I had to punish myself

I knew he would be abusive, just like my father, but I had to go be with him anyway

Published May 1, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

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

Dear Cary,

You said in your column that you want letters ... so I think I might send you a few. I have some things I'm sorting through that I suspect your intuition/insight would be especially helpful with. They have to do with the past, addictions and creative growth. So, here's one. This is about an ex and moving past the past.

About 3.5 years ago I started dating someone I met through work. I broke up with my then-boyfriend of three years, with whom I lived, to be with the new guy. At the time I felt a few things: 1) that it was a soul mate connection, larger than me; 2) that I didn't really know why I was doing it because my current boyfriend was wonderful and I loved him; 3) that I didn't deserve to be treated well, and because the new guy reminded me so much of my alcoholic father, I knew he would treat me badly and at a deep level I wanted to be punished. I wish I could say No. 3 was a barely conscious or subconscious voice that I only later recognized, but I actually articulated that feeling, pretty much verbatim, to the boyfriend I was leaving. Well, the relationship turned out as one might expect. In addition to the alcoholism -- over which he was in denial, and in fact there is a whole lot of addiction and a whole lot of denial in his family -- he was verbally and emotionally abusive. There were lots of other problems too, but anyone who is familiar with dysfunctional/addictive relationships can probably fill in the details. I played my role in the dysfunction as well. We lasted about eight months. Most of that I was miserable, we had epic fights, I stayed because I told myself I needed to take my punishment, and by the time we broke up my self-esteem was in such shreds that I was cutting myself. I should add that I was in my mid-20s at the time and he was 10 years older. I finally broke up with him when I tried to interrupt one of his hours-long tirades by explaining (again) that it was not OK with me to be screamed at and called names, no matter how angry he was, and he responded with the following: "I get to yell at you when I'm angry." It wasn't until that moment that I realized I could explain and explain, but his behavior was not going to change because he thought it was an OK way to behave. If I thought it was not OK, it was on me to leave. So I did, and I got into a 12-step program, and I worked my program, and I went to therapy, and I got on with my life. I am much happier and healthier now than I have ever been, and I'm still growing, and I am in a healthy loving relationship of over a year.

Ex-boyfriend, on the other hand, is going slowly but surely down the tubes. I still see him sometimes because of work. When I see him now, my main feeling is of intense revulsion. Sometimes mixed with pity, sometimes mixed with anger, but mostly revulsion. This is fairly new. For quite some time I felt intensely angry every time I saw him, and I worked on that, and it faded away to the point that seeing him didn't bring up much in the way of feelings. He would still annoy me sometimes, because he asked nosy questions, or followed me around, but whatever. But in the last couple months, it's become this revulsion. First of all, it's physical revulsion. He is looking worse and worse. He's been putting on weight, his clothes are looking rumpled, he always looks red and bloated, his hair is looking unkempt, etc. The last time I saw him I was actually shocked at how he looked. I couldn't believe he would show up at work looking like that. And the fact that I was was physically intimate with this guy is revolting. It's also a less physical revulsion that is harder to explain. I always feel that he wants something from me -- attention, I suppose -- that I am not interested in giving. He is like some kind of vacuum. He will try to suck up my attention or suck me into a conversation no matter what. Even when I say, "I have to get back to work," or, "I have to be somewhere," it does not always stop him. For instance, if I have to be somewhere, I will pack up my things and leave, and he will follow me (to my car, public transportation, the office I'm going to, whatever) and then turn around and go back to work (I guess) when I get to my destination. Just Hoovering all the way.  Where is this guy's dignity? He is following someone who has just tried to end a conversation and walk away. I find this revolting. I have also heard that his drinking has increased and he has gone back to using cocaine and I have seen that this is affecting his relationships. People at work are less and less inclined to socialize with him, and he is becoming more isolated. This is because, for example, he will get embarrassingly drunk at a business dinner. One of his few close friends expressed concern about his drinking, and he responded by lashing out and ending the friendship. I used to feel more pity about this, but I feel revulsion now. These are close to feelings I had when my father really began to go downhill. Anger, followed by pity, followed by revulsion.

And I find these feelings annoying. Two and a half years after we broke up, I don't want to have any reaction at all to this guy when I run into him. I don't give outward signs of a reaction, but the internal one is strong. I also feel intense shame when I see him now because I cannot. believe. I ever dated this guy. He's such a revolting, dysfunctional mess, and he didn't even treat me well. THIS is who I thought I deserved to be with? I must have been in very bad shape indeed. I feel shame that I was ever with him, and disbelief, and disgust because he is essentially a mirror of how I saw myself at one time, and the reflection is (say it with me) revolting. I also think my feelings are out of proportion to the situation. He follows me around and is dysfunctional and annoying. So what? I don't need to have a reaction to it. But I do. The last time he followed me around talking at me I wanted to say to him, "What is WRONG with you? Why on earth would you want to force a conversation on someone who obviously is not interested? I find you revolting. Go away." Instead I said, "I have work to do now. Bye," and went into my office and shut the door. I actually sort of wish I'd said the other thing, because I wonder if that's what it will take to get him to leave me be.

So, here are some questions for you. How should I go about dealing with these feelings? How should I approach myself in this situation? How do I stop getting sucked into these interactions with him? What do you think this is about? How do I make peace with my revulsion toward my own past?

Thank you for reading this -- I hope you can help.


Dear Revulsion,

What this is about, I think, is that you need to revisit certain things in your past in order to move on. But such visits, if not done in a structured way, can get you stuck. Since you mention that you have done some 12-step work I suggest you turn to that method, as its structure can help you confront your past and move through it.

Just this moment, as I was sitting outside the cafe, when I glanced up from my computer, I saw the word "discover" three times: "Discover Sonoma" on the yellow San Francisco Chronicle newspaper vending box; "Discover Card" on the side of the Muni train making its turnaround; and, on my computer screen in an adjacent window, in some notes for my novel outline, the phrase "discovery of the body of Billy." So, being interested in the work of Carl Jung and in phenomenology, and in the usefulness of coincidence, I'd say that here in this moment it is necessary to discover something.

What needs to be discovered here? And how?

Let's read these signs like tarot cards. The words "Discover Sonoma" appear beside a picture of a grape cluster, ripe and ready to be made into wine. Sonoma is a place. So we have a place, and the origin of wine. Discover a place where wine is made. This may mean discover the place of origin, the fertile land in which this began.

Second, we see on the side of the Muni train "Discover," as in the credit card, which can symbolize money, the means to action, the mechanism by which you might make a necessary discovery, and it can also mean debt and repayment, what you owe, what debts you have incurred, how you are weighed down by what you owe.

And finally my own notes for my novel:  "discovery of the body of Billy" -- the buried genius painter Billy, the buried innocent, the murdered innocent. Rediscovery of our murdered innocence.

Also, you passed through three stages in relation to your boyfriend, that object of horror and fascination: pity, then anger, then revulsion. Pity, to my mind, arises out of love and is compassion laced with pain. It implies, too, a distance: The object of pity is undergoing something that you have been spared; your message to the object of your pity is, "Your pain hurts me; I am more fortunate; I wish I could help you." Your pity drives you to try to help but you can't help and then you feel anger: When you try to change the situation and it doesn't work, it's frustrating, and when you are mistreated by the object of your pity you become angry. After the anger wears off, then comes revulsion: You see how awful this really is. It is awful and you see it as awful for the first time and you just want to run from it; it repels you; you feel revulsion.

This revulsion you feel is complicated. It is about your boyfriend and your father and yourself.

The psyche uses stand-ins, symbols, as a way of covering something while at the same time revealing it, in the same way that language covers as it reveals and transforms. In this way your alcoholic boyfriend was a stand-in, or symbol, of your father and of your own injured self; your relationship was a way of revisiting your relationship with your father, as if by revisiting it you could change it or fix it, make sense of it, resolve it. But this attempt to resolve it by jousting with its simulacra leads to exhaustion and repetition.

What happens when the revulsion wears off? If you do not exit this cycle, then the pity begins again.

Why do you pity this man and why is it so hard to ignore him? Because at the root of your pity is an undying love for your father. That love will never go away. If you do not complete this cycle by having some personal revelation, if you simply stop at revulsion, the cycle will start again; your love for your father will arise in your heart again but it will be too unacceptable because it is so freighted with loss and sadness, so you will latch onto another object that symbolizes that loss and anger and sadness and betrayal and fury, some object on which to displace all this truly understandable grief.

So the key is not to displace this sad reality onto some object but to take it in, to accept it, to see it and let it be a part of you. Your grief and sadness about your father. Your own mistakes. Your ending of your relationship. Your journey into self-debasement with this stand-in for your father.

That is what the steps are for.

You need to discover the part of you that can love you and forgive you. Before you can love and be loved you need to face and accept what you are.  That is what the steps are for.

Basically, when you left your first boyfriend, you went to meet the devil. That's what you had to do. You had to go and meet this demon and encounter one more time his awful allure and terror to see if you could defeat it. You went with it down the river; you let its currents carry you away so that you could battle it one more time. You just had to do that and you knew you had to do that. You sacrificed. You went on a journey. You told your boyfriend you had to do it.

It wan't all self-punishment. Part of it was getting information. You had to try one more time to defeat it.

Of course you could not defeat it. That's what the 12 steps are about. The 12 steps are about admitting reality. "Surrender" is just admitting reality, abandoning the empirically unsupportable contention that you are in charge of the universe. It's not a matter of opinion: We did not create ourselves; we cannot change other people; we do not originate reality but perceive it and try to interpret it.

The reality to which you must surrender, and which you must try to interpret, is that your father was and/or is an alcoholic. This thing, this alcoholism, came and took your dad, changed him into a monster whom you could not defeat. This was painful for you. You tried to save your dad but you could not. You would still like to win this battle but you have to reach the point where you admit you cannot.

That is what the 12 steps are for. If you can do the steps, particularly and most urgently a thorough fourth, fifth and sixth step, you can finally accept that you did your best but could not save your dad and that you do not have to keep reliving that. You can rediscover your own innocence and admit your mistakes and move on.

What you need is serene acceptance. That can come through the steps. And if the steps do not work for you in this context, you can do much the same thing by revisiting these events in the presence of a wise therapist, perhaps someone attuned to phenomenology and Jungian concepts.

By Cary Tennis

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