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?
Write for Advice
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?
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.
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.
I made the mistake of letting a homeless man move in with me. Now I can’t get rid of him.
I’ve known this man for over 20 years. At one time, he was my boyfriend, but we broke up years ago as a result of his excessive drinking. Since I’ve known him, he has been in detox at least five times and rehab twice. He’s been hospitalized twice because of a bleeding stomach and he’s contracted hepatitis C.
He called me one night last December to tell me he was evicted from his apartment. He’s in construction and has been working sporadically as a result of the housing downturn. He was in detox, but they threw him out after five days because of lack of insurance. I begged him not to come here and to stay with his brother. His brother is a recovering alcoholic (has not had a drink in 40 years) and is fed up with him. So he showed up on my doorstep and I made the mistake of letting him in. I told him that he could stay with me under one condition: no drinking.
Although he has been helpful with housework, he has made no financial contributions and has not saved any money to move out. Two weeks ago, I found evidence that he is drinking again. When I confronted him, he denied it. Twice since then I’ve found more evidence. The other day I contacted him while he was working and told him not to come back and to find someplace else to stay. He came home anyway, telling me that he had no place else to go.
Cary, we are having the exact same fights that we had when we lived together years ago. It’s like déjà vu. One night last week I fell asleep on the couch and when I woke up, there was an empty pot on the stove and the flame was on high. Also, I’ve walked in on him while he’s on Craigslist looking for “casual encounters.” At this point I am afraid to go away because I can’t trust him. I’m afraid of coming home to a burning house or getting ripped off by a “casual encounter.” Although he has been told that he is not allowed guests while I’m not home, it is obvious that I can’t trust him.
I just want to go back to my old simple life of living alone with no worries. He has destroyed my carefree lifestyle and invaded my home. I worked hard to get to where I am in life and he is sucking me dry.
When we were living together years ago, I had to get a restraining order to get him out. At that time he was destructive, so I was able to convince a judge that I feared for my life because he was constantly breaking my things, punching holes in the walls, breaking my car windshield, etc., out of anger. He hasn’t shown any signs of violence yet, but I don’t want to have to wait for my home to be trashed before I can do anything about it. I don’t think I could get another one because he has never hurt me physically.
I’ve tried discussing it with him and had no luck. He sees the fact that we don’t get along as being my fault and asks me why I’m doing this to myself (?!). I’ve told him that I want him to start saving money and find a room to rent, but it doesn’t seem to sink in. How can I get rid of him?
Housing the Homeless
Dear Housing the Homeless,
First, contact your local police and explain that you have a man living in your house against whom you once had a legal restraining order, and you are planning to evict him. Tell them he has been homeless, he has a history of violence and he has a drinking problem. Ask if they provide civil standby for such instances. Ask how you would get a second restraining order if it should be needed. Ask for their advice. They may or may not give you advice. If they advise you to see a lawyer, see a lawyer. You might want to see a lawyer regardless; lawyers who specialize in landlord-tenant law have experience in similar situations.
This is all by way of covering your bases. You want to have a plan and you want to have physical protection, either from police or from volunteers.
Then, once you have your bases covered, you need to give him clear, unequivocal, concrete instructions, on the order of: “You and all your belongings must be out of this house by 3 p.m. tomorrow. You may not come back.” If you think he may have copied your key, have the locks changed.
I sense that you are in anguish about this. You may be confused about how it happened: You acted in a sensible, compassionate way, and now you are in a mess. You asked him to do certain things and he has not done what you wish. So it may be that, being a kind person, you have not really accepted the hard, brutal facts about him. He may be a kind person in certain ways; you may see much good in him. But if he is drinking alcoholically, he is not capable of acting right. You must accept that. He is not capable of keeping agreements. Bad things will keep happening to him.
He will make it appear that he is the victim of uncaring authorities and heartless circumstances. It sounds like he has been doing this in his conversations with you. For instance, you say, “He’s in construction and has been working sporadically as a result of the housing downturn. He was in detox, but they threw him out after five days because of lack of insurance.” What if we were to recast those sentences like this: “He’s an alcoholic so he’s been working sporadically. He was in detox but detox is temporary.”
Rather than casting him as the victim, let’s stick closer to the observable facts, and see if that lets us get some distance on him. In my experience, alcoholics tend to work sporadically regardless of the economic climate. They work sporadically because they do not have the stamina and energy of nonalcoholic workers. They require more rest, and often are not available five days a week. They also tend to have poor social skills. They alienate fellow workers and, if their coordination is impaired, they can endanger other workers. So there are many reasons why practicing alcoholics work sporadically. As to detox, well, detox is a temporary measure. If a person genuinely wants to recover from alcoholism, after detox he or she can take steps to remain sober. Insurance is not required to stay sober. People who genuinely want to stay sober find a way. Ample free help is available. Insurance is not the problem. Alcoholism is the problem.
So it sounds like he has been able to twist your heartstrings a little by casting himself as a victim. It might be said that in truth he is a victim, but not a victim of other people. He is a victim of alcoholism.
In accepting this difficult truth, you may find it useful to attend some meetings of Al-Anon, where you will meet many other people who have been in relationships with alcoholics, and who have identified the patterns of behavior. You will be able to say, Aha!
Good luck with this. It’s very hard, emotionally, to cut someone out of your life. But if it’s any consolation, I have heard many men say that being cut out of someone’s life was the best thing that ever happened to them. It takes something like that to realize just how hopeless the situation is. Only then will many people seek help with the desperate energy that is required.
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
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.
Write for Advice
Until a few years ago the only issue I had with my dad was his drinking and resulting behavior. A family member recently uncovered a secret that my dad has been keeping for ages. When he was very young he and another woman, whom he was never married to, had a child. To my understanding my dad tried to provide for that child, but the relationship went sour and the mother asked my dad to sign away legal rights to another man (the person she eventually married and who I believe she is still with today).
My sibling and I have asked questions and have only gotten some answers. My dad is not interested in finding this child, but is not trying to hide from the child’s finding him, either (i.e., he keeps his name listed in the phone book). So, we have a half-sibling out there in the world and have been asked to leave it all alone. My mom supports this notion, stating that doing otherwise would only complicate things (i.e., future family functions or airing the laundry of the past).
I have decided to respectfully leave it alone — for now. My sibling, on the other hand, was for a time on a quest to find this person (with no success as far as I know). When my parents divorce (this is certain) my dad will have a reasonable amount of time to get his life in order and his addiction corrected (i.e., discovering new and healthy coping skills). If he chooses to continue drinking (and I do believe that, to an extent, addiction is a choice), he has been warned that a relationship with me will not be an option. (I’ve carried his weight for too long … I’ve set my boundary.)
Should this be the case, I will then look for the half-sibling because it would no longer “complicate things” due to the ending of contact with my dad. If he gets himself together, however, I will potentially lose this option … unless I go against my dad’s wishes. Knowing that a part of me (my dad) is out there calls to me and nags at me from time to time. (Do I have an entire additional family out there? Am I an aunt? Would I be accepted as part of their family? Rejected as part of “him”?)
Even though my dad has lost just about all respect, I don’t necessarily want to go against his wishes (but at the same time a part of me could give a shit about his wishes). So what do I do? If I do nothing, will the internal nagging go on forever? Do I continue to wait it out to see what my dad does with his life? (As if I haven’t been waiting long enough already!) Or do I go about finding this person because I have some right to know him or her, given our bloodline connection? I realize that this person may not want to be found, and may not want a relationship with other half-siblings, but how am I to know this for sure if I don’t find the person and ask? Any thoughts?
Mesmerized by the Possibilities
A secret in the alcoholic family is like a precious jewel or a newborn child, a thing to marvel at and a cause for rejoicing. I imagine a family gathered around its secrets as though around a warm hearth, celebrating with a birthday cake and candles, passing secrets down through generations like jewelry. Why am I imagining this? I do not fully understand. It is certainly not a literal thing; it is more like a dream. But stick with me here and let us see where this goes.
I note how you calculate the effect of your choices, worrying how people will be affected. I suspect this has much to do with the relationship of a child to her alcoholic father.
Let’s go back a few years. The child of the alcoholic watches his condition. She dreams he will overcome. She tiptoes. She considers her actions carefully, not wanting to hurt the parent or abandon him or draw attention to his frailty, but guarding her flank too, knowing how he can lash out.
She develops theories. She considers whether the parent’s condition is a choice or a sickness. It becomes a central matter, like the existence of God: Is his ailment partly his choice, or is it wholly not of his making? Does he deserve my sympathy and pity or only my scorn?
She conditions her choices on his condition. If he is well, she can move about freely. If the parent seems vulnerable, she reconsiders.
Your concern for how your actions will affect others is nice but it is excessive, and seems to be the legacy of a childhood with a man whose shifts of mood were mercurial and catastrophic.
You had a father who could not be relied upon and trusted, who would not shoulder the burden, who put his burdens on you to carry. He left you resentful and wounded. Step free from this alcoholic father for one precious moment. Make a decision based on your own desire to know. You speak to me of what is right, as if I should know what is right! How am I to know what is right? Something happened in your father’s life and you want to know about it. You want to know your half-sibling. That makes sense to me. It is in fact the only thing in this situation that does make sense to me: You want to know the truth. I want to know the truth, too. That I understand. The feelings of people are something to consider, but in this matter I think you need to honor your desire for the truth.
Oh, people in your family will react. Sure. Of course they will. You can count on people in your family to react. There will be repercussions and effects no matter what you do. Your silence and inaction have their effects as well.
Do what you need to do to know what you need to know. Take up this quest.
I’m aware of the downside. But the upside is that you become a beacon in the room, a ray of light: You broke free. You took some action. You faced a secret.
Recently — within the past couple of months — I went on a search to find my father. I can count how many times I’ve seen him in my life and it’s only a handful. He’s been an alcoholic his whole life and has been in and out of prison.
One of the main reasons for my search was to find my sister that I never met. So I finally reached his cousin, then his sister, then him. When I talked to his sister she said he’s living in a homeless treatment facility. So I had to call and leave messages and then he would call me back. We started talking more and more. At first it was a little strange and uncomfortable because I didn’t know how to respond or what to talk about, but somewhere within me, I felt something I never felt before. It was like a little space within was filling.
During this time I was having car problems. I actually had one car in the shop and borrowed my grandmother’s extra truck and it broke down too. So my dad had experience fixing cars so he volunteered to fix the truck. I went and picked him up and he met one of my daughters (the other one was at her dad’s) and he stayed the night and fixed the car the next day. We had a pretty good day. We had a good dinner, and overall good visit. Besides the fact he was hitting on my friends, which was weird and creepy LOL.
But anyway, we continued to talk on the phone more and more. One mistake I made was offering to let him stay at my house when he was done with his treatment. So after a couple of weeks go by the place he was staying at moved his job to a different facility. That’s when he came to me and said he would rather stay with me. He said, “I am just getting further from you.” Well, I had already offered but knew it was too soon, so I said, “OK, when do you want me to pick you up?” It was like a day or two. Then I went after work to pick him up.
He was with some of his friends he must have met and was completely drunk, not just a little drunk but can’t-walk-straight drunk. I was furious. I was so angry that he did that, and I couldn’t believe my other daughter was waiting at home to meet him and was so excited and here I have this drunk grandpa? Different things were going through my mind, like how could he do this? How could he do this to my kids? So I said to him, “So you’re drunk?” He said, “No, I just had a beer.” I said, “NO, you are drunk.” He said, “Well, I don’t have to be.”
I was angry. He went behind a building and I left him there. I felt like punching him. So I went home and thought about why I was so angry. One reason is because that’s what he chose his whole life over me. Drinking is the reason I didn’t have a dad. So I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that he met us and then still chose to do that. He didn’t think to himself, Look at what I’ve been missing out on.
I figured he would just go back to his facility and maybe call me when he was sober and I haven’t talked to him. I left a couple of messages and he hasn’t returned my call. I called the facility yesterday and a guy told me that he never came back and he’s living on the streets and he’s always drunk. Now, in some twisted way, I feel bad. I don’t think I should but I do. Should I go find him and try to help him? What should I do?
Here I am writing about alcoholism again.
Outrage and sadness arrive fresh daily. How could anyone get used to news in a letter such as yours? How could anyone be unmoved by this tale? How could anyone shrug it off?
There is always hope. But hope is a kind of torture. It deprives us of a tidy exit. It will not let us turn our backs.
He can always try again. Chances are, he will. No matter how many times he goes back to drinking, he can always walk into an AA meeting and be welcome there. Men sometimes try 10, 15, 20 times, drinking, sober, drinking, sober, in and out. The doors of AA are always open to anyone who wants to quit drinking. You don’t have to be sober to go there, or clean, or employed, or even awake.
Your father has hurt you deeply. He has not behaved well. He has spent time in prison. Many alcoholics have done this. Yet when we hear their stories, we do not hear the voices of criminals. We do not hear the voices of unfeeling psychopaths. We hear frightened, lonely voices; we hear the voices of small children afraid of the world and uncertain how to proceed. We hear the voices of people who got trapped in something they didn’t understand and could not escape, who spent years in agonized struggle against an enemy that kept defeating them through trickery and brute force. We hear the voices of people who wanted to do the right thing, who were drawn to feelings of happiness and contentment, the esteem of their comrades, joy, laughter, ease, success, comfort, fulfillment. But something went wrong.
It tears you up. There’s no way around that. And again and again the thought that comes to mind is, We should do something about this! What might that be? Is there anything we can do?
If we are drunks who have recovered, we can do things. We can spend more time in the world of wet drunks, salvaging whom we can. Yes, we can do that. And perhaps part of my outrage is my private knowledge that I am not doing enough, that I could do more. It is difficult work picking drunks up and trying to get them sober. There is no guarantee of success. But what is our outrage for if not to spur us into action?
And what can you do? That’s another good question. I wonder if it might help you to work as a volunteer to help other alcoholic men who have lost everything.
How do you arrive at the truth that is big enough and bright enough that you decide to take action? Might this moment be an instance in which your own outrage spurs you to some kind of social action? What if it were possible for you to spare some other son or daughter your particular grief? What if you could help someone else’s father sober up and get off the streets? Might that give your soul some cherished respite? Might it bring some feeling of justice to this bleak scene?
We know what we can do and what we cannot do. We can make ourselves available to individuals and to social service agencies to bring a little comfort and possibly recovery to the many alcoholic men and women who live and die on our streets every day. We can learn as much as possible about the effects of alcoholism and take steps where possible to avert its bloom in those who can still turn back. We can advocate for more resources for those agencies and group that seem to have some success. We can advocate for more research into the medical aspects.
What we cannot do is cure it the way we cure an infection with antibiotics, or the way we set a bone so it will heal straight and be as strong as it was before. Perhaps one day a sure cure will be found. Until then, our methods are the well-known ones: the 12 Steps, rehabilitation facilities, medical interventions, psychotherapy, harm reduction, etc.
Alcoholism, like cancer, remains mysterious and resistant.
I’m going on a bit. I know that. I am speaking my own opinions. I am speaking my own outrage born of compassion for you and what you have had to suffer. It makes me mad. It makes me mad and I wish I could fix it. I wish I could take you in my arms and make it better. I wish I could clean up your dad, put him in a suit and send him home to rest up for a few weeks before taking on a new job on the railroad, or in construction, or as a scientist or labor representative or clerical worker or insurance man or mechanic or ship’s mate or any of a million other roles the world has waiting, even in a time of high unemployment.
I wish I could fix it but I can’t. So it makes me angry. The world shouldn’t be like this.
But it is.
So do this for me: Seek solace in those around you. Cry when you need to. Admit that it makes you angry and cry at the gods when you need to. If it helps you to go out and work as a volunteer so that this story is not repeated more often than it has to be, then do so.
One last thing: Embrace this. This is not merely a bad thing that happened to your otherwise perfect life. It is in fact your story. It is what your life is about. It will bring you strength if you face it and allow it to shape your future. So carry it proudly. You are part of a world of people who have seen this and know what it is like, and it is possible, I swear it is possible, to draw strength from this.
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?
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.
Judith, 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 23rd 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 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.
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:
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.
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.
Your column spoke to a writer’s heart. It encouraged. It gave strength. It had passion and power.
It would be lovely if you would continue to offer advice.
That said, I need some support and advice. I’m in the midst of a contentious divorce. Friends started telling me several months ago that this was bad before I realized how the situation had deteriorated. How this divorce was not just another breakup, but a Shakespearean-level tragedy.
Collateral damage is beginning to pile up as my spouse (well, it is my view of this) gathers the orcs for her raids. To give some idea of her mindset, she had an order of protection placed on me when this started. It was vacated and recently when she attempted to have me arrested, a witness was present who was able to tell the police, “He didn’t do any of the things she claims.”
Okay, she lied to get the OP. But here is the kicker. Following that initial OP among the first calls she made was to my daughter, crowing how I’d been kicked out of the house (my daughter was also removed from the house as a result of the OP, not legally, but in fact).
Among the casualties are the relationships with my brothers.
There is a concept when relationships like these go sour to blame the victim. I’ve heard, several times now, “You ought to make up with your brother.” These souls treat me as the issue. I’m to blame for what has happened.
I won’t bore you with this. Let’s summarize this as I wake in the morning, look myself in the mirror and I feel damn good about myself. My brother? He is offering protection to a predator. And, no it isn’t my wife.
More collateral damage appeared this week. The divorce has been going on for eight months. In that time I’ve spoken to my second brother once, maybe twice.
This week I needed some emotional support. I made the mistake of calling on the second brother. Our discussion had nothing to do with the family. I was asking for professional advice on dealing with my attorney. My brother is nationally known for mediation and recently retired from the bench.
He quickly started in on me. I was to blame for not getting a prenup. I was to blame because I can’t articulate why there are bells and whistles in my head when I’m asked to work with a vendor suggested by my divorce attorney. I was to blame because I was asking for advice and he had only a few minutes to consider his answer. (Ummm… eight months and two phone calls in the midst of a contentious divorce?)
I stopped him finally and said, “Why am I to blame here? Why can’t you just accept the feeling in my gut? I’m calling for emotional support. I don’t see a lot of it.”
At that point he hung up. I was upset, but not yelling or angry. I was under assault and I had to stop him. My defense was reasonable and within the boundary of normal given the offense. And that statement above? That was the extent of my protest.
Nevertheless, I’ll be blamed as being angry and confrontational.
There are a few ways to deal with this as I see it. Maybe you can help me see additional ways? I’m thinking a handwritten note that lays out that I need emotional support, not blame, is in order. But writers, we can be so snarky can’t we?
I could also walk away, as I’ve always done. I walk away and I seethe in anger. That seems a mistake.
Or, I could write that letter (or this letter). Put them aside and know that this brother is a detached jerk. That I asked for too much from him. Anything I say (or not say for that matter) confirms to him and others that I’m the problem.
Jump, if you want Cary, to the idea that I was the family vessel that received the blame. It would be true. Jump to to the understanding that this is a family of survivors of alcoholism.
There is a policy for dealing with family turds like this that I located on the web. It is called ‘state occasions only.‘ I like that idea.
And, I like summarizing the situation like this: my brother (1) is an ass who threw me under the bus to protect a predator and brother (2) we’re just distant.
What you need is support. You’re not going to get it from your brother. But you can find it in lots of places. I suggest you set out to find the healthy support that you need.
It will help to have a clear picture of what this support is. It isn’t exactly the same as being told you are right, or were right in your decisions. But it’s being affirmed as a human being with rights and feelings. It is the kind of support found most often in 12-step groups, men’s groups, and in private sessions with therapists.
Your relationships with your individual family members is a separate issue. Do not go to them for support. There are many reasons for this. The most basic is that you’re not going to get the support you need from them. So it’s illogical to go to them. Beyond that, going to them exacerbates the problem because it brings up deep emotion rooted in family history.
In order to stop going to your brothers for support you may first need to understand first why you are doing it, when it’s not the best thing. You are probably doing it because of a lifelong wish to fix something, to have things the way they ought to be, the way they were supposed to be. So in order to stop going to your brothers for support you may have to accept the fact, in a deep way, not only that you come from an alcoholic household, but deeper than that: You’ve been hurt by this and suffered loss, and it is not recoverable. You have to accept the loss. You have to grieve. Now, it may be too painful to grieve. It may feel as though your entire world, your future, your self, was bound up in that dream of having the family work the way it was supposed to—i.e., having brothers you could turn to in times of distress.
That’s a very sad thing. It’s sadder than just knowing you had an alcoholic family. It’s really about having to let go of a wonderful dream. I know how sad that is. I had a wonderful dream, too, of how I thought my family should function, and for a long time this dream would precede me into a room; I would be thinking, if I just go back there, if we just have a family home, if this, if that . . . it will be just like my ideal childhood. But guess what? Even this ideal childhood is a wish, some kind of fantasy. My childhood wasn’t ideal. It’s just another place that I can pretend was trouble-free; it’s another fantasy.
To break free of the fantasy means accepting that it’s never going to be the way you wish it would be. It’s not. You don’t have to castigate your brothers. Just accept that they are the way they are, and that they’re not the appropriate people to turn to for the kind of support you need right now.
Find a group of men who are going through divorce. If you have anger issues, find a group of men dealing with anger. If you have substance abuse issues, or sex and relationship issues, or issues with food, or money, or your family, find appropriate groups where you can share your feelings and get support.
Remember: The support you need is not going to come from your family right now. So be smart. Find the support you need where it is most likely to be found: among fellow sufferers, fellow travelers, people who’ve been there and are offering a helping hand.
Now, a note about the column. (I’m putting this at the bottom because I don’t want to lead with stuff about me. That makes the column less of a service.)
I am writing the column one day a week right now and feeling my way through the transition from a full-time writer for Salon to a freelance writer, teacher and entrepreneur. My first love at the moment is novels, followed by short stories and then poetry, and if I can find a way to do everything I will. If the column slips away a little bit as I pursue these other things then that’s how it is. The last thing I want to do is keep writing it when I’m not in the spirit of it and drive it into the ground, like somebody who keeps dancing because he doesn’t notice the music has stopped.
I’d like to go out clean, on top.
So we’ll see. It’s partly a money thing and partly a creative economy thing, partly a creative ecology or infrastructure thing, and partly, to tell the truth, I feel like what I did for 12 years was write this thing every day and that was a particular kind of challenge. I gave it everything I had every day for 12 years and doing it just once a week is not the same. I can’t afford to do it five days a week because I have to make money.
So we’ll see. Again, thanks for the good words.
And remember: Your brothers are not going to give you the support you need right now. Go to the appropriate source for the support you need.