Dear Prudence

The Lonely Teetotaler

Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Peer Pressure to Drink … From Adults: I have never been a big drinker but recently I was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, which, among other limitations, means I cannot have alcohol. I attend a lot of events where alcohol is served—from networking and drinks with clients to nights out at bars with friends. I used to just nurse a drink or two but now am stuck sticking strictly to water. I politely decline offers of a drink, but it’s almost always followed up with queries as to why I’m not drinking. I’ve been really surprised by the amount of peer pressure (it feels like I’m back in high school) and how some people seem to be even taking it personally. I’ve tried different responses—“no thanks,” “just not drinking tonight,” “personal reasons,” or “for health reasons,” but without getting into the specifics of my condition, I haven’t been able to find a response that quickly shuts that line of questioning down. Any suggestions?

A: You must be in a profession in which no one has ever been in recovery, pregnant, or is Mormon or Muslim. You don’t say you work for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, and even if you did the behavior of your colleagues is boorish. Your answers are all that’s needed (actually a “No thanks” is all that’s necessary—no one has to explain their health status or reason for not drinking). But since this is a recurring problem, short-circuit their rude inquiries by heading to the bar at the beginning of the evening. Ask for water in a martini glass with a twist. Refill as needed and astound your colleagues with your capacity to hold your liquor.

Q. Not Pregnant: I gained quite a few pounds, and I have been wearing loose clothing. I am a teacher, and the other day as I was rushing out of school a fellow teacher saw me and blurted, “Oh, you’re expecting.” I got nervous and embarrassed and blurted “Yes, I am” in reply. I walked away quickly and she yelled “Well Congratulations! What a blessing!” That was Friday. Today other teachers are congratulating me. I feel awful that I lied, but now I feel embarrassed that the word spread, and I am actually just fat. What should I do? Do I come clean? Do I fake a miscarriage? Help!

A: This is an opportunity to repeat yet again Dave Barry’s dictum to never, ever ask a woman if she’s pregnant, even if while you’re talking to her she starts delivering. Your co-worker was being kind of a jerk, so do not be embarrassed about your reply. This happened Friday and now it’s Monday, so before people start talking to you about hosting the shower, you’ve got to nip the non-nipper in the bud. Just say in the teacher’s lounge, “Folks, I’ve gained some weight and I wasn’t in the mood on Friday to say, ‘I’m not pregnant, I’m just fat.’ But the truth is, it’s not a baby, it’s Cinnabon. Sorry for the confusion.” Make sure some of the school’s biggest gossips hear, and the saga should be quickly over.

Q. Stolen Scarf: Seven or eight years ago, when I was in graduate school, I was in a small group meeting and another member of the group forgot her scarf at a meeting at my home. I thought it was beautiful, and not thinking much about it, I neglected to return it to her. I knew it was wrong, and I felt a little guilty about it, but she never asked if anyone had seen it, or knew where it was. Today, as I was pulling warm clothes out of my storage, I found the scarf and immediately felt a little guilty. What should I do with this scarf? I could send it back to her, but would that be weird? Do I fess up?

A: I love how you describe stealing this scarf—sure you didn’t think much about keeping it because, well, you liked it! You have gotten yourself in a moral noose over this small larceny, and now you should make things right. Since you apparently are still in touch with this classmate and know where she lives, put the scarf in an envelope and include a note. You don’t have to entirely confess to outright theft. Say you just came upon the scarf and remembered from all those years ago that it was hers and that you wanted to get it back to its rightful owner.

Q. Should Eleanor Have Been Told About Franklin and Lucy?: All the participants in this are dead, but my wife and I still disagree about it. In the Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelts: an Intimate History, which aired last week on PBS, we were told that after FDR’s death, Eleanor went to Warm Springs and asked FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano, to tell her exactly how FDR had died, and all the attending circumstances. Ms. Delano truthfully told her that Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, FDR’s old lover whom he had promised never to see again, had been on the premises, and that she had been there frequently—the arrangements having been made by Eleanor and FDR’s daughter! My wife’s reaction was that Ms. Delano was cruel to tell Eleanor. My response was that Ms. Delano should not have lied—Eleanor asked for the truth. What would your advice be to a future relative of a future dignitary, deceased in similar circumstances?

A: The future is easy—in today’s world, someone would have a surreptitious video of the death and all the attendant circumstances, so there would be no need to lie. Even when former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller died in flagrante in 1979, the attempt to cover that up didn’t hold a week. The news that Franklin was with Lucy Rutherfurd when he died—the woman he almost left Eleanor for years before—remained unknown by the public for about 20 years after his death. What a tale! When young Eleanor discovered their affair, Franklin asked for a divorce to be with Lucy. It was Franklin’s overbearing mother (who couldn’t stand Eleanor) who stopped it. She threatened to cut off Franklin financially; she knew a divorce would ruin his political prospects and she had great faith in the future of her son. Eleanor agreed to stay in the marriage but said they would never share a bed again. Imagine that! Finding out your husband has been unfaithful, agreeing to continue, but ending your sexual relationship is not exactly a recipe for continuing fidelity. In the case you describe, I think Laura Delano should have told Eleanor to ask her daughter directly about the events, instead of outing the young woman as the go-between. Of course the revelation was shocking to Eleanor and caused a temporary rift with her daughter. But I’ve read that in later years Eleanor came to accept that Roosevelt needed female companionship to help him bear the burdens he was under.

Q. Easing Grief in Advance?: A few weeks ago my mother-in-law died, and I watched my husband convulse with grief. Sooner or later, I assume my own kids will have to deal with my death. Is there anything I can do now, so that losing me isn’t so awful for them? I know there is always sadness at a parting, but after watching my poor husband suffer all I can think is I never want my kids to feel like that.

A: You don’t want to take your children aside and tell them you don’t want them to be as convulsed with grief as their father was when his mother died, and then have them reassure you that when your time comes, they will be just fine. You also don’t want to prepare them by renting a coffin over Thanksgiving and spending part of the holiday in it. Nor would it be a good idea to fill a coffee can with fireplace ash and tell them to carry it around pretending it’s you. Your husband loved his mother, but in the normal course of things, his grief will recede. You cannot predict, nor short-circuit, your own children’s response to your death. But fortunately, when it happens, you’ll be in a good position to just let it go.

Q. Re: Peer Pressure: I live in a culture where drinking wine has often been the norm though that’s changing. The other evening I felt impelled to drink in a small work dinner party and had a glass of wine. I noticed a nice lady had done what I always used to do: Let herself be served half a glass of wine and not touch it or just literally wet her lips with it. I used to do that all the time and no one bothered me. I learned this from my dad. He hated alcohol but worked in a big company in the Mad Men–type ’60s. He walked around with half a glass of whisky and no one bothered him. Or I think sometimes he might have had a Diet Pepsi in a glass and say it was Coke and whisky … it’s shady but it works.

A: Who are the people who get all in someone else’s business over what they drink? I’m a moderate drinker and sometimes I don’t drink, but I can’t remember a time anyone has ever tried to pressure me to drink. Maybe someone’s said, “You sure?” but that’s about as bad as it gets. I was never a drug taker but when I was younger I was at a lot of parties where drugs were passed around and after I said, “No, thanks” no one pressured me. Who are these peers who care so much about what someone else is doing? Maybe being a sourpuss like me is a way to scare them off. In any case, another reader has also suggested, “I can’t, I’m the designated driver,” is a way to shut up the busybodies.

Q. School Bus Stop: My husband and I purchased a corner house in a very nice neighborhood with a good mix of ages from young to old. I now understand why corner lots have bad feng shui. Unfortunately, the corner is where there is a bus stop. Parents, au pairs, and siblings wait for the bus at the corner. The former owners had young children and were friendly with the other parents with young children. I’ve removed the playground on the property to reduce a public nuisance. I don’t want people sitting on my front step with their dogs, or lying under my crepe myrtle, etc. The long-term solution would probably be a fence, but I can’t afford it right now. How do I make it clear that they should be waiting on the right of way and not on my property, in a nice way?

A: Do you have a dog? You could train it to leave deposits all over the corner of your yard where the bus pulls up. You are in a fix because the previous owners allowed your yard to be the designated waiting area for the school bus crew. Shooing people off is your right, but no matter how nicely you do it, there will be a general feeling that someone awful has moved in. Maybe there is a horticultural solution. You can put in some new plantings along the edge of your property and then place a small wire fence along the length of it. If people continue to trespass, you can open the door and explain you have plantings and need to keep them from being trampled. But start saving that money for a fence—you’re going to need it.

Q. Re: Easing Grief in Advance?: I recently went home for the weekend and saw a surrogate father figure for the first time in a year. He has been suffering from a long-term health problem and it was really hard to see how much he has deteriorated in the last few months. He is happy and living life to the fullest but his body is not cooperating with him. After seeing him, I broke down and cried in front of my mom about how much I don’t want to lose him. She made a comment about how she was seeing a glimpse of what it will be like for me when I lose her, and she hates to see me that way. So, I understand that people might want to ease that pain, but it is also just a fact of life. People love you so they are going to mourn you.

A: Indeed, the pain of loss is part of love. How can it be otherwise? On a more practical note, many people have commented that it’s important to talk about his subject with one’s children well in advance of a crisis. The mother-in-law’s death is an opportunity for the letter writer to talk to her kids about her wishes as she gets older, and for her to make sure all her estate planning and end-of-life directives are in place.

Q. Discomfort at the Parade: My husband, children (ages 3 and 5), and I were at a parade this weekend when a young man in a wheelchair with mental and significant physical disabilities and his caretaker came to watch beside us. The young man was watching my children play and react when the children asked questions about his appearance and why he was staring. I told them he was enjoying watching them play and distracted their attention back to the parade. Should I have engaged the children in a conversation with the young man and his caretaker? I feel I didn’t handle the situation well by not directly addressing him or their questions about him. What should I do in a future situation?

A: It sounds as if you handled it just fine. You gave them a good answer, treated the young man with respect, and directed your children back to the parade. Your kids are very young, but they’re old enough to start understanding how different people are and that some people need assistance to get around or with other life tasks. Since the young man seemed interested in your kids, you also could have engaged him. Maybe he was able to speak, or if he wasn’t, maybe his caretaker could have spoken for him. But if either of them was open to interacting, you could have talked to the young man about his favorite parts of the parade and modeled for your children interacting with someone with intellectual disabilities in a warm and casual way. But there will be a next time. 

Click here to read Part 2 of this week’s chat.

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