Carolyn Hax Live: "Boom Chicka Pop to that."

Oct 06, 2017

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax chats live every Friday at noon to answer any questions you might have about this strange train we call life.

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Hi everybody, thanks for stopping by.

Dear Carolyn, My late husband died when our son was 18 months. We always had the basics, I made sure of that, but we both went without a lot of the extras. My son just started college and his random roommate assignment happens to be a boy whose father also died when he was young. We thought this was random and kind of good, my soon doesn't know that many people who this happened to. Last week my son brought up that his roommates college is entirely paid for from life insurance and social security from his father. My husband didn't have life insurance and I used most of the social security money for necessities and expenses while my son was small. My son didn't say this as an accusation, but just asked me why he doesn't have that money. I explained that I needed that money for expenses and budgets and such. I think he gets it. I did some searching online and his roommates mother is a lawyer, I'm sure she was able to give him everything he wanted and banked the social security checks. I'm feeling really guilty and defensive about this. Parents Weekend is next weekend and I think my son wants us all to go out for lunch but I can't really stomach it. What do you think?

I think it's totally understandable that you're feeling this way--but you're also being unfairly tough on yourself. The unthinkable happened before you and your husband thought to purchase life insurance. That's it. And while I suppose you can beat yourself up for being irresponsible in that one very narrow and specific way, I wouldn't even agree that you opened yourself up to that criticism. Life insurance is the kind of thing people think about once they have kids, ergo, most people purchase it with their kids in mind after said kids are conceived (duh, right?) and therefore anyone--literally, anyone--who thinks that way can get caught exactly as you did. Kid gets conceived; need for life insurance arises; window opens for the father of said child to die before policy is secured. That window could be open for a day or for 18 months or for years. The death of someone young (right--I can assume your husband was 40 or under?) is still unusual enough that people aren't necessarily being reckless when they play those odds, and even then, most people don't realize they're even playing them. They're just not thinking of life insurance at 24 or 31 or whatever.

Anyway.

 

[more]

 

The reason I've gone to such lengths to explain this is that you haven't. And you need to. You need to be blunt with yourself--"we got caught unprepared in this single but significant way"--and with your son. "Yes, life insurance would have made all the difference. We got caught without it. It hadn't occurred to us yet. I'm sorry you're feeling the impact of that still." And of course by the time you fully understood this, it was too late.

Then you need to leave it right there and get on with your life. Which includes getting to know the roommate and his mom without hauling all of this baggage with you. She did what she could given her difficult circumstances. You did what you could given your difficult circumstances. Those circumstances will always vary from person to person, often dramatically; it's just part of life. The only sure way to make it a *debilitating* part of life is to dwell on the differences. 

I am really jealous of my brother's new girlfriend, she is literally the exact opposite from me. I'm hitting a rough patch in life just as things are coming together for them and it feels like her life is unfolding seamlessly. I saw her out at a bar with another guy and I exaggerated at lot of details to make it sound like she was cheating on him. I usually don't do stuff like this but it just felt good at the time for them to experience a hiccup, something that didn't smoothly go their way. Turns out the guy she was with was her step-brother and my brother met up with them later on that same night so my brother figured out that I essentially made up the story. As far as I can tell he never said anything to his girlfriend, she acts the same way around me as always. My brother avoids being alone with me. I really want to talk to him and explain myself but I really have no idea what to say. Is there any hope this situation is going to improve? I know what I did was wrong but it was an impulse decision and I would like to know how long I can expect this to be awkward.

This is actually kind of a Part 2 to the preceding question, and it has me thinking "Silence of the Lambs."

Which tends not to be good.

But, stay with me. If you haven't subjected yourself to one of the most lurid movies ever to be taken seriously, there's a line in there that's a key plot point: "We covet what we see."

So, the world is enormous, teeming with billions of people, all dealing with all kinds of shortcomings and dysfunctions and devastations--but do we ever look at ourselves and think, "I'm hitting a rough patch, but I am so grateful that my town's electric grid hasn't collapsed and none of my beloved family members has been shot"? Sometimes, sure--but more often, we see someone right next to us and interpret their baseline circumstances as basically just like ours except with a much better outcome. So, instead of a widowed mom feeling proud that her well-raised child is in college and they accomplished this feat themselves, the two of them--she instead locks onto another widowed mom and judges herself lacking by comparison. Instead of your focusing on your many strengths and privileges and tapping into them to smooth out your rough patch, you lock onto your brother's girlfriend and judge yourself lacking by comparison. 

If you hadn't met these two people to use as points of comparison, you might well have, both of you, found someone else to feel inadequate around, envious of, angry at as a handy vessel for general, harder-to-direct anger at life.

One of the most effective ways to thwart this impulse (we all have it, I think) is just to know it's there and call it out whenever we let it possess us. "I covet what I see." And therefore: "It's not this person or that person or her success or his big house, it's me. I'm out of sorts and using this person/success/big house as the focus of my distress because it's easier than looking inward and fixing what I need to fix."

And, specifically, one of the best ways to fix the messes we make when we succumb to this impulse and act like big jerks because of it--which, as you know, you did--is to own it fully and in detail.

So, say to your brother: "I am angry at the world right now and angry at myself, and I said awful things about your girlfriend to make myself feel better. I don't expect you to forgive me. It will take a long time for me to forgive myself. But I want you to know that I take full responsibility for what I did and I profoundly regret hurting you two."

And if you seriously think your worst or only punishment for a "hiccup" (you kid, right?) is that it's awkward right now and your main concern is wanting the awkward phase to pass faster please, then you have some more work to do with your conscience. You did a self-indulgent, thoughtlessly cruel thing and you need to own up to that.

Do so fully, though, and do the soul work this incident is telling you to do, and I think your rough patch will be behind you. Not by coincidence.

My goodness, please please stop beating yourself up. Obviously you did a great job, your son is in college! My father died when my brother and I were 6 and 14. If my mom didn't use his social security we wouldn't have gotten by.

This probably seems like a trivial question in light of everything that happened this week, but here goes. My 12-year-old Lab is nearing the point where we will have to put him down. He's still enjoying his life, but is quickly losing function in his hind legs due to degenerative myelopathy. He is a wonderful, wonderful dog who has been my best friend for 12 years. We could still have months with him-- but I find myself constantly crying, thinking about what it will be like to have him put to sleep, what the house will be like without him there, etc. These thoughts are intrusive and are ruining the time we have left. I've had other pets euthanized in the past, but the anticipation of this one is just killing me. Any tips for how to enjoy the time we have left and get past this anxiety? (I do struggle with anxiety generally, and this situation seems to have exacerbated it.)

Why don't you just treat the anxiety like the medical condition it is? Instead of beating yourself up for not being able to push against it on the strength of your will alone.

And no, it doesn't seem like a trivial question at all. You are facing the death of a loved one. It's awful. You'll get through it, but there's nothing wrong with accepting that you could use some help with it, too.

 

A few months ago our teenage daughter said she wanted to try therapy. (She didn't have any obviously threatening issues, like eating disorders or cutting.) We said, fine, here are some choices in our insurance plan, look at their websites and see who seems best to you, or if you don't want to do that, just tell us how you want it to fit into your schedule and we'll go from there. Since then, she's said nothing about it, and she seems fine (still socializing, still getting good grades, etc.). We can't tell if she is just being a changeable teen, or if she is rejecting help that she really needs. Any suggestions?

Ask her directly if she's still interested in trying therapy, noting that you didn't want to assume anything based on her decision not to follow up. It's okay to be a little more proactive; if she says yes, she's still interested, then say you're going to book an intro appointment with one of the choices on your insurance plan, unless she says otherwise. 

Even fully grown and independent adults struggle with those last steps of choosing a provider and making the time to go. It's significant that she found the courage to ask. Make it easy for her now.

I've had problems with depression off and on over the years and after my cat died, it reared its ugly head again. It's just how my body tends to respond to emotional upheaval. So I did what I do when that happens and went back in for some therapy. It's routine maintenance.

Well said, thanks.

Also applies to the college student, yes? Not that he needs to be shamed, just that it might be an instructive moment for everyone - comparisons are invidious, and too often distract us from the real work we need to do on ourselves, and in understanding our strengths and weaknesses -

Yes, exactly. He was fine (more or less, presumably, etc.) until his roommate gave him a bad case of himself-but-betterism. 

When of course he's just as completely different a person from him as anyone else.

 

 

hi Carolyn, what exactly is self-care? life is chaos right now, lots of changes happening, little time to take it all in, responsibilities are adding up. I feel exhausted and overwhelmed and I feel like crying a lot. I'm already under dr's care for anxiety and depression, so I don't think it's a full-fledged emergency, I just need the words to say to be able to take care of myself right now. thx

It's so individual in its details, but, in general, it's a focus on giving yourself what you need. That can mean being careful to get enough sleep, to the point of enforcing a bedtime even if you haven't finished everything you need to do; it can mean taking care to eat nutritious foods on a disciplined schedule instead of hosing bags of processed foods at 1 a.m. in an eff-it-all frenzy; it can mean saying "no" to things you normally say "yes" to because you recognize that every "yes" just adds to your list of responsibilities; it can mean recognizing that the time you spend scrolling your news feed is not arming you with enough useful information to justify the stress you take away from it; it can mean canceling plans with people who tire you out and spending time (at least for now) only with people who are restorative; it can mean just sitting down to write a list of what you perceive to be your responsibilities, and crossing off the ones that are actually optional even though you've never treated them as such, and doing the ones right away that you know you can accomplish quickly. 

It can mean simplifying as a rule: Every time you're about to do something, ask yourself, is this necessary? Does it help?

It can mean returning to restorative practices that you've gotten away from or introducing ones that others count on but you've never tried: music, walking, mediation, yoga, deep breathing, reading, dance, naps, cardio, journaling, kickball, whatever fits your nature.

And last but not least: Every phase has a beginning, a middle and an end, and every phase has feelings associated with it. So, every feeling has a beginning, a middle and an end. 

A little feelings math for you. Hang in there.

It didn't sound as though he was no longer fine with his situation after learning about his roommate's situation. It sounded as though he was asking because he didn't know and was interested. His mother seems to have raised a son who wasn't afraid to ask. I congratulate her on that. Not every kid would have been able to do that.

Excellent point, thanks. 

And you reminded me that I had a whole paragraph in my head to the effect of, she's not being fair to her son--but forgot it as I got rolling.

Which also reminds me that every answer I publish is a vaccine against my perfectionist tendencies, especially live. Whoo.

I’m kind of a mess over the Vegas shooting. My heart goes out to the victims and their families. I’m also just so angry. I’m so angry that we have to live in a world like this. I’m angry that I can’t go to a concert or to the movies without risking my life. I’m supposed to go to a concert next week and I’m not sure if I can bring myself to do it. I’m angry that I have to be even more worried about going on my first solo trip at the end of the month, which I was already nervous about. I’m angry that I have to worry about my nephew going to elementary school every day and my brother taking night classes. The fact that I work in a government facility seems even more pronounced now. What can we do, short of quitting our jobs and locking ourselves in our houses? There’s no point in moving abroad; these things are happening everywhere. We just have to sit around and wait for the next one to happen. Anyway, I guess I don’t really have a question. Thanks for letting me vent, Carolyn.

Happy to, but not just as a public venting service. I am also happy for the opportunity to rebut some of what you said.

Yes, these things are awful, and yes, your heart and my heart and so many hearts have been broken with the senseless violence and loss. Yes, anger, yes.

But, "I can’t go to a concert or to the movies without risking my life"? "I have to worry about my nephew going to elementary school every day"?  " I have to worry about ... my brother taking night classes"? No, no and no.

These are not any more true now in a purely statistical sense than they ever were. You are still way, way more likely to come to harm in the usual mundane ways that people come to harm--car accident, say, or a slip and fall. Even the risk posed by a gun is much higher for the person owning the gun (or the family member of that person) than for the stranger like you going about your day.

You are also way, way, way more likely -not- to come to harm from anything at all accidental or violent. American life expectancy is (still) long, and where it's going down, it's largely a factor of personal choices and nonviolent societal trends (addiction and depression and job-market upheaval among them). 

And it's entirely possible and not a tangent to suggest the smartphones we're all staring at are much more of a threat to our way of life than tricked-out guns.

So, not to say that there isn't real stuff to be upset and worried about, and that we aren't overdue as a society to discuss gun access and gun violence and mental-health-care access and disproportionate violence against people of color and the ways we equip first responders and what "freedom" actually means and and and--all crucial issue that we need to address with much cooler heads than we've managed so far--but please take the time to sift through some numbers. There's not just horror in there, there's perspective. 

It (and some of those self-care strategies, above) also will make any activism you decide to undertake in response to this much smarter and more effective, should you choose that avenue to making peace with it, always worth considering.

 

The long break between questions was to encourage meditation, by the way. 

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

As a widow with two adult kids who both have a ton of college debt, I recognize the impulse to make their lives as unchanged by their lack of a father as you can. But the moment that you accept that you and your husband did the best you could, you'll see that your son's roommate's mom is probably still trying to do her best, too. I wish we'd done a better job of teaching my kids about money. But we did the best we could. More important than teaching them about money: teaching them not to judge themselves or others by making comparisons. And congratulations on getting your son to college!

Finding a therapist can be challenging. When I started considering therapy, my parents told me they would help me out if I found someone. I searched online through numerous therapists, weighing specialties, costs, and personal reviews. I ended up getting so overwhelmed and exhausted that I just quit looking. No one asked or followed up with me. It wasn't until I started to get worse that I ended up getting help from someone else I knew who inquired with their former therapist to get recommendations for me. I was in my twenties during this time, and if it was difficult for me, it could be the same for your daughter. Also, you might inquire with your doctor or her doctor and see if they have any recommendations.

Persuasive firsthand experience--thanks so much for sharing it.

As much as I dismissed my husband when he has brought it up over the past year, I think I have to officially admit I'm addicted to my phone. I've tried leaving it on other rooms, having a set time to put it away at night, etc. but I still find myself reaching for it all the time. I worry someone will text and I won't respond fast enough. A group conversation on Snap Chat that I'm not apart of and then just the mindless Facebook,etc. scrolling. Any tips on how to put the phone down and not worry about not responding right away? For work/family purposes, putting it on silent isn't really manageable.

Delete the apps you don't need for work, put in controls (the ones they offer for parents to limit kids' use) so you can't go back to them, and read this: LINK. The people who developed some of these addictive features are themselves relying on such safeguards to keep themselves from getting swallowed up by them.

Everyone with a smart phone or with a kid with a smart phone, read this. Please.

I'm single. I've been single my entire 60 years. I travel alone most of the time, yes, even on vacation. I'm sick of people being shocked that I drove cross-country twice alone. I'm sick of people giving me odd looks and telling me 'your day will come' when I am alone on vacation, in the airport, on the plane, at the hotel, in the restaurant. I don't have a question, I'm just tired of being regarded as bizarre.

Rightly so.

But I hope someday, if someone gives you the "your day will come" line again, you say the same back to them. Because, seriously, way more people manage to get married/paired off than have the courage to be alone with their thoughts, much less alone with their dinner, movie, long-distance drive or vacation.

Which makes you more badass than bizarre, for the record, even though I say this with fervent hope that time and progress will make you less of a badass and more just the norm. 

The first year of college is a time when lots of students meet peers from very different financial backgrounds, often quite wealthier. It's a part of life to understand that some people are better off than others because of their family situations.

Another excellent point, thanks.

Something that struck me about this is that the roomie's family may have also had reason/experience to think about life insurance; perhaps there's a family story about someone dying young? I thought of it from the perspective of being the executor of several wills. The survivors of families that have had experience with probate almost invariably end up setting up trusts - not because they're any smarter, but because they have gone through the ringer and now know better - and it feels like this might parallel it.

Except that it very much is. You can silence alerts for all the other non-essential stuff and leave on for the work/family things. You can also set up your phone such that you won't see the alerts come through if your phone is on silent. You have to want to do this of course. Me? I deal with people like this the same way: I stop what I'm saying or doing and either go to another room or wait. If they ask me to keep going, I say, "Clearly you have something far more important to deal with so I'll wait until I have your undivided attention."

And sometimes self-care means eating the junk food at 1 a.m. rather than using up valuable willpower resisting it every single moment of every single day.

Yes, there's that.

My daughters, ages 12 and 16, lost their father in July. We have just started receiving social security benefits. A brochure came in the mail that laid out the guidelines for the use of those benefits. It says that this money is to be used to make the children's lives more comfortable. It doesn't say when that should happen. In our case, as in the case of this mother, the money was needed when it was received. The roommate didn't need it until college. Every case is different; do what you need when you need it the most.

The OP is in very dangerous territory. I was once on the receiving end of such an action. The friendship did not recover as I could never trust that person again. If the OP does not realize the magnitude of this event, the sibling relationship will never recover. You deliberately hurt somebody close to you to make you feel better. Think long and hard about that and how you would feel if you were on the receiving end. Then ask forgiveness.

As a former young man/college student from a less-than-advantaged background, I would have embraced a brief hope that maybe, just maybe, there was a windfall of saved-up checks for me. And, the "it was crucial funds to help raise you" explanation would have set absolutely OK with me. So mom, your kid very very likely gets it and respects it. We all just dream of hitting the lottery once in a while.

What a great answer, thank you.

"The perfect is the enemy of the good." Maybe everyone else is familiar with this maxim, but I learned it recently and apply as needed.

It's a good one, thanks. I find it also helps to recognize that perfectionism is really anxiety about making mistakes, and that mistakes are inevitable, so proofread it and let it go.

But really it's the forced farewell of a deadline that saves me. 

Sometimes for me, self-care is the opposite of the standard yoga/healthy foods/etc. advice. When I'm struggling, I often find that what I'm really craving and need is a weekend where I just let the apartment get messy, order a couple pizzas, and watch Netflix and football for two days straight. Actually letting myself rest, without expectations, is very restorative for me.

Boom Chicka Pop to that. Thanks for the weekend plans!

A long time ago, you said, in looking at other people’s lives, and envying them, we had to remember we had to take the whole life, not just the part we saw, or coveted - or something like that. That’s always stuck with me, especially if I couple it with remembering that there is always something difficult I can’t see in someone else’s life. Other people’s lives often look easier, but they rarely are, once you have access to the whole picture -

Yes, I did say that, and I said it again recently. When, I have no idea, but in the past year? This next post says it really well and, bonus, I actually know where it is:

I am a lawyer and graduated with $150K in student loans at 10% interest. I drove a car that broke down weekly, and ate a hell of a lot of rice. Don't assume.

Ah, but you can write.

So you have that going for you, which is nice.

A small but important point. Why do you need to indicate that you assume LW's husband was under 40 when he died? People have children at a variety of ages, and many dads of toddlers are 40+. There's no need to bring age into your reply unless you are trying to exclude people.

Well that's a huge assumption.

No, not trying to exclude anyone, but instead merely to illustrate that new parents tend to be young and young people tend not to think about their deaths. It isn't all nefarious.

Seriously. Dogs live in the moment. Take your cue from your dog. Who, by the way, will be happier when he feels your zen.

I want that on a shirt.

Be your dog.

Okay, that's it for today. Thanks all, hope you're able to take advantage of the long weekend. See you here next Friday.

In This Chat
Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on washingtonpost.com. She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.

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