Ask Helen: Let Backsliding Friends Know You Care

Dear Helen:
I had lunch last week with someone I’ve known professionally for 15 years and seen through a divorce, substance abuse, car accidents (related to drinking) and other traumas. He’s done the same for me, but I have never abused anything except caffeine. We’re friends in a professional way, and he has absolutely made me look good at work, so I value him. At lunch he had three glasses of wine, flirted egregiously with the waitresses, and was generally too loud and bright-eyed. I’m worried about him but don’t know if I should say something or not.

Dear Concerned:
This is a conversation better had on the phone than by email, voicemail or in person. Why? Leave no evidence for anyone else to read or hear, and don’t get entangled in a sticky web of effusive denial. Your goal is to let him know how he’s acting, how others see him and that you care.

Leave a bland message saying you need five minutes of phone follow-up from your meeting last week. Ask, when is a good time to talk? Call back until you connect. Start with: “We’ve known each other a long time through thick and thin.” The middle is: “I’m worried about you because last week at lunch I saw symptoms that I saw during the bad period before you got clean. You were too loud and bright-eyed. I’m worried you’re headed for a slide. Also, that you’re more transparent than you may think you are. If I’m noticing, other people probably are too.” End with: “I care about you. Please dial back and get help.”
Then listen to what’ll likely be profuse denials. No matter what he says, reply with persistent platitudes and support. You’re not going to save him from himself if he’s careening off the rails. But if there’s a chance to stop his slide, you’ll have done your part to alert and rescue him.

Dear Helen:
I came to work last Saturday to pick up my forgotten umbrella and accidentally saw my bosses having sex in the male boss’s office. I’m sure they weren’t expecting anyone to show up on a weekend, and the door was ajar. They’re a married couple, so that’s not scandalous, but I feel mega-weird around them and awkward in his office. I heard them laughing when I turned and fled the doorway. Am I being a prude or is this bad behavior?
—Prude or Private

Dear Prude or Private:
Their laughter implies a level of self-confidence in both their bossdom and sexuality that many people do not possess. Married is definitely better than an incipient office scandal. I assume they weren’t putting on a show, just taking break on a working weekend and not expecting company. Note: An “ajar” door to someone else’s office is not a likely place to pick up your umbrella, so I’m not quite sure why you witnessed anything. But sex is private and not a spectator sport. I’ll assume you gave a stumbling apology, blushed profusely, shut the door and went home with your umbrella.
How to act now? Think about your cat. Or golf. Or a looming expensive home repair. Keep thinking about other irrelevant things every time you think of them having sex until you stop blushing and are able to talk to them normally about an inventory memo, financial statements or even ordering toner for the copier. Also, no matter how much you protest your embarrassment, human nature is such that you’ll be tempted to blab. Under no circumstances should you discuss this with any of your coworkers. Ever. Or anyone who knows anyone who knows your coworkers. A secret that volatile will not stay a secret. And if anyone gets hurt by the indiscretion, the safe money’s on you. Yes, they’re guilty of impaired judgment for not having closed the office door. And yes, you may be a prude. But as functional adults, you should also be able to transcend the lapse and continue to work there. If not, start working on your resume.

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