When we are exhausted but must continue doing whatever it is that needs to be done, we can usually rely on a jolt of caffeine to keep us on task. Whether we are driving to a destination, completing an assignment or cleaning the kitchen after a simcha or yom tov and our eyes are closing and sleep is calling, that cup of coffee or sip of an extremely caffeinated “energy drink” will help us continue on. It gives us that extra push that lets us continue the task. It often even makes us feel good about doing what we need to do. Similarly, there is an emotional caffeine surge. When we feel that we can not do one more transfer, cannot help with one more bath, cannot feed our spouse one more morsel, a simple “thank you” and a bit of empathy can help us find the new energy we need to go on.
As I meet and speak with well spouses from various locations, that is what seems to be the recurring “glue” that keeps well spouses going. The more the ill spouse can appreciate and acknowledge the difficult life of the partner, the more s/he can empathize with what her/his well partner is going through; and by understanding their partners, pain the more the well spouse seems to be able to give − in the care giving situation − and give with more humanity and less resentment. On the other side, the less a spouse can see that their partner is having a difficult time of it, the less they show and verbalize their appreciation for the care they are receiving at the hand of their spouse, the greater may be the well spouses’ resentment.
Acknowledging the sacrifice made by well spouses, and showing gratitude for the care received at their hands, takes nothing away from the ill spouses. It does not make their life less difficult or their illness less painful. It just makes them appear more generous and loving to their partners and allows their well spouses, in turn, to acknowledge how difficult life is for them, as well. It is the caffeine to one’s exhausted emotions. It not only keeps us going, but also puts us in a better frame of mind. But when spouses cannot or choose not to do this, it creates fertile soil for the growth of resentment and anger and everyone loses.
Barbara told me that when she finally confided to her doctor about her ever-growing thoughts of suicide, as her life as a well spouse became increasingly unbearable, she was put on antidepressants. Reluctant to even take an aspirin for a headache, Barbara felt the need to discuss her conflict about being on medication with her husband. Barbara was very careful not to make her husband feel badly for what was going on in her life. After all, his illness and the life that resulted because of it was not his fault. She chose her words carefully. But her husband’s only response to her dilemma was, “Yeah, well, so sometimes I think about killing myself too.”
Barbara felt as if he had slapped her. She felt that all her feelings, her very being had just been pushed out of the way in order for her husband to keep himself center stage. The pain and anxiety she was going through, the conflict of drugging herself in order to stay alive and not inflict harm on herself and just to get through the day, wasn’t even acknowledged, much less discussed. Barbara told me that the hurt was so great; she just had to get away from him, immediately. If he had just said anything that acknowledged what she was going through − even simply saying, “I hope you start to feel better,” it would have made all the difference. A few words of empathy, an acknowledgement of her plight would have worked better than any pill.
Barbara left the house and started to walk aimlessly around the neighborhood shopping center. She did not know what to do. She felt vulnerable and alone. As luck would have it, she ran into her closest friend, and seeing her upset state of mind the friend took her in for a cup of coffee. With that simple act of caring, just seeing that she was in need and caring enough to pay some attention to her by offering a cup of coffee, Barbara could feel herself calming.
But when she told her friend what had happened and recalled the interchange with her husband, her friend told her she was being ridiculous. “What do you expect from someone who’s sick? You’re crazy to even look for support from him. He needs to be involved with himself now.” Barbara wondered where the support had gone as her emotional meter began once again to plummet and suicide looked like the only way to release the pain.
Words are powerful. They can sometimes literally be the difference between life and death. Simply acknowledging that someone is hurting, simply reinforcing that life is hard for them and that you care may be the jolt they need to continue − even if only for a while.
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