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

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, NOV 1, 2005

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

Crazy?

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Dear Crazy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My son eloped and cut me out

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 17, 2012

I only got a generic notice, as if I were just a bystander, or an acquaintance!


Dear Cary,

It’s my turn. I need advice.

I opened my mail earlier this week and found a wedding announcement — from my son. My son, whom I raised alone since he was 3 (he’s 30 now).  My son, whose selfish temper tantrums through high school stopped me from dating women (and therefore, anybody) for years. Whose tour of duty in Iraq I gritted my teeth and “supported” him through despite my soul-level objection to his joining the Army.

The same son who, after he got his head right, volunteered — practically begged — to officiate at my wedding last year to a very sweet woman who rode out his homophobia until it was gone.

The son (my only child) about whom friends marvel, “You guys are SO close! It’s heartwarming.”

He married his girlfriend of five years, which is whom he SHOULD marry — and I’ve encouraged that for a long time. But eloping with no discussion with anyone (family, anyway) is disappointing, to say the least. There were no family issues going on about them; everyone on both sides was hoping for and expecting them to marry sometime soon. I’m sad that they’ve just taken a little jaunt downtown and gotten married in secret, taking away from everyone the opportunity to participate and celebrate. Certainly they have the RIGHT to elope — but everything legal is not also a good idea.

All of that one could get over, and I no doubt will, but to just simply have been on the address list for a photocopied announcement — that’s too much for me. I got the news along with anyone else whose address they had — high-school classmates, work friends, former employees. It’s not like there was any other unhappiness going on; in fact, he called me “just to say hi” the same day they mailed the announcements, but without responding truthfully to “What’s new with you?” I’m overwhelmingly sad at having been held at arms’ length over this, and he is royally ticked off by my telling him — carefully — how hurt I was to get this notice in the mail. I was clear that I am happy for him to be married to this woman, and I sincerely hope it’s forever, but I feel like they just went off on a lark (“Hee-hee, let’s go get secret married and not tell ANYBODY — they’ll be SO surprised when they get the note!”) like teenagers, with no thought about the broader meaning of joining together publicly, of themselves as not just independent beings, but also part of a larger community of family and friends.

My friends are shocked, some even angry, and I feel hurt, hurt, hurt and sad, sad, sad. Slapped in the face. The wind knocked out of me. In light of my generic notification, I picked out a generic “congratulations” card and signed it with my first and last names (instead of “Mom”).  I have to see both of them this weekend at a family birthday party (and I can’t disappoint my young niece by staying away). I don’t know how I can do this without crying. How? How do I deal this weekend, and how do I get out of this mire of sadness I’m stuck in?

Sign me

The Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom

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Dear Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom,

You sound like a good and well-meaning person who was hit hard by something and had no defenses against it. Sometimes something will just bring you to your knees. You aren’t expecting to be so deeply affected by something, and you aren’t expecting someone to do something, and then when it happens you have no defenses.

Having no defenses can be a good thing. Sometimes it’s the only way to truly feel something. In fact, I tend to think we often live in awful unreality, that we glide over tragedy and fate too easily, that we are glib and casual when we would be better served if we were grave and formal and silent, for daily we walk amid miracles and crimes.

I was at my locker this morning at the gym, next to a Russian man, and I said, “Excuse me,” so I could dial my combination into my green padlock and open my locker. I looked into his face as he turned, and I saw pain and sorrow and anger; the look was so open as to be startling; he was not guarded and bland or shallowly comical like so many of the American middle-class men who frequent the gym; I saw his face and I thought of what horrors he had endured, what secrets he had, what awful things he had lived through. His face was grave and true. It humbled me. I sat quietly and waited while he dressed.

So let’s just talk about emotional pain, and the dignity it involves, and its power. Let’s not talk yet about why your son did what he did or any of that. For starters, let’s say that emotional pain comes from an injury not to the body but to the soul, to our self-esteem or confidence or sense of who we are. In this case, it seems that your sense of  self in relation to your son was injured. You thought your son held you in a certain regard but his actions seem to show that he does not.

Let’s again delay talking about why your son did what he did and keep talking about you.  Let’s talk about your sense of yourself in relation to him. You have been his loving mom. You have been the most important person in his life. Being his mom has been one of your greatest roles. It has been a constant buoying force in your life. It has filled you with contentment and joy throughout the day. It has served to bolster your self-esteem and standing among your friends. Think about how important his place in your life has been. Just allow yourself to look at it. It might seem that to evaluate it like this might diminish it, but it won’t. It will just help you see in how many different ways your relationship to your son has been central to your self-esteem and well-being.

To be somewhat glib, let’s say that emotional pain goes away when the injury heals. In this case, your sense of self in relation to your son was injured. So how can that heal? Your son has suddenly moved out of your sphere and you are going to have to adjust. You are going to have to find new sources of joy and self-esteem. You might begin thinking about how your role in life will now change. You might begin thinking about how to let go of your son and find other sources of joy and contentment and pride day to day. You might also think about how to have a better relationship with your son, on these new terms in which he has moved out of your sphere of influence.

Let’s also now consider what your son might have been thinking and feeling. He broke some rules. He did something heedless but also romantic. I wonder how he sees rules. It is possible that he does not take certain rules very seriously. You say he joined the Army and went to Iraq. The Army has a lot of rules. Perhaps his tour of duty in Iraq left him with a feeling that some rules are important because they protect life and limb, and others are civilian rules that are not about life and death and so they don’t matter as much.

I don’t know if you pray or not, but if you do, it might not hurt to pray for your son. That might just mean conjuring him up in your thoughts and wishing for his happiness. It might just mean having him in your thoughts in a kind way. Pray for him to be happy and to be safe and to endure and prosper.

You might also pray for him to gradually acquire the wisdom to see how his choice hurt you so deeply; you might pray that he will acknowledge that one day. I think he will. I think he will one day see that it hurt you deeply, and he will tell you that he didn’t want to hurt you. Pray for him and love him. You will all get over this.

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I detest my parents, but I’m turning into them!

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 29, 2005

As a student of biology, I fear that genes are destiny. I feel powerless to individuate!


Dear Cary,

My parents are pretty nice people. They raised me and my brother in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, provided us with food, attention and a first-rate education, and generally gave me a pretty good childhood. They might even say that everything that they did, all the jobs that they hated, all the sacrifices they made (they are immigrants) and all the trouble they went to, they did for us.

Here’s the catch. I can’t really stand to be with them, and somehow as I am aging, I can tell that I’m turning into them and I’m starting to not be able to stand myself. My father grew up in a household of eight siblings and the father was physically abusive and the parents played one child off another. My father is always referring to his mother’s favorite child (not him) or the indulged child (not him either). All eight children moved to the U.S. and all are not speaking to each other since there was a Terri Schiavo-like argument over their mother’s last year of care. My own mother grew up in a poor village where her father left the family for 11 years (!)(sending back little letters of $$) to work on seagoing vessels and she left her village to get a better education at the age of 13.

Now, when we get together for family gatherings (once or twice a year), we just stare at each other and don’t have anything to say. My parents are very judgmental people, always complaining about what slights other people are doing to them and how we aren’t living up to their standards. Every single sentence out of their mouths is a slight dig into my way of life. I find them, in a way, to be talentless. Bright enough to get a nice-paying job, but in other ways, with no redeeming qualities. They have no friends, they can’t tell nice stories at dinner, they can’t seem to get promoted at work; my dad, especially, wants my mother to cook and clean for him and he sits on the couch after getting home from work and watches TV. His mental challenge is to give the highway toll workers 100 pennies for his toll. They are depressed, sullen people.

You know, I want to be something special (doesn’t everybody?), and I feel like my parents aren’t special people and they keep saying that they have these terrible genes that make us all stubborn and have a bad temper. I keep reading self-help books that say, you are special just being you! Bah! You know, when you go to pick out a new puppy, the first thing that people tell you to do is to look at its mother and father and then you’ll get a good idea what they will be like when they grow up, and this is true! I don’t want to be biologically related to my parents! Lots of people say, “Oh, I’m nothing like my crazy mom and dad,” but I was trained in biology and I know that either these people were secretly fathered by the mailman or they are more like their parents than they choose to admit. How do I not loathe my parents? How do I not loathe myself for being like my parents?

Gene Therapy

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Dear Gene Therapy,

How do you avoid being like your parents? You make choices. That’s it in a nutshell. That doesn’t mean you don’t occasionally say things they used to say, or find yourself having attitudes they used to have. But particularly on the big, life-changing issues, you take responsibility for your own life and you make careful, considered choices.

Those choices, in turn, go to work, long-term, like little machines in the background. They set in motion various habits and opportunities that over time mold you into the person you would prefer to be. You put yourself in a different environment, one more suited to who you want to be, and your environment, like a little identity machine, cranks out the recommended daily requirements of the life you want to live. If it’s the suburban lifestyle of your parents that you dread getting sucked into, then you make a major choice to live in a lively, provocative city, one that will teach you things you can’t learn in the suburbs, one that will bring out parts of your personality that you want to bring out, one that will nurture you in ways you want to be nurtured and discourage you in ways you want to be discouraged.

In that sense, a city can be like a new parent. You submit to its authority and bask in its love. It will suggest for you new opportunities and will admonish you for your old habits. Indeed, a new city can be a cruel master, and will punish you severely if you cross it. But it will also help you be the person you want to be.

As well as choosing an environment that molds you, you also can choose specific, targeted activities that result in actual long-term fundamental change — in how you generally feel, how you react to situations day-to-day and, in a very real sense, in who you are. They can range from highly specific things like quitting smoking or learning tai chi to broader things like concentrated study and mastery of a field you are drawn to, difficult and dangerous challenges such as rock climbing, travel, psychotherapy, religious studies, pilgrimage, marriage, child rearing. All the big, life-changing experiences will change you fundamentally to some degree if you remain alert as you undergo them. And if you respond to them deeply, each experience will take you closer to who you are and farther from the dreaded replica of your parents that haunts your sleep.

There are, as well, many cooked-up, concentrated experiences available, meant to transform the individual in a weekend. A good massage can sometimes work wonders. Anything is worth trying once. Some New Age hucksters may promise too much and deliver too little. But take what you can use and let the rest go. There is often a little wisdom in the craziest babblings of crackpots and charlatans and fools.

It sounds simple in words, doesn’t it? No problem. All you have to do is change your whole life. Ha ha ha.

So be prepared for monumental resistance from within! That is where the real struggle begins — in attempting to not become your parents you realize that you don’t really know where you begin and your parents end! You are indeed, in many ways, the same! It’s not just a question of future choices and molding yourself, but of conscious dismantling of heavy, well-installed machinery, bolted to the floor and clearly meant never to be tampered with or moved! So you walk where you can walk to get where you have to go; sometimes you have to go around, so you go around.

And occasionally you will have to fight for your life. In dismantling these mechanisms that have worked for you for so long, it can feel as though you’re losing your grip. At times of great challenge, you need faith; you need something to hang on to; you need support from people you trust; you need a map, a method, a solid sense of where you’re going. At times you may not have any of that. You may be desolate and alone, racked with doubt and regret that you ever started on this journey. At such a time all you may have is just a dim and fading notion that you started out somewhere and you’ll end up somewhere. That will have to be enough. Know that you’ll have periods of numbness and confusion. That’s the price of differentiating yourself.

Look at it this way: Even if you didn’t undertake this journey, you’d be numb and confused much of the time; you just wouldn’t know you were numb and confused.

Some of the things I have outlined above you may find unacceptable. You may say that something is “impractical” or “not your style.” You may think if you move to a city too far away from your family that it will bring down years of shame and heartache and just won’t be worth it. That sort of thinking, I would suggest, is why we do end up like our parents — we go pretty far but not far enough; we fail to challenge the very ingrained attitudes that we detest in our parents. So it is not easy. You may not recognize some of these ingrained attitudes as your enemy. They may make you feel safe and connected to your heritage. It is hard to tell sometimes. This resistance could go to the core of your being. For instance, the very notion of individuality and control over one’s destiny may feel foreign to you.

And there will be a price. If you move far from your family, if you choose paths that take you away from them both geographically and spiritually, you will miss the closeness you think you might have had. There will always be the life unlived, the road not taken.

So, in short, I would say that we can avoid becoming our parents because identity is fluid. Between us and biological destiny stand the power of choice, the power to change one’s environment, and the power to undertake activities that transform us in deep and lasting ways.

My family gives me no respect

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUN 7, 2006

I’m accomplished and responsible but they treat me like a loser.


Dear Cary,

I have a great job, own my own home, car, dog and medium-size 401K, have put myself through college and law school. I am not a loser! So why does my whole family treat me like one?

My family is not a normal set of folks; we are in a whole new category of dysfunctional and it would take 20 hours’ worth of couch time to even come close to describing the crazy things below the surface. Anyway, the issue is that I want to be loved and respected. I am loved by some but respect is just not there.

My youngest sister is forever telling me how poor my judgment is, how bad my understanding of people is and how unprofessional I am, despite the evidence of my high-powered job at an internationally renowned organization. I have a résumé to die for. That is not just a boast but a statement of fact (OK, a boast, too. I need to bolster myself since I am not getting it from outside sources). She tells me that she has no faith in me, in my judgment or in anything about me, that my house is awful, my neighborhood sucks, my dog is poorly trained, etc. And this is the sister I get along with best.

My mother makes it clear that a woman of 39 (me) without a husband and without children is a loser by definition. I had a husband, a drug-abusing, foul-mouthed yet charming brute who almost bankrupted me, stole from me and my friends, cheated on me with other women and possibly men, and verbally abused me in public and private. Dumping him after seven years of marriage was the best decision of my life. I feel lucky that any of my self-esteem survived that one. Yet, here we are five years later and my mother still criticizes me for not keeping that guy! Her current advice: Find a man who wants American citizenship and trade my bed for a green card!

My father barely speaks to me because I dated a guy he did not like a year ago. Two of my sisters do not speak to me at all. I honestly do not know why but both claim to be angry at me. My brother thinks I am an irresponsible idiot. My last sister, who is the only one who acknowledges me as a fully grown and responsible adult, still tells me that my divorce from an abusive ex is a sign of my inability to keep a commitment!

For God’s sake, what is it going to take to get these people to admit that I am fine as I am and why the hell do I care! Are these people overly judgmental or am I insane?

Dissed by My Family

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Dear Dissed,

You are fine as you are. I know that. You know that. It’s the truth.
But your family is never going to give you what you want. That’s also the truth.

You will never be at peace with your family until you stop wanting what they will never give you.

It is easy to say, “Accept the way things are.”

But exactly how do we accept things? What is this action called acceptance? I would say that acceptance is knowing rather than wishing. You studied law. You committed many laws to memory. You may wish they were one way but they are the way they are. If you go into the courtroom and expect the laws to be different from the way they are you will not succeed. You must accept that the law is the way it is. You must know the law.

The same is true with your family. You must know your family as it is. You must study your family and know it thoroughly. That is your route to acceptance. Regard your family as a fact, immutable as the law. They are what they are. They behave in a certain way. The facts are unpleasant. But they are facts.

What happens to people who do not like the law and so do not obey it? They get their asses kicked.

You may not like what you know about your family but you must accept it or you will get your ass kicked. You will step into the ring expecting a kiss and get slapped. Don’t do it. Don’t let them kick you around.

You may find it hard to accept your family as it is. There are reasons for that. One reason is that in accepting your family as it is, you have to give up, or mourn, the ideal family that never was. You may have to go through a sort of grieving process. You may have to feel the hurt, the lifelong ache of wanting a family that is loving and kind and supportive and never getting it. It hurts. It hurts a lot. It hurts for a long time. But that is the price of knowing the truth.

I think the truth is worth it.

Here is a consolation: This other family, this ideal, imaginary family that you always wanted, this family that really gets you, that supports you, that appreciates you as you appreciate yourself: It is a real family, too. It is real in your mind. You can keep it, in fact. You can keep this imaginary family in your mind. This dream family is your family, too. It’s the family you deserve. It lives on a different street in a different neighborhood where only you can go.

Here is another consolation. Sometimes if you leave something alone long enough it begins to heal on its own and one day long after you have given up even thinking about it a gift arrives in the mail that is so delightful you break down right there on your doorstep because you had given up all hope of such a thing ever, ever happening.

I’m just saying it’s possible. Maybe one day if you leave this alone it may fix itself. But don’t hold your breath. Let it be.

Your family today is sad and difficult and dangerous. Remember that. Accept it. Don’t give them the opportunity to kick you around anymore.

Get what you need some other way. Get it from people who have it to give.

I found a girl in my son’s bed

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

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


Dear Cary:

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

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

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

Is there something else I should say to him?

Concerned

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Dear Concerned,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fat chance.

Imagine trying to institute such a thing.

The very idea could get you arrested.

And yet I remember well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Somebody sent child protective services to my house!

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, NOV 30, 2007

An anonymous complaint brought a scary visitor with a list of accusations.


Dear Cary,

I have an unusual problem that is really hurting me. About two months ago, a worker from the child protection agency in my town appeared on my doorstep. She told me she had received a report about me and my child and was investigating. She came in and read off the accusations. I was reeling and in shock. Someone associated with my small church had sent in a complaint anonymously. The accusations were ridiculous and untrue except for one. My child had kicked another child whom my child was really upset with. This child was jealous and had been teasing a lot, but his parents weren’t aware of it. This incident was reported in detail to the agency with the statement that “she didn’t care about it,” which is, of course, untrue. I was really upset about the kicking and talked to my child about how we settle differences, and then I took away a planned play date. We talked to the parents and I thought the matter had been settled.

I had to furnish names of people who could vouch for my parenting and I gave two friends from church. I also talked to the minister, who is very new to our church and to other church leaders. Everyone I’ve talked to is shocked and supportive and no one has any idea who could have done this or why.

The mother of this boy grew increasingly distant and angry after this incident and then refused to speak to my child and me at all. They quit coming to our church soon after. This family didn’t have many close friends as they are hard to get along with and didn’t come very often. Their child didn’t have friends at the church either except for my child. We had been very good friends at one time.

I could tell from the worker’s demeanor that the charges weren’t going to go anywhere but I still haven’t heard from the agency. I could be in for a surprise but I seriously doubt it. No one at the church has been contacted by the agency, but the worker had already visited my child and the school counselor before she came to my door. There were no concerns at the school and my child handled herself well so far as I can tell. It’s a real nightmare to have this happen.

My problem is that I don’t know for sure who did this. If it is this family, they aren’t at my church anymore and probably aren’t going to be much of a threat in the future. If it’s not this family, then it’s someone from my church and that is very scary as we are active at the church. We’re still going to the church and participating in selected activities. I’ve curtailed some of my child’s activities to lessen the chance that someone might observe something that can be twisted around to look damaging. Other than this mother, I’ve had no conflicts with anyone else in this town and neither has my child.

What is the most prudent thing for me to do? What is the psychological profile of someone who would do something like this to a child and his mother? Is it likely to be someone I’ve had a conflict with or a relative stranger?

Thank you so much. I think you give very thoughtful responses to people.

Pretty Good Mom

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Dear Pretty Good Mom,

You’re telling me that an employee of the state, acting on an anonymous accusation, visited your child and your child’s school counselor, and then came into your house and read you a list of accusations made by someone associated with your church. Then you were required by law to furnish a list of people who could vouch for your parenting.

Your letter inspires great outrage. Where is this place? Who are these people?

I couldn’t live in a town like that!

But here’s what a reasonable citizen might do. A reasonable citizen might go to the agency and ask for a meeting with the caseworker and the caseworker’s boss. I would want to learn as much as I could, not about who made this particular complaint, but about how such a system operates. Does it happen often that people are referred in this way? What are the procedures? What records are public and what are private? What is the agency’s funding? What is its charter? Who makes decisions about who is hired and fired?

Now, of course our society has to protect children. There are some truly evil people out there.

But I would want to know if I, too, could simply make a complaint about someone at random and cause a case worker to go visit them and scare the living daylights out of them. I would ask them to show me the form and the process by which I could make such an anonymous complaint. I would ask them how they determine the credibility of such a complaint. Must a person making a complaint appear in person, or could such a complaint be made in writing or over the phone? Must the person furnish identification? Are records kept of the person’s visit or phone call? Under what conditions are those records made public? What threshold of credibility must a complainant meet? What evidence must be given prior to the sending out of an investigator? What protections are in place so that any old sociopathic busybody can’t just use this agency to harass and terrorize his or her neighbors? And if there are protections in place, were they used in this instance?

Finally, I would be very curious to figure out — though I wouldn’t ask this directly — if a person making a complaint might be able to use specific knowledge of the agency and its personnel in order to cause an investigator to come out.

You know what else I would want to know? I would want to know what kind of academic background and credentials these people have, these people who are empowered to walk into some family’s home and read off a list of anonymous accusations. Of all the powers of the state that are available to petty, misguided bureaucrats who might have just a touch of the sadistic and the power-hungry in them, this is one power that ought not be entrusted to just anybody. I’d want to know that anyone doing this job at least had an understanding of the limits on state power in a free society.

And I would want to know how often it can happen that a totally bogus complaint reaches this point. I’d want to know if they audit their activities to determine this. I would want to know if this agency had a higher incidence of such false complaints than other agencies.

And I’d say, well, if this is a public agency with public records, then the press has a right to see them.

And then once I’d learned all I could, I’d contact a reporter at the local newspaper.

I’d tell them my story.

I’d beg the reporter to at least call the agency and inquire about my case.

You wouldn’t have to get the reporter to promise to do a story, just to make a phone call.

Come to think of it, the logic is sweet: In the same way that a child protective agency is more or less compelled to investigate any complaint, so a newspaper reporter is more or less compelled to at least make a phone call to check out a tip.

Now, I’m kind of dumb about small town life. It may be that doing these things would make life too uncomfortable for you. If so, I would still suggest that, in order to understand what happened, you learn as much as you can about the social forces in American life that could lead to such a thing. And if I were you I would think seriously about moving to a more cosmopolitan area.

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Can therapy fix my parents?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 6, 2005

We’ve been in counseling for about six months now, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting them.


Dear Cary,

You and other sage advice givers often recommend that people seek therapy for their problems, especially when a couple or family needs a mediator to help settle their issues. I’m a big believer in the power of talking it out with a disinterested third party. My question is, how do you know when it’s time to quit?

I’m 24 years old, and have a college degree, a good job and enough friends to keep me from getting lonely. I’ve been in individual therapy for a few years now, and it’s really helped me deal with some self-esteem and emotional issues, many of which are connected to my difficult family situation. I’ve been in family counseling with my parents for about six months. My parents probably seem to strangers like very pleasant people, but they are in massive denial over all sorts of deep-seated psychological issues, and they don’t want to take the risk of trying to deal with them, so they’ve basically shut down emotionally. Being raised in an environment where people were afraid of their feelings has had a profound effect on me, and I have a lot of buried anger toward them for raising me in such a repressive, unhappy environment.

When I was in college, I dealt with them as little as possible, pretty much only when I needed a check for my tuition. Once I graduated and no longer needed their money, they got upset that I wasn’t interested in continuing a superficial, dishonest relationship with them. We started counseling, at my request, because I was hoping I could explain to them why I’m so angry, so that we could be more honest with one another and move forward. However, it’s clear to me that they’re not interested in honesty — they just want me to go back to pretending that everything is nice and happy. They don’t want to deal with their own issues because they’re afraid, and they don’t want to deal with my issues because that would mean they’d have to admit that something might be wrong with them.

My therapist seems to think that they might eventually come around, but he has never met them. The family counselor says I can quit anytime I want, and that I should leave if I don’t feel the counseling is productive, but she has demurred when I asked whether she thinks continuing could be productive. I don’t want to give up on my parents, but at the same time, being around them drives me absolutely crazy (to the point of literally needing to spend two days curled up in the fetal position crying after spending the weekend with them) because either I have to pretend to feel something I don’t, or we end up fighting and they tell me it’s my fault for being “irrationally hostile.” We go around and around and never get anywhere, and I’m constantly upset about it. I feel like I’m wasting my time and energy trying to fix a situation that’s out of my control.

So do I quit? Is there any good reason to stay? And if I do quit, should I just cut them out of my life entirely? Is there something to be gained from putting myself through the pain of dealing with them? And can I fix a relationship with people who don’t want to fix themselves?

Thanks for listening. Even if you don’t answer, it feels good to have been able to ask.

Daughter

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Dear Daughter,

Nice to hear from you. It sounds like it’s too painful for you to deal with your parents right now. Why not take a break from them and focus on other areas of your life? At age 24, I imagine you are entering the workforce and establishing yourself socially and professionally, and perhaps beginning to look for a mate. The kinds of changes you want in your relationship with your parents may be impossible to obtain at this time, while other achievements may be well within your grasp.

So if I were you, I would continue in therapy but put your parents on the back burner. I would define some other goals therapy could help me with, like getting a better understanding of myself, clarifying my purpose on earth and finding out what might be holding me back from truly purposeful action.

If, however, you do come to feel that it’s your relationship with your parents that is holding you back, then try this: Ask yourself not how you feel about your parents but what you owe your parents. What are your obligations at this point in your life? They have put you through college but now you’re on your own: How can you fulfill your obligations?

This is different from asking what your parents want from you. Our parents may want us to fulfill certain unconscious wishes they retain from childhood, from their own relationships with their parents. We cannot help them with that. You can determine, however, what your concrete obligations are. And I think you can probably fulfill many of those obligations.

So what are our obligations to our parents? In general terms, you might come up with a list something like this: To speak with them or visit at least once a month. Not to cause them undue pain. Not to shame them. Not to steal from them. To treat them kindly and with respect. To help them when they become no longer able to take care of themselves. To be a comfort to them when possible.

Beyond fulfilling such obligations as these, we can get into trouble. For not only do you have obligations to your parents, but they have obligations to you. One of their chief obligations is to provide an environment in which you can become who you are. So if you betray yourself, then you betray your parents as well. For instance, suppose you conclude it’s your duty to your parents to become a plastic surgeon. If you are not suited to be a plastic surgeon, then in trying to become one you undermine your parents’ chief duty to you.

So the best you can do, as an adult, is to fulfill your concrete obligations to your parents. The rest — the emotional tenor of your relationship, your compatibility, your taste and politics and ideas, their projected wishes for you — is chancy.

If you can satisfy yourself that you are doing what is right and necessary as a daughter, perhaps it will ease some of the pain that arises when you see your parents. Perhaps it will also allow you to limit your contact with your parents without an undue sense of guilt.

It’s hard at 24 to imagine how a lifetime of experience has molded one’s parents, and harder still to keep in mind that time will continue to change them, robbing them of both their acuity and their rancor. If you simply go about living, you will find that these things take place, slowly but surely, seemingly without anyone’s effort.

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My charismatic ex married a pretty young thing

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 13, 2011

After 13 years and two kids, we still weren’t even married. So I’m burned but I’m not even the ex-wife


Dear Cary,

First of all, I want to tell you that I’ve been reading your column for years and have gotten great inspiration from your poetic and insightful advice as well as the comments from your readers. I was very worried to hear about your cancer and am grateful for your recovery and continued words of wisdom.

I’m 41 years old, and although I may look like your average SUV-driving suburban mom now, in my 20s I was a model and somewhat of a party girl. During this time I became involved with an extremely handsome, charismatic, wealthy man several years my senior. We were together for 13 years, during which I endured his alcoholism, childishness, refusal to commit despite my giving birth to two beautiful daughters, and repeated cheating.

We broke up for good three years ago. A few months later he met this girl. This cartoonishly gorgeous, 25-year-old girl who looked and still looks 18. When they’d been dating for a year or so … are you sitting down? … he proposed to her. He gave her this nauseating ring with a pink heart-shaped diamond, and I smiled and gritted my teeth as my daughters walked down the aisle in their giant sparkly circus of a wedding. (Note: Prior to this, my ex hated weddings … he wouldn’t even go to his friends’ because he said he couldn’t stand to see a man tied down!)

I wish I could say she’s a cheap little gold digger who’s using him for all he’s worth … but she’s actually a very sweet, somewhat otherworldly person who to all appearances genuinely loves the bastard. He fully admits he doesn’t deserve her, calls her his angel, his salvation, etc., etc., etc. As far as I know he hasn’t cheated on her yet, which is a record for him. She’s crazy enough to keep up with his lifestyle and at the same time gives him the pampering devotion he demands, two areas where I always seemed to fall short.

Worst of all, my daughters … now 11 and 6 … like her more than me and their dad put together. They’re constantly pestering to visit and they talk about her like she’s Mary Poppins, Hannah Montana and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother rolled into one.

Not long after his marriage, my ex had a major health scare and quit drinking … something he refused to ever even try to do while we were together. It was while he was in the hospital, when I had to leave her sitting beside him, stroking his hair, at the end of visiting hours, that I realized I still love the bastard too. I know I’ve said a mouthful about him here but he’s far from all bad … he’s incredibly funny, sunny, generous, full of life, doesn’t have a mean or violent bone in his body, and is completely impossible to stop loving. And I can’t help feeling that if he’s going to settle down and be Mr. Stable-and-Sober now … after all I put up with, giving him the best years of my life, bearing and raising his kids while he was off partying … the least he could do would be to settle down with me and our girls, as a real, normal, husband, wife and kids family.

Except! In February they announced that she’s pregnant. A few weeks ago, they found out she’s having a boy. My ex is absolutely out of his mind with happiness. My girls are all excited about getting a baby brother. I’m the only person who’s not happy here. My jealousy has made me a bitter, ugly person I hardly know. I am literally fantasizing about one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met dying in childbirth. I keep a pistol in a safe for home defense purposes, and there are times … when my daughters are visiting their dad and stepmom, and I’m alone in the house all weekend … when I’ve seriously considered checking out and letting her deal with them full-time (on top of a screaming newborn!)

Don’t worry! I’m not immediately suicidal … in fact I’m looking hard for reasons to go on. Aside from what’s left of my looks I don’t bring much to the dating market. I’m not sure I could have another baby if I even wanted to, and already having kids makes it that much harder to find a relationship. What’s more, guys tend to get intimidated when I tell them about my ex. And it’s not unjustified … there are certain areas where he’s a hard (LOL!) act to follow.

There’s more to life than love and babies, you say? I’ve aged out of my former career, and can’t seem to hustle up the interest or motivation to go to school and start another, especially when his child support allows me to live quite comfortably without working. I read, I craft, I volunteer, but none of that fills the void.

I don’t even know what I’m asking for here. Hope? Sympathy? Suggestions? At this point, Cary, I’ll take whatever you can give. Thank you so much for reading.

Not Even the First Wife

Dear Not Even the First Wife,

How are you going to frame this situation so that you are at the center of the struggle and you are meeting your own needs and

finding your own joy?
The strength you need won’t all come from inside. You need to find strength from other people.

You need a community that is on your side and is a different kind of community, battle-scarred and wizened, chastened and realistic, reliable and unglamorous. Where will you find your models? I don’t mean fashion models, I mean role models. Strength is what you need now and you can find it in other people, but not people who are glittery and charismatic and intoxicating. You can find it in the gritty and mundane world of people who have taken a few hits and survived. There is a special kind of strength such people have. I have seen it.
You have to find your tribe. You may come upon them by accident. They may not look like your tribe. They may not dress like your tribe. But they will know you.

They may seem strange. Then again, they may be other SUV-driving moms who also have danced on polished marble floors and pranced on runways above adoring flashbulbs. You may find other ex-models who are now fashioning lives for themselves separate from the Peter Pans and man-boys who kept them amused during their early years. For it cannot be all that rare a story. It has a classic feel to it. It’s also possible that you would find like-minded women in Al-Anon, the group for people whose lives are affected by the drinking of friends, family and loved ones. It wouldn’t hurt to look into it.

If I were you, I would make like a huntress, looking for my tribe of strength.

No one can say what will happen to the new happy couple. Maybe he will have a profound transformation. Or maybe his pretty young wife is destined to endure things far worse than what you endured. If he does start drinking again, it will not be the carefree drinking of his yesterdays. And if he is going to quit drinking and change his life, he is going to face some hard truths. His charming act is not likely to endure. She may find herself married to a man who, much to her chagrin, begins in earnest a spiritual quest from which she is excluded. Then it may be she who goes out on him, and he who is left bewildered at home with his Tarot deck or his Big Book.

You say that she is somehow otherworldly. That would make perfect sense if what he was looking for was someone to perpetuate his denial. Or this otherworldliness may be a symbol of his awakening spiritual thirst. At any rate, if it’s any consolation, this moment cannot last. Much greater things await you.

Somehow, and it won’t be easy, you have to let that whole situation go. Somehow. But how? Your daughters are madly in love with their stepmom. Yes, how lovely. It is absurdly constructed to flatten you. Of course it is. This is fate, having its fun. So you have to summon the strength and wisdom to see this and understand its piquant, ironic character, and remember how the wheel is turning all the time. The Ferris wheel is turning, and right now you may be at the bottom, watching as the new cute couple ascend in their swinging seat and have the view of the city while you have the view of the carny’s toothless face as he leers at you alone in your seat on the bottom of the Ferris wheel.

But the Ferris wheel must turn. They have to come to the bottom to get out. Then you will be at the top, looking out over the city, swinging in your Ferris wheel swing, while the cute new couple down below must exit past the leer of the toothless carny.

No question about it: This is a difficult moment for you. You can embrace what has arrived, or you can run from it. I suggest you summon your courage and embrace what has arrived. It is an occasion for grace: You are being called upon to find a deeper source of strength. You will find it, and it will carry you.

My alcoholic dad: How can I reach out to him?

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I know he’s screwed up, but as a little girl I idolized him

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 25, 2009

Dear Cary,

This is an epically long letter — sorry. To some extent, I just needed to put it all down on paper so I could get a grip on it: see the patterns and find some coherence in the whole thing. What I’m writing about is such a large part of me that I can’t find a way to edit it down. I suspect you understand.

I need some advice about dealing with an alcoholic, specifically my father. I’m 21 and my dad has been drinking since I was about 4 years old. I guess he’s what you might call “high functioning” — he has a stable job as a department manager, doesn’t get violent or abusive in any way, doesn’t drink hard alcohol as far as I know, just beer. Because of this, I didn’t know he had a problem until I was a teenager. Looking back, I realize that almost every memory I have of him until I was about 12 includes a beer can: doing work around the house, working at his desk, watching TV, on camping trips. I think he’s not really meant to have a family and a high-pressure job. My impression today is that he began to feel trapped and depressed, and started dealing with it by drinking. But of course, I thought it was normal and everything was great.

I adored my father, like many little girls do. I was born 10 weeks premature, which resulted in my mother and I being not at all close, so my dad was often the one who was there for me. He was the more patient parent, introverted like me, and the polar opposite of my mom, personality-wise. She came from a highly dysfunctional family full of alcoholics, failed marriages and absent parents. In spite of it all, she came out shockingly sane, but chronically depressed and not at all familiar with “normal” child development or child-parent relationships. My brother and I were expected to be emotionally competent far beyond our years — many confrontations between us revolved around my inability to be adequately “grateful for all that she sacrificed” to raise us as a stay-at-home mom. So, naturally, my father’s alcoholism really messed with her and the more he drank, the more she leaned on her kids for support.

Finally, when I was maybe 12 or 13, she sat us down for a talk with my father present, and informed us that he was an alcoholic. I really didn’t understand the ramifications of it, but I took on her anger and betrayal and joined her in a messy confrontation with him. Looking back, it must have been absolutely shaming and a really ineffective way to handle the problem. He agreed to go to counseling, but quit after a couple of sessions. Over the next few years, things were tense, to put it mildly. My parents were miserable — my mother furious and my father beginning to withdraw — but neither was willing to divorce, which was my greatest wish. I wanted the whole thing to be over with, for everyone’s sake.

For a little while after the “intervention,” I continued to be closer to my dad, but it was obvious that I was expected to choose a parent’s side, and as he began to withdraw emotionally, I switched to my mom. A year or two later, he and I had an enormous fight (I think he must have been drunk) which culminated in him bitterly observing “I used to be your hero,” to which I shot back, “Well, I found out you’re not so perfect.” After that, we were done. I felt angry and betrayed and he refused to reach out to me again, so we just quit having a relationship.

Actually, he quit having a relationship with anyone. He lived in the house, but worked and slept in a basement room, spent a lot of nights out (presumably at work, though we never asked and he never said), and quit eating meals with us. I refused to have anything more than a curt conversation with him. He continued to drink, though he kept it as hidden as possible. Over time he became more and more irrational and moody. My mom continued to bend over backward to keep him happy, but I decided I didn’t want to play the game and just went through daily life in the house like he didn’t exist unless I absolutely needed something from him.

Finally, two years ago I moved out to go to college on the other side of the country. My little brother left last year. I’ve been home for some vacations, but I’m staying away this summer for my own sanity. On top of all this, I took my mother to see a family therapist this winter, at the suggestion of my own therapist who had been helping me work through the mess of all this. My mom felt instantly betrayed by the mere suggestion that she had been a less-than-perfect mother and the idea that I might want to be my own person instead of her support system. I managed to set up a rule that I was no longer going to be dragged into her passive-aggressive conflicts with my father, which has been helpful for me. However, she has now withdrawn from me, rarely initiates contact, and doesn’t really have much to say to me anymore. I have no contact with my father outside of short discussions about financial aid or the family health insurance, which require his input. Once every few months he tries to start a conversation with me over e-mail, but they never go anywhere. When I’m at home, we ignore each other’s existence.

So, I’m sitting here, on the verge of being a grown-up, feeling kind of disjointed and parentless. Now that I’ve broken out of the messed-up dynamics of my childhood and set some boundaries for myself, I’ve started to revisit this history with my father, and it turns out that, angry as I’ve been with him, I really miss having him in my life. He was the parent my mother couldn’t be for me when I was little. And I have a hard time letting him go because I see so much of myself in him. But at the same time, he’s chosen alcohol over functional relationships in his life. He controls my mother’s life because he controls the household finances and she’s co-dependent with no real income of her own. My brother still talks to him; I guess that’s the side he chose when it reached that point. My dad spends a lot of money on him instead of time and genuine effort. I expect any day to get a call saying Dad has been injured or killed driving drunk.

I know I can’t make him change. I know he’s pretty dysfunctional and to blame for a lot of things. But I also know he must be as miserable as the rest of us, and I’m starting to wonder (here’s the point to all this): Am I being unfair to him? Does he deserve, simply as a human being, to have a daughter who will talk to him? What can I expect from him, if it’s even possible to have some sort of relationship with an alcoholic? I’m worried that I’m being immature and immoral by shutting him down so completely. But I never, ever want to stoop to his level like my mother has, and I don’t ever want to be used emotionally by him. Is it time to just give up or is it time to reach out?

Thanks so much,

J

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Dear J,

It’s true that your letter is long, but I agree that each part of it is important, and the task is to find the pattern in it. I am glad you wrote it all down. Each time someone tells their story, people who also have grown up with alcoholic dads are helped.

I have two main responses. One concerns how you as an individual will navigate between two poles of being. The other concerns your father’s alcoholism, and how he might get some help.

On the first point, let’s just say that one pole of being is the you as a completely unique individual. The other pole is the you who exists in knowledge of and opposition to your parents – the you who has made a pact with herself never to repeat the mistakes of your parents.

Neither of these poles represents an absolute state; rather, you are a unique individual trying not to repeat your parents’ mistakes. You are trying to have a relationship with them as you are, not as the circumstances of your upbringing might dictate that you be. We are a synthesis of utter uniqueness and the shaping forces of experience. We live in the tension between uniqueness and repetition.

As we question and challenge our parents’ negative examples, we also must question our own iron-clad determination not to repeat those negative examples.

Determined not to repeat “my father’s mistakes,” I am in the process of repeating them even as we speak. I am so afraid of abandoning plans, and thus repeating my father’s pattern, that at times I have been rigid, and so have not become conscious of what is the next thing, and so have missed opportunities, and in that way have replicated my father’s pattern! In being so determined to make a marriage that works I have at times failed to live authentically in the life of the marriage, have administered the marriage instead of living in it, like some remote bureaucrat in a desert highrise, grading the marriage’s adherence to program. In resolving not to let my inherent wildness destroy me, I have destroyed some of my inherent wildness and with it some of my life force and love and beauty and desire and music. I have been so fearful of repeating my father’s impulsive changes that I have in my own life become a little rigid and conventional, although at heart I am naturally intuitive and thus blessed with the ability to act with wise impulse.

The focus on not repeating negative examples seems to bring them to life!

The “not” part does not seem to be as strong as the “what” part.

In playing tennis, we avoid saying to ourselves, “I must not hit the ball out.” Our brain does not seem to get the “not” part. We must instead visualize the ball going in. Likewise, in life, we visualize what we are trying to bring into being, instead of focusing on what to avoid.

So to the extent that you can survive it, I think you must have a relationship with your father. This relationship with your father can be your laboratory for growth. There are probably areas of life in which you did not grow because of your truncated relationship with your father. Coming back into his life can be a way for you to build, piece by piece, your way of relating.

So I suggest you forge a framework for relating to your dad. Identify safe, relatively neutral areas in your home town where you can go with your dad, where he feels comfortable and where you feel comfortable.

If he drinks steadily throughout the day, you may want to identify a time when he is not too hung over but not too drunk — perhaps mid-afternoon. Or perhaps lunchtime at work is a time you can visit him, if his workplace is governed by corporate norms.

If being with him is too difficult, too upsetting, too dangerous, then you will need to back off. But I think that measured, regular contact with your dad is better than cutting off contact altogether. There is something there, even if it is buried and distorted by the alcoholism. There can be at least a continuum of contact. If nothing else, by staying in touch, you will have up-to-date contact info.

As you occupy this difficult space, notice yourself in opposition to your parents. Then notice yourself in the absence of your parents. Each is an abstraction, a false pure essence: the you that is only you, and the you formed by your parents. Neither is real. Find the middle. Live in the tension between these two. Notice how it feels to move from one to the other. Notice how narrow is the space where you only oppose your father or your mother. Notice how narrow is the space of your own uniqueness. Notice the power in these poles of attraction and repulsion.

To be more concrete: You love your father. Your father has a disease. The disease distorts his personality and his thinking and causes him to act in ways that are harmful to himself and harmful to others. But there is a man in there who is your father and he has been the most important man in the world to you. You love him. Because you love him it is painful beyond words to see him distorted and destroyed. Your task is to handle it with boundaries.

I know how difficult this father thing is.

I know how difficult it is to accept that in spite of the many, many ways he can be helped, you cannot help him until he is ready. In spite of what I know, I find myself thinking, Couldn’t you cook up some sort of real intervention? — not the shaming and self-serving drama that your mom concocted (wow, what a scene that must have been!) but a professional intervention, with a treatment option. Why not try that? I mean, it sounds like he hasn’t really tried …  and I have just fallen again into the same old trap everyone falls into, haven’t I? I know that we are powerless over the alcoholism of others and yet, and yet … I cannot let this go! (Why not? Because I’m no different from anybody else!)

Has he ever said he wants to quit? Has he ever admitted he has a problem? What was this family conference about? If he went to a counselor for a couple of sessions, perhaps he at least had an inkling of his problem. And then maybe the shame and trauma of the family conference just shut him down completely, and now he is all alone and full of self-pity and whatnot.

But maybe he is ready. You could at least try to find out. (See how tenaciously I cling to the belief that he can be helped, that he can be changed?!)

You might at least have someone who is a recovering alcoholic come and visit him and see if maybe he can relate, and maybe give recovery a try. There are people who would make the visit, I’ll bet, if it’s even remotely possible that he might be interested in some kind of help.

So that’s the alcoholism side of it: He might be ready. Who knows. It’s possible.

You and I know you cannot change him. Yet let’s hope you can forge some kind of relationship in which you take strong precautions not to be burned, but are still close enough to feel his warmth.

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My dad threatened to shoot us all and chop us into pieces

Write for Advice

I’m not sure how much filial devotion
I owe my father, now that he’s talking
about buying a rifle.

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 4, 2007

Dear Cary,

Since our mother’s death four and a half years ago, the burden of caring for our elderly father has fallen to my siblings and me (particularly my oldest sister and my brother). When my parents retired they moved far away to a rural area in another state, which is difficult to reach by plane and is easily an eight-hour drive. My mother was never particularly happy there, and we were never very happy about having to travel so far to see her. Nevertheless, my father’s law ruled and she remained there until her death, lonely and isolated.

My father, to put it bluntly, has never been a particularly likable person, and he has alienated virtually everyone he has ever known. He is narcissistic and selfish, self-pitying and mean, insulting and dismissive. He has virtually no friends where he lives and is barely tolerated by his neighbors and fellow churchgoers. None of us feels any particular bond with him, outside of a feeling of obligation that we must care for him. All of us have admitted to each other and ourselves that we do not love him.

From afar, my sister pays his bills, makes his doctor’s appointments and schedules repairs for his tractor and appliances. My brother, who is disabled and doesn’t work, has made several extended-stay visits with him despite the severe emotional toll these visits take. Though we have persistently lobbied my father to move closer to us since my mother died, he has stubbornly refused to acknowledge his dependency on us or the excessive toll caring for him is taking.

In the last several months a few events have happened that have pushed the situation to a crisis point. First, an aide we hired to come to his house to assist him with medicines, buy groceries, etc. has become a romantic obsession for him. This came to our attention after he asked her to buy condoms so that they could “have sex ” because he is “in love” with her. Since she entered his life, he has attempted to transfer all of the duties my sister had been performing for him (and before that, our mother) to her, and became very irate when we interfered with this make-believe relationship by limiting the amount of time and types of activities the aide could perform. Next, his license was suspended (and will soon be revoked) because he is not fit to drive, an event we hoped would “wake him up” once and for all to the situation he is in, but it only gave him an excuse to rely more heavily on his aide. When she is not available, he continues to drive, putting at risk his own life and the lives of countless numbers of people unlucky enough to share the road with him.

Last weekend my sister and her husband drove down to his house to disable his car and ask him once again to come back with them, but unsurprisingly he refused. Then, he got it into his head that my brother-in-law must be at the bottom of this conspiracy (when in fact he has only been an exceedingly patient observer) and came after him with fists up. My brother-in-law restrained him, telling him he didn’t like the way he was treating his wife and the rest of his family, to which my father replied, “She’s my daughter and I’ll treat her any way I like.” When they decided to leave, my father ran after them, telling my sister that although she was once his “favorite” he didn’t love her anymore, and that he was soon going to buy a rifle and kill us all and chop us up into little pieces.

To say the least, we are fed up and disgusted. After the considerable investment of time and emotional energy she has contributed to our father’s cause over the past few years, my sister is devastated. He was a shitty father always, but when our mother was alive she was a buffer between him and the rest of us. It has only been in the last several years that we’ve had to face, so starkly, how much we truly do dislike him.

The question is, what to do? If he won’t help himself, and refuses to let us help him, what obligation do we have to bend to his whims? We can no longer care for him from where we live, and we no longer want him to move closer to us. It may sound cruel, but as the situation is not likely to get better, we would prefer to distance ourselves from it altogether. If he wants to be alone and as isolated from us as he is from the rest of the world, what obligation do we have to subject ourselves to his abuse and disdain?

Practically Fatherless

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Dear Practically Fatherless,

I would say you have very little filial obligation at this point, aside from the bill paying and medical scheduling that your sister is already doing. Because the relationship with a parent is felt to be so special, we sometimes neglect to consider the ways in which it is just another human relationship that must conform to the same norms and standards that every other human relationship conforms to. We overlook behavior that is in fact beyond the pale and intolerable, and that leads to insoluble conflicts and impossible situations.

It is understandable that you feel the age-old pull of fatherly gravity, that you are susceptible to an ancient wish to make things right. But not only do your well-meaning efforts meet with resistance — they seem to make matters worse. So remember this:

Your father is still capable of making choices. They may be bad choices, but they’re his choices.

In this case, he chose to chase the car down the road, threatening to buy a rifle and shoot you all and cut you up into pieces.

His threat may indicate that he is mentally unstable and in need of care. So I advise you to consult local psychiatric social services about what you can do in this regard. For while your obligation to involve yourself further may be limited, you do have an obligation to understand the legal and medical situation, so you can make informed choices. If he were willing to give up certain of his rights, by appointing someone his guardian and/or assigning durable power of attorney to someone, then you would have certain powers to conduct his financial affairs and restrict his movements. In this area, in addition to consulting with social services, you should get a full accounting of your legal rights and responsibilities from an attorney with experience and expertise in elder law. The SeniorLaw Web site lists many resources. An aging person, with certain indications of dementia, does not proceed neatly one day from “competent” to “incompetent.” Rather, for a period of time one is lucid at times and not at others. So I think unless and until he is declared incompetent, you must judge him by the standards you would use to judge anyone else.

All this becomes moot once he buys the rifle.

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Few prospects are more chilling than filicide. And, as this short monograph on Answer.com reminds us, Freud maintained that where there is a prohibition, there is a wish. Else why the prohibition, eh?

And parents do not just kill their little babies. They also kill their adult children. According to “Classifications and Descriptions of Parents Who Commit Filicide,” a research report authored by Linda Cylc while she was doing graduate work in psychology at Villanova University, “fathers generally kill older children. Murderous fathers frequently have histories of drug and alcohol abuse, previous criminal records, and very high levels of environmental stress, and the murdered children often have had previous injuries (Palermo, 2002; Stanton & Simpson, 2002) … One more stressor seems to be important; fathers who kill their children are very often going through a separation from their wife or other marriage/relationship problems, and this can be seen as an additional risk factor (Marleau, et al., 1999).”

So do what you can, and absolve yourself of guilt. Consult with legal and social services to get a firm understanding of what your options are. Try to define a trigger point at which you would petition the court to have your father declared incompetent. Otherwise, stay out of his way. And warn the neighbors!

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