Who Helps the Helper?

My partner is by far the dominant personality in our relationship and struggles with crushing waves of negativity towards herself, but that’s not why I’m writing.I’ve read advice columns since I was a kid, I know all about how people don’t change in the fundamentals, and I long ago made my decision that even though I can’t and shouldn’t be responsible for convincing her of what a good person she is, I do see and appreciate her myself and it’s worth being there for her and supporting her however I can.

Here’s the thing, though: it wears me down. I wish I were one of those people who is totally secure in themselves and can provide support without being dragged under, but I’m just not. Add in two young kids with age-appropriately volatile emotions that have to be honored and managed as well, and I am watching my scarce time and strength drain out into the never-ending work of helping everyone else be okay. Sometimes it’s me who’s not okay, and there’s nowhere for me to put that.

What can I do on my own to maintain my own mental health? Can you recommend any good books?

Not Okay

Dear Not Okay:

Oh, honey. Have I ever been there.

And I can see how easy it is to get there, in small steps and stages. Someone has a rough week. Someone has a rough month. Someone starts just expecting that this is how it will always be: the person supported, the person supporting. “Someone” meaning “everyone.”

We fall so easily into these roles, and it’s so hard to change the dynamics.

Have you tried telling her you had a bad day and asking for a back rub?

Now, this seems like a simple enough and rather stupid solution, but what Ireally want to know is this: how did you feel when you read that? Frightened?Anxious? As if this were impossible?

If not, simply do it. Start asking for help and a listening ear. You’d be surprised by how asking for advice, a massage, help dealing with a kid problem, or just a ride to work can change such a dynamic rather quickly.People who are using their partners know they are using them. They at least subconsciously don’t like it much (assuming they are basically good people).They are often pleased by how good it feels to help someone else, or to offer good advice, or to lend an understanding ear.

But if you DID feel frightened, anxious, and as if it were impossible to ask such a thing of your partner, you may have fallen into a codependent dynamic with her.

I define codependency as a need to identify yourself as the Strong One saving the Weak One, or the Sober One propping up the Drunk One, or the Mentally Stable One supporting the Mentally Unstable One. It doesn’t matter which — whether it has to do with drinking, mental health, or even gender, it’s all the same. We have to be the one who you can always depend on. The one who will always come through. The one who always offers a shoulder to cry on or a hand up to people who struggle.

I say ‘we’ because I am a goddamned codependent myself, and I hate it.

While it is good to offer a shoulder to cry on, offering a shoulder to cry on and not mentioning that your own shoulder is actually dislocated is reallyreally crazy – and it’s not actually as helpful to the person who needs to cry.While it’s good to come through for people, when you are the only one doing this it hurts you (fills you with resentment) and it hurts them (fosters helplessness and dependence.)

So now I am going to say something hard: codependents are often at least half to blame for this dynamic. Or even MORE to blame.

Shhhhhhh. That’s actually good news, because that means you can do something about it. You can break the pattern. You can, you can.

The best book on this one is a classic: Codependent No More, by Melodie Beattie.

You’ll find a lot of pristine copies in used bookstores, because while I truly believe that people can break the pattern of codependency, it’s really hard.Sometimes people either find it too exhausting or they have so much invested in being everyone’s Savior that they just can’t change.

If you weren’t the parent of very young children, I would also suggest Al-Anon meetings — whether or not your partner drinks. (That part doesn’t matter. Codependence, as I said, doesn’t depend on a substance or an addiction. It’s a dynamic that turns into a self-identity.) If you work full-time, there are sometimes lunchtime 45 minute meetings in large cities that might really help. But I only suggest that if it’s possible. I know what it’s like to have kids take up so much of your time.

Now: kids.

Our relationship with our kids must always be one-sided. It is not codependent to put aside your crappy day to console a three-year-old who is utterly beside herself because her shorts are the wrong color. We have to be there for our kids, and we have to put aside our own needs for them, often.

That said: how much kid work do you do compared to your partner? Have you had a break from your kids for a day or two at any point in the last year?Some parents can’t afford for both to leave kids at home for a getaway, but surely you can get away for a night at a friend’s house?

And if the thought of leaving your kids with your partner is an impossible thought, and your children are both older than two, this means even MORE that you should do it. Recharge. Let your partner show you how responsible and caring she can be (and show herself).

That can be a first step.

This letter appeared originally in bitterempire.com on June 25, 2015.

Should I Dump Him, Or Is This Paxil Withdrawal Talking?

I recently ended a rather long relationship with a rather heavy dose of Paxil. I tapered off from 40mg a day over a month down to nothing, and have been off it totally for about two weeks. I expected (and got) dump trucks of emotions backed up to my yard, and I’m still sorting through them. This is not easy, but with the support of my shrink and my friends, I feel like I’m doing ok, mostly.

So what’s the problem? I’m begining to question the viability of one of my major relationships (I’m poly/bisexual) and I can’t tell where the questions are coming from and whether I should pay attention.

First off, I’ve been seeing this guy for coming up on seven years. He’s in the closet about being poly, I’m not. He’s damn close to my perfect sexual being. He and his wife treat me like family, and I’m close with their young children.

And …? Well. He is and always has been a man of high standards, in that he tends to judge those who don’t meet them. I’m finding myself uncomfortable with some of the jokes he makes, and while my reactions are lukewarm at best, he still makes them. He also has quite a temper and is not by nature introspective. Things that go wrong are rarely his fault in his mind, so when challenged, he bites back hard.In my current emotional state, calling him on any of this seems terrifying. There’s more, but so much of it seems like petty details when I examine them.

And of course, I still love him and his family. I don’t want to end a relationship I care so much about because I’m dealing with SSRI cessation syndrome, and a whole other host of stressors. I really picked the wrong month to go off Paxil, but now that I’m here I’m reluctant to backtrack.



Dear Paxil-free:

I think, in general, making major life decisions when you are withdrawing from a med is a bad idea. I think you’re right to at least wait on this impulse.

I do not think, however, that questions you are having come from med withdrawal. I think questions you are having about your relationships, your job, your financial situation, your location, etc. should ALWAYS be worthy of your attention. Rash decisions might be a result of meds withdrawal. Intense emotions might be a result of a med withdrawal. But questions about the viability of a relationship? No. They are legit to pay attention to.

Even if you don’t agree with me on that, I’ll tell you that I am not withdrawing from Paxil at the moment (in my case it would be Lexapro, but I digress), and your description of him made me ask some pointed questions, and set off some . . . if not alarms, very very Spock-esque raised eyebrows.

For instance: a “man of high standards.” Why is it that people with high standards seem to apply them to everyone but themselves? I mean if I had high standards, one I might hold for myself is to not be a judgmental shit. Or to not make jokes that clearly make my partners uncomfortable. Or to take responsibility for my actions and inactions, and to work on my faults (like a bad temper). I mean, if I was going to hold myself to high standards.

It sounds like you and your therapist are working hard on healing and on getting healthier mentally (congrats on weaning yourself off the Paxil, BTW — I hope to do the same someday with my Lexapro when I am feeling stronger), and often when we get healthier, the relationships we formed when we were thinking in less healthy ways begin to look . . . worse.

And even though I put great stock in sex (near-perfect human sexually is a big deal and I don’t mean to minimize that), here’s what I think: a judgmental man who cannot admit any fault, won’t engage in introspection, and who ‘bites’ when challenged sounds like someone that an increasingly healthy person will probably walk away from, in the end. No one needs to be in a hurry, but I think that’s what you’re going to do and what you SHOULD do.

(That said, if the Paxil withdrawal gives you the anger, strength, and lack of impulse control to do what needs to be done in the moment, you might want to use it, you know?)

This is always more complex when you have become part of the family. It will be hard. Maybe his wife and children can still be a part of your life in some way. I hope so.

But as you continue to get healthier, some of the less healthy people in your life (and the man you describe is not only not emotionally healthy, but also shows no signs of being willing to become that way) are going to get less and less palatable for you. You are going to get tired of walking on eggshells, and you’re going to crush those fuckers to a powder.

You are already strong, sister, so I won’t tell you to BE strong. I think you know what you need to do and that you will eventually do it. I wish you luck, I encourage you to take your time, and I feel hopeful that other beings will be close to perfect sexually with you down the road.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on June 18, 2015.

Can I Be Caustic When Responding To Intrusive Questions About My Love Life?

I am a single woman in my fifties. I’ve been married twice, and have dated a fair amount, but at this time I’m not seeking out romantic relationships.

What drives me crazy is when people — and I’m not talking about friends here — just acquaintances, ask me about my dating life. (“Are you seeing anyone? Are you dating anyone now?”)

If friends ask, I don’t mind, because they are genuinely interested in my life and we have shared emotional intimacy. But if acquaintances ask (who are inevitably married), it seems somehow infantilizing and like they’re seeking fodder for their own entertainment.

I’ve taken to responding. “Not at the moment. How is your marriage going?” trying to emphasize that they wouldn’t ask relationship questions of a married person that was an acquaintance rather than a friend. They’re always shocked and confused, which is fine by me.

Bitter Butch, do you think my response is too aggressive? Can you think of any other ways for me to deal with this? Is it ok for me to be caustic here?

Sincerely yours,

(Tired of relationship questions.)

Dear TORQ:

Oh my god YES. YES. It is okay for you to be caustic here. NO I do not think it’s too aggressive. And no, I cannot think of any response that could possibly be better than this. (Miss Manners would suggest asking huffily: “I beg your pardon?” and she is obviously infallible. I confess that my response here very much endorses rudeness in response to rudeness, but I believe it justified.)

Before you happily coupled oblivious joymuffins reading this squinch up your mouths into buttholes, I’m going to explain why: we live in a world where for some reason it is perfectly acceptable to ask horribly intrusive questions of people who do not fit the norm, and utterly shocking to ask people who do fit the norm the identical question back.

Unfortunately, we have a rule in our society: women have a job to do. You get married, you have kids. If for any reason you are not interested in this, we can question the system that tells us that there is only one way of doing things, or we can give individual women a hard time. It’s a lot easier to just demand of individual women why they aren’t following the script. (And men, too, but with a twist that is perhaps for another column.)

Therefore, it is all of our jobs to needle the people who are not doing What Everyone Else Expects in order to make them step in line. Or, we lack any imagination whatsoever and simply cannot imagine any sort of happiness following any path other than the conventional one, and so we demand that these people get happy the way we want them to be RIGHT THIS GODDAMNED MINUTE or at least report on their progress in this area.

This absolutely perfect response of yours does three things:

  1. It shuts up the nosy shits who think this is their business.
  2. If they have a brain they might think about it and either realize what they were doing or at the very least refrain from asking someone elsethis question, so you are performing a mitzvah.
  3. Even if they are dumb assholes who refuse to be remotely self-reflective or who refuse to generalize, they will at least never ask you that question again.

 do not see the downside. Carry on, Majestic Warrior for All The Single Ladies. Carry on.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on June 11, 2015.

Am I A Hypocrite For Attending Church As An Agnostic?

I am a member of a very progressive Mennonite Christian church that welcomes everyone, regardless of their belief system, sexuality, gender, etc. The church members are dedicated to solving social and justice issues, believing in peaceful solutions rather than military. This church could almost be called a type of Unitarian Church. However, the Sunday services are still centered around Biblical stories which at times, are difficult to listen to.

You see, I do not believe in a personal, supernatural God. I do believe that the so-called teachings of Jesus gives us rational and excellent guidelines to live useful lives. I am agnostic, humanist, in my belief system but believe that Christianity that truly follows what Jesus taught has validity. I also like very much a saying by the Dalai Lama—“My religion is kindness.”

My husband and I have established some wonderful friendships in this congregation, some who share our rather unorthodox religious beliefs.

My problem is that I feel uncomfortable at times while attending a Sunday service because I am really not always “in tune” with what is being discussed. The pastor is very tolerant and understanding of “heretics” such as I am, but often I feel somewhat hypocritical because I cannot be as fervent as others are in their expressions of faith, prayer, and belief in a personal God. There are times when I think I should not continue to participate in this church as a member and I wonder if I should consider giving up my affiliation with this church. The members are such good people and are supportive—a wonderful community of friends. Do you have any suggestions?

Signed – 

Dear Undecided:

There are a few ways I could go in answering your letter. I am tempted to say that you could have a very broad interpretation of what Jesus meant when he said “Whosoever believeth in me.” For instance, when I tell my friend: “I believe in you!” I mean I believe in her heart and soul and what she is striving for, not that she is going to lead me into the Kingdom of Heaven. And it sounds like you are down with the peace and justice that Jesus preached.

But honestly I think that might be cheating a little. The very basis of modern Christianity (which as you know is very different from most other religions) is founded in what you believe instead of what you do.

So instead I’m going to accept your self-description of “heretic.”

I don’t know your church. But every accepting, open, and affirming church I’ve ever been to says they ‘welcome all, wherever you are on your faith journey.’ Implicit in this is that you will eventually accept Jesus the Christ as your personal Savior and you’re just on a journey toward that, maybe; but also implicit in this idea is that faith, belief, and religion is a journey. Not a destination of perfect fervent devotion. (More on that later.) If they incorporate that phrase into their liturgy or on their information, you clearly belong there– at least from a theological perspective.

But you said three things that really stick out for me, and I want to address them one by one:

1. You said that you have made wonderful friends and community there, some of whom share your unorthodox beliefs.

The most obvious question regarding this is: have you spoken with your agnostic friends at church about how you feel? Not about God – about your attendance. Have you asked them why they continue to attend? I think talking this out with like-minded people in the same community could really help you to feel more grounded in the community and give you more of a sense of belonging, easily and naturally. Or, it will help you hash out, with non-judgmental people who share your basic worldview, why you have to go someplace else .

2. You said that sometimes the bible stories are difficult to listen to.

How difficult? Do you squirm in your seat in outrage that you feel you cannot voice to the pastor or community afterward? Or do you just sort of wince when they use certain phrases? I think that if you are absolutely dying inside whenever they read from their Holy Book, there are other ways to be involved in a church community outside of services, such as joining in on volunteer activities. Participating in teach-ins and protests organized by or attended by many in the community. You can belong to a community without accepting all of it. I belong to this nation, and I certainly do not accept all of its precepts and cultural assumptions.

3. You fear you may be hypocritical as you cannot be as fervent as others are in their expressions of belief in a personal God.

This one made me sit straight up in my chair. How can you be hypocritical when you are being honest about your feelings and beliefs? It sounds to me as if you are not pretending to believe anything you do not believe, so there is absolutely no hypocrisy there.

I also wonder: how do you know how fervent and devout these other Christians are? I am not trying to call any of them hypocrites, but we can never know what is going on in someone else’s heart, mind, and soul.Everyone I know who has a deep and profound faith has at least had moments of doubt and confusion – sometimes years of it. I think comparing the state of your soul to theirs is a waste of time and energy. I think that there are so many things in life — church most especially — in which people come to the table for many different reasons and take away from the table completely different portions of the feast.

So, I guess my question for you is this: do you want any of that feast? Can your like-minded community members help you to decide this?

Like I said, you can be involved in ways other than going to service. But you can also go. What would not going look like? Would you sleep in on Sundays and read the paper in a leisurely fashion as you sipped coffee? Does that sound better than going to church? Would you join a Unitarian or UCC church and probably meet equally kind and interesting people there to add to your group of friends? Perhaps someday you could have a bunch of them all over for dinner, and stay in touch with the community you left behind.

Here’s what I love about the decision you have to make: it is not irrevocable.If you stay for now, and then further down the line if you realize it was the wrong decision, you can always leave. If you leave now without burning bridges, you can always return. This is an interesting dilemma, but it seems to me that you can’t really make the wrong decision in a situation such as this that is so easily reversed.

Good luck. For what it’s worth, I think any congregation would be lucky to have such a thoughtful person in their midst such as you.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on June 4, 2015.