The letter contains brief mention of the roommate either accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose leaving a pet outside for a while during a mental health episode. The pet was fine and this is neither the point of the letter nor the oddest thing in it, but readers have mentioned animals-in-peril stresses them out, so I’m including both a heads’ up and a cut.
I’ve been a fan of your blog/wisdom for quite some time, and I was wondering if you could help me with an strange ongoing situation I’ve been dealing with. (I am a girl, she/her is good with me.)
About three years ago, I was relocating to a new city after getting a new job, and was looking for housing. A friend of mine told me that a family she knew, let’s call them Jane and John, was looking for a sub-letter to help out with chores and taking care of pets while the husband was away on a year-long work trip. The family is well-connected with lots of people in the city, and after asking and hearing only good things, decided to reach out. We got in touch, and after setting basic rules and a move in/move out time, I moved in a few months later.
Things went well for the first few weeks. I helped out around the house before and after work hours, and after the kids were in bed I would usually retire to my room to relax. Jane and I were friendly towards each other, but not friends. I think she was just too busy with her young kids, and our personalities didn’t really mesh very well. (She is a very extroverted/entertainer type. I am very introverted and need lots of rest, I have an immune disorder that makes it tiring to be out and about for too long.) Then things started to get messy.
A couple of weeks after John left for work, Jane started seeing a mutual acquaintance of mine (Yes, I walked in on them. Yes, it was very awkward, especially at the moment when we both realized we knew each other.). Then other things started happening. She would get really excitable about things that didn’t make sense and would have very sporadic, intense mood swings. (One particularly noteworthy moment was when I came to the living room to take their dog for a morning walk. Jane was sitting on the couch facing the wall. All the lights were off, the front door was open and an intense storm was blowing rain and debris in everywhere. When I asked her where the dog was, she slowly turned and responded, “We don’t have a dog anymore.” Knowing the kids were safe with other family at the moment I immediately went outside to look for the dog. I found the poor thing, soaking wet but miraculously okay, about two hours later.) Eventually, I was able to talk to Jane’s parents about the situation, they intervened, and took her and the children in for the remainder of the time that John gone. I stayed at the house to continue to care for the pets and look after her home while she was gone.
Before my lease was up with the family, John ended up returning from his work a few months earlier than expected, and Jane and the kids returned home. At this point, Jane started acting very antagonistic towards me. I would overhear her gossip to her friends how strange and weird I was. or if we were at an event together she would talk over me when I tried to speak. Sometimes her kids would ask me questions that you could tell were coming from Jane, like “Why do you choose to dress so immodestly?”, or “Why don’t you dress like a real girl?” when I was wearing gym shorts or athletic clothes. After being invited to a family dinner where Jane spent the entire time asking me passive-aggressive questions about when I was going to get out of their house, I decided to end my lease early and move out.
I figured that things would end there, but two years (!!) after moving out, I am still having problems. Sometimes I’ll attend events where I run into the mutual acquaintance Jane had an affair with, and he’ll act so uncomfortable around me that people will pull me aside and ask if everything is okay. I never outed Jane or him for the affair, or for any of the other things that happened while I lived with Jane. I figured that what happened in my time there deserved discretion, but now after all of this I’m not so sure. It was a miserable time, and Jane spread so many rumors about me after I moved out that I’m having a lot of trouble making friends with people in the area even now.
I was wondering if you have any advice on this. Recently, she’s been inviting me to a lot of parties, and while I have zero intentions of going to any of them, it makes me wonder if I should have treated this differently. Should I just be honest about the situation when people ask? I think I put up with it more than I should have, partly for her kids/John, and partly because of other major life events happening at the same time. I’m planning on moving to a new area soon, due to this and other things, and I would love some advice on putting things behind me, and moving forward.
Apologies for the length. Thanks for listening, and I hope your holiday season is going well.
Help I Think I Might Be Stuck In A Soap Opera
Hello Stuck In A Soap Opera:
I’m relieved to hear that you’re moving to greener pastures soon, keeping your attention focused on the future will serve you well.
It sounds like you did your due diligence before you moved, vetted Jane and John’s living setup and reputation in advance as best you could, kept the terms of your lease, and were a conscientious roommate and caretaker even under incredibly difficult circumstances. You looked after Jane and her family’s safety when she was vulnerable and did the exact right thing by looping in her parents when you did, held down the fort for the family until John returned, and moved out as soon as you could. You’ve more than respected Jane’s privacy, and you tried your best not to worsen anything that was already bad.
The way Jane treated you and continues to treat you is very troubling, and I want to be clear that a person can both have mental health stuff going on that deserves care and compassion and be kind of a bully. I don’t think that her mental health stuff is the cause of the bullying, but I think it’s silly and disingenuous to pretend it couldn’t possibly exacerbate the bullying, that it couldn’t be a factor in her feeling paranoid about you or identifying you as The Problem in her life, and it’s definitely part of the story where you were put in a position of caring for and covering for someone through some vulnerable shit as best you could and then having the person later turn around and bully you. And that’s what her comments about your appearance and gender presentation (not to mention the two years of rumors) are: bullying. It’s hard to keep “don’t blame bad behavior on mental illness, it increases stigma” and “sometimes people having mental health episodes do and say stuff that is really upsetting and it genuinely affects people around them” in mind simultaneously but we’re going to try by sticking to discussing Jane’s behaviors toward you since you moved out and in the present and what you can do to take care of yourself between now and the day you shake the dust of this postage-stamp Peyton Place from your feet.
You’ll probably never get an apology or a good explanation for why exactly Jane was so mean to you after John returned and kept it up with the rumormongering after you moved out. Here are some guesses:
- She was afraid you’d tell John and others (it’s probably what she would have done and she can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t).
- You’re not friends but you know all this intimate stuff about her and saw her when she was incredibly vulnerable and she can’t forgive you for that. That’s probably a mix of Jane-stuff and a whole lot of mental-illness-is-incredibly-stigmatized stuff, so even though you know it’s nothing to be ashamed of, she doesn’t fully know that, she doesn’t know that you know that, and she doesn’t feel safe talking about it with you.
- Sometimes there is thing that happens where people know they are in the wrong and they feel guilty so they punish the person they wronged for “making” them feel guilty, which compounds the wrongness like badness interest on a shame loan.
- She was trying to neutralize you as a threat by destroying your credibility and isolating you. Plus, as a housemate you were in her territory and she couldn’t just ignore you or give it some space.
- She didn’t fully succeed in isolating you – people still like you, you’re still around – so now she’s inviting you to stuff, like, “oh well, guess that’s that!”
Could she have cleared a ton of this up with one direct conversation after the sex stuff where she was like “so about the other day…” and you said “look it’s 100% none of my business and I’ve already forgotten it”? Yeah.
Could there have been another conversation after the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime (look it’s my blog and I can make bad book jokes if I want to) along the lines of “I feel really embarrassed about what happened and I’m sorry you had to step in that way” and you saying “I appreciate the apology but please don’t think it’s necessary, I’m just glad you are doing better and that I could help, let’s say nothing of it.” Oh yeah. But she didn’t, so, here you both are. Your diffident, quiet, discreet nature was actually working for her this whole time but she can’t see it that way, and she can’t afford be vulnerable and talk it out with you for the five minutes it would take to resolve.
When you contemplate “telling the truth” about Jane everyone in this town you’re about to leave, I certainly understand the impulse to go all Harper Valley PTA on her ass. You’re actually incredibly justified in wondering, “If this town knew what she was REALLY like, maybe they’d stop dancing attendance on her and accepting her lies about me at face value, or making me feel like the awkward one when I’m not the one who caused any of this.”
Your story is published now so the whole darn internet knows what Jane is “really” like, but I almost guarantee you that multiple other people in your town and in your same social circle also already know. If she grew up there? There’s drama that goes back to elementary school.
Plus, the most toxic “Jane” types I’ve encountered in the past have a rotating series of minions and sidekicks and a dynamic where eventually somebody always has to be “out” so that everyone else can feel like they’re “in.” I’d be incredibly surprised if you were Jane’s first and only target of nasty comments and rumor-spreading, to such a degree that if you were writing this three years ago and still trying to make new friends in that place, I’d probably tell you to think back to when Jane welcomed you to town with open arms. Did she ever share some juicy local gossip and warn you in a warm, conspiratorial tone that certain people sucked? Especially people who used to be close friends but then they “betrayed her” or “showed their true colors”? Some of those people might in fact independently suck, but knowing what you know now, would you take her word for it? At least one of them is likely to be a Previous You (at minimum, a person who tried to get along with Jane but who stood out in some way that made them an easy scapegoat when things went sour) and might be a perfectly acceptable coffee companion now and again if you’re still looking to find a local social outlet.
Going back to the highly useful metaphor of The Missing Stair (Original post at The Pervocracy)(Wikipedia summation), the whole point is that “everyone” in Cliff’s social scene already knew who the problem was. They may not have known all the details, and Missing Stairs are very good at cultivating a few genuinely nice people who never actually know the full extent so there can always be “but the person I know would never do that” apologists on hand, but people already knew this was a person to be managed, worked around, and warned about through whisper networks which never quite catch everyone. That’s the point. People who already live there know to step over the broken step, they somehow don’t fall in every time someone has to go upstairs, it’s just the occasional new person or person who couldn’t be warned in time who trips. They know.
This is the thing, above all, that made me want to answer your letter. When everybody knows who the problem is and that it’s not you, why do they put up with Jane’s sometimes mean behavior?
Welp, I’d guess it’s for a lot of the same reasons you did:
- She’s outgoing, charismatic, and central to the social life there. And she’s obviously not going anywhere so why take on the hassle? It’s just easier to excuse or ignore the hard parts and enjoy the rest.
- They like John and the kids and don’t want to make anybody’s life harder.
- She IS really wonderful to lots of people lots of the time. I would guess a lot of them just like her a lot and they go way back, so…it’s not fair, but “person I’ve known forever who can be a little mean sometimes but probably doesn’t mean anything by it” and “quiet, perfectly pleasant outsider I just met (i.e. you, the LW)” isn’t about fair.
- They know she’s got mental health struggles and it seems both easier and kinder to chalk any and all odd behavior up to that instead of trying to sort out which is a symptom and which is Jane-can-be-so-mean-when-she-feels-cornered. “It’s really none of my business.” “That’s just Jane.” “You know she has problems, but when she’s not having an episode, she’s so wonderful.”
Which honestly? Is a good impulse and a thing her true, close friends do as a kindness, the same way you did for a while, and the same way I do when someone close to me is clearly not their best selves in a way they can’t always help (and hope they will do for me in return when it becomes necessary). I’m still responsible for what I say and do when my anxiety and depression are ascendant and what I say and do still has consequences. I owe people apologies when I hurt them and I owe doing my absolute best not to repeat hurtful behaviors. But I’m grateful when the people closest to me remind me that my mistakes aren’t the whole shebang, and when our conversations in better times aren’t “Remember the time you were feeling terrible and then you really fucked up?”
None of this makes these people bad people. It just makes them human people. And it makes a lot of them not necessarily your people, so it’s a good thing you are leaving.
So what can you do about it now?
My vote is disengage.
Jane has hurt you a lot, some of it without meaning to, a lot of it on purpose. You are not friends, you’ll never be friends, you can at least stop the game of “how much of this is her fault” and “do I owe her more compassion” right here, right now. She’s a person you don’t like and who doesn’t like you but sometimes you bump into each other and you know people in common. The way to deal with that is to say a quick “oh hello Jane!” and hopefully she says hello back and then you go each go talk to people you both actually like.
You don’t owe Jane continued discretion especially in the face of the rumors and lies she spread about you, but your decision to not tell her mental health stuff was a solid one (we don’t revenge-disclose people’s medical information), you’ve stayed mum this long, and spilling stuff about an affair from two years ago is going to re-ignite and escalate a conflict that you’re halfway to being rid of forever. I know people would recommend telling John about the cheating, but back when you saw it you decided it was none of your business. They’re still together, you’re not certain he doesn’t already know or that they haven’t worked it out between them somehow, and I don’t think you’re a terrible person if you let it stay none of your business. Consider also, this is a lady who actively punished you and retaliated against you for knowing stuff about her that you didn’t tell others about. WTF would she do to you if she knew for sure you told? Nothing good, I’m guessing.
You’re already Not Going to stuff she hosts, so keep doing that. How are these invitations getting to you, btw? Is it possible to turn “not going” into “completely ignoring”? Have you taken full advantage of social media filters to optimize your online experience?
Assuming it’s a given that people know what Jane is like, they also know what you are like. The people who have taken the time to get to know you already know that you are kind, quiet, not a shit-disturber by nature, and that you have good boundaries and discretion. Some people will believe Jane’s rumors but not everyone will or does, and when the topic of her treatment of you or the rumors comes up you can be flat, blunt, and truthful without escalating stuff. For example:
- “That is not true and I do not understand why she would say that about me.” And then let it be so awkward the other person changes the subject.
- “Our roommate situation got pretty difficult at times and I was glad to move out, but I thought things were resolved. It’s weird that she would still be talking about this two years later, but what can you do.”
- “You know, being roommates during a Very Difficult Time* for the whole family meant having a front row seat to a lot of personal stuff, for both of us. My policy is to leave the past in the past, and hearing these rumors are still going makes it really hard for me to do that, but what can you do? The last thing I want to do is have a long sit-down about shit from two years ago with someone who doesn’t like me much.” *People may not know the details of went down but it’s probably not a mystery that your housing situation became difficult.
- “I like so many of the people I’ve met through Jane, I’m glad she has so many friends like you!” (Yes, a total dodge, what of it)
- “It makes me feel really awful to hear these rumors are still going, I’d appreciate if you’d tell people they aren’t true when it comes up, but I’ve never found it productive to get into it with Jane about stuff like this – I’d rather keep it light and easy with her.”
- “Not everyone is going to be best friends, I really just try to keep it light and pleasant where Jane is concerned, no need to keep chewing on old news.”
- “Hey I appreciate the heads’ up that this stuff is still circulating, but I’d rather talk about literally anything but Jane. How are things with your [subject change]?” (Be like Neo)
- “You have got to be kidding. Not that again.”
- “Ha, I promise you I am not that interesting. Hey, is that the Queen behind you? Or someone who was in Queen? Or the movie about Queen? Did you see that movie? It could have been so much gayer and better than it was, don’t you think? Like Freddy Mercury used to sneak Princess Di into clubs in drag, where was THAT scene. And how did they DARE use Under Pressure in a heterosexual-crying-in-the-rain scene and NOT show Freddy and Bowie recording it? The stunt casting ALONE, MY GOD. And you know, if all the members of Queen were EQUALLY responsible for cool songwriting, where are all the good new Queen songs?”
If Jane ever comes at you and tries to address it? Let loose:
“Look, I have been nothing but nice to you, ever, and you have been, let’s face it, INCREDIBLY FUCKING WEIRD AND MEAN since I moved out. Can we just stop pretending that’s not what’s happening? And can this all just stop? I love your kids and your family, I love so many of the friends we share in common, I have no ill will toward you at all and want only good things for you, also, I just basically want to have a nice time at parties sometimes without wondering what you’re saying about me or if it’s going to be weird to run into you.
Can we just pretend we’re pleasant strangers from now, say hello and goodbye, and let the rest of it go? That’s literally all I want, to wish you well and to let it go.”
I think she’s too scared to ever come at you direct because again, in your shoes she would burn her life to the ground, but it felt good to write that little speech.
Speaking of speeches! Ha! Let’s talk about the mutual-acquaintance-affair-partner for a second. Don’t go looking for him, but when you run into him again, and his weird behavior happens again, and people ask you about it again, try this:
- Give your best casual shrug.
- Say something like: “Oh yeah, it’s definitely weird, and somebody who likes him way more than I do should probably talk to him about that sometime so I can keep ignoring it. But what were we talking about?”
- Then steer into the subject change and ride it for as long as you can.
If you feel up to it, you could also pull Mr. Weird aside for a private chat. Script:
“Dude. Would you like to purge the memory of The Day That Shall Not Be Named, forever? Great. Me too. Here’s how: Stop being so fucking weird when we run into each other. When you …[name specific behaviors like “scurrying away” or “obviously dramatically say hello to everyone but me”]…, what happens is that people definitely notice how weird you’re being and ask me what’s up.
I have never told anyone in this town what’s actually up, since its none of my business and I don’t actually care, but I wouldn’t even have to think about it ever again if at any time in the past two years you could have figured out how to pleasantly say “Oh, hey [name]” as you walk on by. Maybe pretend I’m the valet who brought your car around or the coworker you only see from a distance at the annual picnic once a year; I find forming an alternate mental image really helps me when I have to run into you.”
The script is kinda mean a little bit on purpose; I know you’ll probably nice it all up anyway, but it wouldn’t be mean if you actually said this. It’s been two fucking years, you haven’t done a single thing wrong or done a single thing to make trouble for him, and he’s the one who is making this absolutely still be A Problem that you have to Deal With. Being quiet and chill didn’t fix it so maybe it’s time to give him the awkward reckoning he’s been dreading all this time. He’ll adapt or he won’t, but I think it’s long past time for you to stop tap-dancing around it or exist as the one who is called to answer, socially speaking, for shit you didn’t do.
Okay, let’s review:
- Disengage from Jane. The situation with her is unfixable.
- Unloading all the details of what happened while you lived there would not disengage from Jane, so that’s why maybe don’t do it (except to Internet Advice Columnists <3).
- Bluntly dispel the rumors about you when they pop up without retaliating or escalating.
- Tell the weird acquaintance guy to act right or fuck off, this has gone on long enough and you don’t owe him shit.
- While you still live there, find the people who don’t dance attendance on Jane, there are a lot of people who like her AND a lot of people who put up with her for the sake of her family or old times, so watch for who walks out of rooms that she walks into and who gets real quiet when she comes up in conversation, look for social events and circles that don’t revolve around her, there be your movie and pub quiz buddies.
- John and the kids can find you if they want, you’ll run into each other now and then, you don’t have to go out of your way about them.
- Move on and be freeeeeeeeeeeeeee! You didn’t do anything wrong and you’ll be better at spotting drama the next time it rides up on you.
- Someday tell the friend who set you up with the living situation the whole truth over a giant bottle of good wine in front of a cozy fire. You’ll know when it’s the right time when Jane has absolutely no power over anything in your life.
- If people in your town read CaptainAwkward.com and it gets messy, here’s your script for Jane: “I was quiet and did my best for you and you were so mean to me, and eventually you got so mean that I wondered why I bothered staying quiet. I didn’t do anything wrong by asking for help to make it stop, if your life is messy enough that it’s recognizable from space, maybe work on that?”
I hope this helped you start to let go of the burden that you could have done more to solve this. You did a lot to be good and kind to her and she deliberately isolated you and some of it worked. Jane’s gonna Jane. You’re gonna you, and you is pretty great!
Here’s a bonus list of dramatic exits in movies if you need inspiration for “oh hey good catching up, can I grab you anything from the bar?” after awkward conversations.
P.S. There’s no way we’re having comments on this mess, but I think you’re all incredibly cute for thinking there might be. ❤ 😉