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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006; 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 offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there -- really recently. Carolyn Hax is a 30-something ex-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.

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Been There: I had to respond to the letter in the Post last Friday from the husband who is concerned about his wife's difficulty with being excited about her pregnancy after a string of first trimester losses.

I had three miscarriages before luckily having a happy, healthy daughter. My husband also shared in the writer's frustration with how to reconcile his excitement with my state of panic.

What concerned us both about the letter was the similarity of their experience to ours, and the fact that we had no idea that things would get far worse before they got better.

What no one saw coming was the horrible case of postpartum depression that hit me like a ton of bricks. Fortunately my OB put me in touch with a fantastic psychiatrist who specializes in reproductive mental health. Multiple miscarriage is a huge contributing factor to PPD and I strongly urge this couple to seek medical attention as soon as possible to prevent it or head it off at the pass.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. They do appear to be connected, so anticipating that might be a big help.

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Richmond, Va.: OK, my wife of five years hates my dog. I had him prior to getting married and when we fused as a couple, Spotty came along. I see him as sweet, fun, energetic and cute. She sees him as dirty, irritating, hyper and ever-present (but cute!) We have no kids so this pup is my pride and joy. My wife and I don't argue much, save over the dog, so what is the best way to work through this? Giving him up would greatly pain me, but I'd do it, grudgingly, if it came to it.

Carolyn Hax: I should probably ask first instead of just assuming he's had no real obedience training, but I like my assumption so much I'm going with it. Get him some obedience training. It's neither cute nor necessary for a dog to be hyper, and it's also cruel--because hyper=nervous=unsure of the house rules, and because it's so often the reason dogs lose their homes.

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Boston, Mass.: Carolyn:

I moved in with my boyfriend about two years ago because we were getting married. A female neighbor still doesn't like the new arrangement because she doesn't acknowledge me or our relationship. She only talks to my husband when I'm not around.

Do you think I should be concerned -- or is it harmless? Should I say something or does my husband need to?

Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Tough for me to make that call from here, but people on the ridiculous end of the spectrum tend to be harmless. Besides, if there were "harm" here, it would stem from your boyfriend, not from neighbors bent on homewrecking. If you're okay with the way he handles the neighbor, then you're probably okay, and if you're not, then it's time to say something to him.

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Backhanded Complimenter: So...I've been looking good lately... new clothes, new haircut, great multivitamin, etc. Proud of myself for taking care of me, even in light of a very demanding job, and even after coming out of a some very low, hard times. Saw my evil mother in law, and the first thing out of her mouth was, "Are you pregnant? People like you don't look this good unless they're knocked up?"

I am still smarting, because I was feeling so confident and so good about myself. Should I have taken it as a compliment? Is there some humor in this that I am just not seeing?

FWIW... not pregnant. At all. Not even a little bit.

Carolyn Hax: There's always humor in how far people will go to retain the upper hand. She knows she gets to you. Be happy in knowing you got to her, too, finally--and congratulations on the transformation.

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For Richmond, Va.: He should also take some time to take the dog for a long walk each day. Tires the dog (making him more pleasant to be around) and gives the wife a bit of a break from the dog's presence. Worked for us...

Carolyn Hax: Right on the wet nose. Tired dogs are good dogs, bored ones misbehave. Day one of owner obedience training.

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Jobs: Do you think we'll all look back on our lives when we're old and gray and wish we had worked less and spent more time with loved ones more? I have a full-time job I really like and a part-time job which I took just for fun. But I can't help but miss the free time I used to have with my wife. Have considered quitting the PT job, but the excuse "I miss my free time with my wife" sounds so silly in reality, though I suspect it's a perfectly good reason. What do you think?

Carolyn Hax: It's a great reason. If I had to generalize, I'd say we'll live to regret living according to generalizations instead of doing what's right for ourselves and those close to us.

And if liking your wife sounds silly, then marriage definitely needs a new publicist.

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Richmond, Va.: RE Wife hates dog scenario:

As much as the writer says it would pain him to give up his dog, it would pain the poor dog even more. I work in dog rescue, and I see the suffering dogs experience when their humans abandon them. Please, please get the obedience training, and if that for some unlikely reason should not work, call one of the many reputable rescue groups in Richmond to get information on rehoming your dog responsibly. He will still suffer, but at least he will survive.

Carolyn Hax: Great, now I'm going to cry. But thank you.

I'm also going to change the subject, if any of you are getting worried.

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Washington, D.C.: My best friend and her husband had themselves their first baby about eight weeks ago. What's an average timeframe before I can reasonably expect her to express an interest in my life again? I understand our friendship has changed forever on some levels and that things are going to be stressful for her for a while, and I'm willing to shoulder the balance of that for however long I'm supposed to. At some point, though, I'm going to need my friend back, even if it's only for five minutes on the phone once a week. (It probably goes without saying that I am single and childless.) How long will it be all baby, all the time, before I am justified in getting a little annoyed about it? Online only, please, thank you!

Carolyn Hax: If your friend, conceptually, can't hear or talk about anything non-baby, it's about your friend and it's not changing anytime soon, most likely.

If your friend, literally, can't hear or talk about anything--over the baby's screaming or through her own sleep deprivation--then it's about you and you need to be more patient.

Either way, eight weeks is a little early to be expecting anything about your friend "back." Some babies are easier than others and some parents are more laid-back than others, but almost all newborns find a way to suck every last free thought and minute out of their parents, at least until parents and babies get to know each other well enough to strike some kind of deal.

So if you're going to speak up about feeling neglected--which is a perfectly fair thing to do--please at least wait till the baby's about four months old.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn, love the chats!

How do you stop yourself from being insecure about a new relationship that has moved on from the initial two-month stage of intensity, butterflies, lots of togetherness, into what is presumably a more settled, comfortable stage.

I have myself convinced he's going to break up with me any second, and I hate being so insecure. (I was dumped suddenly and out of the blue last spring, and I hate that this is still affecting my thought process).

I am reading into everything he says and does, and everything he doesn't say and do, looking for signs.

Carolyn Hax: please remind yourself that you have some power here, too. While we certainly can't make people like us or stop them from dumping us, it's incredibly self-defeating to slam yourself reflexively into the role of Waiting to See What S/He does. It's essentially the same as declaring that you want him no matter what he says or does, and your only focus now is to keep him. Well, he may be great, but nobody's that great, to get a free pass from any further thought or scrutiny.

So, think, and scrutinize. What do YOU want from this person, what are YOU doing to get that, what are YOU feeling after you and he see each other, what do YOU think of HIS jokes/manners/ideas/behavior/ways of showing affection? Do you even like him? Is he really someone you want, or do you just -not- want to get dumped? And is that enough of a foundation for being with somebody?

Think of it as letting your brain take a few slow deep breaths, so it doesn't hyperventilate.

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BAR: The bar results come out at 4:30 for Georgia and I can't sit still and the dread is INTENSE. What can I do to relax? I'm supposed to be doing legal work.

Carolyn Hax: Do legal work. Whatever is going to happen has already happened.

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Speaking of upper hand and one upping: So co-worker always does things smarter, faster, better than anyone else. Some talks about how they saved $10 on a book, he interrupts to tell how he saved $50. If someone had to work two jobs to get through school, he worked three. I honestly think if someone came in and said, "wow my weekend was rough. i was gang-banged by biker gnomes," he would say "oh that reminds me of the time i was gangbanged by goth biker gnomes."

Not trying to sound bitter, jealous or anything beyond annoyed since others are trying to tell their stories. Besides just walking away, any ideas?

Carolyn Hax: You know, goth biker gnomes have a hard enough time assimilating without these random, baseless attacks.

Just say, "Wow, you don;t say," or whatever non-response comes to you. Even though you're probably right that it's one-upsmanship, it doesn't sound malicious (like the mother-in-law) so much as scared--like he's socially awkward and wants to participate/show empathy but hasn't a clue how to do it without accomplishing the virtual opposite. Just a theory.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Why is everyone so focused on having children? I see a world that is already over-populated and unsustainable and would not want to bring a child into this mess. Am I the only one that feels this way? Is popular culture driving it (graduate, get married, buy house, have children, divorce...)? So is it nature, nuture, a combination or just shortsightedness? What am I missing?

Carolyn Hax: Not "everyone" is so focused on having children. Take the chip off your shoulder and just let us respect your choice not to have kids. People combine their circumstances and values and ideals and beliefs and either choose to have kids or they don't. Thinking people can come to different conclusions, and neither conclusion has sole claim to the moral high ground.

Unless you voluntarily decline to collect Social Security, or health care, legal work, or grocery-bagging performed people younger than you are. Then it's allll yours.

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Charming...: I'm absolutely charming when I'm not attracted to a woman and incredibly shy when I am. I have a bevy of married and older women friends that just think I am the bomb. Attractive, intelligent, equalitarian, sensitive, caring, etc. You know, everything women claim they like in a man. Anyway, I haven't dated for almost four years. Any suggestions?

Carolyn Hax: Dating is a rough way to get to know people--so loaded with expectations, and therefore nerves, miscues, and excessive spending. Proximity is a much more forgiving way to go; just being around the same people on a regular basis allows for second, third, ninth impressions, which eases pressure and lets people see each other in a more natural light. As in, the way you know your married/older female friends. How you get proximity is up to you, and isn't always easy, but most people get it in ways they don't even realize, through work, school, church, neighbors, where you buy coffee and do your errands. If those aren't expanding your social circle the way you'd liek, then you move into signing up for things that align well with your interests. Then you either meet people who share your interests, or you just spend your time on something that interests you, which can't be all bad.

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One up with Kids: So my kids aren't perfect, but apparantly my co-worker's only child is. How do I listen to the constant "Joey is reading at a 8th grade level at age 4" and "Joey was awarded the most amazing pre-schooler trophy?" I try to be happy for the kid and say what a great kid (s)he is ((s)he is really just a regular child, with some gifts, like every child). I find myself resenting both the parent and child.

Carolyn Hax: No! Feel for the poor kid. No little shoulders can carry expectations like that. Sorry you have to listen to the momster, though, and whomp up endless daily variations on, "You don't say ..."

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Virginia: Do you believe we do not choose who we fall in love with? It just happens?

Carolyn Hax: I think a good deal of attraction is subconscious, but unless you're forced into proximity with someone, it's conscious choice to keep that person's company, long enough and often enough for love to develop.

BTW, I also think the subconscious can be adjusted, by choice, by paying attention to habits and patterns and etc.

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Childless in Atlanta: Wow; talk about chips on shoulders (the response); why not answer the question? Why DO people today have children? Both parents work and have hardly any free time and everyone seems stressed out with the soccer games, etc. It's no longer to help out with the farm work. Is it for ego (to make "mini-me's"), to seem "normal" in society's eyes or please the family, to have a built-in caretaker in old age? My theory is that it's in response to a basic existential crisis; introducing another life gives your own life meaning, which actually seems to me to be a viscious cycle. We childless-by-choice want to know.

Carolyn Hax: How is your answer not an in-your-face judgment of people who choose to have children?

And how was mine angry or defensive? My point was that both choices are fine. In fact, both are necessary. Older people need a younger generation to sustain them. And, a younger generation needs not to be so recklessly produced that there aren't resources enough to sustain them. So, some people have kids and some don't, and they all rush their urges to be smug and judgmental into the nearest soundproof room.

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Washington, D.C.: My friend went through a super needy period. She has recently admitted to it and is sort of getting better. I can't seem to get over the image of the crazy-need-focus-on-me girl and just see my friend. I know things were tough, but why am I still so worked up about it?

Carolyn Hax: I don't know. Have any theories?

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Washington, D.C.: Carolyn,

When do fleeting and indulgent thoughts of suicide become cause for concern? If I'm tired or bored and it's led me to a depressive mood, I'll often find myself thinking that I should just step off the curb and into traffic. Once I catch the thoughts, I snap myself out of it and return to reality, where I am in no way a suicidal person. I'm wondering, though, if I should consider what are probably merely broken-record-melodramatic daydreams as something more sinister, something that I should keep my eye on. Your thoughts?

Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: My thoughts are that we all have dire thoughts, sometimes. Who can be near the curb on a busy street and not ever wonder ...?

But of you're having these thoughts as part of something you know to be a "depressive" mood--i.e., if you have a known illness, a history of illness or even a recurring suspicion of illness, then I can't see any reason not to make an appointment. Better to be out an hour and 150 bucks than ... ?

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Childless in Alexandria: Hey Atlanta, speak for yourself! I don't have or want kids but I would never try to boil down the desire to have them as an "existential crisis". Geez, I don't have kids because I don't want to. Others have kids because they do. Why read any more into it than that?

Carolyn Hax: It's a good question. Driving a $130,000 gas hog is pop culture meets existential crisis; having kids is a little more complicated.

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One-upping co-worker: (Not the one with the perfect child; that one will just become the butt of jokes during off-hours conversations, if my office is any example)

For the "my weekend is better than your weekend" guy, I recommend a tag team approach: one of you gets to have the Best Weekend Ever, the other the Worst Weekend Ever. Cow-orker is so conflicted about whether his weekend was better than the best or worse than the worst, he will disappear in a puff of quantum logic. It will be great, and you might even get a Novel Prize.

Carolyn Hax: Sounds good, but I want the Navel Prize.

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Chicago, Ill.: Carolyn,

I feel stuck. I am stuck. Stuck in a marriage I'm not sure I should be in, stuck in a company I'm not sure I want to be an employee of, stuck in a mid-30s panic about whether to have children. I feel unfulfilled, unmotivated, unsure. I've been to therapists. Two. They were nice and helpful in getting me to think about patterns and past behavior and being true to whoever I am, but they never un-stuck me. Not sure what to do now.

Carolyn Hax: Pick one small thing that you think will make your life better (better-better, not 20-minutes better followed by hangover followed by making life worse), and start doing it. Exercise, a new skill, a hobby, a tough conversation, something that makes -you- better. Hint: It's probably something you already know but are making excuses to avoid because you're afraid of it for some reason--maybe because it runs counter to how you normally see yourself.

Try that, in earnest; give it time to show results; write back if it doesn't help.

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Washington, D.C.: What?! I've never ever been near a curb on a busy street and thought I should step out in front of traffic. Doesn't seem normal to me and something more than "just should be watched". Possible indicator of bipolar disorder?

Carolyn Hax: Well, there are distinctions within this that are really important, I believe. Thinking "I should step out in traffic" is a thought that belongs in a doctor's office; thinking, "Wow, there's nothing to keep a person from stepping out in traffic" is just, I dunno, appreciating that life is a pretty thin thread.

Which brings me back to, anyone who is worried should heed that and consult with a reputable therapist.

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Help!: How does one distinguish between a mere crush and feelings for another person that are more substantial?

Carolyn Hax: Preferably, by the potential consequences of acting on the feelings.

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On Having Children: Having a child needs to be more than a choice. It is a moral delimna that I don't think you are considering carefully enough. The caring capacity of the earth is finite, and at some point people have to decide whether their desire for children (which is legitimate, I feel it myself) is outweighed by the need to make the earth a better place. Don't you think that should at least be a consideration?

Carolyn Hax: That -I'm- not considering carefully enough?

I have potential parents weighing their "circumstances and values and ideals and beliefs." I make the disctintion that "Thinking" people can come to different conclusions. That's hardly an endorsement of breeding at will. Concern for the capacity of the earth falls under values, ideals, beliefs AND circumstances.

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Re: Help!: How does one distinguish between a mere crush and feelings for another person that are more substantial?

Carolyn Hax: Preferably, by the potential consequences of acting on the feelings.

I don't get it, what does your answer mean??

Carolyn Hax: Meaning, if there are dire consequences, treat it as a crush, and if there aren't dire consequences, test it out for signs of real substance.

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Oh, C'mon: Bipolar disorder? I'm all for diagnosing mental illness, but we're just talking about the feeling one gets at the edge of a roof - what if?

Between thinking that everyone who has kids, or doesn't have kids, is suffering from a diagnosable mental illness of some sort, and thinking that the occasional random thought warrants hospitalization, this is turning into one heck of a Friday afternoon.

Carolyn Hax: You forgot the Goth Biker Gnomes.

I feel the urge to slam my head into my keyboard. Clearly I am hgcljhgdpolar.

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For Stuck in Chicago: And DON'T have kids until you are unstuck and SURE you want them!!

Carolyn Hax: Right, right. Missed that. Sorry.

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Idiot wind: How do you fight character assasination, people generating rumors that are misleading or untrue? People are such social cows that this can be a huge problem, no one ever thinks to ask me my side of any of this crap.

Carolyn Hax: I'm not sure I have an answer, i just like "Idiot wind."

Ignore it, I guess; behave as the person who clearly would not do these rumored horrible things; let the rumormongers keep behaving as people who would do horrible things, such as spread rumors; correct the record as opportunity presents.

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Anonymous: Seriously, Carolyn, Vikings or Pats? I have to finish up the office pool and I can decide.

Carolyn Hax: Pats. If you lose, that's your punishment for asking me.

--Person Who Walked Up Ramp to Upper Deck of Gillette Stadium While 7 Months Pregnant With Twins

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think differences in religious belief is an impossible relationship hurdle, say Evangelical vs. Darwinist? Sometimes I look at Matalin and Carville and think anything is possible.

Carolyn Hax: In so many ways.

Sometimes differences in beliefs are just differences in how you arrange the spiritual furniture. Sometimes, it's about living life on different planets. Up to you to figure out which is the case.

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Re: Traffic stepper: So is it or isn't it normal to think about these things? I never thought it was abnormal and I never thought about actually doing it but the thought that you can change the course of your life (if you succeed or not when steping out) and somebody else's life (that who ran you over) is very powerful, and scary. And makes you consider how sacred you view your life and others. Society functions and lives on this very thin line of what's acceptable or not and we're relying on the people around us (in the next car in traffic, or walking down the street past us, etc.) to behave as society dictates and not do something crazy and hope they value life the way that you do, and vice versa (like if you step out in traffic, consider how it can possibly ruin the person's life who just ran you over).

Carolyn Hax: What you said. I think it's totally normal, and at the root of what it is to be philosophical.

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Needy friend: Having trouble getting over your needy friend? Try this jacket on and see how it fits: You resent her ability to request/demand what she needs because you can't do it yourself.

If she had broken her foot and been on crutches and needed rides from you, help with doors, carrying things, etc. would you still be cheezed off?

Can you accept your own weaknesses or do you despise it so much in yourself that you despise it when others show it?

I'm still working on that last one, myself.

Carolyn Hax: Interesting take, thank you.

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Parent to nursing home?: Any advice on how one goes about having their parent put into some kind of care facility? She simply can't care for herself, and Dad can't keep doing it. She's lucid sometimes, other times she makes up terrible stories about family members and tells it to strangers in the drug store. Where do I start?

Carolyn Hax: Talk to her doctor; talk to the head of a local senior center; talk to someone in the geriatrics dept of the nearest hospital; if your mom is religious, talk to someone in that community about good care providers. That's just a start, but generally you start to hear the same names over and over once you start asking.

Keep an ear out for family support resources, too--it's a tough thing to do, a lot of guilt to go around.

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RE: Idiot Wind: BTW, Idiot Wind is a Dylan song.

Carolyn Hax: Did he offer any advice?

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Washington, D.C.: Carolyn -

I had a great first date! I'm hopeful! How do I not screw this up?

Carolyn Hax: Don't be hopeful!

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Pregnant with twins: We need a new word to express "pregnant with twins". Can you or your readers suggest some? The word pregnant does not lend itself to retooling, so I'm having a very hard time.

Carolyn Hax: Colossal.

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Re: Stuck: I hate to say this but sometimes therapy requires alot of time and a not so nice therapist. It took me 7 years and 3 therapists to work out some issues of mine. There were times when I was frustrated, felt like I was spinning my wheels, "wasting money" on therapy, etc. But, in the end, it was all worth it. I'm not perfect by any stretch. I still have some residual issues. But, I don't feel depressed or hopeless the way I did. The difference internally is still very apparent to me and friends from that period say they almost don't recognize me.

I'm not saying that YOU have to use therapy, just that you might consider trying again with a therapist who may push you a little harder to challenge some of your patterns and the underlying beliefs/ideas.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. One more therapy ad:

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Brentwood, Md.: I think that Washington, D.C., should definitely get screened for depression. He/she said they "often" have these thoughts of stepping into traffic. Also, I wouldn't just go to any therapist, but I would go to one who works in cooperation with a psychiatrist who can prescribe medications. If you have to go to a primary care dr first to get a referral, so be it. But if it's a serious thing, you'll want to see a psych. For the past year, I've been working with a therapist and a psychiatrist to deal with what I now see to be lifelong depression and anxiety. I think it's important to work with someone who is a specialist and knows about all the different possible drug combinations.

Carolyn Hax: The point about cooperation is a good one, for people who do go the screening route. Thanks.

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Charming to whom?: FWIW - "charming" consistently described himself in terms of other people's perceptions: e.g. "married and older women friends think I am...attractive, intelligent, equalitarian, sensitive, caring everything women claim they like in a man." He might encounter more success with women/greater happiness in life by making sure that HE likes who he is (most of the time, at least). If you require a glowing report card from your prospects, anyone would have reason to be stressed, which might translate into a lack of interpersonal connections.

Carolyn Hax: Possible he set it up that way to make the comparison between types of women he knows--but, that said, you make a lot of sense. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: How do I deal with probably well meaning co workers who assume that because I am quiet at work there must not be anything to me? I have sometimes a too active social life, obligations to activities and groups, and I do some freelance work, so when I'm at work, I just want to get my work done. I am more friendly and relaxed around the people my age, but I try to have a more respectful and professional demeanor around older people. It's frustrating to get comments like "wow, you do X, I always thought you were so uninteresting" or a surprised expression when I have a fun answer to "what did you do last night?" Why do people assume that just because I'm not making a big effort to be best friends with coworkers I don't have anything in common with, that I must be quiet and boring in my personal life? And how do I stop caring about that anyway?

Carolyn Hax: That's the real question, why do you care.

Well, after the other real question, why you're judging people based on age.

Do your work, treat all people fairly and let time sort it all out.

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Washington, D.C: It's me, the "traffic stepper" (I'm adopting the moniker for the purposes of this chat only; never fear). I was diagnosed with low-level chronic depression years ago, but I'd never experienced suicidal tendencies. Basically what I'm asking is how to understand the difference between an indulgent depressive thought ("Oh my life is worthless yada") and an actual suicidal impulse. I hadn't actually articulated my concerns before this, though, because up until recently, my life had been going very smoothly. Lately, I've been more down than I would like, however, and now that I've written in here and gotten some feedback, I think it's pretty clear that some investigative therapy couldn't hurt my case at all. But to put all the chatters at ease, I don't have any plans to off myself or to ruin the life of a motorist, or possibly kill him or her. I think I really just needed to put my concerns on paper, so to speak. Thanks for the forum.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you, and thanks for putting your thoughts into words and getting us all thinking.

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Traffic-stepper here: It's been a bad several weeks and I'm getting close to traffic-stepping today. Great timing for the chat, eh?

Any words of wisdom to someone who has worked so hard at so much only to find it all failing her, a week before her birthday?

Feeling sad, sick, and desperate. Tried submitting a more-rounded-out question but guess it got lost in the mix.

Thanks,

Carolyn Hax: First, the stuff I can't skip: If you fear for yourself, get help. Thank yew.

Now: wisdom. Heh. The experience you're having now is the source of wisdom here, not me. It's telling you that hard work is a guarantee of nothing--except, I suppose, for the knowledge that you have in fact worked hard.

Which is no small comfort, actually. Watching everything go to crap when you know you could have done more is actually worse, since then you can find no end of ways to blame yourself.

In your case, you gave whatever-it-is a hell of a shot and it didn't work out. It happens, it happens, it happens. Sometimes there's nothing in it for anybody, but I think that's extremely rare. Instead, almost always, there's a prize in there that's bigger than the thing you were originally after--the knowledge that you can fall as hard as you're falling now, and then get back up. It takes a while for it all to play out, but when it does, you'll have an inner resource you didn't have before. Till then, just wait for the WALK signal, please. Thanks.

And hey, happy birthday.

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Maryland: I'm flying out to meet my boyfriend's folks for the first time tonight. We're staying with them for the WHOLE weekend... Any advice?

Carolyn Hax: Offer to help and mean it; don't try to be someone you're not; make eye contact; skip the baked beans; send a thank-you note.

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Monster blunder for a friday afternoon: HELP! I've been casually dating several guys I met through an online dating service. The inevitable happened - I called John Doe thinking it was John Buck and left a message. Is there any way to recover from this? I'm pretty sure it was a harmless message, and we've only had one date.

Carolyn Hax: If John Doe laughs, it's a great sign. If he doesn't, it was one date.

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Luxembourg, Luxembourg: Do you think it's ridiculous for a 40-year-old guy to get hair plugs for a receding hairline?

Carolyn Hax: The hairline keeps receding; the plugs do not. The math is doable.

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Boston, Mass.: Help! I've been doing almost nothing but studying for a Ph.D for the last six years and I think I've lost all my social skills. Now that I have a little more time to go out, I feel like the world's most boring person-I can barely remember how to engage in interesting conversation anymore. Any tips on how to reconnect with people?

Carolyn Hax: T-shirt with: Humor me, I've just spent six years in my head.

Or: Start enjoying all the things you had to give up for your PhD--newspapers, magazines, movies, music, restaurants. Consuming culture is to be in the culture, which is to be in a position to converse. Like riding a bike, right?

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Burlington, Canada: My boss is very mean. But I don't really need advice in terms of getting out of here. I am trying and looking actively for a new job. But for a bit I am still here. Any good jokes or funny stories that will get me through the day? Nuts?

Carolyn Hax: Mean Boss walks into a bar ...

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Syracuse, N.Y.: Carolyn, what is your opinion on obtaining a professional background check on a potential marriage partner?

Carolyn Hax: How would you feel if that partner did it to you?

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Carolyn Hax: Will put Liz out of her misery. Bye, all, thank you, and type to you next week.

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