Here's the deal: One of my very best friends of 15 years (I'll call him "Bill") has been involved with a woman (I'll call her "Sally") for about two years. They have both experienced prior divorces, Bill's some 10 years ago, Sally's very soon before she met Bill. Although Bill projects a veneer of super-confidence, he has actually spent a lifetime on the edge of financial ruin, working as a waiter, adopting and abandoning pursuits like they were socks, and making one stupid decision after another. The women he has one-night-stands with, or gets involved with, tend to have one thing in common: intense emotional neediness. Sally was deeply wounded from her divorce when Bill met her. This weird dynamic is exemplified in Bill and Sally's relationship in their interaction, in which all speaking is done in sickingly dulcet and childish tones. It's as though she cannot speak like an adult, and he must speak this way with her all the time. It's annoying and unsettling.
Now Bill is in his mid-30s, and Sally has compelled him to get the necessary training and licensing to practice her line of business; they are now business partners. Sadly, the industry they work in has taken an enormous hit in the past year, so despite occasional business, Bill still finds himself living with his mother, seemingly content to pick up shifts at a local restaurant, smoke pot in the evenings (secretly, as Sally believes he has quit) and continue in this depressing fashion. Now they're talking about marriage. In fact, Sally is talking about it all the time. It occurred to me last week that a number of my friends assumed they were engaged, based on the way Sally talks, but no, no one has been asked to marry anyone.
A few months ago, in the car with Bill, I was witness to what I felt was a disturbing scene. Bill was talking to Sally, who was at a jewelry store with her mother, and they'd found the ring that Sally wanted for her engagement (an initial specimen that Bill purchased for a hundred bucks was not satisfactory). It was a few thousand dollars. Bill is broke, so he agreed to accept a "loan" from Sally's mother (whom they both call "Mommy"). It's as though I see Sally and her family consolidating their power over Bill (or at least his indebtedness). Everyone is now invested in the idea that they're getting married; Sally even has a numerologically significant date in mind. Bill acts as though it's a done deal, despite the fact that they're not even engaged yet. He has already hinted to me a few times that he thinks he's settling, and has said he's deeply afraid of ending up alone in his life. (After all, who'd want to date a 30-something pothead waiter who lives with his mother?) So yeah, here it is: What can I do to shake some sense into him? This is completely dysfunctional, and I'm scared that my friend will go through with this, and then end up divorced again, just like his parents. Is it my place as his friend to lay the cards out on the table? He's very capable of "lying to himself," so I wonder if a catalyst is needed to get his head on straight.
A Concerned Friend
Dear Concerned Friend,
It is Day 2 of the Obama era and I am doing my darnedest to concentrate but I still feel a bit foggy, as though someone had sprinkled a powder into my soup.
So I picked your letter because I'm a guy who could easily be living with his mom, working as a waiter and smoking pot. It sounds like a fairly decent lifestyle to me, actually, although it is not something I would undertake at this stage of life. So I'm conflicted. I never even worked my way up to waiter when I was living with my mom and smoking pot. I remained a lowly busboy for the duration of my restaurant career. Busboys did not have to deal very much with the public. I liked that part. I did not like taking orders. I rather enjoyed being a busboy though, and I mostly enjoyed my interaction with the dishwashers, who, to me, seemed to be the very soul of the restaurant operation. Cooks I never talked to. They seemed altogether too serious.
Anyway, right upfront let's state the obvious: You can't make your friend's decision for him.
You could be a hardass and tell him that if he doesn't get into pot smokers anonymous you can't be his friend anymore. But I doubt that would help. You might just freak him out and make him feel like you're abandoning him. When I was a regular pot smoker, I just avoided people who told me stuff like that. I hated hearing that! I just hated it! It really hurt my feelings!
But you can grab him by the shoulders, look him in the eyes and tell him that no matter what happens, whether things work out or not, you will not abandon him as a friend and you will not say "I told you so" if he is, in two years, working on his second divorce. If he is truly your friend, you can tell him that you'll stick by him no matter what.
Then you can tell him that you think what he's doing is kind of boneheaded, and you can both laugh about it and smoke a joint.
In order to understand your friend, I suggest you clear your mind of everything you think a young man should want and need, and instead consider what his choices indicate that he wants and needs.
Ask what he is accomplishing by living with his mother and smoking pot. Ask what needs he is meeting. Assume, for the sake of investigation, that the needs he is meeting are perfectly legitimate.
Let's assume that he is living with his mother because he wants to live with his mother. In some sense let's say he needs to live with his mother. He smokes pot because he wants to smoke pot and needs to smoke pot. He works as a waiter because he needs to work as a waiter. These are the roles in life that give him what he needs. So what is it that he needs? Well, waiters serve people. So he needs to serve people. He needs to nourish and support and serve. Why does he live with his mother? Perhaps he is able to nourish and support her. The role of nourishing and supporting is one that to some extent absolves us of the terror of choice and commitment; if we are only called upon to respond to the immediate needs of others, then we do not have to be making hard choices on our own, choices that leave us with the terror of our own limited knowledge, and the real possibility of embarrassing failure.
What does a waiter do? A waiter takes your orders. Think about that. That is what he is doing in life. He is taking orders. So he is a loyal and obedient person. This is how he has found to stay connected to people, by taking orders. And why does he smoke pot? Because it allows him to feel good and safe and alive for a few moments. For the first few minutes after smoking a good joint, he probably feels that everything is right with the world; his friends are interesting and funny and important, and his surroundings are interesting, and his mind is alive with ideas and sensations. He feels no anxiety about the future. He is happy. Who wouldn't want to feel that?
But of course in his need to meet only his immediate needs he is not able to plan ahead. So he makes some boneheaded moves.
So put these things together and you have a guy who needs to feel needed and wanted and secure, and he finds that by meeting the needs of others and by medicating himself, or altering the workings of his nervous system and brain so that his impressions are more pleasant and his inner world is more vivid, he can get by. He can avoid the more serious fates that await those of us who are deeply troubled in some way, such as suicide, and going postal, and stuff like that. He's dealing, in his way. He's getting by. He's probably keeping some rather deep fears at bay, but that's working for him right now.
In his way, he is also thinking about the future. He is concerned that if he does not form a lasting bond with a woman that he will end up alone. That is a common fear. When you get into your 30s and you're a guy it's not unusual to think what a loser you'll be if you're still living with your mom and working as a waiter and smoking pot. So you think, this could be my last chance, and you hook up with some chick who seems to be willing to make all the choices. You just get on board and ride. That's not so unusual for a guy.
And maybe, even though the communication styles in the relationship sound like the communication styles in families in which there is no choice or accountability, maybe that suits him fine. Maybe he wants everything to be decided for him. Maybe that is the communication style used in his family, so, strange as it seems to outsiders, it works for him. (I'm talking about this strange business of the ring and the engagement here.)
It's useful for us to at least know what our real desires are.
Can I give you an example from my own dunderheaded universe of unacknowledged childhood needs inserting themselves into my adult life? Well, it's a long story, which I can't go totally into because I'm on deadline already and I have to go see this reconstructive surgeon in two hours who's going to remove a basal cell carcinoma from my right ear. OK? (Oh, and, incidentally, who made the appointment for me to go to the doctor? My lovely wife. And who downplayed the significance of this totally gross and weird growth on my ear? Me. And who would have done nothing if not for someone with more sense and courage in his life? Me. So, I'm saying, I'm basically just another dunderheaded guy who avoids unpleasant interactions, and I can relate to your friend. So make sure he gets annual checkups and all that.) But anyway, about unacknowledged childhood needs ... let's put it this way. Across the street is an assisted-living facility and there's one guy there who will shuffle across the street and ask you for a cigarette and then five minutes later he'll do the same thing. No matter what the facts of the situation are, he looks at you and sees you as a person who just might provide him with a cigarette, even though you have told him as an established and permanent matter of fact that you do not smoke, that you will never have a cigarette for him no matter how many times he asks you. He forgets that stuff. He asks, "Sir? Have you got a cigarette?" And I always answer no. But he doesn't put it together. He lives in a permanent present, without memory, without pattern, driven by his need for a cigarette.
So I'm not that limited in my mental functioning, but I walk around and my emotional state is that every male friend or business associate I become involved with in a certain way I begin to think that he is my brother. I might as well be walking around asking my friends, Will you be my brother? It's odd. But it intrudes into business dealings. And I used to smoke pot with my brother. So every male friend I have, I sort of expect us to be brothers and smoke pot together, sit up in a bunk bed and look out at the tropical foliage and get high. Very odd. But memories get stuck in your desire machine. Every time I see "Monday Night Football" on the TV screen I get a warm feeling inside, like I could be home watching "Monday Night Football," smoking pot with my brother, and everything would be fine. Weird. I haven't smoked pot in 20 years, and I probably haven't watched a "Monday Night Football" game in maybe five years. Weird. But I can relate is what I'm saying. We get certain emotional satisfactions.
So your friend has found many ways to get the things he needs. It's just that other folks think it's kind of weird that he lives with his mom and works as a waiter and smokes pot all the time.
But is there really something wrong with being this way? Is he supposed to be some different person? One hopes that eventually he will see what his needs are and begin to find ways to substitute other actions to get the same needs met. That's human progress. But he is where he is. He's getting what he needs. You can't change him. All you can do is stick by him.
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