Category Archives: Addiction

Dashed against the rocks


Cary’s classic column from Friday, Feb 20, 2004

I’m in love with a siren who lured me and is now destroying me.

Dear Cary,

I have been involved with a woman for one and a half years. She is well mannered, dresses nicely, has style, is extremely intelligent, and is a stunning beauty. We also share many views on the world and, for example, an obsession with the same country that we would both like to emigrate to. We are the kind of couple where everybody turns around to tell us how beautiful we look together.

This woman has given me some of the best times of my life. I loved and trusted her with all my heart. But I got burned, and badly. A description of the depression I’ve gone through would not fit into one letter. She has given me some of the most beautiful times of my life and she has been the cause for the most depressing and sad times that I ever had to endure. She abused my trust, betrayed me, lied to me, dumped me for someone else. That was in the middle of our relationship and it’s the cause for our breaking up for over a month.

But I just couldn’t let go. When she told me that she still had feelings for me and that maybe we could make it work, I immediately went for it, despite much advice to the contrary from friends and family. And it worked well, after a time even very well.

And then it turned back into a disaster. As we both went off for university, she demanded attention that she knew I couldn’t potentially give her and compromises that she knew I couldn’t make. I tried very hard to make it work, to convince her that I loved her. Her reaction was indifference. She was just interested in her new friends, her new life — without me. That was last October, which is when I broke up with her, again.

Even after weeks, I thought of her every day, feelings alternating between anger and longing. I didn’t talk to her for over two months — didn’t help. As I was finally starting to get a handle on things, she called me again and said that she didn’t want to lose somebody she once trusted so much, that she’d like to keep me at least as a friend.

When we met again, all the signs were still there. The looks, the occasional hand on the other’s leg. The close-to-infinite goodbye hug. We started talking on the phone and e-mailing on an almost daily basis. Oh my god, I was back in her power again.

I can’t pull myself out of it, even though she’s been very ambivalent. One day, she tells me how much she misses me, that if I asked her to marry me, she’d say yes. The next day, she doesn’t even answer the phone. Then again, she blames me for everything that ever went wrong in our relationship.

Maybe this is just because there are hardly any girls in my small university in this small, depressing town? Maybe it’s because the advice to get myself somebody else is not an option?

Why can’t I let go? I feel like Odysseus passing the sirens. She draws me to her with her magical song and whenever I come near her, I get smashed on her deadly rocks. How can I escape her? I don’t think stuffing wax into my ear would work, much less having my friends tie me to the mast. But what can I do?

Bound by Love

Dear Bound by Love,

What Odysseus did may sound impossible or useless if taken literally. But metaphorically speaking it’s exactly what you have to do. Odysseus had his mates tie him to the mast. You need to have your friends tie you to a decision. Swear an oath to banish this woman from your life, and have your friends swear to hold you to it.

Now, Odysseus earned his crew’s affection and obedience through heroism. Few of us command such power over men. Moreover, few will truly grasp what you are asking. You may have several “friends” who enjoy your company and think you are a good guy, but to do what you require takes a maturity that doesn’t always show on the surface. So choose one person, and choose wisely. You have to place complete trust in this person.

Make a signed, written agreement. Say that if you should announce that you’re going to see her, they have permission to hold you down, slap you silly, and lock you in your room. Promise not to press charges if they should abduct you in a car and tie you to a tree in the woods. This is what it will take.

You’re in this woman’s power. We don’t have to talk about why, for now. We just have to recognize reality. You’re in her power. Her power is in her presence and in her beauty. It’s a delicious power, but for you it’s deadly. The only way to get out of her power is to get out of her presence. Don’t talk to her, don’t look at her. If you find yourself thinking about her, fine. No man could keep you from doing that. Let yourself think about her, but only as one regards an object in the mind. Do not allow yourself to speculate about her. Get my drift? Whenever you regard her in your mind, be sure there is a fence around her. Do not think about the ways in which next time it might be different. Do not take down that fence.

Furthermore, if you regard her in your mind, regard her only from the rear, as though she is receding from view. Do not look at her face. Do not let her eyes fall on you. Do not let her approach. Only regard her as an object receding into the distance. If you imagine her eyes looking at you, you will be in her power again.

Face it: You’re addicted to her, OK? So you can’t have her anymore! Not even a little piece! You’re done! You’re through! It’s over, soldier!

As to why you are in her power: There is something of narcissism in this — for instance, in the pride you take in being seen as a stunning couple, and in the way she so pleasingly mirrors yourself in her thoughts and ambitions. Odysseus was not a narcissist; he was a warrior; he knew himself and he knew the other, both as enemy and lover. He knew his weaknesses and took precautions. His problem with the sirens was a problem of temptation, not narcissism. But narcissism appears to be the focus of your heroic struggle. So consider that you cannot look away from her because she is an image of your own beauty. Think of her as a reflection of yourself, and consider that the reason you long for her so is that you long for yourself, your own beauty. It’s an unfathomable paradox, this narcissism thing … but maybe that tear that Narcissus sheds, the tear that disrupts his perfect reflection in the river, perhaps that is what is needed here. Perhaps what that myth is saying is that rescue — death in Narcissus’ case, but we needn’t be so literal — comes through the power of emotion to disrupt the perfect reflection: when through long unrequited desire for perfection we finally break down and feel the tragic impossibility of such a union, the power of that emotion shatters the entrancing image, and we are free. Just think of Narcissus’ death at that point as the death of the narcissistic self.

Or think of it this way: The more you suffer, the worse she looks.

My husband is a high-achieving alcoholic, seven years sober Should we finally tell the kids?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 9, 2005

Dear Cary,

When our two boys were small children, my husband was a very high-achieving alcoholic. He never lost his job, he never verbally or physically abused either the kids or me, he remained a good father, and he never alienated his friends or family. Indeed, to this day, no one other than me (and his treatment group participants and counselors) know about his alcohol abuse. He did, however, almost die from alcohol. He attempted to stop drinking without medical intervention and suffered seizures and other life-threatening complications. As a result of this event, he got into a treatment program that worked for him (at least to date). After several years of drinking at least a fifth every day, he has not had a drink in about seven years. At his insistence, we have never told our kids or families about his alcoholism.

The problem is that our boys are no longer young kids — one is in high school and one in middle school. From our counseling and my experiences with him, I am completely convinced that the brains of some people are hard-wired to abuse alcohol and/or drugs and some are not. I know that I can drink one glass of wine at dinner (I haven’t in seven years) and have no desire for a second, while he simply cannot start drinking without continuing to drink. Consequently, I believe that it is very important for our teenage boys to understand that given their genetic makeup, they need to be particularly sensitive to the impact of alcohol on them. I also want them to understand that we, as parents, do have experience with alcoholism, and that if they ever find themselves with an alcohol issue, we will be able to understand and help them. Since we, as parents, now never drink and seldom put ourselves in social situations where alcohol is present, I worry that our children will perceive that we would never be able to understand or help them with alcohol issues (even though I talk to them about such issues regularly).

In short, I want my husband to talk with them about his alcoholism in an age-appropriate way. He, however, is too ashamed to engage in such a discussion and does not want me to tell them (which I completely understand). I’m wondering if I should push the issue (our older boy just turned 16), or just let it drop as I have in the past.

Just Curious


Dear Just Curious,

You ask a difficult question. I personally have pretty clear feelings about what to do.

I would tell the older boy. Then I would tell the younger boy as well, so that the older boy is not burdened with knowledge that he must either tell, imperfectly, or keep secret.

But I’m just one person — a person, moreover, with my own history of alcoholism that I’m quite candid about. I respect your husband’s desire to keep this matter private. That’s his choice.

I don’t believe there is a direct link between what you choose to tell your children and whether they develop alcoholism. You may tell them or not tell them. They may or may not develop problems with alcohol. The two are not causally related. As I understand the current science, there are indicators and apparent predispositions toward alcoholism, and there are traits associated with it, but there is no one certain cause or one certain measure of prevention.

If you tell them, they will probably experiment anyway. They might react abnormally to the first drink, or they might not. Knowing the history might act as a deterrent. Or it might not. Knowing that their dad beat it might embolden them. You can’t tell with kids.

It’s natural to want to talk about it. And it’s true that you have valuable, firsthand experience to impart. But as a former young person with an alcohol problem I can testify that young people with alcohol problems tend to be unreceptive to parental advice. That’s part of the syndrome.

All this leads us into contradiction and uncertainty. So for me, the question of what to tell the children is more a question about truth telling and the keeping of secrets in a family than it is about alcoholism prevention. It’s about what you believe you can control, about what is sacred, what is shameful, what is safe and what is toxic.

If my math is correct, the children were around the ages of 9 and 6 when your husband stopped drinking, meaning they undoubtedly witnessed him drunk, with that glassy stare, the slurred speech, the smell. So, apart from whether it’s going to prevent them from becoming little alcoholics or not, the information might have the effect of bringing a little sense to their world: Aha, now I understand this memory of my father falling asleep at the table, or being too “tired” to go upstairs.

If you love the truth and you believe that the truth can be life’s most powerful ally against insanity, depression, self-hatred and the like, then you may feel a strong urge to air the truth. On the other hand, perhaps you also know the powerful effect of a shameful fact revealed. Perhaps you know that sometimes children need to believe their parents are infallible, and you marvel at how certain truths, once revealed, never go back in the bottle: How could he have been a drunk? What if he should slip? What else don’t we know? Was he unfaithful to Mom? Are we sure we’re his kids?

I wonder how your husband’s attitude toward his alcoholism plays into this. Does he feel that his alcoholism is his fault? If so, perhaps he is still tormented by it in a way that he needn’t be. In fact, you might consider the possibility that it is necessary to be free from it psychologically and morally in order to be free from it medically. That is, shame, guilt and the keeping of secrets are part of the syndrome of addiction. You can easily see how this works: One stops the substance but retains the habits of mind. The habits of mind lead eventually back to the substance. So you have to change the habits of mind. One way to do that is to tell the truth.

But perhaps your husband is not burdened with shame at all. Perhaps he is simply making a very grown-up attempt at harm reduction. As I said, it’s a tough call. I know what I would do. But it’s a decision you and he must make.

Just to be clear: Inasmuch as it involves the well-being of the children, I think it’s a decision you as parents need to make together. But inasmuch as it involves your husband’s personal struggle with alcoholism, I think it is his decision alone how much to reveal. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two domains. But that is marriage.

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I’m losing my friend. It feels like a breakup

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 12, 2012

After 15 years, suddenly she’s moody and unreachable — and I think it’s her boyfriend’s fault

Dear Cary,

I’m sure you’ve had letters similar to mine, but I’m sure there are others who might benefit by knowing it’s not just them who’ve dealt with a toxic friendship in their lives. I’ve dated some toxic men; one who was a verbally and emotionally abusive alcoholic. I dated him off and on for about two years. During that time, I was aware that he was not the right one. When I finally had my fill of his BS, I walked away from the relationship. It took Al-Anon and some counseling for me to see the light and gain strength to move on, but I did move on. I have not dated anyone seriously in over three years. Had a few dates but nothing that really clicked.

I’ve had a friend (L.) for about 15 years whom I grew close to due to our part-time jobs in retail (we both moonlight there) and I also lived one street over from her until she moved down a few streets to another house. She has been married five or six times but I’ve only known her last ex-husband. He seemed like a nice guy and she has kids with him. She also had cheated on him (according to her and others). She has dated R. for about five years. R. is a recovered cocaine addict who went through rehab four times before becoming and staying clean and sober. He attended N.A. meetings until he no longer had to (due to court dealings). In the beginning, L. seemed really happy with R. and she and I seemed to get even closer due to some illnesses and surgeries she had a couple of years ago. R. was somewhat supportive when she had cancer but was totally not around when she had her knee replaced later that same year. It was around that time that I suspected that he was not the great guy she thought he was. I had felt like L. was a sister figure to me. We did have a bond and there was a sister love there, for sure. Then, this past year (July to be more exact), L. started to act moody and unhappy. She was short with me at work and didn’t talk much. The following week she apologized to me and things seemed better. Then, only a few weeks later, she comes to work one night and acts angry at everyone. She would hardly talk to anyone and she was trying to give all her work hours away that week (apparently due to personal issues). When I left that night, I told her to call me if she wanted to talk. She called me the next day to apologize again for her behavior and said I was her closest friend and that she should not treat me that way. I was sure whatever the issue was, it had nothing to do with me. She was fine for the most part but you could still see this edge to her that wasn’t settling. Later (while at her house to drop off something), I tried to talk to her about her behavior and how even co-workers had asked me what her problem was. I urged her to talk to a counselor if she could not or would not talk to me. I told her that I loved her and cared about her and that she knew she could call me. She said she knew these things.

Even though she knows these things, her bizarre, hot-and-cold behavior has persisted since this past summer. She sort of blew off my birthday and we didn’t do my birthday lunch until about a month later (and invited co-workers from her day job whom I didn’t know that well). I’ve always taken her out to dinner and given her a card or small gift. I felt slighted and disrespected with how she handled my birthday this past year as we had always done dinner together with just the two of us before.

I’ve known for quite a while what her problem really was and it’s a boyfriend who I believe is not only controlling, but emotionally and verbally abusive. Another friend of hers got engaged around the time she started behaving weird, so I also think that contributed to her overall attitude and behavior. Since that time, it’s a 50-50 chance on what her mood will be. She will be aloof, removed from people or act perfectly fine depending on how she is feeling about her guy. For Christmas, he gave her a ring but made clear it was not an engagement ring and that they were not getting married. She wants marriage (why I’m not sure) and he does not. She has vowed not to live with this man, but last week told me that they were going to move in together later in the summer. I suspect that she will see even less of her friends than she is now. We used to talk regularly on the phone. She has called me a time or two in recent weeks, but I have vowed to not call her unless she calls me and I need to return her call. To sum it all up, I’ve been treated badly by this friend. She has been short, hateful and downright ignored me at various times during the last five or six months. True friends don’t treat people in this manner. And while I can see that the boyfriend is the real issue, I can’t sit around and wait for her to see the light. I’ve returned to my Al-Anon meetings as I’ve found that the principles taught also help with other relationship issues (even those where there is no substance abuse). In reality, her guy might be clean and sober but he’s no longer in his own meetings, which would help him stay centered. He abuses and controls L. who then takes out her frustration on the very people who love and care for her the most.

Really good friendships are hard to find. I’ve been there for L. always and don’t feel like I’ve ever let her down but I can’t say the same about her for me. I would never, ever let a man come between her and me, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. I want her to be happy and she’s always had a guy during the entire time we’ve been friends, but this guy has her brainwashed. He doesn’t want her to spend time with me or even her kids. That seems plainly obvious to me.

This whole situation has hurt terribly. In some ways, it’s just as painful as letting go of a romantic relationship. You don’t expect your friends to hurt you as badly as a guy can. Maybe, in time, she will see the light. In the meantime, I realize I need to be around more positive friends — ones who don’t take out their frustrations on me instead of the person who is really upsetting them. It’s so very hard to move on, isn’t it?

I would appreciate some advice and tips for accepting this situation as it is because I don’t see any possibility in the near future that she will leave this guy.

Thank you.

Hurt By a Friend


Dear Hurt By a Friend,

This letter contains two important things, things that are hard to learn, things that are painful to accept, hard, priceless little gems that point to bigger truths. One is how the principles of Al-Anon can help in relationships where no drugs and alcohol are involved. The other is how friendships can be just as painful as romantic relationships.

I love that those two things come out here. That is why I chose to print this letter, because while I may not have any brilliant answers for you, people who read this letter and think about it will see the patterns here and may recognize similar things in their own lives and may be moved to take action that will free them from those patterns.

Frankly, for me, reading this letter mainly just makes me realize how bad a friend I’ve been over the past few years. When I think about how I treat my friends, well, it’s not pretty. I’m so thoughtless and self-involved! I am! It’s terrible! I am a terrible friend! I have no time for my friends! I’m so wrapped up in other things! I’m over-scheduled! I’m obsessed with my “work.” And if you ever do get me for dinner or lunch or just to hang out, I’ve got one eye on the clock; I’m thinking about some story or some song.

I should be in a band. I should live in a tribe. I belong in a supervised unit. I’m not much good at being a secular adult. It’s really kind of pathetic.

But I go on. I write my column and do my stuff. It’s all very magical and cool. But I am a terrible friend. So that’s my resolution for the New Year: I’m going to be a better friend. So watch out if you think you are a friend of mine! I’m coming for you. I’ll be on your porch! I’ll be hanging out in your backyard! I’ll be throwing stones at your window!

See, that’s my model of friendship; it’s something I crystallized when I was 12 and hasn’t changed. When I was 12, I knew how to have a friend. You rode bikes around and played with stuff and talked. That was a friend. Sometimes you snuck out at night. You had adventures. You explored stuff, like broken ships’ hulls, and swamps and forests, and you captured small invertebrates and studied them. That was a friend. What is a friend now? I dunno! Someone you have dinner with? I hate the having dinner with! Having dinner with is not fun! Dinner is what you have to quit playing and come in the house to have! Dinner is something your friend can’t come out because he’s having! Why is everyone always having dinner? I don’t want dinner! I want to go out in a boat!

Having dinner is too adult. I want beanbag chairs and an outdoor swing. I want party treats, noisemakers and funny hats. I want cake and a screaming fit.

Seriously, I think everything I know about friendship I learned when I was 12 and I’d like to go back to riding bikes and playing war and talking about nothing we understood.

Except I don’t like to ride bikes anymore. That’s the problem, see? I don’t even know how to have fun as an adult even if I had friends to have fun with! I don’t like riding bikes anymore because it’s not fun. Now it’s work, it’s a way to get to Petaluma in only five hours, it’s sanctioned races and funny shorts. What’s fun for me now? Going down to the seawall to watch the sunset. We have a pretty-new friend, Madison, who joins us on the seawall for the sunset. That’s our fun. We have a few other friends, too, and they know who they are and how badly we treat them. But mostly, it’s us cleaning the house and me frowning over numbers.

Every therapist I’ve ever been to asks me what I do for fun. Are they trying to tell me something?

But enough about me, right? Because you see what’s going on here, right? You see why I’ve got no friends? Because it’s all about me! You come looking for a sympathetic ear and I turn it all to me. Isn’t that typical?

Sorry. But look, you’re the strong one here. You’re going to be OK. That doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t hurt. They are. And you deserve to be treated well. But you know, going to Al-Anon and all, you know the limits; it may be time to mourn the passing of this friendship and find some people you can have fun with. Your friend is caught up in something that you can’t fix, and you know that. And you know that toxic relationships can seem a lot like drug addictions: The person is irritable and moody, unreliable, disappears on you, doesn’t show up, is erratic, misses work … just like a drug addict.

You know all this from your Al-Anon meetings. Wow, thank God for Al-Anon.

So what I want to give you is some encouragement to go out and enjoy yourself and find some new friends who appreciate what you have to offer. You know the drill. You’ll be there for this friend of yours when she comes around, if she comes around, but you’re not going to chase her down. You can politely decline invitations if they’re not going to be the one-on-one situations that you require. You don’t have to sit with a bunch of strangers like some out-of-towner.

You were her best friend. That meant something. Now she’s lost to you. So mourn that. Mourn it deeply. It was a beautiful thing. Mourn that thing but do not go chasing after her. Be strong. Turn to others who are happy and healthy and can enjoy your company and make you laugh.

Pray for her, if that’s what you do. Offer her Al-Anon. Let her know that if her relationship ever gets to be too much, there is a group that can help her. Just let her know it’s there, and be willing to take her to a meeting if she ever wants to go.

And then let it be. Take some heat off yourself. There are people out there who want to be friends. There are people out there who know how to be friends. (God knows I don’t!) So look around you and let some friendships happen. Let them happen.

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My best friend is marrying a guy who’s nothing but trouble

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 21, 2006

She says I must either accept the situation 100 percent or forget being maid of honor.

Dear Cary,

I have a very good friend who is getting married soon. She’s smart, funny, talented, beautiful and successful. We’ve been friends for about 12 years (since high school) and we’ve always had the label “best friends” on our relationship, although we’ve definitely had ups and downs. Unfortunately, we seem to be at a crossroads. To make a long story short, a while back I introduced my friend to a group of guys that I used to hang out with sometimes, and she got involved with one of these guys. They moved in together really quickly, got engaged a few months later, and they’ll be getting married in about three weeks. My friend asked me quite some time ago to be her maid of honor, and of course I said yes.

But the more my friend has told me about this relationship, the more worried I’ve become. He’s called her names that I can’t repeat. He lies consistently about where he is and what he’s doing (she catches him and laughs it off). She’s called me sobbing because he says he’s coming home but doesn’t arrive. In most of these cases she’s already called him, found him drunk at a bar, and he’s brushed her off, basically saying that he’ll come home when he wants to (driving home drunk, by the way). He has multiple kids by different women. There are plenty more examples, but you get the idea.

My friend has a history of being in abusive relationships — not bad enough for a movie of the week, but definitely not acceptable either. In the past, I’ve been outspoken about my concerns. In every case, this led to our not talking for some period of time. I now realize that I’m not going to change her mind about any man, so I’ve become resigned to being as supportive as possible but being ready to be truthful if asked. Eventually she asked, and I told. I still tried to focus on the positive (“I just want to make sure that you’re happy for a long, long time,” etc.) so that she would be receptive, but she knows me well enough to have a pretty good idea of how I feel.

I have given this a huge amount of thought and reached the conclusion that the best way I can handle her wedding is to focus on the fact that I’m there to support my friend. I’ve made the decision to be there for her, and she’s made the decision to get married. The getting married part isn’t up to me. The being supportive part is. If I stay focused on that part, I know that I can be positive on her big day, which is of course what she wants. I can feel good about doing so because I know that I’m standing by my friend at a major event in her life. Obviously I will be warm and polite to everyone at the wedding. That’s how I’ve been planning to handle things.

Now for the twist: She recently told me that I need to either “choose to change my feelings” and be 100 percent supportive of the situation, or choose not to be involved. I’ve told her that I am 100 percent supportive of her, and that’s what really matters to me. I can change the way I behave, but I can’t erase my concern. I also can’t “choose” to abandon my longtime best friend during her wedding. I really believe that whether or not to include me is her decision. I think she’s avoiding the decision because she doesn’t want to be responsible for kicking me out. I don’t think she wants me to be there, and at this point it would be much easier to avoid it, but I’m afraid that I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.

I don’t know what to say or do. It’s her wedding and I want to be there for her however she sees fit. I know that if I’m “disinvited” from the wedding, that will be like a nail in the coffin of our friendship. But I also don’t want to cause trouble for her by shoehorning myself in where I’m not welcome. At this point I just want to handle the situation with consideration and class, whatever the outcome is, and I just don’t know how to proceed.

Here Comes the Bride, There Goes the Friend


Dear Here Comes the Bride,

It’s understandable that you want to support your friend. But standing up for her at her wedding implies that you approve of what she’s doing when you really don’t. It’s saying to her, Well, I may have had reservations, but now I think everything will turn out OK.

You and I know that’s not true. We don’t think things will turn out OK. We think she’s headed for stinky husband breath faintly redolent of Budweiser and paint thinner, mysterious car dents, implausible explanations for implausible whereabouts at implausible times of the night, sudden empty wallet syndrome, “friends” who are burglars, the phrase “child endangerment” uttered by state employees, oxygen-deprived skin tone exacerbated by severe bar tan, crushed beer can sculptures in the garage, multiple unpaid parking tickets, third-degree threatening demeanor, unorthodox sleeping outside in the grass and eventually a case of extreme indoor burliness.

This last condition, extreme indoor burliness, describes something I can’t otherwise explain, except to say that it arrives late at night with loud, indistinct speech and bad shoes.

Anyway, what I mean is, if she has to drag this guy out of a bar before they’re even married, think how much fun it’ll be after they’re married with three kids. Can you see her showing up to drag him home and he’s sliding his kids down that polished bar surface like so many shot glasses? It’s going to be really fun dragging him out of the bar then — because the kids are having fun with Daddy!

She’s made her choice. She’s given you your options. If you want to be true to yourself, if you want to handle the situation with consideration and class, I think you have to take her at her word. You have to call her bluff. You have to bow out of the wedding.

Does that mean you’re not supporting her? Just what is this “support” we’re always trying to give our friends, anyway? Is it support when we help them drive off a cliff? Nah. I don’t think so. I think what we owe our friends is our influence for the good. And if that conflicts with their knuckleheaded intentions, that’s OK. “In opposition is true friendship,” Blake said (though he meant something quite different at the time, I’m afraid).

The interesting thing about this is that I see redemption down the road. I don’t agree that this is the nail in the coffin for your friendship. It’s more as if, in a classic move by a drama queen, she’s setting up the second act by pushing you out. Once she hits bottom with this guy, you come back onstage as the good friend, the one who never bought into her whole crazy idea of marrying a troublesome dude just to see how troublesome he really can be. You get to be the hero.

Like I say, this is just the curtain on the first act. In fact, before you leave the stage, I think you get to make a little speech here. You get to tell her that you will always be her friend, that you will always be there for her, and if things go great for her you will be happy. But if things don’t go so well, and she needs somebody to talk to, or somebody to bail her out of a tough spot, you’ll be there. You can be there when he drives into a ditch with the children in the car and she decides she can’t take it anymore. You can be there when he calls from the police station to tell her that they’ve booked him. You can be there … whenever it’s time for you to be there.

Trust me, there will come a time. Don’t change your phone number.

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Medical meddlers: It’s my body, not yours!

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 15, 2009

My mother and my boyfriend want to tell me how many pills to take

Dear Cary,

When I was 18, I had my first kidney stone. I had lithotripsy for another at 19 and a very serious bacterial infection in my kidney in between. I am now 25, and have spent seven years with intermittent pain and urinary tract infections. In the past year, the pain has gotten to the point where I experience it in various degrees on a daily basis — sometimes it is so bad I just want to cry. On top of this, I have gone through a series of doctors who have all doubted I have any problem at all — the “stones” don’t show up on CAT scans and they can’t find any other reason for my pain. I have been called a drug seeker, and told I am making it up. I know some of them — male urologists — think they are dealing with a hysterical female.

I have finally got a diagnosis from a new primary care physician and gynecologist of interstitial cystitis (pelvic pain/urinary problems) with kidney stones. These doctors at least believe me — when I have days of pain, followed by voiding debris, it seems the logical explanation. We are proceeding slowly toward more complete treatment — because of the seven years of missed diagnosis and rude doctors, they are making sure others I am referred to are aware of my condition and will be sympathetic toward it. We are still trying to get to the root of the stones, and specifically why my pain has only ever been on the right side of my body. They’ve also referred me for pain management, which is going to be a huge relief.

My problem comes from friends, my boyfriend, and relatives — specifically my mother. They have been supportive and helpful during these times, especially when I haven’t been able to be a pleasant person or reciprocate their kindness immediately. But now many have started focusing on my use of painkillers.

When I hadn’t started a drug regime for my IC, I was taking three Lortab a day. My mother even went so far as to count my pills and lecture me over the phone about being a drug addict. I now take tramadol for daily pain, and have Lortab for when things get really bad. Many people ask how much I have taken, express concern over the number of pills I use (I never exceed doctors’ recommended dosages), and make comments about how they are afraid I have an addiction problem. I also suffer from anxiety — and this only makes it worse. I am very aware of the danger narcotics pose. And I suspect I might have some symptoms of addiction, such as getting overly fixated on getting more pills when I am running low. But this is because my pain is under-managed. All I want to do is feel normal. I’ve tried to explain that pain medication is part of my treatment, but people seem to take such a sharp view toward the drugs. My mother is a nurse and makes comments about the “addicts” in their office who get 90 Lortab a month (what I used to take, meaning three a day). My boyfriend is always inspecting what pills I am taking, asking if I really feel that bad, and saying he doesn’t like it when I’m “stoned” on my medication.

Obviously, there is no way to not have these people involved — they support me through all my trials, pains and rough spots. But I can’t deal with the questioning and accusations anymore. When I tell them there is nothing wrong with taking pills as prescribed, they think it is my endorsement of them. They tell me I need “help.”

I do need help. I need proper medical treatment for my condition. I need to get better. And until then, I am going to use painkillers so I can lead a normal life. Despite these difficulties I’ve maintained good grades and have my dream job. I have friends, relationships, hobbies — but in order to enjoy these things, I can’t be in excruciating discomfort. How do I deal with this situation?

On Meds, Not a Junkie


Dear Not a Junkie,

Since I’m not a doctor, let’s talk about this as a relationship issue. Let’s just say that in your relationships with people, they keep interfering in something that is basically none of their business. You are looking for a way to draw boundaries, or say no, or get some control over a part of your life.

There is an area of your life that you want control of. You don’t want to discuss it with certain people.

There are ways to do this. They range from blatant refusal to polite refusal, but they are all about refusal. You have to refuse.

How are you at refusing? I’m betting you’re not very good. Neither am I, frankly. I’ve got a little note in my wallet that reminds me to think before saying yes. I also tend to disclose too much. I like to talk about my life but then find I’ve disclosed more than I’m comfortable with and then people give me advice and question my judgment and then I get resentful and start to sulk. You don’t want to see me sulking. It’s unpleasant to behold. Yeah, I’ve got boundary issues! Like right now, already, see what happened? We were talking about you and all of a sudden it’s about me. That’s a kind of a boundary thing, too: I’m trying to say I identify, but then I’m also switching the territory.

So let’s keep talking about you.

One way to draw the necessary boundary is to have a blanket statement that you use on all people who are not your doctor. You might say something like, This is a medical issue and I only discuss it with my doctor.

It may sound weird at first. People may make a joke, or react with anger. Keep your calm. Don’t give in but don’t explain yourself either. Explaining yourself (I’ve learned this with salespeople) just gives them an opportunity to overcome your objections. So, just say no.

The idea is to have a stock policy you adopt with everyone, even your mother, that you just don’t discuss your medical treatment with people who aren’t your doctor.

Now, I have a family. I know about families. You’re supposed to play your part. When you make boundaries, you’re sort of changing the rules. You’re saying, I don’t really like my part that much. But they like your part. It’s the part they want you to play. They can’t play their part if you don’t play yours. They don’t like it when you change the script. So be prepared. Stand your ground. Quietly stand your ground.

Just make it a blanket statement. And then go to the movies.

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My former best friend became a stripper


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Cary’s classic column from December 10, 2010

Wow. We were so close in high school, and now she’s doing drugs and hanging out with gangs

Dear Cary,

“Jenny” and I were the best of friends in high school. We did everything together and were more like sisters than friends. After high school, I went away to college. She never went to college, but moved to a larger city about an hour away. Although we kept in touch for the first few years, our contact dwindled. It was both of our faults. She didn’t call me much, and I didn’t call her much. There was no falling out. At this point, I haven’t seen or spoken to Jenny in four years.

I was shocked recently to find out that Jenny got her 2-year-old son taken away from her. The reason was failing drug tests and suspected gang affiliations. I also found out she is working as an exotic dancer. This is all wildly out of character for the Jenny I knew. I’m extremely concerned about her health, safety and well-being. I don’t have her current contact information, but I think with minimal effort I could get it.

My dilemma is this. I am now 29 years old and married. My husband and I own a home, and I have a steady public sector job. We are currently expecting our first child. In other words, we have a lot to lose. I am worried about making contact with a person who is a drug user and (suspected) gang member. I don’t know what type of people she associates with now. I’m worried about putting my family or my job at risk by reaching out and associating myself with her. On the other hand, I’m terrified that I’m going to pick up the newspaper one of these days and read that her body was found in a gutter. I would feel so guilty for not having tried to help.

Should I sacrifice my family’s safety to reach out and try to help a friend who was once like a sister?

Guilty BFF

Dear Guilty BFF,

It must be upsetting to hear this news about your friend. You obviously care about her and do not want to see her hurt. However, this is her life.

Her life is not an emergency. Her house is not on fire. She is not hanging from a cliff yelling for help. She is living her life, such as it is.
She probably does not have a nice clean kitchen where the two of you could sit and chat. It may be hard to make an appointment with her if she is busy getting a fix or getting bail or dealing with child protective services or managing her complex social life.

So if you want to see her, I suggest you drop in where she dances. It will give you a chance to see her without making an appointment. You might find, after seeing her dance, that you’re not really ready to call her or see her privately. It will give you a chance to feel what it’s like to be in her world, without making yourself known.

You might not like the environment. But it will help you understand what her life is like.

Her dancing may well be the high point of her life.
To you, it may seem like a pretty disgusting way to live. But this is a life your friend has chosen. It’s not a prison in which she is being held against her will.

I know that kind of life. And one thing I know about that kind of life is that when you are living that kind of life, you do not look out at all the shiny, clean people going about their orderly lives and wish your life could be like that. You have your problems, but you do not envy the straight people. You look down on them.

Such a life is not an unremitting horror. It has its ups and downs. She may occasionally be beaten and taken advantage of. She is probably exploited financially and occasionally robbed and threatened. But it’s her life and it has its rewards and its logic.

Whether by choice or not, your friend’s life is a life that many, many people in this country lead — a life of minimal income, frequent scrapes with the law, battles with social institutions, sporadic nightclub employment, frequent drug use and drinking, and association with people who have done time and are likely to do more time. In this world, violence happens with some regularity and usually has some logic to it. It arises out of personality conflicts or disputes over money or property or intimate relationships. It is something to be avoided if possible but not something that would in and of itself cause a person to flee the environment altogether. It is just something that happens, and you learn to live with it.

Think about what your friend was like when you knew her. What was her personality like? Did she have a lot of pride? Was she a passionate person? Did she like to drink when you knew her? Was she a thrill-seeker? Did she seem moody? Was she honest? Did she steal? Was she more interested in sex than you were? What kind of family did she come from? Try to connect that person you remember with the person who is dancing naked in a bar for money, who cannot pass a drug test even to keep her baby.

What do you come up with?

The most interesting thing to me in this is to ask what do you have in common? What traits do you have that might have led you into a similar life? Are there things about your friend that you used to admire, things that now you see have led her this way? Was she, for instance, a great dancer? Was she tough and stubborn and fun-loving. Were you?

If you approach her, approach her as a friend. If you can stay in touch with her, there is a chance that sometime down the road, if she reaches a true crisis, she will reach out to you for help, and you will be there. But until she asks for your help, do not assume you are there to rescue her.

My 8-year-old misses his old life — should we move back to the suburbs?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 19, 2006

It was good to separate from their alcoholic dad — but I feel bad about bringing my kids to the city.

Dear Cary,

My husband and I are recently separated. To make a long story short, he developed a serious drinking habit over the course of our nine-year marriage and refused to seek treatment. He became violent, mismanaged his business, squandered an inheritance and was terribly irresponsible with money, so much so that when we sold our house a few months ago we narrowly escaped foreclosure.

I could not afford to purchase another home in the idyllic suburban town in which we lived, so I moved with my two children, ages 4 and 8, to the city. I love it here, as I am a 15-minute walk away from the university where I am a graduate student in a very demanding biomedical research program. I am sharing a house with my sister, who is helping me immensely. She watches my children so I can run to the grocery store and is home when I have to stay late in the lab.
Five months into our move, my 4-year-old has adjusted, but my 8-year-old is miserable. He misses his friends and his old lifestyle, and his best friend who lived next door. There were 18 children on the block where we lived and they were always outside playing together. There are few children where we live now (unless you count the rowdy undergrads), and even if I allowed him to go outside by himself there would be no one to play with. Though we go to the park on weekends, he is not spending nearly as much time outside or with friends as he used to. Yes, there are great cultural opportunities here and it is more diverse, but that matters little to my son.

I feel so guilty for having removed my son from such a wonderful environment that I am considering moving back. Although I could not afford to purchase a house in that town, I could rent something small there. However, this would mean a longer commute for me, getting home later in the evening and the loss of my sister as a housemate, as she wants to remain in the city.

My dilemma is this: The city is better for me, but Mayberry is better for my son. Should I move yet again (an exhausting prospect) or make him tough it out?

Even if we did move back we would not be on the same block. I am aware that on the scale of possible human tragedies this one ranks pretty low, and though I remind him of this and offer him Lemony Snicket books, it does not comfort him. I know I had to leave the marriage, but did I have to leave the town too? I’m starting to think that in the turmoil of a dying marriage, I put my own needs before those of my children.


Guilty in the City


Dear Guilty,

I can relate to what your son is going through. When I was 12 my family moved to a world I did not recognize.

I did not know what to do to feel the way I used to feel. I did not know what I needed or how to get it. I did not know what I was feeling or what I had lost.

Knowledgeable adults could have helped this sensitive kid adjust. But such people were not available, and the adults who were available were overburdened with challenges of their own. So I was left to my own devices.

I did not do well in that situation. I did not develop the coping skills I needed. I now know that to adjust and grow in my new surroundings I needed to do two things: to maintain ties with my old world and to forge ties with my new world. But I did not know that then. I was just a kid.

So I had some troubles.

Therefore, my heart goes out to your son, who is much younger than I was when we moved. His connection to his home has been torn. He is doing his best to adjust. But he does not know how to adjust, nor does he have the powers to create a new world in which he can feel comfortable and confident.

Luckily, he has you. You are going to have to create that world for him. I suggest that rather than moving back to the suburbs or suggesting that your son just “tough it out” you consciously set about to create structures for your child that maintain some ties with his old world and help him cope with his new world.

Drive back to your old neighborhood and let your 8-year-old hang around, breathing in the air of the old place. Let him go play with his friends for a while in the old neighborhood. Have his best friend come and spend the night. Let him spend the night at his best friend’s house and then pick him up. Maintain the connection to the old neighborhood without having to move back there.

At the same time, create structures in his new world so he can develop new ties. I don’t know what organizations are available or what his interests are. Nor do I think this is going to be easy. I remember what it was like to live in a neighborhood where all a kid had to do was walk out of the house and his playmates and friends were all right there. In such a setting, there was no need for formal activity programs such as the Boy Scouts or what have you. But that world is gone. Your son is going to have to do things differently now. He is going to have to participate in more formal social structures. Pick some fun activities that will put him in regular contact with others.

He may resist. I certainly did. But I suggest that you be firm. You know what is necessary. He does not. He may think he knows what he needs, but he is just a kid. You are the mother. You know best. If he finds it hard to get to know new kids, help him. Keep at it. Do not let him fail.

You have a chance here not only to help your son adjust to his new surroundings but to counteract the lesson that an alcoholic father imparts to his children: that when stressful change arises, one responds by collapsing inwardly and drinking. You can demonstrate a more positive pattern — that one responds to stressful change by creatively adapting, by coming up with new ways to interact with the world.

You don’t have to explain all this to your son. Instead, teach by example. You can simply say, “We’re adapting to change.”

I do suggest that for the sake of maintaining a positive attitude you think of it as “adapting” rather than as “toughing it out.” Try being grateful for the opportunity you have gained — that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life watching the father of your children kill himself in front of you, fearing that he will crash his car into the neighbor’s garage or collapse on the front porch with his pants down around his ankles. You have escaped that danger. You and your children are safe. You may find, when you consider your good fortune, that you feel some measure of gratitude to the wrinkle of fate or cosmic force or God that brought you this far unharmed.

Your kids are going to find this hard. They are going to miss their dad. And they’re going to be sad and upset sometimes. But I think, all in all, that you have a very lucky 8-year-old.

Afraid to drink at the wedding

Dear Cary,

I’ve been off and on, but mostly on, alcohol for over 20 years. Currently on.

About eight months ago, I was asked to be a bridesmaid for a friend I’ve known since kindergarten. We’ve stayed close through the years but I was rather surprised by the request.  Come to find out this will be a lavish affair; I am one of 12 bridesmaids and God knows how many other members will make up the wedding party. I am always an anxious type in such situations, but am even more so as I will be somewhat in the spotlight. Throw in the open bar and temptation doesn’t just loom; it haunts.

As the wedding draws near, I am invited to numerous showers, lunches, brunches, cocktail parties along with the obvious rehearsal dinner and wedding.

I don’t want to get drunk, but I know myself, and I know this is a drinking crowd. What do I do? Do I risk being The Drunkest One, hope that I can toe the line, or teetotal it the whole weekend?

I’m afraid to drink, and I’m afraid to not drink.




Dear Genevieve,

I feel for you in this situation, because I have been there (although not in the bridesmaid dress). I mean, I have been in stressful situations where I knew I could not drink or I would be The Drunkest One.

Obviously, the smartest choice is just not to drink. No matter how you look at it, being boring and not having such a great time is better than being remembered as the one who passed out and had to be carried to her room. So I suggest you not drink anything at any of the affairs. Go completely dry.

But it’s a hard spot to be in. If you don’t drink, you’ll feel nervous and out of place and boring. You won’t have much to say and you won’t be funny and it will feel as though the whole thing is moving on without you.

But here’s the big, amazing secret about not drinking: not having a great time won’t kill you. That’s what I found when I stopped drinking. You can be nervous and ill at ease and that’s just fine. Lots of people are nervous and ill at ease. They don’t feel the need to fix that. They just accept it. Learning this is very freeing. You don’t have to be cool and relaxed and “on” all the time. In fact, it’s kind of cool to be a little aloof and withdrawn; all the coolest people are a little aloof.

If you do drink, you may feel comfortable at first, when you hit that early sweet spot, but then with the tension and the fear and seeing all these people, you will drink more, and you will hit that point after which there is no return, and you will not have a good time. And you will not wake up feeling good.

As you may know, I quit drinking a long time ago, so for me the answer is easy. The sad thing is, if you just quit for this event, you won’t have much experience not drinking, and will find it hard to negotiate all the social events. If, however, you already had some experience not drinking, you would know better how to relax and pace yourself with all the interpersonal stuff, and you might actually have a pretty good time.

That is why I suggest that you get sober now, while you still have some time before the wedding. You say you have been “on alcohol” for 20 years. That’s not a good thing. I suggest  you seek help now, to get off alcohol. Then by the time the wedding rolls around you will have learned some skills to use in a party situation when everyone else is drinking.

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

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks so much,



Dear J,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know how difficult this father thing is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My 16-year-old daughter is drinking

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 20, 2005

I didn’t want to start a fight, so I told her it wasn’t so bad. But I hate what she’s doing. What should I do?


Dear Cary,

I am trying to be a good liberal parent who stays aware of what her 16-year-old daughter is doing, yet not come down too hard on her. I am trying not to stick my head in the sand (which is what I see many, many parents doing). But I just am not sure I have the stomach for it.

Here is the situation: My daughter drinks. She confessed to me yesterday that in the past month she has gotten drunk at least five times. Maybe more, because, who knows, maybe she is just giving me the tip of the iceberg. She has gotten drunk at a party, at a dance, at a concert, at a music festival and, finally, yesterday, in a park. I confronted her yesterday, because the smell from her breath was just too much too ignore.

So, I confronted her, said I was concerned, and (maybe because she was drunk at the time) she then confessed at least some of the other times she has gotten drunk. She also told me that drinking was just part of her life now.

Now, my daughter really, really hates conflict. So, for that reason, and others, like I want to be the good, understanding parent, I sat and smiled and nodded and said, Well, it’s not so terrible that you’re drinking, but Daddy and I would really be concerned if it started interfering with other areas of your life. And smiled and nodded, and continued on with the safety and judgment discussion. No drinking and driving. How drinking alcohol can cloud your judgment, especially about things like having sex. And even said I would prefer her drinking at home if she felt she had to do so. At least she would be safe.

What a touching scene — except I go to bed that night and at 4 in the morning wake up and realize that I have just given my 16-year-old daughter carte blanche to do whatever she wants. And what I really feel is that I hate it. I hate that she is drinking. And I hate who she hangs out with. And I hate that we live in a wonderful city with a zillion things to do and she is choosing to drink it all away. At least if we lived in a small town, she would have the wonderful excuse that there is nothing to do. It all makes me so very sick to my not-very-liberal stomach.

I should add that my daughter is a 4.0 student, so it’s not like we can say, “You’re screwing up your grades.” Because she isn’t. I just hate what she is doing. And I want her to stop. And I wish I never asked. And I wish that I had kept my stupid head in the sand like the other parents that I sneer about. And I wish right now it would just all go away.

But it won’t. And I know I have to do something. Or rather, something else, besides my pathetic “Mom’s a good friend” response. I want so badly to do the right thing — for her, for us, for us all to get through the next few years. Advice? Help? Anything?

Beyond Confused


Dear Beyond Confused,

I did some research.

“There is mounting evidence that repeated exposure to alcohol during adolescence leads to long-lasting deficits in cognitive abilities, including learning and memory, in humans,” writes Aaron M. White, Ph.D., an experimental psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. He cites studies by Drs. Susan Tapert and Sandra Brown, alcohol researchers at the University of California at San Diego, that show alarming long-term and short-term effects of adolescent alcohol consumption. Their findings have been published in such journals as the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society; Addiction; Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research; and Addictive Behaviors.

White’s summary of those findings makes chilling reading. But it’s no surprise to those of us who did a lot of adolescent drinking and later became alcoholics.

“According to research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, adolescents who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21.” The same research indicates that “generally, an adolescent’s risk for alcohol dependence at some point in life decreases by 14 percent with each additional year that drinking onset is delayed.”

So you have to do something. You have to try and stop her from drinking. How you do that, exactly, I don’t know. Sorry, but I’m not a parent. I know how to trick, deceive, manipulate and bamboozle parents. But I don’t know how to stop kids from drinking.


For starters, however, I would try to shift your thinking about this a little bit, from viewing her drinking as bad behavior to viewing it as toxic exposure. You have the same responsibility to protect your child from alcohol as you do to protect her from mercury, dioxin, rabies, salmonella and the like. Viewing it this way may help you overcome your reluctance to interfere in what you may be tempted to view as harmless teen fun. It’s not harmless teen fun. It’s dangerous and potentially deadly.

Make this your mission. Consult local experts on teen alcohol abuse. Learn all you can. Get some support from other parents.

And one thing that may sound counterintuitive: Distrust your own instincts. Our normal social instincts, when confronted with a problem like this, are to be kind and understanding; we want to avoid conflict and seek harmony. Those instincts may work against you. Your goal is to keep the alcohol out of her system while she’s still so vulnerable to permanent damage. That is what’s important. We’re talking about permanent physical, mental and emotional impairment on the one hand vs. teenage angst on the other. Steel yourself against her spasms of teenage angst.

This may become a rough and ugly road, but it leads in the right direction. So hang in there.

There’s no guarantee that you can help your daughter; nor is she under some absolute sentence to develop an alcohol problem later on. When she’s old enough to make her own decisions, all bets are off. But while she’s under your care, I think that your job as a parent, unpleasant as it may be, is to do what you can to protect her from the effects of alcohol abuse.

Keep in mind that somewhere deep in her little teenage brain, however much she fights you, she may secretly be grateful. Because somewhere, secretly, deep in that teenage brain, she is probably scared to death about what she’s doing.

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