September 2019 Short Questions: Part 1

Patrons of the blog have sent in short questions. Surprising nobody, I have written answers between “medium” and “epic.” This is Part 1 of 2, the rest will come later in the week.

In this batch: A friend is ghosting me to my face at work, I want to reconnect with a friend I accidentally ghosted, my downstairs neighbors complained to me about walking too loud, I need my partners to be more/differently supportive about depression and anxiety, and I’m about to burn out at work, will it kill my career if I take time off?

Q1: How do you get over it when a close friend who’s ghosted you (no formal African Violet, they just cut me off, no idea why) is also a work colleague? I would normally just try to forget, but their work emails keep showing up and it’s salt in the wound. We don’t have to talk in person, but they are in my building and come to big meetings. (I am looking for a new job.) She/her/hers.

A1: You’re already looking for a new job, which is smart! In the meantime, I suggest:

  1. If you don’t need to work directly with them on time-sensitive projects can you build a filter in your work mailbox so their messages bypass the main inbox? That way you can check the filter every so often to make sure you’re not missing anything critical, but you can choose your moment (fortifying caffeinated beverage, quiet time of day, I suggest NOT first thing when you get in and NOT last thing when you leave, since you don’t want to stew about it all day or take it home with you, maybe right before lunch so there’s a built-in break?). Maybe having a little control over how and when you see their stuff will help a little.
  2. If you do have to communicate sometimes, make sure to be textbook professional and include zero personal content in work email or voice mails. and consider documenting your interactions in case this person decides to make corporate trouble for you. You want to be able to show you’re being professional and you’re not the hold-up in any shared work matters.
  3. If you’re sure that you didn’t do anything to reasonably cause this rift, then you’re not the one doing anything weird if you show up to big meetings as you usually would and interact with others as you usually would. I know you feel tense and vigilant and raw where this person is concerned, and if you’re having an especially raw day maybe it’s possible to ask a colleague who is going to the meeting to update you (“I need to crank out some stuff by day’s end so I’m going to use the time when everyone’s in the meeting, can you take notes and let me know if there’s anything absolutely essential, and I’ll do the same for you next time”)(Honestly, how many meetings are actually necessary in this life). It’s not a perfect system, or always possible, but consider that it’s actually tremendously difficult and noticeably odd to blank someone right to their face, esp. at work where others can see. If this person is determined to avoid you, you can let them do the work of figuring out how while you go about your business.

Q2: How do you reconnect with a formerly-really-good friend that you haven’t spoken to in ten months? I was anxious/depressed last fall, had one hangout with Friend that felt mysteriously weird – then just didn’t reach out for a while, was friendly but not inviting the one or two times that she texted me after that, and we haven’t talked since. I miss her! But I feel awkward and don’t know how to make amends. (She/her/hers)

A2: Get in touch, invite the person to a definite plan. “Hi friend, I know it’s been a while since we’ve seen each other but I’d really love to get together before we run out of September. Are you free for [breakfast at the usual spot][coffee after work][lunch][a movie or gallery show or music thing or street festival you are pretty sure this person will like, bonus, seeing a movie or other art gives you built-in stuff to talk about] on [Option 1] or [Option 2]? Let me know.” 

NO:We should catch up soon!” or “I’d love to see you sometime!

That  just invites the person to a fraught Joint Project called Lets’s Make Some Plans, Maybe! and if they’re feeling rejected/avoided/tired of chasing and you’re feeling anxious it will just open up the same exact dynamic again. You know when you’re free so put some dates on the calendar and start from there. You’re the one who pulled away, so your friend giving you space means they were paying attention to your signals and they probably feel at least a little anxious about your affections. You’re the one in the position to do a little friend-courting right now, and needless to say, be diligent about follow-through.

If the friend misses you, too, they may not be free on the days you suggest but they will, almost certainly be glad for a re-opening of communication and will make it as easy as they can to get together. Once you’re back in touch you can say “Look, I’m so sorry I basically ghosted, I wasn’t in a good place, but it wasn’t anything you did wrong, in fact I really did appreciate the times you reached out.” 

There is always a chance that the friend is happier not really being in touch anymore, or has their own overwhelming life stuff (maybe that last hangout you had felt really weird from both directions, through nobody’s fault) and isn’t in the place to reconnect. If that’s the case, I’m so sorry. Sometimes it happens like that. I still think asking them on a specific hang is probably the way to go to reopen communications.

Q3: Got any wisdom re: new neighbors who are sensitive to the soundtrack of my normal life activities? After zero problems with my old downstairs neighbors, a new one says they’re bothered by me walking barefoot in the middle of the day with what I believe to be a normal to lightf-ooted cadence. I’d love an ethical ruling on whether neighborliness means tiptoeing and scripts for defending my position if it doesn’t. (she/her/hers)

A3: Hi there! Not sure I’d call it “wisdom”, but will you accept the RAntINgs Of thE CiTy DWelLEr AnD SERiAL ReNTeR?

I’ll start with the advice in case you are pressed for time:

If you have a good relationship with your landlord, I strongly suggest picking up a phone and dropping a polite word to that person, along the lines of “Hi Landlord, the new neighbors are settling in, and they mentioned being bothered by the sound of me walking around barefoot in the middle of the day in the apartment. Maybe there’s something about how sound travels, maybe they’re just pretty sensitive to a new place, I just wanted to give you a heads up – I promise I’ll let them know if I’m having people over or doing something unusually noisy, but I don’t want to feel like I have to walk on eggshells during my usual routine, so if they bring it up with me again I’m going to send them straight to you, thanks!”

Translation: “These people might have a legitimate complaint about the way sound travels in the building and need some help mitigating that, but also, if they are going to become my nuisance I am going to ruthlessly convert them into your nuisance. Hugs from a reasonable person who pays their rent on time and never causes problems!”

Should the neighbor bring this up with you again, I suggest a script along the lines of “Oh hey, I’ll try to give you some notice if I throw a party or plan something especially noisy past 9 or 10 o’clock at night, but for routine stuff like walking around in the day I don’t know what to tell you. I mentioned it to the landlord, so maybe follow up there?” 

Do not use the word “sorry” anywhere in that discussion. Not even a fauxpology. No “thanks for letting me know” or invitations for them to let you know if you bother them in future. Do not agree to do anything differently/walk differently/”be more careful,” etc. in the future. You do not want to set a precedent that them complaining about NORMAL LIFE ACTIVITIES IN YOUR HOME WHERE YOU LIVE gets your attention, you want to be clear that how you walk is how it is here.

Be otherwise pleasant and kind when you do run into them and don’t escalate the situation if you can help it, but keep your distance (and keep living your life without apology) while they adjust to the new spot. If it never comes up again? That’s the win condition, write it off as a one-time quirk, maybe they were taken aback by the acoustics but once their books are unpacked they’ll be able to tune it out.

Now for the Promised Rantings Because I Have A Lot Of Feelings About This, Okay?

I’ve lived with, below, above, and next to my fellow humans for twenty-seven years in various dorms, house-shares, and apartment living. I’ve lived next door to a hospital emergency room and a Santeria priest named Carlos who kept live chickens in his studio apartment for ritual purposes. I spent a Chicago winter below a dubstep musician who rehearsed nightly but never once found the Drop and the subsequent spring and summer ‘neath a newly divorced man enthusiastically (and from the sounds of it quite expertly) screwing his way through the city of Chicago block by block. I’ve rented downstairs from a family with young kids who started the day at 5:30 a.m. by chucking bucket of toys on the floor with a loud crash, followed by a 16-hour shift of screaming and stomp-chasing each other up and down the hallway, except for exactly one night a week when it was Date Night. We’d know it was Date Night because the grandparents would take the kids for an evening so the parents could crank up Wicked Game for precisely four minutes and three seconds of Marital Maintenance. Did we “have a chat” with them about this? We did not. What we did, whenever we heard the opening bars of Wicked Game, was go to the other end of the apartment and put on some music of our own or watch a little TV and maintain the illusion of privacy that is one of the pillars of the social contract.

Other Upstairs Neighbors Past include: An unlicensed daycare, an unlicensed pit bull breeder, a very sweet old lady who baked me cookies every now and then (probably so I didn’t break in to the place some night and feed her menagerie of enthusiastic cockatoos to my cat), a person who should definitely have never adopted a puppy, a person who inherited a piano (good) and decided to learn how to play it from scratch (excellent) and then practiced scales with a work ethic I’d describe as “inexorable” (impressive) but never learned to play any actual songs for as long as I lived there. This was back in 1990s, so I’m assuming she’s either worked her way up to Für Elise by now or one of her subsequent downstairs neighbors has burned down the whole building with everything inside just to be sure to get the piano. See Also!  A person who sobbed loudly to the Cats soundtrack every single night for a calendar year, amateur home renovators, compulsive early morning vacuumers, one of those Peruvian flute ensembles you can find playing El Cóndor Pasa in every capital city of the world at every moment in time (fortunately a very short-term sublet), the owner of the world’s most advanced and powerful flushing toilet, basically everyone from this video, and a very affable dude who liked to play Eye of the Tiger on repeat while working out with a speedball punching bag and who prompted me, finally, to recruit a friend who was good at Rock Band to go upstairs with a six-pack of beer and help my good broham five-star The Trees (yes, the Randian metaphor song by Rush which I am NOT linking because I love myself) so I didn’t have to hear it anymore.

My ethical ruling is this:

There is certainly room in life for some direct negotiation among neighbors about shared needs and boundaries. “Hey, the grill isn’t communal property, so can you ask before you use it and make sure to clean it before you put it back?” “Would you mind if I borrowed your ladder for an afternoon?” “Can you let me know a few days in advance if you’re going to have a party?” “Can you text me when you’re done with the laundry so I can put mine in?” “We all agree that we don’t talk to or open the door to ICE, right? And that we ask to see a signed warrant from a judge?” “I noticed a big pile of boxes outside your door, do you need help getting it to the dumpster? We gotta keep the hallway clear.” “If you’re going to have AirBnB guests, you need to be home to let them in, I’m not your concierge.” “Quiet hours start at 10pm, thanks.” “Is there a way you can not run power tools until after 8 am on weekends.” “I’d rather you text or email instead of dropping by unless it’s a true emergency.”

This is not one of those situations. 

Because Also: Living close to other people also entails a certain amount of strategically ignoring each other’s daily habits. 

To elaborate:

  1. I know some people are just extra-sensitive to noise, I know that sound travels in unpredictable ways, but our fellow building residents have the right to walk their normal walks inside their homes, speak in a normal tone of voice, listen to the radio, watch TV at a reasonable volume, have the occasional party, have sex, take showers, sing in the shower during those showers, cook spicy food with many garlics, and generally live their lives, etc. without scurrying on tiptoes like fugitives trying to escape detection. Maybe privacy is an illusion but it is a necessary one.
  2. For the noise-averse: If always living on the top floor or finding a single-family dwelling in one of those wide open spaces isn’t feasible (yet), there’s still stuff we can do that isn’t interrupting our neighbors and expecting them to “walk different”: White noise machines, the good kind of earplugs, rugs, heavy curtains, blankets, wrapping/insulating pipes and radiators where noise travels, even something as simple as putting the bookcases against shared walls with especially noisy spots can help deaden the acoustics of the space.
  3. Whether these new neighbors are just surprised by the noise levels in a new place or intentionally making a power move along the lines of  “We will be monitoring every breath you take for as long as we live here,” by bringing this to your attention they are actually being more intrusive than your *checks notes again* walking around in your apartment where you live could possibly ever be. If you were having a midnight Tuesday roller-derby practice or breaking building rules about Quiet Hours, that’s one thing, but you’re not. They get one pass for being possibly surprised/curious/new, like but if they don’t settle in and leave you be now that they know that this is the usual noise floor? I like to have harmonious relationships with neighbors I also don’t have to answer my door just ’cause someone knocked on it. 

**************SEE ALSO:  Hi Affluent Fellow White People, YOU are the one who bought a house next to [a college that’s been here since the 18th century][a string of rowdy bars called “The Manhole,” etc.][A Whole Bunch Of Not-White People Living Their Lives]. Learn to go with the flow of the neighborhood you just showed up in and STOP calling the police on your neighbors for living, it’s racist, obnoxious, and it gets people killed. The police aren’t ‘the manager’ you get to use to make a place conform to your baby’s sleep schedule, and your neighbors are good enough not to call the cops on you when the little angel shrieks through the night and your jealous, neglected beagle joins the chorus. Being alive makes noise. If you can’t adapt to the vibe of the ‘hood or building you chose, it’s probably time to move somewhere you’ll be “more comfortable” and scout your next dwelling-place for sound at multiple times of day to make sure it’s something you can actually live with without becoming a nuisance.*************

Q4: How do I know if my partner cares and is supportive of my mental health? She tries to encourage me but still loses her patience when I’m anxious. I worry that she doesn’t understand how my brain works. OR – is she just fairly trying to hold me accountable, and I’m an asshole who wants my partner to be the perfect supporter/balm? How do I know if this is broken? Or am I broken? (He/they)

Hrmmm, this is a tough one for the short format, but here’s what I’m observing as a person with no clinical expertise who doesn’t know you or your partner:

I am somewhat addicted to reading the Am I The Asshole? Reddit (at least the bits that get curated for Twitter) but I don’t think that stark dichotomy is terribly useful for framing complicated situations. So when I see a question posed as “Am I broken (& an asshole)?” vs. “Is relationship broken (i.e. is my partner the asshole),I want to tread lightly since a) obviously something upsetting is going on but I can’t tell what in the abstract b) I know people can be disappointingly unsupportive when you need them to be c) I know from my own mental health treatment that “black and white thinking” is one kind of cognitive distortion.

If your partner minimizes your feelings, is mean to you, displays contempt, or treats you like you are broken, and you feel like your mental health deteriorates around them, that’s a “dump her” problem. But someone not knowing quite how to respond when they can see a partner is suffering or reflecting back frustration in a frustrating situation isn’t necessarily “The Asshole” (or “broken” or whatever dire descriptor we can generate). Her form of “encouragement” might not be [enough][what you need to be happy and compatible], and you may be happier apart in the long run, but again, not enough information. Are you looking for help *identifying a culprit* or are you looking for help to make a difficult thing easier?

Which leads me to ask, do you have a therapist? If you have one, I think it’s worth discussing, specifically:  

a) How to (hopefully continue) aggressively and comprehensively treating the anxiety/whatever else is going on,

b) Brainstorm ways to inform your partner about your diagnosis and to check in with your partner and yourself about what kind of support is [needed][desired][offered][reasonable][possible],

c) Get an ongoing reality check from a trained person who knows you and your situation when you’re prone to catastrophizing or not trusting your own judgment,

d) Develop language and confidence around asking your partner specifically for what you need when you are having an anxious moment or flare-up [some space to work the problem through without an audience][a hug][for a little verbal reassurance/encouragement],

e) And give the situation some room to breathe and adjust and see if it gets better. If it doesn’t, you’ll know what to do. 

Q5:I’ve been married for 13 years now and have been diagnosed with depression for four of them. I used to be a star student; now with the help of medication I kind of barely hold it together. My husband tries to be supportive, but just doesn’t get it. “You should go for a run!” doesn’t help when I’ve got thirty things to do and only two spoons. How do I explain his suggestions aren’t helping? (She/Her/Hers)

A5: Hi Querent 5 have you met Querent 4? :mentally sends both of you good wishes:

[sarcasm](Yes, maybe you “should” go for a run. Maybe if you “just” went for a run you would feel better. Then you’d come back and you’d still have 20 things to do and now be too physically tired to do any of them instead of “just” mentally too tired. Thanks, I’m cured!)[/sarcasm though honestly do I ever fully close this tag] 

It’s okay to tell your husband that words like “should” and “just” are shame-amplifiers and that peppering you with cheerful suggestions about things you could do or should do are shame-amplifiers, that these are words that people say to depressed people a lot and also words that depressed people say to ourselves a lot when we’re at our lowest. Shame is a motivation-killer, so if he feels tempted to suggest things you “should” do or “just” might do, he could maybe…stop that?

It’s not that partners of depressed people don’t get to ask for things or suggest things, it just comes out way better as concrete invitations (“Will you keep me company on my run today? I’m going to head out in about half an hour.”) and direct requests (“Babe, can you please take the garbage out, I’m running late and we’ve got about 20 minutes before the trucks get here”) than it does as mock-brainstorming it as a faux-cheerful suggestion (“I know, what if you took out the garbage today? Wouldn’t that make you feel better?”) Not-taking the garbage out in time will make me feel not-better, but fuck, don’t pitch it *as a remedy* or leave it as a tentative suggestion for me to triage, just tell me what needs doing and what the last possible deadline is for getting it done, who knows, maybe we can get a motivating adrenaline response out of this. My depression doesn’t give a shit about the trash day schedule and vice versa, but it can sometimes follow simple directions.

Your husband might benefit from this past post about supporting loved ones with depression. It is hard to watch someone you love go through something so difficult and lonely and not know what to do or say. In my experience on both sides of this question, the more the more he can move out of “fixer” mode and into “supportive-buddy-in-a-buddy-comedy” and “temporarily picks up more of the household tasks that require maximum executive function without blame or guilt” mode the easier a sad and difficult thing will be. In my house, there are times for sitting down together and fairly dividing up who will be cooking dinner, etc. this week (most times!) and there are times for recognizing that if the more functional partner does not quietly figure out a grocery situation, nobody’s eating, and neither principles of fairness nor chipper suggestions nor a sense of obligation nor making a list (but, A Really Good List this time!) nor allowing everyone to get incredibly hangry is gonna defeat a depressive episode. The agreement is that we take turns and that we also take turns taking all the turns in a row for a stretch if the other person can’t take their turn just now.

It’s okay to reframe your husband’s halping instincts and ask for things that might actually help you, stuff like: “I could use your help turning this list of 20 things that all feel equally important and equally impossible into a list of two must-do-today things and one bonus-thing if I have time” or “If I go for that run, can you handle these 10 things while I’m out? Thanks.” 

And, as referenced above, it’s okay to make “how do I talk to husband about depression in a way that he will understand it” and “how do I gauge the kind of support I need and ask for the specific kind of support I need, in detail” a topic of therapy, part of the whole project of feeling better.

It’s okay to ask for a deal: “I promise I’ll do what I can to treat this: take my meds, meet the meds halfway, do all the things I know to take care of myself. What I need from you is love, and company, and friendship, and humor, and a little faith, and some time to see if we can find a new normal. And I need you to educate yourself about depression, NOT so you can become a source of fix-it solutions, since I have a therapist for that, but so you can understand better what it’s like in here with a brain like this. I need you to be my team, not try to be my coach.” 

I hope the clouds clear at least a little bit very soon.

Q6: I am pretty sure I need to quit my job because the stress is overwhelming. How do I explain leaving without a new job lined up when I start looking again? Is “burn out” accepted as a reason or am I going to end up worse off? I’m a lawyer so it seems like I need to tough it out even if its killing me. (She/Her/Hers)

A6: Law can be one of those WE LOVE WORKING ALL THE TIME, DON’T YOU, THAT WASN’T A QUESTION SOLDIER! cultures and unsurprisingly it’s also rife with burnout.

There are approximately one jillion articles about how to prevent burnout as a lawyer, but strangely not that much good material about what to do when burnout has already happened, it’s just one of those weird capitalism paradoxes I guess, where “My job was trying to work me into the grave, so I quit, took some time off, and did a lot of thinking about what the right career fit for me Not Dying Early But Still Being Very Good At Work might be so here I am!”( i.e. the obvious healthy choice) is recast as some kind of shameful individual lapse to be avoided altogether if possible and euphemistically ellided if not possible.

Will lawyers unionize their workplaces before law firms run out of insecure overachievers* to grind to dust? I can’t really throw stones from higher ed, another industry run on a combination of borrowed prestige and a barrage of mixed messages like “u r the best and the brightest no one is smarter than u” and “u r lucky to be here at all, do u know how many people would gladly give up everything for ur spot” and “u are good enough to work here (by which we mean good enough to DO most of the Work of Here) but we need a decade of your life to find out if u are actually good enough to work here someday, which, it’s anyone’s guess at this point. Can we offer u more work while u wait?” 

While we plot replacing capitalism with something fair and just, a world where “golf” is an anthropological curiosity in a single theme park in Scotland and all other “golf courses” teem with wildlife and sustainable crops, we still have to function within it for now if we wanna eat. So here’s what I can tell you:

Almost nobody (nobody in a hiring capacity anyhow) likes the middle of a story about suffering but everybody perks up for a story about Suffering Overcome In The End. So once you’ve left your job (please don’t die!) and taken some time to rest and heal and plan your next step, your biggest asset is going to be finding a way to tell your story so it fits the structure of a “Yes, It Got Dark Back There For A Moment But See How I Overcame It All And What I Learned As A Result!” narrative.

Right now, U R Here:

When the time comes, you want to tell prospective new employers the story of Back There as if you are Here:

Which probably means, in the short term, finding a way to tell your most trusted support system (counselor, close friends, family, your employer’s EAP helpline) the unvarnished truth about being Here:

In the hopes that when you walk into a job interview eventually maybe you can pull off something like this:

Or this, if that’s more your style?

Even if what you feel inside is still mostly like:

Do I love this aspect of life under Late Capitalism, where your story only counts if it can be shaped into something useful, a way to sell the lessons you learned about being a better economic unit?

Comrades, I do not. But I know how to both do it and how to teach it, from a fiction standpoint, and since the idea that nobody successful ever needs time off is a complete fiction, maybe we can fight back with the lessons and structure of fiction. (Just because something is fictional doesn’t mean it’s untrue.) Life happens, people have to leave jobs all the time, for all kinds of reasons, and then start again, for all kinds of reasons, did you know the same person can be both a very good worker and also have periods where work is not the most important, urgent thing or even a possible thing? Employers pretend that Gaps In Resumes Are Terrible, Shameful, Disqualifying Problems because it suits them just fine if every worker sees themselves as a supplicant in a fierce competition with a theoretically perfect work robot, even though there are whole-ass laws that say workers must be allowed to take time off for certain situations and life events, and we know for a fact that people leave and reenter the work force all the time.

Since you wrote to the Life Advice From A Screenwriter Blog, not the Life Advice From a Successful Lawyer Blog, what I have is story advice:  When you’re ready, find a way to tell recruiters and prospective bosses and colleagues the story of leaving your old firm and finding a new one like it’s a tight three-acter with a very short middle and a guaranteed happy ending. That leaves room for both honesty (“I could feel myself burning out and knew I needed to make a change”) and strategy (“Now that I’ve had a chance to recharge and feel confident I can give my clients the attention and level of service they deserve, I’m excited to jump back in. I’m especially interested in learning more about the work you’re doing in [specific area of law you are nerdy about], can you tell me more about your expansion plans there?”

[If I’ve never said this on the blog before, I’ll say it now: Asking substantive questions that offer bosses an organic, unforced chance to brag about THEIR VISION in an interview can be JOB INTERVIEW GOLD. You have to do less talking and you become a person who makes them FEEL GREAT.]

It may feel or in fact be risky or taboo use the word “burnout” (that thing that’s incredibly common for lawyers) (but only the theoretical ones who aren’t in the room right now) in future job discussions in your industry, and you’re going to have to feel that one out case-by-case, I think, but I also think it can be recycled into an advantage even in this depressing capitalist fairy tale. ‘Cause if a warm job prospect suddenly goes cold when you say the word “burnout,” it’s a pretty good sign that their firm routinely burns people the fuck out (and they know it)(and they were hoping to do it to you some more)(and now they have a sad because they’ve learned you’re not the type to just quietly die at your desk). May that word lead you away from those places and in the direction of wise, experienced colleagues who offer empathy and recognition for what you’ve survived and who know the value of people who know their limits.

Now take this basket of your favorite things to eat, this bag of small white stones to drop as you go, and this blade to mark the trees as you pass, and this compass that points to True North, so that if you must stray from the path for a while you can easily find it again. ❤

*Happy UpdateThe LW from post #1198 wrote to me recently things are much better, which was such a relief to know. I linked the post above not just for the “insecure overachiever” material, it also has the links to all the “how do I leave my stressful job” archives including specifically the legal profession ones:

Look at some of the process posts on the site about figuring out what you want out of your working life when the environment is demanding. Here’s one about keeping it together when your focus is suffering.

I have some deadlines that require my attention this week, which is a good problem, but it also means that free-for-all discussion moderation isn’t possible on this round. I hope between the archives, the forums, and 5000+ Jennifer-words everybody got what they needed.