I thought I could overcome my past, but now it's dragging me down

I've come far from the poverty and dysfunction of my roots, but asking for my family's support is bringing it all back again.

Published August 1, 2008 10:15AM (EDT)

Dear Cary Tennis:

I'm a single young woman who has come through a lot of family problems, including a chaotic and abusive childhood. I grew up in a blighted area with high poverty, drug use and violence. Although my family was dysfunctional, under the accomplishment-oriented guidance of my parents, I thrived academically, graduated from an Ivy League school and found employment. This was always my goal in life, "to get out" and be separate from the people and experiences I felt had harmed me.

Last year, after achieving a moderate degree of professional success, I acknowledged that I've been seriously depressed for a long time. This realization was painful and contributed to the gradual loss of my job. I have had to reestablish communications with my family in order to survive. Now, I've marshaled all personal forces to get myself back on the right course (heading to graduate school in the fall) but still feel depressed. One of the family members I have had to depend upon is still verbally and emotionally abusive and will never change. I'm still financially insecure and find myself trying to figure out what is more important, preserving my sanity and ending the relationship, or once again silently putting up with damaging behavior until I can make a better life on my own.

To further complicate matters, I still have not addressed the original difficulties of my childhood. Although I'm in my mid 20s and have been called attractive by some, I have never been on a date, never been kissed, had a boyfriend, had sex, and so on. I'm close to believing I will never be able to do these things and feel great sadness that I can't sustain close relationships or know intimacy. I often ask myself, "What can I do to change this?"

I've tried therapy but it had disastrous results (unemployment and loss of apartment). I've tried to address these issues on my own with self-help books but can't seem to make the messages stick. Daily exercise alleviates depression but does not do anything for loneliness. I'm now trying once again to reach out and meet new people but have been coming up against the same difficulties I have had all my life. As of now, I have no friends and find it difficult to maintain relationships beyond work settings and professional activities. I vacillate between giving up and becoming a loner and trying to overcome my inexperience and social isolation in some way. The negative aspects of my childhood are never spoken of or openly acknowledged by my family, although privately, I have forgiven those responsible and made the decision to "move on" ... except on a very practical level it seems that I can't.

I'd prefer not to spend a lot of time complaining about what isn't right with my life; my values and personality are oriented toward being thankful for what we are given. I believe in proactively looking for solutions, even in the face of regret ... which is why I'm seeking your insights and hoping you can help. In the past few years I have also experienced a good amount of fresh trauma, which I won't go into here, but the result is that I have developed a healthy sense of humor about my own situation and some perspective about life. I'm very invested in living and want to live a long and meaningful life. I also want to help other people, yet I'm increasingly unable to ignore my own need for help. Your thoughts or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Seeking Other Way

Dear Seeking Other Way,

I suggest you think of this abuse as a poisoned headwind you have been walking against all these years, a foul breeze laden with the residue of an ancient crime. A ship of evil cargo foundered here and poisons were released. Some days it's so bad you think you're going to die. But we live with it. We know it won't kill us. As bad as it gets, we know it won't kill us. That's the thing. We live with it.

You say that you went to therapy and it was disastrous. That is unfortunate. Those of us who are both very wounded and very competent sometimes have the gift of appearing well when we are not. We open up the terrible wounds to a therapist, we speak freely of our past with apparent insight. We leave the therapist's office feeling light and free. Then we go home and we go mad. It clobbers us. We begin to wreck things. We are wrestling with this thing on the floor and we say to ourselves, what the fuck is wrong with that therapist?

Perhaps your therapist misjudged you. It's possible. The more competent we are, and the more pained, the more difficult we can be. So I think of therapy not so much as something a therapist does to me, but as something I am undertaking on my own, with his help, a lifelong struggle, or journey, if you will, part of my daily practice. I pay attention during the week to what troubles me and surprises me and I try to describe the muffled voices speaking at my back. Sometimes I make progress; sometimes I just sit there in the foul headwind of my unconscious, choking on it. So it goes.

But I think you need someone on your side. It makes sense, the necessity of turning to your family for financial support even as you dread it. But I think you need an ally, someone at your back. If it is not the therapist of your disastrous visits, then someone. You need someone you can trust as you negotiate this treacherous ground. And consider this: Can you find institutional support, or the support of friends? Do you have to appeal to your family or are there other ways? Can you find a way to go to graduate school independently of their support?

Speaking again somewhat broadly, the past and its effects on you are chronic. You are in your mid-20s. These things will be with you for many years. So I suggest that you hunker down, you settle in for the long haul, you shore up on many fronts. Build structures now for shelter and support. Seek joy in beauty and in experiences that stay fresh and sharp in memory; fill your memory with art and music and light, to compete with those other memories that perch like ravens, eyeing your carcass, waiting for you to slip. Take an averaging approach; seek to increase the joy in your life in as many ways as you know how. Do not seek things that are supposed to bring you joy but which only bring you worry. If you are not comfortable with intimacy, then do not look to intimacy for joy. There will be no joy there for you. There will be only rawness. Instead, look to safe things that you know do bring you joy, and increase their number in your life.

You are at war with something that seeks to undermine you. You cannot know when it will strike. But you can shore up your surfaces and build shelters against it, and you can take all the joy you can find.

And finally, take this thought with you: Your past is your partner for better or worse. Sometimes it is an impediment and sometimes it is an aide. Oddly enough, your history can serve as a priceless well of experience, giving you a view of the world few others have, allowing you to see, in certain instances, the pure, ineluctable depth of tragedy, the power of fate. You can understand human failures as others cannot. You can see clearly the temptations -- of repeating the cycle, of blunting the discomfort with drugs and alcohol, of acting out compulsively.

That you have not responded to your abuse in those ways is a testament to your spirit, to the part of you that is hurt but is tough and takes the high road. I think that part of you is priceless. Cherish it. Seek beauty and joy and cherish your toughness of spirit, but do not expect miraculous cures. This noxious breeze off the poisoned lake blows night and day in all weather.

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