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Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 24, 2005 12:00 PM

Carolyn takes your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

Appearing every Wednesday and Friday in The Washington Post Style section and in Sunday Source, Tell Me About It Bæfers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there -- really recently. Carolyn Hax is a 30-something repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

Other mail can be directed to Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com .

A transcript follows.

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Silver Spring, Md.: It was recently discovered that I have a medical condition, nothing life threatening but just complicated to explain, that requires me to eat a strict no-sugar, low-fat diet. I'm OK with this, especially since after a few short weeks I'm already seeing improvements in my health.

The problem arises in social settings when people (who really should be minding their own business and not saying anything) make comments ranging from the polite "Why don't you try some of this dessert? It's delish!" to the obnoxious "What's the big deal? Have some cake. I know you work out!" I don't have a one word answer like "diabetes" which would shut any and all big mouths up, but way too often it seems like a simple "No thank you" isn't enough. What's a girl to do??

Carolyn Hax: Since "No, thank you" is your natural first choice, just keep repeating it in response to each level of pressure. By the third or fourth "No, thank you," you'll either have shamed the person or frustrated the unshamable into quitting.

If you get bored with that, go absurd. "I've already had eight pieces today, thanks." "I'm saving room for a hot dog." Whatever, use your imagination.

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Arlington, Va.: Have I just made a major mistake? I have known a woman for years who reminds me of how Lucy treats Charlie Brown with a football: she asks for favors and then, after I do her a favor, she ridicules me for expecting anything in return. I keep trying to get rid of her, but she keeps coming back for serious help, claims she has changed and that I'm her only real friend, she apologizes, needs and gets a favor, and then, afterwards, laughs in my face. Recently, she checked herself into a hospital, claiming she is suicidal. She was released after a couple of days. She then telephones me and states she'll kill herself unless she gets a substantial amount of money. I knew I would feel great guilt if I didn't give her the money and she did kill herself, so I gave her the money. Yet, deep down, I just know she is sitting somewhere thinking "sucker" and is out spending the money. How should I deal with this woman?

Carolyn Hax: I've been in a similar situation, and I found it extremely helpful to talk to a psychiatrist. He was able to explain what the person's pathology was, how I was making myself vulnerable to it, how it was in fact necessary that I extract myself from the relationship, and then how I could (most) safely extract myself. If you were locked into anything else you'd call a locksmith; calling in a pro when you're locked into a relationship is no different.

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Pre-engaged: My boyfriend and I have dated for four years and are really excited about getting married, possibly next year. He has not yet proposed, although I think it should be sometime in the next few months. We've talked extensively about our future wedding, where it will be, who will be there, and have even started getting passports together for our honeymoon.

I hate to bother you with such a petty issue, but my dilemma now is how to keep composure (and my mouth shut) before we "make it official". My boyfriend really wants to ask my father for my hand, which I think is equally romantic, respectful, and a great way to forge a new relationship with his future F-I-L. But my mother and his mother are constantly asking me when we're getting married, why I'm not pressuring him to propose, and how much they just can't wait for us to get married. I know everyone is excited (mainly for what should be a great party), but I'm turning into a bridezilla before I'm even a blushing bride.

What can I do to keep my cool and cool off the moms?

Carolyn Hax: My evil twin is backspacing my every attempt to answer this question, and typing in, "If you can't keep your composure through a drama this mini, please postpone the wedding another year. Or five."

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Sterling, Va.: Don't you think we'd all be a lot better off if folks would just stop sleeping with people they're not married to?

Carolyn Hax: If only it were that easy.

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How to get help for a paranoid friend?: A friend of mine has a mental illness she refuses to get help for. Paranoia, obsession, extreme sensitivity, and strange rambling phone message and emails. It's causing her a lot of problems. She can't hold down a job, she's cut off a lot of her friends, and goes through long periods of time refusing to speak to family. I've reached a point where being friends with her is very difficult, but I hang in there because I'm one of the few friends left. Her family has tried two interventions without success. I can't bring myself to return her phone calls anymore because it's so exhausting to speak with her. But I feel terrible about it, like I've abandoned her. How can I help her and keep my own sanity intact?

Carolyn Hax: You can help only up to your own limits, and then when you exceed them you have to let go. It blows but there it is. You can't save everyone. I hope you can at least feel good about your dedication and tenacity.

You can also follow the advice I gave to the sucker and get a professional opinion of what is and isn't possible in your relationship with this person, and use that information to make your efforts more effective and therefore more likely to remain within your limits, but even then there's going to be a point where the outcome is in her hands, not yours.

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Carolyn Hax: Maybe the "we'd all be a lot better off" scenario is if our relationships weren't all cluttered up by other people's free will.

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Bliss: Carolyn, in response to the poster from Sterling:

I just started sleeping with my new girlfriend to whom I'm not married... obviously. I've got to confess that I cannot imagine being any better off. Really. All sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows here...

Carolyn Hax: Silly person, you're just unenlightened to the heights you'll reach when you go 70K into debt on a filet-mignon carving station, mediocre swing band and doves.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn - I'm bummed out today because I was rejected from yet another job opportunity in England. I'm hoping to relocate to live out my dreams of working abroad and spend more time with the love of my life who happens to live there... ugh. Any advice for not throwing in the towel and being satisfied with a job I enjoy here and a transatlantic relationship??

Carolyn Hax: I'm sorry. Take a week or two off from the job hunt and let your motivation bob back up on its own. We all need vacations from stressful or tiring things, not just from work.

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Washington, D.C.: Any advice for an accomplished person who is a little too addicted to positive feedback? How do you let it go?

Carolyn Hax: Congratulate yourself copiously every time you weather criticism.

That was cruel, I know. I'm sorry.

I don't think it's so much about letting go as it is finding a way to feel good about yourself. Praise becomes a substitute for self-worth, and since it's an ephemeral thing, you keep having to go out and get it to make yourself feel good. Once you have reliable ways to make yourself feel good--which of course you won't have to go out seeking all the time, because they're internal--you'll cut your dependency on accolades. Maybe not completely, since no one is entirely immune to the buzz of the occasional hard-earned attaperson, but enough so that you don't feel like a trained seal.

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Sucker friends and other obligated people: I also had a similar friendship in my younger days - this friend constantly engaged in self-destructive behavior (drinking, drugs, bad boyfriends), constantly asked for my help/money/possessions, and frequently threatened to hurt herself or commit suicide if I didn't somehow come to her rescue. It finally came down to either her sanity or mine, and in an act of either self-preservation or selfishness/cowardice, I literally walked away from her during one of her "I'm going to kill myself" tirades. She didn't. I know she could easily have, I don't doubt that, but she didn't, and she called me later to scream at me for being a horrible person and a lousy "best friend". Fast forward many years and I'd like to say she got help and straightened out her life, but last I heard of her -I desperately avoid any contact, and I've heard she's tried to get in contact with me occasionally - it was nasty divorces and other drama. While I sometimes still feel a little guilty about just walking away those many years ago, I also know that there was NOTHING I could do to change her or help her, and she was going to pull me down with her into that whirlpool. Sometimes you just have to walk away.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Hard-won reassurance for others in this situation.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Carolyn, I always enjoy these chats! I'm in a very happy, very long term relationship (many years). Currently we are in one of those ho hum, kind of irritating periods, you know lots of conversations about toothpaste and cereal, not a lot of romance. Any advice on how to get through these inevitable slow patches?

Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: DO something. Romantic, bold, silly. You have this power.

Tho, maybe it's the chronic sleeplessness talking, but there is something romantic about conversations about toothpaste and cereal. The kind of intimacy humans all but scratch and claw to get.

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Kansas City, Mo.: Hi Carolyn. My girlfriend and I have been together 3 years, and we're at a great point--very open with each other, honest, and there is still chemistry. For the past year or so, she's had a male work friend. I've been friendly with him in the past, but always cautious of him because he obviously has a crush on my girlfriend. Recently, I just can't stand the guy; I hate the way he acts around my girlfriend, I think he's inappropriate in his calling and emailing her, and he's trying to make her his "emotional girlfriend." She doesn't see this, and she treats him as she would any of her other male friends. Is this something I need to be as worked up over as I am? Do I still need to be friendly with this guy just because she is?

Carolyn Hax: You don't need to be friendly, but being any less than civil will expose the fact that you're letting old playground impulses take over. While you're more than welcome to find this guy obnoxious, he's also more than welcome to have a crush on your GF, and to try to suppress it, and to try to be content with just being her friend.

Your girlfriend's behavior in this is really the only behavior that's relevant to you. As long as she isn't romantically interested in him, or keeping him around for the attention, or anything else inappropriate--ie, as long as she's just being friendly and possibly a little obtuse--then you really just need to force yourself to shake it off.

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Columbia, S.C.: If girls (figuratively, I'm hoping) fling panties at Weingarten, what should guys do at you?

Carolyn Hax: Cash is nice. Shoes, 8.5/38.5 preferably in bubble wrap. I've seen enough airborne Cheerios for several lifetimes, so those are out.

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Michigan: A joyful quandary: please help!;

The young marrieds across the street, dear neighbors, just had twins. They are people of modest means and are still a bit in the blast radius of TWO bundles of joy. (New Dad said to me, chit-chatting, that he's DREAMED of what it would have been like to have had ONE baby to start with ...)

My dilemma: Having received the birth announcement, should my household respond with a gift for the parents ... for each child ... or something for everyone?

What's polite? Pragmatic? Customary? Best?

Carolyn Hax: 1. Bring dinner, bonus points for paper plates.

2. Offer to wheel the little grubs around the block in the stroller while the parents eat.

3. If you feel a gift-gift is a necessity (it isn't), a gift card to a baby store is manna.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm so lazy. I've been told I'm smart, capable, funny, able to play well with others, etc. But the enthusiasm I bring to working out and having sex and knitting and wakeboarding just seems to fizzle when faced with long-range planning and big projects. And now, when the writing I've been dabbling in -finally- seems to be taking off, I can't seem to get past the days, weeks, months of hard work I know it will take to see any real success.

Gah. How can I get over this, develop a work ethic, be less of a bum?

Carolyn Hax: Pick a better project? Sometimes what you think you should be doing isn't what you really want to be doing, and so you put it off to have athletic sex on your handknit wakeboard. Not every smart, capable, funny person is meant to write the great American whatever. (But I do think every one of them goes through a period of feeling inadequate for not yet having written it.)

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Washington, D.C.: Recently my grandmother has landed herself in the hospital due to severe alcohol poisoning. Now she has to undergo complete therapy and may never, ever walk again. Gram has been an alcoholic as long as I can remember. Our last family intervention ended in her not talking to us for many months and basically de-grandchilding us. We're a small family (she has one son, my father, and three grandkids, including myself). Because dad is currently involved in some military exercises abroad he can't necessarily be there for her right now. My mother thinks that maybe because me and my younger sister live near her, that we should take this time to confront Grandma about her drinking again (using materials and info that we've previously gotten from that AA group for family members). Carolyn, I don't want to do this. I've had to deal with a lot of stuff in my life, my birthmother died when I was a child, my family constantly moved with dad's job, and I'm currently in a nightmare job. I deal/dealt with all of that stuff and don't let it effect my day-to-day life. However, I just can't do this. I love my grandmother and realize that if she keeps it up her life might just be cut short (as grandmothers go she's relatively young). What can I do? I feel horribly selfish but also like I just really can't do this right now.

Carolyn Hax: Have you gotten any counseling in all this? If you have and you were happy with your person, I'd urge you to go back to help you both make this decision and live with yourself afterward. And if you haven't, I'm urging you to go. You are carrying a lot of weight for someone with only two shoulders.

To answer your question more directly, yes, you are free to decide that you just can't do this--your grandmother is responsible here, NOT you--but I don't want you to take it from me, I want you to take it from you.

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I Was That Suicidal Friend: Last year I lost a lot of friends because I hit an all-time low--severe depression and a panic disorder. I was a mess and I didn't know how bad off I was. My own family didn't see it but my friends could tell I wasn't doing well---and instead of trying to help me out they made comments like calling me psycho and other choice words. At one point I even told a friend I had suicidal thoughts and all she could say was "I'm sorry." After time passed I got in contact with them and I yelled at a couple of former friends because I was angry that they weren't there for me and for treating me the way they did when I was having it rough. Speaking from experience, I wish I could have taken back all the angry words I said because now that I have my life back I can see now how it's a tough position for one who wants to help out their friend but doesn't know quite what to do and how much time and energy to give to someone who desperately needs professional help. If anyone out there has a friend that needs help----be compassionate, speak to a counselor about how to help yourself in this situation, and talk to the friend's family about your concerns as soon as possible. Last but not least, do what's right for you and don't feel guilty about cutting ties if you can't handle it. We all have our own burdens to bear.

Carolyn Hax: So very well said, thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: A theme today seems to be paranoia. It seems a lot of times, when the subject comes up here of jealousy and paranoia re. opposite-sex friends of s.o.s/spouses, your advice is usually to shake it off and try not to think about it. Given the statistics, though, and the anecdotal evidence, isn't a little paranoia realistic?

I mean, it's not like everyone I know is a chronic philanderer, but I feel like almost everyone I know has either cheated on someone once, or has been cheated on once, or has been the person cheated with once.

Carolyn Hax: The reason you cite for being at least a paranoid is exactly the same reason I advise shaking it off. This stuff happens. You can choose your partners carefully, you can treat them well, you can resist the temptation to delude yourself, but beyond that, whether someone loses interest in you or falls for someone else or cheats is really out of your hands. Repeat, out of your hands.

And some of your loves probably will lose interest, fall for someone else, or cheat. Or all three. So assume it and get on with your life. When it does happens, it will feel hellish, but you will live, and eventually it won't feel so hellish any more, and you'll realize that any time spent worrying about it before it actually happened was a complete waste of what should have been the enjoyable time of being with someone.

And no, I don't think people should expect never to get jealous, or that they're failures if they ever do. It's just that jealousy is normal and useful as an infrequent warning sign that something is wrong, not as a chronic state of being. It's like adrenaline: a little when you need it is a survival tool, but a lot all the time will take years off your life.

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Re: the twins and bringing dinner: Silly question, I know, but when is it too late to bring dinner? Couple down the street had a baby almost 8 weeks ago--too late to bring them a meal? I mean, my child is 2 and I would hug the person who brought my family a hot meal!;!;!;

Reason I ask is that my sister brought dinner to a new mama to find that the new mama had left the baby with daddy and went shopping. Sis kinda felt like it was okay but at the same time, if mama could be out trying on shoes, mama could whip up a box of Hamburger Helper.

What's the time frame? 2 weeks? Two months? Two years (please?)?

Carolyn Hax: Wait, whoa, hold that there phone. Just because a parent leaves the house to shop doesn't mean the call for help has expired--like you said, and I hope you corrected your sister's misimpression.

Of course, it's certainly possible the new mom your sister was helping didn't actually feel strained--one baby, equal- or majority-partner daddy, money for paid help, involved and local family, etc. But the whole point of helping people in cases like this--not just new-baby households, but those dealing with chemo or grief or a relocation or whatever--is that the Big Energy-Sucking Thing plus regular household chores can rob people of all their down time, and make something like a quick shoe expedition seem like a week at a spa. So, you bring over dinner to give them one extremely valuable extra shot at having 30 min off.

I.e., never too late to bring dinner. Just call first.

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Virginia: Carolyn - Once again, I think your gender bias is coloring your answers. If a woman poster had asked what to do about a boyfriend whose female colleague was inappropriately e-mailing, calling and wanted to make him her "emotional boyfriend," I think you'd have given stronger advice than, basically, "Deal with it." Just an observation. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: "Once again"? There are other online chats.

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Anonymous: So, when a partner does decide to cheat on you or fall out of love with you or whatever, what shoes do you throw at them on their way out the door? Stillettos or the heaviest boots you can find?

Carolyn Hax: No no, never waste shoes on anger. Plus you look like a sore loser.

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Des Moines, Iowa: So I followed your advice last night, and tried to communicate to my boyfriend of three months that I felt I wanted more emotional intimacy from/with him. This guy suits me very well (similar professional lives, backgrounds, sense of humor), and maybe I'm making excuses for him, but he's never had a girlfriend for this long (we're both 25) so I'm trying to give him pointers along the way. I ended up tripping over my words during our discussion and could not get the thoughts in my head out of my mouth. If this intimacy rift we discussed results in a break up, that's fine, it simply shows we aren't compatible. I'm just trying to advise him as I would another guy friend, but the mind set that "No, this is my boyfriend and my needs we're talking about" distracts me and I cannot communicate! Help!

Carolyn Hax: Then say that, too, that you felt like you mangled what you were trying to say.

But be careful with the giving-him-pointers thing. You're not his tutor, it's not your job to teach him how to behave in a relationship. When you're feeling something you want him to know about, then say it, but don't cross over into trying to guide what he feels.

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Anonymous: I have a friend who needs professional help. Lots of professional help. She won't get it. She says "That's what friends are for." When we tell her that she's suffering more than she needs to, and that we are not capable of helping any more, she gets angry.

So, for the poster who says, "I was the suicidal friend..." what did it take to get you to get help? And do you think ANYTHING anyone else did could have moved you to realize you needed help?

Because I'm ready to cut off contact with this one, and I hate to do it, because I DO love her. I just can't take it any more.

Carolyn Hax: I'll put it out there, but it might be too late ... and I also think you answered your own question. At a certain point, by asking more of you than you can give, she will force you to your limit. Sometimes that's enough to push someone to get help, sometimes it isn't, but by then it's something you're doing out of necessity for yourself, not for her.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

I've recently had a few dates with different guys, and something that has come up frequently in conversation is how much they wish women wouldn't bring all sorts of past emotional baggage into current relationships - i.e.., if you got burned 10 times before by men, you shouldn't pin the damage caused by those jerks on the current guy, cynically expecting him to do the same thing. I can understand this point of view to a certain extent, but I also wonder, how realistic is it to think we can just put aside our bad past experiences and open ourselves up to a new significant other with a clean slate?

Thank you.

Carolyn Hax: Of course the first thing I think is how much I wish men wouldn't generalize about all women like that, but then I would think that.

You (and they) can't expect to go into a new relationship with a clean slate, but that doesn't mean you go in blaming the new guy for the old guy's stuff, either. You go in with an informed slate, meaning: you take having one jerk in your past to mean that sometimes people can be jerks so you can't be naive; two jerks in your past to mean that you should move into new relationships slowly because you don't want to get in too deep before you find you're with jerk no. 3; all jerks in your past to mean the problem is probably on your end and you should try to figure it out before you date any new anyones.

So, learning enough, and adjusting enough, to be able to treat someone new as innocent till proven guilty, vs. punish them arbitrarily.

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Alexandria, Va.: Duh, why can't the woman from the beginning of the chat who wants to get married to the guy ASK HIM HERSELF? Screw the old fashioned permission from the dad. It's not important.

Carolyn Hax: To you, nor, I would argue, to the fact of marriage itself, but it obviously is to her, so I didn't even bother. Besides, that's several rounds of fairy-dust removal away. (Kind of like asbestos, you need a special suit.)

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Arlington, Va.: For those with suicidal friends: Call 1-800-SUICIDE. The people who staff this line are trained to talk to people who are contemplating suicide AND their loved ones. You may also be able to find out more resources to help yourself and/or your friend.

Carolyn Hax: Not one I've checked out, but thanks muchly.

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Re: Philandering: "And some of your loves probably will lose interest, fall for someone else, or cheat. Or all three. So assume it and get on with your life."

So now we should just assume our other is going to cheat or lose interest in us?

Carolyn Hax: (Sound of forehead on plaster.)

"Some of," meaning, those who don't marry the first girl whose pigtails they dipped in the inkwell, and therefore are going to be in more than one relationship in their lifetimes, are going to find out what it feels like to finish second. Though I hate win-lose analogies and am just trying to get this posted before you all doze off.

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Reston, Va.: My next door neighbor has a crush on me and it is to the point where he is now "always" around when I come/go from my apt. He also leaves mushy notes on my door. I had ONE dinner with him and there were no sparks (on my end). I left it at that, but he is crazed and possessed and I am not sure what to do. He is recovering from a broken marriage (2 years ago). I am to the point where I want to scream every time I see him. Last night I got home after midnight and he was on his apt. deck (with all the lights out) watching me walk into my apt. CREEPS! I have told him that I am not interested and that he has creeped me out. He isn't getting the hint.

What should I do?

Carolyn Hax: Read "The Gift of Fear," soon soon, call the local police to talk about your options. I have other thoughts on this but will sleep better if you go through trained, professional channels.

Sorry for the delay--I was looking for another resource for you but couldn't find. Please e-mail tellme@washpost.com and I'll send it to you.

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Carolyn Hax: Oh my lost track of the time. Thanks everybody and type to you next Friday.

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