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.

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

 

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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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Our person of the week: Terry Sue Harms

Back in 2008, I had the good fortune to be introduced to Cary Tennis.  I was trying to make sense of a novel length story I had been working on for two years.  I was self-conscious and insecure about what I had produced, and those insecurities were all but squeezing the life out of my creativity.  I didn’t believe I qualified as a writer, but a story came to me with such compelling force that I couldn’t not write it.  Without having any grand plan for what I was doing, I followed the story that played out in my mind like a movie; I wrote down what I saw, what the characters were saying, and how they felt.  The words just kept coming until I had the working draft that I gave to Cary for editorial assistance.

While he was reading my novel, he suggested that I acquaint myself with Pat Schneider and The Amherst Writers and Artist Method.  As soon as I read Schneider’s “Five Essential Affirmations,” I knew Cary could be trusted with my writing.  The Amherst Method’s philosophy affirms that all writers have a creative voice that cannot be silenced by social standing or academic status, and mentoring can be done without stifling the writer’s unique voice or creative inclinations.  It boldly proclaims that if one writes, then that one is a writer!  Hallelujah!  The writer in me broke out in a happy dance.  I didn’t have to somehow prove that I was worthy of the title; my thoughts on the printed page proved I was a writer.

PearlsCover_smallWith Cary’s trained eye, ear, and supportive input, I began to hear and validate my own creative impulses; I stopped doubting my right to say what I needed to say, and I was able to move forward and write the novel, Pearls My Mother Wore, to a satisfying conclusion.  It was during the first Creative Getaway at Marconi Center that I was able to go off by myself and complete a critical chapter in the novel.  The experience of writing by myself while among such a strong and supportive writing community and in such a relaxing and gorgeous setting was magical.

With assistance from Cary and Norma Tennis, I self-published Pearls My Mother Wore at the end of 2009.  Once the manuscript was as polished as I could make it, I hired Norma to put a professional touch on the book’s layout.  My husband and I designed the cover.  I got to set the selling price and pick the publication date.  It was such an all-around positive experience that I’m now working on a second book.  This next one is a memoir about my absent father, a man I’ve never met or spoken to, how I found him, and how I let him go.

I can’t stop smoking pot

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Classic column from November 3, 2010

 

I can’t stop smoking pot

I love smoking pot, but I think I may have a problem. I smoke it every day, and when I can’t get it, I drink

Dear Cary,

I smoke marijuana every day. There are times when I don’t smoke, but I’ve definitely smoked almost every day for several years. I’m an extremely functional smoker (stoner?) — I’m in grad school, I have a part-time job, I have a good relationship with my family, I have a social life, etc. I usually smoke alone — most of my friends don’t smoke or only smoke occasionally. I usually wait until later on in the day to get high, but I’ll sometimes smoke before I go to school/work/coffee/meet up with friends.

Smoking is relaxing, it’s fantastic, I really love getting high. I don’t do hard drugs — I only smoke weed. I’ve researched the topic and I’m not overly concerned about the health ramifications. [To the people who are rushing to comment that marijuana is VERY HARMFUL (psychosis! cancer! we don’t really have proof, but it’s terrible for you! etc!) — please don’t waste your time.]

I have a history of depression — it’s genetic and occasionally situational. I’m not severely depressed — but I definitely have depression that waxes and wanes. I’m sure that I’m partially self-medicating, but as medicines go, weed is a pretty good one. I’m definitely psychologically addicted to marijuana.

My family, employers and some friends would be shocked and upset if they knew how often I smoke. I come from a conservative/religious background and I feel guilty about the tension I’ve created between my public and private life. I doubt anyone would explicitly say it, but most people I know would prefer that I develop a drinking problem as opposed to being a stoner. More important, they’d prefer I not be addicted to any sort of substance.

I enjoy drinking — but I enjoy smoking far, far more. When I can’t get weed, I use alcohol as a substitute. I’ve started combining the two — and my drinking has increased. Smoking weed is great, but having a few drinks and smoking is sometimes even better. I’m concerned that I’m developing a drinking problem. I’m pretty sure that I’ve flirted with developing a drinking problem in the past, but smoking weed has helped me avoid that. Should I stop drinking? Should I restrict my drinking? How concerned should I be about this whole situation?

I’d really appreciate your advice.
J.

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Dear J

How concerned should you be? You should be very concerned. From what you say, it sounds like you’re one of us, an addictive person who probably can’t stop on his own and is headed for trouble. Look at what you’re doing. You’re substituting one drug for another. That’s a sign. You’re doing it every day. That’s a sign. You can’t stop. That’s a sign.

If I were you, I wouldn’t even bother to try and stop on my own. I’d just skip that futile step and get into a program.

I mean, sure, you’re free to try. But here’s the thing. We know an awful lot about this. There are so many of us addicts, and many of us are really smart. We know the ins and outs. We have a vast reservoir of knowledge, firsthand accounts, personal experience, medical data, psychological data, systems, programs, literature, societies, support groups, blogs, forums, meetings, specialists, retreats, rehabs, hospitals, books, tapes, movies …

This is not some mysterious problem you just came up with. If you walk into the world and say, I’m an addict and I’m asking for help, you are going to be showered with help, perhaps more help than you want, and you are going to have the opportunity to get free of this thing and live well and happily without it.

So, frankly, I think you should just get into a program and skip all the intermediate steps of losing your job, losing your friends, crashing cars, being homeless, going to jail, etc. Why bother? Just get into a program now and stop before you really, really, really have a problem.

I’m speaking from experience. I used to smoke like you do. I hid it and felt guilty about it but I really, really loved it. And I didn’t see anything wrong with it except that I was getting addicted to it. But eventually all the normal things happened to me that happen to most people who get addicted to things. I lost jobs, friends, lovers, places to live, clothing, self-respect, health, energy, dreams, reputation. You name it, I lost it. And I didn’t have to. If I could have stopped earlier, I wouldn’t have had to do that. Of course, there are reasons having to do with character why I didn’t stop. And of course there is the fact that I just fucking didn’t want to.

But, hey. It doesn’t have to be that way. You could get into a program now.

So why not? Why not just say fuck it, it’s clear where this is heading, and I don’t have to go there.

It’s going to be obvious to everybody else around you where this is headed. If you choose to keep going, you’re going to be the only one pretending that you don’t know where it’s headed.

Once you’re addicted to something, stuff starts to fall apart. Once you’re addicted to something, you’re no longer free, and you’re no longer present. You’re gone somewhere. You begin to lose your life.

That was when I stopped: when I became conscious that I was losing my life. But it took a long time. I was betraying my principles and hiding my real life.

The real damage was that I was losing my self, my soul, this innocent personhood to whom I had pledged myself, that I would be a good person, that I would not be a failure, that I would become good at writing and would be a person I could admire, that I would fulfill some kind of promise.

Where did that promise come from? Where did that inkling of virtue come from? You could call it what you like. You could call it the soul, or the divine, or just innocence, or God, or just moral consciousness, or just man’s innate reason. There was a part of me that knew better. And I didn’t listen to it for a long time.

But finally things got too bad.

So you could stop before things get there. You could just go to a marijuana addicts anonymous meeting and start listening to people’s stories. Many stories start out as yours does. Things change over time. It is hard to maintain an addiction that is steady and does not cause deterioration or does not spread. I think that’s because addiction changes your overall habits in life. It tends to take over. It undermines your reasoning and decision-making.

You’ve got something that you’re lying about, that you can’t control, that is making you feel guilty, and you don’t have to do it.

You’ve obviously got a problem. These kinds of problems only get worse without intervention. So go get some help. Stop smoking pot and stop drinking. You’ll be glad you did. You’ll be re-integrated into your family and your social world, and you won’t have to be hiding things, and you’ll have more energy and clarity of mind as well.

And don’t try quitting alone because that doesn’t work. You’re going to need help.

So that’s my advice. You can stop. You really don’t have to do it. You can change your life. And you’ll be happier after you do.

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Hanging with Judith Lindbloom at El Farolito

Judith Lindbloom, abstract expressionist, El Farolito on 24th Street in the Mission for lunch after the meeting, talking about William James,  the God thing, William James says, Look, we are scientific men, Christian men, honest men, and we cannot deny what we see: People are having experiences; they have these experiences of another world and then they change. What are we to call this? How can we, as scientific men, pretend that this is not real? So something is going on, basically, is what Judith and William James and I agree about in the Farolito on 24th near Florida Street.

How did she get 33 years sober, hanging out with de Kooning in New York, marrying Steve Lacy because he needed a wife even though she preferred women, and living in that apartment at 24th and Potrero since 1979, watching the giant construction cranes across Potrero at SF General Hospital, and my plate of al pastor, and the uncanny feeling of holy rescue one feels sitting across from somebody who rampaged through 1950s New York art scene fucking everything that had a can of cadmium yellow and a canvas stretcher, everything that had a gallery show even a group gallery show and a collection of Chet Baker records not too many because he didn’t make too many because he died young and pretty and messed up, toothless and beat up and strung out in the Fillmore … thinking how does that familiar miracle happen to this woman who is nothing but trouble for years just fucking up everything until finally one day she gets it and stops the bullshit and just keeps painting every day for the last 33 years in her studio at Hunter’s Point until the abstracts are piled up to the ceiling and still she keeps going because it’s the only way to God for her, it’s the only way to know herself, her raspy, Winston-ravaged throat, her New York by way of Chicago combination of exasperation and exultations, half the time having no idea what she’s really saying but agreeing, as we agree about William James and what he was seeing in 1890, that the old religions are crumbling yet people are having these experiences of something beyond, something other, something anti-rational that says everything you believed up till now was wrong, relax, surrender.

Let the impossible happen. Let what you don’t know guide you.

Me and Judith in El Farolito. She talks incessantly about dying. How she’s ready. How it’s a pain in the ass. How people are taking care of her. People are taking Judith where Judith needs to go. People are buying Judith lunch. People are driving Judith to AA meetings. This is community.

This is how community works, a loving community around a single person without any blood relatives nearby, this is how we close ranks around someone who tore through New York in the 1950s and is still painting abstract expressionist and still listening to jazz LPs on her turntable in her Hunters Point studio and still wearing those khaki painters’ pants the hipsters wore in New York: that faded black-and-white photo of her on the door of her Hunters Point studio: Who is that woman she’s with, her lover? A friend of de Kooning’s? Who is that woman? How did she get there? And how did we get to this table at El Farolito?

We moved into her building in 1990 and she said, “I’m the one with the great flat. You’re the ones who got the not-so-great flat.” We became friends. We went to demonstrations together.

I am giving her rides. We are taking care of her. We are closing ranks around her as she threatens to slip away from us.

A letter to the alcoholic at Chrismastime

 

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Dear Cary,

I’m a recovering alcoholic, married with two teenagers and a mild in-law problem that really bothers me during the holidays. To some degree, what I am struggling with is naming why my holiday situation bothers me so much. May I bend your ear?

My in-laws are nice people and regularly invite my family to stay with them in their very rural home town for the Christmas holiday. The kids both love Christmas with their grandparents and cousins, and the event is the peak of my wife’s year. Generally, the whole week around Christmas is packed full with caroling parties, fancy meals, long sessions singing in groups, unwrapping presents — about as wholesome and Norman Rockwell as it gets.

Unfortunately, something about the overcrowded conditions, being surrounded by other people’s traditions, and unable to break away for even an hour of solo time becomes overwhelming for me. I have tried many times to find things to do to get away — the only criticism I would make of this group is their complete inability to understand why someone might need some alone time. In general, there is nothing else to do in the town we visit. If I manage to get away for a ski afternoon or something, invariably much is made over my absence and the unavailability of the car I use (even if it is my own rental). Clearly, it is a breach of their rules for someone to leave the group.

I feel that a normal person ought to be able to overlook and overcome this small inconvenience for the sake of my wife and kids, who truly love this annual outing. Still, here it is only December 3, and tonight I am sick to my stomach with dread, fearing Christmas as I never feared a final exam. In my inventory tonight, I have to acknowledge resentment of the fact that I am the outsider in this group, the only one with no musical talent, doomed to hold coats and mind the little kids while others sing and demonstrate their excellence on various instruments, the guy who gets ten sets of socks at the gift exchange. I’m sure there is also a link between these feelings and some truly miserable childhood Christmas memories, and with my near-total separation from my birth family. I wish none of this were so.

So, in general, sobriety is going well. It’s been a little more than seven years, and I feel like I’ve moved a long way from the bitter, scared person I was when I was drinking actively. As I went through the steps with my sponsor, who is someone I have known my entire life, I had to recognize that a particular kind of retributive anger was my main driver — what some of my friends call the “racing brain.” I was caught up often and simultaneously in revenge fantasies and unbearable self-doubt. I learned that the sad truth about me was that these fantasies were precious to me, and that to the same degree I drank to escape them, I also somehow was defined by them. My daily inventory was, for years, an exercise in recognizing and rejecting these thoughts by — I hope this does not sound too weird — offering them up to my higher power as the only sacrifice of value that I could make. I would visualize these feelings, which unfortunately were the most precious possession of my soul, being burned on an altar, and therefore no longer mine. It has generally worked.

Except, well, you know. The resentment I feel about being cooped up all through the holiday to celebrate someone else’s idea of Christmas, the feeling of being an outsider. I am powerless over this feeling tonight. Any thoughts?

Very truly yours,

Another Hill to Climb

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Dear Another Hill,

Let me help you first with naming it. How about we call it deprivation disguised as plenitude? For you sit at a great banquet. Yet you feel empty. It seems to work for these other people. Yet it doesn’t work for you.

Does that mean there’s something wrong with you?

Well, yes, if you want to put it that way, there is something wrong with you. You’re an alcoholic. It may seem harsh or un-P.C. to say there’s something wrong with you but of course there’s something wrong with you! You wouldn’t be in recovery if you were fine. You’re not fine. You respond to things differently. Your psychology is warped. You have, heroically, and for your own survival, learned much about your own perversity. As I have. Have learned enough, one hopes, that you can say with equanimity, Yes, there’s something wrong with me. I’m alcoholic. I don’t respond to alcohol like others, nor do I respond to social situations like others. Nor do I respond to pain and discomfort like others. One could say that. I can certainly say that of myself: There is certainly something wrong with me!

Luckily we have found a way to live as alcoholics. So let’s ask, What would an alcoholic in recovery do?

What about service? Service does not mean just making coffee and straightening chairs. It means changing our entire posture toward the world, so that rather than self-seeking we are of service. Rather than thinking of our own delight we are looking for ways to be useful and in harmony. It is of course hard at this time of year to look on a happy, singing crowd, full of good cheer and possibly good scotch too, and not wish that we could have what they have.

But we have something else: We have been saved from an awful death and we know what to do. We make ourselves of service.

Forget yourself and your longing for the good cheer others find so easily. Accept the fact that you were put here for something else. You were put here to be of service. Being of service can be subtle. It can mean just being pleasant. It can mean letting everyone do what they do and not getting in the way and endeavoring to at least appear to enjoy it.

In the midst of all this frivolity, it’s easy to think, Aha, all this frivolity is just what I need!  Without quite realizing it, we start thinking, How can I get jolly and carefree like them? How can I have some of that good cheer? Once that thought takes root, it is hard to let go of. We start to feel like we can’t be OK unless we are in that state of frivolous good cheer which looks so attractive and beguiling. We start to feel like we can’t survive unless we get some of that good cheer!

Underlying this, however, is the belief that we cannot survive without what we think we need. That is an interesting proposition for an alcoholic, isn’t it? For what we think we need is not actually what we need. Strangely enough, we have demonstrably unnatural appetites. How many times in the past have we believed that we needed certain things or we could not function? How many times in the past did we think we simply could not function without at least a beer? How many times did we assume that life without alcohol was an impossibility?

On the flipside, how satisfying has it been to learn that we can at any time experience, in the absence of any mind-altering drug, the sheer, naked hum of being? To experience, unfiltered, the majesty of the moment, to quietly, while others are lost in frivolity, become aware of the holiness of the moment? And to contemplate the possibility of an ancient bond with the very living, breathing human historical beings whose stories and actions come alive this time of year? To imagine them in their robes, speaking their strange tongues and yet as tormented and full of doubt as we are. To make the leap from being trapped in the narrow now, looking at historic figures as mere symbols, to communing with them directly, through a kind of soul-melding or psychological identification on a deep level, so that the holiday and the spirit of the holiday comes alive for you.

It is a resonant myth, this notion of Christmas. I’m not a Christian but neither am I insensible to the awesome power of the story. To celebrate the idea that someone was born, a savior was born: What an awesome thing to contemplate; what nectar for the thirsty soul, even if we do not believe it, even if it conflicts with other things that we might believe, religion-wise: what an awesome and wonderful thing to imagine, that a savior might have been born who would transport us out of torment and death.

It’s not a bad thing to think about as the lights come on and the eggnog comes out. It certainly is not a bad thing for an alcoholic to think about. For anyone who has recovered from the torment of alcoholism has been literally given a new life. Most of us had reached a point where it was clear that no human power could have relieved us of our alcoholism. Yet it was relieved. So we have been touched by something beyond the rational; we have been saved from drowning; we have been pulled safely into the boat.

That alone is something to celebrate. You may celebrate it differently from the way Christians celebrate their union with God, and differently from the way pagans celebrate their union with the earth or indeed differently from the way any of the many major and minor religions celebrate. You may celebrate it quietly, away from the singing and the egg nog. But celebrate it. Celebrate your own birth and rescue. And then place yourself in the service of these people, these good, loving people who accept you into their house, who want the best for you, who bear you no ill will, who would clasp you to their bosoms and make you feel a part of their family if they knew how.

Most of all, listen. For you can be sure that just beyond the gaiety is a burning need to be heard. In fact, I have noticed that the salient fact about many such outwardly cheerful and brilliant families is that their members secretly feel unheard; in the rush to participate, something is sacrificed: perhaps that very interiority that you find so essential. The fact that this family does not recognize the human need for solitude indicates that at least some of its members probably bear an unexpressed need for the kind of full and generous hearing only a sympathetic sufferer like you could give.

Nor castigate them because they don’t know how to make you feel a part of their family. Accept the fact that you are the stranger. The stranger is a problem for a family. Its individuals may not want to, consciously, yet the very existence of the family requires that it exclude the stranger. To do otherwise is not easy, especially if the stranger is like you or I, a stranger vast in his interiority, inscrutable to others, possessed of manic, howling impulses of retribution and perversity!

We alcoholics are not easy people to love, my friend. So do not place too heavy a burden on those around you. They will love you in their way but it will not always be what you would wish it to be.

Instead, find a dish to wash. Find a porch to sweep. Lend a listening ear to anyone who seems bursting. Also, let them to teach you their songs. Or, assuming you can at least keep a beat: Play percussion. That is one thing such gatherings often lack: Someone to beat the tambourine steadily, humbly.

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford: Holy DayGlo tattoo of the roaring political id, Batman, get this wayward soul to detox and hand him a big book!

 

I’m starting to think of the Rob Ford phenomenon as a rare performance-art spectacle in which the tragic and doomed performer, seeking the death of his own ego, effects a feat of topological magic in which he turns his own id inside out. Like a DayGlo 3 a.m basement tattoo of his ravaging animal being, the awful, voracious, unquenchable id of desire appears on his red, bursting skin: Will I get enough food? Will people like me? Can I eat some pussy now?

He is so oral. He’ll never be able to consume enough to quench what’s eating him. As he eats, it eats him. It’s the ouroboros turned inside out. Instead of shedding skins, he’s adding them.

It’s funny but sad. And some of us can’t help seeing something of ourselves in this caged animal. We think, “Of course we are better than that lunatic! Of course we are not deranged fools!” And yet … we can relate, because it’s medical, not moral. It’s the disease at work.

Speaking metaphorically, not knowing the neurological way to express it, it’s what happens when you regularly numb the regulating brain: A man is left with nothing but his rattling, wildly swinging beast.

And, things can’t be that great at home right now for Mr. Ford. Why’d he bring his wife up there on stage to radiate the fury and disgust and helplessness of the aggrieved partner? Dunno. Just did. But it fits. Why’d you go tear up that bar and wreck the car? Dunno. Just did. Feel bad now but at the moment it seemed like the thing to do.

Because you were momentarily insane. Duh.

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He looks like he could use some sleep. One imagines the gloomy disgust that hovers about his head at home. One imagines, too, all of Toronto, made his enabling bitch, howling with impotent outrage. Having let the insanity go on too long, regretting that she did not throw him out at the first indiscretion, now sitting captive at the dinner table night after night as he moodily gallops from grandiosity to despair, from humor to rage, from wounded to attack mode, like a hurt, snapping dog.

But — and this we note with perverse glee: Until the addict is done, there ain’t nothing anybody can do about it. He’s going to keep on. The id knows no framing, no modulation; it has no self-restraint. The restraint is supposed to come from that other part of the brain that is now shut down, poisoned.

That’s not to say that if he were to continue spiraling out of control and die we wouldn’t feel awful. Of course we would. And, being flawed ourselves, we might well reflexively blame the co-dependent world around him but we would know in our hearts: There’s nothing anyone can do but watch and wait, following him with a net.

He’s doing what people in active addictions do: The mood swings, the alternating confession and attack, the warped expectation that now that we’ve confessed everyone will cozy up to us, the rage when people don’t seem to get it and don’t seem to want to be our friend again even after we’ve confessed! come on, man, I owned up, I said I smoked crack, so what’s your problem, Let’s be friends again or else I’ll double down and go double nuclear crazy! and then you’ll see the real Rob Ford Crazy Man!

It’s all there like a template. All of it that we know and love and have heard a million times.

It’s unrealistic and silly but the thought occurs that maybe there will be something educational in this: The world gets to see just how crazy a person gets. Most folks who haven’t seen the disease of addiction at work up close still view behavior through the moral filter. But, I mean, Rob Ford Is Us. Whose id is any less crazy than Rob Ford’s? We’ve all got that inside of us. Most just keep it chained up.

It’s the process of addiction that corrodes the chains and lets the crazy take over.

And that is scary. Right? Addiction is scary. Maybe at least that will get across, amid the late-show laughter and scowling highbrow disgust.

Now here’s a fantasy best-case scenario: Rob Ford takes it as far as he can take it, Charlie Sheen style but fatter and less sexy, until through truly awful but not fatal events he finally hits bottom and gets help and changes his life. And then: because here is opportunity writ large: Toronto, at his behest, in his honor and probably partly for its own security, builds a huge recovery and drug addiction and alcohol treatment center like right next door to Toronto City Hall.

Yeah. Dream on.

But which occasioned the following thought: I was at a meeting today at a recovery house in a coastal California town, a lovely clean, pleasant place filled with people showing recent scars of hell, that haunted, terrified look of people who’ve been searingly close to the burning consummation of holy hellfire and have survived, have OD’d and are coming back to life, and it occurred to me, sitting there in that den of redemption settled under palms in an old and lovely Edwardian, it occurred to me that a recovery house is a community repair shop of the soul: That our lives, as lived in America today, are uniquely perilous to the soul, uniquely oblivious to its subtleties and needs, and so the soul often breaks, as would be expected, because we run it uphill at such high temperatures for such long periods of time, and so, as a village would have a blacksmith at the ready for horses who lose their shoes, so we have recovery centers at the ready for that predictable catastrophic breakdown, that sure percentage who will lose their souls and minds and need help getting better.

It was a nice, comforting thought, that the madness of addiction is an everyday event, and that we have plenty of beds for everyone.

Maybe we could use a few more. Maybe the bar could be a little lower for admission. But basically it’s quite a wonderful, compassionate and civilized thing, all these recovery houses we have. Maybe somewhere out there there’s one waiting for Rob Ford. Or maybe, as I say, in the dream of all dreams, one will eventually be built in his honor, and will help thousands of people just as crazy as he is, but just as salvageable.

And now, for the premier of my Experimental Donate Button: I’m going to try out different forms of this, but the idea is to allow people to vote with their money if they like a column. I will receive this with gratitude and will salute you privately in my little crazy world. Or maybe I’ll send you a note or even record a greeting. Not sure yet. For now, um, Ta-Dah, there it is: The Donate Button!