Don't do what I did, son!

I made many mistakes until I turned my life around; now I see that in him and it drives me crazy!

Published June 25, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

The basics: Baby-boomer, recovering alcoholic (26-plus years) sees similar acting-out behavior in her high-achieving son, and it makes her sick!

I lived the sex, drugs and rock n' roll life of the 1970s and as a result spent my time digging myself out of financial, employment and legal crises. I had married my high school boyfriend to get out of the house when I flunked out of college at age 20, and then I cheated on him with many of his friends and lots of guys I met when I went back to school. He eventually divorced me, and I lived through hell with a abusive man who had a plate in his head from a motorcycle accident (we never married, thank God). Then, I married husband No. 2 after only knowing him for five weeks. We lived a life of chaos for the next four years until finding recovery in the mid-1980s at age 35.

Husband No. 2 is my son's father, and he also got sober when I did. Through therapy and working the 12 steps, I was able to recognize the promiscuous acting out [was due to] childhood sexual abuse. For 18 years, I've been married to husband No. 3, also in recovery (33-plus years), although he and I began seeing each other while he was still married, so he, too, had some issues with fidelity. I had a sexual relapse about 14 years ago and had an intense but brief affair with a co-worker. This was not healthy for me. I am grateful I didn't drink, and I've recommitted myself to a life of honesty. Through all of this, I've had a great career in book publishing.

My only child is a 32-year-old man married for four years who moved to New York last July to take a promotion with a nonprofit organization. Before this, he and his wife had been living apart for about a year while she had a fellowship in another city at a prestigious organization in her field. His wife assured both families that if this fellowship ever got in the way of the marriage, she'd quit and live with her husband again.

Well, the distance created big problems, and last spring, my son found someone else for comfort and, I suspect, the daily ego boost/excitement that an affair can bring. I should know. You can imagine how hard it was for us to watch him, the two months before he moved to New York, as he tried to juggle his wife and the affair. He was living with us, and we had ringside seats to his lying and manipulative behavior. If I expressed my love and concern for his wife, he would get very angry with me. I couldn't talk with him (I didn't think it was my place) and didn't ever try to tell him how much I related. Only once, after he moved, did I write that I thought he was behaving like a man having an affair and that I thought he should get out of his marriage before starting a new relationship.

My son respects and adores his stepfather, and I was always so proud of my son for not being a "player" while in high school and college (unlike his father and his mother). My son did have lots of issues with life/education/career before he met his future wife, but once he met her, she was the catalyst to his turning his life around, getting multiple degrees and finding his way to a solid career.

My daughter-in-law did eventually move to NYC but only after my son told her (and me) about the affair, insisted it was over and demanded that she move, or else. They have been living there together since last September, and she found a good position in her field. They are very career-oriented and did seem to be on the mend. They've been to counseling together and separately. Now, they've decided to separate to, as my son says, "get some distance from the stress and find themselves." I worry that he's going to reconnect with the object of his affair.

This has made me crazy for over a year, although I'm OK as long as they are together. I have cried and wailed in private and to my husband, to my sponsor, to my friends; however, I just don't get why I've had such a strong reaction to this situation. I have come to love my daughter-in-law dearly, and I love the two of them together. If I see them doing something together and they post it on Facebook, I have a good day. I see her wedding gown in the closet. On the porch, I see the Frisbee they played when they were home. On the piano, I see their wedding portrait. I see these things and I cry. Everyone tells me to let it go, accept whatever happens, live your own life and pray. I try.

I really believed that my son would not be like his parents, and now it appears that he is. His counselor thought he was most likely an alcoholic, with his family and drinking histories, and suggested he go to AA, but he seems to be able to control his drinking so far.

I know I have no control over him, but I still spend hours searching for books about mending from affairs and making marriages work. I haven't sent anything yet, but I think there must be something I can do.

I feel some relief having written this to you. Yes, I know this is about me. Yes, I know, this is the epitome of co-dependency. Yes, I should go to Al-Anon. I just don't want to. I want another answer. I want permission to try and fix their problems.


Dear CW,

I recently came across a conversation with psychiatrist Judith Herman in which she discussed, among other things, the dissociation and "double reality" that people who have survived trauma sometimes live with.

In thinking about that, and about the wonderful capacity of recovered addicts to knowingly entertain impossible notions of fixing the world and fixing others, I wonder if what you are experiencing is not co-dependency but the awakening of a powerful yet repressed capacity within yourself, as though a separate, forgotten being had come to life. If so, the answer would be not to further dissociate yourself from this vital complex of passions by calling it co-dependency, but to embrace it, with gratitude, and encourage its growth and maturity.

What if this is an opportunity to integrate an ideal but long-neglected self -- the self that would have done things differently, had not the trauma and abuse occurred? Of course you can't change the past, but perhaps you can embrace this split-off person who was always there and is still there.

In the 1960s and 1970s, in that atmosphere of existential threat, it made sense for us to reawaken a primitive, tribal, sensual body consciousness as a corrective to the specter of mechanized death. But we had no long-term plan. We had no institutions. Our world was splintered. And thus we limped away afterward to cobble together fragile lives of ambivalence.

This does not have to be about your son, nor does it have to be about co-dependency. This can be about your ideal self reemerging. Let that self reemerge! Your concern is genuine. Let it in and celebrate it.

This permission you want, to try and fix others' problems, perhaps you can have it in a rhetorical sense.

It's OK to want to fix the world. Honor that self. It's a good thing. It doesn't have to be about your son. It can be about your own long-neglected ideal self.

Or at least, let's say, that's an idea I would humbly propose for your consideration.

By Cary Tennis

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