Personal earthquake

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 8, 2003

I’m in love with a man who was abused by a priest.


Dear Cary,

I am a relatively successful American gay man in my late 30s who has recently begun to live and work in Brussels, Belgium. I love my life here and I am quite excited by the work I do. I worked very hard to get here, and in many ways, being here is the culmination of many things for me — personal, vocational, educational, political, etc. I am also in a nine-year relationship with a lovely, lovely man whom I love very much. However, he has had a bit of a personal earthquake recently and I am in need of some guidance.

My partner was abused by a Catholic priest when he was a teenager. He recently decided to pursue some legal remedy, which required that he spend six months in the United States. During this time, he joined a very large and supportive group that held him up when it seemed like he might sink. Ultimately, he won the legal remedy, and we are now together in Europe. However, this priest “stuff” unearthed a world within him that is still a bit ugly and very deep and requires lots of personal work on his part. And he is utterly without the support network that provided him with so much sustenance during the trauma. In other words, there is nobody but me.

Since I was not with him in the U.S. during this time, I’m still not sure that I fully understand the earthquake he went through. But I do know that he has been having trouble since coming here. He has been relatively unsuccessful at finding ways to work on the priest stuff while in Brussels. Although I am a very loving and supportive partner (and he would definitely agree), I simply am not the therapeutic type and I do not have the skills to do much more than love him and try my best to give him what he needs right now. But it seems that my best might not be enough under these circumstances.

Some of his friends who were part of the support group don’t think Brussels is a very good place for him to be right now. They honestly think that he should be back with his community in the U.S. so that he has a lot of support to work on his stuff. There have even been calls for me to move back too, to help and support him. It seems that for him, there is a choice between being with me here and getting over this major shit.

Then there is my side of this — the dream-come-true stuff that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Plus, there is my fundamental problem with the state of the U.S. right now. I think that I would shrivel up and die if I were to return to the country that seems to provide the antithesis of the things that I find important in life — things that are such fundamental, sane values here in Europe. My partner recognizes this too, and feels the same way about being here. But some of his emotional needs are just not being met.

I do not want to set up a dichotomy of choices such as 1) stay in Europe and risk my partner’s emotional health and be the selfish careerist and 2) go to the U.S. where the partner has emotional health but I shrivel up personally and derail the train that has brought me (us) to what I thought was our desired destination. There is definitely something in the middle of those two choices that I am having a difficult time locating. Thoughts? Thanks.

Don’t Want to Derail

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Dear Don’t Want to Derail,

Thank you for your thoughtful and moving letter. I was told by someone recently that the real value of this column isn’t so much my advice as the letters themselves, such clear, honest and concise expositions of the human condition.

I agree with you that the solution lies in some middle path, but my proposal may sound a bit ambitious: If there is not a large abuse-survivor network in Brussels, I think your lover should stay there with you and devote himself to building one. And I think you should help him.

I don’t know if you are aware of how A.A. began, but it began with a man’s discovery that if he sought out fellow sufferers and attempted to help them, he got better himself. I don’t see why the same human principle wouldn’t work with the trauma of priest sexual abuse. In fact, I suspect something along the lines of mutual support by fellow sufferers has worked well in the U.S., which is probably why your mate misses it so much. But rather than lament its absence, why not build a group in Brussels? This is a marvelous opportunity to give the world something enduring and useful. And it is a way for you, who feels understandably at a loss, to offer invaluable aid: Your practical skills and knowledge of the area can help him. If you are successful, thousands will be indebted to both of you as the magnitude of this monstrous crime continues to unfold.

To your mate, I would say there is nothing more healing than making oneself useful to others. And there is nothing more useful to others than the hope, strength and wisdom of a fellow survivor. Besides, the American spirit says, if you can’t find it in stores, make it yourself.

And there is the geopolitical angle: While America’s recent course of action in Iraq has strained relations with Europe, this is a chance to do your small part to bring Europe something of America’s true genius, which lies not in diplomacy but in its unselfconscious and practical solutions to the moral and spiritual vexations of our time. For all its silly slogans, its encounter-group tribalism and Wal-Mart confessionals, the self-help movement is still a gift to the world as profoundly helpful as Vienna’s gift of psychoanalysis. Rather than lament that because of their private, dignified nature Europeans have not seen fit to provide expatriate Americans with the therapeutic gatherings they crave, it seems to me it’s the job of you expatriates to bring such American inventions to Europe. It would never occur to Europeans. But some version of it, adapted to European sensibilities, might well help thousands of your partner’s fellow European victims of priest sexual abuse. And in helping them, of course, he will be healing himself.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford: Holy DayGlo tattoo of the roaring political id, Batman, get this wayward soul to detox and hand him a big book!

 

I’m starting to think of the Rob Ford phenomenon as a rare performance-art spectacle in which the tragic and doomed performer, seeking the death of his own ego, effects a feat of topological magic in which he turns his own id inside out. Like a DayGlo 3 a.m basement tattoo of his ravaging animal being, the awful, voracious, unquenchable id of desire appears on his red, bursting skin: Will I get enough food? Will people like me? Can I eat some pussy now?

He is so oral. He’ll never be able to consume enough to quench what’s eating him. As he eats, it eats him. It’s the ouroboros turned inside out. Instead of shedding skins, he’s adding them.

It’s funny but sad. And some of us can’t help seeing something of ourselves in this caged animal. We think, “Of course we are better than that lunatic! Of course we are not deranged fools!” And yet … we can relate, because it’s medical, not moral. It’s the disease at work.

Speaking metaphorically, not knowing the neurological way to express it, it’s what happens when you regularly numb the regulating brain: A man is left with nothing but his rattling, wildly swinging beast.

And, things can’t be that great at home right now for Mr. Ford. Why’d he bring his wife up there on stage to radiate the fury and disgust and helplessness of the aggrieved partner? Dunno. Just did. But it fits. Why’d you go tear up that bar and wreck the car? Dunno. Just did. Feel bad now but at the moment it seemed like the thing to do.

Because you were momentarily insane. Duh.

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He looks like he could use some sleep. One imagines the gloomy disgust that hovers about his head at home. One imagines, too, all of Toronto, made his enabling bitch, howling with impotent outrage. Having let the insanity go on too long, regretting that she did not throw him out at the first indiscretion, now sitting captive at the dinner table night after night as he moodily gallops from grandiosity to despair, from humor to rage, from wounded to attack mode, like a hurt, snapping dog.

But — and this we note with perverse glee: Until the addict is done, there ain’t nothing anybody can do about it. He’s going to keep on. The id knows no framing, no modulation; it has no self-restraint. The restraint is supposed to come from that other part of the brain that is now shut down, poisoned.

That’s not to say that if he were to continue spiraling out of control and die we wouldn’t feel awful. Of course we would. And, being flawed ourselves, we might well reflexively blame the co-dependent world around him but we would know in our hearts: There’s nothing anyone can do but watch and wait, following him with a net.

He’s doing what people in active addictions do: The mood swings, the alternating confession and attack, the warped expectation that now that we’ve confessed everyone will cozy up to us, the rage when people don’t seem to get it and don’t seem to want to be our friend again even after we’ve confessed! come on, man, I owned up, I said I smoked crack, so what’s your problem, Let’s be friends again or else I’ll double down and go double nuclear crazy! and then you’ll see the real Rob Ford Crazy Man!

It’s all there like a template. All of it that we know and love and have heard a million times.

It’s unrealistic and silly but the thought occurs that maybe there will be something educational in this: The world gets to see just how crazy a person gets. Most folks who haven’t seen the disease of addiction at work up close still view behavior through the moral filter. But, I mean, Rob Ford Is Us. Whose id is any less crazy than Rob Ford’s? We’ve all got that inside of us. Most just keep it chained up.

It’s the process of addiction that corrodes the chains and lets the crazy take over.

And that is scary. Right? Addiction is scary. Maybe at least that will get across, amid the late-show laughter and scowling highbrow disgust.

Now here’s a fantasy best-case scenario: Rob Ford takes it as far as he can take it, Charlie Sheen style but fatter and less sexy, until through truly awful but not fatal events he finally hits bottom and gets help and changes his life. And then: because here is opportunity writ large: Toronto, at his behest, in his honor and probably partly for its own security, builds a huge recovery and drug addiction and alcohol treatment center like right next door to Toronto City Hall.

Yeah. Dream on.

But which occasioned the following thought: I was at a meeting today at a recovery house in a coastal California town, a lovely clean, pleasant place filled with people showing recent scars of hell, that haunted, terrified look of people who’ve been searingly close to the burning consummation of holy hellfire and have survived, have OD’d and are coming back to life, and it occurred to me, sitting there in that den of redemption settled under palms in an old and lovely Edwardian, it occurred to me that a recovery house is a community repair shop of the soul: That our lives, as lived in America today, are uniquely perilous to the soul, uniquely oblivious to its subtleties and needs, and so the soul often breaks, as would be expected, because we run it uphill at such high temperatures for such long periods of time, and so, as a village would have a blacksmith at the ready for horses who lose their shoes, so we have recovery centers at the ready for that predictable catastrophic breakdown, that sure percentage who will lose their souls and minds and need help getting better.

It was a nice, comforting thought, that the madness of addiction is an everyday event, and that we have plenty of beds for everyone.

Maybe we could use a few more. Maybe the bar could be a little lower for admission. But basically it’s quite a wonderful, compassionate and civilized thing, all these recovery houses we have. Maybe somewhere out there there’s one waiting for Rob Ford. Or maybe, as I say, in the dream of all dreams, one will eventually be built in his honor, and will help thousands of people just as crazy as he is, but just as salvageable.

And now, for the premier of my Experimental Donate Button: I’m going to try out different forms of this, but the idea is to allow people to vote with their money if they like a column. I will receive this with gratitude and will salute you privately in my little crazy world. Or maybe I’ll send you a note or even record a greeting. Not sure yet. For now, um, Ta-Dah, there it is: The Donate Button!