After a long, amazing life, I'm alone and confused

Friendless, estranged from siblings, on a fixed income: Is this how I end up?

Published March 23, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

"These are the best of times. These are the worst of times." I am older. So I hope you are still willing to consider my request for advice. I am wise, yet I am very confused about where my life is going. First of all, I have had a very exciting life that I would describe as a superhighway with bumps. Sometimes the bumps were so serious that I lost people I loved and ended up with horrible things happening. There seem to have been cycles, a kind of "Days of Wine and Roses" period followed by falling through the looking glass into some bizarre world, and then back up again to "La Vie en Rose." Sorry for the clichéd references but they exactly represent what I am attempting to communicate.

I have had spectacular times in my life when I could not believe the beauty and joy I was experiencing. One precise example of that is when I married a young and beautiful Belgian woman while serving in the U.S. Air Force in Belgium. I was 22, handsome and charming, with a great education, and all the world was at my beck and call. The wedding took place in a 17th-century village church, with young girls throwing flowers in the street as my new bride and I walked from the church to city hall where the mayor, wearing a colorful sash and other accouterments, had us sign the "big book," marrying us before the civil authorities in that province.

I have had three partners whom I have loved deeply. I learned from them and I taught them and, in each case, we loved one another for a long time. Two of them were much younger. As was the case in ancient Greece, the teacher and student relationship with benefits inevitably ended. The joys I had both in teaching and being taught, in loving and being loved, in feeling pleasure and giving pleasure, were immeasurable. On the other hand, I have struggled with substance abuse, have been homeless, have experienced major depression recurrent for most of my life and suffer from PTSD. I was sexually abused as a child and molested while in the military. I have been estranged from my biological siblings since 1978. I have one friend at this point in my life. I have medical issues and live on disability. I go to sleep each night planning dreams that replay those glory days in my life. I lead a very modest life now. In my youth I partied and had sex with more people than I could ever remember. I do not regret any of that.

The place where I now find myself is the strangest place of all, ever in my life. Growing old is a gigantic "thing" that puzzles me and frightens me. I liked the joys of youth. I liked the power and status and pleasures I knew as a younger man. Yes, I do have wisdom now. That is fulfilling, and does make life easier in many ways. I can see a liar or crook from miles away. I will no longer be fooled or cheated, and that is one of the greatest manifestations of wisdom.

I attend a weekly group for men with PTSD/MST (military sexual trauma). The men in the group are mostly older, like me. The group helps me. Nonetheless, the rest of the week I am isolated and lonely. I have one friend, as I said, but no intimacy, and he and I differ on so many things. I recognize that I am no longer physically attractive to many other people. I have had two younger partners, and I seem to be fixated on younger people when it comes to sex and intimacy. That is a conundrum. To put it simply, I don't want to have sex with someone my age and someone who looks like me. Honestly, I am not unattractive. That is just the way my psyche frames things. For some time I have been thinking about an ideal arrangement to have some intimacy and sex in my life. The scenario would be that a younger man would regularly come visit me once a week for drinks, a pizza and a pay per view movie, then stay overnight. I know there are male escorts who do this, but I do not have the money for that. It is not morally objectionable to me, especially considering my age. So, I am stuck. I need to state that I am living on a fixed income. I worked in the field of child welfare all of my life which, as everyone knows, pays little. I am living a modest life, juggling my bills, and staying home on my computer or watching cable TV. That will likely not change.

I have never been a "whiner." I face what I cause. Sometimes that has almost destroyed me. My one friend tells me I must resign myself to my present condition as it will be like this the rest of my life. By it I mean the financial and social and medical and intimacy issues I live with. I am stuck as to where I am going. If I must resign myself to this way of living, perhaps I will feel sad the rest of my days. I do not want that. Once one feels the sublime in life, it is a wild ride down to a small apartment with no social life and dealing with medical and psychological issues, with no change in sight. Could there be a way to accept where I am and still create some joy and excitement in my life? I do get pleasure out of watching a good film or eating a fine meal or doing other creative things. I have an adult son and two grandchildren who are important to me and who love me deeply. I do not see them often. My present self seems to be lost, though my past self is someone who is to be admired. Where and how do I find intimacy and joy in this life I now live?


Looking Back

Dear Looking Back,

There is an elegiac tone to your letter. There is sadness and joy. And there is a pattern of great highs and lows. What seems to animate all this and hold it together is youth itself -- the children you worked to protect, the younger partners you have had, the youths that you desire sexually, and the abused youth in your body, that youth that you were, that child who was abused, who in some way your life has been dedicated to. Perhaps it would be possible to open a dialog with that child, the one who was abused, the one who had high ideals and dreams, who was sunny and optimistic, who suffered grievously and whom, in one way or another, you have worked your whole life to serve, animate, protect, keep alive. I sense that this child is in the shadows. Bring him out. Ask him what he wants. What does he want for you? What does he want of you? Drawing pictures might be a good way to go about this -- drawing panels in a cartoon, or putting collage images together. And perhaps, since you say that you plan your dreams, perhaps you could contact this youth, too, in your dreams, and find out what he needs from you today.

That probably sounds pretty far out. You were a military man, and you have been trained to sift out the nonsense. But at the same time, you have had a pretty far-out life, yourself. So please at least give this a try.

You say you are not a whiner. I suspect the child who was abused was not a whiner. And yet stating the truth is not whining. You have suffered a great deal, and you are alone and frightened now. Being honest about how you feel is not whining. And, to tell the truth, even a little whining is not a crime. Sometimes it makes us feel better just to whine.

So if I were you I would question this statement that you are not a whiner, and I would beware of blanket beliefs in general -- that we are not that kind of person, that we do not do this and do not do that -- because, like blankets, they cover things. They cover cruel commandments that stand between us and self-knowledge. For instance, behind the commandment Thou shalt not whine may be a commandment that we shall not know the truth of our own suffering. But we must know the truth of our suffering in order to come out from under it and move on! Perhaps such beliefs serve us for a time. To cope with the essential murdering of his spirit, the devastation of his abuse, the obliterating invasion he endured, perhaps the child invented and clung to these blanket beliefs. But eventually, we have to go there, to that awful time and place, and view it with detached clarity and compassion. This often cannot be done alone. So seek someone to go with you, a spiritual guide or therapist.

I believe your direction in life is connected somehow to that child, and with youth and children in general. I believe that the aridity and loneliness you feel is somehow connected to the fact that your life's mission was with youth. It is complicated, I'm sure, as the sexual longing for a youthful partner is tangled up with your desire for your own lost youth, and the needs of that abused youth still live in your heart. It has got to be complicated. But I suggest that in your children and grandchildren and in youth, working with youth, protecting and supporting youth, is the form of the lifelong practice that you need.

The fact that you "seem to be fixated on younger people when it comes to sex and intimacy" is not so much of a conundrum to me as it is to you. Perhaps you experience it as a conundrum as a way of resisting its meaning.

So why not try this: Sit quietly and address this child you once were. Hear him out. Ask what he needs. What is he saying to you? What kind of person did he dream of becoming? Have you become that person? Or have you veered off in some fashion, so that this youth, if he could speak today, would be disappointed, or shamed, by your actions? I sense that in many ways you fulfilled the promise of this youth, although perhaps in other ways you disappointed him. That is the way it usually is. We do our best. I am sure you did your best. Ask yourself this: How can you be the person that he needs, today? You may feel angry and powerless and shamed that you were not able to protect him. But you found a working life in protecting children, and you did much good. Yet at the same time there may be residual arousal there. The same event of abuse that was so charged with existential threat may also carry some erotic allure, in which case, what you may encounter when you travel back to this time is a terrifying mix. You may feel grayed out, as your psyche protects you from re-experiencing the abuse. But if somehow you can travel, perhaps with the guidance of a counselor trained in such sojourns, to the side of this youth, sit with him in his room or on his bed or wherever he feels comfortable, and inquire of him what he needs from you today, perhaps there can be some healing.

This may indeed sound strange. Yet think about it: If the children we once were do not magically disappear, then they still exist within us, do they not? Could we purge them even if we wanted to? How? Could we purge the memories of being 10, or 4, or 7? How? Childhood is not gone.

And in the cycle of life, grandchildren bring mercy to the old. So if you could live nearer your son and grandkids, that would probably enrich your life. Also: Contact your siblings. Reconnect with them. It's been 30 years! The abuse you suffered may lie at the heart of your  estrangement, and while they may not be ready to talk about it, they might welcome hearing from you. You have had an amazing life. It is time to reconnect with the more elemental sources of your life -- your family, your own youth.

By the way, I was not familiar with MST, or military sexual trauma. But the little reading I was able to do about it does point out that it can be even more stigmatizing for men than for women, "because these victimization experiences fall so far outside of the proscribed [sic] male gender role." So it is good to hear that you are participating in a group. Perhaps you can be friends with some of the people in that group. Try suggesting coffee or a snack after your meeting.

I do not know the precise way that repetition of early abuse happens, or how sexual urges become twinned with early victimization, or how victimization leads us into lives of service. But I intuit that the shape of your life is deeply connected with a lifelong emotional commitment to the child within you who was victimized. So I would ask you to look there, either on your own or with the help of someone who can guide you there, through meditation and visualization. Go there eagerly. But be ready for what you see.

You can handle it, I believe. And I believe that it is the animating source. It will give you great energy and hope to go on in this, yet another stage of a long and rich life.

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By Cary Tennis

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