My children were abused

Cary’s classic column from  Monday, Aug 12, 2013

I live with an awful history, and sometimes it is too much for me


Dear Cary,

I am writing with a problem that makes my heart physically ache.

Let me briefly lay the groundwork first, and then I will present the problem. I was married for almost 20 years to a man who had three children from his first marriage. We had three more ourselves, and I legally adopted my oldest stepdaughter when she turned 18. My stepchildren’s mother is extremely abusive, and all three of them were physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused by her or her relatives. While I understand that she herself was a victim of the same behavior from her own family members, I cannot condone the perpetuation of the cycle. My adopted child (now 34) has worked really hard to separate herself from the traumas of her youth, only now to find that her father, my ex-husband, has now replaced her mother as the perpetrator of abuse in her life.

This daughter has a nice husband, a steady job in a call center, and a lovely son from a previous relationship. She also suffers from a mysterious auto-immune disease and severe chronic pain that nothing alleviates. She has mental problems that show up as bipolar but are probably more like PTSD. The more I study about bodywork, the more I understand that these conditions are outward manifestations of everything she has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of her natural parents.

My firstborn was molested by my stepson, and raped by a neighbor’s grandson, but when we found out (years later, since she was too ashamed to tell us) my husband dismissed it as normal children’s sexual exploration. I caved in and never pressed charges. I will regret forever that I was not able to a) prevent it and b) stand up to my then-husband and do what was right by our daughter. It took me years also to grow enough of a spine to file for divorce. (As you might correctly surmise, our relationship was a perfect match of emotional abuser and willing victim … until I finally broke and had to make a change.)

Despite these things that happened, believe it or not, I do not regret my marriage. We had a marvelous time for a good long while. I learned about not only practical matters (confidence with power tools, for example), but even in the disintegration of the relationship I learned a lot: to stand up for myself, to make changes, to be really honest and intimate in ways that I never was able to before. I had to go through the fire and the dark tunnels and every other metaphor of shame, guilt, depression, etc., and find my strength there.  By going through all that, plus therapy, plus going back to school, I was really able to change myself for the better. Relationships with my children, my parents and my friends all improved because of me learning how to communicate.

What my ex will never comprehend is that the divorce itself was actually an act of love and compassion on my part, because neither of us could be our best person with each other. My hope was that both of us individually could be better people, better parents, happier and more functional than we were as a couple. He was, however, devastated and retreated into self-medication with alcohol, medical marijuana and opiates, as well as bad-mouthing me to his entire family and our children.

The problem as it stands now is that my ex-husband, who is chronically unemployed and now lives on disability, continues to rain abuse on his eldest daughter, most recently accusing her of dealing her prescription painkillers to her 14-year-old brother (my youngest child), being a heroin addict and flaunting her “wealth” in his face (because she occasionally buys him groceries and little gifts). Out of all six of his children she is the one who has been most steadfastly determined to be kind and loving and financially supportive of him, and she receives for her efforts only more abuse and pain. My biological children all refuse to see him or speak to him. I have a hard time watching him deteriorate this way. There seems to be nothing left of the man that I fell in love with. And of course, my children have lost their father, not to death or disappearance, but to some mental illness that prevents him from being a loving parent. This hurts me the most.

Is there any other advice than “let go”? Cut all ties and never look back?

I apologize for the very long letter, but I felt that I needed to explain myself thoroughly. I hope you might find the chance to answer this letter among so many others that call out for your attention. At the very least, writing this has been helpful to ease my mind and my heart.

Best wishes,
E

Dear E,

It makes sense that you would want to cut all ties and never look back. But that is probably not possible. It wouldn’t work. You are tied to these people. They are your family.

But you can make adjustments — as you seem to have done already.

In a practical sense, you can do more of what is working and less of what is not. Make that your daily method. In the morning, think about what is coming up in the day, and find time to do more of the things that work for you, and try to eliminate the things that don’t work. If you can avoid seeing certain people in the family whose presence distresses you, then avoid them. If you can write more letters and contemplate your life more, if you can spend more time with supportive friends, then do more of that.

You can be strong for your daughter. You can advise her to cut ties with her father, because he is only bringing her grief. And you can protect yourself. You can, in a sense, abandon these people. Recognizing that there is nothing you can do anymore, you can step back. I know that probably sounds trite, like just “let go.” In fact, what I am saying is that “letting go” is a positive thing but it is not an abstraction; it is a constant practice.

How do you get through such things? This, right now, is exactly how you get through it: You tell your story. You do what works. If writing this letter made you feel better, then write 10 such letters. Write a hundred letters. Write every day.

You know that there is no one complete solution to life’s suffering. But there are changes you can make. And you have to keep making them. You have to keep making adjustments because new things will always arise. Your ex-husband may continue to get worse. Your daughter may suffer continuing bouts of terror and depression and trauma. So you have to keep doing the things that work for you, and do more when you can.

You can also strengthen your capacity to hold and process the feelings that do come up; you can strengthen the way you hold the memories you have. You can strengthen your inner self so that when you think of these things they do not rock you back on your heels. You can learn to see the patterns in all this, to understand how it fits together. And you can also learn to honor the darkness, the ways in which there is no pattern but only evil. You can learn to respect the presence of evil; if not honor it, at least to abide it, so you are not surprised by it or defeated by it, so you can look it in the eye and be stronger than it.

This means calling upon your warrior spirit, your spirit of pure survival. Lately I have been thinking about the warrior spirit in all of us, the aggressive spirit. If you can think back to the act of being born, you can remember that when we are born we are fighting to the surface and we are pure aggression. We want to survive and that is all. We want to come into the world and that is all we know. This birth memory can serve you well. Remember that part of you that is pure survival instinct. It is strong.

So, no, I don’t have any great solutions, other than to trust yourself and the solutions you have already found, and to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t, and trust your instincts about how to survive these terrible things, and look for the strength in yourself; feel the strength inside. Revel in your own strength, so when awful thoughts and memories arise, you can contain them.

There is no complete solution to living with awful things that have happened. There is only how you live with it day to day, with a strong, vibrant warrior’s spirit.

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He does the dumbest things!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 5, 2004

I thought my husband was stupid, but he’s just got attention deficit disorder.


Dear Cary,

I’m 40 years old, married for 19 years, with three boys ages 4, 8 and 14, who are constantly and completely amazing to me. I never finished college and I married at 21.

I suppose that it’s also no surprise that a marriage that starts out so young is a rocky one, but we had a real revelation this week. For the past two months I had secretly been thinking, “You know, maybe the problem is just that he’s stupid.”

He does the dumbest things and makes the most ridiculous choices again and again and seems unable to think with any kind of logic. If he tries to clean our garage — which is like a cross between a junkyard and a toxic waste dump — he might find the car buffer, which would lead him to immediately go wax his truck, which would lead him to look inside the truck and decide to clean out the truck, where he might find a bill that’s overdue and he’ll end up sitting at his desk writing a check, having long forgotten that he was cleaning out the garage. His office is chaos, his truck is chaos, his business is chaos, and our life is not chaos only because I exhaust myself doing everything alone.

I’d been entertaining the idea that he’s just stupid and selfish and lazy and inconsiderate and then I read a description of adults with ADD that said, “They’re not stupid and selfish and lazy and inconsiderate. They need help.”

He’s willing to pursue treatment, but as with other changes in his life, it did not originate within himself but with my handing him the article and saying, “Look, maybe this is the problem.”

I’m not bucking for sainthood here. I was preparing to return to school, get my degree, get myself situated, and then get the hell out. I’ve been offering for the last year the appealing proposal that we find a duplex and live as a post-nuclear family — eating dinner together and sharing the parenting — just not sharing the living space. I don’t want other men — after 19 years of this, all I can think is, it’s too hard to get rid of the one I’ve got so, why the hell would I want another one? And I really don’t care if he entertains strippers and hookers all night as long as the kids don’t know.

I never wanted to look my boys in the face and say, “Your dad isn’t here because I can’t live with him. I know it makes you miserable, but hey, I’m happy.” I didn’t want to be the quitter, the bad guy — unless I had some proof of appalling behavior to hold up to people. It’s hard to explain to someone that you’re leaving your husband because of the condition of the garage.

People love this guy. He’s gregarious and funny. I guess I love him. I just wish he lived somewhere else.

He said to me last night when discussing getting treatment, “Well, part of this effort is going to have to come from you.” What I wanted to say was, “Fuck off!” Why is it my job to be the strong one who picks everyone up? Why is it when I went through a major depression I had to figure it all out on my own and seek treatment on my own and basically be completely responsible for myself and now, when he needs help, “Well, part of this effort is going to have to come from you.” Yeah, I know. It is. It is.

I don’t want to be my parents, still complaining and whining about my spouse and my miserable marriage after 40 years. But I’m almost halfway there, and I’m still complaining and whining about my miserable marriage. Will I regret breaking up my family, or will I regret choosing to continue a life in which I’ve never been happy?

Terri

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Dear Terri,

I loved your letter. It is filled with bitter wit and acrid observation, and beneath that you obviously have a huge, huge heart.

Here’s what I think: I think you stay. I think you stay and see this through and look for ways to be happy within the world you have chosen. Within the world you have chosen, you do not have to whine and be miserable. You have these three children who are a great joy to you. And you have this man whom you do indeed love.

You do love this man but you’ve let him tax you to the limit. You need a vacation. You need a massage. You need a weekend at a spa. You need some flowers. You need a nice meal at a nice restaurant and to come home to find the garage cleaned out by your 14-year-old — with the help of the 8-year-old and maybe even the 4-year-old. You need everybody to pull together.

How do you get there? I’m not sure. But you have the three boys on your side, of that I am sure. And you obviously have a great deal of leverage. I’ll bet there are books on this. I’ll bet there are techniques you can use to unify your family, divide the labor, and get yourself some breathing room. Perhaps the duplex idea can work. At least it shows that you are being creative. If the duplex idea can’t work, you can devise other structures to insulate you from your husband’s crushing disorganization and lethargy while he struggles to overcome his ADD. The 4-year-old will be in school soon, and your options will widen as he gets older and more independent. Perhaps you can go back to school part time. And you can look forward to improvement in your husband. So you can have some hope.

If you can swing it, get some help into your life. Get some support from other over-stressed mothers. There’s a group for everybody, isn’t there?

The only thing I urge you to do is to try to stay together with your husband for the sake of the kids. I’m not morally or religiously against divorce, but my observation, and my own experience, is that it is often destabilizing to children in ways that we don’t fully understand and can’t fully cure. That’s a definite cost, and I think in many cases the cost is simply too high.

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I’m so anxious I can’t think straight

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 4, 2007

 

I know what the issues are, but I can’t really deal with them.


Dear Cary,

Lately I’ve been very anxious about my father. I’ve been anxious about mortality and life goals, or how to live in general, but particularly as it concerns my father.

I’ll back up. I’m 31. For the first time in my life, I have a good relationship with a man I really love. It’s a lot of fun, and such a relief, and I think maybe not having relationship anxiety has cleared the way for some older and possibly greater anxieties. For the first time in years, I’ve been having the mortal terrors again at night. I contemplate death and scream out loud. (When my man is around for that he tries to comfort me, and it does help a little.)

I assume most other people don’t feel the way I do. I never hear them screaming. But how could they fail to? In particular I worry about my father. He’s in his 60s. We get cancer in my family. I have this worry. I don’t know how I’ll cope. And: I’ve been having some low-level longings for a baby, these past years, and when it occurs to me that my father might not get to be a grandfather to my child, it breaks my heart.

If I were a shrink I might wonder if that’s a transposed longing to do my childhood over again. Maybe so. I think my childhood was actually wonderful (and it was a time when I was much closer to my father). My young adulthood was more a series of lost years from which I am only now emerging. So some of this might not be about mortality so much as it is just about my relationship with my father, of course. I feel that I have special things expected of me. I am the one who takes after him; I am cerebral and stonewalling, while my brother is affable and socially gifted. But we have ways of interacting, my father and I, that are not really interacting. He retells something he read and I listen. I tell a story from my life, but I end up addressing the other people in the room more. I don’t know why, but he’s hard to talk to. Or I have a hard time of it. We are rarely somewhere talking, just the two of us. Lately, though, he seems a little to be reaching out to me.

I am scared to talk about all this with him because it is much more than I ever talk about with him — and because I feel that all my worries are rooted in my fear of mortality, which I don’t want to mention to him, as a way of protecting him from it. I don’t know if that’s silly or not. A couple of his friends have died lately and I think it’s been hard. At some level I guess I am really scared that he is as helpless as I am. And I guess he is?

I feel that he has been having a hard time. Maybe reaching out to me has nothing to do with it or maybe it does. Alcohol has been brought up as an issue too. I’m worried he needs a refuge, and if I talked to him I’d have to know of one. I drink most every day myself. If I didn’t (incidentally), would all these feelings be stronger?

I am pretty sure the right answer is: Go to him. Learn to talk to him. But I don’t know how and where to start. Other things are easier. Other patterns are in the way, including the pattern of aimless anxiety and the pattern of talking to my mother instead. I’m worried I won’t do it. I’m worried I’ll fail. I’m worried I’ll try and it’ll be banal, or not enough, or that everything I say will come out wrong. I don’t know what I have to say. I don’t know how to invent a new way of relating. I don’t know where I’m feeling responsibilities that aren’t mine and where I’m recognizing what is truly and only mine. I’m even scared of the prospect of raising a child who takes after me and yet ends up distant from me.

Cary, can you tell me what you think?

Daughter

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Dear Daughter,

Yes, I can tell you what I think. But there are far too many phenomena occurring in your thought-sphere, and they are occurring too quickly, for me to take any one of them and unravel it, to say, “Voilà!”

But I can pass on to you something that has helped me, at times, to stop the whirlwind of anxious thoughts that sometimes starts up and will not stop: Try thinking of the anxiety not as the product, or result, of some other thought process, but as a strategy, a method, that you are using to avoid feeling these other things. I found this insight useful in my own life — that anxiety is a form of emotional avoidance. So then when I am anxious I think to myself, what am I avoiding? What I am usually avoiding, being the way I am, is feelings. There are some feelings about, say, my father, that I do not want to feel. So instead I flit about the house, anxious, nervous, unable to settle into my work, unable to complete a task.

Unfortunately, at that time, it is necessary to simply have the feeling. I do not like some of these feelings. They are dark, somber, helpless feelings; they are old feelings, some of them, old feelings full of regret and longing. But they are shot throughout, also, with bright, sunny memories of childhood innocence: the Sunday morning I must have been 6, walking down the clay driveway hill at our house in Tallahassee, Fla., him carrying a shovel to clear the drainage ditches at the sides of the drive, his hand on my shoulder. He called me “old-timer.” He said, “Good job, old-timer.” I did not know what an old-timer was. I knew he had a timer that he used in his darkroom when developing black-and-white prints. It was a black, spring-wound photographic darkroom timer. And I was not old. An “old-timer,” I thought. I liked it but I did not know what it was. It simply opened up into the mystery of words.

So when I am feeling things about my father, now and then something happy will come back — but tinged, of course, with the knowledge that the hill is gone, the clay driveway is gone, the strong hand on the shoulder of the child is gone. (I wonder if somewhere among his things that black, spring-wound photographic darkroom timer might still be ticking.)

So you see where this goes — it goes into time, and sadness, and loss. But it goes to the feeling of those things, not to our ideas about them, or our brittle attempts at separation from them.

Once one stops using the anxiety to avoid these things and instead begins to feel these things in their full richness and power, it is not so important to figure out whether our thinking is right or not, whether we are hiding this or that. We are simply feeling things of great heaviness and age. They come of their own accord, and sometimes they delight us, and sometimes they level us with their somber weight, but we are not charged with thinking our way through it. It is just the stuff of life: you and your father, facing together mortality and fate.

I get the feeling you are fully capable of this. You are holding these things at bay but you know what they are. So here is something to consider: This route is not the smart route. That is, it is not a thinking route. It is not clever, or revelatory. It is more something in the chest, a deep, heavy thing you carry around for a while. For this reason, I do not know why we do it or why it is important or what its evolutionary advantage is, this simply feeling the heaviness of age. Here is a thought: Maybe it slows us down so we can be around the old folks, so we can stop flitting about so much. But that is pure childish speculation. I do not know why this is so.

Here is something else: When the anxiety machine really gets running, it can be self-perpetuating. You have to stop it somehow: You have to stop it in order to stop it, which sounds circular. So you have to stop it by changing externalities. The drinking, for instance. The drinking allows you to continue with your anxiety, your anxious avoidance. So … oh, let me find the paragraph where I went into that (I actually tried to answer this letter a few weeks ago but got sidetracked, and then came back and liked part of what I wrote). Ah, here, this is it:

You have a lot of different things going on in your head at once. Too many things, in fact. So how does one slow down? What is the drinking part of it? Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so if you are using it every day, your nervous system is depressed for that portion of the day. So it may be a little out of whack. Think of your daily psychic and emotional economy. Say you have X amount of psychic and emotional stuff to process, and you have X processing power. Say that’s pretty much in balance, all other things being equal. But say then you eliminate four hours of processing time because the central nervous system depressant has put you on standby for those hours. You’re not processing. So what is happening? Stuff is building up. Little questions aren’t getting answered and they’re turning into bigger questions. Things that need to be felt aren’t being felt. You’re not doing the necessary daily work. You’re not cleaning house and assessing your needs and practicing, practicing, practicing. Things will pile up. You need to deal with this stuff every day.

So I think you are probably out of whack with all these emotional issues competing for your time. How do you get back in whack? That is where the “externalities” come in. Maybe, if you can find a very wise person to advise you, you get into some form of therapy. But that may not be necessary. Try some things first and see if the night terrors recede. Undertake some life changes to calm the nervous system. Just do simple things, like on the weekend clear the entire weekend and just do the things you need to do around the house. This will be grounding. Just take care of simple things. Take a bath, do the dishes, don’t answer the phone. And for a few days don’t drink. Sleep a lot. Take naps. Get lots of rest and exercise. And pay attention to what you are feeling about your father. Don’t run from it. You see what happens when you run from it. You can’t settle. You are like a nervous bird. You need to settle and accept what it is. It won’t happen overnight. It is a long process. But slowly you may begin to see these things not as complex riddles to solve but simply as situations, emotional situations, feelings, the stuff of life, simply to be felt and honored. If that does not work, you may need some extra help, a therapist to guide you through some of it. But give it a chance, first, to work on its own.

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Can therapy fix my parents?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 6, 2005

We’ve been in counseling for about six months now, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting them.


Dear Cary,

You and other sage advice givers often recommend that people seek therapy for their problems, especially when a couple or family needs a mediator to help settle their issues. I’m a big believer in the power of talking it out with a disinterested third party. My question is, how do you know when it’s time to quit?

I’m 24 years old, and have a college degree, a good job and enough friends to keep me from getting lonely. I’ve been in individual therapy for a few years now, and it’s really helped me deal with some self-esteem and emotional issues, many of which are connected to my difficult family situation. I’ve been in family counseling with my parents for about six months. My parents probably seem to strangers like very pleasant people, but they are in massive denial over all sorts of deep-seated psychological issues, and they don’t want to take the risk of trying to deal with them, so they’ve basically shut down emotionally. Being raised in an environment where people were afraid of their feelings has had a profound effect on me, and I have a lot of buried anger toward them for raising me in such a repressive, unhappy environment.

When I was in college, I dealt with them as little as possible, pretty much only when I needed a check for my tuition. Once I graduated and no longer needed their money, they got upset that I wasn’t interested in continuing a superficial, dishonest relationship with them. We started counseling, at my request, because I was hoping I could explain to them why I’m so angry, so that we could be more honest with one another and move forward. However, it’s clear to me that they’re not interested in honesty — they just want me to go back to pretending that everything is nice and happy. They don’t want to deal with their own issues because they’re afraid, and they don’t want to deal with my issues because that would mean they’d have to admit that something might be wrong with them.

My therapist seems to think that they might eventually come around, but he has never met them. The family counselor says I can quit anytime I want, and that I should leave if I don’t feel the counseling is productive, but she has demurred when I asked whether she thinks continuing could be productive. I don’t want to give up on my parents, but at the same time, being around them drives me absolutely crazy (to the point of literally needing to spend two days curled up in the fetal position crying after spending the weekend with them) because either I have to pretend to feel something I don’t, or we end up fighting and they tell me it’s my fault for being “irrationally hostile.” We go around and around and never get anywhere, and I’m constantly upset about it. I feel like I’m wasting my time and energy trying to fix a situation that’s out of my control.

So do I quit? Is there any good reason to stay? And if I do quit, should I just cut them out of my life entirely? Is there something to be gained from putting myself through the pain of dealing with them? And can I fix a relationship with people who don’t want to fix themselves?

Thanks for listening. Even if you don’t answer, it feels good to have been able to ask.

Daughter

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Dear Daughter,

Nice to hear from you. It sounds like it’s too painful for you to deal with your parents right now. Why not take a break from them and focus on other areas of your life? At age 24, I imagine you are entering the workforce and establishing yourself socially and professionally, and perhaps beginning to look for a mate. The kinds of changes you want in your relationship with your parents may be impossible to obtain at this time, while other achievements may be well within your grasp.

So if I were you, I would continue in therapy but put your parents on the back burner. I would define some other goals therapy could help me with, like getting a better understanding of myself, clarifying my purpose on earth and finding out what might be holding me back from truly purposeful action.

If, however, you do come to feel that it’s your relationship with your parents that is holding you back, then try this: Ask yourself not how you feel about your parents but what you owe your parents. What are your obligations at this point in your life? They have put you through college but now you’re on your own: How can you fulfill your obligations?

This is different from asking what your parents want from you. Our parents may want us to fulfill certain unconscious wishes they retain from childhood, from their own relationships with their parents. We cannot help them with that. You can determine, however, what your concrete obligations are. And I think you can probably fulfill many of those obligations.

So what are our obligations to our parents? In general terms, you might come up with a list something like this: To speak with them or visit at least once a month. Not to cause them undue pain. Not to shame them. Not to steal from them. To treat them kindly and with respect. To help them when they become no longer able to take care of themselves. To be a comfort to them when possible.

Beyond fulfilling such obligations as these, we can get into trouble. For not only do you have obligations to your parents, but they have obligations to you. One of their chief obligations is to provide an environment in which you can become who you are. So if you betray yourself, then you betray your parents as well. For instance, suppose you conclude it’s your duty to your parents to become a plastic surgeon. If you are not suited to be a plastic surgeon, then in trying to become one you undermine your parents’ chief duty to you.

So the best you can do, as an adult, is to fulfill your concrete obligations to your parents. The rest — the emotional tenor of your relationship, your compatibility, your taste and politics and ideas, their projected wishes for you — is chancy.

If you can satisfy yourself that you are doing what is right and necessary as a daughter, perhaps it will ease some of the pain that arises when you see your parents. Perhaps it will also allow you to limit your contact with your parents without an undue sense of guilt.

It’s hard at 24 to imagine how a lifetime of experience has molded one’s parents, and harder still to keep in mind that time will continue to change them, robbing them of both their acuity and their rancor. If you simply go about living, you will find that these things take place, slowly but surely, seemingly without anyone’s effort.

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Damaged goods

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, MAR 11, 2004

I got engaged, then found out she is bipolar. How can I break it off with the least amount of hurt for both of us?


Dear Cary,

I am in my 30s and from a religious background where one only dates (limited to conversations over dinner or telephone) with the intent of marriage.

A couple of months ago, I met an intelligent and pretty girl. We got together a few times and despite some differences, I felt that she was the one for me. We got engaged a couple of weeks ago.

Three days after our engagement she started crying about problems she had in her relationship with her mother. Then the next few sentences were a bombshell. She told me how she had battled depression and had been under psychiatric treatment for almost three years. I was in total shock, but kept it hidden from her. I reassured her that there was nothing wrong with her.

That night I could not sleep. Her erratic behavior was now appearing less benign than I believed earlier. The irritability, the sudden crying to the point of sobbing, the racing thoughts, complaints of insomnia, the mood swings.

I consulted a psychiatrist and within seconds of hearing the symptoms, he said that he strongly suspected bipolar disorder. Although it is a treatable mental illness, he said that there was no guarantee that it will not get passed on to the children; in fact there was a high likelihood of that.

Ours was not going to be a love marriage, but an arranged one, based on mutual interest and values. I am not in love with her, although I care deeply for her. I searched deeply within me to see if there was a future for us, but I found that I cannot raise a family where the burden of ensuring the emotional and mental stability had to be disproportionately borne by me. I am fully aware of adjusting myself to accommodate another person in my life and the compromises it entails, but this is more than what I had ever imagined. I stayed single so I could help my family. Since I am done on that front, I want to settle down in a peaceful and stable life with a partner, and not invite another challenge.

I don’t hold her responsible for not telling me about her problems before the engagement as she was very much interested in me and did not want to spoil it. We are all needy and a bit selfish and do things to buy ourselves happiness by sometimes jumping over the moral fence. But at the same time, I do not think that I am under any obligation, emotional or moral, to continue this relationship knowing what I know now. I know she will be very hurt, but I cannot be blamed for that.

How can I end this relationship with the least amount of hurt for both of us? It gives me no satisfaction to end this. I have been locked up in my apartment for the past few days and screening phone calls. I feel the darkness that descends with each night inside me. I just wish all this would end soon.

Hurting

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Dear Hurting,

What’s interesting here is that you didn’t have a change of heart. You had a deal that went sour. Whether you both understood the deal in the same way isn’t clear, but I’m inclined to agree that since she didn’t tell you about her history of psychiatric treatment, the deal is off.

Even if she hadn’t broken the deal, you’re free to break an engagement for any reason. The engagement is a kind of waiting period during which both parties assess their intentions and make sure they’re ready to go through with it. If serious doubts arise, the marriage is called off. It’s unpleasant, but it’s not a moral breach; it’s what the period of engagement is for.

What interests me also is the fact that this marriage you describe as “not … a love marriage” might yet be perceived as such by the woman, because of the enormous forces of culture and gender identity. Even if she is of your culture and knows the rhetoric, she still may see it not just as a business deal in which she bears children and shares in their raising but as the fulfillment of her emotional desires and perhaps, if she is an old-fashioned kind of woman, the realization of her purpose on earth.

It raises a whole host of questions: Is there a written contract for this arranged marriage, or are the terms assumed to be fully understood by the members of your culture or religion? Are you courting only women of this culture or religion? And, may I ask, how are women treated in your religion? Are they afforded equal rights, or are they expected to be subservient to the man? If they are, that could prove to be a grating source of conflict. And what about grounds for divorce? What if, for instance, the woman you marry turns out to be infertile, or to have a high chance of passing on some genetic disorder? Would that then be grounds for divorce? And what about abortion? If, for instance, her role is to provide a child to you, but bearing the child threatens her life, is she expected to risk her life to fulfill her contractual obligation? Is abortion permitted in your religion? I think you need to spell out these contingencies to any prospective bride. And the biological burden is not hers alone: She should be tested for reproductive health, but so should you. If you turned out to be infertile, any prospective wife would have the right to know that.

While I don’t fault you for what you’ve done, I hope you see that if the marriage is to serve certain specific purposes, you have to spell out all the contingencies, and make doubly sure that any future marriage prospect understands fully the nature of the contract. Because if it’s just a business deal for you, it’s also a business deal for her.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I hate being wrong!

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I’m ruining my relationship because I’m too quick to argue.

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 8, 2005

Dear Cary,

For as long as I can remember, I have been very bad at arguing with people. As soon as someone disagrees with me, I get angry because I feel attacked, like the other person is out to show that I am wrong. And for some reason, I hate being wrong! So my immediate reaction is to get very defensive, I raise my voice, and I end up saying something I later regret. Needless to say, the whole thing ends with me beating myself up, and the other person feeling alienated from me. This bothers me especially because my mother does the exact same thing and I hate it!

I have noticed this tendency in me for a long time now, but I have never been able to stop. I did some anger management work with a therapist a while ago, but because I moved and switched to a counselor at school who cannot see me regularly, I have not been able to continue this important work. They tell you to stop and count to 10, control your breathing, calm yourself down before you talk. But that’s the whole problem, I could never think of stopping myself until it was too late! The hurtful things had already come out of my mouth, and I was stuck picking up the pieces.

Right now the problem is urgent because my relationship with a wonderful boyfriend is in peril because of my insecurity and hatred of being wrong. He is closing himself off to me because I have hurt him, and no doubt I am no longer attractive as a woman with no confidence in herself and a bad temper. How do I stop ruining my relationships and hating myself? How do I stop hating being wrong?

Hate Being Wrong

Dear Hate Being Wrong,

One night a couple of years ago I was home listening to the radio and an author I admire said, in response to a question from a telephone caller, “I am willing to be judged!” I felt suddenly lifted up out of my chair, freed of a pressing weight. Exactly! I am willing to be judged! What had I been so afraid of?!

I do not know why on this particular night this particular voice had such an effect. Perhaps, as you are struggling now, I was struggling then with what I perceived to be a defect of character. I was afraid of the judgments of others. In a moment that was all whisked away: What do I care what they think? What harm can it do? I am willing to be judged!

Here was a successful, talented author, who had been through much darkness, as I have been, and he had found this way of dealing with his own fear by embracing it like a fighter: Bring it on! Go ahead! Take a shot!

It was a marvelous, liberating moment.

In journalism, of course, being right is part of the job. In conversation, however, and in certain kinds of writing, one can express one’s feelings in a way that sidesteps the problem of right and wrong, by staying in the realm of the subjective. You can’t be wrong if you’re talking only about your own wishes, your own feelings, your own desires. Others may judge you but they can’t prove you wrong. For instance, if you were to say that the war in Iraq is wrong, it would be an arguable point. If you were to say, however, that you wish it had never begun, that is simply your wish. No one can argue with that. You have the right to your feeling.

If you assume that others should feel as you do, that’s where you’re in trouble. They may feel differently. A roomful of opinions can coexist because none of the opinions are wrong; they are all simply human phenomena.

Someone might then say to you it’s a good thing the war has begun because it’s rid the world of Saddam Hussein. But you don’t have to be glad the world is rid of Saddam Hussein. You have the right to your own feelings. You might have no feelings at all about Saddam Hussein. There is a great deal of leeway for surprise in the subjective world, should we choose to claim it. We do not have to have every correct emotion; we might have a few that are subversive and amoral. We might not, for instance, care at all about Terri Schiavo. We might not care about the pope. We might not care about Barry Bonds, or Bono, or Patrick Leahy, or Tom DeLay. It’s subjective, and that’s all there is to it. There is a great deal of freedom in this; it not only frees you to have your own ideas, and be a little looser about life, but it frees others as well; if you’re not concerned about whether you’re right or wrong, if you don’t feel the need to only associate with people who agree with you, you can learn much about what people actually feel about events, and get closer to the mystery of who they are.

When people argue about politics, often what they say amounts to nothing more than unexamined prejudice shouted into a void of passionate misunderstanding. I prefer to talk about other things. That is my right, and I guard it jealously.

We are judged constantly but it matters so little! No one will admit that they judge us. To bring it out into the open is so refreshing! So judge me as stupid! So judge me as a moron! So judge me as wrong! So what! What happens after you judge me? Nothing! Look at the sky! It’s still the same brilliant blue! Look at my face! It’s still the same face. There is no appreciable difference in the universe now that I have been discovered to have held the wrong opinion, once or twice or a thousand times! Judge me, suckers, judge me! Judge me! Judge me! Judge me!

Oh, boy. There I go. As I often do, I have veered away from your actual question into my own passions and prejudices. My apologies. To try to help you with your more immediate problem, I would make these suggestions and observations: The techniques you were taught by your anger management therapist are good ones. Though you are not in contact with that therapist, you can still use those methods. Keep working at it. Try counting to 10 well before you get angry. Identify situations where you might become angry, and try the counting before anything happens. For instance, if certain people or situations set you off, breathe deeply before you become angry, and count to 10 before responding.

Most important, keep at it. You won’t be cured overnight, but you will improve. Behavior change happens gradually through persistent effort. Look for degrees of improvement. If you do blow up, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It’s not too late. If you blurt something out, stop as soon as you realize what’s going on. Then you can use what you’ve learned. Say, “Whoops, I’m sorry, there I go again. Let’s calm down.” Relax. Let it go. That’s improvement. Take some deep breaths, do your counting, and focus on the feelings of the other person. If you have offended, apologize. Do this in the moment, as soon as it happens. Any improvement you can make is worth making.

My father was murdered by my former next-door neighbor — and I’m supposed to just get over it?

 I’m having a rough time; I’d like some justice and some peace.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 2, 2008

Dear Cary,

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.

Anonymous

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Dear Anonymous,

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 Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I can’t control my murderous thoughts

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 22, 2007

Someone took a dump on my early-’90s blue subcompact. I feel targeted and I don’t know what to do with my anger.


Dear Cary,

OK, so a couple of weeks ago, somebody took a big, runny dump on the hood of my car, parked on the street near my house.

Gross. Really, really gross. I assumed it was just a disgusting yet random act, donned rubber gloves and cleaned up the best I could.

But then I go out after a snowstorm and someone has obviously urinated on the snow on the hood of my car. It’s not a great car by any means — just a little blue subcompact, circa 1990. But still, I feel targeted and I don’t know what to do with this anger at an anonymous pooper who has decided I deserve this harassment.

For background, I own a home in one of those white-ethnic working-class neighborhoods that time forgot; last year people filmed a movie that took place in the ’70s and all they had to do was move the cars. “The pooper” is no doubt one of the many Kevin Federline look-alikes found on every corner; the brown-stained wife-beater undershirt he left behind says as much.

I’m friendly with a few people on the block, but I don’t exactly fit in. One neighbor calls me and my fiancée “the quiet couple.”

But I still don’t know what I could have done to deserve this.

I guess this isn’t a big deal; my house is now sold. My fiancée and I are moving to a bright, sunny house in a diverse, progressive middle-class neighborhood in a few weeks. But it’s not just the pooper that’s got me down. I want to hit somebody and I don’t know whom to hit.

What do I do with all the anger that piles up from all the anonymous jerks who make life so unpleasant?

Feeling Pooped On

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Dear Feeling Pooped On,

I had a 1959 Chevrolet Apache long-bed pickup truck. It was rusty and didn’t run well and I loved it. It didn’t fit in my garage, so it was always on the street. It was beautiful like a sculpture. I’m no mechanic. I tried to keep it running. My friend and I had gone in on it together, $400 apiece, so we would have a pickup truck to use on occasion. As it turned out, we hardly used it. It wasn’t too reliable.

One day I had parked it near the beach and went out to move it for the street sweeper and both the right-side tires were flat. They had been slashed. I had to replace them. It was expensive. Then the same thing happened the next week — well, this time the air was let out of the tires on the curb side. I had to have AAA come out and pump them up. Then I went away on a trip and so parked it in another part of the neighborhood, and when I came back the air had been let out of the front right tire again.

There wasn’t much I could do. Someone was doing this to me. I had to let it go — the truck, I mean. And I had to live with the mystery of who did it and why, and was it the same person — even in a different part of the neighborhood? — and was I somehow to blame, was there something wrong with parking a beat-up truck on the street, and if so what did I just not understand about life?

My wife says there are people in the world who think an old beat-up truck parked on the street brings down property values and that making such trucks go away, by any means necessary, is a high civic act. She didn’t especially like that truck, but I don’t think she slashed the tires. She just claims to be able to see into the minds of people unlike us.

I hear what she says but it doesn’t register. The way I look at it is more like this: Whales and old men have scars and barnacles. They carry their history on their bodies — things they have brushed up against, parasites that have attached to them, places they shouldn’t have gone but went anyway and got stabbed or shot or just roughed up. An old man will lift his shirt and he’ll have at least one nasty old scar somewhere, from an appendix operation or heart surgery, or a bullet wound or knife wound, or a scar above his eye from a fall or a bad car accident. And if ugly old whales could talk I think they’d say, Here’s where a shark took a chunk out of me off of Port Angeles! Here’s where I got run over by an Evinrude!

If you stick around long enough you’re going to get some scars. You’re going to get your stuff stolen out of your locker or out of your car. Somebody is going to insult you at a party and you’re not going to have a comeback. People are going to shit on the hood of your car.

Can you retaliate in a meaningful and satisfying way, and is retaliation wise? Some would say you can and that revenge is sweet indeed, and they will show you how in books available on the Internet and in certain bookstores. But maybe you believe in karma — that the heavens house a large but remarkably efficient bureau of eventual retaliation and just humiliation, where experts of arcane arts transform princes into pigs and embezzlers into moles.

If you’re in an organized religion or have any moral program or philosophy that works for you, then I guess you follow that. But no matter what you do, whether you believe things are always taken care of in some way without your personal intervention or not, whether you believe that “everything happens for a reason,” you’re still going to have some uncharitable feelings toward persons unknown who have fucked with your stuff in the dead of night.

How do you deal with that? Thinking doesn’t make such feelings disappear.

You just have to live with it. That’s the best I’ve got. There are numerous ways of living with it — ways to regulate the mind and the passions, ways to channel it, such as exercise and taking your mind off it and meditating about it and going shopping and throwing the ball out in the back yard and chopping some wood and a million other activities to capture the mind in its darkest, most vengeful moods. Whatever works. But there are going to be times that for whatever reason, your heart is just full of murder. You just have to be big enough to carry it.

Everybody carries murderous thoughts; everybody carries big scars.

 

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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OK, I get it, my husband’s a verbal abuser

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 8, 2008

It’s taken me a long time to accept what my therapist has been pushing at — but I think I’m ready to act in my own interest.


Dear Cary,

I’m troubled.

At long last, my therapist did something I sensed she meant to do a long time ago — assign me to read a book on verbally abusive relationships. I suspect that, despite her dissimilation, she expects me to find myself there, in the role of the victim of verbal and psychological abuse.

And I do.

And yet on another level, I question the whole idea. The book contains no citations. It could well be cut from whole cloth, as they say — an angry woman’s fantasy of how men are, how men act. Even if that characterization is a straw man (womyn?), it is a tempting one, especially when the self-help verbiage gets a little much. But where do we draw the line? I seem to be standing on a line, on one side of which is mutually unproductive communication that can be resolved through talking and counseling and new approaches, and on the other is a crowd shouting “Why haven’t you DTMFA?”

Since I have been with him, I have gradually given up my passions — my theater, my academic field, my crafts, my gym membership. Only those things that he finds acceptable — the hobbies, the reading, the baking (but never on hot days) — remain. He wished to own a house. We own a house. I cook, clean, launder, mow the lawn, call the repairmen, run the errands, pay the mortgage. I have been working for seven years under the assumption that these are all choices I was involved in, decisions I made. And yet I daydream of a cozy studio apartment where I am alone and everything — the belongings, the music, the choices — is mine. Of going where the jobs in my field are, instead of staying where they aren’t. Of dallying with women, and perhaps men, with beautiful souls.

I take pills. I go to therapy. He goes back to school. I applaud this — it is a sensible decision that will lead to a stable job in his field — even as I resent his freedom to do so. I make a point of telling him that I wish to return to school (yet again) once he finds a job. He is wholly supportive of this, he says — once the loans are paid off, once we are no longer in debt. Despite my thrift, the loans pile up. When I fail to manage the money as he directs, I am chastised. Every cent I spend is one that cannot be used to pay off those loans and buy my freedom from menial jobs that siphon my self-confidence and passion, but which pay for the therapy to deal with the panic attacks and crying jags that primarily manifest themselves when he’s around.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

There is a long and storied history of psychological instability in my family, on both sides, which has led me to believe that my problems were internal and self-contained. There is also (as I learned recently, yet have known all along) a long and storied family history of controllers and controllees, criticizers and objects of criticism. I am not sure what his family has given him, aside from a Midwestern up-by-the-bootstraps aversion to psychoanalysis of any kind.

A dear friend says that she had these concerns before she knew him, from my tone, from my phone calls. She met him, and “[saw] how he looks at me,” the love in his eyes, and her fears were assuaged. I know that he loves me, from that same look, those same heartbreakingly beautiful smiles. I also know that he expects me to read his mind, then tells me that I am the one who needs to fix my reactions so that we can communicate — who drives me to tears with his inconsistencies, then allows me the solace of his embrace.

It is not that I fear to be alone or independent — aside from the annoyance of dividing things up, the prospect seems inviting. But the prospect of remaking myself in my own image, of reclaiming the me that was, is more complicated. And there are so many things that I would miss. Friends, games, holidays, my mother-in-law, even the house that taunts me with its constant breakings and dirtiness. Him, the man who has been so good for me in so many ways, who rescued me from an equally dead-end (though less malignant) relationship, whom I’ve shared so many adventures with. Who I’m not even convinced is aware of what he’s doing.
And yet things cannot remain as they are.

Angel in the Details

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Dear Angel,

I am going to try to be direct. You know that’s not my style. But still.

I suggest you leave this guy.

There is only one twist: You make your new life first.

I basically agree with the DTMFA approach — with one caveat.

The caveat is that you begin not by disrupting your current life but by building your new one. If you leave without trying to rebuild your life first, you may find yourself alone in a new place, isolated from friends and family, without a solid network, without a life plan, having just gone through a traumatic breakup, flooded with emotion, and you may, under that stress, be more prone to fall back into your old pattern of finding a rescuer, a controller, a caretaker. You may slip back into the same situation with someone else. So I advise taking a gradual approach to building a new life so that when you leave him, you have a new life to step into. Work to develop new behaviors and reinvigorate abandoned passions.

For instance, these things you mention that you have given up — your theater, your academic field, your crafts, your gym membership: Put these things back in your life one by one. When you begin doing this, he may object. Keep in mind that you are leaving him anyway.

It may help to set a date and write it in your calendar, say, six months. In six months you are leaving. During that time you tackle the many concrete tasks of rebuilding your life. This includes looking at new places to live and working out your budget. As you pursue this project, at a certain point — and this may happen sooner than you expect — it may become impossible to continue to live with him. Your positive action may force buried conflicts to the surface. He may decide that he is divorcing you. He may become unstable. He may threaten you. If he is a certain kind of man, when his control over you is threatened, he may become dangerous. So, while laying the groundwork for an orderly departure, you need to also be ready to leave quickly if things get to that.

The point is this: To the extent possible, don’t act precipitously to your own detriment. Instead, begin putting your life together and try to leave at a time that is best for you.

Now, regardless of his objections, you may find that you yourself just can’t build this new life while still living with him. You may feel paralyzed, blocked, unable to act. If so, OK. Leaving him might be a precondition to putting your life together. That’s OK. Discuss this with your therapist and make a plan. But please do what you can to prepare first. Give it a try. Take what steps you can to reconnect with your theater, your academic life, your crafts and your gym first. Do what you can.

Just so we’re clear: Yes, I think you should leave. DTMFA or whatever. Just, to the extent possible, prepare first.

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