I’m in my mid-30s, and on the surface, my life looks pretty great. I’m doing really interesting work on environmental/climate issues, which is challenging enough to keep me entertained. I’m married to a lovely, funny, kind, wonderful person. But it feels like my life is teetering on the edge of totally falling apart. I’m terrified and don’t know how to stop it.
Where to start? I was raised by a narcissistic mother, and this definitely left me with some trauma and bad habits. I spent a lot of my later teenage years being raised by my dad. who is a good man but is emotionally immature, has a temper, and was probably not the parent I needed, either. So I had a few crazy years as a teen and a young adult. My saving grace was the fact I was a big nerd who loved school and university, so I finished two degrees and now have a good job and this outwardly normal life. I basically feel like I got everything I ever wanted when I was a powerless, lonely little kid who was scared of the constant shit my parents threw at me. I have power and choices and safety and a home and financial security, which I never had as a kid.
My big issue is that I completely suck at taking care of myself and have some seriously self-destructive habits. I drink too much — sometimes way too much. Even just at home I can happily get through a bottle of wine or a decent part of a gin bottle. I do have alcohol-free nights but not often enough. Too often I go too far and the hangovers give me low energy often for days and days. I then eat too much, struggle to exercise, crave sugar, struggle to fully apply myself at work because my equilibrium is off, and am exhausted. I’m totally ashamed of this, of course. Another problem is that, like me, my partner is a bit of a Type A hard-working perfectionist, too. He is very hard on himself, he also likes to drink a little bit too much, and he is also struggling. He works in a very ruthless, challenging environment, but he’s not that type of person. He’s like a beautiful, fluffy Labrador in a sea of sharks. He comes home totally exhausted and feeling crappy about himself every day, and I want to help him so much but I don’t even know how to help myself. He suffers particularly from disorganization and procrastination, and it’s seriously standing in the way of him achieving his goals.
The pandemic hasn’t helped. I oscillate between wanting to do everything for him forever — including issuing reminders, making meals, and project managing our existence to within an inch of its life — and resenting him horribly for not contributing more (to be fair, he often works up to 100 hours a week; he’s not a lazy jerk at all, he’s just tired). And so we have lots of fights about division of labor in the house. But I’m convinced we’re not fighting about that. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I think I’m just miserable and taking it out on him.
I’ve been thinking more and more that maybe he’ll do better without me — maybe I’m somehow causing the feelings of procrastination and the self-worth challenges he’s facing, too? I literally almost broke up with him over the weekend and I woke up and I couldn’t believe I could’ve done something so hurtful and stupid. Both of us can be really emotionally stupid, insecure, and anxious, so I don’t think the confounding effect of both of us being this way is helping.
I thought cutting my malicious mother out of my life a few years ago would have helped, and it did. I did a year of therapy and that helped, but somewhat less than I expected. I feel stuck and unsure of what to do next.
What I want more than anything is to support my husband, support and love myself more, and treat myself with real self-care. I want to properly commit myself to my career and personal goals and really love and appreciate this great life I have. I would love any advice you might have. I feel really stuck.
Healthy But Not
The first thing you need to do is draw a boundary between you and your husband, and say to yourself: I’m going to handle my side of the street first.
Not to state the obvious, but your side of the street is a mess. Your drinking and your inability to make choices that make you feel steady and secure are becoming a major problem in your life. You have to face that, first and foremost.
That means you have to resist the urge to blame your husband for how you’re living and how he’s living. Because adding up all of your shared chaos and making it his fault is a classic codependent mess that will keep you both ensnared in each other’s troubles and issues indefinitely. Right now what you need more than anything else are strong boundaries. You need to ask yourself: What do I, personally, need to change in order to feel better about my life?
As long as you’re not cleaning up your side of the street, you’ll take on the role of scolding parent to your husband. If you remain in that role, both of you will end up triggered, and your spouse’s relationship to his work and his home will slowly become severed. He’ll begin to see housework as part of your agenda instead of his own, which can send even the most mature and responsible man into a childish state of resistance around these tasks. Trust me, you don’t want that. Any conversations you’re having about housework need to be calm discussions between two adults who are willing to honor each other’s needs and be vulnerable and realistic about their strengths, weaknesses, and habits.
The same goes for drinking. You need to examine your drinking habits and get serious about how detrimental they are to your happiness and ability to thrive. Obviously one of the big problems for adult children of emotional neglect is that we’re accustomed to getting by on less. We treat a state of disarray and despair as a kind of natural default. We act like it’s normal to have to work hard even when we’re feeling anxious and miserable, because that’s how life was for us as children a lot of the time.
Drinking half a bottle of gin in a night isn’t a choice you make unless you’re trying to set something in your life on fire. Maybe you’re willfully throwing your life into crisis because you don’t have a history of solving problems outside of crisis mode. Things need to get ugly for you to take them seriously. So this is an important moment to stop and look around at how bad things are for you. Don’t look at your husband. Look at yourself. It’s time to be humbled by where you are.
Vulnerability isn’t your favorite thing, but you need to use it as your guide now. You have to dig through the emotions that are fueling this destructive drive to drink too much. You can’t even aim to have a rational conversation about housework until you examine your drinking. Because right now, you’re turning your life into pure chaos every few days. You need to think carefully about why you’re doing that to yourself, and what it might look like to stop and treat yourself with more respect and care instead.
You don’t need to concern yourself with questions like “How can my husband work less?” and “Might he be better off without me?” Those questions are a form of avoidance and escape. Your most important questions right now are much simpler: “Do I want to be happy?” and “Do I believe that I deserve happiness?”
You need to find a new therapist. You say that you were surprised that the year of therapy you did didn’t help that much. Make sure to find a smart therapist who you trust enough to get vulnerable with. Once you find someone you like, ask for reading material about addiction, codependence, and attachment styles. Play to your strengths and apply your good-student behaviors to this challenge. You can’t just show up once a week, ramble to your therapist, and expect your life to change. You have to make a serious effort to understand yourself better.
I’m not trying to paint you as a hopeless case. You’re a lot like I was at your age, so I know how much hard work it takes to reach a deeper understanding of all of the complicated mechanisms and frayed cables and broken pulleys that are screwing up your ability to function. It’s a long road.
On top of that, the early part of every marriage is hard. There’s so much emotional heavy lifting involved. There’s no one I get along with better than my husband, but the first few years of marriage weren’t easy. When you were taught as a kid to fight instead of talk things out, and you also give yourself a hard time for every little thing that you do wrong, it is exceptionally challenging to navigate conflict. You don’t have the skills, and you’re easily overwhelmed. Throw in your shame, your low self-esteem, your confusion about where you end and your husband begins, and the eroded state of your emotional health created by your drinking, and you have a complex mess of troubles that you can’t clean up quickly. You need to stop looking for easy exits and face this work now, because it won’t get any easier as the years go by.
So stop asking if your husband might be better off without you. Stop telling yourself the story that having weaknesses in common means that you’re doomed. My husband and I are both “really emotionally stupid, insecure, and anxious,” and guess what? That’s the main reason we get along so well. We’re custom-made to understand each other at a deep level. Once you dig your way through this — slowly, carefully, separately and together — you’re likely to become one of the most resilient, loving couples you know. Your unique troubles are also your unique path to happiness.
So start here: Forgive yourself, every single minute of every day. Wake up in the morning and forgive yourself. Go to bed at night and forgive yourself. When you welcome reality instead of escaping into booze and blame, you feel a lot more. And when you’re feeling more and noticing your flaws more, you have to forgive yourself more along the way, so that you don’t just sink into your shame and despair. Feeling more will bring more joy into your life, too, almost immediately! But you have to leave your defenses and escape hatches behind.
I know I’m making your path sound pretty tough. Just remember that everyone has problems. Everyone has big weaknesses, too — that’s something you don’t realize until you hit your late 30s. No one gets to smoothly glide over the surface of life without incident. Because you had a narcissist for a mother, you feel neglected a lot, whether people are neglecting you or not. You also neglect yourself. You also neglect other people. You also give way too much of yourself without noticing. You also want to solve everyone else’s problems all the time. You also can’t stand it when someone else is doing something THE WRONG WAY. You want things done THE RIGHT WAY, always. You’re a control freak. You feel out of control. You’re a perfectionist. You feel broken and imperfect. You become a scolding parent in seconds. Things fall apart, and a voice in your head tells you, “You are going to screw up everything good in your life. You always do!”
But look how far you’ve come. There are limits to how screwed up you’ll allow things to be. Have you noticed? You’re actually pretty good at pulling yourself back from the brink. You’ve actually come incredibly far. You deserve a lot of credit for choosing a fluffy Labrador instead of a shark. Think of how miserable you’d be with a shark! And you chose a job you believe in, too, because you knew you’d be unhappy if you settled for less. Think of how unhappy you’d be at a less meaningful and less challenging job!
You don’t take good care of yourself because you’re not used to tuning in to how you feel from moment to moment. Once you start to support your own good feelings, you won’t have the urge to scold your husband whenever you’re feeling bad.
The feeling part of this is going to be hard for you. Vulnerability goes against every overachieving bone in your body. But that’s also why successful but disordered people often land where you are in their 30s. They suddenly realize that the skills that brought them into adulthood aren’t necessarily going to make them happy for the rest of their lives. Ignoring your needs only works for so long. Eventually, you break.
At some point, you have to stop aiming for perfect and learn to be a regular person instead. That’s all I want now: to be a regular, fumbling, easily overwhelmed person who’s trying very hard to squeeze some joy out of this calamitous day.
This pandemic is humbling all of us. Let this personal crisis you’re facing humble you, too, even though it feels like the worst possible moment to accept more humbling. It’s okay for two “emotionally stupid, insecure, and anxious” people to love each other deeply. You wound up together because you see yourselves in each other.
You’re here to show each other how to forgive yourselves — something that’s incredibly hard for each of you to do. Forgiving yourself means learning to enjoy your day instead of working yourself into the ground. Forgiving yourself means allowing more room for miscommunication and messiness. Forgiving yourself means refusing to punish yourself with alcohol because you don’t deserve to feel sluggish and sad for days on end. You’re here to enjoy your life and each other. Don’t lose sight of the joy that’s already within your reach.
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