Got Me Looking So Crazy Right Now
Dear Love’s Got Me Looking So Crazy,
All the problems you mention are solvable. The danger is the problems that you don’t mention because you don’t see them yet. Paradoxically, they will only appear as a result of solving the problems you do see.
Naturally, we focus on the problems we can see. We focus on the problems we have solutions for. For instance, one can accustom oneself to the use of alcohol. One can accustom oneself to new kinds of clothing and new phrases and rituals. But certain problems will arise that you are not prepared for.
One of them is the sheer exhaustion that attends solving all the problems you already see.
So you must go into this with a dual spirit: Certainty that you can solve the problems you can see, allied with complete surrender to the unknown.
I mean, it is admirable, nay, remarkable, that you have thought through this in such detail. That indicates seriousness and a capacity for problem solving. But you do not have limitless energy, nor limitless patience nor limitless tolerance nor limitless ingenuity and problem-solving ability and diplomatic skill and negotiating skill. Stuff can wear you down.
So if you do it, make it easy on yourself. Plan as stress-free and secure a life as possible. Having a secure income and a stable community will help. Being in an academic environment would probably ease things. Living in an American community where people are excited by your relationship, and interested in the intellectual challenge of it, and the problems of identity and culture that it poses would make things much easier.
Another unseen danger is your own psyche, your own dark side, your own vulnerabilities that are invisible to you at present. How well do you know yourself? What if your religious feelings are deeper and more intractable than you realize? What if his are, too?
I mean, this is the kind of story that Americans love. But underneath the happy American myth of blending cultures is the dark fact of sacrifice and loss. Because we are a nation of immigrants, we are a nation of loss. We are a nation of people who do not fully own their own land; we may have mortgages and title, but spiritually, psychologically, we do not own our own land because we took it from others; we do not own our own land the way you own your own land when your parents and grandparents and village stretch into the misty realms of prehistory.
Yours would be an unusual marriage but such marriages fit the American mythos. Consequently, you would have many people on your side — people who believe in the virtue of blending cultures. We are charmed by the idea of Muslims at bar mitzvahs and so forth. We think it’s cute. In other words, we don’t get the dark side of our own mythology.
Most Americans do not have family in India. Most Americans have not faced religious persecution. Most Americans do not have to worry that marrying a Jewish man could invite physical attacks.
So your story is attractive but you are wise to ask if it can really work. Because we all are immigrants, we all share not only discovery but loss. So your story fits here. But it won’t be easy.
You could definitely make it easier on yourselves. But love isn’t like that, is it?
I made the mistake of letting a homeless man move in with me. Now I can’t get rid of him.
I’ve known this man for over 20 years. At one time, he was my boyfriend, but we broke up years ago as a result of his excessive drinking. Since I’ve known him, he has been in detox at least five times and rehab twice. He’s been hospitalized twice because of a bleeding stomach and he’s contracted hepatitis C.
He called me one night last December to tell me he was evicted from his apartment. He’s in construction and has been working sporadically as a result of the housing downturn. He was in detox, but they threw him out after five days because of lack of insurance. I begged him not to come here and to stay with his brother. His brother is a recovering alcoholic (has not had a drink in 40 years) and is fed up with him. So he showed up on my doorstep and I made the mistake of letting him in. I told him that he could stay with me under one condition: no drinking.
Although he has been helpful with housework, he has made no financial contributions and has not saved any money to move out. Two weeks ago, I found evidence that he is drinking again. When I confronted him, he denied it. Twice since then I’ve found more evidence. The other day I contacted him while he was working and told him not to come back and to find someplace else to stay. He came home anyway, telling me that he had no place else to go.
Cary, we are having the exact same fights that we had when we lived together years ago. It’s like déjà vu. One night last week I fell asleep on the couch and when I woke up, there was an empty pot on the stove and the flame was on high. Also, I’ve walked in on him while he’s on Craigslist looking for “casual encounters.” At this point I am afraid to go away because I can’t trust him. I’m afraid of coming home to a burning house or getting ripped off by a “casual encounter.” Although he has been told that he is not allowed guests while I’m not home, it is obvious that I can’t trust him.
I just want to go back to my old simple life of living alone with no worries. He has destroyed my carefree lifestyle and invaded my home. I worked hard to get to where I am in life and he is sucking me dry.
When we were living together years ago, I had to get a restraining order to get him out. At that time he was destructive, so I was able to convince a judge that I feared for my life because he was constantly breaking my things, punching holes in the walls, breaking my car windshield, etc., out of anger. He hasn’t shown any signs of violence yet, but I don’t want to have to wait for my home to be trashed before I can do anything about it. I don’t think I could get another one because he has never hurt me physically.
I’ve tried discussing it with him and had no luck. He sees the fact that we don’t get along as being my fault and asks me why I’m doing this to myself (?!). I’ve told him that I want him to start saving money and find a room to rent, but it doesn’t seem to sink in. How can I get rid of him?
Housing the Homeless
Dear Housing the Homeless,
First, contact your local police and explain that you have a man living in your house against whom you once had a legal restraining order, and you are planning to evict him. Tell them he has been homeless, he has a history of violence and he has a drinking problem. Ask if they provide civil standby for such instances. Ask how you would get a second restraining order if it should be needed. Ask for their advice. They may or may not give you advice. If they advise you to see a lawyer, see a lawyer. You might want to see a lawyer regardless; lawyers who specialize in landlord-tenant law have experience in similar situations.
This is all by way of covering your bases. You want to have a plan and you want to have physical protection, either from police or from volunteers.
Then, once you have your bases covered, you need to give him clear, unequivocal, concrete instructions, on the order of: “You and all your belongings must be out of this house by 3 p.m. tomorrow. You may not come back.” If you think he may have copied your key, have the locks changed.
I sense that you are in anguish about this. You may be confused about how it happened: You acted in a sensible, compassionate way, and now you are in a mess. You asked him to do certain things and he has not done what you wish. So it may be that, being a kind person, you have not really accepted the hard, brutal facts about him. He may be a kind person in certain ways; you may see much good in him. But if he is drinking alcoholically, he is not capable of acting right. You must accept that. He is not capable of keeping agreements. Bad things will keep happening to him.
He will make it appear that he is the victim of uncaring authorities and heartless circumstances. It sounds like he has been doing this in his conversations with you. For instance, you say, “He’s in construction and has been working sporadically as a result of the housing downturn. He was in detox, but they threw him out after five days because of lack of insurance.” What if we were to recast those sentences like this: “He’s an alcoholic so he’s been working sporadically. He was in detox but detox is temporary.”
Rather than casting him as the victim, let’s stick closer to the observable facts, and see if that lets us get some distance on him. In my experience, alcoholics tend to work sporadically regardless of the economic climate. They work sporadically because they do not have the stamina and energy of nonalcoholic workers. They require more rest, and often are not available five days a week. They also tend to have poor social skills. They alienate fellow workers and, if their coordination is impaired, they can endanger other workers. So there are many reasons why practicing alcoholics work sporadically. As to detox, well, detox is a temporary measure. If a person genuinely wants to recover from alcoholism, after detox he or she can take steps to remain sober. Insurance is not required to stay sober. People who genuinely want to stay sober find a way. Ample free help is available. Insurance is not the problem. Alcoholism is the problem.
So it sounds like he has been able to twist your heartstrings a little by casting himself as a victim. It might be said that in truth he is a victim, but not a victim of other people. He is a victim of alcoholism.
In accepting this difficult truth, you may find it useful to attend some meetings of Al-Anon, where you will meet many other people who have been in relationships with alcoholics, and who have identified the patterns of behavior. You will be able to say, Aha!
Good luck with this. It’s very hard, emotionally, to cut someone out of your life. But if it’s any consolation, I have heard many men say that being cut out of someone’s life was the best thing that ever happened to them. It takes something like that to realize just how hopeless the situation is. Only then will many people seek help with the desperate energy that is required.
Now I feel like my dad. My dad grew up in a time way before mine, as dads tend to do. He would make allusions and we kids wouldn’t get them. “What? Who was Gracie Allen?”
“Why,” my father would say, “she was George Burns’ partner!” Good old Burns and Allen. These days you can’t really know who knows what. A noted novelist of my aquaintance posted on Facebook the other day that her son, who is in his twenties, didn’t know who Robert Redford was. So, my friends, especially my friends who are in my generation, the generation that hoped it would die before it got old, the generation that didn’t trust anyone under 30, well, now people under 40 look like children to us and we don’t trust anyone, period full stop.
Even the phrase full stop: Telegraph terminology: Will its origins soon be hopelessly obscure? What about the phrase “off the hook”: will its origins in the physical Western Electric telephone one day be lost? Telephones haven’t had hooks for a while, though the cradle of a desk telephone came to be called the hook informally, as in, “hang up.” We are placed on hold but we could just as easily be placed on standby if it weren’t for the physical origins of the phone. My, how I miss the warm analog phone.
Anyway, this came up because when I use the headline, “I went home again,” I’m hoping that you’ll pick up the allusion to Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again, which my dad was always quoting from, and understand that this column is about the sad and complicated business of revisiting the deeply emotional scene of the family.
“Who is Robert Redford again?”
“Oh, dear, he’s some old actor.”
Hey. One other thing. So I went to the Poets and Writers Live event at San Francisco’s Brava Theater on Saturday Jan. 10, 2015*** and had lots of emotional responses and I posted a couple of pieces in response to the event, mainly around the notion that when writers gather there ought to always be some formal acknowledgement of events in the world, whether they affect us materially or not, because we are in a spiritual union with writers everywhere. Solidarity and all that.
Anyway, here’s today’s column, after which I need to put the newsletter together — which is trying to be a weekly thing. Once a week. You can handle that, right?
***Lately I use dates in body text now because the physical containers of text are unreliable and unpredictable; unlike newspapers that would have dates on every page … WordPress has date stamps, yes, but text can be extracted from its containers and then it’s just out there floating, unattributed, dateless, byline-less! I see journalistic posts whose dates are not attached and it drives me crazy! Because writing is history! And if dates are lost then … anyway, right, I’m writing this on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, and I’ve paid the mortgage, and property tax isn’t due again until April.
About 3 years ago, my husband, our toddler daughter, and I left San Francisco (I’d been out there 15 years) and moved back to the small Louisiana city where I grew up. This was all my idea. Much to my surprise, I had grown profoundly homesick after our daughter was born (I had sworn I’d never go back – the standard cliché, right?).
Well, my husband was incredibly flexible and accommodating, and circumstances have worked out. We were able to make our oddball techie careers work in Louisiana (amazing!) and now we are close to my parents, my brother and his family, and my lifelong best friend. We’re also able to live more comfortably and peacefully since the cost of living here is so much less than in SF.
Now to the difficult bit. There is an old relationship here, or actually a web of relationships, that nags at me. I know, I know. I can’t be the jerk who leaves home for 15 years (well, if you count college, it was actually closer to 20) and then returns like the prodigal daughter, and expects everyone to throw confetti and for everything to be “normal.” But gosh, you know, that would be nice, right?
So at the heart of this is my high school ex-boyfriend. This was a very serious first love relationship for both of us. We learned all our early lessons from each other – we were both lovely and heartbreakingly awful to each other – and didn’t really get out of each others’ business until college ended and I moved to California. After that, we were what I’d call “Christmas Card Friends” – you know? We wished each other well, and had forgiven each other everything, and would be in touch from time to time with big news, but that was about it – and this all took place from a safe long distance. Kind of typical adult management of a special, much-loved person from the past.
Well … ok, so now my past tends to walk into my mother’s house from time to time, when I’m there visiting with my children! He lives on my parents’ block now (Why did he have to buy a house so close to my old home?! And why are my parents closer to him now than they were when we dated?), he and his family are very close friends with my brother’s family (Why did he and my brother have to become friends?! Again, they weren’t when we dated.) – and I see them at my niece’s and nephew’s birthday parties, etc. Not to mention random run-ins at the grocery store.
We are both very polite, friendly adults about all this. We make pleasant conversation and admire each others’ children and go on our ways. I know we both wish each other nothing but the best.
Why then, does it STING, and bother me for days when he randomly shows up at my mother’s house when I am visiting?
I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I know that I am over him. I’m not carrying a torch, and I can completely understand why I ended up with my husband instead of him, and why he ended up with his wife instead of me. No harm, no foul. Good choices by nice people all around.
I think it’s his closeness to my family that bothers me. Rightly or wrongly, I feel angry at him for not staying “on his side of the fence,” and also angry at my parents and brother for being so close to him, for allowing him access to what feels like it should be my private, intimate space with them. At times, it even feels like I am watching my old life through a pane of glass – and he is still in it, and I should be in it, except there is another woman (his wife) playing my part. And here I am on the other side, shut out of the cozy circle.
It’s SUPER WEIRD. The sullen, teenager part of me that still exists wants to throw a shoe at him and say, “You, go away! Get out of my family! I didn’t choose you! You are no longer invited in!” But then I have this lingering, weird feeling that my family chose him instead of me.
This raises the question of my relationships with my family members. Perhaps I am scapegoating my ex for emotional difficulty with them? I’ve thought about that, too.
Well, with my parents, it just isn’t the case. I’ve got good, humanly flawed, but good relationships with both my mother and father. It took some time to re-establish these relationships as “close distance” once we moved back, but after some initial awkwardness as we learned how to relate again while living nearby, everything feels solid and real now. My mother, also, will admit from time-to-time that it’s “odd” to have my ex in such close proximity, but then she’ll say what is she supposed to do about it? She can’t ask him to move. So she just carries on with a smile on her face and ignores it. Dad doesn’t really talk about these sorts of things. Old school Dad.
My brother, on the other hand…my brother has given me the cold shoulder ever since I moved back, to an extent that’s palpable to everyone, and surprising and hurtful. We have a complex history, but were close as children. I left home when he was still in early high school. We’ve never been able to reconnect. He’s also a war veteran now and has experiences I’ll never understand, and that I tacitly know I should not ask about. I wish he’d let me love him anyway. I keep trying to take the high road, and invite him and his family to things, and he just quietly doesn’t show up most of the time, without ever making a scene or explaining why. He freezes me out, and hangs out with my ex-boyfriend instead. Literally. If I have an Easter egg hunt, he takes his kids (my children’s cousins) to my ex-boyfriend’s egg hunt instead. This has happened twice. Then again, they were probably going to egg hunts over there before I moved back, so…how can I blame him? And yet…if the shoe were on the other foot…I’d at least drop by.
I know my brother didn’t develop this relationship to spite me, and I try to keep breathing and just sit with it. But gosh it hurts.
I guess my question is: How to BE with all of this and not feel hurt-y and distracted like a teenager? I just want everyone to be able to love each other and be happy and be okay.
Gone Home Again
Dear Gone Home Again,
You have returned to the scene of unresolved emotional attachments. Those attachments are still quite strong. They are not as strong as they were when you left but they are still strong and they are still unresolved. Leaving didn’t resolve them.
You would like them to be resolved but it’s a better bet to learn to accept them, navigate around them. Why?
Because that’s something you can do!
You can’t change the behavior of other people. You say, “I just want everyone to be able to love each other and be happy and be okay.”
Sure. Me too. But all we can do is live with people as they are. I still wish my parents would get together after the divorce but they’re both dead now. Even when they were alive: Fat chance.
But we wish, fervently and without ceasing, don’t we? We wish like children with birthdays coming. We wish like crazy. We pray. We hope. We think maybe … We don’t even notice when we’re doing it. When you see your ex-boyfriend and it takes you a while to figure out why it upset you, it’s happening before you even notice it: You’re wishing things were different. You’re thinking about the past and how it might have been or how it’s supposed to be now but the crystalline amazingness of the present absolutely present totally right this instant now has escaped you. The beauty of the air, your children, your own hands, the doorway where you stand being suddenly irritated that he’s visiting your mom, the amazing history you and he had together, the tenderness, the blooming of love, the learning adult lessons, the passion, the enduring regard: All that escapes you and you’re just irritated because he’s in your family space and you think it’s your family space and not his.
Just pay attention to that. Notice it. Notice it and then turn to how you can be of service in the present moment. How can you bring some joy into the present moment?
Let the child wish. But be aware that you are the adult and you know that these things are not going to happen. When you catch yourself wishing things were different, try asking, How can I bring joy to this situation? How can I contribute?
The payoff is not in everybody thanking you and saying what a great sister/daughter/wife/mom you are. The payoff is private. It’s your own sense of well-being. It’s the relief of not thinking about that annoying ex-boyfriend.
Give. Offer of yourself. This will distract the hungry child within. It will redirect your emotional sense of purpose. It may also have a positive effect on those around you but they won’t necessarily tell you.
It will be healing, though. After another year or so, you may notice that things seem more normal. It won’t be other people changing. It will be you. You will have created a kind of normal for yourself.
There’s more to say. I don’t seem to be able to stop today:
You say you swore you’d never go back. Why? What was it about your small Louisiana city that made you swear you’d never go back? Are those attributes still there? What were you running from? Did you feel too big for the town? Hemmed in? Do you still feel that way? Was it partly a pride thing, i.e. I’m the one who made it out of that stinking town and if I go back I’m admitting defeat?
Give it some thought. For, while you can’t make these emotions go away, you can examine them. For instance: What is the competition about? Is it a competition for place in the family? Was competitiveness a feature of your relationship when you were together? What were you competing for? Did you, perhaps, imagine a whole future life together with him, and now that future life, that totally imagined thing, has come into conflict with the real thing? In this imagined future, were you his wife?
Consciously, rationally, you of course know that you are not his wife. But see if you can dig a little deeper; maybe a part of you still clings to that fantasy. Get your knife under this fantasy that is stuck to the floor and pry it up. Pry it up and fling it off. It’s a bit of stuck programming. It’s something that never happened. It never happened so you never lost it. It was never real to lose. We do that with the future, don’t we? We imagine things in such detail that when we confront their absence we feel loss, even though it never happened
Also, let’s be clear: You’re the one who left.
When somebody leaves, other people are hurt. They miss you and they wish you were still around. After a while they make other arrangements. They get on with life. If there were things they used to do with you, they do them with other people. They set up routines. And they may have to more or less consciously let go of you, because it hurts too much and it’s too much work to keep missing you every day.
You say you’re not asking for confetti to be thrown, “But gosh, you know, that would be nice, right?” The child in you, the purely emotional part of you, really does want the confetti.
Your secret wish, I suspect, is to be, indeed, the prodigal daughter returning. Of course you would not ask for such treatment. And yet that irrational part of you, that child that you were when you left, that child still wants these things.
You’ve been back three years already, but here is a suggestion: Imagine that you are the new person in town and see what friendships and alliances you can make that work for you today.
Look around for people you didn’t used to be so close. See who is available.
Your brother may seem cold but he has made other arrangements and is dealing with his own life. It may be too painful for him to revisit the site of his old attachment to his older sister. Things have happened. You left him. Then he went to war. things happened. He has his own life. So he happened to become good friends with your ex-boyfriend. That may make you feel a pang of regret but it is quite natural. For him, it may have been like keeping a lock of your hair. He may have been far more attached to you than you realized at the time, or realize now. Your boyfriend may have been in a sense a replacement for you, a reminder of what it was like when everybody was cozy and young.
To go to your Easter egg hunt now, he would have to disappoint somebody else. These are the people who have stayed and made lives for themselves. If you look at it from their perspective, it might make sense that they will not change their routines just because you have returned. I think your best bet is to find new routines that do not conflict with theirs. Find routines that add to the mix rather than create difficult choices. Can you go to your ex-boyfriend’s Easter egg hunt?
There is a lot for you to deal with here. To sum up, here are my suggestions:
Wow, that was a lot. I sure wrote a lot this time. Well, I’ve always gone long. Hope you’re not too bored with this!–ct
Write for Advice
I have been spoiled with a very happy life. I am 26, married to a wonderful 34-year-old man whom I love more than anyone in the world. He is strong, supportive, smart, funny and affectionate. We are happy together. We are healthy. We live in a nice apartment in a beautiful neighborhood of an exciting city. We are overeducated. We are both from well-off families who funded our very expensive educations so we didn’t have to go into debt. We want to have lots of babies and live happily ever after.
That hasn’t been easy for us, so we are seeing lots of doctors who hopefully will be able to help us make that dream come true. Even our brush with infertility, while upsetting, has been something we are working through together.
I am writing because I am afraid, terrified, petrified really, that we are falling, diving, into a cycle of failure and debt. I am unemployed. Two years ago, we moved back to my husband’s hometown. I still don’t speak the language here very well, although I am taking classes and improving rapidly. While I am generally happy here — I’ve managed to make friends, find activities to keep busy — I have not found a job. I am a clinical social worker, so language is obviously important and jobs are very scarce here. My husband started his own business when we moved. I feel guilty even writing this, but it is a total failure. His income doesn’t come close to covering our rent, and forget our lifestyle. Our savings are gone. The project my husband spent the last six months working day and night on just went to another firm. For the last year, my husband has been looking for a job at the same time as running his ailing business but nothing has come through.
The worst thing is that my husband doesn’t seem to recognize the reality of any of this. Although he is very discouraged by his business venture, he is in total denial about the fact that we won’t be able to pay our rent next month. He just bought me a diamond anniversary band. He wants to keep trying to make the business work. Maybe he isn’t worried because in his heart, he believes his family will give us money. Maybe they will. In fact, they probably will, and so my fears of being thrown on the street are probably unfounded. I see being bailed out by his family as totally humiliating. I don’t know if he would mind.
I’m not sure what to do, or what I really expect my husband to do. Part of me blames him for his failing business, even though I know how hard he is working. Part of me is asking what is wrong with him, that he just can’t make it happen. The other part of me hates myself because I know that he wants his business to work even more than I do and, in reality, I am just as much of a failure in my work life as he is.
Should I encourage him to keep working at his business, to make his dream come true, and just suck it up and consider myself lucky if the in-laws are willing to pay the bills? Should I tell him to find a job, any job, and by the same standard, forget my own failed career goals and take whatever job is out there (McDonald’s if need be)?
Should I just be happy with what we have and not worry if we drift through our lives never reaching some mythical point of career fulfillment?
Spoiled Girl Looking for Direction
I suggest that you turn to your family for help. Don’t ask for money. Ask for expertise. You need an outside opinion. If your family is successful and well-off, there must be people in it who are knowledgeable about business, no? Or are you royalty? Don’t tell me your family is the kind that just spends money and doesn’t earn it.
You need a sober assessment of your husband’s business plan, so you can form a clear picture of his chances for success. Only then can you decide if the struggle makes sense. Even if your family is royalty, they must have somebody on retainer to balance the books. You need a person like that.
If you went directly to your husband and said you wanted to have an expert look over his business plan, he might feel that you don’t have much faith in his business ability and that you are trying to meddle. Which would be true. So you can try to arrange an assessment on the up-and-up. But you might have to arrange for someone to approach your husband as a potential investor. He could assess the cash flow potential, the competition (who was it who ate his lunch on that last big deal?), and so forth. If he becomes satisfied that your husband has a good business model, he might go ahead and invest. If not, you might want to start looking for a job.
Look, I too have been on the brink of financial disaster, and I know how humiliating it is, and how fear of the future can weigh on you, how you just want to lash out at anyone, find a victim, find a cause, find something you can pinpoint as the source of your anxiety. So I know what that’s like. I also know it doesn’t last. Usually — especially if, as you say, you have resources and an education — you find a way out of it. It might mean taking a stupid job for a while. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the humble regularity of a stupid job can be strangely liberating.
The subterfuge of having your husband’s business analyzed by an outsider may bother you. For all I know, it may be ethically wrong. But I don’t think so. I think you are at a disadvantage because you have no facts; you are vulnerable; there is a lot at stake here, and you need to take steps to protect yourself. If you’re able to figure out what the problem is with the business, you will be protecting your husband as well. He truly may not know what he’s doing. If he’s not a good businessman, the sooner he learns that, the sooner he can get out of business.
The truth is, you’ll probably be fine. One way or another, you’ll get through this. You’ll find a job in your field, your families may help you over the hump, things will work out. But business is not about dreams. It’s about columns of numbers. The sooner your husband realizes that, the better.
I turn 31 in a couple of weeks, and I feel like I’m unable to get my life together. I thought I would’ve had things sorted out by now, but I don’t. I don’t feel a whole lot more on top of things than I did 10 years ago.
I was a professional musician for five years after college but gave that up because I couldn’t perform without drugs and alcohol to loosen me up. After giving up music I became a school teacher, but I burned out after three years of teaching in a very rough urban school. Then, I moved into a supervisory position with an educational not-for-profit. The commute to this job is awful, and I’ve decided I need to move on. However, with each successive career change I feel like I’m moving sideways at best, and I’m having a very hard time getting excited about any new career path.
I would like to follow a dream, but having failed at my greatest dream, I’ve lost the confidence to entertain another one. Part of the problem is I have a tremendous ego — I was a gifted first-born who never learned how to handle not being the best — and am terrified of failure. Music, writing, chess, teaching — these have been my great loves, but not being guaranteed recognition spoils the enjoyment I get from them. I know this is irrational and childish, but it’s a barrier I can’t seem to overcome. I’m going to therapy, I do yoga, I’ve tried meditation … but none of these get me past the terror I feel at doing something and not being wonderful at it. My pattern these days is to halfheartedly take up some new creative pursuit every few months and squeeze it into my off-time, then abandon it as soon as it gets difficult.
It seems like striving doesn’t suit me. Sometimes I think I should give up striving altogether, to give up wanting anything in the way of achievement. Sounds Zen, in a depressive sort of way. But who would I be without this perpetual struggle to balance my creative impulses with time spent at work? Who would I be if I didn’t care about being smart or creative? My therapist suggests I not give up my creative pursuits, but resolve what is blocking me from experiencing joy through them (how I’m supposed to do this is unclear); my girlfriend suggests I find something different to strive for (she recommends love and intimacy).
Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking about the ways in which I’ve failed at life, and my dignity is foundering. I’m starting to feel like a loser and a coward, am depressed a lot of the time, and am slowly turning into a pothead and alcoholic. My siblings, who look up to me, are worried about my behavior and have suggested I try antidepressant medication. (My entire family, with the exception of myself, have been on medication at some point in their lives, my parents consistently since the ’80s. I’ve resisted it because I’m scared of what it might do to me, and because I fear I’ll miss out on a “deeper” life lesson if I’m doped up and not in touch with the pain I’m feeling. Meanwhile, I get slightly drunk or high almost every day. I know, I know.) My friends and family are confused about why I don’t seem to have done much with my life, and I am tired of feeling like I’ve wasted my potential by remaining embroiled in a childhood drama I seem powerless to escape. The drama is: Mom and Dad will only love you if you’re the best, and so the only way you can prove to them that you’re not subject to their approval is by being mediocre. I seem to approach almost everything I do with expectations so high that there’s no chance I could ever fulfill them.
One thing that’s going right in my life is my relationship with my girlfriend. She knows what I’m struggling with and takes the good with the bad. Long-term romantic intimacy has been difficult for me, and so I feel blessed to have found someone who is smart, attractive and not on a mission to change me. That said, I know my depression is taxing for her.
Any suggestions? Should I try medication? Is there another way of looking at this I haven’t thought about?
Slowly Driving Myself Nuts
Dear Slowly Driving Myself Nuts,
You and I are a lot alike, actually. So I have to say this: I don’t believe that you can’t play music without alcohol and drugs. Listen: You were a professional musician for five years after college. You did it for five years. Five years!
I’m sure drugs and alcohol helped you in some ways. You probably felt less anxiety before performing when you used them. Perhaps you felt freer and less self-conscious while performing. But drugs and alcohol probably also interfered with your musical accuracy, your stamina and intonation, your ability to remember tunes, your ability to hear and balance your sound and to craft your performance.
I just don’t believe that you can’t perform without alcohol and drugs. I think it’s one of those untrue beliefs that gets in your head and screws you up. If being a working musician is your dream, then that’s the thing you need to get back to. Otherwise it will haunt you the rest of your life and you will go on trying cures without success — because you will be working against your authentic self.
I have also been a performing musician, although I was never able to make a living at it. My brother, however, is a professional musician and has been for most of his years. We both used to drink. We both had to quit drinking. I am no longer a performing musician but my brother makes a good living at it.
You can play music and not drink is what I’m saying. There are ways to do it. If it’s your dream, you have to find a way to do it. It requires sacrifices.
What my brother does is live a simple life. He gets enough rest and exercise. He takes care of his voice. And on the job he pays attention to the audience and to the club personnel. He can do that because he isn’t drinking.
He’s made sacrifices to be a working musician. He would like to raise a family but a musician’s life did not allow for that. It could still happen. But he’s dedicated himself to his music and that has meant living frugally and carefully. The life of a musician isn’t for everybody. But it’s not about being a genius so much as it is about getting control over your routine and learning to manage professional relationships.
As for me, at 31 I chose beer over music. We were called the Repeat Offenders and we practiced in a Turk Street basement rehearsal space in San Francisco’s Tenderloin across from a punk club called the Sound of Music. I remember coming to rehearsal with a six-pack of tall Budweisers. Here I had a group of brilliant musicians who loved me and whom I loved. I looked at the band, looked at the six-pack, and chose the six-pack. That’s how bad I had gotten. I couldn’t tell the difference between human genius and a six-pack of beer.
I was drinking for two reasons. One, I had alcoholic tendencies. I responded to alcohol abnormally. But two, I had not developed the artistic skill required to contain my feelings and direct them into expressive form. My feelings frightened me. I had a narrow emotional range — I could do rage and I could do joy. That was it. I could not handle the middle feelings.
Damn. So how did I end up back in my own past? What’s going on here? I do not want to remember this even now. Well, OK, so it is painful. That’s the key right there: knowing it’s painful and looking at it anyway. It’s this or drinking. It’s this or failure.
So what happened with me? Well, boring as it is to retell, I became a full-blown alcoholic and got sober at 35.
In getting sober I decided that pain was better than failure. Living with anxiety was better than dying in the gutter.
There was no guarantee that if I stopped drinking I would find success and happiness. But there was a chance I would not die puking. If I kept drinking, I had no chance. It was no chance vs. slim chance. I took the slim chance. I’m glad it got as bad as it did, because otherwise I might have trudged along in a fog of maintenance drinking and moderate delusion. As it was I hit bottom and rearranged my whole deal.
But you don’t need to hit bottom completely to change.
Here is what you could do: You could stop drinking and stop smoking pot today. You could just stop and live with whatever comes up.
So why not do that? Why not just give up and admit it’s not working. You know it’s not working. The truth is that you are a musician. That is the truth of your life. As long as you are fighting against that essential truth, of course you’re going to have to medicate. But you could just quit drinking and using and be a musician.
All kinds of feelings will come up, of course. But they won’t kill you.
There are things you can do to get by. Instead of trying to medicate the fear, try just walking around with the fear. Try going to the store with the fear. Just bring it with you, like a puppy or a small child. Going around sober is like that. It’s a little more trouble, because you bring all this stuff with you. But … how can I put this? Well, it’s like it’s your stuff. Like you see parents trying to ignore their kids in the store. That’s your kid. That’s your stuff. It slows you down but it’s yours. You have to take care of it.
You can do it, though. Like you, I had some support. I didn’t “white-knuckle it” exactly. I got plenty of support. But all that support did not magically remove my anxiety and fear. Basically I allowed myself to feel the anxiety and fear, to be a little bit nuts, a little out of control, not such a high achiever, not so perfect, a little uncharming and uncool. I made a bet that in the long term it would even out and things would stabilize.
And I had to find some love for myself, dude. So the bit about your relationship with your parents, I relate to that. Somehow you have to give yourself what they didn’t give you. You step in as the adult and say, OK, man, I know you are suffering here, and I give you permission to be only yourself! You move that relationship out of the past, which you can’t change, and into your present, your inner life, your symbolic life so you can change it.
Try that. Just step in there as the adult figure and give yourself what you need. You are the only one who can provide that now. Your parents are not ever going to do it. You have to move that whole struggle into your own sphere of influence.
For instance, in my own case, I now have to parent my dad — literally but also figuratively. I have to help the actual dad. But internally, I also have to create for myself the decisive, clearheaded man I once needed him to be. He is never going to give me that. I have to create a decisive, clearheaded persona to guide me in the present so that, in a sense, I become my own father.
We have to become for ourselves the parents we need. In your case, you need to become for yourself a parent who says, “My son, even if you didn’t have an ounce of talent or brilliance I’d still love you without reservation till the end of my days.”
So maybe you say that to yourself when you’re getting a little iffy. Maybe you go into the bathroom and look at yourself in the mirror and you say this. You say OK, boy, even if you didn’t have an ounce of talent or brilliance you would still be my boy, and I’d still love you without reservation till the end of my days.