Behind a cut for discussions of food & compulsive eating.
Hello, readers, thanks for your emails, your support, and your questions in this time of global pandemic. How’s everybody doing? (Yes, I know the first iteration misspelled COVID as Corvid, I ❤ ravens and crows and have been doing it all week, what can I say).
Personal update: Mr. Awkward and I are both virus-free as far as we can tell (which is no guarantee), but we’re both high-risk people and we are keeping our asthmatic, seasonal-allergy-prone asses home except for one or two essential medical errands. We’re very lucky to be able to do so, and I’m sending so much solidarity and appreciation to people who do the essential jobs to keep everyone fed, housed, not drowning in piles of our own garbage, and receiving necessary medical treatment.
The pharmacy has been out of my ADHD med for almost a month and doesn’t know when they’ll get resupplied. I run out Friday, so, I do not anticipate regular intervals of focused productivity, but who knows what inspiration may come in the hyper-focus zone. Last week, I did what I could to help former colleagues make the sudden switch to online teaching (release the tutorial-kraken!) and I’m working on a piece for Vox (who are doing some very good explainers) about scripts for getting relatives to take this seriously that will go up within the next day or so. I’ll share a link here when it does.
My general plans are to keep writing my morning pages with the #ArtBuddies, pet cats, wash my hands, keep my writing schedule as much as I can, wash my hands, read a ton of books, wash my hands, check in with friends (especially my extroverts) regularly, wash my hands, bug my electeds a ton about getting our collective shit together and getting relief to *people* (not just *workers/employers*), wash my hands, and play many games of “I didn’t know we had this in our pantry, let’s put it on some rice!” in between hand-washings.
And, you know, try not to freak out entirely.
Would you like to look at cats? They almost never share the lap peacefully, so this was a rare pleasure.
Now for some questions! We’ll call them #1258 and #1259.
This round: How do I deal with my mom’s anxiety about my life, how do I tell a roommate that their helpfulness is not actually helpful, how do I preserve a friendship over distance, how do I build a family relationship over distance, and for a little #ThisFuckingGuy seasoning: I planned a birthday celebration for my mom and now my StepDad has made his own totally conflicting plans.
Hello, monthly feature with short questions from patrons continues from the previous chapter.
Q7: I am single in my 40s and have never had a serious long-term partner. I used to think I hadn’t met the right person yet but have recently come to understand that I’m aromantic (and probably demisexual – not ace but I don’t really feel like chasing after sex, either). I don’t know how much of this to share with the world, specifically my late-70s parents who would need the aromantic crash course. Thoughts? (he/him/his)
A7: You know your parents best, so you know how much energy you want to invest and how likely they are to be receptive. You don’t owe them (or the world) the details, on the other hand, they’ve surely noticed by now that you don’t seek long-term romantic attachments. If you do decide to speak with them, maybe that’s the context to use, like, “Parents, I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve never been that interested in romantic relationships, I just found out that a lot of people feel this way and there’s a word for us – aromantic – pretty cool, right?”
You’ve been reading a lot about the topic, so possibly pull together some of the resources that made it easier for you to describe your identity so that if your parents say, “How interesting, I always noticed that about you but didn’t want to pry, tell me more,” you’re prepared and if they say, “What’s that? Kids these days!” you’re also prepared.
As for the world, probably the best thing I can do is ask our readers: Got a favorite community or other resource for aromantic info and peer support? This place seems pretty active and detailed, from what I can tell, but I’m not a member.
Q8: I am coming to terms with the fact that my boundaries are… not great. Being a Ravenclaw, my first instinct is to seek out books. I found the seminal BOUNDARIES by Cloud & Townsend, and while it confirmed that yep, boundary problems abound, this book is a terrible fit for me because I have a lot of trauma around religion and every other sentence is a Bible quote. Can anyone recommend other great boundary books? (She/Her)
A8: Who wants to recommend some non-religious books about boundaries?
Q9: I love my wonderful boyfriend so much and find most of his quirks delightful. But his breathing irritates me a lot. When we’re resting on the couch or in bed, he holds his breath for long periods of time and then lets it out really loudly. When we’re cuddling, he breathes in my face and I have no air to breathe. We’ve talked about it but he often doesn’t realize he’s doing it. Any ideas? (She/her/hers)
A9: There’s no good way to tell someone, “You breathe wrong,” but I do have some ideas.
First, if your boyfriend isn’t already seeing a doctor about this, it’s time. Habitually holding the breath can be a stress reaction, it can also be a sign of a medical condition (apnea, sleep and other kinds, for one example). We can’t & won’t diagnose strangers via blogging (fortunately you have a working search engine and can look up specific possibilities and symptoms in detail) so I’ll just say as someone who was diagnosed with asthma as an adult specifically because a partner said, “You’re breathing weird, I’m worried about you (& annoyed), please get it looked at.” He was right, I had developed odd, subconscious, habitual workarounds to try to control coughing and get enough air and it took someone else being around all the time to notice. Your script can be some version of “Hey, this breathing thing might not just be a quirk, so can you please make a doctor appointment and at least rule out the prospect of something serious?”
In the meantime, look for cuddle positions where he’s not breathing in your face (big spoon, little spoon?). If he can’t control whatever this is or he always forgets, you can remember and take steps to make sure you can always breathe. It won’t be a mystery as to why, he knows why, flip over when you need to so that you can still be close and minimize face-to-face time while he gets checked out. Hopefully he can get some answers and both of you can get some relief.
Q10: Last year, my sister was killed in a very public accident. I’ve been struggling with how to tell friends and acquaintances that I speak to intermittently what happened. I don’t know how to bring it up, and get emotional when I do. Can you give me some scripts to follow so I can explain the situation and (maybe) not fall apart while doing so? Thank you so much. (she/her/hers)
A10: Oh, how awful, I’m so sorry! The loss of your sister + the newsworthiness (constant reminders + people’s need to speculate) must have been a special kind of hell.
I always fall back on two strategies for communicating bad news that I’m nervous or stressed about sharing.
First, it’s okay to use email, text, social media, etc. and share the news before any planned hangouts, and tell people exactly what you told us:
“Friend, you may not have heard this, but since we saw each other last, my sister was killed in [incident]. I get very emotional when I talk about it and I never know how to bring it up, so I thought I’d send you a note before we [have drinks][go birdwatching][resume our opera subscription] this week so you’ll understand if the ‘So, what’s new with you?’ part of our conversation gets a little messy. I’m really looking forward to seeing you and catching up.”
You could do this one-on-one, you could do this in batches, or all at once, whatever works for you. Ideally, you’ll feel better not dreading having to deliver the news in person, and your friends and acquaintances will appreciate knowing that this huge thing happened to you and having a minute to [privately react][privately Google what happened and refresh their memories/satisfy curiosities][privately react again] before you see each other.
Second, enlist the connectors/planners/hosts/organizers in your social and professional groups to spread the word for you. The kind of people who take it upon themselves to organize a book club or a college reunion or networking event often see keeping up with everyone’s news as part of the role, you can absolutely message them or call them up and ask for their help spreading the word. Maybe something like:
“Hi [Nice Person], I hope you’re well. Can I ask for your help with an awkward task?
You may or may not have heard the news, but I lost my sister in an accident last year. As I emerge from just being with my family, I’m realizing that a lot of people don’t know, and I have this recurring problem of having to break the news again and again. I’m looking forward to catching up with all of you at [upcoming event], so would you be willing to quietly spread the news of what happened for me before we all get together?
Then tell people what you want them to do/not do about your news. For example:
“I’m looking forward to [discussing the book][rehearsing the play][building the marketing plan for the North East region][registering new voters] and hearing what everyone’s been up to, and it would really ease my mind if I know every “so what’s new with you” conversation won’t be a rehash of events and that people won’t be surprised if I’m a little down or easily flustered. Thank you.”
You’re going to get some “I’m so sorry,” and shoulder pats and hugs when you do see people, but this way hopefully every time you run into people it won’t be a Run, Lola Run! or Groundhog Day-style montage of surprise and grief.
Q11: Hi Captain, here’s my question: I am Childfree by Choice, and I used to think kids just stressed me the fuck out. Turns out I was mistaken – I’m quite comfortable in situations with babies/kids, where their adults are supervising them well, and I know the boundaries about how and when I should intervene if I’ve noticed something unsafe before the other adults have. It’s the more ambiguous situations that stress me out. So like, if a crawling baby is making a beeline for something dangerous and I’m the first one to notice, I am a-OK with going over and picking the baby up, distracting them, and pointing them another direction. That’s my duty as a friend or auntie.
But with bigger kids, especially if it’s clear that their caregivers are aware of the situation but not responding they way I think they should be, that really stresses me out. Like when there’s roughhousing that is getting mean and the smaller kid isn’t enjoying it anymore, or some kind of play that’s pretty much guaranteed to end up with somebody getting hurt, and the caregivers are just giving half-assed verbal warnings and not following up when they’re ignored. But they’re not my kids and I’m just a friend or relative of the parents, so my impulse to physically wade in, tuck a child under my arm like a bad kitty, and remove them from the situation, is probably unwelcome. What is the correct course of action in a situation like that?
A11: I would say, mostly, if the parents/caregivers are nearby/available and the kids aren’t coming to them for adjudication or comfort and it’s not a “you are seriously going to injure yourselves/each other or break something expensive” situation, grabbing & tucking the child like a football is going to be overkill. From my Not-A-Parent observation deck, when there’s an adults-and-kids-who-aren’t-toddlers-anymore gathering going on, there are some skills being learned and practiced on both sides:
- Kids are learning to play together and have some autonomy without coming to adults every five minutes, and to self-soothe and self-regulate if they don’t enjoy something.
- Parents are learning to find balance. What’s the right mix of socializing with fellow adults, keeping an eye on kids, but also letting everybody have a little space?The “correct” amount of supervision is always in flux. If something bad does happen, there will always, always, always be a subtext of “why wasn’t somebody watching them more closely” but like, sometimes you can be RIGHT THERE and the kid can still shove a nickel up her nose or decide that she can fly.
As a Not-Their Parents observer, there is no “the” correct course of action but there are a few strategies, which I’m adapting from “bystander intervention” training, where the emphasis is on de-escalating difficult situations while still respecting everyone’s autonomy, often expressed as “D’s” (3 Ds, 4 Ds, depends on who you ask):
- Direct: Your scoop-up-a-kid instinct would be classified as direct intervention, as would telling the aggressors to knock it off. A matter-of-fact reminder of what you want them to do (“Hey, Buddy, let’s use our inside voices and keep our feet off the furniture, thanks”) (All kids and pets are addressed as Buddy) can work better than lots of non-specific “Quiet down!” reminders.
- Distract: If you do intervene, don’t necessarily do it by “rescuing” the smaller kid or admonishing the bigger kids, jump in with a distraction instead. Ask a question, show them something cool on your phone, get them to help you with a task. It’s part of bystander intervention generally, where ‘confronting’ people is risky (and can escalate a bad situation), but engaging the target in friendly conversation communicates ‘you aren’t alone, there’s someone here to catch you if you fall.’
- Delegate: Get a parent. “Are they allowed to jump on that?” “Hey, I think that the fun screaming might have turned into the not-fun kind.” “If we’re every hanging out and I see some roughhousing that crosses a line, or some of the kids being mean, would you like me to come get you or jump in there myself?” It’s okay to be selective about who you ask and how you ask, if you know that certain friends are easily riled or take questions like this as implied criticisms, you’re the best judge of how likely someone is to hear you. Also, turf matters: In your house, or where you are the host, it’s okay to be more active (“Please don’t touch that/jump on that/eat that/open that/Please use inside voices so the neighbors can’t hear us/Don’t pick up the cat she doesn’t like it,” etc.) Think of it as communicating “Party Rules” vs. “Correcting People’s Parenting.”
- Delay: Kids (like kittens) can get pretty rough in short bursts and be totally chaotic and then snap back to being best buds in an instant. Sometimes you can’t prevent whatever it is, but it’s okay to hang back, let it resolve itself and check in with the kid who was on the bottom of the pile, “How are you doing, Buddy? Wanna come sit by me?” If the kid was really upset by something, give them the opportunity to tell you about it.
This stuff can be so fraught so again, there’s no one approach. If you get really stressed out by certain friends’ parenting dynamic, maybe take breaks and schedule some adult-only time to give everybody a chance to grow out of whatever “difficult stage” is happening now. It’s okay to enjoy being around children sometimes and also to be stressed out by them sometimes, it’s okay to find some people’s parenting style kinda stressful and wish they’d supervise their kids more closely at gatherings without having any particular obligation to Do Something about it.
Q12: So, how can I (F) respond to the “just relax” I get from guys when they’re being disruptive, and I raise an objection. My two most recent examples: 1) coworkers in the back of the room at a staff meeting, cutting up and being so noisy I couldn’t hear what our boss (the department head!?) was saying up front. “Guys, can you quiet down, please?” “Oh, just relax.” 2) Thumping and banging and screaming and yelling coming from upstairs neighbors. (Sounds like, when I was a kid, would occasionally accompany black eyes and broken bones.) Saw them out in the parking lot, asked, “Everything okay?” Dad got incredibly defensive and, after a shouting argument, muttered, “Just relax.” I thought this was common enough to be a Thing, but I don’t find any discussion of the phenomenon online.
A12: Things I know about the command “Just relax!”
- It is often used by people who want to manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do and people who want to punish you for being right when they know they are in the wrong.
- It has never, in the history of the world, made anyone actually relax.
- One possible response is a flat “I am relaxed” and then continuing to expect what you expect and need what you need (Workbros to shush already, “I am relaxed, I’m just making sure everyone’s okay, it sounded pretty rowdy last night. Have a great day.”)
- When men say it to women, they want us to be quiet and afraid of appearing “shrill,” so another possible response when circumstances warrant is to selectively and strategically show them what EXTREMELY UNRELAXED looks like and then snap back to “Ok, so, what were we talking about? Right, I’m gonna need you to _____.” Neither examples you shared warrant this strategy yet (you don’t want to escalate with scary neighbor), but for habitual offenders who you don’t work with? Sometimes reminding people that they have choices and that you also have choices can snap people into coming correct.
- As for the neighbor situation, his defensive reaction is right out of the textbook, so read the bystander intervention stuff up thread and think about de-escalation, especially distraction. This has a nice short summary (probably don’t call the police unless it’s an immediate life-or-death situation, check in with the other parent subtly). You could also talk to a DV resource like LoveIsRespect.org for more guidance.
Thanks for the interesting and challenging questions! We’ll be back with more in about a month.
Dear Captain Awkward
I (she/her) am having some issues with my father’s partner (also she/her). I don’t know how much of my discomfort and dislike of the woman stems from the adolescent area of my brain screaming “you’re not my mother, you don’t get to tell me!” and how much of it is legitimate and may be tackled or minimised.
A little context – my mum died 11 years ago, when she was 59 and I 26, from cancer. A couple of years after that, my dad met Cersei and hit it off. She was also recently widowed, they were each still in love with their spouses but willing to explore a new relationship together. So far, so happy. It’s now a number of years later and it seems like they’ll be together until death does them part (but with no suggestion of marriage being on the cards – a fact of which I am quite thankful).
Here’s the rub, though – Cersei will make every situation about her, and will make it clear that a) no-one has ever suffered like her, and b) your suffering is nothing. A recent example; I have been diagnosed with moderate-to-severe hearing loss. This is a very emotional thing for me. I’m 37 and have no family history of hearing loss, it’s pretty frightening that I’m going to be wearing hearing aids very soon. Cersei’s response was two-fold. First – “Oh, I should probably get my hearing checked too, I’m forever asking people to turn the TV up!” (Great! OK! Fine! I’ll tell you where I went, the test was free. Go forth and get your testing done.) Secondly – “I don’t think your hearing’s that bad. You can hear everything I’m saying.” Stop. Stop right the fuck there. You haven’t seen my hearing deteriorate over the last 3-4 years from jokes about “wow, your hearing’s lousy!” to friends saying “no, seriously, I am concerned about your hearing, for it is lousy.” You don’t know how much detail I miss in conversations, you don’t see me struggling to hear the TV and trying to avoid switching subtitles on for everything (my husbandface finds them distracting) and FUCK OFF do you get to minimise what is a very frightening situation because I can hear you clearly in an enclosed space when you are sitting 2 feet from me with no background noise.
My usual tactic is to be quite abrupt. “I don’t think your hearing’s that bad” – “Yes, it is. It really is, and here are examples of how bad it is.” My dad will step in and tell her to rein it in when people are getting visibly frustrated with her but she will then laugh this off all cheerful – “Oh I’m in trouble again!” – and I know that it’s going to happen again next time.
Captain, it’s got to the point that I avoid seeing my dad if I think Cersei is going to be around. I don’t want to lose my relationship with him, but I don’t want to spend more than a couple of hours with her at a time because I know that I’ll get angry and try to keep my cool, I’ll be upset by what she’s said this time for days after, and I won’t actually enjoy seeing my dad.
Is there a way that I can get her to self-moderate more? (Possibly not, she’s in her 60s, and what’s that saying about old dogs and new tricks?) Is there a way I can teach myself to react less? Do I need to just stop telling my dad anything significant that’s happening in my life, on the assumption that telling him is akin to telling her?
– Desperate and Going Deaf
I’m putting this one behind a cut. A Letter Writer is dealing with some major work burnout and anxiety, and mentions disordered eating (bulimia) and childhood abuse including sexual abuse in passing (no details, just, mentioned). This is a tricky one.
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:
- Turn on the captions/subtitles.
- 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.
- Get used to the idea that you might not catch absolutely every nuance the first time. You can rewind if necessary, rewatch if necessary.
- 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?
5 “Flowers on dick.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.