Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Hi, everyone! Let’s have a lively chat, live.
Q. Guilty work: Over the summer, I got a job doing some data analysis for COVID-19. There are a lot of us working, and we all do whatever data analysis needs to be done through the day and send it to a centralized database. I have a lot of flexibility in what I’m doing and nobody really checks up on me. The problem is, I have depression and it’s been getting bad since the weather has turned cold. For over a month now, I have been doing only about half the work I’m supposed to. Nobody seems to be noticing.
A part of me feels terrible because I’m doing something that really matters and me not getting enough work done could mean that people die before we come up with a sustainable plan to fight the virus. On the other hand, I’m struggling so much and cannot survive on disability benefits (which are hard to get) or with a reduction to half my hours. I feel like a drain on the system, but at the same time, I’m still helping a little bit. Should I tell my supervisors? Or quit? I want to help, but I just can’t do the work they think I’m doing. What should I do?
A: Please don’t quit on the assumption that you’re going to be fired, or that your supervisors won’t be willing to work with you. That’s not to say you have to disclose your depression to them—I’d understand if you didn’t want to risk it—but saying you’ve been having a hard time maintaining your initial productivity levels from this summer might be helpful to you. Since no one has complained or even acknowledged the change, I think it’s likely that your supervisors will understand. Many people aren’t able to maintain the exact same levels of efficiency year-round even under the best of circumstances, and COVID researchers presumably understand fairly well just how bad the circumstances are for most of us these days.
Since part of the problem is that no one is checking up on you, you don’t even have to frame this question as “I’m not doing enough,” so much as, “I’m not quite sure what’s necessary and expected of me, and I’d like to set up a monthly/biweekly check-in session so I can ask questions, get clarifications on deadlines, if that’s possible.” Mostly I just want you to feel free to ask for a little more oversight and support from your managers without feeling like you have to announce that you’re not doing enough first. You are being very hard on yourself, I think, and I hope your employer will go easier on you and give you the tools you need to do your job as well as you can.
You don’t say if you’re currently receiving treatment for your depression. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to speak to both a doctor and a therapist about how you’re doing and to ask for additional help. You deserve it.
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Q. The longest text: My mom sends the longest text messages you have ever seen—several times a day. Yesterday’s final text to me was 500 words long. I find them so overwhelming, which often makes me avoidant to reply. I’ve encouraged her toward emails, I reply only briefly hoping she’ll get it, and I’ve directly asked her to cool it. It always starts up again. Scheduling a regular call doesn’t help (and then I have to handle the call). She’s also profoundly sensitive to criticism, even softly delivered. We see each other regularly! Unsurprisingly, in person, she mostly talks at me. It’s like the texting (since my dad’s death) has become her daily “someone to talk to”—she just empties her every action into a letter-length text to me. Any ideas for a fresh tactic? I love my mom, but I’m at my wits’ end.
A: “Sorry, Mom, this one’s much too long to get into over text. We’ve talked about this before, and I know you know I can’t dedicate this much time to a text-message conversation, so it’ll have to wait for our next phone call.” Deliver this briskly, affectionately, and matter-of-factly—you are not telling her to stop talking to you, you’re not telling her to stop grieving your father’s death, and you’re not causing her real harm. You still see her regularly and talk to her often; it doesn’t sound like you’re in any danger of stifling her.
Assume that she will respond to this gentle intervention with “profound sensitivity” and steel yourself against it, such that whatever subsequent wall of text arrives doesn’t come as a shock. Patient nonengagement should be your watchword: “I’m not going to argue about this with you, Mom. I love you and I love getting to talk to each other, but it has to be a two-way street, or I’ll have to cut more of our conversations short.”
Also happy to hear suggestions from readers with similarly garrulous loved ones! What has worked for you?
Q. How can I protect my friend? I have a female friend that I am truly concerned for. We met through our sons, who both have developmental delays and get treatment at the same therapy center. My friend is married but I’m worried that she’s getting inappropriate with her son’s therapist. I also know her son’s therapist, who has a fiancée of his own. She asserts that it doesn’t count as an affair because they’ve never kissed or had sex. But when they are together, they are extremely handsy and will sit and cuddle together and give each other massages.
I’m worried because I’ve worked with her son’s therapist in the past and he admits to not having any feelings for my friend because he’s head over heels for his fiancée, whom he would never leave. I know he’s gotten inappropriate with other women in the past and ended up hurting them emotionally. I want to protect my friend from this but she won’t listen, and I know as a third party individual I really have no place to say what they do together. But I hate the idea of my friend getting hurt and jeopardizing her marriage for someone who isn’t going to be there for her if things blow up.
A: I’m less worried about your friend getting hurt than I am about her son losing care when, not if, this relationship blows up. Your friend’s decision to push boundaries with her son’s therapist (let’s not bother splitting hairs about whether this “counts” as an affair) is wildly inappropriate, not least because he’s apparently blabbing to the parents of his other clients just how little he cares about his “cuddle buddy” compared with his fiancée. It doesn’t sound like his fiancée has any idea about this arrangement, either. I don’t know if these massage trains and cuddle sessions are happening after work hours, but if they’re going on at the therapy center, or during some of her son’s sessions, that seems like a pretty obvious failure to provide care for his clients on the therapist’s part. Obviously there’s a limit to how much you can persuade your friend of anything, but you should encourage her, at the least, to find another therapist who can work with her son, so that her son’s continuity of care doesn’t rest upon this relationship holding steady. If they’re cuddling and massaging each other when he should be helping her son—and if the other women you know he’s “gotten inappropriate with” in the past were also parents of the children he was meant to be treating—I’d encourage you to speak to the treatment center management about it directly, because he should not be working with kids!
Q. Never going home: About a year before the pandemic started, I moved far enough away from my hometown that I have to fly to get there. I ended up flying back several times for different holidays and events. Since the pandemic started, I have realized I don’t want to go home anymore. I don’t really like my family—they nitpick me all the time when I’m around them. My mom, however, is fine when we’re talking on the phone. I used to be so stressed out right before I left and remained anxious for about a week after leaving. Since the pandemic, I am so much less anxious that I’m considering stopping my anxiety medication. I just don’t need it like I used to.
The thing is, I don’t know how to communicate this to my family. I’ve already told them I’m not coming back for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They tried to talk me into it but seem resigned to the fact that people don’t want to travel in a pandemic. I’m not sure what to say after the pandemic. Do I even say something? Or should I just keep not coming home for the holidays? Should I just say that traveling is too stressful especially during the holidays? Should I maybe go to one event every few years? I don’t have a great relationship with anybody in my family but I don’t want them to think I hate them. Any advice?
A: The upside of this type of soft estrangement is that you get to decide when and how to roll out your new policy. If you think a visit every three or four years is enough to keep your relatives mostly quiet, and you feel up to having a rough Christmas every three or four years, you can certainly do that without scheduling a big-picture conversation about what it all “means,” and instead gesture vaguely toward things like your work schedule or say “budget’s tight this year.” But this might also be an opportunity to reflect on whether you want to do even that much work to keep your relatives from thinking you hate them. You say you don’t have a great relationship with anyone in your family, that they stress you out so much you feel panicked for a week after you’ve seen them, and that the most positive feeling you have toward any of them is that your mother is “fine on the phone.” I’m not sure what the nitpicking looks like, or whether you’re the only regular target, but I’d encourage you to spend more time thinking carefully about what kind of treatment you want and deserve from the people in your life before you make this decision.
Maybe you do hate them! You are allowed to hate your relatives. Short of hatred, you are allowed to not want to spend time with people who treat you badly. If they feel bad (or guilty, or annoyed, or whatever) that you don’t choose to spend Thanksgiving with them as a direct result of their rudeness toward you, I hardly think that rises to the level of hatefulness. I wonder if part of the “nitpicking” you’ve experienced over the years has been an insistence that you always act like everything is fine, that you never object to how they treat you, and part of what you’re anxious about now is the knowledge that they will likely characterize even moderate independence on your part as the greatest indifference, rudeness, and abandonment of property family feeling. What might you decide to do if your primary interest was in your own happiness, rather than in reassuring your relatives?
Q. Trying not to hit the ceiling with a broom: My husband and I live in an apartment in a large city. Our fairly new upstairs neighbors make an EGREGIOUS amount of noise—slamming, stomping, dragging. Any obnoxious sound you can imagine at a near constant pace. We’ve both lived in multiple apartments in a variety of cities previously, and this is truly incredible. It rattles our hanging pictures, shakes our light fixtures, and gives me tension headaches. But here’s the thing—it is largely during waking hours. It starts at around 8 a.m. and lasts until about 9 p.m. It doesn’t violate the “quiet time” policy in our lease. I don’t know anything about this person/these people and the reasons for the noise—kids? Pets? Workout equipment? I also know we are not perfect neighbors either (our dog howls whenever sirens pass, for example) and that many people all over the world have this very same gripe with their fellow tenants.
We’re in our lease for at least another nine months, and it’d be great to find some peace while I work and study (both full time) from home. My husband doesn’t want to make a noise complaint (fearing that will only make things worse). I would be open to stopping by to discuss this with them myself (or leaving a politely worded note to be more responsible during COVID), but he would prefer I don’t do that either. Should I just invest in some noise-canceling headphones and suck it up?
A: Why does your husband “prefer” you don’t have a friendly conversation with your neighbor, who can’t possibly know how much noise carries down through the floor? By all means, get some noise-canceling headphones (I finally got a pair myself last month and it’s been life-changing; part of me wishes they were grafted into my ears), but it’s not an either/or proposition. Introduce yourself to your neighbor, chat politely for a minute, then let them know about your problem, being careful not to imply they’re doing anything on purpose or that you expect total silence. Maybe it’s a question of taking shoes off indoors, or getting a floor rug or two, or being slightly more mindful when rearranging the furniture. Whatever the response, even if it only makes a 5–10 percent difference, wouldn’t it be nice to have a 10 percent reduction in portrait-rattling noise? And you’ll feel better, I think, if you’re able to establish friendly terms such that you feel comfortable running up the stairs every once in a while to let them know things have gotten especially loud. As long as you’re polite and keep your expectations reasonable—don’t start knocking on they’re door every day, or assume that from now on they’ll creep silently throughout the apartment like they’re in The Yellow Wallpaper—I think you have reason to hope for a good-faith neighborly response. And then get the headphones anyway.
Q. Nervous about Thanksgiving: My partner and I are currently living with their dad as I am unemployed due to the pandemic. Their dad works in another state and stays in a company apartment there most weeks, but is planning to come home for Thanksgiving and host a small dinner with immediate family (probably two to four people besides us). However, cases in both his work state and this one are rising, and our governor may issue a Thanksgiving stay-at-home order. I’m nervous about the possibility that he will still want to host dinner, but also feel it’s not my place to say anything as he’s letting us stay in his home without paying rent (we do help pay the utility bills). My partner is also hesitant to say anything to their dad about this. What are my options?
A: One option would be for you both (or just your partner, depending on what you feel comfortable with) to say to their dad, “With COVID cases rising, we’re not prepared to take the risk of an in-person Thanksgiving gathering, even if the governor doesn’t issue another stay-at-home order.” That way, even if he decides to go ahead with his plans, you two will be able to make your own arrangements to stay distanced, masked, and minimize the risks of possible transmissions. You (or your partner) might also simply ask their father what his plans are in light of the changing numbers, if you’re worried about coming across as demanding—he may be worried, too, and slightly unsure, and would respond better to an open-ended question than a command. You can even acknowledge that worry with something like, “We haven’t been sure how to talk about this, in part because this pandemic has been so hard on everyone for so long, and we really appreciate being able to stay with you, and didn’t want to overstep our boundaries. But since we’re sharing a home, it makes sense to talk about our risks together.” That’s not a demand, and it’s certainly not “none of your business”—this affects you as much as it does him, and even if you three don’t agree upon a solution in that conversation, you can at least make your own plans more effectively once you know his.
Q. My ex-roommate won’t take out the trash: I live in the downstairs apartment of a two-unit house. A few months ago, my roommate moved to the upstairs apartment. While he and I lived together, we alternated weeks taking the house’s trash cans to the curb; when I moved in, he had told me that as residents of the downstairs apartment, we were responsible for dealing with the trash. Since he moved upstairs, he has stopped taking out the trash every other week. I confronted him about this by text and he replied that I was now solely responsible for the trash bins since I still live on the first floor and if I “don’t want to handle them,” I should just leave them out. There is no other shared household responsibility that the residents of the upstairs apartment take care of, so I feel that I should not be held to an unfair and arbitrary rule that predates me. How do I proceed?
A: Yes, it’s an arbitrary “rule” (I’m not convinced that there is any such official rule and it’s just that your housemate can’t be bothered), and yes, it’s unfair, and it was certainly rude of him to stop hauling out the bins, especially without notice. If you think the house can handle fewer trash hauls, and you’re not worried about the bins overflowing and attracting animals or stinking up the place, just keep taking them out to the curb when it’s your week and don’t worry about the rest. If you don’t think that’s possible, you have a few options: You can stop texting about it (since it’s always easier to say “No” over text when you don’t have to deal with a real, live, frustrated person), head upstairs, and knock on your housemate’s apartment door next trash day and argue with him more forcefully; you can try complaining to your landlord and see where that gets you; or you can just take over the trash every week and be slightly annoyed about it. If I were in your position, I’d probably go with Options 1 and then 3 should Option 1 fail to achieve the desired result. Even if it’s annoying, it’s an extra 10 or 15 minutes of work a month, and not worth arguing endlessly over.
Q. Re: The longest text: Two thoughts here, not entirely related: 1. Does your mom use talk-to-text? That might be why her texting is so long form. 2. Does your mom have other friends or outlets? If she’s just lonely, maybe you can support her in reaching out to friends or making friends through a hobby or group. Good luck!
A: I think it’s possible, although if she does use talk-to-text it may have something to do with vision problems and not something she can stop doing. I agree that encouraging her to expand her social circles is a good idea, although I can also imagine her response will be something like “I have plenty of friends, but you’re my daughter” or even “Why are you trying to pawn me off onto other people?” and the fundamental problem of “She wants to talk constantly; I want to talk occasionally” will remain. But maybe saying something like “I can’t talk right now, but I hope you can find someone else who’s free to discuss this” will provide the occasional graceful exit.
Q. Re: The longest text: I have a similar situation with a relative. If she mostly talks at you, you can free yourself from more of the burden of reply than seems reasonable. She’s doing this to process her feelings out loud, not really to hear back from you. I usually quickly scan, then offer up a quick, one to two sentence “Wow, sounds like you’re dealing with a lot. Hang in there!” or other basic boilerplate. If she seems hurt, you can always pivot to a future call or other such time as you’re free to go into more detail, but honestly with chatty types you can always just do less without making it much of a conversation about why. I used to type detailed replies only to find that on examination she wasn’t really reading them, just using them as a jumping-off point for the next long message. When I started just skimming, then replying in the briefest terms, things improved a lot for me, and she didn’t even notice.
A: Hah! The “I’m not reading that/happy for you though/or sorry that happened” macro would serve the letter writer well here, if slightly massaged. Some variation on “Damn, that sounds wild” has gotten me through a number of conversations where my interlocutor expected more of me than I felt prepared to give, and if carefully delivered doesn’t sound too dismissive.
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Q. My dorm mate diddles herself while I’m in the room: I am a freshman at college. My roommate is pretty great—except for one thing. I’m pretty sure she “takes care of herself” after we turn out the lights and she thinks I’m asleep. The motions and noises she makes are consistent with this theory. I have no problem with her doing that, but it makes me uncomfortable that she does it while I’m in the room. I’m also absolutely mortified about possibly discussing this with her. They did not cover this in freshman orientation, so I’m counting on you for some insight. Read what Prudie had to say.
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