I'm really a self-actualized being, but my family is all messed up

My wife drinks too much and my kid has emotional problems -- shouldn't I be in more despair about this?

By Cary Tennis
May 5, 2008 2:19PM (UTC)
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Dear Reader,

A note about the column from the other day. I got so many angry letters about that column that I really have to say something. First, I appreciate your feelings. I respect your anger. When a column elicits that many letters, it has clearly struck a nerve.


I often make mistakes and I often apologize. And I read your letters to me expressing your displeasure. But in this case, although it gives me no pleasure to make you angry, I do not apologize for that column.

That column was not a mistake. That column was a deliberate construction.

I am not toying with you. It is a risky thing to say, I know this is going to anger you and I am going to do it anyway.


I knew it would anger many people. I was trying to get across an idea. I had a choice. I acted on principle: Censoring oneself out of fear of angering readers is the worst course for a writer. It is a habit one must never get into. Fear of angering readers should never prevent a writer from following an idea or train of thought. It ought to be an element in his thinking, yes; he ought to try not to be caught blind by it, as I have sometimes in the past. But he ought to ask himself honestly, what am I trying to get across here? And if he is honestly trying to communicate something, then it's his job to give it a shot.

Otherwise one gives one's audience only what they have been proven to like. That benefits no one. The writer does not grow. And the audience soon deserts the writer in spite of -- one might almost say because of -- his craven attempts to please them.

The writers I admire try things out. They think hard about the complexity of their endeavor and seek to bring that complexity and tension to the surface. In doing so they occasionally anger or disappoint their audiences.


I left clues that this was a conscious act, a theatrical performance meant to create tension as an antidote to sentimentality. The biggest clue was that I made no attempt to intrude gracefully; I intruded clumsily, like a buffoon. And what column did I choose for my act but one so black and white, so clearly one-sided! It would have been easy just to soothe with words, as I so often do. But to avoid sentimentality and its attendant boredom, one must highlight tension, contradiction and complexity. One must remind oneself and readers that although this column draws liberally from the language and literature of psychotherapy, it is not psychotherapy. It is a difficult hybrid literary form fraught with contradiction.

Besides, and more to the point (for I have many secrets I would love to share with you but cannot, yet!), if one were inclined to speculation, one might ask, what, indeed, is up with these meditations upon novelistic form? Might it be that he has been asked to lead some novel workshop this summer, perhaps, but cannot speak of it publicly yet because he is, as it were, still perched on the diving board awaiting the whistle? Might that be? And might he be, toward that end, finally and deeply engaged in the completion of his own long-promised novel?


I assure you something like that is the case, although it is too early to go into detail. And most important, to the woman who wrote to me with her manifest and heart-wrenching troubles, I must say: I meant no offense to you, certainly, and I am confident that you felt none; although I gave it in an unorthodox way I gave you sound advice that I hope you will take; I feel deeply for you. I simply gave that advice to you as a genuine human, as self-involved as anyone else, not pretending to be some priestly figure or some reserved professional!

So, readers, and perhaps letter writer too, I respect your anger a great deal, but I do not fear it. Rather, I welcome it. I will never turn away from attempting feats that displease you, if I am confident that I am trying to convey something. If I lived in fear of your displeasure such endeavors would be hopeless. As my hero William Blake wrote, "In opposition is true friendship."

Or, as someone else said, The show must go on.


Now to today's letter.

Dear Cary,

I have such a fulfilled and amazing life that I sometimes can't believe it. We live in the most cosmopolitan suburb of a great big city (adjacent to the city with much better public schools), we have a nice little house that's worth three times what we paid for it, and we're not yet 40 (but we will be this year). We have two amazing kids (boy and girl, 9 and 7), and my wife doesn't need to work for us to pay our bills but despite that has put her artistic ability and training to work and started a very successful business about three or four years ago. I'm a kind-of-higher-up at a small technology company and I enjoy a flexible schedule as well as decent pay (I've been here for 12 years). I'm also a priest in the Afro-Cuban religion Ifa (sometimes erroneously referred to as Santeria, but that's another letter) and with the exception that I never became an actual rock star for pay (but I get to do music stuff here and there) I feel like everything is perfect, like all my dreams have already come true.


I consider myself to be self-actualized; everything I ever wanted I already have. I'd like to take some time off and I'd like to visit a few faraway places, but other than that, I've got it all. The only thing that could make me happier would be if, say, my guy wins the nomination of his party and then becomes president.

All is not quite so well with everyone else. I suspect my wife has a bit of a drinking problem; I don't think she can go a day without having her first beer by 4 or 5 p.m., and I don't think she can end the day without having had three. She's a petite woman. I drink on and off but I don't think I've drunk to anything resembling intoxication more than once or so in the last year. I can very easily go without. I'd say once every couple of weeks she'll drink enough to be slurring her words and doing rash things. I'd say something about the drinking but we are mired in a few issues that are causing her great stress (and me too, to a lesser extent) and I'm worried that she'll feel I'm attacking her. I am often a tough-it-out-and-don't-rock-the-boat type of guy.

Even the drinking wouldn't be too big a concern if it weren't for two or three other issues. First of all, our 9-year-old son is in therapy (and about to undergo some more formal diagnostic psychological testing ... we're doing everything we can to avoid medication) because he's considered an "explosive/inflexible" child. He'd actually put together a good run of about five days with no meltdowns, crying fits or anything like that, but then last night I came home from Whole Foods with the wrong type of California rolls (he was expecting avocado but got cucumber) and he flew into a crying, screaming rage (that thus far never results in violence or damage).

My wife, who had been throwing back a few beers with a neighbor while she explained how we just found out our cat of 15 years isn't going to make it (we've been through loss of a pet before; my dog of 16 years had to be euthanized about four years ago, and the kids pulled through it all right), flew into a 30-second mini-rage in which she wacked a big carving knife (she was cutting an orange when my son's fit started) against our countertop and exploded at me when I asked her to stop. She has since apologized (which I didn't and don't ever ask of her) but it was an exciting half a minute.


Lastly, although we're learning to deal with our son's issues (he is a tiny bit of a fraidy cat about some weird things, just like us, gets into confrontations with his friends, and is a little disorganized in school, but he still gets OK grades and tests as extremely bright), there have been times lately that it's a constant source of tension in the household, and we've recently come to the understanding that my in-laws can't accept his problems as serious problems ("ya need to grab him and shake him out of it!"), which has become enormously frustrating to my wife. We were hoping to get away for a day or two for our anniversary, and when asked if her parents would take one of the kids (we decided to split them up between grandparents since it's so much easier now that our kids are at bickering age, and my parents have difficulty dealing with both kids at the same time) my mother-in-law fired off, "I'll take the girl; I just can't handle the boy." It was heartbreaking to my wife to hear it.

So, to recap, our son is very difficult and high-maintenance, our cat is dying (in fact may be euthanized by the time you get this) and our in-laws are absolutely no help. My wife is depressed about it and her drinking isn't helping. I, on the other hand, am a rock. Yes, I feel bad, but I also don't look at any of this as insurmountable. In fact, I feel good that there is so much chaos but that I know I can weather it.

I don't think I've formed any kind of question yet, so here are a few:

1) Is this the wrong time to tell my wife that I think she may have a drinking problem? Should I wait till, say, the cat is buried?
2) Am I right that because we are taking it so seriously, my son will probably get over his issues with treatment?
3) Is there something wrong with me that I'm not despairing about this?
4) Do I get an award for most parenthetical asides in a single letter?



Dear Self-Actualized,

I'll just take your questions in order, and then go into some detail about what it sounds like is really going on.

First, now would be a great time to tell your wife you think she has a drinking problem. Since there are many stresses on the family, you might simply ask her to dial back the drinking in order to help you deal with the situation. I do note that she became enraged at you the other day. So she might become enraged if you ask her to back off on the drinking. So I suggest you set the stage for the conversation. Don't just spring it on her. Ask her to sit down with you and focus. But yes, this would be a fine time to approach it. I don't see the sense in putting it off.


As to your son, all I can say is that I'm glad you are approaching his situation with an open mind and a ready heart, trying to help him cope with life. I have no idea what will happen. But it sounds like you are doing the right thing. You are not pretending he has no troubles.

You are at least a runner-up for most parenthetical expressions. As to the time to tell your wife you think she has a drinking problem, go ahead and tell her. The effect will not be determined by the timing. It's bigger than that.

Will he get over his troubles with treatment? Well, many kids do. Many of us have had emotional troubles as children and we did get over it. But I really can only encourage you to keep engaging with him as you are.

You ask if there is something wrong with you for not despairing about this. I can't say that there is something wrong with you. It's certainly possible there might be something wrong with you, whatever that means. I'd be curious to know what you might think would be the problem. Maybe you think you should be feeling something and you are not feeling it. That's possible. You could be anxious because you are feeling things but they aren't really coming into your consciousness, or something like that. Or you could have the trouble that narcissists have, of just not being able to form bonds and feel empathy. But I don't know.

I would say this: If you think you have some kind of psychological problem, the place to go is to a psychologist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist. They are the ones who can help you with diagnosis, not me.

I can only speculate. But, it's your lucky day and I feel speculative, so I will say this: The biggest problem I see is that your good fortune in life and your sunny outlook may have left you ill-prepared for the difficulties you now face. Since things have gone so well for you, and since you have been able to solve most problems that have come up, you may now be facing problems you cannot solve, and that may put you into an uncomfortable new world, where you are powerless to fix things, and it may very well bring you to something like despair. You may have already begun to intuit that certain things are going very wrong, but may not be admitting to consciousness everything that you are now feeling about the situation. You may not be capable of doing that. That could become a problem for you, because feelings are a kind of intelligence. They tell us what other people are going through. If you cannot feel your son's profound confusion and your wife's anxiety, you may be missing some clues to what is going to happen over the next few years. They may turn on you and you will be surprised by this. You may say, What have I done? and it will be an emotional matter that you do not understand because you have not developed your capacity for empathy.

So I would suggest, whether you seek professional help or not, that you turn toward the question of empathy, and try to develop your ability to feel -- not just know, but feel -- the misfortune and difficulties of others.

I can sense that you are a problem solver. Feeling the hopelessness and despair of others is difficult for problem solvers. But if you do not feel it, you may be caught unawares in the future. You may not be aware of the resentments that are building up in your family.

I can't know. I'm just saying. I'm just feeling my way through this as gingerly as I can. There are, frankly, few emotional clues in what you write -- few clues to what you are feeling.

It always comes as a shock when we encounter difficulties we cannot fix, especially to people who like to figure things out and fix them and have a sunny outlook.

So I wish you luck and continued happiness, and suggest that you work on feeling empathy for the troubled people around you. If you come up empty-handed, then you may indeed want to consult a professional in order to explore what you are feeling, or not feeling.

Thinking about drinking? See pp. 67, 107, 209 ...

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