How do you kick out a disorderly roommate?

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 15, 2005

We all like to party, but she takes it way too far.


Dear Cary,

I’m a 24-year-old female living with two roommates in a rental house. Being in our 20s, drinking, etc., is not exactly frowned upon. Hell, we love it. My one roommate, whom I’ll call “Blondie” (age 26), and I both know when enough is enough; however, “Red,” at the age of 28, does not have a handle on herself. She frequently drinks to excess and fights with her equally dysfunctional boyfriend. None of this is relegated to the weekends, but just whenever she feels like getting pissed.

The most recent incident was this Saturday, at a friend’s birthday party in our local haunt. She and her boyfriend got into a huge argument (drunken, of course). He left the bar (Blondie’s boyfriend prevented Red’s boyfriend from driving drunk, thank God), and she was sobbing. Apparently, she forgot that during the festivities, she flirted with some random guy not with our group, which her boyfriend saw.

Without getting too far into it, I’m basically sick of the two of them — and her especially. What it all adds up to is she is making living peacefully in that house almost impossible. The next morning Red and her boyfriend behave as though nothing happened the night prior, and the rest of us are left to feel as though we are walking on eggshells. It’s completely uncomfortable and wholly strange. I last confronted her when the two of them came home drunk and had a loud fight at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. She seemed to understand it was totally unacceptable, but only because it was late and I wake up early for work.

Cary, what do I say to her? Blondie and I are at the end of our collective rope. We both want her out, but I don’t think it would be fair to ask her to pack it up without confronting her first. I’m not sure how to be tactful and not come off as though I’m judging her. Please help.

End of Tether

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Dear End of Tether,

I was slithering around in the weeds trying to get the words right in my typically pseudo-therapeutic nonjudgmental California style when I began to feel a curious outrage. Yes, you could sit her down and explain that the energy isn’t right, that it’s not a harmonious mix, that the vibes are wrong. You could say that your lifestyles are different, that you don’t feel comfortable the way things are and you think it’s time to make some changes. You could say she’d probably be happier living somewhere else, all of which would be sort of true.

But on the occasion of Saul Bellow’s death, in the memory of his thunderous prose, his intellectual passion, his moral clarity, I find myself questioning the drained, vapid language of California compassion, wondering if we ought not to stop hiding behind our subjectivity and be a little more straightforward in our judgments of others, to say outright that we have a code of conduct and we expect others to abide by it, that some behavior is better than other behavior. What’s wrong with telling her to get the hell out? Do you really want to help her or do you just want to get a good night’s sleep? The truth of it is that she’s behaved abominably.

What is your responsibility in this matter? Are you her therapist, her sister, or just a citizen who entered into an implicit social contract that she appears to have blithely broken time and again?

Yes, I may sound ill-tempered this morning. Perhaps I am. I hope it doesn’t appear I’m taking it out on your roommate. It’s just been bugging me for a while now: This whole pseudo-therapeutic cliché of dealing with conflict by concentrating only on your own feelings — how did that work its way into our culture? It may be fine in therapy, but not all life is therapy. Life is also open conflict. There’s this other thing that’s bugging me, too, our creeping Orwellian debasement of language. As the dominant culture lies to us, we have to be careful not to lie to ourselves and to each other in our daily lives. We need to learn how to say what we mean.

Why is it better to say, “I just don’t feel comfortable with some of your actions”? What is wrong with saying, “I think your behavior is wrong and it ought to stop”? Is it really being more truthful to talk only about our own feelings, as if our feelings were all that is knowable?

There’s this logical flaw as well: Saying you’re “uncomfortable” assumes that your antagonist gives a damn about your comfort. Isn’t that assuming rather a lot? It requests compassion from someone whom you are actually chastising with veiled judgment. There’s something kind of perverse and dishonest about that. We’re in conflict. Why should they care whether we’re comfortable or not? Isn’t that the problem right there? She doesn’t care if you’re comfortable. That’s why you’re uncomfortable!

The very word “uncomfortable” makes me uncomfortable — intellectually. What is “uncomfortable”? Is it pain? Is it outrage? Is it anger? Is it rational disapproval? Is it any idea or emotion at all? It’s merely the absence of comfort! Is comfort our highest social value? Do we aspire to nothing greater than the sensation of reclining in a Barcalounger? What about progress through struggle, what about impulse control, what about consequences, what about learning in a painful fashion, when her roommate descends the stairs with an ax, just what murderous thoughts are aroused at 2 a.m. by her drunken voice in the kitchen?

If you’re conflicted about resolving this conflict in a nice way, I can see why. But I’m not sure you’re required to be all that nice and understanding. Maybe you just need to be direct. Picture Donald Trump in the boardroom: No hard feelings, but you screwed up and you’re fired.

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

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Guilty in the City

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Dear Guilty,

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

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

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

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

So I had some troubles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I bought a house and now I’m crying every day

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 Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 26, 2007

I think I made a big mistake. Home ownership isn’t what I thought it would be.


Dear Cary:

I am 35 years old, and we recently bought our first house. I have cried every day since. Our house is an older fixer-upper. All I could see when we looked at it was lots of potential. Most of my TV time is spent watching shows like “Flip This House” or “Designed to Sell.” They make it look so easy. There were so many red flags, but for some reason I persisted. I was determined I could do it, and now I am consumed by guilt and regret. My fiancé did not want to buy this house but agreed to because he wanted to make me happy.

We were able to get a mortgage, with no money down, that covered the closing costs. We have no savings and love to spend money. I had it in my mind that this would be a good way for us to get our finances in order, as we would have to start saving money. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I was so consumed with the American dream of owning a house to raise my son in and having the dog, garage, etc., that I lost sight of the true picture.

This dream has turned into a nightmare. I think too much emphasis is put on the ultimate dream of being a homeowner. Along with being a homeowner comes great, great responsibility, and this is a very scary thing. I now feel that maybe I am not cut out to be a homeowner. I doubted myself along the way, but everyone kept saying, “You will be so happy,” and, “It is the best investment you will ever make.”

We have the finances to make the payments and start saving, but I still cannot get past the sadness I feel. Looking back, I never had a great feeling about this, but I blamed it on the amount of work we needed to do on the house and the overwhelming task of moving.

I think we could sell and make what we have put into the house so far, and at this point, I am even willing to take a loss. This is a heavy, heavy burden that has left me feeling so empty. Is this something that will pass, or should I try to get out now so I can get my sanity back? I know I used poor judgment and made a mistake that will not be easily fixed, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in this lonely, sad place that I am at right now. Please help.

Sincerely,
Melissa

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Dear Melissa,

If you are crying every day and you feel much guilt and remorse, I would suggest getting checked out to see if you are having more than just the usual “I just bought a house” jitters. Do you have someone you can go to — a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist? It might be nothing, but it might be biochemical in nature. It’s always best to find out.

I’m no doctor. That’s why I’m suggesting you see one.

I’m no paragon of emotional stability, either, and I do recall feeling Oh My God What Have We Done after my wife and I purchased our first — and only — house in 1997. There was some feeling also of letdown after intense drama. Houses act powerfully on the psyche, that’s for sure.

So check in with somebody, a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. It may be something as simple as a hormonal letdown after months of anxiety and adrenaline-fueled highs; you may just need to spend a month eating three square meals a day, exercising and getting eight hours sleep.

Barring anything biochemical, perhaps things in your psyche have come together in this house-buying experience in a kind of perfect storm. Houses can bring all our insanities together within four walls, consolidating all our emotional debt into one huge monthly freakout. And maybe that’s what it is. The house could also be a metaphor for your ambivalence about commitment versus staying free, and all your fear about being tied down and not having choices — and you have a son and a fiancé, which indicates you may also be teetering on the brink of marriage/not marriage. Perhaps you’ve avoided this kind of panic before by not pulling the trigger.

But you wanted to see if you could do it and you did it. Good for you. I do that too. I want to see if I can do it because I’ve never done it before and always wondered. Like doing a remodel: Wonder what that’s like. Now I know. It makes your house pretty. But you go insane.

We adults do these things. We move big sums of money around. We make debt. We have kids. We do big adult things that that are hard to reverse. It’s not play. Maybe that’s what makes it scary: Play is reversible; you can start the game over again; you can knock down a Lego house and build it right back up again. But a real house is a house is a house is a house.

Up to a point. You do have a choice. The house is the house is the house — but only if you let the house be the house be the house. You can always sell the house sell the house sell the house. (Is there an editor in the house? Will somebody please stop me stop me stop me?)

The house can go away is what I’m saying, and you will still be the same person. You may be right that home ownership is not all it’s cracked up to be. You can say, You know what, I’d rather rent. Who needs all this responsibility? (Personally, I give serious thought to the joys of carefree apartment living about once a day.)

So take a deep breath and say out loud, I can always sell the house. I don’t have to do this if I don’t want to.

Say out loud: Either way I will be OK.

The house is not going to kill you. It’s just a place to sleep at night.

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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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I let a homeless man move in with me and now I can’t get rid of him

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 8, 2008

It’s not like I picked him up off the street. I’ve known him for 20 years. Once he was my boyfriend.


Cary,

I made the mistake of letting a homeless man move in with me. Now I can’t get rid of him.

I’ve known this man for over 20 years. At one time, he was my boyfriend, but we broke up years ago as a result of his excessive drinking. Since I’ve known him, he has been in detox at least five times and rehab twice. He’s been hospitalized twice because of a bleeding stomach and he’s contracted hepatitis C.

He called me one night last December to tell me he was evicted from his apartment. He’s in construction and has been working sporadically as a result of the housing downturn. He was in detox, but they threw him out after five days because of lack of insurance. I begged him not to come here and to stay with his brother. His brother is a recovering alcoholic (has not had a drink in 40 years) and is fed up with him. So he showed up on my doorstep and I made the mistake of letting him in. I told him that he could stay with me under one condition: no drinking.

Although he has been helpful with housework, he has made no financial contributions and has not saved any money to move out. Two weeks ago, I found evidence that he is drinking again. When I confronted him, he denied it. Twice since then I’ve found more evidence. The other day I contacted him while he was working and told him not to come back and to find someplace else to stay. He came home anyway, telling me that he had no place else to go.

Cary, we are having the exact same fights that we had when we lived together years ago. It’s like déjà vu. One night last week I fell asleep on the couch and when I woke up, there was an empty pot on the stove and the flame was on high. Also, I’ve walked in on him while he’s on Craigslist looking for “casual encounters.” At this point I am afraid to go away because I can’t trust him. I’m afraid of coming home to a burning house or getting ripped off by a “casual encounter.” Although he has been told that he is not allowed guests while I’m not home, it is obvious that I can’t trust him.

I just want to go back to my old simple life of living alone with no worries. He has destroyed my carefree lifestyle and invaded my home. I worked hard to get to where I am in life and he is sucking me dry.

When we were living together years ago, I had to get a restraining order to get him out. At that time he was destructive, so I was able to convince a judge that I feared for my life because he was constantly breaking my things, punching holes in the walls, breaking my car windshield, etc., out of anger. He hasn’t shown any signs of violence yet, but I don’t want to have to wait for my home to be trashed before I can do anything about it. I don’t think I could get another one because he has never hurt me physically.

I’ve tried discussing it with him and had no luck. He sees the fact that we don’t get along as being my fault and asks me why I’m doing this to myself (?!). I’ve told him that I want him to start saving money and find a room to rent, but it doesn’t seem to sink in. How can I get rid of him?

Housing the Homeless

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Dear Housing the Homeless,

First, contact your local police and explain that you have a man living in your house against whom you once had a legal restraining order, and you are planning to evict him. Tell them he has been homeless, he has a history of violence and he has a drinking problem. Ask if they provide civil standby for such instances. Ask how you would get a second restraining order if it should be needed. Ask for their advice. They may or may not give you advice. If they advise you to see a lawyer, see a lawyer. You might want to see a lawyer regardless; lawyers who specialize in landlord-tenant law have experience in similar situations.

This is all by way of covering your bases. You want to have a plan and you want to have physical protection, either from police or from volunteers.

Then, once you have your bases covered, you need to give him clear, unequivocal, concrete instructions, on the order of: “You and all your belongings must be out of this house by 3 p.m. tomorrow. You may not come back.” If you think he may have copied your key, have the locks changed.

I sense that you are in anguish about this. You may be confused about how it happened: You acted in a sensible, compassionate way, and now you are in a mess. You asked him to do certain things and he has not done what you wish. So it may be that, being a kind person, you have not really accepted the hard, brutal facts about him. He may be a kind person in certain ways; you may see much good in him. But if he is drinking alcoholically, he is not capable of acting right. You must accept that. He is not capable of keeping agreements. Bad things will keep happening to him.

He will make it appear that he is the victim of uncaring authorities and heartless circumstances. It sounds like he has been doing this in his conversations with you. For instance, you say, “He’s in construction and has been working sporadically as a result of the housing downturn. He was in detox, but they threw him out after five days because of lack of insurance.” What if we were to recast those sentences like this: “He’s an alcoholic so he’s been working sporadically. He was in detox but detox is temporary.”

Rather than casting him as the victim, let’s stick closer to the observable facts, and see if that lets us get some distance on him. In my experience, alcoholics tend to work sporadically regardless of the economic climate. They work sporadically because they do not have the stamina and energy of nonalcoholic workers. They require more rest, and often are not available five days a week. They also tend to have poor social skills. They alienate fellow workers and, if their coordination is impaired, they can endanger other workers. So there are many reasons why practicing alcoholics work sporadically. As to detox, well, detox is a temporary measure. If a person genuinely wants to recover from alcoholism, after detox he or she can take steps to remain sober. Insurance is not required to stay sober. People who genuinely want to stay sober find a way. Ample free help is available. Insurance is not the problem. Alcoholism is the problem.

So it sounds like he has been able to twist your heartstrings a little by casting himself as a victim. It might be said that in truth he is a victim, but not a victim of other people. He is a victim of alcoholism.

In accepting this difficult truth, you may find it useful to attend some meetings of Al-Anon, where you will meet many other people who have been in relationships with alcoholics, and who have identified the patterns of behavior. You will be able to say, Aha!

Good luck with this. It’s very hard, emotionally, to cut someone out of your life. But if it’s any consolation, I have heard many men say that being cut out of someone’s life was the best thing that ever happened to them. It takes something like that to realize just how hopeless the situation is. Only then will many people seek help with the desperate energy that is required.

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