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Carolyn Hax: How to relax when away from disabled family?

Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: I have a very high-stress job and a disabled husband and mother.

I also have a friend who makes fun of my cellphone use whenever we are together. Yes, I do check my phones every 10 minutes, but I’m always worried somebody might need me.

Also, whenever I show her pictures, she says she’s not interested and keeps telling me to “put the phone away and live in reality.”

I can’t relax if I don’t have my phones on me. Her lifestyle is very laid-back, so she doesn’t understand the pressure I’m under. This friend is very helpful to me and I don’t want to lose her. Any suggestions? – Can’t Hang Up

I won’t endorse the virtue-bullying. Your friend has made her point, and her only decent option now is to decide what she’ll put up with, and then hold that line. The harping “whenever we are together” is just obnoxious.

All of which I will cover if she ever writes to me.

In the meantime, for you: Your phone-checking is rude. And your friend is right about living “in reality” – not in spite of, because of your high-stress responsibilities.

Don’t tune out the message just because the messenger crossed a line. Like I’m doing with this unsolicited advice.

You will not remain a good employee or caregiver if you burn out, and you will burn out if the only mental freedom you allow yourself is in 10-minute increments. Can you even feel freedom when you’re measuring it with the sweep of a second hand, for constant fear of calamity?

I don’t have to know you to be certain your standard of 100% accessibility is unsustainable.

We need rest. All of us. We think better with it, we problem-solve better, we perform better; we care more deeply with it, we connect better, we feel better about ourselves.

You have significant responsibilities, I won’t minimize that, nor will I discount the comfort you take in feeling prepared to meet them.

I am simply, urgently suggesting that you write a new, more carefully thought-out definition of “prepared.”

Choose your times, for example, when you have to be available – when the difference between being inaccessible for 10 minutes or 60 minutes is life or death, employed or fired, 911 won’t suffice. That stark.

In those times, yes, be grateful for your phone(s). Though at least program them to chirp at you in special tones for work and family so you never have to “check.”

Then, outside those times, create space for rest. Have a system for other people to cover you during these … workouts, walks, lunches with friends? … and give yourself over completely. Shut. off. your. phooone.

And employ some sources of perspective: 1) The earth has had homo sapiens for over 300,000 years; smartphones, not even 30. You can do this. 2) You’re vincible, like anyone else. So treat these restorative personal blackouts as trial runs for a day when you can’t be beckoned or called. 3) Keep your favorite version of the adage, “Graveyards are filled with indispensable men,” as handy as you can without depressing yourself.

With your friend: Decide how long you can have your phone off; tell her so; say you’re through – and be through – discussing it with her.

Email Carolyn at

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