Genetic predisposition and a traumatic childhood have led me to develop debilitating mental disorders that I have spent years working to manage. I’m now at a functional place. My parents are divorced, and my mother’s family has always been very supportive. My father’s family, by contrast, sees mental illness as a stigma and has always disagreed with my approach to treatment. Recently, they invited me to my grandmother’s birthday party. When I arrived, everyone was sitting solemnly around the living room, and the local pastor was there. He calmly explained to me that I was not actually mentally ill but possessed by agents of Satan and in need of an exorcism. I choked back tears as I explained to them that I did not need any demons driven out, and the evening ended awkwardly. Now they’ve invited me for Thanksgiving, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to alienate them, but my symptoms are part of a real disorder and can be treated by medication. How do I explain to them that while I do want to spend time with them, it’s not the Middle Ages, and I don’t want or need an exorcism?
—It’s the Schizophrenia, Stupid
Dear It’s the Schizophrenia,
For Thanksgiving, please exorcise these people from your life. Spend the holiday somewhere else, preferably with those who love and accept you. Perhaps your mother’s family is an option. If not, maybe you can make your own gathering with friends, or friends will extend an invitation to you after realizing you’ll be on your own. And if you’re too uncomfortable searching for a place to go, every city has shelters or nursing homes that welcome volunteers willing to serve Thanksgiving dinner. What your father’s family did to you was appalling. You’re very generous not to want to alienate people who believe you are possessed by Satan; I would have been tempted to threaten them with my pitchfork. I suppose at some time less loaded than a big holiday, you can get together with them to try to explain that you have a medical condition that is being successfully treated. But as you point out, this is the 21st century, and an unwillingness to accept that mental illness is just that—an illness—seems an act of willful bigotry not amenable to reason. Be proud of how you’ve worked your way to a satisfying life, and don’t let people, just because they’re relatives, do anything to undermine that.
I’m 27 years old, and I’ve always wanted to be a mother. It’s my special dream to have a daughter someday. I’m crazy about the man that I’ve been with for the past two years, and we have plans for marriage and kids in the future. A few months ago I found out that I was pregnant, even though I’ve been on birth control. I’m in a very difficult three-year program at school. My boyfriend is seven years younger than I am and is decidedly not ready for kids. (He said having a baby now would ruin his life.) So we made the difficult (at least for me) decision to end the pregnancy. The problem is this: My cousin and his wife are expecting their first child shortly. It’s a girl, and the name they’ve chosen happens to be the name that I have long wanted to give to my own daughter. Even though I’m not especially close to my family, it’s expected that I see the baby when she’s born and attend Thanksgiving and Christmas with them as well. I’m happy for them, but I don’t think that I’ll be able to do any of that. I’ve cried a number of times about this and have decided to try to avoid them at all costs for the time being. However, my family will probably be very upset with me and demand to know why I’m not around. I can’t tell them that I had an abortion because they believe that abortion is a sin. Would it be wrong for me to tell them that I had a miscarriage and hope they understand why I can’t be around at the moment?
—Sad and Anxious
Yes, you are going through a painful time; and, no, nobody can force you to attend a family event. But you need to accept the choice you made and get back to living a normal life. That means attending the holidays and welcoming a new member of the family. It also means letting go of the fantasy that your cousin has usurped the name for her child that you thought you had somehow reserved for the child you didn’t have. Lying about a miscarriage seems exactly the wrong way to go. First, because it is a lie; and, second, because it will only mean you have to fight off a barrage of questions about your future marital and procreative plans. If you feel so stuck that you plan to avoid any event at which you will see your cousin and his baby, then you should seek short-term therapy or join a support group to come to grips with your decision. It’s hard that you can’t share your sadness with your family, but leaving them baffled and worried about your absence will surely only make you feel more isolated. You also need to examine where your relationship is headed. You say you want children, but given your age difference, you need to face whether your boyfriend will be ready for fatherhood in time for you to be able to be a mother.
In the weeks following the presidential election, my e-mail inbox has turned toxic with virulently nasty e-mails about our new president-elect. The messages are harshly worded, patently untrue rants. I read and delete. The problem is, I work as a small-time entertainer, hosting events all over the country. My politics, which I keep to myself, are very liberal. I do not host political events of any kind because my business depends on as many bookings as I can manage, especially in these hard times. I don’t want to shut off potential customers because of perceived leanings. Lots of customers and their friends have my e-mail, and because they have taken my political silence to mean I must support their extreme views, I’m getting these truly distasteful diatribes. What should I do? This is making me ill again about my country.
Don’t feel ill about your country—your guy won! It may be distasteful and ridiculous that you’re still getting invective-filled rants and lies about Barack Obama, but you can chuckle to yourself as you hit delete, because they lost and your guy won! Aside from the e-mails, you say that when you get together with these correspondents, you are providing entertainment for social occasions, so it should be easy to put their political views out of your mind. If politics does come up, make some noncommittal sounds and happily think to yourself: My guy won! And, surely, given the economic statistics, you will ultimately be doing more for the fortunes of President-elect Obama to be a quiet, employed supporter than a vocal, unemployed one.
I have a friend whom I’ve seen through the best and worst of times. She suffers from depression, and I’ve always tried to be a good friend to her no matter what. When she is depressed, it can be a real emotional workout to spend quality time with her, but I do it because her friendship is important to me. About two years ago, she started intense therapy and has made some real changes in her life. She looks better than ever and is doing very well, however she has become critical of me lately. I wear the wrong clothes. I’m too heavy. I should work out every day. I should wear different makeup. My husband told me that when I return from my weekly outing with my friend, I’m very hard on myself. It’s true I don’t feel good about myself, and occasionally I give away clothing that she’s insulted me about so that I don’t have to be reminded how bad I look. I’ve never been particularly confrontational, so I tend to suffer her comments with a smile. I do enjoy her 90 percent of the time. It’s just her lingering hurtful comments that leave me off balance. What do I do to save myself without hurting her in the process?
How thoughtful of your friend, now that she’s feeling better, to want you to understand what she was going through when she felt worthless by making you feel that way yourself. I actually doubt she feels as good as she says. What she’s doing to you sounds like a lot of projection—she’s just off-loading the running critical voice in her head onto you. Loyalty to a friend, particularly a troubled one, is admirable. But your friend sounds like a trial no matter what her emotional state, and loyalty has its limits. Perhaps you should reconsider subjecting yourself to weekly doses of this friendship. When you do get together, if she starts in with her commentary on you, tell her that while you know there are many things about you that could use improvement, you don’t want to focus on them during a pleasant evening out, and say she needs to please drop the critique.