Dear Margo: Moving Back Into Life

How can I make new friends without putting people off? Margo Howard’s advice

Moving Back Into Life

Dear Margo: I’m a 40-year-old man who in 2007 was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (more depression-based), OCD, anxiety disorder and agoraphobia. I began my career as a high-school teacher at the age of 22 and felt teaching was truly my life’s calling. I left my position in 1998. I realize now that the issues I was dealing with were what caused me to leave teaching. Since being diagnosed, I have gone through nine jobs — being fired or resigning from all of them. After two disastrous relationships, two suicide attempts and several years of therapy, my parents and I decided it would be best for me to move in with them and concentrate solely on my therapy and a return to a normal life.

My question is this: In the previous city in which I lived, my two closest friends knew the details of my life and truly were lifesavers. I am now in a new city and do not know anyone my age to associate with. I am working on ideas (in therapy) about how to meet new people. When I do meet someone new, the first questions are: Where do you live, and what do you do? How do I go about talking with someone about my life without exposing my condition? Please help me to let someone begin to know me without feeling they are simply seeing an out-of-work 40-year-old living with his parents. –Answer Challenged.

Dear Ans: In your situation, I would advocate for a minimalist approach. To the question “Where do you live?” I would simply say, “1114 Beachwood Avenue.” As to what you do, I think “a research project” would work nicely. If pushed, the subject of your research could be mental health, particularly bipolarity. Should one of the new acquaintances become a friend, then you can reveal more, without your difficulties being the first things they know about you. Do remember that these days your conditions are 1,000 times more common than they used to be and are therefore more familiar. For educated people, I don’t think there’s a stigma at all. –Margo, confidently

Last Words, Last Wishes

Dear Margo: My mother is 92 with developing dementia, and she’s in a nursing care “memory” ward being well taken care of. However, she is no doubt in the process of dying. She comes from a large family (12 siblings, three now deceased). They’re Greek and can be very stubborn — loving, but they have their opinions and you’d best listen to them. Mom wants to be cremated, and in fact, she prepaid years ago. And she doesn’t want a funeral.

I suspect the family will put up a fight. I will probably give in and have a memorial for her. Even though she really didn’t even want that, I can understand the family’s side. I don’t have the problem yet, but I want to be prepared. –K.K.

Dear K.: My mother had the same wishes as your mother, and people were mad at me for there being no funeral! I feel strongly that any person should have the last word about his or her last rites. And that is your response to people who argue with you: “Those were my mother’s wishes.” The little memorial service you have in mind sounds just right — because that will be for you and the family, without abrogating her wishes. I also think you are wise to make decisions about this issue now. –Margo, loyally

* * *

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via e-mail to Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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38 Responses so far.

  1. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: Try “the recession hit my family hard, but fortunately my parents and I have each other to depend upon when we need to. So, what are you going to order?”

    LW2: You do what YOU want, and what you think would epitomize your mother. My mother’s funeral was a low-key affair—we had a pot-luck wake at her house for family and friends, and it was nice. She was cremated after a long illness—so there was no viewing, just pictures set up throughout the last years of her life. For me, the highlight of the whole event was the food, the discussions, and the remembrance card I made that had quotes and specific events listed in a stream-of-consciousness fashion along with her birthdate and deathdate. I’m a graphic designer by trade, and it’s one of the simplest, coolest things I’ve ever created.

    • avatar Anais P says:

      Both comments to the LWs are very good supplements to Margo’s very good advice. Thanks for weighing in.

  2. avatar Carol David says:

    Re your answer to LW1: Sorry, but it’s simply not true that for educated people there’s “no stigma at all” about bipolarity. There may not be as much as there used to be, but there’s still plenty.

    For LW2: I think that the dying person absolutely has the right to decide what is done with their body, but funerals and memorials are for the living. Those who are left should do what they need to do in this area.

    • avatar Paul Smith says:

      Mental disorders are stigmas in most circumstances. Hell, even some physical disorders are stigmas.

  3. avatar K Coldiron says:

    To LW1, an important supplement: I AM SO SORRY. What an awful way to live, a sad string of events for you. I sincerely hope that you get better (or even *well*) soon.

    Margo has good advice.

  4. avatar Maggie Tenser says:

    I think a lot of people may disagree with me, but I fundamentally don’t understand the idea that a dead person should care about what happens to their body.  They are dead.  The funeral and accompanying events are for the comfort of the bereaved and should be conducted in a manner that is likely to be most comforting to the grieving people who are actually around to care about it. 

    I believe in an afterlife.  I don’t believe that I’m going to be looking down from heaven, fussing and wringing my hands because my relatives decided to bury me rather than, say, spread my ashes over the ocean or whatever. 

    • avatar Lila says:

      I agree with you that once dead, in reality no one knows or cares what is done with their body. BUT, many people have very specific and intense beliefs about it.

      For instance – I think it is patently ridiculous to worry about the condition of your corpse in preparation for Judgment Day, but there are those who obsess over, say, preserving amputated limbs for later burial with the rest of their bodies. And those believers would never accept cremation. If I knew and cared about such a person and was in charge of carrying out their wishes, I would do what they asked, no matter what I thought about it. Even though they are dead, to do otherwise is a betrayal of their trust.

    • avatar CanGal says:

      You’re absolutely right, and if it gives comfort to her daughter to follow her mother’s wishes, than that is exactly what she should do, without stress from the rest of the family. A daughter’s wishes are more important than than the rest of the family.

      • avatar Maggie Tenser says:

        Oh I completely agree. Sometimes, fulfilling a wish or preference would be the best thing for the bereaved. But I’ve known people who were terribly hurt because of the need to, say, cremate, rather than bury (or vice versa) and I couldn’t help but think, “If it hurts that much, you shouldn’t be doing it. Do what will soothe yourself and the other people who are mourning the loss.”

    • avatar butterfly55 says:

      I disagree but that is because I have requested the donation of my body for scienctific study.  This is my wish and I certainly hope it is followed.  There may be a gathering of friends and family for rememberance, I don’t intend to be there.

      • avatar Carol David says:

        In preparation for nursing school I took an anatomy class in which we dissected a cadaver. The body was treated so disrespectfully – out of nervousness, I’m sure, but still – that it convinced me not to donate my body for this purpose.

        • avatar butterfly55 says:

          To each his own, somehow burning the cadaver or putting fluid in it and painting it up for display don’t sound that great to me, getting some use out of it makes more sense.  As I said, since I’m not going to be there, not my problem.

  5. avatar D C says:

    The No Funeral thing — it’s fairly easy to get around that.  I think people that want no funeral either don’t want to be laid out in a casket for everyone to walk by and say, “Don’t she look natural”…  We didn’t really have a “funeral” for my mother.  We had a “celebration of her life”.  I didn’t even have her ashes back yet from the funeral home, and we had it at my home.  Took all the furniture out of the living room and brought in folding chairs (only expected about 15 people, but I think we had 40).  Anyway… I read something I had prepared – a little story hitting the high points of my mom’s birthplace, childhood, where she went to high school, got married, had kids, and what she cared about.  Then I lit a candle in a large bowl full of sand.  I invited anyone who wanted to say something to come up and light a candle and share a story or whatever.  And those who didn’t want to speak could then come up and just light a candle while music was played (CD).  The FUNNIEST thing about the whole deal was when my older brother, who had never been to anything but a traditional funeral, saw the big display bowl of sand with the candle’s nearby and asked me, very tentatively, “What’s that in the bowl?”  He seriously thought it was our mother’s ashes.  I still smile every time I think about that. 

    Funerals/Memorials may be ABOUT the deceased, but the are definitely FOR those left behind, and I think it’s really a bit selfish to expect that those who loved you and will miss you should be ordered to not do something that will make their grief a little more bearable.  By all means, tell the dying you won’t have a funeral.  And then go have a “Celebration” in their honor.  It’s semantics.

    • avatar Lila says:

      We did something like this for a relative who was heavily involved with the theater. He did not want a memorial service so we had a send-off party at the theater instead.

      • avatar CanGal says:

        something like these 2 examples would be totally in keeping with the spirit of a no funeral/memorial request. I think people who don’t want funerals just don’t want to think of their loved ones experiencing grief and a funeral or memorial just makes people stew in their grief. A celebration of their life is a positive thing.

  6. avatar amw says:

    LW1 may also want to consider find a support group for those with or whose family members suffer from mental illness. There won’t be a need to explain yourself. is a fantastic resource.

    As to the questions that arise when meeting new people, you can be honest without being too detailed. Say I live in _____ city on the _____ side of town. You don’t have to add “with my parents” to the answer. As to what you do, it isn’t uncommon for someone to be “between jobs”. I think that’s a sufficient answer.

    I suffer from severe anxiety and PTSD. While I’m open and honest about that, I certainly don’t include it in everyday conversation and quite frankly, its no one’s business. Many people don’t understand and therefore assume you are “crazy” if you take medication and/or go to therapy. I don’t think there’s any need to tell anyone other than someone you trust.

  7. avatar Lym BO says:

    LW1: The stigma thing certainly isn’t true. It’s alive and well. Maybe it’s better understood, but people will hesitate if they are aware of all your diagnoses. If you get to know someone well then reveal, it won’t be an issue because they’ll already know you and understand how effective treatment can be. I like Margo’s advice about saying that you live on a certain street or in a certain area. You can even mention you have have two roommates. As far as a job, you can mention you have been a teacher & are (or are not hoping) to get back into it. Always the best way to divert (and flatter) is to turn the conversation back to the person with whom you are conversing.

  8. avatar susan says:

    LW1: I agree totally with amw, nami is a life saver, reach out to them for advice and help.

  9. avatar MarysMom says:

    LW 1 – I agree with both amw and Lym Bo on this one.  Saying that you live in a particular part of town and that you are currently between jobs but you used to be a high school teacher will give enough information without having to get into to many details.  I have found at least in my personal experiance that if I meet someone and they are very hesitant to give out any information about themselfs my alarm bells go off.  This may be the happy medium you’re looking for and relieve that natural fear that most people have.  Who knows it may even open some oportunities for you if you are interested in getting back to teaching.  It sounds like you are on the road to recovery or as least being able manage your disorders and live a fairly normal life and I wish you the best of luck.  You are not broken just slightly brused and there are alot of people out there who will see that and love you for who you are. God Bless.

    LW 2 – Keep your mothers wishes, if she wants to be creamated there is a reason for it.  I also agree about funerals.  Funuerals are extreamly depressing.  I do not want people to get together and cry over my body because I am gone.  I would much rather have my friends and family get together have a great meal and a glass of wine and celibrate my life and the person I was.  I have been to several Life Celibrations in the last few years and although there were some tears (very understandably and I shed quite a few myself) it was also an occation to remember that person and what they ment to each individual there.  The most touching Life Celibration I went to was for a very dear friend of the family.  He was stricken with CP and a tramatic brain injury when he was a small child and was impaired as a result.  He is one of the most amazing souls I have ever met and without ever saying a word (he couldn’t speak) he taught me so many lessions about life and the human spirit.  During his Celibration his mother went around the room and gave everyone who wanted to the oportunity to tell a story about Jason and what he had tought them in his 21 years on this planet.  It was beautiful and touching and a great way to remember a loved one.  There were a lot of laughs and alot of tears but it was a great vibe and Jason would have loved it.

  10. avatar Miss Lee says:

    My father did not want us to have a funeral for him but we did.  My brother was in his first year of sobriety and was dealing with all the regrets of not having made amends and all the things left unsaid.  The funeral helped him process all of this and made it much easier for him to go forward.  I don’t think my father would have minded.  I have asked that I be cremated and my ashes scattered and no memorial of any kind but I know that if my brother is still around, he will do what he feels he needs to do.  I won’t mind.  I won’t be here and my survivors will. Let them do what they need to for so they can move on. I will already have.

  11. avatar D C says:

    I commented on this higher up, but reading the others made me think of my mother-in-law’s funeral.  She was the wife of a Baptist Pastor, so of course we had to have the big traditional funeral.  And let me say right here and now, I am not trying to offend anybody’s beliefs here, but I found her funeral to have been more of a painful thing than a good thing, BECAUSE all anybody talked about was JESUS.  Granted, Jesus was a big part of her life, but what I needed, was for them to talk about this wonderful, incredible, FABULOUS woman that had made such a huge difference in my life, who I loved so very much, and who was taken so suddenly and it tore our whole family to pieces.  It’s been 14 years next month, and every mothers day and on her birthday, her three sons (my husband especially) are just so depressed over losing her.  I think it would have been so much more healing for all of us, if just one person had talked about her, and not just that she loved Jesus. 

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      My extremely religious aunt assisted my mother with the process of being baptised shortly before her death. The picture I have of my mother coming up out of the water is one of my favorites—she has a big smile on her face, just before she burst into tears at the idea of the whole process, and her impending death. That said—my aunt insists that my mother is in Heaven, singing the praises of Jesus 24/7 in some sort of nonstop ecstasy. I know that if there’s a Heaven, my mother is having a cigarette and a Pepsi, while rubbing baby oil and iodine on her skin out in the sun. It really pisses my aunt off when I say this—but oh well.

      • avatar D C says:

        Had to read that one out loud to my boys here in the living room after laughing out loud about it.  My 15 year old asked me if Cigarettes were allowed in Heaven.  You may be on to something there — Ecstacy in Heaven.  It’s a non-stop RAVE!

  12. avatar A R says:

    LW1: Truthfully, and this will not make some folks happy, I have definite feelings about how I’d respond to meeting someone socially with all the complications the letter writer mentions.

    The bipolar diagnosis only mildly troubles me, although I would not willingly date someone who is bipolar if I knew it in advance. I am not the patient type, and I know this, so it would be a dealbreaker for me. That is good for both me to recognize in myself–same as those who don’t want kids and know it.

    I do however have two friends I go out with socially who are bipolar but quite functional when using their meds correctly. What would make me keep the contact with the letter writer limited to running into each other at social events would be the business about living with the parents and not working all these years. That’s a bit beyond what I’m willing to consider within the range of traits I like in friends–any friends. My bipolar friends work and live with either roomies or alone. It’s not easy, but they’ve made choices to arrive at that point in life.

    I only throw this likely unpopular opinion into the ring because I think it would be foolish for the LW to believe that those two aspects might not color some people’s thoughts and opinions.

    Yes, there are stigmas associated with mental illness. Those stigmas, or expectations, often arise from our previous experiences with mentally ill folks. When you’ve seen some outrageous stuff, you won’t usually sign up for more on a willing basis.

    • avatar Newlife2011 says:

      This is LW 1. I would be foolish to believe these issues would not color peoples’ ideas of me. That is why I wrote in to Margo. Many people have varying degrees of bipolar – from the mania to the depressive and how fast they cycle through. The mulitple jobs ended because of the crippling depression and anxiety. My meds obviously were not working correctly. The “choices” your friends have made to get to the point they are now is what I am doing to best improve my life. Check my most recent post. Working teaching college, great evaluations and on the right path. But people with your ideas of it all is what made me have questions. What it comes down is that you truly don’t understand the condition. Do more research as my true friends and family have done and you will learn a great deal. Most of us can fake it long enough to fool the majority of those around us. Thank you for your opinion though – you are the type of person I was writing in about.

      • avatar A R says:

        Correct, I am the type of person you wonder about. I do have concerns and hesitations about my interactions with certain illnesses and disorders. Would you rather know what people like me are really thinking or just guess at it?

        Would you prefer I don’t express concerns? You’ll notice I didn’t try to psychoanalyze you or judge the illness. I simply said, “Yes. This is real. There are stigmas and concerns. Here is what they would be for me.”

        You are correct that telling all your business would be unwise. But then, I don’t tell all my business either! Who would!!?! One should save their details until after some time.

        You’ve gotten very defensive about my opinion. If you don’t wish to have an open discussion, this is probably not the best forum. That’s what we do here. If you expect all replies to be rosy, all to agree it’s not a concern, all to agree that it won’t faze them, you won’t see that.

        Do you prefer honesty or agreement?

  13. avatar Jean B says:

    David Bolton has the perfect answer for LW #1. Really, it’s nobody’s business why you live with your parents.

    LW #2: My father also prepaid, also was cremated, also didn’t want a service…..then a few days before he died he told us that we could have a small memorial service “if we wanted to”. But his mind was still intact. Putting together and hosting a big affair is the last thing you are going to want to do at a time like that. A small family gathering would be good, sitting around sharing stories is the best way to remember a loved one, and it doesn’t qualify as a service so your mom’s wishes will have been kept. This was her decision and it is up to you to honor her wishes, no one else has anything to say about it.

    • avatar sueb1997 says:

      Not only is it no one’s business why you live with your parents, but who’s to say that your parents don’t live with YOU?  For the folks that don’t know you well, it could just as easily be the situation that you’re helping THEM out by offering a place to live.  Saying you live with your parents is not the same as saying you “STILL live with your parents” — big difference!

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      “Putting together and hosting a big affair is the last thing you are going to want to do at a time like that.”

      You hit that nail on the head exactly. Dying is complicated. Let me rephrase that—dying is COMPLICATED. And as if that weren’t enough, everyone wants of piece of the pie, from official notices, to bill collectors with their robotic responses of “i’m-so-sorry-for-your-loss” (which of course would now be outsourced and said with a medium-to-heavy accent), to funeral directors who try to play off my sense of guilt for not burying my mother in a diamond-studded vault. The reason why I wanted to cremate my mother, and why I want to be cremated myself is for someone to experience the “change” of it all when they hold me in their hands. And by change, I mean finality. When my mother’s ashes were handed to me in a small, square box—I realized suddenly that there was no going back. She would never again be in the form that she was. I think that realization has helped me greatly to let go of my mother—so now I don’t feel an obligation to hold on to anything, or visit a spot and put flowers on it. All of those rituals to me seem so tiny and small compared to the person my mother was—they just don’t come close to representing her. LW2 needs to do whatever the hell she feels like, and I hope she doesn’t let any of her family bully her. Funerals have a nasty tendency to bring out the worst in people—that’s why I’ve always loved the idea of celebrating someone with a party and wearing bright colors and playing fun music and having a couple of toasts in their honor.

  14. avatar Jean B says:

    We attended a “life celebration” just over a year ago. The “guest of honor” had actually requested that everyone wear jeans. That’s the kind of person he was, jeans/t-shirt/tennnis shoes, and he wanted everyone who attended to be comfortable like he always was. Well, most of us did, but pretty much everyone came straight from work and some of them couldn’t wear jeans to work. He would have been OK with that. He wanted music played from his favorite groups for everyone to enjoy. Listening to Meatloaf and Chicago hasn’t been the same for me since, but in a good way. I agree this type of service, or whatever you want to call it, is for the living but only to a certain point. To not honor the wishes of the deceased is to dishonor their memory. They may never know about it, but you will and for the rest of your life.

    I want to be cremated, don’t want anyone to make a huge fuss, and really don’t care what happens to my ashes. I sat down with my daughter and asked for her input before I make a final decision. We are still talking it over, she doesn’t want to think about it just yet, I’m taking it slow with her in the hopes everything is settled in time.

  15. avatar Newlife2011 says:

    This is LW1. I appreciate all of the comments – both positive and negative (and by the way until you have experienced the crippling depression of bipolar and anxiety so bad you can’t even move you truly don’t “understand” the condition.  But anyway – I just wanted to update since I sent this message. With my therapy and new meds, things are improving at an incredible rate. I still have ocassional issues (as we all do) but life is headed in the right direction for me. I am back to work in the field I knew was my calling – I am now teaching in a local college and loving it. My parents, my therapist, psychiatrist and I are all working on my future goals and plans – including eventually being back on my own in my own place. Thank you Margo. I truly appreciate you.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      Awesome. Glad to hear things are working out for you.

    • avatar Carol David says:

      This is wonderful to hear!

    • avatar EsteeTee says:

      Way to go, Newlife2011!  I’m in a situation similar to yours, but I have PTSD and depression, but I’m also out of work.  I have no idea what to tell people now (no one knows I’m having trouble), but I’m also really worried about what to say when I return to work. 

      I’ve been out of work for about 5 years now.  I met w/ a job counselor, and he suggested a vocational program, but I feel that I can do better than that (I have a college degree).  Not to sound like a snob, but I worked too hard before I got sick. 

      When I meet people who ask about my work, I do lie and tell them I work in the job I had before I became unable to work.  My title was vague enough that I rarely get questions.  I don’t feel bad that I lie or feel dishonest about it, because to me, it’s just getting the conversation rolling. 

      In the past, when I’ve said I work (when I don’t), I didn’t really feel that I was telling a lie.  Most of the time, people ask this to get a better idea of who you are and to keep the conversation rolling.  Saying that I work and giving an idea of the kind of work I do accomplishes both.  I’m not trying to deceive them or take something from them when I tell people I work. 

  16. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #2: Your mother’s wishes must prevail. Simply tell them “I’m lovingly carrying out HER request.” It’s her decision, not theirs. If they can’t understand that, well? Tough.

  17. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: Unfortunately the stigma does persist (too much). I’d be sparing in the details. Perhaps you could simply say “I have medical (or health) issues.” That’s the truth. If people are open and willing to accept you, they will NOT be intrusive. Curiosity is natural, intrusiveness is not. Best of luck to you; take each person and day as they come. 🙂

  18. avatar darlean washington says:

    One of the best things I have learned from a friend is the sentence “This isn’t about you.” I suggest that LW#2 consider using it as well. When people have tried to push their will onto a situation this sentence has said it all for me many times.

    I like Margo’s suggestion as well, because when you just continue to say “This was my mother’s last wish” you can follow it up with “are you suggesting that we against her wishes to please you?”

    Good luck.

  19. avatar Kathy says:

    LW1- I think Margo’s well-intended advice is off base, here.  I would never suggest someone tell a lie when meeting others.  He is not working on a research project, so that’s a lie.  And if he has the good fortune of actually creating a friendship with one of these fleeting acquaintances, it’s likely to sour when that person learns of the underlying dishonesty.  We have to remember that we don’t owe anybody more information than we are comfortable providing.  If somebody asks, “where do you live?” just say, “about a mile west of here” or “downtown” or whatever.  As to what you do … “I’m transitioning right now.”  In this economy, I’ve heard that a LOT.  Nobody will think anything of it.