Dear Prudence answers readers' questions live at Washingtonpost.com.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Aug. 10 2009 2:59 PM

Should My Son Meet His Mentally Ill Uncle?

Prudie counsels a woman torn over a family reunion—and other advice seekers.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com every Monday at 1 p.m. to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. Let's get to it.

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Crazy Uncle: My 22-year-old son will soon meet my older brother, his uncle, for the first time. My brother has some mental problems and is subject to incoherent outbursts, paranoid ramblings, etc. ... My son knows his uncle has some issues but he doesn't know any particulars. Should I warn my son of the kind of behavior he might see from his uncle or is that unfair? Should I give my brother a chance to make a decent first impression? My brother can often be charming and coherent for short periods of time. Maybe I should just stay out of it and give him a chance?

Emily Yoffe: I wish you had explained why it's taken 22 years for your son to meet your brother. I hope it's not because the person you are calling "Crazy Uncle" has been locked away in the proverbial attic because of a sense of shame over mental illness. Your son is a grown man so surely he has known people will various mental disabilities—I bet he has even gone to school with them—and is able to grasp the concept that his uncle has schizophrenia, or whatever the diagnosis is. You explain to your son your brother's history and that he can be charming and lucid, but also sometimes is incoherent and paranoid. Tell your son that whatever kind of day your brother is having, you know he will be patient and respectful of his uncle. And I hope that if your brother has been estranged from the family, this meeting is the beginning of a rapprochement.

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Washington, D.C.: I met a great girl—she has all of the qualities that I could look for in a woman—the only catch is that she's one of my best friends' younger sister. I know that he's been protective in the past, but both she and I care a lot about each other and feel really strongly for one another. I want to make this work, but don't know if it's a horrible idea. If we start a relationship, I don't want it to ruin my friendship with her brother, but I can't give up on her. I guess my two questions are: 1) How can I make this work? and 2) how do I tell her brother/my friend?

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Emily Yoffe: You say that she has all the qualities you are looking for in a "woman," so I'll assume she actually is a woman and your name is not Humbert Humbert. You make this work by doing what I hope you would do with anyone you were romantically interested in: being honest and respectful while enjoying that giddy feeling of finding someone who may be "the one." And you tell him by having one or both of you say, "Guess what, we're dating and it's wonderful!" Sure, if things don't work out, there is the complication of your friendship. But if you are honest and respectful toward his sister, no matter how the romance turns out, that should go a long way toward preserving the friendship.

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Coffeenation: My nonprofit office provides a Keurig coffeemaker that dispenses each cup of grounds from little plastic single-serve containers. One senior co-worker has sent out two or three all staff e-mails asking the rest of us not to use this coffeemaker because it is so wasteful and environmentally damaging. She says the gratuitous use of plastic increases our dependency on Middle East oil. I'm not against her green efforts, but I think it is crossing the line to demonize others for using the office coffeemaker. Furthermore, the machine's impact seems minute compared to our frequent air travel, vast reams of printed materials, and frigid air conditioning. It's gotten to the point that I don't want to get a cup of coffee if she is in the kitchen. This seems like far too small an issue to risk alienating her or bring up to a supervisor, but I wish there was a way to get her to chill out.

Emily Yoffe: Environmental awareness is a wonderful thing, but these days it does seem like a short step from do-gooder, to righteousness, to Stasi-like monitoring. Since the little plastic cups offend your co-worker, why not ask her to take on this issue. First, if your office is not recycling the containers, maybe it would satisfy her if you started doing that. Second, if everyone agrees the coffee maker is wasteful, then she should be in charge of selling it (not dumping it!) and getting one that's less wasteful. And finally, when you want a cup of coffee, don't let her bully you. Tell her the environment of the office will be a lot less friendly if you don't get a caffeine fix.

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Washington, D.C.: My live-in boyfriend and I have been together for three years, and our sexual activity tends to be a bit ... unorthodox. Both of us are into BDSM, which (on occasion) leaves bruises and marks on whoever is "subbing" that night. These activities are mutually fulfilling, completely consensual, and always done safely and sanely (safewords, aftercare, etc.). Unfortunately, a friend of mine with whom I work out has noticed a number of bruises and the occasional mark when I've changed in front of her. Of course, now she thinks I'm stuck in an abusive relationship. For the last few weeks, she's been referring me to literature on abuse, calling me at odd hours to make sure I'm OK, etc. Whenever I start to insist that, no, this isn't what she thinks, she assumes that I'm just being defensive and validating her concerns. I don't feel comfortable giving the details of my sex life to her or explaining that if she were to see my boyfriend, he would look much the same. But I also don't want my friend to think that my loving, understanding, admittedly kinky boyfriend is harming me, and that I need help out of the relationship. How can I defuse my friend's concern while still keeping my private life, well, private?

Emily Yoffe: You don't need to give her the details, but short of telling her, "If you don't stop, I'm going to be tempted to flog you with a whip—because that's what 'Sam' and I do for fun," you have to get a little more explicit to get her off your back. Next time she brings it up say, "I understand your concerns, and I know you think I'm covering something up, but Sam and I engage in unorthodox, mutually satisfying activities that aren't for everyone, but are for us. Please accept that I am completely in control of my personal life, and I appreciate your caring, but this subject is closed."

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San Antonio, Texas: I need your help. For the past 30 years my father has been emotionally and verbally abusive to his wife and children. Now that we are all grown and out of the house, it's been heavily directed at my mom. I've noticed something new in the past few months—my mom has become petty and mean to him and can barely speak to him (or about him) without snarling.

I want to support my mom, but her constant negativity towards my dad is really depressing to me. I know he can be a jerk (I lived there, too!) and she's dealing with a lot now that she's recognizing that but she complains about him constantly and thoroughly and no longer has anything else to talk about. It completely dominates all our conversations. Her solution is to leave him and come move in with me. In the past my mom and I have had a great relationship, and in theory I have no problem helping her while she gets on her feet, but her plans include no discussion of looking for a job, getting her own place, or going to school. And I'm afraid that she'll spend so much time sitting at home stewing about my dad that I'll come home to it every night.

My question is this: How do I support and help my mom while still hanging on to my sanity? I've suggested therapy and she went a couple of times but quit going. I know she needs to vent, but I just don't think it should be to me.

—Tired of all the hot air