I quit being a musician because I couldn’t play without drinking

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Cary’s classic column from

Now my life is all screwed up and nothing works.


Dear Cary,
I turn 31 in a couple of weeks, and I feel like I’m unable to get my life together. I thought I would’ve had things sorted out by now, but I don’t. I don’t feel a whole lot more on top of things than I did 10 years ago.

I was a professional musician for five years after college but gave that up because I couldn’t perform without drugs and alcohol to loosen me up. After giving up music I became a school teacher, but I burned out after three years of teaching in a very rough urban school. Then, I moved into a supervisory position with an educational not-for-profit. The commute to this job is awful, and I’ve decided I need to move on. However, with each successive career change I feel like I’m moving sideways at best, and I’m having a very hard time getting excited about any new career path.

I would like to follow a dream, but having failed at my greatest dream, I’ve lost the confidence to entertain another one. Part of the problem is I have a tremendous ego — I was a gifted first-born who never learned how to handle not being the best — and am terrified of failure. Music, writing, chess, teaching — these have been my great loves, but not being guaranteed recognition spoils the enjoyment I get from them. I know this is irrational and childish, but it’s a barrier I can’t seem to overcome. I’m going to therapy, I do yoga, I’ve tried meditation … but none of these get me past the terror I feel at doing something and not being wonderful at it. My pattern these days is to halfheartedly take up some new creative pursuit every few months and squeeze it into my off-time, then abandon it as soon as it gets difficult.

It seems like striving doesn’t suit me. Sometimes I think I should give up striving altogether, to give up wanting anything in the way of achievement. Sounds Zen, in a depressive sort of way. But who would I be without this perpetual struggle to balance my creative impulses with time spent at work? Who would I be if I didn’t care about being smart or creative? My therapist suggests I not give up my creative pursuits, but resolve what is blocking me from experiencing joy through them (how I’m supposed to do this is unclear); my girlfriend suggests I find something different to strive for (she recommends love and intimacy).

Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking about the ways in which I’ve failed at life, and my dignity is foundering. I’m starting to feel like a loser and a coward, am depressed a lot of the time, and am slowly turning into a pothead and alcoholic. My siblings, who look up to me, are worried about my behavior and have suggested I try antidepressant medication. (My entire family, with the exception of myself, have been on medication at some point in their lives, my parents consistently since the ’80s. I’ve resisted it because I’m scared of what it might do to me, and because I fear I’ll miss out on a “deeper” life lesson if I’m doped up and not in touch with the pain I’m feeling. Meanwhile, I get slightly drunk or high almost every day. I know, I know.) My friends and family are confused about why I don’t seem to have done much with my life, and I am tired of feeling like I’ve wasted my potential by remaining embroiled in a childhood drama I seem powerless to escape. The drama is: Mom and Dad will only love you if you’re the best, and so the only way you can prove to them that you’re not subject to their approval is by being mediocre. I seem to approach almost everything I do with expectations so high that there’s no chance I could ever fulfill them.

One thing that’s going right in my life is my relationship with my girlfriend. She knows what I’m struggling with and takes the good with the bad. Long-term romantic intimacy has been difficult for me, and so I feel blessed to have found someone who is smart, attractive and not on a mission to change me. That said, I know my depression is taxing for her.

Any suggestions? Should I try medication? Is there another way of looking at this I haven’t thought about?

Slowly Driving Myself Nuts

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Dear Slowly Driving Myself Nuts,

You and I are a lot alike, actually. So I have to say this: I don’t believe that you can’t play music without alcohol and drugs. Listen: You were a professional musician for five years after college. You did it for five years. Five years!

I’m sure drugs and alcohol helped you in some ways. You probably felt less anxiety before performing when you used them. Perhaps you felt freer and less self-conscious while performing. But drugs and alcohol probably also interfered with your musical accuracy, your stamina and intonation, your ability to remember tunes, your ability to hear and balance your sound and to craft your performance.

I just don’t believe that you can’t perform without alcohol and drugs. I think it’s one of those untrue beliefs that gets in your head and screws you up. If being a working musician is your dream, then that’s the thing you need to get back to. Otherwise it will haunt you the rest of your life and you will go on trying cures without success — because you will be working against your authentic self.

I have also been a performing musician, although I was never able to make a living at it. My brother, however, is a professional musician and has been for most of his years. We both used to drink. We both had to quit drinking. I am no longer a performing musician but my brother makes a good living at it.

You can play music and not drink is what I’m saying. There are ways to do it. If it’s your dream, you have to find a way to do it. It requires sacrifices.

What my brother does is live a simple life. He gets enough rest and exercise. He takes care of his voice. And on the job he pays attention to the audience and to the club personnel. He can do that because he isn’t drinking.

He’s made sacrifices to be a working musician. He would like to raise a family but a musician’s life did not allow for that. It could still happen. But he’s dedicated himself to his music and that has meant living frugally and carefully. The life of a musician isn’t for everybody. But it’s not about being a genius so much as it is about getting control over your routine and learning to manage professional relationships.

As for me, at 31 I chose beer over music. We were called the Repeat Offenders and we practiced in a Turk Street basement rehearsal space in San Francisco’s Tenderloin across from a punk club called the Sound of Music. I remember coming to rehearsal with a six-pack of tall Budweisers. Here I had a group of brilliant musicians who loved me and whom I loved. I looked at the band, looked at the six-pack, and chose the six-pack. That’s how bad I had gotten. I couldn’t tell the difference between human genius and a six-pack of beer.

I was drinking for two reasons. One, I had alcoholic tendencies. I responded to alcohol abnormally. But two, I had not developed the artistic skill required to contain my feelings and direct them into expressive form. My feelings frightened me. I had a narrow emotional range — I could do rage and I could do joy. That was it. I could not handle the middle feelings.

Damn. So how did I end up back in my own past? What’s going on here? I do not want to remember this even now. Well, OK, so it is painful. That’s the key right there: knowing it’s painful and looking at it anyway. It’s this or drinking. It’s this or failure.

So what happened with me? Well, boring as it is to retell, I became a full-blown alcoholic and got sober at 35.

In getting sober I decided that pain was better than failure. Living with anxiety was better than dying in the gutter.

There was no guarantee that if I stopped drinking I would find success and happiness. But there was a chance I would not die puking. If I kept drinking, I had no chance. It was no chance vs. slim chance. I took the slim chance. I’m glad it got as bad as it did, because otherwise I might have trudged along in a fog of maintenance drinking and moderate delusion. As it was I hit bottom and rearranged my whole deal.

But you don’t need to hit bottom completely to change.

Here is what you could do: You could stop drinking and stop smoking pot today. You could just stop and live with whatever comes up.

So why not do that? Why not just give up and admit it’s not working. You know it’s not working. The truth is that you are a musician. That is the truth of your life. As long as you are fighting against that essential truth, of course you’re going to have to medicate. But you could just quit drinking and using and be a musician.

All kinds of feelings will come up, of course. But they won’t kill you.

There are things you can do to get by. Instead of trying to medicate the fear, try just walking around with the fear. Try going to the store with the fear. Just bring it with you, like a puppy or a small child. Going around sober is like that. It’s a little more trouble, because you bring all this stuff with you. But … how can I put this? Well, it’s like it’s your stuff. Like you see parents trying to ignore their kids in the store. That’s your kid. That’s your stuff. It slows you down but it’s yours. You have to take care of it.

You can do it, though. Like you, I had some support. I didn’t “white-knuckle it” exactly. I got plenty of support. But all that support did not magically remove my anxiety and fear. Basically I allowed myself to feel the anxiety and fear, to be a little bit nuts, a little out of control, not such a high achiever, not so perfect, a little uncharming and uncool. I made a bet that in the long term it would even out and things would stabilize.

And I had to find some love for myself, dude. So the bit about your relationship with your parents, I relate to that. Somehow you have to give yourself what they didn’t give you. You step in as the adult and say, OK, man, I know you are suffering here, and I give you permission to be only yourself! You move that relationship out of the past, which you can’t change, and into your present, your inner life, your symbolic life so you can change it.

Try that. Just step in there as the adult figure and give yourself what you need. You are the only one who can provide that now. Your parents are not ever going to do it. You have to move that whole struggle into your own sphere of influence.

For instance, in my own case, I now have to parent my dad — literally but also figuratively. I have to help the actual dad. But internally, I also have to create for myself the decisive, clearheaded man I once needed him to be. He is never going to give me that. I have to create a decisive, clearheaded persona to guide me in the present so that, in a sense, I become my own father.

We have to become for ourselves the parents we need. In your case, you need to become for yourself a parent who says, “My son, even if you didn’t have an ounce of talent or brilliance I’d still love you without reservation till the end of my days.”

So maybe you say that to yourself when you’re getting a little iffy. Maybe you go into the bathroom and look at yourself in the mirror and you say this. You say OK, boy, even if you didn’t have an ounce of talent or brilliance you would still be my boy, and I’d still love you without reservation till the end of my days.

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I’m a Harvard grad who can’t hold a fast-food job

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 6, 2009

I have a history of depression and I’m back at my parents’ — but I have an Ivy League film degree!


Dear Cary,

I am a week shy of my 25th birthday, and I am back living in my parents’ home. I have a degree from Harvard and a year of grad school under my belt, but lifelong depression and social phobia have crippled me such that I can’t capitalize on my achievements. There’s never been a problem getting good grades, but I’ve never been good at setting my own goals and following through with them. Only too late have I realized that one has to get good at something (besides passing tests) to be able to make a living. Everybody just assumed that because I was book-smart, I would be life-smart, and nobody pressured me to plan out what I wanted to do with my life.

I’ve also been so sheltered that I can’t give directions to my own home, nor do I keep track of how much money there is in my bank account. Basically, I haven’t had to learn the ins and outs of daily independent living and it’s driving me insane, because I am 25 AND I HAVE A HARVARD DEGREE!

Since I’ve dropped out of graduate school I’ve made some attempts to get a job, but not wholeheartedly. I was fired from a fast-food job a couple of months ago, which has shot my confidence for getting a higher-paying, higher-status job. I’m scared to death of getting one, because I don’t think I’ll put in the effort to do well. I don’t have to worry about paying the bills (my parents take care of it all) so there’s no external motivation to get serious.

Besides my lack of ambition, I have trouble maintaining relationships. Never dated. Friends come in and out of my life, and I either get bored with them or I get so annoyed that they have ambitions and passions that I feel uncomfortable sticking it out. I have no loyalty to anyone and even my family says that I am duplicitous and hard to read.

I spend most of my days sleeping or surfing the Net, away from people, tuned out from the world. Whenever I try to tune back in, I feel self-conscious due to all that I’ve missed out on. This again makes it hard to connect with others — what the hell can I talk about?

I know I’m smart, but I’m lazy, and am nowhere near to approaching my potential. The separation between my ability and my actions is driving me crazy and has brought on suicidal thoughts.

I wouldn’t mind being isolated or having a low-status job if I were independent (not relying on parents). But “settling” for a “McJob” while under their roof seems to be the very example of slacking off because there’s no pressure to do better, and I feel embarrassed doing that.

I know there’s a way out of this — maybe finding a different set of friends; a mentor; making a plan and not caring what other people think of it — but getting out of bed to do it is the trick. I’ve even thought of running away to California (I studied film) but I don’t know how the hell I’d survive.

Thanks for reading.

Stalled

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Dear Stalled,

Now, I know that mental illness can cripple the smartest among us. But I also know that this can be dealt with in many ways. See a doctor or a therapist. It may be that you are one of those people who has what is called Asperger syndrome. If it’s Asperger, there are ways to manage it. If it’s depression, try cognitive therapy. Try anything. You have somehow been managing this all your life, functioning well enough to excel in high school, acquire a Harvard degree and do a year of graduate school. If you are experiencing a particularly difficult bout of it now, then with the help of a doctor or therapist attack it with fearless vigor. Fight these thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness with the facts: If you can graduate from Harvard, you can fill out an application for employment at Lion’s Gate. And if you need certain things in order to function — order, quiet, exercise, diet, then you have the resources to get those things.

Among those resources is courage. If you have come this far, you obviously have courage. Call upon it now.

And know this: It’s as hard to escape your own privilege as it is to escape your own deprivation. Hell, if you hitchhike to California, they’ll probably put a tracking device on you for insurance purposes. So at the risk of consigning you to the kind of chaos and uncertainty that I lived through in my 20s and early 30s, I say, what are you afraid of?

Unless you lack sufficient whiteness, you can hitchhike to California drenched in blood like a serial killer and some nice young person from Brown will give you a film job.

If you lack whiteness, it’s going to be harder. You’ll have to show your Harvard diploma.

When I set out in my 20s I understood very little but I understood this much: Any educated white person in America is privileged, and no one is going to allow us to starve. We can’t even starve if we want to. People keep inviting us to dinner to talk about Robert Lowell.

We can try to starve ourselves but other white people will force-feed us like foie-gras geese. We can’t escape out whiteness even in Tenderloin hotel rooms.

They send their gardeners looking for us.

We’ll be smoking crack on the third floor and hear Spanish in the lobby. “Is that the voice of my mom’s gardener?”

It’s too much for their delicate constitutions to see their educated white children starving. It breaks their hearts. They must control us. They’re like missionaries.

So don’t worry about it. Your parents would rather pay all your bills and have you live at home and stay in your room than see you miss a meal or direct a grade-B zombie flick. Even if you come out here they’ll send you money.

A note to parents: If you have a 25-year-old college graduate living at home, do that person a favor: Next time he or she leaves the house to “meet up with friends,” gather up all his or her stuff, put it in the car with a $100 bill and have a locksmith change the locks on the house. (Chances are you don’t know how to change a lock yourself, right?)

And if you’re 25 and sitting in the bedroom of your parents’ house, hear this: We need you! The planet is melting down. Get out of your goddamned houses and change the world. There’s work to be done.

If you must fear something, fear dying without living.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

The bosses used to monitor us on video from home

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, APR 21, 2008

I hate my job and hated my last job and feel like a failure. But is it my fault?


Dear Cary,

I find myself running in circles, around and around inside my head. I just started a new job and I despise it. Everyone was so excited for me to start, believing it to be that much-longed-for next step in my career. I’ve spent so many years sliding from industry to industry, trying on this hat and that hat, hoping for something that will fit just so. All of this has been to no avail.

I started the new job last week and quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. After hours of soul-searching and a long discussion with my boyfriend in which he played devil’s advocate I saw that I couldn’t do this job. I went through all the permutations of why I was uneasy with the job, sussing out whether it was nerves from being in a new environment or if it was the actual job itself. It was the pressure of getting that sale right then over the phone as well as the fact that I found the product (not to mention the sales method) shady at best.

My problem is, my last job I left because I couldn’t handle the pressure of having my bosses constantly down my throat, watching the cameras from home and picking apart every last thing that I’ve done.

In the discussions with my boyfriend last night I began to fear that I was finding excuses for leaving jobs with some pressure involved in them. Or if it was that I wasn’t in that right position for myself. Or if they really were bad jobs.

I spend so much time second-guessing myself that I no longer know what my real gut reaction is and why I’m having it. I think I’ve come up with the answer, but I’ve then become so paralyzed that I’m not sure what I’ve done and why I’ve done it. I’m lost in this sea of confusion that I don’t know how to swim out of.

A few months ago I made myself a promise to be kinder to myself, to find time to create a calm environment in the hopes that it would provide a clearer viewpoint. I promised myself that I would reconnect with myself and with my body and with my environment so I would be able to get and stay calm.

From when I was 13 to 22 I was battling depression, suicidal tendencies, panic attacks, general anxiety and recovering from a nervous breakdown I had when I was 18. I’m proud of where I am now, that I’m alive, smiling, and able to accept the love of my boyfriend and I’m able to give him my love back as well (which is quite something to say considering where I was at before).

I’m now 24 and I suppose much of what I’m going through is part of the aftermath of all that time just trying to heal myself enough to function. But all that time spent picking myself apart has left me with a bewildering sense of displacement. I wish I had some overarching idea of how I view myself and view the world around me. I really wish that I had some self-confidence that everything would be OK. Most of all I feel like a disappointment to myself and those around me. I’m that brilliant girl who could do anything but couldn’t get her act together. And I feel like I’m never going to pull it together. That I’m never going to be able to have a life that’s mine.

I’ve thought about running to some far-flung location to escape, I’ve thought about getting a cheap apartment somewhere, living quietly in a quiet home, with little contact with the outside world. I know that neither of those options fixes my problems; that they’re physical manifestations of what I emotionally want to do. As awesome as that all sounds, as much as I keep telling myself “you’re only 24, you’ve still got tons of time ahead of you,” I feel so much pressure that I’ve built up for myself, hurdles that I just can’t see myself vaulting. Where do I go from here? What do I do?

Wrapped and Confused

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Dear Wrapped and Confused,

You are a rare individual. It is good to be rare. It is better to be rare than to be ordinary. And yet since you are rare, an ordinary job won’t do. You need a rare job. Rare jobs are hard to find.

Most jobs suck. When you were in school, didn’t you take MostJobsSuck 101? Most jobs will not bring you happiness. It may be that you will have to be an entrepreneur and create your own wealth.

You must assert your right to exist and to be as you are. You must assert your right to feel as you feel. You must say to yourself, If I don’t like this job, maybe it’s because this job totally sucks ass! Maybe that’s why! Maybe this country is going down the toilet and maybe that’s why I feel lost and alienated and afraid. Maybe I’m not the problem.

Try that, would you? Just try saying to yourself, I’m not the problem. I didn’t create this world. I didn’t make these rules. I didn’t come up with this asinine idea of bosses monitoring employees by video from home. It’s nonsense! I have a right — moreover, a duty! — not to participate in such nonsense. I’m better than that. I’m a free citizen in a democracy. I have some rights. I have a conscience. My conscience is outraged by this. No one should have to put up with it.

Try saying that to yourself. Try shouting it out loud. You are in a shitty situation. This job of yours sucks. Who says you should do this job? Let them find someone else. This job is not for you. Any job where the bosses watch you on video from their homes is a job in a totalitarian atmosphere. So if you fail at such a job it is perhaps because you value individual freedom and dignity.

So why do so many young people seem to think that the problem lies with them? The problem is not with you. The problem is that a lot of things in the world really suck. So try to enjoy your life. Don’t worry about succeeding. It is a sucker’s game. Until you can find something that you genuinely enjoy doing, do not assume that employers and institutions are on your side. They are not looking out for you. They are looking for suckers.

I fear for the individual lives of people in this country when it is permissible for employers to spy on employees at work from the comfort of home. That should not be permitted. It is an outrage.

So please do not turn your anger on yourself. Do not accept this. It is bullshit.

How does it happen that we are robbed of the ability to register our outrage? How does it happen that we turn this outrage inward when it should be directed toward the men who are doing this?

If I may vent just a little: I myself get great help from the psychological professions, and — as I was telling my therapist yesterday — I basically think everybody ought to be in therapy! Nonetheless, our social and economic struggles produce a proud pain, a noble pain, and this pain ought not to be medicated but celebrated. It sounds as though you treat your own pain as a sign that you are still ill. On the contrary, it may be a signal that you are healthy. You are fine. You just need to get out of there!

If you must work for money, for the time being, get any kind of job. Work in a coffee shop. Sell surfboards. Meanwhile, study money. You may be the kind of person who will never be happy in a job, being told what to do, what hours to keep, when to go to the bathroom and when to go to lunch. Study money. Learn how money works. Get your own.

And who are all these people you are supposedly disappointing, anyway? Stop living for them. You are God’s child, not their child. You are a child of the universe. You are made of the stars and the moon and the earth; you are a person, unique and unprecedented in human history.

You must assert this or they will take it away from you. Do not let them take this from you. It is not theirs to take. It is yours.

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Dammit, don’t tell me I need to be more “assertive”!

 
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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, SEP 15, 2004

You’d think a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from an Ivy League school would count for something in the business world.


Dear Cary,

On paper, I am talented, bright, creative … almost perfect. I am 33 years old; I have a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from a prestigious Ivy League university. I’ve been married for 10 years to a wonderful husband. However, if you met me, you would not be able to surmise any of that based on how I look and act.

I work as a copy editor for a small company. I have the most credentials of all my co-workers and yet I am constantly passed over for promotions or leadership roles in projects. Time and time again, my reviews have indicated that I need to be more assertive and confident. I’m very shy and rarely speak in meetings.

I was the same way in graduate school. Yet not only did I manage to earn my degree, but I also taught undergraduate classes and presented papers at conferences. Basically, when it was time to perform in public, I somehow gained the strength and got through it. But these experiences seemed like walking on fire. I dreaded them. After graduating I had several promising interviews for teaching jobs. But I failed horribly and never received an offer. Five years and several degrading jobs later, I am now in my present position. Instead of being proud of my education, I have come to resent my Ph.D. I feel like I wasted those 10 years on graduate school. When I meet new people, I no longer tell them I have a doctorate for fear that they will look at me like I am a freak.

I want desperately to be confident and possess the spirit and aura that befit my achievements. I know I can do better, but I am paralyzed. I’ve taken more public speaking and assertiveness classes than I can count. They have not helped. I’m beginning to think it’s genetic and I am destined to be underemployed and miserable forever. Please tell me I’m wrong.

Cubicle Dwelling Ph.D.

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Dear Cubicle Dweller,

Of course you don’t have to be underemployed and miserable. You just need to find a place where you fit in. If I were to meet you on the street, I’d know for sure, but just from your letter, I’m going to guess that you are an introverted intuitive type. That would explain a lot — why you were so successful in academia, why your interviews went poorly, why you’re slaving away in a job that you’re probably doing very well but not getting credit for, and why people keep telling you to be more assertive.

If my hunch is correct, telling you to be more assertive is like telling a cat to bark. It’s not that you lack self-confidence; I’m sure you’re quite confident in your own abilities. But you’re stuck in a world whose symbols are alien. Business is burlesque! Competence is signaled symbolically. You go around acting all confident and assertive and people go — Look! She’s confident and assertive! We’d better promote her! Business is filled with people who aren’t really thinking straight. It’s full of voodoo. If I were you, I’d get back into academia fast.

But first, let’s talk about your type. Perhaps you have never given much thought to your underlying type. Perhaps “type” seems mundane or shallow; perhaps you find the idea distastefully deterministic. Perhaps you think of Jung as cultish. But I have found it useful to learn about Jungian types as they are simplified and codified in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

The introvert is the ruler of a vast interior dominion. For the introvert, everything happens there. Who else would get a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature? Who else would live in a world accessible only through art? We extroverts out here in our hiking shorts and blazers don’t get to see what’s going on inside that head — whose eyes are sometimes cast slightly downward as if trying to see inside themselves. It bugs us that we can’t tell what’s going on in there, and that she won’t just come out and explain how she got to where she is. When the introvert speaks, sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere. What is she talking about? It seems as though she’s jumped from A to Z.
The introvert doesn’t share her feelings with us in that easy, cooperative extroverted way that we snowmobilers prefer. She’s not going to say, Hey y’all, come on in, let’s all do therapy together, let’s tinker with my dreams! Paradoxically, the introvert doesn’t really notice her interior world as something distinct from who she is; to the introvert, the interior is real. We extroverts crow about our grand excursions into psychic space, but we’re just tourists there, handling every object with dumb amazement: Look Ma, I’ve found an intuitive connection! The introvert sits on her porch and watches with detachment — or perhaps mild annoyance — as we bumble through her domain.

You get what I’m saying? Some of it may ring true, some may not. There are degrees. I’m winging it. That’s my talent. I’m an improviser. It’s an extroverted talent. I don’t mind getting up here and winging it. I’m a bit of a showoff, something you probably don’t like in a man, but there it is, we’re different. The thing is, though, I know who you are. And I know you don’t belong in an office full of people who think you should be more assertive.

So if I were you, I’d begin looking again for employment in academia. If you cannot find a teaching job, take another job in academia. That is where you thrived. That is where you belong. That is where you will be appreciated. If you can’t get a job in academia, then look in fields where intellectual talent is valued above a go-getter’s bravado — in research, for instance, or publishing, or journalism. Look for a firm where others with advanced degrees also work; chances are if they are happy there, you can be too.

And then, once you’ve secured a new job, go to your old boss and say, “Hey, motherfucker, get this: I don’t do ‘assertive and confident’! I quit! I’m an introvert, damn it!”

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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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I survived — now how do I survive my survival?

 

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Cary’s classic column fromWEDNESDAY, JUL 2, 2008

 


Cancer changed everything. I need a new paradigm.


 

Dear Cary,

Please help me figure out how to survive surviving.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. After a year of surgery, chemo and radiation, my cancer, for the time being, seems to be at bay. My doctors tell me that this type of cancer cannot be cured, but that I have a 2-in-3 chance of living beyond five years. I’ve come through all of this slightly scarred, and bearing some permanent side effects from my treatment, but otherwise feeling pretty good, at least physically.

My problem is that my entire worldview has radically shifted, and things that were once important to me no longer are. It’s not the first time that I’ve had to figure out a way to reinvent myself, but for the first time in my life, I have no idea what changes I need to make in order to feel better about being alive, and to be happy.

My unhappiness seems to center mostly around my employment. I worked my way up the ladder into a well-paying but dead-end job. For the first time in my life, I haven’t had to work long hours and struggle to make ends meet to provide for my family (I was a single mom). On the other hand, the company I work for is no longer the edgy high-tech firm that it was when I started there 14 years ago. Instead of contributing new ideas and feeling part of a team, I’m stuck, along with everyone else, in a gray cubicle farm. I can work from home if I want to, and I often do, but doing so makes me feel even less a part of the team. Most of the work has lately been outsourced, and many of my favorite co-workers have lost their jobs. I miss my friends, and dread that I could be the next one to go. In the past, this wouldn’t have gotten me down. I would have brushed up my résumé, and perhaps even started proactively looking for another job. But now, I’m petrified to move. I desperately need my health insurance because of my cancer. I’m also physically much weaker now, and just the thought of looking for another job, going to interviews, pounding the pavement, tires me out. In three words: I feel trapped.

Aside from feeling trapped, though, I’m also questioning what I’m doing. After surviving cancer, and knowing just how fragile my hold is on life, I can’t help but wonder if this is really what I want to do with the rest of my life. And even if I can figure out what it is that I want to do next, will someone want to hire a middle-aged cancer survivor?

In my heart of hearts, what I would love to do is to take three or four months off to explore other options, to work on getting my strength and endurance back, perhaps take a class or two. However, I need to keep working. Even with insurance, my medical expenses have eaten away all of my savings, and I have nothing to fall back on. This depression isn’t helping. I’ve lost interest in many of the things that made me happy in the past. And the physical activities that I used to love, like hiking and dancing, I can no longer do.

I’m stuck. How do I get unstuck?

Grateful to Be Alive (I Think)

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Dear Grateful,

What I want to suggest to you is that you find a group of cancer survivors and throw yourself into work with them. Help them cope with the same questions you are coping with. Make this the dominant, driving force in your life. Trust that the other elements will fall into place. If this means continuing to work, for now, in your same gray cubicle, then paint your cubicle pink — or green, or purple, or black if you like! Fill it with flowers. Fill it with sunshine.

You can’t go back to the cubicle and the way things were. You just can’t. It isn’t right. That life is gone. I imagine you in that cubicle, just surviving your days, and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart not just for you but for the world. The world needs you in the hospitals and living rooms of fellow survivors.

If you can get the sabbatical you so desperately need, take it. If you must continue to work, in your mind let it go. It is no longer the most important thing in your life. It is just a place you spend some time. Throw your energy into helping others like yourself. They need to know how you got through it and what it feels like and how you cope with the questions that arise. They need to know how you get through another day.

So how do you get through another day? That is a good question. Answer it. Ask others how they get through the day. Acquire knowledge about this central question: How does the cancer survivor, whose future is uncertain and whose present is compromised, get through another day?

I think you will find that the answer is circular; that is, you get through the day by helping others get through another day. And, in being circular and tautological, it is partly an impractical act of faith. But the faith involved is a pragmatic faith. It is a pragmatic faith in the workings of deep human community. You will find, if you turn to a life of service, that certain ancient forces of human community coalesce to benefit you. These forces may seem mysterious and full of paradox, but they are real and historical and if we must reduce them to the biological they probably serve some purpose in the continuation of the species. Compassion, agape, selflessness — whether these are evidence of our divinity, our material and social arrangements or our biology, they are dependably awakened in crises and will come to your aid. Open your mind to these forces beyond your conscious understanding. Consider the possibility that this encounter with grave illness has put you in touch with the mystic stream of life itself in its most basic and primal reality.

If you are religious, or mystical, or interested in the arts, or if you have always wanted to sing, or if you are secretly happiest when you are gardening or sewing clothes or doing math problems, turn to these things. Turn to the things that have always given you the greatest happiness. Turn to them because they are a source of joy and joy is a gift to the world. In that way, you will contribute to the world, and you will gain what you need.

At work, if it is possible to cut your hours in half and maintain your medical coverage, do so. If you can take a loan to pay your medical expenses so that you do not have to work full-time, do so. If there are resources at your disposal, such as a house that can be sold or mortgaged over, do so. I know you said you have nothing to fall back on but when you begin asking around unseen resources may emerge. Ask others for help. These years are precious, unique and unrecoverable.

Never before have you been handed such an opportunity to place your life on a new footing. Always you have been working in the system. Always you have been tied down by the struggle to make your payments. These payments are not just checks and cash. We make our payments when we knuckle under. We make our payments when we live in fear. We make our payments when we pretend the emperor is clothed in the finest raiments of the land. We make our payments when we “buy in.”

I want you to stop making payments but I do not want you to do anything crazy.

Well, yes, actually, to be truthful, I suppose I do want you to do something crazy. I do. When we face life in its starkest terms we see that, indeed, our previous life is the life that was crazy. We see that we might have gone on knuckling under for the rest of our lives, still playing the role prescribed for us by people to whom we are just a number.

By suggesting that you stop making your payments, what I mean is, step out of the system as you know it. The system of work as you know it is geared to competition and based in fear. It is based on the premise that there is not enough and that no one is going to help you. There is another way to live, based on the premise that there is indeed enough, and that everyone is going to help you. By helping others, and asking for help, you live in a different system. Try that. Try asking for help, and doing what is right and true instead of what is practical and necessary. Try doing what is important — helping another cancer survivor buy groceries, helping someone who has just been diagnosed figure out what to do next, helping someone after surgery, helping the families of the sick and diagnosed and recovering. Try helping. Try helping, with the assumption — you do not have to call it faith, you can just call it a working assumption — that whether for sociological or psychological or spiritual reasons, the help you give is going to return to you; you are in return going to be helped, and loved, and carried forward.

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Should I sue for workers’ compensation?

 

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Dear Cary,

I recently hurt myself at work and was forced to take a few months off. I received worker’s compensation but it didn’t cover my bills and I ended up burning through my savings. Still, I was happy just to have all my physical therapy paid for. Then worker’s compensation denied me any more sessions of PT despite my physical therapist and the doctor (they made me go to) insisting that I needed more.

Because of this I was forced to go back to work in order to keep up with my bills. My doctor recently appealed the decision made by worker’s comp and asked for twelve more sessions of PT. They gave me four instead. My physical therapist did not express high hopes for my speedy recovery. In addition, I’m not thrilled with how my work has handled the situation. I was a good employee. I never called in sick and I often covered for those that did. My boss has also failed to keep any of her promises to me (and other employees) pertaining to days off or what holidays we get off and I’ve always just gritted my teeth and gone to work like I was asked.

While I was stuck at home she made aggressive comments to my co-workers about how I was “on vacation” and trying to prolong coming back to work. I feel betrayed and angry. Many of my friends are pushing me to sue worker’s compensation and my work. Part of me thinks that it’s unnecessarily mean, but part of me thinks they deserve it. My injury is pretty apparent and makes my life hell. I can’t even make a bed or put on shoes easily. I’m especially frustrated because I was promised a full recovery by now from the doctor if I followed his instructions. I did everything that was asked of me that I could. What should I do?

Injured

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Dear Injured,

The person you need to talk to is a workers’ compensation lawyer. I suggest you call a few and have some free brief conversations. You can pick up a lot in a free brief conversation. A lawyer won’t tell you in a brief conversation whether to sue or not. She won’t have enough facts to advise you on that. But you will learn some things. You will learn how much it would probably cost. You will learn some of the options.

It sounds like there are two issues. One is your injury. The other is how your company is handling vacation and holiday pay. If your company is cheating its employees out of money they are legally entitled to, that is a legal issue, too. But only a lawyer could advise you properly.

It would be great if you had a slam-dunk case. You probably don’t have a slam-dunk case. A slam-dunk case would be if you were in an iron lung and your boss poured hot oil on your face. Or if your boss made you wash her windows 20 stories up and you fell because she slammed the window on your hands. Or if your company has never paid any holiday pay or vacation pay to anyone, or has persisted in a blatant disregard for the rules over a long period of time after being repeatedly warned. It’s probably not like that.

It’s probably more like a gray area where the company isn’t being so great but then isn’t necessarily breaking the law either, or is breaking the law in a way that is hard to prove. Only a lawyer could tell you that.

That’s my advice about whether to sue or not. Talk to lawyers. They’re the experts.

I have some other advice, of a more general sort. I think you need to realize that you are being exploited. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. We’re all being exploited, willingly, when we work for money. What I mean is that you represent labor in the marketplace. You are selling your labor. The exchange is market-driven, not morality-driven or ethics-driven. You are not in a personal relationship with your boss and your company, and your company does not necessarily reward you for good citizenship. This doesn’t mean that the people at your workplace are evil. They are just doing what is natural in their situation. They are maximizing their profits by minimizing the amount of money that goes out of the company.

Now, maximizing short-term profits in this way may turn out to be counterproductive in the long run. In the long run they might do better if all the employees at the company loved working there and felt that they were being treated in a way that is ethically and morally sound. But bosses and owners don’t always think that way. And even if they were treating you very well, it wouldn’t mean that your relationship is personal, ethical and moral. It would mean that they made a business decision that doing things that seem ethical and moral is better for long-term profits.

Being a good citizen is not necessarily rewarded in the workplace. Things that are rewarded in a workplace are: Making money for the company, and making your bosses feel good. Bosses will sometimes keep people around if they make them feel good even if they are not making the company a lot of money because bosses are human and don’t always go by the numbers. Conversely, bosses will sometimes keep people around who make money for the company even if they don’t like their behavior. But they don’t often keep people around and treat them well just because they are good citizens and show up on time.

That’s just something to think about.

Talk to some lawyers. It might be worth it to pay a reasonable fee to have your case reviewed in detail. At least then you would be able to make an informed decision.

Write for Advice

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Stolen words

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Cary’s classic column from

My boss uses what I write in e-mails as his own. What should I do about it?


Dear Cary,

I’m an in-house copywriter/creative director with a small technical company, working for a boss whose communications skills, to put it delicately, are not his greatest asset. Lately I learned he’s been passing off my writing (not ad or brochure copy, just conversational e-mails on internal issues) as his own. I’ll write him a note on a topic, and later on that same note will land in my in box as part of a forwarded e-mail conversation chain — only now the note has his name on it. It’s happened several times that I know of.

I’ve always thought of him as a fundamentally decent fellow, and I sense he does this more for expediency’s sake (“Why bother rewriting this opinion that I share, when I’ve got this version sitting here?”) than to lay claim to my thoughts and words. Still, they are my thoughts and words, and I worry that by keeping my name out of these conversations he’s limiting my ability to benefit from people’s reactions to my ideas. Besides, I’m a writer: Even within the quasi-professional forum of interoffice e-mails, it feels like plagiarism.

Am I overreacting? And if not, should I confront him?

Accidental Ghostwriter

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ghostwriter,

Here are some suggestions: Stop giving your boss great lines that he can use and call his own. Do your job on the brochures and the official stuff, but stop giving him stuff for free. If there are people you want to impress with your ideas, send your ideas directly to those people. Or if there’s a discussion you’re having with your boss and you can predict that it’s going to widen to include others, if you suspect he’s going to steal your material, suggest that that you include those people to whom he’s likely to send your material. Ask, what other interested stakeholders are there? You know, act like you care.

Either suggest they be included, or just cc them as though you thought that was the normal thing to do, since you know they’re interested parties.

Don’t be telling your boss not to cop your copy. He won’t get it. He’ll just think you’re being a pain.

You might also review just what you were hired for. Did you get a job description? Did anybody ever tell you what your job was? There is probably some expectation that you provide “other written materials.” These e-mails could be considered other written materials. You just want credit for it, right? So I’d find some way to let others know where it’s coming from — like, by cc’ing them before your boss steals your stuff.

And I would beware of your own personal motives that are tripping you up, too. Hey, I know about this: You want to do a great job of writing e-mails because that’s what you are. After all, you’re a writer. So you could be tricking yourself into giving your stuff away because you’re so damned good and you can’t help it, and you can’t help trying to impress your boss. I know what it’s like to be a writer. It doesn’t matter who the audience is. You’re still going to sweat over a few sentences until they’re perfect.

Bosses in non-media companies are so weird. They have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. They are just so weird. How do they even get through the day without being able to communicate?

Who knows. But they do. I guess they do it by hiring people like you.

Don’t pick a fight with him, but don’t be a sap!

WhatHappenedNextCall

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I’m a gay man in a small town working at a gas station. So?

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Cary’s classic column Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008

I have a feeling maybe I should move to the city, but I like my job, I like my town and I like my family.


Dear Cary,

I have several concurrent problems for you. Bet you can’t wait. Firstly, my job … I work in a small gas station as a cashier. My job is like a pair of slippers. It’s comfortable. The pay’s peanuts, it’s easy, the hours suit me and it’s totally unchallenging. Frankly, a monkey could do it. I get on with my boss, I like the banter I have with the customers, and sometimes it’s quiet enough that I can just read a book. But is this reason to stay? I have had some terrible jobs in the past. In fact, virtually all of my previous jobs were awful. I have had so many terrible jobs in fact that I am scared of getting a new one.

Added to that, at 26 I still have no clue what I want to do. In fact I got so tired of thinking about it that I consciously stopped thinking about it altogether about 12 months ago. I got the simplest job I could find and vowed to give myself a break. During that time, I’ve become a different person. I appreciate little things now (like chatting to many different people who pass through while I’m working) and take time to go for walks, write, drive around without having a destination. I get by on little, I am no longer materialistic, and I’ve learned how to live simply. In fact, I enjoy the simple life. It humbles you. I definitely don’t envy my friends in high-stress jobs. However, financially, I probably need to earn more money. That’s if I ever want to clear my debts and find a halfway nice place to live. Somehow, though, I can’t make myself do it. I don’t have a clue what to do next. I can’t think of a single career that I’d be right for. Added to which, I have had a pretty checkered career history, consisting almost entirely of dead-end jobs/career gaps.

OK, wakey-wakey! Problem two. I moved back to my hometown a few years ago, due to financial pressure. However, the longer I’m around, the more I want to stay. This is odd, because I was always so desperate to get away when I was younger. However, as I get older, my family is more important to me, and whereas I was once crying out to get the hell away from them all, now I don’t think I want to be hundreds of miles away. I’m pretty close to them now actually. The only problem with this is that I am gay and this isn’t really the sort of place where you meet any guys. But I just hate the idea of moving to a big city because my sexuality dictates that I must. I’ve never been defined by my sexuality and I ain’t a city person either. I like calm places, nature, landscapes, and I feel at home when I’m close to that.

I realize the answer is simple: Either go or stay and live with the decision. But it’s hard to actually decide. And just to make it all a little more interesting, I’ve fallen for a gardener who fills up where I work. I used to know him a little when we were younger, but it’s not always easy for a guy to ask another guy out, especially in this sort of a place. I have no idea if he’s gay. It all gets me to thinking, is there ever any end to our problems, or do we just replace every one solved with a new one. Goddamnit!

Clueless

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Dear Clueless,

There’s something wonderful about your letter. Partly it’s the tone. It is so quiet. You are not screaming about the uselessness and unsuitability of your life. You are just thinking out loud about the possibilities. You have that same vague unsettledness that many of us have, the quiet restlessness and curiosity. But your nature has brought you to this place. It is not unsuitable. It is your place. There is much about it that suits you. That is what is attractive. You know what you like and much of what you like is here in this town. That is attractive.

There is also the presence, within this balanced situation, of one thing that makes you out of place; there is this one issue, this gardener, and the fact that you are gay.

So we like the setup: an orderly existence with a modicum of tension and a mystery at the center: Who is the gardener? What will he say?

The scene you suggest has a cinematic quality. People drive in slowly and stop by the pump. They get out and pump the gas. They come in to pay or to buy a quart of oil or some gum, or they pay by credit card at the pump and drive off. Life proceeds by repetition. Maybe there is a lull after each fill-up, or maybe the fill-ups go on constantly with a lull now and then. It gets busy and it gets slow. When it gets slow you are behind the counter reading “Madame Bovary,” or some old Tarzan pulp, or a French detective novel.

Now I am adding things. It is your story but I am adding things — because imagining you in the gas station makes us remember things.

As children on a long trip in a car we experience the gas station as a place of peculiar power and mystery.

We have been sleeping; we wake up and look out; the car has slowed down; we are coming into somewhere strange and different; a tattooed young man in tight jeans, a greaser from a small town, comes out to pump the gas. He grinds his cigarette butt into the concrete floor of the garage with his boot heel, walks slowly to the driver’s side window and ask if you’d like him to fill it up; he pumps your gas, cleans your windshield with a spray bottle and a blue paper towel, pops your hood (it makes a squawk because the hinges need grease), checks your water and checks your oil. He says you’re a quart low. You say, go ahead and add a quart of 10W-40.

Sometimes you pull in and run over the bell switch and the gas station attendant does not come out. You sit there in the heat wondering where he is. He might be on the john. He might be eating a sandwich. Eventually he will emerge from behind the garage. Once when I was a child traveling through the South with my parents on a hot Saturday afternoon we drove over the bell switch and sat for many minutes. Finally the mechanic emerged from behind the garage, grinning, and his girlfriend peeked out from the side of the white gas station building as he hitched up his pants, buckled his belt and pumped the gas. In the front seat, my mother looked at my father. The girlfriend’s hair was tousled. Her eyes were bright. The mechanic looked down at the ground as he pumped the gas and raised the hood and checked the oil and water. We were a quart low. He poured in a quart of 10W-40. He did not need to use a funnel. He poured it straight into the crankcase with a steady, grease-blackened hand.

So we have memories of gas stations. Those of us lucky enough to have traveled by road when gas stations were still on small roads in small towns remember the mystery and the quiet.

Imagine, by contrast, if you were to think to yourself, Well, I’m a gay man, so I guess I’d better move to San Francisco and sign up for all the activities.

Imagine giving up your family and the land you love; imagine giving up this life where you enjoy casual conversations with people as they drift through the gas station; imagine taking a new job in a big city and being unable to read because there are all these things that have to be done right now because it’s a big city and it’s an important job. Imagine trying to play a role that doesn’t feel right for you — and imagine choosing to do that when you don’t have to!

I think you summed up the situation nicely when you asked, Is there not ever any end to our problems? We do replace every one solved with a new one. But I must say your problems sound fine. Your problems are manageable and contained, and you basically have an enviable situation.

Sure, you are in some conflict. You cannot know the future or see inside other people’s heads. So you cannot know if you are going to get to know the gardener better; you don’t know if he will turn out to be also gay, and interested in you; you cannot know that. All you can do is get to know the gardener. Get to know him as a friend. Detain him in some conversation long enough to determine what his interests are and so forth.

Basically, I’d just say, don’t muck it up. Stick around. I was watching the waves the other day at the ocean and I thought to myself, stick around for the credits. Let’s stay and see how this turns out. Let the wave wash completely up on shore, and watch how it slowly retreats. Watch it the whole way. Notice the details — the foam, the ripples, the reflections. Here’s another wave. Watch it develop. Watch it unfold. Stick around for the credits.

Enjoy this. Maybe you can stretch it out. Maybe you can be one of those people who actually has an OK life for a while. Change will come. There’s no need to rush it.

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

I know my co-worker’s evil secrets — because I was his therapist!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 15, 2007

 


I’m aghast to find I’ll be sharing an office with a man whom — for good but confidential reasons — I utterly detest.


 

Dear Cary,

I need your perspective on an issue that may not have a solution that I will ever find satisfying … but here goes.

I recently started working for a new employer and I have been very happy in my new work environment until last week. Last week I was introduced to a new colleague whom I will be sharing an office with. This new employee and I had a professional relationship in a job I held prior to this one. As a result of this relationship (which was therapeutic in nature and is protected by confidentiality), I am in possession of a great deal of personal information about this person that could be very damaging if it ever got out. The information I have, if known by the employer, would have certainly resulted in him not being hired. In fact, it is my belief that he should not be in any position that involves the high degree of trust and power that this position holds. This individual has been (and most likely still is) involved in illegal behavior for which he has never been formally charged or convicted. He also has some serious mental health and addiction problems that have not been resolved. This person is highly charismatic and intelligent and is able to schmooze his way through very difficult situations. He presents as very warm and interested, but his ability to manipulate others for his own pleasure and gain borders on sociopathic.

This individual does not appear to be uncomfortable with the situation and has made no attempt to approach me regarding our past relationship.

We haven’t started sharing our office space yet, but I am dreading the day I enter my office and he is sitting there. I don’t feel that I can ask for a change in office assignment without raising questions that could indirectly violate confidentiality. Simply declining to provide an explanation could cue people to the possibility that he was a past client of mine.

I fully understand that I don’t have any basis on which to breach confidentiality, yet I feel this very strong desire to raise the alarm. On a human level, I really believe that he is a horrible person who has the potential to harm our clients. I guess my question is: How do I live with the knowledge that he could do harm and I cannot do anything about it until it happens? Any thoughts that you can offer me would be greatly appreciated.

Burdened

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Dear Burdened,

I’ve gone over and over this and, like you, I can see no justification for breaching confidentiality. So, strange as it is, I think you have to put away what you have learned about this man through the privilege of your profession and treat him as a person you have never met.

Depending on the laws that govern your profession in your area, however, and on the details of his activities to which you have been privy, you may have not only a duty of confidentiality but also a duty of disclosure. For instance, in California and some other states in the U.S., since the Tarasoff ruling, mental health professionals have a duty to warn potential victims of their clients.

For that reason, I think it would be wise to consult an attorney, in confidence, about what might trigger a duty to disclose under the laws in your area. You need not name the person or even the specific circumstances, if doing so would breach your promise of confidentiality. But you need to know where you stand legally.

Beyond that, the question is, how in hell are you going to walk into the room and sit down at your desk and smile and treat this man as if he were someone you know nothing about — knowing what you know and feeling toward him as you do?

Well, I would ask: How do we bear what we know about anyone, whether in their presence or not? How do we bear all the secrets we receive in confidence, from clients, from lovers, from strangers who tell us things that cannot be revealed?

We bear it by making a decision. Like judges, we make a ruling. We seal the testimony. That’s that. It’s done. It’s in the vault, as they used to say on “Seinfeld” — except, amoral bastards that they were, on “Seinfeld” everybody had everybody else’s combination.

But this is not “Seinfeld.” You can give the combination to no one.

That is how you begin. Your knowledge of this man and his activities is locked away. You behave as if you have just met.

But it is not easy to keep it locked away. We want to discuss. We need to discuss. So I suggest you discuss this with your own therapist, or someone else fully as bound to confidentiality by fiduciary responsibility as you yourself are to this former client. And do so before the pressure becomes too great and you inadvertently disclose. Do it as a matter of your routine, the maintenance of your psychological fitness.

Perhaps, too, it will help to think a little about just why this confidentiality is so important, to remind ourselves why it is, in essence, a matter of life and death to be able to confidentially place our problems before another. The implications of this are indeed profound. It think it is because in every criminal, sociopath and murderer, somewhere in that scorched landscape of mayhem there is a soul, quivering in a shed, aghast at what has been done. There is a tormented soul. There is confusion and sickness. There is blankness and forgetting. And there is evil. It is to this tormented soul that the ministrations of the psychotherapist are addressed in confidence. They are addressed in confidence because the crimes of the man are not the crimes of the soul. Acts cannot be undone, but the soul can be healed.

It is no small privilege and no small burden. You are charged with care of the soul.

Now, as to the man himself, the con, the manipulator, I suggest you deal with him as a fully responsible actor in the world. He gets no pass. Take note of his actions, his evasions and his schemes. Stand apart and observe. Avoid being taken in. Do not trust him with anything of value. Avoid joint assignments. Pay attention. And when his activities outside of your privileged foreknowledge become troubling on their own merits, then you can do what any responsible professional would do in such a case.

If he’s as bad as you say, it won’t be long until such an occasion arises.

 

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