Dear Prudence

Gastric Warfare

I fear my mother-in-law is poisoning me, but my husband doesn’t believe it.

Emily Yoffe.

Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My mother-in-law hates me and makes no bones about it when she and I are alone. My husband doesn’t believe me, and she even gloats about that. We have to attend family functions at her home about once a month. (It used to be more frequent, but after I put my foot down, my husband agreed that monthly would be sufficient.) The problem is that after each visit, I wind up with a bad case of diarrhea; my husband does not. I don’t know if the other in-laws are affected, because if I asked, it would get back to her. I suspect that my mother-in-law is putting something in my food or drink. Last time, I barely made it home before being struck down. Now I am considering getting some “adult undergarments” to make sure I don’t ruin the car’s upholstery on the ride home from her place. Do you have any other advice?

—Running for the Hills

Dear Running,
In the great old Cary Grant movie Suspicion, director Alfred Hitchcock has a scene in which possible murderer Grant is bringing a glass of milk to his wife, played by Joan Fontaine, and no beverage has ever looked so malign. Just as Fontaine wasn’t sure if she was being poisoned, you aren’t either. It’s possible you’ve entered a Pavlovian cycle in which when you eat your mother-in-law’s food your digestive tract automatically goes into overdrive, or that there is some ingredient she regularly uses which just doesn’t agree with you. It’s also possible she’s trying to harm you. I’ve been reading a fascinating book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, about poisoners in the early 20th century—it was a popular way to off someone—and the new forensic scientists who exposed them. Peek at your mother-in-law’s Kindle to see if she’s downloaded this. The next time you go for dinner at her house, after the food is served but before you begin eating, you and your husband should agree to swap plates and cups. If you mother-in-law screams to her son, “Don’t eat that!” case closed, Sherlock. Of course, this would require your husband to take your concerns seriously. It’s alarming to think your mother-in-law might be deliberately sickening you. Equally distressing is the fact that your husband does not believe you when you describe her malicious behavior. You need to tell your husband that after becoming repeatedly ill at your in-law’s house, you have become afraid for your health. Tell him you are also afraid for your marriage because he apparently believes you are a liar—which you are not—when it comes to his mother. Say that he needs to take seriously the fact that she says ugly things when you and she are alone, and you are not going to stand for it anymore. If that doesn’t result in his attention and concern, then you may need to move to your mother’s.


Dear Prudence: Office Water Wars

Dear Prudie,
After a history of dating Eeyores—the woe-is-me types—I’m now involved with a man who has a genuinely positive outlook on life. While a sunny disposition isn’t something we have in common, it’s one of the things I love about him. The trouble is his positive declarations use the word super as an adverb. “That was super delicious!” “He was super helpful!” The way some people feel about the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, I feel about the word super when used this way. To me it smacks of an aggressive, abrasive optimism that undermines the sincerity and dignity of the sentiment expressed. It also sounds dumb. I’ve never been the kind of girlfriend who expects a guy to modify his behavior to accommodate my preferences, yet every time I hear him use the word super as an adverb, I go cold inside. How do I communicate the fact that the supers have got to stop without sounding like a demanding and critical girlfriend?

—Not Super Duper

Dear Duper,
I have a revolting habit: I pick my feet. I can spend hours engaged in what Dave Barry, a fellow compulsive, calls “foot maintenance.” It’s super gross, yet my darling husband, perhaps not the most observant of men, has never remarked on my monkeylike grooming ritual. If my husband ever expressed his disgust, I would try to stop, but I’m grateful he’s decided to ignore it. Forget fidelity, forget mutual interests, the key to a successful relationship is not noticing your significant other’s harmless yet fingernails-on-a-chalkboard habits. (And fingernails on a chalkboard are nothing compared to toenails on a coffee table.) I’m in favor of letting one’s beloved know about incorrect table manners, or something that truly is a social faux pas. But the annoying little tics we all have are different. You could open a discussion with your cheery Pooh by telling him how perfect he is in every way, except that when he says “super,” you want to come at him with a machete and cut his tongue out. A more delicate approach would require you to leave out your observations about his “abrasive optimism,” lack of “dignity,” and sounding “dumb,” and say you have a complaint you know is trivial, but it’s just one of those silly things that bothers you.  Be aware of how petty you will sound and how self-conscious it will make him. There’s also the possibility that he might say to you: “Thanks for opening this can of fingernails. I wasn’t ever going to say anything, but you should be aware that before you take a drink, you dart out the tip of your tongue like it’s a snail emerging from its shell, and it puts me off my food.” By the time you finish that discussion, you’ll realize it’s time to dust off your profile on and start looking for your next Eeyore.


Dear Prudence,
I grew up with a severely depressed, emotionally abusive mother who was also a hoarder. As a result, my brothers and I rarely left the house and were not socialized as kids normally would be. When I was 10 and my younger brother was 7, for a period of about six months, I sexually abused him by dry humping him. I stopped the behavior on my own, and it has never happened (with him or anyone else) since. I know he told our mother about the abuse, because after I stopped my mother took my brother to a child psychologist for one visit. We are both adults now with families. A couple of years ago we both got drunk at a party, and I apologized for what I did to him, and he forgave me. He said that our mother told him he could never tell anyone about what happened. For years I blocked out what I did. Now as an adult in therapy, I’m at a roadblock—I can’t bring myself to tell my therapist what I did because I’m so ashamed. I feel I don’t deserve happiness or forgiveness. I know my husband would see me as a sicko and probably divorce me if he found out. I’m at my breaking point. What should I do?

—Suffering in Silence

Dear Suffering,
You not only deserve happiness and forgiveness; you should be proud of emerging from a terrifying, squalid childhood and making something good out of your life. Children in situations such as yours sometimes end up doing far worse things—to themselves and others—than you ever did. You were a sad, desperate, elementary-school-age girl. You did something bad, realized it was wrong, and stopped. You never reoffended. Most importantly, you took responsibility for what you did and apologized. Honor the relationship you have with your brother by accepting his forgiveness. He knows more than anyone that your nightmarish childhood was something you all had to struggle to overcome. At your next session, tell your therapist. He or she will not be shocked. Therapy is a form of confession and is a privileged conversation. A good therapist will be able to guide you to seeing your younger self with compassion and letting go of the self-loathing you are hanging onto. You don’t have to tell your husband—what happened long ago is not part of your life now. For your own healing, consider making a contribution to a charity for children in distress to help some little girl get the help you never did.


Dear Prudence,
My wife and I were at our friend’s house for brunch. They have a 4-year-old girl adopted from China. I asked about the adoption in front of the child. I was surprised when our friends reacted harshly and changed the topic. The next day I got an email from him saying that I was out of line in mentioning the adoption in front of their daughter, that his wife cried all night, and he wants me to apologize. I was unaware that they hadn’t told the girl. They’re Caucasian, so it’s obvious. Should I apologize even though I don’t feel I did anything wrong?


Dear Stuck,
You haven’t characterized what you said, so I hope it wasn’t something that would be disturbing to a child or offensive to her parents. But even if your remarks were ill-considered, their reaction shows they’re going to have to work through the issue of talking about adoption, because adoptive parents will tell you it can come up frequently. If they are trying to hide that their daughter was adopted, they’ve got bigger problems than an errant remark by you. But it does no harm to you to say you’re sorry (try to sound more sincere than Rush Limbaugh), and doing so will help preserve your friendship.


Discuss this column with Emily Yoffe on her Facebook page.

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