Personal earthquake

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 8, 2003

I’m in love with a man who was abused by a priest.


Dear Cary,

I am a relatively successful American gay man in my late 30s who has recently begun to live and work in Brussels, Belgium. I love my life here and I am quite excited by the work I do. I worked very hard to get here, and in many ways, being here is the culmination of many things for me — personal, vocational, educational, political, etc. I am also in a nine-year relationship with a lovely, lovely man whom I love very much. However, he has had a bit of a personal earthquake recently and I am in need of some guidance.

My partner was abused by a Catholic priest when he was a teenager. He recently decided to pursue some legal remedy, which required that he spend six months in the United States. During this time, he joined a very large and supportive group that held him up when it seemed like he might sink. Ultimately, he won the legal remedy, and we are now together in Europe. However, this priest “stuff” unearthed a world within him that is still a bit ugly and very deep and requires lots of personal work on his part. And he is utterly without the support network that provided him with so much sustenance during the trauma. In other words, there is nobody but me.

Since I was not with him in the U.S. during this time, I’m still not sure that I fully understand the earthquake he went through. But I do know that he has been having trouble since coming here. He has been relatively unsuccessful at finding ways to work on the priest stuff while in Brussels. Although I am a very loving and supportive partner (and he would definitely agree), I simply am not the therapeutic type and I do not have the skills to do much more than love him and try my best to give him what he needs right now. But it seems that my best might not be enough under these circumstances.

Some of his friends who were part of the support group don’t think Brussels is a very good place for him to be right now. They honestly think that he should be back with his community in the U.S. so that he has a lot of support to work on his stuff. There have even been calls for me to move back too, to help and support him. It seems that for him, there is a choice between being with me here and getting over this major shit.

Then there is my side of this — the dream-come-true stuff that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Plus, there is my fundamental problem with the state of the U.S. right now. I think that I would shrivel up and die if I were to return to the country that seems to provide the antithesis of the things that I find important in life — things that are such fundamental, sane values here in Europe. My partner recognizes this too, and feels the same way about being here. But some of his emotional needs are just not being met.

I do not want to set up a dichotomy of choices such as 1) stay in Europe and risk my partner’s emotional health and be the selfish careerist and 2) go to the U.S. where the partner has emotional health but I shrivel up personally and derail the train that has brought me (us) to what I thought was our desired destination. There is definitely something in the middle of those two choices that I am having a difficult time locating. Thoughts? Thanks.

Don’t Want to Derail

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Dear Don’t Want to Derail,

Thank you for your thoughtful and moving letter. I was told by someone recently that the real value of this column isn’t so much my advice as the letters themselves, such clear, honest and concise expositions of the human condition.

I agree with you that the solution lies in some middle path, but my proposal may sound a bit ambitious: If there is not a large abuse-survivor network in Brussels, I think your lover should stay there with you and devote himself to building one. And I think you should help him.

I don’t know if you are aware of how A.A. began, but it began with a man’s discovery that if he sought out fellow sufferers and attempted to help them, he got better himself. I don’t see why the same human principle wouldn’t work with the trauma of priest sexual abuse. In fact, I suspect something along the lines of mutual support by fellow sufferers has worked well in the U.S., which is probably why your mate misses it so much. But rather than lament its absence, why not build a group in Brussels? This is a marvelous opportunity to give the world something enduring and useful. And it is a way for you, who feels understandably at a loss, to offer invaluable aid: Your practical skills and knowledge of the area can help him. If you are successful, thousands will be indebted to both of you as the magnitude of this monstrous crime continues to unfold.

To your mate, I would say there is nothing more healing than making oneself useful to others. And there is nothing more useful to others than the hope, strength and wisdom of a fellow survivor. Besides, the American spirit says, if you can’t find it in stores, make it yourself.

And there is the geopolitical angle: While America’s recent course of action in Iraq has strained relations with Europe, this is a chance to do your small part to bring Europe something of America’s true genius, which lies not in diplomacy but in its unselfconscious and practical solutions to the moral and spiritual vexations of our time. For all its silly slogans, its encounter-group tribalism and Wal-Mart confessionals, the self-help movement is still a gift to the world as profoundly helpful as Vienna’s gift of psychoanalysis. Rather than lament that because of their private, dignified nature Europeans have not seen fit to provide expatriate Americans with the therapeutic gatherings they crave, it seems to me it’s the job of you expatriates to bring such American inventions to Europe. It would never occur to Europeans. But some version of it, adapted to European sensibilities, might well help thousands of your partner’s fellow European victims of priest sexual abuse. And in helping them, of course, he will be healing himself.

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

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

Crazy?

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Dear Crazy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My brother abused me — now our parents want us all together again!

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Cary’s classic column from Friday, May 23, 2008

I would like to help them celebrate their 50th anniversary, but I dread being in the same room with that man.


Dear Cary,

When I was a teenager, I was sexually abused by my older brother. I’ve been through three different therapists trying to work this out. Three must be a charm because through talking to the third one I found a way to confront my brother and come to peace with this issue by forgiving him. Forgiveness in the C.S. Lewis sense of wishing him well in the rest of his life but not feeling that pursuing a relationship with him is part of the deal. Consequently we haven’t spoken or had any contact for years. I don’t wish to see him or have him anywhere near my children. I don’t want to be near him. He lives on the other side of the country so it has been pretty easy to avoid him.

Here’s the catch. My parents’ 50th wedding anniversary is coming up. We were discussing what kind of a celebration my parents would like over dinner the other night with my parents and my other brother and his wife. My mom said that her wish would be for the whole family to be together and, in fact, if this couldn’t happen, that she would not want any sort of celebration at all. She knows what has happened between my brother and me and knows that I have no contact with him.

It really bothers me that she is trying manipulate me into spending time with him by threatening not to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary unless we all get together. She has never handled this issue sensitively and wonders why I can’t just get over it so we can all be one happy family again. I feel that she is being selfish and inconsiderate by forcing the situation. I feel pulled in two directions. I want her and my dad to have a happy celebration. Getting to 50 years is no small feat in our world today. But I also want her to understand that it is important to me to not be expected to spend time with my brother. I know that it hurts her that her family is torn apart, but having us all show up together in the same room for a party isn’t going to magically create the perfect family that she so desires.

The biggest downer in all of this is that the responsibility for the family celebration and whether it will happen or not rests on my shoulders. I didn’t ask to be abused. It was no picnic coming to terms with the abuse and I don’t see why I should be the one who has to make the decision to make or break the party. I’m not the bad guy here. But if I don’t concede to spend time with my brother, it will look like I am. It won’t just be the two of us in the same room for the first time in eight years; it will be family pictures and forced hugs and conversations and … UGH!

So, do I stay true to what I want to do for my own sanity and personal emotional safety? Or do I give in and spend my parents’ 50th having one of the most hellish days of my life? How much does one need to sacrifice to honor and love one’s parents, or mother anyway?

Forgave but Did Not Forget

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Dear Forgave,

I cannot resist the idea that you might, by seeing your brother once more, finally extinguish the remaining embers of power he holds over you. For to know finally, with deep unshakable certainty, that the person who hurt you can never hurt you again — that would be a good thing, no? To know that you can be in his presence safely in any place, at any time of the day or night? And to know that you had a safe place to go and a way to extricate yourself should the trauma of contact prove too uncomfortable, this might make any such contact more bearable, might it not?

That he still renders pieces of the earth’s territory uninhabitable for you: Isn’t that a circumstance that should be finally laid to rest? Would you not like to be able to walk anywhere with impunity, even into his own house — not that you would want to, but simply that no place on earth ought to be walled off from you, since you have done nothing wrong?

You need to know in your very bones that he can never hurt you again. I may be wrong; it may be too much of a magic trick; but I am thinking that seeing him in the midst of the family, in a setting from which you have a pre-planned exit, having prepared adequately, might finally extinguish his hold on you forever.

When we still feel a person holds the power to hurt us, we live with residual fear, and our movements are restricted — through our own choice, we say to ourselves; we’d simply rather not see him. But a choice made in fear is not really a choice but coercion. If in fact this person can no longer hurt us, and yet we continue to live in fear of contact with him, then simply knowing is not enough; we need to experience, firsthand, that he has no power over us. We need to feel it vividly. In such a case, we may need to have contact with him even though the prospect fills us with cold fear.

I can see how it would bother you that by participating in this party you are fostering an illusion — that he never did what he did, or that it didn’t matter as much as it mattered. But this is not about the perceptions of others. It is about reinforcing a truth for you.

This must be said also: You do not have to do this. It is your choice. You are not living for other people. They can celebrate if they want to. They do not have to include you. It is not your fault if your mother persists in being rigid. She is trying to control you. You do not have to let her.

But if you can see it as a test of your own capacity for remaining in the flame and not flinching, if you can see it as a test of your humility and your distance, then perhaps you can take this event like a trophy. You can set it on your mantel. You can say quietly to yourself, I did this just to see if I could do it. And I could. So he no longer has any power over me. So if I can do this, what else can I do? How I must have expanded! I am so much stronger than I thought!

My reasoning is that the risk is worth it. If you find you can be in the same room with this person you will have acquired a new power. It won’t mean that you have a relationship. It will only mean that your sphere of free movement has expanded. It will mean that you need not fear this person any longer. It will mean that you can gaze upon him as upon a stranger.

Of course, this is a magic trick and there is no guarantee that you would perform it flawlessly. Dragons may sprout from his head and threaten to attack. Spirits, stinking, vile spirits may surround him. There may be a force field of evil around him such that you find yourself propelled out of the room into the yard. You may have to go to a hotel. But you will have tried it. You will have made an approach to the physical manifestation of this awful evil, this monster of the past. And for that you may count yourself the hero in this drama.

The choice is yours, but as I look at it, I feel you have more to gain by approaching the fire than by staying away. Just be sure that you have someplace safe to go, a hotel room that you control, and that you have someone to report to at a specified time. Make appointments to call, and to limit your exposure. If you will be there with a partner, have a signal with the partner so that you can excuse yourself if you want. Have that choice.

Because choice is what this is about, in a way. In being abused, you were deprived of choice. You were deprived of choice and personhood. It may be that in some small way you could now retrieve some of that choice and that personhood by standing in the fire and seeing it can no longer singe you.

That is what it is: It is a test of fire. But you will have a net. You will have a watch you can look at and say, I’m sorry but I must leave for an appointment. You will have a rental car to get in. You will have a hotel room to go to. You will have a plane to catch.

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I seem to be repeating patterns of abuse

I’m a well-educated and intelligent woman, but childhood trauma has brought me to the edge of madness.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 10, 2005

Dear Cary,

Ostensibly, I am a relatively well-educated, intelligent woman. I had a rough childhood. I was abused as a child; my usual punishment was caning, but my mother also pulled my hair and boxed my ears.

I grew up minimizing the abuse. I was weirdly adult about everything. I would carefully explain to my older siblings that our mother had a difficult childhood and she still loved us, she just wasn’t in her right mind. There is a picture of me with a hand-shaped purple-and-green bruise on my arms. I am on a merry-go-round. I have a smile plastered on my face, painful and artificial.

I have never felt safe. I was molested by a teacher when I was 4, raped by a teenager when I was 12 and raped again when I was 19. I turned to drugs and alcohol; I was self-destructive. I have been in a series of relationships that ranged from unhealthy to severely abusive. I overcame my addiction through sheer willpower. I moved home and stopped associating with my drug friends. I maintained rigid control over whom I associated with and did not allow alcohol in my presence.

I am in the process of ending my current entanglement. I was involved for 10 months with a man who had spent seven years in prison for, among other things, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. No one, not even I, understood my attraction to this man. He became increasingly unstable, stopped taking medication he took for a mental problem, became an alcoholic, and developed a drug problem that escalated into using crack. This happened over the course of six months or so.

I was his caretaker. It was a process of systematically destroying my support network by isolating me from friends and family, and destroying my self-esteem with regular insults, spitting on me and humiliating me. He never hit me — he would cock his fist back and threaten to hit me, or punch holes in the wall. He was charming and manipulative. He would be abusive one day, and I would take him back the next. Sometimes it was a matter of hours. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand myself.

I have started having flashbacks from the rapes. I remember very clearly that I froze. I became utterly still, and silent. I remember thinking, if I don’t move, he won’t hurt me, he won’t kill me. If I stay still I will live. So I stayed still. I lived. I survived. I feel that way now — paralyzed with fear. I am afraid of him. He leaves messages on my phone, saying that he would never lay a hand on me, that he will kill himself if I leave him, that he only feels “safe” with me. Ironic.

Is my comfort zone a place of constant terror? Why did so many of my friends and family withdraw from me? My choice to be victimized must have hurt them, I know — but now I feel so alone, so terrified.

Two days ago he pounded on my door, smelling of liquor. I asked him to leave; he kicked in the door and threw me into a wall. I had a friend over in the living room, one of the few I have left — a neighbor who is very protective and a “big brother” kind of guy. My ex knocked him down and tried to choke him to death. Luckily, I own a pit bull. He did his job well and attacked my ex, chased him out the door and stood guard, with his ridge up. My ex was only recently bonded out of jail for possession and robbery, so he ran when he saw that we were calling the police.

I was pregnant by him, and lost the baby two weeks ago. I had left him already because of his escalating substance abuse, but because of my pregnancy he continued to contact me, occasionally to harass me, occasionally to beg me to come back to “be a family.”

I have prided myself on being relatively successful in life, despite the abuse and sexual assaults from my past. I am somewhat brittle, and extremely passive in my interactions with almost all men, especially men I am romantically involved with. I used to be strong, compassionate, intuitive, thoughtful — I worked to earn a degree in psychology and worked for a time at a forensic mental hospital. I enjoy being in a profession where I help others. I know that I am a strong person; I have fought to live my entire life. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to kill myself. I WANT TO LIVE, so badly that I taste it with every breath I take. But I have, instead, chosen merely to exist for so long.

I started therapy recently — this is where I was diagnosed with clinical and postpartum depression. My therapist said that I was, most likely, depressed before I lost my baby, but that the postpartum depression has pushed me to the point of being nonfunctional.

I feel as if I am doing this to myself in some self-destructive way. I won’t allow myself to consider suicide, so I choose passive methods, like “death by abusive, mentally unstable, crack-addicted boyfriend” — my sister accused me of this. Beyond all else I wonder why I still care for this man, why I worry for him and hope that he one day receives help and gets better. Why can’t I hate him?

Traumatized

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Dear Traumatized,

Did you ever have a string that was very tangled, perhaps so tangled you didn’t even have words to explain it? You just held it out to your mom, wordlessly, on the verge of tears. You were so frustrated you could hardly even say, Please untangle this. You just held it out to her, hoping something would happen.

Maybe she would help untangle it and maybe she wouldn’t. If she was going to untangle it, she wouldn’t be able to explain to you how she was going to do it. She would have to simply sit down with it and begin. There would be hours of concentrated effort, trial and error, struggle with string. She wouldn’t have any words or symbols for the intricate topology. She couldn’t say, Oh, here, dear, here is the mathematical expression that describes this particular knot. She couldn’t say, Here, you just push the button. Or, here, I have stronger hands, I can snap your snaps. She just had to sit down and start worrying it.

That is how I feel about your story. I feel as though you have handed me a tangled string. I feel that it is important, surely; I could hardly ignore you standing there, trembling, bruised and afraid. So I will sit here and tug at it wordlessly while you wait. Images will eventually come to me; they always do; but they may not make sense to anyone but me. The images are cryptic; they are my private language. Sometimes I need to translate or you think I’m speaking gibberish, or that I’m playing with you. I’m not playing with you. I’m doing my best to respond. But the responding is often tangled like the string. So I will speak as plainly as I can right now, in the beginning, before the images take over. For there are certain things that are certain.

I think you need to make a whole new life pretty much from scratch. How is that for startling clarity? Your new life will have strict rules, like in a recovery house. The rules are there to keep you from getting hurt. You need some rules, or you might wander into traffic or into a crack house; you might fall off a cliff or a curb. So you get a set of simple rules and live by them. You sit at the feet of your therapist as she works to untangle the string, offering help as you can, but mainly staying out of trouble and being patient, because it’s going to take at least all afternoon. And you spend time with others like yourself, listening to their problems and trying to help.

You need the strict rules because you’re in the grip of a crazy machine that wants to repeat the injuries. You don’t need to know why yet. You just need to follow the rules. But here is sort of why (the images are starting to come now, as they always do):

It’s not just the ball of string. It’s you. You’re all beat up. Your mom looks at the string and then looks at you and suddenly she sees you’re bleeding. How did this happen? she screams. And you say, You did it, you did it.

Maybe she did it and maybe she didn’t, but you need help and she patches you up. But some of the cuts don’t heal; some of the bruises remain, glowing under your translucent skin like stigmata. Remember that bruise on your arm in the shape of a hand? Remember how strange you found it, as a child, that bruises persist as they do? Cuts and bruises are our early journal entries, written on the child’s body; long before we learn to think and remember our injuries, they persist in the muscles and on the skin where we can observe and touch, as though touching our own memories. So we understand very early the persistence of injury. And we learn early on, too, that the sites of our injuries are strangely alluring.

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When you get bruised, you’d think you’d try to protect the injury, hold it aloft, maintain the bandages, wouldn’t you? Why do we pick at scabs and test our bruises against hard surfaces, as if remembering were a pleasure, even when it hurts? Why that peculiar interest in the wound itself, in its persistence? We rub the affected region. We replay the injuries, as though there were pleasure in remembering the pain. There seems to be a pleasure in simply remembering. If not a pleasure, then what? A drive, a compulsion, an urge: the urge to rub the affected region.

So we rub the affected region. We rub the affected region with abusers and pimps, with cops and prisons and whores and needles, the way a child tests a bruise against a sharp tabletop. We return to the source of our injuries, and we get injured again! Why can’t we learn?

At the source of our injuries, strangely enough, there are people hanging around the street corner with medicine. Isn’t that interesting? You rub the affected region with the pimp who bruised it, and the pimp’s got some rum, or some heroin. Here’s a houseful of people all rubbing their affected regions — rubbing them with each other, rubbing them with hammers, rubbing them with money.

In other words, again trying not to be so cryptic, you bring your story to somebody who will be like your mommy — your therapist — and you bring it like a humble and baffled child bringing a tangled wad of string. And then your job is just to stay in your seat until the thing is untangled. It may take years. But you keep to your routine. You stick to the basics. You eat well and stay out of the old neighborhood. You avoid rubbing the affected region. You stumble and fall and get up and keep going. One day you notice the stigmata are gone. The air smells fresh.

Something breaks and the lump is free. All that untangling must have weakened the fibers. You don’t even mind that the string is broken. You didn’t need the string anyway.

When it’s untangled, you have a new feeling. You take your first deep breath in centuries. Suddenly you have to get away. You jump in a car and head for the desert where there’s nothing, no scrap of memory, no parolees and no junkies, no men who remind you of your teacher, no men who remind you of your dad, no lures, no tripwires, no three-card monte games, no crap shooters in tiled elementary-school bathrooms, no blood on the walls: just desert sand and cactus.

You get out there and build yourself a lean-to and watch the horizon.

You have a long life yet to live.

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My sister’s stalker

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He accosted her on the street and forced her into his car. She went to the police and they did nothing

Cary’s classic column from Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dear Cary,

My younger sister is a 21-year-old college student who is “trapped” in an abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend, who is 35 years old. She first met him when she was 19, fell in love with him and eventually moved in with him. After they started living together, she discovered that he was emotionally and verbally abusive, to the point that after six months, she had had enough, broke it off and moved out. The problem now is that for over a year, he refuses to accept that their relationship is over. Although he has not physically abused her, he has “forced” her into his car, screamed at her in public, in front of her professors and classmates, snatched her cellphone out of her hand to see if she has been talking to/texting other guys. He stalks her, physically, following her around town, staking out her apartment, and electronically, constantly checking her cellphone, email, Facebook, Amazon accounts, etc. (During the time that they were living together, he managed to get access to these accounts, and somehow manipulate the password access such that he continues to have access, despite my sister’s attempts to change passwords, etc.)

At one point things became so bad that she went to the police to file a report. She told me that the police were very unhelpful, reluctantly took the information, and seemed very unlikely to do anything unless/until he threatened her with physical harm. She says that she feels powerless to escape. At least that’s what she claims. I say this because she is by her own admission “not 100 percent certain” that she never wants to see him again. She is certain that there is no romantic future for them, but she claims she still has enough of an emotional tie to him that she is not entirely sure she wants him entirely out of her life.

Because they both live in a small college town, she cannot avoid him. He has no problem causing scenes in public which, to avoid, causes my sister to yield to his demands to talk, which often lead to screaming, crying fights, including threats on his part to commit suicide if she does not maintain contact with him.

She has told my parents and me about his abusive behavior, but because she attends school across the country, none of us have seen or can physically confront her “ex.” We are also hindered by the fact that she seems unwilling to do whatever it takes to get this psycho out of her life. It seems like during the time they lived together, he almost brainwashed her into thinking that she will never be able to fully escape his hold over her. We cannot be entirely sure that she is doing her utmost to escape his clutches.

What can I do to convince her that she needs to do whatever it takes to get him completely out of her life? And, assuming I can get her to see the light, what practical things can she do, without jeopardizing her safety, and, as much as possible, avoiding public humiliation and drama, which he has been all too willing to turn to in his efforts to control her?

A Concerned Older Brother

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Dear Older Brother,

One thing that will help is to impress upon her how dangerous her situation is.

As the group AWARE points out, “Stalking is a serious, potentially life-threatening crime. Even in its less severe forms, it permanently changes the lives of the people who are victimized by this crime, as well as affecting their friends, families, and co-workers. Law enforcement is only beginning to understand how to deal with this relatively new crime.”

Send her to the website for AWARE — “Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment” and talk with her about what she finds there.

Also, womenslaw.org, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, has a good explanation of the state-by-state variations in restraining-order law.

The fact that the police were initially unhelpful should not deter her. She will need to be persistent and thorough, and follow the often maddening and apparently senseless procedures outlined by the courts.

An understanding of how women have been historically denied their rights and mistreated by the courts will also motivate her. Perhaps it will make her angry. Anger may be what she needs. The consciousness-raising that women did in order to gain rights and public understanding took time and involved much conflict.

Perhaps I can also provide a little personal history to show how difficult it can be to disentangle the personal from the political.

When women first started talking to men about our abuses of women, many found it hard to accept that the behavior we had been taught by our older role models was in fact harmful and hateful.

It was hard to change.

Many of us men did change. Some resisted loudly. It was not easy for us to give up behaviors that we had worked hard to master in the first place. What I mean is, when you’re an adolescent boy, you turn to your dad and other older males to find out how to treat women. You ask them what women want, how to treat girls, and in my case, my elder male role models were all sexists.  So they taught us, their sons and nephews, to be sexists also. They didn’t call it learning how to be sexists. They called it “becoming a man.”

And then, after practicing what they had taught us during the sexual revolution in which sexual mores were loose and women were often compliant, we suddenly had to change. Women were suddenly demanding not only equality in the workplace but in the intimate spheres of romance and social life. Suddenly we were supposed to do the dishes and cook.We had not been taught even these elementary tasks of domestic maintenance! We were taught that there would always be women to do it! How crazy is that? And yet it’s true. There were degrees, of course. Some families were less sexist and more sensible than others. But for many, many men, this much was true:

We had to throw out what our fathers and uncles had taught us about how to treat women. We had to defy our fathers and uncles in this very intimate and emotional arena. It wasn’t easy.

Nor was it easy to give up our male privilege. It was not easy to give up our power. But many of us did. We saw that the assumptions we had been taught to make about women were wrong. We saw that how women were portrayed in movies and on television was wrong. We saw how this connected to women’s real unhappiness. I saw this in my own mother and in other women of her generation. I saw it and it hit home emotionally. I saw that how husbands and fathers treated women led to lasting harm. But it was not easy to give up what my father had taught me.

It was not easy and it was painful.

For there were bonding moments between men and boys that, though injurious to women, were emotionally satisfying. Sharing in the snicker and the leer, the knowing comment about a woman’s legs or breasts — these were our initiation into our fathers’ world, and with them came longed-for gestures of acceptance. These pitiful moments served as rites of passage: I whistled at a woman. I guess I’m a man now.

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The courageous work of women over the past century has enshrined many rights in law and custom. Because much seems now settled, it may be hard for younger women to grasp the ways men still use the conventions of romance to oppress them. That’s what this man did. He used the conventions of romantic love to oppress your sister. Now he is using the vestiges of romantic love to render her vulnerable to further attacks. And he has turned to tormenting her in ways that could probably be prosecuted. Yet when she goes to the police she finds herself rebuffed. Here, too, she is confronting the vestiges of a centuries-old center of male power. When a young woman approaches an older policeman to complain of emotional torment arising out of a romantic relationship, vestiges of the old patriarchal order are  reenacted.

So naturally she feels rebuffed. She feels as if her complaint was meager and unimportant. She has been patronized. She has been stripped of her dignity and power. It may sound hyperbolic to say this, but it is commonplace.

Knowing the larger picture can give one courage.

If your sister will educate herself about her history as a woman, she may make connections that motivate her psychologically and emotionally. That is what pioneering feminists did. That is why they met in consciousness-raising circles: They understood that if they were to succeed, they had to motivate each other. It was not only knowledge that they were transmitting, but courage.

This courage is what your sister needs. Women’s groups in her area will gladly provide some of that courage.

As for what else you can do, it might help to actually go there and talk with her. Go to the police station with her. Help her contact a lawyer who can talk to the police and frame the situation in such a way as to get a legal stay-away order.

There was a column a while back in which I was widely viewed to have given a too-lenient view of a domestic situation in which the man displayed traits that to many indicated that he was dangerous. So perhaps I can make up for it this time by insisting that this man’s behavior be treated as dangerous.

You can help by regularly checking in with her on the situation. You can also help by aiding her in changing her passwords. I don’t know the technical situation but it’s possible he knows not only her passwords but her supposedly safe “hints” — you know, the supposedly personal information only she would have. So please consult with someone about computer security and help her change her passwords in a more foolproof way.

In general, commit to giving her regular calls and pep talks to keep her motivated and confident. Visit her if at all possible. Impress upon her the seriousness of this man’s behavior. Be there in any way you can. Help her find a lawyer who can advocate for her in the courts. Don’t be discouraged. Be there. It’s what an older brother is for.

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As a foster kid, I never learned to brush my teeth

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 15, 2010

I’m afraid to go into the bathroom, because of things that happened in childhood


Dear Cary,

You recently wrote about when “to change your life.” I think I’m there now. And it isn’t a problem with my problem that I’m writing about.

Where I need help is in steps to follow.

I was raised in foster homes from birth to first grade, then I was returned to my family. I left there at age 15. There was no change from one scenario to the other. There was abuse of all types, and kids doing their best to be adults, while adults did their best to ignore the kids.

I learned nothing from them, except that (life skills-wise) I was on my own.

So my problem is that I’m real bad at “being.” And for many years I’ve felt like a fraud in not knowing so many basic things. Now, I want to, literally, come clean. I never go into my bathroom for showers or baths or teeth brushing. I’m plagued with very bad demons of violence and rape that happened in bathrooms. These go back to age 2, but maybe even farther, so they are very deep and still seem real.

Where can I “learn” the basics of health and hygiene habits that all little kids seem brought up with? What are the steps to follow that all other people (as adults) seem to take for granted in this area of life?

Can you point me to a resource that can re-teach adults all the things that were missed in a history like mine?

Thank you,
Ready Now

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Dear Ready Now,

Something happened when you were 2 in a room you called the bathroom.

You have a room in your house today that is called a bathroom. But it is not the same room as the room where something happened when you were 2.

What happened when you were 2 is never going to happen again. The past in which that occurred is gone. Those circumstances are gone.

Take my hand.

Let’s take that 2-year-old into your bathroom.

Your bathroom is not that other bathroom. Your bathroom is safe.
Let’s not even call it a bathroom. Let’s give it a different name.
Let’s call it Tokyo. And let’s not call it brushing your teeth. Let’s call it something silly, like a peppermint mouth vacation. Let’s say you are taking a peppermint mouth vacation in Tokyo. And I will be your travel agent.

This 2-year-old is still with you. Only you are the adult now, and you take care of her in a way that she was not taken care of before. You now take care of her because you are a hero and a survivor. So you take the 2-year-old by the hand and start to walk down the hall and she gets scared and tries to stop but you say that it’s OK, you are just going to Tokyo for a peppermint mouth vacation. You go into that room where there are plumbing fixtures and possibly some tile, and an overhead light, and you explore that room, giving different names to all the things in it. You can give them people names or place names or whatever.

Also you do a security check. Because you are having a whole new life now and your new life is secure. In your new life, you have boundaries and you have choices and you have rights. So you check the front door to make sure no one can break in. You see if there is a lock on the door. Why not rename your house too? If the bathroom is Tokyo, then your house can be Japan, where everyone is very ceremonial. They wear robes and do lots of bowing. So your house becomes Japan where everyone is very ceremonial and does lots of bowing, and the location of your peppermint mouth vacation is Tokyo, which has a very low crime rate.

This is an extreme and indulgent example. I try to make a point, I do. I try to make a point that terrible things happen to us and we have to find ways to emerge from the prison of those things and imprint on ourselves the knowledge that everything in this moment is new and fresh. We are not prisoners of what has happened to us. We can rename anything we like, in order to avoid making it a repetition of the past. We can make everything we do completely new.

What you have today are feelings. Your feelings are real and they are good. They tell you that at one point your life was threatened, and they tell you that never, ever again will you allow that to happen. Your feelings tell you that now you are an adult and you never have to let that happen again. Events happen and then they are gone. What remains is memory. Memory is holy. Memory is love. Memory is the gift of the past to us in the present. We can open these gifts and look at them because they are just stories, photographs and sounds. They are not the event itself.

TuscanAd_Jan2015Your memories are not assault. When you go in your mind back to that time, you may feel a jolt. You may feel as though it is happening again. But it is not happening again. That is just the wisdom of your body, giving you the strength to resist such a thing.

I wish I could sit on the floor with you and say this: “The year is 2010 and you are a strong adult and what happened to you when you were 2 can never happen again.” Whether you are sitting on the floor in your new bathroom, or standing on the edge of the tub looking out the window, or standing at the sink looking at yourself in the mirror, or brushing your teeth, you can know that this is 2010 and what happened to you when you were 2 can never happen again.

You are a survivor. You have an adult life now. You can go to the store and buy any toothbrush you want. You can buy any brand of toothpaste you want. You can brush your teeth upside down, standing on your head, in the shower, at the sink, however you want.
If you need concrete information about how to brush your teeth, you can look here.

And here are a few more things. Have you read, or heard of, Antwone Fisher’s book “A Boy Should Know How to Tie a Tie”? I’m quite moved by what he has to say.

I was also moved by my discovery of the group FACT — Fostered Adult Children Together. Here is what they say: “As children we stood by and watched helplessly as our worlds crumbled apart, depending on strangers to come to our rescue and decide our fate, a fate which many times was worse than what we were delivered from.”

Coming together with others to share your experience, strength and hope is a powerful way to overcome the effects of the past.

I know this, too: You are capable of healing, of being whole and of being OK. That I know. You have taken the first step, by writing this letter.

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I’m finished with my family — but am I free of them?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 19, 2005T

Is this resolution or abandonment?


Dear Cary:

Thank you, first off, for being a unique voice in a somewhat crude, unsympathetic age.

Here’s my problem in a nutshell: I’ve abandoned my family, and they’ve let me, and I can’t decide whether to let them let me.

I grew up in a family rife with abuse: physical, emotional, sexual. There was active abuse resulting in bruising and bleeding and sobbing. There was passive abuse (some call that neglect) resulting in alienation, fear and self-loathing. Some of it happened to me. Some of it happened around me, and I was powerless to stop it. Some of it I learned about years after the fact.

I grew up and I got out. For the most part, I didn’t look back. I maintained a few ties, but I kept them stretched thin.

I turned 30, and I still couldn’t trust anyone, and I still wanted to die.

I’m a writer, and in the process of sorting through the chaos of my upbringing, I did what writers often do: I wrote about it. Furthermore, I did so publicly, and as myself. I didn’t name any names but my own; but honestly, I wasn’t interested in protecting anyone.

When the family found out, the reaction was uniform outrage. They were incensed that I would air my dirty laundry in such a fashion — that I would air their dirty laundry without consulting them. My response was that they’d had 30 years to bring it up, and they hadn’t. I thought I’d waited long enough before choosing to deal with my past in my own way, on my own terms.

Most interesting is that nobody denied anything I wrote. Nobody owned up to it, either. They were not interested in what had happened. Either that, or they couldn’t allow themselves to face it.

That was five years ago. Today I don’t speak to a single one of my relations. Some days I feel desolate. Some days I feel free. Most days I realize that my plan worked, whether I would admit that plan to myself or not: I wanted the Bad People of my childhood to go away, and they did. If I never contact any of them again, I truly believe that none of them will contact me.

My question is: Is this resolution? Is this a real and valid way of dealing with a monstrous childhood? I’ve done therapy, I’ve cataloged what happened, I’ve inventoried my feelings about it, I’ve tried to speak to siblings and parents about it without success, I’ve confronted, I’ve publicized, and I’ve paid the price. I know I’m capable of moving forward alone. But should I?

Yours fondly,

On the Brink

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Dear On the Brink,

Yes, I think you should move forward. I think this is resolution. It may not feel like resolution. It may feel hollow. But it sounds like resolution — or the only kind of resolution one can have to events whose faint echoes will continue to be heard the rest of your life. It may be the closest you get to resolution.

It may be helpful to ask, If you could have the perfect resolution, what would that feel like? Would it make everything feel “normal”? For those of us who so rarely feel “normal” anyway, how would we know? It’s possible that even if you could have a perfect resolution it would still not feel like resolution, because you have been formed already by these events; you are, in a sense, already armed against such things, already wary, already tensed forever for the next blow.

Besides, is a resolution even possible? What would it look like? I suppose the ultimate resolution would be a kind of radical undoing: These things would never have happened in the first place. You would get a do-over childhood in which you were protected and loved and allowed to grow in a fairly normal way. That is, of course, outside the boundaries of what is possible in this universe. Even if everyone wanted this, we could not bring it into being.

What would be second best? The second best, I suppose, would be if your family members changed inwardly; if there were a God who could reach down and change their hearts, then perhaps they could step forward as a group, in grave ceremony, and confess their shameful acts. Resolution could take the form of a truth commission, a trial, a complete airing of all the crimes you remember. They might offer to bare their backs to you for whipping, prostrate themselves before you and give you all their worldly goods, become your slaves for life in penance — and you, seeking not vengeance but only closure, could take the high road and tell them no, there’s no need for that, all you wanted was a little truth.

But that is not likely either, is it? You know enough about the people involved to know how unlikely it is. They have had their opportunities. It is probably not even worth considering, except as a healing fantasy, a childlike wish.

So what is left as resolution? This relative peace you have found. This cessation of hostilities. The assurance of no further damage. That seems to be about it. You have attained safety. You are not being attacked or belittled. You are being left alone. That may be, in itself, resolution.

It sounds like resolution because you yourself have done a lot of work, thinking, feeling, remembering and going about your life with the echoes of these events occasionally in your mind. The writing was probably very helpful to you as well. It sounds like it did what it so magically seems to do — it let you get a handle on this thing, get your arms around it, define it, pin it down, contain it in words, and publishing it allowed you to defy those who would have kept you silent. That may have freed you from their influence, assured you that you no longer have to fear them.

So, as I say, it may not feel like resolution to you, but I think it is a kind of resolution — not, perhaps, the dramatic kind, but the slow, painful, subtle kind. I wish you luck as you go forward, as free of your past as any man can be.

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My husband abused my son

 

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Dear Cary,

For three years I have grappled with how to write this letter. Cary, you are the only individual aside from my therapist that I can trust with my story. I have felt ashamed, frightened (all my secrets spread across the Internet) and strangely unable to write. But now I feel strong enough.

Three years ago my 33-year-old son came forward and told his sisters and myself that my husband, his stepfather, had sexually abused him from age 10 to 13. Cary, he had been my son’s father since my son was 5 years old! My husband admitted it was true, but first tried to say it was only for one year. And it was just hugging. Then he said “I thought you knew” Then he said “It was a way to get closer.” Cary, unlike most pedophiles my husband did not court my son. He did not give him gifts or treat him “special.” He was hard on my child — never pleased with him, always annoyed, especially at the dinner table. My son went to live with his biological father when he was 16 to get out of the house. My relationship with my husband was rocky, too. We had terrible arguments, but I could never “win.” He could go on and on for hours without getting tired — all night — and wear me out, but not let me sleep. Or cry. Or go to the bathroom. He hated when I would go into another room to get tissues. I considered leaving him, but we had two little girls, and when he was happy, we all had what seemed to be a great time together. My girls adored their father.

In the last few years before my son’s revelation my husband had mellowed out quite a bit. Once all the children were out of the house he seemed to lose a lot of his anger issues. We had a lot in common, shared a house and bills and assets and cars and the whole nine yards. We stopped arguing and everyone thought we were the perfect couple. Waitresses told us how cute we were. I started to forget what a rocky past we had. We were turning gray together. My son started coming home for visits more often. I was in heaven when all the “children” were together for a Christmas dinner. Then this bombshell.

Cary, it was as though all the planets shifted — Gallilean! Many of the problems I have had with my husband now make sense — and I feel so betrayed. My girls are adults now, but they are having a terrible time trying to understand how their father could have done this to the older brother they love. They don’t know how to fit him into their lives anymore. My son has sought therapy, and he is doing remarkably well, but he has a lot to deal with. I am in therapy with a psychiatrist who has a background dealing with offenders, and I have filed for divorce. My son and I are closer than ever, and I see him all the time now. But I am crushed by guilt — how could I have not known, why didn’t I leave when we were having such problems 20 years ago? What kind of twisted fantasy was I living all those years?

I tried to create a bright, cheerful life for my family — big Christmases, nice vacations, brightly painted rooms. I spent so much time caring for my husband — being with him when he had a prostate operation, helping to care for his dying mother, doing EVERYTHING for the household. I just feel so duped and stupid. My husband is out of the house but still seems to think there is hope for us. I fret about money, selling the house and how I will ever retire now. I am happy to be rid of him, but I always feel anxious. And I was so well conditioned by his abuse that I still hate to upset him or make demands in any way! How can I come to peace with a lie that took up 20 years of my life?

Shaken

Dear Shaken,

I’m proud and honored that you would feel comfortable sharing this with me. But if your therapist and I are the only ones you feel comfortable sharing this with, maybe you need more people in your life whom you can trust, and who are capable of hearing such stories and responding in a straightforward, accepting way. One thing such an event does is shake one’s trust in others, so perhaps part of your work of recovery will involve finding some people you can trust again.

It’s not your fault, however. That I can say. You did nothing wrong. Someone took advantage of you. You were deceived by someone who set out to deceive you. You did nothing wrong. You did your best and this happened to you. It happened the way traffic accidents and murders happen to people: with the cruel logic of random events.

For many people, the sheer random nature of tragic events is very hard to accept. Being unable to accept the sheer randomness of events, we come up with strategies to invest awful events with meaning. Feeling guilty about it can be one such strategy. If you feel guilty, then you had some responsibility, some agency. If you had some agency, then it wasn’t just random. It could have been prevented if only …

It is harder to accept the fact that this happened and that’s that. It can’t be undone. Speculating on what you might have done to prevent it is a waste of your precious energy. What I suggest is that with the help of your therapist you begin consciously moving toward acceptance. That means doing concrete things to help you accept this. It might mean saying it out loud over and over. It might mean perhaps some techniques your therapist has. It means in some sense encountering what happened in a deep, raw way. I don’t know how that is done but perhaps you have a sense of what I mean. At the center of this awful thing is a philosophical truth that is frightening but liberating: We are not responsible for everything that happens in the world. We are not able to control everything that happens. We instead often have to simply accept what happens and accept our inability to fully understand.

Perhaps if you make a list of the world’s mysteries and meditate on them, you will find a place for this awful thing in the pantheon of all the world’s awful and inexplicable things. As I say, it is frightening to face this, but it is also liberating.

Here are some thoughts about guilt and how we use it to avoid facing our essential powerlessness in the universe. Guilt places you at the center of a drama that did not really concern you. Rather than face the fact that this thing happened and was beyond your power to prevent, by feeling guilty about it you can entertain the fantasy that you might have been able to stop it. But you weren’t able to. You couldn’t. This thing happened between your husband and your son. It did not happen to you. Perhaps in a way you wish you could take your son’s place. This is another perverse thought we sometimes have: Rather than mourn for others, we avoid the feeling by placing ourselves at the center of things. Or we feel somehow guilty for surviving while others suffered. The truth is that others suffer. We must accept that they suffer, and if that makes us feel awful then we must feel awful. I’m sure you have felt unimaginably awful, and it has been exhausting and painful. I feel empathy for you. But I do not feel responsible. I know that the world is full of senseless suffering which I cannot curtail. All I can do is try to point out that accepting this is ultimately liberating.

Ask your therapist for help moving from guilt to acceptance. There are many good reasons to avoid such acceptance. True acceptance of this event will shake your accustomed beliefs about the world. You may ask, If this isn’t my fault, then whose is it? In plain terms, it is your husband’s fault. You may find it hard to accept that your husband did this evil thing. It may be easier to believe that you yourself had some hand in it than to believe that your husband did this. So you need to work on accepting the simple facts. The simple fact is that your husband sexually molested your son. This is an awful thing but it is the thing you must learn to say out loud without qualification.

Maybe if you will walk along a body of water and say this aloud a few times, listening to your heart as you say it, maybe you will fill with grief and be able to accept this. Maybe you will fill with rage and find you are closer to accepting this.

It will live in your heart for a long time. It will be there. You must let it be there and not pretend. It will bring you pain and you must accept that.

Full acceptance of it will make you wiser and stronger. Accept that this happened, that you had nothing to say about it and no way to prevent it, and that it is in the past. Accept that your son is recovering from the experience and is taking responsibility for his own life.

Stay out of your husband’s life. Let him go. Stay close to your son. But do not take responsibility. This is his experience. You have your own burdens, which will grow lighter with time.

I have a secret I have to tell

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Cary’s classic column from

 


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.

WhatHappenedNextCall

My molester financed my college education

Archival column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 9, 2008

Now I’m depressed and suicidal and very few people know why.


Cary,

I am unsure of how to articulate the reason I am writing you. There is an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” I have been experiencing a soul-crushing depression that I can only utter through vague quotes and other people’s words. I’m 24 and am not experiencing your typical quarter-life crisis that seems to plague everyone I know. I have I guess been working through an unconscious drama of screwing up everything that I do. I can’t hold down a job, almost failed out of college, and seem to tarnish every interpersonal relationship that I have.

Last year I was engaged and in graduate school. This year, I am still living at my parents’, didn’t complete my grad school application even, and am in the process of losing a crappy retail job that I can’t seem to go to without a panic attack. It feels as if my life has been a serious of continuous failures starting from childhood. I was only marginally praised for academic achievements, so I focused my attention on excelling in school. I had a dream of going to some big fancy schmancy Ivy League school and becoming the next Susan Sontag.

In high school, I let all of that fall away. My dreams and aspirations vanished and I clung on to anything remotely stable. On top of that, I was sexually molested by a close family member and similarly aged acquaintances. I have told only very few people about this; my parents do not know and I don’t think that to say anything would make anything better. The family member is a patriarch; he financed my college education and I am forced to interact with him often.

So in this quarter-life crisis that is so much more, I turn to suicide. On a daily basis I try to talk myself out of it, stating that my current boyfriend would probably be scarred by my dying, and my best friend would be sad. Everyone around me seems to just be manipulative in a guise of trying to make me happy: quit your job, don’t quit your job, dump your boyfriend, go out with me. Move to D.C., move to NYC, move anywhere and be with me. Yet I am completely paralyzed; I don’t want to do these things. I don’t know what I want to do or where to start.

I don’t have health insurance, and I really don’t have anyone to turn to, so I’ve turned to you. I’m honestly at the bottom of the barrel. In the middle of the night I wake up wanting to cry. The past two days I’ve cried continually in private, over what I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m asking you to solve my problems, as they are far too huge to be addressed in an advice column. I guess all I am asking for is an empathetic ear and some sort of inspiring advice that perhaps I could keep inside me.

Three O’Clock in the Morning All the Time

Connecticut_PatCary1

Dear Three O’Clock in the Morning,

You are a beautiful, strong, smart and courageous person who was abused. The abuse was a crime. You are suffering the effects of this crime, as surely as if you were mugged on the street and landed in the hospital. If you were mugged on the street and landed in a hospital the doctors and nurses would take care of you. They would say, Did the perpetrator get away? Did the cops catch him? Will you have to testify?

But this crime was different. It happened in secret. The criminal is writing checks for your tuition. He is right there, standing in the window, writing you a check, smiling at you, saying here is your tuition. This tuition you gratefully accept. Yet you know what he did. So you are in a bind. You are being tortured. It is a silent, secret torture. No one must know that the man writing the checks for your tuition is the man who sexually abused you. So the torture works on you in silence.

You cannot reveal the man who did this. It might destroy people you love. It might destroy you. It might destroy him. So you shut the door on it. Behind the door you have shut there is rage. It is frightening to contemplate the dimensions of this rage. If you gave vent to it no one knows what might happen.

But it is a lot of work containing it, and containing it does not make you happy but tires you out and wears you down and fills your sleep with nightmares and you grow depressed. You fail. Your failure feels good in a way because that is how you feel. You have been destroyed and your failure expresses your destruction. You cannot speak of the destruction but you can act it out. You think of suicide. You think if you die it might solve things.

But dying wouldn’t solve things.

And if anybody is to die because of what happened it shouldn’t be you. You are innocent. You are good. This isn’t your fault. Somebody harmed you. Somebody betrayed your trust. Somebody committed a secret crime against you and walked free and wrote you checks for tuition.

Dying wouldn’t solve things. It would only make the tragedy worse. So you need to find a solution to this tragedy.

You are going to find a person who will understand what happened to you and help you. You deserve a beautiful life. You are going to have a beautiful life. You are going to overcome what happened to you.

So write these words down and keep them with you and say them to yourself: I am a strong and beautiful person who was abused. I am going to find a person who will understand and help me. I am going to have a beautiful life.

This is the voice of the strong and beautiful person who was abused. She is still with you. Let her speak. Let her speak through you.

By speaking these words you will find the strength to act. You may not believe me. Just try it. Even if I am wrong, what is the harm? Try it. Try speaking these words of hope: I am a strong and beautiful person who was abused, and I am going to find someone who will understand me and help me.

Then take action.

Find a crisis center near you. Visit it. Just go there. Just go there and sit in one of their chairs and fill out their forms, and say you need to talk to somebody. Tell them you’ve been crying and thinking about suicide. Just tell them. They will know what you’re talking about. It has happened to many people, and anyone it has happened to knows what it’s like and will recognize your voice and will hear her story in your story and will nod and say yes, that happened to me too, and yes, I got depressed too, and I got suicidal, and I protected the family member who did it, too, just like you did. But here I am now. The secret came out and things got better.

You will hear these words and you will find a new family of the similarly abused, a family of similar survivors. So don’t leave the crisis center until you talk to someone. Wait at the crisis center as long as you have to until you can talk to someone. Sit in their chairs. Look at the posters on the wall and the people coming in and out. Wait for someone to talk to. It is a life-and-death situation. If you wait all day and they are closing up and turning off the lights, don’t get up and leave. If you have to wait outside until they turn off the lights and lock up the building, don’t leave until you talk to someone. Wait in the parking lot for someone to come out and get into her car if you have to. Don’t leave until you talk to someone. Say what happened. Say how you’ve been feeling.

I say go to the center, not just call, because your parents’ house is the house of lies and fear and you may need to get out of that house to speak the truth. But what if you are too depressed and afraid to leave the house of lies and fear? Then go into your room and use your phone. Call 1-800-656-4673. Tell them you’ve been crying every day and thinking about suicide.

You need to do this. It will not be easy at first but after you do it you will feel a glimmer. You might not know what to call the glimmer. It will be a glimmer of how you felt before all this happened, simple and innocent, no big deal, piece of cake, just a kid, what a kid feels before the door slams shut and dark things occur. After you take some action you will feel a glimmer of something you remember. You will see that there is a way out of this. There is a beautiful life waiting for you. No one can take it away from you. It is yours.

WhatHappenedNextCall

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