Can I stop my aging parents from suing each other into oblivion?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 9, 2008

Divorced, they’ve been squabbling in courts for over a decade.


Dear Cary,

I write this letter to you with the hope of gaining some clarity in a situation that it appears I cannot remove myself from.
My parents have been divorced for more than a decade now, but unfortunately neither of them got the memo that divorce means moving on with their lives. They still wrangle each other in court to this day. The reasons range from money to psychological damage caused by the other. You name it, and one has probably made a court matter of it. The two of them don’t speak, and I am the proxy by default.

Needless to say, this has deeply affected me for a while. After more than a decade of hearing the victim complex both my mother and father carry, it is not difficult to realize there is no rationalizing with either of them. I have not had a close relationship with either of them for a long time now, and over the course of the past year I have put so much distance between them and myself that I only touch base with them once a month.

I told myself I would not allow them to hold me back from living a happy, productive and fulfilled life. I can’t say I have neared any of those goals, but I can say that keeping them and their dysfunctional lifestyles at bay has allowed me to live a somewhat emotionally tame lifestyle.

But a difficulty has presented itself. My mother has signed her competency over to her friend/confidant, who coincidently is a former attorney. This individual has filed four lawsuits to date against my father as my mother’s guardian, and it doesn’t look like he is going to stop anytime soon. My father feels that he is being extorted.

He feels that if my mother is truly incompetent, why sign over power to an individual outside her immediate family? Basically, he feels that a fraud is being committed. And honestly, I can’t say I completely disagree with him. I am not a lawyer, nor I do I know the legal definition of incompetence, but something about this situation makes me want to call “bullshit.” At the same time, I am unsurprised and prefer to sit on the sideline instead of getting tangled in the mess.

I can’t say my father is a complete victim here. He is an attorney, and takes full advantage of that fact. It feels like after all these years of his taking such advantage, my mother will go to whatever lengths possible to get what she feels is rightfully hers, even if it means bending the truth.

My father tries to guilt me into doing something about this. His take is: “You have the power to stop what she is doing. She is wronging me.” I feel like, What’s the use? Why should I get caught up in a problem he helped exacerbate?

My siblings and I have spent enough time as the pawns in their juvenile warring for the past 12 years. Even if I do try and take the reins of being guardian, my mother will undoubtedly fight me on it. Nor will this end the power struggle between my parents. They’ll find something new to fight over.

What I am looking for, Cary, is for someone to tell me that my ambivalence in this situation is right. I feel like this is my time to start my life (I am in my mid-20s) … I have a lot going for me, and I don’t want to be sucked back into their dysfunction. Am I entitled to close my eyes to this situation?

Your opinion please.

Ambivalent Son

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Dear Ambivalent Son,

Of course your ambivalence is right. It is a natural response to an impossible situation.

Yet you must decide. You must decide whether to intervene. And I suggest, for better or worse, that you do try to intervene. I say this fully understanding the difficult emotional consequences such an attempt can have. I say this because you stand at least some chance of avoiding further damage. You stand at least some chance of doing some good.

At least engage your own legal counsel and examine the alternatives. After seeing all the options you may decide that doing nothing is best. At least you will have examined your options thoroughly. I suggest you do this as soon as possible. Such situations can get worse quickly. Assets can disappear; relationships can turn bitter; those who stood by can be burdened with lasting regret that they did not step in sooner.

In suggesting this, I feel like a fool, frankly, for often what happens is this: Even after forgiving oneself and others for shortcomings; even after admitting that we have absolutely zero chance of achieving a better past; even after recognizing that we are powerless over our parents; even after recognizing that we did indeed do what we could, that we did indeed try and were rebuffed, even after weekly sessions in therapy going over it and over it, the painful situation persists and we remain ambivalent and embittered and crippled by its insidious, undermining power: I failed as a son. I failed as the good son, the son with promise. I failed to protect my parents.

The only oasis of blamelessness in this hurricane of guilt and recrimination is the knowledge that one fails in such endeavors not because one is a bad son but because one is powerless over the ultimate fate of others.

This is a difficult thing to keep in mind. It needs constant reinforcement. We do not have godlike powers. If I had godlike powers I would change my parents. I would change my siblings. I would put us all in a big white house by the river. I would take us all back there to a quiet summer street shaded by banyans and mimosas, walking by the seawall, dangling our toes in the water, bicycling to the store for popsicles, devoid of cares, attending to childhood, sure and safe in the embrace of our parents who were young and strong and could be trusted to solve any problem and untie any knot. That is what I would do if I had godlike powers. I would take us back there. I would make life a fantasy. We would all tend lovingly to my parents as they aged and weakened, cooing over them and rocking them to sleep and feeding them with spoons. We would sing them lullabies and change them and protect them from things they cannot comprehend. In love for one another we would sacrifice, each of us, to the extent we were capable of, and each of us would understand that each sibling has gifts and limitations, and we would honor each other for our gifts and our limitations, and we would all take turns taking care of our parents.

That is what I would do if I had godlike powers. But I do not. Neither do you. So we do what we can. To the extent that you can gain some legal power in this matter, I hope you take steps to do so. If you can protect assets and prevent further lawsuits, if you can arrange for binding arbitration between the parties, perhaps you can avert certain catastrophes.

As to precisely how you do this, legally and financially, I respectfully yield to legal and financial experts. My point is more a moral one: You have to try. You may be damaged in the attempt. You may find that suddenly you are the enemy of all. They may all turn against you, including your siblings. But you will have tried.

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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

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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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My creepy dad emails too much

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Cary’s classic column fromWednesday, Nov 21, 2012

He was a terrible father and I want him out of my life


Hi, Cary,

Growing up, my dad was verbally and emotionally abusive.  He became physically abusive toward my brother but stuck to mind games with my mother and me.  In eighth grade, my mom finally got up the courage to leave (thank that great spaghetti monster in the sky) and take my brother and me out of that hostile situation.

In the time between my mother kicking him out of the house and us leaving for a new town, my dad would spend our visits sobbing  and playing sappy love songs (forever ruined for me: Harry Nilsson’s “All by Myself”). He’d say, “Were you kids really afraid of me? I would never want you to be afraid of your own father.” Even at 13 I understood his behavior to be completely lacking in sincerity. I knew my fear of him was a tool he used to keep us subservient and was kind of insulted that he’d think I was too dumb to realize it.

After he refused to pay child support for my brother and me, lobbed ridiculous allegations of adultery at my mother (she is a saint), and dragged us all through a five-year, financially draining divorce, I told him I’d had enough.

At 18 I wrote him a letter (via snail mail) asking him to stop contacting me. I explained that his role in my life was not positive, healthy or beneficial to me and, until he could acknowledge his previous poor behavior and become a positive force, I had no room for his negativity in my life.

He wrote back immediately saying how sad it was my mother had brainwashed me into hating him (it is to laugh) and included a photograph of him with his girlfriend’s kids. He explained that it was OK that I didn’t want him around anymore — he had a new family that loved him. That letter, though painful, was proof to me that my father is not capable of healthy, adult, even human emotion and that I’d done the right thing.

Over the last 10 years he has mostly obliged my request to not contact me, though he still sends the occasional Christmas/ birthday/ national disaster email or card. After Sandy hit he emailed to ask if I’d made it through the storm OK. My first thought was, How do you know I live in New York? The tone of these messages is always manipulative and incredibly self-centered, i.e., “I don’t know what I’d do if you were in those twin towers. How would I go on?”

Frankly, his ability to co-opt a national tragedy and turn it into a pity party for himself is quite amazing. 

A friend asked recently: If my dad died, would I be able to feel a sense of closure? Would I regret not speaking to him? My answer is no. I don’t believe he is capable of apologizing in a way I’d find acceptable and I don’t believe, going forward, we can have any kind of relationship. The letter with the new family photo is just one example of the many inappropriate things that have transpired since the split.  I could tell you about his abusive relationship with my brother who became a homeless heroin addict, or the history of mental illness in his family that no one will acknowledge or treat, but really I just need to know what to do with the emails.

Though I’m OK with the idea of never speaking to or seeing him again, every message in my inbox from him still sends me back to that angry, teenage, fatherless space. It makes me question my relationship with my great boyfriend, angry at my mom again for not being able to protect my brother and me when we were young, and frustrated that, after all these years, he still can ruin my day. I guess I don’t know what to do. Set up a way to send the emails directly to the trash/spam folder? Again ask that he stop contacting me? If I reach out again and ask for no contact should I explain that I’ve forgiven him, in as much as I can, and that our relationship is forever over?

I would like to live in a black-and-white world, but I understand there are gray areas. I feel like this is holding me back in my personal relationships and would love any insight you can offer.

Fatherless Child

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Dear Fatherless Child,

Basically you have to shrink your dad down to the size of a green pea. There are ways to do that.

One way is to always call a friend. Never read his letters alone or he will grow. Call a friend. Point to the screen and say to your friend, “There is an email from my dad and I don’t want to open it!” Maybe opening it with a friend and reading it aloud will work. Or maybe you will want your friend to read it and delete it for you. Just don’t be alone with it. If you are alone with an email from your dad, he will grow to the size of a zebra. You don’t want that. You want your dad to be the size of a pea, and somewhat shriveled.

Your dad is far away. You have a big world full of friends who are close by; you have a family you have created for yourself. That family is big. Your dad might come into that world, but your dad is small.

Your dad will try to make himself big like a zebra because he’s so narcissistic and self-involved, but if he ever gets that big, then you have to make yourself even bigger, like a whale or an elephant. You are big when you are with the people who love and support you. You are big when you are with your chosen family. And mainly you have to keep your dad shrunk down to the size of a pea.

Also, work in a group or one-on-one with a therapist, not just a little bit but a lot. You have to do it a lot, like lifting weights or studying anthropology. So make shrinking your dad a major focus and involve others in the project. Don’t pretend you can handle it on your own. You can’t. If you could, you wouldn’t be writing to me.

Talking helps. Being with others helps. Just say out loud that you are concentrating on shrinking your dad down to the size of a green pea. The smaller he gets, the less afraid you will be of him.

So those are the two things I suggest: 1) Never read an email from your father while you’re alone. 2) Get a program together where you are continually making yourself big and making your dad small. You have to do it all the time, because you make your dad small one day and he gets big the next day. That means sharing with people every day what’s going on with your dad, what size he is, where he is in your world, if he is present or absent, if you are fearing him or dreading him. Let people help you. They will.

One day your dad will be so small, you can barely see him. Then you will be surprised because even at that tiny size he can still scare you. That’s the weird thing. That’s why you have to shrink your dad every day, and never alone. Never “All by Myself.” (And now, thanks to you, I’m going to have that song in my head, and so are a lot of other people. Oh, well. We can do the same thing with that song that we are doing with your dad: Just concentrate on shrinking it down until it is very, very small.)

 

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