DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #65: Transcend


Dear Sugar,

I’m torn. I feel like I have to decide between the two things I love the most. My wife and I have an 18-month-old daughter. Our marriage has been rocky for years. My wife is a heroin addict who relapsed (post-baby), after seven years of recovery. She had been breastfeeding and snorting opioids until the night I caught her.

I come from three generations of addiction from both my parents. I got sober myself when I was a teen and turned my life around while living at a boys’ home, which I consider partially my home. I now work as a drug counselor at this very place. I have become a walking example for the Los Angeles street kids I work with, who are much like me. This work is my calling. It has even inspired me to write my novel, which has become the most stolen book at the boys’ home where I work.

Here is where the tear in my soul begins. My wife is from a small city in the South. I met her there. My mother died when I was living there. My wife was there for me. That city healed me. Recently my wife got an opportunity for a job that’s based in that city. All of my wife’s family and support are there. She just had her second interview and is probably going to be offered this great job.

I’m confused about what to do. Things are progressing for me professionally. I’m half way through my master’s degree in social work and momentum is building in my life. Right before my wife got this job opportunity, she had confessed to being on methadone (prescribed by her doctor) for the last three months to wean her off her heavy addiction. She chose not to tell me even though I have been supportive and had been asking for connection since her relapse. It might not make sense, but I felt more betrayed by this than I do by her relapse. I just want her to have a connection with me.

If she gets the job, I don’t know if I can make the commitment to go with her because of my lack of trust in her and the positive direction of my life here in Los Angeles. I want my wife to be happy and near her family (I don’t have family to offer her as support), but I cannot even bear the thought of being away from my daughter. I don’t want to be like my father.

I’m torn and distraught. Should I be with my daughter, my wife, near more support in a healing town or continue the path of my calling with the boys’ home among the LA street kids I love?

Please help me think this through Sugar.

Torn and Distraught


Dear Torn and Distraught,

I teach memoir writing occasionally. I always ask my students to answer two questions about the work they and their peers have written: what happened in this story and what is this story about? It’s a useful way to see what’s there. A lot of times, it isn’t much. Or rather, it’s a bunch of what happened that ends up being about nothing at all. You get no points for the living, I tell my students. It isn’t enough to have had an interesting or hilarious or tragic life. Art isn’t anecdote. It’s the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives. For what happened in the story to transcend the limits of the personal, it must be driven by the engine of what the story means.

This is also true in life. Or at least it’s true when one wishes to live an ever-evolving life, such as you and I do, sweet pea. What this requires of us is that we don’t get tangled up in the living, even when we in fact feel woefully tangled up. It demands that we focus not only on what’s happening in our stories, but also what our stories are about.

There’s a sentence in your letter that matters more than all the other sentences: I don’t want to be like my father. It’s strange that it matters since I don’t know precisely what you mean by it—nowhere in your letter do you tell me what your father is like. And yet, of course I understand. I don’t want to be like my father is a story I know. It’s code for a father who failed. It’s what your story is about.

If you do not want to be like your father, do not be like him. There is your meaning, dear man. There is your purpose on this earth. Your daughter is the most important person in your life and you are one of the two most important people in hers. That’s more than a fact. It’s a truth. And like all truths, it has it’s own integrity. It’s shiningly clear and resolute. If you are to succeed in fulfilling your meaning, everything that happens in your life must flow from this truth.

So let’s talk about everything that’s happening.

Your first obligation as a parent is to protect your child. Allowing your daughter to move across the country without you when you know that her mother is a drug addict who is struggling mightily with her recovery is a bad idea no matter how many grandmothers and uncles and cousins live across town. Until your wife is clean and strong in her recovery she should not be the primary caregiver of your child. I don’t question the profound love your wife no doubt has for your daughter. But I know addicts and you know addicts and we both know that no matter how wonderful and loving your wife may be, when she’s in her addiction, she’s not in her right mind. For that, your daughter will suffer and has suffered. It is your duty to shield her from this to the greatest extent possible.

The struggle your wife is engaged in right now is essential and monumental. Everything is at stake for her. Her ability to get and stay clean is directly connected to her ability to mother your child and remain your partner. Her addiction can’t be cured by a job or a new town, though those things may ultimately play a role in her recovery. It can only be cured by her desire to heal herself.

I strongly encourage the two of you to step back from the frazzled excitement of a possible job opportunity in a far off and beloved town and focus instead on the monster that’s hunkered down in your living room. What support and resources does your wife need to stay clean? What role can and will you play in her recovery? Is your marriage salvageable? If it is, how will you as a couple reestablish trust and connection? In what city would you like to build your life together and what does that decision mean for each of you, professionally and personally? If your marriage isn’t salvageable, how might you lovingly proceed in the direction of divorce? How will you negotiate custody of your daughter?

Those are the questions you need to be asking right now. Not whether your wife and daughter should move across the country without you in the midst of this already tumultuous time. There are other jobs for your wife. There are other jobs for you (much as you love yours, there are boys all over the country who would benefit from your leadership and wisdom). There are other times one or both of you may decide to move back to her hometown or stay in LA.

Choosing not to ask these questions right now doesn’t mean that you won’t ask them later. It’s only putting a pause button on what’s happening in your story so you can figure out what it means instead. It’s opting to transcend—to rise above or go beyond the limits of—rather than living inside the same old tale.

I know you know what it means to transcend, honey bun. You did it in your own life when you made a whole man out of the fractured boy you once were. But the thing about rising is we have to continue upward, the thing about going beyond is we have to keep going.

You have only begun to understand what it means to not be like your father. Keep understanding. Do not fail yourself on this front. No matter what happens when it comes to your marriage or your work life or your geographical location, there is no being torn when it comes to your daughter unless you choose to rip the fabric yourself.

She wins every time.