Dear John: Nosy Coworker Smells Booze

This week Dear John addresses a boozy colleague, a socially aggressive wife, and meds for chronic depression.

This article originally appeared at

Dear John,

I suspect a co-worker might have a drinking problem. I don’t have any definitive evidence, but a LOT of little signs: she sometimes smells of alcohol first thing in the morning; she seems a little out of it occasionally; etc. We work in a small business where everyone has to be at their best just for us to stay afloat. I don’t know if I should talk to this woman, talk to our boss (the owner of the company), and I’ve even considered looking in her desk for a bottle. What would you do?

The Accountant

Dear Accountant,

Whoa! Slow down. You didn’t elaborate on what you mean by “a LOT of little signs,” but based on what you’ve written here, I think you should stick to balancing the books. An alcohol smell could be nothing more than mouthwash; “seeming a little out of it” could be simple tiredness. Barring much more compelling evidence—falling asleep at her desk, for example—your little signs don’t add up to a reason to undermine someone’s job security.

If this woman’s performance is not up to par, whether because of substance abuse or mere incompetence, then her boss is presumably aware of it and can take appropriate steps. Otherwise, mind your own business. Looking in her desk for a bottle—are you serious?!? You need to spend less time being a busybody and more time being a busy employee.

Dear John,

My wife often puts me in a difficult position. In certain situations, like with a waiter in a restaurant or with a salesperson in a store, she has kind of a volatile temper, and she will begin arguing and expect me to back her up even though I think she is the one being unreasonable. I’ve tried just staying out of it, but I feel kind of dumb just standing there, and then afterwards she will berate me for not taking her side. While it’s happening, I’m just mortified, and really can’t picture myself joining in to gang up on some service person. It makes going anywhere with her very tense for me. I’d like your thoughts.

Innocent Bystander

Dear Bystander,

I understand that your wife’s tirades put you in a difficult spot, but try to separate her complaint from the way she handles it. You say that, “she is the one being unreasonable,” but that’s just your opinion. She may have higher standards or less flexible expectations than you do. There’s nothing wrong with that. But that does not make it okay to lose her temper and make a scene, and her approach doesn’t seem likely to end in a satisfactory resolution to her problem anyway.

When you think she will be receptive, bring this up with her. Tell her you really want to support her in these situations, but it’s hard to do that when they quickly degenerate into arguments. Propose that if she can remain calm and reasonably polite the next time this happens, you will be right there to back her up and make sure she doesn’t have to settle for something she is not happy with. She should be able to count on you to take her side, and you should be able to count on her to present her side like a mature adult.

Dear John,

I have been dating a wonderful guy for almost six months now. He has made so many compromises for me and has shown me how much he cares on multiple occasions. Everything is fine and dandy in lovey dovey land – that is, when he’s not depressed. I am dating someone who suffers from chronic depression (he was diagnosed with it in high school). He’ll randomly get into these moods where he completely shuts down. He won’t engage me in conversation, no matter how hard I try. He can’t fall asleep. And when I look into his eyes, I can tell that he’s far far away. He doesn’t take medication anymore. He said he didn’t like what he became when he was on anti-depressants, so he’d rather just push through the bouts of depression as they come. They only last two or three days, sometimes four. But every time it happens, I get afraid. I’m afraid that he won’t come back from wherever his mind goes. I’ve asked him so many times before if there was anything I could do to make him feel better, but he always says nothing, just wait. I get so worried. Is there anything I can do to make him feel better? Is there anything I can do to make myself worry less? I just have so much trouble trusting that he’ll be okay eventually.

Anxious Ally

Dear Ally,

Your boyfriend is lucky to have someone so understanding in his life. But it is his life, and he has to take responsibility for it. I find it extremely troubling that he has simply decided to stop taking his medication. I spoke with a friend who is a licensed clinical psychologist and a clinical assistant professor at Brown’s medical school, and she said if his medication was not producing a satisfactory result for him, he should talk with his doctor about trying something else. There are a variety of drugs today to treat depression, and sometime it takes some trial and error to find the best regimen.

Talk to your boyfriend about this. Offer to go with him to visit his doctor or help him find another one. If he is completely unwilling to even consider medication, I’m afraid your worry is entirely justifiable. Your boyfriend has a grave illness, but it’s a treatable one. He must make the effort to do so—in fact, I think it’s entirely reasonable to make it a condition for continuing your relationship with him.

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Photo credit: Flickr / scragz

About John Simpson,

John is a middle-aged family man from Providence. If you learn from your mistakes, he’s brilliant. His column runs regularly on


  1. “Your boyfriend has a grave illness, but it’s a treatable one. He must make the effort to do so—in fact, I think it’s entirely reasonable to make it a condition for continuing your relationship with him.”

    I don’t think it is reasonable. I get depressed regularly. In fact I am quite depressed right now and I won’t ever take medication. I wouldn’t trust any woman who issued me this type of ultimatum. It will badly damage your relationship.

    Exercise is as effective as medication and had has positive side benefits. I recommend they exercise regularly together.

  2. I sympathize with the boyfriend who doesn’t want to take psych meds. They are mood altering—that’s their job—and it makes a person feel “not themselves.” Sometimes that’s preferred. But it’s a matter of personal freedom on such a subjective level, that I would not pressure anyone to take drugs.

    Talk therapy can help him and also the girlfriend who asked for help, to set boundaries so she doesn’t have to feel crazy out of control when her boyfriend is depressed.

    • I’ll have to second this. I’ve never needed medication personally, but the notion of pharmaceuticals messing with core parts of your world and experience is something I’d find profoundly creepy. While I appreciate they can help some people deal with severe issues, as long as he isn’t a danger to himself when depressed (and by the sound of things, all he does is brood) then I don’t see why forcing him to adopt a solution he’s not comfortable with is a good idea.

      Are there ways he can mitigate the depression a bit with lifestyle factors (exercise, diet, etc)? It probably won’t be as “effective” as drugs, but it may be a lot more palatable for him.


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