Everything went wrong at once

We moved West for a better life, but then people started dying and our lives fell apart

Published July 2, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

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

Dear Cary,

I need help deciding my and my family's next move in life.

About two years ago, my longterm boyfriend and I, along with my two pre-teen daughters, moved to the Pacific Northwest from the South, where I had lived for 13 years raising my kids. This was my big move out of a Southern city that we both disliked for many reasons and something that I had wanted for a long time for both myself and my children (better schools!). He has two kids that join us in the summer, while my daughters go back to live with their father. Truth be told, I feel that I have traded in one crappy city for another.

Going to a private, liberal grad school in a more exotic locale was my dream; for him, it was more jobs in his field of design. Long story short, things aren't working out. School was a letdown, and considering the cost and realizing the debt, I withdrew with plans to go to a public university either here or somewhere else. My boyfriend has been similarly let down in his lack of career options here and has instead worked for a soul-killing corporation the whole time we've been here. For me, with just a BA in my field, I am unable to find a job and have been underemployed since I left my program.

Since we've been here, we've both experienced serious family problems. My stepfather passed on, and a visit home for his funeral led to a complete meltdown in my already crappy relationships with my dysfunctional family. Shortly thereafter, my youngest brother came to live here with us, stole our things, got on heroin and ate all our food. (He made more money than I did.) My family proceeded to viciously attack me for kicking him out.

My boyfriend's family has all but disappeared since we have been here. His father passed away shortly before we moved, but he felt OK moving as his brother was available to offer local support to their mom. One year to the day after his father's passing, his brother had a heart attack and passed on unexpectedly at age 46. Nearly three months later, his mother was found wandering the streets with what we now know is Alzheimer's disease. She is now in assisted living and doing better.

Our situation is incredibly complex. We are fully realizing the challenge of carting four kids across the U.S. two times a year. We thought we would be doing much better at this point but are not experiencing very much success in an expensive West Coast city. We are considering moving back closer to home and are looking at my hometown, a Midwestern city that is within driving distance of the other parents and his mother.

We are both reeling, let down and ungrounded from the last two years of life. I have begun realizing that I am incredibly depressed due to all these circumstances as well as the very real issues with the climate of the Pacific Northwest, which I believe is affecting all of us. I have no motivation and can't think clearly. This is not like me at all. I have no one to really talk to about this, as anyone in my family or my children's father would only blame me for any "failures." I am apprehensive about living closer to my family. I go from thinking that I want to have better relationships with them (is it even possible?) to never wanting to speak with them again.

As well, my daughters (14, 12) have built up a strong community of friends and love it here. I am afraid that moving them AGAIN is going to hurt them at this age. How much say-so should they have in our moving or staying? We wonder if we haven't given the new city enough time to unfold or if we should be able to recognize when things aren't working.

Honestly, I don't trust my own judgment right now. I've tried meditation and prayer. And many other things. I never envisioned this. I feel like I have screwed up my life and am an irresponsible mother. I feel like I have lost my faith in the unfolding of life. I continue to just go back and forth in a hellish limbo of uncertainty. Should we move closer to home, stay here and try to make it work, or follow his career somewhere else that is sunnier? I just want a happy home for my kids.

Thanks for your time,

Sleepless in Seattle

Dear Sleepless in Seattle,

I have to be careful not to give the impression that I'm diagnosing people over the Internet. So let me just tell you that what you describe sounds very similar to what I experienced recently.

When you write, "I have no motivation and can't think clearly. This is not like me at all," I relate completely. I also went through a period of losing relatives, stress, plus in my case major surgery and a fairly long recovery involving many painkillers and other drugs. Afterward, I found myself unable to concentrate, unable to make sound decisions, lethargic, confused, sad, the whole bit.

I had gotten mild depression in the past, like two or three days of feeling down, but I always bounced back. This time I wasn't bouncing back. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and luckily I have good health insurance, and we have the excellent doctors of the UCSF Medical Center here in San Francisco, and I'm doing much better now.

Each case is different. It was not recommended that I go on medication, but I would have done so if the doctors recommended it. I was willing to do anything to get out of that miserable state.

So without pretending to be diagnosing you for anything, here's my advice. Find a good doctor you trust and say you want to be checked out for depression.

If it turns out you are depressed, you are not alone and there is a lot of support available. You can come out of it.

So that's my thought. I recommend staying where you are and concentrating on recovering from this series of really nasty shocks.

I mean, coming from the heart, I just want to say, take care of yourself! Get some help. You can feel better.

The Pacific Northwest can be your friend, but it's challenging and different. I know. I moved out to San Francisco from the South back in the late 1970s, and it is a place of magic and majesty and beauty, but it's hard to get used to it. It's hard to get used to the rain and fog and the lack of a real hot summer. Maybe this isn't technically the Pacific Northwest, but it's foggy enough to drive you nuts out here in the Sunset District. I'd recommend looking into the effect that the Seattle winter has on your mood, in addition to looking into whether you may be suffering from depression.

And it's hard to get used to the people out here, too. After 30 years out here I still get confused. Southerners and Westerners: Different types. So that can lead to some misunderstandings. We act differently and sometimes we think differently, and we have different senses of humor and of history.

Plus there's the weather. Sure, at first it's great that it isn't so hot all the time. But then you notice you're always carrying a jacket, even in June, and what's that all about? I still have to fight the effects of many prolonged periods of fog out here on the coast. It will take some time to get used to the chilly weather and the rain, but I think you will find your way. It helps to stay active. Now I understand why so many people like to "hike" out here. That was never a thing you would do, at least in my experience, down South. You're going to hike? Why? Can't you drive? Why would you just go out and walk somewhere for no reason? It's just flat and hot — what's the point?

But moving out to the West Coast was a good idea, and you did it for good reasons. All these other unexpected, awful losses occurred, and it was stressful, but your choice was basically a good one. I am rooting for you to consolidate your gains. Don't put your kids through another move. Stick with it, and you will put down some roots out here.

Like the redwoods, once your roots are down, you will grow tall and majestic.

Is that corny? Sorry. I'm just saying I believe that the Pacific Northwest is a wonderful place and that it just takes some adjustment.

It was a good idea. Give it time.

By Cary Tennis

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