Category Archives: alcoholism

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Afraid to drink at the wedding

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Respectfully,

Genevieve

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Dear Genevieve,

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

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

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

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 In fact, it’s kind of cool to be a little aloof and withdrawn; all the coolest people are a little aloof.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks so much,

J

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Dear J,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know how difficult this father thing is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My 16-year-old daughter is drinking

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

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


 

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Confused

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Dear Beyond Confused,

I did some research.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cary’s classic column from

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

Ambivalent Alcoholic

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

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Dear Ambivalent Alcoholic,

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

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

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

You say, “No, I gave it up.”

“But weren’t you playing Sunday?”

“Yeah, I play every Sunday.”

“But you don’t play golf?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I let a homeless man move in with me and now I can’t get rid of him

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 8, 2008

It’s not like I picked him up off the street. I’ve known him for 20 years. Once he was my boyfriend.


Cary,

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

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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.

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

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Cary’s classic column from

Now my life is all screwed up and nothing works.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowly Driving Myself Nuts

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Dear Slowly Driving Myself Nuts,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My alcoholic father has a child we never knew about

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, January 22, 2008

 

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Way back when, he gave up rights to the child, but now I want to know my half-sibling.


Dear Cary,

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

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Dear Mesmerized,

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.

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I finally found my dad — drunk on skid row

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Cary’s classic column from

I thought I could bring him home, but he got loaded and disappeared


Dear Cary,

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?

R

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Dear R,

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.

 

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

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerned Friend

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Dear Concerned Friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then fill her purse with condoms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cary Tennis Connecticut Writing Retreat

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Nothing is a Ruse, Judith Lindbloom 1992 (portion)

El Farolito

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.

Nothing is a Ruse, Judith Lindbloom 1992 (portion)
Nothing is a Ruse, Judith Lindbloom 1992 (portion)