I threw my junkie sons out of the house

Dear Cary,

I need clarity surrounding my relationship with my two sons, 25 and 30, who until a month ago resided with me in the house I raised a family in. Both are opioid abusers (and benzodiazepines and nitrous oxide “whip-its” when they can get them) and they have systematically manifested the usual toolkit strengths of addicts … lying, cheating  and stealing repeatedly.

After catching them each in separate thieving episodes within the last month, I finally made them move out. This hurt a lot since I really like them when they’re not using. I suppose it’s their life and their path that they must follow and ultimately it’s up to them to decide to stop using, but how do I go about keeping them close in my heart when their junkie conduct is mostly aimed at victimizing me and ignoring my boundaries?

It feels much calmer and safer to not have them in my house anymore, but it also sometimes feels selfish. Your thoughts?

Fed-up Dad

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Dear Fed-up Dad,

How do you do what is right in the world and also feel good about it? Lots of times you can’t. It’s one or the other.

So which is more important? To do the right thing? Or to feel good about it?

What if we only did the things we feel good about? What if we always said yes? People would take our money and make us live in the street. I mean, you walk down the street and somebody says, I need money, I need a place to live, and you say, OK, I feel so awful when I say no, so here is my money, and here are the keys to my house. Then you’ve got somebody living in your house who doesn’t do the dishes and won’t leave.

If you didn’t grow up with people shooting up in your bathroom while you’re waiting to shave it can be a shock when they take your socks. Where’s my damned socks? you say. Then you get that blank junkie stare, and you realize just how far gone into another moral universe is the soul you were accustomed to encountering in the kitchen.

A good place to learn about this is Al-Anon. That place is full of people with addicts living in their basements and attics, shooting up in the bathroom and cooking meth in the kitchen and stumbling around drunk in the middle of the night where the kids can see them and wonder what the fuck they’re up to. At Al-Anon you’ll find people who have addicts driving their cars and raising their children with them, and sharing their paychecks and their beds, and you’ll hear how they deal with it. Sometimes it’s possible to just throw the addict out but sometimes not. Sometimes the addict is paying the rent, or raising the kids, or maybe you super much love the addict and can’t stand being away from him or her, or maybe you fear physical reprisals if you throw the addict out, or maybe if you throw the addict out you’re afraid he’ll die in prison.

In your case, you did the right thing but it didn’t feel great. I suggest you cultivate the minimal satisfaction that comes of doing the right thing regardless of how it feels.

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My alcoholic father has a child we never knew about

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

 

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Mesmerized by the Possibilities

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Dear Mesmerized,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Because you were momentarily insane. Duh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. Dream on.

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

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

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

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