Category Archives: abuse

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As a foster kid, I never learned to brush my teeth

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 15, 2010

I’m afraid to go into the bathroom, because of things that happened in childhood


Dear Cary,

You recently wrote about when “to change your life.” I think I’m there now. And it isn’t a problem with my problem that I’m writing about.

Where I need help is in steps to follow.

I was raised in foster homes from birth to first grade, then I was returned to my family. I left there at age 15. There was no change from one scenario to the other. There was abuse of all types, and kids doing their best to be adults, while adults did their best to ignore the kids.

I learned nothing from them, except that (life skills-wise) I was on my own.

So my problem is that I’m real bad at “being.” And for many years I’ve felt like a fraud in not knowing so many basic things. Now, I want to, literally, come clean. I never go into my bathroom for showers or baths or teeth brushing. I’m plagued with very bad demons of violence and rape that happened in bathrooms. These go back to age 2, but maybe even farther, so they are very deep and still seem real.

Where can I “learn” the basics of health and hygiene habits that all little kids seem brought up with? What are the steps to follow that all other people (as adults) seem to take for granted in this area of life?

Can you point me to a resource that can re-teach adults all the things that were missed in a history like mine?

Thank you,
Ready Now

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Dear Ready Now,

Something happened when you were 2 in a room you called the bathroom.

You have a room in your house today that is called a bathroom. But it is not the same room as the room where something happened when you were 2.

What happened when you were 2 is never going to happen again. The past in which that occurred is gone. Those circumstances are gone.

Take my hand.

Let’s take that 2-year-old into your bathroom.

Your bathroom is not that other bathroom. Your bathroom is safe.
Let’s not even call it a bathroom. Let’s give it a different name.
Let’s call it Tokyo. And let’s not call it brushing your teeth. Let’s call it something silly, like a peppermint mouth vacation. Let’s say you are taking a peppermint mouth vacation in Tokyo. And I will be your travel agent.

This 2-year-old is still with you. Only you are the adult now, and you take care of her in a way that she was not taken care of before. You now take care of her because you are a hero and a survivor. So you take the 2-year-old by the hand and start to walk down the hall and she gets scared and tries to stop but you say that it’s OK, you are just going to Tokyo for a peppermint mouth vacation. You go into that room where there are plumbing fixtures and possibly some tile, and an overhead light, and you explore that room, giving different names to all the things in it. You can give them people names or place names or whatever.

Also you do a security check. Because you are having a whole new life now and your new life is secure. In your new life, you have boundaries and you have choices and you have rights. So you check the front door to make sure no one can break in. You see if there is a lock on the door. Why not rename your house too? If the bathroom is Tokyo, then your house can be Japan, where everyone is very ceremonial. They wear robes and do lots of bowing. So your house becomes Japan where everyone is very ceremonial and does lots of bowing, and the location of your peppermint mouth vacation is Tokyo, which has a very low crime rate.

This is an extreme and indulgent example. I try to make a point, I do. I try to make a point that terrible things happen to us and we have to find ways to emerge from the prison of those things and imprint on ourselves the knowledge that everything in this moment is new and fresh. We are not prisoners of what has happened to us. We can rename anything we like, in order to avoid making it a repetition of the past. We can make everything we do completely new.

What you have today are feelings. Your feelings are real and they are good. They tell you that at one point your life was threatened, and they tell you that never, ever again will you allow that to happen. Your feelings tell you that now you are an adult and you never have to let that happen again. Events happen and then they are gone. What remains is memory. Memory is holy. Memory is love. Memory is the gift of the past to us in the present. We can open these gifts and look at them because they are just stories, photographs and sounds. They are not the event itself.

TuscanAd_Jan2015Your memories are not assault. When you go in your mind back to that time, you may feel a jolt. You may feel as though it is happening again. But it is not happening again. That is just the wisdom of your body, giving you the strength to resist such a thing.

I wish I could sit on the floor with you and say this: “The year is 2010 and you are a strong adult and what happened to you when you were 2 can never happen again.” Whether you are sitting on the floor in your new bathroom, or standing on the edge of the tub looking out the window, or standing at the sink looking at yourself in the mirror, or brushing your teeth, you can know that this is 2010 and what happened to you when you were 2 can never happen again.

You are a survivor. You have an adult life now. You can go to the store and buy any toothbrush you want. You can buy any brand of toothpaste you want. You can brush your teeth upside down, standing on your head, in the shower, at the sink, however you want.
If you need concrete information about how to brush your teeth, you can look here.

And here are a few more things. Have you read, or heard of, Antwone Fisher’s book “A Boy Should Know How to Tie a Tie”? I’m quite moved by what he has to say.

I was also moved by my discovery of the group FACT — Fostered Adult Children Together. Here is what they say: “As children we stood by and watched helplessly as our worlds crumbled apart, depending on strangers to come to our rescue and decide our fate, a fate which many times was worse than what we were delivered from.”

Coming together with others to share your experience, strength and hope is a powerful way to overcome the effects of the past.

I know this, too: You are capable of healing, of being whole and of being OK. That I know. You have taken the first step, by writing this letter.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Cary on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

You were victimized by a sociopath. Stop putting your hand in the flame

Hi! It’s me, Cary! How ya doin?

I’m out of the pool  eating toast and thinking about the novel. I’m committed to finishing by the end of May. I have it all planned out. It’s practically done! Finally.

Plus yesterday I finished my application to Yaddo, thanks to my Finishing School commitment. It was a long day but I got it done before my 6pm writing coaching appointment (I’m doing that too now, acting as a coach for writers who have projects that are promising but resisting ; I get on the side of the writer and together we push to dislodge invisible impediments).

Finishing School starts next week, Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. at the house. If you have a project you’re trying to finish, let me know.

Me, personally, I used Finishing School in December to finish fiction and send it out and do my Yaddo application (I sure would love to have some uninterrupted time to write the next novel!) and I have dedicated the next five months of Finishing School, my own personal goal, to finishing the current novel. I’m dividing it up into five sections, one a month to finish up (they’re mostly written anyway). If you have a project you want to write and would like to dedicate one month or the next five months to it, get in touch with me at cary@carytennis.com. Maybe we can work something out. Dive in the deep end with me! I want company making art in the 21st century.

Now let’s answer a letter:

Dear Cary,

I have read and admired your advice for many years. I have always loved your well-considered and thoughtful advice about really difficult problems. I have started this letter to you hundreds of times but never finished it, but today is that day.

When I was a teenager (early ’90s, before the Internet – you might remember these distant times!!) I wrote something called a zine. It was a magazine about music and art that I wrote and laid out with a glue stick and photocopied and distributed at record shops where I lived. It was pretty well received – and if I do say so, looking back at old issues, well designed – and making it was the first baby steps in what would be my professional career. I learned to write well, to finish things, to find interesting stuff, to produce something that looked great that people would care about, all with absolutely no money.

As everyone did in those days I included an address to write to (again, no internet), and a few people did, sending contributing material and what I guess was fan mail. One guy in particular sent a long letter and some contributions, and I used them and wrote back and said thanks. He wrote again, became a regular contributor, and we corresponded over several years. I considered this person a good friend, though I didn’t know who he was. Later on we kept in touch and, thanks to Hotmail, this included keeping in touch when I moved overseas when I was 19.

A year or two later I found out that it had been my brother’s girlfriend – 6 years older than me – who had created and orchestrated this personality, written all these letters, corresponded with me for so many years. She was a horrible bitch to my face, often telling me I was worthless, selfish, ruining my family, didn’t deserve anything, she told me that my mother called her to complain about me (not true), her nickname for me was “charming little princess”, etc. etc., and in the meantime running this charade of a person who was my friend and someone I trusted.

The shock and fallout was unbelievable. Unbearable. A year later, my brother married her. That was the last time I spoke to my brother, in 2001.

It has been 16 years since I found out what she was up to, and the intervening years have been so fucking hard. I felt like a fool, I felt stupid, I was angry, I was humiliated, I was confused. I told my parents, who told me in no uncertain terms that they would “choose” between me and my brother, and would not exclude her from the family. Family anything became psychological torture as she paraded around as if she had a right to be there, and I felt like a pariah in my own family.

The campaign of emotional abuse and manipulation was bad enough, but the fallout has been another circle of hell altogether. My immediate family – parents and one other brother – simply do not believe that what she did was that bad, no one has advocated for me, no one has demanded that she apologise, and I have been told such things as “if it was sexual abuse it would be different” or “you just need to get over it” or “she had a hard life, it’s not her fault”. Every time I tried to talk about it, the subject was changed.

Cary, this made my 20s hell. I trusted no one. My self-esteem was nonexistent. I wanted to die. I didn’t trust my own experiences and was angry at myself for not “getting over it” and so very angry at my family for just abandoning me to my own misery. My parents refused to talk about it with me. I went to years of therapy, I was on medication, and I did all the things that are indicative of extreme and prolonged emotional distress. Eventually I moved 4000 miles away from home and started a new life.

Three years ago my remaining brother – who I had tried to have a relationship with – told me that my abuser and the brother who married her (who I think was implicit in the abuse, but have no proof) babysit his baby twins. I asked him why he would allow a woman who he damn well knew was an abuser of children to act as a person of authority in their lives and I was told “Oh we watch them really carefully” and “that just won’t happen.”

The subtext there is one of two things: either he doesn’t believe that the abuse happened the way I said it did, or he doesn’t think it was a big deal. Both of those things are absolutely unacceptable. I told him this, and told him that if those children are describing their relationship with those people to a therapist in ten years I will be the only one in the family not directly responsible for knowing what the situation was and letting it happen. We have not spoken since.

I have tried really hard to maintain a relationship with my parents, though they are clearly of the opinion – and have told me – that this really isn’t a big deal and the problem in the family is my failure to get over something minor. They’re in their 70s (I am 35) and I try to have compassion for the difficult position they’re in. I think I deserved better from them; they should have advocated for me, they should have protected me from this fallout by holding her accountable, but my abuser did so much to torpedo any trust relationship I had with my parents by telling me misinformation and manipulating the way I felt about them that I figure I have lost too many years with them to cut them out completely.

In recent years, after cutting my second brother out of my life, I have felt for the first time like I can breathe. I now realise that having a relationship with someone who invalidated the biggest trauma of my adult life was retraumatising me over and over, and that when I cut off ties with both of them I was validating myself, I was believing my own experiences, I was advocating for me – all things my family never did for me.

My problem is this: I visit my parents annually and spend the entire time sobbing. I am there right now, surrounded by family portraits of my parents, my brothers and their wives … I’m not in any of them, it’s as if I just don’t exist, like there’s two families. My mother said something tonight about all this being not as big a deal as I thought it was and it just set me off again; how can all this pain, all this therapy, all this hell of 16 years not convince them that what happened to me really happened? Why is the status quo more important than their own daughter? Why was I sacrificed on the altar of not making waves? I have had so many years of feeling desperately alone because of abuse where I was the victim, and have gone through so much shame, so much turmoil, so much loneliness and felt so bereft of love and worth. Everything about this situation sent the message that I am worthless – she perpetrated this, my brother married her, no one held her responsible, everyone pretends it didn’t happen. But it did, because I have been wading through the pain for 16 years. I don’t think that’s nothing.

My question is this: How the fuck can I finally feel okay about any of this? I am more functional than I used to be, but if I pause long enough to think about this whole system of abuse I just can’t stop shaking with sobs that last days, that shake me to my core. I fantasize about revenge sometimes – starting a website with her name dot com and outlining my story for employers and others to see, or other things that make her a victim instead of a person that can cruelly abuse and manipulate without consequences, but I know that won’t work and will only result in me poisoning my own psyche. I know it is not the spoon that bends, but me, but I have spent 16 years bending and I just can’t bend far enough. I have wished things were different, tried to make things different, been to years of therapy, drank, raged, did drugs, found a fulfilling relationship, made a good career, but nothing has ever been able to touch this pain of being disregarded by my family and my abuser winning. When I start to get better I am jolted back by the realisation that I am just disposable.

Thank you for reading. Please, if by some miracle you have read this diatribe and decide to respond, sign me off as

Anonymous

 

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Dear Anonymous,

So, I have to say, intuitively, I like you. You are a fine person. It hurts me to see you keep putting your hand in the flame.

You were the victim of a sociopath. You continue to be victimized by your family.

I suggest that you cut off all contact with your family for two years.

You are locked in an impossible struggle with them. You want them to be something they are not. This struggle is futile. It is hopeless. It is full of pain. But you have a choice. You are free to walk away from this futile struggle. You do not have to justify yourself or explain. They don’t own you. Walk away. Cut off all contact.

You are free to make this choice. It is the right choice for you. You are a free and independent person and must make this choice for your own survival and happiness.

Cut off all contact. Cut off all contact for two years. Do not call or write. Do not read emails from them.

If certain communications are necessary, make communications with them through a third party. There must be someone you can trust to do this. You say you have built a pretty good life for yourself, 4,000 miles away. That is great. It makes it easier to cut off contact because you will not be running into family members on the street.

Imagine how it would feel to go a day, a week,  a month, enjoying your life and not thinking of this event even once. Imagine how that would be! To be pretty much like other people, going about your life, enjoying the things you enjoy, being a master of your craft, being a part of a community, a worker among workers, liked and loved for who you are, sleeping well at night, enjoying life.

That is possible.

Do this, please. Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop opening the wound. Give yourself a chance to forget.

Maybe you won’t forget. That’s OK. I am not saying you should forget it or there’s something wrong with you if you don’t forget, or if it comes to mind frequently.

You’ve been injured. That’s not your fault.

But you have some choice in the matter. You have it within your power to change your habits and your circumstances. So give yourself a chance. Give your wound a chance to heal.

It won’t heal fast. It will heal slowly. That’s why the two years. Two years is doable. See what happens. After two years you might want to resume contact. Or maybe not. Give yourself two years and see how it goes.

Find a narrative. A narrative is like a box to put the story in and close the lid. The narrative is that you were the victim of a sociopath. Not just a sociopath but a sociopathic family system. This was unusual in its extent but its general pattern is familiar: When terrible things happen in a family system, the family system works to deny it. All these individuals are part of that system. They are doing what they think they need to do to survive in that system. They are afraid the system will destroy them if they oppose it. And they might be right. Look what the system did to you. This system is being run by a sociopath. It will try to destroy any member who to opposes it.

You are already the enemy of this system. You are a truth teller and  so it had to crush you. You continue to be a threat because you continue to say what is actually happening. So it attacks you when you appear. So don’t appear. Disappear. Live your own life.

You can do this. You can cut off all contact with your family. There is no law against it.

There will be difficulties. A part of you will resist making this change. It will feel weird like you just can’t do that. But you can. You can and I think you should.

Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop putting your hand in the fire.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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OK, I get it, my husband’s a verbal abuser

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 8, 2008

It’s taken me a long time to accept what my therapist has been pushing at — but I think I’m ready to act in my own interest.


Dear Cary,

I’m troubled.

At long last, my therapist did something I sensed she meant to do a long time ago — assign me to read a book on verbally abusive relationships. I suspect that, despite her dissimilation, she expects me to find myself there, in the role of the victim of verbal and psychological abuse.

And I do.

And yet on another level, I question the whole idea. The book contains no citations. It could well be cut from whole cloth, as they say — an angry woman’s fantasy of how men are, how men act. Even if that characterization is a straw man (womyn?), it is a tempting one, especially when the self-help verbiage gets a little much. But where do we draw the line? I seem to be standing on a line, on one side of which is mutually unproductive communication that can be resolved through talking and counseling and new approaches, and on the other is a crowd shouting “Why haven’t you DTMFA?”

Since I have been with him, I have gradually given up my passions — my theater, my academic field, my crafts, my gym membership. Only those things that he finds acceptable — the hobbies, the reading, the baking (but never on hot days) — remain. He wished to own a house. We own a house. I cook, clean, launder, mow the lawn, call the repairmen, run the errands, pay the mortgage. I have been working for seven years under the assumption that these are all choices I was involved in, decisions I made. And yet I daydream of a cozy studio apartment where I am alone and everything — the belongings, the music, the choices — is mine. Of going where the jobs in my field are, instead of staying where they aren’t. Of dallying with women, and perhaps men, with beautiful souls.

I take pills. I go to therapy. He goes back to school. I applaud this — it is a sensible decision that will lead to a stable job in his field — even as I resent his freedom to do so. I make a point of telling him that I wish to return to school (yet again) once he finds a job. He is wholly supportive of this, he says — once the loans are paid off, once we are no longer in debt. Despite my thrift, the loans pile up. When I fail to manage the money as he directs, I am chastised. Every cent I spend is one that cannot be used to pay off those loans and buy my freedom from menial jobs that siphon my self-confidence and passion, but which pay for the therapy to deal with the panic attacks and crying jags that primarily manifest themselves when he’s around.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

There is a long and storied history of psychological instability in my family, on both sides, which has led me to believe that my problems were internal and self-contained. There is also (as I learned recently, yet have known all along) a long and storied family history of controllers and controllees, criticizers and objects of criticism. I am not sure what his family has given him, aside from a Midwestern up-by-the-bootstraps aversion to psychoanalysis of any kind.

A dear friend says that she had these concerns before she knew him, from my tone, from my phone calls. She met him, and “[saw] how he looks at me,” the love in his eyes, and her fears were assuaged. I know that he loves me, from that same look, those same heartbreakingly beautiful smiles. I also know that he expects me to read his mind, then tells me that I am the one who needs to fix my reactions so that we can communicate — who drives me to tears with his inconsistencies, then allows me the solace of his embrace.

It is not that I fear to be alone or independent — aside from the annoyance of dividing things up, the prospect seems inviting. But the prospect of remaking myself in my own image, of reclaiming the me that was, is more complicated. And there are so many things that I would miss. Friends, games, holidays, my mother-in-law, even the house that taunts me with its constant breakings and dirtiness. Him, the man who has been so good for me in so many ways, who rescued me from an equally dead-end (though less malignant) relationship, whom I’ve shared so many adventures with. Who I’m not even convinced is aware of what he’s doing.
And yet things cannot remain as they are.

Angel in the Details

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Dear Angel,

I am going to try to be direct. You know that’s not my style. But still.

I suggest you leave this guy.

There is only one twist: You make your new life first.

I basically agree with the DTMFA approach — with one caveat.

The caveat is that you begin not by disrupting your current life but by building your new one. If you leave without trying to rebuild your life first, you may find yourself alone in a new place, isolated from friends and family, without a solid network, without a life plan, having just gone through a traumatic breakup, flooded with emotion, and you may, under that stress, be more prone to fall back into your old pattern of finding a rescuer, a controller, a caretaker. You may slip back into the same situation with someone else. So I advise taking a gradual approach to building a new life so that when you leave him, you have a new life to step into. Work to develop new behaviors and reinvigorate abandoned passions.

For instance, these things you mention that you have given up — your theater, your academic field, your crafts, your gym membership: Put these things back in your life one by one. When you begin doing this, he may object. Keep in mind that you are leaving him anyway.

It may help to set a date and write it in your calendar, say, six months. In six months you are leaving. During that time you tackle the many concrete tasks of rebuilding your life. This includes looking at new places to live and working out your budget. As you pursue this project, at a certain point — and this may happen sooner than you expect — it may become impossible to continue to live with him. Your positive action may force buried conflicts to the surface. He may decide that he is divorcing you. He may become unstable. He may threaten you. If he is a certain kind of man, when his control over you is threatened, he may become dangerous. So, while laying the groundwork for an orderly departure, you need to also be ready to leave quickly if things get to that.

The point is this: To the extent possible, don’t act precipitously to your own detriment. Instead, begin putting your life together and try to leave at a time that is best for you.

Now, regardless of his objections, you may find that you yourself just can’t build this new life while still living with him. You may feel paralyzed, blocked, unable to act. If so, OK. Leaving him might be a precondition to putting your life together. That’s OK. Discuss this with your therapist and make a plan. But please do what you can to prepare first. Give it a try. Take what steps you can to reconnect with your theater, your academic life, your crafts and your gym first. Do what you can.

Just so we’re clear: Yes, I think you should leave. DTMFA or whatever. Just, to the extent possible, prepare first.

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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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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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.

WhatHappenedNextCall

 

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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.

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