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Valerie L

Announcement: the audience for these has changed, so I’m going to do them once every three or four months instead of monthly. So please come to this January one if you’re interested, there won’t be another until probably April.

20th January, 1pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX.

We will be on Level 2 (the upper levels are closed to non-ticket-holders), but I don’t know exactly where on the floor. It will depend on where we can find a table. I have shoulder length brown hair, and will have my plush Chthulu which looks like this:


Please bring your masks/exemption lanyards, and obey any rules posted in the venue.

The venue has lifts to all floors and accessible toilets. The accessibility map is here:


The food market outside (side away from the river) is pretty good for all sorts of requirements, and you can also bring food from home, or there are lots of cafes on the riverfront.

Other things to bear in mind:

1. Please make sure you respect people’s personal space and their choices about distancing.
2. We have all had a terrible time for the last four years. Sharing your struggles is okay and is part of what the group is for, but we need to be careful not to overwhelm each other or have the conversation be entirely negative. Where I usually draw the line here is that personal struggles are fine to talk about but political rants are discouraged, but I may have to move this line on the day when I see how things go. Don’t worry, I will tell you!
3. Probably lots of us have forgotten how to be around people (most likely me as well), so here is permission to walk away if you need space. Also a reminder that we will all react differently, so be careful to give others space if they need.

Please RSVP if you’re coming so I know whether or not we have enough people. If there’s no uptake I will cancel a couple of days before.

kate DOT towner AT gmail DOT com

Valerie L

Content note for even more body and food policing, intentional weight loss, and diet talk than is usual during early January. I’ve redacted some of the specifics about body changes but if you need to not read about *any* of that, then probably come back another day. ❤

Dear Captain,

I write to you with no joy or satisfaction; I took this to my counselor, and we just scratched the surface, but she does more listening than guidance. My boyfriend (22) & I, a female (22), have been together for almost two years. Things were beautiful initially, and we were very flirtatious with each other, but now he has completely changed. 

He has become this extensive health “expert” and pescatarian. Anything I eat that’s not according to his “diet” makes him make a snarky comment at me or go “ew” when I tell him things I’ve eaten. He’s been a pescatarian for over a year now. I hate to say I wish he never went on this diet because now we can never have meals together anymore unless it’s pizza or pasta or even tofu. Which is fine and all, but after a while, it gets old (and no, we don’t live together. We are just with each other 3-4 days out of the week while at college). I’m not trying to change him, but he has this thing about him when, in fact, he used to be so relaxed and less uptight. He was a typical cute, attractive frat boy, if you can believe it. It’s like he threw his past life away and is trying to be this “new and improved self,” which is fine, but don’t criticize me for how I like to do things. 

He acts like my parent sometimes, too, where he will ask me, “Did you work today?” or “What did you eat today?” if I respond to something that he disapproves of, he will comment, “Oh, I bet you got sweet tea with it, didn’t you?” as a jab that I like sugar, and he doesn’t anymore. It’s pretty frustrating because now I have noticed I lie about what I eat, which is sad. Now I’m going, “Should I leave him?” Because he shows signs of controlling behavior over food and working out. I’ve told him to leave it to me: “I’ve got this; please leave me alone about these things,” and he can’t help but still make comments and ask for a report. 

As a concerned girlfriend, I fear his “health obsession” has crossed over into eating disorder territory and is getting way too overbearing within our relationship. It’s almost like he wants me to mold into his new lifestyle change, but I already told him no, and he respects that, but to an extent. He just wants me to eat healthier and cut out carbs and disapproves of me snacking, etc. He does the same thing about my sleeping habits over winter break; he hates it if I wake up late in the mornings because he’s up and ready for the day, and like this morning, I accidentally woke up at 11 am because it was rainy out. He called me 4-to-5 times till I picked up, asking why I was still sleeping… yeah like I owed him an explanation! Honestly, I don’t know what to do; I wouldn’t say I like having to break up, especially since we have shared so much time and talked about our future, but I wonder if I’m making a mistake continuing something I see changing already so quickly.

Thank you, Captain, for your time…


Confused Woman 

Dear Confused Woman,

Eventually someone’s going to shove a FitBit up inside Elf on the Shelf  and make millions of dollars selling evil robots who see you when you’re sleeping and know when you’re awake.That someone doesn’t have to be you, and you certainly do not have to date it.

There is a special kind of hell at the intersection of being genuinely concerned for someone you love when you sense that they are not entirely okay while needing to limit your exposure to their bad behavior for your own well-being. Every step you take to maintain healthy boundaries and take care of yourself feels like abandoning them to the darkness. But at the same time, as long as somebody sees controlling you as an option, everything you do to stay engaged and be supportive exposes you to to more harm. Controlling relationships can’t be fixed from the inside. Even if you were willing to go along with your boyfriend’s constant surveillance of your life and unreasonable demands, there is no amount of compliance that could ever appease the part of him that thinks he gets to treat you like this in the first place.

Your boyfriend’s relationship to bodies, rest, and motion is ultimately his business and he will fix it or not in his own sweet time. I think you’re right to be concerned about him, and I share your hope that he will seek some treatment from a qualified pro when he’s ready, but what I suggest you not do is set up a hierarchy or order of operations where making sure he’s okay is a prerequisite to making sure you are okay. However well things began, this man has been annoying the daylights out of you for a while now. He is mean, belittling, condescending and nosy. He messes with your sleep and makes you feel like you have to lie to him about your food, two things that aren’t even in the same galaxy as his business.You’ve told him outright to lay off multiple times, so he knows it annoys you, but he does it anyway. There’s no compromising with someone like that.

I’m not a therapist so I get to say this: Please, just break up. You could do it after a bunch more fights about not requesting a life coach or interactive alarm clock, or you could do it now and reclaim 96.99% of 2024 for doing whatever you want without.his running commentary. Your instincts are screaming you to do it, even if your therapist isn’t. It’s almost like he wants me to mold into his new lifestyle change, but I already told him no, and he respects that, but to an extent.”  You’re so close! Box up any stuff he left at your place, delete the word “almost” and the part where he “respects that,” because he clearly doesn’t, and be free.

Valerie L

Dear Captain Awkward; 

I’ve been reading your blog with great enjoyment for many years. Indirectly, you’ve pre-emptively helped me with many social challenges.  

Every year, my husband (55, he/him) and I (53, she/her) receive a few Christmas cards from a few people. We used to get dozens, from good friends who would send thoughtfully chosen or carefully crafted cards. That’s dropped off over the years, and now we get (deep sigh) the photo cards.

I hate these smug, supercilious, patronizing, wasteful pieces of crap with the fury of a thousand suns. 

I hate them so much, in so many ways, and for such a vast multitude of reasons, I’m holding back from explaining how I really feel, because I’m saving it for my Edinburgh Fringe Festival show, tentatively titled, “Fuck You and Your Fucking Christmas Cards.” 

Eric Hoover of The Washington Post summed it up pretty well, though. 

These people might be thinking, “Let me share the joy I feel from having a beautiful vacation, successful and good-looking children, glamorous leisure activities, and disposable income with my friends at this festive time of year.” But that doesn’t translate on the other end. It lands in the recipient’s mailbox as, “Look how successful we are! We look like an advertisement on television! We’re almost like a picture in a Conde Nast publication! Don’t you wish you were us? We’re rich, good-looking, healthy, neurotypical, relaxed, and idle! Our existence is perpetually at golden hour! The baby is always smiling and never poops! We “dream” in bridesmaid font! Yay!” 

It’s one thing when I get these from a realtor, an insurance agent, or someone whose contact information I need to keep, along with a general feeling of warmth. That’s fine. 

It’s another thing when I receive these from people I’ve cried with when I was too young to know what manners were. These are people I’ve had to carry to bed when they were too drunk to walk. I’ve sat patiently and listened through meltdowns. I’ve always been the supportive friend they could let their hair down with.  They sent me something that looks like it was made by a professional brand ambassador. If their kids are so brilliant, why don’t they have the kids draw a holiday card?

If their vacations were so fabulous, why didn’t they simply enjoy the moment instead of enshrining it on a holiday card? If they care about how I feel enough to spend a few bucks on sending a card, why can’t they spend time instead and call? 

I’m a caregiver to an immediate family member with a disability. My husband had both parents decline rapidly and pass away during the pandemic. Everyone who would send a holiday card to me knows this. When someone who thinks they’re my friend sends me a card with pictures of all the good things they have, it’s a reminder of what I don’t have. 

It seems as though, in some social circles, it’s a competition to schedule the family vacation and get the right picture, or schedule the family photo shoot, get the right card ordered in bulk with enough time to send it out, get all the addresses on the list so the company can send the cards out for them in time, and so on. There isn’t even anything written on the card.  But, “everyone” in their social circle makes these cards and sends them to each other, so the process keeps repeating itself. It’s a social thing I don’t want to be involved in. And these people never take my name off the mailing list, no matter how much I ignore them.

Last year, a friend (of over 40 years) sent my family one of these bogus pieces of bougie bullshit for the first time. The photo was probably one of the few moments when her family wasn’t fighting with each other. I figured her husband had these made up for his professional contacts, and they’d added my address to pad out the numbers, to get better bulk pricing. There was no good way to say it, but I texted her anyway, quickly saying, “I love you so much, but please take me off the photo card mailing list.” 

The knock-down, drag out, name-calling, ad hominem attack fight was epic. 

Fortunately, it was verbal and not physical, but it was still really ugly. We’re still not speaking. It confirmed some other patterns I’d noticed in our relationship. We had been speaking to each other almost daily, at least weekly, since we were eleven years old. I thought “I love you, but take me off the photo card list” would make it clear that I thought I was the kind of friend she could be herself with instead of perpetuating a PR display. She thought this marketing display represented who she and her family really were. 

What can I do to keep from getting these faux-perfection bullshit cards in the future? I’m afraid that if I ask certain individuals not to send me theirs, they’ll be offended.  I called my cousins and told them never to send me those kinds of photo cards. They thanked me because they’d been feeling guilty for being too exhausted to make photo cards like “everyone else.” But I also know that a lot of people look forward to making and sending these and think they’re great.

Meanwhile, my disabled family member and I like making and sending cards. It’s an activity we can do together, that keeps us at least somewhat connected to others. We don’t use photos. They’re small drawings. We only send them to people who have told us they would want these cards.  So, I can’t tell people, “We’re trying to conserve trees; please don’t send us cards.” I don’t want to be less connected, but I don’t want cards that feel like they came from a braggy stranger, either. 

I’m so close to sending out my own photo collage cards, populated with stock photos, that the only thing stopping me is that I can’t decide whether to copy and paste my husband’s and my faces into the photos or not.  Technically, I have more important things to do than make cards showcasing fake golden-hour life moments, right? 

Thanks for your time and consideration. 


The Dead Letter Office

Hello Dead Letter Office,

My love for the “Dear advice columnist, who is more right here, and why is it me?” letter is deep and true, so thanks for kicking the year off right!

The thing is, this is not a manners issue or a moral issue, it’s a style preference. You’re got Eric Hoover of The Washington Post and probably a lot of other people in your corner, but as you say, “a lot of people look forward to making and sending these and think they’re great.” Yep! They sure do. I’m so sorry you had a terrible year but if you keep having “epic” fights about holiday mail you’re going to run out of friends long before they run out of enjoying an excuse to dress up and take nice family photos and look at other people’s kids, dogs, ugly holiday sweaters, etc. It’s gotta be hard to watch your friend faking it when you know the truth, but I’m betting that the cards were a way to hold onto some sense of “normal.” From your perspective, she’s lying to herself and everyone else, and for her it probably feels like you’re trying to tear away her last shred of “normal.” People will fight really, really hard for that fantasy. Neither of you are doing it AT the other person, but that doesn’t make it hurt less.

Other people love lots of things that I just don’t: The Big Bang Theory. Elaborate public wedding proposals. Expensive IPAs that taste like a decomposing prom corsage. I love to nurse an entertaining low-stakes grudge as much if not more than the next person, but at some point I realized I could either construct a persona around performatively hating stuff and lecturing people about completely optional shit they do for fun to prove how smart and cool I was and (fail to) cover up all my painful insecurities, or I could classify whole categories of things as “Hrmmm, I’m not the audience for that, but clearly someone is!” and set us all free. I honestly cannot recommend this enough as a way to instantly become at least 75 percent less exhausted and exhausting to be around. What other self-improvement project can claim results like that? Your move, Eric Hoover.

So here’s my advice:

  1. Figure out what this is really about. Loneliness? Missing people you haven’t seen in a while? Needing support after a shit year and not getting it and not knowing how to ask? Worry about your friend and her marriage? Expense and the pressure of obligation and all the invisible, tedious labor that makes up holiday “magic”? Knowing that you shouldn’t compare your mundane no-filter life to the re-touched glossy vacation version of other people’s lives and doing it anyway because you’re only human? This isn’t about superfluous paper products, not really. This is about grief, stress, and needing your people to show up for you, for real.
  2. Next year continue to send your charming etchings to the people you know appreciate them, and only those people, and opt out of the rest. Become a person who doesn’t send holiday cards because, well, you don’t feel like it and you don’t have the energy. I have at least 15 years of evidence that the world will keep turning. People who notice and care about not getting greeting cards in return eventually stop. People who send cards because *they* enjoy it keep going. It’s fine! By the way, you absolutely can chalk it up to cutting down on paper waste, expense, effort, etc. if you want to, not that anyone is likely to ask.  “It was getting to be a lot, but we decided to just send out a few this year.”
  3. When you get holiday cards from other people, display the ones you like and drop the ones you don’t in the recycling bin as soon as you open them.You’re not the audience, but someone they know probably is.
  4. If you hate the cards but love the people, then call them up already. Do you want to be right about greeting card aesthetics or do you want to have real conversations with people who are important to you? Instead of trying to reset the boundary by policing their choices, make the choice to reach out them in a way that works better for you, and see who responds in kind.
  5. Bonus: If you haven’t already, put the words “respite care” and your location into a search engine and see what might be available. I can smell your burnout from here and I hope you can find some rest and relief in the coming year.

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kinsley Dec 18 '23
Valerie L

Hi Captain,

I’ve (she/her) known ‘Hannah’ (she/her) for about 11 years after becoming friends through a once-popular blogging site. We’ve only met irl once, but used to message each other regularly and send each other gifts to celebrate holidays/life events. Hannah was always kind and supportive in the first few years of our friendship. She then started with an irregular (but often enough) pattern of condescending comments.

One of the worst examples was when a coworker body shamed me over one of my biggest insecurities. Hannah acted like I was being ridiculous for being upset about this (as a side note, things eventually got so bad with the coworker that I quit that job without having another one to go to). I never stood up to Hannah at these points out of fear of losing the friendship. But when I look back, I wish I’d ended it years ago.

Anyway, I went back to university 2 years ago, after dropping out when I was younger due to health issues. This is where Hannah’s past behaviours have gotten worse and become more regular. She’s downplayed my achievements. She’s repeatedly given me unsolicited (and usually incorrect) advice, based on the assumption that she knows more about my university’s regulations than I do because she did a completely different degree at another university several years ago. And any time I’ve been struggling and tried turning to her for emotional support, she’s been judgmental and disparaging. When I missed a few weeks of classes at the end of my first semester due to a period of burnout, she acted as if I’m a lazy teenager who was just skipping class because I couldn’t be bothered to go.

The breaking point for me was back in February this year, when I had a group project where the grade would count towards 50% of one of my modules, and everyone in the group would get the same grade for the project. As I feared after two years of working hard to get good grades, I got put in a group with someone who had the writing skills of Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Even though I said twice when venting to Hannah that we all got the same final grade, her reply was “Do you get marked as a group? Sometimes they’re marked individually so you might be ok.” Because clearly I don’t have the intelligence or sense to know how my own modules are assessed… She didn’t respond when I told her (again) that the project wasn’t graded on an individual basis, and we’d be graded as a group.

Since then, I’ve been doing a slow fade. The only contact I’ve had from Hannah since February has been a message on my birthday. I didn’t really want to potentially have a Big Friendship Breakup on my birthday, so I just replied a couple of days later saying thank you. At this point, I’m tempted to just remove Hannah from my social media followers, delete our old messages and be done with it because it seems like the slow fade’s done its job. But at the same time, I feel like I could be wrong about this. And that if she contacts me again, then I should probably tell her that I want to end the friendship (and explain why) after knowing her for such a long time. What would you do in this situation?

Thank you,

I Am Untethered but My Rage Knows Some Bounds

Hi Captain,

Sorry to email you again so soon after my first message. I’d tried to keep my last letter as short as I can, but thinking about it I realise it probably wasn’t clear what I’ve been doing to slow fade Hannah rather than it being the other way around.

Since her reply to the group project rant, I’ve stopped initiating any conversations with Hannah. After a couple of months of no contact, I unfollowed her on social media. I also set restrictions so that she couldn’t view my Stories posts, and any comments she made on my grid posts would have to be approved by me before anyone else could see them. This was partly because a couple of months before I decided on the slow fade, she sent me an unnecessarily rude Story reply about a tattoo I’d gotten.

As I mentioned in my first email, Hannah didn’t contact me again either between February and my birthday and the feeling of relief was unreal. I thought the slow fade had already worked until she’d wished me a happy birthday. Neither of us have contacted each other again since then – this has included me not messaging her on either her birthday, or her son’s first birthday. Part of why I’m unsure about why the slow fade has actually worked is because I realise that caring for a now 1 year old child is going to take up a lot of Hannah’s time and energy, and that might have at least something to do with the reduced contact from her.

I hope this makes things a bit clearer and I’m sorry again for sending another long email!

All the best,

I Am Untethered but My Rage Knows Some Bounds

Dear Untethered,

How you can tell when a slow fade has worked depends vastly on what you mean by “worked.”

It seems like what you want is for Hannah to figure out that you no longer want her in your life (even at an annual birthday greeting distance) without you having to give her that message explicitly. But you also wonder if you are supposed to tell her that the friendship is over and why. You are correct to sense that these are competing impulses. Do you want Hannah to continue drifting away and leave you alone, or do you want Hannah to learn some lesson about how much she hurt you… and then leave you alone? In other words, do you want to be free, or do you want the last word?

People that we used to be close to don’t conveniently disappear from the earth once we’ve outgrown them. And once we leave them behind, we don’t get a say in how they feel about us or the stories they tell about our time together. The transition can be painful, but it can also be freeing to realize that we also get to tell any story we want.

A very wise friend once said that the way that he knew he was truly over a breakup was when he could tell a short, simple story about that person and their time together without rehashing all the old grievances and feelings and without it hijacking or ruining his whole day. For instance, if he ran into a mutual acquaintance who hadn’t heard about the breakup, when they politely asked “How’s Ex-Name doing?” he knew he was on his way to healing if he could just say, “Oh, we split up” and leave it at that. “It didn’t work out.” “Eh, we wanted different things.” Even, “Yeah, it was messy for a minute, but we’re both better off.” As opposed to when things were more raw and any mention of their name could trigger a need to spill the whole long, sordid tale.

Hannah, busy with a toddler, does not seem to be thinking about you all that much. She’s not actively trying to reconnect or seek support from you, you only ever met up in person the one time in 11 years, you no longer exchange gifts, and either she hasn’t noticed your careful social media retreat at all or she has and doesn’t care. If she were actively communicating with you, then an explicit conversation ending the friendship might be kinder, but since she’s not, what’s the point of engaging more deeply? You can’t control whether she ever messages you again, but you can control how you respond or whether you respond at all. If she does go out of her way to say something mean, you always have the option of saying, “Wow, what a shitty thing to say.” You said that you always feared standing up to her would end the friendship, might as well find out!

With that in mind, I think the slow fade will have “worked” when it works on you. When you stop carefully managing your social media settings, when you give yourself permission to just delete her number, when a random birthday message from an old acquaintance thanks to a platform that makes a point of reminding everyone you’ve ever met when your birthday is becomes background noise and you feel no obligation to either reply or explain why you didn’t. When the story you tell yourself about her is “A long time ago, we used to be friends/but I haven’t thought of you lately at all…” then you’ll be free. You don’t need her participation for any of that. It’s time to leave the list of Hannah-grievances here with me and The Internet, and get in touch with the people in your life who you trust to be  supportive and kind and who don’t make you afraid to stand up to them. .

Note: If you go to YouTube, the very first comment says “The perfect song for purging your Facebook list.” It’s not just me!

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