Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Post-death paperwork: My parents were both pieces of work—manipulative and frequently cruel (like, one year my mom baked my favorite cake for, I thought, my birthday and then gave it to a co-worker “just because”). I have done a lot of therapy over this. My parents are both dead now; my father died two years ago, my mother last year. Since I lived in the same city, I got stuck with sorting out the estate. It’s almost all done and dusted now, but I am left with the question of what to do with the stuff they hid.
I have found decades of intercepted mail and medical information that was kept from all three of us kids. There’s an acceptance letter to my brother’s dream college that he never received, birthday cards from friends and relatives, money, paperwork for my sister’s diagnosis that my parents always spoke vaguely about and later denied. My sister gave up a baby for adoption when she was 15, and apparently the adoptive family sent her photos for a few years—which we never saw. I even found a break-up letter from the boyfriend I thought had ghosted me when I was a teenager (it turns out his sister had been in an accident and he had to go help his family).
It’s obvious that these were deliberately withheld and not simply misplaced. Now what? I know that I should give these things to the original recipients, but I feel just as strongly that some of these things are just hurtful, with no opportunity for remedy. It seems equally unkind to never let my sister see these pictures of her baby as a 4-year-old as it would be to tell my brother he could have gotten a full-ride scholarship. And once I make a decision, there will be no taking it back. What should I do?
A: This is an absolute mess, and I’m so sorry you’ve found yourself in the position of having to sort through it all. There are no fantastic options available to you, but I think the best one (or maybe just the least-worst) is to give your siblings a very general impression of what you’ve found and ask them how much they want to know: “I’ve found a lot of paperwork that Mom and Dad appear to have withheld intentionally over the years, and I’m not sure what to do about it. Some of the information they kept from us involves medical treatment, professional opportunities, and personal relationships. In some of these situations I don’t think there’s anything to be done about it, but I don’t want to make that decision for the rest of you. Do you want me to hang onto this paperwork in a safe place in case you want to look at it sometime in the future? Do you want me to give you the paperwork that directly affects you so that you can read it, even knowing some of it might be quite painful?” This communicates the general tenor of the information without going into the kind of “spoiler” detail that would make it impossible for your siblings to decide for themselves.
The one exception I think you should make should be about anything related to medical/mental health diagnoses, since that might be necessary information for your siblings to share with their doctors, therapists, and treatment teams—I think you should pass that along immediately.
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Q. Dreading a move: My partner recently matched for his medical residency training in a city where we know no one, and I have few career prospects. We will need to move in less than a month. I’m heartbroken. I feel like I’m being ripped away from my support system. I cry every day, feel physically ill from anxiety, and cannot imagine my life in this city for the next five years (the length of his residency). We are not in a financial position to do long-distance and pay rent in two cities if I wanted to stay here, with the job I love and a strong support system. He will be working 80-hour weeks and I am terrified I will be depressed, friendless, and alone without him. I’m absolutely distraught. I can’t focus on work. Everyone tells me this new city is great, but I can’t stop dreading the move. What can I do to accept this new reality and get excited for a new adventure, rather than assuming it’ll be awful? How can I be more functional in my day-to-day life as I prepare for a big life change?
A: Accepting a new reality is one thing, but “getting excited for a new adventure” is a bit too much pressure to put on yourself. Your fears are eminently grounded in reality (as a resident, he will be working long hours; you really don’t know anyone there), and those realities can’t be changed by simply adjusting your attitude. I don’t want to entirely rule out the possibility that you’ll still want to move with him despite your powerful, overwhelming concerns, but if you’re already feeling ill on a daily basis and know you’ll be seeing very little of your partner in your new city, I think you should give serious consideration to other options (including, I’m afraid, at least the possibility of breaking up). Are there any other options besides moving together in a month or paying two full, separate rent checks every month? Is it possible to move in with one of your local friends, and for your partner to split rent with another fellow resident (or several) in his new city for the first year or so? That might give you time to pay this new city a few visits without feeling immediate pressure to make it your new home right away.
If nothing else, please be sure to share the fact that you’re having trouble focusing on work and feeling sick with anxiety on a daily basis, not only with your partner, but with the rest of your friends. That’s a serious level of distress to try to cope with by yourself.
Q. Straws: I have a weird medical condition that causes dental issues. I have almost zero tooth enamel and my teeth are incredibly sensitive. I’ve been advised by multiple doctors and dentists to always drink through a straw to lessen the amount of whatever I’m drinking rushing against my teeth.
Part of my city has banned plastic straws, so it’s been difficult. I have reusable ones but they’re not the easiest or most convenient to use. My friends are very passionate about the environment (and so am I). Every time they see me use a straw, they make a negative comment about it. The worst offender is one of my childhood friends, who is also a co-worker. I’ve explained my medical condition but no one cares. One person even said I should just “get dentures already” so I can stop “killing the environment.” I’m honestly a little tired of talking about my straw use. How can I get them all to shut up about it?
A: I’m so sorry! How maddening and disproportionate. I wonder if your friends bring the same energy to the inadequacies of, say, the Paris Agreement, or the major contributors to carbon emissions as they do to a single person’s medically indicated reusable straws. I’m a little amused at the idea that someone thinks dentures (often made of acrylic and requiring ongoing monitoring and care from one’s dentist—think of all the little plastic cups and bibs that will run into!) are going to single-handedly save the environment, and more than a little horrified that the doctor-advised solution of using straws is considered ridiculous, but removing all of the otherwise-healthy teeth in your head is a reasonable alternative.
I realize bringing that up in this context might make you come across as defensive, but it seems telling that your friends’ primary interest in combating climate change comes from a desire to monitor, judge, and restrict something that accommodates your disability. (If that particular word doesn’t suit you, let’s stick with “medically necessary”—something that enables you to do what they’re able to do without intervention, which is to drink liquids without pain.) That’s the point to stress here, I think—”saving the environment” is going to come from collective action on a massive scale, not from harassing individual people with sensitive teeth into stripping the rest of their enamel away.
Q. Feeling cheated over cake: A friend of a friend recently started a cake business. One of her claims to fame is a particular design. They all look so amazing. I inquired about the price and it ended up being more than I thought, which was already almost three times higher than I would normally pay for a cake. I also had no idea how it would taste. But I decided to splurge for my birthday because of how bad last year was, and because I wanted to support a local businesswoman.
It ended up looking kind of bland and not tasting good. She just posted a similar cake with similar ingredients and it looks amazing. I can’t help but feel absolutely cheated and like a fool for spending so much money on something I don’t feel I got my money’s worth on. And it’s really bothering me that it still bothers me. A part of me wants to buy her other cakes because they look so amazing. Another part of me thinks I’m trying to compensate for getting a lousy cake by, hopefully, getting a better one the next time. I feel so dumb for being so upset about a stupid cake. Do you have any advice on what I can do or where I can go from here?
A: Yes, I do have advice! Do not commit the fatal error of the unlucky gambler here: “Oh, that went so badly, and now I’ve lost money and feel like a fool. But what if I tried it again? Maybe it would turn out better this time. I’ve already lost so much money; I can’t possibly walk away now. I’ll try once more …” It’s understandable that you feel unduly frustrated over this cake, since you’d imbued it with a talismanic sort of power to signify the end of a bad year and the beginning of better times ahead. It’s been a bad year! You just wanted a beautiful birthday cake! But since you’ve already spent so much money on this one, and you know it wasn’t to your taste, I think it’s pretty likely that the next cake won’t taste very good either, no matter how beautiful it looks. Some people like bland cakes, and it doesn’t sound like she did a bad job on yours on purpose, just that it wasn’t to your liking. Buy yourself a cake that you know you like, and enjoy every bite of it. Wish your friend well in her business, but don’t throw good money after bad.
Q. Coming out (for the third time): I’ve been in a committed relationship for 18 years, and my wife and I have been through a lot of changes. Almost a decade ago, I came out to her as an atheist after having been very religious; a few years ago I came out to her as a trans woman and began transitioning. Both of these transitions were difficult, but she stuck by me and we have an incredibly strong relationship. More recently, I came out to her as bisexual, which was a recent shift in my orientation. When I told her, I was clear that I still want to be faithful to her alone, but she reacted poorly and asked me not to tell anyone, especially her parents and mine. Is this a reasonable request? I spent so long in the closet that I hate being back in yet another one.
A: No, “don’t tell anyone you’re bisexual” is not a reasonable request. “I’m not ready to discuss bisexuality with my parents yet” might be reasonable in some circumstances—or rather, let’s say it might be workable in a number of relationships—but there’s an awful lot of room between “our parents” and “anyone.”
Implicit in your line about the difficulty of your various transitions and how your wife has “stuck by you” is a fear that this will prove the final straw, that you have already trespassed on your wife’s good nature overlong by becoming an atheist and transitioning, and that you’re treading on thin ice if you want to discuss being bisexual with some of your friends. I don’t think that’s true! She may very well have a better reaction once the strength of her first has faded; I hope if you revisit the conversation once she’s had a little time to adjust, that she’ll be able to offer something more than just “Keep it a secret, I don’t want to have to deal with this.”
But it’s perfectly reasonable for you to say something like this in return: “We don’t have to discuss this with either of our parents [feel free to add “right now” if you think you might want to discuss it with your own parents someday], and I’m happy to take this slowly and talk through it together, but I can’t agree to your request never to tell anyone else that I’m bisexual. It’s important to me, and I want to be able to be out with my friends. I’m prepared to talk through any concerns or questions you might have, but I can’t agree to that request.”
Q. When to stop waiting: My wife and I are currently going through the process of divorce. We had issues years ago when she found me watching porn shortly after our second child was born. I was using porn as a means of release, but she interpreted it (falsely) as a desire for something sexual in our relationship that I wasn’t getting from her. I have never so much as considered cheating on her, nor ever in any past relationships. She is very insecure in her physical appearance, as she is not happy with her body type and doesn’t find herself attractive. I always found her attractive, but didn’t do a good enough job expressing that.
Jumping forward to today, shortly after we separated, my wife entered into a relationship with a man from work. She and I remain close friends and confidants, so I am intimately aware of the issues in her relationship, all of which stem from her insecurity, her new boyfriend cheating on her early in their relationship (which he justified by saying she was “still married”), and his continued flirtatious texts with multiple women. When things are good, they are great together. However, when things are bad, he shuts down completely and she feels like she wants to leave.
I’ve forgiven my wife for leaving, because I know that she was unhappy with our marriage for the last several years and I truly want her to be happy, even if I’m not a part of that happiness. I still love her in some sense, though I have accepted that we are no longer together. I have been feeling lonely lately and want to pursue a romantic relationship with a woman I recently met through work, but I also want to give my wife the opportunity to return to our marriage if she chooses to do so. She has told me outright on multiple occasions that she wants to leave her boyfriend and while she would want to come back home, she doesn’t feel it would be fair to me. I’ve told her that she shouldn’t worry about fairness as I have forgiven her, and she should focus on what is best for our children and her happiness in the long term. I’ve told her that I would be thrilled if she wanted to come back, but I didn’t want to pressure her into making any decisions.
So now I have a conundrum: Do I pursue this new relationship opportunity in earnest? Do I wait around to see if my wife will ever actually leave her boyfriend? Is it ethical to pursue a relationship when I know I would take my wife back if she wanted it? I’m struggling to know when it’s the right time to move on, but I don’t want to be sitting in limbo forever for a reconciliation that may never happen.
A: There really does come a time where one has to fish or cut bait. You cannot simultaneously pursue an honest, straightforward relationship with someone else and signal to your wife that you’re happy to take her back if she ever gets sick of her new boyfriend. Based on the relationship you’ve described here, I think your best bet is to reframe your relationship with your ex-wife, resign from being the “confidant” she complains about her boyfriend to, shift to a calmer, less-fraught kind of friendship, and look for romance elsewhere.
Q. Under my co-worker’s microscope: After a year of working from home, I’ve returned to the office. One of my co-workers, “Sheila,” makes me feel intensely self-conscious. We’re friendly, but when we chat, she often looks me up and down, often staring at my body/chest area. (I don’t think there’s anything sexual about this, but it still makes me feel weird.) She also has a habit of making generalizations about me during conversations. Last time we chatted, she mentioned that I always wear blue, and she made a comment about how often I fidget during meetings. Is there an appropriate way for me to tell her that she’s making me uncomfortable? The things she says are usually true, so it’s not like she’s spreading rumors about me. But I often find that her attempts to connect with me make me want to hide in my office.
A: “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you have a habit of telling me things you’ve observed about my dress and appearance, and it makes me uncomfortable. Please stop.” Just because these observations are “true” (or merely accurate) doesn’t mean you have to put up with them, and it simply doesn’t matter if they’re sexually motivated or not. You don’t like them, and you’re perfectly entitled to ask her to stop making them at work. It’s a very easy request for her to honor, and while she might feel momentarily embarrassed, she’ll survive.
Q. Re: Post-death paperwork: You might find solace or direction in a Netflix documentary called Tell Me Who I Am, about twin brothers, one of whom was in a memory-erasing accident when he was 18. It fell to the other twin to fill in holes in his memory—and he omitted the abuse they had suffered as children. It was a different burden for each, but equally heavy.
A: Oh, wow, that sounds astonishing. I suppose if nothing else, it might make the letter writer’s present conundrum seem slightly more manageable by comparison.
The key here, I think, is that while you might want to protect your siblings from painful information, different people have such wildly different relationships to “painful information” that it’s not always possible to predict, even if you think you know someone pretty well. Better to give them the option to seek out more information, I think, even if some people might respond with, “Shoot, I would rather not have known at all, but now that I know there is something to know, I won’t feel peace until I find out what that is.” That’s hard, of course, but they’re still deciding for themselves, even if that decision is shaped by insatiable curiosity or a sense of needing to learn more but not exactly wanting to.
Q. Re: Dreading a move: Please figure out how to take care of yourself in all of this. The first year of residency is a misery for everyone involved. You will rarely see your partner and will spend a lot of time hanging around and living on his schedule until you both figure out, months into it, what that means. He will probably be on call and at the hospital every third or fourth night. That’s hard enough when you live in a city where you have friends and a support network (I should know, I did it twice), but unimaginably difficult and probably quite personally destructive in a new city with no friends. I would try somehow to do long-distance for at least the first year, until the time demands on him are reduced and you have a chance to prepare for this properly. You can both find less expensive shared housing for that time; some hospitals have dorms, and there are other first-year residents who are on the same punishing schedule so that sharing a small apartment is not difficult because the tenants are there literally only to sleep. Don’t move if you are dreading it this much at this point.
A: Thanks so much for sharing this. I’ve gotten a few other answers to the same effect—basically, talk about this with as many of your friends as possible, and see if there are any creative ways you can put off your own move for at least the first year. Even an imperfect compromise might be better than spending the next year mostly alone in a brand new city. This level of dread is an important indicator to pay attention to and pump the brakes, I think.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for the help, everyone—and please update us if you can, Dreading a Move! See you all next week.
From Care and Feeding
I have a friend, named “Rose.” Rose and I attended college together, but about a year and a half ago she took some time off and was hired as an “au pair” (a live-in nanny) for a rich family. We recently met up, and after a few drinks, she started spilling her guts about this family. A lot of the stuff she told me is run-of-the-mill money-can’t-buy-happiness rich people drama, but she told me she thinks the kids are getting abused. She has weekends off, and she told me she’s started finding bruises on the children on Mondays. Most distressingly, one of the kids was burned with a cigarette.
She begged me not to go to the cops or CPS—she doesn’t want to lose her job, possibly ruin the professional reputation of her employer, and face a lawsuit for running her mouth to me. But I can’t sleep at night. Do I have an obligation to tell somebody? Is this overreacting? Are there some guidelines I should know before calling CPS?
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.