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“Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to give this book to my mother. To present it to her as a precious gift over a meal that I’ve cooked for her. To say: Here is everything that keeps us from really talking. Here is my heart. Here are my words. I wrote this for you.” – Michele Filgate, Introduction, What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence

I just devoured this essay collection curated by the wonderful  Michele Filgate (whose title-essay about her mother’s refusal to believe her about childhood sexual assault at the hands of her stepfather is in the book) and it’s really good. There are love and appreciation stories aplenty, though many essays cover seriously harrowing ground around mental illness, addiction, emotional abuse, and other kinds of abuse without holding back. It’s not a light read, is what I am saying.

I feel like almost every piece in the book maps to a letter that someone has sent to my inbox about how to say the unsayable thing, how to know when it’s time to let go, how to tell your own truth, how to dig into the past without letting it define you, how to set boundaries, how to see a parent as a separate person who existed before you, how to honor the gifts our mothers give us and be honest about the poisoned apples they sometimes pass on. I kept highlighting as I went because I knew that some Letter Writer somewhere needed to see that sentence, see themselves on that page. “Mother Tongue,” Carmen Maria Machado‘s chapter about estrangement is one of the best things about that topic I’ve read. Some quotes from that essay:

“Whenever I saw her, she found some way to let me know that despite my accomplishments, I was failing. ‘You need to learn to make better choices,’ she told me, though what choices they were, she never specified. Besides, all I could hear was, ‘I wish I’d made better choices.’ And I couldn’t help her with that.”

“A reader might think that this is, obviously, a kind of misplaced parental anxiety and love. And they might be right. But I felt like I was losing my mind. There was no trust, no affection, no listening, just ignorant micromanagement. It felt like I was existing in a parallel universe, where everything I’d just done with my life, everything I was doing with my life, hadn’t made any difference at all. I was a kid again, useless. Nothing was mine–not my time, not my schedule, not my choices.”

I’ll stop before I accidentally re-publish the whole thing. If you spent Mother’s Day curled up in a ball because of a difficult relationship and/or if you have a letter hanging out in my queue about this topic, this might be a healing book for you. ❤

I’m working on a book proposal for a collection of essays, so I’m on a tear of reading essay collections of late. Here are some other collections I couldn’t put down:

  • Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which is an essay collection about race and politics and identity in America AND a memoir about family and love and being from a particular place in the Midwest AND a chronicle of how the music we love carries our dreams and tells our stories, how the music brings us back to particular moment in time, how it helps us remember and see. It’s a fucking stunner.
  • Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel which is, among many other things, such a love letter to the teachers who taught him to write. Chee has an essay in the What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About collection as well.
  • JoAnn Beard’s The Boys Of My Youth (I discovered her work through the outstanding 1996 essay The Fourth State of Matter which, if you are unfamiliar, could use a content note for everything from “school shooting/gun violence” to “dying pet” but it’s one of those pieces that says EVERYTHING and never lets go).

No comments, as I don’t really like debating about the books I read in my free time, I like what I like and you like what you like, but since people always want to know what I’m reading, here’s some of what I’m reading. I hope you’re reading things that speak to you!

Finally, I just got an advance copy of Jessica Pan’s “Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want To Come: One Introvert’s Year Of Saying Yes” in the mail, I’ll update here when I’m done since I think “What would happen if a shy introvert lived like a gregarious extrovert for one year?” is a question that lots of us might like to see answered, if only vicariously and from a very safe distance.

Dear Captain,

About a year ago I was able to save just enough money to say, “F@&$ you!” to a really depressing living situation and moved cross-USA into my mom’s new house in the very expensive area near where I grew up. I’m lucky that my mom and I are fairly compatible personality-wise (and that my younger siblings are as well; the one I get along with best also lives here) and she doesn’t want me to pay her rent. After a few months of depression, followed by temp work, followed by getting into a great volunteer gig, a great part-time job, and re-entering community college to change careers (from the arts to a very applied science, which is un-coincidentally not viewed as prestigious or intellectual unlike my previous field), I’m finally starting to feel like I’m getting back on my feet emotionally and financially.

The problem is, my room is still crowded with unpacked boxes and is not very clean (I have pets which are creating messes I am slow to clean up). We bought paint and furniture months ago but I’ve been too busy and overwhelmed to put my room together and so I’m living out of laundry bags. I know this situation is untenable and unpleasant (for me) but I do try to keep the worst of the mess to my own room and to keep up with my pets’ needs. (UfYH has helped with that and is helping me keep the worst of the mess down.)

But I think my mom has been going in my space (expressly against my permission) and she keeps giving me bullshit ultimatums disguised as “help”.
Example: Mom non-sequiturs: “This weekend we are *going* to move your desk into the dining room so you can unpack.”
Me: “I don’t want to move my desk (because I have other more important things to do like laundry for work and eking out a little self-care and also I use my desk and also where TF did that come from?)”
Mom: “But you *can’t* live like this!”

Captain, I know it’s not great, but it isn’t a pigsty and I am already barely keeping up with my new responsibilities and I just don’t have the energy to do polishing touches on my room. There are too many steps to take before I am even close to that. My mom talks to me like an incompetent child whenever it comes to cleaning (or calling out sick from work!) and rags on me whenever I try to talk about the volunteer work I’m doing in my new field. She has *suggesti-told* me to quit whenever I say I’m tired (because it’s physical, outdoor work), and it makes me so, so angry. How can I tell her my priorities are different from hers and how can I express my feelings without her complaining that I’m just bad at managing my life? (I’ve been trying to keep her on an information diet because she’s been so critical but it’s backfired because now she thinks I have “sleep issues.” Which she just *told* me to see a doctor for, like that’s so easy or even the problem. I snapped back that my health is none of her business. Have I mentioned that I’m fat, queer, and happily single? I.e., failing at traditional womanhood?) I’m tired and overwhelmed because I’m still not out of my depression, but volunteering and working is helping, and if my room stays a mess for the next year it will still have been worth it for me! I know it’s her house but it is *my* room and *my* stuff she complains about.

I think part of the problem is that my new career is lower-status than what I originally went to school for (and declined to get an expensive Master’s for). I have heard her dismiss my work in conversations with family like she thinks it’s some sort of phase. Captain, I am in my thirties, I know I’m making good, sensible decisions for my future. I am “behind” my peers because I decided to start over, not because I’m incompetent. My life trajectory is different because I am different. I feel like my otherwise-lovely, supportive mother sees my room as visible evidence that I am a failure at adulting.

Thanks for any kind of scripts/assistance/creating this vaguely friendly void of an email account to scream my frustration into!

Darling daughter is doing just fine. (She/her)

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Dear Captain Awkward,

Short Version: I (she/her) have a friend (she/her) who is irrationally jealous of her boyfriend, and it’s driving all our friends apart. I don’t know whether to try help her, or just to distance myself from our friendship.

Longer explanation: She and I have now been friends for about five years, including during grad school. Overall, she can be a kind, thoughtful, and generous person. However, when it comes to her boyfriend of one year, she transforms into someone I don’t even recognize. Based on what she has said in the past, her relationship is stable and he has never given her cause to doubt his fidelity.

But recently, whenever he talks to another woman, even casual chat at a party, she becomes incredibly jealous. She has made scenes, calling women out in front of everyone, or sending messages that say “stay away from my boyfriend, bitch.” She insists that all the women in the friend group (even married, much younger, much older, etc.) want her boyfriend. I think I’ve escaped her jealousy only because I’m gay. Sometimes after one of her scenes, she apologizes and tries to smooth things over, but more often she remains convinced that someone is a “bitch” and expects everyone to agree with her. But everyone does NOT agree with her, and people are starting to distance themselves.

I’d like to remain friends, but I’m starting to seriously rethink the relationship. I believe that a lot of this is coming from her anxiety/depression, but I can’t stand to hear her reduce all these lovely, smart, funny women to “scheming bitches,” and I can’t let her believe that I’m on her side in this. Nobody else actually wants her boyfriend! I know if I confront her, she might get really angry with me, too, and I don’t do conflict well. We all work in a similar niche field (science-related), so I’d like to somehow maintain friendly relationships with all these people, if it’s even possible now. What do I do?

Thank you!

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Hi Captain Awkward!

I came out to my parents about 3 years ago, when I was still living with them before moving abroad to start my PhD. They were horrible – and it made the next 6 months of my stay a traumatizing experience, to say the least. I think you could describe my parents as controlling, and when I came out there was a lot of ‘we HATE all the career choices you’ve made, but we had the goodness to tolerate them, and now this!’ Anyway. Moved out, moved countries, got a fuckload of therapy, and started the process of healing.

I told my mother (via a text) that I was moving in with my girlfriend and she freaked out. She is “devastated”, and my father, with whom I have not had an actual conversation since my coming out (made summer visits home real fun, if you can believe it), is “furious, and wants to disown you”. I… am not sure how to cope with this? The worst part is that I have a ticket home to visit them for nearly a month, in three weeks. Captain, I’m not sure I want to visit them (for three whole weeks!) after this terrific display of parenting. At the same time, I’m pretty sure that not visiting them will be taken as this huge display of disrespect and an indication that I *want* to be estranged from them. So the options are to either stay away for my own peace of mind and be a bad daughter, possibly irrevocably so, or to grit my teeth and spend 3 weeks at home enduring silent disapproval at best and emotionally abusive confrontations at worst.

Like I said, I don’t have a relationship with my father. My mother is the one I speak to on the phone and text with. I told her “I’m sad and disappointed that you feel this way about my moving in with my girlfriend. I don’t feel safe coming back to visit you, and I don’t think you’d feel comfortable either.” She replied and the preview contains another allusion to my disappointing career (for the record, worked at a non-profit, doing a PhD now, only a failure insofar as “not earning hundreds of thousands as a corporate lawyer” is a failure) and… I haven’t seen the rest of it because I get avoidant when I’m anxious. Do you have any scripts for like… how to respond and how to navigate what may potentially be a long, torturous process of becoming (formally) (even more) estranged from my parents?

Best,
Bad Kid

P.S. My pronouns are she/her!

P.S. Just wanted to give a heads-up that you’re almost definitely going to recommend therapy, which I know is a big part of the answer! The most recent therapist I had didn’t really work for me, and since I’m moving in 2 weeks, I might not have a huge amount of time / resources to devote to finding a new therapist.

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It’s time to answer the things people typed into search engines as if they are questions.

Here is a seasonal jam by The Avett Brothers:

Lyrics are here.

1 “I can’t stand going to my friend’s house because she smokes inside.”

Legit! I have a very hard time with smoke (asthma trigger), the same way cat-allergic friends have a hard time hanging out in the kitten palace. Sometimes it’s possible to hang out for a little while at my lovely smoker-friends’ places with the aid of my inhaler (used both pre-emptively and refreshed periodically), sometimes it’s not. Sometimes my friends can hang out at my place for a little while with the help of Zyrtec, sometimes they can’t, and/or we need to cut the visit short. Nobody holds it against anyone (we all get to set our own risk tolerance, especially when it comes to breathing, and we all get to make our homes primarily serve ourselves). It’s okay to invite the friend out and generally try to meet in places other than her home.


2 “My sister has changed so much I don’t even know her anymore.”

What if you could let go of who she used to be, or how you imagined she was?

Pretend you just met her. Look at her like a friendly stranger might, someone without any baggage or history where she’s concerned. Try to spend some enjoyable time with her, find out what she’s interested in now, find out what you might have in common now.

Look for reasons to enjoy her company, be proud of her, look for things to be curious about and praise. If she’s unkind to you, or just an asshole, that’s different, obviously, but what if you started from a place of kindness and curiosity?

Sometimes I wish we could all do this with all of our family members.

3 “Tidying Up hard to understand her accent

.”

As someone who has studied multiple languages and taught ESL to kids and adults, I have recommendations, though I should say up front that these suggestions require the ability to see the screen and read and I’m not sure what to recommend for people with visual impairments.

If you want to watch a TV show and you have trouble parsing the performer’s accent, try this:

  1.  Turn on the captions/subtitles.
  2. Remove other distractions (don’t try to watch it in the background while you keep one eye on your phone or sorting your mail or whatever). You’re going to have to pay closer attention.
  3. Get used to the idea that you might not catch absolutely every nuance the first time. You can rewind if necessary, rewatch if necessary.
  4. Stick with it for a few episodes. It’s very likely that it will get easier the more you listen and watch. You’ll pick up the cadences of speech better, and you’ll have more context clues, you’ll get to know the performers/presenters body language/facial expressions over time.

If you try that and it doesn’t get easier, maybe the show is not for you. Try the book instead, or find something else to watch.

Moderation Note:  Kindly refrain from cluttering the comments section with complaints/criticisms/feelings/arguments/jokes/incl. compliments! about Marie Kondo, her show, her book, her approach, literally anything about her. I find the intense discourse around her exhausting at best and racist at worst, and I will delete all of it (even nice things)(even jokes that are clever variations about whether something sparks joy). I like you an awful lot, let’s keep it that way.

4 “Can’t wear anything too “fancy” or my boyfriend gets mad

.”

I have an idea, let’s look at pretty outfits and imagine what we might wear to a “I dumped that controlling jerkass” party.

Maybe something from the Vivienne Westwood ’94 collection? 

Or the recent Golden Globes?

5 “Flowers on dick.” 

Scroll down to #18 for all your funeral-arrangements-for-enemies needs.

6 “sexual favors”and “free rent” “massachusetts”



Well that’s wicked specific.

7 “My boyfriend expects me to eat from his squalid kitchen

.”

Well, what happens when you say “I’m not comfortable with that?” 

I meant to add this to the “red flags & compatibility when meeting new people to date” discussion at the end of this post last week but I forgot, so I’ll add it here:

Visit each other’s living spaces  – after you feel safe/comfortable being alone with someone before you commit to an ongoing relationship. Are you comfortable there? Do you feel welcome? Can you relax? Is what you see (smell/feel) congruent with the person you’re getting to know and what you want?

“This person’s living space upsets me” vs. “What if they can’t help it?” is a well-covered discussion topic on the site. I am not interested in judging people, blaming people, diagnosing people, excusing people, shaming people, setting these conflicts up as moral contests. I am interested in giving everyone permission to factor how a current or potential partner keeps their living space into decisions about comfort and compatibility.

Back in grad school I made a short film about a laundry pile achieving sentience. It wasn’t a documentary due to biological impossibility…for now…but let’s just say my real-life hamper did all its own stunts. By contrast, my dad, the world’s tidiest man, can sense when you are close to finishing a soda. He hovers while you take your last swallow, pounces before you can put the can down on any surface, rinses it to restore factory settings, and ferries it gently to its rightful place in the garage, where his complex recycling system made up of 12 distinct bins and barrels awaits. He is an extremely good match for my mom, who prefers to maintain all surfaces in a state of surgical sterility.

A date who preferred my parents’ “we keep the correct vacuum cleaner for each room in a closet in that room” lifestyle would have looked at my MFA in chore avoidance and thought: “Nope! We would make each other miserable!” This is fine! We would! I would gross him out, he would remind me of my dad and send my shoulders up around my ears!

Maybe the boyfriend in the search string will clean his kitchen. Maybe he’ll get dumped ’cause he won’t. Maybe he’ll be the one who breaks up because the querent made him feel judged and uncomfortable. Maybe they’ll decide to live happily ever after on takeout and prepackaged things. Fine! This is all fine!

In no universe will I ever recommend anything resembling “Since some people struggle with housekeeping, love probably means swallowing your discomfort along with whatever they cooked, no matter how unsanitary you find it.” Serious incompatibility around housekeeping stuff is a recipe for intense stress and conflict, you’re allowed to have preferences, needs, and choose a lower difficulty setting for yourself and your relationships.


8 “Why does my boyfriend treats his daughter like his wife.”

He creepy?

9 “Niece hates me for no reason.”

She has a reason. It may not be a good reason, it may not be a reason you’ll ever get to the bottom of, but it exists even if it’s only her opinion.

When I sense someone doesn’t like me, and I can’t think of a plausible reason for the conflict,  and “Hey, have I done something to upset you?” doesn’t work (either b/c I asked and didn’t get a good answer or I don’t feel comfortable enough to even ask), I try to give the person a lot of space, be polite and keep it light when I do have to interact, and see if time either mellows the situation or gives me more information.


10 “BF’s ex-girlfriend warns me about him how do I respond

.”

Do you actually need to respond? Do you need to respond to her?

In your shoes, I might say something very non-committal to her, like, “thanks for telling me, I’ll think about it.” It’s such an unusual thing to do that (in my opinion) it’s probably worth thinking about for a few days before you either act on it or disregard it.

What’s the worst thing that could happen if you do nothing about what she said? (Don’t respond, don’t address it with your boyfriend, brush it off).

What’s the substance of the warning? Is she trying to warn you about abuse? Have you noticed any red flags?

What’s in this for her? What reason would she have to lie? Like, is she trying to get you to break up with the boyfriend so she can be with him again, or to create trouble for him? Or is she trying to warn you to GTFO for your own safety?

Your answers to those questions will most likely point you in the right direction.


11 “Housemate comments on everything I do.”



I’m sure I wrote some more emotionally mature and useful responses and you should probably go read those and try those suggestions.

Right now what comes to mind is:”What are you, the narrator?”

12 “What does it mean when someone reacts to a minor little comment that bothers them with a barrage of made up hurtful things to hurt the other person?

”

Nothing good! Consider how much time you want to spend with someone who does this (if any).

13 “I feel like I am a burden on my therapist

.” 


This is probably worth mentioning to your therapist. Consider also that your therapist gets paid for the time they spend with you, most therapists have some choices about who they take on as a client, and you’re just one of many clients they see. It is unlikely they are thinking about you (as a burden or otherwise) as much as you think about them.


14 “How often to go to someones house.”

I love literally any excuse to make a chart.

Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 5.52.01 PM

A Venn Diagram that shows the intersection of being invited to someone’s house and actually wanting to go to their house. Maybe you’ll need Zyrtec.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day to those who celebrate, happy “day before half price candy” for those who don’t. Be excellent to yourselves and each other.

Dear Captain Awkward,

My teenager has informed me that their father told them he plans to mail me jewelry for Valentine’s Day. Their father and I have been divorced for nearly a decade and a half and I’ve been in three committed, long-term relationships in that time. I have less-than-zero interest in my ex-husband romantically (or even platonically) and while I am able to be polite/civil with him, I am quite looking forward to the day I no longer have to take his calls. He is not a nice person. (He was abusive during our marriage, used custody issues to punish me, treated our children poorly, etc. etc.)

Since he heard that I had to leave my most recent long-term relationship quite hastily for safety issues, he’s been acting far too friendly over the phone. A few months ago he told me that I’m the only woman he’s ever really loved and said he thinks we should still be together, which I responded to with “You know, life moves forward and though my path has been rocky, I’m happy with where I am now, thanks. Gotta go.” Ever since that revelation from him, I’ve made it a rule to do my best to keep any calls very short and to the point, if possible, and I always try to shift any conversations that get personal back to talking about the children we have in common.

That tactic recently backfired, leading to my teenager getting frustrated with me for talking about them with their father at all. I had told their father that they were feeling very anxious about college decisions and I’d been trying to help them feel less pressured and he turned around and told them I said they were being a “word-I-would-never-use” about going to school and that they need to stop being “that-word” and get their “expletive” together. Ugh. (I did let him know, through text, that what he did there was not okay and that was not what I meant by support, etc., and he did apologize to them eventually.) So, now since the “talk about our kids” topic no longer works, if he texts, “Hey, do you have time to talk?” I ask him if he has something pressing to discuss, as I’m quite busy, and it’s usually “No, just wanted to chat,” so I tell him I’m too busy to chat. If he calls, it goes to voicemail and I decide whether or not it’s appropriate to call back based on the content of voicemail.

Since I’ve been brushing him off, he has been reaching out to my teenager more than ever. They hate talking to him, but feel guilty not talking to him sometimes. During recent calls with them, their father told them that he really thinks we should have stayed together as a family, etc. It makes my teenager really frustrated and uncomfortable that all he seems to want to talk about with them is me and how he wishes we were still together.

I’m so irritated with him for the way he is treating me and my teenager, but not surprised, as he’s never been one to respect people’s boundaries.

[Don’t know if this is relevant or not, so I’ll add it just in case: He is in a relationship with a woman who is really kind and sweet (and a nice buffer/ally for my teenager when they visit their father), but who recently moved out of his house after having lived with him for about a year. His overly-friendliness started before she moved out. His behavior would be frustrating no matter what, but it’s even more exasperating that he’s doing this while in a relationship with another woman, no matter how rocky it may be.]

So… what do I do when he inevitably mails me jewelry? It makes me queasy just thinking about opening the box. Do I mail it back? Say thanks but no thanks? I don’t want him to get the idea that it is okay or in any way desirable for him to send me romantic gifts. Thankfully, he lives hundreds of miles away so I don’t have to worry that he’ll drop by with the gift. (Fingers crossed. Don’t want to jinx it.)

Over the years since our divorce I haven’t pushed back too hard or spoken my piece about his bad behaviors since he kept custody issues pretty contentious for some time and I never wanted anything to be misconstrued and come back to bite me. It’s been hard to break out of walking on eggshells with him and taking the step I noted above to let him know how he hurt his teenager with the nasty comments about their college fears felt good, but was terrifying.

Help, please!

(If you have some scripts for my teenager, too, for when their father starts up with his pining for me thing during their phone calls or laying on any other guilt trips that would be wonderful.)

Thank you!

My pronouns: she/her

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