I had family in town this weekend so got behind on these, hopefully you enjoy them! The questions were submitted here, there will be a July session later in the month.
Q1: When I’m walking down the street with friends who love dogs, they love to interrupt our conversations with screams like “OMG LOOK AT THAT DOGGO!” I end up awkwardly replying with something like “oh yes, nice dog” or “wow, it has three colors,” without managing to quite mirror the friend’s enthusiastic tone. Do you have any suggestions for replies that might make these interludes more satisfying without involving totally faking enthusiasm I do not feel? (she/her/hers)
A1: Once I was on the beach with a close friend and we both lost our minds at a scene of family cuteness that was unfolding in front of us and then realized: She was looking at the baby. I was looking at the puppy. Neither of us had really even clocked the other small cute being.
I guess my question is, why do you feel like you need to mirror their enthusiasm or fake it? Your friends can be very excited about dogs, you can be the friend who is not so hyped about dogs and who indulgently waits out Dog Excitement Time. Probably you will forever be slightly annoyed by the interruptions in your conversations, probably you will say nothing about this because the world is hard enough without policing the joy of people who get very excited about dogs. Dogs will be fine without your affirmation, dog-people will stay excited about dogs, so carry on with your dry “Oh, was that a dog?” natural human reactions, there’s no need to pretend!
Q2: I recently split up with my husband of fifteen years. We went to the same writing program in college, and always connected over books, writing, art (etc.). His opinions on same have always been strong and strongly expressed, which made me shrink as an artist & art-lover to fit into whatever space he wasn’t taking up (which wasn’t much). How do I rediscover my own taste and reclaim my former identity as a writer? Thanks! (she/her/hers)
A2: What a necessary and hopefully extremely fun project, truly one of the great rewards of breaking up with someone unsuitable is reconnecting with your own pleasure and tastes. Let me throw a couple of ideas at you, and, while could always take classes and workshops, you might need a real break from that right now, so I’m going to suggest NON-class/writer’s group/formal structure with an authority figure-type-things, ok?
- Anything you enjoyed and learned from during your time with this person is still yours, you don’t have to disavow all of it if you don’t want to. You get to still have your favorite breakfast place and bar and vacation spot if you want them, too. You were there in your story when you found these things, they aren’t his.
- Repeat after me: There are no guilty pleasures only pleasures. Read all kinds of genres meant for all kinds of audiences, don’t stick to what you’ve thought of as Important and Prestigious and Serious right now. When teaching first year film students in their very first moviemaking class, I sometimes did an icebreaker where I asked them to list five “desert island” movies, and I didn’t want their “coolest” or “impressive” movies, I wanted to know the ones they watched over and over again, the ones that comforted them when they were sick, the ones that remind them of particular people and memories, the ones they can quote every line, the ones that made them dress up as the characters for Halloween, the ones that will always make them stop if they see it on TV flipping channels. We’d get GREAT lists, the class would know more about each other’s frame of reference, but something important would be discussed, too, which is, there’s a reason you wanted to do this with your life, don’t let anyone talk you out of loving what you love. Hold onto the things you love, and add new things to that love, don’t feel like you have to “upgrade” your personal art friends that got you through to right now.
- The Artist’s Way is a classic for a reasons, the morning pages, “artist dates,” and thought exercises are a good guide-map to getting unstuck and working out some things. Some people react very badly to the sincerity and “woo” factor but I think that’s part of the magic, like, nope, you’re gonna be a BIG OLD DORK about your art for a while, now make a puppet of your inner critic and tell it to fuck off.
- Go back in time. What’s the last thing you were reading right before you met your ex? What are some things you loved as a child and very young woman? Revisit them.
- Go sideways. What are mediums that your ex had no expertise on or interest in? What are things you can experience live where you live (music, dance, theater) and immerse yourself in a room and a performance and a community? Try out a theater subscription, dig through your old mix tapes. Cleansing.
- Go visual. Part 1: Collect images that speak strongly to you – could be photos (even ads), film stills/screenshots, photos of paintings over the course of a few months. Part 2: Choose your 5 favorite ones, and find a way to print out or cut out color versions of them and hang them on a wall. Part 3: Once you have them up, look at them and see if they have anything in common – common motifs, themes, colors, subject matter, spaces, what do they remind you of, what feelings come up, what senses come up. Repeat this periodically. What’s changing? What’s the same? (I used to do this in groups and have the other students walk around and write what they observed on blank sheets of paper under each group of photos. It always went somewhere very cool, maybe try this with a few artist/writer friends?)
- No career advice right now, just process. Follow Shaula Evans, (http://shaulaevans.com/) she gives the best prompts and questions, always something that makes me think and want to revisit my own work. See also Jami Attenberg’s 1,000 words of Summer project, where subscriptions are full but archives are there and you can jump in any time. Or play with The Storymatic. You’re just playing for a while, the stakes are low.
- Write down a list of 10 art projects you might do, include things that are totally silly and “would never work.” Your wildest dreams. Your pettiest revenge. Your most self-indulgent fantasy. Revisit this often. The “that’s ridiculous” stuff will sound more and more likely the longer you do this, if my personal “ha, nobody will ever make a movie like this!” notebook from grad school is any indication.
- Take something you wrote before and remake it as something else. Does it have to be a short story or could it be a poem or a radio piece or a play or a puppet show. What changed? What stayed the same?
That should hold you for a while!
Q3. I love my wife a lot, and I love “general” intimacy and being physically close to her. However, I find I’m not as interested in sex with her any more. We are poly and both have a healthy sexual relationship with other partners, but for whatever reason, I’m just not turned on by her like I used to be, and I don’t know what to do about that.
A3: I have a few thoughts:
- Has your wife noticed/is she bummed out/also disinterested in the home front and happier to get laid elsewhere for a bit? Has something changed in your overall situation that’s contributing stress? What does she think is going on?
- Every person I know in a long-term relationship who is still having good sex on the regular puts it on the calendar in some way. I think we just reach a point where ‘being spontaneous’ or ‘being in the mood,’ just doesn’t carry it (“You’ll still be here tomorrow, right? Maybe I’ll be in the mood then!”) and we have to make a little more effort to make it happen. Are you and your wife getting over-scheduled with other commitments and is this a time/effort/energy thing?
- When you do do sexy stuff with your wife, can you try making it “all about her” for now, whatever that means to you? (Getting her off and letting her fall asleep after without any pressure to reciprocate, focusing on things you know she likes, reading/watching sexy stuff you know she likes). Obviously check in with her before you launch some SURPRISE! WE’RE DOING SEX YOUR WAY! campaign, but I would imagine a turned-on lady with a lot of gratitude for being made to feel awesome is probably a pretty exciting lady to be around.
Be gentle with yourself and with her, hopefully that gives you some starting points to figure out if this is a temporary slump or a tectonic shift.
[MODERATOR NOTE: I don’t let polyamorous folks slide into questions about monogamous partnerships run amok with “well, have you heard the good news about polyamory?” so definitely we’re not doing the reverse. If your comment about this was deleted, this is why. Thank you!]
Q4: What’s your advice for “how to be on time” when I have 1) executive functioning problems 2) trouble task-switching 3) the kind of depression that tends to get me “stuck” and ruminating right when I need to leave 4) irrational anxiety about that ONE LAST THING that needs to be done before I go? I know there’s lots of advice on this but not a lot that isn’t shamey + understands mental health.
A4: This is one of my constant struggles, and it’s probably going to be a life-long struggle for me, even with lots of medication and support and self-awareness and life-hacks. First, I hope you’re treating your depression, anxiety, and executive function stuff to the extent you can, and my suggestions are not substitutes for medical care. Second, these aren’t meant to be comprehensive solutions or cover every eventuality, but there are a few things that help me do better with time:
I have magical thinking about time. To fight this, when I put an event in my calendar, like, “Meeting, 3pm” I also calculate the necessary travel time & route & directions & cost (+ add 20-30 minutes to that for good measure), and schedule a separate event called “LEAVE FOR [EVENT]” and set up associated alerts. It’s not perfect but sometimes redefining a thing from “I have an appointment at 3pm” to “If I want to take public transit, I need to be on the 1:55 pm 78 bus ($2.25 + $.25 to transfer), otherwise I have to get a Lyft by 2:30 ($12-$14), hey Siri remind me at 1:30 to get ready” does a better job. It’s harder to do the necessary breakdown when I’m already stressed and worried about being late, so doing it right when I schedule the thing helps break it down and incentivizes the earlier, cheaper departure time.
My laptop is a trap. Do you have a trap? I love my computer, it’s how I know literally all of you, hello! If I am honest with myself, I will not “just’ read a few emails and answer them and oh look, here are some comments to moderate and read. I will get sucked all the way in and task-switching will be very, very hard. So if I’m trying to get out the door at a certain time, especially in the morning, once I start getting ready, I probably can’t flip open my computer. What is the YOU-trap between you and getting ready or between you and heading out the door? Can you recognize it and neutralize it?
What is the “why.” Feelings, especially depressed/anxiety feelings aren’t the BOSS of me, but they are information. If I’m avoiding/dreading/procrastinating about heading out the door for something, why? Why am I going to this thing in the first place? Why am I choosing to go, do I have a choice, what do I hope will happen there, what am I expecting to enjoy, who will I see, what am I afraid of, what am I not looking forward to? Am I over-committed and need to say yes to fewer things? I know for years of dealing with depression and anxiety that sometimes I truly can’t go to a thing but also sometimes it just feels like that and I will be quite glad once I’m there so it’s worth pushing through. I also learned that I should stop saying yes to specifically social events I feel “maybe” about in the first place.
Sometimes making a note of the feeling helps me do the thing anyway. Sometimes reframing “I have to” things as “I want to/I am choosing to” things helps (not always possible, but worth a try, I think). Shame is useless. It really is. I’m not 100% at being on time but I don’t walk into every room pre-apologizing for myself anymore.
[MODERATOR HAT ON: If you are an organized person who does not struggle with timeliness, exactly zero of your “just lay your clothes out the night before and just put your keys in a findable place” are going to help. We know that stuff, that stuff is useful, but for us there is no “just,” it’s still hard. Requesting input from fellow time-strugglers only.]
Q5: I have a friend (Zelda), who goes through one trauma after another (all genuine problems). Nobody wants to say anything to her because she’s having a hard time because of *latest disaster*.
How much leeway can you give someone because of something like this (it’s been YEARS, and it’s always something) and what to do when she e.g. forms a new social media group with all but one member of our friend group? (she/her/hers)
A5: This is one of those questions where I can tell there is a GIANT back-story here. I’m going to try to answer this without judgment of you or Zelda or even trying to guess what’s going on. I think it’s time for you to take stock of a few things:
- Do you want to be friends with Zelda anymore?
- Do you specifically want to be in these social media groups with Zelda from now on? (Are you the person who was left out of the new group? Does “Hey, did you intentionally exclude (mutual friend), what’s that about?” get this done?)
- Assuming you want to stay friends, where would you most prefer to interact with Zelda (online, offline, occasional catch-up lunches or go to the movies, text, phone, sending funny postcards in the mail?)
- Is Zelda asking people for specific help with these crises or is it background noise – everyone’s sharing what’s going on with them, and this is what’s going on with her? Is it that you’re unsure what she’s asking for/why she’s sharing whatever it is? (“Hey Zelda, are you just venting or is there something specific you need someone to pitch in on today?”) Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help (and people think sharing the problem is the same as asking for help), sometimes it is just venting and the person doesn’t want help or advice, she just wants people to know what’s going on, when in doubt, ask!
- Is the “Nobody wants to say anything to her” thing a “Nobody wants to say anything to Zelda about [certain specific unwanted/unpleasant behaviors] because she’s usually in the middle of a crisis” problem?
Assuming you come out of that thinking process still wanting to be friends with Zelda, you could try a couple of things:
- Maybe these online groups aren’t your jam and you can take a break from them.
- If you’re feeling some trauma fatigue, maybe you’re not ‘process trauma’-friend at this time, maybe you’re ‘do gentle nice fun things’-friend right now. If that’s the case, think about what occasional pleasant low-commitment hangouts you might want to invite Zelda to that are within her bandwidth and where the subtext isn’t “you are a disaster and I am here to help you.” Think: lunch, Saturday breakfast, free night at the art museum, a matinée you’ve been wanting to see, the cat cafe, a nice walk outside. Does changing the venue change the vibe?
- If there’s some conflict or behavior you need to talk with Zelda about, if “everyone’s” been keeping quiet about it for a long time and getting steadily more annoyed, keep in mind that Zelda doesn’t know it’s a longstanding problem. So be gentle, specific, and treat it like the first offense – one that you quite reasonably expect her to reasonably respond to – and speak for yourself (not the whole group). “I’ve observed ____, what’s going on there?”“I need you to ___.”
- Related discussions. Good luck.
Q6: I love your dating profile suggestions! Do you have any wisdom for folks looking for friends on apps like Bumble BFF? (she/her)
A6: Thank you! This is the first I’m hearing of this service, which sounds pretty neat. I’m not sure I have any advice that that would be different from the dating profile suggestions: Be very honest, vivid, and specific about who you are, don’t try to appeal to the widest possible audience (you don’t want ALL POSSIBLE FRIENDS, you want friends who match you), look for reciprocity and matching enthusiasm levels, and seek out the people who make you feel safe and good.
It’s probably harder to reject people who don’t really match you when there isn’t the same obvious”I felt no attraction/spark” answer to fall back on, but friendship has a spark, too, so pay attention to that. You can have a pleasant time with someone and not want to be best friends.
Q7: How do I talk to newer friends about the depressive episode I’m currently working my way out of? I haven’t had one in years and have made new friends in that time. They know intellectually about my depression (I am pretty candid about it) but hadn’t seen it in full flow until this year. I tend to isolate during them and am afraid I scared new friends off. (she/her/hers)
A7: You’ve been here before, which I think will help you think about why do you want your new friends to know (duh, they’re your friends, they’d want to know what’s going on with you) and what do you want them to know (“My depression flared up and I’m in a slump right now, what that looks like for me is ______”) and what do you want them to do (“My tendency is to isolate so I might not be up for big group things or super-keen to make plans, but it helps me when friends do ________.”) Giving your friends something to do and telling them what depression means & looks like specifically for you will help let them know what they’re in for. I hope you start feeling better soon.
Q8: I came out to my family as trans a year ago and they took it poorly but not extremely so, normal I guess. Though they’re using my new name/pronouns they haven’t apologized, it hurts. I avoid phone-calls/meetings and send postcards instead. We were never close – there’s not a good relationship to fall back on. I don’t want to cut them off but this is exhausting. What are my options to try and move on? (he/him/his)
A8: I’m so sorry it went down this way, you deserve better. And the postcards are smart, a way to keep the channel of communication open but not demand any immediate reaction. If you need to stop with the postcards and stop working at this in general, that’s okay, they have choices about what to do here, phones, email, and the post office work both ways, they can reach out to you if they want to. Can you throw your energy into friendships and community who are supportive and accepting and put this burden down for now?
If you want to make a last-ditch try (either now, or after you’ve taken a break from trying), if you’ve never sent them to the PFLAG site for some reading material you might do that (though definitely vet whatever specific links you’re sending yourself), and you might also say, “Hey, I want to be closer to you and figure out how to have an adult relationship, but I’m having a hard time with it. I’m so glad you use my name and pronouns, but I’m still raw from some of our early conversations around coming out. It would mean a lot to me to hear an apology about [be specific], is there a way we can clear the air?” Is it a “real” apology if you have to ask? I don’t know, but if you need it maybe you need it, and maybe they’re also flailing and trying to figure out what to do. Also, it’s come up before, but are there cousins/aunts/uncles who are supportive? Our families can seem like monoliths but they are made of people.
My friend (codename: Lieutentant Trans) wrote a guest post here long ago, and he has some wisdom for you, I think:
“Relationship essence can be boiled down to three qualities: presence, support, and approval. I think we often seek approval first, or even second, but the reality is it almost always comes last, if it all. With my parents, I learned I didn’t need their approval to have a relationship with them: we can still learn to accept each others’ presence and support. Now, the support will be limited during the periods of learning acceptance, so things will still be draining for those of us seeking a close relationship with parents, when one day you will reach a point of exhaustion, you no longer will want to focus on what’s not working, you don’t want to beat your head against the wall any more…
…And while your father might be ignorant about queer counterculture, he knows as well as you that you don’t have a relationship, that you are not close. What you need to determine is if he also wants to go beyond what you currently have. If so, spend time focusing on positive interactions, things you have in common. Talk about food, the weather, start following his favorite sports team, tell him about TV shows you’re watching. I’m not suggesting swallowing or ignoring the bad parts, I’m emphasizing work on building up the good (and mundane) parts with just as much as energy as you use on the bad parts.”
Basically: Find very mundane, non-loaded ways to interact and be present and see if that helps push the fraught history further back in time and gives room for something else to grow. I hope it gets better. But they might never be the parents/family you really needed, and you can definitely stop working at it for a while if you need a break.
Q9: I’m trying to reconnect with some of my busy and/or geographically scattered friends. I could use some words to remind myself that people are unlikely to mind one “hi, I miss you, here’s what I’m doing, how about you?” or “you suggested hot chocolate, how about a week from Thursday?” I started okay, then got stuck after the second person didn’t answer. (she/her/hers)
A9: It’s good that you’re doing this and most likely your friends (who are not a monolith, they are separate people) do not mind this at all and are in fact grateful! Keep trying for a bit, and then stop working at the people who don’t respond (though make allowances for mental health stuff and accessibility), and enthusiastically make plans with the people who do. I especially like your style of inviting people to specific things on a specific day (where they can suggest an alternative if they can’t make that thing), and inviting them along to a thing you’re doing anyway where it would be great if they could join you but it’s not the deciding factor. You can also add gentle RSVP deadlines in – “I’m trying to buy tickets by Monday, can you let me know by Sunday night” – and stack invitations – “[Reliable mutual friend whose attendance you’ve already secured] and I are going to take some books/knitting/crosswords/board games to x centrally-located cafe/bar between y and z o’clock on [date], drop in and have a drink with us if you can?”
Don’t build your whole schedule around these things happening until you get affirmative commitments, remember that things didn’t get “scattered” overnight and they won’t get un-that way overnight, so I think you’re doing everything right, and it’s just going to take a little while.
P.S. If your friends have small kids, bring the party to them.
Q10: Many forms of self-care for anxiety are distractions from that anxiety (listening to music, etc). But sometimes I’ve found that I’m anxious about a solvable problem, and “distraction” types of self-care end up just being procrastination; I actually feel better after I do the thing I put off. Tips on knowing yourself or your anxiety well enough to know the difference between anxiety you need to just wait out vs act on? (they/them)
A10: I personally hate most meditation and “mindfulness” strategies and other calming down techniques, they only ever stress me out because now I’m probably Breathing Wrong on top of everything else, and I generally feel better when I convert my anxiety into action. (Especially around political stuff, where anxiety is a reasonable reaction to a situation, and “what can I dooooo” a matter of urgency (see the series of Half-Assed Activist posts).
I also (touched on in today’s Q4) started tracking feelings along with tasks and schedule stuff. If a task keeps rolling over from previous day’s to-do lists, or I’m having a hard time motivating to go to a specific thing, what are the feelings going on here? What am I avoiding? Is it something that absolutely has to be done or can I just admit I’m never doing this totally optional thing I thought I was going to do and delete it from my “should” list?
I think distraction works best when you’re stuck somewhere that you can’t leave, or where you can’t take action about whatever it is. You’re stuck in traffic or it’s taking forever to de-plane. You’re at work and obsessing about something happening at home or vice versa, or you can’t get started on the thing that’s making you anxious until you clear some other tasks first. Or, you’re at a party and there’s no house dog or cat to quietly pet in a quiet room. Then yes, breathe differently, listen to music, look at cute animals, brew a cup of tea, play a little Tetris on your phone, repeat “We’re not IN traffic, we ARE traffic,” whatever those temporary calming mechanisms are that work for you, bring it on!
From there, one possible test for you to try with your anxiety, if distraction isn’t working, when you’re in an anxious mood, maybe do a thing (anything) and see if it helps? I know UFYH often suggests setting a timer for 5 minutes and decluttering or cleaning 1 tiny surface as a starting point. There’s also this great post about Breaking The Low Mood Cycle where taking action even when you’re not in the mood can sometimes get you to the mood.
That’s all for this week (though there is now bonus content on schedule + to-do lists + feelings, thanks for the great questions!