Category Archives: Parents

My husband is a high-achieving alcoholic, seven years sober Should we finally tell the kids?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 9, 2005


Dear Cary,

When our two boys were small children, my husband was a very high-achieving alcoholic. He never lost his job, he never verbally or physically abused either the kids or me, he remained a good father, and he never alienated his friends or family. Indeed, to this day, no one other than me (and his treatment group participants and counselors) know about his alcohol abuse. He did, however, almost die from alcohol. He attempted to stop drinking without medical intervention and suffered seizures and other life-threatening complications. As a result of this event, he got into a treatment program that worked for him (at least to date). After several years of drinking at least a fifth every day, he has not had a drink in about seven years. At his insistence, we have never told our kids or families about his alcoholism.

The problem is that our boys are no longer young kids — one is in high school and one in middle school. From our counseling and my experiences with him, I am completely convinced that the brains of some people are hard-wired to abuse alcohol and/or drugs and some are not. I know that I can drink one glass of wine at dinner (I haven’t in seven years) and have no desire for a second, while he simply cannot start drinking without continuing to drink. Consequently, I believe that it is very important for our teenage boys to understand that given their genetic makeup, they need to be particularly sensitive to the impact of alcohol on them. I also want them to understand that we, as parents, do have experience with alcoholism, and that if they ever find themselves with an alcohol issue, we will be able to understand and help them. Since we, as parents, now never drink and seldom put ourselves in social situations where alcohol is present, I worry that our children will perceive that we would never be able to understand or help them with alcohol issues (even though I talk to them about such issues regularly).

In short, I want my husband to talk with them about his alcoholism in an age-appropriate way. He, however, is too ashamed to engage in such a discussion and does not want me to tell them (which I completely understand). I’m wondering if I should push the issue (our older boy just turned 16), or just let it drop as I have in the past.

Just Curious

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Dear Just Curious,

You ask a difficult question. I personally have pretty clear feelings about what to do.

I would tell the older boy. Then I would tell the younger boy as well, so that the older boy is not burdened with knowledge that he must either tell, imperfectly, or keep secret.

But I’m just one person — a person, moreover, with my own history of alcoholism that I’m quite candid about. I respect your husband’s desire to keep this matter private. That’s his choice.

I don’t believe there is a direct link between what you choose to tell your children and whether they develop alcoholism. You may tell them or not tell them. They may or may not develop problems with alcohol. The two are not causally related. As I understand the current science, there are indicators and apparent predispositions toward alcoholism, and there are traits associated with it, but there is no one certain cause or one certain measure of prevention.

If you tell them, they will probably experiment anyway. They might react abnormally to the first drink, or they might not. Knowing the history might act as a deterrent. Or it might not. Knowing that their dad beat it might embolden them. You can’t tell with kids.

It’s natural to want to talk about it. And it’s true that you have valuable, firsthand experience to impart. But as a former young person with an alcohol problem I can testify that young people with alcohol problems tend to be unreceptive to parental advice. That’s part of the syndrome.

All this leads us into contradiction and uncertainty. So for me, the question of what to tell the children is more a question about truth telling and the keeping of secrets in a family than it is about alcoholism prevention. It’s about what you believe you can control, about what is sacred, what is shameful, what is safe and what is toxic.

If my math is correct, the children were around the ages of 9 and 6 when your husband stopped drinking, meaning they undoubtedly witnessed him drunk, with that glassy stare, the slurred speech, the smell. So, apart from whether it’s going to prevent them from becoming little alcoholics or not, the information might have the effect of bringing a little sense to their world: Aha, now I understand this memory of my father falling asleep at the table, or being too “tired” to go upstairs.

If you love the truth and you believe that the truth can be life’s most powerful ally against insanity, depression, self-hatred and the like, then you may feel a strong urge to air the truth. On the other hand, perhaps you also know the powerful effect of a shameful fact revealed. Perhaps you know that sometimes children need to believe their parents are infallible, and you marvel at how certain truths, once revealed, never go back in the bottle: How could he have been a drunk? What if he should slip? What else don’t we know? Was he unfaithful to Mom? Are we sure we’re his kids?

I wonder how your husband’s attitude toward his alcoholism plays into this. Does he feel that his alcoholism is his fault? If so, perhaps he is still tormented by it in a way that he needn’t be. In fact, you might consider the possibility that it is necessary to be free from it psychologically and morally in order to be free from it medically. That is, shame, guilt and the keeping of secrets are part of the syndrome of addiction. You can easily see how this works: One stops the substance but retains the habits of mind. The habits of mind lead eventually back to the substance. So you have to change the habits of mind. One way to do that is to tell the truth.

But perhaps your husband is not burdened with shame at all. Perhaps he is simply making a very grown-up attempt at harm reduction. As I said, it’s a tough call. I know what I would do. But it’s a decision you and he must make.

Just to be clear: Inasmuch as it involves the well-being of the children, I think it’s a decision you as parents need to make together. But inasmuch as it involves your husband’s personal struggle with alcoholism, I think it is his decision alone how much to reveal. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two domains. But that is marriage.

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How should I feel toward my father?

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Jul 20, 2011

I thought I knew him. Then he loaded up his U-Haul


Cary,

I had a really boring suburban life for a long time, wishing that something would make it interesting. I had a good relationship with my family and I thought that my parents would stay together forever.

Then we got hit with a hurricane.

After the hurricane I spent a lot more time talking to my father. We talked before but this seemed different, like how I thought the father-son deep(ish) discussions were supposed to go. He didn’t seem as happy as I had previously thought, but I assumed that was due to having 5 feet of water wash through our house, which makes for a somewhat more stressful existence. A lot of the time we spent after the storm was gutting the entire first floor, talking about his childhood and mine and what my plans for the future were. During our discussions I got the impression that my parents’ marriage wouldn’t last forever, so I steeled myself for the inevitable to occur.

Flash forward to a week after my 18th birthday in 2006, and I come home to my father packing up a U-Haul and leaving my mother. He left her a note (that I probably shouldn’t have read, but I think most people would have in my situation) saying that he felt that after I was born most of my mother’s love went to me and he felt left out; it was basically a page and a half of selfishness.

He showed me the apartment he was supposed to be living in (I called it a “small studio” but others might call it “I can go from my bed to my toilet in less than 10 steps! How convenient!”). I later found out that he had been cheating on my mother for years … multiple women with other kids, swinger parties, basically everything I thought he was above as a person. He is now remarried and his new wife has two kids and I can never really forgive him for what he did, but I do my best.

Last year, when I was stationed overseas, the day after my birthday I posted a Facebook message thanking everyone for their kind wishes and he left me a reply saying, “I knew there was something special about yesterday,” and this year … nothing. I don’t think he did it on purpose but no phone call, no text, no communication whatsoever. I don’t even know exactly how I felt, but I think I could best describe it as numb, though I don’t know if it is a numbness to him in general, or if it affected me even more than I thought it did at the time. It has been five days since my birthday and I still haven’t talked to him and I don’t know how to bring it up. On the one hand I want to call him out on this, but if I do that I don’t know if I will be able to stop myself and I will finally get up the nerve to ask him how long he was philandering and if he thinks I deserve an apology for cheating on my mother.

She was his wife, but she is still my damn mom.

Honestly, I don’t really have a specific question regarding this situation, I could just use some advice on what to do from here because I know I am going to have to talk to him eventually and I don’t really know how slighted I am supposed to feel about this situation. After reading that letter I don’t want me getting pissed about him missing multiple birthdays to be construed as being as selfish as he turned out to be. I guess I just would like to know how much anger I am warranted to feel toward him after everything that he has done. I feel emotionally conflicted and like I said before …

Numb

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Dear Numb,

I remember my father’s series of small apartments after he left my mother. I remember the meagerness and poverty, his effects strewn about, the boxes on the floor, the absence of furniture, the absence of a life. It was devastating, actually — that he had chosen this over us. I remember trying to be encouraging and upbeat. “Wow, this isn’t so bad. It’s kind of a nice place. Look out this window!” Yet it seemed bleak and incompetent. It was such a fall. Those dismal apartments, one after the other. That one in Miami on Biscayne Blvd., kind of a swingers pad, with a pool and I’ll always remember that smell of newly delivered furniture, cooking oil, eggs recently scrambled or made omelet-style, the simple food smells of a man cooking for himself, living a strange little life that was supposed to be exciting and carefree but which seemed lonely and pointless.

Yeah, I remember that. I remember wondering how I’m supposed to feel about all this. That tiny, damp little “studio” in the back of an old woman’s concrete block house near the University of Miami with the room air conditioner. I lived there for a summer jazz session while he … where was he? Was he at his mother’s? I think he was in his mother’s house on Mary Street, that house that later became the object of so much conflict when he sold it while my brother was still living in it.

I don’t completely recall how those various strange abodes came into his possession, but there he was, with his entourage of cardboard boxes and his war medals, evicted, divorced, moving on. Why? It seemed so stupid. It would have been simpler for him to stay in the house. But no, they couldn’t get along.

What was I feeling? Wanting to be supportive yet actually angry, puzzled and hurt, ashamed that he seemed diminished, no longer Dad, head of household, man of the house, reduced to man of the tiny studio apartment trying to get chicks at the pool to come up to see his “digs.”

It’s not something you want to see your dad do. And yeah, it was around the time I turned 18 that he first moved out. It’s a big letdown, a big hole in the gut; it’s not like anything you’ve experienced thus far.

And if your dad wants you to go see a therapist to help you deal with the divorce, well, that’s just creepy. Maybe you want to punch him but you don’t want to go to therapy especially at his suggestion because you’re not the one with the problem, and you didn’t make this problem, he made it by moving out, so why should you have to go to some creepy therapist and talk about your feelings when your feelings should really be directed at your dad?

Right?

Which is the point, really. That he fucked up and you’re angry with him and that’s a really, really hard thing to confront with a parent. I never did tell my dad how angry and hurt I was for him getting divorced like that. I believed at the time that the adult thing to do was to understand, not to be angry about it and certainly not to blame my parents, but to understand. Well, there’s a difference between blaming your parents for your lot in life and being angry at them for making boneheaded moves. So yes, I was angry at my father for years, but fighting to retain my love for him, and so dancing gingerly around the issues, pretending to be encouraging and charmed by his chosen existence when really it made me sick to see it. It made me sick to see my father and his two brothers all leave their wives and begin a dicey and peripatetic existence going from apartment to apartment and girlfriend to girlfriend or wife to wife. It was confusing and alienating and I didn’t like it but I was afraid to confront them because they were the elder men.

This fear of the elder men in the family goes deep. I had no idea how much power it had until years later. I had no idea how paralyzed I was. But I am not alone. Many men are afraid of their fathers. We do not know where they get this power over us so we pretend that they do not really have this power over us but, Oh, they have it. They have it in spades. Even my father, wiry, bespectacled, diminutive and professorial in manner: Oh, I feared him mightily! We may be angry but afraid to say we are angry for fear of violence. The father holds that violent edge, that family privilege, the nuclear option. You never know. My father was a strangely elusive but explosive man, given to surprising outbursts. And you never knew what was going on in his head.

He’s dead now.

I never confronted him. I never had that epic battle that sons and fathers sometimes have, where they finally let out that mixture of anger and tenderness, rage and pity that characterizes the relationship.

So what kind of conversation with my dad would I have wanted? If he were here today, I would like to hear him say that he did it for himself. He’d had it with living for others. He wanted to live for himself. Right or wrong, it was his decision to begin living for himself, and he did that, and it would have been helpful to hear him say that forthrightly.

Instead, when the subject of the divorce arose, we heard his painful self-recrimination and regret.

So if I could do it differently, or if I were in your shoes, what would I do? I would be frank and open about my feelings whatever they are. That doesn’t mean necessarily confronting family members about it. It more means being frank with yourself and those close to you about what you actually feel. Don’t try to figure it out. Accept it. Accept what you feel. You may feel impulses that morality prevents you from acting on. That’s OK to feel.

I can say with certainty that there is no correct way to feel. We men seem to think that if we want to be a certain kind of man, we may feel only a certain way. But a good man feels what he feels.

By feeling what we feel, we come to know ourselves. Then our true nature arises serenely and almost without notice. Then we need do nothing but trust our instincts. We become authentic.

And how does this vaunted authenticity come about? Slowly if at all. We keep going over it and over it, like sanding wood. More is revealed with every pass.

As to the numbness: I suspect you fear the torrent of tears that would erupt were you to say how you feel. You may need someone to yank it out of you. Like it’s stuck down there in your throat and a professional has to use his slim jim.

That’s one way to think of psychotherapists. They get inside the locked vehicle of your psyche, but with your permission.

It took me years before I could trust another man to listen to me cry. Are you kidding? I know. It’s icky. But eventually it was a matter of either let these feelings of shame and anger and outrage and humiliation and pitiful hurt show, cry them out in front of someone, demonstrate to someone just how deeply I was hurting, by way of saying, OK, this is me, this awful shambles you see before you, this sobbing shambles of a man, this is me, this is my state, this is what I’ve come to … or who knows what I would come to, walking around numb, as you say, from a lifetime habit of not feeling.

If you want to stop being numb you have to start feeling.

Basically, whatever you feel is appropriate.

We men have a code. We are supposed to feel certain things in certain situations. But the truth is, we feel what we feel. Even though that sounds dumb.

The stereotypical “sensitive male” is easy to ridicule. There was a lot of bogus “showing your feelings” in the 1970s. You don’t have to “show your feelings.” You just have to feel them and know what they are.

In my 20s I thought, If you are a real man, you will feel this way about this and that way about that. You will have learned the code. But you never really do.

This is what we men go through.

What do our fathers want from us and for us? What is expected?

What are we supposed to do and feel?

We never really know. We just feel what we feel. We try to stay true to ourselves and to the ones we love. That’s all we can do.

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My parents don’t like my boyfriend

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 9, 2005

We’d like to stay together, but I’m not sure I could handle the rift that would create.


Dear Cary,

I am a bright, personable woman in my late 20s who works full-time in a law firm and attends graduate school part-time. I am in love with a man who is a decade older than I am, a struggling musician and carpenter who has also found some very creative (read: not completely legal) ways to make money. He is bright, sensitive and caring. He is extremely proud of me, loves me, comforts me, gives me good advice, makes me laugh all the time and wants the best for my future. He is always telling his friends how wonderful I am, and he lets me know he thinks the world of me. He is my best friend and confidant, and we live together.

His father died when he was very young, but his family held off telling him until he finally realized for himself that his father was dead. As you can imagine, this created a lot of emotional turmoil for him. He was also a drug user most of his 20s; seven years ago he decided to quit cold turkey. He joined a construction business and used the physical labor to get off drugs. I should add that he still drinks and smokes pot. He’s been in a band for five years, and they’re getting a record together, but he’s said if this doesn’t pan out, he’s going to give up the idea of working professionally as a musician (or making it big). He’s even been speaking about going back to college. He’d started, but had to drop out because he couldn’t afford it, and his family didn’t see the need for it because he didn’t have a planned major. He’s also uninsured, even though he does dangerous work every day. Writing all this down, he sounds terrible. I can imagine that you will be completely able to understand why my parents feel the way they do: My parents and he do not get along.

I see how hard my parents have worked to get what they have. They grew up without money and are now comfortable (if sometimes still struggling), but they managed to provide me and my two brothers with great educations (although we kids all worked equally hard to secure academic or sports scholarships). My dad runs a landscaping business that frequently occupies him 24/7, and my mom worked her way up to vice president of a small company (she started 20 years ago as a secretary). My parents have had huge arguments about my decision to date this man. They also cut themselves off emotionally from me, and I’m not allowed to talk about him to my family.

I don’t wish to have strife between me and my family. They are the most important people to me. I know I’m still young. Honestly, though, if my parents and he really got along, if they had thought he was wonderful that first dinner, I think I might want to spend the rest of my life with him, but because they don’t, I do seriously reconsider where our relationship might end up. I know my boyfriend doesn’t sound good on paper. My friends don’t think he’s good enough for me, either, but I can’t help what my heart feels. We don’t want to struggle for the rest of our life. He’s been working really hard recently in construction, and he has a lot of contacts in the town we live in. We’ve also talked about having children (in the very distant future). But is all this a silly fantasy?

Where do I go from here? I had a dream last night that I broke up with him, then I yelled at my father for treating my boyfriend so poorly, and I spent the rest of my dream running through paths in the forest, crying and wailing for my boyfriend. When I finally found him, we reconciled, and I felt utter relief. I feel like I’m acting like a child, though. He sounds like a 39-year-old loser. I’m not trying to fix him up, but rereading this, it sounds like I am. I really don’t know what to do. I know it seems simple; I should find a doctor or a lawyer like my parents want. I probably sound sarcastic, but I’m not trying to be. My mother always tells me that it’s easier to marry rich. I know that he loves me and would make me happy and support me for the rest of my life, but I’m pretty sure my parents and he would never come around to getting along. Am I willing to make that sacrifice? Am I just too young and inexperienced? We’ve been together for four years now. I don’t know what I should do.

Torn

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Dear Torn,

The ideal solution, in my mind, would be for your boyfriend to approach your parents with an open heart and tell them that he’s in love with you, that he wants to marry you, and that he would like their blessing. If rebuffed, he would begin a campaign to win their consent — not their love, necessarily, merely their consent. He would endeavor to discover if there are any concrete conditions he might meet. He would analyze their objections and attempt to satisfy them. And he would be willing to give you up if your parents did not consent.

But you asked what you yourself can do, not what your boyfriend can do. Should you try to talk your boyfriend into approaching your parents as outlined above? I don’t think so. If he did it of his own accord, it would show that he has a certain kind of character. They might correctly see him in a new light. If he did it only after you persuaded him, it would have a different moral flavor, pragmatic and faintly cunning. It might in fact confirm their doubts about him.

But we do not know precisely what their doubts about him are, or where they come from, or what they mean, do we? It’s very complicated. Do they see something in him, some fatal flaw, that you are blind to? Do they just dislike him? Does he make them nervous? Does he lack manners? Was he disrespectful in some way at that first dinner? And is their problem truly with him, or is it with you? That is, are they trying to change something in you by objecting to him? Are they still trying to mold you into the person they think you’re supposed to be? Perhaps it’s all those things and more.

Now, in an ideal world, maybe love would triumph over family. But I take you at your word when you say how important your parents are to you. That’s the way things are right now in your world. Your soul desires this man — and that may be part of the rift as well, that he gives you something your family denied you, or that your family is repressing or trying to deny. In fact, he may represent your family’s past struggle itself, which they want to shield you from but which you must undergo on your own, anyway, as all children must learn their lessons themselves.

But assuming that your boyfriend were to ask for their consent, perhaps they would realize that they do have some concrete expectations or conditions. That would be a sign of progress. However crass it may be to discuss such things, they might have income requirements below which they would consider their daughter needlessly impoverished. From their standpoint, you may be sliding back into the very morass of economic struggle that they have climbed out of. So perhaps your boyfriend needs to make a proposal to your parents about the level of economic support he plans to provide. Perhaps your father might consider inviting your husband into his business. After all, they have been involved in similar work. And it might give your dad a shot at molding your boyfriend and having some control over him. Sure, such a position could be very uncomfortable for your boyfriend. Again, though, if he were willing to risk that, it might say something about how much he’s willing to do for you. Or, in a more practical vein, he might present your father a counter-proposal that they form some kind of partnership.

The possibilities, both tangible and psychological, are endless and fascinating. For instance, let us not forget that your boyfriend grew up without a father. I do not know what effect that had, but it’s possible, is it not, that as a result he never learned the culturally defined masculine style of deference and respect that a young man shows to a father, or to a father figure? There may also be something in his nature that bridles at a father figure — a mixture of anger, resentment and envy in his heart; your father may have picked this up at their dinner meeting (I mean, it had to be fairly tense to begin with, right? Meet the parents and all that?). Such a combination of conflicting feelings can make a person seem unbalanced, ill at ease, perhaps even frightening. Only vaguely sensing this, your father may have concluded that there’s just something “off” about your boyfriend.

So perhaps he could talk honestly to your father about what it was like to lose his own father under such baffling circumstances. He might suggest that because of his past he is probably in some sense searching for a father, and that if your father were to give your marriage his blessing that he would be like another son. But then that opens a whole other can of worms. The question of your age difference enters into it. If your boyfriend is too close to your father’s age, the idea of his being a son-in-law could be weird to your father: Rather than feeling that he is gaining a son, your father could feel he is gaining a competitor.

So there’s no end to how tricky and weird this situation could be. Bottom line, the more I think about it, what you need to do is tell your boyfriend that as much as you would like to marry him, unless the rift between him and your folks is healed, you cannot face a life with him, and you are going to have to move on. In saying so, do not suggest any particular course of action. Leave it up to him. See how he responds to the challenge. See what comes of it. Give it some time. But be ready to move on if nothing positive happens.

My mom left my dad in a nursing home and lied about his chances of coming home

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, AUG 22, 2008 02:50 AM PDT

He thought he’d be returning home to die. But she just strung him along until he was gone.


Dear Cary:

My elderly father had been ill. After improving, he went directly from the hospital into a nursing home.

We never told him he was never coming home.

My mother said keeping up some sort of illusion of his eventual return was a way to keep him busy there, but it ended up being something that seemed so cruel in reality. With that “return” in mind, my father would plan to the best of his ability in order to be prepared for the big day. For instance, my mother would keep telling him he would have to do an increasing number of stair climbs to be allowed home, so he would do as she said — working up to 20, 50, finally 100 and more, as many as she required — and talk excitedly about how, when he had met her goals, he would get to go home.

For my part, I just felt like a coward in this whole situation. I had no power of attorney and no decision-making authority in any of this, and my mother had the legal power to place him straight from the hospital, even though I offered to try to find in-home care if anyone felt it was needed for any rehabilitation. I feel that she charged ahead with the nursing home plan, in part because she was bitter that he had frequently left her alone when he traveled for his job and she had found an ideal, ironic opportunity to get back at him (a lonely divorce-by-nursing-home: something his nurses told me was more common than anyone would believe).

My father never complained, but he would sometimes ask me if I knew when exactly he was going home. I always said that he would have to ask Mom (who never visited, but spoke with him on the phone about his “progress” and whether it was good enough for him to return). But I was just too weak to say anything else.

My father finally died after two years in the nursing home, having received the best care possible from his nurses, but never having heard the truth from us. Would he have been better off knowing he’d never go home again?

I hope I’m not the only one affected by this dilemma, and that others may be helped by your advice. On the other hand, it would be nice if I really were the only one who has had to deal with something like this. Thanks.

Powerless Daughter

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Dear Powerless Daughter,

This is one of the saddest things I have ever heard.

But in this story can be heard the laughter of the gods. Hear me out, please. I mean no offense. Laughter and death go hand in hand.

Day after day a dying man dreams of going home. He wants to die among his loved ones, near his daughter, his wife, his family and his cherished possessions.

He is glad that his wife and daughter are taking care of things, making arrangements for him to return home. He is grateful to them. He imagines them fighting for him with the nursing home staff. No doubt, he knows, the nurses would like to keep him there. They’re making a pretty penny off him. But his wife and daughter are going to get him out. They’re working night and day to get him strong enough to return home.

It is painful and exhausting to do the exercises. But he completes them.

Some days, he feels himself getting stronger and thinks, Any day now, I’ll be going home. Other days, he feels weaker and hopes they don’t think he’s not trying. He is trying. He is fighting. He’s going to get out of there and come home.

It’s his final battle and he’s determined to win.

How long has it been now? Why haven’t they come for me?

One day he takes a turn for the worse. He grows weaker and no longer can perform the exercises. If he can’t perform the exercises, he’ll never get out. He tries harder but he can’t even get out of bed now.

How long has it been now? Why haven’t they come for me?

One day he finally understands: He’s not going anywhere. He never was. This is where he has been taken to die.

The true horror of it strikes him. One day, she used to say, she’d … one day! She wasn’t kidding, was she! He always dismissed her complaints about his work-related travel. True, some of it was required, but some trips he could have turned down; at times he took the trips as a welcome respite from a difficult home life. And he lied to her about those. Of course he did. It was a marriage and a love affair but it was also a battle. Marriage is not just a partnership, he thinks. It is a battle. It is a battle to the death.

Amid his horror at what she has done comes a flicker of admiration. She has done it! I should have known she would! She has finally done it! She’s having her revenge!

It comes over him in an instant. He gets the punch line of the world’s longest joke. He is so weak that he can barely make a sound, but he begins to laugh. Maybe it happens in the middle of the night as he lies awake hoping for a sign from the heavens; maybe it comes in nearly inaudible shudders as those standing around watch, asking, Is he trying to say something? Maybe it is in a dream that the laughter comes to him. But rest assured that at the end, when he understands that his brief imprisonment in a nursing home is just one more blown scene in the blooper reel, he laughs and he hears the angels singing — for this quality of hers he loved, too: He loved her treachery as well as her virtue. He can laugh about it. He is free. It is the funniest thing he has ever heard.

It may not be not as funny to us as it is to him. We are of course still constrained by our sense of taboo, and our grief, and our loss; we are still striving for a sense of the sacred, and we tread carefully lest we offend. But to him, who stands on the precipice of that very sacred leap, who is leaning over the edge and letting go of all that is burdensome and illusory, to him it is beyond hilarious. He thought he was going home! What a joke! He can scarcely imagine anything more ridiculous.

In the end, it all comes home to him.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I secretly hate myself

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 14, 2007

I seem to be OK on the outside, but inside … you don’t even want to know.


Dear Cary,

I have never written to an advice column before, and I chose you because although I sometimes disagree with your advice, I find I can never predict what that advice will be based on the advisee’s letter. Here’s my problem: I secretly hate myself. I know why, too: I am the adopted only child daughter of nasty parents, who emotionally abused me and controlled me all my life. They constantly put me down, berated me for the smallest thing, and particularly picked on my looks and weight, even when I was a small child. My mother is basically a nasty seventh grade girl, preoccupied with appearances, looks and clothes, and my father is a big, henpecked milquetoast whose only pieces of advice are “turn the other cheek” and “kill them with kindness.” They did, however, do things like feed and clothe me, purchase Christmas gifts, and pay for my college education, for which I am grateful, of course, but which, incidentally, I am often reminded of.

It’s a long story, but I finally got away from them physically. I found a wonderful man who is an exceptional husband — loving, supportive, caring, considerate, hardworking, honest and successful. They naturally hate him, ostensibly because they consider his job to be nothing they can brag about, but really because he stands up for me and won’t let them bully him or me. I have worked my way up from low-level jobs (their idea, despite the college education — “you are lucky to have any job”) to a professional career that I enjoy with a good salary.

I call them only when I feel I absolutely have to (i.e., their birthdays) and dread the calls for days in advance. I tell them as little as possible about my life because, as it has been all my life, everything I say is wrong. After the calls, I feel as if I’ve been poisoned. I just want to cry uncontrollably, but I pretend I’m fine. I spend the next few days hating everything about my life and hearing their nasty voices in my head tearing everything about my life down, and I see the fat, ugly person they (still) tell me I am when I look in the mirror. Gradually I come back to myself, but I am so tired of this process.

Mainly I think I am angry at myself for still believing the horrible things they said (and still say) to me. Deep down I worry that my husband doesn’t love me, because they told me no man would ever want me. They told me that people I thought were friends “were just using” me, so although I have friends, and people seem to like me, deep down I think that they don’t care if I am around or not.

How can I stop hating myself like this? How can I just get past this? I have enough perspective to know that they are the crazy ones, but I can’t seem to believe it. I don’t know what to do. What do you think?

Secretly Hate Myself

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Dear Secretly Hate Myself,

Let’s begin by noting that no matter how much outward success you achieve it will never undo the damage your adoptive parents did by not loving you. And it will never get you the love you didn’t get as a child. The only way you can get that love and undo that damage is by loving yourself.

The logic of it is this: If you are working hard to succeed in the world in order to prove something to your parents, what do you think will happen if you ever prove it to them? What will you get from them if you finally prove them wrong? Will they come to their senses and love the child you were? They can’t give that child their love. That child is gone. That child is grown up. So how can they possibly ever give you what you needed? Can you go back in time and get the love you needed from them? No.

That may be why it is so incredibly painful to talk to them. You are still hoping to get this thing you were supposed to get as a child. You are hungry for it, naturally. Of course you hunger for it. But you can’t get it from them. They don’t have it to give. And you’re not a child anymore. So each time you talk to them, you re-experience the deprivation, the primal, existence-threatening psychological abuse. It does indeed sound like you are being poisoned.

How to end this cycle? First of all, I think you must recognize, really recognize, that it’s a rigged game, and the damage has already been done. That alone may be enough to free you from it, or at least give you some psychological room in which to create some options. I think that is really the first step, though, just really accepting that what’s done is done.

Whatever you are doing today to prove that you are worthy of their love it’s bound to cause you nothing but pain until you fully, deeply accept the sad fact of your upbringing. Until then, performing for them is a hopeless task. And it takes you away from recognizing and loving the person that you actually are. It takes you away from developing the talents you may have that are truly unique.

That is the trap you are in. I dare say it is why you are having these episodes of virulent self-hatred.

You don’t have to prove to others that you deserve love. Nobody should have to prove, as a child, that they are deserving of love. Parental love is a precondition of life. It is the inalienable right of a child.

So the damage has been done, and you’re never going to get what you want from your parents. So you have to learn to love yourself. The way to do that, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, is to indulge in some self-pity. Yes, pity yourself. Pity yourself as a helpless child who got a raw deal. It’s not whining. It’s a fact: Your parents were supposed to give you what you needed as a child and they didn’t. In not doing so, they did you wrong. They screwed you up. It’s not the kind of thing you just “get over.” It takes a long time and it takes some difficult cognizance of your own vulnerability. So now it’s your job to give yourself some love.

Yes, I know, we’re not supposed to feel sorry for ourselves. Well, sorry, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do. Nobody took care of you. So there was a stage of development you didn’t go through, a stage where, by having them like you and treat you well, you learn to like yourself and treat yourself well. So you have to go through that stage later.

It’s OK. You can do it now. You can get braces as an adult, and you can learn to love yourself as an adult. There’s nothing wrong with doing it. It runs counter to what our culture teaches us about the proper relationship between self and self. Self is not supposed to love self. Self is supposed to control and discipline self! But too bad. Self, in this case, is going to love self. You can do it. You can say to yourself, You are an innocent child of the universe and I love you. You can do that. You don’t have to do it in public. You don’t have to do it with a straight face even. There may be so much loathing there that the mere idea of loving yourself is untenable.

But there’s nothing esoteric about this. I am just speaking the stupid obvious truth. You say, how do I stop hating myself; I say, by loving yourself.

Not complicated. Pretty simple.

The only thing is, you have to actually do it. Thinking about it won’t help — any more than parents thinking about loving a child is going to help the child. They have to actually do it. Yours didn’t. So now it’s up to you.

 

My son is almost 30 and won’t leave home

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 4, 2007

I know I can’t support him anymore — I need to save for retirement. What do I do?


Dear Cary,

I’m a single mother with a grown son. I love him more than I can say. He’s a good person, a great guy in so many ways — smart, creative, kind to animals, etc. We get along well, have common interests and enjoy each other’s company. The rest of my immediate family is dead, and he is literally all the family I have.

The problem is that he’s turning 30 and shows no signs of wanting to leave home. He did move out and try the roommate route twice, but both times it did not turn out well and he moved back in with me. This wouldn’t be so bad — we do get along and all — but he doesn’t pay half the expenses, or even a quarter. In fact, he doesn’t pay me anything at all. My frequent requests for him to contribute to the rent and utilities often result in his losing his temper and yelling at me that all I care about is money. He spends his salary on himself: clothes, movies, computer accessories, you get the drift. It’s as if he still sees himself as a teenager with an allowance.

It’s true that he doesn’t make enough money to live on his own. We live in Los Angeles, and the cost of living is pretty high. He would have more options if he had a better job, and this keeps almost happening. And then it’s as if he sabotages the situation. Why? When I was his age, I was supporting myself and raising him, all by myself.

I saw a movie called “Failure to Launch” about this very situation. It was a comedy. But this isn’t funny. I keep thinking that this situation could be a lot worse, but it still just grates on me. The fact that he seems to feel it’s all right to sponge off me hurts; it shows a serious lack of love and respect for me. And yet, he does seem to love and respect me. I don’t get it. My retirement is approaching on little cat feet; I should be socking away any extra cash for myself, not using it to support him. I keep seeing my future self, living on Social Security and my small retirement account, and still supporting him. Or even worse, still working because I can’t afford to retire. I can’t stand it.

Where did I go wrong? What can I do? I can’t throw him out on the street; I just can’t. But not leaving the nest and learning to fend for himself in the world aren’t good for him. I know he wants to find the right woman and get married, too, but he rarely dates. Who wants a man who is still sponging off his mother?

Please give me some advice. I honestly don’t know what to do.

Forever Mom

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Dear Forever Mom,

There really is only one thing you can do. You have to kick him out. That is, in more gentle terms, you have to tell him firmly that he has to find another place to live.

It may be difficult emotionally. So take some time to prepare. Preparation is not the same thing as delay. It doesn’t mean putting it off until you feel ready. It means setting a date, making a commitment and then planning fully and well.

I suggest you begin by writing him a letter, explaining the situation much as you have explained it to me. You will want to tell him face to face about your decision. But writing it out will give you a chance to explore the issues; giving him a copy of it will ensure that you are both clear on exactly what the future arrangements will be.

Take a couple of weeks with the letter. Make a couple of drafts. Delete parts where you find yourself overjustifying, or attacking, or bringing up old hurts and slights. Avoid emotional pleas. Just tell him, as you have told me, that you cannot support him any longer, that you have to be socking away your cash for retirement and that you have set a date by which he must move out. Tell him the date. Make it stick.

You must be definite about the date by which he is to leave. You must be clear about the fact that he cannot return even if the roommate situation isn’t to his liking. You have to stick to your guns. His inability to make a roommate situation work in the past is a concern, but it is his concern, not yours. If he has to live with roommates, he will have to find a situation that works.

You are not just kicking him out on the street. If you want to assure yourself that adequate housing is available in your area, consult ads for roommate situations and do the math. Give him the figures if you like. If his income is not going to be sufficient, tell him that he is going to have to find some way to increase his income. If he needs a loan to make it through the first six months, suggest a way that he can get a loan. But do not make him a loan yourself. You must stop supporting him if you are to meet your own financial goals.

Do not forget to review the laws that cover tenants in your area. Even though this is a personal arrangement between you and your son, it is possible that in the eyes of the law you are considered a landlord and may have responsibilities in that regard. I don’t know about that, myself. I suggest you consult with an expert — either a landlord-tenant attorney or a legal aid agency qualified to advise you.

This is a tough situation. There is no reason for you to kid yourself. It could be one of the hardest things you have ever done. And you will miss him. It would be wonderful if he were to find self-sufficiency, form a family of his own and bring you into it, so that you have a place in a new family. That would be great for everyone. But whatever happens, know this: You are doing the right thing.

As you write your letter and think this through, other small details of the arrangement may occur to you. That is good. No detail is too small to consider and agree about. I suggest, for instance, that you explicitly insist that he perform the physical move himself, or enlist moving help on his own. If he needs furniture and you have some pieces you wish to let go of, offer him those specific pieces of furniture. If he needs dishes and cookware and you have some extra, set some aside for him. But make it clear that once he has moved out, what remains in the house is your property, not his. Tell him that he should not just come around whenever he feels like it and remove random objects.

These are small things, but they are important. Making all these conditions is a way of creating your new independent relations. It will be difficult but it will accomplish the necessary thing: Your son has to separate from you. He has to become independent so that later in life, when the conditions of dependency change, he can offer support to you.

Write your letter. Cook him some dinner. Tell him he has to move out. Give him the letter. Tell him you love him.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m still angry at my father — what happened in my childhood?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, NOV 1, 2005

I have certain hazy memories that give me the creeps, but I really don’t know the truth.


Dear Cary,

I’ll try to make this short. I’m a 27-year-old man. I’ve blown every good relationship I have ever been in. Sometimes I wonder if my inability to commit comes from my father, who was married three times and is an extremely self-centered person. I idolized him at a young age, but I can say my hatred for him has been growing at least since I turned 13. I should be over it by now. But my father is incredibly needy and lonely and sad; my brother has distanced himself and gotten married, and I’m increasingly left with the burden of this incoherent, drunk and stoned child who can’t even pay his own bills.

At the same time, since I was 14, I’ve had this suspicion in the back of my mind that he sexually abused me. I never talked about this fear to anyone, and I’ve always thought that this was something I probably invented or a convenient excuse to be annoyed when he tried to hug me. I always figured I’m just a cold person who doesn’t like being touched (though it doesn’t bother me when my mom hugs me.) I just figured I hated him so much for so many reasons, that that was why it bothered me for him to hug me. But I can’t get rid of this idea. I took showers with him until I was 8 or 9 years old. Is that weird? But I remember my mom walking in and out of the bathroom. So nothing could have been happening, right? I don’t know why I think this.

I don’t want a reason to feel sorry for myself, I really just want to know whether a person can make up these feelings.

Crazy?

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Dear Crazy?

First of all, you are not making these feelings up. Your feelings are real. On the other hand, they are not facts. They do not prove what happened or did not happen.

Your feelings may be connected to some traumatic event or series of events. Or they may be the result of a pattern of bad parenting that left you anxious, confused and afraid. Whatever the reason, the important thing, it seems to me, is that you have some feelings that are rooted in childhood that you now are being called upon to understand and deal with in adulthood. You are feeling just as powerless and yet full of rage toward your father today as you did as a child.

A competent psychotherapist could be of immense help in working through this. I suggest you contact one.

I don’t mean to discount the importance of knowing whether you were abused by your father, and I don’t think a therapist would, either. Knowing the literal truth about our past can be powerful and transforming. But your quest would not end with that revelation. For what if that truth cannot be known? It is sometimes the case with childhood memories that you will never truly know the literal truth of what happened. Does that mean you are doomed to your current unpleasant state of mind? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that if you did know with certainty exactly what happened that you would therefore suddenly and miraculously be cured of your difficulties.

So how do you deal with these feelings, if the literal truth of what happened might never be known? One way is to fashion a narrative that is true enough for your purposes and then behave according to what you know did happen. You could say, for instance, I am feeling this way because I was raised in a chaotic, uncertain environment where physical and sexual boundaries were not clear and where my own power was marginal or nonexistent.

Does that seem to fit the facts? Having fashioned a narrative like that, you can then make some common-sense observations: For one thing, you are normal. You are feeling the way anyone would feel had they been through what you have been through. For another, you can now make sense of some of the specific feelings you are having.

For instance, perhaps you fear being in a close and powerless position relative to your father; being in such a position, because it repeats a lifelong pattern, may cause you intense anxiety and emotional pain. So being hugged by him, being in a car with him and having to depend on him for things may all bring up those old feelings. It’s also possible that being close to anyone may trigger those same feelings.

As you start observing such things, you may find it useful to define what is going on, to say that you are in the process of forming some adult boundaries; you are paying close attention to how physical proximity and intimacy make you feel; and you are noticing some discomfort in certain situations. In that connection, you can say, Aha, I’m a child of an inappropriate father! So I have to be careful around inappropriate behavior! I have to be careful when I become intimate with someone — because I can be flooded with feelings of vulnerability or fear!

You are not alone in this. There are many, many people in the world today who experience fleeting memories of early experiences that leave them briefly paralyzed or panicked or suffused with sadness. These feelings are real, and their sources are real, though not necessarily in a literal sense. In other words, you felt what you felt as a child. What you felt was real and true. And how you felt as a child affects how you feel today. But though you may feel a murderous rage today, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you were threatened with murder as a child; you might have responded to a cue from the environment in a way, as children do, that was greatly amplified. You were not an adult, who can weigh the relative significance of threats and respond appropriately. So you may have experienced many things as a child that felt dire and life-threatening.

But you are an adult now. So your task, I think, is to remain open to these feelings, not to deny them, but to work to get to know them, to get used to these feelings, to try to understand their language. Your feelings are, after all, not just a distraction; they are also a source of intuitive knowledge about what is actually happening around you. There may be times in your life when people actually are too close, and you are right to feel uncomfortable. As you come to know and understand these patterns of feeling, ideally you will extend your new understanding to other people who have been through similar experiences.

You cannot change what was done in the past. But you can change how you are feeling in the present.

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How long do I keep this secret a secret?

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, MAY 8, 2011

My father is not my “bio-dad.” My mother’s lifelong lover is. Whom do I tell, and when?


Dear Cary,

I’m 44 years old and facing a dilemma concerning my father’s mortality. OK, it’s more complicated than that:

My parents divorced when I was 2 (I’m the third child, born six years after my next sibling, after my mother went through chemotherapy and had been told she’d never have more children). When I was in college, I learned that the friend of the family who had always just “been around” in my childhood was actually my mother’s lover — and my biological father.

I had always known that my mother’s marriage had been mostly an obligation: She was a “good Greek girl,” which meant that, despite being valedictorian in high school, she did not get to go to college, and she was expected to settle down with a nice boy from church. Now I understood that she had had an intense love affair with this married man (also Greek, from the same church) over the course of many years, that the affair became known to his wife and to my mother’s husband, my father. They ended the affair … except they really didn’t and a year or so later my mother got pregnant with me and concealed the truth for years … until my then-girlfriend-now-wife started asking questions about the man who was in so many “family” photos. My mother never found another love in her life, partly because she was dedicated to her kids and was exhausted raising us as a single mom with no child support, but partly because she and my bio-dad were an on-again-off-again thing for decades; he never left his wife and children, he has admitted that he’s been kind of a crappy father to his own kids, I’ve heard that he may have had other affairs and even fathered other children (though that seems unlikely and more like small-town spite) and he didn’t always treat my mother well (once he apparently called her and said he’d leave his wife for her … but only if she’d leave us kids; she wouldn’t speak to him for quite a while after that). At the same time, he was the closest thing she had to a true love, and I felt for her, for her loss, for the fact that one of the best things in her life had to happen in the shadows.

I tell you all of this as if it was passed along as a single story, but in reality I had to glean the details both before and after my mother’s death from cancer five years after I learned about my bio-dad. In the moment, my bio-dad was told that I knew; shortly after all of this was acknowledged, I brought them together for dinner in a nearby (and more anonymous) city and, when she was dying a few years later, I brought them together so that they could say goodbye. All of this was like espionage — no one could know because both spouses are still alive and the community would be scandalized. Even my (half) siblings didn’t find out about the affair and my parentage until after my mother’s death, which led to some hard feelings from them — not directed toward me, but unavoidably complicated our relationship as a family, which was already reeling after my mother’s death removed the center from our immediate-family lives. (My “father” is a nice guy but has been plagued with his own troubles over the years and is not interested in being the center of anyone’s life, though his relationship with me and my family is quietly kind and loving from both a geographic and emotional distance.) The fact of all of this deception has weighed on me.

My bio-dad and I have remained in contact even after my mother passed away 17 years ago. He’s now in his early 80s and his health is failing. Because of adult-onset diabetes, he’s gone blind and now is unable to do much of anything on his own, which means he’s homebound and I can’t reach him, because he fears his wife finding out — I have to wait until he finds time to sneak a short call to me. And even then, our conversations are surface-level: catching up, casual thoughts about the future, etc. Someday soon I’ll get a call telling me that he’s passed away and I’ll have to face the first of two decisions: Do I travel back to my hometown to attend the funeral? I ask myself what I hope to get out of the funeral, and while I don’t want anything out of it, I can’t wrap my head around ignoring the funeral of the man who is my biological father. I’ve lost my mother and my extended family has drifted apart, so I’m sensitive to the number of people I have in my life that connect me to my past. Will I regret not going? Will going be a whole lot of effort for a relationship that was never that deep or meaningful? Since I’ve been told that I look a whole lot like him at my age, will I be flaunting something potentially painful to his family?

The second question is more complex. Since I first found this out, I’ve been sure that I don’t want to participate in the lies, and everything that I’ve learned about my mother’s life and everything that’s happened in my family since I’ve found out about this has only reinforced my sense that these lies have consequences that echo down through generations. I’m not willing to bear that burden any longer than I have to and I certainly don’t want to pass it on to my children. I’m not interested in hurting anyone — especially the spouses who were deceived for years about this affair and my parentage; there’s some question about whether either spouse knows about me being the result of this affair, but I think if either does, s/he has repressed that knowledge. In time, however, I need to be able to be truthful with my own children about their family history. Both in the name of factual truth (god forbid there’s some need to ask a genetic relative for a donation) and in the name of not being visited by the sins of the father, I feel this is the right thing to do. Back before my bio-dad was ill, I talked it over with him, suggesting that he either talk with his kids or leave some sort of letter in the event of his death. He was wary but said he’d think seriously about it … and then his health spiraled out of control and it just hasn’t felt like I could bring up the subject without sounding like the grim reaper discussing plans for the rapidly approaching end.

My thought is that I could wait until a while after his estate is settled so that any contact from me doesn’t look like a play for money and, assuming he’s left no notification, write a letter to his children basically just letting them know the history and that I desire nothing more than that each of us know the truth and be able to speak the truth — though certainly not before the spouses have passed away. In that way, I’d let them know that I exist and that I want nothing from them, but that I’m here if they are open to making contact on whatever level at some point in the future.

Am I crazy to want to do this? Is it a violation of his kids’ privacy? Of their desire, perhaps, to not know that their father betrayed their mother for most of his marriage? Do I wait to contact his other children until both betrayed spouses have passed away as well?

Genetic Truth-Seeker

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Dear Truth Seeker,

Whom you tell and when is important, but before you can make those decisions, something else comes first.

You must first make peace with the facts. That is not a simple matter. It will not be quick. It will involve looking honestly and at times painfully at all the ways this family secret has shaped your life.

You were raised in an atmosphere of secrecy and lies. That sounds harsh but it is true, and it is a gift; that is, it provides you with a fact-based framework in which you can begin to sort out who is your true, beautiful, shining self and who is the self that has been taught to hide, to keep others’ secrets, to carry the legacy of shame and darkness into yet another family generation.

You say, “The fact of all of this deception has weighed on me.” Of course it has. It is safe to say that it has weighed on you more than you know. What will bring you lasting peace is understanding how this legacy led you to make the decisions you have made, and how it continues to affect you today. Your task in life from this moment forward is to examine in honest detail the many ways it weighs on you and how it has shaped your decisions. This is no less than the task of uncovering your life’s meaning. It is the task of uncovering who you really are.

The question of your paternity is important, but it is also a metaphor. We all seek to understand where we came from, as individuals, as family members, as members of racial, religious, ethnic, political and national groups, and as a species. We all come from mystery and contradiction. But those of us whose paternity is a settled matter do not have the added burden of knowing that if we speak the truth we may incur the wrath of others.

We do not have to walk around wondering what will be the reaction of others if we tell the truth. You, on the other hand, must face the fact that telling a fundamental truth about yourself will have explosive consequences. This must be a burden indeed.

It is the burden of the truth-teller in the family. Truth-tellers are often attacked. They upset things. They draw attention to themselves, and to matters others would rather not acknowledge. In this way, a family in which a secret is being kept is similar to a family in which some other secret — of addiction, abuse or alcoholism — is being kept. It also has echoes in the national cultural debate about who we are as a people, as tempers flare when we talk about the “founding fathers” and “where we came from.” That is because questions about origin lie at the heart of questions about existence.

What kind of a person are you today? What secrets are you yourself keeping? How has the habit of keeping secrets to protect others affected your ability to love, to create, to be loved, to be a part of the world? How has it affected your sleep and your health, where you live and what you do with your time, your capacity for forming friendships, your work life, your intellectual interests, your passions? These are the things that you can examine if you have a regular course of therapy or peer counseling. What is your relationship with the church, whose power and views on sin influenced your mother to keep her behavior, and thus your origins, secret? How has this experience and this knowledge informed your notion of a “normal” life? Has it caused you to assume that everyone lives lives of deceit? Where else has secrecy and deceit crept up in your life? When you sense family secrets are being held in other families, are you drawn to them? Do you find yourself enmeshed in workplace intrigue? Do you find it easy to be honest with others about where you come from? Or are there dark areas that you have walled off?

Like an alcoholic or the child of an alcoholic, in the story of your family secret, you now have a narrative, like an origin myth. One part of the narrative is the search for your true identity. Another is your search for your real family. Another is the uncovering of clues to your own behavior: Why you made certain decisions, why you have reacted at times the way you did, why your relationships are the way they are.

Those of us who have such a central narrative often express a gratitude that strikes others as odd. But we are lucky because a fact like this can be an organizing principle. By studying the effect of this one secret, you gain the opportunity to uncover the core mysteries of your life: the particular ways this family secret has affected you. That is what you are now tasked to discover and make peace with. If we talked at length, some of those ways might emerge. But I am not a therapist. You and I won’t be meeting every week to talk about this. But I do suggest you find someone with whom you can meet every week to talk about this. It would be to your advantage if that person were skilled in family therapy and had experience with stories like yours. But it might also be someone who has simply been through what you have been through. The important thing is that you meet regularly over a period of time, at least a year. It takes time to see the truth.

I would really like to see you commit to a long-term process of uncovering the ways in which growing up in an atmosphere of secrecy and lies has shaped your choices in life and your day-to-day behavior. This kind of thing is best done by meeting regularly with a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist or psychologist — someone trained to help as individuals break through the veil so we can see reality.

Reading other people’s stories is one way of coming to grips with your own story. Telling your story to others who have similar experiences is also helpful. By apparent coincidence, today’s Family Secrets site features a story about learning who one’s father is. Various newspapers, magazines and television shows also cover such stories, and in their protagonists you can find kindred spirits. In a sense, these people are your family — your spiritual, or experiential family. They are the people likely to recognize how you feel and how you have lived your life, better than your own family.

Another interesting affinity group is the stepfamily letters project. Telling our stories is one part of the process. Another is learning about Murray Bowen and family systems theory.

You seem to be a good man. This situation is hard. I commend you on your journey to find out what this story means to you.

Your life is the story of a secret. Unearth the secrets of that secret.

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My son eloped and cut me out

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 17, 2012

I only got a generic notice, as if I were just a bystander, or an acquaintance!


Dear Cary,

It’s my turn. I need advice.

I opened my mail earlier this week and found a wedding announcement — from my son. My son, whom I raised alone since he was 3 (he’s 30 now).  My son, whose selfish temper tantrums through high school stopped me from dating women (and therefore, anybody) for years. Whose tour of duty in Iraq I gritted my teeth and “supported” him through despite my soul-level objection to his joining the Army.

The same son who, after he got his head right, volunteered — practically begged — to officiate at my wedding last year to a very sweet woman who rode out his homophobia until it was gone.

The son (my only child) about whom friends marvel, “You guys are SO close! It’s heartwarming.”

He married his girlfriend of five years, which is whom he SHOULD marry — and I’ve encouraged that for a long time. But eloping with no discussion with anyone (family, anyway) is disappointing, to say the least. There were no family issues going on about them; everyone on both sides was hoping for and expecting them to marry sometime soon. I’m sad that they’ve just taken a little jaunt downtown and gotten married in secret, taking away from everyone the opportunity to participate and celebrate. Certainly they have the RIGHT to elope — but everything legal is not also a good idea.

All of that one could get over, and I no doubt will, but to just simply have been on the address list for a photocopied announcement — that’s too much for me. I got the news along with anyone else whose address they had — high-school classmates, work friends, former employees. It’s not like there was any other unhappiness going on; in fact, he called me “just to say hi” the same day they mailed the announcements, but without responding truthfully to “What’s new with you?” I’m overwhelmingly sad at having been held at arms’ length over this, and he is royally ticked off by my telling him — carefully — how hurt I was to get this notice in the mail. I was clear that I am happy for him to be married to this woman, and I sincerely hope it’s forever, but I feel like they just went off on a lark (“Hee-hee, let’s go get secret married and not tell ANYBODY — they’ll be SO surprised when they get the note!”) like teenagers, with no thought about the broader meaning of joining together publicly, of themselves as not just independent beings, but also part of a larger community of family and friends.

My friends are shocked, some even angry, and I feel hurt, hurt, hurt and sad, sad, sad. Slapped in the face. The wind knocked out of me. In light of my generic notification, I picked out a generic “congratulations” card and signed it with my first and last names (instead of “Mom”).  I have to see both of them this weekend at a family birthday party (and I can’t disappoint my young niece by staying away). I don’t know how I can do this without crying. How? How do I deal this weekend, and how do I get out of this mire of sadness I’m stuck in?

Sign me

The Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom

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Dear Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom,

You sound like a good and well-meaning person who was hit hard by something and had no defenses against it. Sometimes something will just bring you to your knees. You aren’t expecting to be so deeply affected by something, and you aren’t expecting someone to do something, and then when it happens you have no defenses.

Having no defenses can be a good thing. Sometimes it’s the only way to truly feel something. In fact, I tend to think we often live in awful unreality, that we glide over tragedy and fate too easily, that we are glib and casual when we would be better served if we were grave and formal and silent, for daily we walk amid miracles and crimes.

I was at my locker this morning at the gym, next to a Russian man, and I said, “Excuse me,” so I could dial my combination into my green padlock and open my locker. I looked into his face as he turned, and I saw pain and sorrow and anger; the look was so open as to be startling; he was not guarded and bland or shallowly comical like so many of the American middle-class men who frequent the gym; I saw his face and I thought of what horrors he had endured, what secrets he had, what awful things he had lived through. His face was grave and true. It humbled me. I sat quietly and waited while he dressed.

So let’s just talk about emotional pain, and the dignity it involves, and its power. Let’s not talk yet about why your son did what he did or any of that. For starters, let’s say that emotional pain comes from an injury not to the body but to the soul, to our self-esteem or confidence or sense of who we are. In this case, it seems that your sense of  self in relation to your son was injured. You thought your son held you in a certain regard but his actions seem to show that he does not.

Let’s again delay talking about why your son did what he did and keep talking about you.  Let’s talk about your sense of yourself in relation to him. You have been his loving mom. You have been the most important person in his life. Being his mom has been one of your greatest roles. It has been a constant buoying force in your life. It has filled you with contentment and joy throughout the day. It has served to bolster your self-esteem and standing among your friends. Think about how important his place in your life has been. Just allow yourself to look at it. It might seem that to evaluate it like this might diminish it, but it won’t. It will just help you see in how many different ways your relationship to your son has been central to your self-esteem and well-being.

To be somewhat glib, let’s say that emotional pain goes away when the injury heals. In this case, your sense of self in relation to your son was injured. So how can that heal? Your son has suddenly moved out of your sphere and you are going to have to adjust. You are going to have to find new sources of joy and self-esteem. You might begin thinking about how your role in life will now change. You might begin thinking about how to let go of your son and find other sources of joy and contentment and pride day to day. You might also think about how to have a better relationship with your son, on these new terms in which he has moved out of your sphere of influence.

Let’s also now consider what your son might have been thinking and feeling. He broke some rules. He did something heedless but also romantic. I wonder how he sees rules. It is possible that he does not take certain rules very seriously. You say he joined the Army and went to Iraq. The Army has a lot of rules. Perhaps his tour of duty in Iraq left him with a feeling that some rules are important because they protect life and limb, and others are civilian rules that are not about life and death and so they don’t matter as much.

I don’t know if you pray or not, but if you do, it might not hurt to pray for your son. That might just mean conjuring him up in your thoughts and wishing for his happiness. It might just mean having him in your thoughts in a kind way. Pray for him to be happy and to be safe and to endure and prosper.

You might also pray for him to gradually acquire the wisdom to see how his choice hurt you so deeply; you might pray that he will acknowledge that one day. I think he will. I think he will one day see that it hurt you deeply, and he will tell you that he didn’t want to hurt you. Pray for him and love him. You will all get over this.

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I detest my parents, but I’m turning into them!

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 29, 2005

As a student of biology, I fear that genes are destiny. I feel powerless to individuate!


Dear Cary,

My parents are pretty nice people. They raised me and my brother in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, provided us with food, attention and a first-rate education, and generally gave me a pretty good childhood. They might even say that everything that they did, all the jobs that they hated, all the sacrifices they made (they are immigrants) and all the trouble they went to, they did for us.

Here’s the catch. I can’t really stand to be with them, and somehow as I am aging, I can tell that I’m turning into them and I’m starting to not be able to stand myself. My father grew up in a household of eight siblings and the father was physically abusive and the parents played one child off another. My father is always referring to his mother’s favorite child (not him) or the indulged child (not him either). All eight children moved to the U.S. and all are not speaking to each other since there was a Terri Schiavo-like argument over their mother’s last year of care. My own mother grew up in a poor village where her father left the family for 11 years (!)(sending back little letters of $$) to work on seagoing vessels and she left her village to get a better education at the age of 13.

Now, when we get together for family gatherings (once or twice a year), we just stare at each other and don’t have anything to say. My parents are very judgmental people, always complaining about what slights other people are doing to them and how we aren’t living up to their standards. Every single sentence out of their mouths is a slight dig into my way of life. I find them, in a way, to be talentless. Bright enough to get a nice-paying job, but in other ways, with no redeeming qualities. They have no friends, they can’t tell nice stories at dinner, they can’t seem to get promoted at work; my dad, especially, wants my mother to cook and clean for him and he sits on the couch after getting home from work and watches TV. His mental challenge is to give the highway toll workers 100 pennies for his toll. They are depressed, sullen people.

You know, I want to be something special (doesn’t everybody?), and I feel like my parents aren’t special people and they keep saying that they have these terrible genes that make us all stubborn and have a bad temper. I keep reading self-help books that say, you are special just being you! Bah! You know, when you go to pick out a new puppy, the first thing that people tell you to do is to look at its mother and father and then you’ll get a good idea what they will be like when they grow up, and this is true! I don’t want to be biologically related to my parents! Lots of people say, “Oh, I’m nothing like my crazy mom and dad,” but I was trained in biology and I know that either these people were secretly fathered by the mailman or they are more like their parents than they choose to admit. How do I not loathe my parents? How do I not loathe myself for being like my parents?

Gene Therapy

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Dear Gene Therapy,

How do you avoid being like your parents? You make choices. That’s it in a nutshell. That doesn’t mean you don’t occasionally say things they used to say, or find yourself having attitudes they used to have. But particularly on the big, life-changing issues, you take responsibility for your own life and you make careful, considered choices.

Those choices, in turn, go to work, long-term, like little machines in the background. They set in motion various habits and opportunities that over time mold you into the person you would prefer to be. You put yourself in a different environment, one more suited to who you want to be, and your environment, like a little identity machine, cranks out the recommended daily requirements of the life you want to live. If it’s the suburban lifestyle of your parents that you dread getting sucked into, then you make a major choice to live in a lively, provocative city, one that will teach you things you can’t learn in the suburbs, one that will bring out parts of your personality that you want to bring out, one that will nurture you in ways you want to be nurtured and discourage you in ways you want to be discouraged.

In that sense, a city can be like a new parent. You submit to its authority and bask in its love. It will suggest for you new opportunities and will admonish you for your old habits. Indeed, a new city can be a cruel master, and will punish you severely if you cross it. But it will also help you be the person you want to be.

As well as choosing an environment that molds you, you also can choose specific, targeted activities that result in actual long-term fundamental change — in how you generally feel, how you react to situations day-to-day and, in a very real sense, in who you are. They can range from highly specific things like quitting smoking or learning tai chi to broader things like concentrated study and mastery of a field you are drawn to, difficult and dangerous challenges such as rock climbing, travel, psychotherapy, religious studies, pilgrimage, marriage, child rearing. All the big, life-changing experiences will change you fundamentally to some degree if you remain alert as you undergo them. And if you respond to them deeply, each experience will take you closer to who you are and farther from the dreaded replica of your parents that haunts your sleep.

There are, as well, many cooked-up, concentrated experiences available, meant to transform the individual in a weekend. A good massage can sometimes work wonders. Anything is worth trying once. Some New Age hucksters may promise too much and deliver too little. But take what you can use and let the rest go. There is often a little wisdom in the craziest babblings of crackpots and charlatans and fools.

It sounds simple in words, doesn’t it? No problem. All you have to do is change your whole life. Ha ha ha.

So be prepared for monumental resistance from within! That is where the real struggle begins — in attempting to not become your parents you realize that you don’t really know where you begin and your parents end! You are indeed, in many ways, the same! It’s not just a question of future choices and molding yourself, but of conscious dismantling of heavy, well-installed machinery, bolted to the floor and clearly meant never to be tampered with or moved! So you walk where you can walk to get where you have to go; sometimes you have to go around, so you go around.

And occasionally you will have to fight for your life. In dismantling these mechanisms that have worked for you for so long, it can feel as though you’re losing your grip. At times of great challenge, you need faith; you need something to hang on to; you need support from people you trust; you need a map, a method, a solid sense of where you’re going. At times you may not have any of that. You may be desolate and alone, racked with doubt and regret that you ever started on this journey. At such a time all you may have is just a dim and fading notion that you started out somewhere and you’ll end up somewhere. That will have to be enough. Know that you’ll have periods of numbness and confusion. That’s the price of differentiating yourself.

Look at it this way: Even if you didn’t undertake this journey, you’d be numb and confused much of the time; you just wouldn’t know you were numb and confused.

Some of the things I have outlined above you may find unacceptable. You may say that something is “impractical” or “not your style.” You may think if you move to a city too far away from your family that it will bring down years of shame and heartache and just won’t be worth it. That sort of thinking, I would suggest, is why we do end up like our parents — we go pretty far but not far enough; we fail to challenge the very ingrained attitudes that we detest in our parents. So it is not easy. You may not recognize some of these ingrained attitudes as your enemy. They may make you feel safe and connected to your heritage. It is hard to tell sometimes. This resistance could go to the core of your being. For instance, the very notion of individuality and control over one’s destiny may feel foreign to you.

And there will be a price. If you move far from your family, if you choose paths that take you away from them both geographically and spiritually, you will miss the closeness you think you might have had. There will always be the life unlived, the road not taken.

So, in short, I would say that we can avoid becoming our parents because identity is fluid. Between us and biological destiny stand the power of choice, the power to change one’s environment, and the power to undertake activities that transform us in deep and lasting ways.