I'm not sure what kind of advice I want. See what you think. I turned 50 this year and I have three kids, a challenging job in an excellent work group, a husband I've been unhappy but secure with for a long time, two parents who were suddenly moved to a nursing home that is rapidly bankrupting them (I have power of attorney, so I get to deal with their finances and mountainous paperwork) and several brothers who have really pitched in and helped. The eldest child has been successful in college, but is turning out like her father -- with furious moody outbursts, generally directed at me, that seem to come from nowhere. The middle child has now flunked out of two colleges and is dawdling mightily about getting a full-time job. He has been in therapy for several months now, and it doesn't seem to be doing much good. The youngest child, a middle-schooler, is a gem -- sweet and funny and sassy. I'm terribly afraid that she too will be damaged by the time she grows up.
I have filled in the emotional gaps in my marriage by cultivating several close friendships (no affairs -- just friends). I was surprised to find that I was genuinely happy for a close male friend -- a soul mate, really -- who fell wildly in love with someone else on a vacation. I thought I would be jealous, but when you love someone, you want what's best for him, and it was no good for him to be yearning after me. Too much baggage. (It was the right attitude for me to take, too -- he and I are closer than ever now.) People rave about my Christmas letter (it's funny, not the usual Pollyanna drivel), give me all kinds of emotional support, praise my work and generally seem to admire me.
But that doesn't change anything, and I need to change something. I'm tired of being heroic and funny and competent and wise and patient. I'm starting to drink too much. I want a divorce, but I'm afraid of being on my own again (I lived alone years ago and it was awful), I'm afraid of tearing my family apart, and I'm afraid of damaging the social structure I've so carefully built that sustains me so well.
So what kind of advice am I asking for?
Exhausted in Pa.
Dear Exhausted in Pa.,
I'm not sure what kind of advice you're asking for either, or even if you're asking for advice at all, but that's OK. In fact, the word "advice" kind of skews what actually happens in this column, because what often happens in this column is a lot like what happens in the addiction recovery process, in which, oftentimes, we don't really give each other advice -- we just say stuff that's in our heads and if that's relevant to your situation, great, and if not, at least it helps us to say it. We say, Here's my life, look at how I keep going on; sometimes it's hard, know what I mean, isn't that amazing; here, look at some of my snapshots, that's my oldest girl giving me a hard time about something because I'm her mother and because she can, and there's my husband -- I call him "baggage" -- and there's the other kids, who can be good and bad. And here is my power of attorney and my aging parents, and My God Can This Be My Whole Life Right Here? Did I really turn 50? How did that happen? How could I be 50? Fifty! Fifty is old!
And that's all you do, really. You start out quietly and realize that you're in a near panic, that you've been in a near panic for years now and had hardly noticed until you sat down and began calmly talking about your life. And by the time you're done talking you've calmed down and maybe had a cup of coffee with somebody 10 times worse off than you. And you think to yourself, I wonder if I'll divorce this old wretch of a husband or not, and you realize you're not really going to decide today, and you might as well try to enjoy what you can of the sunshine that remains.
And maybe tomorrow you'll figure out what to do about it all. Which is not a cop-out. It's just an admission that when you are ready to decide, you will decide. You're not ready to decide yet. In the meantime, you just needed to say some stuff, and have somebody listen, and I've been happy to help with that. If you need to do this more often, I would offer one piece of advice: Find a setting where you can regularly talk through what's going on in your life, the way you did in your letter. Whether that's in a formal therapy group, or with a professional counselor, or just with a close friend, any way you do it will probably help. The important thing is that it's regular and that it's not with a man who might be interested in you romantically and it's not one of your kids. In other words, pick a neutral party who is willing to just hear you out, and make sure you stay in touch.
Now, you mention that you've started to drink too much. It's possible you're just really stressed out. Just to be sure, I would try stopping the drinking altogether and see what happens. If you can't stop, then maybe you can't stop, which might mean you need to stop, which would mean you have a "problem." But if you can stop, just stop. That way you know you don't have a problem.
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What? You want more?