Category Archives: Addiction

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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,

J

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Dear J,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know how difficult this father thing is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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.

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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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Can I still be sober if I get drunk just once a week?

 

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Cary’s classic column from

I’d like to stop drinking, but does that mean completely? All week long?


Dear Cary,

It seems like every other letter you answer has implications of alcoholism. The common theme that I see in your letters is that people can get by just fine day to day, but have trouble achieving anything in the long run. I’m deathly afraid of that and I realize it’s time to get sober.

My social network is built around drinking. Everything I do involves happy hour or beer. I ended a yearlong relationship because I didn’t know how to have sober fun with my significant other. I like the thought of becoming sober, but I don’t like the thought of being the bitter guy who insists that he’s having fun when everyone else is drinking. Ideally I would still like to drink once a week.

Do you have tips for someone that wants to cut out alcohol? I don’t want to start going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for many petty reasons not worth listing here. Is it possible to maintain the same group of friends and stay sober? Is it possible to still go bowling and stay sober? Can I get drunk once a week and still declare sobriety? Running and weightlifting take up a decent amount of my time, but I’m still presented with ample drinking opportunities. I love my job and do it well. I love my city. Do I need to give them up and move away?

Ambivalent Alcoholic

P.S. I don’t really need advice. I really just wanted to ask you if you think a lot of the people that write to you have alcohol problems.

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Dear Ambivalent Alcoholic,

You can quit drinking today if you want to. Don’t worry what your drinking buddies think. It’s your damned life. You know what’s best for you.

If want to quit drinking but don’t want to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, I would suggest you first try to quit on your own. See how that goes. If you can quit on your own, then what do you need A.A. for?

Quitting means quitting, though. Say you quit playing golf. And somebody asks you, “You play golf?”

You say, “No, I gave it up.”

“But weren’t you playing Sunday?”

“Yeah, I play every Sunday.”

“But you don’t play golf?”

“No, I gave it up. Except for every Sunday.”

That kind of thing doesn’t make sense to people. If you drink every Sunday, you are a drinker. That doesn’t mean you’re an alcoholic. But you’re a drinker. A sober person doesn’t drink.

If you try to quit on your own and find you do need help, there are many approaches other than A.A. There is Rational Recovery, for instance. You might try that. It has had some notable success. They use a method called addictive voice recognition technique. There are rehabs, there is therapy, there are drugs. You’re the consumer. You’re the patient. You’re in charge. Go see if there’s something out there that will work for you. Don’t sell yourself short.

As to not being that bitter guy: You don’t have to be that bitter guy. But let’s be frank: When you stop drinking, your drunk friends do get stupider. Weird but true. They don’t make as much sense as they used to. They get in your face with their big wet eyes and it’s just annoying. The danger is that there is a solution: Get drunk again! That’s the danger of hanging around the bar trying to have as much fun as you used to.

Do a lot of people who write to me have alcohol problems? I would say that alcohol is often among the complex of interrelated problems people write to me about. That is not surprising. Alcohol is a good problem-solver. It can solve the problem of shyness, for instance. You’re shy, you have a few drinks, you’re not shy. It can solve the problem of not being able to express feelings. You feel cold and distant, have a few drinks, you’re feeling expansive and emotional. Problem solved.

People with problems aren’t stupid. When they find something that works, they like to take advantage of it. The problem behind the solution is, of course, that the solution becomes the problem. I assume that’s why you’re writing — you’ve realized that although alcohol helps solve certain problems, it’s also starting to hurt you.

So yes, you can quit, you don’t need to go to A.A. if you don’t want to, and if you think you can do it on your own, I urge you to try. If you can’t do it on your own, there is lots of help out there. You don’t have to drink ever again if you don’t want to.

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I quit being a musician because I couldn’t play without drinking

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Cary’s classic column from

Now my life is all screwed up and nothing works.


Dear Cary,
I turn 31 in a couple of weeks, and I feel like I’m unable to get my life together. I thought I would’ve had things sorted out by now, but I don’t. I don’t feel a whole lot more on top of things than I did 10 years ago.

I was a professional musician for five years after college but gave that up because I couldn’t perform without drugs and alcohol to loosen me up. After giving up music I became a school teacher, but I burned out after three years of teaching in a very rough urban school. Then, I moved into a supervisory position with an educational not-for-profit. The commute to this job is awful, and I’ve decided I need to move on. However, with each successive career change I feel like I’m moving sideways at best, and I’m having a very hard time getting excited about any new career path.

I would like to follow a dream, but having failed at my greatest dream, I’ve lost the confidence to entertain another one. Part of the problem is I have a tremendous ego — I was a gifted first-born who never learned how to handle not being the best — and am terrified of failure. Music, writing, chess, teaching — these have been my great loves, but not being guaranteed recognition spoils the enjoyment I get from them. I know this is irrational and childish, but it’s a barrier I can’t seem to overcome. I’m going to therapy, I do yoga, I’ve tried meditation … but none of these get me past the terror I feel at doing something and not being wonderful at it. My pattern these days is to halfheartedly take up some new creative pursuit every few months and squeeze it into my off-time, then abandon it as soon as it gets difficult.

It seems like striving doesn’t suit me. Sometimes I think I should give up striving altogether, to give up wanting anything in the way of achievement. Sounds Zen, in a depressive sort of way. But who would I be without this perpetual struggle to balance my creative impulses with time spent at work? Who would I be if I didn’t care about being smart or creative? My therapist suggests I not give up my creative pursuits, but resolve what is blocking me from experiencing joy through them (how I’m supposed to do this is unclear); my girlfriend suggests I find something different to strive for (she recommends love and intimacy).

Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking about the ways in which I’ve failed at life, and my dignity is foundering. I’m starting to feel like a loser and a coward, am depressed a lot of the time, and am slowly turning into a pothead and alcoholic. My siblings, who look up to me, are worried about my behavior and have suggested I try antidepressant medication. (My entire family, with the exception of myself, have been on medication at some point in their lives, my parents consistently since the ’80s. I’ve resisted it because I’m scared of what it might do to me, and because I fear I’ll miss out on a “deeper” life lesson if I’m doped up and not in touch with the pain I’m feeling. Meanwhile, I get slightly drunk or high almost every day. I know, I know.) My friends and family are confused about why I don’t seem to have done much with my life, and I am tired of feeling like I’ve wasted my potential by remaining embroiled in a childhood drama I seem powerless to escape. The drama is: Mom and Dad will only love you if you’re the best, and so the only way you can prove to them that you’re not subject to their approval is by being mediocre. I seem to approach almost everything I do with expectations so high that there’s no chance I could ever fulfill them.

One thing that’s going right in my life is my relationship with my girlfriend. She knows what I’m struggling with and takes the good with the bad. Long-term romantic intimacy has been difficult for me, and so I feel blessed to have found someone who is smart, attractive and not on a mission to change me. That said, I know my depression is taxing for her.

Any suggestions? Should I try medication? Is there another way of looking at this I haven’t thought about?

Slowly Driving Myself Nuts

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Dear Slowly Driving Myself Nuts,

You and I are a lot alike, actually. So I have to say this: I don’t believe that you can’t play music without alcohol and drugs. Listen: You were a professional musician for five years after college. You did it for five years. Five years!

I’m sure drugs and alcohol helped you in some ways. You probably felt less anxiety before performing when you used them. Perhaps you felt freer and less self-conscious while performing. But drugs and alcohol probably also interfered with your musical accuracy, your stamina and intonation, your ability to remember tunes, your ability to hear and balance your sound and to craft your performance.

I just don’t believe that you can’t perform without alcohol and drugs. I think it’s one of those untrue beliefs that gets in your head and screws you up. If being a working musician is your dream, then that’s the thing you need to get back to. Otherwise it will haunt you the rest of your life and you will go on trying cures without success — because you will be working against your authentic self.

I have also been a performing musician, although I was never able to make a living at it. My brother, however, is a professional musician and has been for most of his years. We both used to drink. We both had to quit drinking. I am no longer a performing musician but my brother makes a good living at it.

You can play music and not drink is what I’m saying. There are ways to do it. If it’s your dream, you have to find a way to do it. It requires sacrifices.

What my brother does is live a simple life. He gets enough rest and exercise. He takes care of his voice. And on the job he pays attention to the audience and to the club personnel. He can do that because he isn’t drinking.

He’s made sacrifices to be a working musician. He would like to raise a family but a musician’s life did not allow for that. It could still happen. But he’s dedicated himself to his music and that has meant living frugally and carefully. The life of a musician isn’t for everybody. But it’s not about being a genius so much as it is about getting control over your routine and learning to manage professional relationships.

As for me, at 31 I chose beer over music. We were called the Repeat Offenders and we practiced in a Turk Street basement rehearsal space in San Francisco’s Tenderloin across from a punk club called the Sound of Music. I remember coming to rehearsal with a six-pack of tall Budweisers. Here I had a group of brilliant musicians who loved me and whom I loved. I looked at the band, looked at the six-pack, and chose the six-pack. That’s how bad I had gotten. I couldn’t tell the difference between human genius and a six-pack of beer.

I was drinking for two reasons. One, I had alcoholic tendencies. I responded to alcohol abnormally. But two, I had not developed the artistic skill required to contain my feelings and direct them into expressive form. My feelings frightened me. I had a narrow emotional range — I could do rage and I could do joy. That was it. I could not handle the middle feelings.

Damn. So how did I end up back in my own past? What’s going on here? I do not want to remember this even now. Well, OK, so it is painful. That’s the key right there: knowing it’s painful and looking at it anyway. It’s this or drinking. It’s this or failure.

So what happened with me? Well, boring as it is to retell, I became a full-blown alcoholic and got sober at 35.

In getting sober I decided that pain was better than failure. Living with anxiety was better than dying in the gutter.

There was no guarantee that if I stopped drinking I would find success and happiness. But there was a chance I would not die puking. If I kept drinking, I had no chance. It was no chance vs. slim chance. I took the slim chance. I’m glad it got as bad as it did, because otherwise I might have trudged along in a fog of maintenance drinking and moderate delusion. As it was I hit bottom and rearranged my whole deal.

But you don’t need to hit bottom completely to change.

Here is what you could do: You could stop drinking and stop smoking pot today. You could just stop and live with whatever comes up.

So why not do that? Why not just give up and admit it’s not working. You know it’s not working. The truth is that you are a musician. That is the truth of your life. As long as you are fighting against that essential truth, of course you’re going to have to medicate. But you could just quit drinking and using and be a musician.

All kinds of feelings will come up, of course. But they won’t kill you.

There are things you can do to get by. Instead of trying to medicate the fear, try just walking around with the fear. Try going to the store with the fear. Just bring it with you, like a puppy or a small child. Going around sober is like that. It’s a little more trouble, because you bring all this stuff with you. But … how can I put this? Well, it’s like it’s your stuff. Like you see parents trying to ignore their kids in the store. That’s your kid. That’s your stuff. It slows you down but it’s yours. You have to take care of it.

You can do it, though. Like you, I had some support. I didn’t “white-knuckle it” exactly. I got plenty of support. But all that support did not magically remove my anxiety and fear. Basically I allowed myself to feel the anxiety and fear, to be a little bit nuts, a little out of control, not such a high achiever, not so perfect, a little uncharming and uncool. I made a bet that in the long term it would even out and things would stabilize.

And I had to find some love for myself, dude. So the bit about your relationship with your parents, I relate to that. Somehow you have to give yourself what they didn’t give you. You step in as the adult and say, OK, man, I know you are suffering here, and I give you permission to be only yourself! You move that relationship out of the past, which you can’t change, and into your present, your inner life, your symbolic life so you can change it.

Try that. Just step in there as the adult figure and give yourself what you need. You are the only one who can provide that now. Your parents are not ever going to do it. You have to move that whole struggle into your own sphere of influence.

For instance, in my own case, I now have to parent my dad — literally but also figuratively. I have to help the actual dad. But internally, I also have to create for myself the decisive, clearheaded man I once needed him to be. He is never going to give me that. I have to create a decisive, clearheaded persona to guide me in the present so that, in a sense, I become my own father.

We have to become for ourselves the parents we need. In your case, you need to become for yourself a parent who says, “My son, even if you didn’t have an ounce of talent or brilliance I’d still love you without reservation till the end of my days.”

So maybe you say that to yourself when you’re getting a little iffy. Maybe you go into the bathroom and look at yourself in the mirror and you say this. You say OK, boy, even if you didn’t have an ounce of talent or brilliance you would still be my boy, and I’d still love you without reservation till the end of my days.

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I threw my junkie sons out of the house

Dear Cary,

I need clarity surrounding my relationship with my two sons, 25 and 30, who until a month ago resided with me in the house I raised a family in. Both are opioid abusers (and benzodiazepines and nitrous oxide “whip-its” when they can get them) and they have systematically manifested the usual toolkit strengths of addicts … lying, cheating  and stealing repeatedly.

After catching them each in separate thieving episodes within the last month, I finally made them move out. This hurt a lot since I really like them when they’re not using. I suppose it’s their life and their path that they must follow and ultimately it’s up to them to decide to stop using, but how do I go about keeping them close in my heart when their junkie conduct is mostly aimed at victimizing me and ignoring my boundaries?

It feels much calmer and safer to not have them in my house anymore, but it also sometimes feels selfish. Your thoughts?

Fed-up Dad

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Dear Fed-up Dad,

How do you do what is right in the world and also feel good about it? Lots of times you can’t. It’s one or the other.

So which is more important? To do the right thing? Or to feel good about it?

What if we only did the things we feel good about? What if we always said yes? People would take our money and make us live in the street. I mean, you walk down the street and somebody says, I need money, I need a place to live, and you say, OK, I feel so awful when I say no, so here is my money, and here are the keys to my house. Then you’ve got somebody living in your house who doesn’t do the dishes and won’t leave.

If you didn’t grow up with people shooting up in your bathroom while you’re waiting to shave it can be a shock when they take your socks. Where’s my damned socks? you say. Then you get that blank junkie stare, and you realize just how far gone into another moral universe is the soul you were accustomed to encountering in the kitchen.

A good place to learn about this is Al-Anon. That place is full of people with addicts living in their basements and attics, shooting up in the bathroom and cooking meth in the kitchen and stumbling around drunk in the middle of the night where the kids can see them and wonder what the fuck they’re up to. At Al-Anon you’ll find people who have addicts driving their cars and raising their children with them, and sharing their paychecks and their beds, and you’ll hear how they deal with it. Sometimes it’s possible to just throw the addict out but sometimes not. Sometimes the addict is paying the rent, or raising the kids, or maybe you super much love the addict and can’t stand being away from him or her, or maybe you fear physical reprisals if you throw the addict out, or maybe if you throw the addict out you’re afraid he’ll die in prison.

In your case, you did the right thing but it didn’t feel great. I suggest you cultivate the minimal satisfaction that comes of doing the right thing regardless of how it feels.

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Our friend got drunk and went to a hotel room with a bunch of Marines

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, MAY 6, 2008

We think she’s out of control, and we think she should tell her boyfriend.


Dear Cary,

I am writing to you to get advice about a friend of mine who has some rather troubling issues that I fear may one day turn into very serious issues that will affect her entire life, and not just for the short term. My friend, whom I will call Jan, has been my friend for 13 years. We went to high school together. Jan rooms with another mutual friend from high school, whom I will call Lisa. All three of us are 26.

To make a very long story short, Jan went out one night with one of her friends (whom I don’t know very well), and got really, really drunk — so drunk in fact that Jan and her friend decided to go to a hotel room with a bunch of Marines that they had just met that very night. Lisa and I were up until 5 a.m. trying to find Jan, who had been drunken-dialing us with worrisome messages like, “I lost my friend, I can’t find her! I’m in a hotel room. Come and find me!” CLICK.

We did find Jan and her friend and brought Jan home, and immediately I knew something wasn’t right with her. Lisa got the full story from Jan’s friend, who then went home. As it turns out, Jan had consensual, unprotected sex with one of the Marines.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. Jan is notorious for having dangerous (unprotected), drunken liaisons with boyfriends and strangers alike. This happens frequently enough that Lisa has unwittingly become a “guardian” figure to Jan, having to rescue her on many occasions. Jan acknowledges, when sober, she has a problem, but refuses to take any steps to solve the problem. Rather, she blames everyone else (“You and she didn’t come with me to the bar!”) or tries to avoid the subject altogether (“I know, I know! Can we not talk about it right now?”). Lisa, for how kind and absolutely fantastic she is, is just too averse to confrontation to put down her foot and say, “Enough is enough! You need real help, and I am not going to come to your rescue at 5 a.m. anymore.”

Now, the kicker is that Jan is continuing to have sex with her long-term boyfriend, and she absolutely refuses to tell him about her encounter. (She hasn’t gotten the results of her STD tests back yet, either.) I personally don’t know Jan’s boyfriend well enough to talk to him about it, and even if I did, I’m not sure if it would be my place to do so. However, I worry that Jan is putting her boyfriend in jeopardy by risking infecting him with any STDs she may have. Lisa, on the other hand, knows Jan’s boyfriend really well, but she doesn’t feel it’s her place to get involved and is uncomfortably passive about the situation. I equate this situation to Jan’s pointing a strange, unknown firearm at her boyfriend and pulling the trigger, not knowing if it will fire blanks or a bullet.

My respect for Jan has waned so much that I fear I may not be able to look her in the eye and consider her a friend. She is a 26-year-old woman, handling adult problems like a child. Worse yet, she is possibly endangering the life of someone she claims to love. (She has been with her boyfriend for eight years.) Her fear is that he will leave her, and he very well might, but doesn’t he have the right to know and make an informed decision, at the very least to ensure he uses protection when having sex with her?

Do you have any advice for how we should handle this situation? In your opinion, it is our responsibility to confront Jan’s boyfriend with this issue if Jan won’t? Also, do you think that Lisa should continue to be Jan’s guardian figure, or do you think that she is unwittingly enabling Jan by always being there to bail her out?

Concerned Friend

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Dear Concerned Friend,

The boyfriend has a right to know that he may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease.

If the test comes back clean, that proves nothing. She is engaging in a pattern of behavior that may result in infection at any time.

She doesn’t need to tell him that she got drunk and went to a hotel room with a bunch of Marines. She just needs to tell him that because of her behavior he may have been exposed to an STD.

Informing him carries certain risks. The most likely risk is that they’ll break up. That would be unpleasant but probably for the best. There may be a risk of physical violence as well. Has he ever threatened her or her friends with violence? Some people respond violently to traumatic or upsetting news. If he is violent, she should be protected when she tells him. There should be someone capable of controlling him there — a friend or a police officer.

If she won’t tell him, someone else will have to tell him. Who will that be? Health department policies on partner notification differ widely from state to state and county to county. If she won’t do it, then you and your friends have to figure out a way to make sure it gets done.

Tell her that he has to be told and he is going to be told. Don’t let her talk you out of it. Instead, use the fact that he is going to be told as a way of persuading her to tell him herself. Maybe she will reason that if he’s going to be told anyway, she should do it first.

Then fill her purse with condoms.

Really. I mean, if she’s going to keep on like this — and she shows no sign of stopping soon — then she has to start putting condoms on the men she has sex with. Otherwise she’s a public health risk. She may be too out of control to actually be sure that her partners wear condoms, but put them in her purse just the same. Future partners may choose to wear a condom if one is available.

Remember: It isn’t just about her and him. It’s about those Marines, too, and about anybody else who might cross her path — or her boyfriend’s path, because we don’t know what he’s doing, either.

There is a limited amount of useful information on the Web; InSpot.org is a good place to start. See also this discussion and this article that discusses a survey of American doctors on the question of partner notification.

As I read over your letter, I keep coming back to the phrase “consensual, unprotected sex.” You say she had “consensual, unprotected sex” — while drunk, in a hotel room full of Marines. The sex was with a Marine and it was consensual. OK. She had just the Marine — while drinking. OK. Maybe they were both drunk. We don’t know. And there were a bunch of Marines. She was drunk in a hotel room full of Marines. Marines are strong young men trained to kill. OK. They are also trained to be gentlemen. OK. And, well, it may have started out fun, but at one point she was dialing her friends on her cellphone, crying out for help, calling for rescue, crying out that she had been abandoned. She was drunk and afraid. It does not sound like an episode of “The Love Boat.” That’s not to say she was raped. But perhaps we could say she had sex with a Marine under conditions of traumatic fear blunted by drunkenness. That’s not good.

I picture that hotel room full of Marines and your friend, drunk, abandoned by her friend and hungry for something, seeking something, vaguely aware that once she starts drinking she often can’t stop or control what she does next, vaguely aware that whatever has been happening to her lately is happening again, and every time it happens it seems to get a little more out of control. When I picture that hotel room and what went on there — maybe with just one Marine but maybe more than one, given that her shame may be overwhelming and her memory incomplete — when I picture her desperation and her hunger for whatever it is she was seeking at the end of the night, and then I hear the phrase “consensual, unprotected sex,” I marvel at the gulf between the language and the event. Perhaps this language indicates the gulf between your world and hers as well, and between the full horror of what happened and our willingness to imagine the full horror of what happened.

So I wonder what she says to herself about it. I doubt she says to herself, “Well, I went and had unprotected consensual sex with a Marine again, darn it!” I wonder what she would say if she could speak freely, with deep emotion, to someone she completely trusted. I wonder how it seems to her — that she was abandoned by her friends and ended up being taken advantage of? That they were nice guys but things just got out of control? That it would have been great if she and the one Marine could have just gotten off alone by themselves? And did she, in her heart of hearts, do it to get back at her boyfriend for some slight real or imagined?

I also wonder in what sense it was truly consensual. We are animals and we feel fear. Drunk, we do things to survive. We can feel when there is a killer in the room. We can feel when a killer’s reflexes have been trained. We can feel when it would be unwise to resist. Given our animal nature, the instincts that drive us when we are drunk and incapable of rational choice, given our desperate pretense in the face of implied danger, to say that it was “consensual” is to say what? What does the phrase “drunken 26-year-old woman in a hotel room full of Marines” say to you? Does that say the same thing as “consensual, unprotected sex”?

The more I imagine what went on in that room, the more I wonder if you and your good friends have come to terms with, or admitted to consciousness, the full terror of the event. No one probably knows for sure what really happened in that hotel room. Has anyone uttered the word “trauma” in relation to these events? Imagine the trauma to her roommate. Imagine her own traumatic shame when she woke up. And where did she wake up, or come out of a partial blackout? In the hotel room with the Marines, or in her car, or on the street, or in her own bed? Shame and degradation hide behind the phrase “consensual, unprotected sex.”

So beyond the public health issue of notifying the boyfriend, the emotional trauma of the event needs to be acknowledged, and she needs to get some help. I am convinced, having been out of control at times in my 20s, that we do not just go out of control for no reason. It happens in context. It happens because of feelings, because of our inability to control our response to alcohol, because we are hurt, cut off from friends and family, fearful about survival, unable to process and admit to ourselves our feelings about other things, and it snowballs. It escalates. One out-of-control incident leads to shame and humiliation and fuck it all, who the fuck cares now, might as well get out of control again because my friends did not rescue me the first time, so fuck them too, they must not care about me, and since they don’t care about me I must be pretty worthless, and if I’m worthless you’re worthless too, you shit, we’re all worthless, so what if I give my fucking boyfriend an STD, he should have been there to protect me from those Marines and protect me from myself, too. So fuck him. Fuck you. Fuck it all.

This is the way we end up dead. It snowballs. We stop caring. We enter into a spiral of shame and anger and humiliation, hopelessness, betrayal and self-betrayal, abandonment and apathy. We shut off. It’s too much to feel. We go dead. We shut off by drinking more and by abandoning ourselves, by giving ourselves away in pieces like a car parted out to thieves.

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

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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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In which Cary Tennis attempts to revive the spirit of the questing, searching essay form while maintaining token loyalty to the old, reliable advice column

 

Am I doing it right?

 

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Dear Reader,

When I was writing the Since You Asked advice column for Salon.com, I often would meander from the “given” form in ways that some readers found aesthetically displeasing. They were experiencing genre shock. (As though they had walked into a movie theater expecting Love Story and got Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or, more contemporary, expecting Spiderman 2 and getting … Oh, take your pick, what do I know of modern movies anyway? I scarcely leave the house these days unless it is to walk to the mailbox and remark on the men building the brick wall around the new preschool to take the place of the old captain’s cottage at 48th and Pacheco.) I took some heat for my perambulations at the time, but now that I have been unceremoniously released from my 12-year stint of service I look back and wonder why I didn’t take even more liberties with the form.

This is the kind of digression I would try to avoid when I was drawing a salary from Salon.com—even though I did it often enough anyway! It seemed like bad form. It may still seem like bad form.

But I am free to do what I wish now! I would probably be fired for writing like this if I were employed but I’m not employed, and very few people read this anyway, a diminishing number if our observations are correct, so: I am free! I am free! 

Furthermore, my spirits have been enlivened by reading Philip Lopate’s thoughts on William Hazlitt and Montaigne. I am realizing now that some of my periodic odd thoughts and zig-zags were part of a hazily remembered tradition but one deeply planted in my bones, a tradition that my father also was a part of. His craziness was not just craziness but part of a certain literary tradition and cast of mind that allowed for the mind to wander where it would, kicking at this tin can and that old master and this tree limb and that dog and child and garden gate and snail and rabbit and lost locket of a mistress or a temptress or a goddess wherever such were encountered. That is . . . It was a tradition of making sentences go wherever they would go, trusting the net of syntax to hold us together even if the strands grew thin, testing the mind to hold it together too, testing the mind to hold together the sense of a sentence even as it meandered, as long as it held to certain rules and maintained its tensile strength.

I didn’t take things far enough. Though some thought I went too far, think I did not go nearly far enough! Sure, I occasionally would write a column in the form of an imagined scene, with dialog and setting. And I would occasionally rant on. But I was trying to remain within the bounds of the journalistic trade I had learned.

No longer. There is no longer any reason for me to try to remain within any journalistic boundaries, for I am no longer doing journalism. That is quite freeing to realize. I have been wondering, in fact, how to make the transition to the new frontier that I am facing as a writer. Nothing could be simpler: Just jump over the fence!

And it has been enlightening to read Lopate, actually, and also Gornick, and I’m going to read Burroway when I can get my hands on her, and also Hazlitt and Montaigne, to see what the roots of this current craze are, and I’m not going to worry about much. Like am I doing it right?

Say that you have a problem and you have written to me.

There are many scenes this can evoke. Say you have come to me trusting me to think carefully about your problem and I instead seem intent on my own. You write to me expecting that your letter will be read carefully and considered, that I will weigh your problem with the same gravity with which you yourself weigh it. You don’t expect me to say, Hey, that’s not a problem, you selfish, privileged person! You don’t expect me to malign your motives. That’s part of the bargain.

But breaking the bargain is interesting, too, as long as it happens in an interesting way. So for instance say you have a desire to be punished. How can I know that? I can’t. But I can guess, in the interests of drama—which immediately is breaking the presumed bond of my promise to be helpful and kind. But might the column fulfill your wishes in that way, if your wishes only were known? Why must the advice columnist always play the nurturing role? That is the role I play all the time. But it is simply a role, as I have insisted all these years, when people would ask me, how can you be so compassionate, so wise? Because I am playing a role! Because I am at heart a spinner of tales, a writer of fiction, a prevaricator of the first order! I play a good man on the Internet but I am not really a good man all the time any more than you are a good person all the time. So I have to fight through, in the moment, my various unsavory impulses, in order to fulfill my mandate. But my mandate is gone!

As my wife and I were sitting down to a lunch of delicious stuffed cabbage yesterday, I remarked to her, You know, the roots of civilization are in not saying the first thing that comes to mind, in having some restraint.

Now at the word “restraint” if you were of the guilty, masochistic type, you might think of physical restraint. In fact we might explore the extent to which the erotic interest in physical restraints is a speaking-out of civilization’s need for metaphysical and spiritual restraint: A way of acting out our need to develop a way of living within society; the restraints, or bonds, might be considered our superego, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Anyway, after long consideration, I have decided that if this new column on my site is going to have any value at all, its value will lie in my commitment to follow my mind where it may lead, and to attempt to bring some order and clarity to my flitting thoughts, while also answering your letter in some form or other. It will be far more interesting to me and perhaps to you as well. For after all the mind is a crazy and barely tamed thing, full of associations that are at first puzzling but which can be made clear once all their dimensions are sorted out and brought to light.

It will be rough going, there’s no doubt. I won’t be cleaning it up like I used to at Salon. (You should see the many thousands and thousands of words that I removed from my columns over the years. In fact, I may begin posting them just for the sheer strangeness of it, to say, this is the mind’s detritus, this is what is left over, these are all the stray thoughts that in a perfect world, would be loved as much as their well-groomed brothers and sisters who were allowed to go to the fair.)

For this style to work it must not seem random. There must be a hidden rigor to it. I must leap off the cliff and then improvise on the way down, making it look easy, making it look like I knew exactly what I was doing when I jumped off the cliff!  I must reveal my thoughts as they arise but also to make some sense of them, to string them together so that you can see that I am not just putting out random thoughts without any effort to connect them. You must see that I am struggling to do something that is hard—as I was when I was working at Salon, only now with fewer restraints. There’s that word “restraint” again. I do wish to be tied. I do wish to have my freedom taken from me. I do wish to meld into a oneness, to merge, to leave my separate self, and being restrained is a part of that, too. But, being a writer, I take the route of thinking. OK, so maybe I tie my hands together and try to type. That would be funny. Maybe I make a video of me typing with my hands tied together and blindfolded, with a gag in my mouth. That is the writer at work in some settings, is it not? And we think of writers in repressive regimes and wonder if in some way they did not welcome the silencing of their thoughts, for our thoughts are not angels; our thoughts are devils. Our thoughts are malevolent beings that attempt to take control of us. I remember my first visit to the Jung Institute in San Francisco, my interviewer asked me, do I hear voices? and I said of course I do, and he asked, do they tell you to do things? And that was a harder question. For if they told me to do things I still retained the dispassionate interest in them to regard their instructions with haughty disdain or contempt. But our thoughts do not have to be telling us to do things in order to be devils and distractions and sources of discomfort. Their mere presence, like the presence of a jack hammer outside the window, or a dog barking, or a Harley going up the street (p.s. how do they get to be so loud? How can anything be that loud? How is it legal?) is a distraction.

So we might say, too, that journalistic restraints are a way of recognizing the essential unruliness of our own minds, as well as of our society. I’m of at least two minds about this. (ha ha) Because I tell you, in a sober, adult voice, journalism—disciplined, traditional, “objective” journalism—is a wonderful thing. It’s super valuable! It’s how we can know something. It’s how we attain the meager certainty that we can attain, given the uncertainty of our universe. It’s like science. It’s a way of knowing something pretty surely, as surely as we can know, given the uncertainties of time and, to be sure, the uncertainties of knowing itself, of the universe itself as we conceive it. It’s the best we can do. And for that it is of immense value.

But the fact that we attain some degree of knowledge and certainty does not mean that we are civilized and in control. To the contrary, the sheer difficulty with which we attain even the most meager knowledge and certainty, the rarity of such certainty, the number of years and the training it takes to learn to do it—to learn to have several sources and to tease out the implications of a piece of reporting, to see it from all angles, to discuss it with other editors and reporters, to compare notes—all this only indicates how truly slippery reality is and how essentially crazy the world is.

If the world weren’t crazy, we wouldn’t have to work so hard to make sense of it. So maybe we are working too hard to make too much sense of it. Maybe, rather than remove all that is nonsensical—which is what we are up to when we are doing careful journalism—right now I prefer the model of admitting all that is nonsensical and random into the discourse, but then following each random and nonsensical item to its source, and searching out its relations, until it becomes clear in some kind of context. Like for instance why I am thinking about restraint and all its implications, both in the world of sadomasochism and in the world of journalism, and in our day-to-day attempts to live civilized, decent lives in which we do not bring harm to those around us.

I do not want to be reductive. I want to include everything. It will get exhausting but that is the price of occasional insight.

So on to the letter and we will see where this leads us.

(You see, it has taken a few months for me to find my footing.)

Here is the letter.

France_Ad_fix

Hi Cary,

For the past four years, I’ve enjoyed your advice column. I’ve always found something in your responses that I could take away and apply to my own life. Sometimes it was made me aware of how people affect me, sometimes how I have been affecting people.

Here is some context for myself – I am a creative practitioner in my late twenties. My field of work is a very… labour and hours intensive one. It is not uncommon for me to work into the night, and through weekends. This might sound anti-social, but I work as much as I do because it is what I love most. I’ve always found people really difficult to understand because of my childhood circumstances (hence why your column was so enlightening to me), so I feel like the solitary nature of my work is the perfect partner to my personality.

This is partly the reason why I quit my stable job 2 years ago and begin working for myself. That situation has been up and down, but I’ve been able to keep my head above water, and the massive upside is that I get to choose what I work on. I’m able to have an amount of passion for everything that I take on – and clients don’t mind if I’m crazy about work and socially awkward as long I’m pumping out the work they like. This whole venture has meant I have to drink cheap coffee, make my own food to last weeks, and not have new clothes, but it’s been worth it!

Late last year I entered a period of financial stability, which coincided with meeting someone I felt I connected with.

She’s an artist, older than me, works in a cafe, and has had a lot more experience in anything about everything. She is also up front about her past of substance abuse, even though she is clean now. A lot about her partying past scares me – the types of people, the types of things they did… I’ve been close to someone that was into that type of existence, and I still get painful feelings thinking about it. She was so completely different to me in every way, but I could stop myself from liking her.

We would have talks – she would come around to where I lived so we could work on a special creative project together. I gave her bits of work from my own jobs, because I knew that she was good. When her living situation imploded, she spent a month on my couch. I felt like I had found someone that was going to go on creative adventures with me.

The possibility of renting a cottage together came up – she needed a place to live, I needed a place to work. We applied and were successful, I moved my office into the place while she was away visiting her family. When she came back, we moved all her stuff in. Since then, a lot has happened. I could go on about lots of little things, but that would be a bit granular so I’ll try and summarise.

I have the habit of emotionally exploding. One time, I went around to the office to pick up something I’d left there and forgotten the day before. It was our arranged ‘day off’ where she has the house to herself, but I needed this item to do work. I knocked on the door, and she was very angry for almost a week. Her anger at this, really shook me. 3 months later, I am not allowed to be in the house at night-time. That in itself is really hard for me, since being separated from my equipment is painful and means I can’t work. She made a specific meeting to tell me that we should stop hanging out and having dinner together. Recently, I emotionally snapped, because I couldn’t take the tension of not being on speaking terms with someone I share a floor with.

After this, I tried to dial back, however I was told that she can’t have me in the house. A summary of her words were, she really likes the work and the jobs we do together, but she didn’t sign up to deal with all the emotions I’ve been exhibiting. I proposed that if we tried to talk more I wouldn’t be so uncomfortable around her – her response was that she’s not going to change anything to deal with my problems. So I moved out my equipment, and into a garage someone has kindly let me occupy. As I was packing up my stuff that afternoon, she told me it’s not like we aren’t going to communicate, after all we still have jobs to complete. Then her friend picked her up to drive her to her yoga class.

I had contracted her to work on some jobs that I had sourced, well before things got so bad. Within a few days I received some emails with one line sentences and phone pictures of sketches she had done. When I critiqued one and asked for further clarification of design details, I got a curt response with an exclamation point. Because she doesn’t have time to work on them any further, I have to pick up the remaining work and finish it in a couple of days.

This is really affecting me. I can’t get out of bed, I don’t want to answer the phone. This garage is horrible, and I’m still on the lease at the house even though I can’t go there anymore. I’ve been treated for depression before, and I thought I was doing well these past few years but now I don’t know what to do. I have no idea. All these work deadlines are hitting me and I can’t work. I feel like a fool, because if I’d just been able to control my emotional reactions maybe I wouldn’t be in this pain.

Sincerely,
Creatively dumped

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Dear Creatively Dumped,

There has been a breakdown in your work relationship with this person that is affecting your ability to deliver the work you’ve promised. For the time being, you need to put aside attempts to make the personal relationship work and just finish the jobs you’re doing with her.

If you can finish the work without her involvement, do so. If you can find another collaborator to finish the work with, do so. If you end up owing her a kill fee, pay her the kill fee and be done with it. If you must continue with her, then continue with her until the jobs you’ve currently agreed to perform together are concluded. Then end your relationship with this person.

Your mistake was to mix personal space with work space. It’s always risky. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just recognize that you have to be careful mixing work and friendship.

Can I just say something, though? Why don’t you say you are a painter, or sculptor, or filmmaker, or clothing designer, or whatever you are? Why are you so circumspect about what it is you actually do? I have wondered this about letter writers for a long time and I’m finally going to just start asking: Why are people so vague about what they are actually doing? It would be extremely helpful to know exactly what kind of work you do.

I am curious, too, about what this reticence means culturally. What is the “social space” in which this reticence occurs? Is that social space in some way the problem? That is, we have a problem that is very much about material circumstances. Material circumstances are very concrete. Space, time, money, objects, equipment, contracts, labor, hours: These are all very concrete things about which agreements can be made that eliminate later confusion. Clearly, the reason you have a problem with this person is that you did not negotiate in enough detail, in a concrete enough way.

Perhaps it seemed silly or rude to talk about exact hours and spaces and times of day and so forth, in the context of your personal relationship. And yet now we see the problems that result. You are in a garage.

Here’s another thing. She has her share of problems. We don’t know what they are, precisely, but we know she has her share of problems. It’s possible that she has screwed you over. But you’ve let her screw you over. So we’re back to the question of restraint. If we let someone screw us over, are they to blame? Well, yes, of course they are. And are we to blame for letting them screw us over? Yes, of course we are. It takes two. Either party could prevent this. In the “real world,” people screw you over if they can.

So don’t get screwed over. Accept that people will screw you over if you let them. Don’t let them.

What does that mean?Here’s an idea that’s very concrete: Take some self-defense courses. Seriously. You may be able to get to the psychological thing you need through the body. Try it. Try getting into battle in a physical way and see if that doesn’t tell you something about your vulnerable posture in the world.

And that’s it from me.

So this has been rather rough and not at all the type of column I used to write for Salon. In a sense, I am reinventing my practice once again—now that the restraints are off. Increasingly, as the weeks go by, you will see a shift from a straight advice column to something else, whose outlines will remain fuzzy, but which will take more chances, be more rhetorical, more questioning, more immediate, and perhaps, on certain days, crazier. People will hate it or love it. That’s nothing new. What’s new is that I’m currying favor neither with readers nor with an employer. I’m back in the business of confronting my own soul, which has ever been the only business a writer can be in.

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CTFlyer200

He’s sober but he steals hotel towels!

Cary,

I’m dating a man but I’m uncomfortable with some of his behaviors. He is about eight years sober and attends Alcoholics Anonymous regularly. He and I dated about four years ago and I adored him but couldn’t tolerate some of his bad behavior so the relationship ended. He seems to have grown a lot in the last four years and I was excited and hopeful to give the relationship another chance.

However, he still doesn’t follow the same rules of society that I do. Here are some examples of things he’s done in the last couple of months: He’s tried to sneak into places that he should be paying to enter; he’s takes the towels from hotel rooms; and he outright lifted a towel off of the maintenance cart and took it home.

He knows I’m uncomfortable with his behavior. He jokingly asked if I would feel better if he returned the towels to the hotels (and I said yes).

He occasionally will tell me things he did before he was sober. For example, he said he flooded a vacant house on purpose. I hear no remorse from him when he tells these stories and it seems unlikely to me that he ever worked the Step 8 the way it was intended to be worked.

When I reentered a relationship with him this time I went in with the attitude of keeping things light and taking things day by day. But now he is asking more of me and I’m losing interest in him.

I don’t know if I should just ease out of the relationship or if I should let him know why I’m cooling off. It seems only fair to tell him why I’m backing away, but I don’t want to create a scene either. I would want to stay in the relationship if he was working on changing this behavior but I know I can’t change him.

Your advice sure would be appreciated.

Sunshine

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Sunshine,

You can’t change him. But you can place before him the opportunity to keep going out with you, and let him choose. You can say to him, I like you a lot but I won’t go out with you if you keep stealing towels.

Then it’s up to him. I’d choose you over hotel towels and I don’t even know you that well. But you’ll just have to find out what he wants to do.

Maybe he has a different definition of stealing. When people are drinking sometimes they have a different definition of drinking. Like beer is not drinking. Or one glass of wine is not drinking. So maybe to him taking a towel is not stealing. Maybe it would have to be fifty towels for it to be stealing.

If there is a definitional problem at the heart of this, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, may help.

I get what you mean when you say you can’t control his behavior. You’re powerless over that. But he’s not. He is capable of making choices. So put the choice before him. He may be motivated to change his behavior when he contemplates the benefits to be obtained.

There is, of course, an apparent contradiction between his attendance at AA meetings and his attitude toward stealing towels and sneaking in places. Maybe he hasn’t read the AA literature on stealing towels and sneaking in to places. (Just kidding. I don’t think the literature expressly contemplates such activity; one is left to make such connections on one’s own.)

But let’s not go there. His membership in AA is his business. The thing that properly concerns you—and it is a proper concern—is that he acts dishonestly in front of you. That troubles you. It should. So just tell him it’s a deal breaker. And then stick to it.

Now, you’re not his AA sponsor, and neither am I, and it’s none of our business, but I am a writer and writers are curious and like to create hypothetical scenarios for sheer amusement. So personally I would find it amusing if, say, his sponsor were to recommend that he take a rigorous textile inventory of himself.

Or of his house. How many towels has he got in there? And how could he make amends? Should he visit each hotel and walk around the halls until he finds a housekeeping team hard at work, and just casually throw in the towel? (Speaking of which, maybe his resistance has to do with a resistance to surrender, i.e., he refuses to throw in the towel.) (Groan.)

Anyway, I like the comic possibilities. It could be his quest. Like “My Name is Earl.” You could film it and put it on YouTube.

CTFlyer200

Breaking Down the Breakup (I think I should leave but I’m not sure how)

 

Write for Advice

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your letters for years, and usually I can find plenty of guidance through your responses to others. This time, I would like your thoughts directly.

I am a divorced mom of an elementary school child. I was married for a long time, and got divorced after my husband revealed years and years of extramarital affairs. It was a nightmare, but it’s been about six years now. I have rebuilt my life with much help from counselors, friends, and supportive family. I am starting to regain my professional life (I was once an incredibly high-achiever), and am used to the regular hassles of having to raise a child with a man who continues to treat me without much regard. I found much to relate to in your letter to a woman in a similar situation, and found comfort in your metaphor of a ferris wheel where everyone has turns on the highs and lows.

I do things slower than many, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I was ready to try dating. I met a lovely, sensitive, artistic man, and we’ve been through a lot together, between my wariness to date again and his health issues. We’ve struggled through because we have a lovely and deep connection. But after many ups and downs, we are parting ways. Or trying too. We have broken up a number of times, but this time at least for me, I can’t figure out any other ways forward. And I don’t think there’s anything to do about that. But I’m writing to you for your reflections because you are very insightful about these particular issues.

The man struggles with both mood issues and alcohol. He has suffered many different health problems, and has diligently trudged from doctor to doctor in search of answers, through traditional medicine, holistic health, and back to traditional medicine. He has had diagnoses of food allergies, depression, anxiety, and more recently, fibromyalgia. suffered a pretty large breakdown after his last switch between systems, and has worked hard to regain stability. He sees many different doctors regularly, is taking medicines and having his psychiatrist adjust them when problems arise. He works with a counselor, a psychiatrist, a family doctor, and a specialist. And he is working through his drinking issues, although he does not have them figured out. He has spent some time in AA, but didn’t last long there (for some semi-legitimate reasons, like a distaste for higher-power-culture, as well as for some less compelling reasons that point to him just not being ready yet).

All through our relationship, we have maintained an incredible friendship. I am so much myself with him, and I can talk to him about anything. When he is feeling well, I love thinking of our life together. But of course, he is unpredictable. He has been working at his health and well-being much longer than I’ve known him, but so many of his issues have responded to his past six months of work–but not enough that I feel confident moving forward. His drinking is a large concern for me, but is not something that I see in my daily life with him. That is, I know he struggles because he tells me so; but I am not with him when he drinks. The issue that I see most, and that is the cause for my lack of hope more directly, is his mood. When he is not feeling well, he cannot communicate effectively or, even, normally. It looks like he doesn’t know the rules for fair fights, but it turns out it is much more than that. He can’t hear what I say. He’ll be upset about something that happened two days ago, he’ll let it fester, and when we speak again, he’ll throw in kitchen sink complaints about all the things I do that drive him nuts. And there’s no speaking to him at this point, because he cannot hear. He takes anything I say in these conversations and turns all the words around. He has these problems with everyone in his life, at work, with family, with friends.

The heartbreaking part is that he knows this is a problem. He doesn’t want to be this way. He sees doctors and tries treatment and apologizes. He is a lovely, sincere person with a lot of beauty inside him, and a lot of struggles. But he doesn’t have it figured out, yet. That, and his drinking. And perhaps they are connected. We’ve hit the point in our relationship where we would move forward in some kind of larger commitment, which I can’t do under these circumstances.

My friends and family like this new man. And they also wish for something easier for me. They say things like, “He’s such a lovely fit for you, but you’ve also been through so much already. I wish it were easier.”

Cary, I’m not sure there’s any answer here beyond the one facing me, which is to continue to say no to circumstances I cannot manage. But it is heartbreaking. I find it difficult not to compare. My daughter’s father calls several times a week to talk to her, piping Facetime scenes of him and his cooing, round-faced sons into my kitchen. He has stomped on every significant relationship in his adult life, leaving a trail of heartache, debt, and lawsuits. But he is funny and charismatic. His reward? Marrying a smiling rich woman, and having babies. I see that, and then I see this man who can’t win for trying (that’s not to take away levels of personal responsibility). And I also see me–I am trying to work my way through this crap with honesty and without taking the easy way. Things are mostly fine in my life, but I have given up hope for another child, which I always wanted (I’m about to turn 40). And after this dating relationship, I feel so sad. I feel sad about the world, and how it works.

You should probably know that I am an INFJ. I realize I feel things bigger than most people.

From

A Possibly Dramatic Empath

Connecticut_PatCary1

Dear Possibly Dramatic Empath,

I think that this man is not suitable for you because of his many problems. I think you will need to let him go. This is not a workable relationship.

So how can I help? Maybe you need help implementing the breakup. So let’s break down the breakup.

First, whatever regular communication you have ceases. Communication changes from something you do routinely for emotional satisfaction to something you do only to tie up loose ends related to concrete commitments you have made during the relationship. That means if you feel like talking to him, don’t. That means if you have the thought that a certain performer he likes is in town and maybe he would like to go, don’t. That means if you want to explain something to him about why you feel sad it’s over or how you think he might improve, don’t. It means not communicating with him.

Second, it means physically disentanglement. If you have entangled monetary accounts and property, separate the accounts. If you owe him money, pay it; if he owe you money, collect it. Distribute or dispose of any joint property. If things he owns are left at your house return them. If things you own are at his house go and get them. Be thorough.

Third, any standing arrangements you have, such as meeting regularly at a cafe or going to the same bar: renounce them. Enact a new routine that takes you to places he doesn’t frequent. This isn’t because there’s anything traumatic or problematic about seeing him. It’s just the concrete way that a relationship is taken apart so that it no longer exists.

Often in seeking to know when a relationship is over one will wait to feel some subjective state of completion. But the relationship is not about your inner state; it is a tangible thing made up of interactions, commitments and property. You take away the interactions, commitments and property and the relationship is over.

You will still have feelings but that’s OK. You’re always going to have feelings. The important thing is to separate the feelings from the relationship. You will do better dealing with your feelings once you can deal with them as your own feelings, rather than as problems in the relationship.

I wonder if you will feel guilty. You might. I know you’d like to help him. The sad fact is that you can’t. Al-Anon is useful for that. It is also useful to take stock of both your inclinations to help others and your history of helping others and being victimized by them, starting with your ex-husband. Al-Anon can help you with that as well. We, the readers of your letter, don’t know exactly what happened but it is clear that he deceived you for years. So one thing you will need to do in the future is enact security precautions: In relationships with men, insist on knowing what the ground rules are. If it is supposed to be an exclusive relationship, be like an arms inspector: demand proof. That may sound crazy but it is simple logic: A man you knew intimately deceived you regularly for years. His deceptions were probably discoverable. Unless he was a trained spy with excellent trade-craft, his deceptions were discoverable. There was a trail. You didn’t see it because you didn’t look hard enough for it. Had you proceeded on the assumption that men regularly deceive women, you would have discovered it. So let that experience form the basis for a new, less trusting, more security-conscious practice regarding men and sex.

I’ll bet your ex-husband is some kind of narcissist or sociopath. So try not to date a narcissist. Try not to date a sociopath. If you’re not sure, ask up front. Say, “Excuse me, but before we date, can you tell me: Are you a narcissist, or a sociopath? Do you routinely lie to women to manipulate them into sleeping with you and then hide your other affairs from them for years just so you can feel powerful and in control? Because if so, maybe I’m not your gal.” Now, I know that sounds silly, and the narcissist or sociopath of course will act baffled and confused, or maybe compassionate and understanding, but the relationship won’t go very far. He will decide that you’re not the woman for him. Some non-sociopathic guys will just think you’re too weird, but some will find it interesting and will want to know more.

Also try not to date anyone who has a problem with alcohol.

That is my advice to you: Break up with this man completely. Visit Al-Anon at least six times, enough times to really be able to decide if it can be helpful to you. And exercise some security measures with men.

 

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