Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My supervisor might be suicidal: My supervisor “Brenda” is friendly with me outside of work, and she’s told me that she struggles with depression and that she goes to therapy and takes medication. Recently, she’s been going through some things at home and has been bringing up the idea of killing herself more often. She has a dark sense of humor, and our office is pretty laid-back, but saying, “I’m going to shoot myself in the head” several times a week still raises some eyebrows.
At this point, I’m both worried about her mental health and concerned about our office environment. But she’s in charge, and we don’t have effective HR. (I also don’t want her to “get in trouble” or anything.) I just want her to get more help if she needs it and to not say scary things at work! How do I approach this? She’s not great with critique, and I’m afraid I’ll damage our relationship.
A: Woof, that is tricky. My hope would be that if you were to say something relatively gentle, like, “I’m really glad you’ve been getting help for your depression, but it can be difficult to know how to respond to jokes about suicide in the office,” and ask her to consider not making frequent, off-the-cuff references to killing herself at work, that she wouldn’t see it as a criticism so much as a desire to be both mindful of her mental health as well as the well-being of everyone else in the office. But knowing that she’s both your supervisor and generally not great with critique, coupled with the fact that your HR department is ineffective (plus your fear of getting her “in trouble”), it’s certainly a tricky situation. If anyone else has had a similar experience with a boss they felt simultaneously supportive of and also uncomfortable with, please share whatever strategies have worked for you in the comments.
Q. Boyfriend vs. dog: I have two small dogs, one of whom prefers to sleep under the covers—he always has since he was a puppy. I’m a relatively heavy sleeper and don’t mind it. My boyfriend, who stays at my place one or two nights a week, hates sleeping with the dog and is grossed out that he’s under the covers. He claims he’s reached out to hold my hand in the middle of the night and ended up with a paw instead.
The thing is, training the dog to stay out of the bed means I will lose a bunch of sleep for several nights in a row. As a single mom with a demanding job, I am just not up for that. Am I being unreasonable?
A: I wouldn’t love sleeping in a bed with a dog under the covers, but that doesn’t mean you’re being unreasonable—just that you and your boyfriend might not be compatible co-sleepers. There’s a possible compromise in letting the dog stay on the bed, just over the covers, which hopefully wouldn’t require extensive sleep retraining, but generally speaking, if you’re happy with your arrangement and your boyfriend can’t stand it, it may make more sense for him to decide not to spend the night as often.
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Q. Too womanly for the office?: I’m a woman in tech and recently was in a meeting where they asked for volunteers to help plan a holiday party. I enjoy those activities, so I volunteered with a few other men and another woman. After the meeting, I was pulled aside with the other woman by a senior (female) manager, who advised us not to volunteer for such “womanly activities” in the future, because essentially that doesn’t make us look like equals with our male counterparts.
At first I was hurt and upset because I felt like I was getting in trouble for not representing women in the best possible light. I’m constantly reminded of being a woman in a male-dominated field, and I wish I could just do whatever I wanted without having to think about how it will come across. It’s tiring.
My question is what to do next: Should I “resign” from party planning and encourage another male to volunteer? Is there a different way to think about this or respond when the situation arises again?
A: If you were being repeatedly roped into planning committees that distracted you from your day-to-day work, or felt that your supervisors had come to think of you as more of an “office helper” in a particularly gendered way than someone they wanted to train and promote, then it might be worth considering resigning from the party-planning committee. But since you enjoy those activities, were happy to volunteer, and are on a team with both men and women, I don’t think you need to step back in this particular instance. It’s true that female employees can often get pushed into “fun” party-planning work while their male counterparts are being groomed for promotion, but it doesn’t sound like that’s your situation.
Q: Serena Joy-less: A week ago, my husband revealed that he’d been having an affair and the other woman is pregnant. I was completely blindsided by this. I cannot have children myself, so this hurts on multiple levels. He ended the affair and intends to support the child but wants to stay with me. I had been dealing with multiple family crises when he dropped this bomb, so we haven’t had a big discussion on this, but I kicked him out of our bedroom. I intend to ask for a divorce soon.
I know my course of action there. My question has to do with the fact that the two friends I have confided in have been horrible in their responses. Both of them appear to empathize with the other woman and have said that I need to leave the house so that he can be with his mistress and so I stop “standing in the way of his family.” One made a cruel comment involving The Handmaid’s Tale. These responses are hurtful but also baffling. How should I respond? Am I that off-base to be hurt?
A: Finding out that your husband cheated on you and got someone else pregnant is a pretty far cry from kidnapping a woman and forcing her to have children on your behalf. Your friend’s remark was nothing but cruel, and you should not blame yourself for not being more “understanding” or “compassionate” as you initiate divorce proceedings. Your husband’s new family is his responsibility, not yours, and they’re wrong to suggest that you should make your own life smaller in order to make room for his infidelity. If your friends are able to apologize for their unkind, ungenerous responses to the end of your marriage, it may be possible to eventually repair those relationships, but if they continue to insist that you celebrate your soon-to-be ex’s decision to cheat on you—and his selfish suggestion that you simply help him co-parent a child with his mistress—then you will be better off without such friends in your life.
Q: Re: My supervisor might be suicidal: I’ve worked for the armed forces for a number of years, and all employees undergo training on how to talk to someone you suspect is depressed or suicidal. If you can, ask to speak with her privately and be straightforward. Say you have noticed her making a number of comments about suicide. Ask directly if she is thinking of killing herself or if she has a plan, and be prepared to discuss how she can get help. Be clear that you are there for her as a person and that that involves getting the help she may need. It’s better to ask and risk embarrassment than to say nothing and wonder later if you could have helped.
A: I can see the importance of directly addressing the content of these remarks—even though they’ve already spoken about her struggles with depression and her mental health treatment in general—not just in terms of “Can you not make jokes like this around the office?” but also in terms of checking in to see if they’re attempts to ask for more immediate help. Thanks for this.
Q: Birthday and brain tumor: My younger daughter’s first birthday is today. We celebrated yesterday by meeting my parents at a pumpkin patch; my dad was unwell and I made him go to the ER, where they found what’s looking like a brain tumor. He is likely going to have surgery tomorrow. We were going to have cake at my house last night but the guest list ended up at the hospital instead, so we put it off for today. My older daughter is 4; she knows my dad wasn’t feeling well, but we haven’t updated her on the fact that he’s in the hospital, will be getting a haircut, etc.
My dad adores my kids and vice versa. Will I scar my kids for life or ruin my younger daughter’s birthday if we bring the cake to the waiting room so my dad can come down from the ICU to celebrate the baby’s birthday? Cake at home and presents at the hospital? Something else? I am torn between not wanting him to miss this and not making her birthday inextricably tied to this horrendous thing that has happened.
A: I don’t think you’ll ruin your daughter’s birthday by celebrating in the hospital. Since she’s only 1, I don’t think it’s likely she’ll remember much about this birthday in general. If your dad feels up to it, and if you think that all of you are up to having a small celebration without falling apart, then having cake at home and then opening a few presents with Grandpa in the hospital waiting room sounds like a lovely idea.
It may help to tell your older daughter the age-appropriate version of the situation first—that he’s “getting a haircut” and going to be in the hospital a little while longer so the doctors can help him. But you don’t have to forgo the celebration entirely, and I don’t think your youngest will forever associate birthdays with illness, especially if you can talk honestly and carefully about what’s going on with both of your children.
Re: Boyfriend vs. dog: My boyfriend and I faced the same problem—though he is the dog owner, and I’m the one who doesn’t like cold wet dog nose on my bare legs at night. We wound up letting the dog get in bed, but between the sheet and the coverlet, or in winter, between the coverlet and an extra blanket. The dog feels cozy and loved, our sleeping area is cleaner, and there’s no more startling awake to wet dog nose! It was an easy transition—I’m not sure the dog even noticed the change. Maybe give that a try?
A: I think that’s the best possible compromise, and if the boyfriend still hates it, then they’ll have to have a bigger conversation about whether spending the night together is going to be something they can do regularly. I understand where he’s coming from, but it’s also a pretty big ask to suggest someone else reconsider their “pets on the bed” policy, so if the letter writer isn’t interested in training the dogs to sleep on the floor, that’s good information for them to both have before making any long-term decisions about sleeping and living together.
Q. My boyfriend’s vengeful ex-girlfriend has his friends on her side: My boyfriend Vince and I have been together for eight months. He ended his last relationship five months ago, so I was the other woman for a bit. Understandably, Vince’s friends have taken a while to warm to me, and they’re still friends with Vince’s ex, Amy.
I didn’t expect them to welcome me with open arms—I know I hurt their friend and behaved selfishly—but Amy has also harassed me since the breakup: smearing dog poop on my car, egging my home, getting drunk and calling me until I turn my phone off (which causes her to leave angry voicemails). Vince wants to go to the police. I dissuaded him at first, because I felt shame about participating in an affair. His friends shrug it off and (I think) even approve of Amy’s behavior. Vince is hurt by their attitudes, and I know going to the police will only further paint me as a villain in their eyes. I don’t want Vince to lose his friends, but I’m also done with Amy’s harassment. I get that I was a jerk, but does that mean I’m destined for a lifetime of judgment and abuse?
A: If this harassment has been ongoing for five months, then I think you should consider going to the police, if only so that you have a record of evidence in case she tries to escalate. Getting cheated on is painful, but what she’s doing is so inappropriate and out of proportion that if Vince’s friends think what she’s doing is merited or understandable, then I don’t think they’re real friends of his, and you shouldn’t try to just shrug off what you’ve been experiencing in order to keep them happy.
Q: Bald ’n’ proud: I am a proud, confident woman with alopecia universalis (no hair on my entire body), and thus far, thanks to expensive, realistic wigs and other measures, I haven’t had to discuss this at work. The condition progressed to this stage later in life, and I am still not sure how to handle it professionally. I am starting a new job soon and would love to be open about the condition, which is cosmetic and not a big deal medically but does set me apart in ways that come up more often than you would imagine! Think: retreats involving events where I can’t wear a wig, running into co-workers at the gym, changing my hairstyle, etc.
If I want the freedom to change my hairstyle and be open about the situation—which I would really like to be—when should I mention it? It seems strange to lump in “Also, I have no hair” with my introduction on my first day, but it also seems strange to switch from bangs to no bangs in one week with no explanation. What do you think?
A: You certainly don’t have to provide your co-workers with an explanation. Lots of people change their hairstyles, and even if some of them do realize you wear wigs, there’s no real reason for them to need to know why. But you say that you’d like to be frank and casually open about this, so if that’s your preference, I think you can mention to your supervisor (and possibly HR if they do an on-boarding session), “By the way, I wear a wig”—feeling free either to mention your alopecia or not—“so my hairstyle may change from time to time.”
Q. I think my neighbor stole my undies: I occasionally order underwear by mail. After a recent sale, I ordered three pairs, which were to be delivered in about a week. I came home from work one day carrying a bunch of stuff and saw the package inside my locked gate. I thought, “Let me go in and put these packages down, and I will get the underwear later.” I then forgot about the package until the next morning. When I went outside, the package was gone. I live in a duplex. The only way to (easily) get in is through the locked gate.
It struck me that I had not checked the label on the package. Maybe it was not for me. My neighbors are a married couple. They get many packages. The wife, with whom I have a pleasant relationship, is not my size and unlikely to wear them. That leaves the husband, who could theoretically fit in them. They also have a dog walker and a handyman, who both have keys. I checked the underwear tracking, and it says the package was delivered. Should I ask my neighbors if they have seen my package or just report to the company that I didn’t get it? I hate to suddenly distrust them, but the field of suspects is extremely limited.
A: Before you go full Poirot and start scanning your neighbors for telltale signs that they’re wearing underwear that’s rightfully yours, I think it’s useful to run through the number of other possibilities. It’s entirely likely that the package you saw was not for you in the first place and that it “went missing” because it was for your neighbors. The original package could have been opportunistically swiped by a guest to the complex or someone who managed to slip in while the gate was open. You can, of course, casually say to your neighbors, “Hey, I was expecting a package this week that’s been marked as delivered but never turned up. Have you seen anything addressed to me?” But if they haven’t, rather than assume they’ve been reduced to swiping your underwear, just chalk it up to one of the mysteries of the universe and contact the company so they can redeliver your order.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone! See you next week, and may all of your underwear deliveries arrive on time until then.
I’m a 32-year-old straight man and I’ve never been in a relationship with a woman. I can count on one hand the number of dates I’ve been on. I’ve had many female friends and am perfectly comfortable around women in that context, but as soon as it’s a “date” my anxiety takes over and ruins everything. Although a professional has never formally diagnosed me, I’m pretty sure I have avoidant personality disorder (I have all the symptoms listed on various psychology websites). I’m afraid of going to therapy or taking medication. I’m sure you would advise me to try either of those things. What bothers me is that even if I went to therapy and was able to manage my anxiety, I worry about reactions to my lack of romantic experience. Do I try to hide it for as long as possible or be totally up front about it? I feel like I’m past the point of no return, and it’s just too weird to date now.
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