My family ate my life -- now what do I do?

I spent decades being the dutiful daughter, and I'm grieving for what I missed.

Published February 8, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Where do I begin? I feel like I've reached a cul-de-sac in my life, a real one. I am single. I am 54. I am well-educated. I left my highly prestigious job last spring. I was sort of forced out, really.

I'm quite bright, a writer. But I've never gotten past my family, my birth family, though few of them are left. My sister became a serious schizophrenic when she was 18 or so and jumped out of a high window at 26. She lived but spent the next 35 years in a crazy, crazy rage -- and was quite crippled as well. Though she's calmer now, she's still a burnt-out schizo.

Then my lovely, lovely brother, my best friend, became schizophrenic, too, and killed himself. At the same time, the man I was in love with -- a poor choice -- rejected me wholly and nastily. Just couldn't take it, I guess.

But that was 25 years ago. Do I ever get over these things? I still haven't.

I got the idea, somehow, that I couldn't have what other people have. I couldn't have a lover who cared about me, a husband who wanted me. (And though I didn't believe it, I was very pretty. I still am, more or less, for my age.) I couldn't have children. (Well, that one might make sense, given my genes.) I couldn't have a home.

Somehow, too, I focused on my father and mother -- my father, mainly. I worried so much -- they'd been so hurt. My task was to get good jobs and not question or cause trouble. I was good at what I did. Unfortunately, the job I found in my creative, competitive field was in a far-off state that I disliked. I stayed there, though. My father freaked at the thought of my leaving without a job elsewhere. But what will you DO??

I stayed, all through my 30s. And I struggled with profound depression. I even had flashbacks at one point, over my brother's death.

I did get north -- a long story involving a serious illness. I wound up with the big-deal job. Happy, proud dad. (But as always, a dad who used me, who took me for granted, who simply assumed that I was just fine and that he and my sister were the ones who mattered.) Soon, I was depressed again. It was a tough place to work. And work was all I did.

Meanwhile, my father, as always, was fixated on my schizophrenic sister. Even though I was grown up I was still a part of a family in crisis.

The depression returned. I finally couldn't get myself up in the morning in time to get to work. I was lonely. (I ought to make it clear, I have close friends but no significant other.) The big-deal job didn't take kindly to this and I don't blame them.

Finally, in a move I think was healthy, I left the big-deal job. Now I am in a pretty seaside town, reconsidering my life. I ought to be able to get good work again, with my experience.

But that's not the problem. The problem is that I am 54 and I feel it is too late. Somehow, finally, I am seeing -- through therapy and time -- that I put my life on hold to focus on my troubled father and sister. And that I shouldn't have. That my father, quite selfishly, sucked up my energy and was reflexively obsessive over my unbelievably difficult, crazy sister.

That maybe I could have found a lover if I hadn't been so afraid and felt so wounded and different.

But what now? I am too young and too impecunious to retire and die. I am too old for love and a family. I am intelligent. I even have some prestige because of the big-deal job and my own articulateness. But I feel so deeply alone now. I don't know where to turn, to get away from the huge thick wall that seems to surround me. I long for children, I long for a family, I profoundly regret not realizing that I could have pushed away from my wounded parents and sister and, for that matter, my memories of my lovely brother when I was in my 30s and it wasn't too late. But now I don't have the slightest idea how to even begin. It's too late -- isn't it?

What now?


Dear Stranded,

No, it is not too late. You are not at the end of your life. You are not at the beginning of your life, either. But you are at the beginning of something. You are at the beginning of a story.

It is not the kind of story where you find that terrorists have snatched your family and you have to fly to Angola to rescue them. You've already done plenty of rescuing. Instead it is the story of the rescuer's exhausted return; you have been away somewhere and you've come back, and you're seeing the same things you always saw, but they look different now because of what you've been through. It is about how you will do things differently now. It's a story about a second chance.

It's also a story about your wounds, and your resilience, and your wisdom. It's the wounded warrior's return.

While you may feel bad that you failed to break free of your family, that you failed to start a family of your own, that you failed this and you failed that, these were humane, compassionate choices you made. They were made at some significant cost. They were honorable sacrifices, if suffused at times with a light of impossible effect. Nothing you could do was going to make your sister whole in mind or bring your brother back. But still you stayed as if awaiting their return.

Well, sure, the hardened realists among us might have done it differently. They might have said, Pops, you're living in the past! You've got to let it go and move on! But who among us is strong enough to defy our family, our father, to deny them what they seem to demand from us? Who among us can even penetrate the fog of primitive allegiance and existential confusion in a situation such as yours to figure out what the rational choice would be, much less make that choice?

In retrospect, perhaps it's clear that your family was sapping your strength and you had to move away. But if you had moved away, you would be faced today with a whole different set of regrets. The important thing is that now, as the story opens, you are at a crucial point. Having learned something, you are about to go in a new direction.

So I like the fact that you chose as a setting a little seaside town. The sea is important. (I live in a little seaside town called San Francisco.) The sea is about renewal and beginnings. I think I remember a modernist story of a person who arrived, after much unspecified hardship, in a little seaside town, and he goes down every day from his hotel room to the cafe and he waits for something. He doesn't really know what he's waiting for. But that is a modernist story about waiting for Godot, or Rosencrans and Guildenstern or someone like that; that's not what you're doing; you're not waiting for some unspecified messenger; you're not a poetic, paralyzed victim of modernism. You have come to this seaside town to make some decisions and move forward.

So I suggest you take daily walks along the sea. As you do, follow two main avenues of thought. No, not just follow them, but try to make them real for yourself; try to bolster them, burn them into your consciousness, grow them, give birth to them, if you will. The aim of one avenue of thought is a kind of internal knowledge, an attitude, a certainty that what you have done needed to be done and was not a mistake. It was unfortunate perhaps that you had to do it, but somebody had to and you were the one; it was a part that had to be played and you were available. Imagine there having been a war and your having been drafted: It was a circumstance that happened to you, and you dealt with it. So take strength from that. Do not weaken yourself and drag yourself down by second-guessing what you did. You did what had to be done.

You need to attain this certainty so you are able to move forward.

Second, as to the moving forward: as you take these daily walks along the sea, begin building for yourself your plan. What are you going to do now with the rest of your life? If you want a family, there are families to be had. I don't see the sense in raising small children at this point, but if you want to you probably could. Fifty-four is not so incredibly old. More practically, however, and maybe metaphorically, you can have some kind of a family. You can become a part of a family through love.

You need to be able to imagine and construct this new life for yourself, based on your capacities and your needs. I suggest, now that your course of therapy has brought you to an understanding of your past, you try to turn the focus of your therapy now to doing these things in the present and for the future: You can build a new life for yourself based on what you can do today, and what you need today.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice.
  • Make a comment for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Since You Asked