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Am I being used?

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Dear Cary:

Thank you for bringing humaneness to advice columns. I hope you’ll consider taking time to help me figure out a problem. I was raised in a tribal culture where women keep things to themselves in order to keep others from worrying. I have trouble speaking to friends back home to help me work this out, and I am in a very rural area with no therapists close by.

I do not have any friends where I am living.

In 2010 I started doing dissertation research in a small community far from my home. I met a man who was 62. I was 33. He seemed very young, was outdoorsy, and we spent a lot of time together on my project. He has been married and divorced four times. Only one of the marriages lasted a while, with “Sherry” (nineteen years). I have been married once (together for about twelve years, married for five)–the ex had an affair, and I will admit I have trust issues. My ex and I raised his son together, and I promised the son to love him like my own no matter what, and I do. Stepson still lives close to my “home”–far from the research community.

This older man and I started dating as a fling. We discussed that I was going to leave, write my dissertation, and seek an academic job. I’m of mixed heritage — American Indian, black, and white —  and I’m the first on my mom’s side of the family to have a doctorate, so this was a big deal, not just to me, but to my parents and Indian community. I actually did leave the research community and drove back home, to work and write my dissertation. However, a couple days after I left, a mutual friend called to say Manfriend had a heart attack and was in ICU. I immediately went back to take care of him and ended up moving in. His health generally declined from another condition, although he hides it well. He is now on disability, but it is not enough to support him at the level he likes.

Somehow helping him stretched out to three years. I love Manfriend — by which I think I mean I could not stand for him to be alone and killing himself trying to work, which is what he would do if it weren’t for my income.  I have supported him, cared for him, taken him to the hospital and to traditional healers, worried over him, taken care of all the work he can’t do around the house, advocated for him with doctors, etc. His kids rarely visit. He says he loves me, but he does not want to get married.  I did finish writing my dissertation, very slowly, while working two jobs to support both of us. There are no academic jobs here. I do other work in a high-stress but boring profession that does not pay well here.

Here are the hangups. He calls me “Sherry” sometimes. He speaks about Sherry to others and tells them how pretty she is, even shows off pictures of her and their daughter together and refers to her as “my old lady.”  Manfriend comments about how other men who are “shacked up” with women do so because they do not respect their girlfriends enough to marry them. About two years ago, Manfriend made comments about wanting oral sex from another woman in front of me and whispered to her something apparently salacious in front of me. He has not taken me out in about a year, so I no longer see him interact with other women, although he claims that the hitting on the other woman was only when we were “not as committed” (we had been living together and I was supporting him even then). He tells me that he thinks it is funny to tell people in town who ask about me and him (it’s a small town, and the age difference as well as my profession and race make us a curiosity for gossips) that he doesn’t even know me.

Manfriend is not as bad a boyfriend as it might sound. What I haven’t said is that he is also kind when he’s not being disrespectful. He cooks for me, listens to my frustrations with my job and my worries about Stepson and my elderly grandfather, and is very affectionate. When we are OK we laugh a lot together. We never go out together anymore. He does go out when I’m at work. By the time I get home and on the weekends, he says he is too tired or that I am too insecure and will get mad at him for looking at other women. But he doesn’t want me to go out by myself, so I have made no friends here other than “work friends,” not people I would share personal issues with.

I know I’m insecure and bringing my own old issues with trust into things. But I can’t get over the feeling that despite all this if Manfriend respected me or were committed to me much he would never have hit on other women (especially not in front of me), could manage not to call me Sherry during intimate moments, and could stop bragging about Sherry to other people. They’ve been divorced 15 years but apparently, according to her religious beliefs, she and he are still married since she does not believe in divorce. I also tend to think he would want to get married since, according to him, not getting married is a sign of disrespect. That we are racially different does not help. Sometimes I really think that if I were white he would not act like he was ashamed of living with me or try to shame me.

This is all very far from my family, and I’m now 36–getting old if I did want to settle down and have a child other than Stepson. I’m terrified that I’m losing precious time with my parents, elderly grandfather, and stepson and obviously weakening my relationships with all of them because we rarely see one another, and that I gave my beloved and also now elderly dogs back to Exhusband (Manfriend is violently allergic), all to be with a man who I sometimes suspect is using me. But, again, I hate the thought of leaving him alone, or of not having him in my life, and I think I find satisfaction in caring for someone.

How do I make a decision I can live with or let wanting a more stable relationship go? We are wearing each other out fighting. When we argue that pain and humiliation of him hitting on that other woman in front of me and telling people he lived by himself and didn’t know me just bubbles up as if they were new. I want to talk about it, and he doesn’t, which means I usually unload it all it once when I figure we’re already in for an argument–not good for either of us–and he responds with sarcasm and exaggeration, which tends to make it hard for me to keep “fighting fair.” The last fight ended with me vomiting up all these worries, crying, and telling him I was scared and him telling me I was making him sick with my “tantrum,” so I’m sleeping at my office for a while.

Any advice would be very appreciated.

Best,

Not Sure if I’m Being Used or Just Poisoning My Relationship With My Old Issues

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Dear Longest Pseudonym Ever in the History of this Advice Column and that Means 12 Years,

Thank you for your letter. I don’t think it’s helpful to simply say you’re being used. It’s more complicated than that.

You are in an unusual relationship. You get a lot from this relationship. You also give a lot. You sacrifice. It is an unequal relationship. But you are not powerless in it. You have some power that you are not using. You have the power of refusal and of withholding. I don’t mean withholding sex. I mean withholding yourself, and the things you do for him.

Rather than be doctrinaire, strategically cut back. Stop doing certain things for him, while still maintaining the essential bond between you. The services you provide are not just practical. They are emotional. You supply him with approval and esteem; you allow him to believe that he is king. It’s OK for him to be king some of the time. But he is not all-powerful. He needs to know that his powers are limited.

I think you’re smart and compassionate and deserving of more than this man is giving you, but it is your responsibility to even things out with him. So pull back. Let him see that he can’t just get whatever he wants from you whenever he wants it. Retire into yourself a bit. Let him feel some tension. Let him wonder. Let him see that his lack of respect has consequences.

You say you are living in a small community far from home. You are isolated. You depend on this man more than you would if you had friends to confide in. So you need to make some friends. If that means breaking certain customs, by confiding things that in your tribe generally are not confided, and by on occasion denying him the pleasure of your company while you go and be among people in more equitable power relationships, so be it. In other words, branch out. Find some friends.

As to the essential question of whether to leave him in order to find a man to have a child with, that is a deep, challenging and far-reaching question I can’t presume to answer. But I do know that though you feel responsible for this man, you are not ultimately responsible for him. If you leave him, he will be OK. He will survive.

I sense that there is something deep between you and him. It is clouded and sullied by his crude lapses. That is a shame. I sense that he is not crude morally necessarily; he is a man of a certain time and he is used to getting away with certain things with women. But it is not too much to ask that he not call you Sherry, and not make crude comments to other women. It doesn’t matter whether you are there to hear it or not. You should insist that he not do this. It is disrespectful to women everywhere. It is wrong. He should be chastised when he does this.

We have a long way to go in this culture; our history of violence and subjection of peoples echoes in the present. To be a woman, an African-American and an Indian is to be thrice blessed and thrice cursed. Most blessings are also curses. This is nothing new.

So go inside yourself and be strong inside yourself. Do not give yourself away to him so freely. Let him see what he has to do. Let him see if he can make it up to you for his crude lapses, his arrogance, his pomposity. You obviously are drawn to a deeper side of him. He is not just an arrogant, pompous man. He is someone you love.

Just don’t be a sucker. Be strong. Make him work for it.

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Unemployment is making me depressed

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

Unemployment is making me depressed

 

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

 

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Floundering


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Dear Floundering,

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

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

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

You have disappeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are some things to think about.

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

On the effects of unemployment and depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My lover shot himself

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Dear Cary,

In my early twenties, I went to graduate school to study English literature.  I was deeply passionate about the written word and knew from the moment that I could read that I wanted to devote my life to this pursuit.  Idealistic, I felt like providence had led me to that moment in my life, and I was ready to enter the academic and literary world where I would finally “belong.”  Instead, I was met with a small circle of individuals who had greater desires for tenure than the actual sharing of knowledge and appreciation of language.  The program was more clinical than I needed it to be.  I was miserable in that environment and left graduate school early feeling confused and betrayed by the system that I had worked so hard to enter.

After leaving, I sank into a deep depression, only partly cured by a new relationship.  I met a poet and fell for him quickly, all my passion for language being channeled toward him instead.  I loved his poetry and the emotions that he conveyed with words.  I felt fulfilled through my relationship with him (although it was a tumultuous one) and was inspired to write as we shared the same creative spirit.  It was a long-distance relationship though, and he cheated with a woman he then married only a few months later. 

In mourning that relationship, I met another writer who picked me up off the floor more times than I care to admit.  I hate to sum him up as just a “writer” too, because he was everything to me.  He had the same acute sensitivity to the world that I do. Every pain I ever felt echoed the same inside of him.  We took turns spinning into depression and then giving/accepting consolation.  We fell in love with each other’s words over and over again.  Even his emails were art to me.  He was the most precious part of my life and I trusted him implicitly (although his love of story telling often led to superior forms of embellishment). 

He shot himself in the head almost four years ago. 

I miss him.

All of this is to say that I do not know what to do with myself. I feel like I have writer’s block of the mouth and pen.  I shy away from everyone and anything that I used to gravitate to because I feel so wounded by it all (whatever “it” is).  I don’t know how to connect with people anymore.  I don’t know how to write anymore.  I feel so profoundly but have no outlet.  I am disappointed in life, do not know how to go on without my partner even after several years, and do not know how to find others like me or make myself understood by those that are different.  I am not under the impression that life should be happy all the time.  However, I would like the ability to experience just a little bit of it every once in a while.  Sometimes.

What should I do to get out of this current un-life?  How do I find others with the same sensitivity to the world that can relate to me and I them?  What do I need to do to feel inspired to write again?

Thank you for being there,

Despairing Former Writer

 

Cary Tennis Online Writing Workshop

 

Dear Despairing Former Writer,

How do we recover from loss? We do it slowly. I am not surprised that you are still recovering from this traumatic loss, or series of losses — the loss of your graduate school dream, the loss of your intimate partner, the loss of your own creative practice.

As a first step, I suggest that you see someone trained in the treatment of depression and ask, candidly, if you appear to be depressed. If the answer is yes, then spend some time working with a therapist who is trained in the treatment of depression, sorting things out, getting help and support. I know what depression is like, and I know it can be treated and life can get better, and I also know the numbness and hopelessness and sense of worthlessness that come with depression.

At least find out. If you aren’t depressed, it will be good to have an expert opinion to that effect. You may just be grieving.

Either way, write through this pain. If you have not tried doing morning pages, as suggested in the book The Artist’s Way, try that. It is a good way to habituate oneself to daily writing after a period of inactivity. You do not need to feel inspired to write in order to write. You need only to write. Strangely enough, the writing will cause the inspiration, not the other way around.

May I share something with you? I, too, sought the companionship of fellow lovers of literature in graduate school and I, too, despaired and left, after learning mainly how to drink in bars.

I, too, have lived through bouts of depression. I have gotten help both professional and nonprofessional. What I cling to, and what I keeps me on this side of the suicide line, here with the living and not over the cliff with the suicides, is knowing that things will get better and that the steps I take will slowly help. In the bad times, in the down times, I do things to get through the day.

Writing will sometimes get you through the day. This morning I have been writing about my father, who had literary dreams but did not finish things, and how sad that was for me as a boy to watch, and how I have at times repeated my father’s pattern. And I have been thinking how painful it is to want to do better than one’s father, and the conflict that can bring, and how after leaving the family and all its particular horrors one wishes to find one’s genial tribe, and how there are many false tribes that will disappoint you, and how one’s true tribe are not found where you think they would be found — not necessarily in the graduate English department but out on the lawn smoking pot or working in mailrooms or as cab drivers, or devoutly following a calling.

In seeking our tribe we are often drawn to the ones who burn the brightest and promise the most. But do the ones who burn the brightest really have what we need, or are we just drawn to them because they burn so brightly? It seems to me it is often those who burn the brightest who let you down the hardest. Having fallen for this writer, having lost him so traumatically, you must be wary now of any trust, and not know how to distinguish between the dazzlers and the true friends. You may be wary that the ones who will dazzle you will also break your heart but not know who else to turn to. This is sure: Your heart cannot stand to be broken again. You need someone to be good and strong and kind to you. You do not need another romance with death.

Let me ask you this: Is there anyone among your close friends that you can totally rely on? Is there anyone you can lean on? Someone who loves you unconditionally? Family, a friend, a fellow lover of literature, a woman friend, someone? You need someone, not a lover, but a friend, not necessarily a brilliant person but a loyal person. Maybe a therapist would play that role; that is often the unexpected beauty of therapy, that we are able to fall in a kind of love with someone in an unproblematic way, for our own good, to reawaken our own capacity for love. This person need not understand your aesthetic complexities. You just need someone you can lean on.

I will tell you a little about my own recent experience of depression. First, some bad things happened, so it wasn’t like depression came out of nowhere; bad things happened both medically and socially. So when I sought treatment for depression, the professionals’ first thought was that I was socially isolated and needed IPT — InterPersonal Therapy. It then became apparent that I had some deeper issues that needed a psychodynamic approach. But out of that psychodynamic approach finally came the strength for me to essentially do IPT — to repair my social network. So now I am answering the telephone and responding to emails. I am cherishing the friends I have. I am reaching out. That is helping. Also I am working methodically on my literary craft. That, too, is helping. And I participate in 12-step meetings. That, too, is helping.

Maybe you still need to grieve this loss completely. I’m not sure, frankly, how one does that. I suppose that for each person it is personal. But there is some good to be had by saying it out loud: I need to grieve. I am grieving. Out of that comes acceptance of the melancholy, the heaviness and slowness. One can say, I am feeling heavy and slow with grief still. That does not mean there is something wrong with me, just that something terrible happened.

Something terrible happened. You are not over it yet. Eventually you will be.

Ask a professional about depression. Strengthen your social network. Identify people who are there for you. Lean on them. And write your way through it, too, not trying to be brilliant, but trying to tell the truth.

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