Tough love

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 5, 2003

I’m involved with a woman who has a serious physical condition. Should I stay, even though it’s difficult?

Dear Cary,

I recently turned 31, and after a life of much less romantic and sexual success than I’d like, I’ve become involved with a wonderful woman. We’re a great match in terms of personality and interests.

The problem is, she has a medical condition she calls idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. There are times when it literally hurts her to breathe. She can’t lie down to sleep, and all she can do is sit in the bathroom with the shower on full blast, inhaling steam. These attacks occur at random, which means that making any kind of plan with her is contingent on her health. Recently, my big weekend with her faded to nothing. I went out, she stayed at her place, and early Sunday morning she shooed me out because she was in agony.

Another problem is that she also has a diminished sense of touch all over her skin. When we’re together sexually, she says her body doesn’t feel much, though her brain likes it. (This may or may not have something to do with the fact she was working as a prostitute at age 14.) I’m always wondering if she’s really enjoying it or if she’s just doing it for me and feels no pleasure herself.

I don’t know if I can handle being with someone who is that sick. I feel guilty for saying that, because people with illnesses need and deserve love as much as anybody else, but they’re less likely to get it. I believe that if you care about somebody, you’re supposed to endure problems like sickness. However, I fear that I’ll eventually come to resent her for keeping me from the fun I want to have with her.

Should I stay or should I go before I get more involved with her?

I Didn’t Think It Would Be This Tough


Dear Didn’t Think,

Believe me, you can handle it. You love her. You can handle it.
That doesn’t mean you can breeze through it. You’re going to suffer and that is going to tell you who you are, what you’re made of, why you came to her door in the first place, selling flowers or greeting cards or whatever you were selling when you came to her door. This is what we’re given, this awful disease. This is why we need the support of others, so we can keep on doing the right thing even when we’re crazy.

And yes, you’re going to resent her. Before it’s over you’re going to resent God too, and the CIA, the AMA, her mother, her father and all their genes; you’re going to resent Dr. James Watson and all the science of genetics; you’re going to resent time and death and Woody Allen and Nietzsche and everyone in between who ever thought they could joke about mortality and fate. You’re going to resent the Greeks, you’re going to hate the hot shower and how it reminds you of her affliction, you’re going to hate your lungs for how they mock her own, you’re going to hate your freedom for how it breaks her heart, you’re going to resent everything that keeps her from gulping down the same delicious breath of air that the rest of us feel entitled to. But you’re going to keep loving her. After all, you rescued her.

You have to see this thing through. There may come a point where you have to leave her, but when that time comes, you won’t be asking my permission. You’ll know, and she will probably know, too, when that time comes.

But for now you have to know that even if it doesn’t make sense in some practical way, even if easier temptations glitter all around your head, there is some reason that you’re with her. To ignore that would be a hollow act of dishonor. Not dishonor to her — she’ll get by no matter what happens; she’s firmly in the grip of fate, and she knows it. But it would dishonor you, your soul, the deeper reasons that are guiding you to do what you do, and who knows how long it would take you to repair all that. You might limp along the rest of your life, having failed to learn the lesson she’s offering you.

So see it through. Be there. Watch her die if that is what it comes to. This life on earth is not some pretty little joy ride. It’s the real thing.

I’m in a tough, tough, really tough spot

Write for Advice

I’m sick, got no job, dad just died, living with Mom, her mind is gone, I owe people money, what’s the point?

 Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 19, 2011

Dear Cary,

I am 48, have hep C and Stage 2 cirrhosis of the liver. I have no job, missed too much work sick. Mom is all I have, Dad just died. She is 76 and we live together on $750 a month. I am skinny from being sick, so not working and being skinny, everyone calls me a crackhead behind my back.

My mom’s mind is gone and I isolate in my room, smoking pot to have an appetite. I owe IRS, court for tickets, and about $120 to people. I don’t have it. I sold my car to pay rent, and have to walk miles because I can’t afford a bus. I see nothing but homeless me, alone, broke and sick. I’m so scared, and see no hope. I hate being me.



Dear Hopeless,

For the moment I suggest you stop fighting all this and simply accept it. Sit with it. Sit and breathe and listen to the sounds around you. Try to sit still and notice where you are. Let things come in and out of your mind as they will.

Sit with your mom for a while. You may begin to feel peaceful, like a kid again, when she used to take care of you. Maybe you start to remember things from childhood, funny things that happened, things she remembers too, and maybe you tell her some stories and remind her of things. She may not remember much if her mind is gone. But you can still see a flicker. You can still have times when she’ll remember things and laugh or nod. And that will be peaceful, just sitting there with her for hours, spending the time, contemplating the long journey it’s been.

Once you accept that this is your reality, it is not that hard. You say to yourself, OK, this may kill me. This may be the thing that kills me and I may only have a limited time left. Does that mean you’re going to spend every hour of your day crying because it’s so sad? I mean, in a way, it is the saddest thing in life, on the scale of sad things. But you find there’s not much appeal in crying constantly. It’s not really how you want to spend your time. So you just go about with living, and you take your meds and manage your money the best you can, and take care of your mom, and grieve the loss of your dad, and watch the sun go down and watch the sun come up.

You don’t know what may change. But what you have to do first, whether you’re going to seek help and make some changes or stay with things how they are, is just really accept that this is how things are right now.

You’ve pretty much done that by writing to me. I wonder if you felt any better after you wrote the letter. Sometimes just putting the facts down in sentences makes you feel a little less burdened by it all. Like, OK, so this is the situation. OK. So what next?

You lost your dad and will lose your mom eventually. And then you will be gone too. We’re all going to be gone. So there is little point to struggling against it.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do whatever you can to get the money and aid needed to keep your situation stable. I’m just saying that once you accept both your misfortune and your divinity it will be a whole lot easier to accomplish the sometimes dreary and soul-draining actions required to wring some tiny succor out of our dry and balky state agencies of public welfare.

Because we are not just material creatures but creatures of thought and light and feeling, we are never wholly subject to problems of money and disease and loss. There is always something more to us. We are much more than our missed court dates and our poor appetites. We are much more than our rags and our bills.

Until we are actually dead, we always have this spark in us that is consciousness, and this consciousness can spread to the heavens and to the beginning of time and to infinity.

When you are sitting in your house with your sick mom and feeling like crap because of the hep C and the cirrhosis, your mind can still take you out of that house to a seashore where birds cry.

Knowing this is the priceless gift of misfortune.

When things are going well we are not forced to think about things like this. When things are going well it is easy to forget that we really are creatures of light, full of miracle.

So as much as disease is a trial and a pain, it reminds us that we are more than frail machines.

I’m not saying I know what kind of miracle we are. But in the dark night of illness and worry, in the paralyzing fear of death, often I sense this little flickering light that is something else, not my body and not my worries but something of the world outside us, something of the world of dinosaurs and plankton and seagulls, something of the miracle of stars and supernovas.

Somehow when our bodies are messed up we remember that we’re part of the whole universe, that this little show is a tiny part of the whole, and we forget about shining our shoes and paying the rent for a while. And why not? What good are our shoes going to do us when we’re gone? They’ll be shined but it won’t be our feet in them.

So I hope through your illness and difficulties you, too, have occasional moments like that, when you remember that we’re all part of something immensely bigger, that we were brought into being in a certain form by this universe and there is no reason to suspect that we will go out of existence from this universe in any less miraculous and beautiful way.

Think about that. And then see about getting your rent subsidized.

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