Once the kids are gone, I don’t want them coming back

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, NOV 4, 2005

My wife says returning home after college is the new normal — but if they return, I may have to leave.


Dear Cary,

I am 46 and the father of two children, ages 16 and 20 (juniors in college and high school, respectively). My wife and I married very young, had our kids a little earlier than expected, embraced it and made what we felt was the difficult, correct choice of being a single-income family with a full-time mom. I would describe my attitude for many years as that of a doting father and believe that we have given unstintingly, and literally planned out our lives so that our children would have some very nice opportunities. We managed to pay off our home and to pay for a master’s degree for my wife so that, at such time as our eldest was ready to go to college, we could afford to pay for a good school. Which we did; we both have very good jobs and are able to pay tuition out of our yearly income. We have lived below our means for a very long time to do so and generally have not lived what anyone would term a lavish life.

Since she reached age 16 or so, I have really ceased to have a relationship with my oldest daughter. There was never any open break especially: I understand that girls do “outgrow their fathers,” and I accepted the role as an ever-present nonentity and occasional manservant. My wife is a little closer to our girls (the youngest is now 16). I have not especially enjoyed the teen years, to be honest: Again, we have not descended to a level of screaming and open rebellion, but the process of being a doormat to unappreciative family members was not big fun. My children are not psychotic, just run-of-the-mill, somewhat overindulged kids with no appreciation or notable efforts at simple courtesy toward their parents. Normal, in a word.

So what is the problem? It seems that many of my wife’s friends have children who have gotten their rather expensive degrees and simply come back home again to live, sans employment. We have a nephew who attended an extremely expensive big-name school who is now back in the nest, making plans for launching his own company, never having had paid employment anywhere to date.
My wife is convinced that this is the new normal: Kids go off to college and then return home to resume a lifestyle more suited to high schoolers, and she appears to be willing to go along without qualms. My problem is that I am really not interested in the prospect of providing room and board to a college graduate in 18 months’ time: I am perfectly willing to provide financial assistance so that she can start her life elsewhere, but I already feel enormous tension whenever she is under my roof during school holidays.
I’ve had enough: I did everything that I was supposed to do and more, and am not willing to endure Round 2. My wife and I have spoken around this a few times without ever quite getting it out. The point is that, barring some illness or other catastrophic event, I expect my children to assume the burden of their own lives soon after graduation and do not want them to regress to an earlier age. Frankly, if such an arrangement were forced on me for any length of time, I do not think that I would stay in the household.

Do you have any thoughts, Cary? It would not feel good to insist that my wife choose her loyalty to me as opposed to our children, but we have put our own lives on hold long enough. Ultimately I feel that an ultimatum by me — me or them — would not necessarily bring the answer that I would choose, but I know that the alternative is not something that I can put up with. Help!

Wannabe Empty Nester

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Dear Wannabe,

In any household, it seems to me, each contributing member ought to have some kind of veto power over choices that would make them so uncomfortable that they would consider moving out. So I sympathize with you. It seems to me that unless both you and your wife want to have your daughter move back in after college you should be able to say no.

For your next order of business I suggest you do what you’ve been putting off: Talk this over seriously with your wife. You say she appears to have no qualms about your daughter moving back home, and that you have talked around this question a few times. Perhaps you’ve been avoiding it because you believe it will lead to an unpleasant fight. Quite possibly, if you tell her you just can’t wait to be rid of the kids, and if your daughter moves back in you’re moving out, it will indeed lead to an unpleasant fight. But if you tell her that what you really want, and what you’ve wanted for some time, is to have your marriage and your romance back, to have her back, to have your life back, she may feel differently about that. She may be pleasantly surprised. She may have no idea how tough it has been for you, if you have been quietly enduring for all these years. And it may not have occurred to her that your marriage might actually get much better with the kids permanently out of the house. So put it in terms that will make sense to her, where she has something to gain. Don’t give her the ultimatum. Just tell her what you want and how much you want it. And give her something to look forward to: A new, happier, more refreshed you, among other things.

Ask for the sale. Let her think about it. Don’t push too hard. Give it time to sink in.

Of course, first of all, your daughter may not want to move back in. She may have other plans. Your wife may miss her and hope that she wants to return home, and that may be why she has been trying to prepare the ideological ground for such an event, by arguing that this is the new normal. She probably misses her daughter more than you do, and misses playing the role of mother more than you do the role of father. So if you can think of ways to meet your wife’s needs without having your daughter live with you, you may stand a better chance of getting what you want. For instance, if your daughter could live nearby, that might be a compromise that would make your wife happy. Perhaps you could take steps to make that happen — by aiding her in finding a job and an apartment, for instance.
You did what you were required to do. There was an implicit contract involved. You agreed to care for these kids while they were kids, and prepare them to go out into the world and take care of themselves. You did that admirably. Now it’s time for them to fulfill their end of the contract, and it seems right that they should live up to their end.

Aside from the contractual aspect, however, I imagine there is a powerful emotional pull as well. Being completely free of fatherly responsibilities must be a very seductive notion. But some continued support is probably inevitable, perhaps in the form of occasional favors rather than formal financial commitments. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re her father, after all. But I think your desire to have her out of the house is perfectly reasonable, and I hope your wife can grant you this. It seems to me, after all you’ve done, that you deserve a break.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My brother left his girlfriend with a 5-month-old baby

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 30, 2007

They thought the baby would fix things, but he didn’t, so the dad split. Does that mean he’s no good?


Dear Cary,

Early this year, one of the greatest bright spots in my life occurred: I became an uncle. After 10 years of bleak family moments, we all finally had a moment of renewal. My older brother called me (I’m an expat and haven’t actually seen the munchkin) ’round about 4 a.m. EST: “God, he’s beautiful.”

Four months later my brother split with my sister-in-law. They were effectively, though never officially, married — 15 years together, since high school. OK bro, you had a son and split with your girl four months later. As he put it to me on the phone, “There’s no way people aren’t going to think I’m an asshole.” Right: People are going to think you’re an asshole. And the thing is, Cary, I sort of think he’s an asshole too, and I’m wondering whether I should.

To be clear, there was no plan on my brother’s part to run when a child appeared, and he’s determined to be there in general. He loves his boy and loves the woman in question, but is no longer in love. The breakup was apparently mutually agreed upon and (more or less) without rancor. They went through what I suspect is very common: There were problems in the relationship and when the pregnancy occurred, they thought a baby would solve those problems. They didn’t plan it, but neither of them agrees with abortion, and they thought, “Well, this will bring us closer together.” It didn’t work, apparently — the baby made it more clear that they were not compatible.

Fine.

But my brother is leaving this woman with a 5-month-old child. Having never actually had a sister, she’s the only person I’ll call sister. She’s intelligent, attractive and a good time out. I love her dearly. But now she’s an early-30s single mom and her life prospects just took a serious nosedive — because of my brother.

A central principle of modern Western life is that you ought to do what you think is self-sensible in relationships. Be yourself, right? “Staying together for the kids” is not sensible — for you or for the kids. But maybe sometimes you should hang in a little longer than you want to. Maybe my brother should stick in living as a family for, say, two years, if only to help the mother during the most tiresome times. Maybe sometimes, “staying together for the kids” makes a little sense.

He and I have been through a lot together — watching a father kill himself with alcohol. “I will not be that man and that includes not being trapped in a relationship I don’t want” is a guiding principle for both of us. I understand that motive and I agree that an unhappy marriage is worse than a divorce. But fuck, divorcing when you have an infant? Is my brother an asshole?

TM

Dear TM,

OK, let’s call your brother an asshole. What difference does it make what you call him? You love him, right? He’s your brother. You’ve been through a lot. You’ve probably sat up together nights worrying about your dad, and would he make it, and why’d he do what he did, and wouldn’t it have been better if he had been able to stop drinking. And there were probably times you thought this time he was really going to stop, and he got your hopes up, and then he blew it again and again until you really thought you couldn’t take it anymore, and then when you’d lost all sympathy for him he got gravely ill, and then what can you do, you can’t call a gravely ill man an asshole, so you had to have sympathy for him at the end and watch him die with a sickening blend of rage and love and helplessness, asking why did he have to die like that when there was help available, when there were people who loved him who were willing to do anything for him if he would just stop drinking.

So you and your brother are bonded in the deepest possible way by watching your father drink himself to death. And as brothers I imagine you cut each other a lot of slack, because you both know the deep wounds that that event left in you. And you are both committed to not making the same mistake your dad made, and to not being victims, and to not being unhappy. And all that makes sense. And none of us can judge what kind of personal hell your brother lives in as a result of trying to be a good man but being prone to the demons just like your dad was and maybe just like you are as well. We’ve all got demons and we do the best we can and sometimes we really fuck up and we’re assholes. And who can know what we’re going through, how hard it is, how many times we’ve pounded the wall with our fist or buried our face in a pillow at night. He’s your brother, so you also know he didn’t do this to harm people. He’s your brother, so you may know that he’s selfish and has trouble seeing the big picture, and maybe he doesn’t have such great impulse control and maybe he’s prone to fits of moodiness and helplessness and hopelessness, and maybe he’s also a bit of a dreamer and a charmer and has an outsize genius for a good time, and maybe he wants more out of life than a 9-to-5 job with healthcare and benefits like your dad had, because look what good that did, and look what good it did your mom to stay in a relationship that gave her nothing but crying time, so he’s not going to stop pulling the lever on the slot machine because you never know, a happy life has got to be possible.

So even though it’s about the dumbest, most assholic thing to do to leave your lover with an infant child after 15 years of implied common-law till-death-do-us-part, that’s what he did, knowing full well he’d be called an asshole for it. So let’s go ahead and call him an asshole and get that over with because there’s work to be done. There’s a kid who doesn’t know about any of this; he just knows he’s alive and he’s hungry and he needs to know that the world isn’t going to come crashing down around his head every 15 minutes when another of the “adults” around him gets it into his head to seek his bliss in Idaho.

So what do we do? And how do we do it?

Kids can grow up well under all kinds of circumstances. It’s about how you treat the kid and who the kid is. The last thing you want to do is tell this kid his dad’s an asshole. So let’s just pretend that everything we’re saying the kid is hearing. Now who is his daddy and why did he leave? He left because he had to. We don’t know why. He had to go do something really important, and he loves us and cares about us but he couldn’t live with us because he had to do something. And we love him and he’s a good man and he loves us and that’s just the way it is, because we don’t understand everything even though we’re adults and maybe it seems like we do. We don’t. We don’t really understand even how an electronic ignition works, or why sometimes you get “404? errors. We don’t know why some toys are lame and others are your favorite. We don’t know why some kids are bad and some kids are good. We don’t know much, except we love you and things are going to be OK.

Something like that. You get what I’m saying? I’m saying get real and painfully honest but don’t fill the kid’s head full of hateful garbage.

And beware of this, too: Intense disapprobation can be an intoxicant. You can get high calling people assholes, that is. You can get high and feel powerful talking trash. That’s one reason we do it. It makes us feel better. But that doesn’t make it useful or productive. Except for getting stuff off your chest and moving on. So yeah, maybe your brother is an asshole. Now help me move this crib.

Like I said, the important thing is, How can the people around this child help the child, and help the child’s mother?

One thing you could do, like you said, is urge your brother to stick around for a while in some capacity. Maybe not living in the same house with them, but nearby. Urge him to get a job and make some money and contribute to the well-being of his child and the child’s mother. And other people can help too. It doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. People just need to be there and help out. And your brother can leave his new girlfriend at home when he visits, and if he doesn’t have enough sense to do that on his own, you can tell him, gently, that he’s being an asshole again, and to leave the girlfriend at home. And when he comes over he can bring something for the boy. And the boy’s mom can welcome him as if he’s someone she likes, not as if he’s the shit-head asshole who left his infant child for reasons typically unfathomable and unforgivable.

I mean, we’re going to have these rotten thoughts when people do rotten things. But we’re going to try to do what’s right anyway. We’re going to try to be the adults in the situation, now and for the next 20 years.

How should I feel toward my father?

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Jul 20, 2011

I thought I knew him. Then he loaded up his U-Haul


Cary,

I had a really boring suburban life for a long time, wishing that something would make it interesting. I had a good relationship with my family and I thought that my parents would stay together forever.

Then we got hit with a hurricane.

After the hurricane I spent a lot more time talking to my father. We talked before but this seemed different, like how I thought the father-son deep(ish) discussions were supposed to go. He didn’t seem as happy as I had previously thought, but I assumed that was due to having 5 feet of water wash through our house, which makes for a somewhat more stressful existence. A lot of the time we spent after the storm was gutting the entire first floor, talking about his childhood and mine and what my plans for the future were. During our discussions I got the impression that my parents’ marriage wouldn’t last forever, so I steeled myself for the inevitable to occur.

Flash forward to a week after my 18th birthday in 2006, and I come home to my father packing up a U-Haul and leaving my mother. He left her a note (that I probably shouldn’t have read, but I think most people would have in my situation) saying that he felt that after I was born most of my mother’s love went to me and he felt left out; it was basically a page and a half of selfishness.

He showed me the apartment he was supposed to be living in (I called it a “small studio” but others might call it “I can go from my bed to my toilet in less than 10 steps! How convenient!”). I later found out that he had been cheating on my mother for years … multiple women with other kids, swinger parties, basically everything I thought he was above as a person. He is now remarried and his new wife has two kids and I can never really forgive him for what he did, but I do my best.

Last year, when I was stationed overseas, the day after my birthday I posted a Facebook message thanking everyone for their kind wishes and he left me a reply saying, “I knew there was something special about yesterday,” and this year … nothing. I don’t think he did it on purpose but no phone call, no text, no communication whatsoever. I don’t even know exactly how I felt, but I think I could best describe it as numb, though I don’t know if it is a numbness to him in general, or if it affected me even more than I thought it did at the time. It has been five days since my birthday and I still haven’t talked to him and I don’t know how to bring it up. On the one hand I want to call him out on this, but if I do that I don’t know if I will be able to stop myself and I will finally get up the nerve to ask him how long he was philandering and if he thinks I deserve an apology for cheating on my mother.

She was his wife, but she is still my damn mom.

Honestly, I don’t really have a specific question regarding this situation, I could just use some advice on what to do from here because I know I am going to have to talk to him eventually and I don’t really know how slighted I am supposed to feel about this situation. After reading that letter I don’t want me getting pissed about him missing multiple birthdays to be construed as being as selfish as he turned out to be. I guess I just would like to know how much anger I am warranted to feel toward him after everything that he has done. I feel emotionally conflicted and like I said before …

Numb

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Dear Numb,

I remember my father’s series of small apartments after he left my mother. I remember the meagerness and poverty, his effects strewn about, the boxes on the floor, the absence of furniture, the absence of a life. It was devastating, actually — that he had chosen this over us. I remember trying to be encouraging and upbeat. “Wow, this isn’t so bad. It’s kind of a nice place. Look out this window!” Yet it seemed bleak and incompetent. It was such a fall. Those dismal apartments, one after the other. That one in Miami on Biscayne Blvd., kind of a swingers pad, with a pool and I’ll always remember that smell of newly delivered furniture, cooking oil, eggs recently scrambled or made omelet-style, the simple food smells of a man cooking for himself, living a strange little life that was supposed to be exciting and carefree but which seemed lonely and pointless.

Yeah, I remember that. I remember wondering how I’m supposed to feel about all this. That tiny, damp little “studio” in the back of an old woman’s concrete block house near the University of Miami with the room air conditioner. I lived there for a summer jazz session while he … where was he? Was he at his mother’s? I think he was in his mother’s house on Mary Street, that house that later became the object of so much conflict when he sold it while my brother was still living in it.

I don’t completely recall how those various strange abodes came into his possession, but there he was, with his entourage of cardboard boxes and his war medals, evicted, divorced, moving on. Why? It seemed so stupid. It would have been simpler for him to stay in the house. But no, they couldn’t get along.

What was I feeling? Wanting to be supportive yet actually angry, puzzled and hurt, ashamed that he seemed diminished, no longer Dad, head of household, man of the house, reduced to man of the tiny studio apartment trying to get chicks at the pool to come up to see his “digs.”

It’s not something you want to see your dad do. And yeah, it was around the time I turned 18 that he first moved out. It’s a big letdown, a big hole in the gut; it’s not like anything you’ve experienced thus far.

And if your dad wants you to go see a therapist to help you deal with the divorce, well, that’s just creepy. Maybe you want to punch him but you don’t want to go to therapy especially at his suggestion because you’re not the one with the problem, and you didn’t make this problem, he made it by moving out, so why should you have to go to some creepy therapist and talk about your feelings when your feelings should really be directed at your dad?

Right?

Which is the point, really. That he fucked up and you’re angry with him and that’s a really, really hard thing to confront with a parent. I never did tell my dad how angry and hurt I was for him getting divorced like that. I believed at the time that the adult thing to do was to understand, not to be angry about it and certainly not to blame my parents, but to understand. Well, there’s a difference between blaming your parents for your lot in life and being angry at them for making boneheaded moves. So yes, I was angry at my father for years, but fighting to retain my love for him, and so dancing gingerly around the issues, pretending to be encouraging and charmed by his chosen existence when really it made me sick to see it. It made me sick to see my father and his two brothers all leave their wives and begin a dicey and peripatetic existence going from apartment to apartment and girlfriend to girlfriend or wife to wife. It was confusing and alienating and I didn’t like it but I was afraid to confront them because they were the elder men.

This fear of the elder men in the family goes deep. I had no idea how much power it had until years later. I had no idea how paralyzed I was. But I am not alone. Many men are afraid of their fathers. We do not know where they get this power over us so we pretend that they do not really have this power over us but, Oh, they have it. They have it in spades. Even my father, wiry, bespectacled, diminutive and professorial in manner: Oh, I feared him mightily! We may be angry but afraid to say we are angry for fear of violence. The father holds that violent edge, that family privilege, the nuclear option. You never know. My father was a strangely elusive but explosive man, given to surprising outbursts. And you never knew what was going on in his head.

He’s dead now.

I never confronted him. I never had that epic battle that sons and fathers sometimes have, where they finally let out that mixture of anger and tenderness, rage and pity that characterizes the relationship.

So what kind of conversation with my dad would I have wanted? If he were here today, I would like to hear him say that he did it for himself. He’d had it with living for others. He wanted to live for himself. Right or wrong, it was his decision to begin living for himself, and he did that, and it would have been helpful to hear him say that forthrightly.

Instead, when the subject of the divorce arose, we heard his painful self-recrimination and regret.

So if I could do it differently, or if I were in your shoes, what would I do? I would be frank and open about my feelings whatever they are. That doesn’t mean necessarily confronting family members about it. It more means being frank with yourself and those close to you about what you actually feel. Don’t try to figure it out. Accept it. Accept what you feel. You may feel impulses that morality prevents you from acting on. That’s OK to feel.

I can say with certainty that there is no correct way to feel. We men seem to think that if we want to be a certain kind of man, we may feel only a certain way. But a good man feels what he feels.

By feeling what we feel, we come to know ourselves. Then our true nature arises serenely and almost without notice. Then we need do nothing but trust our instincts. We become authentic.

And how does this vaunted authenticity come about? Slowly if at all. We keep going over it and over it, like sanding wood. More is revealed with every pass.

As to the numbness: I suspect you fear the torrent of tears that would erupt were you to say how you feel. You may need someone to yank it out of you. Like it’s stuck down there in your throat and a professional has to use his slim jim.

That’s one way to think of psychotherapists. They get inside the locked vehicle of your psyche, but with your permission.

It took me years before I could trust another man to listen to me cry. Are you kidding? I know. It’s icky. But eventually it was a matter of either let these feelings of shame and anger and outrage and humiliation and pitiful hurt show, cry them out in front of someone, demonstrate to someone just how deeply I was hurting, by way of saying, OK, this is me, this awful shambles you see before you, this sobbing shambles of a man, this is me, this is my state, this is what I’ve come to … or who knows what I would come to, walking around numb, as you say, from a lifetime habit of not feeling.

If you want to stop being numb you have to start feeling.

Basically, whatever you feel is appropriate.

We men have a code. We are supposed to feel certain things in certain situations. But the truth is, we feel what we feel. Even though that sounds dumb.

The stereotypical “sensitive male” is easy to ridicule. There was a lot of bogus “showing your feelings” in the 1970s. You don’t have to “show your feelings.” You just have to feel them and know what they are.

In my 20s I thought, If you are a real man, you will feel this way about this and that way about that. You will have learned the code. But you never really do.

This is what we men go through.

What do our fathers want from us and for us? What is expected?

What are we supposed to do and feel?

We never really know. We just feel what we feel. We try to stay true to ourselves and to the ones we love. That’s all we can do.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, NOV 1, 2005

I have certain hazy memories that give me the creeps, but I really don’t know the truth.


Dear Cary,

I’ll try to make this short. I’m a 27-year-old man. I’ve blown every good relationship I have ever been in. Sometimes I wonder if my inability to commit comes from my father, who was married three times and is an extremely self-centered person. I idolized him at a young age, but I can say my hatred for him has been growing at least since I turned 13. I should be over it by now. But my father is incredibly needy and lonely and sad; my brother has distanced himself and gotten married, and I’m increasingly left with the burden of this incoherent, drunk and stoned child who can’t even pay his own bills.

At the same time, since I was 14, I’ve had this suspicion in the back of my mind that he sexually abused me. I never talked about this fear to anyone, and I’ve always thought that this was something I probably invented or a convenient excuse to be annoyed when he tried to hug me. I always figured I’m just a cold person who doesn’t like being touched (though it doesn’t bother me when my mom hugs me.) I just figured I hated him so much for so many reasons, that that was why it bothered me for him to hug me. But I can’t get rid of this idea. I took showers with him until I was 8 or 9 years old. Is that weird? But I remember my mom walking in and out of the bathroom. So nothing could have been happening, right? I don’t know why I think this.

I don’t want a reason to feel sorry for myself, I really just want to know whether a person can make up these feelings.

Crazy?

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Dear Crazy?

First of all, you are not making these feelings up. Your feelings are real. On the other hand, they are not facts. They do not prove what happened or did not happen.

Your feelings may be connected to some traumatic event or series of events. Or they may be the result of a pattern of bad parenting that left you anxious, confused and afraid. Whatever the reason, the important thing, it seems to me, is that you have some feelings that are rooted in childhood that you now are being called upon to understand and deal with in adulthood. You are feeling just as powerless and yet full of rage toward your father today as you did as a child.

A competent psychotherapist could be of immense help in working through this. I suggest you contact one.

I don’t mean to discount the importance of knowing whether you were abused by your father, and I don’t think a therapist would, either. Knowing the literal truth about our past can be powerful and transforming. But your quest would not end with that revelation. For what if that truth cannot be known? It is sometimes the case with childhood memories that you will never truly know the literal truth of what happened. Does that mean you are doomed to your current unpleasant state of mind? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that if you did know with certainty exactly what happened that you would therefore suddenly and miraculously be cured of your difficulties.

So how do you deal with these feelings, if the literal truth of what happened might never be known? One way is to fashion a narrative that is true enough for your purposes and then behave according to what you know did happen. You could say, for instance, I am feeling this way because I was raised in a chaotic, uncertain environment where physical and sexual boundaries were not clear and where my own power was marginal or nonexistent.

Does that seem to fit the facts? Having fashioned a narrative like that, you can then make some common-sense observations: For one thing, you are normal. You are feeling the way anyone would feel had they been through what you have been through. For another, you can now make sense of some of the specific feelings you are having.

For instance, perhaps you fear being in a close and powerless position relative to your father; being in such a position, because it repeats a lifelong pattern, may cause you intense anxiety and emotional pain. So being hugged by him, being in a car with him and having to depend on him for things may all bring up those old feelings. It’s also possible that being close to anyone may trigger those same feelings.

As you start observing such things, you may find it useful to define what is going on, to say that you are in the process of forming some adult boundaries; you are paying close attention to how physical proximity and intimacy make you feel; and you are noticing some discomfort in certain situations. In that connection, you can say, Aha, I’m a child of an inappropriate father! So I have to be careful around inappropriate behavior! I have to be careful when I become intimate with someone — because I can be flooded with feelings of vulnerability or fear!

You are not alone in this. There are many, many people in the world today who experience fleeting memories of early experiences that leave them briefly paralyzed or panicked or suffused with sadness. These feelings are real, and their sources are real, though not necessarily in a literal sense. In other words, you felt what you felt as a child. What you felt was real and true. And how you felt as a child affects how you feel today. But though you may feel a murderous rage today, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you were threatened with murder as a child; you might have responded to a cue from the environment in a way, as children do, that was greatly amplified. You were not an adult, who can weigh the relative significance of threats and respond appropriately. So you may have experienced many things as a child that felt dire and life-threatening.

But you are an adult now. So your task, I think, is to remain open to these feelings, not to deny them, but to work to get to know them, to get used to these feelings, to try to understand their language. Your feelings are, after all, not just a distraction; they are also a source of intuitive knowledge about what is actually happening around you. There may be times in your life when people actually are too close, and you are right to feel uncomfortable. As you come to know and understand these patterns of feeling, ideally you will extend your new understanding to other people who have been through similar experiences.

You cannot change what was done in the past. But you can change how you are feeling in the present.

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 18, 2002

I have a wonderful daughter but no love or romance, and life just sucks.


Dear Cary,

So, I just turned 40. So far, it sucks, thank you very much.

There’s something about a “magic number” birthday like 40 that brings the suckiness of one’s life particularly to mind.

Not that there aren’t a couple of bright spots. The brightest is my almost-6-year-old daughter, who lives with me three-fourths of the time (the other one-fourth she’s with her mother, 1,000 miles away). Another is my job, which (despite the usual level of political bullshit and general aggro) is pretty damned fun most of the time.

But I’m finding that a life that consists of sleeping, getting the kid ready for school, rushing to work, picking up and feeding the kid, and sleeping again — well, it really leaves a lot of room for improvement.

I admire myself for my commitment to doing the best I can for my kid, and (most of the time, except for the darkest parts of the night) I think I really did do the right thing in fighting like hell to have her go to school in my city (and thus to live the majority of time with me). But a part of me keeps whispering that if my kid remains my “only reason to live,” that’s ultimately going to be destructive for her (and incidentally for me).

Meanwhile, romance is nonexistent — there’s been nobody since my daughter’s mother booted my ass out of the house a couple of months before our daughter was born — and my “sex life” consists of furtive wee-hours masturbation to Internet porn and very occasional (when the kid is out of town) trips to sleazy strip joints.

I never did date much — each of the relationships I’ve had was instigated and pursued by the woman involved — and whenever, now, I think about trying to get involved with anyone, I run up against internal arguments that I can’t rebut: 1) I don’t know how. 2) I can’t see that I have time or room in my life. 3) Who’d have me anyway — a porn-using, over-40, tied-down-with-kid, chronically depressed geek?

Over the past dozen years, I’ve tried breaking out of my destructive patterns with a variety of tools — psychopharmacology (antidepressants), a couple hundred SAA meetings, group and individual therapy, “men’s work” — and it’s all helped a little, but not enough, and going back for more seems as if it would be way too much work for way too little payoff. (Except for the antidepressants, which I keep up with and which probably keep me from completely imploding.)

So I’ve just kept on truckin’ as best I can — as I say, in the past six years, the kid’s been a great motivator. But it’s starting to feel as though I’m not ever going to get unstuck. And, frankly, another couple dozen years of this kind of stuckness is not something I’m willing to live through. What really aches badly — and makes it suck the most — is the loneliness of it all. (At least, that’s how I justify asking you for advice.)

Is there a way out of this that I’m missing?

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

I was very moved by your letter, because I recognize your thinking and the pain that comes with it. I am moved toward a kind of anticipatory grief, as though I see where you are headed in a dream and I cannot catch up with you to tell you to turn. I am chasing you with only a cane to help me hobble over the stones and you are heading faster and faster toward the edge of the cliff.

What sucks is not your life. What sucks is suicide. What sucks is that you are simultaneously inches away from accepting your life as it is and inches away from jumping off a bridge. Compassionate detachment is hard to maintain in the face of that. It is hard to maintain a safe distance when you say that “another couple dozen years of this kind of stuckness is not something I’m willing to live through.”

So let me talk to you as a brother, as a fellow who has walked that dark, oppressive corridor where it is hard to breathe and hard to move. Let me talk to you as someone who doesn’t care to be delicate, but who cares very much for you and the girl.

You say the Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings helped a little but not enough. How do you know what is enough? How do you know where you would be without them? Is it enough that group therapy, individual therapy, men’s groups and SAA kept you from suicide, from arrest, from incarceration, from losing custody of your daughter altogether? It may not feel like it helps enough, but if you’re depressed, you can’t rely on what it feels like. Your feelings aren’t going to tell you the truth; your feelings are going to lead you to a room in a cheap hotel and tell you to put a noose around your neck. You need something better than feelings: You need reality.

And how do you know it would be “destructive” if your daughter were your only reason to live? How many reasons do you need?

Basically you need to make little improvements in your life, and little adjustments in your expectations. You need to bring your life and your expectations closer together, so you’re not living in that airless void between is and should. Make incremental improvements in your life; make incremental adjustments in your expectations.

I’m no expert on psychology, but I can say that cognitive therapy helped me stop using language to reinforce my depression; it helped me construct a new, kinder interpretation of reality. I know that your feelings drive your language, but I also think your language feeds your feelings and that you can change your language to starve your feelings of their false bravado of bleakness. How about making your language more neutral, more factual, pulling it out of your mental shop of horrors? Instead of saying that your wife booted your ass out of the house, how about just saying that you and she split up. Instead of saying that your life consists of just sleeping, rushing, feeding, rushing, sleeping, try saying that you have a very busy and full life.

And instead of saying there are three internal arguments that you can’t rebut, why not try rebutting them? The first one, in fact, is eminently rebuttable on its face because it’s meaningless: “I don’t know how.” Of course you know how. If you didn’t know how to get involved with someone you could never have gotten married. The worst you could do is just repeat what you did the first time. The worst a woman could do is boot your ass out of the house, or, to use our modified language: The worst that could happen is you form a relationship and then it comes to an end. How bad could that be?

The second assertion is also easily rebuttable. Many single working parents find room in their lives and time for relationships. What is so different about your life? Are you on a book tour? I’m sure you could find the room and the time.

The third assertion is not really an assertion, but a question. What woman out there, indeed, would be interested in an intelligent, employed single father, evidently smart and tough, who is managing tolerably well with his share of human challenges? You have enough grit to take care of this girl, and that’s admirable.

I’m not saying you have to be happy. I don’t even know if it’s within your power to be happy. But I think it’s within your power to stay well back from the brink of suicide and hopeless depression. Maybe that’s just as good as it gets. Maybe it’ll have to be.

As I said, I was very moved by your letter. I don’t think there’s some way out that you’re missing. I think you know what to do and you just need to be reminded. Stay in touch with your groups. Exercise. Eat right. Get enough sleep. Keep taking your antidepressants. Remember: Your daughter won’t let you down. And some of us out here, if you just stick around, we won’t let you down either.

I found a girl in my son’s bed

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 30, 2009

I don’t think I’m comfortable with my 17-year-old bringing 16-year-old girls home — but what to do?


Dear Cary:

Last night I discovered my 17-year-old son brought a girl to stay the night. To say the least it was unexpected and I don’t think I was expected to find out. I found out when I woke up around 4:30 in the morning and went to have a glass of water and found an extra pair of shoes at the door.

I entered my son’s room to find a young girl of maybe 16 in his bed. I didn’t say anything (I think shock set in for a while) and said to him aloud that I wasn’t really sure what to say but would talk with him later on. I didn’t kick her out. I had to leave later that morning and my son worked at night so I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet. After thinking about it I’ve decided that it’s not something I’m comfortable with and plan on telling him I don’t wish for it to happen again. I also plan on reminding him that he comes from a long line of successful impregnators so he would be wise to keep protection handy.

I’m a fairly liberal parent and give plenty of leeway to my children. I’m a single father as well. My son is an A student who holds down two jobs, and he is going into grade 12 this fall. He’s easygoing, ambitious and intelligent. I’ve never minded him having girlfriends. I expect he will respect my wishes and not bring her again overnight.

Is there something else I should say to him?

Concerned

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Dear Concerned,

There are many things you might say. But first: What is the girl’s name and age? Where does she live? What are her parents’ names, and their phone number and address? Those are reasonable questions. You may reasonably want to know much more — what precautions are they taking, how long have they been sexually active together, and how many other partners has your son had? But you need at least to know who the girl is and what her situation is.

Let’s hope she is at least 16. Otherwise he may have broken the law. And even if she is 16, in some states, under some combination of circumstances, sexual activity between them might be illegal. For instance, according to the age-of-consent laws linked to in the previous sentence, in New York state, “Sex with a person under 17 is a misdemeanor if the perpetrator is at least 16 (see infra). (‘Sexual misconduct,’ NY Penal Law § 130.20.)” So if they had sex in the state of New York, he may have committed a misdemeanor. It might not hurt to consult a family lawyer.

That said, might we talk a bit more broadly, and at distinct cross-purposes to what has just been said? For I am about to critique our entire society for doing what I have just done: treating sex first as a problem and second as a gift.

To begin again with an innocent mind cleansed of the obvious, let us ask: Why is sex bad?

We know that sex is not bad per se. Yet we routinely greet the sexual awakening as a problem. We do not celebrate it. It represents for your son a unique rite of passage. Your son is having sex! He must be very happy about that. He is also proud. He may have wanted you to discover him in bed with a girl. No matter what you said, just knowing that you saw him means a lot to him. This is not the pride of callous male conquest. It is rather the pride of discovery and arrival. It is probably something he would like to share, if he could do so safely, with fear neither of ridicule nor of corny congratulations in the gruff, squirm-inducing way of men uneasy with intimacy.

It is too bad that we do not have family rituals for celebrating such a thing. Weddings have metastasized into grotesque spectacles of affluence perhaps in part because they no longer represent the moment of sexual awakening. There ought to be rituals for that, the actual coming-of-age.

Fat chance.

Imagine trying to institute such a thing.

The very idea could get you arrested.

And yet I remember well.

I remember the clatter of dishes at dawn, tiptoeing out of a girl’s bedroom before the mom noticed. This happened a good bit in high school. And though we knew we had broken rules, we had no consciousness of having done wrong, only that we had done right in contravention of the many unreasonable restrictions imposed on us by ignorant adults. We felt such pleasure and beauty, such happiness and satisfaction! How could the gods not look favorably upon us — even if adults sought to constrain our desires?

And what were we supposed to do — emulate the adults around us whose arid, pleasureless lives filled us with dread? We did not wish to emulate a society of adults seemingly locked in a dry, tortured existence. We did not want to learn how to live our lives as they were living theirs. Why would we? What did they have to offer us?

So we defied them, quietly seeking pleasure where we could — in the darkness, in the early morning hours, in the quiet, air-conditioned rooms of our parents’ houses while they slept. We had found something that seemed to fulfill our destiny, ill-understood as it was, and we happily pursued it as though it were our life’s calling.

Of course, whatever your experience of sex was as a youth, you now are an adult and responsible for enforcing all the adult rules and so, too, of course you are uncomfortable with the idea of your son having sex because he’s your son, after all. Of course it gives you pause. How could it not? Let us count the ways in which the issue is bound to cause you discomfort:

You don’t control it. It could have bad consequences. You’re probably supposed to stop it. If you don’t stop it you may be held up to public censure and private condemnation. You might find yourself with a granddaughter or grandson. You might have to pay for a wedding. You might have to tell the girl to leave. You might have to police your house more vigilantly. You might have to think about your son having sex. You might be troubled by thoughts that seem just plain wrong: You shouldn’t be picturing your son having sex. You may find you carry a deep-seated taboo about that. It just plain isn’t right. Other things that may happen that you could find yourself worrying about: Your son may come to emotional harm. His girlfriend may come to emotional harm. You may find yourself wanting to console them or fix things you cannot fix. The parents of the girl may call you. You may feel responsible for your son’s actions even though you know that properly speaking you cannot be responsible for something you knew nothing about.

And yet in the midst of all this, you might wonder why this beautiful event, which is celebrated in rituals and songs and dances and paintings and sculptures and myth the world over, is cause for such concern.

Sex may bring pregnancy and the threat of disease. There are religious taboos in addition to the many unpleasant repercussions mentioned above. It is an issue for a father to deal with. It is many things. But while you do what must be done, as a father, as an adult, try to take a minute to celebrate this as well. It is also an awakening.

 

My father was murdered by my former next-door neighbor — and I’m supposed to just get over it?

 I’m having a rough time; I’d like some justice and some peace.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 2, 2008

Dear Cary,

I am not sure where to start or even if I should be writing to you. I have been struggling with something, and at times I think that I have it beaten enough and that asking for help is just useless whining for attention. At other times, it rears up, and I think that it may overtake me.

Two years ago, my father was murdered. Someone wanted money for drugs, and he was beaten and left to die. A second person was involved. She helped plan the robbery, waited nearby and did nothing, though she knew my father was seriously hurt. She sent someone back in the house to rob him again, then covered up the murder from police. She and the murderer are in jail. I grew up next door to the murderer. I saw him beaten, heard him begging his father to stop, saw the delinquent he grew into and how he used people up, even before he was on drugs. My father helped him learn to read, and he took my father’s life. I did not know the girl who was involved. She is up for parole next year, when she will have served only a year in jail. She lied as she pleaded guilty this past spring, diminishing her role. The attorneys for our side acted as if I was lucky that they had worked out a deal and gotten her any time at all.

What I am trying to tell you is that I am very angry and in a lot of pain. I know this hurt other people, but I seem to have taken it the worst. I had a breakdown after my father died. In about two months, I slept about 30 hours. Sometimes I still don’t think that I will make it. Others seem more able to go on. They often say things about how he is in heaven. They tried to pretend that Jesus took him up right away and that he didn’t suffer, no matter that the coroner told me it took him hours to die. I know this is their defense mechanism, but sometimes it comes across as smugness.

I was the only one to speak at the hearing of the girl involved. No one else wanted to, and my brother, who was estranged from my father, had to be begged to even show up. One aunt said something like, “This is the world. They’re not Christians. They don’t care what I have to say,” but I wanted help. I spoke, but could barely get through it. There is something in me that almost obsessively focuses on painful things, where others seem to just as obsessively ignore them. I was diagnosed bipolar, but medicine seemed to rob me of any creativity or humor, so I went off it over a year ago. (Long-term use has also had bad side effects for two relatives.) I feel as if I can’t let the girl, who is up for parole next year, get out. I feel as if it is all up to me. I feel as if my father will be forgotten, unless I remember. I know people are tired of me crying, so I hide it when I can. I know I should do something constructive and keep busy. I know there is much worse suffering in the world. I just don’t understand how this was allowed to happen. I cannot make peace. Sometimes I am not sure if I can keep going on without him. I feel as if I am serving a life sentence.

I just thought you would give me an outside opinion. These last two years are a long story that I have been struggling with.

Thank you for your time.

Anonymous

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Dear Anonymous,

I think I can suggest some things you can do that will help you. But I do not want to launch into that right away. A person who has been through what you have been through, you tell someone what you have been through and right off they launch into a set of prescriptions for you, and you know you’re not supposed to be angry, they’re only trying to help, but you feel shorted somehow. You were just telling your story. And they launch right into all this stuff you’re supposed to do to make you better … and by the way, why aren’t you better already, why are you taking this so hard? And you know you’re not supposed to want to punch the person because they’re just trying to help. But a prescription for action was not what you were asking for, not right away, anyway. You were asking, first of all, just to be heard.

So we sit a little and let it sink in. We sit before it and regard it and we begin to feel the gravity of it. And it makes us humble. We realize that whatever we say, it will just be one small part of a long process for you. We realize that you are in pain and we can’t make that pain go away. So we sit and sense the pain you are in, too. We just sit with it for a minute and it takes hold of us, too, and we begin to react to it with deep sadness and we realize that won’t do, either; you don’t need for us to collapse into tears over your situation. That’s not what you came here for, either.

So we just respond to you as a person, not overreaching or overreacting, not smugly knowing or overly optimistic. We take in your suffering, acknowledge it, be humble before it, admit that it is real.

We live with the past. We cannot change it. We just take it in. We take it in and mourn and grieve the tragedy. We take it in; we expand to contain it. In expanding to contain it, we grow stronger.

It doesn’t feel that way right away. It feels like it’s going to destroy us.

The grief alone will not destroy you. But you need a practice, a method, a tool kit. In this kit are certain things you know will work. For instance, a place you know you can always go to: a lakeside, a burrito joint, a street corner that uplifts you when the world is sitting heavily on your shoulders, a person you know who will always be supportive when you need it. You make a list of these persons and places and tack it up somewhere, and when things get bad, you look at your list and go to one of them. You take shelter.

There are many kinds of shelter.

What happened can’t be undone. But you can do things that get you through the worst parts. You can have a set of tools to get you through.

I have been lately writing about grief a lot and I have gotten some helpful letters from people. One letter yesterday mentioned tonglen, the Buddhist practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out compassion and relief. There is a very good chapter about this in the book “When Things Fall Apart,” by Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön. It was in this book that I first read about tonglen. The poet Allen Ginsberg taught a similar thing; he suggested that we breathe in the world’s ills and breathe out light and forgiveness and peace.

Someone also recently wrote to me about her mother, a Catholic mystic who saw Jesus everywhere, and used to travel to seek out his image, and after her mother died, she found that she was crying for everyone and everything, and this frightened her. She looked into her Catholic background and there found a name for this grief for the world: “tears of the faithful,” it is called, those tears we shed for the world’s suffering. (“The sorrows of the faithless are storms, which ravage everything, but the tears of the faithful are a quiet, gracious rain which helps the beautiful flowers of virtue to grow and bloom in the soul.”)

These practices do not cure history. But they help us acknowledge suffering and connect us to humanity. They help us get through the worst of it, and slowly we improve.

There are many other things one can do. There is no technique or practice that is not worth trying. If you had a whole list, you might find only one was useful and palatable. But that one might save your life. So I do suggest that you seek out methods that work for you, that you read in the literature of grief, that you turn nothing away, that you keep an open heart and an open mind. For instance, I myself have never done “grief work” in a formal sense, but I have a feeling it could be very powerful and very healing. You might consider it. I would investigate.

It has been a crazy week. I sometimes don’t know how I am going to get to the next sentence. Then something happens.

A mockingbird has begun to sing. I can smell the sea from here. I wait for these things.

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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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I lost my inheritance on a “technicality”

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 1, 2009

Due to an “error,” the stepdaughter gets everything.


Dear Cary,

It really is not about the money. My dad worked two and three jobs his whole life and ended up with a relatively small estate to distribute among his eight kids and his stepdaughter. He died first. Then his wife died. My brother took her into his home and his beautiful, loving family helped her die a better death than tied screaming to a hospital bed, which is where she was.

Now the estate is being settled and due to a technicality, an error in his wife’s will, all of the proceeds are being given to the stepdaughter, even though my dad and his wife’s wills stated that all proceeds will be shared among all of the children. We are all asked to sign a paper that we relinquish all claims to the estate and accept a token amount from the stepdaughter.

I can’t bring myself to sign it. Mostly I feel like it is a disrespect of my dad and his whole life and an unethical act. I feel like if I sign this paper and accept this insulting amount of money, I am going against his wishes and it’s just plain wrong. Please believe me that the amount of money is so small as to be negligible, even if we got the full amount that the will instructed. So it really is not about the money. I know people often say that and it really IS about the money. But the money feels more symbolic to me than anything.

I don’t know what to do. Is it Buddhism that says when you don’t know what to do, do nothing? I try to live an ethical life with my actions in line with my beliefs. (Although I don’t have the guts to be a tax resistor.)

This resistance to relinquishing the claim feels like it comes from a very deep place inside, a big no to being reasonable. I have no interest at all in suing or going to court or hiring a lawyer. I just do not want to sign a paper that feels wrong to me. I don’t even know if it will hold up the distribution process or what. I don’t care. I guess I should care because some of my sisters are in extremely bad financial positions and the small amount would be a big amount to them.

This whole thing feels like a mocking twist of fate — the Cinderella story gone south. The selfish stepsister gets the prince and fortune. The good sisters and brothers get sent out in a blizzard with no bread crumbs to lead them home. The bad guys win. I have mixed up many folkloric themes but you get my drift.

I love your column and appreciate any thoughts you can share with me, Cary. Thank you very much for your work.

Sister Left Out in the Cold

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Dear Sister Left Out in the Cold,

When an “error in the will” or a “technicality” causes one heir to benefit to the exclusion of all the others, doesn’t it make you wonder what actually happened? Do you feel satisfied with the explanation that it was just a “technicality,” an “error in the will”? I don’t think I would feel satisfied with such an explanation. So I do think you should see a lawyer — not to fight this necessarily, just to get a clear understanding of what happened.

Did someone fail to file something by a deadline? Was some language the wrong language? Was something mistyped? Was something misfiled? What exactly was this “technicality”?

In my book, there’s another word for “technicalities.” That word is “law.” “Technicalities” are what the law is made of: specific, detailed, exacting requirements. Lawyers are supposed to take care of all these “technicalities” so that the wishes of the dead are honored.

When these requirements are not carried out, and that failure creates an unfair advantage for one party to the detriment of the others, that doesn’t really sound like a “technicality” to me. It sounds more like a “screwing.”

Isn’t that really what’s going on here? A screwing?

Isn’t that really why you’re upset? There was a shared understanding and a clear intent, as spelled out in two people’s wills, about what should happen. Then an entirely different thing happened. It wasn’t supposed to happen. But it benefits one party to the detriment of all the others.

And you’re being very polite about this.

As heirs, I guess we’re supposed to honor the dead with our piety and humility and acceptance. That’s what’s underneath this, at least in part, emotionally speaking, isn’t it?

But do we really honor the dead by letting a “technicality” corrupt what they wished for?

If everyone agrees that this “technicality” is unfair, that the estate was supposed to be distributed equally, then perhaps you draw up a document stating that the stepdaughter promises, upon the settling of the estate, to distribute the proceeds to all the children, as is the intent as understood by all of you. If she’s willing to do this, then maybe you know that it’s mainly fate that seems bent on screwing you. Whereas if she clings to the notion that this “error,” this “technicality,” is what rules, then perhaps you come to understand that it was not a technicality at all.

At the very least, you deserve to know what happened.

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It may be something truly random and innocent, the fault of no one. But then what we’re talking about is incompetence. You’re being screwed by fate and incompetence. OK, at least you know. So what’s worse, to be screwed by somebody who knows he’s screwing you, or to be screwed by incompetence itself, by somebody who doesn’t even know he’s screwing you — by somebody who, in turn, is no doubt being royally screwed by somebody else and hasn’t even felt it yet?

I can’t decide. It’s so hard to pick. Maybe it depends on how good-looking he is.

Damn. I’m getting worked up now, too.

I’m getting worked up because words like “technicality” and “error in the will” are the costumery of scoundrels. I’m getting worked up because the law can be a beautiful instrument for justice and should not be used for obfuscation or to justify the unjustifiable. I’m getting worked up because we ought always, as citizens, be alert to the manifold and dazzling ways that people will use the law to blind us, to confuse us, to frighten us into submission, to remind us of our subservience before the masters of the law, to remind us that we are not really free citizens in the face of the law but servants from whom only obedience is expected, and that as children of parents we ought to be only meek and grateful for whatever passes to us, and never question the law or the lawyers and their “technicalities” and “errors.”

I’m getting worked up because use of the law to hide the truth reminds us that torture, in one universe, is what those who want to carry it out say it is, and that legality, for those who want to break the law, is whatever they say it is, and that what’s right, despite the manifestly stated wishes of all involved, is what the lawyers say is right, because they are in command of all the “technicalities.”

It stinks. You’re getting screwed and it stinks and you deserve to see the face of whoever or whatever is screwing you. Whether that face be the face of fateful incompetence, of greed, of selfishness, of covertly hostile maneuvering, of brilliant cunning, or of accident, of bureaucratic bungling, of unconscious wishes surfacing as error, whatever: You deserve to see the face of whatever is screwing you.

So find a good lawyer, one who is on your side, show the lawyer the facts, and don’t leave the office until you yourself understand what happened.

Then at least you know. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is healing. At least, by knowing the facts, we reconcile ourselves to the world of scoundrels and bungling and simple, blasted fate.

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