Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tell Me About It: Tell those nosy people 'That's private'

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: I volunteer in suicide prevention. I love the work and it's deeply meaningful for me. But when people ask me why I'm so passionate about it, I'm not sure how to answer.

The truth? A bipolar depressive episode spiraled downward into a hellish year that included a psych hospitalization and an impressively researched suicide plan. I didn't get the help I needed, but now I can help other people who are in the same pain I was in.

But that seems like an awful lot of information to hand to my coworkers or my boyfriend's friends. "I just really enjoy it" seems creepy and morbid, and part of me is ashamed of myself for not speaking up when I know the stigma of mental illness can make it so hard to treat.

On the other hand, I really don't need the mean guy two cubes down announcing that I must be having a bipolar moment every time I forget to turn off the office coffeemaker. So - any ideas?

Answer: "I nearly lost someone I love." True, right? And concise, and sympathetic. When someone nosy asks who it is: "That's private."

All causes are populated by people who have had a brush with whatever the cause is trying to prevent. None of these people is obligated to explain more of that connection than is comfortable for them - stigma or no.

Thanks for doing the work you do.

Question: Over the last few years, I have developed an interest in genealogy and putting together a detailed family tree for future generations. Everybody in my family seems to appreciate this, except my nephew's new wife.

I wanted basic information on her parents and her birth. She gave me her information, but for her stepfather and mother. I asked for her biological father's information a few times, but she would give me a neutral answer or my nephew would say, "We already gave you what we have."

I decided just to look the information up myself, and it turns out her biological father is serving many life sentences for a violent crime.

She is a lovely girl, my nephew is very happy, and her mother and stepfather have been nothing but kind to our entire family. But now that I hold this information, I don't know what to do with it.

Do I owe it to our family (and future generations) to have the truth? Or do I owe it to my nephew to keep this under wraps, since it is clearly what he wanted? My husband thinks it was inappropriate of me to even look this up in the first place and refuses to talk about it.

Answer: You pressed "a few times" for information you knew this poor woman didn't want to give you!? I'm with your husband. Wow.

This information dies with you, out of belated courtesy for your nephew's wife. "Future generations" don't need to know, unless they want to, in which case they can take the initiative to dig for themselves into the same public sources you did.

In the time you spend not telling anyone about this, consider asking yourself whether you're as inconsiderate of clear boundaries in other areas of your life.

 


E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

Carolyn Hax
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