DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #66: The Gentlest Possible Version of the Truth


Dear Readers,

It’s March, my anniversary month as Sugar—on March 11 last year The Rumpus published my first column.

I reread that first column yesterday and laughed at how much of what became my version of Sugar was present before I even knew what it would be. That first column begins with a sassy aside about anal assault by a lawn flamingo and ends with my usual sincerity regarding love. To see that was strangely reassuring. Even in concealing myself, I couldn’t help but simply be who I am.

When I became Sugar I had only a handful of letters from which to draw upon. Four, to be exact. I answered all four of those letters in my first three columns. In honor of my anniversary, I decided to answer four letters this week. My answers are briefer and more direct than the usual column, but I hope they’ll still be interesting enough for you. I chose the letters I did because each of them has been haunting me in some way—three of them for several months now.

I read every letter almost immediately. I answer each and every one of you in my mind. Sometimes I dream about what you’ve written to me. I worry about some of you. I’ve said before I feel a particular kind of love for everyone who writes to me and it’s true.

Thank you for reading.



Dear Sugar,

I think (know) I have a serious problem with alcohol. It freaks me out; it even wakes me up in my sleep because I am terrified of this tunnel I keep going further into. No one has ever said anything to me about it, because I’ve always been professional, calm, laid-back and in control. I don’t think I have control anymore, and it seriously scares me. I drink before work, when I wake up, drink during lunch, and drink as soon as I get home to fall asleep, when no one can see me doing it.

But I also drink out socially, with my friends, and they are impossible NOT to drink around, and they actually prefer to see me “on,” which is the only state I seem to be comfortable with now. I don’t think I can give up drinking out socially, because without my friends, I would probably just end up drinking more at home alone.

I know you are not a psychologist, but I would like to get some unbiased advice about this. I have tried to approach some people about this before (including therapy), but it has proved fruitless, and also really embarrassing.

I guess I am hoping you have the magic, easy solution to this, and I am going to assume there probably isn’t one.



Dear Drinker,

My unbiased advice is that you know you’re addicted to alcohol and you need help. You’re right that there is no “magic, easy solution” to this, sweet pea, but there is a solution. It’s that you stop using alcohol. Privately. Socially. Morning. Noon. Night. And probably forever.

You will do this when you’re ready to do this. To be ready you need only the desire to change your life. To succeed, most people need a community of support. Alcoholics Anonymous is a good place to begin. There, you will find those who struggle in the same ways you do; people who once told themselves the same lies about what was “impossible.”

Addiction is a tunnel that wakes you up in the middle of the night.

Everything else happens out here in the light.



Dear Sugar,

I have been with the same man off and on for twenty-one years—we’ve been married for eleven. I consider him my soul mate and the love of my life, hands down. About a year ago I met a man who lives in my community and we developed an online flirtation that got out of control. Why? A combination of reasons:

  1. I was going through a bit of a mid-life crisis (hello forty!) and the attention of this particular man—who is attractive, sexy, successful, brilliant, etc—was flattering.
  2. My husband had recently had an online flirtation that I discovered accidentally and my feelings were hurt.
  3. I’m a stay at home mom and I’m bored.

I am not and never was seriously interested in my online crush. It was an ego stroke and a diversion. I have completely cut off any contact with this man and sincerely want nothing to do with him in the future, but recently I’ve been doing some spiritual work (I’m a yoga teacher) and I’ve been advised to tell my husband the truth because “What you hide owns you.”

I do think my husband and I could work through this if I told him the truth, as I did not have a full blown affair with this man, was not in love with him, etc. At the same time I know it would hurt my husband deeply and since I have no intention or desire to leave him, I do not see the point.

As many say, “love is complicated,” but mine for my husband is simple. I love him and want to be with him forever. Please advise.

Can You Keep a Secret and Still Feel Genuine About Your Love?



I might get my ass scorched by the purists for this one, but I don’t think you should tell your husband about your online flirtation gone off the rails. Love isn’t the only thing that’s sometimes complicated and sometimes simple. Truth is sometimes that way, too.

Truth is simple in the la la land where most of us first hatched our love. Of course we’d never lie to each other! we smugly believe in the early, easy days. But every now and then love gets more complicated in the thick of our real lives than a simple black and white interpretation of truth will allow.

I believe I’ve made it apparent in my previous columns that I’m not a fan of deception. Honesty is a core value in any healthy and successful relationship. To withhold the details of our lives from our intimate partners often leads to a hot mess. But there are rare situations in which the truth is more destructive than a confession would be.

If you’d had sex with this fellow; if emotional affairs were a pattern for you or even if you’d done this more than once; if this experience made you realize you were no longer in love with your husband; if you were continuing the relationship you know to be deceitful and destructive; if your gut instinct told you that you should reveal this secret—in each of these cases, I’d advise you to tell your husband about what happened.

But it doesn’t sound to me like that’s what’s going on with you, sweet pea. Sometimes the greatest truth isn’t in the confession, but rather in the lesson learned. What you revealed to yourself in the course of your experience with the other man will likely make your marriage stronger.

Isn’t love amazing that way? How it can bend with us through the years? It has to. It must. Lest it break.



Dear Sugar,

I have a three-year-old baby girl who is the light of my life. Her father refuses to see her and doesn’t want a single thing to do with her. In fact, if you ask him how many kids he has he says one—his son from a previous relationship. He does not want pictures or emails about her. He said he could never love her. She is three! What’s not to love?

All of this is even after we went to court and did a DNA test (which he demanded even though he knew I was only sleeping with him). He now pays child support monthly out of his paycheck.

So what happens when the day comes that my darling daughter asks about her father? I do not speak ill of him, in fact I do not speak of him at all. But she knows her friends at daycare have “daddies,” so the question is coming.

My daughter’s father has never even told his mother that she has a granddaughter (his father is dead). His son has no idea he has a half sister (just as my daughter has no idea she has a half brother).

What do I tell her?



Dear Stumped,

Tell her the gentlest possible version of the truth when she asks for it and keep telling it as the gentlest possible version of the truth changes and deepens and darkens and grows less gentle over the years—and it will, in conjunction with your daughter’s capacity to understand what your answers mean.

Tell her that everyone begins with a sperm and an egg, but the families that raise us look all sorts of ways—one mother, two mothers, one father, two fathers, one mother and one father, no mother or father, but grandparents or friends instead.

Tell her you’re the luckiest woman in the world that your family is made up of you and her.

Tell her everything she wants to know about her father when she asks except everything ugly he ever said about her.

Tell her you will support her if she wants to reach out to her father or his family.

Tell her she is the light of your life.

Tell her she can survive on that.



Dear Sugar,

I’m transgender. Born female twenty-eight years ago, I knew I was meant to be male for as long as I can remember. I had the usual painful childhood and adolescence in a smallish town because I was different—picked on by other kids, misunderstood by my (basically loving) family. Seven years ago I told my mom and dad I intended to have a sex change. They were furious and disturbed by my news. They pretty much said the worst things you can imagine anyone saying to another human being, especially if that human being is your child.

I cut off ties with my parents and moved to the city where I live now and made a new life living as a man. I have friends and romance in my life. I love my job. I’m happy with who I’ve become and the life I’ve made. It’s like I’ve created an island far away and safe from my past. I like it that way.

A couple weeks ago, after years of no contact, I got an email from my parents that blew my mind. They apologized for how they’d responded when I told them about my plans for a sex change. They said they were sorry they never understood and now they do—or at least enough that we could have a relationship again. They said they miss me and they love me.

Sugar, they want me back.

I cried like crazy and that surprised me. I know this might sound odd, but I believed I didn’t love my parents anymore or at least my love had become abstract, since they had rejected me and because we’ve not been in touch. But when I got that email a lot of emotions that I thought were dead came back to life.

This scares me. I have made it because I’m tough. I’m an orphan, but I was doing great without my parents. Do I cave and forgive them and get back in touch and even go visit them as they have asked me to do? Or do I email them and say thank you, but letting you back into my life is out of the question, given our past?

I know what you’re going to say, Sugar. I read your column. But I need you to say it to me.



Dear Orphan,

Please forgive your parents, sweet pea. Not for them. For you. You’ve earned the next thing that will happen if you do. You’ve remade yourself already. You and your mom and dad can remake this too—the new era in which they are finally capable of loving the real you. Let them. Love them back. See how that feels.

What they did to you seven years ago is terrible. They now know that. They’re sorry. They’ve grown and changed and come to understand things that confounded them before. Refusing to accept them for the people they’ve become over these years of your estrangement isn’t all that different from them refusing to accept you for who you are. It’s fear-based and punishing. It’s weak rather than tough.

You’re tough. You’ve had to ask impossible questions, endure humiliations, suffer internal conflicts and redefine your life in ways that most people don’t and can’t even imagine. But you know what?

So have your parents. They had a girl child who became what they didn’t expect. They were cruel and small when you needed them most, but only because they were drowning in their own fear and ignorance.

They aren’t drowning anymore. It took them seven years, but they swam to shore. They have arrived at last on your island.

Welcome them.