Is trying a new thing when you’re struggling with PTSD a crime?

Dear Gentle Butch,

After being unable to work anywhere except for our farm for many years because of debilitating PTSD, my health is improving.

I am going back to school and have been accepted to do a full-time summer internship. People who are close to me say my health is good enough to at least give this a try, but I am terrified of letting people down and not being able to complete the internship.

Even though I am much better than before, I still have a lot of symptoms from my PTSD. What should I tell myself when I feel ashamed to try doing this? I feel guilty as though I were planning a horrible crime instead of an educational opportunity.

— Afraid of letting people down

 

Oh, my darling, my sister,

I mean, I’ve been there. I’m there. Hello hi.

I am so, so so incredibly proud of you for having gotten to this point. You went back to SCHOOL. You acted as if there was something else to life beyond survival: some future, some hope.

YOU ARE AMAZING. You have already won one battle.

But when your self esteem and zest for life and just plain humanness has been ground down to a nub by trauma, it sometimes does seem like a crime to live your life instead of merely survive it, doesn’t it?

I mean, who do you think you are? A human being trying to make it in this world? A soul worthy of a chance? A smart, capable person with a future ahead of her?

THE VERY IDEA.

I mean, that’s trauma talking, right? PTSD wants us to stay in that panicked cycle of fight-flight-freeze. PTSD tells us: no no no you don’t understand; you are still in terrible danger. Keep looking over your shoulder. Keep to yourself. Keep your sights low. Keep running.

Who the hell stops to work an internship when she is fleeing for her life?

The thing about PTSD and trauma reactions in general is this: our damage thinks its protecting us. It DID protect us, at one point. I try to think of my PTSD as a very anxious big sister who protected me from danger when we were children, but who has still inexplicably remained nine years old, unable to realize that time has passed and she doesn’t have to endlessly protect me.

Please tell that anxious big/baby sister that this internship does not result in thousands of people (or even one person) dying if you wind up having to bow out, cut back, or adjust. Please thank her so much for protecting you when you needed it but explain that you are qualified for it since you were accepted for it, and she can stop worrying.

I think there is a very good chance that, if you can be self compassionate and trust yourself, that you WILL complete it, and learn from it, and feel damn good about yourself when it’s over.

You are feeling better. People who know you agree that this is a good thing to try.

And this is an internship, not life or death. 

Your emotions do not fit the facts. you need to use that wonderful DBT skill Opposite Action. (Why yes I am taking notes during my partial hospitalization.)

You do it. You fucking take a deep breath and then do it. Fuck the fear of letting people down. Don’t let YOURSELF down by running away before you give yourself a chance.

NOW. This next part is really, really important:

“Do it” does not mean take a deep breath and fling yourself, with no preparation, into the deep end.

Remember that you can pace yourself. You can ask for accommodations for your disability. (In case folks don’t click through, I’ll excerpt here):

Accommodations for individuals with PTSD can take many forms, depending on the needs of the individual. Accommodation ideas from the Job Accommodations Network include:

1. For those with concentration issues, reduce distractions with white noise or environmental sound devices, noise cancelling headsets, modifications in lighting, allow for a flexible work environment or schedule.

2. For those with memory issues, provide written as well as verbal instructions, checklists, wall calendars, electronic organizers or apps, additional training time or refreshers.

3. For those with organization issues, provide daily, weekly and monthly tasks lists, assign a mentor or coach, use of electronic organizers or apps.

4. For those with time management issues, daily To Do lists and check items completed, electronic assists previously noted, regular meetings with supervisors or mentors to determine if goals are being met.

5. For those with stress or emotional issues, emphasize stress management techniques, allow a support animal, use of a mentor to alert the employee if behavior is becoming unprofessional, EAP assistance and or allow a flexible work environment.

5. For those with coworker interaction issues, encourage the employee to walk away from frustrating situations and confrontations, allow part time work from home, allow for greater privacy while at work, and provide disability awareness training to supervisors and coworkers.

I’m mentioning these specific accommodations because I think a lot of us, especially if we’re feeling better, imagine work as it was before we had to quit/go on leave. We think we have to function just as we did before with no supports in place, no fallbacks. Just . . . barefaced to the world.

But we don’t. We don’t legally have to do that, but probably most importantly we don’t ethically and emotionally and practically have to do that.

You, just as you are, have a lot to offer the world and school and that internship. You have seen things. You have been through some shit.

You have life experience and empathy and understanding that many people don’t have, and that’s going to help you in any career worth having.

You are going to be able to do this. You might need to practice some self compassion and some self advocacy and need some flexibility — from yourself and from others — but you can do this.

And if thinking that leaving early, cutting back on the hours, or deciding it’s not for you counts to you as a ‘failure’ or ‘letting people down’ enough to stop you from even trying, I hope you will reframe your thinking.

Is realizing that full time work is not for you ‘letting people down,’ or is it getting to know yourself and your needs and abilities better? Is asking for and receiving accommodations for your disability ‘letting people down’ or ensuring that your best possible self comes to work with you, and being an excellent example to others with disabilities or who need to understand disabled people?*

I believe in you. More importantly, people who know you and what you are capable of believe in you.

You are allowed to move from surviving your life into living it. 

 

*that’s a CBT skill called ‘reframing,’ gentlebeings, for those taking notes along with me.

How to handle unpleasant and unsolicited parenting advice?

Dear Gentle Butch,

What is the correct response to strangers telling me to put a hat/coat/socks/shoes/etc on my baby who is comfortable, happy, and not cold?

— The Baby’s Mom

 

Dear TBM,

The correct response is, and it is perfectly gentle: “Go fuck yourself.”

I’m being gentle on you, not on them, obviously. It is good advice because it will succeed in your goal: getting those smug motherfuckers the hell away from you as fast as is humanly possible.

They are not only lobbing unsolicited advice at you; they are insinuating that you are a neglectful parent and don’t know how to dress your own damn child. That you are a silly little girl (or boy; I hear fathers out with their babies get this even worse) who simply has no idea what on earth she is doing.

They are walking up to you and saying the rudest thing they can possibly come up with, but pretending it’s aaaallll good. Bullies; cowards. They need to be shut down.

If your mouth is not a combination of an ad executive and a longshoreman like mine is, Miss Manners (who is, by definition, infallible) suggests the following response to all hostile demands like this.

You say, in the frostiest voice possible: “How kind you are to take such an interest in my business.”

And this part is my addition: then turn away and do not say another single word to them.

When we are new parents, we are constantly anxious about all sorts of stuff like if we’re feeding the right food or if the kid is too warm or too hot or breathing funny or whatever, and for strangers to come up and lord it over you that they are, unlike you, apparently clairvoyant and all-knowing, hits a certain pain spot.

Have you found yourself fighting the urge to discuss it with them? To defend your choices? To explain that your baby is not cold, or doesn’t like shoes, or whatever the fuck?

DON’T.

Just one of the two above phrases, and then no response to anything else they say WHATSOEVER.

nothing.

PS fuck them seriously omg

Writer asks why on earth someone who is such a mess herself thinks that she can give advice

(Spoiler alert: the writer is me.)

Dear Gentle Butch,

It is I, Gentle Butch, come back from an unintentional hiatus.

The thing is that I started having multiple flashbacks a day and dissociating constantly. I couldn’t function at work, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I couldn’t write. Like, at ALL.

So, I quit writing this column and I took leave from my day job (which is also writing) and went on short-term disability and now I’m in a partial hospitalization program* for those fighting PTSD.

I am in an incredible place: I earn enough that I can survive on 60% of my pay combined with my partner’s pay (I have literally never been in this position), I have an understanding employer, a kind and supportive partner, short-term disability insurance, and the Americans with Disabilities Act — which has led to laws protecting my job when I have to go on hiatus for stuff like this.

I am so, so goddamned grateful.

However, I am also struggling, and my writing (and, often, my ability to sustain a straightforward conversation, find my way out of a grocery store, and shower more than about every other week) has abruptly ended.

But lately, I’ve found myself on Quora, answering questions, because I was being too mean to people on Facebook and deleted the app.

“Why am I wasting my time when I could be engaging with Mindfulness or working on watching my exposure videos?” I thought to myself, and then I sat up straight.

I was building up my writing muscles for this column!

I have been telling myself to be professional about it and not just start writing the instant I felt a spark of life stir, but you know what? Professionalism is a tool of the kyriarchy. I’m writing when I can and not writing when I can’t.

So I might be back. I might wander off again, lost in flashbacks and panic attacks. You get to live in suspense!

You’re welcome,
A Train Wreck

Dear Train Wreck,

I’m glad you wrote. I think it’s super weird that I’m answering your letter, but I’m trying to do this ‘being gentle with yourself’ thing so I’m not going to be too bitchy about it.

* Partial hospitalization, specifically a program that uses Prolonged Exposure and Narrative Therapy, is THE SHIT. I have never gotten so much done on fixing my cranium in such a short amount of time, ever. Check out Rogers Behavioral Health if you or someone you know might benefit from some seriously intensive self work.

She misses romance and sex. Is her disability getting in the way?

Hello, lovely,

I hope you are well! It sure is tricky to bundle all your backstory into a few brief sentences, isn’t it? Here we go. I’m single, and not unhappy, but I miss romantic touch and sex. I’d adore having my own (or heck, multiple!) lover/s. Even a full-on Relationship, if I found the right man.

I’m disabled, with a chronic (and invisible) illness that leaves me mostly housebound and affects my mobility, stamina, etc. Going out and meeting people — which I enjoy, and make friends doing — is very difficult for me.

Dating apps have been eh. While I appreciated the ego-stroking provided by people finding me attractive on superficial criteria (especially since I’m 40 and have more fat than society deems acceptable), most of the matches have been with men I’m not actually that interested in.

This might be due to the challenges of writing a bio. I either omit even a single hint of my disability (and then am forced to have That Conversation over, and over, and over) or I mention it and watch helplessly as my bio becomes a long-form apology for… well, me. I vacillate between deciding I ought to settle for anyone who is interested in me, and defiantly declaring I will never settle for anyone who doesn’t deserve my attention. Because I am splendid, damn it!

Being in a fifteen-year-long relationship with someone who didn’t know he was asexual is Not Helping, unsurprisingly. I’ve been single since that relationship ended and oh, I miss being desired. There’s a twirly knot of fear that I won’t ever have that feeling again. I don’t know what I need from you, lovely. Perhaps a mantra I can salve over my bruised sense of self and march (with a cane) back into the dance. (Yes, I nearly said “fray”.) (Sigh.)

With warm regards,

The Valid Invalid (she/her)

Dear TVI,

As I searched creative commons, seeking an image for this post (send them some money if you have it!), I came across the strangest thing.

Most of my searches result in page after page of people. After all, we are people. We like to take photos of people.

The search for ‘disability?’

An entire page of objects. Symbols. Parking spaces. (So many parking spaces! Yes, we get better parking, ableds — try to keep body and soul together in the face of this grave injustice). Equipment. Signs.

Finally, I got down to some people. One of the first: a man in a transport wheelchair, his head in his hands.

SO many people think of disability as a concept, as a designation, as a living misery — that they can’t see the disabled people. For whatever reason, ‘disabled and dating’ turned out a bunch of ‘inspirational’ amputees competing in olympic sports. I dunno. I guess we can be people if we are superhuman. “Romance and disability,” “kissing and wheelchair,” etc. came up either blank or just really, really off-topic.

This is how the world sees us: nonsexual, alien, Not To Be Spoken of Or Seen. Invisible.

So of course we sometimes see ourselves that way. Internalized disablism is a real thing, and it sucks.

Throw in an asexual partner for 15 years whom you didn’t know was asexual (“oh, I miss being desired. There’s a twirly knot of fear that I won’t ever have that feeling again” just get me in the gut), and . . . Christ.

If one doesn’t kill your sexuality, the other one will.

So the fact that you’ve been putting yourself out there despite enormous societal and personal pressures is itself an enormous victory.

Celebrate that, sister. Seriously. You are, indeed, splendid!

I can answer your question straightforwardly: no, you do not have to settle. You are not ‘damaged goods,’ disabled or no, and you need to kick to the curb any other ideas about that. I already know a few sexAY things about you: you’re an excellent, wry, and evocative writer; you are pretty (sorry, folks, only I get to see the thumbnail); you are over 40 and therefore probably darn good in bed.

And I have practical advice for dating apps.

But first . . . you say you have a chronic condition and going out is very difficult for you, and then you mention a cane.

Just a cane.

Is there a reason you didn’t mention any other mobility equipment?

Because a chair or a scooter or even crutches or a walker with a seat on it could be a game-changer.

A lot of us with pain or fatigue issues (you said disabled with a chronic invisible condition, so I’m going to assume it’s pain, fatigue, or some other exhausting issue) could really use some goddamned physical support. If you really enjoy going out and meeting people, and a chair or scooter could help, please figure out how to get one. I’m serious. I know it makes us look more crippy, but who cares when you’re having a great time?

Being out in a wheelchair or with my crutches in social situations is a gift. Truly. It’s an Asshole Eliminator.

One look at someone and their expression when they see you can save you countless hours of texting. And people who have that vague ‘invisible but only a symbol’ vision of disability will see a real, live, obviously disabled person who is splendid and worth getting to know.

Seriously. If money is an issue and you don’t have good insurance, stalk craigslist or FB Marketplace for used scooters. Rent them at tourist places and museums. DO NOT BE AFRAID.

Did you know that cripples give each other a little nod when we see each other in public? A solidarity nod. I fucking LOVE that nod. LOVE IT. We are in this together, we are saying. Read up on disability history. There have been a lot of badass and mad sexy cripples fighting for our rights, and seeing yourself a part of that proud history takes some of the sting of public disability away. It instills disability pride, which banishes disability shame.

Now — if all of that is just crap (and even if it isn’t), here is some very practical advice when using dating apps (which you really have to do; statistics show this is where most people are meeting sex and romance partners.)

Although my aim is not men, I discovered that putting my disability front and center attracted a lot of beautiful, bright, and interesting women on apps. (Especially okcupid for whatever reason.) And it weeded out those who are dipshits about disability. (For the record, I am also over 40 and fat.)

You don’t have to mention it in your bio at all, except perhaps in the ‘things I could never live without’ section: “My super sweet cane that takes me everywhere I go,” perhaps.

Make sure your photo, after the first closeup of your face, features your cane in some way. Pose with it. Lean your chin on it pensively. Strut with it.

This is how you unapologetically bring up the subject of disability; show them. Here you are, a perfect dandy, with your cane. Here you are, leaning on it with a smoky expression. Here you are, disabled and a stone cold fox.

Then, you talk about everything else in your bio (except for that one reference to a cane, perhaps, in a very positive light). People who look at your first photo or two will see that you use a cane. They don’t need any details up front. Truly they don’t. Any more than they need to know about your childhood, happy or miserable or both, your secret fears and desires, your entire health history. They just need to see that yes, you are disabled.

Then you only go out with guys you think you’d like. That’s it. Do not settle. No no no no no.

Look at the image I finally found for this letter. This lady is fat and disabled. And she is in the arms of a man and they are watching the sun set over the water at Prince Edward Island and it is ROMANTIC AF and I’ll bet afterward they schtüpped like bunnies.

You can have that, too. You can you can you can.

How can this exhausted and burned out mom stop feeling bad about feeling bad?

Dear Gentle Butch,

My husband and I had our second child a little over a year ago, and we’ve been having a really rough time.

Our daughter had a fairly run-of-the mill infancy and is now a bright, verbal, inquisitive, high-energy four-year-old.

Our son doesn’t have any serious medical issues or anything, but he was colicky for the first six months of his life, and had a bunch of random ailments (back-to-back ear infections, a giant canker sore on the tip of his tongue that prevented him from nursing or taking a bottle for 10 days, etc.) that led to a lot of misery and lost sleep for all of us.

He’s physically healthier now, and developing normally, but he’s still an anxious, clingy banshee screamer who hates sleep–seriously, when he’s at full volume he sounds like a concrete saw or a dentist’s drill or a Nazgul or I don’t even know what. The CIA tortures people with noises like this.

I dragged my husband and myself to therapy when the baby was 6 months old, because I could see that things were bad and not getting better, and it turned out we both had postpartum depression–I didn’t even know men could get it. Therapy helped somewhat through the end of the year, but then we had to end it because the deductible reset and it was no longer affordable.

I work a full-time job and my husband is a stay-at-home parent; I’m the primary parent whenever I’m home in the early mornings, nights, and weekends, so we’re actually both doing about 50% of the child care, only I’m working a full-time job on top of that, and he has some sensory issues that take a very high toll on him having to listen to the banshee screaming all day every day.

We’re exhausted and miserable, we’re barely able to be present enough to connect with our daughter and give her the care she needs, and we’ve almost given up on trying to spend time together and connect as a couple. He gets a few hours to himself in the evenings between dinner and bedtime, but my free time is so fragmented and unpredictable that I’ve given up trying to do anything meaningful with it–if I get a moment where no one is demanding anything of me, all I do is scroll mindlessly on my phone, because I have no way of knowing when I’m going to be interrupted next.

Everyone keeps giving me “it gets better” speeches, but I’ve lost the ability to think far enough ahead to believe that. So yeah, we’re pretty burned out.

The reason I’m writing to you is because I feel really guilty for being burned out. We’re white, straight-passing, middle class, and able-bodied, and I have a stable, well-paying job with (mediocre, but still) health insurance. My husband’s parents are local to us and our daughter is able to spend the night over there every week or two, to give us a bit of a break (the baby can’t do overnights yet, he’s 13 months and doesn’t sleep through the night reliably, plus he gets very anxious, unhappy, and screamy when left with other caregivers). We have an amazing community of friends who have brought us meals, babysat the kids for free so we can get out for a bit, and provided endless sympathy and commiseration.

But even with all this privilege on our side and all the help we’ve been able to get, I’m still running on fumes with no end in sight, and beating myself up about it because so many other people have it so much worse than us, and why can’t I do better and be better when I have so much to work with here?

Do you have any advice that could help me stop feeling bad about feeling bad? How do I let go of the guilt so I can move on with just the ordinary difficulties of everyday life?

— Burned Out

 

Dear Burned Out,

I absolutely ache for you.

There is a part of my psyche that is trapped in the hellish twilight of sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and despair that is having very young children.

I was so sleep-deprived that I hallucinated bugs crawling on me. Our baby and then toddler kept having more tantrums than really seemed normal, and it got worse when we tried to rock and hold him. Then when we had two, and everything got exponentially harder. My kid was punching his preschool teacher and throwing fits nearly constantly. When we found out that he had Tourette’s and autism, we added in at least two or three weekly doctor and therapy appointments to our plate. I didn’t make very much money and my spouse stayed at home, we had no relatives in town, and we felt that we couldn’t leave our baby with anyone else, either.

I had a particularly difficult time when raising my boys when they were young, with very little if any outside help.

And I think you have it worse than I did.

I need to say that again to be very clear: You have it worse than I did.

I tell you this because what you are describing sounds just unlivable. A baby who cries especially loudly AND constantly AND won’t sleep, just by itself, is a nightmare. Caring for that baby while trying to take care of a bright, verbal, inquisitive, high-energy four-year-old sounds nearly impossible. It’s exhausting enough to run around with a high-energy kid, especially an inquisitive one, without anything else to do.

You literally never get a break. Ever. Your parents might take the four-year old two or three times a month, but you are still with that baby who screams and screams. And working full time while also taking the burden full-time of caring for your children as you’re giving your husband a break is going to burn anyone out.

Now. Let’s look at your privileges, and how they are helping you right now.

You say you have parents who live close, who give you a break every once in a while. I mean, that’s great, but since you feel you can’t hand over the baby, this is only a very slight advantage, and it’s mainly for your daughter who will get uninterrupted and quiet adult time.

You say you are able-bodied. Perhaps you’re able-bodied as far as mobility is concerned, but one of you has sensory issues that make a crying baby even more difficult for him, which is not only awful for him but also means that the breaks he need are vital, probably daily without fail, and that puts more pressure on you. You were BOTH diagnosed with Postpartum Depression.

So . . . ableds? Not so much.

You’re middle class with a stable, well-paying job. Really? I mean, you can’t afford counseling. I’m sure that having a stable job means you worry about money and housing less than many other parents, but that supposedly well-paying job doesn’t leave you with enough cash available for counseling, and I assume that it doesn’t pay you well enough to hire some help to come help a few times a week. And you’re living on one wage, which is really hard to live on for most people, even if your job is stable and well-paying.

I’ve gone through this in painstaking detail because I want you to see that you genuinely have it rough, and some of the privileges you have aren’t quite as privilege-y right now for your family.

Anyone in your situation would be completely burned out. Anyone in that situation would find themselves sobbing in the car on their way to work, probably deeply stressed in their relationships, and barely able to function.

The United States, man. Our hateful late-stage capitalism doesn’t offer many jobs that pay enough to support a family. We do not offer our citizens reliable, quality, or remotely affordable health care, so many of us do without. We have absolutely no preschool or toddler daycare or childcare options that are anything less than insanely expensive, let alone equipped for kids who are struggling like your baby is. Our housing costs are skyrocketing, groceries have become an absolutely giant expense that somehow our government doesn’t have to count toward any measurements of our economy, and then we have this fucking Calvinist bullshit that we’ve taken from those religious lunatics who first came here and started murdering the local populace: if you suffer, it is because God wants you to suffer. If God wants you to suffer, you must be a shitty person.

It’s not explicitly religious anymore, but it sure is woven into the fabric of our society so tightly that even someone like you who barely hanging on feels like she doesn’t have the right to feel burned out by her incredibly high-octane life.

In other words, all of this isn’t the economy. It isn’t a lack of supports for new parents. It isn’t having to work full time to pay the bills when your kids have intense needs. IT’S YOU. ALL YOUR FAULT. YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF.

If we keep blaming ourselves and chasing our tails, we’ll be too worn out and filled with self loathing to make any systemic change, yeah? Our system is specifically designed to make you feel this way, to perpetuate itself.

So, some people have it worse. Why should this somehow sustain you and give you buoyancy and hope? There is always someone, somewhere, who has it worse. This does not mean that we do not also suffer and that we do not also have completely human reactions to inhuman conditions.

You are having a completely human reaction. If you weren’t feeling burned out, I would suspect you of being in denial.

Don’t let your stupid hateful capitalist Calvinist culture and our barebones economy and poisonous messages jammed into your subconscious tell you that you have no right to be miserable in a miserable situation! Sadly, you have earned this burnout and to expect yourself to sail through it like Mary Poppins is just too. Damn. Much.

 

PS PLEASE take a deep breath and leave your baby with other people for a few hours here and there, and even overnight. So what if they need earplugs for a few hours or have one rough night of sleep? You say you have supportive friends. Let them support you in the way you really need it.

Is it okay to ask my upstairs neighbors to take down old decorations that are a fire hazard?

Dear Gentle Butch,

I live in a duplex and the upstairs neighbor had a new roommate move in a few months back. She’s apparently told my husband that she likes to “celebrate all the holidays at once!” which sounds whimsical and charming until the rotting pumpkins… now those were finally disposed of, but there are still wispy cottony cobwebs mingling with dried-out, brown boughs of evergreen going up the railing on their outdoor stairs (in the front of the house) to the wooden eaves/ their wood doorway. We live on a busy street and people walking by often toss paper garbage and cigarette butts into our yard.  So it’s not only an eyesore, but also a fire hazard.

The wooden house is over a hundred years old, probably poorly wired, definitely poorly maintained, and I live in California where every year areas around us burn and we can’t breathe properly for weeks. I’m totally paranoid about the fire risks, but I also know my neighbors annoy me more than is perhaps kind (they’re loud and party a lot, but I only complain to my friends, not to the neighbors, because I understand that living in a city means hearing other people’s lives up close). 

Is it unreasonable to send the following to them? If they refuse to take them down, do I mention it to the landlord? I really don’t want to start a war, and would like to get along, but I have an anxiety disorder and hate the worrying.

“Just wanted to know if y’all wanted some help taking down the old holiday decorations? I’m getting very paranoid about the fire hazard of brittle dried branches and wispy cobwebs leading up to our very old, non-fireproof house? It’s also a bit of an eyesore now that the branches are all brown…”

Thanks in advance!

Paranoid About Burning Down

 

Dear PABD,

First, sorry/not sorry for the image that I’ve chosen for this letter. I know you have anxiety. But I wanted to help you keep laser focus on what is at stake here: YOUR HOME BURNING TO THE GROUND.

As I read this, until I saw the part about your anxiety disorder, I found myself wondering: why is this letter writer concerned with whether or not she pisses off her neighbors who clearly give no fucks about whether or not they are pissing HER off?

They party loudly. They leave out rotting gourds. They have festooned the front of the duplex with not only cotton but also dry evergreen.

You want to know my favorite way to start a fire when I’m camping? Dry evergreen. It’s the best fire starter there is because dry evergreen is FILLED WITH EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE SAP.

It goes up like, well, a Christmas tree.

Are you in counseling for your anxiety disorder? Because if not, I think you should be. You seem to be attributing your very reasonable fear of fire to your ‘paranoia’ and your dislike of the neighbors instead of the fact that they appear intent on actually burning down your house. A good therapist would, I think, help you to understand your anxiety and self doubt while also trusting your own instincts about cut-and-dry (very very very dry) situations like this.

I am not trying to yell at you or shame you; one of the symptoms of anxiety is second-guessing your every move and suspecting yourself of having bad motivations (like disliking the neighbors for other reasons). But blaming your own mental health issues for other people’s extremely dangerous and thoughtless actions is something that right now is literally putting your home and life in danger, because you have hesitated to even bring this up with anyone.

Before you go get therapized, though, for the love of all that is holy and unholy call your landlord immediately and tell them about the horrible fire hazard your neighbors have created.

(Say nothing about it being an ‘eyesore;’ neohippies who think they are whimsical and adorable for basically leaving a bunch of crap all over the place are going to fixate on the ‘eyesore’ bit to the exclusion of safety. That’s the sort of wording that might cause them to feel warlike and self-righteous about this, and the sort of wording a lazy landlord might also use to dismiss your concerns and take no action.)

Your landlord is responsible for the safety of the building. Skip the middleman, especially if you have anxiety and struggle with conflict. This is not only a fire hazard, but also a huge liability issue for them. Call the landlord, and if they don’t respond quickly enough, the fire marshall.

This is serious. This is not your ‘paranoia.’ You are absolutely 100% right about this.

I know I’m asking you to do something that will really ramp up your anxiety, by the way. We the anxious feel that sticking up for ourselves is somehow a bad and dangerous thing to do.

But in this case, the opposite is true. Pop a Zanax, some weed (at least 800 feet from your building FFS) or have a drink; take a deep breath, pick up the phone, and call. It will feel absolutely horrible. But you feel absolutely horrible with this fire hazard hanging literally over your head already, and in the long run this will help.

One anxious person to another: I believe in you! You can do the thing!

Now do it. Maybe even before you finish reading this letter.

Is this couple childish, sullen, petty, and very immature for having feelings?

Dear Gentle Butch,

A few years ago, my husband and I introduced two of our best friends (a couple) to another pair of our best friends (our cousins). All of these friends are about ten years younger than us, and run in somewhat different circles.

Now, these two couples we love often hang out together without us, post fun photos on social media of adventures we weren’t invited to join, and sometimes even of family events they were invited to but we were not.

We want to be mature and grounded, gratified at the joy they bring each other, happy our loved ones have more love in their lives. Instead, we are ridiculously jealous and hurt over this, wondering if we are unlikable or less fun or just too old to be cool, and we feel childish, sullen, petty, and very immature for feeling this way.

(Note: Neither couple is intentionally rubbing it in our faces, we always hear about this through another person, such as another mutual friend at a gathering.)

Why can’t we be happy for the joy new friendships brought our friends? How can we get over our insecure jealousy and get into a healthy headspace on this?

Best,

Left Out

 

Dear LO,

So, let me sum this up: you introduced some of your favorite people in the world to each other. They now spend more time with each other than they do with you, and don’t invite you along on their adventures. People are holding family events and inviting your cousins but not you.

And you get to see it all on social media, or hear about it from friends because they aren’t telling you about their get-togethers.

And you dare to have hurt feelings about this.

Yep. You sure are a couple of childish, sullen, petty, and very immature people. Also old, uncool, unlikeable, and no fun. CLEARLY.

Everything you are describing here is objectively painful, and feeling jealous, left out, and hurt are the feelings that are natural to feel in this situation. Do you think that grownups can’t have feelings? You’re an adult, not the Buddha.

Don’t pressure yourself to be all good and giving about this, because OWTCH.

I’m guessing that these feelings and lack of benevolent joy are so incredibly intense because this is triggering childhood misery.

That’s why you are using all of this ‘child’ language to yell at yourselves.

We all have intense and painful memories of feeling left out — everyone, at some point in their lives. These might even be some of your earliest memories. And when you are being left out (and you are most definitely being left out), our bodies remember what it felt like — and push us right back to that childhood place in our lizard-brains: the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that connects you to your past by aligning current happenings to old memories. It’s also the part that offers us fear, anger— and the fight, flight, or freeze reflexes. Right back there? That’s our REAL gut.

And the jealousy and hurt feelings you feel in that gut are so powerful you’re shocked by yourselves, because they come from way deep down inside.

But there is a reason, and it is not your fault. This does not mean you are bad people. This means you are people with feelings and pasts and stuff.

So, please. Allow yourselves to feel these deep, connected-to-childhood feelings, and stop calling yourselves names. Take some time with it.

I mean it– remembering and talking about the specific memories these emotions tie back to can help them to have less power over you.

When you’re done, if you still like your friends (and I hope you do; their crime seems to be thoughtlessness rather than malice), turn the script around: include THEM in YOUR plans.

Take a deep breath, or seven, and invite them to dinner.

How do I support my awful coworker’s daughter?

Dear Gentle Butch,

I work in a small office of only a few people. My least-favorite coworker (I’ll call her Susan) has a teenage daughter (Hannah), who is queer, but is not out to her family. (It’s complicated how I came to know this.) And, while I have met Hannah a few times, we don’t have a close relationship. My coworker frequently laments her daughter’s rejection of boys (chalking it up to immaturity) and tells us her plans for “socializing” her daughter (with or without her consent). Hannah is involved in drama club at school, which seems pretty social to me, but Susan is dismissive, saying Hannah is too introverted to be good at it (which is not necessarily true).

Most recently, Susan told us about Hannah bringing a boy home. Susan was glad that Hannah is making friends with boys, but disappointed that her interest in him is only friendly. On top of that, her husband freaked out and went full-on patriarchal. He insisted on meeting the boy first to see if he “looked scary,” imposing time limits on visits, making sure she keeps her door open, etc. Susan told this in a smiling dads-will-be-dads kind of way. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to laugh or what, but it was all I could do to contain my horror.

Susan always sounds exasperated when she mentions her daughter. I hate to hear Susan sound so down on her daughter all the time and I am never sure how to react. I don’t want to accidentally out Hannah, or make it sound like I’m telling Susan how to raise her children. But they way she talks about her daughter, queer or not, is appalling to me.

I should mention that I am also queer and quite out about it. My wife and I have casually offered to spend time with Hannah after she and my wife bonded a little bit over a shared enthusiasm for YA fiction. Hannah is very shy about reaching out and when we have made tentative plans, Susan tends to make it inconvenient so that Hannah cancels. We have not persisted, afraid it will look like “recruitment.”

I really want to be an ally to this girl, but I don’t like her mother at all. How should I respond to my coworker’s stories and comments about her daughter? Do you think we should try contacting Hannah again?

–Coworker Didn’t Get the Memo

What a heartbreaking letter.

It’s so incredibly hard to watch a parent pull this crap when you are helpless to intervene.

Well, mostly helpless.

I think you have done what you can with Hannah. You have made it clear you’d be willing to hang out. Her mother has made it clear that she is going to passively resist this as much as possible, but Hannah will eventually have more mobility and freedom. I imagine she will learn to drive or take public transportation, for instance. If her father allows it. (I HOPE I am joking about that.)

I assume Hannah knows you are a couple. She knows who to turn to if she needs to, when the time comes. And that is so, so important.

Now, the next stuff I’m going to say is fully optional. You are hereby cleared by me, as a queer and a parent of a queer, from any other responsibility. You can back away quickly when she talks about her daughter. You can change the subject or put your fingers in your ears and hum. She sounds like a very irritating person, on top of everything else.

But.

As a parent, I’m feeling like I need to at least give this damn lady a sliver of the benefit of the doubt.

To be clear: I think she is just a thoughtless parent who believes its her job to control her kid’s life and that there is only one way to be happy and she knows what it is, so she’s going to try to force her daughter into the shape she thinks is best.

Oh and that she thinks her husband believing that he owns his daughter’s sexuality and body is funny.

But.

On the off chance she is sharing this with people because it was a bit unsettling to her and she wants to see a reaction to gauge how weird some of this is, responding naturally might be just what she needs.

And she might be deeply frustrated with her daughter’s refusal to fit into the shape she’s trying to jam her into, and talking a little might help her see how ridiculous she is being.

You don’t have much to lose — she is already passively-aggressively keeping you from her daughter, so it’s not like you have a connection to her that will be in jeopardy.

So there are two ways to go, and this probably depends on how comfortable you are with confrontation.

One: I think she needs to see that some people are horrified by her husband’s behavior. I think she needs to see you recoil and say something like: “Actually, some of the best actors are introverts.” I think she needs to see you narrow your eyes over her bemoaning over her daughter not having a boyfriend already and looking skeptical. And if you can have a natural, honest reaction to what she says without telling her off, you will probably empower others around you to do the same.

Two: you can be empathetic. Or mime it. When she starts talking about her daughter in that antagonistic tone, you can say in a warm and kind tone: “It sounds like you’re pretty frustrated with her.” If she is, and wants to talk, she can — and increased intimacy might give you a chance to offer her other insights. If she isn’t, and hadn’t realized she’d taken on this tone — well, that’s information for her, as well.

I get it. I want to save all the queerbabies with parents like this (and worse, of course), too. But you have truly done what you can right now for the girl, and you’re continuing to be. And for her mom . . . showing her that it’s possible to have a happy life and a stable relationship even if you’re queer might help her to stop frantically attempting to force heterosexuality on Hannah. 

Good luck. And remember it’s always an option to just change the subject or walk away, for your own mental health.

Yet another woman thinks everything’s her fault.

Dear Gentle Butch,

There was a guy, “Joel,” who I had some feelings for and ended up sleeping with once (we were both single at the time).

After that happened, we never actually spoke about it, which was occasionally awkward since we both did a lot of work for the same small organization and had some of the same social circle.

Less than a year later, I was having serious roommate problems that made me feel unsafe at home. I brought up the situation with many people, including Joel. He said that he had been looking for a roommate, and that I could consider that as a possibility. I pursued that, although I sensed he had reservations about the idea, and ended up moving in with Joel and his other roommates.

Joel had recently entered a relationship. I was glad about that, thinking it would be clear boundary. Although I still had some feelings for him, I didn’t want to act on them in any circumstances. We were simply cordial roommates the entire time I lived there.

However, a few months after I had moved in, a friend of mine brought up the subject of Joel’s girlfriend. She was unaware of the fact that Joel and I had slept together. My friend thought it was unethical to live there if the girlfriend was in the dark. She argued that while Joel was the one keeping this information private and I was not responsible for that, I was condoning it by staying, and had created the situation in the first place– Joel’s random sexual history would not be relevant to disclose to his girlfriend, until he was living with a former hookup. I hadn’t considered it in that light and wasn’t sure what to think. After some agonizing, I brought up the subject to Joel, and as I suspected, his girlfriend did not know about our history. I ended up staying at the place a while longer, before leaving just a month or two earlier than I had planned.

So was it morally wrong — or at the least suspect — for me to live there, knowing his girlfriend was unaware of our past? I’ve never been able to really decide. Did Joel’s girlfriend have a right to that information? Was my behavior irrelevant to the entire situation, and the responsibility to act/disclose or not on Joel? Does the issue lie in a different area, in the fact that I did not discuss these issues with Joel before moving in? Or that I suspected Joel had misgivings about me living there, and I ignored that and moved in anyway? I feel that I was in the wrong somewhere, but I have had a hard time putting my finger on it. How can I go about evaluating and coming to a decision about right and wrong in this, or in future dilemmas I might face?

–Rueful Roommate

 

oh my GOD RR staaaaaaaahp.

Stop taking on everyone else’s feelings, real or imagined. Stop being so certain you did something wrong.

I know that our society has taught you that as a woman it is your job to take care of everyone’s feelings and to stay out in front of everything and to read people’s body language and react in ways that are best for them regardless of your needs and to take on everything everything everything, but STOP.

You were not wrong. Anywhere.

Lots of people have a one-night stand and then go back to their lives without ever mentioning it. It’s a little awkward, but lots of people do it. Unless you wanted to talk about it but didn’t because he never brought it up, you did nothing wrong in this instance. And if you did, the person you wronged was yourself.

Moving in with him in a whole house full of roommates wasn’t wrong, either. You were in fear for your safety. That is a seriously awful situation. You needed a place to stay, and you needed it fast, and he had an open room at his place that needed filling. Not wrong.

As far as your ‘sense’ that he had reservations about the idea: he was the one who told you he needed a roommate. He didn’t have to do that. He could have said: ‘bummer if I hear of a place I’ll let you know,’ or simply remained silent — which seems like his style. If he had second thoughts during the process, it was on him to say something. (FWIW, he sounds like an absolutely terrible, selfish communicator and I don’t like him.) It’s not on you to read people’s minds. Many men will do that: say something with their mouths and then use reluctant body language, to try to make you do all the hard emotional work and read between the lines. Fuck that.

Your ‘friend’ laying all of the responsibility for communication at your feet . . .  she’s just plain wrong about so many things.

First, I see no reason why you need to tell someone you slept with her boyfriend, once, a YEAR AGO, because you are one of his many housemates. What would be the purpose? This information says nothing about you, her stupid boyfriend, or her situation in regards to him. One. Time. Around a year ago.

Second, I don’t really see a reason he should tell her, either.

These two facts make all of your friend’s arguments moot, but I just HAD to address this little mindfuck she was doing: blaming you for ‘putting him in the position’ of having to tell his girlfriend about you two by moving in with him.

He knew he had a girlfriend and that you two had fucked a year ago. Knowing this, he invited you to move in.

Imagine believing that a friend of yours who was IN DANGER should have, instead of getting the fuck out of an awful situation in the fastest way possible, bent herself into a zillion pretzels to think about the POSSIBILITY that she might put her male roommate into a position where he might have to OPEN HIS GODDAMNED MOUTH AND SAY SOMETHING.

To recap:

  1. You did nothing wrong.
  2. Your friend was engaging in patriarchal blame-the-woman-ing and protect-the-man-at- all cost-even-when-the-issue-is-imaginary and was full of shit.
  3. I don’t like this guy.

Stick to your guns. Don’t let these assholes push you around. Believe that you are allowed to take care of yourself instead of all of the grownup people around you who should be looking after themselves and interrogating their OWN lives instead of yours.

She is not your friend. She is a sadistic little mindfucker. And he ain’t no prize, either.

Your last question was how to evaluate situations and decide on what is right and what is wrong in the future. You don’t need the answer to that question: you know what is right and wrong, and you acted accordingly.

You just need to believe that you are a smart, capable grownup who knows what to do and when, who has a sense of self preservation and privacy, who perhaps doesn’t need to burden random girlfriends with weird ‘fun facts’ about their boyfriends, and doesn’t need busybodies picking apart your decisions.

I will tell you what I think you might need to look at more closely: perhaps pay more attention to picking better friends and crushes.

Friends should be supportive, not cut you down and accuse you of nebulous and ridiculous ethical crimes. Friends of all types — the ones you’ve hooked up with and the ones you haven’t — should communicate clearly, without any manipulative bullshit. They certainly shouldn’t just skulk around silently expecting you to do all of the emotional work.

So what do I think you should do?

I would start by noticing a few things about people you’re with now: how do they make you feel? Do you feel stupid and second-guess yourself after you were with them for a few hours? Are you anxious around them, never feeling like you’re doing or saying the right thing? Do you feel judged? Do you fear bringing up topics with them because you don’t want to seem uncool or vulnerable and their reactions and the way they talk leave you feeling unbalanced and unsure?

RUN.