My mother is dying — how will I bear it?

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I know it’s inevitable, but I can’t imagine how to get through it.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 26, 2005 01:04 PM PDT

Dear Cary,

I’m writing because I love your advice and follow your column avidly. I don’t have the time or focus to make this pithy. I’ve always envisioned writing you a clever and insightful letter someday, and this ain’t it.

In a nutshell: I just learned my mother has a deadly cancer, her second round in two years. Despite what doctors are saying right now, I have a gut feeling that this is it: My mother is going to die young. She’s not even 60. I’m not even 40. She won’t meet my future children. She may not even be alive to see me get married to the love of my life. He and I had planned to get married next summer.

I am the only daughter, and anticipate being in the role of primary caretaker. My father and brother try their best, but I have always known it will be me who will help my mother die (or get well if there is some miracle). In fact, I have been preparing for this in therapy for over a year: trying to overcome my phobic fear of death, hospitals, illness, and least helpful of all: vomiting (people getting chemo vomit — a lot). I’ve made some progress, but I am still terrified and panicked that my fears will get in the way of being helpful or comforting.

She gets her first chemotherapy treatment next week, and I will be there (she lives in a city three hours away).

I’m beyond “why me, why her.” I know we all must deal with the death of our parents someday. Here is my question: How do people bear it? What can I do to overcome my fears and terror, and to offer my mother — who I love fiercely — solace and even meaning in the face of death? Is it even my role to offer this? How do I hold hope and death at the same time? She has been a wonderful mother — and devoted so much of her life to caring for me. How do I return the favor?

Heartbroken and Afraid

Dear Heartbroken and Afraid,

Much has been said to malign death, but little is said in its defense. Thus we fear it inordinately. But there is much about death that is wonderful. One thing that is wonderful about death is how little it requires of us, and how much we can count on it. Unlike a lover or a deliveryman, death will surely come, eventually, every time, to all of us. It will come whether we want it to or not, whether we are home when it arrives or not, whether we schedule it or not. The certainty of its arrival is frightening in a way — we might not be ready when it arrives! — but it is also reassuring. For once we do not have to choose. We bear no responsibility at all. If we do not make a selection, a selection will be made for us. When death arrives, it will not require payment or any form of reciprocity. It will not turn down the bed and then stand at the door waiting for a tip. Death, for the dying, need not be feared.

All death requires of us is that we bury our dead.

This is not to say that you are a silly and weak earthling caught up in weak and silly fears. I am not trying to pass myself off as some cold, imperious guru, impervious to fear of death. Far from it. I too fear death and dread the passing of those around me. I only suggest you try to make peace with death itself, in your own heart, to the extent possible, in order to lighten your burden, so that you can then move on to the issue before you with less dread and anxiety. You have probably made ample progress, perhaps more than you realize, by concentrating on this issue over the last year in your sessions with a therapist. You have been preparing. You cannot cure yourself, of course, or eliminate your natural responses to these future events. But you can prepare for them, and you have been doing so.

So take heart knowing that you are well prepared for the difficulties ahead. And take heart knowing that there will be many, many people around you who will care for you and help you when you need it. Your immediate family may disappoint you, but when illness comes, others rise to the occasion; wise caregivers and unexpected allies who were only on the periphery seem to step up and become central. Be alert to the people in your mother’s life who will now come forward. Look to them for the support you will need. That is how people bear such things.

It’s gruesome and terrible and frightening, I know, when the body is in the process of dying. But we do get used to certain tasks, however much we think we could never endure them. And death itself, once accomplished, is serene and quiet.

While you are taking care of these tasks, think of the immense procession you have joined — consider, as you empty bedpans, that you are taking your place on the great wheel, that we all go, every one of us, eventually, no matter what we believe, no matter what we have accomplished or destroyed, no matter how we have failed: We all go, and likely there will be someone emptying our bedpans, and someone emptying theirs, and someone emptying theirs. In this cycle of care and decay we are united. Your mother will go, and you will follow. My parents will go, and I will follow. Or perhaps I will go first and they will follow. We do not control the order of our going. Of this we can be sure.

I am not saying something as clichéd as that all this is happening for a reason. I don’t know that. But I do know that death comes to all of us eventually, and so to deny it when it is coming is, well, futile, yes, but also undignified. Without giving up — we must do what we can to live — we also need to embrace death, recognize its power, its omnipotence. Give it its due.

Perhaps some of our unease has to do with our guilt that we are not the ones who are dying. But really, unless we believe in a literal hell — and I don’t — what could be so bad about being on the other side? Why should we pity those who leave a little before us? For a time, some of us will be on one side, and some on the other. For a time, our friends are inside the nightclub and we are behind the rope. But before too long, we’ll all be over there on that side. True, the difference between the living and the dead is profound and fundamental, as is the difference between those inside the club and those behind the rope. But still, as Tom Waits sings, “We’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground.”

So I suggest you take responsibility for the things under your control, try to make the proper medical and financial decisions in a timely way, comfort your mother, tell her whatever you need to tell her before she goes, but give some measure of honor to death itself, as well. It is all of our fate. It is our inheritance. We will all be joined there eventually.

I’m still grieving over my childhood home

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Dear Cary,

It’s been over a year since I moved from my childhood home. It’s been sold–the only home I knew for 20 years.

Before I left, I read your advice column on letting go of your childhood home. It helped, and I did sit on my porch, and I wrote a letter and placed in a box and buried it under my old swing set.

The excitement of moving into the city has surely passed and every few months I find myself taking a drive out to see my old home. I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around the idea that it’s not really my family’s anymore. Every time I drive by and see the gate shut,  the thought that some other strange family lives in there saddens and confuses me terribly. The fact that I can’t drive in and run up my stairs into my bedroom anymore haunts me. I thought that by now I’d hardly think of my home and be over it and have moved on, but I still miss it so much. I just don’t know how to officially move past this grieving process and truly let it go.

Missing My Home

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Dear Missing My Home,

The last line of that column you mention was, “And then let it go.” I think that’s the part you’re stuck on now. In that column from August of 2010 (only 8 months after my cancer surgery, which means my brain was still a little scrambled) I invented some clever rituals, and that was nice and poetic. But I also meant to say that there is a moment at the end where one truly lets go of the house. Continuing to drive by it and think about it is not letting it go. Every time you drive by you bring to mind all those feelings and make them fresh and new and vivid. It’s time to stop driving by it every few months.

But driving by it is a bittersweet pleasure, too, isn’t it? So it’s not easy to stop doing that. It means accepting the absence.

I wish I could fix this but I can’t. All I can do is say Yes, I know how gut-wrenching it can be. I know how thoughts of what has been lost can obliterate everything else. All I can do is seek peace within myself, and that means searching for ways to stop obsessing about things that I have lost. How I do that is by reading poetry and sitting still. How I do that is by asking other people, How do you do it? How do you get through a day? How do you live with loss? How do you not break down and fall to your knees? How, when you are filled with grief and rage, do you resist the impulse to do something rash and stupid and destructive but very satisfying and attractive?

I keep asking and I keep getting answers from poets, from therapists, from addicts, from novelists, from my wife, from people who write to me. And the one lesson that stands out is this: The task of being fully human is our major task. It is more important than earning money and maintaining a reputation and giving proper greetings and being on time and polite and staying in our lane when we drive and waving to neighbors and thanking cashiers.

FranceAd2015Our major task is the simple task of being fully human. That means accepting that in this moment, right here, right now, we are not the suffering and the anguish, we are not the loss of a house, we are not the memories of family, we are not the unfortunate real estate transactions and lost investments and bungled business ideas and erratic moves that characterize our lives. We are just specks of light illuminating a small section of darkness. We are just points of awareness in a vast and majestic universe.

If I can hold that thought even for a second or two I can be OK. I am not my pajamas. I am not my trench coat. I am not my hands or my computer or my losses or wishes or the airplane flying overhead or my feelings or my former drunkenness or my rage at not getting what I think I deserve, or my sadness at the things my father wanted and never got, or the tragically shortened lives of my dogs, or my vast need for recognition and acknowledgment. If I can know for just an instant that I am not any of that, that I am not my sadness at the loss of a family home or my worries about how my family will live in the future or my anticipated grief at the coming death of a dear friend, then I can get up and keep living, and I can make my appointments and I can comfort my wife and I can see my friend for lunch and I can keep working on the novel and I can even ignore the maddening thunk of a child practicing a barely-in-tune piano next door.

And that — especially the last part — is a miracle.

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After my husband died of cancer I found he’d been cheating

 
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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2007

We have three small children and I am devastated.


Hi,

I need desperate help, please.

My husband died of cancer a week ago. The day after his funeral, I learned he’d been having Internet sex, which didn’t stop there. He met up with the woman in Hong Kong last year, where he was supposed to be alone, and they were planning another rendezvous next year. This had been going on for two years.

I’m so torn between grief, hatred, sadness and depression. I feel so alone and heartbroken. It’s like I’ve lived 13 years with a total stranger. I feel like dying. We have three young children.

Please help me if you can. Thanks.

Betrayed by Dead Husband

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Dear Betrayed,

You loved a man who was not perfect. You married a man who was not perfect. You had three wonderful children with a man who was not perfect.

You did not live for 13 years with a total stranger. You lived for 13 years with a man who was not perfect.
Death took this man from you and then you learned of his imperfection.

You knew this man, but even after 13 years you did not know everything about him. That’s how it is with people we love. We never know everything about them. All of us have hidden imperfections. You do and I do. You are not perfect and I am not perfect, but no one knows all our imperfections.

Perhaps when we die everyone will know our imperfections, too.

He was not perfect and he had some secrets and now you have been granted knowledge of his secrets. This knowledge makes the grieving sharper. It adds anger to the grief. Grief is enough without the anger, but the anger adds to it, so it feels as if it cannot be borne, as if it will crush you and tear you apart at the same time — the grief pushing you down, wearing you down; the anger tearing at you from the inside, lighting you up, making you want to scream and beat your fists.

The grief is enough. The anger makes it feel like maybe you won’t live through it. But you will. The grief will cleanse you and you will live through it and you will raise three beautiful children.

They will watch you and learn from you how to grieve and how to be strong. They will learn from you how to go on without him.

You will grieve for a long time and life will be hard at times. It will feel sometimes like the grief is not ending. It will feel sometimes like you wish you could slap him.

Through a half-open door during a wake I once watched my aunt berate my uncle’s corpse for dying. It was a good performance, but it was not a performance. We feel these things for real, in addition to what we are supposed to feel; we feel the grief but we also feel these other things. We want to slap the dead or berate the dead or go through their pockets looking for phone numbers.

So be angry at him and pour out your anger at him. Pour out your anger on the ground and light it like a libation. Pour out your anger at him. Pour out your grief.

Take as much time as you need. Grieving is not a test of endurance or a test of fortitude. It is not a performance in a play. It is recognizing the truth of a man’s life: He was imperfect and he died, and after his death his imperfection became known.

It is hard for the rest of us to bear knowledge of his imperfection, but that is the bargain we make: We get to live, and in return we live with the truth. Knowing the truth, we also seek to forgive. Do not rush it, but eventually you will want to forgive him or this anger will harden you and rob you of compassion.

Even the truth we live with is a partial truth. How can what we feel be in proportion to what is true when we will never have anything but a partial truth? Remember in “Casablanca” when Rick is leaving Paris in the rain and Ilsa doesn’t show up? We sometimes suffer more from having only a partial truth.

It is also possible that this thought has crossed your mind: “Everyone will know and they will think what a fool I am. Everyone will know and they will see that I could not control him. They will lose respect for me.”

Such thoughts may run through your head. Let them run through your head. People have all kinds of thoughts. We all do. They do not matter. You know the truth. The truth is that you loved a man and he loved you and you brought three beautiful children to life, and the man was a real man and not a god, and because he was a real man and not a god he was not perfect.

Now it is time for you to grieve him and remember him and raise your children.

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Turning 50: It’s all downhill from here

 

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 6, 2009

I’ve got only a genetic disease and old age to look forward to


 

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column for a while and always find your advice useful in a roundabout way, but I especially find it honest.

I’m going to be turning 50 this year and have learned I have a fairly rare genetic disease that will (and, indeed, has already begun to) cause great suffering in the years to come, though it likely won’t end my life prematurely.

Unfortunately, I have seen what this disease has done to my father, who is now in his 80s, and I have no desire to go through the endless hospitalizations, treatments, etc., that he endures just to keep on living. I feel tense and anxious most of the time, and also sad.

I’m realizing, however, that the disease is not the only factor in my feelings. Frankly, life in middle age is a tedious, boring chore. I become sad when I think back to my 20s, which was really my peak — a series of endless mental and physical challenges, pleasures and obstacles to overcome.

I’m stuck in an unchallenging but well-enough paying job that I despise. Leaving it would mean competing with people half my age for less pay, and I probably can never get health insurance again, so that option is out.

My home life isn’t much better. I’m stuck with a partner who offers, at best, extremely mediocre sex once every couple weeks. I watch porn to remember the types of adventures I used to have in real life, but it only makes me more sad, angry and resentful.

I’ve given up most of my hobbies as they were fairly pointless wastes of time. Even volunteer work became unsatisfying. For every person or animal I was able to help, there were hundreds of others for whom I could do nothing.

My one true pleasure, hiking in the hills with my dog for hours on end, ended when the dog became severely ill and I had to euthanize her a month ago. Yes, I could get another dog, and yes, I realize everyone anthropomorphizes their pets, but this dog was indeed unique and irreplaceable and her spirit is sorely missed. Her sweet nature and enthusiasm could melt even the most cynical heart.

Well, I will stop with this pity party, but it seems to me that nature had the right idea with human life spans that used to be so short. Now it seems we get 30 or so good years, then 50 years to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

In youth, there is excitement of the unknown. Unfortunately, at this point, I pretty much know how my life is going to go: a slow, steady, physical decline; deaths of more friends and loved ones; and a relationship that will become nothing more than buried resentment over a complete lack of sexual fulfillment.

Frankly, I see very little to look forward to, and I’m not even sure what I’m asking you.

Nothing to Look Forward To

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Dear Nothing to Look Forward To,

Well, my friend, I don’t have the skills to persuade you of what I intuit, or the power to compel you to do as I ask, nor do I have the kind of deep responsibility toward you that a family member or loved one might feel, so I am just going to say what is clear to me and hope that you can overcome the voices in your own head telling you the contrary long enough to act on my suggestion. First of all, and I don’t know why I really want to say this, but I’m just going to trust the impulse: You are going to be taken care of. You’re on a road. You’re not just a forlorn sack of chemicals in a marriage; you’re a human being; you’re a person; you’re a being; you have a place in this world. I also feel this: I feel that you are grieving. You may be depressed, but “depressed” feels vague. To me, you are grieving. “Depression” feels like the damming-up of that grief, not the grief itself. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature but you are also berating yourself for your grief, perhaps to protect yourself from its full, wracking extent.

You also sound like you are grieving for your youth. For that I salute you. Yes, I salute you. Why don’t more of us openly grieve our youths? Why don’t more of us admit that when we wake up one day and find ourselves no longer 20 and hard, indefatigable and quick, irresistible all night, a world ahead of us just for the asking, etc., etc., (I’m not trying to lyrically eulogize it; I’m just trying to name it), why don’t more of us admit that we are filled with a deep and painful sadness? Why don’t we have rites for this? Why do we have to say goodbye to our youth alone, in the shame of our advancing decrepitude?

(I tried to do this publicly, in a way, seven years ago, back in 2002, and indeed it did help to acknowledge publicly that I was no longer 20, although of course it did not arrest the arrow of time.)

You are grieving the loss of your youth and the loss of your dog and you are also living in fear of the future.

That makes you a perfect candidate for membership in the moment.

So, my friend, make your application now!

Yes, you, my friend, are a perfect candidate for membership in the moment. There is always room for one more. So welcome. Come on in. Welcome to the now. Welcome to the now that’s up on the trail, the glistening, humming, vibrating, iridescent, incalculable, inescapable now: Welcome to this very moment, wherever you are. Unless one of us is traveling faster than the speed of light, you and I are both inhabiting this mathematical simultaneity we call the now; we are in it, you and I, right now, so it might be said, though it sounds silly, that we are even together in the now, that as I sit near the window of the cafe in early morning, shivering in the first frost (there was ice on my truck this morning, for heavens sake!) and wondering idly why the employees have the windows and the door open (I know, it gets hot back there) that you and I are, in this moment, perhaps sharing a breath; perhaps as I breathe in you are breathing in too, and the innumerable creatures and souls who also inhabit this moment are also breathing in or breathing out, and the unfathomable underpinnings of our enterprise are operable; the equations and magics of chlorophyll and ganglia are in effect; the infinite, expanding factory of existence is running all night; it’s all going on right now. Welcome.

In this moment you have many choices. You can concentrate on the breath alone, climbing the breath like a rope into the heavens, following the breath back to the beginning of time, rising and falling with the breath like a column of smoke, with every inhalation and exhalation rehearsing the beginning and the end, the creation and the obliteration of the cosmos and the beginning and the end of your life, your wakefulness and your sleep. You can do that in this moment. You can do that in this moment and it may free you momentarily from your stranglehold on the future, or the future’s stranglehold on you, or however you want to place subject and verb in expressing that asphyxiating entanglement.

You can also in this moment allow thoughts of your next move to arise. You can, for instance, determine to contact a cognitive therapist and see about pruning some of the vines.

Yes, you can also in this moment choose to contact a cognitive therapist and get to work on that pattern of thinking that has overtaken you like a vine overtaking a healthy tree. You are wrapped in vines of dread, vines of grief. You are wrapped in vines. You have fed them and given them a home and now they are suffocating you. But you are not yet so completely entwined that you cannot reach out just far enough to gain the attention of a skilled cognitive therapist who can show you how to clip the vines back and get some air.

It is both the joy and the curse of this job that I cannot make you do this. If I could make you do this, my job would be unbearable; every time I failed to make someone do something I would be burdened; every time someone exercised their freedom of choice I would be a failure. Every time someone failed I would fail as well. Luckily, that is not the case. I can say what I say and that is that. We are just two living strangers inhabiting the same moment. It is as though you might overhear me in a cafe advising someone else to go get some cognitive therapy to clip back the vines of depression. I am speaking to the wind. That is fine. I am happy doing that. I am happy speaking to the wind.

But I speak hoping you will overhear me and take it to heart.

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Who’s that woman I saw my father with?

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 30, 2004
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I’m afraid she’s a gold digger. Besides, it’s too soon after Mom’s death for Dad to have a girlfriend.


Dear Cary,

I am 24 years old and currently attending graduate school in fine art. About a year ago, my mother died from breast cancer after fighting the terrible disease for seven years. I was in another state attending school when complications led my mother to her final hours. I tried to get home as soon as I could, but she passed on while I was traveling home. I regret so much that I wasn’t there to say goodbye.

Time has passed and my family has moved on. My mother died while we were moving to another city because my father had found a new job, and both my parents were in the process of building a new home. My family now lives in the home my mother designed while she was alive. I am not there most of the time due to graduate school, and both my younger brothers are in college, which leaves my father alone for most of the year. He is a physician and is doing well for himself currently. I was worried about him being alone for the first time. My parents were married for over 30 years and my dad is in his 60s, and still very active physically. However, he said he could take care of himself. My brothers and I promised we would visit as much as we can.

Class is out now and I returned home for summer vacation as well as to care for my father. For the first time, I have noticed something different about my father. He is forgetting to pay his bills and return calls to people. He is also forgetting simple things like closing the front door, closing the garage, and even the front door of his car. I thought that he was losing his memory due to his age, but then I noticed while I was checking the phone bill that he keeps calling a certain number. I also noticed that while on the phone he keeps mentioning phrases like “I keep thinking of you,” “like to keep seeing you,” and finally “I love you.” That last phrase got to me and now I realize that he is seeing a woman for the first time. Memory loss now looks like love. He is currently going to Las Vegas for a conference in October and on his reservation form I read the name of the woman who is going to be staying with him. Now I am devastated by this.

My brothers and I have never seen this woman and among all of us, we don’t know anything. I do suspect one woman I saw him with at church, though I don’t have any proof that she is the one. But if she is, this woman is recently divorced and living with her mother, who has heart disease. I saw her less than livable living conditions while my father drove to her house after church with the excuse he wanted to get some food she was talking about to him. At that time, he went inside her house and left me in the car.

If the relationship is so serious, why hasn’t my dad told his own children? I am beginning to suspect bad things about this woman now, whoever she is. My father is a doctor and I know women will go to a man like him out of lust and greed. The last thing I want is my father being in a relationship with a woman who wants nothing but money out of him. I am still wondering why he is being so secretive about it. Should I confront him about my findings? Or should I let him tell my brothers and me about it in his own time? Or is it really none of my business? I don’t think I could control my emotions should he tell me he’s getting married sometime and he’s never even told his children about it in the first place.

I am still recovering from my mother’s death and it hurts a lot that he can proclaim love to a woman other than my mother, for what just seems to be weeks. I’m not sure what to do.

Not Looking for a Stepmother

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Dear Not Looking for a Stepmother,

Rather than confront him about what you have observed, I would suggest that you find some time to sit down and have a searching, open-ended conversation with your father. Ask him about the future, what he imagines doing, what he wants from his kids as the years go on, how he sees the next 20 years unfolding. Does he want to stay in this house his wife designed? How does it feel to be in this house now? Does it remind him too much of her? Does it make him sad or happy? Does he feel content there or vaguely lost? Ask him about grieving, whether he has some support in his grief, whether he’s talking to any counselors during this time. Since he is a physician, he is probably acquainted with psychiatrists, and since he is a churchgoing man, he knows where he can turn for spiritual guidance as well. Ask him if he has talked about his feelings with anyone. Ask him if he would like it if you tried to locate near him, so you could see him often. Ask him how he feels about his sons and their plans. Does he feel lost and lonely without his children around him, or is he in some ways grateful to have some time to himself. Ask him lots of questions. Ask him if he’s got a girlfriend. Ask him if he’s thought about remarrying.

Tell him things as well. Tell him that if he should have a girlfriend or decide to marry or is thinking about marrying that it’s OK with you. Tell him the only thing that would hurt you is if you didn’t know. Tell him not to worry, that his kids are strong and doing well and mostly grown up. Tell him he doesn’t have to shield his kids from the truth. Tell him part of the reason you’re saying these things is that you’re not over losing your mother yet, and you need to feel close to your father. Tell him how you feel about having been so far away when she died. Tell him how hard you tried to get there on time. Ask him if he missed you and wished you’d made it.

Oh, there are so many things you could talk about. I know fathers are hard to talk to sometimes, and as they get older they tend to drift a little, and they get tired and need a glass of water or just a drive in the car. But again, this is what I would suggest: Have a searching, open-ended conversation with your father; seek to know and understand but not control.

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My brother retreated to a basement apartment with his dog

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Cary’s classic column from

He’s had some tough blows lately, but I’m concerned he’s really losing it.


Dear Cary,

My younger brother, 40, is an anxious, depressed social recluse. He lives with his dog in a basement apartment alone. He never answers his phone. He only returns calls if it’s urgent. He is getting more obese by the day, smokes and hacks and coughs, may be drinking. He now smells, doesn’t cut his hair. He’s so anxious, he’ll do anything to avoid discussing real issues (his) and talks only about superficial things.

I’m in the unenviable position of being the one who can intervene — or not. Although we have an older brother who would support me, he’s not prepared to lead the way. I’ve had many talks with my younger brother, pleading with him to see a doctor to get help. I’ve had my own mental health and addiction problems over the years, and I’ve shared my experience with him, including how much better I’m doing as a result of an SSRI I’m taking. I’ve offered to go with him to the doctor, to get him the names of people who can help. I’ve even told him I’d have to have him forcibly removed from his place if I felt he was becoming suicidal. He laughed it off. He still seems rational to talk to, but his life is crazy.

He lost his job about a year ago. It was a media job, pretty high profile. He’d been working at the same place basically since finishing college. He’s talented and attractive, but not proactive in the least; he got as far as he did mostly because others pushed and made opportunities for him. In his first serious relationship (with someone from work, a “star”), he allowed himself to be treated with a lot of disrespect and completely deferred to her needs. In the end, she ended it and got married to someone who could provide what she needed. Soon after that, my brother rebounded with another woman, also from work but not a high-profile girl. Instead, she was a sweet but impulsive, gregarious, high-energy party type. Within six months, he’d proposed and they soon married.

From almost the day after their marriage, my brother seemed to abdicate and begin retreating. He didn’t seem to worry anymore about putting effort into being positive, energetic, doing things. He became a lazy, withdrawn and bitchy guy who saw his work as his main obligation. True, his work required a lot of social energy; it required interacting with a lot of people; but he didn’t seem to have anything left for his wife. After years of this and a general decline that saw him more and more withdrawn — never returning calls to family or friends, so that eventually he had no friends left — his wife left him. A week or two later, our father, whom he also neglected over the past years, died; months later, he was fired.

I don’t fear that he’s suicidal at this point. What makes me angry is that I know, in one way, where this will end up, and it means I’ll be cleaning up for him because he’s refusing to take my help now. He’ll run out of money and become destitute, and I’ll have to either take him in or otherwise “solve his life” for him. I get exasperated often as I wonder how someone who is being served up help on a platter can be so damned stubborn and insist they’re “not ready for it” — knowing it’s going to get worse. On the other hand, I guess he might make some change once he hits the real rock bottom — who knows? I’m torn about whether I should intervene now or whether he should be left to go through this?

Big Sis

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Big Sis,

What strikes me about your brother is that within a matter of months he lost his wife, his father and his job. That would be a setback for anyone. Some people would bounce back fairly soon. They would get another job and work through their loneliness and grief on their own time. Others might be seriously shaken, but would at least maintain their standard of living and basic hygiene. He went into a tailspin. I wonder why.

It could be that he is clinically depressed. If at all possible, have him examined. The stress of events may have triggered an episode. But I must be careful with such speculation; not only am I unqualified to diagnose, but as a writer, my bias is toward meaning, not pathology. So perhaps this is not illness at all. Perhaps it is a kind of journey.

What kind of journey could it be? You say that he is talented and attractive, but not proactive, and that his success at work was largely due to the favorable actions of others. You say that in his first relationship he deferred to the needs of his partner. That leaves the impression that he is affable and charming but somewhat passive. Perhaps in the past whenever he faced adversity he would give up until someone came along to rescue him. This time there is no one to help him to his feet — not his dad, not his wife, not his co-workers — only you, big sister, only you.

I always look for signs that the soul is seeking knowledge. The soul seeks knowledge through adversity. Sometimes that adversity is self-generated. People break the law and get locked up; we call it acting out; we call it antisocial, as if in a perfect world none of it would happen. We do not often pause to consider the value of our dark journeys, the priceless material we carry back with us when we return, shaken but sobered by what we have seen.

While we are sometimes too quick to assume that abnormality is illness, that deviation is pathology, as I say, I am no kind of doctor. (If I were, I would be a crazy doctor crawling in the muck, a scary bearded banger of bells, a gonger, a shouter, a vibrating and unreliable sage. I would be applauding the insane as they are led away in wagons. I would not be the kind of doctor you want to mend an arm or fix a tooth.) So, again, you should have a real doctor find out if he’s clinically depressed, if he needs to be treated. If he is physically in danger, if he becomes suicidal, then perhaps to save a life a doctor has to intervene.

But perhaps he is struggling to accept adversity on his own. Perhaps, stricken by grief, alone in the world for the first time, he is trying to find out what difference it makes if he smells bad or not, if he answers the phone or not, if he succeeds or just sits alone in the dark with his dog. Perhaps he is on a twisted journey toward self-reliance. Perhaps in this way he is trying to become a man! As much as I want him to be OK, I also want to honor his decision to descend into a kind of funky, ugly madness.

In the meantime, what is your role? If you determine that he’s not in imminent danger, you stand by. You stand by like a tug when a ship is in distress, like a spotter for a gymnast attempting a difficult flip. Do not assume that simply because he has chosen to retreat to the basement with his dog that he is irretrievable. After he has gone where he has to go, he may emerge one day, blinking in the sunlight, looking strangely radiant, saying, Look, look what I found, I may have paid too much for it but look how it shines!

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