Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Hope everyone had a relaxing holiday weekend with minimal family or friend drama. What’s on your mind?
Q. Ex-stepmother: I was married for 11 years to a man with three girls (our son died as a baby). While I wasn’t their mother, I loved the girls dearly and tried to stay in their lives through their teen and adult years. I was happy with the “auntie” role and enjoyed just being in their lives. I also helped out financially—college, cars, weddings, etc.
Melissa is the youngest of my ex-stepdaughters and the last to get married. Her wedding got canceled because of the pandemic and she and her fiancé lost their jobs soon after. They are in recovery but lost most of their deposits after the businesses went under.
Melissa and her partner had to trim the guest list down to family only. I didn’t make the cut. I will not deny it hurt but I didn’t raise a fuss—until Melissa asked me for “her” money. I was very generous when her sisters got married, but that was years and a retirement ago. In my shock, I told Melissa she had a lot of cheek to demand a check after telling me I wasn’t family. She cried that I owed it to her because I helped out her sisters, and fair was fair. I told her all she wanted was a check. She cursed me out.
Apparently my statement has sparked a family powder keg. My ex had a stroke three years ago and depends on his current wife for most of his care. His other two daughters pay for respite care. Melissa doesn’t. Her sisters are disgusted with her greed and are not attending the wedding. Melissa blames me for talking about her demands with various friends and family; I was just seeking advice.
I loved Melissa as a child. I don’t know who this woman is now. I don’t want to cause conflict here. What can I do?
A: Wow. I hope everyone you’ve talked to about this has been as shocked as I am and has affirmed to you that you are under no obligation to pay for a wedding that you’re not invited to. Melissa sounds completely unreasonable, and you shouldn’t give her demands or guilt trips any more thought. The fact that her sisters won’t deal with her is further confirmation (not that you need it) that she’s in the wrong here. To the extent that you can, put this out of your mind. Maybe she’ll come around and apologize one day; maybe not.
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Q. Just want to be normal: I’m a stay-at-home mom. I have three kids and a wonderful husband who does dishes and lets me sleep in because I’m always exhausted. My problem is I have pretty severe ADHD and I really have a hard time cleaning or just being domestic. I can’t go back to work because child care is super expensive. Lately I’ve really had a hard time wanting to live, like it’s pretty severe wanting to not be a burden to my family because I will never have a normal brain.
I will never not have ADHD and I am so tired of myself. I’ve never felt so much apathy as I do lately. Mental health care is hard to find and I’m just done. I wake up every day and I’m already at a job that I’m not good at. I just don’t know what to do.
A: Nothing—not the dishes, not your job, not treating your ADHD—is as important as getting back to a place where you want to live. Everything else can wait. Your husband sounds understanding, but he might not get that you’re having suicidal thoughts or ideation. You have to tell him, and let him know that you need him to take the lead on getting you help with your mental health. You’re absolutely right that a good therapist is hard to find, but it’s less hard for someone who isn’t depressed, so that’s where your husband can step in and do some research and get you an appointment for talk therapy and medication—and then another appointment if that one doesn’t work out. You deserve to feel like more than a burden and you can get there, but probably not on your own.
Q. Premature dessert debacle: My boyfriend and I have the same disagreement fairly often: I ask that he wait for me to finish my dinner before he has his dessert. However, he continues to take his plate to the sink and get dessert while I am only halfway through my meal. To me, this disrupts the flow of the meal. He says he is in his own house and it’s not formal. I say that it is just mannerly to wait for someone to finish. I also must point out that I am not a slow eater.
It just irks me when he does it. He knows it annoys me but continues to do it. He then gets mad at me every time I ask if he can wait a few more minutes. It ends in a rather upsetting way because he yells at me, calls me names, and storms off—so juvenile at 57 years old. Am I being too rigid about the dessert?
A: Yes. You should let this one go. People should get to eat what they want when they want, and he’s not taking away from your ability to do that by getting up to get his bowl of ice cream at the very moment that he’s in the mood for it. He’ll still be at the table keeping you company!
But while his dessert schedule may be harmless, his yelling at you and calling you names is not. Is it possible that you’re focused on the wrong thing here? Manners are easier to think about than mistreatment, but I worry that you’re distracting yourself from an aspect of the relationship that is much more troubling.
Q. Cannot get a coffee: My friend Rachel regularly asks me out for coffee. This used to be fine, but lately Rachel has had trouble ordering what she says she will order when she offers to get the drinks for both of us. Rachel does have some memory problems … but this is happening nearly every time now. Sometimes she will even replace my order with a higher-priced item and then complain about the item’s cost. This makes me concerned because, as far as I know, Rachel is financially well-off. I also wouldn’t normally expect this because she is funny, smart, and charming.
Rachel seems to be otherwise a little high-strung, but when I ask her what is going on, she deflects or pretends not to have heard me. She never has explained or apologized. What can I say?
A: It sounds like Rachel has a lot going on. Keep it lighthearted but direct: “You came back with the wrong drink the last couple of times and you know how I feel about my extra pumpkin spice syrup—I’m obsessed with it and my day will be ruined if I get the wrong drink. So I’m going to do the ordering today so I can make sure all my high-maintenance coffee needs are met. What do you want?”
When it comes to your concerns about her memory issues and possible money problems, I think all you can do is ask a sincere “How is everything going for you? How have you been feeling lately?” and give her the opportunity to open up if she wants to. If she doesn’t share any details, take comfort in the fact that she obviously appreciates the time you spend together—otherwise she wouldn’t invite you to coffee—and that you may be providing her with much-needed support and companionship, even if you don’t fully understand what she’s dealing with.
Q. Reached the tipping point: My wife behaves like a 5-year-old when it comes to cleanliness and tidiness. My house is literally a junkyard. She never throws out empty bottles or empty plastic bags of packaged foods or any such items—she’ll finish the last chip but leave the empty bag there. Her room (I started sleeping in another room because I can’t cope with all the dirty ways the room is kept) is full of clothes strewn around and one can’t walk in without stepping on something. The top of her dressing table is a dump of items. The other day, the floor was smeared with leftover makeup. The same extends to her personal hygiene too—she won’t change clothes for days and won’t clean herself properly. I get the foul smell from her almost 3 feet away. Our fridge has rotten things with mold. She spends most of her time on WhatsApp or Facebook or talking to somebody on the phone, etc., but won’t spend even 10 minutes tidying up things (she is a housewife who takes care of my teenage son).
My job is very demanding and I work around 8 to 10 hours a day. On top of that, I take care of all our financial and vehicle-related things. I also spend time buying groceries online, which is a new responsibility of mine added during the pandemic. Despite that, I clean up all the mess in the house to reduce friction. My son also is messy, and this creates a lot of stress and fights between us.
I have reached a tipping point and don’t know how to tackle this situation. My wife was OK 10 years ago, but started to degrade as the years go by. I have never seen such an untidy and messy personality before. Any words of wisdom would really be appreciated.
A: Your understandable frustration with living in filth and running a household on your own might be stopping you from seeing what’s obvious: Your wife could be suffering from depression. The fact that she hasn’t always been like this makes me convinced that her messiness isn’t a lifestyle choice, but a symptom of something more serious. I know you’re probably short on time and energy, but if you can give her a break when it comes to housekeeping and showering and put all your energy toward talking to her about getting some help, you might get better results.
Q. Re: Just want to be normal: Oh, please hang in there. I’ve been there. I was 36 before I was diagnosed, and I too struggled as a stay-at-home parent, but with my doctor, therapist, my own research, and medication, I’m doing better than ever. Honestly. If you’re already on meds or whatever, look into other options. Look into tools and tips that ADHD people can use to help circumvent executive dysfunction and other issues of ADHD. But don’t give up, because it can get better.
A: This is great to hear and I hope the letter writer is encouraged and takes your advice. Again, I totally understand how difficult it is to find and pay for a mental health professional, so I want to make sure the letter writer has the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, so they can get help with their feeling of not wanting to live even if there is a wait for help with ADHD: 800-273-8255.
Q. Re: Premature dessert: I second what Prudie said regarding the troubling nature of the boyfriend’s approach to conflict—yelling and name-calling are a big red flag to me. But I don’t think the letter writer was being too rigid about dessert. It would be very distracting to me to have someone eating dessert while I was still on dinner—for one thing, it’d be very distracting and unsettling to have the super-sweet dessert smell wafting over my savory dinner. And frankly, when you are sharing a meal with someone, being polite and waiting for them to finish is an important way to show you care.
My husband and I try to eat together every night, and when we do, if one of us is in a rush, we’ll always ask, “Honey, do you mind if I get up and get a start on the dishes?” Because it’s just common courtesy. Part of me thinks it’s not such a coincidence that someone who thinks so little of being courteous to his partner also thinks it’s acceptable to yell at them and call them names.
A: That’s fair. Even as someone who can’t imagine how, with everything going on in the world, it would possibly matter whether he was finishing his chicken or eating a brownie, I agree that not being kind and sensitive to his partner seems to be a theme.
Q. Re: Just want to be normal: I was diagnosed with “moderate to severe” ADHD several years ago (now in my mid-30s). I’ve been high-functioning most of the time, but have lapses and have definitely struggled to feel motivated and worthwhile during the pandemic. Here is what I know:
1) There are telehealth services out there like Ahead and Cerebral that make getting therapy and medication management treatment a lot easier. The two I mentioned are specialized in ADHD treatment.
2) Really consider medication if you haven’t already. Stimulant medication is very helpful but not without some willpower, the ability to make lists, and making sure to manage whatever side effects come with the medication (I make calorie-dense smoothies for lunch when I’m not hungry because of Adderall). Which means you also need to find a good therapist to help you learn to navigate and manage.
3) ADHD brains are very atypical, but they can also be very, very good at specific things. Find what you’re good at and try to build routines from that (my brain likes to read, so I work in editing and copywriting; I’m good at cooking and making specialty drinks after working in food service for years so I take care of most of the meals in my family; etc.).
4) Everything is trial and error, so do a little reading and advocating for yourself. Tell your family what helps you stay motivated (when you find it, and no rush at all!) and spend LOTS of time just doing things that bring you joy (I like watching documentaries and coloring at the same time).
5) You’re in a great situation as long as your family is supportive! If you don’t have to work, your day-to-day living isn’t dependent on a paycheck. Think of this as a gift! That means you have time and space to figure out what works for you and what feels best. Be kind to yourself and remind yourself that you are not lazy or deficient. Your brain just works differently than most other people’s, and society wasn’t built for how your brain works. You just need to figure out what helps you function and participate in society to the extent you want to.
6) This one is still a huge struggle for me: Try to unlearn people-pleasing and the idea that people need to like you for you to be a good, successful human. ADHD often comes with depression and anxiety because of trauma and judgment from the neurotypical world. You’re doing your best and that’s good enough.
All the best! Learning to love thinking differently and being a little weird has made me be able to dig into my strengths and contribute to society in a lot of meaningful ways. I hope the same for you!
A: Thanks for this great advice!
My boyfriend and I have been together for three years and have lived together for two. Our relationship isn’t perfect, but I love him with my entire being. I have never cheated on him, but I have lied to him in the past. He, of course, inevitably discovered my lies. I lied because he has a tendency to be a little possessive and jealous. I wasn’t up to anything bad; I just didn’t feel like dealing with an argument.
Cut to this past weekend where he had to travel out of state for work. He asked me if I had gone out at night and I told him no. I found out later that he had actually been taping me, so he could confirm, in fact, that I had been at home. My question is am I allowed to be upset that he was secretly monitoring me?