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Turning 50: It’s all downhill from here

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 6, 2009

I’ve got only a genetic disease and old age to look forward to


 

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column for a while and always find your advice useful in a roundabout way, but I especially find it honest.

I’m going to be turning 50 this year and have learned I have a fairly rare genetic disease that will (and, indeed, has already begun to) cause great suffering in the years to come, though it likely won’t end my life prematurely.

Unfortunately, I have seen what this disease has done to my father, who is now in his 80s, and I have no desire to go through the endless hospitalizations, treatments, etc., that he endures just to keep on living. I feel tense and anxious most of the time, and also sad.

I’m realizing, however, that the disease is not the only factor in my feelings. Frankly, life in middle age is a tedious, boring chore. I become sad when I think back to my 20s, which was really my peak — a series of endless mental and physical challenges, pleasures and obstacles to overcome.

I’m stuck in an unchallenging but well-enough paying job that I despise. Leaving it would mean competing with people half my age for less pay, and I probably can never get health insurance again, so that option is out.

My home life isn’t much better. I’m stuck with a partner who offers, at best, extremely mediocre sex once every couple weeks. I watch porn to remember the types of adventures I used to have in real life, but it only makes me more sad, angry and resentful.

I’ve given up most of my hobbies as they were fairly pointless wastes of time. Even volunteer work became unsatisfying. For every person or animal I was able to help, there were hundreds of others for whom I could do nothing.

My one true pleasure, hiking in the hills with my dog for hours on end, ended when the dog became severely ill and I had to euthanize her a month ago. Yes, I could get another dog, and yes, I realize everyone anthropomorphizes their pets, but this dog was indeed unique and irreplaceable and her spirit is sorely missed. Her sweet nature and enthusiasm could melt even the most cynical heart.

Well, I will stop with this pity party, but it seems to me that nature had the right idea with human life spans that used to be so short. Now it seems we get 30 or so good years, then 50 years to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

In youth, there is excitement of the unknown. Unfortunately, at this point, I pretty much know how my life is going to go: a slow, steady, physical decline; deaths of more friends and loved ones; and a relationship that will become nothing more than buried resentment over a complete lack of sexual fulfillment.

Frankly, I see very little to look forward to, and I’m not even sure what I’m asking you.

Nothing to Look Forward To

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Dear Nothing to Look Forward To,

Well, my friend, I don’t have the skills to persuade you of what I intuit, or the power to compel you to do as I ask, nor do I have the kind of deep responsibility toward you that a family member or loved one might feel, so I am just going to say what is clear to me and hope that you can overcome the voices in your own head telling you the contrary long enough to act on my suggestion. First of all, and I don’t know why I really want to say this, but I’m just going to trust the impulse: You are going to be taken care of. You’re on a road. You’re not just a forlorn sack of chemicals in a marriage; you’re a human being; you’re a person; you’re a being; you have a place in this world. I also feel this: I feel that you are grieving. You may be depressed, but “depressed” feels vague. To me, you are grieving. “Depression” feels like the damming-up of that grief, not the grief itself. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature but you are also berating yourself for your grief, perhaps to protect yourself from its full, wracking extent.

You also sound like you are grieving for your youth. For that I salute you. Yes, I salute you. Why don’t more of us openly grieve our youths? Why don’t more of us admit that when we wake up one day and find ourselves no longer 20 and hard, indefatigable and quick, irresistible all night, a world ahead of us just for the asking, etc., etc., (I’m not trying to lyrically eulogize it; I’m just trying to name it), why don’t more of us admit that we are filled with a deep and painful sadness? Why don’t we have rites for this? Why do we have to say goodbye to our youth alone, in the shame of our advancing decrepitude?

(I tried to do this publicly, in a way, seven years ago, back in 2002, and indeed it did help to acknowledge publicly that I was no longer 20, although of course it did not arrest the arrow of time.)

You are grieving the loss of your youth and the loss of your dog and you are also living in fear of the future.

That makes you a perfect candidate for membership in the moment.

So, my friend, make your application now!

Yes, you, my friend, are a perfect candidate for membership in the moment. There is always room for one more. So welcome. Come on in. Welcome to the now. Welcome to the now that’s up on the trail, the glistening, humming, vibrating, iridescent, incalculable, inescapable now: Welcome to this very moment, wherever you are. Unless one of us is traveling faster than the speed of light, you and I are both inhabiting this mathematical simultaneity we call the now; we are in it, you and I, right now, so it might be said, though it sounds silly, that we are even together in the now, that as I sit near the window of the cafe in early morning, shivering in the first frost (there was ice on my truck this morning, for heavens sake!) and wondering idly why the employees have the windows and the door open (I know, it gets hot back there) that you and I are, in this moment, perhaps sharing a breath; perhaps as I breathe in you are breathing in too, and the innumerable creatures and souls who also inhabit this moment are also breathing in or breathing out, and the unfathomable underpinnings of our enterprise are operable; the equations and magics of chlorophyll and ganglia are in effect; the infinite, expanding factory of existence is running all night; it’s all going on right now. Welcome.

In this moment you have many choices. You can concentrate on the breath alone, climbing the breath like a rope into the heavens, following the breath back to the beginning of time, rising and falling with the breath like a column of smoke, with every inhalation and exhalation rehearsing the beginning and the end, the creation and the obliteration of the cosmos and the beginning and the end of your life, your wakefulness and your sleep. You can do that in this moment. You can do that in this moment and it may free you momentarily from your stranglehold on the future, or the future’s stranglehold on you, or however you want to place subject and verb in expressing that asphyxiating entanglement.

You can also in this moment allow thoughts of your next move to arise. You can, for instance, determine to contact a cognitive therapist and see about pruning some of the vines.

Yes, you can also in this moment choose to contact a cognitive therapist and get to work on that pattern of thinking that has overtaken you like a vine overtaking a healthy tree. You are wrapped in vines of dread, vines of grief. You are wrapped in vines. You have fed them and given them a home and now they are suffocating you. But you are not yet so completely entwined that you cannot reach out just far enough to gain the attention of a skilled cognitive therapist who can show you how to clip the vines back and get some air.

It is both the joy and the curse of this job that I cannot make you do this. If I could make you do this, my job would be unbearable; every time I failed to make someone do something I would be burdened; every time someone exercised their freedom of choice I would be a failure. Every time someone failed I would fail as well. Luckily, that is not the case. I can say what I say and that is that. We are just two living strangers inhabiting the same moment. It is as though you might overhear me in a cafe advising someone else to go get some cognitive therapy to clip back the vines of depression. I am speaking to the wind. That is fine. I am happy doing that. I am happy speaking to the wind.

But I speak hoping you will overhear me and take it to heart.

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I punched my sister in the head. How can I forgive myself?

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Dear Cary,

I love reading your column. You write straight to the point with witty remarks yet underline it with great depth and advice. I’m in desperate need of advice.

So, here goes. I’m in my late twenties, done a lot of introspection and I’ve finally forgiven most of my stupidity and traumas. According to my therapist I was just unlucky and met a lot of sadistic people in my life, starting at a very young age. Thankfully I have the parents that I have, without their love I probably would be very different. And not in a good way. There is just one thing I can’t forgive, and that’s myself for what I’ve done to my little sister.

A couple of years ago (she’s in her late teens now) she hung out with the wrong crowd, guys came in the house and stole a lot of things. She kept bringing people who would break stuff, throw cans at my dog, she’d yell at my parents all the time and my father was very ill. One day I just lost it and we fought. I don’t mean sisters fighting, I mean I hit her back with a blow to the head. It was horrible. It was very violent. And I regret it every day. I’ve asked for her forgiveness, and she gave it without question, I love her with all my heart but I can’t forgive myself. We have a history of epilepsy in the family, and I am terrified what I did brought on hers . . . because a year later she started having signs.

I know I have anger issues, and I’m working on them. My older sister (half sister) did the same to me, she was a bit abusive. Mentally more than physically although she also hit me on the head after I broke her sunglasses, since then I suffer migraines.

I could never talk to her, because she’d always get angry at me. When I tried to talk to her about when I had been assaulted or that I was being bullied, about my eating disorder (which I have finally gotten rid off, the need to throw up still creeps back from time to time but I’ve learned tricks on how to keep that at bay), when part of our family was showing me how little I meant compared to her, etc. She would explode. She’s told me ‘she’s sorry she never loved me’ on my birthday and after I told her how horrible a human being she was she acted like a victim from then on. Even when I got very sick, she acted as if I was a total stranger. Today, someone who even smells like her makes me physically ill. I tremble, feel queazy and feverish and instantly dislike that person.

This does not excuse anything in my behavior towards my little sister. I try my hardest to be the opposite of what my older sister was. My little sister is an amazing person, highly intelligent, she’s always been funny and philosophical in her remarks ! I just don’t know what to do, as much as I love her she easily angers me and I’m so scared of being violent again when I lose control. It’s not as often as it used to be but it still happens. The reasons why I get angry at her and start yelling are brought on by the stupidest things, usually at the end of my stay at our parent’s house. Immediately after I realize “What is wrong with me ? There’s no reason ! She’s just being a teenager !”. I’m scared I traumatized her and now, with her epilepsy, I’m scared she’ll end up in dangerous situations because there are some bad people in the world who easily take advantage.

Friends have told me how amazing they think I am or my work ethics blablabla… I still feel like a failure and impostor because instead of protecting my sister, instead of being someone she could trust… I ended up being her biggest bully. She forgave me, but I can’t forgive myself because every day I have this flashback and I feel like I ruined her life.

My mother thought I was bipolar and we checked and that’s not the case. She thought I was autistic, still not the case. I know her “theories” are just excuses, she didn’t even want to help me when I told her about my eating disorders. Don’t get me wrong, she’s very loving and intelligent, she just never could deal with me. To be honest I know what’s wrong with me : I’m just angry. I come less and less to the house because of what could happen. I worry every day for my sister’s safety. If she goes to a concert she gets so tired because of the lights. Her friends smoke weed around her (and she probably does too) which brings seizures. Drinking alcohol is the most dangerous for her, which she still does. It’s normal for a teenager, I did worse ! It’s as if I’ve robbed her of her normal teenage years ! You’re supposed to have fun at that age !

What can I do, why am I so angry at her ? How can I stop feeling like a monster ?

All the best,

Horrible Sister with only one regret

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

Dear Horrible Sister,

Maybe you are waiting for the symptoms of trauma and guilt to go away before you forgive yourself. But it works the other way around. You have to perform the action of self-forgiveness first. Then the symptoms will begin to dissipate.

I suggest you do this: Find a quiet moment when you are alone and look at yourself in the mirror. Really look at yourself. Say to yourself, “I forgive you.”

You must say this: “I forgive you. You did what you did because you are a human and are imperfect but I forgive you.”

Forgiveness does not wipe clean the past. It does not undo what has been done. It does not mean that the symptoms of regret and trauma go away. But it announces that you release the other from your ongoing claim of wrongdoing and continuing resentment. In this case, self-forgiveness means you release yourself of this ongoing claim of wrongdoing and continuing resentment.

It’s not the same as excusing a person for his or her actions. Nor does it relieve all your symptoms. You will still feel regret. You will still be responsible for your actions. How could that be otherwise? You are the one who punched your sister. But you must release yourself from this ongoing claim of wrongdoing and continuing resentment. Why? Why do you have that obligation? Because you are not God.

You were made, by whatever means, an imperfect human. 

Not being God is a forgivable shortcoming all humans share. To blame ourselves for not being God is unwise. We truly had no say in the matter.

Not being God, you make mistakes. Your nervous system is the nervous system of an animal that reacts with violence to preserve its own life. Some of these reactions, honed genetically over millennia, are, in the moment of threat, beyond conscious control. You make errors. You have an ego. You have desire and ambition and fear and anger. You were constituted to respond to threats with violence and you will not always win the battle within yourself about when to respond with violence and when to respond with knowing calm. You are going to make mistakes.

Look at yourself in the mirror and forgive yourself for being human.

Now, it may be complicated. I suggest you also explore what other thoughts you have about why you cannot forgive yourself. For instance, in reading your letter over again, something occurs to me. I wonder if your inability to forgive yourself is related to your inability to forgive your older sister. Maybe you believe that she should suffer for what she did to you, without fully realizing the corollary: That you must suffer for what you did to your younger sister. Think about it. If what you did is forgivable, then what your sister did to you might also be forgivable.

This is a way of opening a door. Forgive yourself. It does not mean you have to forgive your sister. But it may open the door to forgiving others. And that may open the door to greater kindness and acceptance in your own heart.

Sometimes to become able to forgive someone we must first pray for them to get everything they want. Yes, we must pray for them. Pray for our enemies and those who have harmed us. This makes us larger. It makes us benevolent and wise. It elevates us above our own petty concerns. Try it. It sounds crazy but try it. What harm can it do? If praying has no effect then certainly it can do no harm. If it does have an effect, then why should your older sister not get everything she wants? —unless what she wants is to bash your head in. You might include that eventuality in any prayer: I pray my older sister gets everything she wants except if she wants to bash my head in.

It’s worth practicing forgiveness toward people we think don’t really deserve it. What you are really saying with forgiveness is that you accept imperfection—your imperfection and the imperfection of others.

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

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My father has ruined us financially

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Hi Cary,

This is the second time I write to you. I don’t want to take advantage of you, but your advice has given me such a wise and comforting, yet concrete external point of view through which looking at my problem that helped me a lot, and I really look up to your words and brilliant way of looking at things. I wrote to you about my parents who refused to meet my boyfriend. Things haven’t changed about that, but the background is so complicated that I think I have to tell you a bit about my parents, in order to make you understand (man, is my life a mess), because I’m starting to feel a bit discouraged about my future.

As I told you in my previous letter, I am 31 years old and still live with my parents and younger brother (quite common here in Italy for us 30somethings . . . I know I know); we’ve never been rich, but we were quite wealthy, as in my mother could afford to be a stay-at-home-mum, we always owned the houses we lived in, made nice long vacations and travels together as a family, etc. Eight years ago, my father blew away ALL family savings (money that resulted from selling our home and were supposed to be used to buy a new one) for buying a big loft that he wanted to transform into a clothing retail outlet (we were living in a rented house in the meantime), in spite of my mother completely disagreeing and cautioning him against doing so.

Those money were not only my father’s, but also mum’s, because they wed in community of goods ["community property" as we call it in California--CT], and since my mum has not an income she completely relies on my father economically. My father has always been a plumber, and as much as he was good at his old job, he sucked at retail. He spent more than he earned, and completely lost control of this shop, trusting wrong people and losing everything until he had to end the activity. I worked with him at the shop for a while, but had to run away because he was impossible to get along with, always had crazy ideas which he imposed on me (even if he kept saying he opened the shop for me and was mine; but instead it was his toy and the vent for his unrealistic creative ideas).

I found another job as a secretary which I still have. As a result from the closing of the shop, since my father completely quit his former job as a plumber, we didn’t have money, so we stopped paying the rent of the house we lived in and were evicted, and now we live in the former shop, for which we have a 20-years mortgage (signed in 2006). Now my father has occasional jobs in flea markets and helping people move by emptying their houses, moving furniture etc. He is 55 years old, and age is starting to take its toll on his body, and he is constantly in pain (his back, his feet, etc.), and he is full of health problems in general, because he also eats mostly junk food, alternates periods of time as a chain smoker to other times of complete abstinence from cigarettes, and is very overweight. He is very unstable, both mentally and physically. He has always been a whimsical person, but in the latest years this has worsened to the point of being almost demented. He is totally illogical and doesn’t listen to advice, doesn’t listen to our worries for the future, seems to ignore that society has rules to live by, mostly that you have to pay for everything, and ignores that there are bills to pay. It’s me always having to remind him that the electric bill needs to be paid etc., and every time he complains that we only ask for money. Like I use that money to go to Vegas! He completely lost the sense of reality and keeps saying that at this point he is fed up of everything and only cares for his dog, which is untrue, given that he never even takes her for walks and I always have to take care of her. We really can’t figure put what is going on with him and why he seems to be gone nuts in these years; I suspect that he had to grow up too soon (he is from a very poor rural area of southern Italy and was detached from his family as an infant and sent to a boarding school where nuns used to beat children, then at 6 years old started working picking tomatoes from fields, at 13 he migrated to Milan to work and by the time he was 18 was already engaged to my mother and at 24 he became a father, has worked his ass off for an entire life and somehow I think now his brain is living the carefree stage of life that normally belongs to children.

My mom would like to start a job but here in Italy young people are not able to find a job, let alone a woman in her fifties who has always been a stay-at-home-mum. When my father signed the mortgage, as he was self-employed, the bank needed a guarantee, and so dad convinced me to co-sign the mortgage (since I have a salary). I was only 20 years old and completely naive, so I accepted. Because of this, now I won’t be eligible for a mortgage of my own, and so I won’t be able to afford a house of mine until 2027! But I will be 43 by then, and I really want to start a family with my boyfriend of two years (that’s the boyfriend my parents don’t want to be involved with, yes). Now my father has even stopped to pay the mortgage, so now I am afraid the bank will claim my salary (which is the only thing I’ve got), and that we will be evicted also from this loft, and then we will have nowhere to go.

Our former landlord is still claiming the rent we haven’t paid, so now we have to face him and the bank. My mother is completely devastated over this and stopped even acknowledging the existence of my father out of rage for having done this to our family. She is worried about where she will spend her old age, and I cannot blame her. Every month I give my mother a quarter of my salary to pay for groceries, but I wonder if I will have to take her with me the day I’ll go live by myself? But how can a couple begin married life with a live-in mother in law? I haven’t yet talked about this with my boyfriend; I do not even have the courage of breaking the topic. I don’t even have the courage of thinking of my near future,

Cary, because the mere thought of where will we be in just five years paralyzes me in terror. I won’t be able to make my own family, and I will be forced to take care of my parents as long as they live, because my father seems to completely have stopped caring about anything and doesn’t even provide for food. What will happen? Will I have to be a mother for my own parents?

I’m afraid my boyfriend will get tired of this (and he would have every right), even if he is extremely supportive and says true love means sticking together through thick and thin (he is such a star that sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve him at all).

I worry that I’ll never be able to go my way in life and that I’ll end up paying for my father’s mistakes. I resent him so much for all this, and still my heart breaks in two when I see him struggling every day, and also when I see my mother crying because she is afraid of not having a roof on her head. I have obviously excluded having children, given that, apparently, I already have two. I know that there are people who can’t even eat regular meals and I shouldn’t complain, but in this case what frustrates me is that we were having a normal life until my father decided to risk everything. This is not a case of random life misfortunes, this is a deliberately sought-after demise. It’s just not right that my father jeopardized entirely my future and my mother’s. Everything I see down the road is a black hole. Any thought you could offer me will be much appreciated. I thank you from the bottom of my heart and apologize for the obnoxiously long letter.

Futureless

Cary Tennis Connecticut Writing Retreat

Dear Futureless,

I feel for you and your family. To see your father go downhill like this has got to be not only scary but painful. I understand the anger you feel toward him for wrecking the life you had.

It is possible for you to plan for a future, however, and you can have children if you want them.

but you will first have to go through a period of some months or perhaps longer in which you soberly accept your situation and reflect realistically on your options.

To face the situation as it is now, you must recognize that good things also happen unexpectedly. After a series of setbacks it can seem as though the future is filled with nothing but further setbacks. But life isn’t like that. As many good things happen unexpectedly as do bad things. You are due for some good fortune.

Your boyfriend says true love means sticking together through thick and thin. Do you believe him? Do you trust him? If you do, you must lean on him now. You must call on his help.

If you don’t believe him, then you really need to get out of the relationship. You are going to need to depend on him. This is a crucial moment. It is a crucial moment because I suggest you and he marry and announce that you are planning to have children.

For the household you had has fallen apart because of your father. It is now your job to rebuild a household.

You and your boyfriend now must fill the vacuum left by your father. You must become the heads of a household and take responsibility for the practical affairs of your family.

This is a big deal but it is what life is asking of you. It is, in a sense, the natural order of things. As parents weaken, their children step in and displace them and their authority. Your boyfriend must, in effect, step into a role that has been vacated by your father. And you must step into the role your mother has occupied. She in turn, when you have children, may step into the role of grandparent.

Your father will resist. It will be ugly. For that reason, I suggest that you strengthen your ties with the people in your larger community who are your father’s age and whom you and he both respect. They may be family members or friends. Which ones do you instinctively think of turning to? Go to them. Tell them that you are planning to marry and have children and ask for their support and understanding. This will build opinion in your favor.

You have all the world’s natural sympathies on your side. Your father has fallen from grace and must be filled with shame and anger. But you have to go forward with your life. It’s best this way.

It may seem to you that conditions will not allow you to do this, but the opposite is true. You are in a position to change conditions just by making a decision. Deciding to marry and have children changes everything.

It strengthens your role and your boyfriend’s role. It strengthens the family as a functioning unit. It changes priorities. It confers upon you the family power, prestige, and moral authority needed to displace your father.

It changes the power dynamics. It shifts the family’s focus to the children who are coming, and the necessity for their care, to new life and its promise, to renewal. It galvanizes your community, your extended family and friends, and even the state, which has an interest in the care of children and the durability of families. And it changes your mother’s role to that of grandmother.

To take this action requires faith and courage. But if you do not do this you remain paralyzed.

The beauty of it is that it is also strategic. It places appropriate pressure on those around you in a way that they can neither deny nor denounce.

If you and your boyfriend marry and plan to have children there is no force on earth that can deny the rightness of your claims.

In short, I am saying rather than delay and let conditions dictate to you, make a bold move and change conditions. Sympathy will shift toward you and your growing family. Your mother will become an asset rather than a burden. It will awaken her sense of purpose and give her new power in the family.

It will tend to displace your father. That is the intent. He will probably fight it. He may take destructive actions. His condition may worsen. But you must not give in to him.

It may sound cold but it is actually just life-affirming. Go forward with your plans. Let love and desire guide you. It is how life renews itself.

In fact, while your father will probably fight these changes, this transformation could be healing; having lost his ability to care for and lead his family, your father must be mired in shame, guilt and anger; while he will outwardly resist, he may find that inwardly this is all a relief, the kind of solution he has secretly longed for, a way of escaping from the duties he can no longer perform. He may rage to save face but accept in his heart the rightness of the situation, as he must know that he has brought shame upon himself.

So that’s my simple, bold, timeless suggestion: Marry. Get pregnant. Force the issue.

Of course, I can already hear the objections from my good friends who, like me, are citizens in good standing of an affluent, mobile, atomized society whose religion is individualism and independence. To them the solution I am proposing may seem foolhardy or somehow politically suspect. To even acknowledge the power and grace of a traditional family structure may stink of something retrograde, repressive, patriarchal. What I am doing, however, is acknowledging these forces. Traditional Italian families are patriarchal. Women do gain status and power by having children. Young husbands do displace the fathers of their brides. To at one and the same time valorize the social progress of women by denying the very conditions that made that progress necessary is a contradiction. Traditional society is powerful. I am saying: Use the power of tradition to your advantage.

In modern America, sensible young people, especially women who wish to become mothers, take a practical approach: First establish economic stability and only then embark on the adventure of parenting. What I propose is more radical and requires a leap of faith that is obvious if we will only admit it. You live in a traditional Italian family. In a traditional Italian, power flows toward the mother and her children. It is a patriarchal society and one might complain that it is unjust that this would be the only way for a woman to acquire that power, but the fact remains: power flows toward wives and mothers. Abuse, too. That is the dark side. I’m not saying it’s pretty or perfect.

I am saying use the latent power that you have as a woman who can marry and have children.

Marry. Get pregnant. Force the issue.

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After years of being meek, I’m suddenly screaming at people!

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Cary’s classic column from

My father was full of rage and insult, and I sat mute through his tirades. Now I’m exploding at people too.


Dear Cary,

So I grew up in an abusive household. Not the “my dad gets drunk and smashes a lamp over my mother’s head” kind of abusive, but the “Dad thinks Mom, siblings and I are imbeciles and repeatedly tells us so in thought and deed” kind of abusive. Emotionally abusive, in other words, though the other kind happened on occasion too. My mother taught us how to deal with these insults: Stare straight ahead, keep your mouth shut, let Daddy say whatever he wanted to say to get it out of his system, do whatever he wants you to do, and then avoid him for a while. Basically, we learned to be doormats at our mother’s knee. If we didn’t do this … well, that’s when the other kind of abuse would occur.

Anyway, I never saw the difference between being treated badly by my father and being treated badly by other people. As I got older, through high school,college and the workforce, I quickly gained the reputation for being the “nice” person that everyone dumped on. Somehow, standing up for myself wasn’t the “nice” thing to do, so I never did it. It didn’t even occur to me. And I became everyone else’s doormat. Boyfriends, colleagues, friends, customer-service people — you name it. They mostly treated me well, but when they treated me badly it would haunt me for years: either that I had done something wrong to warrant their slights or that I didn’t say anything when I was clearly being insulted.

Recently, however, that tide has begun to turn. I began to see that the way people were treating me was wrong. I learned that I wouldn’t get popped in the mouth for speaking up. I began to recall situations where people had been rude or mean, and saw them as being rude or mean rather than just my being sensitive. And too, I began to stand up for myself. This is where my problem now lies. As I stand up for myself in situations where it is clearly warranted, it is somehow not enough to simply state my case and let reason carry the day. I end up getting aggressive, insistent, loud, bossy, angry and just plain rude when something doesn’t go my way. I flare my nostrils and hiss when I speak to the manager. I shout insults and then hang up the phone before the person on the other end can respond. In other words, I’ve become someone I hate, as if I’m trying to make up for years of swallowed pride with a few instances of over-the-top aggression. To top it off, as a woman, I’m afraid that I’m coming across as an angry feminist and it’s making things worse for my gender!
Earlier today, while I was at the supermarket, there was an argument that nearly came to blows at the self-checkout line. One man was clearly in the wrong — he had jumped in line, had too many items in the 15-items-or-less lane, and said the other guy was being a bad father in front of his small son. The clerk looked on and did nothing. The man got his way, checking out his too-many items and taking a parting shot at the father with his small son as he finished. I wound up screaming at the guy as he left — and it wasn’t even my fight! The whole situation made me realize that something is going on in my head. But I feel like I can’t just sit back and accept injustice anymore, even when it’s happening to other people who can take care of themselves. What am I supposed to do?

Going Overboard With the Assertiveness

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Going Overboard,

Sometimes a necessary insight that is to serve us well for the rest of our life comes in first as anger. Something true is breaking through.

True, this insight has not arrived as a blazing flash of light and a sensation of rising out of the body and seeing all of eternity and all of space in one blinding, ecstatic vision, tingling and orgasmic and yet strangely calm and everyday at the same time. True, it’s not that. Instead, it is coming in the form of something unmanageable and troubling.

My experience with such things is that insight often comes in rough. It barges in and slams doors. It shakes us up. And it comes when we least expect it. It comes uninvited. That’s why we often don’t want insight.

Insight is trouble. That is why the early stages of recovery and change can be rocky. Reality floods in. It is overwhelming.

At first, we just react. We have no repertoire of assertive techniques; we have no proven methods for expressing our disapproval, our difference of opinion, while preserving the basic bond between us and others. So we start out by screaming and throwing things. And what does this remind us of? When is it that we start out screaming and throwing things? In childhood of course. So we are picking up where we left off, 10, 20, 30 years later: We start by screaming and throwing things.

This changes as we gain the benefit of experience. We blow up in the checkout line at the supermarket. Or we get in touch with our anger at work; we scream and throw things and get fired. Then we mull it over. Hmm. Precisely where did I go wrong in that negotiation? Was it the potted azalea hurled out the window, or the feinted blows at my co-worker? Just feeling the power of anger, to make someone retreat! How glorious! How glorious the glass shattering as the potted azalea flies out the window! But how humiliating the arrival of the police, the disrespectful escort to the exit. Yes, it was glorious to get in touch with the anger. But no, it did not really go that well. The firing and the presence of police put a damper on things.

In looking over our behavior, we might conclude that this anger is not our friend. Look at the wreckage!

Time to stuff it back into its bottle? But wait! Even amid the wreckage, how do you feel? Frightened, perhaps. Shaken. But also: Real, no? Do you not feel a certain awakeness you did not previously feel? Do you not feel a certain strength, something flowing into you, something raw and strong? Do you not feel perhaps a little more “grounded”? This is you returning to yourself. It’s a good thing!

Thusly we gain the benefit of experience. We don’t just stuff it. We look at where things went well and where they went poorly. We see that throwing the azalea and threatening our co-worker were not productive. But being there, standing our ground, feeling that anger: That was priceless! So, unemployed, humbled, but inwardly pleased at our progress, we try it again. We get angry next time and we try saying, “I am very angry right now. I’m going to take a walk and come back and then we’re going to talk about this.”

We try sitting in a therapist’s office and narrating the day we broke down, getting up to the anger, seeing what is there, seeing what pain comes up, seeing how deeply we can feel it in a safe place, seeing what it feels like to finally feel it — the indignation, the fear, the anger, the hurt. We keep working at it. We are surprised at how deeply this goes! Maybe we end up feeling like that kid again, powerless, terrified and, moreover, insulted and betrayed! — that her mother would instruct her to submit, to live in fear! That poor kid. Maybe we end up feeling great compassion for that kid we were, too, great compassion and love and warmth for the innocent person we were, the innocent person who was not protected from the father’s rage.

How do you get from screaming and throwing things to the serene, assertive confidence of a person not necessarily in complete control of her anger but at least on good reciprocal terms with it? Like this, with practice, long study, hard work, therapy, practice, experience, making mistakes.

This is new to you. You were taught to be paralyzed. That image is so chilling: you sitting there mute while your father’s hateful, spiteful, soul-murdering bile spills on your head. You were taught to be mute. You were taught to freeze like an animal avoiding the predator, playing dead, trying to be invisible lest the predator pick you out. You were basically taught to be dead. But you are not dead. You are just afraid.

Yes, I recognize this.

Like I say, insight comes in rough.

But it’s a good thing, this anger that’s coming to you. Find someone who will help you work with it. Honor it. Do not be afraid.

Cary Tennis Connecticut Writing Retreat

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