Addicted friends, debutantes, babysitting woes—Friend or Foe offers advice at Slate.

Advice on sticky friendship dilemmas.
May 3 2011 6:59 AM

The Case of the Prickly Debutante

Did I ruin a potential friendship because I laughed at photos from her teenage cotillion?

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Dear Friend or Foe:

My fiancé and I recently moved to a new city and into the same apartment building as his cousins, "Anne," "Jack," and Jack's wife, "Jill." The cousins' friends, "Sue" and "Sam," live across the hall. When we moved in, Jill warned me that Sue was "a wolf in sheep's clothing," but Jack said she was being silly. So I wasn't worried. One evening, over wine with the gang, I asked to see some pictures Sue was showing Anne. In the photos, Sue was wearing a fancy dress next to a guy in a suit. When I asked what it was, she said, "My debutante ball." The only female friend I've had from the South hated her deb ball. Plus, my hipster friends are always holding fake '80s prom nights for laughs. I was also possibly nervous. In any case, my first reaction was to giggle. Also, it didn't occur to me that a woman in her late 20s who owns her own business would be trotting out an old picture of her cotillion.

Sue looked at me, annoyed, and said, "Is there some inside joke? Why did you laugh?" Embarrassed, I said, "So, that's really your debutante ball? I had a friend. …" But she abruptly cut me off and ignored me the rest of the night. And in the two months since, neither Sue, nor Sam, nor Anne has stopped by or contacted us. (Jack and Jill have since moved cities.) Now I'm afraid that Sue thinks I was laughing at her. Or that I'm mean. Sue and Anne are close. So I'm also worried that I ruined my chances at being close to my fiancé's cousin. Should I bring what happened up? Apologize? Ask Anne about it? Pretend nothing happened? Due to shyness, I have trouble making friends. So I was really counting on becoming close to these people. What's more, we all have a lot in common and got along well—until now.

Sincerely,
Debutante Neighbor Hates Me

Dear DNHM,

Lucinda Rosenfeld Lucinda Rosenfeld

Lucinda Rosenfeld is the author of four novels, including I'm So Happy for You and The Pretty One, which will be published in early 2013.

You say you're shy, and I believe you. But is Sue the Prickly Deb really your only friendship prospect in the whole wide city? Isn't there anyone at work? And, if not, what about joining a community group? Or maybe your hipster friends back home know someone you can ironically drop in on while wearing a taffeta number with shoulder pads? You say that you and Sue's gang have a lot in common. But—without knowing your lines of work or outside interests—I'm having trouble coming up with anything you share except a casual friendship with your fiancé's cousins, who have since moved away. (Sorry, that's not much of a connection.)

What's more, if Sue is that thin-skinned about you giggling over an old photo, imagine what she's like when it comes to making memories in the present tense. As for Anne, you don't tell me anything about her except that she's blown you off, too, ostensibly out of loyalty to Sue. Which doesn't speak all that well of her, either. My advice: Be friendly as you need to be to Anne, since she's about to become a member of your extended family, albeit a peripheral one. But let the wind from Sue's dissing direct you to new people. In the meantime, you have your husband to chat with when you get bored. A final note: The ability to laugh at oneself as one appeared at the age of 18 is a great quality. You need to find some new friends who feel the same way.

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe 

Dear Friend or Foe,

Two years ago, my best friend "Kali" had a traumatic medical experience in which they thought she might have a brain tumor. But it turned out that hormones were to blame. She was advised to stop taking birth control and get counseling to deal with the mood swings and emotional trauma of her unhelpful parents. Instead she ended up with a psychiatrist who seemed to dole out pain killers and anxiety drugs like candy. During this time, she was also romantically involved with a nice man ("Jim"), who is not her equal mentally. He had already filed for bankruptcy, but treated her like a queen. (Though she paid for everything.) She and Jim wed last year.

Around the same time, she mentioned she was taking more controlled drugs than meth addicts she'd seen on a documentary. After I voiced my concerns, she kicked most of the meds, got divorced, and started feeling good for the first time in a long time. But Jim continued to live in her house. And they continued to go on vacations together, as she said she needed someone to take care of her. (She's a star at work, but says the stress is killing her.) Then she had another health scare which remains undiagnosed.

Instead of dealing with the testing (last time was horrible), she has now run back to the psychiatrist. I live across the country and feel powerless to report the doctor or to intervene regarding Jim (who runs her to the pharmacy for more drugs). Is there anything I can do? I don't want to see Kali ruin her life like this. Once, she was fun, intelligent, eccentric, and artistic. Now, when she comes to visit, she says she feels sick and is "probably dying." I also fear that she's holding onto Jim for fear of being alone, which is not like the person I once knew.

Signed,
Bestie is a Druggie

Dear BIAD,

Your friend Kali may indeed have had a health scare. But she seems mainly to be suffering from some kind of mental disorder in which she imagines herself to be sicker than she actually is—in order to justify the desire for pain killers and other escapist and addictive drugs. Little surprise that she won't kick out Jim, as he functions as her round-the-clock nursemaid/enabler/hanger-on, giving truth to her lie. I also wouldn't be surprised to learn that, in exchange for his pharmacy runs, he helps himself to the spill-off, pocketing whatever pills or cash he can. Also, when you say that "they" thought she had a brain tumor, who exactly is they? (Likely, Kali and Jim.) Doctors routinely give brain scans to those who come in suffering from chronic headaches, weak limbs, blurred visions, and other such symptoms. To receive one of these tests is not to be told, in so many words, that you're dying—unless this is the message you hope to hear.

Someone needs to uncover why your friend doesn't actually want to be well or to stand on her own two feet. If you want to try and be that person (again), go for it. Though I wouldn't expect any magical results. If you're really motivated, I also don't see why you can't call Kali's shrink and, as a worried friend, voice your concerns. (At the worst, he'll thank you and hang up.) But sometimes the oft-used expressions say it best—in this case, there's only so much you can do.

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe

Dear Friend or Foe,

My good friend "Denise" is pregnant with her first. I'm pregnant with my second and am essentially a stay-at-home mom—though I work up to 14 hours weekly at a low-key, mellow job that I genuinely enjoy. I plan to take a break for a month when my baby is born. Denise is currently working full-time at a high-earning, intense job that caters nicely to her driven, ambitious nature—and will also take a month of maternity leave. Since becoming pregnant, at every instance we talk, she proposes that I be her baby's nanny when she returns to work. I know she's worried that childcare is incredibly expensive. But I don't want to watch her baby and, at every turn, have deflected her offer. She, in turn, won't let it go.

"I'll pay you better than your job," she promises. And, "You're going to be home anyway," and "I want our babies to be friends from the beginning," and "You won't want to go back to work." She also argues that her baby will probably just sleep most of the day, so it won't be hard, and that she would do it for me. With every new argument, I grow more insulted and more convinced that Denise doesn't take my time or the direction I've chosen as seriously as her own. She also seems clueless about how much work it is to raise a baby. The problem is—I know Denise will be deeply hurt if I tell her (again) that I can't take care of another person's infant, too, no matter how close I am to his or her mother. What should I do? I'm more than happy to sit on occasion, so she and her "fella" can have the night off. But just the thought of my house filled with two bawling infants and my own energetic young child makes me antsy.

Sincerely, 
Nanny Not For Hire

Dear NNFH,

If Denise would do it for you, why doesn't she? This seems to me to be the perfect retort to her nagging. Tell her you're thinking of going back to full-time work yourself next year—and maybe you can cut a deal by which you cover the first six months in yours babies' lives, and she does the second. (Make you a bet she has a really good excuse.) Here's another idea: Try the four simple words, "Not going to happen." If she's "hurt," too bad. But really, what she's asking is simply way beyond the call of friendship. Nor is it even a good idea. Find me someone who thinks asking for overtime or vacation pay from their B.F.F. would be a fun conversation.

If I still haven't convinced you to stop worrying about Denise's feelings, you could also go with something along these lines: "Denise, I really can't handle three kids under three. I'm sorry." And, "It's making me really uncomfortable the way you keep bringing this up, since I've already said I can't do it. As you'll soon find out, it's totally exhausting and consuming taking care of an infant. You think they sleep all day, but they actually don't." Then hand her a list of local daycare agencies and their contact info.

Good luck with baby No. 2!

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe

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