DEAR CAROLYN: My dad just went into treatment for alcoholism. I live far from home and have been asked to write a letter to him regarding the ways his alcoholism has affected me. It’s a tough question that requires a lot of thought. I’ve been tearful and deep in thought as all of this has unfolded.
I’m also distracted and stressed because I have my regular life, job, injuries and concerns to deal with. My friends know this and have been giving me space and checking in regularly to see how I am doing. I am so appreciative.
Meanwhile, I have a very close friend who is going through her own mid-20s crisis. For me, the emotional stress means I want time alone. I’ve told her this several times. But for her, it has shown itself in the constant need for … me. She wants my advice, she wants to complain to me, she wants me to go with her to the beach, shopping or to drink wine and talk about life together. I get texts and calls every day. I feel ambushed by her needs because I have too many of my own right now.
Again, I have told her this. Several times. But each time I am met with another round of, “I guess it just feels like nobody cares,” or “I just thought I could express my sadness to you because you are my friend.” It feels bottomless, this neediness.
Meanwhile, I need to stop worrying about her and worry about myself, my sisters, my family. What would you do?
DEAR A.: I hope I’d see my parent’s alcoholism and my letter-writing stress and my boundary-challenged friend as limbs of the same beast – but I’m guessing I’d need a disinterested observer to help me connect them.
That, too, is another limb, the difficulty in stepping back and seeing oneself clearly – though it’s pretty common outside this context, too.
By this context, I mean growing up in the shadow of a parent’s drinking problem. That’s the beast, where the drinker’s problems devolve to family members like you, who then grow into adults who take on other people’s problems as their own, out of emotional habit. It’s easy to see how this happens: A drinker makes a mess, the family cleans it up; a drinker does something embarrassing, the family covers it up. The drinker is easily provoked, the family tiptoes around.
Al-Anon is one way for you to start connecting these dots for yourself. Another is to find a good therapist who works with addicts and their families. Another is the oldie but goodie “Lifeskills for Adult Children,” a quick read by Janet Woititz and Alan Garner.
Here’s a sneak preview of some of those dots:
▪ Alcoholism is your dad’s problem. You can choose to help – him, “my sisters, my family” – but that’s for you to decide, not your family.
▪ Writing a letter is therefore optional. If documenting your feelings helps you, then do it, but the stress of writing it is not an obligation anyone can impose on you. “I understand you want this letter, but I will handle my feelings in my own way.”
▪ Your friend’s neediness is her problem. You can help her if you choose to, but her feelings do not obligate you – to help, to explain, to overextend yourself, to bend to her manipulations. “Yes, (validation here). I will/won’t (your limit here) for you.” Apply universally.
What is your problem, then? Tending to “my regular life, job, injuries and concerns” is your first priority, plus your own response to this latest family news. Trust that it’s your right to decide, then do, what you need to do.
Dear Carolyn: My husband and I are divorcing. He wasn’t honest with me about when he started seeing someone else, which causes me to doubt a lot of what he says and wonder what else he was being untruthful about during our marriage. He fully admits he hung on till the bitter end because of social stigma and because it was easier to hope things would get better. I did not know any of this during the marriage.
He wants to be friends after the divorce is final, and does not want to put into writing a division of one asset. He wants me to trust him. Should I trust anything he says? Is being friends afterward even a consideration? – Divorcing
Dear Divorcing: I don’t know if you can trust him, and I also don’t care. You’re ending the marriage; it’s time to take trust entirely out of the equation.
Handling that last asset is a question for your lawyer (who I think I can hear screaming), but as an emotional issue, my answer is: Don’t leave any strings attached.
Once you free yourself, you can still decide that you have more you want to give to him – be it your friendship, or this or some other asset – but coming from that position of freedom, your decisions will be much more sound.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.