Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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“Dear Sugar” is an advice column that appears regularly in the online magazine The Rumpus. A journal of culture (not pop culture but the other kind), The Rumpus is edited by Stephen Elliott, whose work has appeared in The Sun. Sugar is a pseudonym, but her writing reveals her to be a woman of compassion, wit, and wisdom. In 2012 Cheryl Strayed announced that she was Sugar. The columns below are reprinted with her permission.
I was raised in a conservative, Christian part of the South. Through the Internet and columns like yours, I’ve discovered that my life has been sheltered from views and lifestyles in other areas of the country. Our town has a population of about six thousand. The whole county has fewer than thirty thousand people.
I am a professional in real estate, and I own my own business. I’ve been married for more than twenty years and have four children. The first half of my marriage was a utopia, but my wife and I have grown apart over the last ten years. Now we simply cohabit peacefully, like siblings. Neither of us is happy, but we stay together for the kids.
Several years ago I had an accident that damaged my spine, and now I’m hopelessly addicted to the very strong pain medications that were prescribed to me. I take a month’s supply in about seven to ten days. Then I crash and have to beg or borrow from others to make it to the next appointment.
When the economy went bad, so did my business, and we lost our health insurance, so checking into rehab is impossible. I can’t depend on my wife for financial support (she doesn’t have a job), and I don’t have any other family nearby. I feel totally alone except for my children. I’ve tried everything I can think of to stop taking the drugs, from prayer to cold turkey, but nothing has worked. I’ve begun to have suicidal thoughts that I’m sure are related to the meds as much as anything else. The choices I see are:
I hope you can suggest some other options, because I don’t see any of the above working out. Please give me a new perspective, Sugar.
Ruler Of A Fallen Empire
Dear Ruler Of A Fallen Empire,
I’m terribly sorry for your misfortune. You listed the three options you think you have, but really they all say the same thing: that you believe you’re fucked before you begin. I understand why you feel this way. Your situation is truly daunting. But you don’t have the luxury of despair. You can find a way to overcome these difficulties, and you must. There aren’t three options. There is only one. As the poet Rilke says, “You must change your life.”
You have the capacity to do that, Ruler. It seems impossible now, but you aren’t thinking clearly. The drugs and desperation and depression have muddled your head. If there is only one thought that you hold in your mind right now, please let it be that one. It was that thought that got me out of my own drug-money-love disaster several years ago. Someone I trusted told me what to do when I couldn’t think straight for myself, and listening to him saved my life.
You say that you don’t have the ability to kick your addiction, but you do. It’s that you can’t do it alone. You need to reach out for help. Here’s what I think you should do:
I’m writing a book under my real name right now, and as I worked and reworked a passage in that book, your words about believing there is no way out of your situation rang through my mind. The passage is about the year I lived in Brooklyn when I was twenty-four. I shared an apartment with a man who was then my husband in a building that was mostly empty. Below us was a bodega; above us, a couple who got into raging fights in the middle of the night. The rest of the building — though full of apartments — was unoccupied for reasons that were never clear to me. I spent my days writing alone at home while my husband worked as an assistant to someone who appeared to be in the Mafia. In the evenings I waited tables.
“Did you hear something strange?” my husband asked me one night when I got home from work.
“Hear something?” I asked.
“Behind the walls,” he said. “I heard something earlier, and I wondered if you heard it too, while you were alone today.”
“No, I didn’t hear anything,” I said.
But the next day I did. Something behind the walls, and then from the ceiling. Something close, then distant, then close again, then gone. I didn’t know what it was. It sounded awful, like a baby who was extremely discreet. It could have been nothing. It could have been me. It was the exact expression of the sound my insides were making every time I thought of how I needed to change my life and how impossible that seemed.
“I heard something,” I told my husband that night.
He went to the wall and touched it. It was silent. “I think we’re imagining things,” he said, and I agreed.
But the sound kept coming and going all through December, impossible to define or locate. Christmas came, and we were all alone. The employer who probably belonged to the Mafia gave my husband a bonus. We spent it on tickets to the opera in the way-back seats: Mozart’s Magic Flute.
“I keep hearing it,” I said to my husband on the subway ride home. “The sound behind the walls.”
“Yeah,” he said, “me too.”
On New Year’s Day we woke at seven to a yowling and jumped out of bed. The sound was the same one we’d been hearing for three weeks, but it wasn’t discreet anymore. It was coming very clearly from the ceiling of our bedroom closet. My husband immediately got a hammer and started pounding at the plaster with the claw end, chipping it away in great chalky chunks that fell over our clothes. Within ten minutes he’d ripped out most of the closet ceiling. The noise had stopped during the pounding. Once there was no more ceiling, we went silent and stared up into the mysterious black innards of the building.
At first it seemed there was nothing. Then, a moment later, two emaciated kittens appeared, peering down at us from the jagged edge of the hole. They were so skeletal they should have been dead: visibly shaking with fear, caked in soot and spider webs and globs of black grease, their eyes enormous and blazing.
“Meow,” one of them said.
“Meow,” wailed the other.
My husband and I held up our palms, and the kittens walked into them immediately. They were so light it was like holding air.
I worked and reworked this passage as I pondered you and your problems over these past weeks, Ruler, but after all that effort, I decided to take it out of my book. It was nice, but I didn’t need it. It was an odd thing that had happened to me during a sad and uncertain time in my life, and I’d hoped it would tell readers something deep about my ex-husband and me: About how in love we were and also how lost. About how we were like those kittens who’d been trapped and starving for weeks. Or maybe the meaning was in how we heard the sound but did nothing about it until it was so loud we had no choice. I could’ve sanded the story down. I could have fit it in.
But I took it out because of you. I realized it was a story you needed to hear instead. Not how the kittens suffered during those weeks that they were wandering inside the dark walls with no way out — though surely there’s something there too — but how they saved themselves. How frightened those kittens were, and yet how they persisted. How, when two strangers offered up their palms, they stepped in.
I’m a twenty-five-year-old woman who began dating a wonderful man a couple of months ago. He’s smart, good-natured, and funny, and he definitely turns me on. I’m extremely happy to have met him, and even happier that he likes me as much as I like him. Our sex life is great, but my man has this habit of mentioning past sexual experiences. He doesn’t go into detail, and I don’t think he realizes that his stories bother me. I think he simply trusts me and wants to talk about these things.
Recently he started to tell me that he’d once been in an orgy. I stopped him and said I didn’t want to know about it. He wasn’t upset, and he respected my request, but now this image is floating around in my head. Constantly. Haunting me. I keep imagining what it was like, what he was like, what the women were like, and it’s making me sick: Sick with jealousy. Sick with insecurity. Sick with fear.
I’m not worried that he’s going to cheat on me or go have an orgy, but I do worry that I won’t be enough to satisfy him. I don’t know what to do. This image is still in my head — as are others — and I don’t know if talking with him about it will help or just make it worse.
Is this something that, if left alone, I’ll eventually realize is a natural part of his healthy sexual past, or should I tell him how it makes me feel at the risk of sounding like an irrational, insecure, jealous woman who doesn’t trust him? If I do talk to him about it, how can I keep from fanning the crazed fire that’s already burning in my head?
Haunted By His Sexual Past
Dear Haunted By His Sexual Past,
Hmmm. So let me see. Your boyfriend is:
Am I going to have to remove my silk gloves and bop you with them, sweet pea? You aren’t haunted by your boyfriend’s sexual past. You’re haunted by your own irrational, insecure, jealous feelings, and if you continue to behave in this manner, you will eventually push your lover away.
I don’t mean to be harsh. I’m being direct because I sincerely want to help you and because it’s clear to me that you’re a good egg. I know it’s a kick in the pants to hear that the problem is you, but it’s also fantastic: you are, after all, the only person you can change.
So let us dismantle your mania.
You say that your knowledge of your lover’s past sexual experiences makes you feel jealous and insecure and afraid that you won’t be “enough to satisfy him.” If you weren’t enough to satisfy him, you’d know it, because he wouldn’t be with you. The fact that he is means that he likes you, darling. A lot. And he doesn’t want to be with all the other women he’s fucked. Or, at least, not all that much.
Contrary to what the entire spirit-decimating Hollywood Industrial Complex would have you believe, romantic love is not a competitive sport. Some of those women your boyfriend used to fuck have nicer asses than you. Some are smarter or funnier or fatter or more generous or more messed up than you. That’s OK. You’re not up against those women. You’re running your own race. We don’t dig or not dig people based on a comparison chart of body measurements and intellectual achievements and personality quirks. We dig them because we do. This guy, your lover, my anxious little peach? He digs you.
Don’t ruin it because at some point in time he dug other women too. Of course you’re going to get a pinchy feeling inside when you think of those women rubbing up against your man. I get that. I know what it’s like. It was not so long ago that I was standing in my basement and came across an envelope addressed to the man who’s taken up permanent residence in the innermost sanctum of the Sugar Shack, and when I picked it up, out fell little bits of glossy paper that if you put them all together would be a photograph of the woman who was the last woman my man fucked who wasn’t me. And this woman was not just any woman, but an impossibly lithe modern dancer of some acclaim, her body so tight and taut and fiddle-esque that I might as well be the Pillsbury Doughboy. And these pieces were not the result of my man ripping up the photograph because he didn’t want to see the image of the last woman he fucked who wasn’t me. No. This was a love puzzle she made for him — I know because I also read the card inside — which basically said, Come and get me, tiger.
So of course I stood there among the spider webs and laundry lint and put the pieces together until there she was, sculpted and bedazzling, in all her not-Sugar glory.
It felt a little like someone had stabbed me in the gut. But that was all it did. By the time I’d scooped the pieces of her into my palms and returned them to their rightful place in the envelope, that feeling was just a pinprick. I took a walk with my sweetie later that day, and I told him what I’d found, and we laughed about it, and even though I already knew the story of the woman, I asked him about her again — what had drawn him to her, what they’d done together, and why he’d done with her what he had. And by the time we were finished talking, I didn’t feel anything in my gut anymore. I only felt closer to the man I love.
I felt that way because we were closer. Not because I more deeply understood the woman who makes me look like the Pillsbury Doughboy, but because I more deeply understood the man who has chosen to take up permanent residence in the Sugar Shack. The jealous fire that’s burning in you, Haunted — the one that speaks up when your man tries to share stories of his sexual past — is keeping you from being close to him. The women your lover knew and loved and had wild orgies with before you are pieces of his life. He wants to tell you about them because he wants to deepen his relationship with you, to share things about himself that he doesn’t share with many others.
This is called “intimacy.” When people do this with us, it’s an honor. And when the people who do this with us also happen to be people with whom we are falling in love, it lets us into an orbit in which there is admission for only two.
It’s gratitude that you should be feeling, not jealousy and insecurity and fear, when your lover shares stories of his life with you. I encourage you to reach for that gratitude. It’s located just a stretch beyond the “crazed fire” that’s burning in your head. I’m certain that if you apply some effort, you’ll have it in hand.
Please read the letter you wrote me out loud to your boyfriend. This will be embarrassing, but do it anyway. Tell him how you feel without making him responsible for your feelings. Ask him what his motivations are for telling you about his sexual past. Ask him if he’d like to hear about your own sexual experiences. Then take turns telling each other one story that makes each of you feel a little bit like you’ve been stabbed in the gut.
Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start there.
I could be worse. That was one of my father’s favorite sayings. Whenever we heard a story about a man beating his children or murdering his family: See, I could be worse. It was as if the mere existence of vileness and depravity could exculpate him of any wrongdoing.
He never hit my mother or me. He didn’t rape me. My mother would have left him if he’d lifted a hand against me, but words — painful, horrible words — were allowed. Instead of bruises and scrapes, I suffered internally. My father is a narcissist: controlling, vain, volatile, and charming. If I wasn’t cheerful enough, he didn’t want to look at me and locked me in my room for days. My room was my sanctuary; my books, my closest friends. I could never be perfect enough, and yet I tried so hard to make him proud, to make him care. He was my dad, after all.
My father disowned me twice over minor disagreements. When he decided that everything was fine again, I was expected to accept his change of heart — no apologies (unless they were mine), no further mention of the incident. Each time, I let my mother convince me to give him another chance. But three months ago he went too far. He betrayed my mother, and, when I tried to support her, I was subjected to an angry diatribe. I was a “fucking bitch” for finding out about his infidelity. I had no right to invade his privacy.
This time I disowned him. I moved out. (I’m twenty and had been staying at home for the summer.) I’ve ceased all contact.
Though I know I could live happily without my father and that I’m stronger since he’s been gone from my life, it’s as if I can never fully escape him. It doesn’t help that my mother is still trying to fix things. She tells me how my father has changed and pressures me to make it work. She wants to know when I’ll be ready to be around him again. It’s hard to explain to her that I really don’t feel anything for him anymore, that I no longer trust him.
My father and I will never have a good relationship, but is it right for me to sever it completely, Sugar? So many people insist that it’s my duty to forgive the man who gave me life, but is it worth the pain, self-doubt, and depression?
Could Be Worse
Dear Could Be Worse,
No, sweet pea, maintaining a relationship with your abusive father is not worth the pain, self-doubt, and depression. In cutting off ties with him, you have done the right thing. Your father has no right to abuse you. The standard you should apply in deciding whether or not to have an active relationship with him is the same one you should apply to all the relationships in your life: you will not be mistreated or disrespected or manipulated.
I’m sorry your dad is an abusive narcissist. I’m sorry your mother has opted to placate his madness at your expense. Those are two very hard things. Harder still would be a life spent allowing yourself to be abused. I know that liberating yourself from your father’s tyranny isn’t easy, but it’s the right way. And it’s also the only way that you might — just might — someday have a healthy relationship with him. By insisting that your father treat you with respect, you are fulfilling your greatest duty, not only as a daughter but as a human being. That you stopped interacting with an abuser as powerful as your father is a testament to your courage and strength. You have my respect.
I haven’t had parents as an adult. My mom died when I was about your age, and my father (also an abusive narcissist, as it happens) hasn’t been in my life since I was six. I’ve lived a long time without my parents, and yet I carry them with me every day. They are like two empty bowls I’ve had to repeatedly fill.
I suppose your father will have the same effect on you. In some ways you’re right: you probably won’t ever “fully escape” your dad. He will be the empty bowl that you’ll have to fill again and again. What will you put inside? Our parents are the primal source. We make our own lives, but our origin stories are theirs. They go back with us to the beginning of time. There is absolutely no way around them. By cutting off ties with your father, you sparked a revolution in your life. You did something brave that many people can never do: you decided that you will not be mistreated, and you acted upon that decision. That choice was born of anger and hurt. The territory beyond it is born of healing and transformation and peace — at least, if you’d like to have a smashingly beautiful life.
You’ve left your father, but your relationship with him isn’t over. It will take you years to fully come to terms with him (and also with your mother, by the way). There is much work ahead of you that has to do with forgiveness and anger, with acceptance and letting go, with sorrow and perhaps even a complicated joy. Those forces do not move in a direct trajectory. They weave in and out of each other and wind back around to smack you in the ass. They will punch you in the face and make you cry and laugh. You say you will never have a good relationship with your dad, but you don’t know. You will change; maybe he will too. Some facts of your childhood will remain immutable, but others won’t. You may never make sense of your father’s cruelty, but with work and mindfulness, with understanding and heart, you will make sense of him.
After my mother died, I wrote a letter to my dad. I hated him by then, but my mother’s love had made a bright crack in my hate into which I thought my father could slip if he would change. In the letter I told him my mother had suddenly died and also that I had always hoped that someday he and I could have a relationship. But, I said, in order for us to do that, he first had to explain to me why he’d done the things he’d done.
Sometimes I imagine my father opening that letter, nearly twenty years ago. In my mind he cries softly at the news. He realizes that this is his chance to make things right. Here’s his chance to be a father to his three children. It’s not too late. We need him now.
But he didn’t realize that. Instead he got drunk and called to say that I was a stupid, lying bitch and that our mother was a whore who’d tainted our minds and turned my siblings and me against him. I hung up without saying goodbye.
Seventeen years passed. Then one day the phone rang, and there it was: my father’s name on the tiny screen. I was sitting at my desk writing. He’s dead was my first thought. I figured his third wife was calling to tell me. I didn’t pick the phone up. I sat and watched it ring. I watched my father’s name disappear and then listened to the message a few minutes later.
“This is your father,” the voice said, followed by his first and last name, in case I didn’t remember who my father was. He gave me his phone number and asked me to call him.
It took me a week to do it. I was done with him. I had filled the empty bowl of him over and over again. I didn’t love him anymore. I only remembered that I had loved him long ago.
I dialed his number. “Hello,” he said — his voice still familiar after all this time.
“This is your daughter,” I said, followed by my first and last name, in case he didn’t remember who his daughter was.
“Do you watch Rachael Ray?” he asked.
“Rachael Ray?” I whispered, my heart racing.
“Rachael Ray. You know, the cookbook writer. She has a talk show.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said.
And on it went, the most flabbergasting conversation I’ve ever had. My father spoke to me as if we spoke every week, as if nothing had happened, as if my whole childhood did not exist. We chatted about low-fat recipes and poodles; cataracts and the importance of wearing sunscreen. I got off the phone fifteen minutes later, utterly bewildered. He wasn’t delusional or ill or giving in to age-induced dementia. He was my father, the man he’d always been. And he was talking to me as if I was his daughter. As if he had a right.
But he didn’t. Shortly afterward he sent me a chatty e-mail. When I replied, I repeated what I’d written to him years before — that I would consider having a relationship with him only if we spoke honestly about our shared past. He inquired what it was I “wanted to know.”
I had come so far by then. I had healed. I was whole. I was happy. I had two children and a partner I loved. I wasn’t angry with my father anymore. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I couldn’t pretend to have a relationship with him if he refused to acknowledge our past. I was prepared to listen. I wanted his insight, to know what he thought, and also to see if, by some wondrous turn of events, he’d become a different man — one who could at last be my dad.
I put all of this into a long e-mail, along with apologies for however I might have hurt him and an offer of forgiveness, and I pressed SEND.
My father’s reply came so quickly it seemed impossible that he’d read the whole message. Here’s what his e-mail said:
You are the same bitch as I ALWAYS knew you to be. You have NOT hurt my feelings, only freed me of responsibility. Do not EVER contact me again. I am SO glad to finally be rid of you!
You are the same bitch as I ALWAYS knew you to be. You have NOT hurt my feelings, only freed me of responsibility. Do not EVER contact me again. I am SO glad to finally be rid of you!
I didn’t cry. I laced up my running shoes and went out my front door and walked to a park and up a big hill. I didn’t stop walking until I got all the way to the top, and then I sat down on a bench that looked over the city. It was the day before my thirty-ninth birthday. I always think of my parents on my birthday, don’t you? And I imagine my birth. I can conjure up my mother and father so clearly on the day I was born: How truly they must have loved me. How they must have held me in their arms and thought that I was a miracle. They must have believed they could be better people than they’d been before. They would be. They knew they would. They had to be. Because now there was me.
So it felt particularly acute to sit on that bench the day before I turned thirty-nine and absorb everything my father had just said. I had that feeling you get — there is no word for it — when you are simultaneously happy and sad and angry and grateful and accepting and appalled and every other possible emotion, all smashed together and amplified.
Why is there no word for this feeling?
Perhaps because the word is healing, and we don’t want to believe that. We want to believe healing is purer and more perfect, like a newborn baby. Like we can hold it in our hands. Like we’ll be better people than we were before. Like we have to be.
It is on that feeling that I have survived. And it will be your salvation too, my dear. When you reach the place where you recognize entirely that you will thrive not in spite of your losses and sorrows but because of them; that you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them; that you have the two empty bowls eternally in your hands, but you also have the capacity to fill them.
That’s what I did the day before my thirty-ninth birthday. I filled the empty bowl of my father one last time. I sat for so long on that bench looking at the sky and the land and the trees and the buildings and the street, thinking: My father — my father! — he is finally, finally rid of me.
My question is short and sweet: What would you tell your twenty-something self if you could talk to her now?
Dear Seeking Wisdom,
Stop worrying about whether you’re fat. You’re not fat. Or rather you’re sometimes a little bit fat, but who gives a shit? There is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round. Feed yourself. Literally. The sort of people worthy of your love will love you more for this.
In the middle of the night, in the middle of your twenties, when your best woman friend crawls naked into your bed, straddles you, and says, You should run away from me before I devour you, believe her.
You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.
When that really sweet but fucked-up gay couple invites you over to their cool apartment to do Ecstasy with them, say no.
There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding. It’s good that you’ve worked hard to resolve childhood issues while in your twenties, but understand that these issues will need to be resolved again. And again. Some things can be known only with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of them have to do with forgiveness.
One evening you will be rolling around on the wooden floor of your apartment with a man who will tell you he doesn’t have a condom. You will smile in that spunky way you think makes you look hot and tell him to fuck you anyway. This will be a mistake for which you alone will pay.
Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing, and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You just don’t know what it is yet.
You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love simply because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.
Most things will be OK eventually, but not everything. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.
One hot afternoon, during the era in which you’ll have gotten yourself tangled up with heroin, you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are when a little girl will get on holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it, because you’ll believe you no longer have a right to such tiny, beautiful things. You’ll be wrong. You do.
Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naive pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not. Many people you think have it easy have worked hard for what they’ve got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as young and pompous as you.
When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss “doesn’t mean anything” because, as much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.
The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long, meandering walks. The evenings reading poetry and short stories and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave your armpits or not. These things are your becoming.
One Christmas, at the very beginning of your twenties, when your mother gives you a warm coat that she has saved for months to buy and thinks is perfect for you, don’t look at it skeptically. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. The coat will be the last gift she ever gives you. For the rest of your life you will regret the small thing you didn’t say.
Say thank you.
“Dear Sugar” [June 2011] filled me with many emotions, “all smashed together and amplified,” as Sugar writes. Her advice is loving and real. I hope that you include more of her columns in the future. The credibility, candor, and integrity of her responses speak to the reasons I read your magazine.
After reading “Dear Sugar,” I feel as though I’ve spent eighteen months in the office of a Gestalt psychologist. Everything she says is on point and genuinely good advice. I have no idea how this author got so smart, but I’m old enough to know she’s for real, and I needed to hear some of those lessons again.