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Dear Captain,

I (she/her, 32) suppose that this is a question about resetting boundaries. My mom has made a few comments over the last year or two that I’ve never really reached out to or confided in her, and she sounds hurt about this. This is true! For example, in fifth grade my school put on a menstruation talk and I got a “just-in-case” box of pads. I was a late bloomer and didn’t get my period until I was 14, whereupon I dug up this box from my closet. I didn’t tell my mom I’d gotten my period until I needed a new box. This continues today – last year I let her know that I’d ended an 11-year relationship with my boyfriend about three months after it happened, after I’d already ironed out a lot of logistical and emotional issues. She had no idea that we’d been having problems.

I never made a conscious decision to put her on a low-information diet, but I never felt like I could talk about my problems with her. For one thing, for a large part of my childhood she was a single mom trying to work nights and provide for five kids. I felt that I was helping by being “the good one” and being very quiet and self-sufficient.

The bigger thing is that, while I like my mom when she’s sober, she’s also an unpredictable and mean drunk. I remember one family reunion event where she got drunk and started telling other relatives about how her kids (I was standing right there) don’t love her enough and it wasn’t worth it and she regrets having us. Then the next morning everyone pretends that everything is fine and nothing happened and we have pancakes. I honestly have no idea how she would react if I mentioned any of this.

So my questions are: Should I let sleeping dogs lie, or actually try to address this with her at some point and maybe have a closer relationship with her as an adult? Is there a way to test the water without diving in? Also, I moved far away (not a coincidence) and only visit home once or twice a year, so is this a thing to bring up in person (at Christmas, yaaay) or on the phone? Any advice for scripts I can practice ad nauseum in the hopes that I can actually say it out loud?

Thank you!

-Distant Daughter

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Continued from the previous post to give me more time to think and help you rest your scrolling fingers. Click below the jump for: Not automatically taking on new volunteer responsibilities when others pile them on, talking to kids about fatphobia and disordered eating, supporting a friend with an alcohol addiction, and bouncing back when you fail at what other people think is your dream job by finding a better way to tell the story.

Additional content note: I mention pet death (RIP Beadie) in the last answer, because she’s part of my story about leaving a job.

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Hi Captain!

My fiancé (they/them) and I (she/her) recently bought a house. My little sister (she/her) also lives with us. It’s awesome.

We throw parties, where people drink (sometimes a lot – fiancé and sister are college students, I’m a few years older) and hang out. We’re planning on implementing a house rule where people have to agree how much they’re planning to drink when they get to the house, and they’ll be cut off once they reach that limit. None of us really mind having our friends come and hang out and get very drunk, but I especially get upset by the whole “oh I’m only going to drink one or two” *cut three hours ahead; they’re obviously sauced and doing another line of shots*, or the good old “stop me if I’m going to drink too much” “you’ve reached your limit, stop drinking” “no I don’t want to” – mostly because that used to be me, and it’s why I don’t really drink anymore.

Do you have any scripts about how to let people know about this change in house rules? I want people to take it seriously, but also not feel like we’re shaming them. One strategy we’ve considered is presenting it as ‘my fault’ (due to my history) because the people who this is most aimed at are my little sister’s friends, and a couple of my fiancé’s, so maybe that way it would seem a little bit less personal and more of a good guest thing vs. a ‘my friend thinks I have a drinking problem’ thing.

Also, do you have any scripts for then enforcing that rule? I’m pretty comfy being the ‘bad cop’, but I’m less sure how to respond when a firm ‘No’ (and then taking and hiding the bottle) doesn’t work – for a lot of my fiancé’s friends, in the worst case scenario, we’d just kick them out and call a lyft; but some of my sister’s friends don’t live that close so they come down for the weekend and stay on our couch, so when they get drunk and petulant the options are slightly fewer, and tend to be things like ‘call it a night and send everyone home’ which tends to feel bad. We’re hoping that the more explicit boundary agreed upon while sober will nip a lot of that in the bud, but would still like some fall back scripts.

Thanks!

No-Irresponsible-Fun-Allowed

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Hi Captain,

For over a decade, I had a really bad relationship with my sister. She struggled with addiction and suicide ideation and, often, was just plain mean. I enabled her by making sure I was always available to her during her emotional crises and never saying no to anything she wanted. I got a weird sense of superiority from taking care of her, which I realize now, was a really sick source of self-esteem.

Fortunately, our relationship is a lot better now! She’s been sober for nearly two years and has apologized for many of the things she did when she was using. For my part, I apologized for being a condescending goody-good.

I thought things were fine as they were.

Recently, though, she called off her engagement and has started calling and texting me a lot. This is a common pattern. When she’s happy and busy, I don’t hear from her much. That’s fine by me. But, when she’s sad, lonely, or upset, the intensity of her communication ramps way up.

The other day, I asked her if everything was ok – noting that she’s been calling a lot lately. She said everything was fine, she just wants us to be closer. But, this is exactly what I don’t want! I want to enjoy her company when we see each other a few times a year. I want to talk to her maybe once a week. I don’t want to be her best friend or confidante. I’m just not ready for that.

The guilt I feel at not wanting to be close to someone who wants to be close to me is eating me up inside. Does forgiving her mean we have to be good friends? Is it ok to want the best for my sister, admire her good qualities, and still want her to kind of…stay in her own world? Is there any way I can convey this to her without seeming like a monster? Especially, since she’s going through a tough time?

Sister, Not Friend (#1182)

Hi Sister, Not Friend, your letter came in at the same time as some others, I hope nobody minds if we tackle these all together.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a sister who has been bothering me a lot lately. She has depression and a few other minor health issues, she is divorced, on disability. She is very negative and usually only wants to get together to complain about her health, my parents, her kids, or ex husband. She doesn’t have a lot of friends and constantly texts me all day. I would like to put some distance between us because all her issues are stressing me out which is leading to my own adverse health affects and I just don’t have time for them. I have tried to say things in the past but she always says “this is the straw that broke the camels back” or she feels “attacked”. She has always been like this and it’s really starting to bother me. I feel bad saying I need space when she doesn’t have any one else but I’m tired of her drama. I don’t want to cut her out of my life just limit our interactions to once or twice a week. Do you have any advice on how I can achieve this?

Sally (#1183)

Hi Sally, your letter came in at the same time as several others. We’re going to have a group discussion. Read on.

Dear Captain Awkward,

Thank you for the existence of your blog! I love reading your advice and have been slowly trying to implement this into my own relationships.

The problem I have is that I am a very passive, live and let live kind of person, living in a family of opinionated people. My dad loves to rage on about articles he’s read and refuses to acknowledge alternative theories. My mother has an uncanny ability of seeing the world through everyone else’s eyes, and therefore believing she has the authority to cast judgement on their decisions. Loudly.

My sister combines the two and adds another ingredient. Selfishness.  When her friend’s parents were getting divorced, she worried that her friendship with friend would suffer. When her university frienemy announced she was moving in with her boyfriend, to the same county as my sister after graduating, my sister worried that she would be obligated to spend all free time with frienemy, despite living 30 miles apart. My dad once complimented me on my jumper as I sat down to dinner with them. Her immediate response was to cry out: ‘But what about my jumper, dad?’ I bit my tongue so hard it metaphorically started bleeding. Call her out on any of the above, though, she calls me rude and gets angry.

Captain, your scripts and advice have been invaluable in building up my confidence to confront the aspects of our relationship that I’m not happy about, in addition to making everything about her, the way she has targeted me in the past has led to many of my insecurities.

I have put her on an information diet and refuse to engage in arguments. We have barely interacted for a number of months now.

We have recently had some bad news in the family which, I hoped, would start to bring us closer together in a positive way. It has had the effect of her calling me frequently to spill her emotional guts.

I’m dealing with my own fair share of emotions in reaction to the bad news. I don’t feel comfortable enough to share them with my sister whenever she calls, and I’m certainly not about to tell her that my eating disorder has started to resurface, because she will make it into a competition about who is having a worse time. This is one of her patterns and an easy way for her to avoid acknowledging that I have feelings.

I know my own strength and while I know that I can talk to her about family news, I don’t know how to increase the time and energy spent with her knowing that she won’t acknowledge any boundaries I’ve set up. Keeping her on an information diet has helped, but I worry that she’ll try to break past that as our relationship progresses.

I know you can’t choose family, and I want to have a good relationship with my sister, I just don’t know how.

Sincerely,

Struggling Sister (#1184)

Greetings, Struggling Sister! Something’s in the air, right? I hope it helps to know you’re not alone. You’re not alone.

Now that we’re all gathered here together, I think that if improvement is possible in these sibling relationships, there is a common approach that gives all of you the best chance of making that happen.

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Hello Awkward Friends!

Today I’m going to try to knock out as many short questions as I can about the holidays, celebrations, togetherness.

Readers can submit short questions at the designated thread on Patreon (advantage, more than 280 characters) or on Twitter (advantage, free for all!) before noon Chicago time today. Twitter folks, please use the hashtag #awkwardfriday so I can find it easily – my mentions can get overwhelming. I’ll answer as many as I can between noon and 3PM, comments will open when everything is posted.

Also, feel free to condense/recycle something if you’ve already sent it to the inbox, let’s get as much holiday discussion as we can out of our system today!

Some past holiday discussions of note:

Also, would you like some family photos? There is me, well-wrapped in blankets, some extremely asleep kittens (6 months old, more like cattens), Daniel cleaning poor Henrietta when she had to wear her cone, post-spaying, and Mr. Awkward at Uncle Julio’s, where, thanks to y’all, we took him and all the friends who visited him while he was in the hospital for dinner last week.

daniel licking hen Captain Awkward in blankets Daniel and Henrietta sleeping Jeremy at Uncle Julio's

Questions are in. Let’s begin.

Q1: Hi Captain,

I hate the holidays. My mom passed away close to Thanksgiving in 2015, her side of the family is very small (one grandmother and one aunt, that’s it); my dad, who I’m low contact with, has 24+ relatives in the “immediate” family. My fiancé has no blood family that he’s in contact with; his best friend’s family is his “second family” and I know I’m “welcome” but I’ve had some disagreements with the matriarch and oldest son so I don’t want to go there. All this leaves me feeling pretty isolated, and I just want to fast forward through all of it and come out in spring when I don’t feel like I’m drowning. What can I do to just get people to leave me alone until after the New Year, when my seasonal depression/grief/feeling of being completely isolated ends?

A1: Hi there! What if I told you that you’re allowed to hate the winter holiday season and you’re allowed to spend the next month or so however you want? What if I told you that it’s okay to be sad, to feel zero holiday cheer, and to participate in literally none of it?

With the caveat that you probably won’t get people to stop wishing you happy holidays or inviting you to their celebrations, (invitations are not commands and there’s no good way to pre-empt people out of doing something they think is nice), you can absolutely react to all greeting and invitations with “Thanks so much for thinking of me, but no thank you. I’m planning to keep things very quiet this year/I’m really looking forward to some quiet time. Let’s catch up in the New Year!” 

You don’t have to explain or elaborate (you can if you want to, “I’m still grieving for my mom and I just need to bow out of celebrating until I feel ready,” but you don’t have to). It’s okay to let your fiancé run interference with his family, too.

Be very gentle and nice to yourself.

Q2: Tips for being disabled during the holidays? Somedays I just can’t get in the spirit of things either because I’m too sad or because my pain is too bad to leave the house, and people get really weird about it.

A2: Look at your calendar, budget your energies according to what you know you can enthusiastically and realistically do, pace yourself, build in lots of downtime, be really kind and gentle to yourself.

Connect with the parts of it you really connect with. If you are religious, find a way to pray and observe seasonal rituals that you can do. If there are family members or friends you really want to celebrate with, save up your spoons to make visits with them count. If the best part is the music or the decorations or the food, find a way to treat yourself a little.

With people who want you to do more than you can take on, try scripts like “Thanks for thinking of me, but I won’t be able to make it” or “Cool, but I’m keeping things really quiet this year” or “I wish I could join you for that but my body has other plans” or “Yes, I’m sad I won’t make it, too!” and let people be weird if they’re gonna be weird. You didn’t cause the weirdness. This also seems to be a good time to revisit your family’s traditions and see if there are things that could make stuff more accessible to you, like:

  • “I know we always go to X on Christmas Eve, but could I persuade you to do Y instead? That’s so much easier for me to get to.”
  • “I want to come but I won’t be able to drive home afterwards, could I get a ride or is there an extra bed where I could stay?”
  • “I can’t come out, but I’d love it if you brought me a piece of pie afterward. Can you stop by?”

You can’t avoid sad feelings by planning for them ahead of time, but you can make peace with your own needs and boundaries and do your best to take care of yourself.

Q3: Ack, I’m pretty sure the answer to mine is in the comments section somewhere. . . I’m looking for chipper scripts to shut down/side-step family members’ feelings about me spending Thanksgiving and Christmas alone.

A3: Noticing a trend here! With repetition comes mastery, right?

I’ve spent Christmas alone (except for smol cat) more than once as an adult, and each time, not gonna lie, IT WAS GLORIOUS. I’ve been the only person besides the driver on a Brown Line CTA train. I’ve stopped for a drink at a country & western dive bar and listened to a Willie Nelson marathon on the jukebox. I’ve made myself a special meal, where everything on the plate is my favorite food and all the leftovers are miiiiiiiiiiine. I’ve gone to the movies by myself. I’ve caught up on laundry. I’ve re-read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (a personal Christmas Eve tradition going back to childhood). Especially during the bustle of a busy semester and when I lived with roommates, those quiet reflective days alone were like a balm to the soul.

Try “I’m really looking forward to a quiet celebration!” and let people’s feelings be whatever they are. Try “I’ll miss you and be thinking of you, of course, but I’m really looking forward to a quiet celebration.” Don’t explain or justify – if your relatives don’t understand the solitary joy of a quiet holiday, you don’t have to convince them or make them feel differently about it.

Q4: My aunt. MY AUNT. She has a long and ever-increasing history of making Islamophobic and racist remarks (but that kind of low-key racist that can be excused as ‘oh, just doesn’t know any better’, which is SUCH a nonsense excuse). My father just told me over lunch that he and my mother have invited her to Christmas dinner. On one hand: I understand that this is the only relative my mother talks to, and that she would otherwise spend Christmas alone, and that mom feels guilty. On the other hand, my mother has a great history of excusing problematic behavior in order to keep the peace and ‘not ruin dinner’, and I have zero intention of indulging racist commentary about headscarves, and significantly less than zero intention of letting my kids see me letting racist and Islamophobic commentary slide (it’s unacceptable AND a horrible example to set. 2 reasons!). What’s a good script for telling my mom in advance that I’m willing to behave if she’s civil, but that I’m 100% willing to engage in an argument, and am 100% willing to pack up the kids and go home if needed, in a way that’s not… quite… that confrontational?

A4: RACIST. COMMENTS. RUIN. DINNER. Not people pushing back against them.

What if you tried being pretty up front about it ahead of time? “Mom, Dad, I’m really looking forward to seeing you this year. I hope you’ll help me out and let Aunt know beforehand to keep her racist comments to herself, I’m in no mood to listen to it and I won’t have that kind of talk around my kids. I’d hate to have to go home.” 

“Oh, she just doesn’t know better”  – “Hrmmmm, well, it’s time she figured it out, and if you don’t talk to her about it before dinner, I’ma have to do it AT dinner, and that doesn’t sound fun for anyone.” 

You don’t have to go to this dinner, at all, and you can use that –“I don’t wanna fight with Aunt, but if it’s a choice between dreading/ white-knuckling through one of her outbursts and being treated like I’m the problem or staying home with the kids in our jammies, I guess we’ll just have to see…maybe it’s better if we just skip it this year and you an Aunt can catch up without worrying about us!”

Let’s be real: There’s no fixing Aunt, there’s no overnight fixing of a longstanding family dynamic, there is no escaping conflict, there is no amount of being reasonable and cool and diplomatic ahead of time that will stop this from becoming a train wreck, but you can be clear with your own boundaries and you can ask your Mom & Dad to be good hosts to you. Your mom has known her sister her whole life, she can make one phone call along the lines of  “Look, I’m really excited to see you Thursday, but just wanna remind you there’s no politics talk at my table – if you make ignorant remarks again and chase off the grandkids, I’m not gonna be pleased.” Aunt can feel any way she wants about it, she can grumble all she wants, as long as she behaves herself.

Q4a: Dear Captain,

I noticed that my dad, your stereotypical middle-aged, cis, straight white guy has a habit of reprimanding others in a patronizing and belittling way. For example, the other day during lunch with my grandma, she said something and he shut her down by gesturing towards his/her mouth and saying – as if she was 4 yo and misbehaving – that he’s “sure you remember it’s not polite to talk while you have food in your mouth”. (Btw, you could completely understand her. She had a little food in her mouth but pushed it to the side, as you do when talking before completely swallowing everything.) It’s less that he wants to be helpful and remind people of etiquette and more some kind of power-thing. He does similar things to me (and other women, but rarely any men, if at all). Any scripts for constructive ways of saying “Dude, we’re all adults, I’m sure you’re happy I’m visiting and want it to stay that way?”. I’m having a hard time coming up with any because it’s been like that since I was little when I used to freeze and later I just didn’t visit. If there’s a good resource/guide on how to deal with stuff like that, please let me know. Thanks!

A4a: Great question! I sorta covered this in the Buzzfeed post from a couple years back:

. “Is that what you’re wearing?”

After a grueling and expensive journey where your fellow airline passengers definitely probably created entire new strains of the flu as they coughed directly into your open mouth, you arrive at your ancestral home. Before you can even finish hugging everyone and pour a glass of eggnog, your ancestors descend to dissect your appearance and life choices: "I liked your old glasses better," or "That coat looks like you slept in it," or the always delightful "Would it kill you to shave/put some lipstick on/put on a hat/take off your hat?" Comments like this used to take me straight back to feeling (and acting) like a surly teenager. Once I realized that it was a ritual, like a pack of wolves welcoming a pack member back with butt-sniffing and a wrestling match, it got easier. It's never a fun ritual, but the comments didn't mean "you suck" so much as "you belong to us but you don't quite match what I remember" in the language of repressed New England people who are terrible at feelings.

After a grueling and expensive journey where your fellow airline passengers definitely probably created entire new strains of the flu as they coughed directly into your open mouth, you arrive at your ancestral home. Before you can even finish hugging everyone and pour a glass of eggnog, your ancestors descend to dissect your appearance and life choices: “I liked your old glasses better,” or “That coat looks like you slept in it,” or the always delightful “Would it kill you to shave/put some lipstick on/put on a hat/take off your hat?”

Comments like this used to take me straight back to feeling (and acting) like a surly teenager. Once I realized that it was a ritual, like a pack of wolves welcoming a pack member back with butt-sniffing and a wrestling match, it got easier. It’s never a fun ritual, but the comments didn’t mean “you suck” so much as “you belong to us but you don’t quite match what I remember” in the language of repressed New England people who are terrible at feelings.

The quickest and easiest way through a random and unsolicited critique is to respond briefly and as neutrally as you can:

• “Huh.”

• “Nice to see you, too.”

• “Thanks for your opinion, I’ll think about it.” (It’s true, I did think about their opinion for a few seconds before continuing not to care.)

• “I did sleep in this coat; airport floors are cold.”

If someone really is crossing a line and hurting your feelings, or won’t stop saying mean stuff, try this:

• “Wow.” Use a strong, pointed tone and follow it with a really long, awkward pause.

• “Really?”

• “I’m confused. What is it that you want me to feel or do when you say something like that?”

If the conversation devolves from there into how sensitive you are and how you can’t take a “joke,” strongly consider going back to the airport and taking the next flight out. Somewhere warm, somewhere people aren’t jerks to you.

You’re not gonna change your dad, or get him to understand that this is sexist and rude, but you aren’t a little kid anymore and you are absolutely allowed to “Cool story, bro” him and give zero attention to the content of his critiques. “What a weird thing to say, Dad. Sorry, Grandma, we interrupted you. What were you saying, again?” 

Q4b: Hi Captain, could you give me a mantra to repeat to myself when my mom makes unnecessary, critical comments over Thanksgiving? Past experience has taught me to expect maybe five unpleasant, judgy comments over stupid little things over the course of a two or three day visit, and has taught me that ignoring them is much, much more effective than talking to her about them. Thanks!

A4b. I’m tacking this onto the above – It’s okay to say “Hahaha thanks for the constant feedback, Mom, it never gets annoying” to her out loud or inside your head.

Q5: Hi Captain! I (they/them) am a first year student in an intense graduate program. Due to some mental health stuff, there’s a good chance I will have to repeat this semester but still be able to graduate on time. I am paying for this on my own but my family has a lot of bad opinions. I find out Tuesday whether I have to rearrange my schedule and my family keeps asking. I would like to have a nice Thanksgiving with my cousin and friends without my mom screaming over the phone (I live several states away). Do you have any suggestions for ways to sidestep the conversation until after the holiday? Is this even a fair thing to do? Thank you so much for all of your help!! 

A5: You are allowed to put your family on a total information diet around the topic of grad school, through the holiday and beyond. “Not sure yet, thanks for asking!” or “Still working it out, but my research is so interesting, let me tell you about it!” or “I’m pretty sure we’ll find a good solution, thanks!” + a subject change, or “Mom, I’m trying to enjoy the holiday, I don’t have any answers for you and I’m getting tired of explaining & being yelled at. I’m gonna hang up now and try to de-stress.” Your mom will probably not take it well, but she can’t really force you to do anything and it’s okay to let her wear herself out. Also, since you mention “mom screaming over the phone,” you might want to put your mom on a communication schedule and stick to it.

Hope everything gets back on track for you soon!

Q6: Hi Captain! It’s the first time my husband and I are hosting both sets of parents on Christmas day. My in-laws love to buy vast quantities of gifts (especially now there are our 2 children, their grandchildren, in play). My parents are more likely to buy 1 or 2 gifts per person. My Mum has a tendency to put her foot in her mouth, or less generously, she often says hurtful and patronising things, especially when other people’s ways of thinking do not match her own. Should I give her a heads up about the number of presents that are likely to be brought by my in-laws? I feel if she is forewarned she may be less likely to blurt out something disdainful about my in-laws’ generosity. Or should I just stop overthinking it and leave well alone?

A6: If you want to, it’s not weird to say “Oh yeah, Husband’s family does presents a little differently than we do, it can be kind of overwhelming if you’re not prepared for it” to your mom before the gathering, but I think your last question is a good one: What’s the worst thing that could happen if your mom blurts out something rude in the moment vs. how much grief are you buying yourself ahead of time by bringing it up now? “Aw, Grandma says funny things sometimes! Who wants pie?” is a survivable situation.

Q7: This is related to but not precisely covered by the “Got Any Great Holiday Plans With Family?” question. I love Christmas. My family loves Christmas. It’s always been a big family get-together/holiday. Here’s the catch: I live at least 2000 miles and an international border away from my family of origin, all of whom expect me to do all of the work of staying in touch. I’ve lived in my new country for nine years now, and the only one who made it to my wedding was my mother and the only one who has visited since then…is also my mother.

I realize travel is expensive, that’s why I haven’t made it home in several years. But none of the rest of my family (father, stepmother, two siblings, two grown nieces, and their partners and children) have even *tried*. And so I’ve given myself permission to stop trying. I refuse to keep putting all the effort in and getting none of it back. But It’s hard, and it makes me more sad at the holidays than I’d prefer to be. I don’t want to pretend everything’s fine, but I also don’t want to harsh anyone else’s holidays and I’m struggling to figure out how to balance those two desires. So I guess I just need help figuring out how to hold my sadness and ask for help from my local loved-ones without dwelling on it and harshing everyone else’s holidays.

A7: I don’t have answers really, more sympathy/commiseration. It’s okay to be sad that you can’t see your family this year, you’re not ruining others holidays by having feelings.

As for future celebrations, can you ask your family for financial help so you can travel more reliably, like, “It’s cheaper for me & spouse to come there than it is for all of you to come here, so as my holiday present can the family make a joint travel fund so I don’t have to miss every Christmas? I can’t always swing it on my own.” That specific thing might not be workable, but I know it came up during my own wedding planning, where my mom was grumbling about the cost of extended family having to buy plane tix to Chicago and I was like “Cool, every time I’ve seen these people since 1992 it’s because I bought a plane ticket, I don’t feel bad asking them to do it one time and if they miss it they miss it.” There is an idea that because you’re the one who chose to go away, it’s on you to bear all the costs from now on, and maybe you can start to push back on that gently. Since your mom is the one who still makes the effort and you’re close to her, can you be really frank with her about how you feel?

Q8: Hi Captain, I hope it’s not too late to submit. My dad is a recovering alcoholic and has recently relapsed. I checked him into a recovery facility last night. He thinks if he gets through the withdrawal symptoms, here won’t need any more treatment. The family disagrees, but since it was a voluntary check in, he can check himself out when he wants. Before all this, he planned a Thanksgiving getaway for our family (including my brother and his family and my mom, though they’ve been divorced for years). I want to cancel the trip, to emphasize that recovery is the priority and he’s an important part of the family and the trip shouldn’t happen without him. My brother thinks we should go and let this be a natural consequence of his drinking again. Captain, I’m not asking for a solution, that’s too big. I am hoping you and the commenters can share some wisdom or ask some of your important probing questions so we can come to a decision. Thank you.

A8: If your family would benefit from some time away together, even if some of it is sad time, it’s okay to go on the trip. If you don’t feel up to the trip or think it’s right to go on the trip, it’s okay to not go on the trip. Your dad is where he needs to be and hopefully there will be a good outcome. It’s okay to take care of yourself/yourselves.

As for a framework: Canceling the trip vs. going on the trip isn’t going to teach your dad any lessons. The consequences or intended message won’t really reach him. It’s okay to ask him his opinion about the trip and tell him yours- “We hate to go without you, but we want to be all together and have a change of scene, and nothing’s refundable anyway” vs. “We’re gonna cancel and do it right when we can do it with you”  – but honestly, neither path will really be a factor in his recovery or relapse. Part of having a loved one with an addiction problem is learning to disengage from magical thinking re: “There’s something I can personally do that will make him stop drinking” and “That thing I did or didn’t do is what caused him to drink.” It’s the illness, not you. It’s his illness, not you. This is one of the hardest lessons in the world and I’m so sorry that it’s the one your family’s got right now.

Q9: Hi Captain,

I’m looking for ways to keep my cool during the holiday season. I live with my parents which means that just walking away from drama is not really a thing I can do. My entire family has different political beliefs from my own which causes great tension and then my mom always bites off more than she can chew around the holidays and takes the stress out on everyone else. On top of all of that I discovered last week that my immediate family has kept a group Facebook chat for months if not years where they can make fun of people who share my political ideologies in general and occasionally me in particular so I’m REALLY not happy with any of them and even though I confronted them about the group chat they think everything is fine. I know there is going to be way too much snapping and stress in my home environment which is guaranteed to make me stressed and snappish even if I don’t have any reasons on my own to be that way. I can hide in my room a lot but when I am forced to be around everyone for the Holiday meals and such I would like a plan so that I don’t just start screaming at people.

A9: Uggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhh to all of this. There’s no fixing the situation, right? This is about enduring.

Operation: Be Out As Much As Possible

  • Got local friends who you can hang out with as much as possible?
  • Except maybe on the actual holiday when things tend to be closed, is there a way for you to be at the public library/coffee shop/the public pool? Do you enjoy walks/runs/bike rides? What free local events are going on, and can you haunt literally all of them: poetry readings, gallery shows, choir concerts. Food bank need volunteers? Here you are, ready to help! “Sorry, can’t chat, got to get to the annual poinsettia judging contest.” 
  • Is it possible to a) help your mom with holiday workload by b) being the person who runs errands and is out of the house as much as possible?
  • I realize not everyone can do this – disability, access to car/driving/energy levels – but if you can, be the person who runs out for milk/batteries/wrapping paper/to drop stuff off at the post office.

Operation: Hide In Room Except For Meals

  • Got online friends you can vent to/text with as much as possible?
  • Got enough books/shows to binge/comics/games/coloring books to last you?
  • Got comfy pants?
  • Got some snacks that don’t make a mess?
  • Ready to go to bed early and sleep late?
  • Ready to just give off an aura of being really tired/antisocial? And when people are like “oh look, it’s the ghost, we thought you were never coming down!” say “yep, that’s me!” and then go back to your room.

Operation: Focus On The People Who Suck The Least 

At mealtimes, sit down and spend time with people you actually like (Hint: often that’s little kids, if any are around). Let the other people be background noise. They know what you think about the events of the day, you know what they think, you’re allowed to be very bored by it all and not engage if they try to pick arguments with you.

That’s what I got. It’s a “grit your teeth and get through it, hopefully you’ll at least read some good books” situation. You’re not alone.

Q10: My family makes buying gifts for me into a lot of work/guilt. Saying “you’re so nice but I don’t need anything” doesn’t take. I’ve sent wishlists, charities, still this morning was told “you are the hardest person to spend money on and always have been.” Help?

A10: I tend to respond to attempts to characterize me with agreement instead of the expected argument, like “You have no sense of humor!” gets a “I guess not!” So, what if “You are the hardest person to spend money on and always have been!” gets “I guess I must be! I’ve already told you I don’t need or want anything, so give me a present at your own risk, I guess!” 

Q11: How to tell your mother you don’t want to go home for Christmas, not because of any drama, but because of the life admin involved? 

A11: Sometimes works better to phrase it with what you will be doing – “I’ll be staying put this year, I can’t travel right now.” 

Q12: Is it appropriate to ask for a gift that is what the person does for a living? (when they have first asked you what you want for Christmas) 

A12: I lean toward “Inappropriate!!!!!!!!” but obviously context varies wildly depending on what they do for a living and what your relationship is. If you think it might be something they’d be okay with, like, they’ve offered in the past or mentioned doing whatever as a gift for other people, you can build the question of appropriateness into the question – “Hey, you wanted to know what I want for Christmas this year. Is it okay to ask for _______? Please tell me if that’s out of bounds!” 

I think a lot of my “inappropriate!” reaction comes from how many stories I hear about people vastly underestimating how much time and effort is at stake when they ask their friends & family for freebies. It’s not just the time or $ value of the gift, it’s the extra gut punch of “You really have NO IDEA what I do and NO RESPECT for it, do you.” So tread carefully.

Q13: Fiancé’s parents divorcing. I think dad’s creepy (mix vague allegations re: others, vibe). Planned T-day w/ them before divorce progressed. Now dad’s hosting, w/ minor celebrating w/ mom. Can I/how do I avoid T-day w/ dad and still get the parts w/ mom?

A13: Well, their plans changed (in a big way), so can yours!

I think you should be honest with your fiancé, first of all – “I don’t want to go to your Dad’s. I’d rather just go to your mom’s.” “I’m not comfortable around your Dad, I don’t want to go there.” 

The key is, his dad is still his parent, and this sounds like a really messy time, so give him space to still go himself if he wants to, like,“If you want to go to your Dad’s solo, I totally understand, why don’t you do that and then I’ll catch up with you when it’s time to go to your Mom’s.” And you can straight up say – “You can give your Dad whatever excuse you feel comfortable with.Tell him my plans changed, tell him I’m not feeling well, tell him whatever. I find him creepy, but you don’t have to have that fight with him on my behalf right this second. He’s your dad and you’re the boss of what relationship you want to have with him.” 

There’s no comfortable way to manage this (creepy vibes and allegations make things uncomfortable, divorce is uncomfortable) so be honest and stick to what you feel safe doing.

Q14: I’m a die-hard Potterhead who is also disgusted by Johnny Depp as a person + extremely disappointed in JK Rowling for defending him. The activist side of me says to boycott the new Fantastic Beasts movie, but the Gryffindor fangirl wants to go. Thoughts? #awkwardfriday

A14: I don’t tell people what to watch or not watch.

“Consumption is not the same as activism” (credit to Trudy, of Cinemacked, who, now that I’ve cited her, please do not @ her with fandom opinions, she doesn’t care and she gets more than enough traffic from people who want to argue).

Boycotts are coordinated, organized, ongoing, collective actions of many people toward a common goal (not one person forgoing a ticket to something). Knowing that the powers that be won’t notice, will you notice enough that it will trouble you? That’s your choice.

I watch & enjoy plenty of problematic stuff made by problematic people in a problematic world, and I don’t even pretend to have a consistent framework about this. There are certain artists and artworks where I can shove the bad stuff down in favor of what I enjoy about it, and certain ones I can’t. I want to make a Hollywood and media landscape where we don’t have to keep looking at and making excuses for abusers and misogynists on screen, but I’m also not willing to personally undertake the cultural asceticism that “If you enjoy something that a bad person worked on, you are proving that you don’t care about the bad thing they did, in fact, YOU THINK THE BAD THING THEY DID IS ACTUALLY GOOD” requires. That’s not my ethical mindset and I won’t pretend it is. It’s okay if it’s yours, I admire it, even, but I won’t argue about it with you. Is that a function of my privilege? Yep. Am I gonna watch Teh Thronegames to the last ridiculous dragon-y frame with the last hair extension blowing in the wind, drunk, on Commander Logic’s couch? Also yes.

Sorry to leave you with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but like, go if you want to, don’t go if you don’t want to. In my opinion, you’re not just as bad as Johnny Depp, you’re not personally enabling him, you’re not trying to override other people’s ethical choices about whether they see the film.

That’s all for today! Comments are open, though be warned: If you try to make me moderate “detailed Harry Potter fandom wangst,” I’ll burn the thread to the ground. Happy holidays!

Dear Captain,

My dad was a pretty hands-off parent with me and my sister, until my mom died about a decade ago. I was just out of college, but my sister was entering middle school, so he suddenly became a single parent of a teenage girl. He pulled through, but he was still pretty hands off. Aside from some anger issues and weird body-shaming stuff that she and I have learned to tune out, he’s not a “bad” dad–we love him, we just minimize time with him because of the anger issues and body-shaming.

The specific problem is his girlfriend–also not a “bad” girlfriend! I want him to be happy! I just don’t want to spend time with her. I’m sure my sister and I dislike her to some degree because she’s not our mom, I’ve addressed that in therapy and I’ve talked to my sister about it. But we also dislike her for some very non-grief reasons. She’s a Trump supporter, she behaves like a teenager (she once picked a fight with our dad because he didn’t ‘like’ her Facebook posts fast enough [these are both adults with fully grown children]), she regularly gets black-out drunk, they break up and get back together all the time, and when they’re together they’re constantly fighting. None of these things would really be problems if she weren’t insistent on “being a part of the family.” My dad has told her repeatedly (according to him) that he doesn’t want to get remarried, but she keeps pushing for it. This is the root of most of their breakups.

My sister and I have been very upfront about that fact that we prefer not to spend time with her. We will when absolutely necessary, such as at my wedding, and of course we’ll be polite. When our dad suggests events with her, I decline if at all possible. My dad conflates our not wanting to spend time with her with us “being mean,” and this frequently ends in us being yelled at. Can you help me come up with ways to establish this boundary, preferably without being yelled at? I’m currently leaning towards seeing him even less, but he is my only parent, and my husband and I are thinking of starting a family in the relatively near future, and I think I’d like him to be in my life for that.

Thanks for your help!
Not an Orphan Yet

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