Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Betraying Mom: “Bertie” is my sister’s mother-in-law. She is a fabulously wealthy, three-time divorcee who is larger than life. She is loud, opinionated, and extremely generous. Since her son married my sister, Bertie has flown them, my parents, and me (plus several of my friends) on all-expenses-paid vacations for Christmas around the world. We spent two weeks in Rome last year. I love her. My mother doesn’t, and she made the mistake of detailing exactly why to my pregnant sister (it was over baby gifts) and accidentally sent it to everyone on her mailing list. Including Bertie. The phrases “social climber,” “gold digger,” and other less nice words were used. My mother apologized, but Bertie told my sister that she would not “subject” my mother to her presence anymore and that would solve everything.
It is all very awkward, and my brother-in-law is still fuming about it (they are visiting us for the holidays because my sister can’t travel in her condition). Bertie told me that she didn’t hold my mother’s words against me, and invited me and a friend to London for spring break. She also said she would understand if I didn’t want to go. I really do, but it feels like I am betraying my mother somehow. I know going would hurt both my parents and make it look like Bertie could “buy” me (one of the reasons my mom listed about why she hates Bertie). I don’t see Bertie like that. She never had daughters, she spoils my sister more than me, and she is really trying to be better with family. My brother-in-law spent a lot of his childhood at boarding school, but he and his mother made up years ago. So help me, what should I do here?
A: It’s not “betraying your mother” if you like someone she doesn’t. If you want to spend spring break with Bertie and a friend in London, go and have a fabulous time. You know, even if your mother doesn’t, that Bertie’s money is not the only reason you like traveling with her. Frankly, I think your mother forfeited the right to be hurt about anything concerning Bertie when she sent that ghastly, cruel email to everyone she knows.
Q. Overly exuberant compliment introductions: I am a young, research-intensive professor in a tech-y field. Frequently, when I’m in casual, non-work-related social situations, friends and acquaintances introduce me as “their supersmart professor friend” with varying but often embarrassing levels of exuberance to other people. I feel so awkward during these introductions! I know my friends are trying to be good hosts by giving a bit of background about each person, but the attention makes me uncomfortable. Sure, I’m doing quite well in my (very specific) area, but that is just because I am well-trained and have too many years of school under my belt. I’m sure the people I’m meeting have unique expertise, too. I don’t mind accomplishments being presented in a professional forum and I’ve learned to take a general compliment politely, but I don’t know what to do to make these situations less awkward? I usually try to deflect by mumbling something about my area being a bore, or that I’m just school smart, and then ask about the other person. Do you have any suggestions?
A: “Oh, you’re too kind,” followed by an enthusiastic interest in the other person you’re meeting is a better response than mumbling about how boring or not-really-smart you are. The mumbling “No, I’m terrible actually” is likely to make people more uncomfortable than a generous compliment from a friend. I totally understand the impulse, of course, but I think you’ll find the moment is over quicker if you deflect it quickly with a “that’s so kind!” than if you try to make a lot of self-deprecating remarks. If this were just one or two friends, I’d recommend you ask them to praise you less ostentatiously, but since it happens a lot at work too, I think you should just smile and pass the compliment along to someone else.
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Q. Can someone be addicted to misery?: I have a newish friend who has been in a depression for almost the whole time I’ve known him, almost two years. While we worked together, we used to hang out, have great talks, and do fun things together. In the past nine months, he has quit three jobs, stopped taking care of himself, and moved in with his parents. I have a lot of compassion for him, but he just won’t do anything to take care of himself. He finds fault with the doctors and therapists he tries—no one is good enough. He shows no interest in doing what he knows helps him: taking walks every day, having a decent diet, sleeping regular hours. No job that he is qualified for is good enough for him, so he is broke.
I want to support him, but it feels like there is nothing I can do other than sit and listen to him complain. He seems addicted to misery. He makes no effort to make his feelings or his situation better (or even more bearable). I am frustrated and feel heartless for saying this, but it feels like he’s an addict who can’t be helped until he himself wants to feel better. I have dealt with, and cared for, others who suffer from depression, and supported them through the tough process. I know it isn’t easy. But this friend doesn’t seem to want to feel better. Is it sufficient to see him weekly and limit it to a few hours? What else can I do? He has almost no friends, and I don’t want to abandon him. But I can’t save him, either.
A: Absolutely you can just see a (newish) friend for a few hours a week. I have lots of friends I only see for a few hours a week; that’s a very common approach to friendship even when you aren’t feeling depleted and overwhelmed.
Q. Do I get to keep my unpublished writing from my family?: I’ve just graduated college with a creative writing degree, and my mother is insisting that I show her the stories I wrote for my thesis. I’ve always told family that if my writing gets published anywhere they are more than welcome to read it, but until then the stories stay between me and my classes. My mother feels she deserves to read the stories because she helped to pay for my schooling. I don’t want to be an ungrateful daughter, but some of the stories I wrote for my thesis touch on difficult parental relationships and a lot of mental health issues I’ve been dealing with for a while. I’m embarrassed to show her my writing on principle, but I’m also afraid she’ll draw a lot of conclusions from the themes and be insulted or worried. Am I being overprotective of my writing? Should I just let her read the stories and try to field the uncomfortable questions?
A: No, you’re not being overprotective, and no, you don’t have to show your mother your classwork after graduation just because she paid for school. This problem will likely come up again if you do become a published writer, because my guess is that you’ll find some of these themes about parental relationships come up again, but that doesn’t mean you have to start exposure therapy now.
Q. My strange name hides a secret: I’m a woman with a very unusual, somewhat masculine first name (think “Cameron” or “Daryl”), and people often ask me how I came by it. The truth is that I legally changed it many years ago because my ex-husband was stalking me. It was a terrifying time, and I became so paranoid that I ended up changing my name and choosing a masculine-sounding first name in the hopes that this would make me even harder to find. To this day, I still don’t know how to respond when people ask about my name. I don’t want to share the real reason (too heavy, too personal), and I don’t feel comfortable making something up. Is there anything more graceful I can say than, “Yeah, I don’t really know where that name came from?” I need a polite, deflective script. Do you have one for this odd situation?
A: I’m all for lying in such a situation: “Oh, it’s an old family name” or “My mother liked it” are usually conversation-enders, if only because people are less likely to question something if it’s tradition. If you don’t want to suggest that your parents gave you your name, you can say, “Oh, I’ve always loved the sound of [Daryl],” which isn’t something someone else can exactly argue with or ask for more details over.
Q. Unwanted thoughts: About eight months ago I started getting a lot of unwanted thoughts about hurting and even killing myself, though I should note that I don’t have any intention of actually doing either. At first I thought it was because of upcoming examinations, and in fact the thoughts somewhat subsided after exams were over. Recently, though, they have come back with a vengeance. I find myself making potential suicide plans in my head. Even though I don’t intend on following through, these thoughts still scare and distress me. I have self-harmed in the past (for a very brief period), and due to these thoughts I am finding myself feeling increasingly sad and worthless. I also can’t help but feel that all of this is my fault and that I’m making it all up. I thought about seeing a therapist but feel like I would be wasting their time since I don’t think I am actually depressed. What do you think I should do?
A: You can’t waste a therapist’s time if you’re paying them. Moreover, therapy does not exist solely for depressed people; anyone who’s dealing with a problem they’d like to talk about is qualified to seek therapy. These intrusive thoughts are unwanted and distressing, and you’d like someone’s assistance in figuring out ways to cope with them. You have every right to see a therapist, and I hope you do, because carrying these thoughts around in your head by yourself, while also feeling sad and worthless, is a terrible burden, and not one you should have to carry alone.
Q. Want to table plans to live with my boyfriend at retirement: I am a woman one year away from retirement. I have been dating my boyfriend for 16 years, but we don’t live together (I own a home; he rents). Over the years, he has suggested we live together or marry. I have always put him off on this. I was married once, for 18 years, to a guy who drank and smoked a lot of weed. Marriage was the trap I finally escaped from. I actually prefer living on my own. Foolishly, I said to my boyfriend about a year ago, maybe we should take our relationship to the next level. Naturally, he was overjoyed.
But now I am regretting saying this to him and don’t want to go forward with the plan. He’s a hardworking guy, makes me laugh, and treats me well. But he smokes way too much weed. Don’t get me wrong, as a former ’60s kid, I smoked my share over the years, and I certainly see nothing wrong with it. But he smokes in the morning when he gets up for work, and all evening when he gets home from work. He lights up a bowl if he gets up to use the bathroom at night. He was a heroin addict long before I met him. He’s been clean for over 25 years, but I feel he has just traded one addiction for another.
I told him I will not live with him if he is actively using because I think he is smoking way too much. He said he would stop, but it has been a year and despite his protests to the contrary he has not cut back. He gets defensive if I ask him how much he is spending a week on weed. He also buys his weed from his son, which I find very weird. (Recreational weed is not legal in our state.) I am not seeing any slowdown. I truthfully don’t think he really wants to quit. My intuition is very strongly telling me not to move in together. I told him before that I went through this with my ex-husband and that I won’t do it again. I regret making the suggestion and would rather we just stay as we have been for the last 16 years. I think it would be a fatal error to do this feeling the way I do. How should I put this to him?
A: “I’ve thought about it more carefully, and I don’t want to move in together. My first priority is maintaining my independence, and I know from experience that I can’t live with someone who smokes weed. I don’t want to get into an argument about whether you can cut down—I don’t want to monitor your drug use. I just know what I want, and what I don’t want.” If your boyfriend decides that this is a deal-breaker for him, and that he’d rather end the relationship than continue dating without moving in together or getting married, then I think it’s a sign you two have reached the limits of your compatibility, and it’s time to thank each other for a lovely 16 years together. But oh man, please do not move in with him. You are 100 percent correct in feeling sure that you’d just be repeating an old pattern that made you miserable the first time. Don’t put a foot back in the trap you’ve already escaped. And definitely don’t feel like you’re not allowed to change your mind just because you said you’d be willing to move in together a year ago. He may get angry with you for changing your mind, and that’s understandable, but you haven’t reneged on a legally binding contract, just realized you only said yes because it’s so important to him and you didn’t want to be the bad guy. But if you two move in together, I promise you’ll feel like the bad guy every day when he starts resenting you, even unconsciously, for being the reason he’s supposed to restrict his smoking.
Q. Totally not dating: “Kevin” and I work at a small, tightly knit office, and we hit it off a few years ago. We have been spending increasingly more time together, and recently when Kevin was away for about six months, we spent around half our waking hours Skyping every day. Now that he is moving back, we have decided to formalize our arrangement. I am going to chip in for his living expenses, as I will be spending most of my day at his apartment (and eating there), coming back to mine only to sleep. Despite our closeness, we are not dating. In our three years of friendship we have never had even a moment of weakness; we have hugged probably five times. Nonetheless, a lot of people assume we are dating. Our close friends comment on it incessantly, as do strangers, and I find it getting to me. We are both single adults. Is it so wrong to have an opposite-gender friend that we are so close with? I don’t quite know how to navigate this scenario, or if we are in the wrong somehow.
A: It can be hard for some people to understand why two people would be close if sex and romance aren’t in the offing; that doesn’t mean those two people are secretly lusting after one another. The only advice I would give you is to consider moving in together if this next phase goes well, so you’re not paying for two apartments but really only using one. I’m so glad that the two of you have become family to one another, and I hope Kevin’s return is a joyous one.
Q. Re: Unwanted thoughts: These are called intrusive thoughts. You should see a psychiatrist about them. You cannot control that they occur, but they can eventually lead to suicidal actions (to escape the horribleness of the thoughts), anxiety, stress, etc. Please see a pro as soon as possible.
A: I agree that a psychiatrist or psychologist would be helpful in addition to a therapist, since “intrusive thoughts” like the ones letter writer describes may be linked to OCD. You deserve all the help you can get in coming up with a treatment plan.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: That’s it for 2018! The live chat will reconvene on Jan. 7; sit tight until then. If you’re terribly bored in the meantime, drop into the comments and let us know what your favorite Prudence letters were in 2018, and they might pop up in an end-of-year list.
Q. My cheating husband died suddenly, and I want to help his mistress: It sounds like a bad joke, but my cheating husband stepped into the street, got hit by a semi, and died. Instead of going through a difficult divorce, I have inherited all his assets and am a very wealthy woman. I have no idea how to deal with any of this. I held a memorial and didn’t stay long. I felt like a fraud. Friends told me that his mistress showed up in tears. Apparently she is a single mom, and my husband was paying for her apartment and her son’s private school. Am I crazy to want to reach out and maybe help her? My circle of friends runs the gamut from glee to indifference about her fate. My husband and I had been drifting apart for a while before he died. I can’t process anything right now rationally and could use an outside perspective.