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?

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

Emily Yoffe: I can understand now that her children are grown and she is alone with this abuser, your mother realizes this is not how she wants to spend the rest of her life. However, a marriage is a partnership, and while she was raising her children, she allowed them to absorb your father's wrath, so she has her own responsibility and even guilt about this. Coming from this kind of childhood, you are right when you describe one of your tasks of adulthood as "hanging on to your sanity." So don't let go!

Letting your mother move in would only plunge you back to the maelstrom you have left behind. One of the ways you can support your mother is to draw the kind of boundaries for her about what you will be subjected to emotionally that she unfortunately never drew for you. Tell her unless she finds a counselor to discuss her issues with, you are going to have to limit your conversations because you can't stand to hear about dad. Tell her you will be happy to help her look for a place, but it can't be with you. You need to balance being a caring child with being eaten up by the emotional demands of two inadequate, needy parents.

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Soap Opera City: A few years ago, I loved and lost. The Guy (TG) and I remained terrific friends. There was a time when I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. It was tough to keep that to myself after he became involved with someone else, but I knew the intensity of feeling would change with time. It did, and I'm so glad we were able to remain close.

I've run into health challenges, pretty serious ones. TG has been one of my unfailing friends through these dark times. Recently I learned that TG talked with his wife about inviting me to stay with them while I'm going through a series of surgeries and treatments. It's generated tension in their marriage, not only because of jealousy (I don't mean that as a flippant diagnosis; she's understandably freaked out, I think) but because he won't end our friendship.

In this situation, would you step out of the friendship and let him sort out his feelings?

Gawd, this sounds melodramatic, but it's fairly likely I won't be around for more than a couple of years. NOT that I've talked about that with anyone but docs and lawyers. I think his decisions about his marriage should be based on the two of them and not this other thing going on with this other person. Other woman. It could totally mess up their lives.

On the other hand ... well ... I love him. (Duh.) I think that means I should step back and deal with my own crap and let him deal with his. Right?

Emily Yoffe: I'm sorry you are having to face this and I hope your treatments are successful. But you also seem to instinctively understand that even though you want love in your life, and his love, your moving in with them would not give you the comforting, supportive situation you need so that you can recover, but would leave you in the midst of simmering resentments if not outright hostility. I am strongly in favor of people being able to maintain friendships with previous lovers, and dislike when a new spouse tries to quash these. But there is a long way between him being a supportive friend to you (which his wife should graciously allow) and having you move in, especially since there are still raw and unresolved feelings. Have dinner with both of them and say that while you are so grateful for their support, and will appreciate it as you face the future, you will be much more comfortable recovering in your own, private space.

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Crazy Uncle's Younger Sister: I haven't seen my brother in over 24 years for various reasons. He lives on the other side of the country. The last time I saw him he physically attacked me and when I was a child he made sexual advances toward me. He's not in a hospital of any sort. He functions well enough to hold down a job and live on his own. My son happens to be traveling on business to the town where my brother lives, so he's planning to visit. I won't be there, but my mother will be. I honestly have no desire to ever see my brother again. My son doesn't know all the history.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks for the clarification about why your son does not know your brother. That explains a lot, and I don't blame you for not having contact with him. However, I reiterate that your son is a grown man and there's no reason for him not to have the truth about why he has an uncle he's never seen. Your not telling leaves a veil of shame and mystery over what is a sad situation that deserves to be discussed. Once your son knows, he can then decide if he wants to make contact—I am concerned that your brother could be set off by a visit from your son—and he will also be prepared for what possibly to expect.

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For Coffeenation: Or have a conversation about the senior co-worker taking it up with management rather than berating everyone who wants a cup of coffee.

Emily Yoffe: Good suggestion.

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Chillicothe, Ohio: We recently had a yard sale at a friend's home and a neighbor purchased a working appliance from us. The neighbor has since approached my friend because she is having difficulty with the appliance. This woman is insisting that we either come to her home and assist her or refund her money. Any advice on how to handle this woman? I have no desire to be her tech support or refund her money.

Emily Yoffe: She's insisting, huh? What's she going to do, refuse to patronize your business in the future? Write letters to the board of directors? Report you to the FTC? You don't get a warranty when you buy something at a yard sale because all your expectations are covered by the phrase "caveat emptor." You and your friend should tell her the appliance is now hers to do with as she pleases.

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For Person With Health Challenges: Are you considering confiding in the people closest to you that the prognosis might not be good? This must be a hugely difficult time for you and when/how to tell people must be extremely difficult. But I would like to add this to the mix—I would want to know if someone close to me was in this situation now and not later down the line. Although I would follow the person's lead, from my perspective it's important information for me to absorb.

You must do what's right for you, of course, but I'm betting that if you're of two minds about telling this person you love the severity of your condition—he would want to know.

Emily Yoffe: Of course it's up to the person to decide how much information to give to how many people about her prognosis. But sometimes it can be liberating and gratifying to let the word out and find out how much people around you care and how much they can do to ease your burdens.

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Swimming Upstream, Colorado: I have been given the wonderful opportunity of opening my own used bookstore in a relatively small town. I've opened the doors as a community gathering place, work 70-80 hours a week, and donate a small portion of the proceeds to a local charity. All of my book prices are $4 or less. While I've enjoyed a lovely reception from the neighborhood, I'm finding that I can no longer endure the constant complaints of customers. Many ask me for a "discount," and when I politely reply, "I keep all of our prices low, so it's a discount for you everyday!" people are offended. I had one gentleman in particular point his finger in my face and tell me I'd never make it. Incidents like this occur on a weekly basis. My idea was to provide an open, welcoming space for the community. Instead, I feel like I'm a dumpster for anger and bitterness. Is there a better response so that I don't lose customers, yet let people know I have bills to pay too? Thank you for your response.

Emily Yoffe: Apparently you haven't heard that "Content wants to be free!" and anyone who supplies it for a living is supposed to do it for altruistic reasons. (Not that journalists are resentful or anything over the fact that people hate the idea of paying for the work we produce.) I assume your patrons do not go into Wal-Mart and demand the checkers take off 10 percent of their final bill or that they tell the gas station they want the last four gallons free. I assume anyone who opens a used book store has alternate in mind for a way to make a living. So just keep smiling, providing your excellent response, and knowing that if this doesn't work out, you have an escape plan

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Cleveland, Ohio: Thanks for taking my question! My wife, who works very hard in a job that requires a lot of public speaking, frequently lapses into a childlike voice when we are alone. I find it very disturbing, in part because I love her for her strength, wisdom, and independence, which she abandons when talking in this voice—and in part because it's just creepy for a 30-something adult to adopt a childlike voice. When she does this, I just cut the conversation short and go elsewhere. However, I hate having to do this. When I ask her to stop talking in that childlike voice, she becomes defensive, tells me that she is unaware that she was doing it, and that, anyway, she is free to talk however she pleases. I never want to appear controlling, but this is abnormal behavior, and when she starts using the childlike voice I miss talking with her as adults. Is childlike speaking by adults a pathology for which there is a known treatment? If not, what else can I do, when asking her to be mindful of it fails, and avoiding her when she starts talking that way makes me feel guilty of abandoning the woman I love?

Emily Yoffe: Of course people are free to talk however they please, they are just not free to do it to other people. Even with our most intimate partners—if we want to keep them as partners—we have to restrain our anger, our clever put-downs, or our annoying vocal habits. I can see that you're wife talking wike a wittle, biddle baby would make you want to scream. It sounds, however, as if her professional duties are sometimes a psychological burden and that her way of retreating from them is to adopt a child-like persona. This is not good for your marriage, but instead of saying you just can't listen to her little-girl chatter, why not open up a dialogue with her about how she's feeling, about her need to let go of adulthood for a while to refresh herself. Offering your sympathetic understanding might allow her to drop the baby talk. She might also benefit possibly by volunteering with little children so she could enter in their world for a while. Maybe some kind of arts and crafts class would allow her to find a comfortable way to retreat from her responsibilities. If none of that works, then before you leave the doll house, try marriage counseling.

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Bookstore: Sounds like a nice place. Practically speaking, can you put up a friendly-looking sign that says just what you wrote? If you answer the question before people pose it, maybe you will cut them off at the pass.

Emily Yoffe: This is for the owner of the used book store who gets abused because at $4.00 some people think the books are too expensive! That's a great idea to have a friendly sign that explains the store's policies. Patrons who don't like them have been given fair warning.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Hi Prudie, Hope this isn't too frivolous. On Saturday I was in a dept. store and a woman was there giving makeup demos. She stopped me to ask if I wanted her to "brighten up" my look—I'm 60+ with gray hair. I said sure and she put some makeup on me—I did look better. Then she asked if I wanted to buy any of it. I didn't want to. She didn't get angry, exactly, but I could tell she wasn't happy. My question is: is it rude/inappropriate not to purchase expensive makeup in this situation? I am loath to spend money on the incredibly expensive stuff in dept. stores. Thanks.

Emily Yoffe: She should have remained gracious—she is offering her services gratis (as seems to be the trend lately) so she should accept that some people are going to take her at her word and give nothing in exchange. However, since you did take advantage of her offer, and she did make you look better, buying a lipstick or eye shadow would have been a relatively small price to pay for a good makeover.

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Falls Church, Va.: re: used bookstore

Q: How does a used-bookstore owner end up with $1 million?

A: They start with $2 million!

Emily Yoffe: Applies to a lot of businesses these days.
Thanks, everyone, talk to you next week!