I moved in with my daughter

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 27, 2011

Her husband died so I came to help. Now they act like I don’t exist


Dear Mr. Tennis,

I am a 65-year-old woman who has had a long and interesting life. During a particularly “interesting” time (think job loss, forced relocation, job search) I found myself estranged from my eldest child, a daughter 40 years of age, who had recently become part of a new family. Long story short, we didn’t speak much, if at all, for the next three or four years.

Sadly, this all changed when her husband, my new son-in-law, became ill with a terminal cancer. At her urgent request, I moved from my home on the West Coast to their home on the East Coast in order to help during his illness and subsequent passing.

When that sad time came, I realized my daughter couldn’t survive financially without my input, so I offered to stay with her until her daughter went into college (about five or six years) and she herself had been able to get a nursing degree. We share the expenses of the household and then spend our own money as we please. There hasn’t been any controversy about any of this.

My problem is that I am beginning to feel as if I am unwanted here. Neither my daughter nor granddaughter make any effort to speak to me if I enter a room, to bid me farewell as they go to work and school, nor to greet me when they return to the house. I am starting to find that if I don’t speak to them first, they don’t talk to me at all. They don’t invite me to go to dinner with them when they go out, nor am I invited to shopping expeditions, or school events, or anything. This makes me feel as if I’m not really a family member, but only a stranger who happens to be renting a room from them. I am asked to ferry the grandchild to and from school meetings and sports events, but that’s the only time the child speaks to me, when she wants a ride. I know that they may feel that they want time together, and I don’t necessarily want to go, but they could at least ask me.

Due to this move, I have sold or given away almost every possession I had accumulated to make a home for myself. I have kept only a few books, pieces of art, and clothing. I know I don’t have the “possessions” I’d need to furnish a new place for myself, but that can be remedied. I also know it would be impossible for my daughter to support herself and her daughter if I left, so I feel as if I’m trapped by this obligation.

I don’t feel comfortable talking about this to my daughter, as I think I may become too emotional, and she doesn’t like it when I do that. (That is what happened four years ago.) I don’t want to find myself ostracized in what should be my own home, and shunned like some stranger, but this is rapidly what is happening.

How can I make this work?

Shunned Mother

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Dear Shunned,

Would it be possible for you to arrange a little outing with your daughter and granddaughter, someplace quiet by the water, under some trees, where the three of you could relax and the granddaughter could play? If possible, make it a couple of days. Spend the night. Get lots of sleep. Don’t do much. Rest.

This will only be a start, of course. It is important to remember that your daughter and granddaughter are both reeling from this event. They have lost something big that they cannot replace. They are feeling things they cannot control or ignore. They need some convalescence. This is going to take a while. You’ve done a good thing by coming here. But they are wrapped up in their grief and fear and it is not going to be easy. They aren’t going to snap out of this right away.

While it must be painful to feel ignored like this, try to remember that you came to this household to be of service to your daughter. She has had a terrible loss. It would be great if she had better coping skills and better manners but, crushed with grief, some of us lose even the barest courtesy.

They must grieve. Given the harsh and hurried way we live in America, and perhaps more so on the East Coast than the West, grief is often cut short, and we see the distortion this causes in many ways. If we do not grieve — that is, if we do not actively and with some determination move through the experience of loss and allow the loss to take a roomy place within us — then our loss will set about to destroy us. It will work to bring us to our knees until we acknowledge it and do what is necessary. Depression is one way this happens. Drug abuse and suicidal behavior are others. It is possible that your daughter is moving through a period of depression. We can’t know, of course. But we can allow for the possibility.

Where does that leave you? That leaves you in the position of elder matriarch who has journeyed a long way to be of service. You have had a long life and you have learned a lot. One of the things you have learned is patience. You’ve committed to being in this household for five or six years. If you create certain roles for yourself now, you may find that your daughter and your granddaughter slowly move into the shade of your presence.

You can be a refuge for the granddaughter, like a shade tree. She may take some time to see what you offer. Right now she is struggling just to follow her daily routine. It must be terrible, the way students are rushed through life, to have something like a father’s death to carry around. If you create spaces in which she can find what she needs, it’s possible she will respond. That’s why I am suggesting that you create this pastoral, serene setting where the three of you can go and heal. There are other similar things you can do. I’m thinking, prepare the setting and let this grief-stricken woman and girl move into those settings. Not much needs to be said. It’s not a talking, analysis kind of thing. You may not be thanked for it. But if you pay attention, you will notice that you are providing a space in which they can soften into their grief.

If you like to control things and come up with great new ideas that will fix everything, like I do, and if you find it hard to sit still when others don’t immediately see the brilliance of your many schemes and offerings, then you may have some difficulty just quietly giving, and creating serene, healing settings, without expectation of return. So consider that you will indeed get a return: Your return is in the fulfillment of your role as matriarch and elder. Your return will be private.

Overall, what I am suggesting is that you take some time to meditate on the gravity and duration of the situation and on your exalted but unrecompensed role. What you do now may become one of the crowning achievements of your life as a mother and now grandmother. If you summon all you have learned in your long and eventful life, you can get through this and emerge with some satisfaction and a serene sense of completion.

It won’t be easy. You’ll be taking some hits. But you can consider this the answering of a certain destiny.

It is only one destiny. It is demanding, but it need not be final. When you are done here — and you will be done here — there should be a long and sunny vacation awaiting you.

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.

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I’m a conflicted feminist

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 31, 2003

My family taught me to be an independent woman, but now they want me to find a man.


Dear Cary,

As a 32-year-old single female I have been told my whole life that I don’t need a man. I can be educated (I am), have a career (I am working on it) and own a home (I do). The importance of being independent was drilled into me from an early age and to be fair I embraced it with open arms. I love not having to depend on anyone, knowing that I made my way in the world by myself for myself. Yet all those people who told me that I didn’t need to count on a man are now the ones implying that I will be unhappy for the rest of my life if I don’t find and keep a man. I have had serious relationships and have been in love. And naturally I have had my heart broken. But I moved on and worked on my other goals — career, education — not ignoring my love life but not putting it as a priority.

Now I have friends and family who are encouraging me to “get out and meet people,” use an Internet dating service, and just basically start searching desperately for a relationship. I just can not/will not do this. First, there is an issue of pride at stake. How can I be an independent, intelligent woman and start frantically searching for a relationship as some kind of fountain of fulfillment? Second, who says I need a man? I have wonderful friends I love and a nice life.

Why do I still feel conflicted about all of this? Why can’t I just let it roll off my back that my achievements seem to be disregarded by some individuals simply because I don’t have a man in my life? Why is it that it hurts that people no longer ask whether I am seeing someone (just assuming I am not)? And does it mean I am less of an independent woman because I let these issues bother me?

Conflicted feminist

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Dear Conflicted,

Being independent doesn’t make you invulnerable. You can still get your feelings hurt. Being independent simply means that you make your own decisions and take responsibility for them.

You’re not less of an independent woman because you have feelings. There’s nothing cowardly or submissive about being hurt by the petty stings of well-meaning friends and the deep nagging insult of veiled parental directives. When people are hinting around about what we should be, it feels like they don’t value us for who we are. Independence does not confer immunity from such emotions; nor does political enlightenment guarantee that all your strong feelings will be noble. You can feel just as outraged about your mother nosing around your dating life as you can about the dubious prospects for the U.S. rebuilding a stable Afghanistan. The U.S. said it would rebuild Afghanistan, and your mother said she wouldn’t pressure you about your love life. Governments and mothers are shameless liars. They’ll promise you anything just to see you smile.

Anyway, it sounds to me like what’s happening is you’re getting your feelings hurt, but the hurt is compounded by your own belief that you shouldn’t let it bother you. So my advice would be: Let it bother you. Because it should bother you. Let it drive you nuts. But then do something about it. Because it’s crazy the way people project; it’s like they’re shining their movies onto our bodies; you look down on your hand and there’s a wagon train heading west up your arm, there’s grandpa’s car dealership on your chest, there’s your uncle’s degree in sociology projected onto your forehead; we become maps of other’s hopes and dreams, and it’s a little surreal; and it may be that the more independent, i.e. the more un-anchored and undefined by caste, family, etc., we are, the more we represent the nothingness that makes them uncomfortable. Hence the more desperate they are to see us filing jointly, deducting mortgage interest and arguing about the babysitter’s piercings.

Let it bother you. Let it bother you enough that you take the time to sit down and analyze exactly what words or actions have hurt you or offended you. And then try to put into words what you believe the actual message was, and counter it. For instance, if your mother should say to you, “That boy you used to go out with, what was his name, whatever happened to him, wasn’t he in medical school?” you could translate that as “Because I am your mother, I love you and want the best for you and I’m afraid if you don’t find a good man you’ll end up an old crone alone in a Brooklyn pension eating Triscuits and Alpo.” And to this you might make a compassionate but firm response: Mother, I know you’re worried about me being alone, I know you want me to find a man, but I will always take care of myself whether I find a man or not. I’ll always be OK. Why? Because of what you taught me.

My husband won’t set limits!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 5, 2006

Uncle Danny shows up in his R.V. for four-month “visits,” gobbling up our food and paying nothing.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I are a professional couple in our mid-30s who have a house in a revitalized urban area in North Carolina. Since we moved into our house four years ago, my husband’s uncle — let’s call him Uncle Danny — has started visiting us in his R.V. for increasingly longer visits — the last one being four months! A little background on Uncle Danny. He is a traveling nurse in his mid-60s. He has never been married and was estranged from most of his family for many years, only remaking contact in the last five years. When Uncle Danny visits us, he expects to use my husband’s spare pickup truck — he takes the key from the rack and helps himself. He also helps himself to the food and beverages in our kitchen, never buying his own groceries during his interminable stays. He almost always invites himself along when my husband and I go out to dinner and never picks up his own check. I would faint if he ever offered to treat us! He does sleep in his R.V., but the rest of the time he’s with us in our house. When pressed as to how long he will be staying during each of these “visits,” he always gives some vague answer. We never know when he’s leaving until a day or two before he goes.

The real rub is that my husband allows this behavior and refuses to set limits with his uncle. My husband is pretty passive and detests confrontation. This year, Uncle Danny has been here from January through mid-April. He left for a few weeks to do some short-term nursing work in Northern Virginia and returned to our home on May 15. I am furious! I’ve insisted that my husband address this issue, and although my husband agrees that his uncle’s behavior is unacceptable, he is dragging his feet about approaching Uncle Danny with some limits.

My question is, how do I handle this situation? I am a generous person by nature and do not like the spite and anger that Uncle Danny inspires in me. I also do not like the stress he is creating in my marriage. But I also realize that it is not my place to deal with Uncle Danny directly. What should I do? How do I get rid of this man?

Tired of Being Mooched off of

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Dear Tired of Being Mooched off of,

Contrary to what you say, I think it is your place to deal with Uncle Danny. It is your house. If your husband won’t do it, it’s up to you.

Why your husband won’t or can’t do it and what that means about his character and his relationship with his family are something you may want to explore with him when you have a spare year or two to spend fighting like cats and dogs. But right now something needs to be done about Uncle Danny’s Ticonderoga, and you need to step in and do it.

Sometimes things just have to be said out loud and somebody has to say them. “You’re fired” is one of those things. “You have to leave” is another one. “I want a divorce,” “I’m breaking up with you” and “I’m resigning effective today” are others, bursting with import and significance but simple in their utterance. You just have to say the thing that has to be said and let it hang there in the air long enough to be heard and understood.

I know what happens when we overcontemplate these things. We look for ways to soften it. That’s fine. You can try to be kind about it. Just don’t let that process of looking for a nice way to say it prevent you from saying it. You certainly don’t have to be mean. Don’t let your welled-up anger spill out in spiteful little ways. But you have to say what needs to be said.

This thing you’re conveying is not really your fault. You’re just conveying the truth; you’re just looking at the situation and saying, here is the way it is. It’s not about you and your feelings; it’s about the household and the way it needs to be run.

It’s your job to set the rules in your household and enforce them. If you don’t do that, you’re not really running a household, you’re just occupying a house.

Tell Uncle Danny that your household has some rules and that from now on he will have to abide by them. The rules cover the length of his stays, the amount of notice he gives before he arrives and departs, and the general running of the household.

Set a limit on how long he can stay. You might have a certain time in mind; a month might be a good maximum, but you might want to limit it to two weeks, or even one week.

Tell Uncle Danny that while he is visiting you expect him to contribute to the household. That might mean paying for groceries and meals and also helping out with chores.

Family has its privileges, of course, but with privileges come responsibilities and reciprocity.

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My brother is no good, and I’ve had enough!

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 30, 2007

He’s in and out of jail, he hardly works, and he always gets thrown out of where he’s staying.


Dear Cary,

I need some advice. I have a 30-year-old brother who has been in and out of jail and constantly needs my help. My mother and father are divorced and are alcoholics and cannot help him at all.

I have built a life with my husband and two kids. My brother constantly needs help with money and he only works two hours a day because his job has now cut his hours. He lies all the time — I don’t even know what to believe anymore. He is constantly moving because he has no money to pay rent so he gets kicked out.

He is living with my aunt at this time and has ruined that because they are going to kick him out soon. For some reason I always help him. I am even paying for a rental car for him at this time. I feel responsible to help him but it’s killing me. My husband is always upset at me and I constantly have anxiety due to his problems.

Please help, what can I do.

Fed Up

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Dear Fed Up,

What you have to do is sit your brother down and tell him that what he’s doing is no longer tolerable to you, and that you are cutting him out of your life. Tell him that you will no longer take his phone calls, or welcome him into your home, or pay his bills, or lend him money or help him in any way.

This might be done in a group, or it might be done privately, depending on many factors, including whether he is a physical threat. It might be done with the help of a counselor or facilitator. You may want strong, capable persons in the room so that he cannot threaten you physically. Or you may want to ask your police or sheriff for a “civil standby.” Often used where property must be recovered by one party in a dispute — say, a husband has been kicked out of the house and wants his clothes back — it might be available to you in this case, if it’s something you feel is necessary.

However you arrange it, you have to tell him that this situation is over.

If you think he has mental problems or if you know of someone in the community that can help him, do not hesitate to give him information about the help that is available to him. And be willing to speak to others who you think might be able to help him — for instance, if he needs job training, or education, or therapy. But beware of making promises that if he does such and such, all will be fine. If you want to put conditions on him, make them concrete and make sure they are things that would really make a difference for you. Don’t sell yourself short, that is. Don’t make it easy on him. For instance, if he has a drug problem, then maybe you say he has to demonstrate that he has been clean for one year, or, if drugs are not his problem, he has to demonstrate that he can hold a regular job and pay his own rent for one year. If there are conditions, make them tough.

You know what you want to see. You want to see him living up to his word, working hard, caring for himself, paying his own way, being dependable and truthful. But he may be skilled at fooling people. He may do well in the short term, but you will still be walking on eggshells, wondering if he’s fooling you and if he can make it long-term.

The bottom line is, just tell him the truth. If you don’t know what it will take for him to get back in your life, tell him that. It’s enough that you’re honest with your brother, painful as it may be for everyone.

There are many ways this can be done, but the essentials are the same: A difficult, painful but necessary message has to be conveyed to someone who doesn’t really want to hear it, is not completely trustworthy or predictable, and whose reactions may be extreme and unpleasant.

After that, you just have to stick to it.

Good luck.

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My mom left my dad in a nursing home and lied about his chances of coming home

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, AUG 22, 2008 02:50 AM PDT

He thought he’d be returning home to die. But she just strung him along until he was gone.


Dear Cary:

My elderly father had been ill. After improving, he went directly from the hospital into a nursing home.

We never told him he was never coming home.

My mother said keeping up some sort of illusion of his eventual return was a way to keep him busy there, but it ended up being something that seemed so cruel in reality. With that “return” in mind, my father would plan to the best of his ability in order to be prepared for the big day. For instance, my mother would keep telling him he would have to do an increasing number of stair climbs to be allowed home, so he would do as she said — working up to 20, 50, finally 100 and more, as many as she required — and talk excitedly about how, when he had met her goals, he would get to go home.

For my part, I just felt like a coward in this whole situation. I had no power of attorney and no decision-making authority in any of this, and my mother had the legal power to place him straight from the hospital, even though I offered to try to find in-home care if anyone felt it was needed for any rehabilitation. I feel that she charged ahead with the nursing home plan, in part because she was bitter that he had frequently left her alone when he traveled for his job and she had found an ideal, ironic opportunity to get back at him (a lonely divorce-by-nursing-home: something his nurses told me was more common than anyone would believe).

My father never complained, but he would sometimes ask me if I knew when exactly he was going home. I always said that he would have to ask Mom (who never visited, but spoke with him on the phone about his “progress” and whether it was good enough for him to return). But I was just too weak to say anything else.

My father finally died after two years in the nursing home, having received the best care possible from his nurses, but never having heard the truth from us. Would he have been better off knowing he’d never go home again?

I hope I’m not the only one affected by this dilemma, and that others may be helped by your advice. On the other hand, it would be nice if I really were the only one who has had to deal with something like this. Thanks.

Powerless Daughter

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Dear Powerless Daughter,

This is one of the saddest things I have ever heard.

But in this story can be heard the laughter of the gods. Hear me out, please. I mean no offense. Laughter and death go hand in hand.

Day after day a dying man dreams of going home. He wants to die among his loved ones, near his daughter, his wife, his family and his cherished possessions.

He is glad that his wife and daughter are taking care of things, making arrangements for him to return home. He is grateful to them. He imagines them fighting for him with the nursing home staff. No doubt, he knows, the nurses would like to keep him there. They’re making a pretty penny off him. But his wife and daughter are going to get him out. They’re working night and day to get him strong enough to return home.

It is painful and exhausting to do the exercises. But he completes them.

Some days, he feels himself getting stronger and thinks, Any day now, I’ll be going home. Other days, he feels weaker and hopes they don’t think he’s not trying. He is trying. He is fighting. He’s going to get out of there and come home.

It’s his final battle and he’s determined to win.

How long has it been now? Why haven’t they come for me?

One day he takes a turn for the worse. He grows weaker and no longer can perform the exercises. If he can’t perform the exercises, he’ll never get out. He tries harder but he can’t even get out of bed now.

How long has it been now? Why haven’t they come for me?

One day he finally understands: He’s not going anywhere. He never was. This is where he has been taken to die.

The true horror of it strikes him. One day, she used to say, she’d … one day! She wasn’t kidding, was she! He always dismissed her complaints about his work-related travel. True, some of it was required, but some trips he could have turned down; at times he took the trips as a welcome respite from a difficult home life. And he lied to her about those. Of course he did. It was a marriage and a love affair but it was also a battle. Marriage is not just a partnership, he thinks. It is a battle. It is a battle to the death.

Amid his horror at what she has done comes a flicker of admiration. She has done it! I should have known she would! She has finally done it! She’s having her revenge!

It comes over him in an instant. He gets the punch line of the world’s longest joke. He is so weak that he can barely make a sound, but he begins to laugh. Maybe it happens in the middle of the night as he lies awake hoping for a sign from the heavens; maybe it comes in nearly inaudible shudders as those standing around watch, asking, Is he trying to say something? Maybe it is in a dream that the laughter comes to him. But rest assured that at the end, when he understands that his brief imprisonment in a nursing home is just one more blown scene in the blooper reel, he laughs and he hears the angels singing — for this quality of hers he loved, too: He loved her treachery as well as her virtue. He can laugh about it. He is free. It is the funniest thing he has ever heard.

It may not be not as funny to us as it is to him. We are of course still constrained by our sense of taboo, and our grief, and our loss; we are still striving for a sense of the sacred, and we tread carefully lest we offend. But to him, who stands on the precipice of that very sacred leap, who is leaning over the edge and letting go of all that is burdensome and illusory, to him it is beyond hilarious. He thought he was going home! What a joke! He can scarcely imagine anything more ridiculous.

In the end, it all comes home to him.

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I secretly hate myself

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Secretly Hate Myself

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Dear Secretly Hate Myself,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not complicated. Pretty simple.

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

 

Dire straits

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUN 25, 2003

I view affection as a remedy for stress. My wife views the removal of all stress as a prerequisite to affection.


Dear Cary,

I have been married for eight years now and my love life is in dire straits. When I say “love life,” I mean the whole package, not just sex. Hugs, kisses, casual brushes, smiles, compliments. When I look back, I wonder if I ever should have gotten married in the first place.

Our relationship was always on and off while we were dating. That was my doing. I was not ready to make any long-term commitments. My wife was never happy about our many breakups, but she is the type of woman that can get a date by merely walking out her front door. A knockout. I eventually realized that different women were just that, different, not better. Whenever I had a dream about my life in the future, her face was always in the dream, no matter who I was dating at the time.

The problems started right after I proposed. She turned off like someone closed a spigot. At first it was just sex, but it quickly morphed into all forms of affection. She admitted her shortcomings (in writing) and explained that the stress of our wedding plans was making her lose interest in affection. In fairness to her, my parents were complete A-holes and nearly boycotted the wedding (they were too “tired” to make the reception). Like I said, A-holes. Yes, the wedding planning was stressful (though I did an equal share). However, I reminded her that when that stress went away, it would be replaced by a new and improved stress, and the process would repeat over and over again.

We now have four beautiful children. But to say they are stressful is an understatement. Plus, I have my own business and I worry about the next dollar all the time. I am still in love with my wife. The fact that she is still gorgeous after four kids makes her more attractive than before.

I used to want to have sex every day, but now I am happy to have sex once a month. But when it happens, so much energy has built up that it is anticlimactic. My wife does not voluntarily kiss me. About 90-95 percent of the time that I approach her for affection, she rejects me.

Have you ever kissed someone and could tell from the tension in their jaw that they were doing it just to get it done and could not wait until it was over? That is what it is like kissing my wife. Zero passion. I probably rank around the twenties in terms of her priorities. I think our philosophies do not match, though it could be a gender thing. I view affection as a remedy for stress. My wife views the removal of all stress as a prerequisite to affection. When things get tough for me, I turn to my wife. When things get tough for my wife, she turns to the kids, or the vacuum cleaner.

Before we got married, our church required premarital counseling. It was fun. The counselor told us that we must make each other our first priority and that would make our marriage stronger than any amount of money or fame. We were told that by making each other our first priority we would be showing our children that our bond is important and leading them by example as to what a healthy marriage looks like. We are getting an F in that department. It is so bad that our children, who are all very young, get uncomfortable and sometimes upset when we kiss (or try to kiss) in their presence. They have already gotten the impression that the only form of acceptable affection is that which is directed at them. I do not know what to do.

I have told my wife all this so many times, I am a broken record. I look at pornography to relieve some stress. My wife knows about it and of course is not happy about it. I would agree with her if I showed a dropoff in desire for her, but no amount of looking at other women, clothed or non, decreases my desire for my wife or changes my belief that she is a raging hottie. I look at those pictures wishing my wife would do that. The nice thing about pictures is that you cannot get rejected. Bear in mind that my wife also used to be incredible in bed. I do not ask of her anything she did not willingly do before and in fact express great enjoyment doing. I do not ask her to swing from a chandelier, but when she does not even kiss me while we are making love, that is not only troubling but also hurtful.

I will never leave her, though I threatened to do that in the past. I will never make my children live in a broken household, except that it already seems broken. I am afraid that if I am caught at a weak moment, I will have an affair. I figure I am a duck circling a depression in the earth where a pond used to be. At some point I am going to get tired and have a heart attack or see a real pond in the distance and go there. How long can I be expected to circle in a holding pattern? I am sure I would enjoy an affair for a while, but I would enjoy my wife more. I give flowers, I write my own cards, I shower her with compliments and affection. Is there any hope?

Am I Missing Something?

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Dear Missing,

Thank you for your brutally honest, intelligent and moving account. I can imagine seeing this in a movie, or reading it in a novel, and wondering, “What happened? What is she thinking? How did they end up this way?” I have the feeling that many things have happened to hurt your wife, little things that she can’t explain but that she adds to the account of your faults every morning in her little counting house of resentments. The things that have happened to her are probably real and not really her fault, but if she could have expressed them along the way, if she could have processed them with you, together, perhaps you would not be so starkly shut out now. At least you would know what she’s thinking, what your crimes were, how long your sentence is.

It might not be anything you did wrong, aside from doing your duty as a husband and giving her all those kids. Bearing four children in eight years sounds like enough in itself to overwhelm a woman. Think of it: For almost your entire marriage she has been pregnant, nursing or both. As someone who can barely imagine raising even one or two children, I would think that the demands of bearing and raising these four children would consume so much of her spirit that you would naturally find yourself sitting on the back steps smoking a cigarette while the loud, bright laughing and crying of children and mother buzzed about your head like bees.

And while you’re sitting there bereft and alone you know she’s working with the children, needing your help and resenting you for taking even this moment to yourself because she does this all day long every day and you only flit in and out to lend a noble hand when it’s convenient for you blah blah blah.

You need to hear her story, how she got this way, what you did. But she may be so overwhelmed that she cannot even tell you the story; to tell you the story she might need first to hike for days into the mountains until her mind is clear and she’s high enough that she can sit on a rock and look over the entire county and then maybe the story would unspool, beginning with your first injury so slight she would have felt foolish to even mention it: Perhaps you didn’t compliment her on a pair of earrings. Perhaps you didn’t jump high enough with joy when she first told you she was pregnant. And then the second injury and the third, and her panic, her sense of entrapment, her worries about the business, her thoughts that perhaps she could have done better, the guilt she feels because she’s not erotic with you, her fears that because of her coldness you will leave her and the children. Perhaps she has had a lover or two and hoards the secret under her dress like a guilty girl. Perhaps you never take out the trash.

You need to hear her story, whatever it is, so you know where you stand, but she may not, on her own, become ready to tell it for years. How can you get her to tell it? Could you track down that premarital counselor for some postmarital counseling? It’s possible she would say no to all of this. It’s possible you couldn’t get across to her how grinding and oppressive is the incessant rejection. But you need to find out what happened to her, what you did, how she changed, whatever it was. You need to find out so you can bag it up and tie it off with a narrative string, so you can carry it around slung over your shoulders, not eating away at you in your belly.

I love the West Coast

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 1, 2005

My problem is, I think I love my East Coast family more.


Dear Cary,

I’m hoping you can help with something that weighs on my mind a little heavier each day. I’m a 25-year-old professional woman, raised in Pennsylvania with four little brothers and sisters aged 18-23 whom I adore. A few years ago, I was working a post-college first job near my family home. I had a nice apartment in the city, saw my family often, and was making friends … but I hated my job. I was completely miserable and mourned my college years, the days of fun, friends and having a reason to get up each day. I hated the humidity, the East Coast conservatism, the snow, the lack of people my age, the rat race … everything.

When I became so unhappy that I thought I had nothing to lose, I risked my entire small savings account, quit my job, bought a van and moved to San Francisco, where I didn’t know a soul and had no job lined up. Thanks to Craig’s List, I found a home with roommates, found activities and clubs, even a dead-end administrative job that I didn’t mind so much because it paid the bills and there was much, much more in life to distract me from it. I lived there for two years, visiting my family back East two or three times a year, while making more and more West Coast friends, having more and more fun and finally beginning to feel comfortable with myself. I was having fun on the weekends and weeknights, I was dating more often, and really discovering an artistic, liberal, outspoken, fun-loving, adventurous side of myself I hadn’t known before, even during college.

Then one day I was referred to a dream job by a friend. Life got even better — I had everything I wanted, including the job. I kept in touch with my siblings as often as possible then, although they themselves were busy with college. During this time, we were all doing our own thing in different locations, talking sporadically, but I don’t think any of us really missed each other. We were all living too fast for that.

The dream job ended up transferring me to Seattle, where I’ve lived for almost a year now. Well, it turns out that life got even better. I love this town more than San Francisco. I have beautiful, wonderful friends here, all of them transports from around the country. I’m making great money. I’m involved in the community, I date a lot, have plans every night, and generally have what my parents have always referred to as “The Life.”

Now my siblings are starting to graduate from college. I just returned from seeing everyone for a week. It always takes us a few days to get back into the groove, but when we do, it is amazing. I miss my little sisters so much it hurts. I miss laying with our arms around each other watching TV together. My brother is opening a store and the whole family is helping him get it up and running — except me, of course, because I’m out here. On the day I left, my sister wrote me a letter asking me not to leave. I cried when I read it, laughed about it with her, and left anyway, came back home to Seattle.

Cary, I love it more here every day. I see myself living the rest of my life here. But my brothers and sisters are settling into a life near where we grew up. I’ve seen my mom’s sister be the one in the family who lives far away, and I see her excluded from the special relationships that my mom and her other sisters share. I don’t want that. I could still live a couple more years out here, while everyone gets really settled (they are still career-hopping and moving around, but I know they will all stay near home), but I know I must go at some point. I know deep in my heart that I must move back to Pennsylvania if I don’t want to be “that sister.” Should I give up everything I love, including my job here (which can’t be replicated on the East Coast), to move back and start fostering a life in a place I hate everything about, save for my sisters, whom I love more than anything? I know it will stifle me to live back there again, right when I am flourishing in my identity and personality out here. Should I move now, or in a couple years, when I know I just shouldn’t wait any longer? Please help me

“Torn” or Something

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Dear “Torn,”

Yours is the dilemma of mobility and economic freedom. It is a dilemma disguised as a gift. It requires you to choose. I can’t really tell you what to do.

I do not know what I would do, either, if I could do it over. I have conflicting feelings about having spent the last 30 years on the opposite coast from my family. But here are some ways to think about it, some vague trajectories and generalities that you might consider, in somewhat random order:

San Francisco and Seattle are great cities for the young. What they offer can be found few other places — openness to experimentation, liberal social attitudes, concentration of youth with similar backgrounds, lots of highly educated people and the jobs to support them. In my opinion, while these areas offer incomparable experiences for the young, what they offer for middle-aged and older can be found elsewhere as well, and often at less expense — schools, housing, parks, good restaurants, recreation opportunities. And their drawbacks can loom as more important the older you get — the expense, the fast pace and loose social ties, the constant change. Likewise, or conversely, the tradition and stability of the East, which you find stifling now, may tend to become more attractive the older you get.

San Francisco and Seattle are great cities to visit, but expensive to live in. If you have to live in one place and visit another, it might be slightly better to be visiting the West Coast but living on the East Coast.

Dream jobs may be harder to find in Pennsylvania, but if you have experience and you are willing to spend a good bit of time looking, you may be able to find a job you like. You are in a perfect position to look now. You can take as long as you like. You are also gaining valuable experience — perhaps at a level of responsibility that might be hard to duplicate on the East Coast at your age. (That’s just a guess.)

You can always move back to the West Coast again, if you find the East Coast unworkable. Whereas, if you never come back to the East Coast to live, you may always be haunted by a thought that you abandoned your family, that you missed the best years of your sisters’ lives, etc.

The West Coast is a great place to reinvent yourself. The East Coast is great once you know who you are. Perhaps it’s during the process of inventing oneself that one is so fragile and thus so dependent on a nourishing environment. You need people supporting you while you’re experimenting with who you are; once you know who you are, it becomes less important to have external support and approval. So perhaps the East Coast would stifle you now, in your experimental period, but after you’ve constructed an identity and lived in it for a while, worked out its kinks, smoothed it out, made it comfortable, then it can travel with you back to Pennsylvania.

So I suggest you do as much as you can on the West Coast while you can. Become who you are. Become who you aren’t and everything in between. Try everything you want to try and some things that you don’t. Then you can return to the East Coast with a glad heart, knowing you’ll be with your sisters and your brother and all the people you love so dearly.

As to the West Coast, it’ll be here for you. Drop in anytime.

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Medical meddlers: It’s my body, not yours!

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 15, 2009

My mother and my boyfriend want to tell me how many pills to take


Dear Cary,

When I was 18, I had my first kidney stone. I had lithotripsy for another at 19 and a very serious bacterial infection in my kidney in between. I am now 25, and have spent seven years with intermittent pain and urinary tract infections. In the past year, the pain has gotten to the point where I experience it in various degrees on a daily basis — sometimes it is so bad I just want to cry. On top of this, I have gone through a series of doctors who have all doubted I have any problem at all — the “stones” don’t show up on CAT scans and they can’t find any other reason for my pain. I have been called a drug seeker, and told I am making it up. I know some of them — male urologists — think they are dealing with a hysterical female.

I have finally got a diagnosis from a new primary care physician and gynecologist of interstitial cystitis (pelvic pain/urinary problems) with kidney stones. These doctors at least believe me — when I have days of pain, followed by voiding debris, it seems the logical explanation. We are proceeding slowly toward more complete treatment — because of the seven years of missed diagnosis and rude doctors, they are making sure others I am referred to are aware of my condition and will be sympathetic toward it. We are still trying to get to the root of the stones, and specifically why my pain has only ever been on the right side of my body. They’ve also referred me for pain management, which is going to be a huge relief.

My problem comes from friends, my boyfriend, and relatives — specifically my mother. They have been supportive and helpful during these times, especially when I haven’t been able to be a pleasant person or reciprocate their kindness immediately. But now many have started focusing on my use of painkillers.

When I hadn’t started a drug regime for my IC, I was taking three Lortab a day. My mother even went so far as to count my pills and lecture me over the phone about being a drug addict. I now take tramadol for daily pain, and have Lortab for when things get really bad. Many people ask how much I have taken, express concern over the number of pills I use (I never exceed doctors’ recommended dosages), and make comments about how they are afraid I have an addiction problem. I also suffer from anxiety — and this only makes it worse. I am very aware of the danger narcotics pose. And I suspect I might have some symptoms of addiction, such as getting overly fixated on getting more pills when I am running low. But this is because my pain is under-managed. All I want to do is feel normal. I’ve tried to explain that pain medication is part of my treatment, but people seem to take such a sharp view toward the drugs. My mother is a nurse and makes comments about the “addicts” in their office who get 90 Lortab a month (what I used to take, meaning three a day). My boyfriend is always inspecting what pills I am taking, asking if I really feel that bad, and saying he doesn’t like it when I’m “stoned” on my medication.

Obviously, there is no way to not have these people involved — they support me through all my trials, pains and rough spots. But I can’t deal with the questioning and accusations anymore. When I tell them there is nothing wrong with taking pills as prescribed, they think it is my endorsement of them. They tell me I need “help.”

I do need help. I need proper medical treatment for my condition. I need to get better. And until then, I am going to use painkillers so I can lead a normal life. Despite these difficulties I’ve maintained good grades and have my dream job. I have friends, relationships, hobbies — but in order to enjoy these things, I can’t be in excruciating discomfort. How do I deal with this situation?

On Meds, Not a Junkie

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Dear Not a Junkie,

Since I’m not a doctor, let’s talk about this as a relationship issue. Let’s just say that in your relationships with people, they keep interfering in something that is basically none of their business. You are looking for a way to draw boundaries, or say no, or get some control over a part of your life.

There is an area of your life that you want control of. You don’t want to discuss it with certain people.

There are ways to do this. They range from blatant refusal to polite refusal, but they are all about refusal. You have to refuse.

How are you at refusing? I’m betting you’re not very good. Neither am I, frankly. I’ve got a little note in my wallet that reminds me to think before saying yes. I also tend to disclose too much. I like to talk about my life but then find I’ve disclosed more than I’m comfortable with and then people give me advice and question my judgment and then I get resentful and start to sulk. You don’t want to see me sulking. It’s unpleasant to behold. Yeah, I’ve got boundary issues! Like right now, already, see what happened? We were talking about you and all of a sudden it’s about me. That’s a kind of a boundary thing, too: I’m trying to say I identify, but then I’m also switching the territory.

So let’s keep talking about you.

One way to draw the necessary boundary is to have a blanket statement that you use on all people who are not your doctor. You might say something like, This is a medical issue and I only discuss it with my doctor.

It may sound weird at first. People may make a joke, or react with anger. Keep your calm. Don’t give in but don’t explain yourself either. Explaining yourself (I’ve learned this with salespeople) just gives them an opportunity to overcome your objections. So, just say no.

The idea is to have a stock policy you adopt with everyone, even your mother, that you just don’t discuss your medical treatment with people who aren’t your doctor.

Now, I have a family. I know about families. You’re supposed to play your part. When you make boundaries, you’re sort of changing the rules. You’re saying, I don’t really like my part that much. But they like your part. It’s the part they want you to play. They can’t play their part if you don’t play yours. They don’t like it when you change the script. So be prepared. Stand your ground. Quietly stand your ground.

Just make it a blanket statement. And then go to the movies.

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