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My mother has been a drug addict most of my life. When I was 10 years old, she and her boyfriend physically attacked me, and I reported her to a teacher. I ended up living with my father and stepmother, after being shamed by the whole family for turning her in. We've had sporadic and mostly turbulent contact ever since. She became addicted to crystal methamphetamine while raising my younger half-brother. One day, the police called and told me my half-brother was going to be placed in foster care if I didn't pick him up. My wife and I took him in and raised him with no financial help from my mother. I recently was visiting with my grandparents, who've been a great support to me. My grandmother, my mother's mother, asked whether I would contribute to the care of my mother, who can no longer provide for herself. She said $75 a month would really help. (I know my mother's cigarette habit costs about that much.) I suggested that my mother apply for disability payments or vocational rehabilitation. I love my grandparents, but I don't agree with how they've enabled my mother. My grandparents are upper-middle-class and own their own home. I'm a social worker and have two young children. Helping my mother would mean canceling my cable TV. I left feeling I had failed my grandparents due to my reluctance. What should I do?
I don't think you should deprive yourself of cable TV to help your mother. I don't even think you should go without a pack of gum or let your children go without a pair of shoelaces on her behalf. I understand you love your grandparents, but you say "the whole family" shamed you as a boy for reporting your mother and saving your own life, so shame on them. Then they stood by while she almost destroyed another one of their grandsons. God bless you for stepping up and saving your half-brother. Yes, your mother is sad and sick, but there's a limit to how much destruction one person should be allowed to do in a lifetime. You don't owe her anything, and it's unfair for your grandparents to try to make you feel guilty for not wanting to sacrifice some of your well-deserved pleasure to pay for one of her many noxious habits. The pressure they're putting on you to help her out is a good example of what you say is a long pattern of their enabling her. If they want to threaten an estrangement from you because you won't write a check, that's painful, but illuminating as to their priorities. It seems as if no matter how degraded their daughter became, or the danger she posed to her children, they've always been there to make excuses. Let's hope they follow your advice and get her some professional help. If your grandparents want to support her financially, then they can sell their home, move into an apartment, and let your mother burn through their money.
Dear Prudence: Sex-Starved Newlywed
Every year, my husband and I spend Thanksgiving with his family at his cousin's house. A close family member of mine, who does not attend, is very active in local politics. Every year, the cousin and his wife make a snide comment to me about this man. Usually it's about some recent action, but sometimes it's the suggestion that I've succeeded in my somewhat-related field only because of my connection to him. I'm a guest in their home, so I can't tell them to go to hell, and any conflict would upset my husband. I've asked my husband to speak to them on my behalf. He thinks that's inappropriate and that the only way for me to "earn their respect" is to confront them. I don't care about their respect. I only want to have a pleasant evening. But it's probably true that it would feel better to respond myself. So what do I say without hurting my relationship with the rest of the family?
It's time for pumpkin pie with the family again, so people like you have to sit down at the Thanksgiving table and try to restrain yourselves from throwing a pie into the faces of family members. It would be considerate if your husband would step in and try to shut them up. But often people revert to a juvenile state when dealing with their families. Still, even if your husband doesn't take action, explain to him it would mean a lot if he would simply acknowledge to you that his relatives behave despicably and that he understands they mar what should be a lovely event. It sounds as if you don't have a problem with the rest of the family, so concentrate on catching up with them and keeping yourself out of earshot of the toxic duo. Since, however, they get their jollies out of seeing you squirm, try not to let them get to you. If they offer one of their insults, try replying with a non sequitur: "The house looks lovely. I so appreciate your doing Thanksgiving again." If you feel a need to respond to their accusations, you could say: "Actually, I know that's how you feel. You said exactly the same thing to me last year. In fact, you've said this to me every year. Happy Thanksgiving! Excuse me while I freshen my drink." Ultimately, it might be helpful if once in a while your husband joined you at your own family's celebration.
I have a beautiful, gifted, intelligent, 26-year-old daughter. She has decided she wants to solve the environmental issues of our world single-handedly. This is a wonderful goal, except for one problem: She has virtually quit using soap. She doesn't use soap when she showers, and I think that she washes her hair only once or twice a month. She says that she doesn't want to strip away the natural oils that her body produces. The result is that there are times when she has a definite and extremely unpleasant odor. She has a great job at which she is successful and many friends. I've always been the type of mother who expresses my opinions to my children without reservation. But this time I am hesitant since she is an independent young woman whose life seems to be on the right track. Do you think I should butt in, or should I keep my nose out of it?
If you don't stick your nose in this, Mom, your daughter may find everyone else in her life fleeing. It also may be time for you to suggest that while her lack of personal hygiene will not solve the world's environmental problems, it is making the environment around her more foul. Just this week, the New York Times ran an article about people who bathe infrequently (which my Slate colleague Jack Shafer found bogus). Several of them asserted that they knew they didn't have noticeable body odor, because no one has told them they do. It's a bit much, however, for the odiferous to expect their co-workers to start quoting Shakespeare around the office: "He smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell," hoping the unwashed get the drift. People's bathing habits are their own business, except when their B.O. meets someone else's olfactory receptors. Do your daughter the kindness of saying, "Because I love you more than anything, I'm going to be the one to let you know that you stink."
I have a leadership position at my university, and, although I love my job, there's one aspect of it that I struggle with—the endless cheering and chanting that goes on when we go through training and orientation. Like many young people, over the years I've been forced into doing awkward "icebreakers" in which we recite cringe-worthy rhymes about how much we love a school or program. I end up looking and feeling completely ridiculous. If I try to match the enthusiasm of some of my peers, I seem to be trying too hard. But if I stand in the back and smile and clap and hope no one notices me, I'm taken for the group naysayer. How can I go through these stupid, annoying cheers without looking like I think they are stupid and annoying?
—Need a Beer After This Cheer
I'm the one in the back with you, trying to edge out the door to the ladies' room so I can wait it out until the cheering dies down. There are group activities—scavenger hunts or charades, for example—that actually are fun and force people out of their usual roles. I've never understood the pep-rally approach, but as you've observed, there are those who love it. One thing that makes for effective group dynamics is to bring together people with different attitudes and points of view. Every group needs some people who believe, "We're the greatest!" and others who aver, "Actually, no." So while the crabby among us have our place, there's no point in the crabby bringing down the peppy when they're in their element. If people are accusing you of being a "naysayer," maybe your smile is too wan and your clapping too desultory. Use some acting skills to strike a pose that communicates that while you may not be a cheerleader, neither does your colleagues' enthusiasm make you cringe.
More Dear Prudence Columns
"Abuser Seeks a Way Out: I'm an emotional bully to all my girlfriends. How can I change?" Posted Jan. 28, 2010."
His Endowment Is Cocktail Chatter: My wife blabs to her girlfriends about my large penis. Is that normal?" Posted Oct. 8, 2009.
"Dirty Pretty Things: My girlfriend has worn the same undergarment for weeks. Isn't that disgusting?" Posted Aug. 27, 2009.
"Lunchroom Bandit: My co-worker is stealing everyone's food" Posted Dec. 3, 2009.
More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts
"Callous Co-Workers Count My Calories: Prudie counsels an American whose European colleagues monitor her diet—and other advice seekers." Posted March 1, 2010.
"Help! I'm Too Hot for My Age: Prudie counsels a woman whose youthful looks bring her nothing but problems—and other advice seekers." Posted Feb. 8, 2010.
"The Pervy Principal: Prudie counsels a school worker whose boss trolls Internet porn on the job—and other advice seekers." Posted Feb. 1, 2010.
"Sticky Fingers Can't Stop Stealing: Prudie counsels a good Samaritan gone bad—and other advice seekers." Posted Jan. 25, 2010.