I left an abuser, but now I’m with a married man

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 14, 2007

I know I should concentrate on my own emotional health, but he says I’m special and he cares about me!


Dear Cary,

I recently ended a relationship with a boyfriend who was very violent and verbally abusive toward me. I am still trying to get over this relationship, in which I was psychologically traumatized. I went through a lot in that relationship that I have not shared.

I am now in a relationship with a man who is married who recently moved to my city; his family is still living in the city he left. He told me that he and his wife are separated and that they have unresolved issues. He also told me that he has two children who will relocate with him, but he does not know if his wife will come. It seems to me that he is using me for sex, and I believe his wife and children will relocate with him.

I told him that I am developing feelings for him and he told me that is OK. However, I think that I should stop seeing this man before I get too deeply involved and just concentrate on myself and my emotional health. I don’t know what to do because this man tells me that I am special and that he cares about me, but I feel that I will be hurt again.

Don’t Know What to Do

Dear Don’t Know,

As I read over what you have written, I get the feeling that you see your situation with clarity. You know what happened to you. And you know that what you are doing right now is not really such a great idea. You know you should break up with this man. But you don’t want to because you are getting something from him that you need.

This man tells you that you are special and that he cares about you. You need to hear that right now. But you do not need to be in another risky relationship.

So I will say it too: You are special. I care about you. I will also say this: Many people reading this letter care about you. Many people reading this letter have been in situations like yours, and they know what you are talking about. Unlike this married man, however, we do not require anything of you. We just care about you.

You do need support and care. But you need to get it in a way that does not put you at further risk. So my suggestion is that you do two things. End this relationship with the married man. And actively seek support. That may mean finding a therapist to help with the trauma. It also may mean joining a support group for abused women.

Doing that will take courage. Where do you find the courage? You went through some things in that relationship that you have not shared. Sharing what you have been through will bring you courage. You have shared some of it with me. That is good. That is a start. You need to keep going, talking it through with a therapist and/or with other women who have been through similar experiences.

I will say this, too, at the risk of sounding a little “woo-woo” (that is what some of us in California call hazy New Age psychobabble): You don’t have to be in a relationship with a man right now. You may think you have to be. But you don’t. Not right now.

Since I am saying that many of us care about you, I should also warn you: Some people act crazy when they hear about abused women. They say crazy things. So just take it from me: Many, many people who are reading this letter know exactly what you are going through, and they care about you. And there are people near you, in your city and town, who are getting together right now to talk about what happened to them and to help each other get over it and go on with life day to day. So find those people. Find the people in your area who have been through this, and join them. Telling your experience will help them, and they will help you. You may have many complicated feelings as you do this. You may feel that some of the talking means you are “stuck in victimhood” or some such thing. People say things like that. All I can say is: Start talking about what happened. Reach out to other people. Seek support. Trust the process. And be good to yourself.

You might break up with this man first, and then join a group. Or you might find you need to spend some time with the group as a way of finding the courage to break up with this man. Or you might find you need to talk one-on-one with someone in order to decide about joining a group or breaking up with the man. The order you do things in doesn’t matter that much. The important thing is to begin.

Good luck. We will be thinking about you.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My best friend is marrying a guy who’s nothing but trouble

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 21, 2006

She says I must either accept the situation 100 percent or forget being maid of honor.


Dear Cary,

I have a very good friend who is getting married soon. She’s smart, funny, talented, beautiful and successful. We’ve been friends for about 12 years (since high school) and we’ve always had the label “best friends” on our relationship, although we’ve definitely had ups and downs. Unfortunately, we seem to be at a crossroads. To make a long story short, a while back I introduced my friend to a group of guys that I used to hang out with sometimes, and she got involved with one of these guys. They moved in together really quickly, got engaged a few months later, and they’ll be getting married in about three weeks. My friend asked me quite some time ago to be her maid of honor, and of course I said yes.

But the more my friend has told me about this relationship, the more worried I’ve become. He’s called her names that I can’t repeat. He lies consistently about where he is and what he’s doing (she catches him and laughs it off). She’s called me sobbing because he says he’s coming home but doesn’t arrive. In most of these cases she’s already called him, found him drunk at a bar, and he’s brushed her off, basically saying that he’ll come home when he wants to (driving home drunk, by the way). He has multiple kids by different women. There are plenty more examples, but you get the idea.

My friend has a history of being in abusive relationships — not bad enough for a movie of the week, but definitely not acceptable either. In the past, I’ve been outspoken about my concerns. In every case, this led to our not talking for some period of time. I now realize that I’m not going to change her mind about any man, so I’ve become resigned to being as supportive as possible but being ready to be truthful if asked. Eventually she asked, and I told. I still tried to focus on the positive (“I just want to make sure that you’re happy for a long, long time,” etc.) so that she would be receptive, but she knows me well enough to have a pretty good idea of how I feel.

I have given this a huge amount of thought and reached the conclusion that the best way I can handle her wedding is to focus on the fact that I’m there to support my friend. I’ve made the decision to be there for her, and she’s made the decision to get married. The getting married part isn’t up to me. The being supportive part is. If I stay focused on that part, I know that I can be positive on her big day, which is of course what she wants. I can feel good about doing so because I know that I’m standing by my friend at a major event in her life. Obviously I will be warm and polite to everyone at the wedding. That’s how I’ve been planning to handle things.

Now for the twist: She recently told me that I need to either “choose to change my feelings” and be 100 percent supportive of the situation, or choose not to be involved. I’ve told her that I am 100 percent supportive of her, and that’s what really matters to me. I can change the way I behave, but I can’t erase my concern. I also can’t “choose” to abandon my longtime best friend during her wedding. I really believe that whether or not to include me is her decision. I think she’s avoiding the decision because she doesn’t want to be responsible for kicking me out. I don’t think she wants me to be there, and at this point it would be much easier to avoid it, but I’m afraid that I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.

I don’t know what to say or do. It’s her wedding and I want to be there for her however she sees fit. I know that if I’m “disinvited” from the wedding, that will be like a nail in the coffin of our friendship. But I also don’t want to cause trouble for her by shoehorning myself in where I’m not welcome. At this point I just want to handle the situation with consideration and class, whatever the outcome is, and I just don’t know how to proceed.

Here Comes the Bride, There Goes the Friend

 

Dear Here Comes the Bride,

It’s understandable that you want to support your friend. But standing up for her at her wedding implies that you approve of what she’s doing when you really don’t. It’s saying to her, Well, I may have had reservations, but now I think everything will turn out OK.

You and I know that’s not true. We don’t think things will turn out OK. We think she’s headed for stinky husband breath faintly redolent of Budweiser and paint thinner, mysterious car dents, implausible explanations for implausible whereabouts at implausible times of the night, sudden empty wallet syndrome, “friends” who are burglars, the phrase “child endangerment” uttered by state employees, oxygen-deprived skin tone exacerbated by severe bar tan, crushed beer can sculptures in the garage, multiple unpaid parking tickets, third-degree threatening demeanor, unorthodox sleeping outside in the grass and eventually a case of extreme indoor burliness.

This last condition, extreme indoor burliness, describes something I can’t otherwise explain, except to say that it arrives late at night with loud, indistinct speech and bad shoes.

Anyway, what I mean is, if she has to drag this guy out of a bar before they’re even married, think how much fun it’ll be after they’re married with three kids. Can you see her showing up to drag him home and he’s sliding his kids down that polished bar surface like so many shot glasses? It’s going to be really fun dragging him out of the bar then — because the kids are having fun with Daddy!

She’s made her choice. She’s given you your options. If you want to be true to yourself, if you want to handle the situation with consideration and class, I think you have to take her at her word. You have to call her bluff. You have to bow out of the wedding.

Does that mean you’re not supporting her? Just what is this “support” we’re always trying to give our friends, anyway? Is it support when we help them drive off a cliff? Nah. I don’t think so. I think what we owe our friends is our influence for the good. And if that conflicts with their knuckleheaded intentions, that’s OK. “In opposition is true friendship,” Blake said (though he meant something quite different at the time, I’m afraid).

The interesting thing about this is that I see redemption down the road. I don’t agree that this is the nail in the coffin for your friendship. It’s more as if, in a classic move by a drama queen, she’s setting up the second act by pushing you out. Once she hits bottom with this guy, you come back onstage as the good friend, the one who never bought into her whole crazy idea of marrying a troublesome dude just to see how troublesome he really can be. You get to be the hero.

Like I say, this is just the curtain on the first act. In fact, before you leave the stage, I think you get to make a little speech here. You get to tell her that you will always be her friend, that you will always be there for her, and if things go great for her you will be happy. But if things don’t go so well, and she needs somebody to talk to, or somebody to bail her out of a tough spot, you’ll be there. You can be there when he drives into a ditch with the children in the car and she decides she can’t take it anymore. You can be there when he calls from the police station to tell her that they’ve booked him. You can be there … whenever it’s time for you to be there.

Trust me, there will come a time. Don’t change your phone number.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I secretly hate myself

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Secretly Hate Myself

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Dear Secretly Hate Myself,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not complicated. Pretty simple.

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

 

Self-education

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 20, 2004

I grew up in an abusive household, but I’m determined to be happy. Am I capable of it?


Dear Cary,

I grew up in the home of a raging alcoholic, drug abuser and emotionally and verbally abusive father. For the first 18 years of my life every encounter I had with any man was abusive and violent in some form. I spent my entire 19th year of my life crying, every day, all the time. It finally occurred to me that it wasn’t fun being so depressed and that I could change it. I spent the next few years reflecting on all that had happened and even- tually taking action to change my situation. I was determined to have a normal and healthy sex life, and good or bad I went about this by a series of love ‘em and leave ‘em “relationships,” the longest of which lasted three weeks. I barely passed high school but started to read quite a bit, kind of a self-education.

At first I faked being happy, and started doing things to make myself healthier. Eventually I didn’t have to fake any- more. I made a lot of progress over the years and really broke free of my past when I moved to a small college town out west when I was 22. I rarely even think about how bad things used to be. I am incredibly happy with my life and feel that I am very healthy. I am in college and making straight A’s; I snowboard all winter and hike and backpack all summer. I am sure you have heard that you can see the face of God in nature; I am not religious but I found that to be true for me. I don’t want to load

you down with too much background, but I feel that some of this is likely to still be with me.

I had my first real relationship this year. I dated a man for 10 months; I ended it this October because after 10 months all he could see was that I was great fun outdoors, a blast in the sack and fun to drink with. I wanted more, the whole package, and I couldn’t believe that after 10 months this was all he could see. So I ended it.

I started to date a new guy in November. Perhaps that was too soon but it is what it is. This man is wonderful; he’s caring, sweet, really good-looking, smart, funny, fun and goofy, a lot of really wonderful attributes. He works in violence prevention and is very involved in the women’s movement. He’s giving me all the stuff that I couldn’t get from my first relationship. It’s small stuff but he cuddles, and stays the night, and holds my hand. There are problems, though; the sex is too sweet and car- ing, he asks me every time if I am sure I want to do this, and then follows up during to make sure I am OK. It makes me uncomfortable and unsure if I do want to do it. I suppose we started being intimate rather fast but I know no other way. I find myself comparing him to the guy I used to date. I want orgasms but he seems unwilling to go down on me, which is the only way it happens for me. It seems that for him sex is about connecting emotionally, for me it is about pleasure. It’s strange because he’s very affectionate except when we have sex. He has started to be more comfortable with me going down on him, but says that I shouldn’t have to deal with that. Will this just get better with time? Have I rushed this? Can I talk to him about it? I’ve tried talking to him a little about it and he usually says that I am the most open and to-the-point woman he’s ever known. Is it too soon to talk about sex?

We went skiing the other day and I found myself comparing him once again to my ex. He’s not as playful and it just wasn’t as much fun. However, later that night we had dinner and I had a great time and was reminded that I could really like this guy. I am still friends with my ex and we ski together on a regu- lar basis and always have a blast. Is that being unloyal? Can

I give my time and joy to my ex and still date this man? Did my relationship with my ex last so long because he kept it so very casual? Am I capable of a real relationship? Should I even worry about any of this?

I hope I wasn’t too long-winded. Thank you for your time; I’ll appreciate your thoughts on any or all of this.

Finally Having Some Fun

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Dear Finally,

Congratulations. You’ve done remarkably well.
You know, a person could linger on your first sentence for a long

time: “I grew up in the home of a raging alcoholic, drug abuser and emotionally and verbally abusive father.”

A person could figure, that’s all anybody needs to know every- thing about you. And indeed, while I’m trying to concentrate on your questions and think about your present, I am strongly drawn back into myself, to the dark, heavy center of memory, not because I was abused but because I share some ineluctable consciousness of the Fall.

I’m glad you’re having a good time, and I think you’re doing all the right things. It’s great to be skiing. I’ll bet just flying on the snow could keep you happy forever if you could just keep flying down the mountain.

But perhaps because I have a cold, which also keeps drawing me into myself, it’s taking everything I’ve got to stay focused on you, there in your bright and shining ski suit. Regardless of what specific advice I can offer about these men, I want this encounter to be about the rest of your life. I want to give you something, in this chance meeting, that you may think back on years later. And that is this: What I have observed is that the effects of an abusive child- hood never seem to go away completely.

I don’t know the statistics. I just speak as an observer. I don’t even know if it’s possible to make statistics on how the immortal phan- tom of abuse lingers, how much it weighs, what electrical charge it

carries, what kind of light it emits. I don’t know if the phantom of abuse has any measurable reality at all; perhaps its footprints can be found in an altered brain chemistry. And against what control could we measure it, anyway? Would we not need a duplicate you, raised by a duplicate father except without the alcoholic tirades, the unpredictable departures, the simmering, acid explosiveness?

I don’t want to be a downer, and I don’t want to condemn you to a lifetime of therapy groups and self-doubt, like a cancer survivor always fearing it might come back. So I can only say what I have observed: Even though you feel you have banished these episodes in your early life forever, you need the courage to always bear them close to your breast, where you can see what they’re up to. Because they may be working on you as you age. As surely as early musical training, the early traumas of chaos and abuse are there, a kind of language eager to be spoken again.

If you don’t pay attention, in odd moments of stress and over- whelm, you find yourself speaking this strange language without realizing it at first. It’s already installed, and there’s no tag on it saying “this is your bad experience, don’t replicate this.” It won’t even feel like abuse, because it’s such a part of you.

Darn. I don’t mean to scare you. I forget what your question was. OK, the new guy: He’s obviously not your true sexual mate. You don’t click. You need someone rougher, more self-assured. He’s too tentative for you. But the first guy probably did not have the com- plexity you seek. So keep having fun, and keep looking. You obvi- ously have a lot of depth, and a lot of energy to take on the world. The only thing that worries me is what I’ve seen so many times — how you can overcome these early events by staying active and alive, but if life takes a bad turn, the only model you have for coping with adversity is this age-old raging father figure.

I’m sorry I got caught up in all this, but that first sentence speaks so loudly to me. Because I assume that you and I belong to a quiet society of secret sufferers, that we recognize each other on the street like an underground, that we know each other to be differ- ent because we don’t react like others do. We’re more driven, more crazy, more desperate, hungrier, touchier, louder, always breath- lessly skating on thin ice above the dragon; we know better than to

stop skating and sink into the water.
Visualize a loving childhood. Visualize what it would have been

like if your father had been a strong, stable, loving, sober man who never left you waiting in a dark parking lot, who never slept the whole day through when he was supposed to do the grocery shop- ping, who never told you anything but the sweetest words a girl could hear.

And then, regardless of how well things are going, pay atten- tion to how your reactions differ from those of people who were not abused. Watch for signs that this first ugly language you were taught is calling out through you to be spoken.

And if it has to be spoken, speak the vehement words on paper, speak the cruel glances in drawings, play out the tirades in loud guitar chords.

You can be perfectly happy. But the past never goes away com- pletely.

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Mad about him

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 21, 2003

Our love makes me feel part of something bigger, but his anger scares me.


Dear Cary,

I’m in love. Hooray! This is a good thing. It’s beautiful. There is mutual honesty, caring and affection. This man encourages me to think and to explore, and he makes me feel beautiful and loved. Our love makes me feel a part of something bigger, some biological necessity. He’s the first person with whom I’ve ever considered starting a family.

I know all the joys that come with love, and I know that love involves risk and vulnerability. But, we’re fighting. I’m not a good fighter. I am learning to be a good discusser of feelings, but a fighter I am not. My beloved is a fighter.

Rarely (maybe three times in the last year) he gets really angry and blows off steam through a kind of violent stream-of-consciousness spoken fantasy. I’m not frightened or threatened personally; I know he uses those words to let go of anger, and he would never act on his violent thoughts. But I never know how to react to these outbursts. The first time it happened, I tried to talk him down immediately. But after we both calmed down, we discussed it and he said that he doesn’t want to be talked down, he wants to feel that anger in the moment and then let it go. This sounded fine to me. (Does it help to know that he is an artist? The only time I’ve ever seen him like this is when his art is attacked — not just a critical review, but really scathing remarks.)

Recently he had a temper tantrum at my house. His violent stream of vocabulary was really unnerving and disturbing to me. So I told him that if he needed to talk that way therapeutically, that he had to go talk to someone else, because I just couldn’t handle seeing him that way. So, of course, he left.

When we discussed it later I found that he wants me to fight for him, with him, next to him, to be on his side — to be angry at whomever has wronged him. He thinks that it’s him and me against the world, and he doesn’t feel like I “have his back” or support him emotionally.

I want to support him, but I don’t want to be “against” anyone. I just don’t deal with things the way he does. I’d rather sit down and discuss something with someone than tell that person to shove off.

My roommate heard his recent outburst and doesn’t really feel comfortable with him around the house. I think she’s overreacting, but if that’s the way she feels, there isn’t really anything I can do. My boyfriend sees my acceptance of her feelings as a betrayal to him. He thinks I should have told her off and stood up for him. He’s really disappointed.

Is this simply one of those fundamental differences that can’t be overcome? I feel like I would be compromising myself to fake an empathetic anger if I don’t feel it. But on the other hand, I don’t want to leave him stranded, feeling embarrassed and ashamed of his anger. I know that relationships involve introspection and that lovers can teach you things about yourself and help you grow. And I see his point about me needing to “butch up” in certain circumstances. I’m at an impasse. I don’t want this to be a deal breaker, but I’m not going to become an angry person. I don’t want to be one.

Trying to Stand by My Man

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Dear Trying,

What makes the dramatic display of anger frightening to onlookers is the worrisome sense that bones are going to get broken if it keeps up much longer. If you don’t know the guy who’s stringing together a sputtering symphony of profane threats, making withering allusions to sexual dysfunction and raising questions about the phylum and genus of one’s parentage in an often alliterative and sometimes surprisingly musical — if hardcore — way, you might be justified in assuming that the next step is going to be the breaking of facial bones or some kind of epileptic seizure. Especially if you’re in the next room, it’s hard to tell if and when the police are going to be pulling out their tiny notebooks and talking in that strangely repressed monotone that the most violent of public authorities seem to think lends gravitas to their mien. The whole thing is to be avoided if at all possible — as no doubt you’ll agree.

But since you’ve latched onto a man who isn’t stuffing and holding onto his anger like a good citizen but instead sees life as some primal battle that must be fought, us against them, as loudly as possible, you don’t have the option of avoidance.

Feeling as I do somewhat hemmed in by our undemonstrative public culture, I do sympathize with this guy. But, heck, it’s your job to be hemmed in, buddy. Because, look, the rest of us are hemmed in. So what makes you think you can pop off while the rest of us are meekly submitting to the rules of polite society? Because you’re an artist? Ah, go fuck yourself!

That’ll get me in trouble, won’t it? But you see, that’s how I feel, and it’s healthy to just let it out, isn’t it?
Well, no, it isn’t healthy really, because already I’m filled with remorse for my little outburst, as perhaps your boyfriend is, in a mild way, when he realizes that his outbursts aren’t going over in the heroic way he would like.

I think the most important question is: Can he control when and where he has these outbursts? There seems to be an element of conscious choice in your boyfriend’s outbursts. Perhaps he knows where the line is; perhaps he can bring himself to the brink of losing control and then back off, and feels cleansed and powerful afterward. Perhaps, like an actor, he conjures up frightening emotions and directs them for artistic effect. But there is also an element of loss of conscious control, perhaps allied to a longing for primitive power.

The fact that he frightened your roommate suggests that he either is not in control of these outbursts, or that he does not use good judgment. If he can control this, perhaps he ought to find some theatrical environment where he can take it as far as he wants to, without frightening your roommate. If he cannot control it, then he and you have a problem. An outburst could get him in trouble if it happens at the wrong time. He could get shot. Besides, nice people will get the wrong idea.

I’m really curious: Where did your boyfriend learn to talk that way? Did he pick up this stream-of-consciousness angry-man act from his father? Is there a library of tantrums in the closet of his mind, passed on from father to son like a box of porno tapes? Or did he think this all up on his own? Did he grow up rich or poor, on a farm or in the Bronx? Is he Italian or Norwegian? I’d love to know where he comes from, where he learned this.

But the bottom line is: 1) He doesn’t get to dictate how you choose to express yourself; you’re both free to express yourselves in the manner that seems true to you. If he thinks that because you don’t yell, you’re not on his side, then maybe he can’t hear well. 2) He needs to know that under certain situations his yelling and screaming is way out of line and is going to have consequences. 3) You need to look into whether he’s got a history of violence; the yelling and screaming may just be an outlet, but there may be a history of violence, or abuse, behind it. If so, that’s a serious matter. He could be dangerous. If you feel really frightened, there may be a reason.

What do I owe him?

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 21, 2003

My abusive husband is dying and I have a lover. How good do I have to be?


Dear Cary,

Last year I went to visit a divorce lawyer, having finally got up the nerve to end a 29-year marriage (I’m 49) to a physically and emotionally abusive man. I had been seeing a wonderful man for some time, and we wanted to make our relationship public and formalize things. My only child was grown and launched, I have a satisfying job, and I ceased to love my husband many years ago. Just a few days after my initial visit to the lawyer, however, my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, with brain metastases. The doctors have refused to speculate on his remaining time, but my research says he will likely have anywhere from another six months to five years.

I have continued to see my lover, but he and I are both tired of “sneaking around.” My husband continues to be abusive, though in his weakened state I think I could outrun him. My question is, how long must I stay with him and how saintly must I be? My job is the one that carries the medical insurance, which he would lose. And what would happen to my good name if I abandoned a dying man? Thanks for any advice you can give.

Adulterous, but I Have Several Excellent Excuses

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Dear Adulterous,

Painful and ill-timed as your husband’s illness is, it’s also an opportunity to put your life on a new footing. It is no time to give in to vengefulness or impatience. The life of the man you married is nearing its end; your child’s father is dying; the man you once loved and spent a lifetime with is leaving this world. Take the high road.

If there is any time in a person’s life when he ought to know the unvarnished truth about how he has conducted himself, how he has affected the lives of others, now seems to be the time. It’s a chance for you to be frank with him but also to forgive him. Tell your husband the truth, both the good and the bad. Seek some kind of reconciliation with him. If you have a minister, rabbi, priest, therapist, spiritual counselor or trusted confidant, talk this over with him or her. Struggle to understand what his death means. If he has tormented you, be grateful that the torment will soon be over. As he approaches death, he may become reconciled to his wrongs, and he may want to make peace with you. Be ready to make peace with him.

But the peace you make with your husband should be kept private. If you start parading around with your lover while your husband is gasping on morphine, others in your community will be outraged and feel that he’s being tragically mistreated. They will suffer for him by proxy. They will feel the pain and outrage that they imagine he feels or would feel if he knew. Your actions will cause gossip and scorn. People love a drama. It might be none of their business, but they’ll make it their business if you give them the chance. Don’t give it to them. Don’t pretend it’s just about your life. This is about your husband’s life too, and the lives of those who have loved him. Hold your head up and do the right thing.

Why divorce a dying man? For one thing, cutting off his health insurance would cause problems for the doctors and nurses who are trying to care for him. Your child might find it unforgivably heartless. And his uninsured medical costs might eat into his estate, leaving less for you and your son or daughter to inherit. Divorce would also mean possibly acrimonious dealings with him. If he were near death or heavily sedated, questions might arise about his competence. If he wanted to contest the divorce, he might simply wait it out until the end, and then you’d have a complicated situation where you had filed for divorce but it wasn’t finalized, and that might affect aspects of the execution of the will. I don’t know, I’m not giving you a legal opinion; I’m just using common sense to imagine the ways in which trying to divorce a dying man could complicate things. At the very least: Why spend the money? Why not just make sure the will is in order and let nature take its course?

It may seem that your years of suffering are being neglected in this, and that is the privilege of the dying: They do get all the attention. At the same time, I think you deserve some support of your own. It’s not right what happened to you. You deserve some help. Why don’t you seek out a psychotherapist you can unburden yourself to while you go through this? It’s going to be pretty tough on you. You ought  to have somebody in your corner while you fight the last rounds.

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Strong and weak

Write for Advice

I’m involved with a married woman who has been abused by her husband. What should I do?

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Feb 3, 2004

Dear Cary,

I recently got involved with a married woman. We had been good friends for quite some time. There was an immediate emotional connection upon first meeting, and a deeper physical attraction than we cared to admit at the time. Aside from some casual flirting, I never expected anything to happen. Boy, was I wrong. Everything was fine at first. It doesn’t feel all that different from a normal relationship when we’re together. I’ve never done anything like this and never thought it would be this easy to accept, but the more I found about her marriage, the more I became distressed at her situation.

I know both her and her husband, who are from a small town. I knew that they had a pretty loveless marriage. Lately though, I’ve found out that things were much worse than I had imagined. In addition to the emotional neglect, there is plenty of emotional (and earlier physical abuse). She tried to leave once unsuccessfully. After a while she decided to stay to save her parents from the embarrassment of the gossip about leaving such a “successful” husband. He married her because she’s pretty and came from a wealthy family — certainly not for love: He said as much at one point. They’ve talked about divorce before and he said he wouldn’t mind it. (I don’t care much for the concept of marriage obviously, but the casualness of the remark is shocking even to me.)

I didn’t have any moral qualms about getting involved. Now my amorality has gotten me in a fine mess. I’m worried about her safety should he ever find out. It also pains me that an otherwise beautiful and vibrant girl put up with such a miserable life. I feel that she deserves more than I can give her, like commitment. On the other hand, the last thing she wants is probably someone who falls in love with her and makes things even messier.

We have cooled things down to give her time to decide what to do, which so far has meant nothing. I’m annoyed with her acceptance of her situation. What is it about people that makes them incredibly strong yet weak at the same time? I understand that she has a difficult choice to make, but it’s ridiculous to throw your life away when you’re so young! There are times when I feel like pushing the envelope, like threatening to make public this whole thing or, more satisfyingly, beating the guy up, but I realize how stupid and counterproductive that is, so it ends up just being frustrating. I’m not expecting enlightenment, but some insight would help.

Frustrated

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Dear Frustrated,

To understand why people remain in situations that look intolerable from the outside, why they fail to fight back when they’re being oppressed, why they acquiesce to the demands of their torturers, is to understand much about the history of oppression and genocide.

To understand why others acquiesce, it is best to start with our own behavior, which, presumably, we understand at least a little better than the behavior of others. So let us consider your own actions. First, you gradually became enmeshed in a situation that you never imagined. Remember that: We do not walk through a door marked “oppression.” We do not face two doors, one marked “morally acceptable” and the other “morally questionable.” We follow a long, convoluted trail past minor indignities, minor transgressions, subtle insults. We see a freedom removed here, a freedom removed there, and often for good, rational reasons — to protect us from an outside threat, for instance, a threat that we, being simply wives, or citizens, or outsiders, do not understand. We are now fighting in this country a “war on terror” in the interests of which we have tolerated much violation of freedoms once held sacred.

But such things happen gradually; there was no clear choice offered to us. No one said: OK, Americans, we’re all a little shaken up now, so what do you say we abrogate the Constitution? We don’t make a conscious, rational decision to trade eternal freedom for a temporary and illusory feeling of security, but we do it just the same. We call it something else. Because we are afraid, we go against what we know is right. We know what is right. But we also sense that to follow our instincts might threaten the welfare of the crowd. What if she left her husband and became impoverished, scorned and unhappy? We go against our gut instincts all the time because it’s always possible that we’re wrong, that someone else knows better, that we’re being foolish and: Acting like a child!

Do you not feel this yourself? That if you did what you feel is right — if you stood up in a room and said, This woman is being psychologically tortured by her husband! that you might simply bring greater harm to yourself and to her, that you might invite only shame and reprisal? Besides which, you are not without sin, are you? You who sinned with this woman! So it’s not without a certain sense of grievous cost that you contemplate exposing what you sense. There is also the wall of privacy around the marriage, and the still operative sense that a husband is a king, that he rules over his wife, and that anyone who interferes invites his righteous wrath. Do we not all carry vestiges of feudalism in our hearts, and does not social progress fight that every day?

Consider also how desperately a child will cling to even the cruelest of families. Why is this so? Because the family is not just a social unit: It is the source of life itself. What courage that takes! And to what entities do we transfer this allegiance when we become adults? To our new family, of course, and also to the state, to institutions, to all those powerful figures in society by whose actions we are fed, clothed, sheltered and reassured: bosses, presidents, governors, CEOs, even newscasters and actors! Consider how much of our lives are led instinctually, how few rational choices we actually make, how craven we are, how rote are our actions, how predictable, how programmable, how meek and contemptible are we, the masses. And consider whom we admire, who our heroes are: Our heroes are not those who lead lives of great moral courage and clarity of perception, such as Noam Chomsky, Alice Miller, Ralph Nader and Ingrid Newkirk (the founder of PETA), who, for all their own shortcomings, their failure to see how strangely misguided they appear, can at least see through cultural bias to the clear ethical contradictions of our everyday lives.

They ask of us too much! They ask that we ignore our own emotions, that we risk offending our group, that we risk being not cool, we risk even upending our own emotional structure. So we turn against them for their “extremism,” their lapses of taste, their idiosyncrasies, their lack of common sense. And yet it is people like them who are telling the truth at any given moment; they are the ones who sound the alarm of atrocities long before the rest of us have the clarity of mind and the courage to see how dreadful it is what we’re doing. We turn against them because they offend us.

As your community will turn against you if you stand up and say that this woman with whom you are having an affair is being abused by her husband.

It is finally a private matter for her. Granted, such “privacy” can be yet another tool of oppression in the hands of abusive husbands and abusive parents. Nevertheless, as the interloper, and as a man who is not willing to commit to her, you have no standing. So you can only urge her to embark on the long, slow process of understanding the roots of her willful powerlessness, her willing enslavement. You can give her books to read. You can find a therapist who understands the complicated machinery of willing subjugation. You can do much to understand. But you are just a man among men. You have no godlike power to inject her with your understanding, or to move her like a chess piece across a mine field.

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Why am I attracted to my stalker?

Dear Cary:

I am writing to you for writing advice, more specifically, if it’s ever a good idea to write a fictional story based on an event that has happened in the author’s personal life.

Let me be more specific. For the past six months, I have been the victim of cyberstalking. It began as a flirtation in an online chatroom and transformed into an obsession with me that involved the predator changing identities seven different times in an attempt to gain control over me. What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is my occupation. I am a psychologist.

The details of the stalking are rich, as are the life circumstances in which my stalking began. I am well aware of the potential effects of abuse and have enlisted the support of a supportive therapist to sort out my feelings, which are complex. This complexity stems from my poor decision to allow my stalker to engage me for a month, under the guise of gaining more specific information about his identity, thereby putting an end to this ordeal. Unfortunately and quite unexpectedly, I developed feelings for him and continue to struggle with those feelings.

When I shared the events related to this stalking, both friends and colleagues alike expressed a fascination with the details, often exclaiming, “You can’t write this stuff.”  So should I attempt to “write this stuff,” creating a work of fiction, possibly in the thriller genre, based on a life event that not only happened to me, but that has affected me emotionally?

My first career was as a writer, but centered on writing advertising and marketing materials. The only thing I have published is my psychology dissertation, which was praised for its ability to hold readers’ attention and was written in a narrative style intertwined with an academic style.

My mind has started to explore the possibilities of plot — both based on real events, as memorialized by every email and instant message transcript I saved, combined with a variety of possible fictionalized plot twists and turns I have imagined.

How does one begin a work of fiction? Should I buy a book on how to develop a manuscript? Take a workshop? Hire an editor? And if yes, how?

When one has an important life event occur that has all the makings of a great book or movie, should one keep it to themselves or attempt to share it? Or am I just dreaming grandiose author fantasies instead of dealing with my trauma?

I appreciate your thoughts.

Thank you.

Dr. Prey

 

Dear Dr. Prey,

I’ve been reading The Art of Thought by Graham Wallas and it occurs to me that the reason it has taken so long to write this response is in part because of the “incubation” phase of the creative act. I did write to you when I first got this letter, excited to respond, intrigued with the situation. Then I waited a couple of weeks and was not sure why. Then when I began to draft a response, I needed clarification on a factual question and so I wrote to you about that, and you gave the answer that was required.

As a courtesy to readers, I will just say that I was not sure what the word “engaged” meant. You clarified that it meant you met with him privately in an online chat room. You never met him in person. He did request a meeting, which you declined. You gave me some other details, too, and I must admit I remain fascinated by the story, but want to just limit this to the one unambiguous response that I am clear about.

Now I sit, having been immersed in reading about psychoanalysis on a level I’m not really equipped to understand, and I come to your letter after a good long swim and some quiet time cleaning the kitchen, and it hits me: If you wish to write about this, I think the best form is not fiction but memoir.

You may at first object that you wish to keep your anonymity. Yes, of course you wish to keep your anonymity. And you can. But what is necessary here is to uncover and reveal to yourself your hidden impulses. You wish to understand yourself better. You wish to know why you acted in the ways you did. I think if you ask yourself these questions, and tell yourself the stories you need to tell, then it will become clear to you. And I think the way to do that is in the form of memoir and journal writing.

If you were an experienced fiction writer it would be different. You would be familiar with the way you disguise your own deepest themes; you would know, in some way, what you are saying by your fictional account even as it remains opaque to others. And so that might be a perfectly sensible way to deal with the powerful psychic material that is at hand.

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That might still happen. You still might find what you need by writing fiction. But I have a feeling it would be like trying to express something on the violin, and not knowing how to play the violin. You would have to learn how to play it, first. Whereas, you do know how to write first-person expository prose. You do have a voice already. You don’t need to burden yourself with the conventions of an art form that takes years to master.

My intuition says that the more rough and ready, direct route of writing memoir is the best way to deal with this material. That will mean journaling and recounting the story, going deep and freely into your own most primitive reasons for doing the things you did. Do not worry about protecting yourself at first. Treat the writing as though it were a confession, in the fullest, most profound sense. Pour yourself into it. If it helps, in the realm of a confession, to tell it to some imagined wise confidant, then do that.  Tell everything you know about yourself. Tell the pain. Tell of the fear behind the pain, or the pain behind the fear and fantasize about the ways you have found to alleviate it. What is your big pain? What is your big fear? I feel confident that the series of actions you took is related to your core fear. This is a story that has probably been repeated in your life. So tell the story. Begin with your deepest fear or your deepest pain and just confess it all.

Of course I don’t know what that is. You may not know yet. It may only emerge as you continually ask yourself what it is. This may be a route to finding that out. I can’t even guess. But the mystery is there for you to solve.You can solve it in the privacy of your own writing, which is a soul-searching practice. You needn’t publish what you produce. But you could. You could publish it under a pseudonym or you could publish it under your own name. That would be up to you. But I urge you to first write it as though it will never be seen. Write it as though it is your own secret, agonized journey, your own revelation.

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How do you escape a scary love affair with a powerful married man who is your professional superior, and abusive, and dangerous?

Dear Cary,

I’m a young woman who moved to the US a few years ago to do my PhD (I am currently in another country for a post-doc). I’m in a very difficult situation, I feel so desperate and depressed, like there’s no way out. For more than 2 years I have been in a relationship with a married man, who was my PhD advisor (I eventually switched advisors so that he wouldn’t have to write a letter of recommendation for me to find a job or be involved in my thesis committee). I don’t excuse myself and I know most people would judge me very harshly, and I do too. The guilt that I feel has brought me to dark places I never imagined existed in me, I know the way things happened is wrong, no matter how much love there is. I felt, at the time, as if I had no power to control the feelings I was starting to feel. The connection between him and I was growing every day without us being able to control it, and this was taking me with it. I felt powerless, drowning into something much bigger than me, that was already destroying my self worth. Even though I felt overwhelmed and powerless by my feelings, and I felt as if I had no choice, I do know I had a choice, and I did not handle it well. Being in this situation has crushed my self esteem and sense of worth. I’m drowning, this is all I can think of during the day and is affecting my health, my mind, my whole life.

For a part of the year he doesn’t live with his wife and we video chat for hours and hours every day, and I travel to see him whenever I can, even going to a different country about once a month, when we live like we were married, only to have to deal with the pain of his absence when he leaves. I’m extremely attached and I drop anything to just talk to him – I stopped doing things to be available to talk to him when he can. I know we have an incredible bond and in his way he loves me deeply, but he has been unable to separate. He’s afraid of hurting his wife even more (she never found proof of the extent of our relationship, but she knows), there’s the effect this might have on his kids (who are not young anymore, but of course this is big), the financial burden of a divorce and how that would affect people’s perception of him. I try to be understanding but living in this situation has been heart breaking for me too.

I love him deeply but I am also worried about how our future would be. There are moments when he gets emotionally abusive and angry and that devastates me. He crushes me with words, also professionally. He’s very possessive and I feel like I have to be careful with everything that I talk to him about and how I say things. He’s much older than me and I worry he’ll get even more possessive as time passes. The fact that we still have work projects together (even after I finished my PhD) makes everything so much more complicated. Our relationship already had a big impact on my professional life, which is just starting, and I’m worried how things will affect it even more, no matter what turn they take. I can’t focus on anything, let alone work efficiently. He is uncomfortable with me working with other people, I feel like I depend on him so much and that he could destroy my life if he wanted.

Last month I was with him when I got sick. Initially we thought I just had a flu, but my fever didn’t improve as the days went by. He treated me in a horrible way, he got upset because “I ruined the trip”, we couldn’t have sex and I couldn’t help clean the house. He treated me with such contempt and so much anger, he was upset when I asked him for a blanket when I was shivering, he didn’t offer to get any medicine for me or even ask how I was feeling. I’ve never felt so vulnerable. The last day he said he couldn’t wait for me to leave because I am a pain in the ass and he couldn’t stand me like that. When I found out what I have (it’s a virus that will go away on its own, and I’m finally well now after one month) he got out of his mind, repeating “I did this” to him. He blamed me for potentially passing this virus to him, even though it was not my fault I got sick. He couldn’t care less how I felt, he just blamed me and worried about himself. A bit after that I had to move to another city and during this process my car was broken into and half of my belongings were stolen. He keeps repeating to me he wishes I had been more careful, because now he has to deal with me upset about what happened. I can’t believe the man I love so much can say and do these things. It makes me question whether it is not my fault, if I was overbearing, if it’s the situation that’s making him act this way.

Most people would say I’m a pretty, very intelligent young woman, and there are plenty of interesting guys who want to date me, but I can’t bring myself to end things with him (at least until he sorts out what he wants to do). Even after what happened last month, I am still terrified of breaking up with him. I’m so afraid of him, of what he might do to me professionally, of his anger and his reaction, of the horrible things he says, and I feel so much guilt and sadness for everything.

I’m really lost, I don’t know what to do and I’m in desperate need of some advice.

Thank you,
Lost

Dear Lost,
At first, when reading your letter, I was forming a picture of two flawed adults who have fallen in love in less-than ideal circumstances and are just going to have to make the best of it. Then my sense of it changed when you described his behavior when you got sick. I now think you are in an abusive, dangerous relationship and you need to leave.

I cannot diagnose people. But I can recognize patterns. The patterns here are those of a predatory man taking advantage of his political, social and economic privilege to get what he wants from a weaker partner while protecting his own professional, political and family privileges. That alone is enough to suggest that you must leave. His anger and lack of compassion add an element of danger to the mix, indicating that not only should you leave, but you should leave now.

There are too many areas of asymmetrical power here. Let’s just briefly name the major ones:

Age disparity
Gender Disparity
Power and status disparity
Marital status disparity

All those could, of course, be overcome by two partners of mutual goodwill. But in this case, he is using those factors to his advantage without regard for your well being.

If you cannot leave him on your own then you need the help of a paid advocate. Locate a good marriage and family therapist, psychotherapist or psychologist and explain that you need support and guidance in leaving a destructive relationship. Make it clear that you are not seeking help in deciding what to do, that you have decided what to do and only need help and support in carrying it out.

Do it. It may save your life.

 

You were victimized by a sociopath. Stop putting your hand in the flame

Hi! It’s me, Cary! How ya doin?

I’m out of the pool  eating toast and thinking about the novel. I’m committed to finishing by the end of May. I have it all planned out. It’s practically done! Finally.

Plus yesterday I finished my application to Yaddo, thanks to my Finishing School commitment. It was a long day but I got it done before my 6pm writing coaching appointment (I’m doing that too now, acting as a coach for writers who have projects that are promising but resisting ; I get on the side of the writer and together we push to dislodge invisible impediments).

Finishing School starts next week, Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. at the house. If you have a project you’re trying to finish, let me know.

Me, personally, I used Finishing School in December to finish fiction and send it out and do my Yaddo application (I sure would love to have some uninterrupted time to write the next novel!) and I have dedicated the next five months of Finishing School, my own personal goal, to finishing the current novel. I’m dividing it up into five sections, one a month to finish up (they’re mostly written anyway). If you have a project you want to write and would like to dedicate one month or the next five months to it, get in touch with me at cary@carytennis.com. Maybe we can work something out. Dive in the deep end with me! I want company making art in the 21st century.

Now let’s answer a letter:

Dear Cary,

I have read and admired your advice for many years. I have always loved your well-considered and thoughtful advice about really difficult problems. I have started this letter to you hundreds of times but never finished it, but today is that day.

When I was a teenager (early ’90s, before the Internet – you might remember these distant times!!) I wrote something called a zine. It was a magazine about music and art that I wrote and laid out with a glue stick and photocopied and distributed at record shops where I lived. It was pretty well received – and if I do say so, looking back at old issues, well designed – and making it was the first baby steps in what would be my professional career. I learned to write well, to finish things, to find interesting stuff, to produce something that looked great that people would care about, all with absolutely no money.

As everyone did in those days I included an address to write to (again, no internet), and a few people did, sending contributing material and what I guess was fan mail. One guy in particular sent a long letter and some contributions, and I used them and wrote back and said thanks. He wrote again, became a regular contributor, and we corresponded over several years. I considered this person a good friend, though I didn’t know who he was. Later on we kept in touch and, thanks to Hotmail, this included keeping in touch when I moved overseas when I was 19.

A year or two later I found out that it had been my brother’s girlfriend – 6 years older than me – who had created and orchestrated this personality, written all these letters, corresponded with me for so many years. She was a horrible bitch to my face, often telling me I was worthless, selfish, ruining my family, didn’t deserve anything, she told me that my mother called her to complain about me (not true), her nickname for me was “charming little princess”, etc. etc., and in the meantime running this charade of a person who was my friend and someone I trusted.

The shock and fallout was unbelievable. Unbearable. A year later, my brother married her. That was the last time I spoke to my brother, in 2001.

It has been 16 years since I found out what she was up to, and the intervening years have been so fucking hard. I felt like a fool, I felt stupid, I was angry, I was humiliated, I was confused. I told my parents, who told me in no uncertain terms that they would “choose” between me and my brother, and would not exclude her from the family. Family anything became psychological torture as she paraded around as if she had a right to be there, and I felt like a pariah in my own family.

The campaign of emotional abuse and manipulation was bad enough, but the fallout has been another circle of hell altogether. My immediate family – parents and one other brother – simply do not believe that what she did was that bad, no one has advocated for me, no one has demanded that she apologise, and I have been told such things as “if it was sexual abuse it would be different” or “you just need to get over it” or “she had a hard life, it’s not her fault”. Every time I tried to talk about it, the subject was changed.

Cary, this made my 20s hell. I trusted no one. My self-esteem was nonexistent. I wanted to die. I didn’t trust my own experiences and was angry at myself for not “getting over it” and so very angry at my family for just abandoning me to my own misery. My parents refused to talk about it with me. I went to years of therapy, I was on medication, and I did all the things that are indicative of extreme and prolonged emotional distress. Eventually I moved 4000 miles away from home and started a new life.

Three years ago my remaining brother – who I had tried to have a relationship with – told me that my abuser and the brother who married her (who I think was implicit in the abuse, but have no proof) babysit his baby twins. I asked him why he would allow a woman who he damn well knew was an abuser of children to act as a person of authority in their lives and I was told “Oh we watch them really carefully” and “that just won’t happen.”

The subtext there is one of two things: either he doesn’t believe that the abuse happened the way I said it did, or he doesn’t think it was a big deal. Both of those things are absolutely unacceptable. I told him this, and told him that if those children are describing their relationship with those people to a therapist in ten years I will be the only one in the family not directly responsible for knowing what the situation was and letting it happen. We have not spoken since.

I have tried really hard to maintain a relationship with my parents, though they are clearly of the opinion – and have told me – that this really isn’t a big deal and the problem in the family is my failure to get over something minor. They’re in their 70s (I am 35) and I try to have compassion for the difficult position they’re in. I think I deserved better from them; they should have advocated for me, they should have protected me from this fallout by holding her accountable, but my abuser did so much to torpedo any trust relationship I had with my parents by telling me misinformation and manipulating the way I felt about them that I figure I have lost too many years with them to cut them out completely.

In recent years, after cutting my second brother out of my life, I have felt for the first time like I can breathe. I now realise that having a relationship with someone who invalidated the biggest trauma of my adult life was retraumatising me over and over, and that when I cut off ties with both of them I was validating myself, I was believing my own experiences, I was advocating for me – all things my family never did for me.

My problem is this: I visit my parents annually and spend the entire time sobbing. I am there right now, surrounded by family portraits of my parents, my brothers and their wives … I’m not in any of them, it’s as if I just don’t exist, like there’s two families. My mother said something tonight about all this being not as big a deal as I thought it was and it just set me off again; how can all this pain, all this therapy, all this hell of 16 years not convince them that what happened to me really happened? Why is the status quo more important than their own daughter? Why was I sacrificed on the altar of not making waves? I have had so many years of feeling desperately alone because of abuse where I was the victim, and have gone through so much shame, so much turmoil, so much loneliness and felt so bereft of love and worth. Everything about this situation sent the message that I am worthless – she perpetrated this, my brother married her, no one held her responsible, everyone pretends it didn’t happen. But it did, because I have been wading through the pain for 16 years. I don’t think that’s nothing.

My question is this: How the fuck can I finally feel okay about any of this? I am more functional than I used to be, but if I pause long enough to think about this whole system of abuse I just can’t stop shaking with sobs that last days, that shake me to my core. I fantasize about revenge sometimes – starting a website with her name dot com and outlining my story for employers and others to see, or other things that make her a victim instead of a person that can cruelly abuse and manipulate without consequences, but I know that won’t work and will only result in me poisoning my own psyche. I know it is not the spoon that bends, but me, but I have spent 16 years bending and I just can’t bend far enough. I have wished things were different, tried to make things different, been to years of therapy, drank, raged, did drugs, found a fulfilling relationship, made a good career, but nothing has ever been able to touch this pain of being disregarded by my family and my abuser winning. When I start to get better I am jolted back by the realisation that I am just disposable.

Thank you for reading. Please, if by some miracle you have read this diatribe and decide to respond, sign me off as

Anonymous

 

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Dear Anonymous,

So, I have to say, intuitively, I like you. You are a fine person. It hurts me to see you keep putting your hand in the flame.

You were the victim of a sociopath. You continue to be victimized by your family.

I suggest that you cut off all contact with your family for two years.

You are locked in an impossible struggle with them. You want them to be something they are not. This struggle is futile. It is hopeless. It is full of pain. But you have a choice. You are free to walk away from this futile struggle. You do not have to justify yourself or explain. They don’t own you. Walk away. Cut off all contact.

You are free to make this choice. It is the right choice for you. You are a free and independent person and must make this choice for your own survival and happiness.

Cut off all contact. Cut off all contact for two years. Do not call or write. Do not read emails from them.

If certain communications are necessary, make communications with them through a third party. There must be someone you can trust to do this. You say you have built a pretty good life for yourself, 4,000 miles away. That is great. It makes it easier to cut off contact because you will not be running into family members on the street.

Imagine how it would feel to go a day, a week,  a month, enjoying your life and not thinking of this event even once. Imagine how that would be! To be pretty much like other people, going about your life, enjoying the things you enjoy, being a master of your craft, being a part of a community, a worker among workers, liked and loved for who you are, sleeping well at night, enjoying life.

That is possible.

Do this, please. Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop opening the wound. Give yourself a chance to forget.

Maybe you won’t forget. That’s OK. I am not saying you should forget it or there’s something wrong with you if you don’t forget, or if it comes to mind frequently.

You’ve been injured. That’s not your fault.

But you have some choice in the matter. You have it within your power to change your habits and your circumstances. So give yourself a chance. Give your wound a chance to heal.

It won’t heal fast. It will heal slowly. That’s why the two years. Two years is doable. See what happens. After two years you might want to resume contact. Or maybe not. Give yourself two years and see how it goes.

Find a narrative. A narrative is like a box to put the story in and close the lid. The narrative is that you were the victim of a sociopath. Not just a sociopath but a sociopathic family system. This was unusual in its extent but its general pattern is familiar: When terrible things happen in a family system, the family system works to deny it. All these individuals are part of that system. They are doing what they think they need to do to survive in that system. They are afraid the system will destroy them if they oppose it. And they might be right. Look what the system did to you. This system is being run by a sociopath. It will try to destroy any member who to opposes it.

You are already the enemy of this system. You are a truth teller and  so it had to crush you. You continue to be a threat because you continue to say what is actually happening. So it attacks you when you appear. So don’t appear. Disappear. Live your own life.

You can do this. You can cut off all contact with your family. There is no law against it.

There will be difficulties. A part of you will resist making this change. It will feel weird like you just can’t do that. But you can. You can and I think you should.

Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop putting your hand in the fire.

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