Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 27, 2005
Like a man waking up from a coma, I suddenly realize in my 40s: My life is a sad, painful, ugly ordeal!
This past year has been pretty painful. I feel that I have lived a failed life. About a year ago it was like I woke up from a long coma and for the first time clearly saw my life for what it has been. I started looking back on what I wanted when I was 14 or 15 and what I thought my life would be, and it was like a jolt from wherever that I had not achieved the things I wanted the most in my life.
Due to a variety of family problems, personal problems, illnesses, stupid mistakes, bad relationships and just plain bad luck that I don’t want to detail here, my life has been a sad, painful, ugly ordeal. Therapy and medication only helped me so much. Most of my problems were in the social and emotional areas. I just didn’t get the development and life experiences that most people get. A painful childhood led to an even more painful adolescence. I had a brief respite when I was around 14 or 15, but I wasn’t able to completely get over the obstacles.
I also wasn’t able to help my younger siblings avoid the same problems and pitfalls I faced. It was a nightmare watching them go through the same things. I had also hoped to have a family of my own, but I was not able to overcome my social problems to do that.
I have done OK in some areas. With some difficulty I was able to go to college, hold jobs, and maintain my own home. I am surviving, and there are things in my life I enjoy, but I also know I will never be completely well and normal and feel whole.
Going back over my life, I have been seeing very clearly how this problem led to that problem, this mistake led to that mistake, etc. I know part of it is probably my age; I am in my 40s, a time when you look back. But am I also going through the grieving process for the things I have lost in life? The pain has been acute. I don’t think therapy will help. You can’t go back 20 or 30 years and change things.
Dear Lost Dreams,
No, I don’t suppose you can go back and change things in the past. But if you are willing to seek a happier life, your analysis of your past behavior could prove a starting point for changing things in the present. Perhaps you can identify ways you might do things differently today. The question is, how, in practical terms, do you accomplish that? How do you apply your insights? How do you translate them into behaviors? What concrete actions can you take to put into effect these insights you have gained? And also, what might stop you? What lies between your insights and their application, between theory and practice? What further, perhaps hidden, personality traits or beliefs might work to stop you from changing your life, in spite of all you now know?
This would be a great time to put down on paper specifically what actions you might take today to change your life. Since you have not provided specifics, I can’t know what those things might be. But one of them might be that, in the very beginning, you will first refuse to rule out anything. That would, I think, include the refusal to rule out further psychotherapy. But it would not be a prescription for it, either.
It would be nice if there were specifics to work with. But at least the refusal to rule anything out leaves you the widest selection of options. Let’s play a little game with that, just to be sure it’s clear what we’re talking about. For instance, if it turns out that you need to run for president in order to have a happier life, will you be willing to do that? What if you have to stop eating asparagus? Meatballs? Tuna? What if it turns out that you need to get up at the same time every day and to exercise three times a week on strength equipment? What if you have to give up coffee? Will it make any difference to you what you need to do? What you need to do might seem surprising; it might not make sense; it might offend your sense of who you are and what you know. I’m suggesting that you be prepared for that.
Your ruling out certain possibilities may be a protective device. But what further is there to protect yourself from? You have already suffered deeply in the failure to become what you desperately want to become. So I would abandon all caveats at this point. I would abandon everything. I would continue walking into whatever crazy flames you’re in. I’m one of those people who believe that deep change comes through difficult surrender, surrender of protection, surrender of the sense of knowing what we’re doing; I believe in shamanistic transformation through trial and madness. It sounds to me as though you have come very close to a painful madness of truth; you have seen the tragic dimensions of your life. Many, many people never get this far. You, in your comprehension of your own failure, have gained a valuable bit of wisdom. To have fully grasped the way our dreams don’t pan out, the way the water always rises around us, to be standing now, in your 40s, waist deep in the flood asking the most fundamental, searing questions about life — you are very close to some kind of transformation anyway. So please do not give up. Please do not foreclose on any option available to you.
While you have taken brave and difficult measures to discover the reasons for your unhappiness, you may also have boxed yourself in by limiting the kinds resources that you believe might get you over the top. When you say, “I don’t think therapy will help,” you may be right; but it also sounds a like a prophetic proclamation without much practical meaning; you may be doing what a lot of us might do in a similar circumstance — to attempt a kind of preemptive walling-off of further emotional or spiritual discovery. Because, of course, the whole thing can be quite painful. If you just mean that you don’t think much pointless psychobabble about the past is likely to help, I would agree. If you should get into therapy and find it’s pointless psychobabble, please have the courage to follow your instincts.
But, having had these difficult insights about your life, and being left with many practical questions about how to put them into practice, you might benefit from some concrete assistance making specific present-day changes in your behavior. You will have to seek the relevant know-how to make those changes. Whether that know-how is in the hands of psychotherapists or economists or general contractors or plumbers or hypnotherapists or Buddhist monks I have no way of knowing. All I know is that most big projects require some kind of help.
So rather than tell you what I think you need to do, I will just plead with you to keep going, to hang in there, to find a way to apply your insights to your current life. Whatever is of use to you, use it. Whatever is of no use to you, let it go. But keep going, keep struggling to understand your life, and don’t rule anything out.
I’m 43 and I’ve always been beautiful, and now I am in a state of shock at what’s happening!
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, NOV 15, 2007
I am a 43-year-old woman. I have been married and soon will be again. I do not have children.
Without sounding like an arrogant jerk, I am very pretty. I have taken this prettiness for granted my whole life while thinking (somewhat hypocritically) that “looks aren’t that important.” Certainly I have not consciously coasted on my looks — I have held very senior positions in very well-recognized companies. My looks might not have hurt me in my jobs, but certainly I did not coast to the top of a highly competitive field without something to offer other than a pretty smile.
I’ve always known that people admire me for my looks; I’d have to be blind and deaf not to perceive my effect on most men. I’ve always been impatient with women who talk about how “lucky” I am, or men who presume that I can get whatever I want because of my beauty. Even pretty people have to earn a living; even we get taken to task for our capabilities, if we presume to test them, which I have. To that end, I am a well-rounded person — I read a lot, I recorded an album of acoustic songs and sometimes play at gigs. I am good at a few sports — very good at one. I am well-traveled, speak a few languages, and I’m a pretty good cook.
So it’s been with some surprise that, as I entered my 40s, I have realized that my looks are becoming more, rather than less, important to me. I find myself scrutinizing women all around me — usually in a critical way. It’s horrible — I don’t recognize this voice that has suddenly taken over my head at all. It picks apart young women and derides older women. No woman, it seems, is spared from this internal critical monologue. As for women over 50, forget it. I see them dressed up or getting their hair done at my salon, and I think, “Why does she bother?”
I have always been somewhat “low maintenance” — no makeup, simple hair, very little fuss. I like nice clothes but I frequently wear jeans and the kind of clothing you can find at REI. I do not dress to call attention to myself, and I’ve never consciously tried to appear sexy. When the Botox craze first came to light I was horrified that women would do that to themselves. I’ve always been pretty disdainful of plastic surgery, too.
And now, suddenly, I am buying magazines about just these procedures, surfing the Net late into the night, eagerly looking at all the things I can do to myself to preserve my looks.
I don’t understand this at all. It makes me feel miserable about myself. And then I project that misery out onto the world and find myself making up reasons to resent young women and the men who are attracted to them. Which is silly — I don’t blame men my age for being attracted to women half their age. I certainly can appreciate the beauty of a guy half my age. I’ve dated a few.
Is it death that I am afraid of? Or just aging and losing the power of my beauty, the power of being the center of attention even when I don’t seek it? And if it’s the latter — well, why are all of my many accomplishments suddenly not enough?
My boyfriend is two years younger than me. He is very good looking — but looks his age. I have studied the signs of aging on his face and feel nothing but affection for them. His crow’s feet and sun damage do not detract at all from his appeal, in my view. Why can’t I relax and assume that other people can be as forgiving toward my signs of aging as I am toward theirs? I find myself very uncomfortable if someone stares at me. Whereas I used to dismiss it as another guy admiring me or trying to get my attention, now what I think is, he’s noticing the lines on my forehead, or the way my skin isn’t as smooth as it once was.
I read your column regularly and know that if you publish this certain mean men are going to eagerly jump out of the woodwork and gleefully tell me that I am finally getting what’s due me, that men don’t find women my age attractive ever. The thing is, I don’t believe this. I don’t believe this and yet I am afraid that it is so, that if every man in the universe were to take a quiz and be totally, totally honest about what kind of woman he’d prefer to be with, he’d pick “young” over any other attribute. But isn’t it funny — I never felt that way when I was young. In my 20s I always felt at a distinct disadvantage around the older, more sophisticated female executives around me. I never took the admiration of the men around me very seriously — I felt their admiration was quite impersonal, not really directed at me, but at the idea of me. I could have been anyone — there was nothing personal at all in their regard for me.
So what’s causing this terrible antipathy toward aging (and not just aging — female aging)? Why now? And how do I stop this?
Dear Aging Beauty,
I think this is not so much about death as it is about the loss of social power, and, moreover, the loss of a certain daily vitamin of high regard that sustains and energizes the beautiful.
Most of us are only really lovely for a few short years in childhood. But not so for the beautiful. In the day-to-day world, where most of us lose so much of ourselves and are granted so little in the way of courtesy and love, the pretty person absorbs love out of the air, off the street, in the stores, absorbs love like a child cared for by a loving mother and an adoring family whose faces light up every time she enters the room. The beautiful are constantly absorbing love from the world in a way that is scarcely recognizable to others and even to herself — for has it not always been this way?
To accuse you of taking this for granted is needlessly unkind: How could you not become accustomed to it? It is not vanity, I don’t think, but the lucky satisfaction of a natural need to be loved on contact, just as who we are, just because we are there. To whom does this happen otherwise than the beautiful? Only to children! Only a child can walk into a room and find herself a delight to all, having done nothing, having prepared no performance or recited no lines, just because she is who she is, we turn to her with delight and love.
But of course for most of us this period of automatic love and warmth is very short. We soon find that we are mostly a nuisance, and have to work for every smile of praise. But the beautiful? Go to buy a cup of coffee, walk down the street, sit on an airplane — yes you are often the object of boorish affections and resentments, but you also receive a constant hidden dividend of high esteem. That is not to say that you have it easy. I do not mean that at all. I believe everything you say about your accomplishments and I do not for an instant think that your life has been all that much easier, only that you have had this more or less constant vibe of approval, of pleasure in the way people regard you.
And then it vanishes! One day the admiring glances cease!
It may have been happening gradually, but you notice it suddenly, in the loss of a table or an overlooked invitation — We were going to invite you, of course we were, of course, how could you doubt that?
Your notice magnifies it all: Harsh disregard is everywhere now!
You would expect the sudden withdrawal of this wonderful feeling of acceptance to be painful and upsetting. And indeed it is.
So what to do? How to age gracefully? How to adjust to this new world in which your presence is either ignored or treated as a bother, in which your needs are attended to begrudgingly by unconsciously beautiful young things who do not even seem to see you really, who do not even seem to look at you, who make you feel, in a thousand little ways, that you do not belong in their world?
Argh. Well, you could just get plain nasty. You could use your money and prestige to make the lives of others a living hell. There would be some satisfaction in that, you must admit. But it would only make things worse in the long run.
No, I think really what we must do, those of us who experience this jarring shove into irrelevance, this undeserved demotion in the esteem of strangers, what we must do is content ourselves with our pleasures as we find them.
Oh, what a stupid, empty cliché that is! Jesus! Can I do no better than that?
And the truth is, no, not really. I have no solution. This is how it goes. This is youth’s revenge. It was ever thus.
What can you do? You used to breathe in high regard from the very air; it used to be what you swam in. Now it is rare, hard to find, you have to seek it out. It is all around you but you have to dig for it. It is in art and music, in the love of friends, in all the other clichés that I now find spilling out of my brain.
You have to find it in your intimates, in your family, in those who love you and will always love you, to whom you will never be anything but spectacular.
I have been through a lot of loss, but I can’t seem to get over losing her love.
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 14, 2004
At Christmas she left me, told me she had fallen out of love.
It has been half a year; I have dated, moved on, accepted that she is never coming back. I have taken other lovers, spent time with friends, done all the things you do to make peace with yourself, to accept that it is over and that she is never coming back.
She said she had fallen out of love; I later found out she had cheated and could not face up to me about it. I have no idea if I could accept that; I suspect that I couldn’t but that is not the main issue. I dream about her, about the times we shared, how loved I had felt.
My life has not been a pleasant one: orphaned, adopted by a very dysfunctional family. I found something that meant the world to me and then it went away. I know logically that it is for the best, no such thing as a good breakup, if it was good, you wouldn’t break up. I still find myself in tears when I run across her picture, or try to talk about the past with a friend. Five years of my life and it left a lot of tracks behind, it is not something I can avoid.
I was always under the impression that time healed all wounds, but I find myself with tears streaming down my face and I don’t know that there is a solution to this.
I survived my parents dying. I survived being in the Army and having to fight in a conflict I did not believe in. I survived my best friend committing suicide, but I can’t seem to heal past this.
When is it that this is supposed to stop? Is there something just broken inside of me?
When people say time heals all wounds, they rarely mention the recommended dose. They don’t say, Time heals all wounds at a ratio of six months’ grieving for the first year of a relationship, with the period for each subsequent year diminishing on a curve determined by past experience and other concurrent psychological factors including recent traumatic events. They just say time heals all wounds and leave it at that. Which can raise your expectations unnecessarily.
Whatever you’re getting over always takes more time to get over than you think. First there’s this period where you’re willingly grieving; the incident is fresh in your mind and in the minds of others; people know you’ve been through something tough and they cut you some slack. You figure you need some time off. You take it. But at some point you think, OK, enough with that. I’m ready. I’m done. I’m cured. And then you try to get up and start living a normal life and it hits you again: There’s another wave of grief, and then another wave and another, and you can’t believe it. That’s the second phase, which is all about accepting that it’s not over until it’s over.
You mention some other losses in your life that you feel you handled better than this one. You say you survived these other things, but you can’t seem to beat this. Having survived these other things, it might seem that you ought to be able to beat this as well. But there’s another way to look at it. It could be that you never actually beat those past events or rose above them, but simply survived them. So they are still hurting you. Perhaps this breakup is sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back. If so, that’s not a dangerous thing necessarily. It just means it’s really time to come to grips with loss.
When you can no longer carry every burden like a man, when you can no longer soldier on, when you can no longer absorb every blow, then it’s time to begin a new phase of life in which you acknowledge the loss. You stop being a soldier and become a philosopher. Instead of battling, you look for meaning. You look for the connections. With compassion, you examine your wounds to see exactly how they happened, what hit you, and from what direction; where were you standing and why were you there? Were you ordered to be there or had you just wandered into the jungle? Were you on a mission? Was someone trying to kill you or was it an accident?
This, I think, is the true healing phase. It’s not time that’s doing it. It’s you. It takes time to get functional again. And then it takes even more time to fully interrogate yourself, to conduct your own incident investigation, to get at the truth.
Do I boycott the wedding?
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, DEC 28, 2010
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
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.
I know it’s inevitable, but I can’t imagine how to get through it.
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 26, 2005 01:04 PM PDT
I’m writing because I love your advice and follow your column avidly. I don’t have the time or focus to make this pithy. I’ve always envisioned writing you a clever and insightful letter someday, and this ain’t it.
In a nutshell: I just learned my mother has a deadly cancer, her second round in two years. Despite what doctors are saying right now, I have a gut feeling that this is it: My mother is going to die young. She’s not even 60. I’m not even 40. She won’t meet my future children. She may not even be alive to see me get married to the love of my life. He and I had planned to get married next summer.
I am the only daughter, and anticipate being in the role of primary caretaker. My father and brother try their best, but I have always known it will be me who will help my mother die (or get well if there is some miracle). In fact, I have been preparing for this in therapy for over a year: trying to overcome my phobic fear of death, hospitals, illness, and least helpful of all: vomiting (people getting chemo vomit — a lot). I’ve made some progress, but I am still terrified and panicked that my fears will get in the way of being helpful or comforting.
She gets her first chemotherapy treatment next week, and I will be there (she lives in a city three hours away).
I’m beyond “why me, why her.” I know we all must deal with the death of our parents someday. Here is my question: How do people bear it? What can I do to overcome my fears and terror, and to offer my mother — who I love fiercely — solace and even meaning in the face of death? Is it even my role to offer this? How do I hold hope and death at the same time? She has been a wonderful mother — and devoted so much of her life to caring for me. How do I return the favor?
Heartbroken and Afraid
Dear Heartbroken and Afraid,
Much has been said to malign death, but little is said in its defense. Thus we fear it inordinately. But there is much about death that is wonderful. One thing that is wonderful about death is how little it requires of us, and how much we can count on it. Unlike a lover or a deliveryman, death will surely come, eventually, every time, to all of us. It will come whether we want it to or not, whether we are home when it arrives or not, whether we schedule it or not. The certainty of its arrival is frightening in a way — we might not be ready when it arrives! — but it is also reassuring. For once we do not have to choose. We bear no responsibility at all. If we do not make a selection, a selection will be made for us. When death arrives, it will not require payment or any form of reciprocity. It will not turn down the bed and then stand at the door waiting for a tip. Death, for the dying, need not be feared.
All death requires of us is that we bury our dead.
This is not to say that you are a silly and weak earthling caught up in weak and silly fears. I am not trying to pass myself off as some cold, imperious guru, impervious to fear of death. Far from it. I too fear death and dread the passing of those around me. I only suggest you try to make peace with death itself, in your own heart, to the extent possible, in order to lighten your burden, so that you can then move on to the issue before you with less dread and anxiety. You have probably made ample progress, perhaps more than you realize, by concentrating on this issue over the last year in your sessions with a therapist. You have been preparing. You cannot cure yourself, of course, or eliminate your natural responses to these future events. But you can prepare for them, and you have been doing so.
So take heart knowing that you are well prepared for the difficulties ahead. And take heart knowing that there will be many, many people around you who will care for you and help you when you need it. Your immediate family may disappoint you, but when illness comes, others rise to the occasion; wise caregivers and unexpected allies who were only on the periphery seem to step up and become central. Be alert to the people in your mother’s life who will now come forward. Look to them for the support you will need. That is how people bear such things.
It’s gruesome and terrible and frightening, I know, when the body is in the process of dying. But we do get used to certain tasks, however much we think we could never endure them. And death itself, once accomplished, is serene and quiet.
While you are taking care of these tasks, think of the immense procession you have joined — consider, as you empty bedpans, that you are taking your place on the great wheel, that we all go, every one of us, eventually, no matter what we believe, no matter what we have accomplished or destroyed, no matter how we have failed: We all go, and likely there will be someone emptying our bedpans, and someone emptying theirs, and someone emptying theirs. In this cycle of care and decay we are united. Your mother will go, and you will follow. My parents will go, and I will follow. Or perhaps I will go first and they will follow. We do not control the order of our going. Of this we can be sure.
I am not saying something as clichéd as that all this is happening for a reason. I don’t know that. But I do know that death comes to all of us eventually, and so to deny it when it is coming is, well, futile, yes, but also undignified. Without giving up — we must do what we can to live — we also need to embrace death, recognize its power, its omnipotence. Give it its due.
Perhaps some of our unease has to do with our guilt that we are not the ones who are dying. But really, unless we believe in a literal hell — and I don’t — what could be so bad about being on the other side? Why should we pity those who leave a little before us? For a time, some of us will be on one side, and some on the other. For a time, our friends are inside the nightclub and we are behind the rope. But before too long, we’ll all be over there on that side. True, the difference between the living and the dead is profound and fundamental, as is the difference between those inside the club and those behind the rope. But still, as Tom Waits sings, “We’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground.”
So I suggest you take responsibility for the things under your control, try to make the proper medical and financial decisions in a timely way, comfort your mother, tell her whatever you need to tell her before she goes, but give some measure of honor to death itself, as well. It is all of our fate. It is our inheritance. We will all be joined there eventually.
I’m having a rough time; I’d like some justice and some peace.
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 2, 2008
I am not sure where to start or even if I should be writing to you. I have been struggling with something, and at times I think that I have it beaten enough and that asking for help is just useless whining for attention. At other times, it rears up, and I think that it may overtake me.
Two years ago, my father was murdered. Someone wanted money for drugs, and he was beaten and left to die. A second person was involved. She helped plan the robbery, waited nearby and did nothing, though she knew my father was seriously hurt. She sent someone back in the house to rob him again, then covered up the murder from police. She and the murderer are in jail. I grew up next door to the murderer. I saw him beaten, heard him begging his father to stop, saw the delinquent he grew into and how he used people up, even before he was on drugs. My father helped him learn to read, and he took my father’s life. I did not know the girl who was involved. She is up for parole next year, when she will have served only a year in jail. She lied as she pleaded guilty this past spring, diminishing her role. The attorneys for our side acted as if I was lucky that they had worked out a deal and gotten her any time at all.
What I am trying to tell you is that I am very angry and in a lot of pain. I know this hurt other people, but I seem to have taken it the worst. I had a breakdown after my father died. In about two months, I slept about 30 hours. Sometimes I still don’t think that I will make it. Others seem more able to go on. They often say things about how he is in heaven. They tried to pretend that Jesus took him up right away and that he didn’t suffer, no matter that the coroner told me it took him hours to die. I know this is their defense mechanism, but sometimes it comes across as smugness.
I was the only one to speak at the hearing of the girl involved. No one else wanted to, and my brother, who was estranged from my father, had to be begged to even show up. One aunt said something like, “This is the world. They’re not Christians. They don’t care what I have to say,” but I wanted help. I spoke, but could barely get through it. There is something in me that almost obsessively focuses on painful things, where others seem to just as obsessively ignore them. I was diagnosed bipolar, but medicine seemed to rob me of any creativity or humor, so I went off it over a year ago. (Long-term use has also had bad side effects for two relatives.) I feel as if I can’t let the girl, who is up for parole next year, get out. I feel as if it is all up to me. I feel as if my father will be forgotten, unless I remember. I know people are tired of me crying, so I hide it when I can. I know I should do something constructive and keep busy. I know there is much worse suffering in the world. I just don’t understand how this was allowed to happen. I cannot make peace. Sometimes I am not sure if I can keep going on without him. I feel as if I am serving a life sentence.
I just thought you would give me an outside opinion. These last two years are a long story that I have been struggling with.
Thank you for your time.
I think I can suggest some things you can do that will help you. But I do not want to launch into that right away. A person who has been through what you have been through, you tell someone what you have been through and right off they launch into a set of prescriptions for you, and you know you’re not supposed to be angry, they’re only trying to help, but you feel shorted somehow. You were just telling your story. And they launch right into all this stuff you’re supposed to do to make you better … and by the way, why aren’t you better already, why are you taking this so hard? And you know you’re not supposed to want to punch the person because they’re just trying to help. But a prescription for action was not what you were asking for, not right away, anyway. You were asking, first of all, just to be heard.
So we sit a little and let it sink in. We sit before it and regard it and we begin to feel the gravity of it. And it makes us humble. We realize that whatever we say, it will just be one small part of a long process for you. We realize that you are in pain and we can’t make that pain go away. So we sit and sense the pain you are in, too. We just sit with it for a minute and it takes hold of us, too, and we begin to react to it with deep sadness and we realize that won’t do, either; you don’t need for us to collapse into tears over your situation. That’s not what you came here for, either.
So we just respond to you as a person, not overreaching or overreacting, not smugly knowing or overly optimistic. We take in your suffering, acknowledge it, be humble before it, admit that it is real.
We live with the past. We cannot change it. We just take it in. We take it in and mourn and grieve the tragedy. We take it in; we expand to contain it. In expanding to contain it, we grow stronger.
It doesn’t feel that way right away. It feels like it’s going to destroy us.
The grief alone will not destroy you. But you need a practice, a method, a tool kit. In this kit are certain things you know will work. For instance, a place you know you can always go to: a lakeside, a burrito joint, a street corner that uplifts you when the world is sitting heavily on your shoulders, a person you know who will always be supportive when you need it. You make a list of these persons and places and tack it up somewhere, and when things get bad, you look at your list and go to one of them. You take shelter.
There are many kinds of shelter.
What happened can’t be undone. But you can do things that get you through the worst parts. You can have a set of tools to get you through.
I have been lately writing about grief a lot and I have gotten some helpful letters from people. One letter yesterday mentioned tonglen, the Buddhist practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out compassion and relief. There is a very good chapter about this in the book “When Things Fall Apart,” by Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön. It was in this book that I first read about tonglen. The poet Allen Ginsberg taught a similar thing; he suggested that we breathe in the world’s ills and breathe out light and forgiveness and peace.
Someone also recently wrote to me about her mother, a Catholic mystic who saw Jesus everywhere, and used to travel to seek out his image, and after her mother died, she found that she was crying for everyone and everything, and this frightened her. She looked into her Catholic background and there found a name for this grief for the world: “tears of the faithful,” it is called, those tears we shed for the world’s suffering. (“The sorrows of the faithless are storms, which ravage everything, but the tears of the faithful are a quiet, gracious rain which helps the beautiful flowers of virtue to grow and bloom in the soul.”)
These practices do not cure history. But they help us acknowledge suffering and connect us to humanity. They help us get through the worst of it, and slowly we improve.
There are many other things one can do. There is no technique or practice that is not worth trying. If you had a whole list, you might find only one was useful and palatable. But that one might save your life. So I do suggest that you seek out methods that work for you, that you read in the literature of grief, that you turn nothing away, that you keep an open heart and an open mind. For instance, I myself have never done “grief work” in a formal sense, but I have a feeling it could be very powerful and very healing. You might consider it. I would investigate.
It has been a crazy week. I sometimes don’t know how I am going to get to the next sentence. Then something happens.
A mockingbird has begun to sing. I can smell the sea from here. I wait for these things.
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAY 16, 2005
I’m finally ready to deal with a long-lost love, but a recent breakup seems to be all I can think about.
I recently went through a breakup of a very short affair. Three months after it began it was completely over, by her choice.
I went into this believing it might have a long lifespan. Mostly I was drawn to her because being with her reminded me of the life I’d previously led, a life with a wonderful soul mate who died many years ago.
This fling woman (she is newly out as a lesbian, and I was her first physical relationship with a woman) behaved badly while breaking up with me. I’m not faulting her for that. My problem is that the grief that has surfaced with this breakup is clearly tied to the lingering grief of losing my first and only love, long-ago soul mate, a man who died of AIDS. When I try to bring up how that original loss feels, so that I can deal with old feelings of losing a boy who A) was in my life for 18 formative years, B) I lost to a devastating battle with AIDS, and C) whose death has colored my entire life, I find only this fling woman comes to mind.
How do I reach past this buzzing annoyance and get to the harder, still half-buried, deeper grief? Why am I allowing myself to dwell on a short-lived mismatch? Is the harder stuff so painful I can’t bear to look it in the eye? Can anything so old (two decades now) be so strong that I need to avoid it with this distraction, even when I’m actively trying to access it?
I’m ready at this late date to deal with this first grief, yet my mind will only come up with these sloppy seconds.
Tormented by the Present
Whereas usually it’s the past intruding upon the present that troubles us, in your case it’s the present intruding upon the past. In fact, you are troubled by the fact that the past won’t trouble you enough. You finally feel ready to deal with the past, but it doesn’t want to deal with you. So let’s talk a little about what you are trying to accomplish. What is it about that old loss? Why are you trying to get to that “harder, still half-buried, deeper grief”? I would suspect that if you are not actively troubled by painful memories today, and if it is difficult to vividly recall the poignancy of the loss, then perhaps you have indeed dealt with it, in the sense that it has mercifully receded from consciousness over time, as it should. Your preoccupation with this more recent event may be quite natural.
So what is it really that troubles you so? Perhaps being over that grief is itself a kind of disappointment; perhaps you long to feel full-force that grief once again, because the grief itself is a luxuriant, intoxicating sensation.
Which leads me to ask, at the risk of being presumptuous, if perhaps you aren’t hungry for an annihilating intensity of grief, grief as a drug, old grief, in fact, used to push aside your current feelings. In which case it would be your current feelings that are actually pushing to the surface for good reason — because your mind is telling you that in spite of what you might wish, these are important feelings, that in spite of its brevity, for whatever reason, such are the mysteries of physical love, this affair affected you deeply.
For instance, you mention that she did not behave well but you claim that doesn’t matter to you. You also mention that you thought this affair might really turn into something, but it didn’t. My guess is that what you’re feeling is anger and disappointment over this recent affair. My guess is that you cared for her more than you let on, and that her rejection of you hurt more than you care to admit. So why not permit yourself the leeway to feel these things more deeply? You may need to grieve this relationship with the same intensity that you grieved the other one; that it was short and intellectually inconsequential may make scant difference to the heart.
If you also wish to pursue the neurological phenomenon, to study how the brain prioritizes memories, that might prove fruitful. I have read that scientists are making great strides in understanding the mechanics of memory; those mechanics may have a lot to do with how we end up feeling happy or sad. I myself don’t understand much of that. But it can’t hurt to look into recent discoveries by neurologists. Just don’t neglect the fact that, for whatever reason, you were apparently affected quite strongly by this recent affair. If you honor that, you may be rewarded with a new appreciation of your capacity for love.
It’s been over a year since I moved from my childhood home. It’s been sold–the only home I knew for 20 years.
Before I left, I read your advice column on letting go of your childhood home. It helped, and I did sit on my porch, and I wrote a letter and placed in a box and buried it under my old swing set.
The excitement of moving into the city has surely passed and every few months I find myself taking a drive out to see my old home. I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around the idea that it’s not really my family’s anymore. Every time I drive by and see the gate shut, the thought that some other strange family lives in there saddens and confuses me terribly. The fact that I can’t drive in and run up my stairs into my bedroom anymore haunts me. I thought that by now I’d hardly think of my home and be over it and have moved on, but I still miss it so much. I just don’t know how to officially move past this grieving process and truly let it go.
Missing My Home
Dear Missing My Home,
The last line of that column you mention was, “And then let it go.” I think that’s the part you’re stuck on now. In that column from August of 2010 (only 8 months after my cancer surgery, which means my brain was still a little scrambled) I invented some clever rituals, and that was nice and poetic. But I also meant to say that there is a moment at the end where one truly lets go of the house. Continuing to drive by it and think about it is not letting it go. Every time you drive by you bring to mind all those feelings and make them fresh and new and vivid. It’s time to stop driving by it every few months.
But driving by it is a bittersweet pleasure, too, isn’t it? So it’s not easy to stop doing that. It means accepting the absence.
I wish I could fix this but I can’t. All I can do is say Yes, I know how gut-wrenching it can be. I know how thoughts of what has been lost can obliterate everything else. All I can do is seek peace within myself, and that means searching for ways to stop obsessing about things that I have lost. How I do that is by reading poetry and sitting still. How I do that is by asking other people, How do you do it? How do you get through a day? How do you live with loss? How do you not break down and fall to your knees? How, when you are filled with grief and rage, do you resist the impulse to do something rash and stupid and destructive but very satisfying and attractive?
I keep asking and I keep getting answers from poets, from therapists, from addicts, from novelists, from my wife, from people who write to me. And the one lesson that stands out is this: The task of being fully human is our major task. It is more important than earning money and maintaining a reputation and giving proper greetings and being on time and polite and staying in our lane when we drive and waving to neighbors and thanking cashiers.
Our major task is the simple task of being fully human. That means accepting that in this moment, right here, right now, we are not the suffering and the anguish, we are not the loss of a house, we are not the memories of family, we are not the unfortunate real estate transactions and lost investments and bungled business ideas and erratic moves that characterize our lives. We are just specks of light illuminating a small section of darkness. We are just points of awareness in a vast and majestic universe.
If I can hold that thought even for a second or two I can be OK. I am not my pajamas. I am not my trench coat. I am not my hands or my computer or my losses or wishes or the airplane flying overhead or my feelings or my former drunkenness or my rage at not getting what I think I deserve, or my sadness at the things my father wanted and never got, or the tragically shortened lives of my dogs, or my vast need for recognition and acknowledgment. If I can know for just an instant that I am not any of that, that I am not my sadness at the loss of a family home or my worries about how my family will live in the future or my anticipated grief at the coming death of a dear friend, then I can get up and keep living, and I can make my appointments and I can comfort my wife and I can see my friend for lunch and I can keep working on the novel and I can even ignore the maddening thunk of a child practicing a barely-in-tune piano next door.
And that — especially the last part — is a miracle.Write for Advice