Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My Type 2 diabetes has become an office joke: I have Type 2 diabetes, which I’m managing with the help of my doctor. I feel a lot of shame about having diabetes, and I prefer to keep my diagnosis to myself. My new co-worker, “Audrey,” has a habit of saying that decadent or sugary food will give her diabetes. It was happening three or four times a week, so when we were alone, I asked her, “Would you please not make those jokes around me? I have Type 2 diabetes.” Audrey didn’t stop making “I’ll get diabetes” jokes, but now she’ll catch herself, look at me, and go, “Oh, I’m so sorry! I’m such a jerk.” She has made a big enough deal about it that most of our co-workers now know I have diabetes. My friends have been nothing but supportive and loving; but some well-intentioned people have offered me medical advice or will try to discuss the subject with me.
Obviously bringing the jokes up with Audrey was a mistake. How should I proceed when she makes these jokes or when we have to work together? How should I have approached this?
A: You approached this perfectly well by asking her to stop—nothing you did would merit this kind of treatment, especially when Audrey has made it abundantly clear that she knows what she’s doing. Making this sort of joke three or four times a week on the basis of your medical condition—and worse, trying to pass it off now as a cute “Ain’t-I-a-stinker?” sort of habit—is unnecessary, unprofessional, and discriminatory. I think the next move is to speak with your supervisor, if you trust them, and HR too. I don’t always recommend consulting HR about workplace issues, but since this is predicated on a medical condition, I think the company can (and should) take effective steps to stop Audrey from bringing up your diagnosis around the office. Tell your boss that this has been happening three to four times a week, that you’ve asked her to stop and she hasn’t—that she has in fact escalated to calling herself a “jerk” when she does it in order to forestall any criticism from others—and that these jokes have led others in the office to try to discuss your condition with you, which you would prefer to keep quiet.
Q. Bad son: My sister’s youngest is a leech. Since he was a child, he has lied, cheated, and stolen, and then hid behind my sister’s skirts. He was shoplifting at 12 and stealing cars at 15. My sister beggared the money her dead husband left for her children’s education on lawyers and useless fancy therapy for her son. My nieces were left with nothing. Worse, after my nephew stole from his own sisters, their mother blamed them for leaving their purses and laptops out in the living room and not locked up.
My nieces are now grown with lives of their own and refuse to speak with their mother. My nephew has just gotten out of prison for the second time and has moved in with her. He is dealing drugs out of my sister’s house and stealing money from her. Strange cars come and go from her house at all hours of the day and night. I hate seeing my sister being treated like this, but speaking to her gets me nowhere. Her “baby boy” is “turning his life around”—the same refrain from the time he was 12 years old. Her health isn’t good, and she is working long hours in order to pay her bills and still struggling. I feel so helpless. Is there anything I can do?
A: I think keeping a loving distance is the best way forward. You don’t have to speak harshly to her or cut her out of your life, but any attempts to get more involved as long as she’s willing to let him live with her under these conditions will likely only result in further frustration. Let her know you care for her, that you understand she loves her son and wants him to be well, and that you’ll be there for her if and when she ever decides to stop facilitating his bad behavior. If you’re able, try to meet her for lunch or a drink once in a while and talk about topics that aren’t her son, so you two can catch up and keep the lines of communication open. But don’t bash your head against a wall trying to convince her to stop doing what she’s doing, and don’t get roped into helping her fix whatever the latest emergency is.
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Q. Big: I have not seen my cousins in close to 10 years, not since I was a skinny, withdrawn preteen. My older cousins, who are in their mid- to late-20s, decided to comment rather vocally on that fact when we had our family reunion. Their response to seeing me for the first time in a decade was to say, “Damn you got serious titties, cuz,” and mine, after long years of dealing with catcalling, was to call them “motherfucking assholes,” and to loudly drag the attention of their mother and sisters to them commenting on my breasts. I apparently didn’t let up on the subject fast enough to satisfy my mother’s moral standards. She says I was “unnecessarily crude” and “ungracious.” I think I did just fine given the situation I was operating under. I don’t get along with my mother most days, but I have been trying to get closer to her. Should I apologize? Stick to my guns? Or ignore it?
A: It’s usually not a great idea to call family members “motherfucking assholes,” but to dwell on the crudeness of your response, rather than the sexist and creepy manner in which your cousins opened the conversation, is to miss the point. You should not apologize. It is never appropriate for a twentysomething adult to comment on a younger relative’s breasts, especially in such an openly salacious manner—it’s invasive, it’s demeaning, it’s uncalled for, and it’s something you’ve had to deal with from strangers for years. The last thing you need is to start getting it from your family too. This wasn’t a one-off experience, this was part and parcel of a sexist culture that you’ve had to deal with ever since you started puberty, one that told you the second you developed breasts that your childhood was over, whether you were ready to stop being treated like a child or not. Stick to your guns.
Q. When do I tell a prospective partner that I occasionally get cold sores?: I very rarely get cold sores. I got my first one from my grandmother when I was 3, and I’ve had maybe two in my whole life. I had always thought that if I didn’t have an active cold sore, I wasn’t contagious. I recently learned that even if you don’t have an active cold sore, you can still can be shedding the virus around 10 percent of the time. I’m just now getting into the dating pool, in my 20s, and I’m freaked out! I would obviously tell someone before any sexual contact beyond kissing happened. But do I need to tell someone before our first kiss if I don’t have an active cold sore? If yes, how do I bring it up on the first date? Or, since 80 percent of people carry the cold sore virus, and most people don’t know that you can spread it even when you don’t have a cold sore, is this just a natural risk of kissing people? I would feel guilty not saying something, but I also don’t know how to bring it up!
A: If you’re not experiencing a cold sore and you’re simply going on a first date, I don’t think you’re obligated to disclose—you don’t know yet if you’re going to kiss someone. But the way you’ve framed it here is just fine: “I occasionally get cold sores and I wanted to let you know; I got the first when I was 3 and have had about two in my entire life, and I know how to treat them and to minimize the risk of transmission.”
Q. Problems money can fix: Recently I got a new job with a substantial raise, and my partner and I moved to a new location. She works from home running her own lucrative business; I work in an office. We both contribute a proportional amount of income to the household, although I make about $100,000 a year more than she does. We moved into an apartment that has a substantial commute for me—I spend about three hours a day standing on a cramped public transit. As a result, my days are often 12-plus hours. I know my partner would like me to contribute more around the house, but I come home sore and exhausted every day, and spend most of the weekend sleeping. (We’re both women, so gender dynamics aren’t at play.)
Would it be acceptable to pay out of my personal money for a monthly house cleaner in lieu of doing the work myself? I’m afraid my frugal, lower-income partner sees it as a frivolous use of money, but I genuinely want to contribute more, and I simply don’t have the energy. Is paying someone else to do something the same kind of contribution to a household as doing it yourself?
A: I don’t think it’s especially relevant whether it’s “the same” as cleaning the house yourself—I think it’s a solution that meets your specific needs and that you have every reason to take it. Talk to your partner about the limits on your time and energy, and explain that you are willing to spend some of your own money in order to set aside more time for rest and being together as a couple—not because you need her “permission” to opt out of chores, but because you want to make this sort of decision together. Hire a cleaner, pay them generously, and get some rest.
Q: To the breeder go the spoils?: I have twins, who arrived later in my life. My happily child-free sister is a wonderful aunt. We were both educated in great Catholic schools, and my parents want to pay a very large sum of money so our twins can also attend private Catholic school. My sister told me she’s happy for my kids but also upset that she is not being offered a gift in kind. Is it unfair for me to receive “extra” because I chose to have kids?
A: Dealing with concepts of fairness with adult siblings is fairly fraught, and there really isn’t an easy trade that your parents can offer in order to make sure everyone feels like they’re getting equal treatment. I can understand your sister’s perspective, but it’s also not on you to fix; this seems like something where you can hear her out, encourage her to talk to your parents, and then let it go. I’m sure you already do this, but make sure to demonstrate your love and appreciation for her both as a wonderful aunt and as a person in her own right—it may be that she sometimes needs to connect with you without your family in tow.
Q. Re: My Type 2 diabetes has become an office joke: I would add that it’s OK to politely tell co-workers who want to discuss diabetes or treatments with you that you prefer to only discuss your condition with your doctor. I have a thyroid disorder and everyone and their hairstylist has tried to sell me on gluten-free and paleo-style diets. I’ve had decent luck with, “Thank you for wanting to help, but I’m comfortable with the treatment plan I’ve worked out with my physician.”
A: Thanks for this script! Amazing how everyone becomes an armchair expert when someone else’s medical conditions come up.
Q: Breakup: I found out last week that my new girlfriend, “Evie,” was seriously involved with my half-brother, “John,” during a college internship last year. I was introducing Evie to my mother, and she spotted a high school photo of John and me and freaked out. John and I have different last names and don’t look anything alike. I also don’t do social media, so when Evie looked John up, she didn’t find anything unusual. It weirded me out at first, but Evie wasn’t lying to me and came clean as soon as she found out the truth. She offered to break up, but I didn’t want to. I genuinely think I might love Evie—at least, I have never felt like this before.
When I broke the news to my half-brother, John demanded I immediately break up with Evie and called me a perv when I refused to. He referred to her as “his sloppy seconds” and said this was all an elaborate ruse for Evie to get back at him for breaking up with her last year. His response was nothing short of hysterical. Then he called and told the rest of our family about it. I got calls from our grandma. John and I have always had a competitive edge to our relationship since he is only a year younger than me, but I thought most of that faded after we got out of high school. What do I do with John now? I am not breaking up with Evie, and two of our older sisters are engaged, so we will be seeing John socially in the near future.
A: Stop seeing John socially until and unless he is willing to apologize for referring to a human being as “sloppy seconds” and to stop making unreasonable demands that you end a relationship you’re very happy in. If he’s not able to do that, then stay polite but distant when you absolutely have to see him at weddings or family occasions, but keep your distance elsewhere.
Q: Am I disabled enough?: I’ve had chronic pain and mobility issues since I was 12 (I’m now 21), and over the last year or so, it’s gotten worse. I can barely make it around Costco without needing painkillers and several days of rest, and whereas my baseline used to be a 3–4 on the pain scale, I’m now at 5–6. So I gave in and bought some fancy crutches for times where I’ll have to walk a lot, and I’ve started discussing other accommodations with my fiancé, such as getting a disabled parking badge and taking advantage of disability assistance at events and airports. Thing is I feel extremely guilty about this, and despite my gorgeous new crutches having turned up a week ago, I haven’t even gotten them out of the box yet. I won’t need them full time, and I’m worried people will think I’m doing it for attention or being weak. I’m also worried I’ll get hassled in car parks if I’m using the blue badge but not the crutches. And really, I just feel like a bit of a fraud anyway, like I should be able to just suck it up and get on with it. Stupidly, I’ve been on disability rights marches and such, actively fighting against this attitude! I just can’t seem to apply my support of other disabled people to myself. I don’t even feel right using the word disabled! Also, I’ve been unable to work for years and I don’t remember that ever really bothering me, but now it’s damaging my self-esteem. Do you think there’s a way I can start believing I’m entitled to disability?
A: I do think you can start believing this, and I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with so much internal criticism, in no small part because you’re very aware that we live in a world where people who don’t appear to “perform” disability correctly in public are harassed and antagonized. Look at what you’ve written to me—you’ve dealt with chronic pain and mobility challenges for the last nine years, it’s recently worsened to the point of making trips to the grocery store a significant challenge, and you’re in a constant level of midrange pain. The crutches, the badge, and the pain medication are all things you’re entitled to and deserve, and just because you don’t require a particular aid 24/7 does not mean you’re “weak.” I hope you can reach out to other people with disabilities—perhaps some of the people you’ve met at marches—to ask for support as you start using your crutches and badge.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks so much, everyone! See you next week.
Vintage Dear Prudence
“I am the mother of a beautiful, clever, generally well-behaved 4-year-old girl. I adore her, and she’s a delight to be with in public and sweet as pie with other adults. My problem isn’t something that other moms talk about, or that I’ve seen other little girls do. My daughter likes to—uh, how shall I put this?—rub herself on things: tables, chairs, ottomans, stairs. She really gets into it, and can go for long periods—half an hour, 45 minutes. She becomes very intent and flushed, and often gets upset when we try to stop her (probably because it feels good—duh!). My husband and I call it “doing that thing” and we have been generally tolerant of it, even though it has embarrassed us when she’s done it in public places like bookstores or at the babysitter’s house. We think exploring one’s body is a normal thing and that probably she will grow out of this, but when friends come over and see her “doing that thing” on the coffee table, it’s a real conversation-stopper. Should we prevent or prohibit this behavior, just because it embarrasses us? I don’t think it’s a disciplinary issue, because she’s not disobeying us or hurting us or herself. We just figured it was something that she would grow out of, but she’s doing it more and more. It’s just such a strange, awkward habit, and I can’t settle on a graceful, sensible, loving solution. What do you think?”
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