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August 28, 2014 / 2 Elul, 5774
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Know Your Audience

     *It was Shavuot and Gloria was looking forward to a Yom Tov dinner with friends. Gloria was a well spouse whose husband was in care. She was very fortunate to live in a community where families usually included her in their Yom Tov meals. Tonight she was going to a particularly generous family who often invited single people, whether widowed, never married or well spouses with partners in care, for Yom Tov meals. And so it was no surprise to Gloria to be one of five other single women around the table. As a matter of fact, except for the hosts, there was only one other married couple in the group.  


    The evening was enjoyable. The learning around the table was insightful and informative.  Unfortunately, there were no learning classes for women taking place in this community and all too quickly the two men at the table had to leave for their respective shuls and all-night learning sessions.  It was at that point that the guest whose husband was leaving (let’s call her Leiba) began to wail, “I don’t know how I’ll get through the night. I’m not used to being alone. I will jump at every noise and shadow.” She went on and on, bemoaning her fate at being alone for one night.


   The single women in the room began to exchange glances. Not only was the excess of Leiba’s complaining difficult to hear, but − whom did she think she was complaining to? Most of these single women had spent every night alone for many years. The women found this excessive complaining not only bizarre, but also annoying and hurtful. Leiba and her husband offered to walk Gloria home. For the entire 10-minute walk, the only topic of conversation was Leiba’s discomfort at being alone for the night.


    Gloria wondered if her escorts realized why they were walking her home − home to the house that was empty of her husband every night. Didn’t they realize that having a husband in a care facility trumped being alone for a single night? Not only was it difficult for Gloria to find sympathy for Leiba, but she felt it was kind of inappropriate, as well. Didn’t Leiba realize that what she would endure for a single night was the lifestyle of all the other guests?  Being alone was simply how they lived, and the feelings Lieba was trying to cope with for one night was a constant for the other women. These feelings had not gotten easier for them over time.


     The next morning in shul, Gloria ran into Leiba. Now the conversation was what a terrible night Leiba had spent. How lonely she had been and how she hadn’t slept well.  Leiba never thought to ask Gloria how her night was. She just didn’t seem to realize the situation of the person she was speaking with. Perhaps she never saw her audience.


*  *  *  *  *


      As difficult as it was for Gloria and the other single women to hear Leiba bemoan her fate, it is important to remember that to Leiba, what she was going through was extremely difficult for her. Compared to Gloria’s situation, it may seem irrelevant and trivial. But Leiba is not Gloria and does not lead her life. In Leiba’s world, being alone for one night was traumatic and she legitimately had difficulty coping with it.  We cannot and should not compare adversities. One person’s hangnail may be, for him or her, as difficult to deal with as another person’s heart attack. It all depends on their experiences, coping strategies and strengths. Everyone we meet is coping with some challenge and deserving of our support.


     It does not change Gloria’s situation to empathize with Leiba. It is because Gloria is all too familiar with the emotions that Leiba is feeling, that she is the perfect person to give support and perhaps that is why Leiba chose to share her concerns, specifically with this group of women. Perhaps the lack of a sympathetic response, the lack of any response at all from these women was what caused Leiba to go on and on, looking for one.


     Gloria would, no doubt, have been more kind and supportive had Leiba found herself alone for a long period of time. But to Leiba, one night was a long period of time. As for Leiba, she needs to control her excess even when she doesn’t get the response she wants, and she needs to learn to see her audience.  In a group of married couples, her concerns might have found a more sympathetic reception. But expecting support for a drop of pain from people who are carrying buckets may be appropriate, but unrealistic.


     It is so important to look outside ourselves and realize the life circumstances of the people we are talking to. What we find difficult to deal with may be nothing compared to what the people we are complaining to are coping with. On the other hand, what is a minor situation to us may be very major to them.  Perhaps the best way to get the response we want is to know our audience and choose to react accordingly.


*Names have been changed.


You can reach me at annnovick@hotmail.com

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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.

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