Like many of you, I often wonder whether readers took my advice, and if they did, how it worked out. However, I make it a policy not to pierce the veil of anonymity letter writers feel when they write to me; it just doesn't seem right to knock at their inbox asking what happened. This year several letter writers filled me in, and I'm happy to share their experiences.
I heard from two women who wrote about the aftermath of being sexually molested as girls. One, "Suffering With Skeletons," was a college student who realized a classmate was the grandson of the man who had molested her. Seeing this young man was causing her emotional havoc, and she wondered whether she should tell him of their awful connection. I advised her not to but noted that if she continued to feel shaky, she should see a school therapist. The young woman wrote to say she did not tell her classmate. Though they ended up assigned to the same study group for a final project, he was a nice person and she became comfortable in his presence. She signed her follow-up "No Longer Suffering."
The other was from a woman, now in graduate school, who wrote into a Washingtonpost.com chat that she was molested once when she was a little girl by her much older brother. She never told anyone. He has turned into a successful executive who enjoys bullying his subordinates. She said having to be at family gatherings with him makes her sick. She wondered what she should do, and whether she should confront him. I suggested that saying something to him, or addressing the family about this, could have dangerous emotional consequences for her and that she first needed to take advantage of her school counseling services. Readers backed me up that this kind of revelation can be like a grenade tossed at a family gathering and that the letter writer could be the one most damaged. I was frustrated I didn't have a better answer for her.
So I was surprised to get such a heartfelt thank you from the letter writer. She said that seeing her problem in print was at first terrifying. "But, as I read your response, and the responses from other readers in the comments area I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Maybe somewhere down the road, I'll find it therapeutic to tell my brother about the pain he caused. But you, and your readers, made me realize that it's not him that I need to confront right now. It's myself." This response pointed out the important role readers play through their insightful comments, for which I'm grateful.
In October, I ran a letter from a young gay man who, after dental surgery, was given a ride from a straight work colleague. It turns out the patient, whacked out from his Valium drip, groped his friend on the ride home—although the patient had zero memory of this. Now the friend was acting cool and distant, and the letter writer was worried their friendship was destroyed. I said that although I don't give a pass for alcohol-fueled behavior, I do give an exemption for medically induced craziness and said he simply needed to explain to his friend that he was completely unaware of his actions. Well, that was easy! The patient told me he printed out the column and showed it to his friend. "We both agreed we felt rotten about the situation, mutually apologized, and are back on great terms."
Then there was the young woman who had attempted suicide, gotten help, and recovered from her depression. She was engaged, yet hadn't told her fiance about this, fearful of his reaction. I said some things in one's past are none of a romantic partner's business. But a suicide attempt is information any partner should have—and if this news made him want to run, then he wasn't the man she thought he was. She wrote to let me know that as soon as she sent the letter, even before it appeared in the column, she realized telling her fiance was the right thing to do. "He actually was very moved by my experience and now sees me as an even stronger person than before."
One husband had a silly but complicated situation. He and his sister-in-law worked together. One day his sister-in-law called his wife with a funny story about some workplace antics the wife was supposed to keep to herself. The husband asked what the wife was laughing at, and she told him in confidence. But the next time the sister-in-law was over, the husband blurted out what he knew, leaving the sister-in-law furious. The situation was causing a serious breach between the formerly close sisters, but the husband wanted to shift the blame to them. I took him to task and told him that he needed to explain to the sister-in-law it was his fault. (I also thought the sister-in-law was being ridiculous by not realizing spouses tell each other secrets.)
He took my advice, apologized to the sister-in-law, and it worked—helped along by his gesture of treating the two women to a day at the spa. "They are fast friends again. All is well," he wrote in relief.
Would that all problems were solved so easily. "The Good Daughter/Sister/Mother/Wife" wrote in because her aging, irresponsible mother had started taking in very needy foster children—even adopting one troubled girl. The letter writer felt her mother was not able to handle these children, but her immediate concern was that the mother wanted to go on an extended European vacation and have the letter writer care for the adopted girl, who had a history of threatening violence. I said the letter writer should not be pressured into taking care of a troubled child at the risk of harm to her own children. Her mother had to find a stable situation for the girl or cancel the trip. And I also suggested the letter writer contact the social-service agency dealing with the foster children and explain that her mother was not providing the care necessary.
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