After a life of abuse, I feel suicidal

All my life I figured, well, I can always kill myself. Now I'd like to change

Published May 19, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Mister Tennis,

Almost every day, since I was around 8 years old I have thought the following: "If things get any worse I can always kill myself." I've had suicide drills, a plan of what I would do when the time came, but have never made an actual attempt. My childhood was extremely frightening. Speaking in tongues, threatened genital mutilation, threats with knives, and beatings with wooden or plastic implements were frequent, delivered primarily by my mentally unstable single-parent mother. I found this mantra a great comfort in dealing with these torments.

The torments abated unexpectedly in my teens when my mother became hospitalized for a few years from a serious bout with cancer. For most of this interval my siblings and I were sent to the homes of family friends, or relatives, anyone who could manage a kid or two for a couple of months. At no time did this abuse ever come to light. I have never more than casually referred to a "rough" childhood to friends. Discussions with my siblings about the abuses we collectively suffered are fraught with difficulty and blame. Today we barely speak to each other.

My mother eventually got on the road to recovery and we were returned to her "care." What she had lost in physical dominance she reasserted with constant emotional abuse. Our time apart had allowed me the space and time to grow physically and mentally to the point where I convinced myself I was finally able to "handle" her, and that I was shielding my younger siblings from the worst of the abuses. One result of this trauma is I have developed a very control-oriented viewpoint and became a very cautious person. Another is I find it extremely difficult not to deride risk, ambition and effort. Happiness and positive outlooks often anger me, and I have to watch myself carefully around people who are caring and open. The very qualities I admire in them, intellectually, upset me emotionally by reminding me of the lack in my childhood.

I've spent much of the last decade drinking. I don't like many of my memories and they are difficult to suppress when I've not had a few drinks. I have gotten by largely by numbing my senses and assuring myself that self-termination is all the control I needed. This year I'm turning 34, and am only just beginning to realize what a wasteful and foolish thing I've done with my life. My mantra isn't working anymore. I want a life that is more than about how and when I die. The problem is I have no idea how to begin. How do you start making a life that is not predestined by what was, but is open to what can be? How do I give up the cloak of control that I've held onto for so long? Even writing this email has been difficult. I can clearly hear her voice mocking my weakness in reaching out.

Thank you.

Upset in Ontario

Dear Upset in Ontario,

Thank you for your courageous letter.

What I find most similar to my own experience is this: "I find it extremely difficult not to deride risk, ambition and effort. Happiness and positive outlooks often anger me, and I have to watch myself carefully around people who are caring and open."

My attitude toward others was a little like yours. I felt that other people were weaklings if they talked about their feelings or acted happy. It seemed to me that everyone must feel as desperate and angry as I did, and if they acted otherwise, they must be phonies or pansies, and I don't mean pansy in a gay way, but just as a weakling.

The crucial thing was the pain. I know it sounds really simple, and I feel a little stupid saying it, it's so obvious. But I really was not accustomed to acknowledging pain as one of the motivating or shaping factors in life. I resisted thinking of myself as someone in pain. I preferred to think of myself as someone dealing with adversity.

In my early 30s I was living in a residential hotel in North Beach. I had gone there in an attempt to get clean of speed and stop drinking. I had money stashed under the mattress. I had a typewriter and a guitar. I had stayed clean for a few weeks. Then a girlfriend withdrew me from there briefly, installed me in her flat, and then, finding me unsuitable, redeposited me in the the hotel, with the help of her parents and a large Honduran man.

So I was living in this residential hotel again, drinking scotch every day (she bought me a bottle for Christmas). I went to a party at a recording studio of a former band mate -- a band I had recently quit, having to choose between them and a six-pack of Budweiser. At this party I got drunk and had a conversation with a woman who would prove very influential in my life.

I tried to make her my girlfriend. She seemed to be more interested in talking to me about psychology and my childhood. She seemed to know a lot about psychology. Somehow, through talking with her, I became aware of a burning pain in my belly that had been there a long time. It was connected with certain feelings stemming from childhood. It was all quite strange but real. She and I would spend time together, walking in fields and riding around, and I began to remember emotions. They weren't exactly events from childhood, but emotions that I could not articulate, but I could feel. I felt the reality of this thing, and it was as if I had been carrying it around all this time. ("Cary-ing it around.")

That was how I began, slowly and carefully, like a man opening up a valve to a tank of explosive gas. She introduced me to the writings of Alice Miller, such as "For Your Own Good" and "The Drama of the Gifted Child," which were helpful. Also she introduced me to Ernest Becker's "The Denial of Death." These things gave me a framework for my terrifying emotional experiences.

So I guess you could say I had a mentor who also in some ways acted as a therapist, though there was also friendship and romance involved.

You know, my early approach to relationships with women was basically to track one, capture her and keep her as long as she could stand it before she escaped -- the whole time being careful not to reveal any clues to my identity. I don't mean that I was a kidnapper or rapist. This was more just the standard format for male-female relationships at the time. A man tracked a woman, captured her, subdued her, took what he could and then held on to her as long as he could before she could effect her escape. And so you can see why women rose up with such fury. And so of course also my mentor was a feminist.

All this time I was drinking heavily, of course. So I did not seem to be able to subdue this woman. Instead I found myself confronting certain pains and fears from childhood. And there was something about existentialism, too, but I wasn't  equipped to understand it. Somewhere along the line, her father died and I put dirt on his casket in the rain, and wore his shoes for a long time. These big clunkers.

So that was the beginning of my awakening. Feeling the pain of my childhood led me to notice all the ways I was blocking off feeling in my day-to-day life. Chief among those methods was my alcohol use. It became apparent that every time a feeling came up, I was using alcohol to keep it away. What's worse, once I started drinking, there was no telling where I would wake up or what I would do. So I had some bad experiences with waking up in bad places and screwing things up. So that led, one day, to a complete crackup, where I more or less came out with my hands up and surrendered. At that point, I didn't have any more pride or argument. I was done. That was a few months before my 35th birthday.

My mom was not very violent, but as my father's mother put it in a letter, she was "emotionally unstable." I haven't been through what you've been through, and yet I have dealt in a similar way with my own emotional pain, and this has led me to react to adulthood in similar ways. My pain has not been as intense as yours, and only on rare occasions have I entertained suicidal thoughts. But my alcohol use was indeed a kind of slow suicide.

I was lucky to meet the people I met and to have them help me in ways that I did not understand at the time. Had that not happened, I might have gone on drinking for many more years. Maybe things would have gotten to the point of suicide, but it had never been Plan B. Plan B was just to keep drinking until I passed out, and then come up with Plan C.

So that's what it's been like for me. I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't met the people I did, who acted as a bridge to recovery and help. What would I have done if I had to walk into a therapist's office by myself? I would have been more comfortable walking into the local police station and throwing my hands up, saying, Arrest me! I'm fucked! The world of therapists and people dealing openly with their feelings was foreign to me! And even when my friend did arrange an appointment for me at the Jung Institute, I flunked the interview. They were not interested in treating me. I was kind of hostile to them. I don't remember, frankly, if I was still drinking at that time, but you might say my full consciousness was not available to me or to anyone.

A couple of things have been useful along the way. One has been understanding that recovery and psychotherapy involve emotional relearning. We learn the things we would have learned as children if we weren't so busy fending off the blows. Another is that this process of emotional relearning is slow. We don't get better overnight. But we can be assured that at any moment, however deep our despair, we are generally on the right path. Things are slowly getting better.

So how to begin?

You have already begun. Each person begins in his or her own way. I was not aware, when I began, that I was beginning. I thought I was just trying to get some woman to shut up and go to bed with me. Around the same time, another woman I was attracted to, I took her to a bar and asked her what she wanted to drink and she said, "I'm not drinking today." I figured she was just getting over a hangover. But it turned out she hadn't had a drink in like seven years. Thus a little light bulb went off in my head.

I stay away from corny things if I can, but sometimes I think of these people as angels -- alighting on the trash cans and fire escapes of my darkest alleyways.

Creative Getaway

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By Cary Tennis

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