12 years sober and now this?

The last three years have been bad, bad, bad. My uncle the murderer got out of prison and beat up my grandma, for starters.

By Cary Tennis
Published June 28, 2005 9:40PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I need help. I'm stuck and can't move. I've been sober for 12 years. I had an AA home group that I loved. In the course of getting sober, I mended my relationship with my father and made peace with my mother. I cut the abusive and vindictive members of my family loose. I went to law school and started a practice, which I love sometimes. I married and have two small children (2.5 years and 4 months). Sounds like all of the promises came true, right? Not quite.

My life is a disaster (mostly) and I don't know what to do. I'm not angry, but I am so bitter that almost nothing makes me happy, except my kids, and then only sometimes.

The last three years have been unbelievably bad. My alcoholic uncle was released from prison (in 1982, he killed a man in a bar fight). He moved in with my grandmother and started drinking again. He refused to work and he starting beating her when she wouldn't give him money to drink. I reported it to the police and the state Department of Aging repeatedly. It did no good. In the middle of my first pregnancy, my grandmother was hospitalized and died. She told me and other family members that he beat her and "busted something loose inside." She denied it to the police, as did every other family member except me. My uncle wasn't prosecuted. He moved on to beating up and robbing other family members. My mother was hospitalized with a skull fracture in April as a result of a robbery. We're pressuring the police and state's attorney to prosecute, but are getting almost nowhere.

Another uncle, on my father's side, committed suicide after arguing with my grandfather. His mother -- my grandmother -- died a few months later of a stroke. My father died of a heart attack a few months after that.

Three of the old-timers in my AA group died within four months of each other. Two had cancer and one had a fatal auto accident. I loved them like family. The rest of the group descended into a bitter and stupid argument over whether the group should be smoking or nonsmoking. I stopped going to meetings, because I couldn't bear to be there without Ray and Lynn and Mike, and I couldn't take that stupid argument any longer.

So here I am. I go to work and go home. I see almost no one. I'm terrified that there is no heaven or rebirth and this is the only life I get and it sucks. I have no friends. My family is broken beyond repair. I miss my father. I miss the old-timers from my group. I need to get my life back together, but I can't move. I manage to keep it together for my kids and husband, more or less, but I'm miserable. How do I get out of this hole?


Dear Dawn,

In thinking about your situation, I of course feel you could use some help, but therapy doesn't sound strong enough for what you've got. You don't need information, or to figure things out; a new perspective? Hardly! You've been run over! You need a transfusion! You need Buddha's compassionate ambulance!

You need a transformative experience, something to fill you with light and shake you up and remind you why you're alive. You need a million watts of radiance from someplace bigger than your problems. You need a doctor who can prescribe 100 milligrams of transcendent epiphany to knock out these flu-like symptoms of circumstance. I'm tempted to say you need a guru, even -- only in the sense of taking charisma over reason. That is, you need something larger than life -- you need a Burning Man, you need to be wrapped in the arms of something hot and strong and otherworldly: hot mud or an enzyme bath! You need Buddha's compassionate ambulance to come screaming down your street and carry you out of this building in a gondola of fire.

I'm serious. Stand on the highway and flag down the god of your understanding -- tell him it's an emergency, you've had an accident of fate and need to be transported immediately to a hospital of good fortune. Get yourself looked at, and not by any ordinary physician of the soul but somebody with a magic wand that leaves trails in broad daylight, somebody you look in his eyes and you're on fire already, a rock star or an astronaut or a woman who talks to the earth.

This brute of an alcoholic uncle has strewn fear and brambles in your path, he's eaten a hole in your head, he's broken your legs and he's still coming so you need not just a guru but a protector as well. Where is your husband? Has he gone away too? Where are your strong and vigilant family members? Is there no one left but criminals and old women to be conked on the head and robbed?

My heart goes out to you too, of course, but my heart is so tiny and shriveled, you need more than that! Damn, where are the old-timers! I know what you mean, how they burn with that pure radiant goodness and it's a crying shame they all died just like that. Everybody needs old-timers around, grizzled and unfazed, too old to be easily amused, burning hot like charcoal because they've been through the first fire already. Their eyes give you pleasure and lift you out of your chair. Their voices crack like old trees in a stiff breeze. They know what they're talking about. To have so many of them die like that -- you didn't know you were holding on to them, did you, until their hands went limp and you found yourself falling?

You're still falling, clawing at the air. No ordinary hands can help. We don't have the grip strength. You need somebody to catch you, somebody who can fly. So where do you find a person like that? They're out there, they are. We don't notice them half the time, but you go looking for them and you find them in dry corners of hunger and strength, eating muffins in a cafe or playing chess on the street, making coffee in some meeting, chewing a day-old cookie and waiting for the books; in temples and ashrams and churches they sit or stand, talking, casting lines into the air, trying to land a fish out of nothing.

That's the kind of help you need, the kind that defies our logic. You need strength more than dignity; certainty more than knowledge; faith more than intellect; instinct more than sense. And where else does such knowledge reside? In your young children, come to think of it: Look at that kid playing with blocks! What's life look like from that perspective? Just a vibrant whirlwind of color! Nothing but potential! Nothing but the future! Next time you play with them, try to enter their world. You may find there some renewal, some escape.

After what you've seen, you've drawn some inevitable conclusions -- and who could conclude otherwise? It seems that some horrific spore of misfortune has settled in your house and is germinating still. What would it take to replace that conclusion with something less apocalyptic? You need evidence to the contrary, some song you can feel in your gut that says: Even still, life is mostly made of magic and light!

What else then? Great art, if you can get it! Even pretty good art, if it's the right kind! Seek it out! Seek out objects that shake you and seem to say Hey you! Dawn! Morning light! Get this! This is eternal form! This is indomitable human spirit made material in a bottle or a stone! Seek out music played by John Coltrane, who was always searching! Opera, too, and Isaac Stern, and Shakespeare: anything with gravitas! Anything that lights you up, sends you a telegram, lifts you up and puts you down, changed by infinitesimal travel.

But don't stop at metaphorical travel. Sometimes you have to remove yourself physically for a month or two, go somewhere that sparkles differently, where you can breathe without fear. Travel really can work; it can take you out of your world long enough to reboot your spirit. (Speaking of travel, I found this out about Paris: It can fix you of despair, perhaps permanently. I didn't have the money. I did it anyway.)

My dear friend, I've gone on long enough. You get my drift, I'm sure. You've been hit over the head. You've been run over. You've drawn the inevitable conclusion. You need something inescapable to change your mind, something blinding that shakes you free. You need a guru, not an analyst. You need a transfusion, not a Band-Aid. You need Buddha's compassionate ambulance to come screaming down the street.

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