Cary’s classic column from Monday, Aug 12, 2013
I live with an awful history, and sometimes it is too much for me
I am writing with a problem that makes my heart physically ache.
Let me briefly lay the groundwork first, and then I will present the problem. I was married for almost 20 years to a man who had three children from his first marriage. We had three more ourselves, and I legally adopted my oldest stepdaughter when she turned 18. My stepchildren’s mother is extremely abusive, and all three of them were physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused by her or her relatives. While I understand that she herself was a victim of the same behavior from her own family members, I cannot condone the perpetuation of the cycle. My adopted child (now 34) has worked really hard to separate herself from the traumas of her youth, only now to find that her father, my ex-husband, has now replaced her mother as the perpetrator of abuse in her life.
This daughter has a nice husband, a steady job in a call center, and a lovely son from a previous relationship. She also suffers from a mysterious auto-immune disease and severe chronic pain that nothing alleviates. She has mental problems that show up as bipolar but are probably more like PTSD. The more I study about bodywork, the more I understand that these conditions are outward manifestations of everything she has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of her natural parents.
My firstborn was molested by my stepson, and raped by a neighbor’s grandson, but when we found out (years later, since she was too ashamed to tell us) my husband dismissed it as normal children’s sexual exploration. I caved in and never pressed charges. I will regret forever that I was not able to a) prevent it and b) stand up to my then-husband and do what was right by our daughter. It took me years also to grow enough of a spine to file for divorce. (As you might correctly surmise, our relationship was a perfect match of emotional abuser and willing victim … until I finally broke and had to make a change.)
Despite these things that happened, believe it or not, I do not regret my marriage. We had a marvelous time for a good long while. I learned about not only practical matters (confidence with power tools, for example), but even in the disintegration of the relationship I learned a lot: to stand up for myself, to make changes, to be really honest and intimate in ways that I never was able to before. I had to go through the fire and the dark tunnels and every other metaphor of shame, guilt, depression, etc., and find my strength there. By going through all that, plus therapy, plus going back to school, I was really able to change myself for the better. Relationships with my children, my parents and my friends all improved because of me learning how to communicate.
What my ex will never comprehend is that the divorce itself was actually an act of love and compassion on my part, because neither of us could be our best person with each other. My hope was that both of us individually could be better people, better parents, happier and more functional than we were as a couple. He was, however, devastated and retreated into self-medication with alcohol, medical marijuana and opiates, as well as bad-mouthing me to his entire family and our children.
The problem as it stands now is that my ex-husband, who is chronically unemployed and now lives on disability, continues to rain abuse on his eldest daughter, most recently accusing her of dealing her prescription painkillers to her 14-year-old brother (my youngest child), being a heroin addict and flaunting her “wealth” in his face (because she occasionally buys him groceries and little gifts). Out of all six of his children she is the one who has been most steadfastly determined to be kind and loving and financially supportive of him, and she receives for her efforts only more abuse and pain. My biological children all refuse to see him or speak to him. I have a hard time watching him deteriorate this way. There seems to be nothing left of the man that I fell in love with. And of course, my children have lost their father, not to death or disappearance, but to some mental illness that prevents him from being a loving parent. This hurts me the most.
Is there any other advice than “let go”? Cut all ties and never look back?
I apologize for the very long letter, but I felt that I needed to explain myself thoroughly. I hope you might find the chance to answer this letter among so many others that call out for your attention. At the very least, writing this has been helpful to ease my mind and my heart.
It makes sense that you would want to cut all ties and never look back. But that is probably not possible. It wouldn’t work. You are tied to these people. They are your family.
But you can make adjustments — as you seem to have done already.
In a practical sense, you can do more of what is working and less of what is not. Make that your daily method. In the morning, think about what is coming up in the day, and find time to do more of the things that work for you, and try to eliminate the things that don’t work. If you can avoid seeing certain people in the family whose presence distresses you, then avoid them. If you can write more letters and contemplate your life more, if you can spend more time with supportive friends, then do more of that.
You can be strong for your daughter. You can advise her to cut ties with her father, because he is only bringing her grief. And you can protect yourself. You can, in a sense, abandon these people. Recognizing that there is nothing you can do anymore, you can step back. I know that probably sounds trite, like just “let go.” In fact, what I am saying is that “letting go” is a positive thing but it is not an abstraction; it is a constant practice.
How do you get through such things? This, right now, is exactly how you get through it: You tell your story. You do what works. If writing this letter made you feel better, then write 10 such letters. Write a hundred letters. Write every day.
You know that there is no one complete solution to life’s suffering. But there are changes you can make. And you have to keep making them. You have to keep making adjustments because new things will always arise. Your ex-husband may continue to get worse. Your daughter may suffer continuing bouts of terror and depression and trauma. So you have to keep doing the things that work for you, and do more when you can.
You can also strengthen your capacity to hold and process the feelings that do come up; you can strengthen the way you hold the memories you have. You can strengthen your inner self so that when you think of these things they do not rock you back on your heels. You can learn to see the patterns in all this, to understand how it fits together. And you can also learn to honor the darkness, the ways in which there is no pattern but only evil. You can learn to respect the presence of evil; if not honor it, at least to abide it, so you are not surprised by it or defeated by it, so you can look it in the eye and be stronger than it.
This means calling upon your warrior spirit, your spirit of pure survival. Lately I have been thinking about the warrior spirit in all of us, the aggressive spirit. If you can think back to the act of being born, you can remember that when we are born we are fighting to the surface and we are pure aggression. We want to survive and that is all. We want to come into the world and that is all we know. This birth memory can serve you well. Remember that part of you that is pure survival instinct. It is strong.
So, no, I don’t have any great solutions, other than to trust yourself and the solutions you have already found, and to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t, and trust your instincts about how to survive these terrible things, and look for the strength in yourself; feel the strength inside. Revel in your own strength, so when awful thoughts and memories arise, you can contain them.
There is no complete solution to living with awful things that have happened. There is only how you live with it day to day, with a strong, vibrant warrior’s spirit.