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May 4, 2015 / 15 Iyar, 5775
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Understanding And Empathizing With Challenging Behavior

(Names and situation changed as requested)


 


         Rona came to town to visit family and friends. She looked forward to reconnecting after years of living so far away. She had made sure her chronically ill spouse was well cared for at home while she had a much-needed break from care giving. She had already called her aunt Leona and asked her to join her and some other family members for lunch. Leona had been busy that day. Rona thought Leona sounded distant and wondered if she was well. After a day with old friends and family, Rona called her aunt Leona again, hoping to connect. The conversation went something like this.

 

         “Hi. It’s Rona. How are you?”

 

         The response sounded cold and angry as Rona’s aunt said loudly, “Fine! How are you?”

 

         “Fine,” said Rona. “We missed you at lunch. I’d like to know what your plans are for tomorrow. Can we get together?”

 

         The response was short, but not at all sweet. “I’m busy”

 

         Undeterred, Rona asked, “What about the rest of the week?”

 

         “I’m busy,” was the curt reply.

 

         “Does this mean that I won’t see you while I’m here?” Rona asked, trying to keep her voice calm and even. “I’m busy.” was the only response.

 

         Rona tried a reconciliatory approach. “Have I done something to offend you?” asked Rona while desperately trying to remember if she had done something to make her aunt angry.

 

         “No. Have a good time while you’re here. Good bye!”

 

         Rona had no idea if or what she might have done to make her aunt so angry. But she became angry and upset herself. Her aunt wasn’t giving her a chance to make amends. She wasn’t even telling her what she was angry about. How was she supposed to deal with this?

 

         When Rona told me what had happened, I asked her to tell me more about Aunt Leona. What were her circumstances? How did she spend her time, etc?

 

         It seems that Aunt Leona had a boyfriend when she was young. They were very much in love and had gotten engaged just before he went off to war. Unfortunately, he was one of the young men who never returned. Some time later, Leona met and married Joseph. The marriage seemed o.k. But it was flawed by the fact that Leona couldn’t get pregnant. Leona loved children and doted on her niece and nephew. She was at their house constantly, helping to raise them.

 

         During this time someone suggested adoption and helped Leona find a baby needing a loving home. But in those days, adoption wasn’t seen in the positive light of today. It was shrouded with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Adoption was a big secret and no one was told, not even the adopted child. And so it only took a few negative, shocked responses to the news of the planned adoption to make Leona second-guess herself. She decided not to go through with it.

 

         Having a lot of time on her hands, Leona spent a lot of it helping her sister who had little spare time. Leona babysat her niece and nephew while her sister worked. She helped by cleaning the house and cooking the meals as well. This kept her so busy that she didn’t find time to vacation with her husband or go with him on business trips. Her helping seemed to give her purpose. Over time, even though the children were grown, Leona still spent her days at her sister’s house, cooking and cleaning.

 

         Babysitting gave way to house sitting and dog watching and Leona’s days became consumed with a life of helping her sister. When Leona’s sister and her husband retired, Leona continued to watch the house and dogs when they vacationed. It had become her routine, her life and purpose. She refused to go out to lunch or shop with her sister, because she had household chores to do, even if it was for her sister’s house.

 

         But when Leona’s husband died, she said that the wrong one had gone. He loved life, after all and she, she said, never had one. And so today, Leona gets up very early and still takes buses and a train to her sister’s house. There she cares for her sister’s things while her sister lives life. That is Leona’s life and purpose.

 

         Rona may never know what she did, if anything, to offend her aunt, She will never know, unless her aunt chooses to tell her, why she is being kept at arms length. Perhaps her aunt is not well and doesn’t want her niece to see her. Perhaps having all this time to dwell on the evils of her life, Leona has taken a not-ill-intended word or deed and thought it into one. People who have too much time on their hands often put words and deeds under a microscope and analyze and rehash their meaning until it resembles nothing of its original meaning.

 

         But Rona does not have the power to deal with any of this. All Rona can do is keep trying to make contact despite being pushed away. All she can do is try to fill up the emptiness that is probably causing the behavior by responding to the ill tone with a loving one and the rejection with a continued desire to connect.

 

         Many of us have “Aunt Leona” clones in our family. They make life a little more challenging. They are the people you simply don’t want to call. And every time you do call you just get criticized. But they are probably the people that need that phone call the most, and crave the connection they continue to reject. We cannot change their lives, and cannot make them do or say things differently. Despite the difficulty, we can simply try to make them feel a bit more cared about.

 

         You can reach me at  annnovick@hotmail.com 

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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/understanding-and-empathizing-with-challenging-behavior/2007/09/05/

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