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I’m finished with my family — but am I free of them?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 19, 2005T

Is this resolution or abandonment?


Dear Cary:

Thank you, first off, for being a unique voice in a somewhat crude, unsympathetic age.

Here’s my problem in a nutshell: I’ve abandoned my family, and they’ve let me, and I can’t decide whether to let them let me.

I grew up in a family rife with abuse: physical, emotional, sexual. There was active abuse resulting in bruising and bleeding and sobbing. There was passive abuse (some call that neglect) resulting in alienation, fear and self-loathing. Some of it happened to me. Some of it happened around me, and I was powerless to stop it. Some of it I learned about years after the fact.

I grew up and I got out. For the most part, I didn’t look back. I maintained a few ties, but I kept them stretched thin.

I turned 30, and I still couldn’t trust anyone, and I still wanted to die.

I’m a writer, and in the process of sorting through the chaos of my upbringing, I did what writers often do: I wrote about it. Furthermore, I did so publicly, and as myself. I didn’t name any names but my own; but honestly, I wasn’t interested in protecting anyone.

When the family found out, the reaction was uniform outrage. They were incensed that I would air my dirty laundry in such a fashion — that I would air their dirty laundry without consulting them. My response was that they’d had 30 years to bring it up, and they hadn’t. I thought I’d waited long enough before choosing to deal with my past in my own way, on my own terms.

Most interesting is that nobody denied anything I wrote. Nobody owned up to it, either. They were not interested in what had happened. Either that, or they couldn’t allow themselves to face it.

That was five years ago. Today I don’t speak to a single one of my relations. Some days I feel desolate. Some days I feel free. Most days I realize that my plan worked, whether I would admit that plan to myself or not: I wanted the Bad People of my childhood to go away, and they did. If I never contact any of them again, I truly believe that none of them will contact me.

My question is: Is this resolution? Is this a real and valid way of dealing with a monstrous childhood? I’ve done therapy, I’ve cataloged what happened, I’ve inventoried my feelings about it, I’ve tried to speak to siblings and parents about it without success, I’ve confronted, I’ve publicized, and I’ve paid the price. I know I’m capable of moving forward alone. But should I?

Yours fondly,

On the Brink

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Dear On the Brink,

Yes, I think you should move forward. I think this is resolution. It may not feel like resolution. It may feel hollow. But it sounds like resolution — or the only kind of resolution one can have to events whose faint echoes will continue to be heard the rest of your life. It may be the closest you get to resolution.

It may be helpful to ask, If you could have the perfect resolution, what would that feel like? Would it make everything feel “normal”? For those of us who so rarely feel “normal” anyway, how would we know? It’s possible that even if you could have a perfect resolution it would still not feel like resolution, because you have been formed already by these events; you are, in a sense, already armed against such things, already wary, already tensed forever for the next blow.

Besides, is a resolution even possible? What would it look like? I suppose the ultimate resolution would be a kind of radical undoing: These things would never have happened in the first place. You would get a do-over childhood in which you were protected and loved and allowed to grow in a fairly normal way. That is, of course, outside the boundaries of what is possible in this universe. Even if everyone wanted this, we could not bring it into being.

What would be second best? The second best, I suppose, would be if your family members changed inwardly; if there were a God who could reach down and change their hearts, then perhaps they could step forward as a group, in grave ceremony, and confess their shameful acts. Resolution could take the form of a truth commission, a trial, a complete airing of all the crimes you remember. They might offer to bare their backs to you for whipping, prostrate themselves before you and give you all their worldly goods, become your slaves for life in penance — and you, seeking not vengeance but only closure, could take the high road and tell them no, there’s no need for that, all you wanted was a little truth.

But that is not likely either, is it? You know enough about the people involved to know how unlikely it is. They have had their opportunities. It is probably not even worth considering, except as a healing fantasy, a childlike wish.

So what is left as resolution? This relative peace you have found. This cessation of hostilities. The assurance of no further damage. That seems to be about it. You have attained safety. You are not being attacked or belittled. You are being left alone. That may be, in itself, resolution.

It sounds like resolution because you yourself have done a lot of work, thinking, feeling, remembering and going about your life with the echoes of these events occasionally in your mind. The writing was probably very helpful to you as well. It sounds like it did what it so magically seems to do — it let you get a handle on this thing, get your arms around it, define it, pin it down, contain it in words, and publishing it allowed you to defy those who would have kept you silent. That may have freed you from their influence, assured you that you no longer have to fear them.

So, as I say, it may not feel like resolution to you, but I think it is a kind of resolution — not, perhaps, the dramatic kind, but the slow, painful, subtle kind. I wish you luck as you go forward, as free of your past as any man can be.

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A good mother

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Cary’s classic column from

I have four kids, so should I break with my sometimes violent boyfriend?


Dear Cary,

I’m a mother of four: three preteen boys from my marriage at the tender age of 19, and a 3-year-old daughter with my current live-in boyfriend. Here’s the deal. I had a lot of sex in my 20s, a lot of boyfriends, and was basically irresponsible. I was married young to my first real boyfriend. He left us when I was 21. Insecurity and immaturity and an endless pursuit for a father for my kids led to a string of real losers. I’m not talking about boring guys or guys who worked sporadically — I mean losers: drug addicts, criminals, men who wanted a free place to live, etc.

And the sex was good, on-the-edge porno-type fucking. When I was 26 I moved 3,000 miles away and started again. I met my current boyfriend, who was sweet, worked hard, and seemed to love me. He was younger, but I was immature, so it worked. He isn’t passionate, though — he doesn’t like to kiss, and he’s sexually selfish, preferring a blow job to the “extra effort” it takes to have sex, there’s minimal foreplay, and his sex drive makes sex every three weeks the best possible scenario.

A couple of years ago my father died, and suddenly I had a moment of clarity and from that moment on my kids have come before anyone or anything else in my life. I must have done something right, because I couldn’t have asked for better kids. They are compassionate, kind, and funny. My boyfriend cares for my sons and tries to show them in his way — which is usually by correcting them and being strict. He is an excellent father to our daughter. He takes on 50 percent or more of her care, gives her attention, and basically loves her to pieces. My ex-husband was remarried two years ago; since the marriage he has paid child support and asks for the boys to visit each summer. It’s fun for them, and I’m supportive of their need to develop that relationship. He was young, I was young, people make mistakes.

Here is my dilemma. I love my boyfriend, but am not in love with him. I was sooo in love when we moved in together, but when I had my growing-up incident a few years ago, I saw him in a different light. His angry outbursts pissed me off more. I was pregnant and since that time, I have often thought about leaving him, but then I look at all the changes he has made, and he tries so hard, and that makes me love and appreciate him, because I’ve met so many people who never try. In the past four years he has completed one degree and is working on another while working full time and making time for the family. He doesn’t drink, go out to the bars, or leave me wondering where he is at night. We have had episodes where there has been some physical violence. He grew up in a violent home. I put it off as the stress of being in a relationship with me, a bunch of kids, my jealousy, whatever.

He’s worked through that and sought some outside help. He doesn’t cheat on me. I’ve already had the experience of raising small people on my own and seeing their sad faces ask me for a father. I also hate thinking I had found one and then realizing that he’s kind of a dick to them — I mean, couldn’t he balance the discipline with some fun? My daughter has her father: Should that be my No. 1 priority? Do people have happy lives without good sex lives? If I told anyone that he has hit me before, they would automatically tell me to leave.

Have you heard of anyone working successfully through something like that? I have worked long and hard to make something of myself and provide a decent life for my children. I have overcome my own selfish, self-centered nature. I have prayed, cried and grown strong. I love my kids and feel that they have enriched my life so much. I love watching them grow and play.

I don’t need him, but I am afraid that I just feel that way because he is around and if he left I would revert to that person I used to be, and what if the next guy was worse? He wants to get married. If we broke up, I’m pretty sure that would be the end of my love life. I don’t think I want to go through the dating process or the having another man in my house process or the introducing my kids to another guy process. Nope, I think I’d be done, but who knows, maybe I’d become a total nympho again?

A Good Mother

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Dear Good Mother,

I recommend that you make as amicable a split as possible with your boyfriend. Support him in his desire to keep close ties with his daughter, but free yourself and your sons from his oppressive yoke.

This is not an easy conclusion to reach. No matter what you do or do not do, someone is probably going to be unhappy with you. So you have to be firm and think of the next five or 10 years. What I’m thinking is that making some difficult changes now will improve your chances for a happy and secure future, and reduce some long-term risk to you and your children.

It’s not an open-and-shut case. As you say, some people will claim that if he’s ever hit you, even once, you have to leave him and that’s that. But abusers can and do change, and there are sometimes core economic and family issues to consider. So I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that you must leave him because he hit you. Others would say that fatherhood and the family unit are sacred bonds that should not be severed under any circumstances. Again, although fathers have certain rights to their children, and children need stability in their homes, I don’t believe that you have to keep mother and father together 100 percent of the time.

It seems more a question of what brings the least harm and the most benefit to the most people.

Sometimes removing a “strict” father who is a source of fear and repression can be a good thing for a child. Those three boys may be absorbing from him a regime of intimidation and implied violence that will make it very difficult for them to live happy, peaceful lives as adults. You might go so far as to say that they are undergoing a process of slow spirit death, the steady banking of boundless rage. The conflict between him and your three sons will only get worse as they become teens and assert their manhood. Dangerous, traumatic and violent clashes could lie ahead. They will question his right, as simply a boyfriend or stepfather, to assert his authority over them; he in turn, unable to accept their challenge to his authority, may find himself striking out with fiendish cruelty, while justifying his violence as necessary to maintain order.

“It’s for their own good,” he’ll say, and by then the damage will be done. Such conflict could make you own life a living hell throughout their teenage years and damage your relationship with your sons for years afterwards. If he became a violent tyrant and you did not protect your sons from him, they would resent you and feel betrayed and abandoned. On the flipside, if you side with your sons against your boyfriend, his violence against you may erupt anew.

So I really think, hard as it is, that you should act now to remove him from your house and try to put in place a system of visitation that works over the long term.

If you find yourself concerned that leaving your boyfriend means depriving your sons of the discipline they need, consider this: While discipline is important, it’s confusing if only one parent is strict. Kids need to internalize a dependable standard of conduct against which to measure their own actions. If you and your boyfriend differ greatly in your strictness, your children may conclude that standards of conduct have no inherent validity but depend on the whims of whatever authority figure is enforcing them. That is a lesson that allows for criminal thinking: The standard of conduct becomes whatever they can get away with. They need to know that there is a standard of conduct that is always applicable. Even if it’s just you making the rules, even if you’re not a great enforcer, at least they’ll know what the rules are.

I sense that you have at times led a chaotic and impulsive life, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: At least you are powerfully alive; you are not meek or cowering; you have a vibrant lust for experience, for ecstasy, for sensation and emotion. You may be a creative type who has not yet found her art, a deeply passionate person who simply has to learn how to direct and regulate her energies. Another reason I think you should move away from this man is that if he is a controlling type, you and he will come into sharper conflict as you begin to exert or sublimate your libidinous, expressive energies into other forms — music, dance or art, perhaps, forms that may threaten his need for control.

I think you will be OK on your own. You say you fear that without this powerful, authoritarian man in your life you may regress into sexual compulsion. I don’t think that’s likely, not if your kids remain your focus. That moment of clarity you had when your father died sounds like a significant, life-changing moment to me. I’m guessing it was about more than simply putting your kids first. I think you may have had a kind of vision, a visceral and highly personal awakening to the sacredness of life and the value of innocence, and the deep importance of primal bonds. If it has caused you to begin to think hard about your choices, it has changed you in a deep and permanent way.

Do not fear change. It is better to try to achieve something good than it is to try to avoid something bad. Both paths have risks, but only one can lead to happiness. So do not simply coast along thinking maybe this is as good as it gets. This is not as good as it gets. It gets much better than this. You need only the courage to act. Take strength in knowing you have come a long way and you are doing the right thing.

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My husband abused my son

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Dear Cary,

For three years I have grappled with how to write this letter. Cary, you are the only individual aside from my therapist that I can trust with my story. I have felt ashamed, frightened (all my secrets spread across the Internet) and strangely unable to write. But now I feel strong enough.

Three years ago my 33-year-old son came forward and told his sisters and myself that my husband, his stepfather, had sexually abused him from age 10 to 13. Cary, he had been my son’s father since my son was 5 years old! My husband admitted it was true, but first tried to say it was only for one year. And it was just hugging. Then he said “I thought you knew” Then he said “It was a way to get closer.” Cary, unlike most pedophiles my husband did not court my son. He did not give him gifts or treat him “special.” He was hard on my child — never pleased with him, always annoyed, especially at the dinner table. My son went to live with his biological father when he was 16 to get out of the house. My relationship with my husband was rocky, too. We had terrible arguments, but I could never “win.” He could go on and on for hours without getting tired — all night — and wear me out, but not let me sleep. Or cry. Or go to the bathroom. He hated when I would go into another room to get tissues. I considered leaving him, but we had two little girls, and when he was happy, we all had what seemed to be a great time together. My girls adored their father.

In the last few years before my son’s revelation my husband had mellowed out quite a bit. Once all the children were out of the house he seemed to lose a lot of his anger issues. We had a lot in common, shared a house and bills and assets and cars and the whole nine yards. We stopped arguing and everyone thought we were the perfect couple. Waitresses told us how cute we were. I started to forget what a rocky past we had. We were turning gray together. My son started coming home for visits more often. I was in heaven when all the “children” were together for a Christmas dinner. Then this bombshell.

Cary, it was as though all the planets shifted — Gallilean! Many of the problems I have had with my husband now make sense — and I feel so betrayed. My girls are adults now, but they are having a terrible time trying to understand how their father could have done this to the older brother they love. They don’t know how to fit him into their lives anymore. My son has sought therapy, and he is doing remarkably well, but he has a lot to deal with. I am in therapy with a psychiatrist who has a background dealing with offenders, and I have filed for divorce. My son and I are closer than ever, and I see him all the time now. But I am crushed by guilt — how could I have not known, why didn’t I leave when we were having such problems 20 years ago? What kind of twisted fantasy was I living all those years?

I tried to create a bright, cheerful life for my family — big Christmases, nice vacations, brightly painted rooms. I spent so much time caring for my husband — being with him when he had a prostate operation, helping to care for his dying mother, doing EVERYTHING for the household. I just feel so duped and stupid. My husband is out of the house but still seems to think there is hope for us. I fret about money, selling the house and how I will ever retire now. I am happy to be rid of him, but I always feel anxious. And I was so well conditioned by his abuse that I still hate to upset him or make demands in any way! How can I come to peace with a lie that took up 20 years of my life?

Shaken

Dear Shaken,

I’m proud and honored that you would feel comfortable sharing this with me. But if your therapist and I are the only ones you feel comfortable sharing this with, maybe you need more people in your life whom you can trust, and who are capable of hearing such stories and responding in a straightforward, accepting way. One thing such an event does is shake one’s trust in others, so perhaps part of your work of recovery will involve finding some people you can trust again.

It’s not your fault, however. That I can say. You did nothing wrong. Someone took advantage of you. You were deceived by someone who set out to deceive you. You did nothing wrong. You did your best and this happened to you. It happened the way traffic accidents and murders happen to people: with the cruel logic of random events.

For many people, the sheer random nature of tragic events is very hard to accept. Being unable to accept the sheer randomness of events, we come up with strategies to invest awful events with meaning. Feeling guilty about it can be one such strategy. If you feel guilty, then you had some responsibility, some agency. If you had some agency, then it wasn’t just random. It could have been prevented if only …

It is harder to accept the fact that this happened and that’s that. It can’t be undone. Speculating on what you might have done to prevent it is a waste of your precious energy. What I suggest is that with the help of your therapist you begin consciously moving toward acceptance. That means doing concrete things to help you accept this. It might mean saying it out loud over and over. It might mean perhaps some techniques your therapist has. It means in some sense encountering what happened in a deep, raw way. I don’t know how that is done but perhaps you have a sense of what I mean. At the center of this awful thing is a philosophical truth that is frightening but liberating: We are not responsible for everything that happens in the world. We are not able to control everything that happens. We instead often have to simply accept what happens and accept our inability to fully understand.

Perhaps if you make a list of the world’s mysteries and meditate on them, you will find a place for this awful thing in the pantheon of all the world’s awful and inexplicable things. As I say, it is frightening to face this, but it is also liberating.

Here are some thoughts about guilt and how we use it to avoid facing our essential powerlessness in the universe. Guilt places you at the center of a drama that did not really concern you. Rather than face the fact that this thing happened and was beyond your power to prevent, by feeling guilty about it you can entertain the fantasy that you might have been able to stop it. But you weren’t able to. You couldn’t. This thing happened between your husband and your son. It did not happen to you. Perhaps in a way you wish you could take your son’s place. This is another perverse thought we sometimes have: Rather than mourn for others, we avoid the feeling by placing ourselves at the center of things. Or we feel somehow guilty for surviving while others suffered. The truth is that others suffer. We must accept that they suffer, and if that makes us feel awful then we must feel awful. I’m sure you have felt unimaginably awful, and it has been exhausting and painful. I feel empathy for you. But I do not feel responsible. I know that the world is full of senseless suffering which I cannot curtail. All I can do is try to point out that accepting this is ultimately liberating.

Ask your therapist for help moving from guilt to acceptance. There are many good reasons to avoid such acceptance. True acceptance of this event will shake your accustomed beliefs about the world. You may ask, If this isn’t my fault, then whose is it? In plain terms, it is your husband’s fault. You may find it hard to accept that your husband did this evil thing. It may be easier to believe that you yourself had some hand in it than to believe that your husband did this. So you need to work on accepting the simple facts. The simple fact is that your husband sexually molested your son. This is an awful thing but it is the thing you must learn to say out loud without qualification.

Maybe if you will walk along a body of water and say this aloud a few times, listening to your heart as you say it, maybe you will fill with grief and be able to accept this. Maybe you will fill with rage and find you are closer to accepting this.

It will live in your heart for a long time. It will be there. You must let it be there and not pretend. It will bring you pain and you must accept that.

Full acceptance of it will make you wiser and stronger. Accept that this happened, that you had nothing to say about it and no way to prevent it, and that it is in the past. Accept that your son is recovering from the experience and is taking responsibility for his own life.

Stay out of your husband’s life. Let him go. Stay close to your son. But do not take responsibility. This is his experience. You have your own burdens, which will grow lighter with time.

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I have a secret I have to tell

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Cary’s classic column from

 


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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love ya, man. Keep doin’ good!

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

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

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Dear Steve,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell somebody.

WhatHappenedNextCall

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

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Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,

Horrible Sister with only one regret

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

Dear Horrible Sister,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

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After years of being meek, I’m suddenly screaming at people!

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Cary’s classic column from

My father was full of rage and insult, and I sat mute through his tirades. Now I’m exploding at people too.


Dear Cary,

So I grew up in an abusive household. Not the “my dad gets drunk and smashes a lamp over my mother’s head” kind of abusive, but the “Dad thinks Mom, siblings and I are imbeciles and repeatedly tells us so in thought and deed” kind of abusive. Emotionally abusive, in other words, though the other kind happened on occasion too. My mother taught us how to deal with these insults: Stare straight ahead, keep your mouth shut, let Daddy say whatever he wanted to say to get it out of his system, do whatever he wants you to do, and then avoid him for a while. Basically, we learned to be doormats at our mother’s knee. If we didn’t do this … well, that’s when the other kind of abuse would occur.

Anyway, I never saw the difference between being treated badly by my father and being treated badly by other people. As I got older, through high school,college and the workforce, I quickly gained the reputation for being the “nice” person that everyone dumped on. Somehow, standing up for myself wasn’t the “nice” thing to do, so I never did it. It didn’t even occur to me. And I became everyone else’s doormat. Boyfriends, colleagues, friends, customer-service people — you name it. They mostly treated me well, but when they treated me badly it would haunt me for years: either that I had done something wrong to warrant their slights or that I didn’t say anything when I was clearly being insulted.

Recently, however, that tide has begun to turn. I began to see that the way people were treating me was wrong. I learned that I wouldn’t get popped in the mouth for speaking up. I began to recall situations where people had been rude or mean, and saw them as being rude or mean rather than just my being sensitive. And too, I began to stand up for myself. This is where my problem now lies. As I stand up for myself in situations where it is clearly warranted, it is somehow not enough to simply state my case and let reason carry the day. I end up getting aggressive, insistent, loud, bossy, angry and just plain rude when something doesn’t go my way. I flare my nostrils and hiss when I speak to the manager. I shout insults and then hang up the phone before the person on the other end can respond. In other words, I’ve become someone I hate, as if I’m trying to make up for years of swallowed pride with a few instances of over-the-top aggression. To top it off, as a woman, I’m afraid that I’m coming across as an angry feminist and it’s making things worse for my gender!
Earlier today, while I was at the supermarket, there was an argument that nearly came to blows at the self-checkout line. One man was clearly in the wrong — he had jumped in line, had too many items in the 15-items-or-less lane, and said the other guy was being a bad father in front of his small son. The clerk looked on and did nothing. The man got his way, checking out his too-many items and taking a parting shot at the father with his small son as he finished. I wound up screaming at the guy as he left — and it wasn’t even my fight! The whole situation made me realize that something is going on in my head. But I feel like I can’t just sit back and accept injustice anymore, even when it’s happening to other people who can take care of themselves. What am I supposed to do?

Going Overboard With the Assertiveness

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Going Overboard,

Sometimes a necessary insight that is to serve us well for the rest of our life comes in first as anger. Something true is breaking through.

True, this insight has not arrived as a blazing flash of light and a sensation of rising out of the body and seeing all of eternity and all of space in one blinding, ecstatic vision, tingling and orgasmic and yet strangely calm and everyday at the same time. True, it’s not that. Instead, it is coming in the form of something unmanageable and troubling.

My experience with such things is that insight often comes in rough. It barges in and slams doors. It shakes us up. And it comes when we least expect it. It comes uninvited. That’s why we often don’t want insight.

Insight is trouble. That is why the early stages of recovery and change can be rocky. Reality floods in. It is overwhelming.

At first, we just react. We have no repertoire of assertive techniques; we have no proven methods for expressing our disapproval, our difference of opinion, while preserving the basic bond between us and others. So we start out by screaming and throwing things. And what does this remind us of? When is it that we start out screaming and throwing things? In childhood of course. So we are picking up where we left off, 10, 20, 30 years later: We start by screaming and throwing things.

This changes as we gain the benefit of experience. We blow up in the checkout line at the supermarket. Or we get in touch with our anger at work; we scream and throw things and get fired. Then we mull it over. Hmm. Precisely where did I go wrong in that negotiation? Was it the potted azalea hurled out the window, or the feinted blows at my co-worker? Just feeling the power of anger, to make someone retreat! How glorious! How glorious the glass shattering as the potted azalea flies out the window! But how humiliating the arrival of the police, the disrespectful escort to the exit. Yes, it was glorious to get in touch with the anger. But no, it did not really go that well. The firing and the presence of police put a damper on things.

In looking over our behavior, we might conclude that this anger is not our friend. Look at the wreckage!

Time to stuff it back into its bottle? But wait! Even amid the wreckage, how do you feel? Frightened, perhaps. Shaken. But also: Real, no? Do you not feel a certain awakeness you did not previously feel? Do you not feel a certain strength, something flowing into you, something raw and strong? Do you not feel perhaps a little more “grounded”? This is you returning to yourself. It’s a good thing!

Thusly we gain the benefit of experience. We don’t just stuff it. We look at where things went well and where they went poorly. We see that throwing the azalea and threatening our co-worker were not productive. But being there, standing our ground, feeling that anger: That was priceless! So, unemployed, humbled, but inwardly pleased at our progress, we try it again. We get angry next time and we try saying, “I am very angry right now. I’m going to take a walk and come back and then we’re going to talk about this.”

We try sitting in a therapist’s office and narrating the day we broke down, getting up to the anger, seeing what is there, seeing what pain comes up, seeing how deeply we can feel it in a safe place, seeing what it feels like to finally feel it — the indignation, the fear, the anger, the hurt. We keep working at it. We are surprised at how deeply this goes! Maybe we end up feeling like that kid again, powerless, terrified and, moreover, insulted and betrayed! — that her mother would instruct her to submit, to live in fear! That poor kid. Maybe we end up feeling great compassion for that kid we were, too, great compassion and love and warmth for the innocent person we were, the innocent person who was not protected from the father’s rage.

How do you get from screaming and throwing things to the serene, assertive confidence of a person not necessarily in complete control of her anger but at least on good reciprocal terms with it? Like this, with practice, long study, hard work, therapy, practice, experience, making mistakes.

This is new to you. You were taught to be paralyzed. That image is so chilling: you sitting there mute while your father’s hateful, spiteful, soul-murdering bile spills on your head. You were taught to be mute. You were taught to freeze like an animal avoiding the predator, playing dead, trying to be invisible lest the predator pick you out. You were basically taught to be dead. But you are not dead. You are just afraid.

Yes, I recognize this.

Like I say, insight comes in rough.

But it’s a good thing, this anger that’s coming to you. Find someone who will help you work with it. Honor it. Do not be afraid.

Cary Tennis Connecticut Writing Retreat

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“I hate everybody!” plus Cary rambles on about rambling on

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Dear Reader,

I thought that every time I do a column I would write something but today I don’t really want to write anything about myself. I really do not like writing about myself. Or do I? Actually, what happens is that initially writing about myself is frustrating because I do not set out with a topic. I find it hard to find my own subject. So I just dive in, and am unsatisfied with what I write because it is vapid. But then out of that awareness of vapidity will arise a subject.

Now, there’s some wisdom in that: Just beginning to write will bring one to one’s subject. It is intolerable to write gibberish; that is a built-in mechanism: We eventually find what is meaningful because to jabber on is painful. I don’t know if it is painful to everyone; some people jabber without showing that it pains them, and thus inflict pain on others. But they must be in some kind of pain! Perhaps they are not aware of the pain they are feeling. Me, I have a low threshold of pain, psychologically. I can easily slip into feelings of abject despair. So I cannot jabber senselessly for very long. I seek meaning like a life raft. The chaos that surrounds us is terrifying, and when my own consciousness mimics that chaos, I panic. I must find something that means something. What arises from that encounter is my subject, which starts out to be my own orneriness, or my own resistance, or my own reluctance to write about myself.

I write all the time. I write morning pages sometimes. They help me stay sane. Morning pages help me identify the hidden themes that are likely to crop up throughout the day.

Here’s something of possible interest about human nature. I noticed the other day that when I met people the first thing I was asking them was, What part of the city do you live in? What neighborhood? As I was falling asleep I was wondering why I was doing that. Then I realized, we had the real estate man out here looking at our house. We are thinking of moving. I’m not sure exactly why we would move but having lost my job and being in a very expensive city, and not wanting to work too hard, wanting a slower life, and less house to take care of (this house is big, actually; and it’s got what is for San Francisco a big backyard). There’s painting to do. There’s a lot of work that has to be done on the house and I just, after my cancer surgery, I’ve really changed my attitude toward the house. I like it and all but I’m not as interested as I once was in learning all the trades.

I thought sheetrock was really interesting at first. I wanted to learn plumbing and electrical. Just to know how to do that stuff. So I learned a lot about that but now it’s not interesting to me. I just want to live in a house.

What was interesting was how unconscious was this force that was driving me to ask people where they lived. I got great satisfaction out of hearing where people lived, but it wasn’t connected to any conscious, analytical plant. Maybe it should be. Dennis lives near 22nd on South Van Ness. Judith lives at 23red and Potrero. I’m just storing these little addresses away. I’m like a walking Google map.

Anyway, it’s Wednesday, so I’m answering a letter:

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Dear Cary,
 
Today, Happy Easter, I have reached the point of determining that I hate everybody. As churlish as that may sound, it makes sense when I really start to think of how my intimate partners and family have consistently betrayed me in spite of the fact of me doing the right thing, holding up my end of the bargain, being supportive of them, trying not to allow them to put their “crap” on me.

My dad was abusive emotionally, mentally and physically (yes, he is an alcoholic.)

When I think of my marriages (yes, multiple) the one that I had children with and tried to keep together with another alcoholic for 12 years was fouled up because of his attachment to his messed-up family instead of ours. There were times when we seemed to make inroads to intimacy and love, but then he would go back out to the insanity of alcohol and drugs. The end came to me when he went on a coke bender with his sister, while my mother was on her deathbed.

The most faithful earliest intimate partner whom I should have married, but remained close friends with, confided in me TWENTY years later that although he wanted to marry me and had asked me several times, his father threatened his inheritance and my life if he did.  Different culture. By the time his dad died, I had already been married and was done having kids.

So here I am.  Pissed as hell. The last marriage I had after seeking recovery for codependency turned out to be a big lie too. He said everything I wanted to hear, until we got married.

After I made choices to turn my life around and make a better life for me and my kids, I had to ask myself, Why do I have to do all the work in this marriage and what the hell am I getting out of it?

It gets worse. I dropped out of my church, because although not as dogmatic as most “religions,” what they were preaching was absolutely not helping me cope with the circumstances of my life. I was really tired of feeling like I was the only one responsible for the continuation of an institution that would only condemn me for trying to live my life as I felt was best for me.

The most recent love of my life (which was yes, unusual because of our age difference) was stifled because of the determination of his family and what they wanted for him as well.

Cary, it’s not like I am sleeping around, drinking or drugging. Just trying to maintain a home for my teenage kids and work independently. But there did come a point in time when I said I am totally sick of feeling like the “taskmaster” for everyone, especially my intimate relationships.

In walks the young love of my life who for once made me feel like a complete woman, just the way I am. Only to be shunned because he can’t follow his own heart and be with me instead of the traditional way the family thinks things should be.

I had even been to a marriage counselor, who really didn’t help me other than saying our age difference was typical for an affair.

So here I am. I hate everybody. I am so fed up with everybody’s horse****  and no one being authentic or intelligent enough to carry on a decent conversation.

My darker side is about to come out in the worst way, as I am ready to start having unscrupulous sex with any man ready to go.  I don’t even know how to go about that. How do you do that without getting AIDS? 
 
There is so much more vitriol but I am sure you probably have seen the heart of the issue I am having already with my very rude awakening. Please help me unravel the crap so I can get to a better place.
Thanks.
Rudely Awakened

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Dear Rudely Awakened,
This is the kind of letter that in the old days I would spend a few days on. I would read it and think about it for a few days. But I don’t have that luxury anymore. And maybe that’s a good thing. So I am going to say a few things that may help.
For one, I don’t know enough about you to venture a guess. I don’t know what culture you are from, or how old you are, or really much of anything except that you are fed up and angry. And I know you’ve had some marriages and are now on the verge of doing something reckless and possibly self-destructive.

OK, that’s a start. I do know what it’s like to feel fed up and like doing something reckless and self-destructive. Maybe there is a clue there, having to do with your codependency. Here’s a thought. Maybe your codependency is linked to a poorly developed love for your self. That would account for why you feel like a taskmaster and a victim.

Maybe you have reached a point in your recovery from codependency where you are ready to make a new leap. Maybe your anger is a signal that it’s time to truly leave behind your codependent husk and emerge as some new being. Maybe the anger is the kind of anger that burns off a residue.

But as I say, I don’t know enough.

Here is what I suggest, though. I suggest you do some more reading on codependency and try to find in yourself the connections between how you were raised, your father’s alcoholism, your known codependent traits, and get a sense of the typical spiritual trajectory of a codependent. That is, consider that personal psychological growth occurs in stages, and those stages are marked by a feeling of crisis. Recognize that you have reached some kind of crisis which it is your job to enter into and understand. This may be done by talking it through  with other people in Al-Anon, if you are connected with that program. It may be done by taking a thorough route through the steps of Al-Anon.

That would be my interpretation: That you have reached a point of personal crisis that has a meaning which is yet to be determined.

So identify the things that are happening. It may be that long-buried feelings are starting to erupt, and those may be connected to your father and your family. I do notice that family plays a big role in your dissatisfaction. It may be that while you are identifying the family conflicts present in other people’s lives, what is driving that is your own inner conflict with your own family and your family history. So I would look for mirrors and echoes. That’s what I would do. Look for mirrors and echoes and order and consistency. Look for the patterns and ask how they have brought you where you are. Ask how you can change those patterns.

To do this, you will want to refrain from acting out. Rather than act out your frustration, sit with it. Talk it through. Write about it in a journal. Be aware. Just seek awareness.

So, as I said, knowing so little about you as an individual, that is all I can offer. I hope it is helpful.

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13

 

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My abusive husband is dying and I have a lover. How good do I have to be?

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Cary’s classic column Tuesday, JUL 21, 2003

What do I owe him?


Dear Cary,

Last year I went to visit a divorce lawyer, having finally got up the nerve to end a 29-year marriage (I’m 49) to a physically and emotionally abusive man. I had been seeing a wonderful man for some time, and we wanted to make our relationship public and formalize things. My only child was grown and launched, I have a satisfying job, and I ceased to love my husband many years ago. Just a few days after my initial visit to the lawyer, however, my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, with brain metastases. The doctors have refused to speculate on his remaining time, but my research says he will likely have anywhere from another six months to five years.

I have continued to see my lover, but he and I are both tired of “sneaking around.” My husband continues to be abusive, though in his weakened state I think I could outrun him. My question is, how long must I stay with him and how saintly must I be? My job is the one that carries the medical insurance, which he would lose. And what would happen to my good name if I abandoned a dying man? Thanks for any advice you can give.

Adulterous, but I Have Several Excellent Excuses

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Dear Adulterous,

Painful and ill-timed as your husband’s illness is, it’s also an opportunity to put your life on a new footing. It is no time to give in to vengefulness or impatience. The life of the man you married is nearing its end; your child’s father is dying; the man you once loved and spent a lifetime with is leaving this world. Take the high road.

If there is any time in a person’s life when he ought to know the unvarnished truth about how he has conducted himself, how he has affected the lives of others, now seems to be the time. It’s a chance for you to be frank with him but also to forgive him. Tell your husband the truth, both the good and the bad. Seek some kind of reconciliation with him. If you have a minister, rabbi, priest, therapist, spiritual counselor or trusted confidant, talk this over with him or her. Struggle to understand what his death means. If he has tormented you, be grateful that the torment will soon be over. As he approaches death, he may become reconciled to his wrongs, and he may want to make peace with you. Be ready to make peace with him.

But the peace you make with your husband should be kept private. If you start parading around with your lover while your husband is gasping on morphine, others in your community will be outraged and feel that he’s being tragically mistreated. They will suffer for him by proxy. They will feel the pain and outrage that they imagine he feels or would feel if he knew. Your actions will cause gossip and scorn. People love a drama. It might be none of their business, but they’ll make it their business if you give them the chance. Don’t give it to them. Don’t pretend it’s just about your life. This is about your husband’s life too, and the lives of those who have loved him. Hold your head up and do the right thing.

Why divorce a dying man? For one thing, cutting off his health insurance would cause problems for the doctors and nurses who are trying to care for him. Your child might find it unforgivably heartless. And his uninsured medical costs might eat into his estate, leaving less for you and your son or daughter to inherit. Divorce would also mean possibly acrimonious dealings with him. If he were near death or heavily sedated, questions might arise about his competence. If he wanted to contest the divorce, he might simply wait it out until the end, and then you’d have a complicated situation where you had filed for divorce but it wasn’t finalized, and that might affect aspects of the execution of the will. I don’t know, I’m not giving you a legal opinion; I’m just using common sense to imagine the ways in which trying to divorce a dying man could complicate things. At the very least: Why spend the money? Why not just make sure the will is in order and let nature take its course?

It may seem that your years of suffering are being neglected in this, and that is the privilege of the dying: They do get all the attention. At the same time, I think you deserve some support of your own. It’s not right what happened to you. You deserve some help. Why don’t you seek out a psychotherapist you can unburden yourself to while you go through this? It’s going to be pretty tough on you. You ought to have somebody in your corner while you fight the last rounds.France_Ad_fix

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My creepy dad emails too much

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Cary’s classic column fromWednesday, Nov 21, 2012

He was a terrible father and I want him out of my life


Hi, Cary,

Growing up, my dad was verbally and emotionally abusive.  He became physically abusive toward my brother but stuck to mind games with my mother and me.  In eighth grade, my mom finally got up the courage to leave (thank that great spaghetti monster in the sky) and take my brother and me out of that hostile situation.

In the time between my mother kicking him out of the house and us leaving for a new town, my dad would spend our visits sobbing  and playing sappy love songs (forever ruined for me: Harry Nilsson’s “All by Myself”). He’d say, “Were you kids really afraid of me? I would never want you to be afraid of your own father.” Even at 13 I understood his behavior to be completely lacking in sincerity. I knew my fear of him was a tool he used to keep us subservient and was kind of insulted that he’d think I was too dumb to realize it.

After he refused to pay child support for my brother and me, lobbed ridiculous allegations of adultery at my mother (she is a saint), and dragged us all through a five-year, financially draining divorce, I told him I’d had enough.

At 18 I wrote him a letter (via snail mail) asking him to stop contacting me. I explained that his role in my life was not positive, healthy or beneficial to me and, until he could acknowledge his previous poor behavior and become a positive force, I had no room for his negativity in my life.

He wrote back immediately saying how sad it was my mother had brainwashed me into hating him (it is to laugh) and included a photograph of him with his girlfriend’s kids. He explained that it was OK that I didn’t want him around anymore — he had a new family that loved him. That letter, though painful, was proof to me that my father is not capable of healthy, adult, even human emotion and that I’d done the right thing.

Over the last 10 years he has mostly obliged my request to not contact me, though he still sends the occasional Christmas/ birthday/ national disaster email or card. After Sandy hit he emailed to ask if I’d made it through the storm OK. My first thought was, How do you know I live in New York? The tone of these messages is always manipulative and incredibly self-centered, i.e., “I don’t know what I’d do if you were in those twin towers. How would I go on?”

Frankly, his ability to co-opt a national tragedy and turn it into a pity party for himself is quite amazing. 

A friend asked recently: If my dad died, would I be able to feel a sense of closure? Would I regret not speaking to him? My answer is no. I don’t believe he is capable of apologizing in a way I’d find acceptable and I don’t believe, going forward, we can have any kind of relationship. The letter with the new family photo is just one example of the many inappropriate things that have transpired since the split.  I could tell you about his abusive relationship with my brother who became a homeless heroin addict, or the history of mental illness in his family that no one will acknowledge or treat, but really I just need to know what to do with the emails.

Though I’m OK with the idea of never speaking to or seeing him again, every message in my inbox from him still sends me back to that angry, teenage, fatherless space. It makes me question my relationship with my great boyfriend, angry at my mom again for not being able to protect my brother and me when we were young, and frustrated that, after all these years, he still can ruin my day. I guess I don’t know what to do. Set up a way to send the emails directly to the trash/spam folder? Again ask that he stop contacting me? If I reach out again and ask for no contact should I explain that I’ve forgiven him, in as much as I can, and that our relationship is forever over?

I would like to live in a black-and-white world, but I understand there are gray areas. I feel like this is holding me back in my personal relationships and would love any insight you can offer.

Fatherless Child

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Dear Fatherless Child,

Basically you have to shrink your dad down to the size of a green pea. There are ways to do that.

One way is to always call a friend. Never read his letters alone or he will grow. Call a friend. Point to the screen and say to your friend, “There is an email from my dad and I don’t want to open it!” Maybe opening it with a friend and reading it aloud will work. Or maybe you will want your friend to read it and delete it for you. Just don’t be alone with it. If you are alone with an email from your dad, he will grow to the size of a zebra. You don’t want that. You want your dad to be the size of a pea, and somewhat shriveled.

Your dad is far away. You have a big world full of friends who are close by; you have a family you have created for yourself. That family is big. Your dad might come into that world, but your dad is small.

Your dad will try to make himself big like a zebra because he’s so narcissistic and self-involved, but if he ever gets that big, then you have to make yourself even bigger, like a whale or an elephant. You are big when you are with the people who love and support you. You are big when you are with your chosen family. And mainly you have to keep your dad shrunk down to the size of a pea.

Also, work in a group or one-on-one with a therapist, not just a little bit but a lot. You have to do it a lot, like lifting weights or studying anthropology. So make shrinking your dad a major focus and involve others in the project. Don’t pretend you can handle it on your own. You can’t. If you could, you wouldn’t be writing to me.

Talking helps. Being with others helps. Just say out loud that you are concentrating on shrinking your dad down to the size of a green pea. The smaller he gets, the less afraid you will be of him.

So those are the two things I suggest: 1) Never read an email from your father while you’re alone. 2) Get a program together where you are continually making yourself big and making your dad small. You have to do it all the time, because you make your dad small one day and he gets big the next day. That means sharing with people every day what’s going on with your dad, what size he is, where he is in your world, if he is present or absent, if you are fearing him or dreading him. Let people help you. They will.

One day your dad will be so small, you can barely see him. Then you will be surprised because even at that tiny size he can still scare you. That’s the weird thing. That’s why you have to shrink your dad every day, and never alone. Never “All by Myself.” (And now, thanks to you, I’m going to have that song in my head, and so are a lot of other people. Oh, well. We can do the same thing with that song that we are doing with your dad: Just concentrate on shrinking it down until it is very, very small.)

 

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Allergies can be deadly

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Cary’s classic column from Aug 24, 2004

My husband keeps poisoning our son … and then he says, Whoops, I forgot!


Dear Cary,

I am very happily married, with three wonderful children my husband and I are both besotted with. My husband and I treat each other with genuine respect and love, and we rarely fight. Except …

My oldest child, N, has a severe allergy to nuts and peanuts. This didn’t come as a big surprise to me, since my sister has a life-threatening peanut allergy, and I’m allergic to cashews and shellfish and lots of other stuff. It doesn’t cramp my style all that much, but it does mean I’ve grown up understanding what food allergies feel like, and why it’s important to take them seriously.

The way we learned about N’s problem was when the two of them went camping when N was about 18 months old. I was home, too pregnant to sleep in a tent, but it was the first time I’d been away from him that long. I had not yet let him eat nuts. We had agreed, I thought, to wait until he was at least 2, and then introduce them at home where I could monitor him. (We knew at that point he was allergic to dairy and eggs.) Well, my husband gave him a peanut butter sandwich which he almost immediately threw up in the tent.

When he told me what had happened, I got Epi-pens in case of another exposure, and had my husband read some material about how a first reaction that severe was really bad news. I thought he understood.

Now N is almost 8. Two or three times a year since that first time, my husband has slipped up and let him eat nuts. It’s always when I’m not there, since I am always on the alert. It’s always dessert, because for my husband eating sweets is like a religious experience, or at snack time after church, which, ditto. Last night it happened while I was taking the baby for a walk while the three of them finished up at a restaurant. There were nuts in a chocolate chip cookie. What a concept! N instantly knew from a feeling he gets in his throat and intense nausea. These are symptoms of impending anaphylactic shock, but this time, again, it didn’t cascade. Next time — who knows?

I was and am infuriated. I let him have it, and he told me I am never to speak to him that way. So now, and every other time, in his eyes this is less a life and death issue, and more a matter of my dissing him.

Any sensible person would tell me to wait until the air had cleared, be grateful that N had dodged another bullet, and later discuss the matter with my husband dispassionately, since he’s obviously feeling ashamed and attacked. And I do bring it up later — it never stays dispassionate for long, but it always ends with my being persuaded that, this time, I’ve gotten through to him. Then it all happens again three or four months later.

I know that if the worst should happen, and from my research I have to say it’s really not all that remote a possibility, it would ruin our lives forever.

So how do I handle this?

Going Nuts in a Life-or-Death Way

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Dear Going Nuts,

So let me get this straight. Every now and then your husband poisons your son and then he says, whoops, sorry, I forgot not to poison my son. And then you yell at him and he tells you not to get so angry about it.

So, if you’re Medea in the bath, mourning her children, what are you supposed to do, just calmly call the morgue? Whatever tone of voice you talked to him in was probably understandable. He’s endangering your kid. Does he not understand that?

I think this is really serious. This isn’t like your husband tossing the child up in the air or letting him sit on his lap and take the wheel of the car, which are seemingly dangerous things fathers like to do with their sons that drive mothers crazy but don’t necessarily endanger their sons’ lives. This borders on abuse, it seems to me. This could kill your son.

You have to stop your husband from ever giving the child anything with peanuts in it. The question is: How? I would say you’re going to need a combination of strict new rules and behavioral insight. I would lay down some strict, unequivocal rules right away, and also consult a behavioral psychologist to get at the long-term issues involved. The rules: No store-bought cookies at all, ever, not even one. No cookies in restaurants ever, not even a bite. Only cookies you bake yourself. No peanut butter in the house, ever. Eliminate all chances for error. Be unrelenting and thorough.

Then, for the long term, get some help from a behavioral psychologist or the equivalent. Clearly, your husband does not consciously want to endanger your son. Yet I find it hard to imagine that these omissions are simply random. He’s probably doing it for reasons he doesn’t see or can’t admit. By working with a psychologist, you and he could gain some insight into why this is happening.

Perhaps he’s doing it to get back at you for shaming him. Or perhaps he’s trying to prove to himself that his son does not really have a life-threatening peanut allergy at all. See, he doesn’t really have a life-threatening peanut allergy! See, he’s still breathing!

Yikes.

My wife and I were talking yesterday about how every now and then someone locks a baby in a car with the windows rolled up and the baby dies from the heat. If you were a father who did that, she said, how would you go on living with yourself? And I said, grimly, only half-joking, that you’d pretty much have to kill yourself. Perhaps your husband would see the situation in a fresh light if he were to compare the infinitesimal pleasure he derives from ignoring his son’s allergy against the lifelong horror of being responsible for his death.

 

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