Our son flunked out and lied about it

He can't explain why. I want him to be happy and I'm worried for his future

Published May 31, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My son flunked out of college and lied to us. He just finished his second semester at a big state university and failed terribly. He is a smart boy with a high IQ. He scored very well on his college entrance exams. But once he got to college he did no real work and lied to us the whole time about how he was doing. We debated sending him back for a second semester but back he went and again lied and failed four out of five classes.

We are not rich and it was a struggle for us to pay for his school so the amount of wasted money weighs heavily on us. But most important is our beloved boy and helping him toward a happy life. He is a wonderful, loving, (very) sensitive person. We adore him and only want the best for him.

He smokes pot and says he drinks some. We openly talk about it. I am completely against any drug or alcohol use, especially in my house, although I know he has to find his own way. I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. I have struggled a lot, but for the past 11 years have been mostly sober and work a program. His dad and I are divorced. We had a bad marriage but have worked hard on our relationship because we both love our son so much. We have our differences but basically like each other and care for our son with an extended family of significant others, parents and siblings. Another concern is that last summer one of his close friends died in a senseless accident and he was devastated. How has that affected his psyche?

I am very worried about the deceit and failure. I'm angry with him. I want him to explain what happened but he can't give me any reasonable explanation. He lies to us all the time. But I also feel his pain and it breaks my heart. He seems so depressed. I guess he should be after the year he had. He is embarrassed and scared and apologetic about what happened at school. I think he is just like me and it took me a long time to get sober and live an honest life. I have lots of loving friends and family and it's a miracle I survived it all. I can't say for sure if he's an addict or just going through some stuff. He's not saying but when I told him how I felt -- like I had a hole in my heart that needed to be filled -- he said he has that hole too (big sob). I filled mine with spirituality and a program. But he doesn't get that yet.

I have a good job and it has always been my lifeline and I'm afraid he won't have that opportunity. I am so worried he will have to experience all the pain and hurt that is the life of an addict. I am filled with guilt that I wasn't a good mom and didn't teach him whatever that secret for a good life is. I'm not sure what to do. What can I do to help him? What can I do to keep myself sane and sober? I am teetering on the edge of the abyss and want to drink. Cary, can you (just pretend to) come over and sit at my kitchen table and talk this out with me?


Dear T,

So we sit at your kitchen table and we talk about our common history. And I say, You know how we find it works best to just tell our own experience? And you know how we look for the similarities?

Well, my experience as a teenager was that I lied constantly.

Seriously. I never flunked out. But I would write these letters home sounding all noble and full of purpose. Part of it was a genuine desire to be serious. But part of it was just a ruse. The older I get the better I understand how we can be telling the literal truth but still be deceiving others in the things that are most important. Like I would be miserable and full of fear and talk about my grades. I was getting good grades and learning things. But did I ever say to my dad in a letter, Daddy, I am lonely and afraid? Did I ever say that I am smoking pot more and more, and drinking alone? Are you kidding me? That would be ridiculous. Why would I do that? My life was premised on keeping everyone in the dark about who I was and what I was feeling. That was how I ran my show. That was how I managed the feelings of everyone else in my family.

And why do we do this? OK, often we do this to solve a temporary emotional problem. Like I do not want to talk to my wife about my existential fears, so she asks me how I'm doing and I say that I am almost through moving the boxes around. She didn't ask me about the boxes. But I don't want to talk about my existential fears. So I pretend she asked me about the boxes and that is how we conduct our sometimes not-so-cool rhetorical merry-go-round.

I do this all the time.

I hope by this time you and I are laughing together, because I suspect, without accusing you of it, but knowing that you have been a drinker like me, I suspect that you have a least a few similar stories, that you, too, have an inner bullshitter.

So let's look for the similarities. That will make this easier. We can laugh a little about it. I mean you must be furious, sure. But you know how things get better when you are talking to another alcoholic and you admit some of the crazy shit you did? And you can laugh about it? Not that it's not serious, but you are sharing a common view of our common human absurdity.

So it would be nice to understand your son completely and solve his problems but we're not going to do that.

It must be hard to let go of feeling responsible for him because being responsible for him has been your whole job. Now you have to not be responsible for him. You have to view him as a person making his own way. What will help him make his own way? Letting go of him.

OK, what about this: What is drinking but a temporary and ultimately destructive solution to a problem of how we feel? What is his lying but a temporary and ultimately destructive solution to the problem of how he feels?

So, I say, if we can identify with him, by seeing how similar his behavior is to our own, then maybe we can have a conversation that emphasizes the similarities. Maybe we can say, Yeah, I remember a time I told the most outrageous lie to get out of a situation, or to get what I wanted. Like no big deal, but gee, OK, this was the night I bought my Gibson ES-347 in 1980, and I was celebrating by drinking scotch, and I wanted to get into this club to hear a blues band, and to get in you had to have eaten dinner there, and I went upstairs and said, Oh, yeah, I ate here. I stood with a straight face and told this baldfaced lie, that I had eaten dinner there. They bring the waiters over. None of them recognizes me. It's obvious I'm just flat-out lying. It's obvious I'm drunk. They throw me out. It was hurtful. It was like they really lacked respect for me! How come? When I'm such a cool guy?

Ha ha. What a laugh. Thirty years ago. Still have that guitar bought on layaway from Columbia Music on Market Street. Played it last night. It sounds sweet through a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe.

But there I go getting off the subject.

One useful habit we learn in recovery is to accept the emotional logic of what seems strange and even perverse. We take emotional needs at face value. We strip away mainstream assumptions. We look at the human being as a naked bundle of needs. Thereby we see the larger pattern: Somehow, however crazily, we are always trying to meet our needs. So we ask how lying meets his emotional needs.

To understand that better, we do inventories of our own behavior that reveal our deeper motives: That we wish to keep parts of ourselves hidden, that we wish to protect others from knowledge of themselves and knowledge of us, that we think we are in control and can dictate the outcome. We see that we mistakenly believe we have power over others. So we lie to them. And part of this is a lack of trust. Because we do not fundamentally feel safe in the world, we feel we must manipulate our surroundings. And when we find through meditation and the cultivation of some kind of inner awareness we reach a kind of fundamental "OK-ness," then we see we can let go of the incessant program of surveillance and control that we have been running from deep within our fortified bunkers. We see that it is not necessary.

And eventually, in our ongoing wish for world peace, we begin to wonder if many of our wars and crimes stem from a similar phenomenon, a worldwide phenomenon multiplied by billions but centered in each individual, a billion individual fears that they will not be OK, that they cannot trust their neighbors, that they must lie, cheat and steal or perish in the desert.

But when through constant meditation and a discipline of calm awareness we notice that our immediate needs are always met, we find we can calm down.

Drinking and lying are similar.

You drink because you don't know what else to do. You don't have any better ideas. Likewise with lying. You lie because you just don't have any better ideas. It works. You're trying to take care of the immediate emotional exigency.

That's what lying does. It manipulates the world just long enough. It buys some time.

So he's buying time. So why is he buying time? Because time is what he needs. What does he need time for? To grieve perhaps. To grieve for his friend. To process. Maybe just to live. He needs people off his back. He needs to work things out for himself.

What else does he need? He needs to know that you are OK. For he has also been lying to protect you. He does not want you to worry about him. He is lying to manipulate you. We might even say he is lying to medicate you. That's the classic codependent scenario.

He has to know that you are all right before he can truly leave the family and make his own life. And you have to know he is going to be all right before you can really let him go.

So I will sit at your kitchen table and tell you that you both are going to be all right. Let him go. Let him be. You both will be all right.

You know "End of the Line," that Traveling Wilburys song? That's what I mean. Listen to that song. It's all right.

Write your truth

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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