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My alcoholic father has a child we never knew about

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Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, January 22, 2008

 

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Way back when, he gave up rights to the child, but now I want to know my half-sibling.


Dear Cary,

Until a few years ago the only issue I had with my dad was his drinking and resulting behavior. A family member recently uncovered a secret that my dad has been keeping for ages. When he was very young he and another woman, whom he was never married to, had a child. To my understanding my dad tried to provide for that child, but the relationship went sour and the mother asked my dad to sign away legal rights to another man (the person she eventually married and who I believe she is still with today).

My sibling and I have asked questions and have only gotten some answers. My dad is not interested in finding this child, but is not trying to hide from the child’s finding him, either (i.e., he keeps his name listed in the phone book). So, we have a half-sibling out there in the world and have been asked to leave it all alone. My mom supports this notion, stating that doing otherwise would only complicate things (i.e., future family functions or airing the laundry of the past).

I have decided to respectfully leave it alone — for now. My sibling, on the other hand, was for a time on a quest to find this person (with no success as far as I know). When my parents divorce (this is certain) my dad will have a reasonable amount of time to get his life in order and his addiction corrected (i.e., discovering new and healthy coping skills). If he chooses to continue drinking (and I do believe that, to an extent, addiction is a choice), he has been warned that a relationship with me will not be an option. (I’ve carried his weight for too long … I’ve set my boundary.)

Should this be the case, I will then look for the half-sibling because it would no longer “complicate things” due to the ending of contact with my dad. If he gets himself together, however, I will potentially lose this option … unless I go against my dad’s wishes. Knowing that a part of me (my dad) is out there calls to me and nags at me from time to time. (Do I have an entire additional family out there? Am I an aunt? Would I be accepted as part of their family? Rejected as part of “him”?)

Even though my dad has lost just about all respect, I don’t necessarily want to go against his wishes (but at the same time a part of me could give a shit about his wishes). So what do I do? If I do nothing, will the internal nagging go on forever? Do I continue to wait it out to see what my dad does with his life? (As if I haven’t been waiting long enough already!) Or do I go about finding this person because I have some right to know him or her, given our bloodline connection? I realize that this person may not want to be found, and may not want a relationship with other half-siblings, but how am I to know this for sure if I don’t find the person and ask? Any thoughts?

Mesmerized by the Possibilities

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Dear Mesmerized,

A secret in the alcoholic family is like a precious jewel or a newborn child, a thing to marvel at and a cause for rejoicing. I imagine a family gathered around its secrets as though around a warm hearth, celebrating with a birthday cake and candles, passing secrets down through generations like jewelry. Why am I imagining this? I do not fully understand. It is certainly not a literal thing; it is more like a dream. But stick with me here and let us see where this goes.

I note how you calculate the effect of your choices, worrying how people will be affected. I suspect this has much to do with the relationship of a child to her alcoholic father.

Let’s go back a few years. The child of the alcoholic watches his condition. She dreams he will overcome. She tiptoes. She considers her actions carefully, not wanting to hurt the parent or abandon him or draw attention to his frailty, but guarding her flank too, knowing how he can lash out.

She develops theories. She considers whether the parent’s condition is a choice or a sickness. It becomes a central matter, like the existence of God: Is his ailment partly his choice, or is it wholly not of his making? Does he deserve my sympathy and pity or only my scorn?

She conditions her choices on his condition. If he is well, she can move about freely. If the parent seems vulnerable, she reconsiders.

Your concern for how your actions will affect others is nice but it is excessive, and seems to be the legacy of a childhood with a man whose shifts of mood were mercurial and catastrophic.

You had a father who could not be relied upon and trusted, who would not shoulder the burden, who put his burdens on you to carry. He left you resentful and wounded. Step free from this alcoholic father for one precious moment. Make a decision based on your own desire to know. You speak to me of what is right, as if I should know what is right! How am I to know what is right? Something happened in your father’s life and you want to know about it. You want to know your half-sibling. That makes sense to me. It is in fact the only thing in this situation that does make sense to me: You want to know the truth. I want to know the truth, too. That I understand. The feelings of people are something to consider, but in this matter I think you need to honor your desire for the truth.

Oh, people in your family will react. Sure. Of course they will. You can count on people in your family to react. There will be repercussions and effects no matter what you do. Your silence and inaction have their effects as well.

Do what you need to do to know what you need to know. Take up this quest.

I’m aware of the downside. But the upside is that you become a beacon in the room, a ray of light: You broke free. You took some action. You faced a secret.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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“I hate everybody!” plus Cary rambles on about rambling on

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Dear Reader,

I thought that every time I do a column I would write something but today I don’t really want to write anything about myself. I really do not like writing about myself. Or do I? Actually, what happens is that initially writing about myself is frustrating because I do not set out with a topic. I find it hard to find my own subject. So I just dive in, and am unsatisfied with what I write because it is vapid. But then out of that awareness of vapidity will arise a subject.

Now, there’s some wisdom in that: Just beginning to write will bring one to one’s subject. It is intolerable to write gibberish; that is a built-in mechanism: We eventually find what is meaningful because to jabber on is painful. I don’t know if it is painful to everyone; some people jabber without showing that it pains them, and thus inflict pain on others. But they must be in some kind of pain! Perhaps they are not aware of the pain they are feeling. Me, I have a low threshold of pain, psychologically. I can easily slip into feelings of abject despair. So I cannot jabber senselessly for very long. I seek meaning like a life raft. The chaos that surrounds us is terrifying, and when my own consciousness mimics that chaos, I panic. I must find something that means something. What arises from that encounter is my subject, which starts out to be my own orneriness, or my own resistance, or my own reluctance to write about myself.

I write all the time. I write morning pages sometimes. They help me stay sane. Morning pages help me identify the hidden themes that are likely to crop up throughout the day.

Here’s something of possible interest about human nature. I noticed the other day that when I met people the first thing I was asking them was, What part of the city do you live in? What neighborhood? As I was falling asleep I was wondering why I was doing that. Then I realized, we had the real estate man out here looking at our house. We are thinking of moving. I’m not sure exactly why we would move but having lost my job and being in a very expensive city, and not wanting to work too hard, wanting a slower life, and less house to take care of (this house is big, actually; and it’s got what is for San Francisco a big backyard). There’s painting to do. There’s a lot of work that has to be done on the house and I just, after my cancer surgery, I’ve really changed my attitude toward the house. I like it and all but I’m not as interested as I once was in learning all the trades.

I thought sheetrock was really interesting at first. I wanted to learn plumbing and electrical. Just to know how to do that stuff. So I learned a lot about that but now it’s not interesting to me. I just want to live in a house.

What was interesting was how unconscious was this force that was driving me to ask people where they lived. I got great satisfaction out of hearing where people lived, but it wasn’t connected to any conscious, analytical plant. Maybe it should be. Dennis lives near 22nd on South Van Ness. Judith lives at 23red and Potrero. I’m just storing these little addresses away. I’m like a walking Google map.

Anyway, it’s Wednesday, so I’m answering a letter:

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Dear Cary,
 
Today, Happy Easter, I have reached the point of determining that I hate everybody. As churlish as that may sound, it makes sense when I really start to think of how my intimate partners and family have consistently betrayed me in spite of the fact of me doing the right thing, holding up my end of the bargain, being supportive of them, trying not to allow them to put their “crap” on me.

My dad was abusive emotionally, mentally and physically (yes, he is an alcoholic.)

When I think of my marriages (yes, multiple) the one that I had children with and tried to keep together with another alcoholic for 12 years was fouled up because of his attachment to his messed-up family instead of ours. There were times when we seemed to make inroads to intimacy and love, but then he would go back out to the insanity of alcohol and drugs. The end came to me when he went on a coke bender with his sister, while my mother was on her deathbed.

The most faithful earliest intimate partner whom I should have married, but remained close friends with, confided in me TWENTY years later that although he wanted to marry me and had asked me several times, his father threatened his inheritance and my life if he did.  Different culture. By the time his dad died, I had already been married and was done having kids.

So here I am.  Pissed as hell. The last marriage I had after seeking recovery for codependency turned out to be a big lie too. He said everything I wanted to hear, until we got married.

After I made choices to turn my life around and make a better life for me and my kids, I had to ask myself, Why do I have to do all the work in this marriage and what the hell am I getting out of it?

It gets worse. I dropped out of my church, because although not as dogmatic as most “religions,” what they were preaching was absolutely not helping me cope with the circumstances of my life. I was really tired of feeling like I was the only one responsible for the continuation of an institution that would only condemn me for trying to live my life as I felt was best for me.

The most recent love of my life (which was yes, unusual because of our age difference) was stifled because of the determination of his family and what they wanted for him as well.

Cary, it’s not like I am sleeping around, drinking or drugging. Just trying to maintain a home for my teenage kids and work independently. But there did come a point in time when I said I am totally sick of feeling like the “taskmaster” for everyone, especially my intimate relationships.

In walks the young love of my life who for once made me feel like a complete woman, just the way I am. Only to be shunned because he can’t follow his own heart and be with me instead of the traditional way the family thinks things should be.

I had even been to a marriage counselor, who really didn’t help me other than saying our age difference was typical for an affair.

So here I am. I hate everybody. I am so fed up with everybody’s horse****  and no one being authentic or intelligent enough to carry on a decent conversation.

My darker side is about to come out in the worst way, as I am ready to start having unscrupulous sex with any man ready to go.  I don’t even know how to go about that. How do you do that without getting AIDS? 
 
There is so much more vitriol but I am sure you probably have seen the heart of the issue I am having already with my very rude awakening. Please help me unravel the crap so I can get to a better place.
Thanks.
Rudely Awakened

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Dear Rudely Awakened,
This is the kind of letter that in the old days I would spend a few days on. I would read it and think about it for a few days. But I don’t have that luxury anymore. And maybe that’s a good thing. So I am going to say a few things that may help.
For one, I don’t know enough about you to venture a guess. I don’t know what culture you are from, or how old you are, or really much of anything except that you are fed up and angry. And I know you’ve had some marriages and are now on the verge of doing something reckless and possibly self-destructive.

OK, that’s a start. I do know what it’s like to feel fed up and like doing something reckless and self-destructive. Maybe there is a clue there, having to do with your codependency. Here’s a thought. Maybe your codependency is linked to a poorly developed love for your self. That would account for why you feel like a taskmaster and a victim.

Maybe you have reached a point in your recovery from codependency where you are ready to make a new leap. Maybe your anger is a signal that it’s time to truly leave behind your codependent husk and emerge as some new being. Maybe the anger is the kind of anger that burns off a residue.

But as I say, I don’t know enough.

Here is what I suggest, though. I suggest you do some more reading on codependency and try to find in yourself the connections between how you were raised, your father’s alcoholism, your known codependent traits, and get a sense of the typical spiritual trajectory of a codependent. That is, consider that personal psychological growth occurs in stages, and those stages are marked by a feeling of crisis. Recognize that you have reached some kind of crisis which it is your job to enter into and understand. This may be done by talking it through  with other people in Al-Anon, if you are connected with that program. It may be done by taking a thorough route through the steps of Al-Anon.

That would be my interpretation: That you have reached a point of personal crisis that has a meaning which is yet to be determined.

So identify the things that are happening. It may be that long-buried feelings are starting to erupt, and those may be connected to your father and your family. I do notice that family plays a big role in your dissatisfaction. It may be that while you are identifying the family conflicts present in other people’s lives, what is driving that is your own inner conflict with your own family and your family history. So I would look for mirrors and echoes. That’s what I would do. Look for mirrors and echoes and order and consistency. Look for the patterns and ask how they have brought you where you are. Ask how you can change those patterns.

To do this, you will want to refrain from acting out. Rather than act out your frustration, sit with it. Talk it through. Write about it in a journal. Be aware. Just seek awareness.

So, as I said, knowing so little about you as an individual, that is all I can offer. I hope it is helpful.

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Breaking Down the Breakup (I think I should leave but I’m not sure how)

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Dear Cary,

I have been reading your letters for years, and usually I can find plenty of guidance through your responses to others. This time, I would like your thoughts directly.

I am a divorced mom of an elementary school child. I was married for a long time, and got divorced after my husband revealed years and years of extramarital affairs. It was a nightmare, but it’s been about six years now. I have rebuilt my life with much help from counselors, friends, and supportive family. I am starting to regain my professional life (I was once an incredibly high-achiever), and am used to the regular hassles of having to raise a child with a man who continues to treat me without much regard. I found much to relate to in your letter to a woman in a similar situation, and found comfort in your metaphor of a ferris wheel where everyone has turns on the highs and lows.

I do things slower than many, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I was ready to try dating. I met a lovely, sensitive, artistic man, and we’ve been through a lot together, between my wariness to date again and his health issues. We’ve struggled through because we have a lovely and deep connection. But after many ups and downs, we are parting ways. Or trying too. We have broken up a number of times, but this time at least for me, I can’t figure out any other ways forward. And I don’t think there’s anything to do about that. But I’m writing to you for your reflections because you are very insightful about these particular issues.

The man struggles with both mood issues and alcohol. He has suffered many different health problems, and has diligently trudged from doctor to doctor in search of answers, through traditional medicine, holistic health, and back to traditional medicine. He has had diagnoses of food allergies, depression, anxiety, and more recently, fibromyalgia. suffered a pretty large breakdown after his last switch between systems, and has worked hard to regain stability. He sees many different doctors regularly, is taking medicines and having his psychiatrist adjust them when problems arise. He works with a counselor, a psychiatrist, a family doctor, and a specialist. And he is working through his drinking issues, although he does not have them figured out. He has spent some time in AA, but didn’t last long there (for some semi-legitimate reasons, like a distaste for higher-power-culture, as well as for some less compelling reasons that point to him just not being ready yet).

All through our relationship, we have maintained an incredible friendship. I am so much myself with him, and I can talk to him about anything. When he is feeling well, I love thinking of our life together. But of course, he is unpredictable. He has been working at his health and well-being much longer than I’ve known him, but so many of his issues have responded to his past six months of work–but not enough that I feel confident moving forward. His drinking is a large concern for me, but is not something that I see in my daily life with him. That is, I know he struggles because he tells me so; but I am not with him when he drinks. The issue that I see most, and that is the cause for my lack of hope more directly, is his mood. When he is not feeling well, he cannot communicate effectively or, even, normally. It looks like he doesn’t know the rules for fair fights, but it turns out it is much more than that. He can’t hear what I say. He’ll be upset about something that happened two days ago, he’ll let it fester, and when we speak again, he’ll throw in kitchen sink complaints about all the things I do that drive him nuts. And there’s no speaking to him at this point, because he cannot hear. He takes anything I say in these conversations and turns all the words around. He has these problems with everyone in his life, at work, with family, with friends.

The heartbreaking part is that he knows this is a problem. He doesn’t want to be this way. He sees doctors and tries treatment and apologizes. He is a lovely, sincere person with a lot of beauty inside him, and a lot of struggles. But he doesn’t have it figured out, yet. That, and his drinking. And perhaps they are connected. We’ve hit the point in our relationship where we would move forward in some kind of larger commitment, which I can’t do under these circumstances.

My friends and family like this new man. And they also wish for something easier for me. They say things like, “He’s such a lovely fit for you, but you’ve also been through so much already. I wish it were easier.”

Cary, I’m not sure there’s any answer here beyond the one facing me, which is to continue to say no to circumstances I cannot manage. But it is heartbreaking. I find it difficult not to compare. My daughter’s father calls several times a week to talk to her, piping Facetime scenes of him and his cooing, round-faced sons into my kitchen. He has stomped on every significant relationship in his adult life, leaving a trail of heartache, debt, and lawsuits. But he is funny and charismatic. His reward? Marrying a smiling rich woman, and having babies. I see that, and then I see this man who can’t win for trying (that’s not to take away levels of personal responsibility). And I also see me–I am trying to work my way through this crap with honesty and without taking the easy way. Things are mostly fine in my life, but I have given up hope for another child, which I always wanted (I’m about to turn 40). And after this dating relationship, I feel so sad. I feel sad about the world, and how it works.

You should probably know that I am an INFJ. I realize I feel things bigger than most people.

From

A Possibly Dramatic Empath

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Dear Possibly Dramatic Empath,

I think that this man is not suitable for you because of his many problems. I think you will need to let him go. This is not a workable relationship.

So how can I help? Maybe you need help implementing the breakup. So let’s break down the breakup.

First, whatever regular communication you have ceases. Communication changes from something you do routinely for emotional satisfaction to something you do only to tie up loose ends related to concrete commitments you have made during the relationship. That means if you feel like talking to him, don’t. That means if you have the thought that a certain performer he likes is in town and maybe he would like to go, don’t. That means if you want to explain something to him about why you feel sad it’s over or how you think he might improve, don’t. It means not communicating with him.

Second, it means physically disentanglement. If you have entangled monetary accounts and property, separate the accounts. If you owe him money, pay it; if he owe you money, collect it. Distribute or dispose of any joint property. If things he owns are left at your house return them. If things you own are at his house go and get them. Be thorough.

Third, any standing arrangements you have, such as meeting regularly at a cafe or going to the same bar: renounce them. Enact a new routine that takes you to places he doesn’t frequent. This isn’t because there’s anything traumatic or problematic about seeing him. It’s just the concrete way that a relationship is taken apart so that it no longer exists.

Often in seeking to know when a relationship is over one will wait to feel some subjective state of completion. But the relationship is not about your inner state; it is a tangible thing made up of interactions, commitments and property. You take away the interactions, commitments and property and the relationship is over.

You will still have feelings but that’s OK. You’re always going to have feelings. The important thing is to separate the feelings from the relationship. You will do better dealing with your feelings once you can deal with them as your own feelings, rather than as problems in the relationship.

I wonder if you will feel guilty. You might. I know you’d like to help him. The sad fact is that you can’t. Al-Anon is useful for that. It is also useful to take stock of both your inclinations to help others and your history of helping others and being victimized by them, starting with your ex-husband. Al-Anon can help you with that as well. We, the readers of your letter, don’t know exactly what happened but it is clear that he deceived you for years. So one thing you will need to do in the future is enact security precautions: In relationships with men, insist on knowing what the ground rules are. If it is supposed to be an exclusive relationship, be like an arms inspector: demand proof. That may sound crazy but it is simple logic: A man you knew intimately deceived you regularly for years. His deceptions were probably discoverable. Unless he was a trained spy with excellent trade-craft, his deceptions were discoverable. There was a trail. You didn’t see it because you didn’t look hard enough for it. Had you proceeded on the assumption that men regularly deceive women, you would have discovered it. So let that experience form the basis for a new, less trusting, more security-conscious practice regarding men and sex.

I’ll bet your ex-husband is some kind of narcissist or sociopath. So try not to date a narcissist. Try not to date a sociopath. If you’re not sure, ask up front. Say, “Excuse me, but before we date, can you tell me: Are you a narcissist, or a sociopath? Do you routinely lie to women to manipulate them into sleeping with you and then hide your other affairs from them for years just so you can feel powerful and in control? Because if so, maybe I’m not your gal.” Now, I know that sounds silly, and the narcissist or sociopath of course will act baffled and confused, or maybe compassionate and understanding, but the relationship won’t go very far. He will decide that you’re not the woman for him. Some non-sociopathic guys will just think you’re too weird, but some will find it interesting and will want to know more.

Also try not to date anyone who has a problem with alcohol.

That is my advice to you: Break up with this man completely. Visit Al-Anon at least six times, enough times to really be able to decide if it can be helpful to you. And exercise some security measures with men.

 

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We stood at the turning point: Brian Herrera and the beauty of change

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What our friend Brian Herrera wrote today about his experience at the Creative Getaway at Marconi spurred some thoughts of my own which I’d like to share — with people who’ve had this experience and with people who perhaps do not know about the Amherst Writers and Artists method or the creative getaways Norma and I have put on at Marconi Conference Center since 2008.

Actually, I have a lot to say so I’ll post this in two or three parts. The first part, for today, is this: Brian’s post reminded me how much the AWA process can work as a catalyst at a crucial turning point in someone’s life. People get spurred on to make courageous changes and then they write books. They get degrees. They get jobs at Princeton.

Which means that they move on.

So let me tell you about my own kind of mixed-up psychology, or my personal emotional baggage: I am always trying to reconstruct my family. So if you come within my field of gravity, I will assign you a part in my imaginary family, as a brother or sister or uncle or aunt or parental figure. And then when someone whom I have assigned a place in my imaginary family makes a sudden move toward growth and change, my impulse is to say, Wait, hold on, you have to stay in the family!

Also, as a business, we can get hung up on having “repeat customers.” It makes it easier for us financially if everybody just comes every time. As producers of the event, Norma and I are focused on repeating it as an event, making it happen again and again. Yet the essence of it is about change: people using the AWA method to speak their truth, making changes in their lives and moving on.

There are some words in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that are relevant here: “Half-measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point.”

People come to the creative getaway because they are standing at the turning point. They have tried half-measures, acknowledging as portion of the writer self, for instance, feeding it enough to keep it from dying but mainly in life attending to what is practical and pressing and immediate, while continuously thinking that one day perhaps we’ll get around to seeing what this writing thing is all about, and this niggling, half-ignored voice of the writer will get its due. One day. Sometime.

Keep on like that and then suddenly you’re 80. So we say come, now, while the impulse is fresh, begin a dialog with the writer self in you, and make the changes you need to make.

But how does that relate to the production of story? One might ask, where is the craft in all this? Where is the practical application? How is this going to help me be a writer?

I say, paradoxically, that abandoning for the moment all concern about craft is the route to finding our true story, for story is about revelation. Story is not about craft. Craft is a vehicle. Story is about facing desperate moments. So in coming to Marconi, or Chester, or Melrose, or Santa Barbara, or Amsterdam, or Tuscany, one may be treating oneself, but one is also mining one’s own desperation for that kernel of truth that is the only story that matters.

Story comes from personal truth in conflict with the world. One recognizes what is real, what is right, what must be done, and sets about changing, upsetting the apple cart, creating tension. Poetry, too, comes of conflict — confronting the barriers of language itself, twisting it to fit what is otherwise inexpressible.

So coming to Marconi to explore one’s relationship to the writing self is also about finding the story that writing self is best suited to write. Conversely, when we are stuck we are not only avoiding the situation, we are avoiding the story. The story begins when we acknowledge the situation and start dealing with it — as Brian did.

Thanks Brian, for reminding me what is the essential function and goodness of the AWA method.

The point is that if you “stand at the turning point,” if you are at the fulcrum of change and ready to set a new angle of trajectory, this may be what you need. And then, if this is what you need, then our job is to make it possible for you to do it.

It takes a little trust — trust of oneself, and also trust in external things coming together. In Brian’s case, for instance, there was the long-agonized-over dissertation. There was also the fact that it was his birthday; and his partner was supporting him in the decision. And a little bit of money had come into his hands that made it make sense to do it. All those things came together.

In other cases it may be just the soul crying out, saying, It’s time to do this. This is what you need, even if it does not appear to be the practical thing. Life is like that sometimes. We have to make a leap of faith.

My job is to be there and make the event happen. If now, having read this, you recognize that you are at some kind of turning point, then please let me know and we will see what we can do to accommodate you.

Oh, and feel free to phone me on impulse. 415 308-5685. You don’t need to have your whole plan figured out. You don’t have to be sure you’re coming. Call if you just want to talk about the possibility of it. I love to talk. All this emailing makes me miss talking on the phone. I don’t have things all figured out so I don’t see why you should.

p.s. Say Hello to Brian on Facebook!

 

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El Farolito

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Below is a short piece from Cary that we included in today’s newsletter. When we originally decided to publish a weekly newsletter, we never intended it just to promote our workshops and writing retreats, but rather, we wanted it to be a place to share Cary’s non-advice-related writing, his ideas and enthusiasms, and writing from other authors that we find exceptional. From here on out there will be a literary component to the weekly newsletter. Most pieces will not be re-published on this website, so keep and eye out.

Judith, abstract expressionist, El Farolito on 24th Street in the Mission for lunch after the meeting, talking about William James,  the God thing, William James says, Look, we are scientific men, Christian men, honest men, and we cannot deny what we see: People are having experiences; they have these experiences of another world and then they change. What are we to call this? How can we, as scientific men, pretend that this is not real? So something is going on, basically, is what Judith and William James and I agree about in the Farolito on 24th near Florida Street.

How did she get 33 years sober, hanging out with de Kooning in New York, marrying Steve Lacy because he needed a wife even though she preferred women, and living in that apartment at 24th and Potrero since 1979, watching the giant construction cranes across Potrero at SF General Hospital, and my plate of al pastor, and the uncanny feeling of holy rescue one feels sitting across from somebody who rampaged through 1950s New York art scene fucking everything that had a can of cadmium yellow and a canvas stretcher, everything that had a gallery show even a group gallery show and a collection of Chet Baker records not too many because he didn’t make too many because he died young and pretty and messed up, toothless and beat up and strung out in the Fillmore … thinking how does that familiar miracle happen to this woman who is nothing but trouble for years just fucking up everything until finally one day she gets it and stops the bullshit and just keeps painting every day for the last 33 years in her studio at Hunter’s Point until the abstracts are piled up to the ceiling and still she keeps going because it’s the only way to God for her, it’s the only way to know herself, her raspy, Winston-ravaged throat, her New York by way of Chicago combination of exasperation and exultations, half the time having no idea what she’s really saying but agreeing, as we agree about William James and what he was seeing in 1890, that the old religions are crumbling yet people are having these experiences of something beyond, something other, something anti-rational that says everything you believed up till now was wrong, relax, surrender.

Let the impossible happen. Let what you don’t know guide you.

Me and Judith in El Farolito. She talks incessantly about dying. How she’s ready. How it’s a pain in the ass. How people are taking care of her. People are taking Judith where Judith needs to go. People are buying Judith lunch. People are driving Judith to AA meetings. This is community.

This is how community works, a loving community around a single person without any blood relatives nearby, this is how we close ranks around someone who tore through New York in the 1950s and is still painting abstract expressionist and still listening to jazz LPs on her turntable in her Hunters Point studio and still wearing those khaki painters’ pants the hipsters wore in New York: that faded black-and-white photo of her on the door of her Hunters Point studio: Who is that woman she’s with, her lover? A friend of de Kooning’s? Who is that woman? How did she get there? And how did we get to this table at El Farolito?

We moved into her building in 1990 and she said, “I’m the one with the great flat. You’re the ones who got the not-so-great flat.” We became friends. We went to demonstrations together.

I am giving her rides. We are taking care of her. We are closing ranks around her as she threatens to slip away from us.

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A letter to the alcoholic at Chrismastime

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Dear Cary,

I’m a recovering alcoholic, married with two teenagers and a mild in-law problem that really bothers me during the holidays. To some degree, what I am struggling with is naming why my holiday situation bothers me so much. May I bend your ear?

My in-laws are nice people and regularly invite my family to stay with them in their very rural home town for the Christmas holiday. The kids both love Christmas with their grandparents and cousins, and the event is the peak of my wife’s year. Generally, the whole week around Christmas is packed full with caroling parties, fancy meals, long sessions singing in groups, unwrapping presents — about as wholesome and Norman Rockwell as it gets.

Unfortunately, something about the overcrowded conditions, being surrounded by other people’s traditions, and unable to break away for even an hour of solo time becomes overwhelming for me. I have tried many times to find things to do to get away — the only criticism I would make of this group is their complete inability to understand why someone might need some alone time. In general, there is nothing else to do in the town we visit. If I manage to get away for a ski afternoon or something, invariably much is made over my absence and the unavailability of the car I use (even if it is my own rental). Clearly, it is a breach of their rules for someone to leave the group.

I feel that a normal person ought to be able to overlook and overcome this small inconvenience for the sake of my wife and kids, who truly love this annual outing. Still, here it is only December 3, and tonight I am sick to my stomach with dread, fearing Christmas as I never feared a final exam. In my inventory tonight, I have to acknowledge resentment of the fact that I am the outsider in this group, the only one with no musical talent, doomed to hold coats and mind the little kids while others sing and demonstrate their excellence on various instruments, the guy who gets ten sets of socks at the gift exchange. I’m sure there is also a link between these feelings and some truly miserable childhood Christmas memories, and with my near-total separation from my birth family. I wish none of this were so.

So, in general, sobriety is going well. It’s been a little more than seven years, and I feel like I’ve moved a long way from the bitter, scared person I was when I was drinking actively. As I went through the steps with my sponsor, who is someone I have known my entire life, I had to recognize that a particular kind of retributive anger was my main driver — what some of my friends call the “racing brain.” I was caught up often and simultaneously in revenge fantasies and unbearable self-doubt. I learned that the sad truth about me was that these fantasies were precious to me, and that to the same degree I drank to escape them, I also somehow was defined by them. My daily inventory was, for years, an exercise in recognizing and rejecting these thoughts by — I hope this does not sound too weird — offering them up to my higher power as the only sacrifice of value that I could make. I would visualize these feelings, which unfortunately were the most precious possession of my soul, being burned on an altar, and therefore no longer mine. It has generally worked.

Except, well, you know. The resentment I feel about being cooped up all through the holiday to celebrate someone else’s idea of Christmas, the feeling of being an outsider. I am powerless over this feeling tonight. Any thoughts?

Very truly yours,

Another Hill to Climb

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Dear Another Hill,

Let me help you first with naming it. How about we call it deprivation disguised as plenitude? For you sit at a great banquet. Yet you feel empty. It seems to work for these other people. Yet it doesn’t work for you.

Does that mean there’s something wrong with you?

Well, yes, if you want to put it that way, there is something wrong with you. You’re an alcoholic. It may seem harsh or un-P.C. to say there’s something wrong with you but of course there’s something wrong with you! You wouldn’t be in recovery if you were fine. You’re not fine. You respond to things differently. Your psychology is warped. You have, heroically, and for your own survival, learned much about your own perversity. As I have. Have learned enough, one hopes, that you can say with equanimity, Yes, there’s something wrong with me. I’m alcoholic. I don’t respond to alcohol like others, nor do I respond to social situations like others. Nor do I respond to pain and discomfort like others. One could say that. I can certainly say that of myself: There is certainly something wrong with me!

Luckily we have found a way to live as alcoholics. So let’s ask, What would an alcoholic in recovery do?

What about service? Service does not mean just making coffee and straightening chairs. It means changing our entire posture toward the world, so that rather than self-seeking we are of service. Rather than thinking of our own delight we are looking for ways to be useful and in harmony. It is of course hard at this time of year to look on a happy, singing crowd, full of good cheer and possibly good scotch too, and not wish that we could have what they have.

But we have something else: We have been saved from an awful death and we know what to do. We make ourselves of service.

Forget yourself and your longing for the good cheer others find so easily. Accept the fact that you were put here for something else. You were put here to be of service. Being of service can be subtle. It can mean just being pleasant. It can mean letting everyone do what they do and not getting in the way and endeavoring to at least appear to enjoy it.

In the midst of all this frivolity, it’s easy to think, Aha, all this frivolity is just what I need!  Without quite realizing it, we start thinking, How can I get jolly and carefree like them? How can I have some of that good cheer? Once that thought takes root, it is hard to let go of. We start to feel like we can’t be OK unless we are in that state of frivolous good cheer which looks so attractive and beguiling. We start to feel like we can’t survive unless we get some of that good cheer!

Underlying this, however, is the belief that we cannot survive without what we think we need. That is an interesting proposition for an alcoholic, isn’t it? For what we think we need is not actually what we need. Strangely enough, we have demonstrably unnatural appetites. How many times in the past have we believed that we needed certain things or we could not function? How many times in the past did we think we simply could not function without at least a beer? How many times did we assume that life without alcohol was an impossibility?

On the flipside, how satisfying has it been to learn that we can at any time experience, in the absence of any mind-altering drug, the sheer, naked hum of being? To experience, unfiltered, the majesty of the moment, to quietly, while others are lost in frivolity, become aware of the holiness of the moment? And to contemplate the possibility of an ancient bond with the very living, breathing human historical beings whose stories and actions come alive this time of year? To imagine them in their robes, speaking their strange tongues and yet as tormented and full of doubt as we are. To make the leap from being trapped in the narrow now, looking at historic figures as mere symbols, to communing with them directly, through a kind of soul-melding or psychological identification on a deep level, so that the holiday and the spirit of the holiday comes alive for you.

It is a resonant myth, this notion of Christmas. I’m not a Christian but neither am I insensible to the awesome power of the story. To celebrate the idea that someone was born, a savior was born: What an awesome thing to contemplate; what nectar for the thirsty soul, even if we do not believe it, even if it conflicts with other things that we might believe, religion-wise: what an awesome and wonderful thing to imagine, that a savior might have been born who would transport us out of torment and death.

It’s not a bad thing to think about as the lights come on and the eggnog comes out. It certainly is not a bad thing for an alcoholic to think about. For anyone who has recovered from the torment of alcoholism has been literally given a new life. Most of us had reached a point where it was clear that no human power could have relieved us of our alcoholism. Yet it was relieved. So we have been touched by something beyond the rational; we have been saved from drowning; we have been pulled safely into the boat.

That alone is something to celebrate. You may celebrate it differently from the way Christians celebrate their union with God, and differently from the way pagans celebrate their union with the earth or indeed differently from the way any of the many major and minor religions celebrate. You may celebrate it quietly, away from the singing and the egg nog. But celebrate it. Celebrate your own birth and rescue. And then place yourself in the service of these people, these good, loving people who accept you into their house, who want the best for you, who bear you no ill will, who would clasp you to their bosoms and make you feel a part of their family if they knew how.

Most of all, listen. For you can be sure that just beyond the gaiety is a burning need to be heard. In fact, I have noticed that the salient fact about many such outwardly cheerful and brilliant families is that their members secretly feel unheard; in the rush to participate, something is sacrificed: perhaps that very interiority that you find so essential. The fact that this family does not recognize the human need for solitude indicates that at least some of its members probably bear an unexpressed need for the kind of full and generous hearing only a sympathetic sufferer like you could give.

Nor castigate them because they don’t know how to make you feel a part of their family. Accept the fact that you are the stranger. The stranger is a problem for a family. Its individuals may not want to, consciously, yet the very existence of the family requires that it exclude the stranger. To do otherwise is not easy, especially if the stranger is like you or I, a stranger vast in his interiority, inscrutable to others, possessed of manic, howling impulses of retribution and perversity!

We alcoholics are not easy people to love, my friend. So do not place too heavy a burden on those around you. They will love you in their way but it will not always be what you would wish it to be.

Instead, find a dish to wash. Find a porch to sweep. Lend a listening ear to anyone who seems bursting. Also, let them to teach you their songs. Or, assuming you can at least keep a beat: Play percussion. That is one thing such gatherings often lack: Someone to beat the tambourine steadily, humbly.

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford: Holy DayGlo tattoo of the roaring political id, Batman, get this wayward soul to detox and hand him a big book!

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I’m starting to think of the Rob Ford phenomenon as a rare performance-art spectacle in which the tragic and doomed performer, seeking the death of his own ego, effects a feat of topological magic in which he turns his own id inside out. Like a DayGlo 3 a.m basement tattoo of his ravaging animal being, the awful, voracious, unquenchable id of desire appears on his red, bursting skin: Will I get enough food? Will people like me? Can I eat some pussy now?

He is so oral. He’ll never be able to consume enough to quench what’s eating him. As he eats, it eats him. It’s the ouroboros turned inside out. Instead of shedding skins, he’s adding them.

It’s funny but sad. And some of us can’t help seeing something of ourselves in this caged animal. We think, “Of course we are better than that lunatic! Of course we are not deranged fools!” And yet … we can relate, because it’s medical, not moral. It’s the disease at work.

Speaking metaphorically, not knowing the neurological way to express it, it’s what happens when you regularly numb the regulating brain: A man is left with nothing but his rattling, wildly swinging beast.

And, things can’t be that great at home right now for Mr. Ford. Why’d he bring his wife up there on stage to radiate the fury and disgust and helplessness of the aggrieved partner? Dunno. Just did. But it fits. Why’d you go tear up that bar and wreck the car? Dunno. Just did. Feel bad now but at the moment it seemed like the thing to do.

Because you were momentarily insane. Duh.

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He looks like he could use some sleep. One imagines the gloomy disgust that hovers about his head at home. One imagines, too, all of Toronto, made his enabling bitch, howling with impotent outrage. Having let the insanity go on too long, regretting that she did not throw him out at the first indiscretion, now sitting captive at the dinner table night after night as he moodily gallops from grandiosity to despair, from humor to rage, from wounded to attack mode, like a hurt, snapping dog.

But — and this we note with perverse glee: Until the addict is done, there ain’t nothing anybody can do about it. He’s going to keep on. The id knows no framing, no modulation; it has no self-restraint. The restraint is supposed to come from that other part of the brain that is now shut down, poisoned.

That’s not to say that if he were to continue spiraling out of control and die we wouldn’t feel awful. Of course we would. And, being flawed ourselves, we might well reflexively blame the co-dependent world around him but we would know in our hearts: There’s nothing anyone can do but watch and wait, following him with a net.

He’s doing what people in active addictions do: The mood swings, the alternating confession and attack, the warped expectation that now that we’ve confessed everyone will cozy up to us, the rage when people don’t seem to get it and don’t seem to want to be our friend again even after we’ve confessed! come on, man, I owned up, I said I smoked crack, so what’s your problem, Let’s be friends again or else I’ll double down and go double nuclear crazy! and then you’ll see the real Rob Ford Crazy Man!

It’s all there like a template. All of it that we know and love and have heard a million times.

It’s unrealistic and silly but the thought occurs that maybe there will be something educational in this: The world gets to see just how crazy a person gets. Most folks who haven’t seen the disease of addiction at work up close still view behavior through the moral filter. But, I mean, Rob Ford Is Us. Whose id is any less crazy than Rob Ford’s? We’ve all got that inside of us. Most just keep it chained up.

It’s the process of addiction that corrodes the chains and lets the crazy take over.

And that is scary. Right? Addiction is scary. Maybe at least that will get across, amid the late-show laughter and scowling highbrow disgust.

Now here’s a fantasy best-case scenario: Rob Ford takes it as far as he can take it, Charlie Sheen style but fatter and less sexy, until through truly awful but not fatal events he finally hits bottom and gets help and changes his life. And then: because here is opportunity writ large: Toronto, at his behest, in his honor and probably partly for its own security, builds a huge recovery and drug addiction and alcohol treatment center like right next door to Toronto City Hall.

Yeah. Dream on.

But which occasioned the following thought: I was at a meeting today at a recovery house in a coastal California town, a lovely clean, pleasant place filled with people showing recent scars of hell, that haunted, terrified look of people who’ve been searingly close to the burning consummation of holy hellfire and have survived, have OD’d and are coming back to life, and it occurred to me, sitting there in that den of redemption settled under palms in an old and lovely Edwardian, it occurred to me that a recovery house is a community repair shop of the soul: That our lives, as lived in America today, are uniquely perilous to the soul, uniquely oblivious to its subtleties and needs, and so the soul often breaks, as would be expected, because we run it uphill at such high temperatures for such long periods of time, and so, as a village would have a blacksmith at the ready for horses who lose their shoes, so we have recovery centers at the ready for that predictable catastrophic breakdown, that sure percentage who will lose their souls and minds and need help getting better.

It was a nice, comforting thought, that the madness of addiction is an everyday event, and that we have plenty of beds for everyone.

Maybe we could use a few more. Maybe the bar could be a little lower for admission. But basically it’s quite a wonderful, compassionate and civilized thing, all these recovery houses we have. Maybe somewhere out there there’s one waiting for Rob Ford. Or maybe, as I say, in the dream of all dreams, one will eventually be built in his honor, and will help thousands of people just as crazy as he is, but just as salvageable.

And now, for the premier of my Experimental Donate Button: I’m going to try out different forms of this, but the idea is to allow people to vote with their money if they like a column. I will receive this with gratitude and will salute you privately in my little crazy world. Or maybe I’ll send you a note or even record a greeting. Not sure yet. For now, um, Ta-Dah, there it is: The Donate Button!

 

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