Baggage Check Mental Health Advice: Should you tell your coworkers about your trauma treatment?

Nov 19, 2019

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior was online to take your questions about relationships, family, mental health, motivation, work-life balance, well-being, and more. Read past Baggage Check columns here.

Get mental health tips and an early glimpse at Dr. Andrea's next book "Detox Your Thoughts" by following Dr. Andrea on Facebook or Instagram.

Important disclaimer: this chat should not be considered a substitute for one-on-one psychotherapy, and is for general informational purposes only. (Dr. Andrea's advice on 80s song lyrics and snacking, however, is completely official.)

Hi, all. How are you doing today?

It looks like a ton of questions already in the queue. With each passing week, the percentage of ones I can actually answer grows smaller and smaller-- and although it means more and more people are joining our community (which I obviously love and am grateful for), I'm truly sorry for the fact that there are more and more questions that have to go unanswered! But in the spirit of trying to get to all I can, let's begin.

What's on your mind?

Hi Dr. Bonior, How do you feel about people saying "you made me feel [feeling]"? I've been in therapy for years, and tend to bristle at the phrasing, because it sounds like the person isn't being accountable for their feelings, and it sounds blame-y to me. I tend to prefer hearing "when you do [action] I feel [feeling]" but my spouse says this is wordsmithing and they're the same. Do you view these as the same? Or am I being overly-analytical?

I certainly can see the difference, but plenty of people don't. And that's okay. So, the blanket statements don't matter here. If your spouse says this to you and it makes things worse, and the difference between the two different wordings is important to you, then it seems reasonable for it to be important to your spouse, even if they don't immediately see it, right? Because I'm guessing the whole point of these statements being made is to further understand each other's perspective and resolve a conflict.

So it doesn't make sense to me for Spouse to say ("Nahh.... not gonna do what would be helpful to you here. That's wordsmithing!") when the whole point of these discussions is to be able to empathize and value each other's feelings.

(Clearly I am viewing this not just as an intellectual exercise, but rather that your spouse is claiming this during an actual situation.)

I am a federal attorney, and used to be proud of that. The first in my family to go to law school. I have worked my way up as far as I can go in my agency. I make $55 per hour. Sounds great, right? I should be proud of myself. And I am, until I try to do fun things beyond pay the mortgage and buy groceries. A high schooler in my neighborhood posted an ad on the listserve offering tuba lessons. For $40 per hour. A company posted for child care workers, at $25 per hour. I feel like the economy is passing my by. I can't afford to hire a sitter in my neighborhood; even the 14 year olds want $25 per hour to watch my kid. Amway Betty denied my PSLF application, and I'm stuck with $60k in student loans. Guess I should have played the tuba. I would have come out ahead.

I get this frustration, I really do. (Though 25 bucks per hour for a 14 year-old babysitter? Oof!)

And I am betting some chatters will have more specific words of wisdom for you, but my thoughts come down to basically two areas: a) finding ways to advance and b) finding ways to get more meaning from your work.

First, the advancement piece. Can you talk to a career coach/counselor who has some expertise in working with attorneys? Do you have any former colleagues who have left for different avenues that offer more opportunities? Have you perused other legal jobs and acquainted yourself with what they offer and how your experience would best fit? I am by no means a great advisor on this part of the equation, but there definitely are plenty of people who would be.

Now, for the second part. "Used to be proud of that." What changed? It seems like part of what diminished your pride in your job is your realization that you have maxed out and that you don't "measure up" as well as you'd like to against Random Teenage Trumpeter. That is understandable, but whether you make boku bucks or not, pinning your pride (and presumably your sense of meaning) on the paycheck will doom you eventually. You don't say anything about what it is you actually do, why you were interested in it, what you think the purpose of it is, how that connects to your own sense of purpose and meaning.... to me, these are things that can eventually help protect you against the sense of futility and regret. And if indeed there's a lack of deeper meaning there, then it would likely be time to search for something else, regardless of what the number on your pay stub says.

Hi Dr. Bonior, I'm stuck in a cycle of unhealthy behaviors. I know what to do to make the most of the life I have - in the past, I had a regular meditation practice and gym habit, and I've always made a healthy diet a priority. Bit by bit, I have become inactive and unmotivated to tackle projects at home and at work. I used to walk for miles; now I want to stop after 20 minutes. I have tried three different antidepressants over the years, and none has made any difference. I know one good habit reinforces another. Do you have any recommendations for getting back on track?

Well, I think you need a bit more insight into how you got off track. Inertia and slinking away from healthy patterns can certainly happen very easily to anyone-- so it's not that there's something wrong with you-- but if you are willing to make changes in a positive direction, it's pretty imperative that you find out what you're up against and what you need to overcome to be back on track.

I hear about your walking, though, that you are still doing it. Wanting to stop after twenty minutes isn't the same thing as giving up altogether. So part of what could help here is just gradually nudging yourself further. (Today I will let myself stop after 22 minutes. On Thursday, I'll go up to 27 minutes, etc.) Same with meditation. (I'll do a five minute meditation at least twice this week. Next week, I'll do it three times.)

Having weekly accountability about this could be really, really helpful. I'd be remiss if I didn't urge you to consider a CBT or ACT therapist who is very active and behaviorally-oriented.

Please do keep us posted!

I'm currently undergoing EMDR therapy for a trauma (rape) that happened about a decade ago. The EMDR work is really challenging and because of the nature of the therapy, I'm taking more time out of the office than I normally do for "doctors appointments". No one in my office has been nosy, asking questions, or looking for an explanation as to where I'm going... but I'm sure they have noticed my absences and changes in my mood. I would like to tell some close coworkers who I consider friends a little bit about whats going on, just in the spirit of honesty... but I'm scared of being the "oversharer" in the office. I don't want to get into the gory details but I think it would be nice to tell a few people "you know, I'm really going through it right now..." I guess my question is for the gallery? Would people want to know if their coworker was dealing with some sh*te?

I'd love to hear from the chatters on this too, of course.

But I think you'll get a variety of answers, just like you have a variety of coworkers. Some are true friends. Some are "friends." Some are companions 9-5 only but not friends. There's going to be a vastly different answer depending on exactly what category-- or at what point in the spectrum-- any given coworker falls into.

You also might ask yourself what you're hoping to get out of it. I could imagine a variety of things (and potential good reasons for disclosing it) so I'm not at all saying there isn't a good reason to share, just that the more you know what your own personal motivations are for doing it, then the more that will help with your calculus of the benefits and risk factors for doing so.

Finally-- I'm really sorry to hear that this happened to you. But good for you for seeking help.

That tuba player and babysitter aren't working 40+ hours a week! That $25-$40 is pocket change for them. You're making a 6-figure salary, own a home, care for your family. Those kids teaching lessons and babysitting are living with their parents and trying to figure out how they're going to support themselves through college and beyond. I wouldn't pay $25/hr for a 14 yo babysitter, but don't begrudge a few kids just trying to scrape enough money together to be able to go to the movies with their friends.

True.

And I didn't mean to turn this into a referendum on whether or not those kids deserve that cash (hey, tubas are pretty darn heavy!) But you do bring up a very valid point that even to bring up the hourly wage itself gets flawed pretty quickly in an apples-versus-oranges type of way.

Thanks.

Well, "that dress makes you look fat" and "I don't think it brings out your best points" are the same, but one is certainly different from the other in tone and effect.

So very true!

New reader binge-reading my way through your archives. A couple weeks ago, a person wrote in about whether they were being too picky in identifying a new therapist. Wanted to share my experience. A few years ago, I was living in a new community with very limited options. I reluctantly saw a male psychiatrist for the first time. He was also an immigrant from a culture very different than my own. In our very first session, he said “what if you aren’t X because of symptom Y, but you are Y because of X.” After decades of my symptoms being chalked up to various mental health conditions, he identified a totally different medical issue. It revolutionized my life. Truly, my experience of existing in the world is completely different because I saw a provider different from every other provider I’d seen. So maybe give it a shot.

I love this. It is definitely worth keeping an open mind, and in your case it worked beautifully. So glad to hear it! Thanks for writing.

Whatever your educational level, you should spell "beaucoup" correctly.

But it's not an adjective in French. So it's not like by spelling it the hoity toity French way it makes any more grammatical sense.

As much as I want to let you get in your dig because clearly it's important to you, it seems a little bit like criticizing me for eating a Popeye's chicken sandwich with my hands rather than a fork and knife.

So, nah, not on board.

I like the John Gottman take - which goes something like 'When you did X, the story I told myself was ...'. We bring our own lens to bear on things - so it allows for intent and misunderstanding of intent. It also asks you and the other person to dig that bit deeper. Do you think that's something which might resonate with your husband?

Yes, I've definitely seen people take to this way of framing it! Thanks.

I'm sure no one would think anything of it if you merely said that you were addressing a longstanding health problem that currently needs more intensive treatment. And possibly add, "things are going well and I hope to be on a more normal schedule soon/within a month/whatever time period you choose."

This seems like a nice general baseline. And I think OP can probably tell a lot by people's reactions to this-- which will help with the decision of how much to share further.

When I was about 10, I started realizing that I didn’t share my family’s religious views which ultimately evolved into my being Agnostic. In my youth, I was prone to arguing with my family believing that I could somehow use logic to get them to see I was right. This didn’t go well at all, and in my 20s, I learned to keep my mouth shut because neither they nor I will change our minds. My kids have been raised without religion. When we have discussed the topic, I’ve aimed to be neutral and not pass on any disdain I may have for whatever viewpoints/belief systems especially because we are the only non-religious members of our families. However, my 10 year old has taken to spouting off about how “stupid” religion is or that she has proven some dogma is wrong because [whatever logic]. Ack! It’s ME all over again. I didn’t expect this considering we have no religion in our house to resist being part of. I agree with the basic premise of most of what she’s saying. I just don’t want her to be nasty to our relatives about it - particularly at Christmas which is the next time we’ll see them. Any advice on how to get my kid to calm down on this topic?

Yup, I think this is a great opportunity for some pretty wonderful discussions. One example: that not all things are appropriate for all audiences, and even if you happen to be "right" about something that doesn't always mean you have to tell someone that they are "wrong."

10 is also plenty old enough to understand the huge, gaping distance between using logic to think through something versus declaring that other people who don't share that logic are "stupid."

It's about being kind, really.

So, yes, your child may be flexing all kinds of muscles-- emotional, cognitive, philosophical, etc-- all good things-- but that doesn't mean that she gets to use those muscles to punch other people in the face.

Being nasty isn't okay. Being overtly disrespectful of other people's faiths isn't okay. Bringing up an anti-Christmas sentiment at a Christmas celebration of family and warmth and love and cheer (I hope!) is a big hot stew of Not A Good Idea.

So, it's a great opportunity for real conversations about context and nuance. Which brings me to one final point-- it could be really awesome if, just as your daughter is on a roll with poking holes in things (again, nothing wrong with that), you also get her thinking about what she DOES believe in, not just what she doesn't. Perhaps it could be things like consideration toward others. And equality. And good will. And empathy. And respect. Those could overtly be discussed as your family's values to believe in.... and they could all be exhibited with a little extra effort when it comes to being around your family at the holidays. 

By the way, in case it wasn't clear: that Popeye's chicken sandwich really is something! Hype at least somewhat deserved.

So long as HR is sufficiently clued in on OP's needs regarding time off and has an appropriate system in place to comply with relevant laws and policies, no one else at your office needs to know where and why. Whenever people working for me have medical issues that complicate their normal work schedule, I don't need (or want) to know more than (a) you are working through health issues and (b) you and HR have worked out the terms of your schedule. Any more than that is none of my business. And from a personal perspective I don't want to know the specifics. That way if anyone asks I can truthfully say I don't know but that any leave is consistent with our HR policies.

This makes a lot of sense.

I think part of what OP is driving at, though, is that there might be something helpful to THEM to have certain people clued in. Not necessarily what OP is required to tell his or her coworkers for the coworkers' or workplace's sake, but what OP might feel is somehow validating for their coworkers to be aware of. For their own sake.

Hi Dr. Bonior, I have a question about whether it is okay for me to bluntly tell my husband "Ben" that he needs to lose weight. We have been together for eleven years, married for four and now have a toddler. Ever since we started dating in college, he snored and it was miserable for me. But it was the only issue of an amazing relationship. We lived in separate cities for years and moved in when we were engaged, and only then did I realize this might be a deal breaker for me. On my request, Ben went to doctors, was diagnosed with apnea, wore a CPAP machine (that he hated) and eventually had surgery to remove tonsils and adenoids and fix a deviated septum. At the time, I felt guilty that I "made" him go through all of this. Post-surgery, his snoring decreased dramatically, and I could sleep with earplugs in and not hear it. Unfortunately, years have passed and his snoring has gradually gotten worse, and me sleeping with earplugs can't block it out. We live in a small place in an expensive city, aka no random guest room. He asked his doctor a year ago, and the doctor told him that he needs to lose weight. We both struggle with body image, and have wavered throughout the years between obese and overweight. Right now with our busy jobs and toddler, exercise and eating healthy seem like they keep getting pushed back on our ever long to-do lists. My worry is that Ben is going to shame-spiral if I bring up his weight and tell him he needs to lose it for our marriage. And I am no model either and feel hypocritical too. Is there a good way to navigate this conversation?

Well, is it the increased snoring that is the majority of the reason why you would want him to lose weight?

If that is the case, then I think it is a lot simpler than you may fear.

The snoring is a problem in your marriage. (Not an uncommon problem, of course, and lots of couples happily sleep apart because of it so I am not saying that it HAS to be a problem, only that for you it seems that it is a problem, and no extra room makes it particularly tough.) It's a problem that for a time was managed successfully, but now is creeping up again. It is creeping up again in large part because of weight gain.

So. You can either choose to tolerate this and grow increasingly frustrated and sleep-deprived (out of empathy and caution for his feelings, granted, which is admirable) or you can choose to help him target the problem in a no-judgment, no-shaming, no baggage way. It's pretty objective when you think about it. His doctor told him to lose weight because a specific health problem he has, that happens to affect your own well-being on a daily basis, is being exacerbated. If the command from the doc wasn't to lose weight but was instead to get take a certain medication or to have a certain mole removed or to start flossing more vigorously.... well, you wouldn't hem and haw and bite your tongue about finding ways to support him in it, would you?

That's not to say that it should all be about him. Certainly, offering to make it a joint effort-- where you both take a post-dinner walk each night with your child, where you both devote a couple of hours on Sunday to prepping some healthy snacks for the week (also something your toddler can be a part of), where you both pack lunches together at night after the kid is in bed-- absolutely, that will help.

But you aren't doing either of you any favors by treating this with kid gloves. You are an empathetic person and your recognize that weight is a touchy issue, and that's great, but that doesn't mean that you should let the touchiness of it keep you from addressing what has become a significant problem for both of you.

Please keep us posted!

You do know that the tuba instructor isn't seeing 40 people a week, right?

I do love the visual of a line of tuba players snaking out the door....

...but then "nite" and "donut" make me eye-roll-y.

But let's get this straight, though, seriously-- because I am as anal a grammarian as the next person.

The phrase "beaucoup bucks" is already a bastardization. It doesn't make sense. It isn't a French phrase. It has long since been stripped of any real etymological connection to the word "beaucoup," no? And thus it started being written as "boku."

"Night" and "doughnut" are still words, though. So apples and oranges. Or apples and croissants.

Never heard or read it before. Thank you, commenter! So helpful, you have no idea.

Ah, yes, that's a classic in couples therapy! Glad it was helpful. (And thank you, commenter!)

Hi Dr. Andrea, I am the original "Big Family Decision" poster from Feb. 5th (https://live.washingtonpost.com/baggage-check-live-20190205.html). I just wanted to give you all an update, after all of the helpful advice from you and the other chatters and commenters. Our daughter did get into the program and we decided for her to go. And she loves it. The first few weeks were a bit tough, but she has really settled in and made new friends. She's joined the forensics team and Latin competition team. We found the closest school bus route and got permission for her to ride from there, so we drop her off in the morning. When she stays after school for activities she takes the local bus with no problems (with a transfer!) and ends up within a mile of home. She's also had to tough it out a couple of times when she wanted to get picked up because she wasn't feeling well, because a parent couldn't get there in a reasonable time, and she survived :-) I am so thankful for all the great advice and reassurance from you all. I deal with some anxiety of my own, so I knew that was a factor, and the extra support from all of you (who have never met me!) was really great.

What a wonderful update! Much appreciated. I remember this original discussion well. (How has it been nine months?) So truly glad to hear!

I believe that one's immediate supervisor is an exception to this. I wouldn't want one of my supervisees saying to me, "I cleared it with HR so you don't need to know any more." Granted, I was an excellent supervisor, but...

That makes sense!

First of all, I'm so sorry for what happened to you, I hope therapy will bring you peace. I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was 15 (trauma after seeing a dog biting my sister) and in the last two years, I had to disclose it to some of my colleagues, first when there were talk to have therapy dogs in the workplace and second when a tornado hit my place and it reactivated some of my PTSD symptoms. My advice: Talk to your manager first of all and then progressively talk with colleagues you trust. You don't have to go into details, especially details that triggers you (my go-to was I was traumatized by a dog and then brutalized by a tornado and now I have difficulties sleeping). I believe people are way more understanding than we think and often it lead to other people disclosing their own mental health issues.

This is a really helpful data point. Thanks for writing in. I'm so sorry for what happened to you-- but commend you for seeking out what you've needed on the road to recovery.

so he shouldn't feel shame-spiraled by your asking him to check with his physician. Well, maybe he will, but at least you will have a non-image-based reason for urging him to get to his dr.

Yes.

It seems to me that maybe he already even told her that his physician had advised him that he needed to lose weight because of the snoring?

So it's already out on the table.

The self-doubting lawyer looking at others' pay rates may be comparing apples and oranges. That tuba player and babysitter probably don't have employer sponsored health insurance, or vacation/sick time, they don't have anyone contributing to their retirement, or social security based on what they earn. That's just an hourly rate, that they get when they can, with no benefits on top of it. Looking at the whole picture may help LW feel better about their own life choices. If lawyer really doesn't like their job/how they spend their days, they certainly can take steps to change it. But "I worked so hard and now make barely more than a part time tuba teacher" probably isn't a great reason to change careers, especially when you don't consider your total compensation.

Well said. Thanks.

OP, I'm sorry for what you have gone through and hope your therapy helps. However, I don't think it is something you should share in any detail with your coworkers. You need to focus on your own recovery, and keep work professional. I like my coworkers, but they are not my friends and quite frankly I don't want them to be or to know more about them than the basics. Nor do you want to get caught in a gossip mill, where every mistake is attributed to your trauma, or to get into a competition about who is more entitled to being out alot, you or the mom caring for a child with cancer. None of this is productive. Take what leave you are entitled to, get as much work done as possible, ask for help prioritizing or triaging.

The gossip mill factor is a risk worth considering. Thanks.

That said, if there are people on the coworker spectrum who veer more toward trusted personal friends, I think the cost-benefit analysis changes significantly.

This is only anecdotal evidence, but I've notice males looking for male therapists, who take insurance, seem to get appointments almost immediately, whereas females looking for female therapists face huge waits. It's an imbalance of providers obviously If one is comfortable with a male and in dire need of help, consider looking for a male therapist. and since many post pictures online then you can get at least a visual feel for if you might feel comfortable with a male or or not. Just passing along, this none empirical data-based, information.

Interesting!

I feel like I should have more insight into this than I do. Now I am curious to look into it.

I am a mom to a three year old with a best friend who is single and doesn't have a steady job. I have a full time job and my family (son and husband) filling up most of my time, but I feel so guilty when I cant really be the friend she wants me to be. She doesn't really understand how hard it is for me to get together on weeknights or even weekends. I try my best but I feel a. Guilty for not being the friend she needs and b. Resentful that she truly has no idea how full my life is and how hard it is for me to make plans. We’ve had conversations before where I’ve tried to explain, and when she gets into a relationship she’s less needy, but when she’s single I feel so much pressure! How can I put less pressure on myself? Or am I just being a bad friend?

It's a common dilemma, and one that tends to weed out strong friendships from weak ones. So the silver lining here is that if your friendship survives this, you'll know that it has some special qualities.

You've got to sit down and be more realistic with her, and find a better way of communicating that doesn't constantly leave her with expectations that are not meetable. There's going to need to be some sort of clear, tangible and realistic compromise.

"Beth, I'm sorry that I can't keep the same social schedule with you that I used to. It's just a fact, and there's no way around it-- my life has changed now that I have a kid. I know it's an adjustment for you, and I feel guilty that I can't be the friend in the exact ways that I used to. But I very much want our friendship still to thrive, and for me to be there in the ways that I can, and if you're willing to really have a conversation about it, I think we can adjust together."

And then-- figure out what you can still give. An occasional pre-planned brunch? A lunch hour here and there? Her coming over to hang out after the kid's bedtime? Occasionally doing stuff with you and your kid, and you two sipping coffee on the playground bench while your son runs around?

But don't let that take you down the rabbit hole of guilt. You two are living different lives, at least on the surface, and yours happens to come with a lot less availability. It's nothing to feel bad about. It's a problem to be solved, if you both want to. But if she's not willing to bend, then the friendship is a lot more likely to break.

This. I once shared details of my situation with a kind and sympathetic supervisor who then treated me like I needed to be protected forever after, which limited my work opportunities. He meant well, but sharing was a mistake there.

Ugh. I am sorry.

People generally join the civil service for reasons other than getting rich. They may want to achieve specific goals, like locking up bad guys or delivering services to the needy or influencing national policy, and they trade higher salaries for job security, good benefits, a predictable work schedule and other practical considerations. A federal attorney has more options than most people. Why did he become a lawyer, why did he join the federal government, and what's changed? He/she needs to identify the problem before he/she can look for a solution.

Great questions worth considering. Thanks.

This. Federal employees have a generous amount of sick and annual leave, employment protection, guaranteed health benefits, etc. Looking at the Big Picture should help you stop these counterproductive comparisons. Also, saying "a tuba teacher makes $40/hour so they're raking it in!" is like saying, "schoolteachers only work six hours a day and get three months off!" Not true and not kind.

Right. And again, I don't want this to be about slamming the tuba teacher... but I can understand that for OP, it felt like another trigger toward self-doubt and questioning their choices. It wasn't particularly objective, though, and you're right, the big picture is important. 

Wow. This "friend" really needs to grow up. "You're my only social outlet unless I have a boyfriend" is what this comes down to. Talk about self-centered.

Well, to be fair we don't exactly know the details or friend's perspective, but this could certainly be one scenario.

by running interference with other supervisees. "X has a lot of sick leave coming up so we need to shift a few personnel to X's projects temporarily. Let's work out priorities so we can stay ahead of the game." And shut down any prying inquiries like "what's wrong with X? Is s/he having cancer treatment?" with "that's not relevant to the situation here."

Another worthwhile take!

Yeah, a lot depends on what the immediate supervisor is like. This would be the ideal version. Thanks.

Two words: Side Hustle! It might just be a millennial thing, but everyone that I know, regardless of position or income has one. And it doesn't mean driving Uber. If you can write, start submitting to literary magazines. Can you draw or paint or take good photos? Find a gallery and get your exhibition on. Like gardening? Do some designs and maybe some of the labor. If it works out, great, you've found yourself with some extra cash at the end of the day. If not, you've done something you enjoy, and you can appreciate your own work.

I love this! Much appreciated.

Hi Dr. Bonior, I wrote in a while ago - time flies, not sure if it was weeks or a month or two ago. The gist was that my spouse had been newly diagnosed as bipolar and while it was a relief to get that diagnosis, the damage to our marriage was considerable during the time that spouse resisted asking for help and a change in medication. We have started counseling, and after 3 months (yes it took that long for the medication to really reach effectiveness) I can see my "old" spouse again, i.e. the one that I enjoyed being married to in between the episodes of depression and more recent hypomania. I am writing because in your original answer you said something about me having attachment problems. HOW DID YOU KNOW THIS???? Do you have ESP? Because this is the main problem that has dogged me my whole life, in any relationship, with spouse, friends, even jobs and relatives. When I was young and first needed help, attachment problems in children did not have a name, but looking back, it has colored my whole life, and not for the better. I won't go much further into this, but I think that any insight you could give me into this would be helpful to me as I go forward.

Well, I am flattered-- my ESP usually only applies to predictions about how quickly the entire contents of my refrigerator will be annihilated by three voracious children--  but I also don't want to take credit where none is due. I remember your letter generally, but I can't recall the exact nature of what I would or wouldn't have said about attachment. So there's the chance it may have been someone else chiming in.

That said, if it feels like it applies, it is definitely something to continue working on.  Can you give me a little bit more? There is a very broad array of attachment issues, and they can be targeted in various ways, depending.

Hi - I'm pregnant with my first child, and come from a family with a lot of anxiety. Over the years, my older siblings and I have done a lot of hard work on it, and occasional therapy. I went off my anxiety meds when trying to conceive, but thanks to exercise and a calming, supportive husband, I've been feeling surprisingly steady so far. That is, until recently. My siblings are both going through REALLY tough times - one lost his wife in an accident, and the other has a sick partner and is swamped at a new job (removing children from abusive and neglectful homes). They are both getting therapy but still, their anxiety is ramped way up and I think they're focusing on me as a way to distract themselves. So I'm getting group texts and calls every week to remind me how soon the baby will be here, how my house is not ready, and how it seems like I'm procrastinating and therefore I must not realize how hard it's going to be (this is informed by their past - my sister's husband was on deployment when her twins were born, and my brother's best friend raised two special-needs babies). They both live nearby, and want to come help me. They know I struggle with executive-function stuff and have helped me get more organized in the past. I am WELL aware of how soon my baby will be here - I am the one who can feel the kicks getting stronger! I am also worried about how much we need to do to get ready, at the same time I'm putting in more hours at work to leave things in good shape for my maternity leave. My husband and I are trying hard to de-clutter our small house and gather the baby gear we'll need. But every time I get bombarded by anxious communications from my siblings, I get panicky. I have tried to suggest useful tasks for them, but they have their own ideas about what is a higher priority. From past experience, I know that their help around the house will include discussions where I have to defend/explain my choices. So far I've pushed back gently and redirected some conversations. But I love them very much, they truly care about me, and I especially want to be there for the one who is grieving. If I can help him feel less lonely in this awful time, then it's worth having him over to help despite the stress on me. I keep trying to picture myself as a duck, and their words as water rolling off my back. But this is so difficult! How do I accept some needed help but also waterproof myself (and my husband) from some of this anxiety?

Your empathy for your grieving brother is so evident, and it's truly touching.

But let's not confuse being emotionally supportive with being a sponge for someone's panic-inducing nagging.

You all love each other very much. And there are plenty of ways to help your brother feel less lonely besides letting him drive your blood pressure off the charts.

A reality check here: if you have diapers and wipes, a safe place for the baby to sleep, some blankets, and some ideas about how you plan to feed your baby and get medical care-- along with, preferably, some arms that don't get particularly tired-- you are a-okay for the first couple of weeks.

PERIOD.

Don't let ideas about gear or clutter-- or the Infant Industrial Complex-- let you lose sight of that.

And don't let your brother stress you out about "getting the house ready."

I promise the baby won't be undertaking an inspection.

Can you find ways to spend time with them that are not related to baby prep? Can you support your brother in other ways besides indulging his worry for you? Can you take him out to lunch instead of listening to a laundry list of what your outlets may need to look like eight months from now?

At some point, if the pushbacks aren't enough, then you may literally have to pull a Do Not Disturb on some of the group communiques for a while. I'm serious.

Your siblings are under serious stress. How could it possibly be optimal that that they bring you into that state as well?

"No one in my office has been nosy, asking questions, or looking for an explanation as to where I'm going... but I'm sure they have noticed my absences and changes in my mood." I think saying anything depends on your workplace. There is still, sadly, a stigma about mental health and treatment. Once you tell someone, the information is out of your hands and you don't know where it will end up. For example, I've never worked for a supervisor who would have been highly supportive of such things. I'd be very vary about saying anything to a co-worker unless that person is your friend beyond work and is VERY good about keeping secrets.

Good considerations. Thanks.

Keep your medical issues out of the office if you can. There is no chance that what you say to "close" coworkers will remain with them, and you can be sure that every retelling will garble your story more, especially if they think it involves a psychiatric issue. All you need to tell people -- if at all -- is that you're getting treatment for a chronic condition, and you'll be fine.

Well, I don't know that we can be certain that there is "no chance." Some people are capable of keeping secrets, as coworkers and as human beings.

But there's something to be said for erring on the side of caution!

Maybe an anticipatory (or proactive) "hey, sibs, why are you trying to undo what I've managed to accomplish anxiety-wise?"

I like it!

Hi, My son's hockey team has suffered the loss of three teammates because of suicide. They've lost 2 since the last season ended-- the new season starts this week. I'm a parent of a survivor - what can I do for the team? For example, I've thought about getting cupcakes with positive messages, e.g. You are brave, you are loved. But, what is too much? I don't want to be intruding or overbearing. Thank you!

I am just so sorry to hear this.

This is devastating.

There are no perfect checklist of things to do here, but my first concern is that both the parents and the kids (teens?) have had some support. There are specific organizations that are dedicated to these acute situations, to come and talk specifically to parents, teachers, and students (for instance) in the aftermath of such a cluster. To teach warning signs and how to get help and how to talk to each other. I think it's imperative that the team get this kind of intervention, and that the individual kids get the option to talk to someone individually if they would like.

Whether you do it with cupcakes or through other means, it's about cultivating a culture of listening. Of caring. Of reaching out. Of not hiding in the shadows. Of speaking up with concerns. Of making it known that it is not weak to ask for help. That no one is alone. That real help is available. That feelings can be scary and intense and seem insurmountable and yet, there is light to be found on the other side.

So, yes, be there. Show love. Be consistent. Don't turn away. Don't give in to just how silencing something so devastating can be, and how suicide in particular can make things so horrifically stilted to try to have a conversation about.

I believe this question is a week or two old, so I'm not sure if you're reading this today-- but would love to hear an update.

Ugh, I hate this. The OP has a full-time job and a family. Sounds like they're plenty busy! They may not want to spend their free time working yet more, and frankly they shouldn't have to. I absolutely hate this workaholic, maximizing-productivity viewpoint.

I can see how you might take it that way if it were a commandment to force in something that OP didn't want to do, but I took it more like it could be a potential opportunity to explore not only for extra cash but also, as the poster said, enjoyment. If it provided that, it's a win-win, as I see it.

Sure - and the OP was snarky, yet the convention in English is to spell that phrase the French way. Your way made me smile and think. Tell me, dear therapist - why did that get your goat so much?

But is there really a convention one way or another, though? Not going to stop and google but it's certainly not like it hasn't been spelled "boku" plenty of times. Again, we are talking about a slang phrase that makes little sense in the first place. What's proper spelling in what's already an "improper" usage?

As for my gotten-goat (guilty!), I work hard to keep this space generally kind and unsnarky. I think it's vital, in order for people to feel comfortable sharing what can be really, really personal and painful things. So, unnecessary and gratuitous snark gets my goat. I mean, really...... should it not?

'I'm going through some personal stuff, which will be fine but it's been affecting my mood a bit - so if I seem a bit tense, please put it down to that.' You say it's making you a bit on edge and bringing things up so this will cover you if you seem a bit off at work.

That could be useful phrasing. Thanks!

Seriously - you don't need a pottery barn nursery and baby accessory home. In at least one country they give new parents literally a box (for the baby to sleep in) that holds everything it needs. The only other thing you absolutely have to have is a car seat (and get it fitted by the fire dept).

Yes yes yes!

(And I totally forgot about the carseat. Thanks.)

A productive use of this information could be, "Oh, I played tuba in band for years. I could add the occasional $40 tuba lesson to my schedule and make a bit extra in addition to my generous pay and leave packed..."

Now that would come full circle, wouldn't it?

This. I really enjoyed teaching friends and colleagues to knit and crochet during my decades as a federal employee.

Yes! Love it.

I am hoping for advice on my older brother. He has been mentally ill since he was a teenager, though he managed to graduate from college and, at one point, seemed interested in pursuing a career. Now, decades later as a grown adult, he is unable or unwilling to hold down a job. He has lived with my parents (who are in their 60s) for the past 5 years. The problem is that his behavior has grown increasingly aggressive and concerning to me. He is frequently drunk, leaves verbally abusive messages for family members, yells constantly at my parents, intentionally keeps them up all night with loud music/talking, occasionally steals, and on at least one occasion, physically assaulted my father (he is fine, though this incident terrified me). My parents refuse to confront this situation. I beg them to kick my brother out, but they refuse because they fear he will become homeless. They also put no conditions on his stay (e.g. he is not forced to pursue therapy, quit drinking, or get a job/continue his education). I ask them to do SOMETHING every time we talk. Occasionally they will get upset with my brother and promise to take action, but it always falls through. Recently my brother started talking about acquiring a weapon. I genuinely fear for my safety, and have thus decided not to see my brother anymore. Because he lives at home, this means I also do not get to visit my parents. I am struggling with what to do to improve this situation, while also preserving my own mental health and safety. Is there anything I can do to force the issue with my parents? Is refusing to see my brother a step too far? Any advice would be extremely helpful.

I don't think refusing to see your brother is a step too far.

Honestly, it sounds like a step not far enough.

He is talking about getting a weapon. This really, really concerns me. What is his rationale?

He is verbally abusive, has a substance abuse problem, and has assaulted your father.

I'm sorry I'm going all uber-italics here, but realistically this already sounds like elder abuse.

Seriously. What am I missing?

They are not willing to protect themselves, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve protection. This could end very, very badly. You need to seek some legal advice. Don't wait.

I am sorry.

What do you think about them? I find there's some correlation with my mood, but it's not like I've used the scientific method to confirm. In a way, if I'm in a bad mood and can't figure out why (like today), it's a bit comforting to find out I'm at -98 emotionally.

Honestly, I don't know much about them, but what I do know about them doesn't exactly scream "empirical support." It's my understanding that there's not a lot of solid evidence for their validity. That doesn't mean that they can't be helpful in their own individual way, though-- even if it's through the placebo effect. You speak to the dynamic of wanting an "explanation" for a bad mood, and how that makes it easier to take-- and certainly that can be a legitimate thing. And there's a chance that it's just confirmation bias at work (you remember the times where you are in a bad mood and see a -98, rather than all the times you're in an okay mood and see a -98, or are in a bad mood and don't see a readout that matches that), but if it brings you a little comfort, who am I to say that it shouldn't?

Agree! Especially if this individual is in DC, the commute could easily be an hour plus on the road or metro each way. Plus school/day care drop offs and pick ups add time. If someone leaves the house at 630 or 7am and doesn't get home until 630 or 7pm, that doesn't leave much time to be "creative."

It's true. I still maintain it's something to explore, but there are certainly understandable reasons why it could be a no-go. Thanks.

I suspect a federal attorney has limits on what additional work he can do outside of his job. He has to avoid conflicts and also maintain a professional identity. It's not like he can go out and mow lawns.

Well, he probably COULD without that necessarily being a conflict of interest... but I do see your point. There could be certain landmines, depending.

...it's apparently a Japanese word. But then we're getting into different alphabets, and transliteration. Chanuka? Or Hannukah? Doesn't matter. It's חנוכה.

Oh My Goodness How Did You Get Those Characters? Amazing.

Uh-oh, I am digging a bigger hole now, with that capitalization and run-on sentence.

Where's the "rewind" button?

My husband and I have been separated for 3 months and just started couples counseling last week. We have two young children. My in laws live 300 miles away. I send them pictures of the boys. I texted once - just let me know when you want to FaceTime or talk about visiting. The response - we feel helpless to help! I reached out again about FaceTime- ing. And said the kids miss them. The response - “I can surely understand that; it’s a difficult time for everyone concerned. But hopefully some day that can/will be corrected.” I don’t know if my husband and I are going to be able to work it out. I don’t understand why the in-laws can’t come visit (they can afford a hotel) and spend time with their grandkids! Tough times are when family should be there for each other.

Well, it seems like they may be thrown by what the current definition of "family" is and are having trouble defining a role for themselves amidst the separation.

Or they worry about seeming to take sides.

Or, less pleasant, they blame you for what's going on and are letting that play out via withholding contact and initiative and even affection for the time being, even if it denies that from their grandkids.

So it's you reaching out to them-- what about your husband? Would their response be different?

 

CALL THE POLICE IMMEDIATELY!! Nothing good can come of this. If he is a threat to others (your parents), he can be held for a determined period, depending on their jurisdiction, to determine if the case warrants court-ordered inpatient treatment.

Thank you. I really, really am concerned about that situation.

OP, are you out there?

No snark, but I have never ever seen it spelled boku. Maybe it's a regional thing, but this stuck out and it took me a second to figure out what you meant.

See, OP? This was quite a beautiful way of making the point without some weird and aggressive dig about education level.

Thank you.

(I could throw a can of kerosene on this whole discussion and talk about the times I've seen it spelled "buku!")

I'm working on this with my therapist, too, but I'd love to see your take on it. How do you define the difference between codependence, compassionate care, care management, and care giving? Does it change depending on the care giver, the care circumstance, the cared-for person? (think: elderly parent v. non-neurotypical young adult v. needy sibling) It would be great if you could help me move the needle away from codependence, too, but that seems to be a long-term project in my case. :)

Yeah, I think there are a lot of variables here-- and you've certainly identified some. The expectations for how much space an elderly parent should take up mentally and emotionally are probably different than that of a non-neurotypical child. Or they may be similar, if the parent has an acute health crisis or lives with you, etc.

To me, it all depends on how you feel like you're functioning day in and day out, overall. The same question is often asked in the grief process. Life doesn't have to be smiley faces and rainbows and always moving in a a perfectly progressing direction, but does the general trajectory feel like it's going forward?

In your case, do you still have the time and emotional space to have some autonomy within your own life? Do you have an idea of where you end and the other person begins, and vice versa? Are there areas of your life where you still feel like you have control? Are you able to carve out an emotional oasis where you do basic things that are sustaining to you-- socializing with others, getting movement and fresh air, pursuing interests? Are you still able to define yourself-- and your days-- in ways that totally aren't tied to someone else?

Those are the places I would start.

 

Those are vastly different situations, though. Driving an hour is totally different from sitting on the Metro or a bus with a book, some handiwork, or just meditating.

Good point.

Though I will say, quality podcasts have made a car commute much more tolerable as well.

Would it make sense to inquire at the police, at least? And/or talk to social services? At least the OP would be able to say that s/he alerted the police...

Yes. Thank you.

Do you know who's your brother's doctor? Can you tell Doc about this? I don't know if there's anything doc can do, but we don't want such an unstable and shown to be violent person getting a weapon. Please try and see what choices your state has in prohibiting someone like this from getting a legal weapon.

Excellent points. Much appreciated!

I don't understand all the OH HELL NO to the suggestion of a side hustle.

hahah! I hear you.

I absolutely loved the idea. Clearly it's not for everyone, but it's a great possibility for some!

. . . and I've never seen "boku" that I recall, but I've seen other bastardized spellings of that word. I'm not here to edit or proofread though--I'm here to read your advice. This isn't a white paper or book--it's a fast-paced chat and I think grammar mistakes and "creative"spelling are par for the course. I understand your desire to not let snark win, but my .02 is that you not even publish or address it and focus on the folks that have more pressing issues. Not acknowledging the snark seems the best way to best folks who have nothing better to criticize. Imagine them scrolling and scrolling to see if you published their criticism. Don't give them the satisfaction of a response!

Thanks.

It's time I come fully clean about this.

This is an anonymous chat, but the original person who wrote that in-- in my best guess-- is a frequent flyer with multiple snarky comments about me and my background. The digs all are worded similarly with similar themes.

I almost always ignore them-- just like I virtually always ignore things that are snarky toward chatters-- but this time, I wanted to push back.

Granted, maybe this person is not the same person, and just got caught up in a case of mistaken identity. Still snarky, though.

But you are right. So we now officially return to my regularly scheduled "ignoring the gratuitously rude comments" programming.

Thank you!

Thank you SO much for answering my question!I will talk to her and have a heart to heart about what I can manage. I also just wanted to say I don't think she's selfish for being less needy when she starts dating someone- I feel more relief that she has more to keep her busy!

Yeah, I think that ebb and flow of dating versus not dating someone in terms of attention to friendships is totally natural to some extent. But when it gets extreme, it can be problematic.

So glad it was helpful! Thanks for writing back.

I would call the police only as a last resort in extremis. Police have been known to kill disturbed people whose family members called them for help. Start with adult social services.

Ugh. I wish that wasn't a consideration, but it's one I hadn't thought of. Thank you.

they are mandatory reporters and will know how to get the police involved.

Another option. Thank you.

He doesn't need to buy a firearm to be armed. Kitchen knives, baseball bats, garden shovels -- all those can inflict damage or be used as a threat. Call social services ASAP.

Good point. Thank you.

I'm with Ben Franklin. "Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead." Don't tell unless you want the whole office to know.

Is it bad that I have higher hopes for many of us?

Maybe I am biased because it's literally my job (and my legal requirement) to keep secrets.

Ugh, you and Hax and your commenter. Minimizing how much a long commute, whether by car or public transportation, can take out of someone. Telling someone to "reframe" it to be able to read or knit or listen to podcasts is NOT helpful. We know these things exist. I get motion sick, none of those are an option for me. And all the interesting podcasts in the world don't make up for time lost with family or getting things like laundry done or dinner started or anything else on my To Do list. One's privilege is showing.

Hmm. I don't think I said anything about there not being drawbacks to a commute.

I just happen to be a fan of good podcasts, and they minimize-- for me personally-- the gap between drawbacks of a car versus the drawbacks of the metro. That gap is what the commenter was referring to.

What am I missing?

Thanks - this is what had me scratching my head and 'why did you let this get your goat'. It just didn't seem like you.

Got it. I will take it as a compliment that you think it doesn't generally seem like me to get into fisticuffs about spelling issues!

(Some of my loved ones may beg to differ.)

Well, merci boku (tried to resist but couldn't, sorry!) for another great hour. I can't run over as much as usual today due to an appointment, but I already look forward to next week.

In the meantime, if you are interested in daily cognitive-behavioral tips, join us on Facebook and Instagram. And I hope to see you in the comments!

Take good care.

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 two books in addition to the upcoming "Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good and Discover The Life You've Always Wanted."
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