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I recently moved to a neighborhood where it’s relatively common for people to allow their dogs to roam the neighborhood freely—a practice that seems outrageous to me. There is one dog in particular that keeps showing up in my yard. Though he is very sweet, he is not neutered, does not have a collar or microchip, and was filthy and covered in fleas when I found him. He seems to be well-fed and otherwise healthy. I took the dog in, put up a few lost dog signs, and learned from another concerned neighbor who the owners are. He said they have ignored his repeated requests to keep their dog on a leash, and he witnessed several near-accidents as cars swerved to avoid the dog. Should I give this dog to a good home? My gut says this is the right thing to do, but I’m worried that I’m stealing a dog from a family. On the other hand, if I find this dog dead in the street in two weeks I will feel responsible.
—Thief or Rescuer?
I’m reluctant to give anyone advice that boils down to “Steal the dog,” and yet I think you might have to steal this dog. Normally I’d suggest that since you know who the owners are, you might consider getting in touch with them and letting them know you’re worried about their dog’s safety and are trying to find a good home for him. But you’ve already put up lost dog signs and haven’t heard a word from them, so I think you’ve done your due diligence. I think you can find a safer home for him with a clear conscience; it sounds as if they’re about as interested in recovering their dog as they were in taking care of him when they had him.
* * *
I have a longtime friend who fancies herself a career writer. She has contributed a few freelance stories to local news organizations, mostly announcing local events not covered in the traditional news outlets. Before she submits her pieces, she sends them to me to edit. There’s no other way to describe them: They’re bad. Her pieces lack focus or purpose, she blatantly plagiarizes ideas, and her grammar and punctuation are at a junior-high level. I try to give constructive criticism, but she ignores me entirely. It’s clear that she has no intention of revising her work, and she’s just fishing for compliments.
Recently, she has started applying for journalism positions with major news organizations. She gets angry when she does not get called for an interview. I refuse to lie to her and tell her that her writing is excellent when it is subpar. What can I say when she wants me to tell her that her writing is good?
—Not Fit To Print
The hallmark of incompetence is the inability to recognize itself. Most writers are plagued with at least occasional self-doubt and impostor syndrome, but your friend is convinced the only reason she’s not a full-time reporter after a year of sporadically covering retirement parties is bad luck. You’ve already tried giving her feedback on her work to no avail, so your first step should be to stop editing her work for free. Tell her you simply don’t have the time to act as her unpaid copy editor. If she keeps fishing for compliments after she realizes she can’t squeeze any more free work from you, stick to blandly polite statements of fact: “I think it’s great you’ve found something you enjoy so much.” If she has a meltdown, hold your ground. As a reader pointed out in the comments this week, “No” is a complete sentence.
* * *
I am 30 years old and have been with my current boyfriend for over four years. I love him, and we have a lot in common. However, there’s another friend I’ve known since I was 18. We hooked up while we were in school, but every time we considered dating, the timing wasn’t right. We’re philosophically similar and can read each other’s moods and minds, though we sometimes go months without talking. I’ve never felt such intense passion with anyone else, including my current boyfriend. Recently this friend expressed regret for never dating me, although he’s with someone now (to whom he seems indifferent). Do I owe it to myself to explore the intense feelings I never could shake before settling down with someone? Or should I chalk the feelings up to adolescent nostalgia and accept that if we had really wanted to be together, we would have made it happen?
—Follow My Heart or Head?
If your friend had told you, “Things aren’t working out with my girlfriend; I’m leaving her, and I want to be with you,” that would be one thing. But he merely expressed a vague sense of regret, as if the fact that he never dated you was entirely outside of his control. It sounds as though he’s perfectly happy to stay with this woman while checking in with you every few months to make sure you’re still thinking about him. Which is a great setup for him! Not so great for you—especially if you were to leave your lovely-but-nonintense boyfriend only to hear, “Oh, I didn’t mean we should date now. Sorry if you misunderstood!”
* * *
I have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and cyclothymia; last year, due to a change in my medication, I had a series of major attacks, including manic episodes and intense suicide ideation. Since then, I have become much more stable with the help of therapists and psychiatrists. Unfortunately, many of the relatives who saw me during that period have basically cut me out of their lives, even though my father told them I was mentally ill during that time and had an adverse drug reaction. I commonly see advice columnists talking about cutting toxic people out of their lives, including family members. I fear that people with mental illnesses are commonly lumped into this “toxic” category and are forced to live an isolated life after our maladies become a little too visible. What advice do you have for someone like me, who in no way meant to permanently damage key relationships due to an instability out of her control?
Your letter has settled heavy on my heart, and I am so grateful to you for writing it, as well as enormously glad you have found the treatment and resources you need to stay well. I am so sorry that in addition to having to deal with a change in medication and suicidal thoughts, you’ve also experienced a painful and unwanted estrangement from your own family. Cutting someone “toxic” out of your life is an appropriate response to long-term abuse or cruelty, not a strategy for pushing away someone seeking treatment for mental illness.
It sounds like your father is very much in your corner—could he possibly act as an advocate with the family members who have distanced themselves from you? I don’t know the specifics of what your relatives saw or experienced, but it might be easier for your father to lay some groundwork on your behalf before setting up a conversation or a low-key get-together for you to see one another again.
You experienced manic and suicidal episodes as a result of your mental illness, sought treatment, and have found relief. For your family to continue to avoid you out of fear is unnecessary. To withhold their affection from you as some sort of punishment is deeply unkind. Coldness and distance are the wrong response to pain. If nothing else, I hope seeing this letter will prove helpful to any readers unsure of how to show compassion and support to anyone in their own lives who experiences mental illness.
* * *
Last Christmas, when my boyfriend and I were still dating, I gave him a card promising the delivery of a chair he had always wanted. At the time, I hadn’t actually ordered the chair, though of course I intended to do so. Flash forward one year, and you’ll find us no longer together—we amicably parted ways in the spring—and my ex-boyfriend still chairless. Although we remain friends, I’m torn between wanting to honor my original gifting promise and thinking that, at this point, I don’t have to buy him anything! Compounding the problem is that I’ve now moved onto someone new; ordering a belated Christmas gift for an ex-boyfriend feels decidedly unseemly. Do I need to fulfill the material promises I made while still in love?
—A Shady Chair-acter
Oh, the good intentions I have given myself credit for without ever following through on them! I wish I did not relate to your situation quite so much. You do not have to buy your ex-boyfriend the chair you promised him before you broke up. After a year, he is probably wise to the fact that you never actually ordered it. He may, in fact, be aware that overpromising and underdelivering are habits of yours. If you decide not to buy it, since you’re still friends, go ahead and make the sheepish admission that you never got around to it and hope he’ll forgive your sin of omission. “My ex never bought me a chair” is probably not keeping him up at night.
If, however, you decide that while you don’t have to honor your promise, it would be nice of you to do so, order the chair as a sign of your appreciation for his continued friendship. And don’t worry about the seemliness of the thing. Sooner or later we all buy furniture for someone we used to sleep with.
* * *
I’ve been dating a guy I met in law school for about two years. He is the type who wants to work constantly his entire life, be extremely successful, and provide lavishly for his future family. He’d prefer to work 12-hour days and make more money than work 8-hour days and come home for dinner. I strongly disagree with this. In a conversation about our future, He said he would spend as much time as possible with a child when he wasn’t working, but when I asked him if he would take two weeks of paternity leave, he said absolutely not. Once upon a time, he said, men were back at the office 30 minutes after the baby was born. He thinks I don’t appreciate his work ethic and desire to provide the best life possible for his future wife and children. Are we incompatible, or is something that can be worked out?
—Future Single Parent
You are incompatible! He’s made himself perfectly clear: If you want a high-earning husband who’s rarely at home but pays for everything, he’s your guy. If you want someone who comes home in time for dinner and won’t rush out of the delivery room to jump on a conference call after the birth of your firstborn, thank him for his honesty, and move on to someone whose idea of work-life balance more closely resembles yours.
* * *
My aunt and uncle are an older, well-to-do couple and the only relatives on my mother’s side. Recently, my aunt has become a “stylist” for a jewelry-party company, the sort that rewards its associates for sales to friends and acquaintances. Since then, she only give us her company’s items for Christmas, none of which we particularly care for, and emails us the receipts in order to boost her sales numbers. We don’t even like these items! We either give them away to charity or let them sit in a drawer. My mother has tried gently hinting that we have enough jewelry, and my sister and I are pushing for a gift-free Christmas. What should we do?
–No Necklace, Please
What a disappointment! Wealthy, eccentric relatives are supposed to whisk you away to their country houses and give you their old Aston Martins, not send you costume jewelry for part of their multilevel marketing schemes. (I myself have no wealthy, eccentric relatives, so I get all my knowledge about them from old Agatha Christie novels.) Stop gently hinting. Tell your aunt kindly and directly that you don’t need gifts from her, that you have more than enough jewelry, and if she sends you any more, you’ll donate it to Goodwill. If that doesn’t work, you could start sending her Mary Kay products in return, but that seems likely to backfire.
* * *
I’ve worked at a 25-employee firm for over 20 years. I’ve also had breast cancer for 15 years. About two years ago my cancer traveled to my brain, and I had to leave my job because of the treatment I was receiving. I almost died, yet I never heard from my co-workers. Not one even called to say, “How are you feeling?” My boss told me he wanted me to come to the office holiday luncheon, yet never followed up with the date and time. I am so disappointed and hurt by their lack of empathy. I thought we were a family, but I’ve found out otherwise. Should I be as upset as I am, or should I let this go? I don’t want to die without saying anything. Can I write them a letter explaining how hurt I am?
—Tired of Holding It In
How awful to realize the coworkers you thought of as family barely think of you at all. I know plenty of people feel uncomfortable and unsure of what to say in the face of illness, but it’s hard to imagine that all 25 of your former colleagues couldn’t muster up a single get-well card or phone call between them. Their absence during your illness may have stemmed more from discomfort and uncertainty than from callousness, but that doesn’t make their silence any easier for you to bear.
I don’t know if you’ve seen a therapist during your illness, but it might be helpful to speak with a grief counselor about your feelings of betrayal and abandonment before you decide how, if it all, you’d like to speak with your ex-co-workers. If you do decide to respond, it may be easier for you to speak with your former boss instead of the entire office; tell him that you’d love to attend the office holiday party but haven’t received an invitation or heard anything from your former officemates during your illness. Give yourself permission to feel as upset as you need to feel. You’ve earned that.
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