Monday, November 19, 2007


I couldn’t help but hear the conversation on the next couch in the waiting room. The man had just gone off, rather cheerily, to the phlebotomist’s office to have blood drawn. His wife stayed behind to talk with a couple of friends they ran into there. Her tone was a bit desperate, pleading, disbelieving. It was all about the patient.

“He looks like he’s lost weight, but otherwise, he looks pretty good,” one of the friends commented.

“He looks thinner, but his weight is the same. He doesn’t sleep. He says he doesn’t sleep all night.”

“When that happens to me, I eventually doze off,” said Friend. “Is he in pain?”

“Yes, and they can’t tell us the source. The doctor says things are the same, but they can’t say where it is, why he’s in pain.”

“He says he’s full of anxiety,” Wife continued, “and the thoughts wake him at night and he can’t get back to sleep. Then he spends the whole day in bed. He doesn’t get dressed. He’s showered once in three weeks. He doesn’t come downstairs except to eat. He only goes out to come to these appointments. When we’re out, he comments how good the fresh air feels. I encourage him to go out and take walks other times, but he just stays in bed.”

“It sounds like he’s depressed,” said Friend.

“Yes.” Wife was certainly willing to accept the diagnosis, but she wasn’t finished rattling off her catalog of complaints. She didn’t know what to make of him, so she repeated his transgressions, louder and louder, maybe in hopes of scaring off the offending signs of anxiety and depression.

I can certainly relate to that patient’s feelings. I’ve been there. In fact, I never know when the anxiety is going to overtake and kick the wind out of me. I can relate to his wife’s reaction too. I’ve endured no end of criticism from the Wife who sits inside my head suggesting I exercise, seek out more client work, organize and finish my own paperwork, just do something. But it’s not that easy. There’s always the monster waiting around the corner, and he’s not at all shy about taking over my mood.

I wonder sometimes if it’s easier going through a life-threatening event like cancer alone, or with someone else close by. I can certainly see the downside of being by myself, and I’m very grateful for the many people who have reached out to me with kindness and made themselves available.

On the other hand, I’ve seen too many partners lash out at each other. Both sick and non-sick feel helpless. One or the other nags, and one or the other runs away. It’s a very sad and complex problem with a lot of wrong answers. The more people there are involved in the core of the situation, the more expectations get in the way, and the more opportunities exist for things to go bad.

The right answer is that there is no right answer. It's just a matter of facing this thing day by day, and trying not to hurt too many people in the process.


Tamar E. Granor said...

Having been through dealing with a spouse's illness, I suspect the wife was taking advantage of having someone to talk to who would understand. My guess is that she hides a lot of this from her husband, trying not to pull him down any further, and just needed the outlet.

Ceil said...

I'm sure you're right. I wasn't intending to be critical, just observing that there are at least two sides to this very complex interaction.

No matter how loving and supportive the non-sick partner is, there is still their own anxiety to deal with, and anxiety has few rules about how and when it appears.

The real point of my observations is that it doesn't go away, even through non-expression. When you experience a partner's secondhand anxiety while ignoring your own, it eventually backfires in more-or-less ugly ways. This conversation was a fairly innoccuous example of that.

For my part, I have only my own anxiety to deal with. I've been free to indulge it or not as the mood strikes me, although the payment for that is a lack of physical comfort that comes from a very close relationship.