Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007; 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 an 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.

A transcript follows.

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

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Carolyn Hax: Hi everybody.

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New England: Hi Carolyn,

I have a coworker who comments -- loudly -- about my eating habits and questions -- loudly -- how I "stay so thin" when I "eat like a little piglet." It is unbelievably embarrassing. Actually, this woman comments loudly and at length about anything and everything within her own sight and earshot, but this pushes me over the edge.

She's like, 6 feet tall and reminds me of Bridgette Neilsen, so I'm kind of scared of her.

Carolyn Hax: Sounds like you've got a source of entertainment on your hands, more than a source of annoyance. Stay back from the edge, and try try try to see how funny this is -- in a so-awful-it's-funny kind of way, of course. It's an acquired taste but one worth acquiring.

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I think you cracked the code: "....they don't trust (or just aren't interested in) approval that's easy to get."

With that one phrase, you may have just summed up the totality of my relationships. Well played. But, how do you balance wanting to be with someone who has standards (won't just take anyone) vs. being with someone that makes every. little. thing. so much work?

P.S. -- Absolutely love you, love your chats.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you.

What you describe are two different things. Completely different things. You can "have standards" and be completely easygoing, and you can be uptight and nit-picky and still be non-selective when pairing off. In fact, I think these two combinations occur more in nature than the ones you imply -- easygoing plus will date anyone, and fussy plus selective about partners.

Here's the thing (warning: beware of flying generalizations): People who are easygoing often are that way because they're comfortable with themselves. Being comfortable with yourself often means you know what you like in people and aren't going to spend a whole lot of time with people who don't do it for you.

Being critical is often a sign of internal flux -- doubts, insecurities, fears of being powerless and that people are taking advantage, all that fun stuff. And people in that position 1. tend to feel better paired off than single, and so will pair off quickly; and 2. tend to see bickering and other signs of a bad fit as normal, and so will stay in something past the point where it's not working.

And so, the rabbit out of the hat -- the person who likes you for you and doesn't get on your back for every little thing might just be the one who's harder to get.

Does that work?

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Washington, D.C.: Any good book recommendations for an only child (adult/single/female) with a mom who is turning everyone against her (past menopause so I can't use that excuse) including her sisters? She's a "middle child", so I'm wondering if that has something to do about it. Whatever I say or suggest is taken completely the wrong way and I'm then called nasty or told that I have an attitude problem (I like to think of it as a strong personality thanks to being an only and having her as a mother)! Sadly, she's just like her father was and most of the grandkids couldn't stand him. My poor dad takes the brunt of it. Thankfully I moved out of state a few years ago.

Carolyn Hax: Any chance of illness? Advanced age plus personality change equals time to have a look. "Just like her father" could mean there's a family history of whatever illness it is.

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Fairfax, Va.: I want to go get and tested for STDs but I'm too scared. How can I get the strength to do this?

Carolyn Hax: Think of it this way. You already have one, or you already don't. So, no matter what, the test will improve your life -- either by letting you know you don't have an STD, or by giving you a chance to get the right treatment for your STD.

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New England: What's your take on this Carolyn? BF lied to cover up a forgivable but hurtful action. Was so guilt-ridden he copped to everything about 24 hours later. Admitted he should have neither lied nor committed hurtful action. Said I had a right to be upset and hurt and express that in any way I felt necessary. Apologized profusely. Promised to never do it again. I hate lying. It's pretty much the worst thing someone can do (cheating and lying are basically the same thing to me). I'm inclined to forgive, though, because I feel like he was genuinely contrite (there were tears, and those never happen). What say you?

Carolyn Hax: I say inclinations based on actual, current events are more useful than predispositions. Trust yourself.

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Re: Responding to people's rude comments: I agree that trying to see these comments as funny can help keep one's sanity, but I also found that simply responding with the phrase "wow" (and nothing more) helps too. It kind of takes the person off guard and they don't know where to go from there so they usually go away. Consistently repeat as necessary and eventually even morons begin to feel uncomfortable and curb their ways.

Carolyn Hax: I just had a mental image of a pack of morons not knowing where to go. They were all just standing there with their arms at their sides. I guess you have to be in my head to see it.

Anyway, thanks, I like "wow."

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Re: Washington: I know you can only respond based on what you're given, but a couple things in Washington's post about her mother make me wonder how much of the problem is her mother's and how much is her own. She offers up menopause and middle child status and describes her own personality as strong because she had a cranky mom (I'm paraphrasing)? I think maybe her mother is right and she's the one with the attitude problem.

Carolyn Hax: There's always that. Thanks.

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Slowly aging out of the system...: So I'm a 30-plus single guy confused about what I want out of a partner. I'm young enough to get the hot twenty-something body, but old enough to actually enjoy some common sense and maturity. I date one; I want the other. I get the other, I long for the former. Confused yet? I sure am.

Any guidance on how to balance these competing (and to my mind, completely valid) desires?

Carolyn Hax: SEE THEM AS NOT COMPETING. Physical and internal attractiveness are NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE.

Oh never mind.

Alternate.

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Anger Problems: How can I learn to better please people so they (hopefully) won't get angry at me? Although most of the people in my life seem even-tempered, I automatically expect everyone to withhold their approval when I don't meet their standards or expectations. I'm in emotional turmoil whenever anyone gets angry at me. If it's someone very close to me, sometimes I get nauseous and dizzy. There must be some way to live without running the risk of angering others.

Carolyn Hax: It's impossible to go through life without p***ing anyone off. It is possible to get used to the idea that eventually you'll p*** people off, and it isn't the worst thing.

Please address your emotional turmoil -- first by understanding its source, then by calming it down, and finally by learning to minimize the effects of whatever turmoil remains. When your emotions have seized control of your life plan, then it's time to do something. If you've tried looking at it that way without results, then the right (reputable) counselor might work wonders.

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Bethesda, Md.: I like to be aware of my faults and try to tackle issues that need improvement. But sometimes I find this to be a little bit self defeating, for example, recognizing that I am insecure and then saying "I'm insecure and need to fix this," actually ends up making me feel worse and more insecure-almost like telling myself I'm that way has me living up to that expectation. Where as telling myself "I am confident and secure" and thinking of myself in this way helps me to feel more confident and secure even though it's denying that I do have some insecurity issues. Any advice on overcoming this catch-22?

Carolyn Hax: "I have insecurity issues, and my best remedy so far has been to remind myself that I am confident and secure despite them."

A little long for a mantra, but might help put a sock in your inner voice.

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Re. mom again: But her own siblings see it, too and she doesn't talk to some of them and if she does, she's short and curt. Dad and I are in the middle since the siblings will talk to us and ask us what's up.

Carolyn Hax: Okay then. With such a big, concerned and plugged-in team, you should be able to cover the research end pretty quickly. Get on the Web, look for the high-quality, authoritative sites on aging and mental illness, and start looking for stuff you recognize. You have your mom's and grandfather's behavior as the target, as well as her siblings' behavior for purposes of comparison.

When you think you're on to something, don't treat it as a diagnosis, but as an arrow pointing you to the right type of professional to talk to about the problem.

You say your mom hasn't been receptive to the possibility she's ill, but that doesn't mean any knowledge you acquire will be useless. More info is always better, even if you use it only to adjust your expectations of your mom's behavior.

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Arlington, Va.: So I'm a 30-something single gal not sure what I want out of a guy. Sometimes I'm hoping to meet someone completely vapid who will leave me the minute a 23-year-old flashes her thong and other times I'm hoping to meet an intelligent man who still lives in his parents' basement. Jeez, dude, get over yourself.

Carolyn Hax: ooh, Mr. Aging Out of the System, you're getting -killed-. This is just the funniest.

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NYC: Hi Carolyn,

I need some apartment etiquette advice, if I'm having a "private pleasure time" in my bedroom and a neighbor comes into their room (above or below or on the side) should I just stop whatever I'm doing, even if they do this repeatedly? Does it make a difference if I'm alone or if we're a couple? What does the neighbor owe me in the way of privacy?

Carolyn Hax: Nothing. These people are in their apartments! I'm not going to cower in the kitchen because you chose to have "private pleasure time" when I had plans to move freely about my own home.

Be quieter, make peace with the earthier side of your humanity, or move.

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Takoma Park: The "wow" thing...BRILLIANT!

Best inter-office/cubicle land advice I have ever heard.

Carolyn Hax: Isn't it?

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Romantically frustrated: Carolyn,

I keep repeating the same frustrating patterns over and over in my romantic life. I meet a guy, we fall head over heals for each other, we eventually get into many fights during which I break it off multiple times only to get back together, and then when the guy finally gets frustrated with the relationship and leaves, I pursue him only to get rejected and heartbroken. Also, during the relationships I usually am feeling confused, drained, and overly-emotional. And quite often, after a break-up, although sad and heartbroken, I feel relief like a major weight has been lifted from my shoulders. What's wrong with me and should I see a therapist? I am really a nice person and I want to be in a fulfilling relationship. I am afraid of repeating this same pattern again. Thank you in advance.

Carolyn Hax: A therapist wouldn't be a bad idea, assuming you find someone good. But if you want a place to start on your own, look at the "head over heels" portion of your program. That says a lot of adrenaline, a lot of emotion, a lot of instability -- three things you want in a two-hour movie but not in day-to-day life, not for long.

I can't say whether it's your notion of romantic love that needs tweaking (the instant-passion-or-bust attitude is so self-defeating), or whether you're wired to find difficult people attractive (see today's thread, starting with the print column). Maybe you just need to look to your more successful friendships to inform you more about what draws you to somebody.

Regardless, it's the big emotions that are swamping you, and so I think it would be helpful to start looking for people who make you feel good on a smaller, more sustainable scale. I think that's where the really big payoffs tend to be.

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Tone of voice?: Is it wow? Or wow! Or wow... is there a face that can go along with the wow? I'm picturing a confused grimace.

Carolyn Hax: I think tone and expression should be as flat as possible. But why take my word for it?:

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Re: Saying "wow": Your welcome. Note it only works if you say "wow" and then just stand there and say nothing else. Nothing like silence to make the person totally squirm.

Carolyn Hax: Wow.

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For Anger Problems: I was intrigued when I read Anger's e-mail. I just told my husband the other day the exact opposite thing. I told him that my new goal was not to be such a people pleaser. I know that I am a good person with a strong moral compass and I don't ever want to compromise that because I am afraid of people being angry with me. I've spent too long behaving "well" so that everyone will like me. My goal is to be okay with people not liking me.

Carolyn Hax: That's a horrible thing to do to people.

Just testing.

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urgh: "Private pleasure time"?

I don't think I can spell the face I'm making.

Carolyn Hax: I'm laughing too hard to think of anything to say

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"Mr. Aging Out" Responds: Always happy to provide amusement for the chattering classes. I think I'll post on Craigslist...

Me: Shallow, basement dwelling 30-something Neanderthal.

You: Early twenties, hot and brain-dead, or thirties with a job, a little sass, and a little sag. No perfect in-betweens need respond.

Maybe Arlington and I can ooze contempt for each other over drinks sometime.

Carolyn Hax: ditto

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DC: Hi, Carolyn. I'm about to turn 31 and have never lived alone...college dorms, roommates, significant others, etc. My lease in the place I share with a roommate is up in November and my options are to get a place with my current significant other (of 8 months at this point) or get my own place. I don't have a burning desire to live alone, but I'm also not chomping at the bit to move in with the SO or another roommate. How do I make this choice?

Carolyn Hax: There's nothing wrong with living alone when you're lukewarm to the idea, but there is plenty wrong with moving in with an SO when you're lukewarm to the idea.

Think of it that way.

and GET YOUR OWN PLACE.

Couldn't help myself.

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Meta-question: Hi Carolyn,

Here's a question you may not get too often: What do you think I should do if I recognize a friend's question to you online? I obviously know enough about the situation to recognize the person (I'm 100 percent certain I know who it is), but it made me feel so sad to read about how hurt she is about what's going on. On one hand, I'd like to reach out to her and say, Did you write to Carolyn? Do you want to talk about what's going on?, and on the other, I don't want to intrude because the chat is supposed to anonymous and if she wanted to come to me, she could (we've actually talked a lot about the situation). It was just so stark to read what she wrote and to see how poorly she's doing...

Carolyn Hax: Hm. The upshot is, she's doing poorly, and so your reaching out is more important than what you disclose. My guess is you'll mention the post when the opportunity presents itself, but you really can just decide to worry about that when you get there.

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Des Moines, Iowa: Dear Carolyn,

Love the chats!! Can a romantic relationship that you feel has been unfulfilling make you physically ill? I have been with someone for 2 years now, and the past 6 months-I can't sleep, constant aches and pains, generally feel like I am coming down with a cold, fatigued, can't concentrate. I feel like it is tied to the emotional stress I am feeling in a relationship where there has been dishonesty and unmet needs. Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: It's certainly possible. Make an appointment with your doctor and break off the relationship, just to cover your bases -- it could be you're physically ill and coincidentally in a bad relationship; you're physically ill with one thing and you also have symptoms of a different physical illness from the stress of a bad relationship; you're so stressed from the bad relationship that it's making you physically ill. I think that covers the possibilities.

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D.C.: I need help. When is a violent action so violent that you can't see your marriage going forward? Does punching walls count? Holes in doors? Throwing a small dog? Breaking or throwing things? What if he never actually touches you but does these things, is divorce justifiable then? And who do I feel I need to justify to. I come from a violent background. Maybe I am being too dramatic or maybe that has allowed me to be married too long and excuse these behaviors. Are these acceptable things from an otherwise good marriage?

Carolyn Hax: "Throwing a small dog"? Oh no. Call 1-800-799-SAFE, say you're in an abusive marriage and you have a history of violence in your ... family? And ask for local counseling referrals. You can also go to www.endabuse.org and start reading.

While none of these things is acceptable, harming a helpless creature is horrifying -- and not only that, but also a serious predictor of worse things to come.

There is nothing "otherwise good" about the marriage; compartmentalizing the violence like that separates it from the rest of the cycle, and you need to see the whole cycle to understand that it's all abuse -- the rages and the loving times in between. The pairing of the two is what's keeping you there, motivating you to keep trying figure out if you're doing something wrong by leaving. That is just as abusive as the violence. Please please get counseling. and also be very careful, since abusers act out more and violently when their victims start to feel empowered.

Please check back in: tellme@washpost.com

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Relationship making you sick: Yes, yes, yes! The person describes textbook symptoms of stress, even mild depression or dysthemia. Depression is often accompanied by "I ache all over." It would amaze people to realize how many of them feel crappy all the time because of cortisol. Along with your excellent suggestions, I would suggest that he/she start getting a lot more exercise -- even a walk helps dissipate the stress hormones and in fact produces chemicals that improve mood. Go out for a walk and wash that guy/gal right out of his/her hair. And see a doctor.

Carolyn Hax: A literal walk to aid the figurative. Nice. Thanks.

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marriage is hard: My husband and are having a difficult time with our relationship right now. Unfortunately we also have a lot of social events that we cannot miss. I don't really want to tell everyone about our personal problems, and I don't want anyone's sympathy. Am I a liar if I go to these events and act civil and social and as normal as can be with my husband when around other people? If so - does it make me a bad person?

Carolyn Hax: These events are "cannot miss" because, presumably, they center on someone or something that's important to both of you.

And so just your shared interest in supporting these someones or somethings is, in itself, a genuine reason for both of you to go -- and since creating a scene is no way to show your support, behaving civilly to each other is also a required element of your support.

So go as a civil, social couple and don't feel false or guilty about it.

I'm sorry you're struggling.

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Falls Church, Va.: Carolyn, I too have been wondering what to do if I recognize my friend's question to you online. I had no idea my buddy was feeling old and questioning his lifestyle with the hot twenty-somethings. I'd like to reach out to him, and say, did you write to Carolyn? Do you want to talk about what's going on? But I don't want to intrude if the chat is supposed to be anonymous.

Or should I just take him to a strip club?

Carolyn Hax: Just go visit him. Remember, take off your shoes before you cross the hall to the basement door -- his mom has that new white carpeting and she goes nuts if you track dirt on it.

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Washington, D.C.: Online only, please. My wife sometimes talks with a child's voice, but only around immediate family. I've told her that it makes me feel weirded out when she does it, and she has said that she'll try to stop, but that it's completely involuntary. I'm wondering what causes something like this, and what else I can do. Do you have any ideas?

Carolyn Hax: Fear would be my guess. Is her immediate family on the cold end of the affection spectrum? She could be embarrassed by displays of intimacy, and the little-girl voice is a way to be someone else, put on a mask.

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"Private pleasure time"? : I, for one, envisioned a glass of wine and a nice book. I'm not following why my neighbors would care...

Carolyn Hax: Ixnay on the whoopee-ushion-cay.

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re: marriage is hard: Marriage is also not particularly any of anyone else's business (other than kids if you have them, and even then only to a point). Choosing to not share private information with people who have no need to know it isn't lying.

Carolyn Hax: Indeed. Thanks.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Carolyn,

I'm about to spend a week at the beach with a group of about 8 girlfriends from high school -- we're in our mid twenties now. No one invited their significant others. One of my friends just emailed all of us that she invited two guys that we all went to high school with to "visit" during the week.

I can't help but be annoyed that she invited these guys. I feel like it was "understood" that this was a girl's-week thing. It's not that I don't like the guys she invited -- I was friends with them in high school too. But if this was going to be a co-ed thing, then I would have liked to invite my husband.

I think the biggest reason I'm hesitant to bring this up with her is because I'm newly married (3 months) and only one of the other girls is married (for 5 months), so bringing up "the husbands" is a new issue for my friends and I. But I also feel like this "disses" the friends who have boyfriends and didn't invite them along either.

If it matters, I know that this friend has a crush on one of the guys she invited. AND he's an ex of one of the other girls -- which brings me to the OTHER major annoyance -- THIS ALL FEELS SO HIGH SCHOOL.

Right now my plan is to not say anything if the guys just come for the day, but confront her if they stay the night. What say you? Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: The first four paragraphs made my head hurt. The last one sounds fine, except waiting till it's a confrontation might be more ... confrontational than necessary. Why not e-mail back and say that's fine if it's just for the day, but otherwise you'd rather it stay just the 8 of you.

If the guy-inviting girl protests, I'm not sure I'd push back. These group things tend to take on a life of their own anyway, and someone or something always "ruins" what someone had envisioned, and sometimes it's best just to go and have whatever fun occurs and then go home.

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Violence is violence: I grew up in a violent home, where my father would rage out of control and break and throw things, like today's poster is experiencing. That I never saw my dad hit my mom and that he never hit me doesn't matter. It was the out of control nature of his anger, and the resulting fear and terror, that was so damaging. A lot of people don't understand that domestic violence takes on many forms. When I say I grew up with domestic violence, people say "Did your Dad hit you?" as if it wasn't so bad if I wasn't in the ER. I'm learning to say "Does it matter?" I urge the poster to get help and be safe. You don't need or deserve to live like this.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you.

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Today's Letter: Carolyn,

The letter in today's column sounds to me almost as if the writer's partner has a different problem: she can't see any one else's viewpoint. I think she hasn't matured to the point where she can appreciate and consider that other people have different tolerances/personalities (ie, not everyone has the same level of sensitivity or need for 'alone time').

Pretty fundamental flaw. Unless he brings up to her that she's ascribing her personality and preferences to everyone in the universe, and she starts to work on maturity, doesn't sound like there's any hope. Not very far off from always needing to be right, and just as much of a relationship-killer.

Carolyn Hax: A good thought, thank you.

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I can do this...: Been married for about four months. Love my husband. A lot. Just found out he might be going to China for 2-3 months and leaving as soon as next week.

It's a great opportunity. I want to be supportive. Military families do this all the time, right? Over our four-year relationship he's been supportive of my many adventures (Grad school in another city - summers abroad) but we had more notice and more time to plan. And I'm unfamiliar in this role. Next week! Aaah!

And he's my rock and my best friend and this is all really fast. How to handle?

Carolyn Hax: You already said it: "I can do this." Not to minimize your circumstances, but it's an effective approach for much bigger things. And smaller ones.

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Fear, D.C.: You wrote: "Fear would be my guess. Is her immediate family on the cold end of the affection spectrum? She could be embarrassed by displays of intimacy, and the little-girl voice is a way to be someone else, put on a mask."

Okay, but...what can I do to help? I've said things to the effect of, "Could you please talk in your real voice?", but that gets a reaction first of surprise (that she wasn't using her real voice), and then of anger (taking my request as criticism). Funny, her family is on the cold end of the spectrum, and her talking in that voice is making me colder, too.

Is there anything I can do to help?

Carolyn Hax: Maybe run this idea by her? Pick a relaxed moment, because her defenses, I'm guessing, are high.

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Re. the mom with issues: I'm sure it's some sort of illness (I've suggested that she discuss her meds with her doctor -- blood pressure, cholesterol, thyroid stuff), but she's from the generation that talking about mental illness is taboo. So, I'm looking more to help myself (and maybe my aunts) so that I don't continue down the same path.

Carolyn Hax: BTW, it just occurred to me 1. that I referred to your mom as resistant to talk of mental illness, and peanuts can't have known what I was referring to since I hadn't posted this yet, and 2. that, if your research does point to an illness, you could talk to your mom about the possibility your grandfather was ill, and let her connect the dots.

(Completely lost? This is from the irritable mom and grandfather thread.)

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"Threw a small dog"????: Also - get the dog into a safer environment, stat!! Even if it means turning it into the shelter for adoption. The dog does not deserve the abuse, and you're at risk of doing permanent damage to it, not just physically, but behaviorally (i.e. developing fear aggression).

Carolyn Hax: Right, yes, thanks.

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"Private Pleasure Time": Wow.

Carolyn Hax: That about says it. So much for a slow August day.

Bye everyone, thanks for stopping by, see you here next week.

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