He’s sober but he steals hotel towels!

Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your advice sure would be appreciated.

Sunshine

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Sunshine,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From

A Possibly Dramatic Empath

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Dear Possibly Dramatic Empath,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Unemployment is making me depressed

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Cary’s archival column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 4, 2012

Unemployment is making me depressed

 

I lost my job, came back to my hometown and now I’m lost

 

Dear Cary,

I’ve been reading your column for about a year now, and really believe you might have some words of wisdom for me. I hardly know where to begin in describing my situation. I am single, no kids and 52. Two years ago I lost my job as a professor in a field that is now archaic, that field being Russian language and literature. And so I found myself not only unemployed, but, at the age of 50, seemingly unemployable.

At first I reacted to all this in the worst possible way. I drank too much and experimented with pot for the first time in decades. I also moved back to the closest thing to a hometown I’ve got (my mother moved us to this liberal Oregon enclave in 1977). However, I did get a grip on myself, quit the pot, which, anyway, only increased my anxiety, and cut out the excessive alcohol intake. My problem is I thought I would enjoy being around my family again. In fact, it’s complicated. My mother is in her late 80s and I do get something out of helping her out, but I have real difficulties in living in the same town as my “identical” twin sister. “Mary” just loves my being back in town, has never minded the twin thing. I have always hated it, even though I have always loved my sister. I didn’t think it would be much of an issue when I decided to move back, but forgot how much the stupid comments bothered me (e.g., “You guys sure look alike. You must be twins!!”)

Mary dropped out of college, and subsequently led an alternative, tree-hugging kind of lifestyles. She smokes prodigious amounts of pot and is an alcoholic. She is married to a man, “Mike,” who I think of as a real brother, but he drinks a lot, too (although he does not smoke weed). They seem to have a master/slave type dynamic. Mary would cut her arm off for him — and for me, for that matter. He often is irritable with her. And it’s hard for me to not be, as she is, well, almost childlike and, frankly, boring to talk to after she’s swilled several beers and gotten good and stoned, which is every night. Literally, she talks about yard work, what she ate for lunch, what mundane things she’s going to do or did do, and so on. She isn’t into reading, seems to have almost no curiosity about the world. I often don’t know what to talk about with her so I find myself sitting in stupefied silence while she babbles on. To compound matters, I am renting a small studio apartment from the two of them, as I can’t afford anything better, and if I can’t make rent, they let it slide.

Even worse, my sister runs a landscape maintenance business and I have been working as her assistant about once a week as I struggle to launch a translation business (takes a lot to reinvent myself in this new profession and this also is very discouraging — to be mowing lawns after struggling so hard to attain that damned doctorate). In my first year here, when I was drinking heavily myself, I often felt suicidal, but what stopped me was the pain that would inflict on my mother, and also on Mary. I have, thankfully, pulled out of that dark place and am now “merely” depressed. I miss the identity my former profession gave me, and I hate Mary’s neediness. I had to really work to create some personal space for myself — Mary and her husband would love me to hang with them virtually every night as they are largely bored with each other. Mary makes noises about cutting back on drinking. The pot is something I don’t see her ever giving up. I doubt if she’ll go very far with the cutting back on drinking because it’s what she and Mike do. He even distills whiskey. And he’s big and can drink without getting as drunk as Mary, who is slender and pot-addled, as well.

I think I could deal with all this, though, if I had a job that provided me community. I miss teaching. I miss being independent. I am not a gifted technical translator thus far and have tried to get work at the local community college and in various staff positions at the local university. I’ve tried for several office jobs and nonprofit jobs. I think my three postgraduate degrees and my age make me unemployable in this economically distressed area. I feel like I have no identity of my own, and that I am living in some kind of nightmarish limbo. Most of all, this situation with my sister oppresses me. I never realized how much socialization I used to get from my work. I am, in fact, a social person, outgoing and personable. But without going to bars and drinking, I don’t know how to get that fix and so now I spend a lot of time alone, and while I like my own company I feel like part of me is withering. Yes, I am tutoring on a volunteer basis for the community college that won’t hire me, and I’m working out at the local recreation center. These help, but I don’t have friends of my own. I never thought I would be in this situation. I never thought I would find it so hard to branch out.

I guess what I’m asking for is how to deal with this? I halfheartedly fantasize about moving to China and Korea and teaching English as a second language, not because I want to teach English as a second language (which I did for a couple of years way back in my globe-wandering days). I would miss my two cats, and I’d feel bad for deserting my mother and Mary, who are both so thrilled that I moved back here, but that’s about it (not that that’s a small thing). But I miss teaching, I miss having colleagues and a professional identity and a life of my own that has nothing to do with my family. I could also try to find something of a writing/editing nature in a bigger town — Portland or Seattle. I also think, well, if I could be successful at this translation gig, then that might be enough — especially if I could attend professional conferences now and then.  In short, I don’t know what to do about my current lot in life.

Floundering


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Dear Floundering,

It sounds like you are experiencing depression and a kind of “social death” as a result of your unemployment and return to the family. So your life task now is to regain your social life, to locate, in this temporary wasteland, people among whom you can again exist vividly. You need people who can actually see who you are. Since you are largely about ideas and knowledge, you must be around people who can see those ideas and that knowledge. The way you accomplished that in the past was to have a job, but you may have to find other ways to accomplish it now. That is OK. Many people are having to do this. Our culture is being rearranged in certain fundamental ways. There will be much support for this, as millions like you rearrange themselves culturally and geographically. We will see in the years to come a new definition of “job” as we find new ways to acquire necessities and also new ways, outside of “jobs,” to define ourselves socially and “be seen for who we are.”

Here is the bottom line: The people around you now do not see you. You have become invisible. That is the source of your anguish. It is also your existential condition, but we will get to that. For now, it is vital to note that your family cannot see you. Your twin cannot see you. You do not exist in their eyes. What they see when they look at you is something of their own creation.

Deprived of your social identity by unemployment, exiled from a place where you had standing, you have returned to the condition of childhood and its murky, undifferentiated selfhood.

You have disappeared.

It’s weird, isn’t it? We return to the family, thinking we will be seen, but we are not seen. Rather, we disappear.

I must say, I think part of the reason we resort to alcohol and drugs in such situations is that the threat of nonexistence causes us to panic. Ideally, we ought to understand that this panic is merely the recognition of our essential condition. We need not panic. We are merely being brought back to reality — the reality of our groundless, shifting, temporary existence; the reality of our mortality and smallness. Our panic is occasioned not by some calamity but in fact by the arrival of truth and the loss of an illusion.  So, while you fight to regain your social identity and find some comfort in it, do something else as well: Welcome this groundlessness and discomfort; make friends with it; meditate upon it; it is your existential condition.

The world of languages is the land of the traveler. So in a more practical sense, here is what I suggest: Seek out other language people. Seek out people who will get your Russian puns. Go to movies in Russian. Place ads in the paper for work as a Russian tutor.

Also: Define your mission. Give it a clear purpose and an end date. You have come here to help your mother in her final years. That is why you are enduring this. With your mother’s death, your chief reason for being here will also disappear. So plan for that. Begin looking in Portland and Seattle for jobs. Don’t worry, you don’t have to take a job yet. But begin looking.

What makes it so hard to be seen today? Does it not seem to you that our world is one of constant distraction? Does it not seem that the attention of people is not on us but on their devices? As they peer into their devices, do we not lose something of their attention? Are we not jealous of all that attention being sucked up by devices? Do we not mourn the death of their seeing us, the death of being vivid and central in others’ sight on the street?

We wish to be seen and now we are competing with many devices for the attention of the passerby.

So we post videos of ourselves on the Net. If the Net is where the attention has gone then that is where we must go to be seen.

Those are some things to think about.

Now, as an addendum, here are some things I read as I was thinking about your situation. I found them interesting, so I’m just putting them here at the end. Perhaps you will find them interesting too.

On the effects of unemployment and depression

Here is something interesting on  the Loss of Work Contacts and Depression:

“According to an Institute for Work and Health Issue Briefing, researchers conclude that the loss of social contacts with colleagues has a more harmful effect on the unemployed than the loss of income (Helliwell, J.F., Putnam, R.D.,September 29, 2004, “The Social Context of Well-Being,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.) Workers who have abruptly lost their jobs have also lost their social support system and are forcibly isolated with their stress.”

Also this on Unemployment as social death: “Long-term unemployment affects many facets of a person’s life besides their income. According to Ernest Becker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Denial of Death, losing our role in our culture is a kind of social death (1973.) In a culture that values hard work and believes that anyone can get ahead who is not lazy, long-term unemployment is a shameful prospect. The person has lost the social contacts once enjoyed in the workplace and has lost the sense of playing a role in society at large. Besides the self-doubts raised by rejection after rejection from employers, the long-term unemployed person faces rejection from society as a whole. Accusations that the unemployed spend their days loafing on their couch and collecting unemployment checks are not uncommon and are a defense of the American core belief that people who are poor only have themselves to blame.”

An interesting text called So, What’s Work? (See the section on “connectedness.”) It comes from Dr. Elijah Levy  of the Thinking on Things Institute.

Though this may seem a little tangential, I was touched by this and it made me interested in seeing the movie “Losing Tom.”

And finally, though this may seem even more tangential, here is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writing on  “psychological death.”

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I can’t stop smoking pot

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Classic column from November 3, 2010

 

I can’t stop smoking pot

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

I’d really appreciate your advice.
J.

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Dear J

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But finally things got too bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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Hanging with Judith Lindbloom at El Farolito

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A letter to the alcoholic at Chrismastime

 

Write for Advice

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very truly yours,

Another Hill to Climb

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Dear Another Hill,

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

Does that mean there’s something wrong with you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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