Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. ( Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie's Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Hello, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Friend Addicted to Drugs, Sex, Partying: One of my close friends is, I fear, on the brink of killing herself. She and I are in the same graduate program and, since breaking up with her fiance about a year ago, she has steadily sunk deeper and deeper into cocaine and alcohol addictions. She has also been sleeping with dozens of random guys and partying almost nonstop. My friends and I tried to stage an intervention last winter, but she accused us of just trying to scare her. We thought things were improving in the spring, but I just learned (from another close friend who has become the only person in whom she confides) that, over the summer, her addictions and partying became worse. I suggested to the friend in whom she confides that we tell her parents everything that's happening. They seem to be clueless about it, and though she's 29 years old, it's clear that she needs to be saved from herself. My friend's response was, "I'm not sure about that, but I'll think about it." Should I be the one to tell her parents, even though I don't have direct knowledge of her recent actions? I'm not sure why my friend is hesitant about telling her parents.
A: Her close friend may be hesitant to break a confidence, but keeping a secret should not trump trying to rescue someone who's sinking. Probably your troubled friend confessed her substance abuse and her promiscuity under the condition that the conversation stay private. But it's unusual when someone harms herself, or ends up being hospitalized for a mental collapse, that those around her say they had no idea that things were spiraling out of control. Your friend may have some treatable, underlying mental illness that's fueling many of her destructive behaviors. She needs a comprehensive physical and mental evaluation and a plan of action. Since she isn't capable right now of helping herself, please be the one to tell her parents. Yes, your friend might be very angry at you for this. So what? You will be very angry with yourself if the worst happens and you look back and realize you didn't do what you could to help.
Dear Prudence: Fallen for My Ex's Sister
Q. Kids and Parties: My child is turning 7 this year, and we decided to let her have her first "birthday party" with kids from school. We gave out invites two weeks in advance and started planning a party for 16 guests. The problem is no one has called. I am an easygoing person who understands issues arise and things happen, but all of them? Forget the money and time I spent—my child is so excited for this party. I am seeing red and having a hard time with my anger. I have not even received a "sorry we can't make it" call. Just silence. How would someone feel if this was their little Suzy! How do I break it to my child that this is going to be a "party for one"?
A: Let's set aside the possibility that for some reason your child is disliked by the other kids and they don't want to come. (If that's the case, you need to be on top of that and taking action with the school.) What you more likely are experience is the death of the RSVP. Increasingly people look on invitations as just one appetizer in the social buffet of life. Why commit when something better may come along, or they won't feel like hauling themselves to your house the day of the party. Sadly, this means not only are you responsible for sending invitations, you must then act like a big game hunter stalking your prey as you attempt to force a yes or no out of them. For your daughter's sake, you really do need to know if you're going to have a party for one, five, or 10. So start calling the other parents. Do not be accusatory or make them defensive. Just say, "I hope you got the invitation for Suzy's birthday party. We just wanted to know how much food to plan for, so we're really hoping Sophia will be coming."
Q. Cause of Suicidal Boyfriend's Death: I recently ended a three-year relationship with a man I loved—but although I loved him, we kept running into the same problems. A few months ago, I broke it off with him and moved out. This weekend, I heard from mutual friends that he had killed himself and his parents indicated that he wrote a great deal about me prior to his death. I'm shocked and horrified by this. His funeral is later this week and I have no idea what the etiquette is. Should I attend his funeral? Send a card? Do I just pretend I didn't hear anything about it? I suspect my presence may grieve his family more.
A: You are not responsible for his death. I hope his mourning parents understand that your breakup was because he was so deeply troubled, and not that your ending the relationship is the cause of his suicide. However, it's also possible that his devastated parents might want to shift the blame for this terrible loss onto you. Since you have friends who know his parents, I think one of them should be your go-between here. Ask one of your friends to tell his parents you are deeply shaken and grieving their son's loss and would like to pay your respects by attending the funeral. But that you wanted to make sure your presence would not be upsetting to them. Then, no matter what they say, do write a letter to his parents. Tell them that you loved their son and write about what was fine and good about him, and express that you will always regret you didn't know just how much pain he was in. (And for the letter writer with the troubled friend in graduate school—please let this letter be a spur to action.)
Q. Child That Steals: I opened my wallet yesterday, and $40 I knew should have been there was missing. I confronted my 6-year-old boy, who denied any knowledge. When I checked his pockets—I found the $40. How should I deal with a young child that steals?
A: He's 6, so you don't act as if this is a capital offense. Many people who go on to live lives of integrity have flirted with criminal behavior during their elementary school years. Surely this "boy" knew he was doing something wrong when he took the money, then didn't see any way out when you confronted him. So you need to have a calm talk with him, showing him by your tone and manner that you are not angry. Say after you saw the money was missing, you did find it in his pocket. Explain you think that he was probably scared to tell you what he'd done, and ask if that's the case. If he starts talking, hear him out without judgment. Then explain that even though it's tempting to take things of other people's, it's just not right—he wouldn't want a friend to take one of his favorite toys without asking. Most of all you want to express to him that it's all right for him to let you know when he's done something wrong. This doesn't mean behavior never gets punished, but that if punishments need to be meted out they will be done fairly and without vindictiveness.
Q. RSVP: Unless you personally handed out the invites to each child, please check with the teacher or aide to make sure they didn't accidentally get forgotten somewhere in the beginning of school chaos of papers, papers, and more papers. Also, sometimes, they will be handed out and fall into the abyss of the bottom of the backpacks. Please do call the parents. I would hate for another person to think I was just plain rude. (I refuse to give into the death of the RSVP theory!)
A: Great point. It is not the school's responsibility to take care of personal invitations, and they should not be entrusted to 7-year-olds. That may be the source of the trouble.
Q. Half Siblings: I met my husband in my mid 20s. When I was pregnant with my second child, he started seeing other women. We separated 10 years ago when I found out his mistress was pregnant. Since then I raised my two kids on my own, never formally divorced, and he occasionally sends me $500 as child support but does not have regular contact with his kids. Recently my sister-in-law (my husband's brother's wife) phoned. During our conversation she mentioned he is living with another woman and has a 17-month-old child. My older son is fiercely protective of his father, despite not knowing him. He hates that I am seeing another man and says he eventually wants to live near Dad. I've not told my children that they have half siblings for fear this would shock them. Should they know? If so, when do I tell them?
A: Here are some things you need in your life, pronto: a lawyer, a divorce, regular child support, and honesty. It is a shame that all of you have been living in this netherworld of secrets for so long. No wonder your son has idealized the portrait he's created of the father he barely knows. You need to move on, and that means taking some legal action to make your husband your ex and work out financial arrangements and possibly setting up some regular visitation. All this would include letting your children know that they have (at least) two half-siblings they are entitled to meet, and possibly have a relationship with. Your children are going to have a lot of questions about all of this, and you need to let them know they can always bring their concerns to you, even if you don't always have an answer.