DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #98: Monsters and Ghosts

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Dear Sugar,

My mother left my father the month I was born. She remarried and had my brother two years later. My stepfather (the only father I knew) committed suicide when I was five years old. My mother became a raging alcoholic following his death. She didn’t physically or sexually abuse me, but was really good with manipulation and humiliation. She led me to believe it was my fault my step father had killed himself because I was gay, etc.

As a child I was the man of the house, and when I was 13 I staged an intervention for my mom (though I didn’t know there was a name for it until much later). She went away for the weekend, and when she returned, she didn’t drink anymore. We were never allowed to ask or talk about this, or any of the other family “secrets” (like my step father’s death). My mom was a difficult person to love, a dry drunk capable of being terribly awful and mean. She was also incredibly intelligent and could be very loving and sweet.

Thirteen years later my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and picked up the bottle again. I was her caretaker, and witnessed her decline into alcoholism, until I couldn’t take it anymore. In order to protect myself (and get sober myself) I left my life, my home, my mother, my partner and our cats and my career. I packed a backpack and got on a bus.

"Sugar Says" poster

“Sugar Says” poster

My mother and I had no direct contact for the next three years. We tried to meet once (with professional guidance) for a therapy session, but the stress caused her to go on a bender which led to another long stay in the psych ward. After years of extreme suffering, my mother died three months ago from alcoholism and cancer. I was with her for the last two days of her life. I held her hand and told her it was okay to go and that I loved her.

I have spent the past three years rebuilding my life: I am now sober, have a career-track job, a home, and a new partner. I should be great, but I can’t seem to escape the past and the memories. I constantly doubt my past actions. I feel guilty that I should have stuck with my mom or tried to reconcile with her sooner than I did. I am haunted by the legacy of alcoholism and mental illness and secrecy. As a result, I’m incredibly shy and insecure. I feel lonely, abandoned and damaged. I have a therapist, participate in AA and Al-Anon, and am often a meditation and Buddhist practioner. These things all help a bit, but I fear I will never be able to move past these experiences and have the happy “normal” life I deserve. I know I may never be able to “get over” these things, but what else can I do to feel better about myself, Sugar? Why do all the bad memories overwhelm the good ones? How can I let go?

Sincerely,
A Man’s Home Can’t Be His Castle If He’s Living In A Haunted House

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Dear Haunted,

When I was eleven, my brother and sister and I went to visit our father. We traveled to the place he lived a thousand miles away from us and spent a week with him and his wife and one-year-old baby. We hadn’t seen him in five years. One afternoon my father made popcorn and told me I could have as much butter as I wanted on it. “More,” I kept saying as he poured the melted butter over the popcorn in my very own gigantic bowl. “More,” I persisted until the entire pile of it deflated like a popped balloon under the weight of all that liquid. I don’t know what posessed me. I couldn’t bring myself to stop saying more until it was ruined. In the end, there was nothing to do but throw the entire sodden mess in the trash.

I’ve thought about that for years. It’s one of those memories that haunts me. It makes me sadder than a lot of the actually sad memories of my father do. I think it’s because when we ruined that popcorn we were both trying so hard. He was, for once, trying to give me everything I wanted and I was trying to get everything I needed and it was way too late for either one.

There would never be enough butter for me in my father’s house. I had to find it elsewhere in the world. Just like you.

You are a fucking amazing person, Haunted, so strong and brave. In spite of every reason not to, you’ve spent your life relentlessly reaching toward the light. You’ve done everything that any therapist, true friend, or half-cracked advice columnist would implore you to do. You set healthy boundaries with your mother even though you had to teach yourself what they were. You faced your own addiction and co-dependency issues and joined a community that supported you in your recovery. You accepted your mother for who she was and forgave her for things many would consider unforgivable. You went to therapy in search of deeper understanding, pursued positive personal paths both professionally and romantically, and developed mental and spiritual practices that no doubt deepen and nurture each of those things.

You have done so damn well, sweet pea. You’ve reached the master level of healing thyself. And yet, here you are. Still you. Haunted and insecure, lonely and wounded, unable to “move past these experiences.” What the hell can you do?

I think the first thing is to recognize how much you have, in fact, moved past these experiences, even though you claim you haven’t. You would not be sober if you hadn’t moved past them. You wouldn’t have been such an astoundingly loving son to your mother if you hadn’t. You likely wouldn’t even have been capable of writing me a letter. While it’s true you’re haunted by your past, it’s truer that you’ve traveled spectacularly far away from it. You swam across a wide and wild sea and you made it all the way to the other side. That it feels different here on this shore than you thought it would does not negate the enormity of the distance you traversed and the strength it took you to do it.

It’s no wonder you thought you’d feel that other, purer way. That reel is playing in a lot of our heads, planted there by a jumble of sources, both mercenary and benevolent, none of which are very much help. We want to believe that on the other side of whatever crap we had to swim away from there’s a crap-free beach where we can lounge in the sun at last. Free and at peace. If anyone deserves that liberation, it’s you, honey bun.

But we can’t erase our lives. We can’t change what our mothers or fathers or step parents were like or what demons or gods ruled them or when they died or how. We can only change who we are in relation to them. We can revise how we narrate those stories of our lives.

A few years ago I lost my temper with my kids and in my anger I told them that they were lucky I was their mom. I yelled that if when I was their age I’d behaved the way they were behaving, my father would have hit me with a belt. They went silent and looked at me. They were so young. They’d never heard about anyone being hit by a belt. The moment after I said what I did I wished I could unsay it, but I couldn’t. So then I apologized and told them a bit about my why I’d been afraid of my father when I was a kid.

They laughed. They actually believed I was joking. Even upon further explanation, they refused to accept what I was telling them was true. It could not be true. They knew how grown ups behaved and it was not the way I described to them—“like monsters and ghosts”—my son said. Like monsters and ghosts.

I had to sit down. It was like after all those years of moving on and processing and letting go and forgiving and coming to peace with and not even giving a shit about it anymore disappeared and everything I ever had to feel or understand or release about who my father was to me was right there and finally decipherable, thanks to the unadulterated and perfectly reasonable perception of my two children, who had such a perception because they’d never in all of their lives encountered a grown up who’d hurt them. Because of this they could concisely and without reservation scoop the last remaining maybe-I-really-am-to-blame bullshit out of my innards and set it on the table so it wouldn’t any longer live inside of me.

My children gave me a new story to tell myself. Not that my father is a monster or a ghost—he’s neither—but that, like your mom, some of things he did don’t make sense. And they never have to. Those things might as well have been done by some fantastical figure in a scary story that has nothing to do with you or me. We can let it sit like that. We can put it in its proper place.

There is so much about your story that hurts. So many things that shouldn’t have been said or done. Reading your letter feels a bit like being punched in the face. But there is one part that’s different than the rest. It’s this: I was with her for the last two days of her life. I held her hand and told her it was okay to go and that I loved her.

Every time I read those sentences it’s like a horse came up and nuzzled an apple from the palm of my hand. Like the world was all tipped over and the next instant everything was right again. I don’t know precisely how you find your way to the “happy ‘normal’ life you deserve,” but I know you will find it by remembering that in those two days you managed to be the man you aspire to be when it mattered most. Which is the only thing that actually matters at all. You weren’t haunted in those two days. You were flooded with light. You accepted your life for what it was. You allowed it all to be okay. You held love in your heart when others would’ve opted for rage.

You’ll never be someone who had a mother who didn’t fuck with him. You’ll always be a person who had to escape from a crap pile to make his whole amazing self up. There’s a lot of sorrow and ugliness in that. But there’s a lot of beauty too.

That’s how we find our way outward and onward. By holding onto beauty hardest. By cradling it like the cure that it is. By making it realer than anything ever was. The rest is just monsters and ghosts.

Yours,
Sugar

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