My children were abused

Cary’s classic column from  Monday, Aug 12, 2013

I live with an awful history, and sometimes it is too much for me


Dear Cary,

I am writing with a problem that makes my heart physically ache.

Let me briefly lay the groundwork first, and then I will present the problem. I was married for almost 20 years to a man who had three children from his first marriage. We had three more ourselves, and I legally adopted my oldest stepdaughter when she turned 18. My stepchildren’s mother is extremely abusive, and all three of them were physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused by her or her relatives. While I understand that she herself was a victim of the same behavior from her own family members, I cannot condone the perpetuation of the cycle. My adopted child (now 34) has worked really hard to separate herself from the traumas of her youth, only now to find that her father, my ex-husband, has now replaced her mother as the perpetrator of abuse in her life.

This daughter has a nice husband, a steady job in a call center, and a lovely son from a previous relationship. She also suffers from a mysterious auto-immune disease and severe chronic pain that nothing alleviates. She has mental problems that show up as bipolar but are probably more like PTSD. The more I study about bodywork, the more I understand that these conditions are outward manifestations of everything she has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of her natural parents.

My firstborn was molested by my stepson, and raped by a neighbor’s grandson, but when we found out (years later, since she was too ashamed to tell us) my husband dismissed it as normal children’s sexual exploration. I caved in and never pressed charges. I will regret forever that I was not able to a) prevent it and b) stand up to my then-husband and do what was right by our daughter. It took me years also to grow enough of a spine to file for divorce. (As you might correctly surmise, our relationship was a perfect match of emotional abuser and willing victim … until I finally broke and had to make a change.)

Despite these things that happened, believe it or not, I do not regret my marriage. We had a marvelous time for a good long while. I learned about not only practical matters (confidence with power tools, for example), but even in the disintegration of the relationship I learned a lot: to stand up for myself, to make changes, to be really honest and intimate in ways that I never was able to before. I had to go through the fire and the dark tunnels and every other metaphor of shame, guilt, depression, etc., and find my strength there.  By going through all that, plus therapy, plus going back to school, I was really able to change myself for the better. Relationships with my children, my parents and my friends all improved because of me learning how to communicate.

What my ex will never comprehend is that the divorce itself was actually an act of love and compassion on my part, because neither of us could be our best person with each other. My hope was that both of us individually could be better people, better parents, happier and more functional than we were as a couple. He was, however, devastated and retreated into self-medication with alcohol, medical marijuana and opiates, as well as bad-mouthing me to his entire family and our children.

The problem as it stands now is that my ex-husband, who is chronically unemployed and now lives on disability, continues to rain abuse on his eldest daughter, most recently accusing her of dealing her prescription painkillers to her 14-year-old brother (my youngest child), being a heroin addict and flaunting her “wealth” in his face (because she occasionally buys him groceries and little gifts). Out of all six of his children she is the one who has been most steadfastly determined to be kind and loving and financially supportive of him, and she receives for her efforts only more abuse and pain. My biological children all refuse to see him or speak to him. I have a hard time watching him deteriorate this way. There seems to be nothing left of the man that I fell in love with. And of course, my children have lost their father, not to death or disappearance, but to some mental illness that prevents him from being a loving parent. This hurts me the most.

Is there any other advice than “let go”? Cut all ties and never look back?

I apologize for the very long letter, but I felt that I needed to explain myself thoroughly. I hope you might find the chance to answer this letter among so many others that call out for your attention. At the very least, writing this has been helpful to ease my mind and my heart.

Best wishes,
E

Dear E,

It makes sense that you would want to cut all ties and never look back. But that is probably not possible. It wouldn’t work. You are tied to these people. They are your family.

But you can make adjustments — as you seem to have done already.

In a practical sense, you can do more of what is working and less of what is not. Make that your daily method. In the morning, think about what is coming up in the day, and find time to do more of the things that work for you, and try to eliminate the things that don’t work. If you can avoid seeing certain people in the family whose presence distresses you, then avoid them. If you can write more letters and contemplate your life more, if you can spend more time with supportive friends, then do more of that.

You can be strong for your daughter. You can advise her to cut ties with her father, because he is only bringing her grief. And you can protect yourself. You can, in a sense, abandon these people. Recognizing that there is nothing you can do anymore, you can step back. I know that probably sounds trite, like just “let go.” In fact, what I am saying is that “letting go” is a positive thing but it is not an abstraction; it is a constant practice.

How do you get through such things? This, right now, is exactly how you get through it: You tell your story. You do what works. If writing this letter made you feel better, then write 10 such letters. Write a hundred letters. Write every day.

You know that there is no one complete solution to life’s suffering. But there are changes you can make. And you have to keep making them. You have to keep making adjustments because new things will always arise. Your ex-husband may continue to get worse. Your daughter may suffer continuing bouts of terror and depression and trauma. So you have to keep doing the things that work for you, and do more when you can.

You can also strengthen your capacity to hold and process the feelings that do come up; you can strengthen the way you hold the memories you have. You can strengthen your inner self so that when you think of these things they do not rock you back on your heels. You can learn to see the patterns in all this, to understand how it fits together. And you can also learn to honor the darkness, the ways in which there is no pattern but only evil. You can learn to respect the presence of evil; if not honor it, at least to abide it, so you are not surprised by it or defeated by it, so you can look it in the eye and be stronger than it.

This means calling upon your warrior spirit, your spirit of pure survival. Lately I have been thinking about the warrior spirit in all of us, the aggressive spirit. If you can think back to the act of being born, you can remember that when we are born we are fighting to the surface and we are pure aggression. We want to survive and that is all. We want to come into the world and that is all we know. This birth memory can serve you well. Remember that part of you that is pure survival instinct. It is strong.

So, no, I don’t have any great solutions, other than to trust yourself and the solutions you have already found, and to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t, and trust your instincts about how to survive these terrible things, and look for the strength in yourself; feel the strength inside. Revel in your own strength, so when awful thoughts and memories arise, you can contain them.

There is no complete solution to living with awful things that have happened. There is only how you live with it day to day, with a strong, vibrant warrior’s spirit.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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

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

TuscanAd_09122015

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 left an abusive marriage, and now I’m in love with a thief

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, DEC 12, 2007

If we move in together, should I buy a safe?


Hi Cary,

I recently escaped a long-term (by today’s standards), abusive marriage. I’ve done remarkably well for myself, I think, and I feel like I have my shit together. I became reacquainted with an old friend about a year after my divorce, and we became a couple. He’s everything my ex was not: kind, considerate, expressive, gentle and loving — in addition to being funny, smart, inquisitive and wise. We are very much in love.

The problem? He has been sharing with me some of the details of his life that occurred while we were out of touch, and they’re not pretty. The latest confession involved stealing large sums of money from an incapacitated relative. I stopped him before he went into detail because I simply can’t imagine him doing that. It’s as if he’s talking about another person whom he knew once, not himself. And there have been other things from his younger, wilder days that really scare me. A lot.

So, my question to you is, to what extent do you think people can change? I would like this man to move in with me, but how do I tell him that I’m considering buying a safe so I can keep my financial papers secure? How can I trust someone who could do the things he’s saying he did? He does express regret, and assures me that he’s “not that person anymore.” But who is he now? And why the need to share this stuff?

I have a tendency to be suspicious of anyone who’s nice to me, but I think in this case I need to be careful and protect myself. Yet I don’t want to hurt him, as he has been nothing but good to me. So, tell me, do you think a tiger can change its stripes?

Worried and Wondering

TuscanAd_09122015

Dear Worried and Wondering,

I would really slow down with your plans to move in together. You need to know more. You need time to digest this troubling information, and you need time to set up a support system. By support system I mean a network of women who have been through what you have been through and who meet regularly and have a set of principles they live by so they don’t repeat.

You need to become part of such a group in order to get useful feedback on what you are doing. You are in the middle of this thing. You can’t really see it. I can’t see it either. But I can sense it: Some kind of dangerous pattern is replaying itself here. So I urge you to slow down and look outside of this relationship, to a counselor and/or a support group. Slow down and get some perspective. Identify the pattern.

Sure, I’ve seen people change their spots. But it isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, they don’t change on their own, and the spots remain underneath. I mean they can stop stealing from their relatives. They can stop getting into abusive relationships. But the forces and patterns are still there, so, without constant work with a group or a counselor, they often do other things that are just as baffling and dangerous but look different on the surface.

They don’t even mean to do it! That doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous.

This is something people don’t get: We don’t love doing it wrong. We don’t set out thinking consciously, I think I’ll rob my grandmother, and now that I’ve robbed my grandmother and told my new lover about it, I think I’ll rob my new lover.

It’s not like this guy you love is going to set out consciously to rob you. And it’s not like buying a safe is going to make you safe. I’m not going to set out consciously to go on a drinking spree. I’m not thinking it would be a great idea to go out and get drunk. But absent constant, steady messages from outside reminding me what will happen if I do, I’ll drift over that way. I’ll drift over to the bar. It has been a long time since I had a drink. But absent my routine, the constant reinforcing of messages, I’m drifting to the bar.

Furthermore, just putting a combination lock on the liquor cabinet isn’t going to solve anything. If I slip into a pattern of using substances to blunt reality, I’m done for. If this man you are with slips into a pattern of taking what isn’t his, the whole thing is already over.

You are in a dangerous situation and you need to go slowly. You need to talk to people who have been through what you have been through and who know about these patterns so you can see what you are doing.

It won’t be easy. The drive to repeat is enormously powerful. I think that is another thing people just don’t get: We are all about repetition. If we repeat the “good” habits, nobody is surprised. But when we repeat the “bad” habits, everybody is baffled. So I’m saying it’s not about the qualitative nature of what we repeat, it’s about the repetition itself. The drive to repeat is more powerful than we admit. It is at the heart of identity, for identity itself is nothing but a set of repeated actions.

It’s not that we think consciously, I’m going to really fuck up my life right now. We just love doing things the way we know how to do, the things that help us get to a place of feeling right. So if we can get to a place of feeling right by being with people who beat us and steal from us, well, it’s not that we really like people to beat us and steal from us. We wouldn’t just ask them outright, Hey, I’d feel more comfortable in this relationship if you would beat me and steal from me. I’m not saying “Blame the victim.” I’m saying: Beware how powerful are the forces that bring us together with our abusers.

And to that end: Do not be afraid to be overly cautious. Trust your caution, your instincts. You say you have a tendency to be suspicious of people who are nice to you. Well, what you call “being nice to you” may well be the insidious seduction that is a prelude to eventual abuse. So trust your mistrust. It may be the best friend you’ve got.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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

Write for Advice
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?

TuscanAd_09122015

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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

TuscanAd_09122015

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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

TuscanAd_09122015

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

TuscanAd_Sept2015

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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

FranceAd2015

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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

OnlineWorkshopMay42015

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.

FranceAd2015

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up