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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: My life is so messed up. I don't know what to do. A little more than a year ago, my husband decided he didn't trust me with HIS money, so he opened his own account. I told him he could pay the bills and keep track of the checking account, but he refused, saying he wanted his own.

Abby, I have a good job. It's not the greatest, but it allows me to pay my bills. When I needed a new car, I got a second job to pay for it. I also needed money to smooth over the bad relationship between our daughter and her father. I gave her things I really couldn't afford, but felt I owed her something.

Our daughter needed a car to get to work, but her father wouldn't agree to help her finance one. She asked me to co-sign on a loan, and I made the biggest mistake of my life when I agreed. A few weeks after she got the car, she lost her job. I didn't realize that the car payment was being automatically withdrawn from my account, but I don't always check my bank statement. I was horrified when I saw there was a big shortage -- she had not deposited enough money to cover the payment. She told me she had, but that was a lie. She also lied to me about money several times after that.

I asked my husband for help with the account, but he refused and asked our daughter to move out. That meant she had to pay rent and utilities, so there was no way she could make up the back payments.

Abby, I am so far behind on my bills I don't know what to do. I tried to get a loan to consolidate my bills, but I don't have sufficient collateral. I have canceled all my credit cards, but how do I live with so much debt taking every cent, leaving me no money to buy groceries or anything else? I'm desperate. Sign me ... MAXED OUT AND CONFUSED

DEAR MAXED OUT: Get thee to a credit counselor posthaste. The counselor can act as a buffer between you and your creditors to arrange more manageable payments than your current agreements specify. The counselor can also teach you to use credit wisely. Look in your telephone directory under the heading "credit counselors."

Damaged credit isn't the end of the world. If you regard this as a lesson in life, you'll get through it with your sanity intact. Just be patient and diligent about sticking to a budget.

P.S. Insist that your daughter attend credit counseling with you.

DEAR ABBY: A year ago, my husband and I moved his 76-year-old mother into a very lovely retirement home because all her friends had abandoned her, she was seeing far too many doctors, and her daughters had given up on her because of her negative "poor me" attitude.

My husband and I see her at least once a week and her daughters call her every Sunday. The place where she now lives is expensive, but well worth it. She has met many new, wonderful people. So what's the problem? Her downbeat, negative attitude has resurfaced, and we're beginning to understand why people walked away from her before.

She calls me daily to give me detailed information about all her bodily functions. I dread her calls. I work hard to be an "up" person and have tried to be a supportive daughter-in-law because I know she's in pain. She is bringing my husband and me down with her. I have talked to her about the rewards of a positive attitude -- but the odd thing is, she seems to think she has one. Please help, Abby. What can we do? -- AT MY WIT'S END

DEAR WIT'S END: When people are sick and in pain, lose the friendships that have formed their "support system," and then are taken from familiar surroundings, it's not unusual for their focus to narrow and their aches and pains to magnify. As much as you'd like to, you may not be able to resolve this alone.

Waste no time in telling your mother-in-law's doctor about her mental state. She may need counseling, more stimulation or even medication to put her in a more positive frame of mind.

For Abby's favorite family recipes, send a long, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Cookbooklet No. 1, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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