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MzHeather

Hello, Captain,

Quick aside: I really like your switch to allowing comments only on select posts. It makes the whole site somehow calmer and more inviting. Being able to read your writing without the distraction of subconsciously wondering what sharp poky things might turn up at the bottom is relaxing in a way I wouldn’t have predicted. So thanks!

Of course, now I’m going to ask a question that might benefit from commenter input. Or not?

One afternoon a year and one Christmas present a year are the entire extent of the contact I and most of the extended family have with a 10-year-old niece (an only child, daughter of my spouse’s sibling). What kind of present would be the most helpful and most grounding for a child whose parents are out of touch with reality even on their best days and who are now separating and using her as a pawn?

More frequent communication is impossible. Parents are paranoid and intelligent: giving their child a book called “Your Parents’ Booze and 420 Abuse Is Not Your Fault” or “You’re Not Wrong: Most People Don’t Actually Say Whatever Lie Comes into Their Head Just to Get What They Want Right This Second” or “We All Sure Hope the Dream Fairy Who Told Them Their Bipolar Meds Were Poison Changes Her Mind” will be seen for what it is and may sever all communication with them entirely. I don’t know that the child is a big reader anyway.

Despite the fact that their daughter’s emotional needs don’t seem to be of interest to either of them, they seem to love her to the extent that they can, and she seems to have food and ice skating lessons and clothes that fit, and I see no evidence of physical abuse. They don’t live near any of us, so who knows, really, but I don’t have anything to report to her school (if I even knew what school) or CPS.

The child is intelligent and relatively outgoing and wants to be a part of things. It is heartbreaking to hear her asking desperately confused questions and to hear them answer with baldfaced lies in front of us.

She is so young and so dependent on them, and we have no means of contacting her, even through her parents, 364 days out of the year. What can we do to support her from afar, through gifts that won’t set the parents off?

Auntie Out of State

Dear Auntie Out Of State,

Re: Your Quick Aside:  I am very relieved to hear this. Sometimes I really miss comments and the community culture, and I know others do, too, but it became absolutely unsustainable for me to read 10,000+ words every time I wanted to write any words or deal with the 1% of people who are A Problem (but who absorbed 99% of moderation time and energy). I’m still experimenting with the right mix of discussion vs. just writing, and I hope people who value in-depth discussions will take advantage of the reader-led forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com and the subreddit. Thank you so much for reading and hanging in.

As to your question, I am not going to open comments on this because in my strong opinion gifts aimed at “fixing” or “helping” tend to suck unless they are specifically asked for by the recipient, there is no “right” Christmas gift that will fix or make up for or counteract your niece’s present home life, nor do I wish to curate a bunch of links to extremely specific toy and other gift suggestions, no matter how thoughtfully recommended. Your “Holiday Gift Guide For Possibly Sad 10-Year-Olds” Princess Is In Another Internet Castle.

Fortunately, I know from experience that good presents from a faraway aunt one never sees can actually foster a permanent “Aunt _____ LOVES ME and is AWESOME!” feeling in nieces and there is one method that works, namely:

Get your niece the MOST FUN stuff you can think of.

It’s okay to ask her parents for ideas as a courtesy even if you aren’t close, and to briefly check stuff like clothing sizes and favorite colors. If they’re forthcoming great, if not, no worries, you can also ask your friends who are parents of similarly-aged kids what their kids go apeshit for. Stuff like:

  • Art supplies! Craft kits! What is shiniest/glossiest/has the most colors? Glitter pens? Stickers? Beautiful notebooks? Do that!
  • Books! – BUT ONLY FUN, ADDICTIVE STORYBOOKS, NOT “HELPFUL” BOOKS!  If you’re stumped your local librarian will probably know what they can’t keep on the shelves in the children’s section, and they’ll also probably know what extremely fun stuff will fly under the radar of, say, strict conservative parents who are Terribly Concerned About Wizards. Graphic novels absolutely count as reading, Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl might be good places to start.
  • Toys! The prettiest dolls if she plays with dolls, the best Legos, Lincoln Logs, and other “building” sets (there’s this one that has magnetic balls and multi-colored rods that is like, my favorite thing ever though maybe it’s a better fit for littler kids and middle aged people like me, who knows), the niftiest action figures and spaceships or robots or dinosaurs or dragons or fancy horses.
  • Costumes/dress-up clothes in her size! The little girls I’m around most these days are in the 6-8YO demographic but they show zero signs of slowing down with questions like “can I be princess, a firefighter, a princess who is also a firefighter, a scientist (who secretly fights fires)(and is possibly the heiress to a mythical royal family/a unicorn)?” 2) I know the princess thing can get tedious and hella gendered, but honestly, who doesn’t need a sparkly floor-length purple velvet cloak and a tiara in their size? Not me! Wait, I mean me! (As in, I might need that).
  • Tech/Games/Videos – If you come across whatever the coolest 10-year-old you know can’t put down, and get inspired, do that.

Don’t overdo it, pick one or two special things every Christmas, and put a gift receipt inside to make exchanges easy. If it’s something that makes you squee inside because you would have loved it at her age? So much the better. That’s a genuine connection and pleasure you are handing down, even if it’s invisible, even if it’s not the exact thing she already thought of to want. You’ll probably have some misses but more hits, and over time your niece will notice and remember that you and your spouse love to give her presents.

Throughout the year you could also be the Aunt Who Sends Postcards  – silly ones, ones with beautiful art or from wonderful places – write a few innocuous greetings that communicate some version of “Hello there, we like you!” on the back and don’t worry about getting a reply. If you’re only allowed a few crumbs of interaction now and then, think of holiday gifts and the odd postcard as safe, no-pressure bread crumbs that might lead her to your door someday when she’s older and more in charge of her family relationships. If not, they won’t make anything worse than it already is. Sometimes “not making it worse” is all you can do.

Edited To Add: Reader Suggestion! In addition to fun gifts, you and other family members could quietly divert some $ from the toy budget into a savings account or savings bonds for your niece every year. Don’t put anything in her name now (the parents might not let you, and they would 100% have access to it while she’s still a child). It could be a lifesaver someday when she’s old enough to leave home.

How I Know That Fun Works: My dad’s sister, Aunt Mary, lived in Ohio most of my life and we rarely saw her in Massachusetts. But she sent the best Christmas presents every year, you cannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnottttttttttttttt imaginnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnne the anticipation with which we opened the annual package from her knowing that if there were clothes they would be cool, trendy, name-brand clothes that we would wear into rags alongside our hated Toughskins, and if there were toys they would be fancy toys that we’d want to go to bed with that night so as not to be parted from them even for a second.

Aunt Mary didn’t necessarily know us or our changing interests well, and she never bought anything from our lists painstakingly compiled out of The Sears Christmas WishBook complete with SKU# or based around whatever Star Wars movie was out at the time. Her daughters were much older than my brothers and me, so I think she asked our parents about our sizes and her friends who had children our age “What’s the coolest thing your kid wants for Christmas right now?” and then went with that.

She’d get enthusiastic Christmas Day thank-you phone calls from us when we were kids and hearing she was coming for a visit or we were going to Cleveland to see her was always incredibly exciting. She died in the early 2000s (fuck cancer) and I just have to say, all “blah blah gifts are soooooooooo commercial and distract from the real meaning of the season” aside, every memory I have of my aunt is based on a) 20% how funny and delightful she was when we did hang out (I’m so glad I got to see her one last time when she was pretty much on her deathbed, and she was still the life of the party cracking up the whole room) and b) 80% childhood memories of my siblings and I staring at the boxes with her return address on them in hungry anticipation all week, trying to ask “Can we open Aunt Mary’s presents first?” on Christmas morning without hurting our parents’* feelings, and then wearing or playing with the well-chosen things inside.

Above all, I knew she loved me. She didn’t have to re-parent me from afar to get that across, her gifts weren’t competing with my parents, they were just chosen with obvious enthusiasm, and that’s why I wanted to tell you about her, my lovely Letter Writer. You are so limited in what you can do for your niece right now, but I think you absolutely can do this one thing well by following fun and joy and pleasure rather than concern.

Honestly, now that I think of it half the “holiday survival” stuff in my inbox for adult relationships boils down to “Can’t you just please like me and enjoy today with me without trying to fix me/my life” in some fashion, so here’s your chance to start young. 😉“I like you so much and want you to have fun on Christmas!” is a message that will go deeper and linger longer than any “I’m very worried about you and I pretty much hate your parents” “solution” or “message” could possibly hope to do.

*I should note, cursèd E.T. statues are outliers in my family (and the aunt who made that for me was a solid A+ present-giver every other year and obviously genuinely thought I would love it). My parents are great gift givers and definitely the “Aunt Mary” to their nieces and nephews, to such a degree that someday I should collect all the home videos of little cousins’ mouths dropping open in awe as they unwrapped whatever Uncle Frank and Aunt Anne brought them this year. It would be a joyful montage indeed.

 

MzHeather Dec 7 '19 · Tags: fusevy, relationships, love
MzHeather

Y’all I have another Vice piece dropping soon and I have to confess I am HOLIDAYED TF OUT RIGHT NOW. Let’s talk endings. Breakups. My wheelhouse.

We’ll call the first one #1240: “How do I approach a friend who doesn’t want to talk to me anymore?”

Hey Captain Awkward,

Here is my dilemma:

I am currently in my second year of college. At the beginning of last school year, I became friends with a girl [M] and we both hit it off. We instantly became best friends and spent a lot of time together, including with my family (I live close to school). We grew close and so I decided to shoot my shot and ask her out. I was politely turned down and said she wanted to just be friends. She was really cool about it and never made me feel uncomfortable about the situation.
Over the course of the last year we got extremely close to each other and were inseparable. I never really did lose feelings for her and that became a problem eventually.

She was in a relationship with someone from back home, but they were constantly on the rocks and had even been on-and-off over the year. This left me with the slightest bit of hope that things might change. That being said, I was always respectful of [M] and her relationship. I rarely asked about the situation or pry into her relationship — I always let her bring it up.

She went away for the summer (abroad) and I was ok with the distance — a lot better than I thought I would be. So when we came back from summer break, I tried to pursue other people (romantically), but I never felt the same connection I had with [M], with anyone else. I then talked to her about it and that led me to telling her my feelings, to which she had no response other than being gracious for my kind words. Things were seemingly normal for the next couple of days, and we made no mention of the discussion.

After a few days, she did not talk to me or text me. This was not normal at all.

Once I talked to her (a whole two weeks later), she let me know that she felt uncomfortable about what I said and that I had crossed a line, “Something a friend doesn’t do.” Noting how her relationship with her boyfriend was rocky but was committed to him. I apologized profusely, admitted I made a mistake and crossed a line. She accepted and said that she was unsure how to proceed with our friendship and need time/space. Especially since I knew that she had a boyfriend and already turned me down previous.l I agreed and admitted that I put myself in an emotionally unhealthy situation, by spending so much time with her if she was never going to be interested in anything more than a friendship.

Since then, we have not spoken to each other beyond a greeting and in class we don’t say hello to each other (she sits in front of me in class). We go to a small college and have a class together, but it was as though we had never known each other. When we pass each other around campus, a greeting is barely shared. This has left me confused, hurt, and sad.

I am not delusional and expect us to become best friends again, but I don’t think we have to ignore each other and pretend we don’t exist. I feel like I have no closure about the situation which hurts the most.

I have no idea what to do. I want to at least talk to her and see what she was to say about the situation, now that it has been over a month since we last talked — at all.
Do I try to talk to her or let things be and just try to get over it?

Thanks for reading, any help is greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,
— S.

Dear S,

You gotta leave M. alone. 

I know you are hurting. I know you tried your best to be a good friend and be respectful of her boundaries and be a good manager of the feelings you were developing for her. I know it would sting slightly less if M. could figure out how to at least be a minimal amount of friendly when you run into each other now and give you hope that something is salvageable. Still: You gotta leave M. alone. 

You’re not a bad person for wanting to clear things up or for being hurt and confused. We don’t, as a culture, have a good template for scaling down or ending friendships (and let’s face it, our collective romantic breakup skills ain’t anything to brag about, though obviously I’m working on it). It’s okay if both you and M. are muddling through this and don’t know quite how to act.

That said, I feel strongly that there is no conversation you could “approach her” about that would send the message “Hey I want to be respectful of what you need and not bother you, but what the fuck, can we talk for just a second and clear the air?” that communicates “I will leave you alone if that’s what you want” better than actually leaving M. alone like she wants. Every past interaction you describe in your letter eventually leads to a conversation where what M. wants most from you seems to be “more space” with a side of “never talking about your feelings about her” again. She tried a friendship and it wasn’t working for her.

Her silence now is a way of making that space.

Maybe it’s not a smooth way of making that space, an “I gotta let him down easy” way of making that space, but as messages go, but freezing you out is hardly an ambiguous way of claiming space. It’s extremely clear what’s going on, the way it’s clear that a cat who hides whenever you walk into a room is a cat who doesn’t want your snuggles. The only way to ever get the cat to come out without being a ball of needle-claws and yowls is to ignore it until it comes out on its own. You’re probably not going to make a situation any worse than it already is by applying the same principle to humans who indicate they’d prefer to be left alone.

Things might not stay this chilly between you and M. forever, once enough time goes by, but the thing you can do to give the situation the best possible chance of a thaw is to realize that the only way your former friend’s shoulders are going to come down from around her ears when you’re around is if you show her you will give her space…by giving her space…and not hanging out expectantly waiting for her to explain herself or suggesting that if you could just talk about all of it one more time that will fix it somehow. When someone sets a hard limit, we show we are safe people who respect boundaries by retreating back behind the boundary and staying there until invited to cross, not by hanging out on the border trying to have just one more conversation about what the boundary should be like.

So where do you go from here? You can decide that the way M. is behaving is hurtful and that it makes her incompatible friend material for you at the present time without talking through it with her. She decided that she didn’t want to be friends anymore, which is a thing she gets to do without taking a vote, and you also get to decide, hey, I need friends who want me around, she’s not that person, the way she handled this really hurt my feelings in fact, it’s time to stop trying to make this happen.

In the class you share, say ‘hello’ if she says ‘hello,’ try to match her energy where possible, don’t double down on the awkwardness by giving her the silent treatment or doing anything dramatic. Find a different seat if you can, actively seek different study buddies and lunch companions, don’t lurk around her conversations, don’t monitor what she does or who she talks to, try to think of her as just another stranger in the room. When you get tempted to dwell on her during class, dare I say it, re-focus your attention on the material you’re there to learn at some expense? 😉

Outside of class, put your energy into other connections that aren’t so fraught. It’s a small campus, but women you have a crush on and a failed friendship with aren’t the only people on it. M. has already occupied a lot of a school year you’ll never get back, I wonder how many hangouts with other people did you forgo to hear more about the dude back home she likes better than you in the hopes that today would be the day she’d either love you back or you’d become finally immune? It’s time to break that cycle, stick the landing on your finals, enjoy the holiday break, and next semester or quarter, get yourself a fresh start. Join a club or two, try something new, and make some friends who aren’t her. In both friend material and future crush/romantic partner material, start selecting for people who enthusiastically want you around and who want the same thing you want.

As for M., one last thing: It actually takes a ton more effort to ignore someone and actively freeze them out than it does to be casually pleasant, so This WILL pass, I think, if you give her space. But only if you give her space.

I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t persuade people into loving you back or letting you in even if you use all the best words. It took so many times and so many words for that to sink in, but it never stopped being true if I’d only let myself see it. What I’d love to hand down to you, my dear S., is the knowledge that the closure you give yourself is the closure that ultimately heals you in the end. Giving M. space, walking away, and choosing to prioritize other people is the kind of closure that lets you stop auditioning in an empty room where she walked out and shut the door behind her. It’s the kind of closure where you find the story you can live with, the one where you tried your best. Time does the rest, if you’ll let it.

Now, onward to #1241, “Is a person ever entitled to direct communication?” 

Dear Captain,

I’m early 40s (she / her), long-term single, generally happy about it. I have a Significant Ex (late 40s, he / him); we broke up nearly a decade ago for a whole load of lifestyle-related reasons (I have a job that I absolutely love but which takes me abroad, often to unsafe places, for long periods of time), and over the ensuing years, we have cycled through not being in touch / being very casually in touch / thinking we were friends, getting drunk together, angst+kissing / not being in touch, etc. etc. About a year and a half ago it seemed like we had broken the cycle, in that YES we got drunk together and YES we ended up in bed together but then … it was fine? And we segued into what was, to me, a kind of perfect arrangement whereby we were very much not in a relationship but every few weeks we would hang out, have dinner, and sleep over. (I know I know I KNOW that whoever is reading this is probably rearing back in horror at my bad decisions, I knoooooow.)

And after about nine months of this, he slow-faded and then entirely ghosted me. It’s not that I expected this arrangement to go on forever, but I did genuinely believe that he valued me enough to tell me explicitly when he wanted to step back from what we were doing, and also that he knew me well enough to know how being ghosted by him would wreck me in a way that direct communication would not. It’s been six months since I realised it really was a slow fade rather than just a normal break in communication and I … just … cannot … let it go. And so my question is twofold:

1. I cannot let go of the desire to get in touch with him just to say: wow, that really fucking hurt, why couldn’t you just TELL ME that you wanted to step back? But then I think of all the advice I’ve seen over the years about the need to respect a soft no, and so … should I just slink off quietly into the night? Is there ever any justification for this sort of parting shot-style feelingsmail? Did he owe me direct communication? I don’t knooooow.

2. How on earth do I let this one go? It’s been A DECADE since we split up; we’ve had years of no contact over that time; I have a weird and wonderful and extremely full life that I adore (and am also currently on the other side of the world from him); I am absolutely NOT putting anything on hold because I am “waiting” for him, and yet my dumbass of a heart is still hanging on. The only piece of advice on How To Get Over Someone that I am not taking is around dating other people, because I just really do not want to. But WHAT DO instead?

Signed,

Eternal Kwisatz Haderach, I guess

Dear Eternal Kwisatz Haderach,

A cooler dude would have said something instead of ghosting you.

A better friend would have said something instead of ghosting you.

A great fuck buddy would have said something instead of ghosting you.

The person who actually belongs in your life would have handled this better and said something instead of ghosting you.

Yes, you were owed a conversation from someone who called himself your friend. If he’d said “This isn’t working for me anymore and I want to end it, and since we know that ‘being friends’ usually ends up right here, I’m so sorry, but I need to end that part too and make a clean break” it would have been SO MUCH COOLER and BETTER IN EVERY WAY than what he did. He had choices about how he treated you and he was a coward. But him owing you that doesn’t mean that it’s ever coming or that there’s a way for you to extract it now.

If you send one text along the lines of “Hey, it’s been six months and if you’re wondering, I am still pissed at you for ghosting me. That’s not what friends do and I deserved better.” before you blocked his number vs. skipping directly to blocking his number, I wouldn’t judge you. The Last Word is both a potent cocktail and a powerful fantasy, and if having it would help you sleep at night? Get it.

As long as you block his number.

And his email. And his social media profiles.

Texting to get this off your chest and have the last word so you can finally stop fantasizing about having the last word and be done with this dude forever vs. texting in order to provoke a response where you finally get your explanation are entirely two different projects. One is hopefully the beginning of healing. The other puts you exactly where you are now, probably for another six months, waiting for him to say something back that could even possibly explain what happened, finally deliver the apology you are owed, or at least confirm that you still have some power to command his attention even if it’s to wound him the way he wounded you.

So what happens when you say your piece and he keeps right on Caspering out of your life? Do you send even more angry texts and set yourself up for even more waiting? He knows what he did was shitty. He knows he’s a coward. He knows that he deserves to be told off. That’s why he got gone and stayed there. He’s got nothing for you, not even goodbye.

The “closure is a thing you give yourself” recommendation isn’t about what you’re owed, or what you deserve, except when it’s about reminding yourself that a person who deserves you would be much more careful with your feelings. Of course you can want an adult break-up conversation and expect a caring sex partner who claims to be your friend to be honest and considerate. But when that’s impossible, what can you do stop waiting for it to be different and start writing the next chapter of your life where you survived this and you don’t need a goddamn thing from someone who is not very nice to you.

I want you to get OUT of the ‘please come back and be good this time’ part of the sad breakup playlist:

And into THIS part:

Cheesy empowerment jams? FUCK YES. That’s the island of healing where I’m trying to steer you ( and S. in the first letter, and many past Letter Writers), since I am as yet unable to build a time machine to go back and unsend all those sad “well I guess at least I can have THE LAST WORD (but please please oh please write back, you can have the last word if it means I get more words and can stop feeling like I’m pouring my feelings into a black hole)” emails and texts that never did anything but make my exes more avoidant and worried about my sanity and me feel more pathetic (and worried about my sanity).

If I’d found out what rejection-sensitive dysphoria was and that I definitely experienced it at 16 instead of 40, what would my life be like, I wonder? Would I be Captain Awkward or just a regular level of awkward? We’ll never know, but if I can make one person feel less alone about this, if I can make one person understand that time you spend convincing people to love you is time spent on people who, baseline, do not love you enough to be what you need, no matter what you hoped and what they may have promised, then I’ll take it.

What I want you to do now, Kwisatz Haderach, is to do whatever lets you grieve this fucker like he died and start enjoying your life again. If you need one last text to get there, so be it, but my vote is for skipping ahead, and if I can help you get started on the next part of the story, I gladly will:

“Once upon a time I made a very fun bad decision and let my ex back into my life, and it was great for a while, but in the end he remains as disappointing this time as he did the first time around. I knew he was unsuited to being a long-term partner; now I know he’s incapable of being a friend. Honestly, people should think twice about leaving a cactus at his house.

I will never know what made him decide to take off without even a word, and he’ll never know that if he’d managed to talk to me about it like an adult for five minutes I would have sent him off with my blessing in a way that could leave us both feeling good about our history together. He’s the reason that we can’t have nice things and I’m still pretty angry about it, but if that’s what he needed to do, it’s his decision and his loss. I lost a disappointing friend, he lost a fucking great one. 

I’m probably gonna be pissed off about this for a while. If I can’t forget or stop feeling it soon, maybe it will help if I think of the anger as a vaccine in case he ever tries to ooze back in. One thing I probably need to look for in new relationships are people who value direct communications. I guess we’ll find out.” 

S. (#1240) and Kwisatz Haderach (#1241) you both deserve people around you who think “HELL YES!” when they see you. That goes for friends the same as it goes for lovers, so as you meet new people, try your best to move toward the ones where the “HELL YES!” is mutual and don’t mess with Mx. In-Between. ❤ ❤ ❤

MzHeather Dec 6 '19 · Tags: fusevy, relationships, love
MzHeather

The letter contains brief mention of the roommate either accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose leaving a pet outside for a while during a mental health episode. The pet was fine and this is neither the point of the letter nor the oddest thing in it, but readers have mentioned animals-in-peril stresses them out, so I’m including both a heads’ up and a cut.

Hello!

I’ve been a fan of your blog/wisdom for quite some time, and I was wondering if you could help me with an strange ongoing situation I’ve been dealing with. (I am a girl, she/her is good with me.)

About three years ago, I was relocating to a new city after getting a new job, and was looking for housing. A friend of mine told me that a family she knew, let’s call them Jane and John, was looking for a sub-letter to help out with chores and taking care of pets while the husband was away on a year-long work trip. The family is well-connected with lots of people in the city, and after asking and hearing only good things, decided to reach out. We got in touch, and after setting basic rules and a move in/move out time, I moved in a few months later.

Things went well for the first few weeks. I helped out around the house before and after work hours, and after the kids were in bed I would usually retire to my room to relax. Jane and I were friendly towards each other, but not friends. I think she was just too busy with her young kids, and our personalities didn’t really mesh very well. (She is a very extroverted/entertainer type. I am very introverted and need lots of rest, I have an immune disorder that makes it tiring to be out and about for too long.) Then things started to get messy.

A couple of weeks after John left for work, Jane started seeing a mutual acquaintance of mine (Yes, I walked in on them. Yes, it was very awkward, especially at the moment when we both realized we knew each other.). Then other things started happening. She would get really excitable about things that didn’t make sense and would have very sporadic, intense mood swings. (One particularly noteworthy moment was when I came to the living room to take their dog for a morning walk. Jane was sitting on the couch facing the wall. All the lights were off, the front door was open and an intense storm was blowing rain and debris in everywhere. When I asked her where the dog was, she slowly turned and responded, “We don’t have a dog anymore.” Knowing the kids were safe with other family at the moment I immediately went outside to look for the dog. I found the poor thing, soaking wet but miraculously okay, about two hours later.) Eventually, I was able to talk to Jane’s parents about the situation, they intervened, and took her and the children in for the remainder of the time that John gone. I stayed at the house to continue to care for the pets and look after her home while she was gone.

Before my lease was up with the family, John ended up returning from his work a few months earlier than expected, and Jane and the kids returned home. At this point, Jane started acting very antagonistic towards me. I would overhear her gossip to her friends how strange and weird I was. or if we were at an event together she would talk over me when I tried to speak. Sometimes her kids would ask me questions that you could tell were coming from Jane, like “Why do you choose to dress so immodestly?”, or “Why don’t you dress like a real girl?” when I was wearing gym shorts or athletic clothes. After being invited to a family dinner where Jane spent the entire time asking me passive-aggressive questions about when I was going to get out of their house, I decided to end my lease early and move out.

I figured that things would end there, but two years (!!) after moving out, I am still having problems. Sometimes I’ll attend events where I run into the mutual acquaintance Jane had an affair with, and he’ll act so uncomfortable around me that people will pull me aside and ask if everything is okay. I never outed Jane or him for the affair, or for any of the other things that happened while I lived with Jane. I figured that what happened in my time there deserved discretion, but now after all of this I’m not so sure. It was a miserable time, and Jane spread so many rumors about me after I moved out that I’m having a lot of trouble making friends with people in the area even now.

I was wondering if you have any advice on this. Recently, she’s been inviting me to a lot of parties, and while I have zero intentions of going to any of them, it makes me wonder if I should have treated this differently. Should I just be honest about the situation when people ask? I think I put up with it more than I should have, partly for her kids/John, and partly because of other major life events happening at the same time. I’m planning on moving to a new area soon, due to this and other things, and I would love some advice on putting things behind me, and moving forward.

Apologies for the length. Thanks for listening, and I hope your holiday season is going well.

Sincerely,
Help I Think I Might Be Stuck In A Soap Opera

Hello Stuck In A Soap Opera:

I’m relieved to hear that you’re moving to greener pastures soon, keeping your attention focused on the future will serve you well.

It sounds like you did your due diligence before you moved, vetted Jane and John’s living setup and reputation in advance as best you could, kept the terms of your lease, and were a conscientious roommate and caretaker even under incredibly difficult circumstances. You looked after Jane and her family’s safety when she was vulnerable and did the exact right thing by looping in her parents when you did, held down the fort for the family until John returned, and moved out as soon as you could. You’ve more than respected Jane’s privacy, and you tried your best not to worsen anything that was already bad.

The way Jane treated you and continues to treat you is very troubling, and I want to be clear that a person can both have mental health stuff going on that deserves care and compassion and be kind of a bully. I don’t think that her mental health stuff is the cause of the bullying, but I think it’s silly and disingenuous to pretend it couldn’t possibly exacerbate the bullying, that it couldn’t be a factor in her feeling paranoid about you or identifying you as The Problem in her life, and it’s definitely part of the story where you were put in a position of caring for and covering for someone through some vulnerable shit as best you could and then having the person later turn around and bully you. And that’s what her comments about your appearance and gender presentation (not to mention the two years of rumors) are: bullying. It’s hard to keep “don’t blame bad behavior on mental illness, it increases stigma” and “sometimes people having mental health episodes do and say stuff that is really upsetting and it genuinely affects people around them” in mind simultaneously but we’re going to try by sticking to discussing Jane’s behaviors toward you since you moved out and in the present and what you can do to take care of yourself between now and the day you shake the dust of this postage-stamp Peyton Place from your feet.

You’ll probably never get an apology or a good explanation for why exactly Jane was so mean to you after John returned and kept it up with the rumormongering after you moved out. Here are some guesses:

  • She was afraid you’d tell John and others (it’s probably what she would have done and she can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t).
  • You’re not friends but you know all this intimate stuff about her and saw her when she was incredibly vulnerable and she can’t forgive you for that. That’s probably a mix of Jane-stuff and a whole lot of mental-illness-is-incredibly-stigmatized stuff, so even though you know it’s nothing to be ashamed of, she doesn’t fully know that, she doesn’t know that you know that, and she doesn’t feel safe talking about it with you.
  • Sometimes there is thing that happens where people know they are in the wrong and they feel guilty so they punish the person they wronged for “making” them feel guilty, which compounds the wrongness like badness interest on a shame loan.
  • She was trying to neutralize you as a threat by destroying your credibility and isolating you. Plus, as a housemate you were in her territory and she couldn’t just ignore you or give it some space.
  • She didn’t fully succeed in isolating you – people still like you, you’re still around – so now she’s inviting you to stuff, like, “oh well, guess that’s that!” 

Could she have cleared a ton of this up with one direct conversation after the sex stuff where she was like “so about the other day…” and you said “look it’s 100% none of my business and I’ve already forgotten it”? Yeah.

Could there have been another conversation after the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime (look it’s my blog and I can make bad book jokes if I want to) along the lines of “I feel really embarrassed about what happened and I’m sorry you had to step in that way” and you saying “I appreciate the apology but please don’t think it’s necessary, I’m just glad you are doing better and that I could help, let’s say nothing of it.” Oh yeah. But she didn’t, so, here you both are. Your diffident, quiet, discreet nature was actually working for her this whole time but she can’t see it that way, and she can’t afford be vulnerable and talk it out with you for the five minutes it would take to resolve.

When you contemplate “telling the truth” about Jane everyone in this town you’re about to leave, I certainly understand the impulse to go all Harper Valley PTA on her ass. You’re actually incredibly justified in wondering, “If this town knew what she was REALLY like, maybe they’d stop dancing attendance on her and accepting her lies about me at face value, or making me feel like the awkward one when I’m not the one who caused any of this.”

Your story is published now so the whole darn internet knows what Jane is “really” like, but I almost guarantee you that multiple other people in your town and in your same social circle also already know. If she grew up there? There’s drama that goes back to elementary school.

Plus, the most toxic “Jane” types I’ve encountered in the past have a rotating series of minions and sidekicks and a dynamic where eventually somebody always has to be “out” so that everyone else can feel like they’re “in.” I’d be incredibly surprised if you were Jane’s first and only target of nasty comments and rumor-spreading, to such a degree that if you were writing this three years ago and still trying to make new friends in that place, I’d probably tell you to think back to when Jane welcomed you to town with open arms. Did she ever share some juicy local gossip and  warn you in a warm, conspiratorial tone that certain people sucked? Especially people who used to be close friends but then they “betrayed her” or “showed their true colors”? Some of those people might in fact independently suck, but knowing what you know now, would you take her word for it? At least one of them is likely to be a Previous You (at minimum, a person who tried to get along with Jane but who stood out in some way that made them an easy scapegoat when things went sour) and might be a perfectly acceptable coffee companion now and again if you’re still looking to find a local social outlet.

Going back to the highly useful metaphor of The Missing Stair (Original post at The Pervocracy)(Wikipedia summation), the whole point is that “everyone” in Cliff’s social scene already knew who the problem was. They may not have known all the details, and Missing Stairs are very good at cultivating a few genuinely nice people who never actually know the full extent so there can always be “but the person I know would never do that” apologists on hand,  but people already knew this was a person to be managed, worked around, and warned about through whisper networks which never quite catch everyone. That’s the point. People who already live there know to step over the broken step, they somehow don’t fall in every time someone has to go upstairs, it’s just the occasional new person or person who couldn’t be warned in time who trips. They know. 

This is the thing, above all, that made me want to answer your letter. When everybody knows who the problem is and that it’s not you, why do they put up with Jane’s sometimes mean behavior?

Welp, I’d guess it’s for a lot of the same reasons you did:

  • She’s outgoing, charismatic, and central to the social life there. And she’s obviously not going anywhere so why take on the hassle? It’s just easier to excuse or ignore the hard parts and enjoy the rest.
  • They like John and the kids and don’t want to make anybody’s life harder.
  • She IS really wonderful to lots of people lots of the time. I would guess a lot of them just like her a lot and they go way back, so…it’s not fair, but “person I’ve known forever who can be a little mean sometimes but probably doesn’t mean anything by it” and “quiet, perfectly pleasant outsider I just met (i.e. you, the LW)” isn’t about fair.
  • They know she’s got mental health struggles and it seems both easier and kinder to chalk any and all odd behavior up to that instead of trying to sort out which is a symptom and which is Jane-can-be-so-mean-when-she-feels-cornered. “It’s really none of my business.” “That’s just Jane.” “You know she has problems, but when she’s not having an episode, she’s so wonderful.”

Which honestly? Is a good impulse and a thing her true, close friends do as a kindness, the same way you did for a while, and the same way I do when someone close to me is clearly not their best selves in a way they can’t always help (and hope they will do for me in return when it becomes necessary). I’m still responsible for what I say and do when my anxiety and depression are ascendant and what I say and do still has consequences. I owe people apologies when I hurt them and I owe doing my absolute best not to repeat hurtful behaviors. But I’m grateful when the people closest to me remind me that my mistakes aren’t the whole shebang, and when our conversations in better times aren’t “Remember the time you were feeling terrible and then you really fucked up?”

None of this makes these people bad people. It just makes them human people. And it makes a lot of them not necessarily your people, so it’s a good thing you are leaving.

So what can you do about it now?

My vote is disengage. 

Jane has hurt you a lot, some of it without meaning to, a lot of it on purpose. You are not friends, you’ll never be friends, you can at least stop the game of “how much of this is her fault” and “do I owe her more compassion” right here, right now. She’s a person you don’t like and who doesn’t like you but sometimes you bump into each other and you know people in common. The way to deal with that is to say a quick “oh hello Jane!” and hopefully she says hello back and then you go each go talk to people you both actually like.

You don’t owe Jane continued discretion especially in the face of the rumors and lies she spread about you, but your decision to not tell her mental health stuff was a solid one (we don’t revenge-disclose people’s medical information), you’ve stayed mum this long, and spilling stuff about an affair from two years ago is going to re-ignite and escalate a conflict that you’re halfway to being rid of forever. I know people would recommend telling John about the cheating, but back when you saw it you decided it was none of your business. They’re still together, you’re not certain he doesn’t already know or that they haven’t worked it out between them somehow, and I don’t think you’re a terrible person if you let it stay none of your business. Consider also, this is a lady who actively punished you and retaliated against you for knowing stuff about her that you didn’t tell others about. WTF would she do to you if she knew for sure you told? Nothing good, I’m guessing.

You’re already Not Going to stuff she hosts, so keep doing that. How are these invitations getting to you, btw? Is it possible to turn “not going” into “completely ignoring”? Have you taken full advantage of social media filters to optimize your online experience?

Assuming it’s a given that people know what Jane is like, they also know what you are like. The people who have taken the time to get to know you already know that you are kind, quiet, not a shit-disturber by nature, and that you have good boundaries and discretion. Some people will believe Jane’s rumors but not everyone will or does, and when the topic of her treatment of you or the rumors comes up you can be flat, blunt, and truthful without escalating stuff. For example:

  • “That is not true and I do not understand why she would say that about me.” And then let it be so awkward the other person changes the subject.
  • “Our roommate situation got pretty difficult at times and I was glad to move out, but I thought things were resolved. It’s weird that she would still be talking about this two years later, but what can you do.” 
  • “You know, being roommates during a Very Difficult Time* for the whole family meant having a front row seat to a lot of personal stuff, for both of us. My policy is to leave the past in the past, and hearing these rumors are still going makes it really hard for me to do that, but what can you do? The last thing I want to do is have a long sit-down about shit from two years ago with someone who doesn’t like me much.” *People may not know the details of went down but it’s probably not a mystery that your housing situation became difficult.
  • “I like so many of the people I’ve met through Jane, I’m glad she has so many friends like you!” (Yes, a total dodge, what of it)

  • “It makes me feel really awful to hear these rumors are still going, I’d appreciate if you’d tell people they aren’t true when it comes up, but I’ve never found it productive to get into it with Jane about stuff like this – I’d rather keep it light and easy with her.” 
  • “Not everyone is going to be best friends, I really just try to keep it light and pleasant where Jane is concerned, no need to keep chewing on old news.” 
  • “Hey I appreciate the heads’ up that this stuff is still circulating, but I’d rather talk about literally anything but Jane. How are things with your [subject change]?” (Be like Neo)

  • “You have got to be kidding. Not that again.” 
  • “Ha, I promise you I am not that interesting. Hey, is that the Queen behind you? Or someone who was in Queen? Or the movie about Queen? Did you see that movie? It could have been so much gayer and better than it was, don’t you think? Like Freddy Mercury used to sneak Princess Di into clubs in drag, where was THAT scene. And how did they DARE use Under Pressure in a heterosexual-crying-in-the-rain scene and NOT show Freddy and Bowie recording it? The stunt casting ALONE, MY GOD. And you know, if all the members of Queen were EQUALLY responsible for cool songwriting, where are all the good new Queen songs?”

If Jane ever comes at you and tries to address it? Let loose:

“Look, I have been nothing but nice to you, ever, and you have been, let’s face it, INCREDIBLY FUCKING WEIRD AND MEAN since I moved out. Can we just stop pretending that’s not what’s happening? And can this all just stop? I love your kids and your family, I love so many of the friends we share in common, I have no ill will toward you at all and want only good things for you, also, I just basically want to have a nice time at parties sometimes without wondering what you’re saying about me or if it’s going to be weird to run into you.

Can we just pretend we’re pleasant strangers from now, say hello and goodbye, and let the rest of it go? That’s literally all I want, to wish you well and to let it go.”

I think she’s too scared to ever come at you direct because again, in your shoes she would burn her life to the ground, but it felt good to write that little speech.

Speaking of speeches! Ha! Let’s talk about the mutual-acquaintance-affair-partner for a second. Don’t go looking for him, but when you run into him again, and his weird behavior happens again, and people ask you about it again, try this:

  • Give your best casual shrug.
  • Say something like: “Oh yeah, it’s definitely weird, and somebody who likes him way more than I do should probably talk to him about that sometime so I can keep ignoring it. But what were we talking about?”
  • Then steer into the subject change and ride it for as long as you can.

If you feel up to it, you could also pull Mr. Weird aside for a private chat. Script:

“Dude. Would you like to purge the memory of The Day That Shall Not Be Named,  forever? Great. Me too. Here’s how: Stop being so fucking weird when we run into each other. When you …[name specific behaviors like “scurrying away” or “obviously dramatically say hello to everyone but me”]…, what happens is that people definitely notice how weird you’re being and ask me what’s up.

I have never told anyone in this town what’s actually up, since its none of my business and I don’t actually care, but I wouldn’t even have to think about it ever again if at any time in the past two years you could have figured out how to pleasantly say “Oh, hey [name]” as you walk on by. Maybe pretend I’m the valet who brought your car around or the coworker you only see from a distance at the annual picnic once a year; I find forming an alternate mental image really helps me when I have to run into you.”

The script is kinda mean a little bit on purpose; I know you’ll probably nice it all up anyway, but it wouldn’t be mean if you actually said this. It’s been two fucking years, you haven’t done a single thing wrong or done a single thing to make trouble for him, and he’s the one who is making this absolutely still be A Problem that you have to Deal With. Being quiet and chill didn’t fix it so maybe it’s time to give him the awkward reckoning he’s been dreading all this time. He’ll adapt or he won’t, but I think it’s long past time for you to stop tap-dancing around it or exist as the one who is called to answer, socially speaking, for shit you didn’t do.

Okay, let’s review:

  • Disengage from Jane. The situation with her is unfixable.
  • Unloading all the details of what happened while you lived there would not disengage from Jane, so that’s why maybe don’t do it (except to Internet Advice Columnists <3).
  • Bluntly dispel the rumors about you when they pop up without retaliating or escalating.
  • Tell the weird acquaintance guy to act right or fuck off, this has gone on long enough and you don’t owe him shit.
  • While you still live there, find the people who don’t dance attendance on Jane, there are a lot of people who like her AND a lot of people who put up with her for the sake of her family or old times, so watch for who walks out of rooms that she walks into and who gets real quiet when she comes up in conversation, look for social events and circles that don’t revolve around her, there be your movie and pub quiz buddies.
  • John and the kids can find you if they want, you’ll run into each other now and then, you don’t have to go out of your way about them.
  • Move on and be freeeeeeeeeeeeeee! You didn’t do anything wrong and you’ll be better at spotting drama the next time it rides up on you.
  • Someday tell the friend who set you up with the living situation the whole truth over a giant bottle of good wine in front of a cozy fire. You’ll know when it’s the right time when Jane has absolutely no power over anything in your life.
  • If people in your town read CaptainAwkward.com and it gets messy, here’s your script for Jane: “I was quiet and did my best for you and you were so mean to me, and eventually you got so mean that I wondered why I bothered staying quiet. I didn’t do anything wrong by asking for help to make it stop, if your life is messy enough that it’s recognizable from space, maybe work on that?” 

I hope this helped you start to let go of the burden that you could have done more to solve this. You did a lot to be good and kind to her and she deliberately isolated you and some of it worked. Jane’s gonna Jane. You’re gonna you, and you is pretty great!

Here’s a bonus list of dramatic exits in movies if you need inspiration for “oh hey good catching up, can I grab you anything from the bar?” after awkward conversations.

P.S. There’s no way we’re having comments on this mess, but I think you’re all incredibly cute for thinking there might be. ❤ 😉

 

MzHeather Dec 6 '19 · Tags: fusevy, relationships, love
MzHeather

Hi Captain,

Low-stakes question here.

I (she/her) have an old, dear friend (she/her) who has recently taken up a new art form. From my limited experience, it seems like she’s really good at it! But the subject matter hits on a relatively common phobia I have – let’s say she paints enormous, detailed portraits of spiders. Not offensive in any way, super cool for some people, but totally makes my skin crawl.

For now, I’ve muted her on social media and make some time every week when I’m feeling cozy and safe to scroll through and look for non-spider content. She’s an active poster about her art and her life and I like to catch up with the latter, plus she takes it pretty personally when her close friends don’t comment on heartfelt posts.

We live in different places so I haven’t had to see her art in person, but I’ll be visiting her city soon. How can I bow out of the personal exposition she’s offered while still making it clear that I love her and support her work? Likewise, should I say anything about my social media approach?

Sincerely,

Arachnophobic Friend

Hello and thanks for the question.

You sound like a wonderful, considerate friend who does a lot to cheer for and support your friend’s artwork, bravo!

I think it’s absolutely okay to disengage from art that scares you.

I think it’s okay to disengage from art you plain old don’t like, even if a friend made it.

Also, I think that you generally do not have to explain unfollows/filters that you use to make social media more pleasant and safe for you. It’s unlikely that your friend has even noticed your personal lack of response to SPIDER SPECTACULAR 2019, but if she has that’s the perfect opening for the conversation you need to have, not a reason to remove the safety net. Edited To Add: A Twitter friend suggests possibly asking artist to carefully tag all spider-related social posts so that you can easily filter the tag.

What if you told your friend something like, “Friend, you are so talented and I love your work, but [topic] freaks me out. I really want to see some of your pieces in person when I visit, but if you don’t want to have to peel me off the ceiling or split the difference between ‘aversion’ and ‘phobia’ in real time, I’d appreciate a) detailed warnings and b) being able to skip [topic]-related stuff. Can you work with me and curate all the non-[topic] pieces? I’d love to see those.”

This person likely knows what a great friend you are, how good you are at supporting and showing up for them, and that you wouldn’t bring this up if it weren’t serious, so it should be well-received. If you get a “Whoa, are you saying I shouldn’t make art about ____?” reaction, try “Oh no! You should make art about anything and everything you want to. It’s not you, it’s definitely the spiders, and how vividly you’ve rendered them is a testament both to your talent and my extremely specific terror, which you had no way of knowing about.” 

I hope it’s a good visit and you don’t have to put any spiders (etc.) in your eyes.

 

MzHeather Dec 6 '19 · Tags: fusevy, relationships, love
MzHeather

The letter contains brief mention of the roommate either accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose leaving a pet outside for a while during a mental health episode. The pet was fine and this is neither the point of the letter nor the oddest thing in it, but readers have mentioned animals-in-peril stresses them out, so I’m including both a heads’ up and a cut.

Hello!

I’ve been a fan of your blog/wisdom for quite some time, and I was wondering if you could help me with an strange ongoing situation I’ve been dealing with. (I am a girl, she/her is good with me.)

About three years ago, I was relocating to a new city after getting a new job, and was looking for housing. A friend of mine told me that a family she knew, let’s call them Jane and John, was looking for a sub-letter to help out with chores and taking care of pets while the husband was away on a year-long work trip. The family is well-connected with lots of people in the city, and after asking and hearing only good things, decided to reach out. We got in touch, and after setting basic rules and a move in/move out time, I moved in a few months later.

Things went well for the first few weeks. I helped out around the house before and after work hours, and after the kids were in bed I would usually retire to my room to relax. Jane and I were friendly towards each other, but not friends. I think she was just too busy with her young kids, and our personalities didn’t really mesh very well. (She is a very extroverted/entertainer type. I am very introverted and need lots of rest, I have an immune disorder that makes it tiring to be out and about for too long.) Then things started to get messy.

A couple of weeks after John left for work, Jane started seeing a mutual acquaintance of mine (Yes, I walked in on them. Yes, it was very awkward, especially at the moment when we both realized we knew each other.). Then other things started happening. She would get really excitable about things that didn’t make sense and would have very sporadic, intense mood swings. (One particularly noteworthy moment was when I came to the living room to take their dog for a morning walk. Jane was sitting on the couch facing the wall. All the lights were off, the front door was open and an intense storm was blowing rain and debris in everywhere. When I asked her where the dog was, she slowly turned and responded, “We don’t have a dog anymore.” Knowing the kids were safe with other family at the moment I immediately went outside to look for the dog. I found the poor thing, soaking wet but miraculously okay, about two hours later.) Eventually, I was able to talk to Jane’s parents about the situation, they intervened, and took her and the children in for the remainder of the time that John gone. I stayed at the house to continue to care for the pets and look after her home while she was gone.

Before my lease was up with the family, John ended up returning from his work a few months earlier than expected, and Jane and the kids returned home. At this point, Jane started acting very antagonistic towards me. I would overhear her gossip to her friends how strange and weird I was. or if we were at an event together she would talk over me when I tried to speak. Sometimes her kids would ask me questions that you could tell were coming from Jane, like “Why do you choose to dress so immodestly?”, or “Why don’t you dress like a real girl?” when I was wearing gym shorts or athletic clothes. After being invited to a family dinner where Jane spent the entire time asking me passive-aggressive questions about when I was going to get out of their house, I decided to end my lease early and move out.

I figured that things would end there, but two years (!!) after moving out, I am still having problems. Sometimes I’ll attend events where I run into the mutual acquaintance Jane had an affair with, and he’ll act so uncomfortable around me that people will pull me aside and ask if everything is okay. I never outed Jane or him for the affair, or for any of the other things that happened while I lived with Jane. I figured that what happened in my time there deserved discretion, but now after all of this I’m not so sure. It was a miserable time, and Jane spread so many rumors about me after I moved out that I’m having a lot of trouble making friends with people in the area even now.

I was wondering if you have any advice on this. Recently, she’s been inviting me to a lot of parties, and while I have zero intentions of going to any of them, it makes me wonder if I should have treated this differently. Should I just be honest about the situation when people ask? I think I put up with it more than I should have, partly for her kids/John, and partly because of other major life events happening at the same time. I’m planning on moving to a new area soon, due to this and other things, and I would love some advice on putting things behind me, and moving forward.

Apologies for the length. Thanks for listening, and I hope your holiday season is going well.

Sincerely,
Help I Think I Might Be Stuck In A Soap Opera

Hello Stuck In A Soap Opera:

I’m relieved to hear that you’re moving to greener pastures soon, keeping your attention focused on the future will serve you well.

It sounds like you did your due diligence before you moved, vetted Jane and John’s living setup and reputation in advance as best you could, kept the terms of your lease, and were a conscientious roommate and caretaker even under incredibly difficult circumstances. You looked after Jane and her family’s safety when she was vulnerable and did the exact right thing by looping in her parents when you did, held down the fort for the family until John returned, and moved out as soon as you could. You’ve more than respected Jane’s privacy, and you tried your best not to worsen anything that was already bad.

The way Jane treated you and continues to treat you is very troubling, and I want to be clear that a person can both have mental health stuff going on that deserves care and compassion and be kind of a bully. I don’t think that her mental health stuff is the cause of the bullying, but I think it’s silly and disingenuous to pretend it couldn’t possibly exacerbate the bullying, that it couldn’t be a factor in her feeling paranoid about you or identifying you as The Problem in her life, and it’s definitely part of the story where you were put in a position of caring for and covering for someone through some vulnerable shit as best you could and then having the person later turn around and bully you. And that’s what her comments about your appearance and gender presentation (not to mention the two years of rumors) are: bullying. It’s hard to keep “don’t blame bad behavior on mental illness, it increases stigma” and “sometimes people having mental health episodes do and say stuff that is really upsetting and it genuinely affects people around them” in mind simultaneously but we’re going to try by sticking to discussing Jane’s behaviors toward you since you moved out and in the present and what you can do to take care of yourself between now and the day you shake the dust of this postage-stamp Peyton Place from your feet.

You’ll probably never get an apology or a good explanation for why exactly Jane was so mean to you after John returned and kept it up with the rumormongering after you moved out. Here are some guesses:

  • She was afraid you’d tell John and others (it’s probably what she would have done and she can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t).
  • You’re not friends but you know all this intimate stuff about her and saw her when she was incredibly vulnerable and she can’t forgive you for that. That’s probably a mix of Jane-stuff and a whole lot of mental-illness-is-incredibly-stigmatized stuff, so even though you know it’s nothing to be ashamed of, she doesn’t fully know that, she doesn’t know that you know that, and she doesn’t feel safe talking about it with you.
  • Sometimes there is thing that happens where people know they are in the wrong and they feel guilty so they punish the person they wronged for “making” them feel guilty, which compounds the wrongness like badness interest on a shame loan.
  • She was trying to neutralize you as a threat by destroying your credibility and isolating you. Plus, as a housemate you were in her territory and she couldn’t just ignore you or give it some space.
  • She didn’t fully succeed in isolating you – people still like you, you’re still around – so now she’s inviting you to stuff, like, “oh well, guess that’s that!” 

Could she have cleared a ton of this up with one direct conversation after the sex stuff where she was like “so about the other day…” and you said “look it’s 100% none of my business and I’ve already forgotten it”? Yeah.

Could there have been another conversation after the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime (look it’s my blog and I can make bad book jokes if I want to) along the lines of “I feel really embarrassed about what happened and I’m sorry you had to step in that way” and you saying “I appreciate the apology but please don’t think it’s necessary, I’m just glad you are doing better and that I could help, let’s say nothing of it.” Oh yeah. But she didn’t, so, here you both are. Your diffident, quiet, discreet nature was actually working for her this whole time but she can’t see it that way, and she can’t afford be vulnerable and talk it out with you for the five minutes it would take to resolve.

When you contemplate “telling the truth” about Jane everyone in this town you’re about to leave, I certainly understand the impulse to go all Harper Valley PTA on her ass. You’re actually incredibly justified in wondering, “If this town knew what she was REALLY like, maybe they’d stop dancing attendance on her and accepting her lies about me at face value, or making me feel like the awkward one when I’m not the one who caused any of this.”

Your story is published now so the whole darn internet knows what Jane is “really” like, but I almost guarantee you that multiple other people in your town and in your same social circle also already know. If she grew up there? There’s drama that goes back to elementary school.

Plus, the most toxic “Jane” types I’ve encountered in the past have a rotating series of minions and sidekicks and a dynamic where eventually somebody always has to be “out” so that everyone else can feel like they’re “in.” I’d be incredibly surprised if you were Jane’s first and only target of nasty comments and rumor-spreading, to such a degree that if you were writing this three years ago and still trying to make new friends in that place, I’d probably tell you to think back to when Jane welcomed you to town with open arms. Did she ever share some juicy local gossip and  warn you in a warm, conspiratorial tone that certain people sucked? Especially people who used to be close friends but then they “betrayed her” or “showed their true colors”? Some of those people might in fact independently suck, but knowing what you know now, would you take her word for it? At least one of them is likely to be a Previous You (at minimum, a person who tried to get along with Jane but who stood out in some way that made them an easy scapegoat when things went sour) and might be a perfectly acceptable coffee companion now and again if you’re still looking to find a local social outlet.

Going back to the highly useful metaphor of The Missing Stair (Original post at The Pervocracy)(Wikipedia summation), the whole point is that “everyone” in Cliff’s social scene already knew who the problem was. They may not have known all the details, and Missing Stairs are very good at cultivating a few genuinely nice people who never actually know the full extent so there can always be “but the person I know would never do that” apologists on hand,  but people already knew this was a person to be managed, worked around, and warned about through whisper networks which never quite catch everyone. That’s the point. People who already live there know to step over the broken step, they somehow don’t fall in every time someone has to go upstairs, it’s just the occasional new person or person who couldn’t be warned in time who trips. They know. 

This is the thing, above all, that made me want to answer your letter. When everybody knows who the problem is and that it’s not you, why do they put up with Jane’s sometimes mean behavior?

Welp, I’d guess it’s for a lot of the same reasons you did:

  • She’s outgoing, charismatic, and central to the social life there. And she’s obviously not going anywhere so why take on the hassle? It’s just easier to excuse or ignore the hard parts and enjoy the rest.
  • They like John and the kids and don’t want to make anybody’s life harder.
  • She IS really wonderful to lots of people lots of the time. I would guess a lot of them just like her a lot and they go way back, so…it’s not fair, but “person I’ve known forever who can be a little mean sometimes but probably doesn’t mean anything by it” and “quiet, perfectly pleasant outsider I just met (i.e. you, the LW)” isn’t about fair.
  • They know she’s got mental health struggles and it seems both easier and kinder to chalk any and all odd behavior up to that instead of trying to sort out which is a symptom and which is Jane-can-be-so-mean-when-she-feels-cornered. “It’s really none of my business.” “That’s just Jane.” “You know she has problems, but when she’s not having an episode, she’s so wonderful.”

Which honestly? Is a good impulse and a thing her true, close friends do as a kindness, the same way you did for a while, and the same way I do when someone close to me is clearly not their best selves in a way they can’t always help (and hope they will do for me in return when it becomes necessary). I’m still responsible for what I say and do when my anxiety and depression are ascendant and what I say and do still has consequences. I owe people apologies when I hurt them and I owe doing my absolute best not to repeat hurtful behaviors. But I’m grateful when the people closest to me remind me that my mistakes aren’t the whole shebang, and when our conversations in better times aren’t “Remember the time you were feeling terrible and then you really fucked up?”

None of this makes these people bad people. It just makes them human people. And it makes a lot of them not necessarily your people, so it’s a good thing you are leaving.

So what can you do about it now?

My vote is disengage. 

Jane has hurt you a lot, some of it without meaning to, a lot of it on purpose. You are not friends, you’ll never be friends, you can at least stop the game of “how much of this is her fault” and “do I owe her more compassion” right here, right now. She’s a person you don’t like and who doesn’t like you but sometimes you bump into each other and you know people in common. The way to deal with that is to say a quick “oh hello Jane!” and hopefully she says hello back and then you go each go talk to people you both actually like.

You don’t owe Jane continued discretion especially in the face of the rumors and lies she spread about you, but your decision to not tell her mental health stuff was a solid one, you’ve stayed mum this long, and spilling stuff about an affair from two years ago is going to re-ignite and escalate a conflict that you’re halfway to being rid of forever. I know people would recommend telling John about the cheating, but back when you saw it you decided it was none of your business. They’re still together, you’re not certain he doesn’t already know or that they haven’t worked it out between them somehow, and I don’t think you’re a terrible person if you let it stay none of your business. Consider also, this is a lady who actively punished you and retaliated against you for knowing stuff about her that you didn’t tell others about. WTF would she do to you if she knew for sure you told? Nothing good, I’m guessing.

You’re already Not Going to stuff she hosts, so keep doing that. How are these invitations getting to you, btw? Is it possible to turn “not going” into “completely ignoring”? Have you taken full advantage of social media filters to optimize your online experience?

Assuming it’s a given that people know what Jane is like, they also know what you are like. The people who have taken the time to get to know you already know that you are kind, quiet, not a shit-disturber by nature, and that you have good boundaries and discretion. Some people will believe Jane’s rumors but not everyone will or does, and when the topic of her treatment of you or the rumors comes up you can be flat, blunt, and truthful without escalating stuff. For example:

  • “That is not true and I do not understand why she would say that about me.” And then let it be so awkward the other person changes the subject.
  • “Our roommate situation got pretty difficult at times and I was glad to move out, but I thought things were resolved. It’s weird that she would still be talking about this two years later, but what can you do.” 
  • “You know, being roommates during a Very Difficult Time* for the whole family meant having a front row seat to a lot of personal stuff, for both of us. My policy is to leave the past in the past, and hearing these rumors are still going makes it really hard for me to do that, but what can you do? The last thing I want to do is have a long sit-down about shit from two years ago with someone who doesn’t like me much.” *People may not know the details of went down but it’s probably not a mystery that your housing situation became difficult.
  • “I like so many of the people I’ve met through Jane, I’m glad she has so many friends like you!” (Yes, a total dodge, what of it)

  • “It makes me feel really awful to hear these rumors are still going, I’d appreciate if you’d tell people they aren’t true when it comes up, but I’ve never found it productive to get into it with Jane about stuff like this – I’d rather keep it light and easy with her.” 
  • “Not everyone is going to be best friends, I really just try to keep it light and pleasant where Jane is concerned, no need to keep chewing on old news.” 
  • “Hey I appreciate the heads’ up that this stuff is still circulating, but I’d rather talk about literally anything but Jane. How are things with your [subject change]?” (Be like Neo)

  • “You have got to be kidding. Not that again.” 
  • “Ha, I promise you I am not that interesting. Hey, is that the Queen behind you? Or someone who was in Queen? Or the movie about Queen? Did you see that movie? It could have been so much gayer and better than it was, don’t you think? Like Freddy Mercury used to sneak Princess Di into clubs in drag, where was THAT scene. And how did they DARE use Under Pressure in a heterosexual-crying-in-the-rain scene and NOT show Freddy and Bowie recording it? The stunt casting ALONE, MY GOD. And you know, if all the members of Queen were EQUALLY responsible for cool songwriting, where are all the good new Queen songs?”

If Jane ever comes at you and tries to address it? Let loose:

“Look, I have been nothing but nice to you, ever, and you have been, let’s face it, INCREDIBLY FUCKING WEIRD AND MEAN since I moved out. Can we just stop pretending that’s not what’s happening? And can this all just stop? I love your kids and your family, I love so many of the friends we share in common, I have no ill will toward you at all and want only good things for you, also, I just basically want to have a nice time at parties sometimes without wondering what you’re saying about me or if it’s going to be weird to run into you.

Can we just pretend we’re pleasant strangers from now, say hello and goodbye, and let the rest of it go? That’s literally all I want, to wish you well and to let it go.”

I think she’s too scared to ever come at you direct because again, in your shoes she would burn her life to the ground, but it felt good to write that little speech.

Speaking of speeches! Ha! Let’s talk about the mutual-acquaintance-affair-partner for a second. Don’t go looking for him, but when you run into him again, and his weird behavior happens again, and people ask you about it again, try this:

  • Give your best casual shrug.
  • Say something like: “Oh yeah, it’s definitely weird, and somebody who likes him way more than I do should probably talk to him about that sometime so I can keep ignoring it. But what were we talking about?”
  • Then steer into the subject change and ride it for as long as you can.

If you feel up to it, you could also pull Mr. Weird aside for a private chat. Script:

“Dude. Would you like to purge the memory of The Day That Shall Not Be Named,  forever? Great. Me too. Here’s how: Stop being so fucking weird when we run into each other. When you …[name specific behaviors like “scurrying away” or “obviously dramatically say hello to everyone but me”]…, what happens is that people definitely notice how weird you’re being and ask me what’s up.

I have never told anyone in this town what’s actually up, since its none of my business and I don’t actually care, but I wouldn’t even have to think about it ever again if at any time in the past two years you could have figured out how to pleasantly say “Oh, hey [name]” as you walk on by. Maybe pretend I’m the valet who brought your car around or the coworker you only see from a distance at the annual picnic once a year; I find forming an alternate mental image really helps me when I have to run into you.”

The script is kinda mean a little bit on purpose; I know you’ll probably nice it all up anyway, but it wouldn’t be mean if you actually said this. It’s been two fucking years, you haven’t done a single thing wrong or done a single thing to make trouble for him, and he’s the one who is making this absolutely still be A Problem that you have to Deal With. Being quiet and chill didn’t fix it so maybe it’s time to give him the awkward reckoning he’s been dreading all this time. He’ll adapt or he won’t, but I think it’s long past time for you to stop tap-dancing around it or exist as the one who is called to answer, socially speaking, for shit you didn’t do.

Okay, let’s review:

  • Disengage from Jane. The situation with her is unfixable.
  • Unloading all the details of what happened while you lived there would not disengage from Jane, so that’s why maybe don’t do it (except to Internet Advice Columnists <3).
  • Bluntly dispel the rumors about you when they pop up without retaliating or escalating.
  • Tell the weird acquaintance guy to act right or fuck off, this has gone on long enough and you don’t owe him shit.
  • While you still live there, find the people who don’t dance attendance on Jane, there are a lot of people who like her AND a lot of people who put up with her for the sake of her family or old times, so watch for who walks out of rooms that she walks into and who gets real quiet when she comes up in conversation, look for social events and circles that don’t revolve around her, there be your movie and pub quiz buddies.
  • John and the kids can find you if they want, you’ll run into each other now and then, you don’t have to go out of your way about them.
  • Move on and be freeeeeeeeeeeeeee! You didn’t do anything wrong and you’ll be better at spotting drama the next time it rides up on you.
  • Someday tell the friend who set you up with the living situation the whole truth over a giant bottle of good wine in front of a cozy fire. You’ll know when it’s the right time when Jane has absolutely no power over anything in your life.
  • If people in your town read CaptainAwkward.com and it gets messy, here’s your script for Jane: “I was quiet and did my best for you and you were so mean to me, and eventually you got so mean that I wondered why I bothered staying quiet. I didn’t do anything wrong by asking for help to make it stop, if your life is messy enough that it’s recognizable from space, maybe work on that?” 

I hope this helped you start to let go of the burden that you could have done more to solve this. You did a lot to be good and kind to her and she deliberately isolated you and some of it worked. Jane’s gonna Jane. You’re gonna you, and you is pretty great!

Here’s a bonus list of dramatic exits in movies if you need inspiration for “oh hey good catching up, can I grab you anything from the bar?” after awkward conversations.

P.S. There’s no way we’re having comments on this mess, but I think you’re all incredibly cute for thinking there might be. ❤ 😉

 

MzHeather Dec 5 '19 · Tags: fusevy, relationships, love
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