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Mental Health

“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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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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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,

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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Hi readers, I’ve started writing a series of posts about caring for mental health while engaging with the rocky political situation in the US over at my Patreon site. Financial support is always appreciated (and how we get to not look at ads when we hang out here), but this particular content is free for anyone to read and share.

Posts so far in the series:

I’m still messing about a bit with Patreon rewards that can be both maximally attractive to you and sustainably delivered by me. I will be reviving the Search Terms posts and the Friday Short Answers very very soon, but for now I’m also going with: MORE CONTENT, as I realized in December when all my attempts to answer reader questions started turning into book chapters (alas, not from any of the same books) or Twitter rants that a slight separation between “the advice blog that I dearly love writing” and “ALL OF JENNIFER’S THOUGHTS, EVER” might be wise, if only to keep *myself* a little more organized.

In other news, if you missed it, a bunch of people who write advice columns talked to each other about our processes over at BuzzFeed Content notes apply for mentions of abuse, animal harm, and something called “the jizzcliner.” Next time I’d love to hear from ¡Hola Papi!, Dearly Beloved, Asking Bear, Everyone Is Gay, for starters, the advice column form is rich and varied right now.

If you’re in Chicago, Mr. Awkward is telling a story at The Stoop’s Six Year Anniversary Show on January 31  postponed until Tuesday, Feb 5, same venue, same everything, different levels of cold! (I think it’s about how his dad founded a second franchise of the family), and I’m telling a story at You’re Being Ridiculous at Steppenwolf on February 1 happening as planned, sold out as far as I know – My plan is to tell the story about the time I lived with a roommate ripped from the pages of The Gift of Fear, but I might write 6 more things between now and then, shhhhhhhh don’t tell the producers).

Here’s a song: