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Acknowledgement And Empathy; The Caffeine Of Emotions

(Names changed)


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.


You can contact me at annnovick@hotmail.com.

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More Articles from Ann Novick

When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

I’ve read your last few articles on psycho-neurological testing (Oct.8-22) with interest. As a therapist who has counseled couples dealing with chronic illness, I’d like to give you another perspective.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

Very often when we can’t face our big hurts or big loses we focus on the little ones. We can discuss those. We can cry over the small loses, be angry at the smaller hurts even though it may look trite and sound ridiculous to others.

Over the last two weeks we have been discussing one way in which well spouses can determine whether behavior displayed by their ill partners is caused by their illness or is a way they have chosen to act. We have focused on Psycho-Neurological testing, what it can tell us, as well as its pros and cons.

Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/acknowledgement-and-empathy-the-caffeine-of-emotions/2008/11/26/

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