How do I overcome the inertia?

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Cary’s classic column TUESDAY, MAR 21, 2006

I have so much potential I can’t decide what to do!


Dear Cary,

I’m 23 and panicking.

I’ve been working at a fairly small company in New York for about two years now. Immersed in my studies during my senior year at college, I hadn’t looked very hard for employment and landed this job a few weeks after graduation almost by accident. It has been good for me in some ways; I’ve learned new skills and improved others (both professional and social), and with the luxury of never having to take work home, I’ve been able to spend my limited free time pursuing numerous hobbies and projects. The pay could be better, but I’m living at home with minimal rent and other expenses and the salary is enough that I can afford to feed my book and movie habits and to travel when I can get the time off. However, I’ve long since hit the top of the learning curve here, there’s no opportunity for advancement, the hours are long, the work endless and repetitive with ever-decreasing time to do what I was hired for (writing) — and I’m restless to the point of desperation. I frequently feel burnt out but don’t want to stop what I do outside of work because that’s what really makes me feel alive.

My family, friends and even some co-workers are trying to convince me to quit. I know that’s the right thing to do. If any of them were in my position, I’d tell them in no uncertain terms that it was time to move on. But I can’t seem to do it, despite feeling overqualified and stagnating in my current position, if not decaying. I’ve started filling out grad school applications only to leave them half-finished. I’ve idly looked for jobs online, but the activities I do after hours to keep me sane (writing/presenting papers for conferences, for instance, and running a Web site) are convenient excuses preventing me from conducting an intensive search.

Part of the trouble of being stuck in this job (or seeming to be stuck, or self-defeatingly sticking) is that the number of possibilities once I leave are daunting. Although I’ve considered myself a writer for as long as I can remember and know that I will be writing for the rest of my life no matter what else I end up doing, I’m an intelligent young woman with varied interests and the potential to succeed in just about any field I choose. I was an excellent student (straight A’s, double major, Phi Beta Kappa, the works) with one of those ludicrous laundry lists of extracurricular activities, an itch to stay busy and intellectually stimulated that hasn’t left me (hence the aforementioned projects and hobbies). I can think of a dozen careers and academic disciplines that I might enjoy. So I ask myself: Should I apply to grad school? In what subject? Move somewhere new? Take a new job? What kind? Where? Quit for a set period of time and write? Travel? And so forth. For months I’ve been caught in circular thinking patterns and a paradox of atheistic mortality: I only have one life and want to choose carefully, so I’m putting (too much) thought into the next step — yet it’s only one life, so why am I wasting time at a job that has nothing left to offer me? I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?

It also doesn’t help that I feel under a good deal of pressure to achieve something significant. Like anyone, I want to make a difference, create something I’m proud of (a book, I’ve always assumed), leave a legacy. At school I was part of a community where expectations for our futures were discussed on national or even global scales. Such ambition is pretty new for me, and it’s very stressful to be fueled by this desire to achieve without knowing where to direct it.

Almost everyone I’ve asked for advice has said I should “just choose,” “just take action,” that things will work themselves out, that I’m young and have lots of time, that people go through multiple career changes nowadays and you never know where you’ll end up. One perceptive friend pointed out that I don’t have as many choices as I might like to think, and that by the time I narrow down all these possibilities to realistic opportunities (e.g., getting accepted to particular programs or landing specific job offers), the choice among them will be easy. I know there isn’t one “right” path and that a job or degree doesn’t define me as a person. I just don’t know where or how to start. How do I overcome the inertia?

Paralyzed by Potential

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Dear Paralyzed,

I could give you a to-do list and some deadlines. Would you like that? OK. Sketch out three possible book ideas — one or two paragraphs for each book idea — and send them to me by April 1.

Identify five graduate programs you are interested in and rank them, with explanations. Send that to me by April 15.

Also, on the work front: First, back up your contention that there is no upward mobility at your present company by explaining why that is. Are you sure that your company isn’t going to expand in some way that might accommodate you? Then identify five other jobs you might get. Send that to me by April 30.

There. That should justify your existence to God for six weeks or so. Oh, but you don’t believe in God. Well, I kind of don’t either. It’s complicated, no? But we’ll get to that.

I’m serious, by the way. I mean to see if this works. If it does, I can say to readers, here is something you can do with your own friends: Give each other deadlines. Help each other when you are stuck! This is the action approach — the part of the action approach that is crucial. It is not enough to simply say, do something! One has to find out a way to make something happen.

People who say, “Relax, just pick one, you’ve got plenty of time,” may not remember 23 — may not remember just how important the world is at 23, how limitless is the horizon, how fresh is the air, how ready the mind, how spirited the walk, how eager one is to begin. At 23 I rode the hippie bus from Manhattan to San Francisco and ended up in a falling-down Victorian on Fulton and Baker one floor up from a deadhead with bad teeth named Sunshine.

I thought I had it made.

I note with interest this sentence: “I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?” If you think about it for a minute, you will realize the limited effectiveness of such insight. Recognizing you have a broken leg doesn’t cure it. It’s just the beginning of a process of understanding.

But my guess is it’s not really mortality that terrifies you. At 23, I thought I was terrified by death, but the actual things that terrified me were less impressive: failure, weakness, shame, appearing to be mediocre. I romanticized my fears. What I actually feared was not death, but the risks one takes in living.

It was fear of failure, and fear of being judged. It was fear of being mediocre, of joining the human race and being a worker among workers, of not being special, of turning out to have all the same problems and limitations as everyone else. To avoid facing those things, I avoided doing many things. I chickened out. I walked off the ice (I am still lacing up my skates on the sidelines, slowly watching the action out of the corner of my eye.)

So, using my experience as a guide (even though we are different in many ways), I would try to locate some fears closer to home. These actual fears may be harder to accept, though they sound less powerful: fear of choosing the wrong occupation, fear of not living up to your “potential,” fear of wasting these precious years, fear of not being as happy as you are right now.

I did have one thing at 23: I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a writer. So, it seems, do you.

So why not just write the book? Wouldn’t that be enough right there?

That brings to mind another danger of believing the whole “You’ve got so much potential” thing: Actual accomplishments are much harder than they look. Not only does the world itself seem to resist our efforts to accomplish even the smallest objectives, but you will resist yourself; right now, theoretically, you could do a million things. But in reality you can’t even quit your job. That’s what I mean. Even easy things are hard to do.

So send me your assignments. And if this works, I will recommend that readers do this with each other. I already know that it works in many settings where one gets stuck. I hope it will work here.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Did I luck out, or did I settle?

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My boyfriend is great, but I was never swept off my feet. What is this nagging feeling?

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 21, 2003

 


Dear Cary,

I’ve spent the past six years of my life with a wonderful man who is educated, caring, wonderfully attentive, incredibly expressive, and who happens to be a good fuck. I know of people who would be willing to settle with someone who possesses any one of his traits, but that seems to be what’s hounding me, that word “settle.” Years ago, before knowing this prince, I embarked on an infinite and fruitless number of dates with ogres, fiends, frogs and prince-posers. I met him in a period of my life where the prospect of spending my 30s as a dejected, jaded dog was slowly becoming a reality. I did not want to be that lonely man, the kind who spends just a tad too much time contemplating the latest selection of ice cream at Safeway. I wanted passion in my life. I needed stability. And when I met him, my dreams were fulfilled 50 percent.

My parents love my mate, and my nieces and nephews are crazy about him (they call him “uncle”). My friends all think that I am lucky to be with such a person (they’re all single), and when I broke off with him once, my father cried. It only took 12 hours for me to call my boyfriend back, begging for forgiveness and a second chance. Afterward, I felt like a lying schmuck, because what really guided my hand to dial the digits was not wanting to waste the three years we were together. And that I would be alone again in the world while someone else gets to have this wonderful guy.

He’s a psychotherapist by profession, and I know that I can talk to him about anything. Yet I dread having a talk with him since I’m not sure what outcome I’m hoping to come from it, or what I even want to talk about. When he cuddles me in his arm and kisses me tenderly I feel that I am home and secure as a bug. I’ve learned to adore him through all these years and I can picture myself being with him for the rest of my life. But that seems so final and long, and the thought that I was never really swept off my feet when I first met him haunts me daily. Sometimes I feel that maybe it’s me, that I wouldn’t know love if it tagged me on the forehead. Or if it sprouted slowly in my backyard. What do you think is wrong with me?

Kinda Confused

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Dear Kinda Confused,

What I think is wrong with you is that you think something is wrong with you. If something were truly wrong with you, you’d have bruises or burn scars and there would be a police report. You’d feel like killing yourself; you’d have no shoes; you’d be sleeping on a cot at the Salvation Army; you’d be penniless and on the street; your family would have deserted you or your lover would have betrayed you; you’d have a gun in your mouth, or you’d be in prison, or you’d have jumped out a window. You would not be hinting around that something might be wrong but you don’t know exactly what it might be.

You don’t have problems, so much as unanswerable questions. Why you weren’t swept off your feet is an unanswerable question. It’s not a dumb question; it’s understandable that you ask it. But there’s probably no concrete, complete answer, and, anyway, it doesn’t need to be answered in order for you to be happy. I think if you knew it was OK to not be swept off your feet, then you could just stop asking the question. So try replacing those doubts about why you were never swept off your feet with the affirmative knowledge that it is OK for your love to take the form it has taken.

I know it sounds a little trite; I wouldn’t say it except that the alternative is so destructive. What if you threw off what you have, tore asunder the fine bonds of family you have worked hard to form, dashed the hopes of the one who has been constant and true, and had a big garage sale? When you emerged no richer, no younger, no thinner, no better-looking and with quite a few dishes missing, would you have improved your chances of being swept off your feet by a new man with all the qualities of your current lover plus the added bonus of his off-the-feet-sweeping ability?

Not likely. In your mind there may be a storybook romance that you feel you could have if you only weren’t stuck in the romance you’re in. But the romance you’re in sounds remarkably lifelike. That makes it better than anything in a storybook, we being, after all, remarkably lifelike humans and not characters in a book.

You’re a lucky guy and you’ve got a good thing. Cherish it. If you really think about how good you’ve got it, you might jump for joy; you might even get carried away and sweep yourself off your own feet.

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Breaking up with San Francisco: How we decided

The way this whole thing started was my wife and I were sitting at the dining room table and I had my head in my hands and at this point I can’t remember but I think it was she who first said, Well, we could sell the house and move to Italy and yes, now that I think about it I’m sure it was she who said that first, not me, because if it had been me saying it then it would have been just another of those frequent outbursts I’m known for, when I want to throw everything over and move to the woods or New York or go camping or start a band or become a lawyer, or move into a tiny apartment or raise llamas except for that last bit I would never want to raise llamas especially in a tiny apartment.

Whereas because it was she who was saying We could sell the house and move to Italy all of a sudden it was a real and serious proposition and I sensed its possibilities immediately as I am the kind who becomes keenly interested all of a sudden if there’s any change or escape in the offing as I am in my heart a desperate soul always looking for a way out of whatever I have gotten myself into, and so I said with I think guardedly less enthusiasm than I was actually feeling, lest she be testing me, Yes, I think we probably could do that. If you are serious.

Ha ha me saying “If you are serious” was a ridiculous role reversal, which I rather enjoyed, getting to play the responsible one for once. Bravo.

And so the dialog continued not much longer in fact along the lines of, Yes, we actually could. Yes. It would make sense. It would be a little crazy but not all that crazy because this house we bought for nothing is worth crazy gazillions now and you have your European passport and we have people in Italy who will guide us and welcome us and make us part of their family and we have business there to support us and rents are reasonable in Castiglion Fiorentino and so is the excellent incredible food and plus we love it there and I think I said it already but you have your European passport and I am married to you. Along those lines.

So you know how things start happening when they seem like “right”? Right? Like it’s almost superstition? So we found by chance the same real estate agent who sold Joan Walsh her house and David Talbot his house and we said OK, we’re on.

Then she, Carren, our agent, whom we love, told us to get rid of everything we own.

Now that bit right there alone could be a whole chapter in a book called How To Turn Your Life Upside Down And Shake It So Everything Falls Out Into a Dumpster. Or how to find a guy named Javier to pick up huge things and carry them out on his head by himself, or how to give your big old Fischer bar piano to Linda Kelly who will put it in her bedroom and sell three of her Grateful Dead books to the movers two of whom were huge mountain men and one regular sized one. It could be.

But here is one interesting thing  along the lines of personal transformation etc. that happened then.

Because we had approximately 1,350 books, I could not decide which ones to keep and which ones to give away until I completely redefined myself as someone who does not keep books. I just did it right on the spot. I said, henceforth, be it known: I am no longer a person who keeps books!

Done! Amazing! So easy!

I do however like books. So the floor refinishers came with their giant sanders and hammers and the real estate agent said here, go up to our place on the Russian River and stay there until it’s over. Which we did, which is why we are there now. And what did I bring with me but the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry edited by Paul Hoover and I am reading Alice Notley.

So things work out. I mean, I’m reading Alice Notley.

Enough for now. More to come. (I think.)

My sister’s engaged to a jerk

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Do I boycott the wedding?

 Cary’s classic column from  TUESDAY, DEC 28, 2010

Dear Cary,

My sister, who is 34 to my 30, has been dating a man in his early 40s on and off for the past 10 years. To give you some background on his character, when she first met him, he was in his early 30s and dating a 17-year-old girl (statutory rape where we come from). My sister began dating him shortly thereafter. Over the years he has cheated on her, dumped her because he felt she was socially inferior to him, and been caught in many, many lies. He has a child with another woman that he has completely abandoned. He has worn — in public and in photos online — vintage war pieces that are emblazoned with swastikas (he states that he is a war enthusiast and not a Nazi, but I and others have heard him make racist comments before). He was and currently is a teacher and has been accused by at least one female student of inappropriate sexual conduct.

For all of these reasons, he and my sister have broken up several times, sometimes for a year or longer, but they always end up back together. Each time they break up, my sister inundates our family with the kind of information about him I’ve mentioned above, yet when they get back together, little explanation is given and we are all expected to just accept him back with open arms. I have complied with this expectation three times now, but I reached my breaking point two years ago after they’d separated for a year and then got back together. This was after he was accused of sexual misconduct with his student. I asked many times and no explanation was given for her forgiveness of him, other than that the student had made the whole thing up. Given his track record, I am not willing to accept that.

For two years, I have asked that he be kept away from me. The other members of our family have made their peace with him and accepted him back into their lives, but I’m the lone holdout. Holidays and other family gatherings are awkward as we work in “shifts” — my husband and I spend the morning at my parents’ house and in the afternoon we leave so my sister’s boyfriend can come over. Well, now things have changed. Over Thanksgiving they got engaged. No one in my family told me (I live in a different city now) and I read about it on Facebook the next day. I am now faced with a choice of accepting this person — my sister’s future husband — back into my life so that I can be involved in their wedding, or of continuing to maintain my distance from him, thereby severing my relationship with my sister.

This situation has become polarizing and it has left me extremely depressed. I dearly miss my sister and the relationship we used to have, but this has affected us so much. She feels that I am judging her and her choices and that I do not love her “unconditionally.” She has dismissed most of the accusations that have been made against him over the years as misunderstandings. She says it is not her place to defend him to me and that if I have further questions I need to ask him. But the thought of even sitting down to have a conversation with this man makes me very uncomfortable. He is extremely intelligent and manipulative and I feel in many ways, he’s dangerous. I spent eight years getting to know him and I came to the conclusion that he’s just not a good person. My family has said that he’s changed and has been attending counseling sessions, but in my opinion if he hasn’t even admitted to the things it seems obvious he’s done, then how much can he have changed?

I am flying home for Christmas, but she wrote and said she would not be seeing me because if I do not accept him, I do not accept her. I don’t feel this is true as I love my sister very much. She is an intelligent and caring person, but for the life of me I don’t understand why she has chosen to spend her life with this man. I know I can’t choose her mate for her or tell her what to do, but I also don’t feel that I should be forced to accept someone like him into my life.

I don’t want to lose my sister over this. Should I suck it up for the sake of the family and have a discussion with him, or am I right to stand my ground?

Scared and Depressed

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Dear Scared and Depressed,

Your sister has made a choice that places her beyond your reach. The relationship you remember having with her is gone for now. It might come back but it is gone for now.

There may be many reasons for this. There may be things in her personality, or her life journey, that require her to be with this man. There may be things in her nature that blind her to his obvious flaws. You may have to accept the possibility that in her way she is just as messed up as he is.

What that means in practical terms is that you have to protect yourself. You cannot protect your sister. So you protect yourself.

That is a terrible thing to realize, that you cannot protect your sister. Yet you know it’s true. You have tried to protect your sister and she has again and again shaken off your protection and has gone to be with this man who is obviously a danger.

So in a way, you have lost your sister. That is hard to accept. Such a thing is heart-rending. Such a thing grinds away at one’s happiness. But the sooner you accept it the sooner you can begin living with it. Living with the truth is better than grinding away in fruitless battle.

Your sister gets something that she needs from this man. We don’t know what that is. We wish that she would get into therapy and discover her reasons for returning to him, and we wish that, having discovered those reasons, she would find alternatives that enrich rather than impoverish her. We wish she would find the unacknowledged needs that are driving her to make poor decisions. We can wish this. But we must also know that she is a free being, and she will make choices, and we have no power over those choices.

It’s a terrible thing, freedom. Freedom of choice is nice when people make choices we approve of, but when they make bad choices we want to yank that freedom away from them and make their choices for them. But that’s another price of freedom: People get to mess up their lives terribly all on their own, and we have to stand by and watch.

Your only reasonable choice is to keep this man out of your own life. If that means some separation from your sister, that is a necessary price.

You do not have to go to her wedding. You do not have to be a party to this. You can tell your sister what you believe and tell her why you are not participating in the wedding and let her go.

For now at least, she is lost to you.

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My husband wants kids but I like things the way they are

 

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We’ve got a great life going. Let’s not spoil it.

 Cary’s classic column from  THURSDAY, APR 9, 2009

Dear Cary,

I had a great childhood, full of country walks and art projects and picture books. My parents loved each other and they loved me and my siblings. I was not, despite all this, a particularly happy child.

I have a great adult life, with a wonderful husband, a demanding but stimulating job, warm friends and a nice apartment in a leafy part of the city. I am not, despite all this, a particularly happy adult.

I don’t think this is a huge problem. I’m prone to introspection, I often find the world confusing and upsetting and at times the human race makes me despair. So I work hard, study for my doctorate in my spare time, take long walks in the fresh air, read novels, look at paintings, choose pretty clothes and love my husband. These things make life meaningful for me. Oh, I’m 38.

My husband had a troubled childhood with parents who never liked each other much and have lived separate lives for decades. He was sent away to a residential school. He was reluctant to get married because his childhood made him cynical about marriage and family. His role models were artists and musicians and he wanted an urban life of coffee bars and foreign cinema and experimental music.

We did get married and it has been wonderful. But now he says he is struggling to find meaning in his life. His old role models don’t look so good anymore. Now maybe he’d like to find a different identity. Maybe he’d like to make a proper family and undo his old cynicism. He wants to do that with me.

Cary, I never wanted to be a mother. I don’t much like children. I don’t want to give my body over to someone else. I’m scared of childbirth. I don’t want to go to mommy and baby groups. I like to read books and I need lots of sleep. I need to work, and not just for the money. I’m not a happy person and I think I might make unhappy babies. There are too many people in the world already.

He loves dogs. I also love dogs. A dog would be good. But not a baby. What should we do?

Bonnie

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Dear Bonnie,

What should you do? What you’re doing: Think it through. Discuss it. Take your time. Figure out what’s going on, what has arisen in your husband’s life to make him think maybe he wants a kid, what social pressures are at work, what unseen longings, etc. Don’t just have a kid even though you don’t want one just because maybe it might, uh, make one of you a little happier!

Studies cited in this 2008 Newsweek article as well as more recent research indicate that having children does not increase happiness. It’s, of course, a perennial topic here at Salon. You could read the book we published about this. We’ve all weighed in, ad nauseam and to our occasional embarrassment. Our conclusions, though they differ, all rest on the assumption that 1) it is a personal and complicated choice that intelligent people must make consciously and 2) um, in the end, you kind of have to trust your gut.

We all struggle mightily with this stuff, as we struggle mightily to build our new, godless, secular humanist world! This new, godless, secular humanist world has kids in it, but it also has people in it who don’t have kids and aren’t freaked out about not having kids. It has people in it who admit, OK, I’m not the happiest puppy on the block and that’s OK. I think hard about the tragic inequities in the world, etc. I am not a trivial, smiling happy person! It has people like you in it! And people like you do not have to have kids! We just have to stick together on this, because there are social pressures always at work. If you live in a nice, happy, hip neighborhood that’s suddenly full of strollers you maybe start thinking you’re a little off, a little strange, a little out of it, if you don’t have a brood.

Your husband may be having a crisis of meaning, feeling unaccountably empty, disconnected, without grounding and community, without moorings in the continuity of life. When one reaches a point like this, the idea of having kids may well spring to mind. One may look around and think that what makes other people happy will make one happy as well; one may forget that what meager happiness one has eked out so far from life has been hard-won, that the few fragile truces one has hammered out between conventional morality and one’s innermost beliefs were reached through ruthless honesty about who one really is. Well, sure, one feels exhausted. Sure, one feels that other people get all the breaks. They are the majority. We are the minority.

So stick to your guns and have faith in the kind of clear-eyed problem-solving that has worked for you so far. Do not abandon your core principles and beliefs. Rather, adjust. See how new pressures have arisen, new needs, and ask how can your current arrangement meet these new needs? How can you meet these new needs for community, rootedness, a sense of connectedness to the sacred in life, the wonder of childhood, etc.?

When we creative, non-generative folks reach a certain stage in life, we begin to look around to see how we can be of value to our community, perhaps to our country as well. We see that though we are not parents, we have much to offer the future. We try to see how we might become involved.

I suggest that your husband sit down and take stock of his life. List the things that make him happy. You say he wanted an urban life of foreign cinema and coffee bars. Does he have that? Why is he discontented? How involved is he in this urban life of foreign cinema and coffee bars? Is he directly involved with a creative life or is he an onlooker? The greatest satisfaction seems to come from doing, not observing. If he feels restless and disconnected perhaps he needs to embark on a creative project in which he is deeply, personally involved. Perhaps he needs to be of service to his community. There are so many ways that we secular urban folks can meet our needs for connectedness through unconventional means! We start urban gardens! We organize against injustice! We create public art! We amuse ourselves together! We go to the movies! The dream of happy secular urban bohemianism lives on! It does not require babies!

But in and of itself, not having a kid will not address the deeper question. The question is how to find connection and meaning in life, how to feel more authentic and more “right” about what one is doing. How to feel, like, yeah, OK, what I’m doing is right for me, it makes sense, I’m where I belong, doing what I was meant to do. How do you find that? By doing what you’ve been doing all along, and being who you are.

Does that sound like a cop-out? I mean it sincerely.

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My marriage was a mistake

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I wanted to be the bride but I don’t like being the wife. Now I face the toughest decision of my life.

Cary’s classic column from Friday, Aug 15, 2008

Dear Cary,

I am a 25-year-old woman with two dogs and a sad marriage. I’ve been married going on three years and for the past one year or so have been seriously thinking I’d be better off without him.

We met about four and a half years ago, and fell for each other pretty quickly (which is how a typical relationship always seemed to start out for me in the past). We dated for 11 months before getting engaged, and then five months later we tied the knot. It all happened so fast and there was so much excitement — but now I think that deep down I didn’t really feel like he was the right guy for me … I was young (a whole three years younger — wow, huh?) and I don’t think I was finished being independent. I just wanted to be the bride — and everyone else wanted it for me too.

After we got married he started traveling a LOT for his job. Of course, he traveled before but since we waited to live together until we got married I was now spending a lot more time by myself (that was before the dogs came along). So, I knew we’d have some times apart and I knew it would bother me a little bit — but it’s gotten to the point where when he is at home I wish he’d leave again. I don’t feel an attraction to him at all. I don’t want to be hugged, kissed, or even touched … we fight about it when he’s in the mood and I never am. When we try to talk about the subject of sex and why we don’t have it anymore, I tell him I don’t feel good about myself and maybe when I lose a couple of pounds I’ll feel better … I’ll tell him anything just as long as I don’t have to say, “I’m not attracted to you anymore!” I really don’t want to hurt him — I know he loves me, but I’m getting tired of living like this.

I feel also that I should say that he’s not a bad guy. He’s nice, has a good job and all that other stuff. Sure, he has his moments (we all do) where he can be a real jerk … but for the most part there really isn’t any particular reason why I don’t love him anymore … I just don’t.

I’m convinced that I married him too quickly and that I should have waited and dated a little bit longer. I’ve always been somewhat of the “heartbreaker” in my relationships. It was always me getting tired of the other person. I was hoping that it wouldn’t happen in this relationship … but I’m afraid it has — I’m afraid that what I felt for him at the beginning was really no different than what I’ve felt for other men in the past. Sounds sleazy, I know, but it’s the truth.

I want to divorce him. I want to sell our house and live my own life with the money that I make. Maybe I’d move away, maybe not — I want that freedom.

I guess the only thing that’s really slowing me down is my family. They love him! Also, I was raised in a religious family and divorce is a sin — of course, we all sin every day — but I feel bad about wanting to leave my husband. I feel that my parents will be so disappointed in me along with all of my siblings, and extended family for that matter (we’re a close family). His family is great too … but it’s not enough to make me love him.

Before my husband left for his last trip we decided to try marriage counseling. We were going to start as soon as he got back home. He’s been gone almost two weeks now and I’m still willing to try — but we haven’t said one word about it on the phone since he’s been gone. I don’t know if the marriage is worth saving. Right now I hope someone tells me it’s not. But I guess life would be easier too if I could fall for him again. I don’t know — I think I’ve put up a wall; my marriage is on one side and my freedom is on the other — I want my freedom.

I feel quite selfish for all these feelings that I’m having but I’m just not happy. I want to be happy again.

What do I do?

Sincerely,

Confused (sincerely!)

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Dear Confused,

If someone were to ask you today, What was the most difficult thing you’ve ever done? what would you say?

I ask this in order to understand what you are facing and put myself in your shoes.

I’ve been sitting here in the cafe trying to think of the most difficult things I did before I was 25. There is a bit to get through but I will get there. You’ll see.

I wasn’t exactly the heartbreak kid. I was the guy who waited to be broken up with. So I never divorced anybody or even left anybody. I just let things fall apart. When I think about decisions that I knew were necessary and were going to cause me pain and cause others to be mad at me … I don’t think I made any!

OK, how about this. When was the last time you realized you’d made a decision selfishly that affected another person’s well-being, and then found yourself obligated to rectify it? When was the last time you looked at something you did and not only saw that it had been a mistake but saw that you had done it knowingly for selfish reasons?

Stay with me. It gets better.

When I look over my first 25 years, I see a guy making easy decisions and then taking actions to make them even easier. I see a guy with amazing luck. I see a guy who got out of scrapes. I see a guy who drifted, followed, looked for signals, tagged along. I see a guy who mooched and cadged, whined, cajoled, pleaded, charmed, faked, seduced, flattered. I see a guy who skirted, fumbled, hid from difficulty, head full of poetry, skipped out when the bill came, left before the cleanup, felt above it all, thought he knew it all. I see a guy who hid his fear, ran from trouble, avoided avoided avoided. He took refuge, fantasized, pretended, dreamed, borrowed.

I see a guy who never honestly broke up with anybody. He just waited for things to fall apart and then moved on.

It’s possible that at that age, how he’d grown up, the role models he’d had, the stresses he’d been under, the fear of the Vietnam War and the draft and the early drug use, the hippie culture he was ushered into, he did not have any choices the way we think of choices. How would he have acted differently? What model was there to follow?

So the outward behavior was not exemplary. But we do not always know what we are doing — what we are protecting, what it is within us, exactly, that is surviving through our apparently selfish and chaotic actions.

Through all that, I see a kid carrying a gift like a kid in a fairy tale, carrying a precious gift under his arm wrapped in newspaper like the Maltese Falcon. He’s been charged with its care and upkeep through war and poverty and homelessness. He’s given a gift by his parents before leaving home, and he travels, knowing that if he could just get through the forest without losing this gift, keeping it close to him, sleeping with it next to him in the forest, hiding it from jealous thieves, disguising it from those who might recognize its true value and want it (and also from those who might recognize its true value and disparage it, wounding him, knocking his confidence out), if he could just hang on to it through hurricanes and bitterness and winter streets of windblown trash and rat-run alleyways under rattling windows, if through all those nights of traveling, shivering under wet blankets, if he could hold on to just this one thing, then later, eventually, if he survived, he could work out the rest of it — what to do with the gift, how to operate it, how to use it, how to keep it running. Years later he would realize that the gift was not a metaphor. In a moment of stress a vivid memory would come to him of being a very young child and clutching something to his chest, lying on the floor kicking and screaming and crying and holding on to this thing. And he would see that this was not a metaphor, that it was physical, it was a book or some writing, it was a Bible or a journal or a story he had written. There was something he cared about more than anything else, something he would live for and die for. There was one thing at least that was not a joke. There was a bottom line, a real thing not a totem, one thing he was living for all those years of wandering.

Think about it. When you think about the most difficult thing you have done, or the most sacred thing, or the most precious, is there one thing you can latch on to?

This is hard because at that age we don’t know it. Or maybe we do. Maybe we know it but don’t have the word for it. Maybe we know it but are afraid for it; we protect it by not naming it. We think that if we name it we may harm it so we keep it secret. At that age this one most precious and dear thing may be the one thing that no one knows about — not because we are ashamed of it but because we are protecting it from their careless murder.

So you have come to one of those points where the most difficult thing you have ever done may also be the thing that defines what is most sacred to you.

You must have the courage to do this. Where will you find the strength? You will find it in this hidden sacred object or idea, this thing that you are protecting by leaving. For you, perhaps the secret object or idea is a form of joy and freedom. Perhaps you are the heartbreaker because the lifelong song you sing is the freedom song. Perhaps that is the course of your life: Love, experience, freedom. That could be. It could be that you are the secret spirit of freedom, raised — this is fate’s fiat! — in strict religion and thus hiding this spirit, protecting it, not exposing it to ridicule and at times not even believing in it yourself, but all the same secretly at night knowing that the spirit of freedom is the thing that defines you and that if it were exposed they would destroy it. Knowing, too, that to keep their love you have tried to live within their world. So the hardest thing you have ever done may turn out to be just facing it: You are not the good wife. Nor were you meant to be. You are the adventurer. Not the adventuress, in the censorious Victorian sense of a selfish, scheming woman, but the free spirit, the woman who will not be chained. Maybe that is you. Maybe it’s the call of freedom in a very pure sense. Maybe there is great power here. Seek that power. Visualize it. Crystallize it. Make it real. Hang on to it. Don’t let them shame you into submission. Keep it. Protect it. Meditate on it.

Then as you do all the necessary things to free yourself, you will have this northern star in your sights. You will have your heading. You will know where you are going even though, because of the nature of what you seek, your seeking it makes you appear to be without compass, groundless, spinning. You are not groundless and spinning. You are going somewhere. You are going toward freedom.

Go in this direction and you will know where you are going. You will be going toward freedom. You will be always going there. It is not a place you ever get to, but a place you always head for.

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I want kids, but he doesn’t. What could be simpler?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 31, 2005

Should I break it off now and look for a man who wants to raise a family?


Dear Cary,

I’m a 31-year-old smart, cute, funny, perennially happy physician who is in love with a 38-year-old chemistry professor. He is everything I want in a man. He’s warm, kind, caring, handsome, intelligent (some of our most interesting conversations are about quantum physics … grrrrr) and crazy about me. He has never been married and had a happy childhood. We can discuss any topic under the sun — conversation and silences are both filled with pleasant comfort and warmth. He is a liberal, an environmentalist, funny and wise about life and otherwise inexplicable things like taxes and stocks and — oh! — the sex rocks! In all a perfect package, except he does not want kids and I think I do.

We met online five months ago on a dating site as I was going through my divorce. I was not heartbroken about the divorce, as I had an “arranged marriage,” we never fell in love, the ex and I were totally mismatched and it was a relief to get separated. When the chemist and I started dating, it was supposed to be a testing-the-waters type of thing. He was, after all, the first guy I had ever dated. (I’m from a culture that frowns on making out with boys you are not married to.) But he feels right and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

So, where do I go from here? He likes his quiet time, is a bit of an introvert, likes to hike and travel, and does not think that he can sacrifice all of this for 18 years to raise a child who may or may not turn out to be a fine upstanding citizen. (These are scary times, you know.) He’s got a point there. I like sleeping in on the weekends, not having to worry about nannies, day care, poopy diapers, pediatrician visits, the Family and Medical Leave Act, teenage angst and whatever else is inevitable. But I’ve achieved a lot in life, I’m going to be financially secure, I have a wonderful job I love and a great family (who are overseas), and in two or three years I may yearn for the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

So before I fall deeper in love, should we break up, cut our losses and run, or should we let time decide? Should I let someone who seems to be “the one” go and hope to meet someone else who will be a better “one”? If we took care to arrange for adequate day care, to ensure that he and I went on a “date” once a week without the little one and took vacations just by ourselves to keep the fire kindled, would that give me the best of both worlds? Or is there a chance that I would doom the relationship to failure by making him compromise?

Looking Ahead

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Dear Looking Ahead,

If he doesn’t want kids and you do, then you should break up with him.

There, that was simple, wasn’t it?

So, if it was so simple, where have I been for the last hour? Why have I been thinking about probabilities and branching courses of action?

I got caught up in this notion of “the future.” The future is unknowable. Everybody will tell you that. So why do we spend so much time thinking about it? Knowing we can’t know it, we attempt to know it anyway, and then we start to feel like we can’t know anything at all, not even the present, because who knows, we might turn into chickens, or we might open a soft-drink bottling plant!

“Soft-drink bottling plant?” “Chickens?” Why did such notions enter my mind? Those are images out of rural Florida and Alabama. Those are images out of my childhood. (See the hour-glass bottles of Coca-Cola clinking along the conveyor belt; see the man in overalls pick up a bottle, open it and take a swig; it looked like the best job in the world!)

Why did those particular examples arise? What is going on here? Ah! Now I’m remembering. When I was a kid, we lived in the future. You never knew when something might happen to alter the way things were, so the way things were wasn’t really the way things are, so you couldn’t make any plans. We didn’t open boxes and put things away because we might be moving. We didn’t throw things away because we might need them. You never knew. Anything might happen. Best to leave your options open. Why even leave the house? You might get polio. Then again, you might not. Who could know?

The notion of an unknowable future became a source of paralysis for me later in life. So there I was again just now, the happy writer, trying to live in the moment, sitting at the computer, luckiest guy alive, getting paid to do what I love, and getting all paralyzed and confused about a simple yes-or-no question — because it involved the problem of the future! (Apropos of nothing — except perhaps the humorous synthesizing powers of the unconscious — what came into my mind, actually, was the phrase “software bottling plant.”)

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So how do you make this issue of the future concrete enough to make a decision about it? You stop thinking about wanting kids in the future and think about wanting them right now. You want kids right now. You are practical enough to realize that you can’t attend to them right now, but you want them. Likewise, you can treat his lack of desire for kids as a definite trait. If he wanted kids he would probably have made some by now. He would have gotten married.

So it’s not that mysterious.

Ha ha. Watch out. Everything is that mysterious.

We move from mystery to clarity to mystery. We embody paradoxes and contradictions. We express them in dramatic symbols; we act out the ineffable. He is a chemist. You are a doctor. You enjoy great chemistry together. Quantum physics excites your molecules. You understand how something can be indeterminate, can become its opposite, can change shape, can be unknowable in one way and knowable in another. I suggest that you determine that you want kids and he does not. But I acknowledge that in the act of determining, you may alter what you determine. You are both scientists of life and matter. States of matter can change. Water becomes steam. Water becomes ice. Elements influence one another. When the conditions are right for life, life sometimes appears.

Knowing what you want and what he wants, I think it is appropriate to acknowledge that certain combinations of people create unforeseen reactions. So before you break up with him, have a very frank talk. You may have awakened something in him. He may have awakened something in you.

It’s not so simple after all. Sorry, but that’s life.

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My friend is asking for too big a favor

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, AUG 5, 2005

To stay in the country, he needs someone to sponsor him.


Dear Cary,

A friend of mine is in the U.S. on a work visa, and has recently married an American citizen. They married for all the right reasons — undying devotion, etc. — but an added bonus is that they thought he would automatically become a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, they didn’t thoroughly investigate this before marrying.

Now, I don’t understand all the intricacies of immigration law, but as he tells it to me, someone still has to sponsor him before he can become a citizen. The intent of this sponsorship is so that he doesn’t become a public burden. If he applies for any sort of public aid, the government will look to the sponsor to support him. This responsibility continues until the sponsee has 40 Social Security credits.

Now, the wife would be the logical sponsor, except that she doesn’t meet the financial requirements set forth. She’s actually on the dole herself, for reasons I haven’t bothered to understand. So, in desperation, he’s asking me to be his sponsor.

This man has been a very good friend to me. He’s directly responsible for my relationship with my fiancé, and has helped me through a multitude of rough times. If I called him at 3 a.m. to come kill a spider, he’d do it. (I want to point out here that we have never been romantically or sexually involved. There’s never been any interest in either direction.)

But, I have to say no. My fiancé is soon-to-be-unemployed, and I will be supporting him as he searches for a new job. We’re moving in together. I’m starting grad school. In the next few years, we’ll likely have kids. Aside from all that, the friend in question has an unstable financial history, and now he has the new wife and her two children to support, in addition to an elderly mother. I think that needing public assistance is a very real risk.

My friend believes that friendship involves unquestioning loyalty, and he will be very upset when I say no. I may well lose his friendship over this, but I honestly feel it’s too much to ask. I understand I’m his best friend, and he feels he has nowhere else to turn. I feel horrible that he may have to leave the country and his new family due to this. What should I do?

Divided

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Dear Divided,

What you should do is promise your friend that short of becoming his sponsor you will help him in every possible way to obtain whatever papers he needs to stay in the country. Tell him you will help him find a lawyer. Tell him you will go with him to the state agencies and to the lawyer’s office and anywhere else he needs to go to settle this matter. Tell him you will help him find a sponsor. If that means drafting letters, you will draft letters. If that means doing research, you will do research. If that means making phone calls, you will make phone calls. Tell him you will do everything under the sun to help him. Tell him you will stay by his side until he finds a sponsor and settles this matter. Tell him you won’t abandon him. Tell him that you will be his loyal friend but that he has to trust you to be his loyal friend in your own way.

Who could refuse a speech like that? Especially if it is delivered, say, on the banks of a river as you watch tugs and barges crawl toward the sea, maybe as the sun is setting and a little chill is coming up and with it the prospect of a warm drink in a crowded pub.

Then begin work immediately. At first, I thought it would simply be a matter of finding a sponsor other than yourself. But the more I looked at the regulations, the less I understood. I now see how your friends made their relatively simple error about the effect of their marriage on his immigration status. The laws have changed. There were major changes to immigration laws in the 1990s, and there have been larger changes in the post-9/11 era. The beloved INS is now, alas, the USCIS, under the USDHS. So welcome, dear suspicious-looking person from somewhere other than here, to the Office of Citizenship!

This is what you’re up against: When bureaucracies change, things don’t work so well at first. What do bureaucrats do when things aren’t working so well? They find ways to decrease their work load. One way to do that is to decline as many applications as possible. In an atmosphere of fear, the incentive to refuse applications also increases. So you have to be really smart and really prepared to make things come out the way you want them to in a period of rapid bureaucratic change and systemic fear. (On the other hand, maybe you’ll find an official who’s so freaked out he’s handing out citizenship like lollipops. Who knows?)

So do lots of homework. Look into aid societies for immigrants from his country. Read everything you can get your hands on. Make contact with immigrant groups in your area. Identify any red flags in your friend’s record. Contact the embassy of the country your friend is from and see how they can help. Commit to understanding all the subtleties and details of the immigration law that pertains to his situation. Go over it all with him and his wife together. Discuss what resources they have available to them. Add up all the fees and decide where the money will come from. Make a list of all the questions you want answered. If you can get them answered for free, get them answered for free.

TuscanAd_Jan2015I cannot stress this enough: Be thorough. Do not skimp on any detail. Every paper you are required to have, gather it. Every requirement, understand it. Every deadline: Meet it. Your friend and his wife were not as thorough as they should have been the first time. That’s understandable. The law is complicated and it is changing. Nevertheless, it’s not a mistake you want to make twice. So leave nothing to chance.

When you finally understand the situation as well as you can on your own, then choose an attorney and make an appointment. When you meet with the attorney, dress up. Dress to impress. You will be putting on a show, after all. You want the attorney to see your friend as a credible and likable petitioner. You want the attorney to sense that you will do everything you can to win. You want him or her to feel good about taking your case, should that be necessary. Ask all the questions on your list, and then ask some more.

You might not need the lawyer to actually represent you. You might only need to know that you’ve overlooked nothing. But you will at least have a relationship with a lawyer if your initial petition is denied.

Ask the lawyer if you’ve overlooked anything. Ask if there’s any part of the application that could be done better. Then, and only then, make your application. If all goes well, in a few months you’ll be able to celebrate.

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Dragged into the ring

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 30, 2003

My boyfriend promised we’d be engaged by Christmas but we weren’t. Should I let it go or move out?


Dear Cary,

I have been dating my boyfriend for four years, and living with him for most of that time. We started (I think mutually) to discuss marriage about two years ago. I took a positive but relaxed attitude about it at the time, because I figured that it would come when it came. But it didn’t. I said about nine months ago, “Are we getting engaged?” and “When?” and was told not to bring it up again because it would ruin the surprise. This led me to believe that something was coming soon. Nothing happened. About a month before Christmas I brought it up again and my boyfriend told me that we would “definitely be engaged before Christmas.” I thought that this seemed rather noncontroversial, so I was pretty happy and relaxed.

Christmas, as you might guess, came and went. I got some nice stuff but no ring. (I am not ring-obsessed … I don’t want a big ring or even particularly a ring at all, but it seems to be the only way that I can talk about getting married with my boyfriend.) I brought it up about five days later, and got the “I was very busy before the holidays, etc.” runaround. My boyfriend has a fairly demanding job, but he works about two blocks from the diamond district. I would think that if he took one or two hours during the day to go pick out a ring, he could stay later at night. It is also not a money issue.
I didn’t spend a lot of time recriminating him. I have decided to work something out myself rather than bring it up again to him. My attitude is that he knows how I feel. We have been together a long time, and there is a point at which it is either gonna happen, or it ain’t. I am not looking for a husband, but I am looking for my boyfriend to be my husband, and, if he doesn’t want to, it is time to do what is painful and break up with him if that’s not what he wants to be. He does not seem to be brave enough to tell me himself, but if he wanted to get married, well … you know.

Our lease is up in the summer. I am thinking of saying then that I am getting my own apartment. Should I say something about that now, to tell him where I am on this, or should I just wait and continue to hope that we’ll get engaged before then and that nobody will be the wiser? I don’t want to pull some ultimatum shit two weeks before our lease is up, and I also would feel sort of sneaky looking for an apartment on my own while he thinks everything is fine. But I also don’t want to end up getting engaged in a hurry only because he doesn’t want to suffer the trauma of my getting my own apartment (I think he feels a bit too comfortable with our relationship as it is). I think that he would interpret “I’m getting my own apartment unless you get me a ring” as a threat meant to hurt him, but it really is only a fact, and something that will hurt me, too.

My boyfriend and I get along very well. We had problems during the first year or so of our relationship, but I think we’ve worked them out. There doesn’t seem to be a third party in the picture. My boyfriend seems happy to see me at night and he doesn’t disappear mysteriously or anything. There are no previous marriages or children on either side. We like our apartment and our life together. I can’t see that I would be happier alone, or happier with anyone else, but, honestly, I am not happy living together indefinitely like this. It’s fine for some people, but it’s not what I want out of life.

Sad

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Dear Sad,

This reminds me of something that happened over 30 years ago, when I was wrestling. I was in junior high school and going out for the team. If you wanted to go out for the wrestling team, you got up early in the morning two or three times a week and dressed out and went into a little concrete block room, the wrestling room, and stood around a mat. The coach stood in the middle and demonstrated holds and asked for volunteers for various holds. Then there was a kind of round robin where volunteers stepped forward one by one into the ring. You didn’t hold your hand up or ask permission, you just stepped in and wrestled. We had been doing that for about 15 minutes, and most of us had stepped in and tried our hand at wrestling. And then the coach said, OK, those of you who have stepped in, I think you want to be wrestlers. And those of you who didn’t step in, I think you need to ask yourselves if you really want to be wrestlers. Because if you want to wrestle, you step in the ring.

I was startled but relieved, because I didn’t know it had been a test. And it wasn’t a test, really. It was just reality. If you want to wrestle, you step in the ring.

I think you need to tell your boyfriend that, based on his failure to buy the ring, you have reached a painful but inescapable conclusion that he does not really want to marry you. You can’t hang around and let him play you for a sap.

After you tell him that, and start making plans to move out, the ball is in his court. If he wants to woo you back, if he wants to convince you that you’re the most important person to him in the whole world and he wants to spend his life with you, he’s free to do his best. Because I remember what else the wrestling coach said. He said this doesn’t mean that the rest of you are off the team. If you want to prove that you’re wrestlers, he said, you can prove it. But I’m not going to drag you into the ring.

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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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