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Relationships My stepmother's insistence on sharing details of her stomach problems ruined our family holiday

The question

My sister, brother and I recently flew down without our kids to my parents' vacation place to celebrate our dad's 80th birthday. It was the first time were all together (without kids) in more than 20 years, and I was looking forward to it. Just one problem: my stepmother's kind of gross stomach problems (which I won't spell out here, in the interest of TMI). Not so much that she had a problem the entire time we were there, but that she never stopped talking about it, and speculating on its cause. We offered numerous suggestions for natural and pharmaceutical remedies, but she refused to try anything. In fact, she seemed to go out of her way to make it worse, eating lots of greasy takeout food. Her talking occasionally about her bowels is not new, but this was way over-the-top. She is otherwise an active, creative sixtysomething. I felt cheated out of a potentially good holiday with the rest of my family. I did say "TMI" once to her, to no avail. Should I chalk it up to a "crappy" holiday and leave it, or say something?

The answer

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Wow, that is TMI (too much information) even for me – and I'm the OG (original gangster) of TMI. I was TMI-ing people before it was even an acronym. On principle, I like to think – the principle being there was always TLI (too little information) in my world. I come from a WASP-y family and always wondered, for example, about the inner workings of my father's mind. What wheels whirred in that silvery dome of his? What kind of guy was he? What made him tick?

I even broke into his diary once, out of curiosity, but was disappointed. It was all comments like: "I had a hamburger for lunch today. It was delicious, if a trifle overcooked."

Then, at 14, I read Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, a book all about how lonely the (obviously autobiographical) protagonist was. The teenage Dave Eddie couldn't believe how honest Hesse was being. Heck, I was lonely, too, but you'd never get me to admit it. But here was some 50-year-old German guy throwing it all down in black and white for everyone to see.

It made me feel better, and, paradoxically, less alone. Turns out I wasn't the only person in the history of humanity who felt a certain way. Who knew? I vowed then and there 1) to become a writer, 2) to be the type of writer who turned himself inside out, laid everything bare, no matter how embarrassing, so people could say to themselves: "Ha-ha, poor Dave, but I can relate: I've felt that, too."

I pretty much say whatever I'm thinking. Especially to my wife. In her presence, I think aloud. It's like talking to myself. And she's the same way with me.

But even we generally stay away from the topic of the state of our bowels. I mean, there might be a little circumspect circumlocution, but unless there's some sort of medical circumstance, that's about it.

"Circumspect circumlocution" is what I'd urge on your stepmother, as well. It's okay to talk about bodily functions, I think, especially to your family. It just depends on how, and how much.

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And why, I guess. Wonder why she talks about it so much? Just to get attention? Or because it's the most important thing on her mind?

In any case, just saying "TMI" to her is not enough – it's too passive aggressive – and I don't think being judgmental about what she eats is a good look for you, either.

No, the high road here is, first of all, to urge her in no uncertain terms to see a doctor. Your over-the-counter and/or folk remedies may be helpful, but if there's something serious going on, you'll kick yourself for not pushing to get it checked.

If she won't seek help, and continues to keep up a flow about her intestinal percolations, I think you're within your rights to say something like: "Listen, you know I love you. And I'm concerned about you, especially if you're in any kind of distress. But honestly, if you're not even going to try to do anything about it, I don't think I can hear any more about the state of your bowels."

I suppose she could be hurt at that, and get huffy, sulky and pouty. But, ultimately, you're doing her a favour by sharing with her your feelings about her over-sharing.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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