I'm acting like a monster so my friends are deserting me

Needy, whiny, goes to extremes, OK -- but is that reason enough to shun me?


Cary Tennis
February 22, 2008 5:14PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm dealing with so much loss that I could easily have avoided that I just can't see straight lately. I'm a mid-30s artsy type, spent many years as a performing musician and just barely starting to get a career going as ... well, as anything that'll pay a decent salary, honestly, but writing and research are getting me there in various jobs. It's all very unstable. What has been stable for me though is a number of long, solid relationships with friends. Most of which have now fallen apart at the seams due to my own Neanderthal behavior.

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In July, a close friend of mine set me up with her best friend, and it was a great match. She and I had a whirlwind, deeply intense affair -- most of it long distance while she was at grad school. When asked how we met, she and I always said that the better story is probably how we managed NOT to meet, since we travel in nearly identical social circles. That fell apart. About half of that was my fault. She is a very reserved, Midwestern type that avoids confrontation, and I am the son of an actor and an opera diva. Drama is kind of my natural state of being. So when things got tough, she withdrew and I started bugging her with an insistence to talk about it. She dumped me Thanksgiving weekend.

And a couple months went by, and she moved to Hong Kong for the semester, which hasn't been going well for her, and I tentatively and gingerly made contact. We became pen pals and it was delightful, although I still have feelings for her, and regret and anger and a wish to push things deeper crept over me like ivy. And then I had a bad week about careers and apartments and I sent her too many messages and she blew up at me and we agreed that we can't speak anymore.

Cary, I don't mind that part so much. She is one of the most wonderful people I've ever met, but if we can't communicate, that's just how that goes. It bothers me, though, that I brought the situation on by being, once again, overbearing and needy and confrontational. And now all of her friends, most of whom are also my friends, have also cut me off entirely. They're right. When things are hard for me, I become impatient, brutish, whiny and overbearing and impossible to deal with. Ugh.

And now, well, I see all that and I want my friends back and I want to show them that I'm not going to act like that anymore, but obviously everyone needs space from me. And that, of course, makes me impatient and brutish and whiny and overbearing. Certainly doesn't help things.

So at this point, I have to consider the whole situation a lost cause and go on with my life, which changes only in the sense that I have about two friends in the world. Family helps. Therapy is helping dealing with the relationship, but I've only just started that and I don't know how it's going to work out for me. And I'm getting impatient again.

My question, on one hand, is: What the heck is my problem?! But more realistically, my social world having pretty much irreparably fallen apart, how can I keep my composure while I get through this? The effort to stop my habits of being so hard to deal with are frankly making me pretty hard to deal with.

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-- Part-time Monster, Part-time Monster Slayer

Dear Part-Time Monster,

Well, finally I can relax. It's nice to be among my own kind. I spend so much time on the edges of what I know, trying to coax up from the collective well of human experience some knowledge I maybe do not have, in order to perform this daily act that is part dramatic monologue, part confession and part clown act. So welcome to our club, all you others. Me and the monster are going to hang out on the floor in the corner. So, I wonder: Was your mother crazy too? Maybe you'll find out in therapy. It's unsettling to find out just how crazy. That's hard to deal with. Because she never really seemed all that crazy. Mothers don't seem crazy to their young kids, do they? And then years later after my grandmother died I'm reading through her journal and she's talking about how how emotionally unstable. So that's it! That's what they were talking about, those relatives.

But there I go again, just like you, plunging in too fast, too deep, talking about your mother. That's why I say we're so similar. But I apologize. People would ask me questions, gingerly, about my mother, and I'd get all defensive. I'd like your mother probably. Our mothers should get together some time. I used to say that but my mother never got together with anybody. And then she moved off the grid, up onto that mountain, into her tent, and then into her lean-to, from which you could not see a single light to the south. She got away.

But I'm doing it again. You ask me for help and I talk about my mother. Well, I'm just saying, peas in a pod, you and me. So fuck your friends, what do they know? People in their 30s can be such jerks, and it's all so impressively dramatic. Grow up, all of you! Come over here and sit in the corner with me and my friend The Monster. Then you'll get a picture of what it's like. Shall we put out a graphic novel together, you and me?

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Yeah, we're a couple of unstable assholes. That's what they say. So this woman, what does she want from you? I hate people sometimes. They're so demanding. I don't know about you, but I've calmed down a lot. I had to. Things were getting out of hand. Well, it isn't that, really. I could handle the out-of-handness. But I had dreams. I laughed and kidded around but I had dreams. I wanted to be an important writer. I wanted to be known. I wanted to have friends who were smarter than I was. And I was heading only for the outstretched arms of my lower, undeodorized companions. And even they did not like me that much because I did not seem to fit in with their kind because I still had this inkling of a notion that I was not a complete failure. I have calmed down a lot because I had these dreams and one day it got to be too much and I cracked up and had a religious experience and joined a temp agency. I got some shoes. I got a wife and dogs and a house. But they don't know me -- oh, my wife and dogs, they know me, but the rest of them, they don't know me. They don't know you either, do they? You and me, sitting on the floor in a corner at the party, confessing, being each other's Buddhas.

It's just reassuring, that's all. I've noticed this: The guys who are afraid and nervous, it's about their dads. And the guys who are dramatic and needy, it's about their moms. Do you think? Maybe they were a little narcissistic? I never studied psychology, but I'm abnormal. I think it helps to be abnormal. How else are you going to understand?

You're asking me what do I think you should do? Wow. You're asking me, a fellow acter-outer, a fellow "calm down, man!" type. I'm here on the floor with you and you're asking me?

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But OK, since we are so similar, I'll say this: Beware of the big emotional drinking. That's the first thing. I know, that's what people used to tell me and it didn't do any good so I can't believe I'm telling you. But it's just the voice of experience. People would sit me down and say, Cary, I think you're screwing up. Cary, of all the drugs, stay off the speed. Cary, you need to calm down and get a grip. Cary, there's a room open in a house if you can just get along. Cary, you should submit your work. And I would sit there, hysterically mute, in angst-ridden, paranoiac hell, shaking my head. They did not understand. I mean, they really did not understand. I do understand because you and me, we're the same person practically. We are brothers in the asylum. So I say again: When you get into a crisis, don't be drinking. It's not about possible alcoholism. It's about missing the opportunity to process. I'm not concerned about you being an alcoholic. You didn't even mention drinking. I'm just saying, don't blur it away or medicate it because it'll take you three times as long to process it. Process it now. Feel it.

Speaking of which, the next thing: Keep with your therapist. Don't brush that shit off. You're lucky, as someone recently pointed out in an e-mail, you're lucky to be able to afford a therapist. (I get mine through my health insurance, actually; I'm not rich; my co-payment is $20 per visit.) At your therapist you are going to learn if you work at it. Keep this in mind: It's not about the therapist; it's about you learning to use the time. You go in there and at first you're like, why don't you give me some direction, asshole? Don't just sit there looking interested. But week after week you start to unearth something and you realize it's about you. You have to learn to go in there, unload, and picture it. Unload and picture it. Picture what you're unloading. Unload and witness it. Witness intelligently your own unloading. Get some clues from the wreckage. Use your time wisely.

Ha ha. Remember in high school they would say, "Use your time wisely." I used to hate that so much. They were telling us how to use our time. As if it were their time. It wasn't their time. It was ours. Our time on this earth is ours. Who were they to say how to use it? They didn't know. They didn't know what it was like around the house. They didn't know about the egg cartons stacked to the ceiling in the kitchen. They didn't know about the scraps of fabric from her English mother, folded like prayer cloths or sacred scrolls. They didn't know about the nascent paranoia. So who were they to say we ought to use our time wisely? We had things to get adjusted to. We had adolescence to survive.

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Do you remember that? No thanks, like I said, I don't drink. I'm trying to tell you, a guy in your state, drinking won't help. I used to do that every time things got rocky. I would buy a six-pack of tall Buds and go find my friend Mary and cry it out. Me, cool guy, crying it out with a six-pack of tall ones. And Mary, bless her heart, would ease me down the steps. She'd have an appointment. And she'd say, "But you have a girlfriend. You're living with her. Go home and talk to her. And don't drink all six."

I would drink all six.

I don't know where the drama comes from. It's like you're not going to live through whatever it is. But of course you're going to live through it. And here's the last thing, buddy, maybe the most important: You have to do your art. That is, your music. One reason you're so fucked up right now is because you stopped playing music. Sure, I know. Because you underestimate how much of a survival tool it was. That's right: Psychic survival. Because that's what you developed as an adolescent to get through it. And you got through it. But in your 30s under economic stress you forgot how life-and-death it was. So your emotional life has got no place to go. That's why you're panicking. See, when we're young, we find these things that make us whole, and we start doing them partly to stay whole and partly to keep the frightening things at bay -- the fact that maybe our mother is paranoiac and our dad is pretending not to notice. You know, glimpses of the monster behind the curtain. So we find something, one thing, that as long as we're doing it we feel OK. Music. Or maybe sex: You think, wow, as long as I'm doing this, I feel OK; I wonder if I could just keep doing this the whole time. But then you come and there's somebody naked next to you. You don't even know what you're doing there. You must have gone off to someplace and she looks at you wondering if you're OK but then you have a cigarette. Remember having cigarettes after sex? Wasn't that the greatest thing in the world, to have a cigarette, to incinerate everything existential that arose in the moment after coming? Just like you're Jean Paul Sartre? You smoke? Nah, I quit too. I was burning up every emotion I had. So I just quit. Around the same time I stopped drinking. I just quit everything and let the whole terrifying mess flood over me. I don't think it was so smart to do it like that in retrospect, actually. It was sort of unbalanced. It was more of my extremism. But that's how I do things.

So you and me, we have to help each other. I'm nuts, you're nuts, call me. I know about playing music. It seems to provide everything you need. But now you've lost it, or you've stopped doing it. You play music and it kind of keeps you sane, and then for economic reasons you stop in your mid-30s. Me too. Just could not support it. Had not the physical energy to keep bruising myself. Yeah. So you go through a period of terrible mourning and unmooredness without the music. Music. Muse. Mother. The thing is to find a decent drummer. I heard Mark Eitzel on French radio yesterday. My wife listens to the French podcasts and there was American Music Club. It sounds like he got through it too. I remember one time we auditioned him or he auditioned us or we jammed together -- I'm not sure what the outcome was supposed to be but that's how we did things back then. We played together. Yeah, Mark Eitzel, and you know what I thought? I thought, man, this guy is too scary for me. Ha ha ha. What a sweetheart he seems to be now. But back then you'd think he was on suicide watch. Very polished, this new material, very lovely and un-angsty. It's funny, listening to it in French, it sounds romantic. That is, he's not singing in French, we're just listening to it on French radio.

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I hope you're not jealous of other musicians. That will tear you up too. OK, that's enough from me. Look, buddy, if you're going off the deep end, I can't help you. But if you just need a friend, I know where you're coming from. You're crazy and that's fine. Your friends are not crazy enough, in my opinion. They want you to calm down. I hate it when they want you to calm down. They always wanted me to calm down. I would say, fuck you, I'll calm down when I'm ready. And after a while I calmed down. But I was right where you are. And we would sit on the floor in the corner at a party and glare at the rest of them. I remember. I don't know what to say about it other than that. You just hang on and get through it. And you keep playing music.


Having trouble keeping it together? Me too! Read this!


"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

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