Every week, Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. No right answer!: I have been diagnosed with severe depression and have taken a leave of absence from work. I decided not to tell my parents because they live on the other side of the world and worry too much. However, I just spent two weeks with them on a holiday that had been booked a long time ago. It was very difficult for me, and they could tell something was wrong, so I confided in them but reassured them I was getting the help I needed.
The problem is my mother is incredibly sensitive and has no sense of boundaries. Since then she has done nothing but hassle me, worrying about things like what they think at work (they’re great), what caused it (nothing), and how stressed she is about it. I end up reassuring her every single day, and it is having a huge impact on my recovery. I’ve explained that it’s OK to feel worried but encouraged her to talk about it with my dad or someone else. It falls on deaf ears. Help!
A: “Mom, I’m doing everything I can to take care of myself, but I’m not going to be able to take care of you too while you’re having a breakdown of your own. I’m happy to check in with you once in a while, but I’m not going to be able to answer all of your calls or reassure you when you’re panicking. I hope you can find someone else to talk to about this, because it sounds like you would benefit from seeing a therapist, too.” Let some of her calls go to voice mail. Let a lot of her calls go to voice mail. Pick a scheduled weekly (or biweekly) date and let her know you’ll call her then. In between those days, don’t answer her calls.
You may not be able to convince her that she needs to find someone else to speak to about it, but you can stop being constantly available to her. That much is in your control. More than that, it’s necessary for you to focus on your own well-being.
Q. Apartment dog etiquette: I live in the second floor of an apartment building, and I recently got a dog to help with my anxiety. The dog is sweet, well-tempered, and loved by everyone who meets him. The problem is that he has separation anxiety and barks and chews the door, sheets, and kennel anytime when I leave for work at 5:30 a.m. I have done my best to explain to my neighbors that I am getting him treated and will rehome him if necessary. Everyone say it’s not a problem except my downstairs neighbor. I’ve talked to him before, and he was civil and polite, if a bit nonunderstanding of what separation anxiety is, but nothing terrible.
Until the other day. I had just got home from work and was driving the dog to the park. The neighbor came up to my car and asked for a chat. I told him I couldn’t and gave some excuse, but he bulldozed over me and said it would just take a minute. A few minutes later, I repeated I was doing what I could to get my dog treated and apologized for the barking. He proceeded to yell at me about being woken up and accused me of not being able to take care of a dog. I was so angry and upset. Rather than scream back, I excused myself and drove away. He was still shouting at my car as I left!
I understand he was frustrated about being woken up early, but did he have the right to treat me that way? I’ve been trying everything to fix the dog’s issues. I grew up with dogs, so it’s not like dealing with them is new for me. Should I have handled the situation differently? Should I have yelled back?
A: Getting yelled at is always unpleasant, but I think you should, for now at least, separate the tone of your neighbor’s criticism from its content. If your dog is whining and barking and destroying furniture every day when you leave for work (and presumably continuing to express his distress for quite some time afterward), then this is a bad situation for your dog as well as the people in your building. You say you’re getting the dog treated, but if this is ongoing, then whatever treatment you’re pursuing does not appear to be working. If your dog is waking your neighbor up at 5:30 a.m. on a regular basis, then your neighbor has every right to complain and ask you to find a better solution. The way he chose to speak to you about it was over-the-top rude and uncalled for, but that doesn’t make him wrong, and it doesn’t mean you should yell back at him.
If you’re able to, consider hiring a trainer or a dog-walker who can come by as you’re leaving for work and spend time with your dog during his times of greatest stress. Talk to your vet about possible options, including medication, for minimizing his separation anxiety. Consider too, whether having a dog with separation anxiety is the best choice to help you with your anxiety. If you don’t feel confident that you can come up with a plan that will seriously reduce or end this daily sturm und drang, then I think you should seriously consider rehoming him. This isn’t just a noise issue; it’s also a matter of quality of life for your dog.