Dear Prudence

Sinking Feeling

I don’t know what my disturbed friend will do if we go on this cruise she planned.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
Just over a month ago, a good friend from college with whom I speak twice a year wrote to ask if I’d like to go on a November cruise with her. She said she couldn’t think of anyone she’d rather invite and would pay my way. I wasn’t particularly excited about the prospect—she can be very domineering. But I got a little wistful about our college days and I accepted. About a week after that she called to say that she would be admitting herself to a residential psychiatric facility in my area because of a lifelong problem with self-harm. She asked that I get her at the airport, have her stay with me for three days, then take her to the facility. I told her that I couldn’t because of other plans. She then said she’d check herself in another time but was thinking about suicide. So I let her come and it was awful—she was acting out in hostile, manic, and passive-aggressive ways. She is a psychologist herself and while she can be funny and engaged, she constantly argues with clerks, waitresses, colleagues—anyone she encounters who doesn’t know how to de-escalate, badgering them to call her “Doctor” and so on. She stayed at the hospital for a week, then checked herself out because she said they didn’t know what they were doing and flew to another facility. We are supposed to depart less than a week after she is discharged. I am now terrified of what being with her in a small cruise ship cabin might do to me. She told me that she hadn’t purchased insurance, “So we have to go.” Please help!


Dear Overboard,
In journalism there is a phrase called “burying the lead,” which means not starting with your most important information. Your lead should have contained the fact that your deeply disturbed friend is a psychologist. Your letter is the reason that when I recommend people seek counseling—which I do all the time—I should add the caveat to avoid therapists in worse shape than they are. It’s a good thing your friend sought help. Her problems are severe, and it’s encouraging that she can get herself such long-term in-patient care. But the week after her discharge is not a time for her to be bobbing in the middle of the ocean, or for you to be sharing tiny quarters with her. Among her many problems, this cruise is evidence of her impulsivity and bad judgment. (Public service announcement: If you’re buying tickets for a cruise, get insurance.) You cannot go. We know she’s capable of self-harm, but you don’t want to be the one jumping ship just to avoid another night in the cabin with her. So what you do is tell her that right now the trip is a terrible idea. Say she’s not ready, and you will not be going. Even without insurance, given her long psychiatric hospitalization, tell her to present this information to the travel company. It’s possible they could work out some kind of deal with her because it’s very much in their interest not to have her aboard. You could also offer to pay some amount you can afford because you are leaving her high and dry, but you are not obligated to cover the entire cost of your ticket. Let’s hope that when she’s discharged, she will have a treatment plan that will make her function better in every realm, including her job as a therapist.


Dear Prudence,
At the mental health crisis intervention call center where I work, a dozen licensed social workers and counselors sit together in an open office setting. Workers consult by responding to calls and making field visits to assess need for acute psychiatric counseling. One colleague has a particularly annoying habit of laughing aloud while reading or viewing media not related to work. Her laughter is loud and forced, and no one asks her what’s amusing her because no one wants to engage with her. The worker is a know-it-all and buttinsky. Eye contact around the room leaves no doubt that the forced laughter is collectively irritating. How do you suggest asking her to cease and desist? “Mary, has anyone ever mentioned how obnoxious your laughter is?” probably wouldn’t go over well. We’re all seasoned therapists, so one would think we’d approach her directly. But apparently we’re clueless. So we remain silent while her laughter continues to grate.

—It’s Not Funny

Dear It’s Not,
The dozen of you are trained professionals with the skills to assess and guide people in acute psychiatric distress. Yet 11 of you are incapable of shutting up one obnoxious colleague. You’re right that “Mary, has anyone ever mentioned how obnoxious your laughter is?” won’t go well. So don’t say it. But a couple of you need to get Mary in the coffee room and say something like. “Mary, you’re probably completely unaware of this, but when you are taking a little break at your desk and you read something entertaining, you respond with really loud laughter. The problem is that since we all have to work in this bullpen, any consistently loud noise from any of us is disruptive. So can you try to keep it down?” No, I don’t think that will have a magic effect. Mary sounds like another case of someone in the healing professions who has personality problems of her own. But maybe after a polite little talk, she will try to put a lid on it. Be prepared that she may escalate instead. It may be that all the rest of you can do is try to tune her out. But if she’s truly disruptive, then the 11 of you need to take turns making a short and simple declaration: “Mary, if you could lower your voice, we’d really appreciate it.”

Dear Prudence,
I work for a nonprofit and have developed a close relationship over the years with my (now former) board chairman. He has been a true mentor and a good friend, and we’ve talked about our personal lives to each other. A few years ago his wife died tragically in an accident, but since then he has started dating. There has never been anything other than friendship between us, although I did have a crush on him long ago. At our organization’s annual gala the other night, he got extremely drunk. He was stumbling, going up to women he knows, hugging and kissing them, and caressing backs and hands. He danced with me for a long time, not letting go of my hand and telling me he loved me, hugging, kissing, etc. It was awkward and weird. I wanted to find someone to drive him home, but he left before I could arrange it. Thankfully he got home safely. I am concerned about his health and reputation, and as a representative of my organization, I wouldn’t want to see him act like that at another one of our events. I truly care about him and want to do the right thing. Mutual friends are urging me to talk to him, and I’m trying to work up the courage to do it. But what on Earth do I say?

—Embarrassed for Him

Dear Embarrassed,
Now that he’s had a chance to sober up and treat his hangover, you must talk. He was a guide for you when you were coming up in your career, now you must return the favor so that his doesn’t descend into humiliation and shame. (And if by saying he got home safely, you mean he drove himself, he’s not only looking at ending his career, but his life and the lives of others.) It sounds as if at this event people understood he was a good man behaving badly. But unless he acknowledges what happened, and makes sure it never happens again, he is opening himself—and your organization—to financial and legal jeopardy. What you say is that you two need to talk, then tell him what he did at the event. Say that while anyone can have too much to drink, he was dangerously drunk, and if he’s having trouble with alcohol, he must address it immediately. Also tell him that his behavior with the women there was so egregious that if there’s a next time, the consequences for him could be dire. He’s your mentor and your friend. You owe him this wake-up call.


Dear Prudence,
I am a single female in my mid-20s and have owned my own home for three years. My neighbors are a delightful family. My problem is a good one: They have done so many favors for me I don’t know how I can ever repay them! I have a bad back and have had surgery, and they mowed my lawn all summer. During the winter, they shovel my driveway before I get home from work. I’m not great in social situations, and I’m trying to figure out how I can possibly show them the depths of my appreciation for all the help they’ve given me. I think something like baking cookies and attaching a thank you note just seems lazy compared with all they’ve done. Is it tacky to thank them in some way after three years? A check seems weird. Should I start giving them a gift every time they help me, even though I’ve never asked for their help?

—Helped Out

Dear Helped,
Yes, you are lucky, but please don’t turn their generosity into a source of anxiety for yourself. I have several neighbors in their 90s, and I love shoveling snow, so after a snowstorm I do their stairs and driveways without asking, and don’t expect anything in return. Your neighbors know that you are on your own and that you can’t do a lot of physical labor, so I assure you that helping you out is a source of satisfaction for them. But do go ahead and thank them by inviting them over for dinner. When they come, raise a glass and say you wanted to let them know how grateful you are to live next door and how much you appreciate their looking out for you. A platter of brownies and a lovely note at Christmas would also be a good tradition for you to start.


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