Greetings Everyone! Thanks to all who encouraged me to take on the mantle of advice columnist. And thanks to everyone who has sent in questions. Thank you for trusting me with your problems, which as you can see range all over the place. I’ll be getting to your questions as quickly as I can manage.
If you think reading my column is worth a dollar (or more!), consider becoming one of my patrons on Patreon. Future columns will be released there to my supporters first, and will become public after three days. If I get enough of you supporting in this way, I can just solve your problems all day, instead of spending most of the day job-hunting and revamping my resume.
So without further ado, here goes the first batch.
I have recently been sober for 9+ months after several tough years (a decade or so) of grief induced copedrinking. There were illicit substances (ie non prescription drugs)involved as well and those are out of the picture as well. My mental and physical health have returned. In fact, I’ve gone to a medical doctor and after years of substance abuse I am in perfect health. I moved out of the city (cities always had a tendency to aggravate me) and moved to a slower paced community in the mountains outside of Sacramento. I live with great friends, have lucrative work, and generally am putting my life “together” or “adulting” successfully. I wouldn’t say I was an addict so much as an enthusiastic participant in the substance world….. I also felt like amidst all the drinking and drugs, I “kept my shit together”.
I have the blues.
I feel the sentiment often “what’s the point of this shit?”
I make art in my spare time. I work out. I eat well. I have a balanced supplement regimen. I sleep every night.
I want to freak out loudly and in blathering philosophical platitudes on the next person who asks me “how you doin?”
I am not suicidal. I don’t want to die. I want an answer to the perpetual “why?”
And I remind myself of the delicious rhapsody that is in all of life’s emotional options.
But I’m kind of over the current option. There seems to be the start of a seed of bitterness, cruelty, misery………
Something born of a loneliness that no group camaraderie can heal………
And I know there is a way to go about life with grace…… but I seem to have lost it…….
The wine no longer comes to the top of my cup……… nor do I expect it too.
A long hallway with soft lighting and comfortable furniture seems the likely outcome.
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First of all, congratulations on being sober for 9 months. You picked a helluva year to quit drinking. With the world spiraling down a seemingly bottomless toilet swirl, one could be forgiven for wanting to numb one’s feelings. And those of use who still spackle over the cracks in our souls with booze have quite a bit of company. Liquor companies are unsurprisingly doing a brisk business this year. (http://fortune.com/2017/02/07/liquor-industry-strong-sales-2016/)
But while everyone is boozing it up around, you’ve been sober and reflecting on your life. That takes guts, and good on you for taking the action you needed to remove yourself from an unhealthy lifestyle.
It’s tough to leave the party. People are having magical experiences out there and having a great old time, and they want you around. And time partying is time not spent on projects, or self-reflection, or other stuff that takes clear-eyed concentration and determination.
You want an answer to “why?” Well, you’re not gonna find it at the bottom of a bottle, and you know that already.
You may be aware that other people have asked that same question over the years in various ways. Some of them wrote down what they found. I’d suggest reading a wide variety of philosophical and religious books, as you may find some clues to your own path. But ultimately “why” is not something you’re going to find outside yourself. And you may not even want the answer as much as you think.
I got in some trouble when I was in high school. Nothing too terrible, let’s just say I was seeking the same answers you are, and I was too busy contemplating the great mysteries to deal with anything so prosaic as homework or meals. My grades suffered as a result, and I had to retake two classes in summer school and live with my grandparents for a couple of months.
Much of the summer I was basically grounded, and alone in my grandparents’ house. I wrote some terribly angsty poetry, and I built card houses. There wasn’t much else to do. I had great trouble with the card houses at first; my hands were shaking and my mind was racing all the time. I was also 15 years old, and my place near the bottom of the teen social hierarchy was slowly dawning on me, even as my brain was frantically rewiring itself. In short, I was basically crazy.
But I kept building with cards. It was maddening to me, the fragility of the card houses. I felt like a total failure each time I moved too fast and created a breeze, or accidentally nudged a card the wrong way with the tip of my finger. Everything came tumbling down, seemingly confirming my frantic and doomed worldview.
Gradually, over the course of a few weeks, I began to understand that my card houses were doomed to fall. I mean, I knew it intellectually, but something happened when I accepted, really accepted, the ephemeral nature of card houses, no matter how much skill and concentration I put into them. The fact that they would not last even long enough for anyone else to see them was beautiful in its own way. Each card house I made was a moment that was just for me. With this insight I found I could build not just card houses but card mansions, towering up above the coffee table. The significance of their existence was not lessened by the impermanence of the project, but magnified the significance of the moments they inhabited. This particular card house, and this particular moment, will never exist again. It is precious.
My dad was a drunk. It eventually killed him. Sometimes, though, he was an alcoholic in recovery. In those years when he was trying to dry out, I became fairly familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and its general practices. I assume that in your journey to sobriety you have at least heard of AA. I mention this only because Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, which is something of a staple in AA circles, always resonated with me:
“God grant me the Serenity to accept what I cannot change, the Courage to change what I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”
It occurred to me later that my card houses were a sort of meditation about the same themes as in the Serenity Prayer. I learned to accept the inevitable doom of all well-laid plans, but not to let that keep me from laying more plans.
A lot of what keeps us tethered in this world is our connections and obligations to others. You’ve pulled up roots from soil that was no longer nourishing you, and your web of interconnection has been sundered, and must be rebuilt. It will not look the same as it did when you were partying. It sounds like you have a great opportunity before you. All roads are open except the way you have come. You have the desire to be part of exciting things, meaningful things. It sounds like you need to keep your mind and spirit occupied.
If you’re looking for meaning, perhaps find ways to make meaningful positive change in other people’s lives. You’ll have to rebuild your social web intentionally now; the bottle isn’t there to randomly push you here and there through the throng. Pick a thing you can effect, even in a small way, and volunteer. Serve food to the hungry. Find a skill you would like to learn, and throw yourself into that, or pick something you’re good at and begin to teach those who need it. In other words, create reasons to get up in the morning, and ways that you stay busy being useful to your surroundings, and I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t all seem a little more meaningful.
Dear Abbott – How do you stop wasting so much time on Facebook and get into the reality of your life?
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I’m probably the wrong guy to ask, but this seems like an excellent place to talk about social media. Facebook is the most ubiquitous example, but something strange has happened to us over the last 15 years or so.
Our continuous drive to innovate and alter our surroundings has created the human technological environment. We (those of us who live in cities, over half the global population at this point) live in a fully-mediated world, where technological devices are part of nearly every human activity. If you think of technologies as sort of like prosthetic devices (clothing acts as a prosthetic addition to skin, a bicycle trades out wheels for legs to amplify speed, etc), then social media are a sort of prosthetic extension of our natural tendency to be sociable.
The problem is, of course that like many technologies, social media completely reshape the activity they were trying to improve upon. And there is an addictive quality to it. As the late great media theorist Marshall McLuhan noted, “we shape the tools and thereafter they shape us”.
A good rule of thumb is to carefully consider the roles that technology play into your life. Many of them are quite useful, but each new device, app, etc is a Pandora’s box of sorts that restructures your attitudes and behaviors. If you find that you are dependent on a particular device, try going without it for a week. Take the stairs. Go down to the river and get your own water instead of using the tap. Instead of chatting on Facebook, meet in person or write a letter.
But to your specific question, if you find that Facebook is taking up too much of your time there are a variety of remedies. The most obvious is to deactivate your profile. If that’s not an option, take the Facebook app off of your mobile device. This allows you to isolate your Facebook time to a specific time and place. There is also a wide variety of apps and sites claiming to help limit or manage your social media time, including Rescue Time, Facebook Limiter, Minutes Please, Self Control, Cold Turkey, and others.
I’ve often thought that we ought to start treating communications media in the same way that we treat food. In the technological world, our consumption of junk information is changing how we judge the truth of things. In a world where truth, jokes and outright lies come gushing from the same tap, it becomes difficult to separate any of them and make sensible decisions about our surroundings. Something akin to a food pyramid, but for the consumption of information, might help us decide how much junk data we are willing to consume (and, perhaps, produce).
This question would probably be better answered by hours of therapy, but since I don’t have the extra money for that, here it goes… I am literally at a loss for what to do with my boyfriend of almost 10 years. Our relationship is amazing in many ways; we laugh frequently, have a great understanding of each other, great communication, etc. He is my best friend and vice versa. However, we have always had issues with consent and intimacy.
I was young when we got together and wasn’t good about knowing or voicing my boundaries, and he wasn’t good about asking or trying to read my body language/ actions. This led to a lot of emotionless or coerced sex, and caused me to build emotional walls in that department. I didn’t fully understand how much it was affecting me until I described to an old therapist the nauseous, empty, withdrawn feelings I would have after sex and she said, “You’re describing rape. This isn’t bad sex, it’s rape.”
So, I moved out and we started seeing a therapist together. We’ve made a lot of progress and spoken openly about both of our contributions to this problem, and how to move forward together. He frequently says that he wants me to be comfortable saying no and knowing he will respect that. And he feels terrible for having hurt me unknowingly.
We’ve had some sexual relations since then. Some good, some not so good. And the not so good ones we talked about in therapy.
My issue stems from something that happened a few days ago. We were both really drunk, and started hooking up. A little ways in, I started feeling weird about it. I wanted it to stop because it didn’t feel right. I tried to let him know through my actions (trying to squirm away, not reciprocating, etc), but he didn’t pick up on it. I felt myself starting to disassociate by closing my eyes and putting my head under the blankets, and eventually worked up the courage to ask him to stop. You know, that thing he always says he wants me to feel comfortable saying? I finally said it. And he didn’t stop! Maybe he didn’t hear me? I was too scared to say it again, so I disassociated by emotionally removing myself until it was over.
After all the progress we made, I feel so hurt and betrayed by what happened. I feel like I can’t trust him physically. When we cuddle, I feel trapped. My breath catches in my throat and I don’t feel comfortable again until he doesn’t have him arms around me anymore.
I don’t want to break up, but this last event was such a huge setback.
We will definitely talk about this in therapy, but I really needed to vent and get an outsiders thoughts on this. I don’t know what to do. Can we move past this and have a healthy physical relationship? Or will I always have to have part of myself on guard with him? I don’t want to lose my best friend, but this isn’t sustainable if he goes back on his words, no matter how drunk we both were. Thanks, Dan.
-One Confused Chick
Dear OCC –
I tried to imagine the depth of the emotion you must be feeling right now; I imagined peering over a chasm, jagged and terribly deep. It was almost too much to bear. Ten years is a long time.
I want to be careful here because I am not a therapist, and I am a man. But you are in love with someone who does not respect your autonomy, and whose understanding of your sex life does not seem to require your consent. In short, whether you two have been calling it that, it sounds like your best friend has been sexually assaulting you. From the sound of it, for quite some time.
I had a dream many years ago, in the hazy months after a long romance had crumbled through my fingers. I was talking with a little girl; not sure if she was a future daughter or a student (I was occasionally a substitute teacher in those days), but was maybe 7 years old. She asked me what sex was.
In the dream, I winced. I really did not want to be giving the birds and bees talk in my dream. But what came out of my dream-mouth surprised me:
“There’s a kind of magic that adults can do with each other when they get old enough. It’s a way of casting physical magic spells, meaning you use your body to do it. And it can be used for all kinds of things. It can be a love spell. It can be a spell to share joy or sorrow. Some people use it just for fun, and that’s ok. You can even use this magic to make a whole new person, that’s how powerful it is.
But because it’s such powerful magic, it is very important that everyone involved is trying to cast the same spell. You have to talk about it beforehand and make sure you understand what kind of magic you want. Otherwise the spell will backfire, and it can hurt everyone involved. There are wicked people who do this on purpose. They can be hard to spot though, because they often still believe themselves to be good. Sex is very powerful magic indeed.”
It was a super weird dream. I tell you this story because you’ve got all these conflicting emotions wound up in your situation. It’s a little hard to look at, to think about someone that you clearly have a lot of love for, and capacity for trust, who continually violates your trust in a fundamental way. But to use this sort of dream language, it sounds like you two have a fundamental misunderstanding about what sex is and why you’re having it. Take it back to basics. You know something is going wrong with the spell. You’ve spelled it out for your friend. We men get a lot of messed up messages about sex and violence growing up, and being a decent person involves unlearning a lot of that. But he can’t plead ignorance of your needs.
So what the fuck is wrong with this guy? What kind of a friend is that inconsiderate about something this important? Or anything? For example, I really dislike mayonnaise; I really cannot eat anything with mayo without barfing. If my friend repeatedly, after many warnings and firm requests, kept putting mayo on my sandwiches, I’d start to think they were doing it on purpose. And I don’t need friends like that. At the very least, I would never let them make me another sandwich.
But this is not a sandwich. This is your body, and your heart, that this person is hurting, this person that tells you he loves you. That is not love. Love is finely-aged trust, and he has curdled the love you granted him, and now the whole batch tastes sour. If he wants to stop hurting you, he needs to deep-dive into his fundamental understanding of sex and love, and to get it through his thick skull WHY and HOW what he’s doing is hurtful, and admit fault. Perhaps he would be aided by a keener understanding of the criminal and social penalties he’d be facing if you weren’t his best friend, and of a mind to press charges.
So what to do? First, don’t fuck him. Don’t physically touch him. Don’t be alone with him. Revoke his security clearance to your body. He either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what your needs are when it comes to intimacy and consent. And if you’re already in therapy for it, he knows he did something wrong. If he knows something is wrong and then goes ahead and does it, either he has no control over himself, or he has no conscience. Neither is particularly encouraging.
But you’re on the right track, it seems. You moved out. You’re trying therapy. I would suggest strongly that you both take a break from alcohol, but absolutely do not drink alcohol together. If alcohol is being used to avoid blame for sexual assault, then you want to take that out of the equation. Honestly, both of you pledging to abstain from booze for a few months might give you an indication of his commitment to making changes.
This all assumes, of course, that having this guy in your life at all is worth it. You’ve sunk a lot of time, love, and hope into this person, and the thought of being alone after a decade is pretty scary. You may be blind to some of the factors in this cost/benefit analysis. Ask your closest friends, people who know him and how the two of you are/were together, for their honest-to-god opinion: is this guy a piece of shit?
Dear Abbott –
I have collected things that people can do personally to help fight climate change. I made a website. I keep posting on different social media, and talking to people. I know that corporations/gov are the main culprits. I’m not trying to shift blame. I mostly made the website because people seem to not know where to start. I see/hear people talking about climate change, but it feels like when it comes down to it, people just don’t want to do shit about it. What do I do to get more people involved?
*** *** ***
Well, isn’t this the crux of things these days? I’m assuming you’re living in the United States or somewhere under the tattered nuclear umbrella of the Pax Americana. Those of us whose per capita consumption rates have the most individual impact upon climate are also the ones benefiting the most from our culture of overconsumption. Theoretically, we are the ones with the most power to stop things. But, you know, throwing your bodies on the gears of the Machine is a messy, quixotic-seeming business. Much more convenient to just empire and chill, as long as the machinery of convenience is still humming along.
Sadly, as you noted, even reducing our individual consumption rates won’t really make a huge difference. The companies that extract resources, and who produce the most pollution, are deeply intertwined with the levers of power, and it is going to take a fundamental shift in our way of interacting with the natural world to save our world. In other words, capitalism must be destroyed, and so must nations as we understand them, if we are to retain a planet that is comfortably habitable for our species.
Barring that, pushing for stronger environmental regulations within the US is a more practical goal, since laws here have ripple effects globally. There are plenty of people who will rail against government overreach as shortsighted acquiescence to tyranny. But the same people who worry about the Tyranny of the State seemingly have a blind spot for the Tyranny of the Market. And until a better check on the power of greed can be found, government regulation is the best tool we have short of the guillotine. Right now however, through the steady capture of regulatory bodies by pro corporate lobbyists and moneyed interests the State is looking like a house infested with termites, selling off our common ecological birthright for a little bump on a graph. At a certain point, if you don’t do something, the house is only useful as a home for termites. If the stakes are human existence, all options are on the table, from voting to the guillotine and beyond.
But you already know that. You have a whole website about the problems and the solutions. You’re doing SOMETHING. If only the rest of the world would take notice, we could sort this out in a jiffy.
What you’re really asking, it seems, is how to direct more traffic to your website and thus, to action on environmental solutions. Well, you could make your site more entertaining. Don’t wait for people to just line up on your URL. Go out and draw people to the information. Start a youtube series about these solutions. Interview activists and elected officials. Tweet out alerts about which politicians are voting on what legislation. Organize local meetups, protests and skill shares. It’s always better in person. In other words, you’ve built a website, which can be the hub of a community. Now you need to bring in the community.
It is frustrating to do the work and then not have it utilized or appreciated. The feeling of helplessness in the face of such big problems is natural. But you’ve got to also accept that there’s only so much you can personally do in a day. Burnout is real, and you’ve got to pace yourself. We will be working on these problems all our lives, and we need you in this fight for the long haul.
You’ve planted a garden in your corner of the world. Now do the yeoman’s work of cultivating it.
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