Category Archives: secrets

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I’m a sad lil’ starfucker and can’t get him out of my head

Dear Cary,

My husband of 16 years and I have never made an official list, but it’s always been accepted that were we to have, in some fantasyland, the opportunity to sleep with a certain few adored famous people, the sin would be exonerated.  (I should mention here that over the years both of us have had our indiscretions with plain old normals, and while the aftermath has never been fun,  we’ve discovered that the occasional infidelity isn’t really a dealbreaker for us.)

Well, five years ago, I actually had a totally unexpected and baffling encounter with one of the people on my unofficial list.  I told my husband about it, and he was unhappy, but  reluctantly conceded that he understood.

In the years since, this Famous Person and I have exchanged the odd email and text, mostly merely friendly, occasionally rather dirty, but I honestly didn’t think anything further would ever come of it.  Until, this last summer, he contacted me out of the blue, saying he was going to be in NYC, where I live, for a few days, and wanted to meet.  I went to his hotel, and we spent close to six hours together, fucking and talking and drinking and eating and making each other laugh.  It was scary, because it was way more than just screwing a celebrity.  It felt intimate, and I felt understood and seen by him in a way that had until then been the sole domain of my husband.

But this was never going to go anywhere. I love my husband.  Also, shamefully, it matters that Famous Person kindly, but frankly, made explicit that no relationship was going to happen.  So I erased his 310-area-code number from my phone, and endeavored, somewhat successfully, to cease all contact with him.   I have tried to do the right thing and put it past me and commit to my marriage.

The problem is this: this particular Famous Person is extremely prolific, and I can barely get on the internet without seeing some article on Gawker or Hollywood Reporter or some such about his latest project.  I honestly admire and follow his work, have for more than a decade, and can’t see how I could or would want to give that up.  And now, each mention of or quote from him brings me back to that afternoon in that hotel, and makes it impossible to let go.  What I find myself entertaining is a total fantasy, and going nowhere, I know that, but his constant presence is like a loose tooth needing to be worked at.  How do I flush this guy from my system?

~ Sad Lil’ Star Fucker

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Dear Sad Lil’ Star Fucker,

You say you can’t see how you could give up following his career but you can stop following his career, you just don’t want to and I totally understand not wanting to because it feels too good to stop which is the whole friggin’ point here. You have to stop doing something that feels good and that’s no fun.

It’s no fun but its doable, not like landing a spaceship on an asteroid.  You don’t want to because it’s a pleasure and I get that but here’s the thing: It used to be an unalloyed pleasure but now it’s alloyed. It’s an alloy whose good old reliable tensile strength and stability have been altered by the addition of something volatile. It’s been changed. You can’t use it for what you used to use it for. You’ve gone and changed it.

Can you catch yourself before you check out his next post? Can you? If you can, you can stop being re-triggered. You pretty much have to, just the same way you know you have to stop short of doing a million other things that you could imagine doing but you don’t because you’re married and it isn’t worth it.

You have to stop enjoying this dude is what it comes down to. He’s off-limits. He’s crack cocaine  and now you’re a person who’s developed a problem. You have to stop or it just gets worse.

How worse? Oh, hell: Every every pleasurable moment itches to be reborn; every taste itches to reach farther down the tongue to lick and tickle molecules sleeping since the Pleistocene age; every come-hither blue-eyed call to your baby maker seeks to reproduce not you but itself, because every nerve and cell is  seeking glory all its own, pleasure and ecstasy and more more more, grow, grow, grow  because everything is holy and everything is living and everything is hungry just like you and I, hungry to multiply and hungry to expand, and every itch for laughter is an itch that never ends, and every tingle memory says, “Replay me again, tingle, replay me again,”  because this is the sublime beauty of our world exactly: All we see and all we believe ourselves to be are nothing but the  clumsy craft of some god’s passing  fancy, and all the glories we see around us are nothing but the projection of our dreams onto the darkest screen of space, and all our highest deeds are nothing but doodles to fill the emptiness (pleasure is a filling of the existential hunger).

Therefore, be it resolved: This automatic triggering of six lovely hours in a hotel room, the eating and fucking and laughing, will continue as long as you allow it to be triggered by reading Gawker. Furthermore be it resolved: What we are and have been since the beginning is some random god’s answer to its own emptiness, its grand yet half-baked scheme to populate its stars and be amused. And what amuses this god? Our pleasures and our folly, at which we keep, like fools, for the amusement of our gods.
Just put this thing on the list of things you can’t do because you’re married and it isn’t worth it.

Along the lines of, “Was there another Troy for her to burn?” we suggest: Find some other star to follow.

p.s. OK, so Yeats was a little harsh; but it’s just such a great line.

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My girlfriend “settled” for me — and I don’t trust her

 

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Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008

I shouldn’t have looked in her diary, but maybe it’s best that I did.


Dear Cary,
This summer, my girlfriend went to Central America for three months. She was in spotty contact with me the whole time, saying it was difficult to reach a computer. I’ve known her to be unfaithful to her past boyfriends. She actually cheated on one with me. I didn’t trust her when she came back, so when she left her journal on my desk for a week, I read the portion of it about her trip.

In it, I found a never-to-be-sent letter to her first boyfriend, my old best friend from years ago, written in drunken handwriting. She lamented that she still loved him and how “I went and found the closest thing to you and I settled, like everything in life, I settled.” I assume this is referring to me.

I wouldn’t have read her journal if I trusted her. Those trust issues aside, I feel like we have a good thing. We work on a lot of levels with each other, spend a lot of time together, give each other presents with cards, etc. Though neither of us has a career (I struggle playing music and waiting tables; she dabbles in various professional track jobs that don’t interest her), we’ve hit the mid-20s and relationships seem more serious.

She’s moving away soon to take a professional-track job in Mexico and I am considering following her, but this whole thing bothers me. I try to ask her about him to see how she responds, but she never lets on anything. Right now, she is visiting her old roommate who now lives with him, and I am unable to trust her. Of course she always says they are just friends, but that she still really cares for him in a platonic way and there is nothing to worry about.

Had I not read the journal, I could take her at face value. Maybe she tells me what she really means. But as it is right now, I can’t help getting mad at her because I feel she’s deceiving me. I have to resolve it somehow. I know journals are the dumping grounds for our deep insecurities, horrible thoughts, our fantasies, generally things we can’t say, and they may not always be real, but I can’t brush it aside so easily. How do I handle this?

Thanks,

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Too Curious

 

Dear Too Curious,

You know what I think? I think that every time I sit down to write this column I have the opportunity, if I play it right, to make a big difference in somebody’s life. So I try to do that. I try to do that by taking a guess at what the big issue in a person’s life is. There’s the diary and all that, and I’d like to say right upfront that reading your girlfriend’s diary is not the best idea. But what’s the big issue?

The way I figure it, the big issues make the difference. And a lot of times we don’t know what our big issues are. We may know what other people’s big issues are. But not our own. So we make big mistakes. We make them over and over. Often the big issues in our lives are not what we think they are. They tend to be emotional things. Say, for instance, you are a brilliant and talented jazz musician. So naturally you are on the road a lot. But say that also, in your heart of hearts, you are the type of guy who really needs to be sitting at the kitchen table night after night with a wife and kids and relatives. That is where you are actually happy. So you might say that your talent and your emotional needs are at odds. You might not know you need the security and warmth of a family life. You may feel empty and anxious on the road but maybe you call it something else. You call it the blues. So you end up meeting this need in some way — because you are on the road. You end up, say, doing heroin. You do heroin because heroin gives you the feeling of sitting at your kitchen table on a full stomach in the evening breeze, listening to the crickets.

That’s how our unacknowledged needs shape our lives. That’s how we lose our geniuses, how they disappear into the evening breeze on a quiet summer morning.

If you knew, from a young age, that you were not only a talented musician but also a person who requires the closeness of family, warmth, security, rootedness, then you might take the time to arrange your life so that you do not die of a heroin overdose in a Memphis hotel room.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I write the column. I think about geniuses dying in Memphis hotel rooms. I think about perfectly decent guys being lied to by one woman after another. I think about the demons that have driven me off the road from time to time, and how things might have been different if I had known what the demons were, or if I knew they might be coming.

Our emotional needs often aren’t as overtly interesting as our talents. But they drive us. Sometimes they drive us to a strange part of town.

So with you, I think there’s a good chance that you have the opportunity right now, today, to discover what big personal issue is driving you. I think I know what your big issue might be. I think you can face it. I think you can do something about it.

But first of all: Do not follow your girlfriend to Mexico. Do not do that. Do not travel there to see her after she gets herself set up down there. Do not discuss with her the pros and cons of traveling with her to Mexico before she goes. Do not tell her you will think about coming to be with her in Mexico. Instead, tell her you have decided to stay here in the United States and try to get your life together on your own, without her. Tell her that you are breaking up with her. Tell her it’s best this way.

So now your real life begins. You make a choice. You begin from scratch.

To begin your new life, take an hour of quiet time. Sit down somewhere where you will not be interrupted. Make sure you have some paper and a pencil or pen.

Write these words at the top of the page:

I trust these people:

Then make a list of the people you trust.

Who is on the list? With each person, ask: Is that person a friend, a relative, a former lover, a teacher, a public official, an animal? What are the qualities of the relationship that make you trust the person? Is there an element of structure or formality to the relationship that leads to trust? Do they tend to be family members, college friends? Are they women or men? Look for patterns.

Then make a list of the people you do not trust.

Who is on the list that you do not trust?

Pay special attention to this question: Where is your dad? Is he on the trust list or the do-not-trust list? Where is your mom? And where are you? Where do you put yourself on the list?

I predict that if you do this simple exercise with an open mind and an open heart, and you spend some time thinking about these people and why you do or do not trust them, it will cause you to experience some fairly deep emotions. You may, at that point, want to find some structure for yourself. You may want to find a psychotherapist to help you work through this. But if I am correct, and if you seriously work through this, you will learn who can be trusted and who cannot. You will gain a new respect for your own need for trust. You will see that you have ridden roughshod over your own need for security. You may be surprised about certain people; you may realize that certain people may not have been so much fun, but at least they could be trusted. Others, you may realize, you never really trusted to begin with. You will become, through this process, a man who is markedly less likely to be fucked over.

And then, once you have firmly in your mind what it means to trust and not trust and be trusted or not trusted, you can fall in love and get married and have kids and live happily ever after. Or at least you can navigate more carefully life’s baffling jamboree, its streets full of beauty, genius and betrayal.

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I forgot to tell my wife I have a 12-year-old daughter

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

I fathered a child when I was a screwed-up loser and kept it secret all these years.


Dear Cary,

Boy, did I screw up.

About 13 years ago, I fell for a friend of my sister’s and got her pregnant. I was at this point in my life a loser. I had no job, no home (I was living with my father), no car, no license (never had it), no complete education, and absolutely no prospects. Her family, predictably, hated me.

After a couple months of unremitting and conflicting pressure from our families, she “realized” that I was a loser and she cut me loose. No contact, no nothing.

The last night that we ever discussed the baby was the night she gave birth. I got raving drunk and never discussed it again. My very WASP-y and remarkably repressed family followed suit (or was it I that was following suit?) Either way, the topic was off limits, that part of my brain and my heart was blocked off with yellow tape, and everyone moved on.

She married and her husband adopted the baby. I turned my life around materially and spiritually (education, wonderful wife, good job, house, etc.). I never tried to contact her or the baby. I told myself that I was only a “donor” and that I would only screw things up for her and the baby. Eventually, my wife and I bought a home not too far from my daughter and her family.

I dealt with the issue alone, fighting the late-night demons and doing everything I could to hold the situation at bay.

Years passed. A mutual friend of the family ran into the woman and told my sister that my daughter is 12 now and asking a number of questions. The resemblance is unmistakable and her parents have done a wonderful job (I am thrilled for them and her ). Faced with this, and only because I was faced with this, I decided to tell my wife about the situation.

Predictably, my wife is furious and feels (rightly) that I have violated her trust. We are just about to start a family of our own, and now everything in my life has been thrown into play. I don’t know if I would have been able to reveal this if not forced. Now that it is out in the open, the events are painful and crushing.

I’m scared, I’m confused, and I suddenly feel every bit as worthless as I felt all those years ago. I don’t think that my wife is going to leave me (we are looking into starting some kind of couples therapy), but I feel like I am still paying for not being good enough all those years ago. I am starting to get angry at those folks who are angry at me.

I have written a letter to my daughter’s mother and adoptive father, explaining where I am in my life and that we are very open to contact and a relationship, once rules and boundaries have been established; but my primary concern is my wife. I do not want to lose her (or her respect) over this.

Three days ago I had a normal life, and I feel like I am never going to have that again…

What a tangled web we weave…

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Dear Tangled,

I do not think you will lose your wife over this, or that your life will fall apart. You will get into counseling and learn about family systems and the keeping of secrets. You will work out some arrangement with the family of your daughter, and your wife will look at you with unfathomable anger for an indefinite period, and if you are good and do not completely freak out, eventually the normal life you had three days ago will return. But I hope out of this comes some thinking about how you have been living and where the secrets come from and who this person was who so many years ago fathered a daughter and kept it secret from his wife. I detect in your letter perhaps a lack of empathy for your earlier incarnation, and I would like to share a little about how I, who was also a bit of a loser and somewhat out of control, have come in middle age to regard my earlier self.

It has been helpful for me to see that I did some of the things I did because I was trying to do the right thing, strange as it appeared. It has been of great help to me to realize that I have often been an innocent actor, naive and lazy and deluded but not malicious. Like you I was trying to survive. I was doing what I had to do at the time. It has been helpful in considering why certain episodes went wrong to consider what I was running from and why I kept so many secrets and why the truth seemed unsurvivable. Was there some knowledge so corrosive that the silence in our household was a kind of insulation, a balm to naked skin?

What truth was so terrible at the time that it could not be uttered in the house? That you had sex without love? Is love a pair of handcuffs that must be worn every time? Is it a sin to do something simply because you really, really want to and it feels really, really good? Was it a sin to make love to your sister’s friend? Was there no one else around who could take you by the hand and show you what you then had to do? Was this all up to you? Are you the sole perpetrator of some crime? Must you punish yourself now for rest of your life?

It has been of great help to me from time to time to conjure up this innocent being, this young boy who was simply trying to express love and wonder, and later this young man who seemed to be in trouble but was not robbing houses or hitting people on the head. I suggest you do not hate this younger man, this fuck-up, this version of yourself. I suggest, instead, that you learn to love this nasty little fuck-up that you had to leave behind. I suggest that you offer a hand of forgiveness to this nasty little fuck-up. He was a guy trying to figure it out. He was a guy trying to get along. He was a guy trying to live with whatever it was that hurt. What was it that hurt? Who ever knows what it is with a young guy that hurts so much? We don’t talk about it among ourselves, although always there will be a stoned glance or a touch between young men, high on this or that, that says I know the crazy hurting thing too, it’s a motherfucker. So you followed the trajectory of your hurting and you got drunk the night your daughter was born.

Fathers have been getting drunk and leaving town for centuries when their babies are born: In spite of our storied propensity for engendering life, we do not always welcome it when it arrives, we kind of wish it would go away, we want to be left to our tools and our greasy hands and our shade trees, our violent metal and brief explosions, our gray primer and rust, our certainty of objects. The birth of a child means more life, more crying, more questions, more hunger, more lying and walking away, more required courses, more questions we cannot answer, more tests, more tedium, more teachers, more classroom sitting, more desolate afternoons, more diapers and howling, more unbridgeable gulf, more rules, more discipline, more silence. We do not like life in a lot of ways. For some of us men we like a few books, we like a little racquetball, we like maybe a sauna and some swimming, we like a long drive down a leafy road in a good truck, but we did not sign on for the entire program and it tires us out, frankly, and after the truck is parked we just want to lie down and go to sleep, and it is like this day after day for many of us men, which is why we father kids and go off into the woods, never to speak of it again until it comes up by a careless word or two in the supermarket, and there we are again, saddled with ourselves, bending under the incomprehensible load of what we have done — given life to a child who now looks out at the world and says, I don’t know, man, what you’re all so fucked up about, this looks pretty good to me. Just wait, we say. Just wait.

What I mean is, you need to conjure up some compassion for the teenager you once were, this wayward loser without a home or a job. You need to do this in order to stop hanging your head in shame for having been simply young and confused and unsure what to do. My sense of it is that your keeping of secrets arises out of intense shame. You need to replace that shame with some compassion and respect. To do that you need to go back down some of those same old roads and find out what you were really looking for back then.

I can’t do that for you. But my guess is that you were looking for a way out of WASPish silence, the long tradition of family secrets, the code your family lived by. You were looking for a more authentic way of feeling and being. Making love and getting drunk seemed like ways to get to something real. But at the crucial moment, when your waywardness truly bore fruit, it was a forbidden fruit it bore, so you turned away in fear. You turned back to what you knew best: the keeping of secrets, the silent bearing of shame.

Now, as an adult man, it’s time to pick up where you left off. It’s time to finish what you started — not with teenage acting-out but with a sober acknowledgment that wild, untamable passions are as important to your life as oatmeal for breakfast and plenty of life insurance.

You’re married now. You’ve got a house and a job. You’re safe. It’s time to hold your head up and acknowledge who you were then and who you are now and make the best of a pretty good situation.

I hope you get a chance to tell everything. Sometimes, after a life of secrets, telling everything helps.

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After my husband died of cancer I found he’d been cheating

 
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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2007

We have three small children and I am devastated.


Hi,

I need desperate help, please.

My husband died of cancer a week ago. The day after his funeral, I learned he’d been having Internet sex, which didn’t stop there. He met up with the woman in Hong Kong last year, where he was supposed to be alone, and they were planning another rendezvous next year. This had been going on for two years.

I’m so torn between grief, hatred, sadness and depression. I feel so alone and heartbroken. It’s like I’ve lived 13 years with a total stranger. I feel like dying. We have three young children.

Please help me if you can. Thanks.

Betrayed by Dead Husband

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Dear Betrayed,

You loved a man who was not perfect. You married a man who was not perfect. You had three wonderful children with a man who was not perfect.

You did not live for 13 years with a total stranger. You lived for 13 years with a man who was not perfect.
Death took this man from you and then you learned of his imperfection.

You knew this man, but even after 13 years you did not know everything about him. That’s how it is with people we love. We never know everything about them. All of us have hidden imperfections. You do and I do. You are not perfect and I am not perfect, but no one knows all our imperfections.

Perhaps when we die everyone will know our imperfections, too.

He was not perfect and he had some secrets and now you have been granted knowledge of his secrets. This knowledge makes the grieving sharper. It adds anger to the grief. Grief is enough without the anger, but the anger adds to it, so it feels as if it cannot be borne, as if it will crush you and tear you apart at the same time — the grief pushing you down, wearing you down; the anger tearing at you from the inside, lighting you up, making you want to scream and beat your fists.

The grief is enough. The anger makes it feel like maybe you won’t live through it. But you will. The grief will cleanse you and you will live through it and you will raise three beautiful children.

They will watch you and learn from you how to grieve and how to be strong. They will learn from you how to go on without him.

You will grieve for a long time and life will be hard at times. It will feel sometimes like the grief is not ending. It will feel sometimes like you wish you could slap him.

Through a half-open door during a wake I once watched my aunt berate my uncle’s corpse for dying. It was a good performance, but it was not a performance. We feel these things for real, in addition to what we are supposed to feel; we feel the grief but we also feel these other things. We want to slap the dead or berate the dead or go through their pockets looking for phone numbers.

So be angry at him and pour out your anger at him. Pour out your anger on the ground and light it like a libation. Pour out your anger at him. Pour out your grief.

Take as much time as you need. Grieving is not a test of endurance or a test of fortitude. It is not a performance in a play. It is recognizing the truth of a man’s life: He was imperfect and he died, and after his death his imperfection became known.

It is hard for the rest of us to bear knowledge of his imperfection, but that is the bargain we make: We get to live, and in return we live with the truth. Knowing the truth, we also seek to forgive. Do not rush it, but eventually you will want to forgive him or this anger will harden you and rob you of compassion.

Even the truth we live with is a partial truth. How can what we feel be in proportion to what is true when we will never have anything but a partial truth? Remember in “Casablanca” when Rick is leaving Paris in the rain and Ilsa doesn’t show up? We sometimes suffer more from having only a partial truth.

It is also possible that this thought has crossed your mind: “Everyone will know and they will think what a fool I am. Everyone will know and they will see that I could not control him. They will lose respect for me.”

Such thoughts may run through your head. Let them run through your head. People have all kinds of thoughts. We all do. They do not matter. You know the truth. The truth is that you loved a man and he loved you and you brought three beautiful children to life, and the man was a real man and not a god, and because he was a real man and not a god he was not perfect.

Now it is time for you to grieve him and remember him and raise your children.

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My alcoholic father has a child we never knew about

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.

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I’m lonely

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Cary’s classic column from

I’ve kept my HIV-positive status to myself except for one time — and that person doesn’t communicate with me anymore.


Dear Cary,

I really like the humane advice you give and I need some myself.

I am HIV positive and have known this for 15 years now, ever since I was in my mid-20s. Since I have never had an associated illness (never even a symptom), am doing well on the available medications, and do not fit the profile that many people associate with the condition, hardly anyone knows about my status.

This is how I want it. I vowed from the beginning that I would live a “normal” life as long as possible. I am also very aware that telling people puts a great burden on them because they have to live with upsetting knowledge, and I also fear distorting friendships by having people feel sorry for me (which I dread), or people sticking around when they really don’t like me just because they feel somehow obliged to.

At the same time, as I’m sure you can imagine, it gets very lonely, and this includes time spent with support groups (which I have not found very useful in my case). Apart from the existential issues, there are the very visible and practical ones: You have to hide to pop all your pills, you have to take them with or without food, you get tired, your body changes in bizarre ways, you have to make up excuses at work for why you have so many doctor’s appointments. Just covering, lying and planning all this is exhausting.

It is also true that I do get very depressed, in a way that I don’t think I would if I was negative. Inevitably, friends notice this and it seems downright inexplicable to them, since on the outside I seem to have a lot going for me.

That’s my prelude. A couple of weeks ago, fed up with the constant dissembling and lying, I “outed” myself to a friend in an e-mail (we live some distance apart and all our communications are by e-mail.) This was an unusual thing for me to do, but I just wanted this person to understand me a bit better, in particular, understand why I get anxious and down when no obvious explanation exists. There is no question of any (sexually) intimate relationship between us — we have talked about some very personal topics in the past, and I decided to step out of my comfort zone and include this one.

Well, two weeks later, no response, whereas normally we communicate several times per week.

I feel awful. You feel so vulnerable when you disclose information like this — you only do so if you feel you can totally trust the person. I mean, trust the person to behave with compassion, solidarity and maturity. I guess the silence means I misplaced my trust. I am also angry with myself for my poor judgment, for making myself vulnerable to someone who obviously doesn’t share my own values about being there for friends in need.

Cary, are my reactions appropriate, in your opinion? Should I take this as a lesson to shut up in the future — once bitten, twice shy? I would also like to take this opportunity of conveying to your readers that should they ever find themselves on the receiving end of information like this, the worst thing they can do is withdraw in silence. If you can’t think of what to say, at least say that you can’t think of what to say.

Also, if ever this person does make contact with me again, what would be the best way for me to handle it? It is hard for me to judge, since I am so used to being the bearer of bad tidings and not the recipient (except from my doctor).

Wondering Alone

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Dear Wondering,

I applaud you for having the courage to out yourself this one time, and I’m sorry it did not turn out better. I think you have taken on far too heavy a burden of secrecy, and this painful first step should be followed by a second and a third, which should be progressively less painful, so that eventually you can come out of this mode of secrecy altogether. It is far too much work to hide such a thing; should the disease eventually weaken you, it will be an unsupportable burden. You deserve to live in a community of compassionate people who do not need to be deceived. The only way you can find such people is to trust them with your truth. Some may react badly. Most, I think you will find, will respond like human beings.

Not only do you deserve to be able to live honestly and openly with your disease, but those who truly care about you also deserve to know the truth. You can’t control what their reactions will be; that is the risk you must take to live in community with others.

I think your advice about how to accept such information is splendid. People often do the wrong thing when they hear such news. I think part of the reason is that we overestimate the amount of influence our behavior has on others. We think that if we say the wrong thing we will devastate someone else. We think if we reveal our disease that others will be incapacitated, unable to respond. And if we find a case in which that is so, we tend to see it as proof. But I do believe at the heart of this over-regard for others is a kind of over-regard for our own importance. The truth, I believe, is that while others are more capable of compassion than we might surmise, they are also not quite as concerned with us as we would like to believe. That is, we are not the center of their lives. So when we deliver such news it is often neither as devastating as we fear nor as earthshakingly important as we would wish.

Further, when, believing that we must control what is known about us, we habitually act with deception, we may hide the particulars but what we reveal is the pattern of deception itself; people may not perceive that we are HIV positive; they just perceive that we are deceptive.

I understand your desire not to become an emotional burden, but I think you have taken it too far, and everyone will benefit if you began confiding in others about your status.

And if that person you first confided in should finally get back to you, try to stick to the facts. Just say you noticed that after you said you were HIV positive, you didn’t hear anything for quite a while, and that it was hurtful, and see if you can have a frank and open discussion about it.

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I told my husband I was a virgin when we married but I wasn’t. Now the guy I did it with is going to tell.


Dear Cary,

A secret from my youth is about to be exposed. When this happens, my life will implode. I can see the pain bearing down on me like a speeding train. I am stuck to the track and there is nothing I can do but wait for it to mow me down.

When my husband, “Mark,” and I were dating, I had a brief affair with his roommate. “Doug” and I had sex seven times over a period of three weeks. Then, it was over. We continued to be friendly with each other for a few months until Doug moved out to take a job in another state. He was replaced in the apartment by the man who eventually became my brother-in-law.

Mark and I got married 18 months after my indiscretion with Doug. We are happy. I cherish my husband more than anyone or anything in my life. There is nothing — no job, no person — that I would not give up for him. Mark is beautiful, smart, kind and caring. My marriage is the best thing I have ever had in my life. Now, it is about to be ripped away from me.

You see, I got a call from Doug two weeks ago. He informed me that he is planning a visit back to our town in a few months, and when he comes he is going to tell Mark about our affair. Why? Because he has become a born-again Christian and he believes that he will go to hell if he dies without confessing his sin.

Of course, his sin is my sin except for the fact that my sin is much greater.

Mark believes that I was a virgin on our wedding night. I wasn’t, obviously. Even worse is the fact that Doug was actually the first man I had sex with. This will kill Mark because he was a virgin when we got married. It means a lot to him to think that we are the only people on earth who know each other in this most intimate of ways. He loves the fact that, as I have actively led him to believe, no other man knows what my body feels like. He cherishes the notion that I don’t have sexual memories of any other man. And, before the feminists start sharpening their knives, let me just say that I love knowing the same thing about him. So, any member of the sisterhood who thinks that my husband is a Neanderthal can go fuck herself.

Nobody reading this can imagine my desperation. I have pleaded with Doug not to expose me as the fraud that I am. I have made every appeal that I can think of, to no avail. It is like beating my fists against a steel beam. Doug is absolutely convinced that keeping this secret will keep him from going to heaven. Against the threat of damnation, my words are worse than useless. I have caught myself hoping that Doug is struck down by lightning or a speeding bus before he is able to make his face-to-face revelation to the man we betrayed. I would pray for his death, but it seems ludicrous to ask God to kill somebody so that I can continue living a lie. I have to accept the fact that my husband is about to find out that I had sex with his best friend, even as I made him believe I was saving myself for him.

So, here I sit like a condemned prisoner awaiting my doom. I cannot bring myself even to contemplate what Mark is going to feel, say and do when he learns what I have done.

Should I start planning ways to rebuild my life after Mark divorces me? Would that be premature?

Sometimes I think I should just tell him myself. “Honey, I gave my virginity to Doug when you were out of the apartment one day 12 years ago. We fucked each other on the sly for several weeks, but you’re the only man I have been with since. Don’t be mad.” But who am I kidding? I don’t have the courage to do it. I have completely lost control of my life and I have no one to blame but myself.

What on earth am I going to do?

Falling From the Sky, Watching the Ground Rush Toward Me

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Falling,

You say you don’t have the courage to tell him yourself. Perhaps courage is not what you need. Perhaps what you need is to face necessity.

Telling him isn’t courageous, it’s just necessary. It’s a necessary response to circumstances — like leaping from a burning building. You just leap.

What exactly do you tell your husband, and how? You sit down somewhere quiet and private and tell him that you have been keeping a secret from him and it has come time to reveal it. You tell him that long ago you made a mistake and that in trying to lessen the consequences of that mistake you have only made them greater. You tell him that with the best of intentions — wanting to save him from hurt — you have hidden this from him, and now you are telling him so he doesn’t hear it from someone else.

And then you tell him the secret that you have been keeping. You tell him in neutral descriptive words free of implied catastrophe and threat. You don’t use words like “divorce.” You don’t say “fucked each other on the sly.” You find words that convey the facts of the situation without exciting the passions. You tell him you did this and you know it was wrong. You ask for his forgiveness and tell him you will do whatever it takes to make it right.

And then after that conversation with your husband you call this person and tell him that it won’t be necessary for him to visit bearing torture irons under robes of Christian virtue. You tell him that if he likes he can visit but that he should not expect to be greeted like a liberator, that you can’t say what your husband might do should he show up bearing news of your supposed dishonor.

In this way you reclaim some of the advantage of the aggressor. And make no mistake about it, whatever this person may claim, his mission is not one of mercy but of aggression.

I am no expert on Christianity’s various sects and what they may require of their believers. But I do know firsthand the practical benefits and the important limitations of making personal amends to those one has harmed. On this point the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are instructive. One is advised to make personal amends to those one has harmed “unless to do so would injure them or others.” In other words, at least for those who sincerely want to improve their lives and the lives of those around them, the point is clear: One does not clean up one’s past sins at the expense of others.

I suppose certain religious practices differ. The 12 Steps, after all, is not a religious rulebook, but a practical guide to living. But in my opinion one who disrupts the lives of others in the pursuit of private spiritual redemption has no right to do so, no responsibility to do so. He is more like a terrorist than a healer of wounds. Besides, isn’t confession of sins something that happens between the sinner and a representative of the church?

Be that as it may, you can’t stop him from coming. Nor, after you defuse the situation by telling your husband what it’s all about, does it really matter whether he comes or not.

What matters now is how you change your thinking. You and your husband have apparently believed that if you never experienced the touch of other bodies that you would be protected from all the doubt and insecurity of adult love. It is a beautiful idea that you and he have shared, but it is not an unassailable fortress on which to build a marriage. In fact it is more like a torture machine. And now you have to take apart your torture machine — this machine you built in good conscience, thinking it would protect you.

It seemed like the sensible thing, I’m sure, to build this machine; it does other things too: One feels a tantalizing tingle when one passes close by it, almost a sexual thing (mingling damnation with ecstasy in its hellish mortar and pestle). This machine of torture promised purity, and purity seemed valuable above all things. But purity is just a story we tell ourselves, a retreat from our bodies and their predilection for betrayal.

So you dismantle the torture machine. And you replace it with an ethics that comes from planet Earth. You do what has to be done. You tell the truth.

After all that cleansing of superstition, if there is any room left for hazy speculation, it is only this: In the end, this man may turn out to be the unexpected angel of acrid necessity.

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I’ve never told anyone what my dad did to me when I was 10. Should I just keep it bottled up?


Dear Cary,

Well first of all, man, I’ve never done something like this, ever, so it’s kinda scary. But here’s the deal. I’m a guy and when I was in the fourth grade, age 10 I suppose, I was raped. I was raped by my dad. It wasn’t good, to say the least. I suffered some damage to my anal sphincter muscle then which is with me to this day. Of course, not as bad; it’s healed but there is a leftover consequence. After that happened things went from bad to worse in my family. All the gory details aren’t necessary for the purpose of this letter.

Anyway I think that I have suffered something like maybe post-traumatic stress from that time. I am now gay, and yeah maybe that’s an attempt at workin’ this whole sorry shit out. I’ve thought about that. In fact I fought being gay for most of my life because I really truly saw it as just fuckin’ evil madness. That’s true. In my earlier years I sorta made a pact with myself that I’d off myself if I ever acted on my impulses.

But it wore me down I guess and I gave in. Now I’ve talked to some counselors about this, really just hints and not the full story. For years and years I couldn’t even talk about it at all. But then I tried and no sooner than I’d start I’d break down and just sit there and bawl like a baby, totally unable to go on. And I was all grown up then. So I’ve never ever told anyone the full fuckin’ story from beginning to end. The thing about counselors is that in my opinion they are just doin’ their job, that they really don’t give a shit about me, at least in the way that I want. And I’d die before I’d ever tell a woman because they would just get all motherly on me and treat me like a child, a fuckin’ baby. No, I always figured that if I told someone, really told someone and not just throw out hints, that it would have to be a guy. I think that a guy would get it more and that I’d get the response that I want, which is basically, “Man! that fuckin’ sucks! I’m sorry you had to go through that shit!” End of story.

Now I want to know just why I have this overwhelming urge to tell somebody, to come clean? This fuckin’ urge drives me nuts. I always thought that when I found the right guy, Mr. Right, that he would be the guy I told. But I haven’t found that guy yet. I’ve thought about seeing another counselor and being completely open and honest when I do, but truthfully I have no stomach for that. I’ve had both good and bad counselors in my life. They’re not all good. Plus I’d be just another interesting, at best, case in their career. So like I fought being gay, now I’m fighting this maddening urge to really open up. I don’t know why? Talkin’ about the past can’t change it! It’s fuckin’ done with! I don’t want anybody to “do” something about it because nothing can be done! But it seems to haunt me all the time.

I now have this friend, a straight guy, whom, I guess, that I can say that I love. Not in a gay way. I’m not into him that way, but more like a brother. When I started coming out, especially at work, I had some good experiences and, of course, some bad. I found that my women friends could roll with it much better, but my guy friends had a real difficult time. Even though I told them straight out they would deny it and act like I was totally wrong. You see, I’m, as they say, “straight acting, straight appearing.” The trouble is that I figure that I’ve been gay since junior high. Some of my friends are now, at best, my former friends, but this guy whom I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph stuck by me. Later when I tried to end our friendship because I figured that no straight guy could ever really get a gay guy, he told me to “fuck off, he was gonna be my friend no matter what the fuck!” Man, you can’t help but love a guy like that. But anyway, I’ve been thinkin’ about tellin’ this guy, this friend, my story, but I’m really really afraid of loading him down. I love the guy. I don’t want to do anything wrong here. So some days I feel close to tellin’ him but other days an alarm goes off in my head and says, “Don’t! don’t fuckin’ do it!”

If I really love the guy then I’ll do what’s best for him, not what may give me some relief. So my question or questions: Why am I plagued with this urge to open up, to spill my guts, to bleed in public? And: What should I do about it? Ignore it? Wait and see if our friendship can take it? You’ll probably say see another counselor. That truly is last on my list. I’d rather ignore and fight it than go through that shit again.

Well man, I appreciate your ear. And I’ll appreciate any thoughts on this fucked up story. You know, it’s pitiful but I think I may know the answer, man. I’ll see if you agree with me. But probably the right answer is: Just hang in there, keep your mouth shut, and find Mr. Right! Because it’s just not about tellin’ your story, it’s about finding love. Oh Jesus! What a fucked up world!

Love ya, man. Keep doin’ good!

Sign me “Steve,” there are a lot of fuckin’ Steves in this world!

Oh P.S.: Now don’t think of tellin’ me to go straight! I had this counselor once who told me, “You’re NOT gay, you’re just hurt!”  I thought, “Tell that to my dick!” No man, I’m gay, no doubt about it! And after all this time I’m just startin’ to be happy with it. It’s startin’ to feel really good.

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Dear Steve,

We’re not just mechanical beings. We live in a moral and spiritual universe and you had a moral and spiritual crime done to you and so you’re in a moral and spiritual hell. And that’s the truth. And you’ve glimpsed what it might be like to start climbing out of that hell, and you want to climb out of that hell, but you’re scared, and I don’t blame you. There are a lot of cruel, ignorant, unfeeling people in this world who cannot deal with the truth of others’ suffering.

Some people could not deal with this. But then there’s this friend of yours. He is genuinely a good person. You can tell him. He’s not going to walk away from you. He probably already senses your pain. For all we know, he may have a story of his own to tell. So I say find a quiet, private place and tell your story. If it helps to write it out first, then write it all out and then read it to him.

He is not going to think less of you for telling him what was done to you, nor for feeling the pain in front of him and crying it out.

I’m walking a thin line here between sounding like I even pretend to know what you’re going through and just stating the facts. I think the fact is, once you tell your story you will be on a journey. Your life will change. You will see that as a part of humanity, you do have a moral and spiritual core, and it operates in powerful ways. That’s about all I want to say. The point is that we are not just mechanical. You share your story because life is not just about the mechanical, much as we’d like to stick to it being all mechanical. There is a moral and spiritual universe. We are living in it. When evil is done to us, it affects us, and we then are put on a course of correcting that effect. That’s where you are now. You’ve begun the process of correcting that evil, by writing to me. Now, I’m just a bystander, cheering you on. I’m shouting, Go, tell it, brother! Tell what happened! Tell it and get it out of you!

We use all these metaphors for the changes that happen as we tell our stories, and a lot of the metaphors don’t sound right. Of course they don’t sound right, because they’re only metaphors for what actually happens. But basically, there are reasons for us wanting to tell our stories; there is something that happens when we do that, and we do change, and life does get better, and I hesitate to try to put it in words because it will sound like more metaphors for things that don’t really seem real to you now.

I can say that I have walked through life with similar locked-up feelings and locked-up stories, afraid to even mention them. I had them locked up and I had some hazy notions of terrible things that would happen if I ever said them. But eventually life just got intolerable and I started saying some of them. And I felt weak and overwhelmed when I said them but I was in  a safe environment so it was OK to crumple up in a ball for a little while; it was OK to whimper and sob. It is almost funny now, saying “whimper” and “sob” but that’s what it sounded like, just like a stupid little kid bawling. And it still happens. I’ll be talking and something will come up and all of a sudden I’m that stupid little kid bawling again, and I want to be strong, or stop bawling before someone starts laughing at me, but it’s a safe place and nobody’s there but my protector so I just bawl and then I learn another new thing, another layer, another vulnerability, another thing I’d pretended I didn’t feel or that hadn’t really happened.

If you trust this friend of yours then go ahead and tell him. I don’t think he’ll refuse to be your friend. But you may want to structure it somehow. Or you may want to go to a group like Sex Addicts Anonymous, not because you’re a sex addict, but because these 12-step groups have a structured approach to telling your story. You do an inventory and you share it with someone and it’s completely private. And you share your whole story. You don’t leave anything out. You go at it in a kind of thorough, almost mechanical way, just listing all the things. I haven’t actually participated in this group but I have a friend who has described the process to me. It might work for you.

But I say definitely share it either with your friend or in a structured 12-step setting. Once you do, you will feel better. You may find the world looks a little differently to you.

Whether you’re gay or straight is not an issue for me. The issue for me is that you’re walking around with this awful pain and fear and this awful memory and you don’t have to do that. You can choose to take a courageous step and just tell it and experience what it’s like to tell it instead of always keeping it hidden. You can get some relief.

You will probably feel some things; perhaps for a few moments it might feel like you are back there having it happen again, but that will pass.

On the positive side, you might also experience the emergence of another part of you, the strong part that could reach back into time and protect that poor kid; you might feel in your body the strong part of you that would have fought this off if you could, or would fight it off today. You might also connect with who you were before this happened, and you might find that part of yourself is still there with you, the part of you that you love, that innocent kid.

It might be scary how strong the feelings are. And you might for a few moments, as I said, feel like you’re literally re-experiencing it. But that will only be memory. You will be safe. Just make sure you find a private place where you can talk with your friend and won’t be interrupted for an hour or so, where you can experience whatever you have to experience, and be accepted.

I say do it. Don’t hold it in. Just do it with someone you trust. And then, having said it, you can begin living your life with this event in mind, knowing how it has affected you, and how similar events have affected other young men. It may lead you in many different ways. You may want to make a private peace with it and move on, or you may find it gives you a purpose in life, that you want to work to help others, to give strength to others, to ensure that this doesn’t happen to them. You might find your best way to be useful in the world is to be a role model, and walk with your head held high, and do some good in the world, and redeem this experience, and help to ensure that other people have a place to go to tell their stories. That’s up to you.

The important thing is, you don’t have to live with this. You did nothing wrong. This is something that was done to you. You are innocent. You don’t have to keep it a secret.

Tell somebody.

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