She tried to run me over!

 

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Aug 22, 2012

Is my friend out of control or are we still just having wild fun?


Dear Cary,

I think my dear friend is an alcoholic and a child in a grown woman’s body. But I don’t know how to help or deliver the soul-shaking wake-up call I think she deserves.

We had made plans to hang out the other night. I thought we should walk to the bar section of town; we don’t live very far away at all – a 10-minute walk at most. But my friend hates walking. She convinced the rest of us to let her drive, I’m not sure how. Actually she convinced me that she would park downtown and walk home afterward (a detail that will be more significant in a minute). And I was easily swayed because she has a brand-new Beamer – I’m distracted by shiny things. But on our way downtown we discovered that the can of pop she had been brandishing, that now rested in her cup-holder, was not a pop at all but a brewski. But I wasn’t too phased at the moment and I was admittedly amused by her brazen and carefree attitude, and she backed this up by frequent protests that she didn’t “give a shit.” (I didn’t find out until later, by way of her bragging, how much beer she had consumed before picking us up – she hid it well, for a little while at least.)

As we began to enjoy ourselves at the bar her protests turned into, “You know, I just don’t give a fuck.” And I agreed with her, even cheered her, as I wasn’t given reason enough to question her motives for saying so. And why should she? I just thought she was being so incredibly cool and rebellious! Well, that’s not exactly true. It sounded a little pathetic, but I was willing to let her act out her arrested-adolescent angst – she had just moved back in with her folks for a brief time after more than 10 years away so I could see how it was easy to relive those feelings. But then these rebellious rally cries started taking on a slightly stranger color. “You know, I just don’t give a shit,” which gave way to “You know, nobody gives a shit,” which gave way to “Nobody gives a shit about me.” But I was still obliviously applauding her rebellious spirit, plus I was so securely sealed inside my own beer-buzz spacesuit that was impenetrable to bad feelings. We were all in extremely good cheer, I couldn’t imagine these were the beginning whimpers of a cry for help. I still didn’t suspect anything when she started joking about suicide. “Sometimes, I don’t know why I just don’t go ahead and kill myself,” followed by her own laughter, mostly to show everyone that she was joking. She would say, “I’m just kidding, I would never do that.” I still didn’t flinch because I had been hearing this sort of thing from her for the better part of the last decade and a half – she presents this character of a fun-loving melancholic and I’ve always bought it. The only thing is, and this is unbeknownst to her, the rest of us know of someone who attempted suicide recently, and he succeeded. We all knew him and loved him, but one of the women with us was his closest friend. But we all knew my friend was just being an idiot and accidentally found a very unfortunate topic to blabber on about.

At the last bar, my friend is barely allowed in. We promise to watch her (we know the bouncer). At one point I see that she has gotten lost, in a bar she’s been to a hundred times, so I have to go corral her. After we’ve been there for a while I luckily see her make a break for the exit; she was hoping to sneak out unnoticed. I follow her out and somehow convince her to let me walk her home (we should have walked in the first place! I soon find out she had no intention of walking, ever.) We’re hungry so we go get a slice of pizza. I’ve forgotten where she’s parked, so as we leave the pizza shop I stupidly take her right by her car by accident. She breaks away and gets in. I stand in front, and for a while try unsuccessfully to get her back out of the car.

Brief interlude. This is déjà vu for me. I’ve been in this ridiculous situation before, though not with this particular friend. The first time I allowed myself to be tricked into relinquishing my position in front of the car because the driver “couldn’t hear me.” Ha! Then off she went. Within two blocks she had blown through a stop sign. Within another two blocks she was on the sidewalk trying to walk in a straight line, uniformed officers sternly looking on. She couldn’t, so she spent the night in jail. And then there was all that business of losing her driver’s license for a year. Luckily I have witnesses to this or I wouldn’t believe such instant karma either.

Back to the present. My friend, the grown woman acting like a child, is complaining that she can’t hear me. I’m not falling for it this time! So she runs me over. Well, she would have run me over if I had glued my soles to the pavement, but I saw that she was going to breach my barrier by a large margin so I smartly stepped aside. I’m only so principled. But, angry that my tactics hadn’t worked after all that, I read her the most ferocious riot act I could muster, after which she still asked if I wanted a ride back to the bar. I was so frustrated that I finally yelled, “I never want to hear from you again!” I felt like the silly little kid kicking his Keds into the sand shouting, “I hate your guts!” Needless to say she drove off, probably laughing at me. As far as I know there was no incident.

So I acknowledge I let my rage get the better of me in the end. We haven’t talked since. Now I don’t know what good I could possibly offer to this situation — I feel like I’ve just played the role of an incredibly stereotypical overprotective brother in some cheesy after-school special, badly. I almost feel like I owe her an apology for going so overboard. But I also don’t know what I could have done even if I had kept my cool. I assume she wouldn’t have listened and may never listen. I probably should have just said, “Hey, send a text when you get home” and never mention it again. But I feel like she was leaving some pretty obvious hints that something in her life is amiss. Could it be that she is oblivious to the hints that she is dropping? What do other people with better anger-management skills do when confronted with such hints? Thank you for your insight.

Hungover

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Dear Hung Over,

When we’re drunk we commit crimes. They don’t seem like crimes at the time.

This friend of yours, when she did the thing with the car, that is what cops call assault with a deadly weapon. Like when you try to run a cop over, that’s what they call it. Let’s underline the seriousness of what’s going on with your friend. She’s going to get hurt. She’s in trouble. I don’t care if you call her an alcoholic or what, but she’s in trouble and she’s going to get hurt and eventually she’s going to hurt someone else. She’s going to end up in jail. She’s going to end up in rehab. Things are going to get worse. Bad things are going to happen and keep happening. An intervention is not out of the question.

Have you seen that show, “Intervention”? To me, that show is no joke. I feel authentic sadness when I watch that show because those people are just like the people I see all the time in the world I live in.

You sound like you have a fun life right now. Your friend has money. You like shiny things. That could change fast, permanently, soon. If she kills somebody with her car, her life will change fast and permanently. You have already lost one friend to suicide. I wonder what part drugs and alcohol played in that. I wonder this because people self-medicate. They treat undiagnosed bipolar disorder and depression with alcohol and drugs. They don’t know they have a mental illness. Neither do their friends. Then they commit suicide. They don’t have to. They’re having distorted thoughts. They know nothing about their condition or how cognitive therapy can help or how modern psychopharmacology can help or how any number of psychiatric interventions can help, or how much better life can be once this disorder is managed. They don’t know how many people love them or what great pleasures in life await them. They just jump. They just shoot themselves. After they’ve done that, all you have is a bunch of sad, baffled people wondering what happened and what they could have done.

People die because of stupid stuff that can be changed.

So if I were you I would get serious about this. Of course you were right to be furious with her. It’s not a time to maintain your cool when someone is crazy drunk and aiming a deadly weapon at you. It’s a time to get angry. You didn’t do anything wrong by getting angry. The only thing you didn’t do right is, you could have secretly fished her keys out of her purse and hid them and told her you had no idea where they were and offered to get her a cab way before she had a chance to stumble into her car.

Seriously. Why take the risk?

That’s what I would do next time. Fish her keys out of her purse and throw them in a mailbox or something. This is no laughing matter. There are parents and brothers and sisters all over this world who have lost loved ones because of silly, stupid evenings like this. Those people who lost their loved ones to drunk drivers, they matter. Those people matter. They didn’t do anything wrong. They were just walking along, or driving to 7-Eleven, or picking up their mom or out with friends when somebody blind drunk rammed into them and it was all over in minutes. And then they live with that the rest of their lives. They had some beautiful person they loved, and every day they enjoyed that person, and that person had dreams and they had dreams for that person, and they were looking forward to seeing that person graduate from college and fall in love and make a family and grow old and beautiful and then a thing like some chick is drunk driving on the wrong side of the road ha ha isn’t that going to make a funny story the next day and that’s it. This life is over and it doesn’t come back and nothing can change it and nothing can bring things back the way they were. That’s how it happens.

Certain people are never going to hear certain shouts of joy and never going to see certain beautiful eyes because of stuff like this.

It isn’t worth it. It may seem funny and cute but it isn’t worth it. If something bad happens and you realize you did nothing to stop it it will ruin your life too.

All the joy and beauty you are taking for granted can be gone in an instant because some girl found her car, Surprise! and got in it and got it running and thought she’d drive the few blocks home.

So I would make a stand. I would say this stuff has to stop or you are not going to be around when it all blows up. I would say it’s intervention time.

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My husband is a high-achieving alcoholic, seven years sober Should we finally tell the kids?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 9, 2005


Dear Cary,

When our two boys were small children, my husband was a very high-achieving alcoholic. He never lost his job, he never verbally or physically abused either the kids or me, he remained a good father, and he never alienated his friends or family. Indeed, to this day, no one other than me (and his treatment group participants and counselors) know about his alcohol abuse. He did, however, almost die from alcohol. He attempted to stop drinking without medical intervention and suffered seizures and other life-threatening complications. As a result of this event, he got into a treatment program that worked for him (at least to date). After several years of drinking at least a fifth every day, he has not had a drink in about seven years. At his insistence, we have never told our kids or families about his alcoholism.

The problem is that our boys are no longer young kids — one is in high school and one in middle school. From our counseling and my experiences with him, I am completely convinced that the brains of some people are hard-wired to abuse alcohol and/or drugs and some are not. I know that I can drink one glass of wine at dinner (I haven’t in seven years) and have no desire for a second, while he simply cannot start drinking without continuing to drink. Consequently, I believe that it is very important for our teenage boys to understand that given their genetic makeup, they need to be particularly sensitive to the impact of alcohol on them. I also want them to understand that we, as parents, do have experience with alcoholism, and that if they ever find themselves with an alcohol issue, we will be able to understand and help them. Since we, as parents, now never drink and seldom put ourselves in social situations where alcohol is present, I worry that our children will perceive that we would never be able to understand or help them with alcohol issues (even though I talk to them about such issues regularly).

In short, I want my husband to talk with them about his alcoholism in an age-appropriate way. He, however, is too ashamed to engage in such a discussion and does not want me to tell them (which I completely understand). I’m wondering if I should push the issue (our older boy just turned 16), or just let it drop as I have in the past.

Just Curious

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Dear Just Curious,

You ask a difficult question. I personally have pretty clear feelings about what to do.

I would tell the older boy. Then I would tell the younger boy as well, so that the older boy is not burdened with knowledge that he must either tell, imperfectly, or keep secret.

But I’m just one person — a person, moreover, with my own history of alcoholism that I’m quite candid about. I respect your husband’s desire to keep this matter private. That’s his choice.

I don’t believe there is a direct link between what you choose to tell your children and whether they develop alcoholism. You may tell them or not tell them. They may or may not develop problems with alcohol. The two are not causally related. As I understand the current science, there are indicators and apparent predispositions toward alcoholism, and there are traits associated with it, but there is no one certain cause or one certain measure of prevention.

If you tell them, they will probably experiment anyway. They might react abnormally to the first drink, or they might not. Knowing the history might act as a deterrent. Or it might not. Knowing that their dad beat it might embolden them. You can’t tell with kids.

It’s natural to want to talk about it. And it’s true that you have valuable, firsthand experience to impart. But as a former young person with an alcohol problem I can testify that young people with alcohol problems tend to be unreceptive to parental advice. That’s part of the syndrome.

All this leads us into contradiction and uncertainty. So for me, the question of what to tell the children is more a question about truth telling and the keeping of secrets in a family than it is about alcoholism prevention. It’s about what you believe you can control, about what is sacred, what is shameful, what is safe and what is toxic.

If my math is correct, the children were around the ages of 9 and 6 when your husband stopped drinking, meaning they undoubtedly witnessed him drunk, with that glassy stare, the slurred speech, the smell. So, apart from whether it’s going to prevent them from becoming little alcoholics or not, the information might have the effect of bringing a little sense to their world: Aha, now I understand this memory of my father falling asleep at the table, or being too “tired” to go upstairs.

If you love the truth and you believe that the truth can be life’s most powerful ally against insanity, depression, self-hatred and the like, then you may feel a strong urge to air the truth. On the other hand, perhaps you also know the powerful effect of a shameful fact revealed. Perhaps you know that sometimes children need to believe their parents are infallible, and you marvel at how certain truths, once revealed, never go back in the bottle: How could he have been a drunk? What if he should slip? What else don’t we know? Was he unfaithful to Mom? Are we sure we’re his kids?

I wonder how your husband’s attitude toward his alcoholism plays into this. Does he feel that his alcoholism is his fault? If so, perhaps he is still tormented by it in a way that he needn’t be. In fact, you might consider the possibility that it is necessary to be free from it psychologically and morally in order to be free from it medically. That is, shame, guilt and the keeping of secrets are part of the syndrome of addiction. You can easily see how this works: One stops the substance but retains the habits of mind. The habits of mind lead eventually back to the substance. So you have to change the habits of mind. One way to do that is to tell the truth.

But perhaps your husband is not burdened with shame at all. Perhaps he is simply making a very grown-up attempt at harm reduction. As I said, it’s a tough call. I know what I would do. But it’s a decision you and he must make.

Just to be clear: Inasmuch as it involves the well-being of the children, I think it’s a decision you as parents need to make together. But inasmuch as it involves your husband’s personal struggle with alcoholism, I think it is his decision alone how much to reveal. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two domains. But that is marriage.

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I’m hanging by my fingernails — but it feels good!

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 1, 2005

I’ve got this situation with my husband that’s really rough. Maybe I should move on?


Dear Cary –

My husband wants to go visit his lovers. And I’m strongly considering moving on.

My husband has been cultivating a relationship with two men, life partners in an open relationship, since about 1993. One of the two was his father’s lover, and quite frankly I have been motivated partially by some concern for what I perceive as the inappropriateness of that relationship. But as important, or more, I am dedicated to monogamy. I love my husband. We are compatible to a degree that is unusual, and remarked upon by others. I met him in 1997, and we were married in 1999.

The relationship has never been easy. My husband is an alcoholic, and the first three years of the relationship were characterized by sleepless nights and other such drama. On particularly wild evenings, I’d drag my unconscious husband inside the chain-link fence (we lived in a scary neighborhood, and I was afraid he’d get attacked otherwise) and leave him to sober up. This period culminated in a catastrophic accident (likely his fault), which left him with over $200,000 in hospital bills, unable to work for two years, and partially disabled to this day. I don’t want to whine, but I supported us through this period and likely always will earn more than he does by a factor of 10.

I have always held multiple-skilled jobs, and when I wanted something I couldn’t afford, I picked up additional work from waitressing to freelance gigs. He is now in college, which I pay for, and has become a licensed craftsman. He has gone to visit his lovers three times now, once when we were not committed to each other, once solo (when of course he had sex with them), and once, last Thanksgiving, with me. So, bringing us to the present, last night he told me that his lovers had asked him to come visit again and were offering him a plane ticket to do so. He claims this is not a sexual visit, but understands where I stand on the issue.

I spent last night without sleep in a diner, drinking coffee and eating bad food, unable and unwilling to share our bed with him. Because I am absolutely appalled and angry. But I am also looking to the future. I am thinking of a life without him, and thinking of what might be available to me.

My feelings are complicated. I am concerned for him, angry at being thrown over and lied to (because I don’t trust him not to have sex with them, and may never), and feel that this situation is patently unfair. For starters, I haven’t been able to take a real vacation in over a year. I have been sent for work to many vacation-worthy, places and I have gone to every single one of them alone because my husband was too busy to come with me. Lying on a pristine beach … alone. Eating sushi in San Francisco … alone. On a big game hunt … alone. I have two upcoming assignments which he won’t join me on, either. And he backed out of our mutual vacation this fall, which would be the first we’ve taken together outside the United States.

I have been a good girl. I am not old, ugly, or incapable of getting action. Indeed, I turn down people regularly who assume that I am single because they have never seen my husband. And because my primary job is, in essence, negotiating with wealthy people, I meet many cultured, genteel, wealthy, available men, some of whom are interested in me. Finally, I have devoted a significant portion of my paycheck to our home, and to my husband’s college, retirement fund, and healthcare. Because of poor planning on his part, I just donated part of my college fund (which I have been building up so I can return to college when he finishes) to him and last year donated additional money to the IRS. Frankly, though I worry about the effect that my leaving would have on him and on me, the persistence of this issue pisses me off. And I suspect I can do better.

I realize that any partner is challenging, and that any relationship would take effort. But I sometimes dream of being with someone who doesn’t toy with my emotions, truly values me above others, and can be my professional equal. Am I wrong to fantasize about alternative partners and what they might hold for me?

Wrong to Fantasize?

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Dear Wrong to Fantasize,

Here’s how your situation strikes me. It’s as though you had written to say, “Dear Cary, I have been hanging by my fingernails from the edge of a cliff for a few years now and, though it’s not really all that bad, as I have learned to kick my feet to frighten off the buzzards, nevertheless I have begun to wonder if I might be better off if I were to hoist myself back up on the ledge where I could sit comfortably and catch my breath. At least for a few minutes, or possibly an hour. Not that I would like to permanently reside on the ledge. I like hanging by my fingers from the edge of the cliff, and I’m good at it. But still, lately I’m beginning to wonder just how much longer I’ll be able to do this. I may eventually have to change positions not because I want to necessarily but simply because I run out of strength. What do you think?”

And of course what I think is, How did you decide to hang from the cliff by your fingernails in the first place, and why is it only now occurring to you to hoist yourself back on the ledge? Not that I don’t respect you for the talent and effort and sheer brute strength required to do what you’re doing. But to what practical purpose?

Maybe I’m going too fast here. To back up a little: No, I don’t think it’s wrong at all to fantasize about a better life. In fact, I think you should move on in your life and make things easier on yourself. But when and if you begin to take action in that regard, you may encounter upsetting emotions. So it wouldn’t hurt to think about how you ended up here, before you make any sudden moves.

Let’s just speculate. Why have you taken on so much? Maybe it feels more secure to hang from the cliff by your fingernails than to trust somebody to grab your wrist and pull you up. Have you ever been able to depend on other people in your life? Might it be that in your early life there was no one to depend on but yourself? And, not to be insulting, but we do tend sometimes to do things for symbolic reasons, as though we had an audience. Is your hanging by your fingernails a demonstration of some sort? If so, you might ask yourself why you need to demonstrate your strength, and to whom you are demonstrating it.

Wouldn’t it be great to just haul yourself over the ledge and relax, sit there for a while enjoying the view? Oh, look, there’s your husband, stumbling! Look out! Oh, no! He’s going to fall! You’d better run and help him!

What if you just let him fall … as a thought experiment? Why do you have to rescue him? I mean, who says so?

Speaking of your husband, that business with his father’s lover indicates that there may be a lot of pain and confusion in his life that he’s going to have to deal with himself. That’s another reason, in my book, to think about extricating yourself. Maybe it would be best if you work on your life for a while and he works on his.

I’m going to make another guess, which is that when you begin looking for patterns in the choices you have made, you may find a pattern of choosing weak people and not trusting them. There is a connection there: If you choose weak people, you don’t have to trust them. Conversely, having strong people around can be threatening: You may have to trust them; you may have to give up some control. Hanging from the cliff by your fingernails may be a lot of work, but at least you have control. Besides, the view is truly amazing!

But I really think someone ought to fly close by in a helicopter and put it to you over the loudspeaker: Hey! You! Hanging by your fingernails from the cliff! Get back on the ledge! Now!

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My 8-year-old misses his old life — should we move back to the suburbs?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 19, 2006

It was good to separate from their alcoholic dad — but I feel bad about bringing my kids to the city.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I are recently separated. To make a long story short, he developed a serious drinking habit over the course of our nine-year marriage and refused to seek treatment. He became violent, mismanaged his business, squandered an inheritance and was terribly irresponsible with money, so much so that when we sold our house a few months ago we narrowly escaped foreclosure.

I could not afford to purchase another home in the idyllic suburban town in which we lived, so I moved with my two children, ages 4 and 8, to the city. I love it here, as I am a 15-minute walk away from the university where I am a graduate student in a very demanding biomedical research program. I am sharing a house with my sister, who is helping me immensely. She watches my children so I can run to the grocery store and is home when I have to stay late in the lab.
Five months into our move, my 4-year-old has adjusted, but my 8-year-old is miserable. He misses his friends and his old lifestyle, and his best friend who lived next door. There were 18 children on the block where we lived and they were always outside playing together. There are few children where we live now (unless you count the rowdy undergrads), and even if I allowed him to go outside by himself there would be no one to play with. Though we go to the park on weekends, he is not spending nearly as much time outside or with friends as he used to. Yes, there are great cultural opportunities here and it is more diverse, but that matters little to my son.

I feel so guilty for having removed my son from such a wonderful environment that I am considering moving back. Although I could not afford to purchase a house in that town, I could rent something small there. However, this would mean a longer commute for me, getting home later in the evening and the loss of my sister as a housemate, as she wants to remain in the city.

My dilemma is this: The city is better for me, but Mayberry is better for my son. Should I move yet again (an exhausting prospect) or make him tough it out?

Even if we did move back we would not be on the same block. I am aware that on the scale of possible human tragedies this one ranks pretty low, and though I remind him of this and offer him Lemony Snicket books, it does not comfort him. I know I had to leave the marriage, but did I have to leave the town too? I’m starting to think that in the turmoil of a dying marriage, I put my own needs before those of my children.

Sincerely,

Guilty in the City

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Dear Guilty,

I can relate to what your son is going through. When I was 12 my family moved to a world I did not recognize.

I did not know what to do to feel the way I used to feel. I did not know what I needed or how to get it. I did not know what I was feeling or what I had lost.

Knowledgeable adults could have helped this sensitive kid adjust. But such people were not available, and the adults who were available were overburdened with challenges of their own. So I was left to my own devices.

I did not do well in that situation. I did not develop the coping skills I needed. I now know that to adjust and grow in my new surroundings I needed to do two things: to maintain ties with my old world and to forge ties with my new world. But I did not know that then. I was just a kid.

So I had some troubles.

Therefore, my heart goes out to your son, who is much younger than I was when we moved. His connection to his home has been torn. He is doing his best to adjust. But he does not know how to adjust, nor does he have the powers to create a new world in which he can feel comfortable and confident.

Luckily, he has you. You are going to have to create that world for him. I suggest that rather than moving back to the suburbs or suggesting that your son just “tough it out” you consciously set about to create structures for your child that maintain some ties with his old world and help him cope with his new world.

Drive back to your old neighborhood and let your 8-year-old hang around, breathing in the air of the old place. Let him go play with his friends for a while in the old neighborhood. Have his best friend come and spend the night. Let him spend the night at his best friend’s house and then pick him up. Maintain the connection to the old neighborhood without having to move back there.

At the same time, create structures in his new world so he can develop new ties. I don’t know what organizations are available or what his interests are. Nor do I think this is going to be easy. I remember what it was like to live in a neighborhood where all a kid had to do was walk out of the house and his playmates and friends were all right there. In such a setting, there was no need for formal activity programs such as the Boy Scouts or what have you. But that world is gone. Your son is going to have to do things differently now. He is going to have to participate in more formal social structures. Pick some fun activities that will put him in regular contact with others.

He may resist. I certainly did. But I suggest that you be firm. You know what is necessary. He does not. He may think he knows what he needs, but he is just a kid. You are the mother. You know best. If he finds it hard to get to know new kids, help him. Keep at it. Do not let him fail.

You have a chance here not only to help your son adjust to his new surroundings but to counteract the lesson that an alcoholic father imparts to his children: that when stressful change arises, one responds by collapsing inwardly and drinking. You can demonstrate a more positive pattern — that one responds to stressful change by creatively adapting, by coming up with new ways to interact with the world.

You don’t have to explain all this to your son. Instead, teach by example. You can simply say, “We’re adapting to change.”

I do suggest that for the sake of maintaining a positive attitude you think of it as “adapting” rather than as “toughing it out.” Try being grateful for the opportunity you have gained — that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life watching the father of your children kill himself in front of you, fearing that he will crash his car into the neighbor’s garage or collapse on the front porch with his pants down around his ankles. You have escaped that danger. You and your children are safe. You may find, when you consider your good fortune, that you feel some measure of gratitude to the wrinkle of fate or cosmic force or God that brought you this far unharmed.

Your kids are going to find this hard. They are going to miss their dad. And they’re going to be sad and upset sometimes. But I think, all in all, that you have a very lucky 8-year-old.

Afraid to drink at the wedding

Dear Cary,

I’ve been off and on, but mostly on, alcohol for over 20 years. Currently on.

About eight months ago, I was asked to be a bridesmaid for a friend I’ve known since kindergarten. We’ve stayed close through the years but I was rather surprised by the request.  Come to find out this will be a lavish affair; I am one of 12 bridesmaids and God knows how many other members will make up the wedding party. I am always an anxious type in such situations, but am even more so as I will be somewhat in the spotlight. Throw in the open bar and temptation doesn’t just loom; it haunts.

As the wedding draws near, I am invited to numerous showers, lunches, brunches, cocktail parties along with the obvious rehearsal dinner and wedding.

I don’t want to get drunk, but I know myself, and I know this is a drinking crowd. What do I do? Do I risk being The Drunkest One, hope that I can toe the line, or teetotal it the whole weekend?

I’m afraid to drink, and I’m afraid to not drink.

Respectfully,

Genevieve

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Dear Genevieve,

I feel for you in this situation, because I have been there (although not in the bridesmaid dress). I mean, I have been in stressful situations where I knew I could not drink or I would be The Drunkest One.

Obviously, the smartest choice is just not to drink. No matter how you look at it, being boring and not having such a great time is better than being remembered as the one who passed out and had to be carried to her room. So I suggest you not drink anything at any of the affairs. Go completely dry.

But it’s a hard spot to be in. If you don’t drink, you’ll feel nervous and out of place and boring. You won’t have much to say and you won’t be funny and it will feel as though the whole thing is moving on without you.

But here’s the big, amazing secret about not drinking: not having a great time won’t kill you. That’s what I found when I stopped drinking. You can be nervous and ill at ease and that’s just fine. Lots of people are nervous and ill at ease. They don’t feel the need to fix that. They just accept it. Learning this is very freeing. You don’t have to be cool and relaxed and “on” all the time. In fact, it’s kind of cool to be a little aloof and withdrawn; all the coolest people are a little aloof.

If you do drink, you may feel comfortable at first, when you hit that early sweet spot, but then with the tension and the fear and seeing all these people, you will drink more, and you will hit that point after which there is no return, and you will not have a good time. And you will not wake up feeling good.

As you may know, I quit drinking a long time ago, so for me the answer is easy. The sad thing is, if you just quit for this event, you won’t have much experience not drinking, and will find it hard to negotiate all the social events. If, however, you already had some experience not drinking, you would know better how to relax and pace yourself with all the interpersonal stuff, and you might actually have a pretty good time.

That is why I suggest that you get sober now, while you still have some time before the wedding. You say you have been “on alcohol” for 20 years. That’s not a good thing. I suggest  you seek help now, to get off alcohol. Then by the time the wedding rolls around you will have learned some skills to use in a party situation when everyone else is drinking.

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My alcoholic dad: How can I reach out to him?

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I know he’s screwed up, but as a little girl I idolized him

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 25, 2009

Dear Cary,

This is an epically long letter — sorry. To some extent, I just needed to put it all down on paper so I could get a grip on it: see the patterns and find some coherence in the whole thing. What I’m writing about is such a large part of me that I can’t find a way to edit it down. I suspect you understand.

I need some advice about dealing with an alcoholic, specifically my father. I’m 21 and my dad has been drinking since I was about 4 years old. I guess he’s what you might call “high functioning” — he has a stable job as a department manager, doesn’t get violent or abusive in any way, doesn’t drink hard alcohol as far as I know, just beer. Because of this, I didn’t know he had a problem until I was a teenager. Looking back, I realize that almost every memory I have of him until I was about 12 includes a beer can: doing work around the house, working at his desk, watching TV, on camping trips. I think he’s not really meant to have a family and a high-pressure job. My impression today is that he began to feel trapped and depressed, and started dealing with it by drinking. But of course, I thought it was normal and everything was great.

I adored my father, like many little girls do. I was born 10 weeks premature, which resulted in my mother and I being not at all close, so my dad was often the one who was there for me. He was the more patient parent, introverted like me, and the polar opposite of my mom, personality-wise. She came from a highly dysfunctional family full of alcoholics, failed marriages and absent parents. In spite of it all, she came out shockingly sane, but chronically depressed and not at all familiar with “normal” child development or child-parent relationships. My brother and I were expected to be emotionally competent far beyond our years — many confrontations between us revolved around my inability to be adequately “grateful for all that she sacrificed” to raise us as a stay-at-home mom. So, naturally, my father’s alcoholism really messed with her and the more he drank, the more she leaned on her kids for support.

Finally, when I was maybe 12 or 13, she sat us down for a talk with my father present, and informed us that he was an alcoholic. I really didn’t understand the ramifications of it, but I took on her anger and betrayal and joined her in a messy confrontation with him. Looking back, it must have been absolutely shaming and a really ineffective way to handle the problem. He agreed to go to counseling, but quit after a couple of sessions. Over the next few years, things were tense, to put it mildly. My parents were miserable — my mother furious and my father beginning to withdraw — but neither was willing to divorce, which was my greatest wish. I wanted the whole thing to be over with, for everyone’s sake.

For a little while after the “intervention,” I continued to be closer to my dad, but it was obvious that I was expected to choose a parent’s side, and as he began to withdraw emotionally, I switched to my mom. A year or two later, he and I had an enormous fight (I think he must have been drunk) which culminated in him bitterly observing “I used to be your hero,” to which I shot back, “Well, I found out you’re not so perfect.” After that, we were done. I felt angry and betrayed and he refused to reach out to me again, so we just quit having a relationship.

Actually, he quit having a relationship with anyone. He lived in the house, but worked and slept in a basement room, spent a lot of nights out (presumably at work, though we never asked and he never said), and quit eating meals with us. I refused to have anything more than a curt conversation with him. He continued to drink, though he kept it as hidden as possible. Over time he became more and more irrational and moody. My mom continued to bend over backward to keep him happy, but I decided I didn’t want to play the game and just went through daily life in the house like he didn’t exist unless I absolutely needed something from him.

Finally, two years ago I moved out to go to college on the other side of the country. My little brother left last year. I’ve been home for some vacations, but I’m staying away this summer for my own sanity. On top of all this, I took my mother to see a family therapist this winter, at the suggestion of my own therapist who had been helping me work through the mess of all this. My mom felt instantly betrayed by the mere suggestion that she had been a less-than-perfect mother and the idea that I might want to be my own person instead of her support system. I managed to set up a rule that I was no longer going to be dragged into her passive-aggressive conflicts with my father, which has been helpful for me. However, she has now withdrawn from me, rarely initiates contact, and doesn’t really have much to say to me anymore. I have no contact with my father outside of short discussions about financial aid or the family health insurance, which require his input. Once every few months he tries to start a conversation with me over e-mail, but they never go anywhere. When I’m at home, we ignore each other’s existence.

So, I’m sitting here, on the verge of being a grown-up, feeling kind of disjointed and parentless. Now that I’ve broken out of the messed-up dynamics of my childhood and set some boundaries for myself, I’ve started to revisit this history with my father, and it turns out that, angry as I’ve been with him, I really miss having him in my life. He was the parent my mother couldn’t be for me when I was little. And I have a hard time letting him go because I see so much of myself in him. But at the same time, he’s chosen alcohol over functional relationships in his life. He controls my mother’s life because he controls the household finances and she’s co-dependent with no real income of her own. My brother still talks to him; I guess that’s the side he chose when it reached that point. My dad spends a lot of money on him instead of time and genuine effort. I expect any day to get a call saying Dad has been injured or killed driving drunk.

I know I can’t make him change. I know he’s pretty dysfunctional and to blame for a lot of things. But I also know he must be as miserable as the rest of us, and I’m starting to wonder (here’s the point to all this): Am I being unfair to him? Does he deserve, simply as a human being, to have a daughter who will talk to him? What can I expect from him, if it’s even possible to have some sort of relationship with an alcoholic? I’m worried that I’m being immature and immoral by shutting him down so completely. But I never, ever want to stoop to his level like my mother has, and I don’t ever want to be used emotionally by him. Is it time to just give up or is it time to reach out?

Thanks so much,

J

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Dear J,

It’s true that your letter is long, but I agree that each part of it is important, and the task is to find the pattern in it. I am glad you wrote it all down. Each time someone tells their story, people who also have grown up with alcoholic dads are helped.

I have two main responses. One concerns how you as an individual will navigate between two poles of being. The other concerns your father’s alcoholism, and how he might get some help.

On the first point, let’s just say that one pole of being is the you as a completely unique individual. The other pole is the you who exists in knowledge of and opposition to your parents – the you who has made a pact with herself never to repeat the mistakes of your parents.

Neither of these poles represents an absolute state; rather, you are a unique individual trying not to repeat your parents’ mistakes. You are trying to have a relationship with them as you are, not as the circumstances of your upbringing might dictate that you be. We are a synthesis of utter uniqueness and the shaping forces of experience. We live in the tension between uniqueness and repetition.

As we question and challenge our parents’ negative examples, we also must question our own iron-clad determination not to repeat those negative examples.

Determined not to repeat “my father’s mistakes,” I am in the process of repeating them even as we speak. I am so afraid of abandoning plans, and thus repeating my father’s pattern, that at times I have been rigid, and so have not become conscious of what is the next thing, and so have missed opportunities, and in that way have replicated my father’s pattern! In being so determined to make a marriage that works I have at times failed to live authentically in the life of the marriage, have administered the marriage instead of living in it, like some remote bureaucrat in a desert highrise, grading the marriage’s adherence to program. In resolving not to let my inherent wildness destroy me, I have destroyed some of my inherent wildness and with it some of my life force and love and beauty and desire and music. I have been so fearful of repeating my father’s impulsive changes that I have in my own life become a little rigid and conventional, although at heart I am naturally intuitive and thus blessed with the ability to act with wise impulse.

The focus on not repeating negative examples seems to bring them to life!

The “not” part does not seem to be as strong as the “what” part.

In playing tennis, we avoid saying to ourselves, “I must not hit the ball out.” Our brain does not seem to get the “not” part. We must instead visualize the ball going in. Likewise, in life, we visualize what we are trying to bring into being, instead of focusing on what to avoid.

So to the extent that you can survive it, I think you must have a relationship with your father. This relationship with your father can be your laboratory for growth. There are probably areas of life in which you did not grow because of your truncated relationship with your father. Coming back into his life can be a way for you to build, piece by piece, your way of relating.

So I suggest you forge a framework for relating to your dad. Identify safe, relatively neutral areas in your home town where you can go with your dad, where he feels comfortable and where you feel comfortable.

If he drinks steadily throughout the day, you may want to identify a time when he is not too hung over but not too drunk — perhaps mid-afternoon. Or perhaps lunchtime at work is a time you can visit him, if his workplace is governed by corporate norms.

If being with him is too difficult, too upsetting, too dangerous, then you will need to back off. But I think that measured, regular contact with your dad is better than cutting off contact altogether. There is something there, even if it is buried and distorted by the alcoholism. There can be at least a continuum of contact. If nothing else, by staying in touch, you will have up-to-date contact info.

As you occupy this difficult space, notice yourself in opposition to your parents. Then notice yourself in the absence of your parents. Each is an abstraction, a false pure essence: the you that is only you, and the you formed by your parents. Neither is real. Find the middle. Live in the tension between these two. Notice how it feels to move from one to the other. Notice how narrow is the space where you only oppose your father or your mother. Notice how narrow is the space of your own uniqueness. Notice the power in these poles of attraction and repulsion.

To be more concrete: You love your father. Your father has a disease. The disease distorts his personality and his thinking and causes him to act in ways that are harmful to himself and harmful to others. But there is a man in there who is your father and he has been the most important man in the world to you. You love him. Because you love him it is painful beyond words to see him distorted and destroyed. Your task is to handle it with boundaries.

I know how difficult this father thing is.

I know how difficult it is to accept that in spite of the many, many ways he can be helped, you cannot help him until he is ready. In spite of what I know, I find myself thinking, Couldn’t you cook up some sort of real intervention? — not the shaming and self-serving drama that your mom concocted (wow, what a scene that must have been!) but a professional intervention, with a treatment option. Why not try that? I mean, it sounds like he hasn’t really tried …  and I have just fallen again into the same old trap everyone falls into, haven’t I? I know that we are powerless over the alcoholism of others and yet, and yet … I cannot let this go! (Why not? Because I’m no different from anybody else!)

Has he ever said he wants to quit? Has he ever admitted he has a problem? What was this family conference about? If he went to a counselor for a couple of sessions, perhaps he at least had an inkling of his problem. And then maybe the shame and trauma of the family conference just shut him down completely, and now he is all alone and full of self-pity and whatnot.

But maybe he is ready. You could at least try to find out. (See how tenaciously I cling to the belief that he can be helped, that he can be changed?!)

You might at least have someone who is a recovering alcoholic come and visit him and see if maybe he can relate, and maybe give recovery a try. There are people who would make the visit, I’ll bet, if it’s even remotely possible that he might be interested in some kind of help.

So that’s the alcoholism side of it: He might be ready. Who knows. It’s possible.

You and I know you cannot change him. Yet let’s hope you can forge some kind of relationship in which you take strong precautions not to be burned, but are still close enough to feel his warmth.

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My 16-year-old daughter is drinking

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 20, 2005

I didn’t want to start a fight, so I told her it wasn’t so bad. But I hate what she’s doing. What should I do?


 

Dear Cary,

I am trying to be a good liberal parent who stays aware of what her 16-year-old daughter is doing, yet not come down too hard on her. I am trying not to stick my head in the sand (which is what I see many, many parents doing). But I just am not sure I have the stomach for it.

Here is the situation: My daughter drinks. She confessed to me yesterday that in the past month she has gotten drunk at least five times. Maybe more, because, who knows, maybe she is just giving me the tip of the iceberg. She has gotten drunk at a party, at a dance, at a concert, at a music festival and, finally, yesterday, in a park. I confronted her yesterday, because the smell from her breath was just too much too ignore.

So, I confronted her, said I was concerned, and (maybe because she was drunk at the time) she then confessed at least some of the other times she has gotten drunk. She also told me that drinking was just part of her life now.

Now, my daughter really, really hates conflict. So, for that reason, and others, like I want to be the good, understanding parent, I sat and smiled and nodded and said, Well, it’s not so terrible that you’re drinking, but Daddy and I would really be concerned if it started interfering with other areas of your life. And smiled and nodded, and continued on with the safety and judgment discussion. No drinking and driving. How drinking alcohol can cloud your judgment, especially about things like having sex. And even said I would prefer her drinking at home if she felt she had to do so. At least she would be safe.

What a touching scene — except I go to bed that night and at 4 in the morning wake up and realize that I have just given my 16-year-old daughter carte blanche to do whatever she wants. And what I really feel is that I hate it. I hate that she is drinking. And I hate who she hangs out with. And I hate that we live in a wonderful city with a zillion things to do and she is choosing to drink it all away. At least if we lived in a small town, she would have the wonderful excuse that there is nothing to do. It all makes me so very sick to my not-very-liberal stomach.

I should add that my daughter is a 4.0 student, so it’s not like we can say, “You’re screwing up your grades.” Because she isn’t. I just hate what she is doing. And I want her to stop. And I wish I never asked. And I wish that I had kept my stupid head in the sand like the other parents that I sneer about. And I wish right now it would just all go away.

But it won’t. And I know I have to do something. Or rather, something else, besides my pathetic “Mom’s a good friend” response. I want so badly to do the right thing — for her, for us, for us all to get through the next few years. Advice? Help? Anything?

Beyond Confused

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Dear Beyond Confused,

I did some research.

“There is mounting evidence that repeated exposure to alcohol during adolescence leads to long-lasting deficits in cognitive abilities, including learning and memory, in humans,” writes Aaron M. White, Ph.D., an experimental psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. He cites studies by Drs. Susan Tapert and Sandra Brown, alcohol researchers at the University of California at San Diego, that show alarming long-term and short-term effects of adolescent alcohol consumption. Their findings have been published in such journals as the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society; Addiction; Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research; and Addictive Behaviors.

White’s summary of those findings makes chilling reading. But it’s no surprise to those of us who did a lot of adolescent drinking and later became alcoholics.

“According to research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, adolescents who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21.” The same research indicates that “generally, an adolescent’s risk for alcohol dependence at some point in life decreases by 14 percent with each additional year that drinking onset is delayed.”

So you have to do something. You have to try and stop her from drinking. How you do that, exactly, I don’t know. Sorry, but I’m not a parent. I know how to trick, deceive, manipulate and bamboozle parents. But I don’t know how to stop kids from drinking.

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For starters, however, I would try to shift your thinking about this a little bit, from viewing her drinking as bad behavior to viewing it as toxic exposure. You have the same responsibility to protect your child from alcohol as you do to protect her from mercury, dioxin, rabies, salmonella and the like. Viewing it this way may help you overcome your reluctance to interfere in what you may be tempted to view as harmless teen fun. It’s not harmless teen fun. It’s dangerous and potentially deadly.

Make this your mission. Consult local experts on teen alcohol abuse. Learn all you can. Get some support from other parents.

And one thing that may sound counterintuitive: Distrust your own instincts. Our normal social instincts, when confronted with a problem like this, are to be kind and understanding; we want to avoid conflict and seek harmony. Those instincts may work against you. Your goal is to keep the alcohol out of her system while she’s still so vulnerable to permanent damage. That is what’s important. We’re talking about permanent physical, mental and emotional impairment on the one hand vs. teenage angst on the other. Steel yourself against her spasms of teenage angst.

This may become a rough and ugly road, but it leads in the right direction. So hang in there.

There’s no guarantee that you can help your daughter; nor is she under some absolute sentence to develop an alcohol problem later on. When she’s old enough to make her own decisions, all bets are off. But while she’s under your care, I think that your job as a parent, unpleasant as it may be, is to do what you can to protect her from the effects of alcohol abuse.

Keep in mind that somewhere deep in her little teenage brain, however much she fights you, she may secretly be grateful. Because somewhere, secretly, deep in that teenage brain, she is probably scared to death about what she’s doing.

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Can I still be sober if I get drunk just once a week?

 

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Cary’s classic column from

I’d like to stop drinking, but does that mean completely? All week long?


Dear Cary,

It seems like every other letter you answer has implications of alcoholism. The common theme that I see in your letters is that people can get by just fine day to day, but have trouble achieving anything in the long run. I’m deathly afraid of that and I realize it’s time to get sober.

My social network is built around drinking. Everything I do involves happy hour or beer. I ended a yearlong relationship because I didn’t know how to have sober fun with my significant other. I like the thought of becoming sober, but I don’t like the thought of being the bitter guy who insists that he’s having fun when everyone else is drinking. Ideally I would still like to drink once a week.

Do you have tips for someone that wants to cut out alcohol? I don’t want to start going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for many petty reasons not worth listing here. Is it possible to maintain the same group of friends and stay sober? Is it possible to still go bowling and stay sober? Can I get drunk once a week and still declare sobriety? Running and weightlifting take up a decent amount of my time, but I’m still presented with ample drinking opportunities. I love my job and do it well. I love my city. Do I need to give them up and move away?

Ambivalent Alcoholic

P.S. I don’t really need advice. I really just wanted to ask you if you think a lot of the people that write to you have alcohol problems.

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Dear Ambivalent Alcoholic,

You can quit drinking today if you want to. Don’t worry what your drinking buddies think. It’s your damned life. You know what’s best for you.

If want to quit drinking but don’t want to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, I would suggest you first try to quit on your own. See how that goes. If you can quit on your own, then what do you need A.A. for?

Quitting means quitting, though. Say you quit playing golf. And somebody asks you, “You play golf?”

You say, “No, I gave it up.”

“But weren’t you playing Sunday?”

“Yeah, I play every Sunday.”

“But you don’t play golf?”

“No, I gave it up. Except for every Sunday.”

That kind of thing doesn’t make sense to people. If you drink every Sunday, you are a drinker. That doesn’t mean you’re an alcoholic. But you’re a drinker. A sober person doesn’t drink.

If you try to quit on your own and find you do need help, there are many approaches other than A.A. There is Rational Recovery, for instance. You might try that. It has had some notable success. They use a method called addictive voice recognition technique. There are rehabs, there is therapy, there are drugs. You’re the consumer. You’re the patient. You’re in charge. Go see if there’s something out there that will work for you. Don’t sell yourself short.

As to not being that bitter guy: You don’t have to be that bitter guy. But let’s be frank: When you stop drinking, your drunk friends do get stupider. Weird but true. They don’t make as much sense as they used to. They get in your face with their big wet eyes and it’s just annoying. The danger is that there is a solution: Get drunk again! That’s the danger of hanging around the bar trying to have as much fun as you used to.

Do a lot of people who write to me have alcohol problems? I would say that alcohol is often among the complex of interrelated problems people write to me about. That is not surprising. Alcohol is a good problem-solver. It can solve the problem of shyness, for instance. You’re shy, you have a few drinks, you’re not shy. It can solve the problem of not being able to express feelings. You feel cold and distant, have a few drinks, you’re feeling expansive and emotional. Problem solved.

People with problems aren’t stupid. When they find something that works, they like to take advantage of it. The problem behind the solution is, of course, that the solution becomes the problem. I assume that’s why you’re writing — you’ve realized that although alcohol helps solve certain problems, it’s also starting to hurt you.

So yes, you can quit, you don’t need to go to A.A. if you don’t want to, and if you think you can do it on your own, I urge you to try. If you can’t do it on your own, there is lots of help out there. You don’t have to drink ever again if you don’t want to.

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My alcoholic father has a child we never knew about

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

 

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Mesmerized by the Possibilities

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Dear Mesmerized,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I finally found my dad — drunk on skid row

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Cary’s classic column from

I thought I could bring him home, but he got loaded and disappeared


Dear Cary,

Recently — within the past couple of months — I went on a search to find my father. I can count how many times I’ve seen him in my life and it’s only a handful. He’s been an alcoholic his whole life and has been in and out of prison.

One of the main reasons for my search was to find my sister that I never met. So I finally reached his cousin, then his sister, then him. When I talked to his sister she said he’s living in a homeless treatment facility. So I had to call and leave messages and then he would call me back. We started talking more and more. At first it was a little strange and uncomfortable because I didn’t know how to respond or what to talk about, but somewhere within me, I felt something I never felt before. It was like a little space within was filling.

During this time I was having car problems. I actually had one car in the shop and borrowed my grandmother’s extra truck and it broke down too. So my dad had experience fixing cars so he volunteered to fix the truck. I went and picked him up and he met one of my daughters (the other one was at her dad’s) and he stayed the night and fixed the car the next day. We had a pretty good day. We had a good dinner, and overall good visit. Besides the fact he was hitting on my friends, which was weird and creepy LOL.

But anyway, we continued to talk on the phone more and more. One mistake I made was offering to let him stay at my house when he was done with his treatment. So after a couple of weeks go by the place he was staying at moved his job to a different facility. That’s when he came to me and said he would rather stay with me. He said, “I am just getting further from you.” Well, I had already offered but knew it was too soon, so I said, “OK, when do you want me to pick you up?” It was like a day or two. Then I went after work to pick him up.

He was with some of his friends he must have met and was completely drunk, not just a little drunk but can’t-walk-straight drunk. I was furious. I was so angry that he did that, and I couldn’t believe my other daughter was waiting at home to meet him and was so excited and here I have this drunk grandpa? Different things were going through my mind, like how could he do this? How could he do this to my kids? So I said to him, “So you’re drunk?” He said, “No, I just had a beer.” I said, “NO, you are drunk.” He said, “Well, I don’t have to be.”

I was angry. He went behind a building and I left him there. I felt like punching him. So I went home and thought about why I was so angry. One reason is because that’s what he chose his whole life over me. Drinking is the reason I didn’t have a dad. So I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that he met us and then still chose to do that. He didn’t think to himself, Look at what I’ve been missing out on.

I figured he would just go back to his facility and maybe call me when he was sober and I haven’t talked to him. I left a couple of messages and he hasn’t returned my call. I called the facility yesterday and a guy told me that he never came back and he’s living on the streets and he’s always drunk. Now, in some twisted way, I feel bad. I don’t think I should but I do. Should I go find him and try to help him? What should I do?

R

Cary Tennis' Loire Valley Writing Retreat

Dear R,

Here I am writing about alcoholism again.

Outrage and sadness arrive fresh daily. How could anyone get used to news in a letter such as yours? How could anyone be unmoved by this tale? How could anyone shrug it off?

There is always hope. But hope is a kind of torture. It deprives us of a tidy exit. It will not let us turn our backs.

He can always try again. Chances are, he will. No matter how many times he goes back to drinking, he can always walk into an AA meeting and be welcome there. Men sometimes try 10, 15, 20 times, drinking, sober, drinking, sober, in and out.  The doors of AA are always open to anyone who wants to quit drinking. You don’t have to be sober to go there, or clean, or employed, or even awake.

Your father has hurt you deeply. He has not behaved well. He has spent time in prison. Many alcoholics have done this. Yet when we hear their stories, we do not hear the voices of criminals. We do not hear the voices of unfeeling psychopaths. We hear frightened, lonely voices; we hear the voices of small children afraid of the world and uncertain how to proceed. We hear the voices of people who got trapped in something they didn’t understand and could not escape, who spent years in agonized struggle against an enemy that kept defeating them through trickery and brute force. We hear the voices of people who wanted to do the right thing, who were drawn to feelings of happiness and contentment, the esteem of their comrades, joy, laughter, ease, success, comfort, fulfillment. But something went wrong.

It tears you up. There’s no way around that. And again and again the thought that comes to mind is, We should do something about this! What might that be? Is there anything we can do?

If we are drunks who have recovered, we can do things. We can spend more time in the world of wet drunks, salvaging whom we can. Yes, we can do that. And perhaps part of my outrage is my private knowledge that I am not doing enough, that I could do more. It is difficult work picking drunks up and trying to get them sober. There is no guarantee of success. But what is our outrage for if not to spur us into action?

And what can you do? That’s another good question. I wonder if it might help you to work as a volunteer to help other alcoholic men who have lost everything.

How do you arrive at the truth that is big enough and bright enough that you decide to take action? Might this moment be an instance in which your own outrage spurs you to some kind of social action? What if it were possible for you to spare some other son or daughter your particular grief? What if you could help someone else’s father sober up and get off the streets? Might that give your soul some cherished respite? Might it bring some feeling of justice to this bleak scene?

We know what we can do and what we cannot do. We can make ourselves available to individuals and to social service agencies to bring a little comfort and possibly recovery to the many alcoholic men and women who live and die on our streets every day. We can learn as much as possible about the effects of alcoholism and take steps where possible to avert its bloom in those who can still turn back. We can advocate for more resources for those agencies and group that seem to have some success. We can advocate for more research into the medical aspects.

What we cannot do is cure it the way we cure an infection with antibiotics, or the way we set a bone so it will heal straight and be as strong as it was before. Perhaps one day a sure cure will be found. Until then, our methods are the well-known ones: the 12 Steps, rehabilitation facilities, medical interventions, psychotherapy, harm reduction, etc.

Alcoholism, like cancer, remains mysterious and resistant.

I’m going on a bit. I know that. I am speaking my own opinions. I am speaking my own outrage born of compassion for you and what you have had to suffer. It makes me mad. It makes me mad and I wish I could fix it. I wish I could take you in my arms and make it better. I wish I could clean up your dad, put him in a suit and send him home to rest up for a few weeks before taking on a new job on the railroad, or in construction, or as a scientist or labor representative or clerical worker or insurance man or mechanic or ship’s mate or any of a million other roles the world has waiting, even in a time of high unemployment.

I wish I could fix it but I can’t. So it makes me angry. The world shouldn’t be like this.

But it is.

So do this for me: Seek solace in those around you. Cry when you need to. Admit that it makes you angry and cry at the gods when you need to. If it helps you to go out and work as a volunteer so that this story is not repeated more often than it has to be, then do so.

One last thing: Embrace this. This is not merely a bad thing that happened to your otherwise perfect life. It is in fact your story. It is what your life is about. It will bring you strength if you face it and allow it to shape your future. So carry it proudly. You are part of a world of people who have seen this and know what it is like, and it is possible, I swear it is possible, to draw strength from this.

 

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