Dear Prudence

My Job Is Turning Me Into a Conservative

Prudie’s column for Sept. 26.

A man making a tough decision and an elephant behind him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Digital Vision/Photodisc via Getty Images and esvetleishaya/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,

I work for the state government in the department that involves public assistance. I used to be a true-blue liberal. I supported programs that help people. But I’m seeing a lot of clients who abuse the system or purposely make bad choices. I read evaluations from clients who aren’t really disabled or hear from clients that they don’t want to stop abusing substances. I don’t want to sound like a right-wing blowhard, but I’m afraid I’m turning into one. How can I keep my liberal card in the face of what I see every day?

—Turning Into a Public Benefits Skeptic

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic, it’s my understanding that most people who abuse substances don’t want to stop. Part of the painful nature of substance abuse is the insidious, paradoxical effects of using. Quitting can involve painful physical withdrawal symptoms, violent illness, and possibly fatal side effects (especially for alcohol and benzodiazepines). Many addicts also deal with widespread social censure and limited professional opportunities. They often neglect their own health (and sometimes have chronic pain that would otherwise go untreated), have trauma and abuse in their backgrounds, and are often at a greater risk of violence. The substance of choice is sometimes the rare reliable comfort or relief in life. That’s not to say all people who struggle with addiction are victims without agency who must be treated with kid gloves, but it ought not to come as a surprise to you that people who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol are not all immediately prepared to give them up. I also imagine that if rich people were required to come into a government office regularly and account for their spending, whereabouts, child-rearing techniques, and so on, you might find some of them also make bad choices.

I don’t know what “really disabled” means to you, but if you have evidence that someone has misrepresented their disability in order to receive government assistance, then I’d encourage you to investigate that person thoroughly and be prepared to withdraw that assistance if the investigation bears out your suspicions. Beyond that, I’d encourage you to worry less about whatever you think a liberal “card” is. People do not need to be well-behaved in order to deserve a roof over their heads and to be able to see a doctor when they are ill. If you find that you cannot do the job you have been hired to do, I’d encourage you to look for employment elsewhere.

Dear Prudence,

Several years ago, I had IVF to have my daughter. It was an emotionally intense and deeply lonely experience, yet I consider myself wildly lucky. I try to be open about my experience with other women, because I believe infertility shouldn’t be some dark secret. My sister-in-law, “Sue,” has three children from her first marriage and recently got remarried at 46 and wants to have another child with her new husband. She refuses to consider adoption or donor eggs, which is her right, and found a doctor who was willing to let her try a few procedures but counseled her that the odds were not good. Because of her age, her insurance doesn’t cover these treatments. The stress of unsuccessful cycles, ovarian stimulation drugs, and the high expense is overwhelming her, and she’s coming to me for help and commiseration. I want to be there for her, but I’m exhausted. She’s been told by several doctors that pregnancy is very unlikely at her age, and a healthy pregnancy ending in a healthy baby is very unlikely, yet she carries on. While I can’t decide what anyone should be satisfied with, I wish she would focus on the kids she has, realize she’s almost 50, and stop this. I’m so tired of talking to her. What can I say?

—Sister-in-Law’s IVF

Since she’s your sister-in-law, and IVF can be an intensely emotional and deeply personal topic, I think it’s better to stay away from whether she ought to continue to pursue pregnancy. You still have every right to say that you need to take a break from discussing this issue so intimately with her but you wish her all the best and hope she’s getting good medical advice and support. If you two were especially close before this particular season, or if you think she’d respond well, you might ask her at what point she’d be prepared to stop pursuing treatment, or at what point the risks would outweigh the rewards (and whether she has a sense of how she might realize she’d reached said point). But I think the only boundary you need to feel responsible for is letting her know you can’t be her primary source of support or outlet for frustration.

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Dear Prudence,

I’m 50 years old, I have arthritis, and my knees have given out. I’ve just acquired a cane and a disabled parking permit. A few years ago I was walking in 5Ks and traveling everywhere. I am now lumbering around in horrible pain and considering everything that isn’t within half a block too far to walk. My problem, in addition to plummeting self-esteem, is my work. Once I get to work, I’m OK, except for the long struggle to get to the bathroom. However, I can’t park anywhere near my building, and by the time I get in, I’m in agony, close to throwing up, and having a panic attack. I’ve requested ADA accommodation, and there’s not a closer parking option, but I do have the option to work from home. Please help me process why I’m feeling suddenly worthless and useless. I don’t feel that my friends with disabilities are worthless or not good workers. I feel like taking the option of working from home is abandoning my staff and an easy way out—but truly, if I could get to work without significant pain, I would.

—Newly Disabled and Down on Myself

I am so sorry that you’re dealing not only with constant physical pain but a constant and profound sense that you don’t deserve accommodation. I’m glad you’re able to acknowledge that you don’t feel this way about other people, because that’s a helpful dose of reality to counteract the voice inside your head. You sound like a conscientious manager, so ask yourself what you would suggest to a member of your staff who was in this level of pain all day, every day. Would you say, “Sorry, you’ll have to tough it out and throw up discreetly before you get back to your desk, and save your panic attacks for when you’re off the clock”? Or would you tell them to start working from home and do what you needed to on your end to accommodate their new setup? I think you would choose the latter option, and if you need to tap back into that instinctive compassion and understanding you have for other people when you catch yourself being cruel to yourself, just pause and imagine that this is happening to your favorite direct report. I don’t know if you’re being so harsh because you’ve internalized a lot of ableist messaging about worth, inherent value, and basing your identity in your productivity, or because you struggle with self-loathing at the best of times, or because you’re afraid that the accommodations your workplace is offering will fall through when it realizes the extent of what you need, or some combination of all of the above.

I’d encourage you to share a limited version of this with your own boss (“I’ve been struggling with taking the company up on its work-from-home policy, because I’ve had a hard time acknowledging that it’s what I need. But I do need to start working from home immediately. Let’s talk about what that will look like”) and a franker version with your doctor as part of a larger conversation about pain management. I hope, too, that you can find ways to share these feelings with family and friends, people you trust and who want to help support you, so they know what you’re struggling with internally as well as externally. You may find a local support group for people dealing with new and unexpected disabilities, or forums online if there’s nothing in-person near you, useful in reminding you that you’re not alone and you’re not malingering. This voice in your head needs to be exposed to oxygen. Tell as many people as you can that you’re struggling to remember to treat yourself with kindness and decency so they can help remind you what that looks like.

Dear Prudence,

My mother says terrible things to me about my dad like “When your dad gains weight, I pick fights with him so he won’t want to have sex with me,” and “If your dad gets Alzheimer’s, I’m going to divorce him.” She cannot handle any sort of criticism or boundary-setting, so when I tell her that she’s making me uncomfortable, she gets angry, yells, and/or says hurtful things. I can’t talk to my dad about it, as he’d be hurt to know what she says about him. Additionally, whenever we talk, she dumps all of her problems on me and never asks about me. As a result, it is emotionally exhausting to interact with her. She only treats me this way, not my brother. I’ve been in therapy working through these issues as well as processing her emotionally abusing me during childhood. I have gone back-and-forth about whether I want to have a relationship with her. Mostly, I am concerned that cutting her off would result in a huge fallout and affect my relationship with the rest of my family. How do you suggest I navigate this relationship? For context, I’m in my 20s and financially independent.

—Oversharing Mother

The good news is that your mother does not have to agree that the limits you impose on her are reasonable, appropriate, or justified in order for you to set and enforce them. The difficult news, as you already know, is that it can be very difficult to enforce a limit on someone whose joy and purpose in life seems to be identifying other people’s limits and then steamrolling right past them. But it’s the people who don’t respect limits with whom it’s most important to, well, set limits. You don’t need your mother’s permission or agreement in order to end a conversation when she crosses a boundary. So, for example, if you’re talking to your mother on the phone and she says, “When your dad gains weight, I pick fights with him so he won’t want to have sex with me,” you get to say: “What an awful thing to say. Please don’t share secrets about your marriage or insult my father when we talk.” If she starts yelling at you or calling you unreasonable, all that’s left to do is say: “I’m not going to argue you with about this. I’m hanging up now. I’ll be happy to have a reasonable conversation with you later when you’re ready to let this go” and hang up the phone. Or leave the room, delete her email, block her on Facebook, mute her text messages—whatever it takes so that you no longer have to see or hear her reaction. (Or, if she’s going into minute No. 20 of monologuing about her problems and hasn’t once paused for breath, you can calmly interject and say: “Mom, we’ve been talking about this for 20 minutes, and I’m ready to move on. You may not realize this, but you haven’t asked me any questions about how I’m doing or made room for me in this conversation. Let me tell you about my day.”)

My guess is that when you follow through on any of this, your mother will respond at least at first by escalating—screaming, calling you a bad or ungrateful child, complaining about you to other relatives, demanding you pay attention to her, etc. But I think you will also experience a certain degree of relief in allowing her to throw her temper tantrums without working to placate her, which is work that you already know drains and exhausts you. I don’t know to what extent your other family members excuse or cover up for her bad behavior, or what you worry you might lose with them if you were to push back against her, but I think you know you’re not interested in putting up with her bad behavior for another 20 years. You don’t have to decide right now whether you’re ever going to talk to her again, but now that you live independently and support yourself financially, it’s time to stop listening when she wants to monopolize your attention to insult your father or scream at you.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Unless advice is asked for, vague yet warm support.”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend and I were watching Are You the One? on MTV, and two of the guys were wrestling playfully when it came out that my boyfriend has watched gay wrestling porn. He said he sometimes watches gay wrestling because the guys are more aggressive. I know this is probably terrible of me to wonder because I myself enjoy lesbian porn more than straight porn, but would this mean he could be bisexual? I asked him, and he said he didn’t think he was bi because he has never met a guy whom he would want to have sex with. But we do both come from pretty homophobic Latino families. Am I overthinking it? Does it even matter? If I am deserving of a good slapping down, go ahead—I think I may be.

—Curious About Bi-Curiosity

I certainly don’t think you need to be slapped down! Nor do I think it’s terrible to be curious about whether your partner is bisexual when he talks about enjoying gay porn. It strikes me as a fairly obvious and intuitive sort of response. (Do you ever wonder if you are bisexual? You certainly don’t have to if you don’t want to, of course, but if you’ve enjoyed watching women have sex with one another, it certainly strikes me as a worthwhile follow-up question.) It may be that you and your boyfriend are both, at least at present, bisexual to the point of interestedly watching same-sex sex, but not necessarily interested in pursuing anyone in real life, which is perfectly common and nothing to worry about. Mostly, though, I think you can consider this a delightful coincidence; you two have something in common, although in two slightly different ways. If the word bisexual feels intimidating, you don’t have to use it. But if you two want to talk about the kinds of porn you enjoy, the homophobia you’ve seen or perhaps experienced from your own families, how you understand your own sexualities, etc., you might find this brings you closer together.

Dear Prudence,

All of my friends in my city make more money than I do. We go out a lot, sometimes to casual places and sometimes to really nice ones. However, I’ve realized I need to curb my spending habits, which lands me in quite a predicament. How do I choose between going out with my friends and saving money? They’re not ridiculously extravagant, and sometimes we do go to pretty low-key establishments. And sometimes it’s easy, like, if we’re just getting drinks, I can just drink less. But sometimes it’s not easy, and when I have to choose, I get even more anxious—either I’m spending money I shouldn’t be spending, or I’m sitting home alone while my friends are out. For instance, the other night, we were out for happy hour and deciding where to go for dinner. They decided on a slightly expensive place, and I was faced with spending the money or going home and being sad I was missing out. I don’t think it’s very fair for me to try to convince them to stay away from pricey places. I can’t fault them for being in better financial positions than me. So how do I cope?

—Money or Friends

Part of the beauty of having a budget for yourself means that you don’t have to convince anyone else of anything. But planning out in advance how much money you want to dedicate toward dinner and drinks makes this agonizing choice relatively simple: Once you approach your limit, you slow down, and once you reach the limit, you stop. And you might decide you’d like to dedicate a significant portion of your income to entertainment! I’m not of the party that believes you should minimize what you spend on momentary pleasure in order to maximize your retirement funds (although you should save a little for the long term where you can). The idea is to decide in advance what that portion will be and cut back accordingly elsewhere—not stop eating out altogether if eating out and seeing friends brings you great joy. You can tell your friends cheerfully that you’d love to join them for drinks but that dinner’s not in your budget for this week without looking dolefully up from under your lashes in the hopes someone will take pity on you and spot you. You might even occasionally invite them all-around for a potluck or drinks at your house, where you can all share the cost and save money together. Even high earners enjoy a night in every now and again. But drop the idea that occasionally forgoing a non-ridiculous but still-too-expensive dinner out means you’re trying to convince your friends to cancel their own lifestyles, or that it’s some sort of statement on whether they have reasonable tastes. It just means you’re managing your own budget.

Classic Prudie

About two years ago, my then-boyfriend got a job offer at a large, global company for nearly a 40 percent pay raise. He was contractually obliged to give a month’s notice at his old job. During that time I found out he cheated on me, among other things. To get back at him, I logged into his email (he gave me his password previously) and wrote an email pretending to be him. The email detailed a drunken weekend out using recreational drugs, racist vents about my ex’s then-boss, and the last paragraph contained offensive remarks about the HR manager who recruited him. I sent it to the HR manager to make it look like he’d accidentally sent it to her instead of a friend, then deleted the email from his sent account. Naturally the company withdrew the job offer with the excuse that his position was no longer available. My ex was also not permitted to have his old job back, so he spent four months unemployed. To be honest, I feel no guilt over this event considering how much he lied to me, but something keeps nagging at me and I feel like I have to confess it to him. He probably has no idea what happened. Am I morally obliged to tell him, or should I keep it under wraps?