Baggage Check Live: "Nuclear Family Bubble"

Jan 23, 2018

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior was online to take your comments about her advice column, Baggage Check, and any other questions you might have. These comments may appear in an upcoming column running in Express and online.

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I can't wait to get started today. A lot of you had opinions on today's print column, which told of the frustration of always being the one to have to plan the family vacations. Who does it in your family, and if neither of you like doing it, how do you decide? And what do you do when your ex-boss is still a nightmare-- even after you leave? Let's get started!

I wonder how many of his wife's friends and family would be able to recognize her from the medical / social history he willingly shared here. I would be appalled and angry if my SO shared my private information for all to see like that.


(In response to the "Controlling Relationship" comment from last week's chat.)

I hear you. As I've always done in the print column, I try to be mindful of not keeping too many identifying details in, editing when necessary. But there's also a point when any personally complicated situation will become recognizable to those close to the situation. And it's up to people to use their own judgment about what to share and what not to.

I just read the excellent story on the 23yo paranoid schizophrenic. My 17yo son has depression and has been under a therapist's care for about 3 years now. He is profoundly gifted and that is truly a terrible curse. The therapist is excellent, but he doesn't feel my son needs medication. I think my son hides a lot from him. The therapist says that it's a challenge to work with my son as he is so bright that he thinks everything is a trick. My son has told me that he has considered suicide in the past, but now, with the advent of a girlfriend, not. I am scared that if something happens with his GF and him, that he will do something drastic. GF has depression as well and her mom committed suicide several years ago. I am a pretty easygoing person, but feel worried quite a bit about this situation. Reading the story made it worse for me. Were there signs of the schizophrenia when the kids were young? Does depression eventually go away when kids brains are formed? I feel that so much of my being right now is keeping my son alive. Whenever I catch a glimpse into his psyche, it is frightening to see the anger there (he is not angry towards me) and I worry about the future. What kind of hope do I have? I honestly feel slightly desperate at times.

My heart goes out to you, and yes, that story was beautiful and maddening at the same time. The picture of depression can vary so widely, that I would be curious more about your son's day-to-day symptomology (how is he eating? sleeping? Is he agitated? Ruminating?) to see whether or not medication seems warranted in addition to the therapy. The girlfriend seems to be a wonderful thing for now, but you are wise to be vigilant-- as a bad breakup (or her own stressors-- losing a mother to suicide is a serious challenge to deal with, and it does put her at a statistically higher risk herself)-- could turn the godsend into a nightmare. There IS reason to feel hope, though-- truly. Depression is among the most common and most treatable mental health disorders there are. There are survivor stories everywhere. And there are also lots of adolescents who have a particularly tumultuous time with it and turn into completely functional adults (even with added sensitivity and creativity for the experience.) I understand that that article probably was particularly excruciating to read, but you should know that the psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia are in a league of their own in terms of day-to-day management. And depression and schizophrenia are truly separate disorders (even if occasionally, severe depression can bring transient psychotic symptoms.) Hang in there. Stay in close touch with his therapist, make sure that suicidal ideation is not a verboten topic for him to admit and bring up, and please take care of yourself. Find ways to manage your day-to-day anxiety about this and show kindness and care to yourself just as you do with your son. The road you are on is among the very hardest there is, but I promise you, there are a lot of parents who have walked in your shoes and have come out the other side. Try to find some of them as well-- some googling can get you some possible support groups, whether real or virtual.

I have a friend who's getting married this spring. I'm a bridesmaid, but we live a plane ride apart, so don't see her in person much (usually once a year). Based on pictures of herself she's posted on social media recently, she's lost a dangerous amount of weight, and has gone from thin to breakable looking. I've historically refused to engage when she wants to talk about her weight/dieting (as I know that talk leads me to beat up on myself). I don't know if/how I should approach this new concern, especially since I won't see her in person until the wedding. Any advice?

Yeah, this is really tricky. People with disordered eating patterns and distorted body image almost never respond well to concerns about their weight. (And, tweeters take heed: not once has "Ew, eat a sandwich!" helped someone with an eating disorder.) First off, for people suffering like this, their whole issue is that they have a distorted body image and think they're not thin enough-- so why would that suddenly change because someone else disagrees? More dangerously, initiating a conversation about weight accentuates the notion that the only thing that matters about them is their size, or how they look-- which is exactly the kind of psychological problem that may have contributed to the eating disorder in the first place. So, I would suggest entering this conversation through the back door. (Does that sound weird? Sorry.) Make it about wedding stress and how she's "doing." Talk about how you know it can be an overwhelming time-- how is she feeling? Is she taking care of herself? Is she being good to herself? This is a way to get the talk to be about what it should be (her emotional well-being) rather than the red herring (the size of her thighs.) Unfortunately, if she is in a full-fledged disordered eating pattern, it is going to be very hard for you to intervene from afar. But you can keep the drumbeat strong that a) you love her, b) you want her to take care of herself, and c) you are ready to listen. Since you are already aware of your own susceptibility, then you also need to give yourself permission to set limits on how involved you will allow yourself to get. And then you can cross your fingers that her soon-to-be-spouse is brave and sensitive enough to watch where this is going.

Can she learn to appreciate the fact that she gets to go wherever she wants to on vacation, for as long as she wants? Or does the non-involved husband ever complain about her choices or decisions? Is there another aspect of their life that he can completely take over planning for, as a fair exchange, or is he passive-aggressive about everything?

These are great considerations. I didn't get the vibe that he was passive-aggressive in other ways, but I too am curious whether either of them have too rigid of expectations about the "right" or "wrong" way to do vacations. Thanks!

What do I do to handle people, who for lack of a better term, use mental illness as a badge of pride? I've had clinical depression, and I understand what it takes to go through counseling, medication, CBT, etc. But there are a few people in my life who basically brag about their illness as a way to get attention or extra favors and concessions. Is this a normal part of some peoples' illness & recovery? Or is this a shameless grab for attention and stuff that I should ignore or shut down?

I'm curious about these concessions! (Hey, someone wanna give me a free burrito for my claustrophobia?)

I think it depends. Certainly, for some people-- and some disorders-- part of the symptoms of it can be that you're pretty self-involved. This can be in a "shameless," manipulative way (as with certain personality disorders) or in a way that they're just trying desperately to do what they can to get by day-to-day, which may not let them attune to others with the same energy (as with depression.) The fact that you use the word "people" rather than one particular example makes me wonder if you're seeing this as a larger problem and missing some of the nuance. I see it this way: 1) People are complex beings. 2) When they are struggling, they aren't always at their best. 3) There also might be people who try to manipulate the system, whatever that system may be. I think you can choose to take it situation by situation, in terms of your response, depending on which of these factors seems the most relevant.

In response to last week's "Sticky Fingered Sibling" post.


Hi! The purse was a belated birthday gift for me from my dad. He was overseas when my birthday rolled around & sent it once he returned stateside. He gifted my niece a frog sweater that she wasn't fond of.

Ahh. The revenge of the frog sweater! Yeah, I think you saw from all of us that there was simply no excuse for your brother's behavior, and that it was troubling that your Mom condoned it!

Since I was young, I have had a rocky relationship with my mother. I despise her since she puts my older sister on a pedestal & worships her. My sister is married with 2 kids & settled. I am single & working on my degree. Being the youngest, I was a rebel at life & played my own tune but now that I am headed into my early 30's, my mom feels that I am wasting my life in not accomplishing anything yet. How do I get her to understand me?

Unfortunately, I am guessing your mom may always see life through a lens that is distorted in its own way. We all do, really. But her lens might see that certain things are always to be prioritized more highly than others ("settling down," for instance) and it may mean that you never can quite measure up to your sister. The key here is establishing that your own lens matters too. That you have chosen to live your life in the way that you have seen fit, and that you might not have the same values as your mother, and that's okay. And that working on a degree is by no means "wasting" a life. Honestly, since you "despise" her, I'm wondering how much of that you'd even be willing to step away from in order to understand her. Again, I'm not saying she's in the right. But it's a matter of, if she's not capable of understanding you, can you accept her for who she is? Would you even want to?

Here's a link to last week's chat for reference.


Dr Andrea, after reading your response and the other one. I realized that one additional reason I wanted to share the essay is to help draw on the strength of friends and family. I went through all my Facebook friends and carefully curated a group that I would have shared with had I the ability to see them in person. (Many are all over the country and all people I know, not friends of friends). These are people who I wanted to understand why i’ve pulled away in the last few years and what I’m doing to rebuild those friendships. They are people whose support I believe will help me get through the rest of this process. I would have shared had I seen them in person. I shared the essay with this group and the response was the support I needed. Most significant was a message from a very good friend married to my ex’s best friend. We introduced them. I had previously told her and she was supportive, but I knew she was in a unique situation. She apologized for believing me but not because apparently my ex still swears he is innocent when he talk to his best friend. This information was very important for me to know because the court recently gave my ex unsupervised time with my son. Knowing my ex still doesn’t acknowledge what he did was wrong means that I am taking further steps to protect myself when we exchange my son, that the danger hasn’t lessened. Once the divorce is final, I will fully share to see what I can do to help others.

This makes a lot of sense. It sounds like you are being quite mindful of what is best for you-- and best for your son-- and how there are some ways that caution is called for. I hope the finalization of the divorce can proceed smoothy. Thanks for writing in with the added update.

What do you suggest doing when you think you are noticing a friend's kid developing social or maybe even mental health problems? Like, huge mood swings up and down within a two hour play date, laughing then quiet and withdrawn and appearing sad; not interacting with others in a group setting; saying they think other people are talking about them. Early tween age. I'm not sure if this is the beginning of a mental health issue or something else. My kid has noticed and said "something seems wrong". I tell my kid to just keep being kind and that you never know what someone else is going through. Not sure what to do. It feels really awkward to say, hey, your kid seems to be having problems...but I'm worried for this kid.

Yup, it could be the start of anything from anxiety to depression to a cognitive disturbance-- or it also could be absolutely nothing beyond the ups and downs of the tweenage social scene. Can you tell me what you relationship is like with the kids' parents? That will determine how reasonable it would be for you to have a real conversation about it.

Would it help to see your mom as massively insecure, since she only values life milestones that she herself achieved, and that your sister achieved, like marriage and children? Your mom is cheating herself of an appreciation for all kinds of lives that don't exactly mirror hers. So accept that she will never understand you but that that lack of understanding comes from a place of fear, and pity her.

Oh, how I love this! Thank you.

This sandwich generation thing is for real. I'm so tired from working, taking care of elderly parents, and parenting young kids. At the end of the day I'm physically and emotionally exhausted. Any tips for how to stay connected to my spouse? I love my spouse and miss having time together. There's just so little time for us in our week. I know this phase won't last forever, but it's hard!

I am sorry. It is real indeed-- and burnout risk is a thing to be taken seriously, especially when your caregiving pressures are pulled in several directions. Of course, "date night" is always the answer given by various magazines about keeping the connection alive (and I admit, it's sometimes my own quotes that are jabbering on about date night), but I think you have to start more simply. Creating the pressure to have date night runs the risk of just adding to your checklist another chore. So, first, make do with what you have. An early bedtime for the kids and a bottle of wine? A binge-watching session of something you both enjoy? A clandestine coffee meeting if your offices are the least bit close together? Sometimes it's less about what you're actually doing and more about how it's actually feeling-- like a conversation where neither of you are also looking at your phones versus the same conversation when you're both attuned to each other. Try to laugh together as much as possible. Don't let a focus on the connection with your spouse mask the question of whether you are taking care of yourself, though. Of course, there is overlap there, but they are not one and the same. And yes, keeping your eye on the fact that this won't last forever can sometimes help you motor through the toughest hours of it. Hang in there!

There are many reason why this would not be a good option for you - but it was helpful for my husband and me. His sister has a history of disordered eating. We see her on and off and like her a lot. At one point we were a bit concerned about her eating/weight. We asked her husband if he felt she was in a good place with food - was it something he worried about? We put it gently and said that it was really none of our business. He reacted very well, said there had been times he we worried but felt that things were on a good path. Since we don't see her all that often, it gave us some security to feel that there was someone who loved her, knew to keep his eyes open and had her back.

Thanks. It sounds like you are handling it really well. I agree that a major missing component here is how attuned the future mate is to what is going on! Are you out there, OP?

I have a severely obese member of my immediate family. She is also very tight on money , and has constantly asked me over the years to pay for her to go to a weigh loss clinics or give her a substantial loan to get gastric bypass surgery. Although I am in a good enough financial position to help her, I have largely refused to do so. This has caused her to become really hostile towards me, and frequently blames me for her condition. It reminds me of an article in The Onion years ago titled "I wish someone would do something about how fat I am". Part of me thinks maybe my help might be a good jump-start for her and will lead to long term success, but the other part thinks that she needs to take ownership of this or she'll just balloon up again.

Ah, The Onion. Making us laugh guiltily about loaded, complex topics since 1988!

I'm seeing a ton of false dichotomies here, on both of your parts. On hers: the weight loss has to involve grand, expensive schemes. On yours: that helping a sibling in need has to involve money. What is stopping you from helping her get set up with a plan or program that is free or cheap? It sounds like with her hostility to you, there may be more here under the surface. Somehow, the situation has turned into one where the money thing has waaaay too much power and almost seems like a method of control. It's not up to you to help her lose weight, but might you think outside the wallet to think of other ways you might be able to help her do so?

We're not super close friends with the family, but know them socially through school and like them. There doesn't seem to be anything unusual going on with the family, that I know of. But how would I know? If it was a closer friend I'd probably just say something privately, ask how the kid was doing, and offer my support. I'm just not sure what to do in this case.

Gotcha. If you do see them socially, it seems reasonable that if you ever had a private moment, you could broach this topic very gently. You could use the old ruse of making it about you own kid first, just to start a larger discussion (create some bland anecdote about mood swings, in-group versus outgroup, the drama of playdates, whatever.) And see how receptive they are to talking about it, and how insightful they seem about their child's moods and behavior. If they're pretty closed off about it, you might just have to be satisfied with planting seeds rather than actually having your true concerns heard. And who knows? That might be okay. Of course, if the behavior gets worse, or more serious, and you still can't find an inroad, the school guidance counselor is another option. But I want to be wary of overpathologizing this, at least at this early stage.

I know that it can be hard to have one more 'to do' but for me, knowing there's something to look forward to really helps. Can your husband (thread merging alert!) plan a kids free weekend getaway for the two of you or could you and a girlfriend have a spa/hiking etc day? For me - 'this sucks, but in two weeks I'll ... can really make a difference.

Hooray for thread merging! Travel agents for everyone! Nah, seriously, this is great. The idea of having something to look forward to is so, so important, and can be such an additional way to cope with the tough times. Great points-- thanks for this.

I am 69 and a grandmother of three. I have been thinking of doing the DNA testing to find out my ancestry. I would like to be able to pass on this information to my three adult children and my siblings. I am also thinking of getting the health DNA testing done by the same company. I have some health issues, none life threatening. My mother had uterine and colon cancer, and my younger brother had colon cancer. But what really concerns me, as does everyone, is Alzheimer’s disease. No one in my family had it as far as I know. I have had one appointment with my new internist, who will be taking over as my GP doc. When I asked her opinion of my idea, she has raised concerns with the whole idea of DNA testing. She says she does not feel comfortable with companies advertised over the Net and TV, having her DNA. And she worries about what they will do with that information. She is also concerned with the health DNA testing. She says she can understand getting tested, through medical doctors, for something that can be helped or even cured. But she says what worries her is the psychological effect it would have on the person getting the news that he/she has a disease or condition where there is no cure. I would like to know how you feel about DNA testing for ancestry. And health DNA testing done by these same companies. Thanks.

It's true that there are so many opinions on this-- but your doctor's opinion in this particular doesn't have to matter any more than your own. For once, it matters less! First, it's important to realize that there are all kinds of things that may be illuminated by this testing-- some that you can actually do something about, and some that you can't. It's of course those things that you can't that bring out the most violently opposed opinions-- is knowledge power? Or is it agony? The testing that is available for certain subtypes of breast cancer and early-onset Alzheimer's disease has led many people to deal with this exact question, and there are rationale reasons to say "yay" and also to say "nay." Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice-- which may also be influenced by your family.

I have thought about saying something to her fiance - I'm friendly enough with him, but he's really quiet/shy/reserved (around her even) and I don't have a good sense of how their relationship works. I could imagine he wouldn't be willing to discuss this with her. But I think making sure it's on his radar is probably a good middle ground for me, in addition to bringing up and monitoring her emotional needs/self-kindness.

Thanks for this update. I am glad to hear it. Yup, as a bridesmaid in this wedding, it's not a fly-by-night relationship you have-- you are connected to this couple for life. And it could be that cultivating your relationship with him is the best way to make sure that your concerns are being addressed (especially since sometimes, when people get married, they close themselves off a bit further, into the Nuclear Family Bubble.)

My good friend had Bariatric surgery. In order for this to be successful, you need to change your lifestyle and relationship towards food. Her surgeon was clear about this, guided her through it and she has turned her life around. She was ready for it. I would bank on your family member not being ready.

Yeah, it sounds like this magic wand of bariatric surgery is being really oversimplified in the OP's situation. The lifestyle changes have to happen regardless, and the mindset is key in order for surgery to stand any chance. Maybe our OP can help her get there? Thanks for this!

I'm a single mom with 2-year-old twins, and I live with my parents out of necessity. While they are great with the kids and a huge help, the overprotectedness my mother suffered with me is leaching into everything I try to do with my little girls. One example is their swimming lessons. She's been against them since they started in May. Every week, on the afternoon of their lesson, she starts a fight. They're sniffly (when are 2-year-olds not sniffly?), or the indoor pool isn't well-ventilated, or did you read the CNN story about dry drowning, or the people who run the pool are brainwashing me into thinking babies need ongoing lessons, etc. etc. She had a huge meltdown right before Christmas and demanded that they be taken out of lessons, though she did offer to pay for non-ongoing lessons at a different (outdoor) pool this summer. I love the place they were taking lessons, but I couldn't deal any more and canceled them. But this is just one example. (Don't get me started on the great "I saw the Montessori teachers let Emma sit on the bench with a bare bottom!" scandal of November.) I find myself capitulating to her fear-driven demands either because it's not worth a fight or because her mentioning something "scary" makes me suddenly worried, too. Is there a healthy way to balance listening to her and ignoring her, or to reduce the conflict?

Yeah, this is tough, because being a parent to 2 year-old twins is not without its insecurities! So on the one hand, you have to be able to be stronger in you own boundaries and decisions in order to be better able to pick your battles with her, but that's tough when you are probably looking to her for guidance at times. So, you need to give yourself room to prioritize what's important to you. Reflect upon what things you will not compromise on, and what other things you'll let her "have" because of her particular role as helping you care for your children. It's a constant work in progress that you need to reevaluate. And then-- this is the key-- once you have decided that A/B/C is non-negotiable to you, you become a broken record. "I know your concerns, Mom, but these lessons are important to me." Period. And you just say it as many times as necessary, not escalating things but also not absorbing her worry, either. Her anxiety won't be reinforced, and she'll be able to "earn" some smaller victories about things that you've decided aren't a big deal. Good luck!

You should know that the current DNA health testing is not remotely definitive. My testing from one of the popular providers stated I had both a higher and a lower than normal chance of getting Alzheimer’s. It also told me that my green eyes were likely brown (with high confidence). The only health info worth listening to is info you get from a doctor.

This is a good point! From what I understand, there is a wiiiiide range of what kind of information is out there, and some of it can be-- from what it sounds like in your case-- downright haywire!

The privacy matters are there - what if you are looking for health insurance. Health insurance companies will know if you have a marker because you've been tested and this will affect the way they see you.

An important consideration. Good to think about!

A topic dear to my heart. How does one really break this? My wife refuses to get involved but-- I love her dearly-- insists on opining on everything and complaining a lot. Last year I planned a UK trip with my wife and three kids and it almost killed me. We had a fantastic time, truth be told. This year, other than funds, I don't have the bandwith and have said "If you want to do something, get involved, or else, (a) We're doing what I want or (b) we do nothing. Right now we're looking at a lot of hiking, cheap food, and driving in Montana. Hope the family will too. Or else, I guess I'll bring buddies.

I like this! (And my family can't be the only one where hiking, cheap food, and Montana scenery sounds like quite a worthy vacation!)

Hope your workday is going as quickly! Thanks, as always, for the fantastic questions. I'm still waiting for my burrito offer-- but will look forward to seeing you all here next week, in the print column comments and here in the chat!

In This Chat
Dr. Andrea Bonior
Dr. Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist and the voice behind Baggage Check since its start in 2005. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University and is the author of the Publisher's Weekly best-seller "Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World" and "The Friendship Fix.”
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