Friday, December 3, 2010

A WRENCH IN THE MACHINE

Are caregiver issues becoming more prominent, or am I just getting more sensitive to them?

The connection between sick people and their caregivers is as complex and unique as any relationship, and believe me, there are some strange ones around. Think of a coupleship, for example, that makes your jaw drop. You’ve asked yourself what these people get from one another, or how they can stand to live together. Like me, you eventually concluded that people scratch where they itch, and relationships are attempts to integrate itches and scratches. These attempts, these machines we evolve, strange though they may look to others, can work well. But throw in a serious illness…

Several years ago, Hildegarde told her support group that her doctor said her chemo was no longer working, that they’d need to change her treatment. When she returned home, her husband, Ken, asked her how it went. She said, “The doctor said the chemo’s not working.”

Ken flew into a rage. “That’s an awful way to tell me,” he said. “How negative! What a thing to do to me!” He advised Hildegarde to see a therapist. “There’s something wrong with you, to act like that,” he said.

After Hildegarde related this event, another member, Lisa, suggested that there was nothing wrong with her at all. Hildegarde had told Ken the simple truth, she said, and he acted as though he’d been somehow victimized. “You don’t need a therapist. Ken does. Or maybe you should see one together.”

Hildegarde described Ken as characteristically busy—with golf, fishing, his lodge, volunteer work and hobbies—to the point of distraction. She suspected he coped with stress around her cancer by refusing to take a break long enough to think about it.

One of many reasons for continually improving communication skills is that we have no idea what’s in someone else’s mind unless they express it. I don’t care whether you’re a stranger or my best pal of decades; unless you come out and tell me, I can only guess your feelings.

That isn’t the problem, though, since we’re actually pretty good at guessing others’ feelings. We notice their body language—their face, their posture, inflections, and so on. The problem is that while the body can’t lie, the mind can indeed.

So when my wife asks, “What’s eating you?” I respond, “Nothing. Why?” Suddenly, a wrench in our machine.

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