I hit my sister in the head with my purse when I drink

I feel trapped in wifehood and motherhood and sisterhood; I lash out; I become a monster.

By Cary Tennis
May 9, 2008 2:38PM (UTC)
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Dear Reader,

You might recall I mentioned recently that I had been offered an opportunity whose full allure I was not at liberty to disclose but whose possibilities enlivened the heart and the imagination, an opportunity above which I stood poised like a diver on the high board waiting for a whistle.


What happened was that I was invited to lead a weeklong novel-writing workshop at the Colgate Writers' Conference in Hamilton, N.Y. Complicating matters was the fact that it conflicted, datewise, with my own planned Creative Getaway for Writers up on Tomales Bay in California.

After hanging fire for a few days awaiting confirmation, I have now left the diving board and am in full, accelerating, downward flight toward the placid surface of a brilliant pool. I will be conducting this novel-writing workshop at Colgate University at the end of June. For that reason the CTB getaway at Marconi Conference Center has been postponed until late summer or early fall. I will keep you informed via this column and the CTB Creative Getaways for Writers page.

As to the rest of last week's lengthy note, I appreciate the committed passion you bring to this joint endeavor, and regret that the volume of mail has become such that it is not possible to answer every letter. Also, more generally, regarding the tone of my note and so forth, you might say I am working through something. I am always working through something. I struggle to balance the contradictory elements of this unusual undertaking. It's a rare and beautiful thing we have.


Now for today's letter.

Dear Cary,

Yes, it's only an e-mail but it feels so much fancier. I'm in a weird place. I graduate in two weeks with my long-awaited B.A. in professional technical writing. I've waited a long time for this. A lot of things happened during this schooling. I grew up and away from what has been acceptable. My mother is demanding. I have a husband who is on a totally alternate wavelength, making demands in a pleasantly passive-aggressive capacity constantly. I believe my family is really pretty ignorant and limited. I have a son who is growing and requires a healthy and appropriate amount of energy. But I'm tired. No one lets up. They don't even know me, but they own me.


I drink. I am bad when I drink. I am an artist. I hit my sister in the head with my purse when I drink. I am possessed and tell off my husband when I drink. I act lecherous and men approach me despite the husband's being within range. It's weird. I am disconnected. I do not like where I am. I do not like the role of wife. I am OK with mother. Daughter is difficult, but I can do it. I do not want a blowup, but I require peace and quiet. No more husband-directed directives. Economics restrict my every movement.

I'm afraid. I want to be alone, but being married has put me in a position of financially indentured servitude. I am 28. I meet people daily. I am an introvert, but I can get out there and make it. I'm pretty sure of this. I can lead when necessary, except I can't get a callback on a job. Is it the economy? I need money to facilitate everything that will be difficult -- without that dimension of the economy even factored into the equation.


I feel guilty. Good, old-fashioned Jewish guilt. I hate being domesticated, but it has been my position for nearly the last nine years. I hate where I live and the opportunities are limited. Lately, I fear my only alternatives are lashing out as a drunken monster now and then. But the intervals are getting closer and I'm concerned. Please advise.




Dear Me,

It sounds like you are in a big ball of emotions that have been all smashed together; it sounds like you have no breathing room and no time. I picture you pushed all together and needing to stretch out -- in time, in body, in mind. What does this mean? Oh, it means sitting in the long rooms of ritual until you begin to unspool. It means finding someone to hear your whole long story. It means finding faith in some kind of healing, whether it's the psychoanalytic practice or rediscovering your family God or finding recovery from alcoholism through rehab and a 12-step program. You are all smashed together like something about to explode. That is how you sound to me. This is nothing scary to me. I salute your particular power, the voice of intelligent desperation. I salute you. I join you. But I too eventually found the upkeep of my desperation too costly. So I am talking to you directly, in a way that may not sound thoroughly professional because I am anything but a professional; I am just a lover and a fool, but I have survived the storm.

Big ball of emotions: That is a technical term.


There is something else, too, in your voice, something madly disembodied that I recognize from my days in the hotel room doing push-ups. I was in the hotel room doing push-ups because I cracked up on meth in the middle of Capp Street one sunny Sunday in the 1980s. I knew I had cracked up because the craziest person I knew was telling me I made no sense. So I retired to the hotel room with some 20s under the mattress and began doing push-ups and reading Mao. I had my portable Royal. I had my guitar and amplifier. I had no other technology with which to withstand the madness. Mao offered little help. Somebody rescued me for a while but then she put me back in the hotel and I continued my practice of madness for several more years. But we've heard that tale before.

You know, we all say you can't fix other people, but sometimes I wonder whether if somebody had shown up at that hotel and carted me off to rehab I wouldn't have caught on a little quicker to the simple mysteries of my madness. I did eventually catch on, like a man on a bench who's on fire: People could recognize my problem and direct me to help.

So in your case I'm thinking you are leading a secret life of insanity. You are smashed up in that family with your husband and your child; it seems very crowded in your life, in your head. You need to get out of this setting and confide in someone. You need a few weeks to decompress. Where can you go? You could present yourself to a community mental health clinic and tell the people there you're hearing voices. When they say, Are the voices directing you to harm yourself or others? you could say yes. That might bring some help. It might be irresponsible of me to even suggest it. Well, when they ask me what the voices are saying I always try to think of something good. I see no harm in trying to get some help. Or you could confide in your husband that you are going mad and need some help. I do not know your husband, so I do not know what he would do. Would he try to help? Or does he think that he has his world arranged so smartly already that no madness can intrude? I don't mean madness in the bad sense. I mean the poet's madness. You are making slim, denatured poetry in your letter to me, in a stripped-down voice of imperious fear -- a tall, fine-boned fear in fashionable dresses, like the voice of the poet Sylvia Plath.

And you mention you are Jewish, which could mean a lot of things, or no things, depending; it could mean that Eastern European memories of trauma and deprivation haunt the table where you eat. It could mean that stories of age-old shunning and wandering have placed survival and a good job at the forefront of the psyche, shoving your fine-boned, imperious and poetic voice into conflict with the need to survive and take care of the family. Or it could mean little. It's tricky to speculate and make presumptions about someone else's heritage and origins. You could just have a weakness for spirits and a need to let off steam. But I know what this is like. My drinking was like that. Every now and then I had to blow, and things would get out of hand.


So take your imperious, secret voice to someone you can trust, and spill the beans. Get some time to unwind your smashed-up spirit. Seek help outside your house.

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