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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?

Please help!

– Desperate and Going Deaf

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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.

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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,

Thanks so much for this blog! I read most of the archives during a recent overnight hospital stay and it really helped keep me entertained. I (she/her pronouns are fine) was a year away from completing my dissertation when my body rebelled. I have two very large liver adenomas, larger than the doctors have seen before. Thankfully my parents live in a city renowned for its hospitals and took me to consults. I had to immediately go on medical leave in September but was hoping to return in the spring. Unfortunately the adenomas are extra stubborn. I’ve had two embolization procedures and I’m in for another two before the surgeon can operate (one of them is in a really risky place and she could hurt me if she tried). With the extra hospital time, she recommended that I extend my leave, so I did.

Everyone congratulated me on how well I’m handling things, but I don’t feel that way. I feel constantly fatigued, I’ve been in a lot of pain, I feel like I’m losing my identity as a scholar and I’ve been living with my parents during the week in case one of these stupid things ruptured. I’ve had to spend a lot of time away from my wife, which has killed both of us. Luckily the surgeon says I should be safe to go home for longer periods now. I’m just wondering how I stay afloat. With a massive surgery looming in May, applying for summer jobs is now unlikely. My father has been helping me financially and I am so grateful. I’m just depressed. I’m done with hospitals, needles and the whole mess. I’m even getting depressed over stupid things like getting denied for a credit card. I feel like I’m a drain on everyone around me and I can’t even contribute academically anymore. I’m writing a 3500 word paper for a big conference in April and even that is a struggle.

My advisor has told me not to worry about the dissertation unless I feel completely up to it, but I would feel better if I could bang out a chapter draft. Therapy would probably help and I was seeing someone before this went down but she wasn’t very effective and then I’ve had to spend so much time in my parents’ city that I haven’t been able to go to appointments anyway. I am also on medication and have been since I was 16. I know that what I need to do is be nice to myself and for the first few months I could do that, but now I’m having trouble. Thanks for everything you do.

Signed
Eeyore’s got a bum liver

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Time for the monthly tradition where we answer the things people typed into search engines as if they are questions.

Before we get to it, it’s Pledge Drive Time! Twice a year, winter and summer, I interrupt our usual programming to remind folks that fun stuff like the Search Terms posts and the Friday short answers are funded by my kind and generous patrons and readers who support the site via PayPal and other ways. These donations allow me to keep the blog ad-free, invest substantial time in maintaining the community, reading the mailbox, and moderating comments, devote time to answering questions and writing new content, pay guest writers, and keep us functioning as an independent site. This year I’m trying to pull back on teaching and be a full-time writer, and your support is necessary and much appreciated for the care and feeding of me & my family. Please make a donation or become a patron if you can. Every little bit helps. (If you can’t afford to, don’t worry ’bout a thing, I’m glad you are here and reading.)

As is traditional, let’s begin with a song to set the mood. Lyrics here :

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Dear Captain,

This problem is tough to describe without getting perilously close to breaking the “no diet talk” rule, but I’m hoping I’m describing it neutrally enough that you can still help: my mother (almost 60) has a lifelong obsession with “health”, and it’s getting worse, and I’m worried what will happen if I don’t try to get her to stop.

What I mean is that she maintains a near-constant focus on exercise, severe calorie restrictions, and self-imposed rules around what foods she won’t eat. [Additional details available, but I don’t want to get sidetracked with diagnostics.] In the past, I’ve tried not to worry — she’s an adult and she gets to decide what she puts in her body. But the last few years, things have gotten more intense:

1) She externalizes it A LOT. “Health” is all she talks about. She uses her restrictions to dictate what my father eats, and where and what we can eat whenever we’re together. Holidays are really stressful — trying to meet her requirements, hold these constant conversations, AND eat any actual food myself (I have no dietary restrictions) makes meals absolutely exhausting. (And, OF COURSE, meals are the focal point for my family’s socializing.)

2) Her ideas about health are increasingly fringe. She reads pseudoscience blogs, and is constantly repeating “facts” she’s found (“Actually, skipping meals occasionally is good for you”). Recently she switched to a naturopathic “doctor” who ran a barrage of unnecessary blood tests in order to sell her his line of supplements. This feels like REALLY dangerous territory to me — financially, physically, mentally.

I have two younger siblings (we’re all early 30s), and they’re also concerned. We’ve tried, over the years, to enlist my father’s help, but he refuses to hear any “criticism” of her. We’ve tried to talk directly to Mom about it, but — well, we’re not good at confrontation (conflict TERRIFIES ME, because even the slightest wrinkle can turn into a blowout), so we just end up hinting and laughing nervously (“Maybe you shouldn’t listen to EVERYTHING that doctor says, haha!”) before changing the subject.

To be clear: she has no allergies, no sensitivities, no chronic illnesses. Anxiety runs deep in the family, but she refuses to see a therapist (I suggest it frequently, as a good hygiene practice). I’m sure her behavior is coming from a desperate fear of aging, and I feel for her. But I’m worried about how this obsession will play out as she gets older and her health DOES change.

I guess I’m writing you now because a holiday visit is looming and I’m either going to spend it miserably, silently tamping down my frustration yet again, or completely losing my shit. How do I get her to see that her “interest” is actually an unhealthy obsession?

Signed,
Please Mom Just Eat Something
(she/her)

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Dear Captain Awkward,

It’s been two years since my diagnosis with a very aggressive form of breast cancer, and eighteen months since my double mastectomy. The type of cancer (IBC) ruled out immediate reconstruction with implants (which I would have declined anyway, because not for me).

It used to be that women with IBC didn’t get reconstruction, because TBH we usually didn’t live all that long. Nowadays after a waiting period of two years or so one can have a DIEP flap where skin, fat and blood vessels are taken from the stomach and grafted onto one’s chest.

I’ve completed treatment, there’s currently no sign of cancer, and I’m doing well. I’m trying to move forward and get on with my life as much as possible.

But here’s my problem: medical folk keep pestering me to get reconstruction and don’t seem to understand that I DON’T WANT IT.

I’ve made a list of the pros and cons and–while it’s fine for others, it’s not fine for me, right now, under these particular circumstances.
I’m a smart person with a supportive partner, friends and family. Yes, the things surgeons can do are amazing. I know all about my options. If I want more information I know how to get it.

But..the continual unasked-for conversations from presumedly well-meaning medical providers are irritating at best and at worst can send me into a days-long depressive spiral.

Because I was trained to be a people-pleaser and discount my own ideas and opinions, and when I hear, “Have you considered reconstruction? We can do amazing things and by the way, you basically get a free tummy tuck..”

..my brain translates it into, “You are not okay the way you are, and your choice is not a valid one and your appearance is not acceptable. You are BROKEN. Let us fix you.”

What none of my medical providers seem to understand is that I want to maximize my physical activities and minimize my time spent in hospitals to the greatest extent possible, and for the most part I don’t give a rat’s behind whether I meet society’s expectations of how a female should look.

I’ve always been large-breasted and very self-conscious about it, and at the same time considered myself a bit of a “tomboy”.

It turns out I’m more at home in my body without breasts, have less back and neck pain, don’t miss bras or boob sweat, and enjoy wearing button-down shirts I buy from the men’s department.

My sex life is just fine.

I identify with others in the “flattie” community far more than anyone else in Breast Cancer Land.

But when doctors start pushing reconstruction, I feel as if my choice to remain flat is being questioned, and it affects my mental health when my efforts to explain and/or justify my choice seemingly fall on deaf ears.

Is there a script to politely shut this down? I’d be grateful for any suggestions.

Her/She pronouns, and just sign me “Flat and (Mostly) Happy”

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