No place like home

I love my family dearly, but do I have to spend holidays with them when they're all alcoholics, coke addicts, adulterers and screamers?

By Garrison Keillor

Published November 28, 2000 8:06PM (EST)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have the world's most depressing family. My mother is an alcoholic who constantly tells me how bitter she is and my father is engaged in adultery, and they fight with the venom of mortal enemies. I have a Vietnam veteran brother who drinks heavily and a sister who is a coke addict, both of whom still live at home. To make matters worse, my mother loves to hold me up as the "good child," which causes all sorts of resentment. I go home twice a year, for Thanksgiving and for Christmas. After each of these trips, I am so depressed and angry that I take to my bed for days. I simply do not want to spend my holiday with these people. I would rather spend my day soaking in a bathtub, listening to Dinah Washington and reading a good book. I truly love my family, and I do not want to disappoint my parents, who between their screaming and cursing tell me how happy they are that I have come home. But every fiber in my body screams, "DON'T MAKE ME GO!" What should I do?

The Good Child

Dear Good Child,

These four individuals are adults and so are you. If seeing them makes you so depressed and angry that you have to go to bed, then you don't have to go see them for the holidays. You simply don't. You don't even owe them an explanation. You simply have other plans. Lie if you need to -- tell them you're too busy, you're sick, you promised a friend you'd do something -- but take a holiday from the holidays, and try that warm bath/Dinah Washington/good book treatment. Think about going to see the family next summer instead. Maybe for Memorial Day weekend. Less emotional.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 21-year-old newlywed married to a man 11 years older than me. He has an old friend, a 30-year-old divorced woman going through a horrible custody battle with her ex-husband. My husband traveled over 3,000 miles recently just to attend her birthday party. He gave her a huge gift of money but didn't bother to tell me until later. He is, at her request, giving her two bras for Christmas. He got very irritated once when I mispronounced her name. She gets very concerned when he doesn't call her at least once a week.

My husband and this woman never had a relationship outside of friendship, but she seems awfully clingy ever since we married. He lets me read her letters to him, and they have such an intimate tone to them. Am I being jealous, naive or just plain paranoid? He speaks so highly of her, but she is so distant when talking to me! Every time I bring up my feelings on this subject my husband immediately defends her instead of trying to understand me; I've never said anything mean about her, either. What should I do? Should I talk to her directly?

Young Wife Getting Stepped On

Dear Young Wife,

Your husband sounds like a kind man with a very needy friend. He wouldn't show you her letters if he were harboring thoughts of infidelity, so put that out of your mind, and simply go on reading, and keep your feelings to yourself. You're not naive and I don't think you're jealous or paranoid. You think it's strange. So do I. My bet is that it's the friend who's strange, and your husband is indulging her, and that should be your bet too. Friends do not, however, give underwear to mere friends. In this respect, your husband is clueless.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I recently took a new job working from home. Now I am so bored and lonely at home that I can't work. I barely manage to do a few things in the morning and after lunch all I want to do is sleep, surf the Net or watch television. I know this behavior will get me fired, and I don't have a financial cushion. I'm single. I have tried to motivate myself and I am having trouble. Any suggestions?


Dear Homebody,

If the sleepiness and lassitude you describe are not symptoms of depression (which they well could be), you apparently need the stimulus of putting on your coat, getting out of the house, riding the bus and being around other people in order to function at a job. Quit the home job and get back on the job market, where there is plenty of demand for workers, no questions asked about age. If you can't hold a job, perhaps you need professional help: The "all I want to do is sleep" is a danger sign.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a painfully shy, isolated 50ish woman, married with two children, the youngest (a son) still at home. My husband's attitude and behavior toward me have always run hot and cold. He has become increasingly nasty toward me and now, occasionally, even toward our son, with whom he has had a good relationship. Our son is in his middle teens, doing well and for the most part well-adjusted and happy. We are blessed to have this child, and he needs us (parents) to keep it together, provide him with what stability we can for his last years at home.

More than half of the time my husband is angry with me about something, usually trivial. He behaved this way toward me before we had children, and toward our daughter, too, throughout her childhood. We went to family counseling to try to get our lives on track, and I continued counseling, but the HMO has limited options. Meanwhile the nastiness and mean-spirited silences just keep on coming. He does not apologize, and when either my son or I apologize to him, he uses it as an occasion to find further fault and expand the argument. We have never really made up over anything. I just swallow my unresolved feelings and keep going.

The weird thing is, when the nastiness wears off, he becomes oversolicitous toward me, wanting to engage in cuddling and sex. Now I am going through menopause. Sex is painful, and has become another battleground. I have explained myself until I am blue in the face, and he still maintains the attitude that this is something personal to hold against me. I'm tired of defending myself.

My son feels the tension and asks me if I am OK, but I can't tell him what's going on without dragging him into the fight. The cold silences now include him, a sad and unexpected turn of events. During our son's last birthday dinner, my husband sat reading at the table during the meal, and left the table without acknowledging either of us. I am doing my best to tough it out for the remainder of our son's time at home, but life is growing more intolerable every day. I am totally dependent upon him financially. I have no family or friends to turn to for advice or help while getting on my feet. What would you do?

Slow Learner

Dear Learner,

Don't blame yourself for not being more assertive with your husband. I'm shy around his type, too. He is being verbally and sexually abusive and emotionally distant, a personality disorder usually acquired during one's upbringing. I'd give up on counseling, if I were you. I doubt that you can change him. You tried and it didn't work. It's time to look out for yourself and for your son. Take your son aside and talk to him frankly about your husband's wretched behavior. The boy needs your support in dealing with the abuse he's taking, and he needs to learn how to deal with it for himself. Don't try to make him your ally against your husband; the goal is to help him mature through it and to learn how not to be like his father. Use any remaining HMO benefits or family financial resources to go to counseling with your son to help him do this. Don't include your husband in this. It's too late.

Summon up your inner resources and go get a part-time job during the hours your son is in school. This will get you out of that miserable house and into the swim and let you meet some other nicer people, and it will help pay for counseling if your husband runs you aground.

As much as possible, ignore your husband. Turn away from his bitching; respond pleasantly when he's pleasant. Let him read at the table all he wants; take a walk with your son while he's washing the dishes.

To protect your son from emotional damage; you may need to take the boy and separate from your husband. Do not discuss this with your husband, he'll only see it as a threat. A legal separation is easily arranged, and is much less agonizing than a divorce. Of course you'll want to talk to a lawyer about how to do it and also about the financial options. Your husband will be required to support you and provide child support, and you can also get a restraining order to prevent him from getting in your face again. I hope this advice helps.

Dear Mr. Blue,

The English teachers who taught me 30 years ago have claimed squatters' rights in my head. These starched schoolmarms favored form over content and despised voice or originality. They were consummate grammarians and gave me a good foundation in the English language, but now I want to write with warmth and humor and animation, and I feel stifled by literary laryngitis. How can I reclaim my lost voice? Call an exorcist? Or resign myself to writing manuals and annual reports?

Stick Woman

Dear Stick,

You find your voice by writing. Those dear old ladies will lose their power over you once you get yourself down on paper, and the way to begin is to write about the forbidden, what you most fear, what you most desire, what angers you beyond words. Horror and lust and anger have a power to burst the dam and let the river flow. You can get around to warmth and humor later: For an exercise, start out with blood and bile. Do be careful not to leave this writing where your cleaning lady can see it, though, or she'll walk right out the door and not come back.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My wife suffers from chronic depression that doesn't seem to respond to medication. Over the course of our 10-year battle against it we've gone through almost the whole list of antidepressants and nothing seems to work for any length of time. When the medicine stops working there's a gradual decline, with lots of crying and anger, and then she crashes and sleeps 15 to 20 hours a day. When the medicine is working she's at least able to function, but there's still a lot of gloom and hopelessness. After going through this cycle again and again, there's not much left to the marriage. I care about her, and I do all I can to help her when she's going through these meltdowns, but that seems to be the extent of our marriage. We're either in the midst of meltdown or recovering from one. There's no spark anymore, nor is there the comfortable familiarity with each other that should exist at this point in our marriage. In fact I'm generally happier when I'm not with her -- I've taken to working late or looking for excuses to not go home. I know I'd feel horribly guilty if I left her, but I'm running out of reasons to stay in the marriage. I also feel like I'm running out of time to make a decision. I'm turning 35 next month and I'd like to have children at some point. If I stay in the marriage I don't see much hope that things will substantially change, and even if they did and she never crashed again, I don't know if I could muster the feelings for her necessary to make it a marriage again. I'm not sure what my life would be like if I left, but I think I would be happier, while she might end up even more depressed. What is your advice: Should I pursue my happiness at the expense of my marriage?

Almost Happy

Dear Almost,

You have supported your wife in sickness and in health, and of course it is wearying. You've earned the right to feel discouraged and to seek comfort in work and in friendship with folks who don't melt down. But have you exhausted the possibilities of treatment, including hospitalization? Can you speak to her psychiatrist about your own situation? It needs to be addressed separately, apart from your wife's illness, and a caring professional can help. Would your life actually be happier if you bailed out, knowing she had no one to help her through the next crisis? Some people might even define happiness as being able to help a loved one through a crisis. You've shared a life for 10 years: Look back over it and see what you remember of it, other than the depression. Has there been no music, no laughter, no intimacy?

Dear Mr. Blue,

As the holidays approach, I get so excited about traveling home to see my family, except for the persistent question regarding my prospects for marriage. I am a 30-year-old, single woman. To them, I am teetering dangerously on the tightrope of old-maid-hood, a sad and lonely condition. To me, I'm just ... happy.

My response to the question "So, when are you getting married?" has usually been, "Now, now, first things first." But I would prefer to let them know that this question is annoying and, I feel, rude. How do I politely get these people to quit asking?


Dear Unmarried,

There is no sure defense against the ham-fisted and the inconsiderate. Anger only excites more curiosity. The best tactic is to smile brightly and say, "When I do, you'll be the very first to know." Short and sweet. Next question.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been married for 11 years and have two beautiful children. I have always been in love with my husband -- until the past two years when he started ridiculing me in front of the children and even other people. He started putting me down, calling me a failure. Every time we have a fight, he brings the children into it. Ultimately, I lost all respect for this person, and basically left him emotionally, but physically I still live there because of our children and the hurt it would cause them if we separated. I have not slept with him for over a year and I'm beginning to feel lonely. People tell me to leave him, even his own family, but I'm afraid. He said he would fight tooth and nail if I did and the children would know who caused the breakup. He still puts me down, but other times he can be nice and wants to work it out.

Please Help Me!

Dear Help Me,

Your husband has let some anxiety or fear get its teeth in him, and the drill sergeant routine is the only way he knows how to address his problem. He lines you up on the parade ground and treats you like a recruit and you put up with his bullying, afraid to anger him, hoping he'll be nicer more often. Do yourself and the kids a favor and see a marriage counselor and a lawyer. A lawyer, for information, so you know the terrain, and a counselor to offer a bridge out of this slough of despond. You really need allies, and he won't fight "tooth and nail" when he sees you are not alone. This will also give him a structure to "work it out" and assistance in addressing his own problem, whatever it is.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Almost 10 years ago I was addicted to marijuana. I was caught giving some to another person in 1991 but was not convicted until 1994. It was put on my record as a felony, but if I completed two years of a diversion program, it would be erased from my records after seven years. I have kicked the habit and have been clean for the seven years. But the guilt and humiliation still haunt me. I am afraid to get into a relationship because I don't want to talk about my past. It is a horrendous secret I carry (even my family doesn't know about it!), and every day I still beat myself up about how stupid I was. I know that if I got serious with someone and they found out about me, I would be devastated. I ended a very loving relationship about a year ago because I was afraid he'd find out and would dump me. All these negative feelings I have inside of me are overwhelming. I have done therapy (required with the diversion program), but every day I wake up and still feel like a terrible person. What advice can you give me?

Scared Straight

Dear Scared,

You were strong enough to quit the weed and stay straight and regain a clean legal record, and now you're strong enough to tell your family about it and stop beating yourself up. A lot of people did reefer in their youth -- I did -- and maybe we weren't addicted and maybe we didn't get a criminal record, but it wasn't for lack of effort, believe me. Don't harbor your past as a horrendous secret. Make it into a story, maybe even a funny one, and trot it out if the subject ever comes up. Anyone who would reject you for this is a person with a big problem of his own and nobody you'd want to be involved with.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I anticipate finishing my first novel in the next year or so -- or maybe two, three; I'm a parent of two young boys, a high school science teacher and a wife, so actually I have no clue when I will finish the book. But I do plan on sending it off to get reviewed at some point. Do you have any advice on how a nobody would effectively go about trying to get a book published?

No Name

Dear No Name,

You're darned ambitious to be writing a novel in the midst of everything else, and I can only hope the boys and the husband and the science students have at least provided you with some good material. Before you ship the book to a publisher, it's a good idea to get a few readers to bounce the work off and take depth soundings from. Sometimes new writers perform this service for each other in a seminar or club. If there isn't a writers' center in your city, perhaps a bookstore would have a posting of such clubs or seminars. You don't need a teacher, necessarily, simply an informal group that exists for the purpose of reading each other's stuff. Don't put your novel in the mail until you feel fully confident about it. When you do, take a look at the array of commercial publishers out there and their fiction list from the past year and make an educated guess at which of them seem to be a likely home for your work and ship out some copies. And while you're waiting to hear, start working on your second novel.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband has been telling me off and on for the past two years that he is not in love with me anymore, he feels numb about me and our marriage and life in general and he feels little or nothing for me. I'm not a masochist, but we've been together for 14 years, have two beautiful children, a nice home and interesting careers, and we've always negotiated difficulties. I suspect he is still emotionally involved with someone he had an affair with. I have tried being more affectionate; I have tried backing off, giving him his space, trying to make him miss me. It's not working. Is it time to call it quits and leave? Or should I give him time to work out this crisis? He's 45.


Dear Perplexed,

You have too much worth preserving in your marriage to abruptly run up the white flag, but apparently neither you nor your husband can solve his unhappiness by yourselves. He may indeed be experiencing what the textbooks call the "crise de quarante," which may heal with time but which may linger and worsen into illness. For two years, you've accommodated him, and that's long enough for him to work it out on his own. Perhaps it's time to confront him with the simple choice of moving out or seeking professional counseling. I fear that his anomie will not be helped by allowing him to drift and go on brooding on his lack of feeling. You could invite him to talk about the affair, if you can bear to hear about it: Maybe he has a confession that needs to be made.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a philosophy prof camped in front of a big stack of papers with titles like "Morality as a Social Construction," feeling blue. My students are bright, but they make the same predictable moves over and over. It's like repeatedly watching the most embarrassing old home movies. I wince with every reference to Aristotle's "elitism," to the importance of "self-esteem," and to the dozen other things I would have said at that age.

I'm happy to teach but not so happy to confront and reconfront my own youthful self. How can I grow wiser as I grow older without thereby growing more self-involved? How can I grow wiser without growing in that way profoundly unwise?


Dear Puzzled,

Know thyself, good doctor. You cannot grow older and wiser without growing more self-involved. Correct those papers and then read Jung on the second half of life, which he says inevitably requires at long last learning one's self. Of course your students are making the same sad mistakes you made at their age. They are you. One of my professor friends said that the challenge of teaching is to read the same bad papers over and over again unto the end of time, yet remain optimistic that some of your students will someday write something good even though you will never see it. Another wise man said that the only thing you can do as a teacher is to be yourself: If you're good, your students will model themselves after you; if you're no good, they'll scorn you and go off and choose some other model. Either way, it works out.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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