(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

I'm the bitter son who did not get his due

I left home, struggled and made a life for myself; my siblings still hang around the nest, getting handouts


Cary Tennis
November 7, 2011 6:00AM (UTC)

Dear reader,

Kind note from reader re: yesterday's "only connect" quote: "EM Forster. It is the epigraph to Howard's End."

Thank you for that. (More than one reader pointed this out.)

In my fever, sometimes I work without a net. Go for it. Take a chance. So thanks.

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Dear Cary,

I'm having a problem dealing with feelings of bitterness, a bitterness that is drowning my every thought and making everything in life sour along with it.

My parents raised me to be independent, and so I was. They told me to support myself and work for a living. They were hard on me at times. I bore the brunt of their battles with alcoholism and depression, and I left home early. I have been working full-time since I was 17. I put myself through college, I worked hard and took menial jobs (like most). I made sacrifices and compromises, but I don't regret any. I've had a great life so far, a good job, good luck and hard work, a nice house, travel, good friends, etc.  I can't complain about my life. And to top it all off, I've managed to build a good relationship with the very family that was pretty hard on me when I was younger.

The problem is that no one else in the family was treated the same and it drives me crazy. I have two siblings, and neither of them has ever had a full-time job (now well into their 30s). They get fully supported by my parents -- rent, cellphones, food, you name it. My mother never really worked, she inherited land and money from my grandfather when I was still in high school, and they all pretty much live as the rich now. That is, everyone except me. It is making family gatherings harder and harder for me as time goes on.  It's strange, because it's not that they have more than me, in fact I do really well, it's just that I am the only one who had to work for anything.

When I graduated they told me to get out and support myself. I took a crap job and lived in public housing. When my siblings graduated they sent them on a trip to Europe, and then moved them to their cities of choice and paid their rent while they pursued their ever-changing interests, to this day.

Here I am, in my mid-30s, living a very good quality of life, with a loving relationship, everything I could want -- and I am consumed with bitterness toward my family.  We all get along on the surface; I let the obvious inequity go unspoken. I eat dinner with my siblings (who are only a few years younger than me) and we don't mention the fact that our parents have been fully supporting them unconditionally while I struggled over the years. My siblings don't seem to be capable of acknowledging the strangeness of it all. It's not that I don't want them to get the help I never did. It's just the over-the-top inequity of it all.

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One of my siblings is 33 and has a master's degree in a field later abandoned because it was unfulfilling. This sibling is married and is still provided everything by my parents. When I was the same age a few years ago, I wasn't exactly working in my dream profession, but no one helped me get out but myself. It's getting harder for me to contain the feelings of anger. It's strange to get along so well with them if I just turn off my anger, while at the same time having so many horrible feelings inside -- it's becoming a powerful, dizzying mix of contempt and familial attachment. My other sibling, also in early 30s, has been moving from coast to coast (wherever the whim takes him) with his rent paid his entire adult life by my parents. I have been paying a mortgage on my own as long as I can remember with no help.

Here I am, so consumed with bitterness (and is it also jealousy? I think it is-- and that terrifies me) that I can't always enjoy my own successes. For example, I use my hard-earned money to go somewhere on vacation, and in response to hearing how great my vacation was, my parents send my siblings on an all-expense-paid trip to the same place. Upon hearing this, it somehow tarnishes my experience. It makes my achievements seem tainted with something.  I wonder what I did to deserve the unfairness. Am I greedy? My parents once told me that it was all just bad timing: I got the raw end of the deal and I need to get over it, that's about the extent of their response.

Am I a codependent idiot for choosing to continue to play this role as the family leper? Sometimes I feel like a far less attractive Cinderella character, only my siblings aren't stepsisters, and there is no happy ending. Or am I being materialistic for caring about it? I mean, I have a good life, and why should I care if the rest of the people in my family have it easier?

I oscillate between wanting to just get over it and accept them as they are, and wanting to write them off and never speak to them all again. Lately it is just making me feel overly concerned with the material, and petty.

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But I tell you, Cary, sometimes it all seems like a cruel prank being played on me by a very cruel family. At such times I feel like a sucker for sticking around and letting them pull it on me with a smile on my face. When I mention my feelings to them (twice in the past 10 years), they nod their heads, look at me like I'm just sad, and continue on.

Am I an idiot for having anything to do with them? Can a person "disown" their immediate family over money, and support, and not be a superficial monster?

The Bitter One

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Dear Bitter One,

As with yesterday's column, I walked around for days thinking about your letter, empathizing in a blunt, inarticulate way and wondering what I could say. Then I reread it and found this sentence: "I bore the brunt of their battles with alcoholism and depression, and I left home early."

That is the essence of your story. That is really what happened: You bore the brunt of your parents' alcoholism and depression and you left home early. That is who you are.

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You are in fact the lucky one. You escaped. Your siblings were not so lucky. They are trapped. They did not necessarily win. They did not get what they needed either.  They are being held captive in a kind of twilight. They are being manipulated. It is not a happy situation. They are not to be envied.

You at least escaped with a sense of self. Your task now is to fully feel, or face, the big sadness of your early upbringing. How did it feel to be caring for your parents in their alcoholism and depression? How did that feel to look at them and know they are not there for you? What worries about your own survival came up? How did you adapt to this frightening situation? You became self-sufficient. You took care of yourself. Of course you did. But it came at a cost. You were just a kid. But you had to sacrifice your childhood.

This other stuff, the paid vacations, that's a sad and futile diversion. Your parents are attempting to make up for past mistakes, but it is symbolic. Your siblings are not being helped by this. They are living in a gauzy twilight world. They cannot see what is going on and so they cannot mature; they are being held in an adolescent embrace. That is an awful punishment. They are probably tempted to break free but breaking free would come at the cost of injuring their parents, "breaking their hearts." So they are trapped.

You are the lucky one because you escaped. You have the opportunity to  grow, to face life on its own terms, to find peace within yourself. In order to do that, you must see what is happening when you encounter your siblings. The feeling you have is not really so much of envy for what they are getting but sadness and fury at what you did not get.

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You have some emotional months ahead as the full sorrow of this terrifying childhood begins to surface.

We are told to be independent. But this is ridiculous. No one is independent. I got this instruction as well. I was taught to be independent. What did this mean? This meant distorting what is natural.

Teaching us to be "independent" means teaching us to ignore our humanity, our feelings, our longing for community and interdependence, our very source of survival. To teach a child to be "independent" is to perversely gift him with a legacy of exile. Is that what they mean to do? Of course not. This is simply how they have handled their own abandonment. So they pass it on to us. It is the best they can do. It is how they have coped.

Perhaps telling the child to "be independent" is also a way for the overwhelmed parent to create some emotional space for himself or herself. It may be the only thing they can do.

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So when you see your siblings being treated well, or being given stuff you wish you were given, know that what you are feeling is not about what is happening now. It is about what happened a long time ago. You have an absence, in the present, that was formed eons ago. Well, if we were talking geological time we would say eons. It feels like eons, doesn't it? Doesn't it feel as though you have some pocket of emptiness like a limestone cave around which your firmament has layered itself, sediment after sediment? So that the absence is surrounded and hidden? And yet sometimes it can be sounded out, by a hollowness at the tapping?

You have done well, living above this hollowed-out place. Many of us with such an emotional absence do well. We do well because we have to put it together ourselves. We have to figure out just what this whole business of living is all about. And we do. Because we are capable. But we never get rid of that essential sadness. We are always making it up, one encounter after another; we are always speaking from this place of essential compromise.

This gives us many options. It doesn't matter so much what guise we choose, because none of them is authentic. We can act like we are cold and aloof, or act like we are caring and engaged, or brilliant and funny, or deeply intellectual, or very hardworking and responsible. We can do all of these things because there is no emotional core that we can just relax into. There is no completed, whole self. We are just operating on the perimeter. We find we are always acting.

But we can get better. By allowing this early wound to occasionally surface, by witnessing its enormous emotional charge or power, we can gradually be convinced of its reality, and stop pretending.

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Meanwhile, we do compensatory things. As long as we are doing these compensatory activities unconsciously, we tend to be destructive about them, because they are not getting us what we really want. We think symbolically that if we play music or write well we will get love and when we do not get love but only mild interest or praise then we are enraged and we turn to destructive and self-destructive behaviors.

Yes, we go through these stages.

But you deserve to have the chance to get it right.

So here is a concrete suggestion. You must learn to carry this primal wound yourself. It will flare up when you are with your family. You will be reminded, secretly, of what you did not get.

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Work with a therapist or in an Al-Anon group, or a group of survivors of similar families, and let this thing work its way out of your chest. It is there, just waiting. It will save you in the end.

You are the lucky one.


Cary Tennis

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