He dumps me, then says, Can we be friends?

We were going to be married. I’m finally getting over the breakup when he calls and wants to be chummy!

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Sep 21, 2011

Dear Cary,

About six months ago, the man I thought I was going to marry left me unceremoniously for another woman. During the aftermath — the moving out, the settling of affairs — he acted cruelly and horribly, cementing the split and making damn sure I didn’t come back. I spent much of the next few months depressed, having constant nightmares about him, unable to get out of bed and constantly self-medicating, because the reality of my situation was too much to face. I work freelance, and have been accepting just enough work to scrape by, wishing the end of every gig to come so I could get back into bed. Slowly, I have been scraping out of this. I saw a therapist for a bit. I started dating a nice man who makes me feel loved and is kind enough to both give me my space and be there to help me heal. I was working more, dedicating myself to my jobs and beginning to hustle for new clients. I found the inspiration I had been missing to move forward with my pet project. I had been making new friends, reconnecting with old ones and looking ahead. Seemingly, I had forgotten all about him.

And then I received an email from my ex nonchalantly asking if we could be friends again. The grapevine quickly informed me that he and his new love had split. At first I felt palpable outrage — how dare he contact me so casually. I felt like I was owed an apology, or at the very least an acknowledgment of how badly he’d behaved. I did not respond; instead, I blocked him from contacting me and searched my psyche for the schadenfreude that was sure to come.

Instead, I’ve fallen very quickly back into depression. My thoughts are consumed with him and I am once again flattened by the sadness. In a way I hadn’t before, I miss him desperately. I wake up every morning wishing he was next to me. I’ve shut everybody out again, stopped looking for work, and spend most of my days sleeping, yet again. I’m lost and I don’t know how to pull out of this again. Although I know with every fiber of my rational mind that I should not contact him and that no good can come of having him in my life, I am overwhelmed with these feelings that I can only explain away as female biology. My brain is trying to find ways to rationalize the following statement: “If he is no longer with her, it stands to reason that he should be with me again.” I feel hurt that he hasn’t tried to get back together with me and sad that he destroyed what we had to pursue something that turned out to be so fleeting. I want to shake him and ask him, “Was it worth it?” I want to remind him how wonderful we were together, before the hurt and the betrayal. But these are ridiculous thoughts that I have no intention of entertaining. Instead I lie in bed tortured, wondering how and when I can get my life back.

I don’t have much of a support system. I met my ex when I moved to a new city, and now that he’s gone, I’ve found myself with few people to lean on. I live with my best friend now, but she has no advice, except to take the time I need to try to forget him and move forward. She has had some difficulty come up recently, so I don’t want to burden her with my troubles, which seem very petty and juvenile in comparison. I’ve asked the man I’m seeing to give me space, because I don’t want to lay this on him. What do I do? How do I heal and get back, at least to where I was before the email came in? Reaching out to my ex for closure is not an option; I feel that any contact with him right now would push me deeper down the hole. I also live in constant fear of running into him, or worse — ending up on a job together (we are in the same industry). I can’t regress every time I am reminded of his existence. I know that time is always the answer to these things, but I’ve never been fragile or delicate, and this feeling of being a walking house of cards is only making me feel worse. Please advise.

Being Sucked Back In Sucks

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Dear Sucked Back In,

There are three things I would like to say to you. The first is that you were mistreated and have a right to be angry. The second is that this is not a good time to push away new friends, so stay close to the man you recently began dating. The third is that sometimes breakups are not just “the way things turned out,” but acts of deliberate cruelty.

There are times, I’m sure, when people have a change of heart. They don’t know what is in their hearts, and they lie to themselves, or they think a relationship will work out, they think difficulties will be overcome, they overestimate their own capacities and the capacities of their mate. Things end.

But then there are the people who fuck you over.

This guy fucked you over.

He didn’t offer an apology. He didn’t throw himself at your feet. He didn’t apologize to you and to your father and mother and brother and sister and uncles and cousins and township.

He just called a few months later and asked if you could be friends.

Those of us who grew up in arid, overly intellectual households full of complicated codes and passive-aggressive behavior, we probably know about this better than most: One way to assure ourselves that someone loves us is to cause them pain. So we go about hurting people in order to remind ourselves that we can be loved.

That’s pretty sick, isn’t it? Knowledge of such impulses ought to inoculate us. But it doesn’t.

So what happens to those of us who may be full of pain but are too good to go around hurting others? We hurt ourselves. We turn it inward, being the little angels that we are. We turn it inward with depression, with drink, with suicide, with cutting, with failure.

So this guy seems to have no scruples. But you, you have scruples. So instead of gathering your tribe to light their torches and go burn his fucking hut down, you rely on some abstract notion of inner schadenfreude. You shut down and pray for vengeance. You turn your anger inward where it festers, sucking you into a bleak landscape of self-hatred and self-blaming. Face it, sister: You were fucked over and have a right to be angry. Schadenfreude won’t cut it. You don’t get any schadenfreude because this guy hasn’t had a fall. He hasn’t suffered. That’s the further outrage of it. He’s had a little girl trouble. That’s all. Other than that, he’s going about his self-involved little life, taking what he can take and giving nothing back.

He made you a promise, and relying on that promise you did many things. You arranged your life in a certain way. You were deceived. In some families, in some villages, this would be a crime. You are right to be outraged.

It seems to me that in arranging our romantic lives in such private and secular ways, we overlook how society, family and religion have protected us in the past from such calamities by placing a high price on a promise of marriage. And I suppose it is necessary to note how in gaining independence women have given up some social protections. We say, happy day, sister, you’re on your own, but where is the social remedy? Where is his punishment? Where is his amends? Where is the family, or the society, to enforce the making of such amends?

Well, we have insisted that family and society get out of our hair, so we can handle things on our own. And now we sit alone with our catastrophes.

So reach out to those around you. This is no time to be shy. Go out with this new man. Burden him with your woes. Burden him until he yells out for you to stop.

Do not let your life be further wrecked by this ex. If he shows up again, chase him off your property.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My alcoholic dad: How can I reach out to him?

Write for Advice

I know he’s screwed up, but as a little girl I idolized him

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 25, 2009

Dear Cary,

This is an epically long letter — sorry. To some extent, I just needed to put it all down on paper so I could get a grip on it: see the patterns and find some coherence in the whole thing. What I’m writing about is such a large part of me that I can’t find a way to edit it down. I suspect you understand.

I need some advice about dealing with an alcoholic, specifically my father. I’m 21 and my dad has been drinking since I was about 4 years old. I guess he’s what you might call “high functioning” — he has a stable job as a department manager, doesn’t get violent or abusive in any way, doesn’t drink hard alcohol as far as I know, just beer. Because of this, I didn’t know he had a problem until I was a teenager. Looking back, I realize that almost every memory I have of him until I was about 12 includes a beer can: doing work around the house, working at his desk, watching TV, on camping trips. I think he’s not really meant to have a family and a high-pressure job. My impression today is that he began to feel trapped and depressed, and started dealing with it by drinking. But of course, I thought it was normal and everything was great.

I adored my father, like many little girls do. I was born 10 weeks premature, which resulted in my mother and I being not at all close, so my dad was often the one who was there for me. He was the more patient parent, introverted like me, and the polar opposite of my mom, personality-wise. She came from a highly dysfunctional family full of alcoholics, failed marriages and absent parents. In spite of it all, she came out shockingly sane, but chronically depressed and not at all familiar with “normal” child development or child-parent relationships. My brother and I were expected to be emotionally competent far beyond our years — many confrontations between us revolved around my inability to be adequately “grateful for all that she sacrificed” to raise us as a stay-at-home mom. So, naturally, my father’s alcoholism really messed with her and the more he drank, the more she leaned on her kids for support.

Finally, when I was maybe 12 or 13, she sat us down for a talk with my father present, and informed us that he was an alcoholic. I really didn’t understand the ramifications of it, but I took on her anger and betrayal and joined her in a messy confrontation with him. Looking back, it must have been absolutely shaming and a really ineffective way to handle the problem. He agreed to go to counseling, but quit after a couple of sessions. Over the next few years, things were tense, to put it mildly. My parents were miserable — my mother furious and my father beginning to withdraw — but neither was willing to divorce, which was my greatest wish. I wanted the whole thing to be over with, for everyone’s sake.

For a little while after the “intervention,” I continued to be closer to my dad, but it was obvious that I was expected to choose a parent’s side, and as he began to withdraw emotionally, I switched to my mom. A year or two later, he and I had an enormous fight (I think he must have been drunk) which culminated in him bitterly observing “I used to be your hero,” to which I shot back, “Well, I found out you’re not so perfect.” After that, we were done. I felt angry and betrayed and he refused to reach out to me again, so we just quit having a relationship.

Actually, he quit having a relationship with anyone. He lived in the house, but worked and slept in a basement room, spent a lot of nights out (presumably at work, though we never asked and he never said), and quit eating meals with us. I refused to have anything more than a curt conversation with him. He continued to drink, though he kept it as hidden as possible. Over time he became more and more irrational and moody. My mom continued to bend over backward to keep him happy, but I decided I didn’t want to play the game and just went through daily life in the house like he didn’t exist unless I absolutely needed something from him.

Finally, two years ago I moved out to go to college on the other side of the country. My little brother left last year. I’ve been home for some vacations, but I’m staying away this summer for my own sanity. On top of all this, I took my mother to see a family therapist this winter, at the suggestion of my own therapist who had been helping me work through the mess of all this. My mom felt instantly betrayed by the mere suggestion that she had been a less-than-perfect mother and the idea that I might want to be my own person instead of her support system. I managed to set up a rule that I was no longer going to be dragged into her passive-aggressive conflicts with my father, which has been helpful for me. However, she has now withdrawn from me, rarely initiates contact, and doesn’t really have much to say to me anymore. I have no contact with my father outside of short discussions about financial aid or the family health insurance, which require his input. Once every few months he tries to start a conversation with me over e-mail, but they never go anywhere. When I’m at home, we ignore each other’s existence.

So, I’m sitting here, on the verge of being a grown-up, feeling kind of disjointed and parentless. Now that I’ve broken out of the messed-up dynamics of my childhood and set some boundaries for myself, I’ve started to revisit this history with my father, and it turns out that, angry as I’ve been with him, I really miss having him in my life. He was the parent my mother couldn’t be for me when I was little. And I have a hard time letting him go because I see so much of myself in him. But at the same time, he’s chosen alcohol over functional relationships in his life. He controls my mother’s life because he controls the household finances and she’s co-dependent with no real income of her own. My brother still talks to him; I guess that’s the side he chose when it reached that point. My dad spends a lot of money on him instead of time and genuine effort. I expect any day to get a call saying Dad has been injured or killed driving drunk.

I know I can’t make him change. I know he’s pretty dysfunctional and to blame for a lot of things. But I also know he must be as miserable as the rest of us, and I’m starting to wonder (here’s the point to all this): Am I being unfair to him? Does he deserve, simply as a human being, to have a daughter who will talk to him? What can I expect from him, if it’s even possible to have some sort of relationship with an alcoholic? I’m worried that I’m being immature and immoral by shutting him down so completely. But I never, ever want to stoop to his level like my mother has, and I don’t ever want to be used emotionally by him. Is it time to just give up or is it time to reach out?

Thanks so much,

J

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Dear J,

It’s true that your letter is long, but I agree that each part of it is important, and the task is to find the pattern in it. I am glad you wrote it all down. Each time someone tells their story, people who also have grown up with alcoholic dads are helped.

I have two main responses. One concerns how you as an individual will navigate between two poles of being. The other concerns your father’s alcoholism, and how he might get some help.

On the first point, let’s just say that one pole of being is the you as a completely unique individual. The other pole is the you who exists in knowledge of and opposition to your parents – the you who has made a pact with herself never to repeat the mistakes of your parents.

Neither of these poles represents an absolute state; rather, you are a unique individual trying not to repeat your parents’ mistakes. You are trying to have a relationship with them as you are, not as the circumstances of your upbringing might dictate that you be. We are a synthesis of utter uniqueness and the shaping forces of experience. We live in the tension between uniqueness and repetition.

As we question and challenge our parents’ negative examples, we also must question our own iron-clad determination not to repeat those negative examples.

Determined not to repeat “my father’s mistakes,” I am in the process of repeating them even as we speak. I am so afraid of abandoning plans, and thus repeating my father’s pattern, that at times I have been rigid, and so have not become conscious of what is the next thing, and so have missed opportunities, and in that way have replicated my father’s pattern! In being so determined to make a marriage that works I have at times failed to live authentically in the life of the marriage, have administered the marriage instead of living in it, like some remote bureaucrat in a desert highrise, grading the marriage’s adherence to program. In resolving not to let my inherent wildness destroy me, I have destroyed some of my inherent wildness and with it some of my life force and love and beauty and desire and music. I have been so fearful of repeating my father’s impulsive changes that I have in my own life become a little rigid and conventional, although at heart I am naturally intuitive and thus blessed with the ability to act with wise impulse.

The focus on not repeating negative examples seems to bring them to life!

The “not” part does not seem to be as strong as the “what” part.

In playing tennis, we avoid saying to ourselves, “I must not hit the ball out.” Our brain does not seem to get the “not” part. We must instead visualize the ball going in. Likewise, in life, we visualize what we are trying to bring into being, instead of focusing on what to avoid.

So to the extent that you can survive it, I think you must have a relationship with your father. This relationship with your father can be your laboratory for growth. There are probably areas of life in which you did not grow because of your truncated relationship with your father. Coming back into his life can be a way for you to build, piece by piece, your way of relating.

So I suggest you forge a framework for relating to your dad. Identify safe, relatively neutral areas in your home town where you can go with your dad, where he feels comfortable and where you feel comfortable.

If he drinks steadily throughout the day, you may want to identify a time when he is not too hung over but not too drunk — perhaps mid-afternoon. Or perhaps lunchtime at work is a time you can visit him, if his workplace is governed by corporate norms.

If being with him is too difficult, too upsetting, too dangerous, then you will need to back off. But I think that measured, regular contact with your dad is better than cutting off contact altogether. There is something there, even if it is buried and distorted by the alcoholism. There can be at least a continuum of contact. If nothing else, by staying in touch, you will have up-to-date contact info.

As you occupy this difficult space, notice yourself in opposition to your parents. Then notice yourself in the absence of your parents. Each is an abstraction, a false pure essence: the you that is only you, and the you formed by your parents. Neither is real. Find the middle. Live in the tension between these two. Notice how it feels to move from one to the other. Notice how narrow is the space where you only oppose your father or your mother. Notice how narrow is the space of your own uniqueness. Notice the power in these poles of attraction and repulsion.

To be more concrete: You love your father. Your father has a disease. The disease distorts his personality and his thinking and causes him to act in ways that are harmful to himself and harmful to others. But there is a man in there who is your father and he has been the most important man in the world to you. You love him. Because you love him it is painful beyond words to see him distorted and destroyed. Your task is to handle it with boundaries.

I know how difficult this father thing is.

I know how difficult it is to accept that in spite of the many, many ways he can be helped, you cannot help him until he is ready. In spite of what I know, I find myself thinking, Couldn’t you cook up some sort of real intervention? — not the shaming and self-serving drama that your mom concocted (wow, what a scene that must have been!) but a professional intervention, with a treatment option. Why not try that? I mean, it sounds like he hasn’t really tried …  and I have just fallen again into the same old trap everyone falls into, haven’t I? I know that we are powerless over the alcoholism of others and yet, and yet … I cannot let this go! (Why not? Because I’m no different from anybody else!)

Has he ever said he wants to quit? Has he ever admitted he has a problem? What was this family conference about? If he went to a counselor for a couple of sessions, perhaps he at least had an inkling of his problem. And then maybe the shame and trauma of the family conference just shut him down completely, and now he is all alone and full of self-pity and whatnot.

But maybe he is ready. You could at least try to find out. (See how tenaciously I cling to the belief that he can be helped, that he can be changed?!)

You might at least have someone who is a recovering alcoholic come and visit him and see if maybe he can relate, and maybe give recovery a try. There are people who would make the visit, I’ll bet, if it’s even remotely possible that he might be interested in some kind of help.

So that’s the alcoholism side of it: He might be ready. Who knows. It’s possible.

You and I know you cannot change him. Yet let’s hope you can forge some kind of relationship in which you take strong precautions not to be burned, but are still close enough to feel his warmth.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My husband thinks I should make more money

I’m doing the kind of work I love, but he’s earning so much more!

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 16, 2006

Dear Cary,

How do I get my husband to stop telling me that I make too little money? I am a full-time copy editor at a magazine, making what copy editors make when they first start out in their careers. I love my job and feel that I am well suited for it; unfortunately, the pay is crap (you’re well aware of this, I believe).

My husband is a first-year attorney at a prestigious firm, earning more than triple my salary. He has worked hard to get where he is, putting himself through law school at night while working a full-time job at a firm during the day for four years. He grew up without much money, and the result is that he’s not only deeply concerned about financial security, he now always wants (I’d even say needs) the best that money can buy.

He associates with a lot of attorneys whose wives are also attorneys or hold high-paying positions, and these people live it up in a way that we can’t. This frustrates my husband and sometimes when we’re confronted with this, he’ll ask me why I can’t get a better-paying job, perhaps go to law school and become an attorney myself. I’ve told him that comments like these are demoralizing, not to mention unfair, since this is the path that I’ve chosen for myself and I’ve worked hard at it — he just works harder. He’ll acknowledge that his comments are not supportive, but add that that’s just the way he feels — that I’m not working as hard as I could while reaping all the benefits of his hard work.

I know it’s true that I benefit from our situation while he puts in long hours at a job that’s not his passion, but it’s not that I’ve ever asked him for any of this. In fact, I’d rather he switch careers and do something that makes him happier, since it’s quite clear that he doesn’t love any aspect of his job except for the salary. But he completely rejects that idea.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe he’s right. He does half the housework and is a caring and loving husband in every other respect. In fact, I’d say that his disapproval of my career choice is out of character for him — he’s really quite easygoing about most other things and I can’t say that we seriously fight over anything else. Do I need to suck it up, start bringing home half the bacon? Am I being a slacker? My heart tells me no, but maybe that’s just because my mind is screaming, “I don’t want to work any harder than I have to!”

A Grim Reaper

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Dear Grim Reaper,

There are three interlocking issues here. The first is political — how two working partners of different sexes apportion the labor fairly. The second is personal — why he at this particular time seems to have a need for you to make more money, and how you personally respond to that. And the third is historical — what family history and long-standing needs are being expressed here.

To answer the first question, what is a fair distribution of labor in a marriage partnership between equals, I think the obvious answer is that it should be 50-50. But of course you have different abilities and different needs, so you make adjustments. And don’t forget, you also have a question about how to share in the rewards. So ask yourselves, What is a fair way for both partners to share in the labor and the proceeds from the labor, if each partner’s labor is disproportionately rewarded?

If you and he can agree in principle, you will have a common goal of fairness that you are both working toward. You probably cannot answer these questions with certainty and exactitude — people have been trying to do so for decades! — but discussing them and struggling to find a balanced answer will reveal much, particularly any previously unexpressed beliefs and expectations that may be influencing you.

The second question involves a bit of a mystery: Why does he at this particular time need for you to make more money? You say this behavior is out of character. That suggests that he has recently encountered some new kind of stress that is too great for him to handle in his accustomed ways. Most likely that new stress comes from his job. Since he is a first-year lawyer, he is working long hours under intense pressure to perform at a high level. That alone can change somebody. But second, he is in a new social realm, and while the work pressure is intense, I am going to guess that it is the social pressure that he is finding most painful.

You say he grew up without much money. Many of the lawyers he now socializes with probably grew up quite comfortably. He may find himself a little intimidated though he might not come right out and say so. Instead, it would express itself as an aspiration: If I only had what they’ve got, I’d be on top of the world (i.e., the unexpressed thought: I would not be as intensely uncomfortable as I am right now).

He has advanced socioeconomically, but that does not mean he automatically belongs to the club; climbing the ladder in America is not a painless experience; it takes guts; it cannot be done without some sacrifice of confidence and dignity and self-worth. He is going to feel small and unentitled at times. He is going to be a small fish. So perhaps in addition to a typically murderous workload for a new associate, he is feeling socially inferior, his manhood and status are being challenged, and he has begun fantasizing how nice it would be to have a high-powered wife, a diplomat or movie star, to bring to the party, to bring to the table, to display to his boss. It would be natural to envy the men who squire rich, beautiful wives to the office functions, to long for the kind of ease and power represented by their addresses and their automobiles.

As to the third issue, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of family history in shaping our attitudes toward work. Having come from a family with little money, but being quite ambitious by nature, he may have grown impatient with his father and mother, wishing they had made smarter choices and worked harder. It’s possible he’s responding to you with the same impatience with which he responded to his family.

If he thought that once he became a lawyer life would be cleansed of doubt and fear, he may now be dismayed and frustrated at how difficult such transformation is. When we are under stress we sometimes combine several issues in one symbol. So although he knows better, he may see your job as the one thing that now stands between him and the realization of his grand vision. (Perhaps that’s overstating it, but it’s the kind of thought-knot we can get into when frustrated.)

His family history is not the only one that is relevant here. It is likely that you got your values and attitudes about work partly from your family as well.

You have different attitudes toward work. You like work for its intrinsic value, how it opens up and magnifies your abilities and your interests; he sees work as a vehicle to survival, status and acquisition. Neither approach is wrong. Most kinds of work have elements of both. But for him to suggest you take his approach to work instead of your own — I can see why it is demoralizing. You probably feel it as an attack on yourself — because your choice of work is an expression of who you are, not where you are trying to get to.

You need to sort these things out together.

You’ve got a lot to talk about. Good luck!

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

When therapy doesn’t work

Write for Advice

I’m suicidal a year after my miscarriage. Nothing helps

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, MAY 31, 2012

Dear Cary,

What happens when therapy doesn’t work?

I’ve battled most of my life with depression, the causes of which are probably not of very much importance (absent alcoholic father, frequent moving, mentorless young adulthood, spotty employment, fear of commitment, and the crowning insult, a miscarriage and the end of a relationship). Perhaps these things, along with hopefully some joys and accomplishments, are just things that make up life. Unfortunately, I have been short on joys and long on disappointment, which has led me to become a very negative person.

After my miscarriage last year, I decided to give therapy yet another chance. Despite going into it with an open mind, I have come to the realization that no one can help me. Not a therapist, not my mom, not any friends, not my astrologer. Sure, people will listen for a while. They will give well-meaning advice and pep talks. They may even tell me that I am full of good things and that the world is a better place with me in it. I have even tried things like pharmaceuticals, acupuncture and the like. I’ve done all the things that are suggested to people like me. Volunteer! Exercise! Take up a hobby! Do some yoga! Meditate! None of it helps, and all I want to do is end the pain in the only way I know how. I know that this will cause those around me to suffer, but I cannot hang around and be miserable indefinitely just so three or four people don’t have to deal with my loss and be sad for what, two or three weeks, plus maybe around the holidays?

I would like to know your thoughts about someone like me. I’m sure that there are many others for whom therapy was not helpful and who continue to suffer every day.

Miserable in Paris

 

Dear Miserable in Paris,

You will get over this depression.

A significant number of women remain depressed almost three years after a miscarriage.

But they come out of it. You will, too.

One study showed that 13 percent of women who had a miscarriage remained depressed 33 months after. That’s almost three years.

The fact that you are still depressed does not mean therapy didn’t work. It means you’re not there yet.

While you’re getting well, when thoughts such as “Therapy doesn’t work” and “No one can help me” arise, tell yourself what bipolar author Terri Cheney tells herself: “That’s my depression talking.”

Of course, let’s be intellectually honest and admit that life has a tragic dimension. People will die unhappy. Some of us will not be able to rise out of whatever it is we are stuck in. Some of us will die senselessly in automobile accidents, others will be tortured by madmen, others will commit unspeakable crimes and get away with it, others will put guns to our heads and the trigger will jam …

To be equally honest, life has a miraculous dimension, and some of us will wake up one day and realize it’s not so bad after all, and our hormones will balance out or our neurotransmitters will start transmitting after being jammed, or we will eat the right carrot or see the right television infomercial and buy a juicer or get a crystal that cures us, and we will walk barefoot on the sunny streets of Santa Barbara believing that a fortune teller in Venice read our palm and everything is settled now, nothing to worry about, everyone is fine.

While we’re at it, let’s admit that no one really knows. But I want to be one of the ones who says, I want you to make it. I believe you will come out of this depression. I have been depressed myself, and I have read about depression and followed treatment regimes and read many letters from depressed people and talked to depressed people, and my experience has been that most people come out of it if they don’t kill themselves. So don’t kill yourself. Give your body time to heal. If you need to crawl into bed and stay there for a few days, do it. But also do the things that will eventually bring you out of it.

Maybe no one thing you do will cure you of depression. But each thing you do will help a little bit: eating well, exercising, talking about your experience with other women who have experienced the same thing, doing yoga, meditating, sleeping well, walking in fresh air, reading books with hopeful messages, studying “Feeling Good” by David Burns and doing the exercises in it, continuing therapy or finding a new therapist who will be more engaged, taking time off, getting a massage, doing breathing exercises, taking vitamins, getting your hair cut, doing one nice thing for your body every day, staying out of situations that make you depressed, seeking out laughter, seeing funny movies, staying away from alcohol and caffeine, taking a sauna, swimming, sailing, riding a ferry, being in the mountains, taking a long drive to a resort, seeing a great chamber orchestra, hearing jazz, giving money to street musicians, riding the Metro, buying some clothes, talking on the phone to people who really love you, petting a dog, going to a museum, standing on the Seine watching the tourists go by in boats, walking by Cathedral Notre Dame, taking the Eurostar to London, eating a croissant, checking your adrenal glands, remembering to laugh every hour … all these things together may help.

Still, you may remain depressed for a while. And it’s not easy to do what you need to do to get over depression when you are depressed. That’s the maddening thing about it. It’s hard to think well. It’s hard to form an intention and carry it out. I know. Yet we do what we can. We eke out a little life while waiting for rescue, while waiting in our shipwreck in our floating misery being eaten by the tides and pecked at by birds, while waiting to reach some kind of land and eventual comfort and bliss.

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What happens when therapy doesn’t work is you keep trying. You try different things. You try cognitive therapy. You try everything. You try nutritional supplements, and you don’t stop any one thing. You keep doing all the things that could possibly work. You keep an open mind. You try antidepressants. You read and learn everything you can. You use your intelligence to tell yourself the truth, which is that you are going to come out of this, and then you try to believe yourself when you’re talking to yourself.

You tell yourself what happened: You had a miscarriage and a relationship ended and your support system fell apart, and you acquired a serious depression which you are eventually going to emerge from.

Here are some other things you can do. They may work and they may not. You might as well give them a try, while you’re waiting. Write down all the accomplishments you have ever had. Include things that happened in school and things that happened when you were a child. How were you able to take care of yourself and others in your household? Write down all the things you are proud of. Visualize the things you would like to have in the future. Visualize happiness. Visualize pleasure and exhilaration. How were you able to save others from abuse? How were you able to recover from trauma? What were the high points of your relationship? Envision them. Envision your happy moments.

Write down even all the little accomplishments you have had. Make a list of all the times you have felt happy. Look at them. See what elements they had. See if you can re-create some of those moments. Post this list on the wall where you can see it several times a day.

It can’t hurt.

As long as you are alive, you have a chance. Life, if you don’t die, is long. One or two years is not so long a time. I first visited a psychotherapist about 20 years ago, and I have seen several since then—four total. Four different practitioners of different healing arts, well, more actually, if you count others; and then there’s all the help I have gotten from individuals, and chance encounters, and all the meditation and exercise and walking and talking and traveling and reading and working.

I’m not depressed today. I’m listening to Bach, looking out over the garden, where there are purple flowers.

I would try everything. I would try fish oil supplements and exercise and vitamin B. I know for me nutrition is extremely important; I cannot have alcohol and only rarely can I drink coffee, and I must eat plenty of fish and vegetables and take vitamins. I must. I don’t care what the science says. That’s what I have to do.

Attitude also makes a difference.

We have this friend who thinks she is the luckiest woman in the world. She was walking across the street right in front of her house and a truck ran a stop sign and crushed her. She was dragged under the truck because the driver didn’t see her. But people saw her being dragged and screamed, and the truck stopped and she survived.

She’s in a wheelchair now but considers herself lucky because she survived. She was lucky enough to get an elevator put into her house so she could travel between floors more easily and not have to be carried. The thing is, with her roommate, they have to always remember to keep the elevator at the correct floor. Well, so her roommate’s friend comes over and leaves the elevator at the wrong floor. And she backs her wheelchair into the elevator and falls to the bottom.

But she survives! She considers herself the luckiest woman in the world because she survived.

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I seem to be repeating patterns of abuse

I’m a well-educated and intelligent woman, but childhood trauma has brought me to the edge of madness.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 10, 2005

Dear Cary,

Ostensibly, I am a relatively well-educated, intelligent woman. I had a rough childhood. I was abused as a child; my usual punishment was caning, but my mother also pulled my hair and boxed my ears.

I grew up minimizing the abuse. I was weirdly adult about everything. I would carefully explain to my older siblings that our mother had a difficult childhood and she still loved us, she just wasn’t in her right mind. There is a picture of me with a hand-shaped purple-and-green bruise on my arms. I am on a merry-go-round. I have a smile plastered on my face, painful and artificial.

I have never felt safe. I was molested by a teacher when I was 4, raped by a teenager when I was 12 and raped again when I was 19. I turned to drugs and alcohol; I was self-destructive. I have been in a series of relationships that ranged from unhealthy to severely abusive. I overcame my addiction through sheer willpower. I moved home and stopped associating with my drug friends. I maintained rigid control over whom I associated with and did not allow alcohol in my presence.

I am in the process of ending my current entanglement. I was involved for 10 months with a man who had spent seven years in prison for, among other things, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. No one, not even I, understood my attraction to this man. He became increasingly unstable, stopped taking medication he took for a mental problem, became an alcoholic, and developed a drug problem that escalated into using crack. This happened over the course of six months or so.

I was his caretaker. It was a process of systematically destroying my support network by isolating me from friends and family, and destroying my self-esteem with regular insults, spitting on me and humiliating me. He never hit me — he would cock his fist back and threaten to hit me, or punch holes in the wall. He was charming and manipulative. He would be abusive one day, and I would take him back the next. Sometimes it was a matter of hours. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand myself.

I have started having flashbacks from the rapes. I remember very clearly that I froze. I became utterly still, and silent. I remember thinking, if I don’t move, he won’t hurt me, he won’t kill me. If I stay still I will live. So I stayed still. I lived. I survived. I feel that way now — paralyzed with fear. I am afraid of him. He leaves messages on my phone, saying that he would never lay a hand on me, that he will kill himself if I leave him, that he only feels “safe” with me. Ironic.

Is my comfort zone a place of constant terror? Why did so many of my friends and family withdraw from me? My choice to be victimized must have hurt them, I know — but now I feel so alone, so terrified.

Two days ago he pounded on my door, smelling of liquor. I asked him to leave; he kicked in the door and threw me into a wall. I had a friend over in the living room, one of the few I have left — a neighbor who is very protective and a “big brother” kind of guy. My ex knocked him down and tried to choke him to death. Luckily, I own a pit bull. He did his job well and attacked my ex, chased him out the door and stood guard, with his ridge up. My ex was only recently bonded out of jail for possession and robbery, so he ran when he saw that we were calling the police.

I was pregnant by him, and lost the baby two weeks ago. I had left him already because of his escalating substance abuse, but because of my pregnancy he continued to contact me, occasionally to harass me, occasionally to beg me to come back to “be a family.”

I have prided myself on being relatively successful in life, despite the abuse and sexual assaults from my past. I am somewhat brittle, and extremely passive in my interactions with almost all men, especially men I am romantically involved with. I used to be strong, compassionate, intuitive, thoughtful — I worked to earn a degree in psychology and worked for a time at a forensic mental hospital. I enjoy being in a profession where I help others. I know that I am a strong person; I have fought to live my entire life. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to kill myself. I WANT TO LIVE, so badly that I taste it with every breath I take. But I have, instead, chosen merely to exist for so long.

I started therapy recently — this is where I was diagnosed with clinical and postpartum depression. My therapist said that I was, most likely, depressed before I lost my baby, but that the postpartum depression has pushed me to the point of being nonfunctional.

I feel as if I am doing this to myself in some self-destructive way. I won’t allow myself to consider suicide, so I choose passive methods, like “death by abusive, mentally unstable, crack-addicted boyfriend” — my sister accused me of this. Beyond all else I wonder why I still care for this man, why I worry for him and hope that he one day receives help and gets better. Why can’t I hate him?

Traumatized

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Dear Traumatized,

Did you ever have a string that was very tangled, perhaps so tangled you didn’t even have words to explain it? You just held it out to your mom, wordlessly, on the verge of tears. You were so frustrated you could hardly even say, Please untangle this. You just held it out to her, hoping something would happen.

Maybe she would help untangle it and maybe she wouldn’t. If she was going to untangle it, she wouldn’t be able to explain to you how she was going to do it. She would have to simply sit down with it and begin. There would be hours of concentrated effort, trial and error, struggle with string. She wouldn’t have any words or symbols for the intricate topology. She couldn’t say, Oh, here, dear, here is the mathematical expression that describes this particular knot. She couldn’t say, Here, you just push the button. Or, here, I have stronger hands, I can snap your snaps. She just had to sit down and start worrying it.

That is how I feel about your story. I feel as though you have handed me a tangled string. I feel that it is important, surely; I could hardly ignore you standing there, trembling, bruised and afraid. So I will sit here and tug at it wordlessly while you wait. Images will eventually come to me; they always do; but they may not make sense to anyone but me. The images are cryptic; they are my private language. Sometimes I need to translate or you think I’m speaking gibberish, or that I’m playing with you. I’m not playing with you. I’m doing my best to respond. But the responding is often tangled like the string. So I will speak as plainly as I can right now, in the beginning, before the images take over. For there are certain things that are certain.

I think you need to make a whole new life pretty much from scratch. How is that for startling clarity? Your new life will have strict rules, like in a recovery house. The rules are there to keep you from getting hurt. You need some rules, or you might wander into traffic or into a crack house; you might fall off a cliff or a curb. So you get a set of simple rules and live by them. You sit at the feet of your therapist as she works to untangle the string, offering help as you can, but mainly staying out of trouble and being patient, because it’s going to take at least all afternoon. And you spend time with others like yourself, listening to their problems and trying to help.

You need the strict rules because you’re in the grip of a crazy machine that wants to repeat the injuries. You don’t need to know why yet. You just need to follow the rules. But here is sort of why (the images are starting to come now, as they always do):

It’s not just the ball of string. It’s you. You’re all beat up. Your mom looks at the string and then looks at you and suddenly she sees you’re bleeding. How did this happen? she screams. And you say, You did it, you did it.

Maybe she did it and maybe she didn’t, but you need help and she patches you up. But some of the cuts don’t heal; some of the bruises remain, glowing under your translucent skin like stigmata. Remember that bruise on your arm in the shape of a hand? Remember how strange you found it, as a child, that bruises persist as they do? Cuts and bruises are our early journal entries, written on the child’s body; long before we learn to think and remember our injuries, they persist in the muscles and on the skin where we can observe and touch, as though touching our own memories. So we understand very early the persistence of injury. And we learn early on, too, that the sites of our injuries are strangely alluring.

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When you get bruised, you’d think you’d try to protect the injury, hold it aloft, maintain the bandages, wouldn’t you? Why do we pick at scabs and test our bruises against hard surfaces, as if remembering were a pleasure, even when it hurts? Why that peculiar interest in the wound itself, in its persistence? We rub the affected region. We replay the injuries, as though there were pleasure in remembering the pain. There seems to be a pleasure in simply remembering. If not a pleasure, then what? A drive, a compulsion, an urge: the urge to rub the affected region.

So we rub the affected region. We rub the affected region with abusers and pimps, with cops and prisons and whores and needles, the way a child tests a bruise against a sharp tabletop. We return to the source of our injuries, and we get injured again! Why can’t we learn?

At the source of our injuries, strangely enough, there are people hanging around the street corner with medicine. Isn’t that interesting? You rub the affected region with the pimp who bruised it, and the pimp’s got some rum, or some heroin. Here’s a houseful of people all rubbing their affected regions — rubbing them with each other, rubbing them with hammers, rubbing them with money.

In other words, again trying not to be so cryptic, you bring your story to somebody who will be like your mommy — your therapist — and you bring it like a humble and baffled child bringing a tangled wad of string. And then your job is just to stay in your seat until the thing is untangled. It may take years. But you keep to your routine. You stick to the basics. You eat well and stay out of the old neighborhood. You avoid rubbing the affected region. You stumble and fall and get up and keep going. One day you notice the stigmata are gone. The air smells fresh.

Something breaks and the lump is free. All that untangling must have weakened the fibers. You don’t even mind that the string is broken. You didn’t need the string anyway.

When it’s untangled, you have a new feeling. You take your first deep breath in centuries. Suddenly you have to get away. You jump in a car and head for the desert where there’s nothing, no scrap of memory, no parolees and no junkies, no men who remind you of your teacher, no men who remind you of your dad, no lures, no tripwires, no three-card monte games, no crap shooters in tiled elementary-school bathrooms, no blood on the walls: just desert sand and cactus.

You get out there and build yourself a lean-to and watch the horizon.

You have a long life yet to live.

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I lost my inheritance on a “technicality”

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 1, 2009

Due to an “error,” the stepdaughter gets everything.


Dear Cary,

It really is not about the money. My dad worked two and three jobs his whole life and ended up with a relatively small estate to distribute among his eight kids and his stepdaughter. He died first. Then his wife died. My brother took her into his home and his beautiful, loving family helped her die a better death than tied screaming to a hospital bed, which is where she was.

Now the estate is being settled and due to a technicality, an error in his wife’s will, all of the proceeds are being given to the stepdaughter, even though my dad and his wife’s wills stated that all proceeds will be shared among all of the children. We are all asked to sign a paper that we relinquish all claims to the estate and accept a token amount from the stepdaughter.

I can’t bring myself to sign it. Mostly I feel like it is a disrespect of my dad and his whole life and an unethical act. I feel like if I sign this paper and accept this insulting amount of money, I am going against his wishes and it’s just plain wrong. Please believe me that the amount of money is so small as to be negligible, even if we got the full amount that the will instructed. So it really is not about the money. I know people often say that and it really IS about the money. But the money feels more symbolic to me than anything.

I don’t know what to do. Is it Buddhism that says when you don’t know what to do, do nothing? I try to live an ethical life with my actions in line with my beliefs. (Although I don’t have the guts to be a tax resistor.)

This resistance to relinquishing the claim feels like it comes from a very deep place inside, a big no to being reasonable. I have no interest at all in suing or going to court or hiring a lawyer. I just do not want to sign a paper that feels wrong to me. I don’t even know if it will hold up the distribution process or what. I don’t care. I guess I should care because some of my sisters are in extremely bad financial positions and the small amount would be a big amount to them.

This whole thing feels like a mocking twist of fate — the Cinderella story gone south. The selfish stepsister gets the prince and fortune. The good sisters and brothers get sent out in a blizzard with no bread crumbs to lead them home. The bad guys win. I have mixed up many folkloric themes but you get my drift.

I love your column and appreciate any thoughts you can share with me, Cary. Thank you very much for your work.

Sister Left Out in the Cold

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Dear Sister Left Out in the Cold,

When an “error in the will” or a “technicality” causes one heir to benefit to the exclusion of all the others, doesn’t it make you wonder what actually happened? Do you feel satisfied with the explanation that it was just a “technicality,” an “error in the will”? I don’t think I would feel satisfied with such an explanation. So I do think you should see a lawyer — not to fight this necessarily, just to get a clear understanding of what happened.

Did someone fail to file something by a deadline? Was some language the wrong language? Was something mistyped? Was something misfiled? What exactly was this “technicality”?

In my book, there’s another word for “technicalities.” That word is “law.” “Technicalities” are what the law is made of: specific, detailed, exacting requirements. Lawyers are supposed to take care of all these “technicalities” so that the wishes of the dead are honored.

When these requirements are not carried out, and that failure creates an unfair advantage for one party to the detriment of the others, that doesn’t really sound like a “technicality” to me. It sounds more like a “screwing.”

Isn’t that really what’s going on here? A screwing?

Isn’t that really why you’re upset? There was a shared understanding and a clear intent, as spelled out in two people’s wills, about what should happen. Then an entirely different thing happened. It wasn’t supposed to happen. But it benefits one party to the detriment of all the others.

And you’re being very polite about this.

As heirs, I guess we’re supposed to honor the dead with our piety and humility and acceptance. That’s what’s underneath this, at least in part, emotionally speaking, isn’t it?

But do we really honor the dead by letting a “technicality” corrupt what they wished for?

If everyone agrees that this “technicality” is unfair, that the estate was supposed to be distributed equally, then perhaps you draw up a document stating that the stepdaughter promises, upon the settling of the estate, to distribute the proceeds to all the children, as is the intent as understood by all of you. If she’s willing to do this, then maybe you know that it’s mainly fate that seems bent on screwing you. Whereas if she clings to the notion that this “error,” this “technicality,” is what rules, then perhaps you come to understand that it was not a technicality at all.

At the very least, you deserve to know what happened.

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It may be something truly random and innocent, the fault of no one. But then what we’re talking about is incompetence. You’re being screwed by fate and incompetence. OK, at least you know. So what’s worse, to be screwed by somebody who knows he’s screwing you, or to be screwed by incompetence itself, by somebody who doesn’t even know he’s screwing you — by somebody who, in turn, is no doubt being royally screwed by somebody else and hasn’t even felt it yet?

I can’t decide. It’s so hard to pick. Maybe it depends on how good-looking he is.

Damn. I’m getting worked up now, too.

I’m getting worked up because words like “technicality” and “error in the will” are the costumery of scoundrels. I’m getting worked up because the law can be a beautiful instrument for justice and should not be used for obfuscation or to justify the unjustifiable. I’m getting worked up because we ought always, as citizens, be alert to the manifold and dazzling ways that people will use the law to blind us, to confuse us, to frighten us into submission, to remind us of our subservience before the masters of the law, to remind us that we are not really free citizens in the face of the law but servants from whom only obedience is expected, and that as children of parents we ought to be only meek and grateful for whatever passes to us, and never question the law or the lawyers and their “technicalities” and “errors.”

I’m getting worked up because use of the law to hide the truth reminds us that torture, in one universe, is what those who want to carry it out say it is, and that legality, for those who want to break the law, is whatever they say it is, and that what’s right, despite the manifestly stated wishes of all involved, is what the lawyers say is right, because they are in command of all the “technicalities.”

It stinks. You’re getting screwed and it stinks and you deserve to see the face of whoever or whatever is screwing you. Whether that face be the face of fateful incompetence, of greed, of selfishness, of covertly hostile maneuvering, of brilliant cunning, or of accident, of bureaucratic bungling, of unconscious wishes surfacing as error, whatever: You deserve to see the face of whatever is screwing you.

So find a good lawyer, one who is on your side, show the lawyer the facts, and don’t leave the office until you yourself understand what happened.

Then at least you know. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is healing. At least, by knowing the facts, we reconcile ourselves to the world of scoundrels and bungling and simple, blasted fate.

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