Starting over

I wasted my youth on the wrong man and now I want a second chance.

By Cary Tennis

Published September 16, 2003 7:19PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

When I was 16, I became involved with a man much older than me. I had never met anyone with whom I had such a strong bond. We were very compatible intellectually and sexually. In my foolish teenage way, I thought he was "the one" for me and I was willing to give anything to be with him.

My parents found out about our relationship, and promptly kicked me out of their house. I moved in with him and gave up my dreams of college and an "ordinary life." We bought a business together and I accepted my new situation as best I could.

We were together for 13 years. Over this time, he grew more and more abusive. Toward the end, I was in tremendous emotional pain and thought I was going to die. I developed something like post-traumatic stress disorder. I couldn't get through the day without crying or thinking of suicide.

Finally, I decided to leave him. Now, I realize how much I missed out on, by living under his thumb for 13 years. I missed out on high school, on college, on young adulthood. I traded my youth for a mess of pottage.

So now I've been "free" for a whole year and I need help deciding what to do. What I want more than anything is to be a kid again, to go to college and live in a dorm and be young. But I also want to be a successful adult, because I feel like such a failure for making the choices I did. I'm 30 and I'm nowhere near where I wanted to be.

This dilemma is currently taking many forms: Do I date many people, or find one nice guy and settle down? Do I finish my bachelor's in an accelerated program and get it over with, or do I take the long way and get the kind of degree I could have gotten if I were starting at age 18?

How do I reconcile this great longing for my lost youth with the need to become a viable adult?

Needing Deep Insight

Dear Needing Deep Insight,

The expression you used, "I traded my youth for a mess of pottage," caught my eye, and I went and reread the story of Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis. Esau, the firstborn, "was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents." One day Esau came in from the fields, faint with hunger. "And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint. ... And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me? And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright."

Fate was not kind to Esau, nor was it kind to you. Your hunger cost you your birthright. You were starving for the world, so you tasted of it, and your parents cast you out. Then your husband, who you thought would be your rescuer, became your tormentor.

In truth, you weren't ready for the world's cruel justice. You were just a child. You didn't know what you were doing. You weren't capable of making the right choice. Your parents treated you with harsh, Old Testament vengeance. They wronged you. They were supposed to come to your rescue when you made bad choices. Instead they cast you out.

I'm not a Christian, but I'm all for New Testament redemption and forgiveness. It seems to me, in a general sense, the New Testament is all about getting a second shot, which is very American, and, in particular, very West Coast. Behold California, the New Jerusalem! This is not your parents' Old Testament world!

I came west to reinvent myself. You can too. Walk down the street in San Francisco and all the crazies you see, they aren't all that crazy; they're just under construction. They're rebuilding themselves. They've torn out walls and redone foundations; their roofs are open to the sky; their windows are open. They leak. They creak. They lean. They need paint. But they're getting a second chance. There's nothing more precious than that. Heaven knows, if the world can offer you any mercy, it's the mercy of the second chance.

Besides, climb up Fillmore or Broadway to Pacific Heights and nose around. Who are the swells, the gentry, the fortunate who live up there? Are they the Calvinist elect, ordained by God? No, they're the progeny of miners and brawlers, pimps and saloon girls, hustlers and thieves and money lenders and whores, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of restless misfits and dreamers who came west to make their fortunes in mining, timber and oil. They started out as crazies. Now they run this town.

I asked my wife what she thought you should do, and she said you should come to San Francisco and go to City College or State, just like she and I did; these schools are full of people starting over, the wounded, the struggling, the new beginners. That's what we do when we free ourselves from bondage: We go to State; we go to City. We get degrees. We get back on our feet. This is the land of forgiveness; this is the land of starting over; this is where America's promise comes true.

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Cary Tennis

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