By Esther Mann, LCSW
I really don’t like to complain, and I realize that most people go through all sorts of challenges during their lives. Some probably not as bad as what my husband, Al, and I have gone through and some no doubt much, much worse. So who am I to make a fuss? I’ve decided a long time ago that it’s all a part of life.
Nevertheless, someone else’s pain doesn’t make mine any easier when I’m faced with a particularly difficult situation. Al and I have dealt with pretty serious health issues, financial ups and downs due to patches of unemployment, children who really put us through the wringer, not to mention problems and even tragedies within our extended families.
I can’t say that I’ve always been a saint, bouncing back in a jiffy from each challenge. I’ve moaned and whined and even cried at times. I’ve gotten angry and did my share of questioning and arguing. I’ve spent many hours in my shower, while the water was running full blast, screaming so loud, I thought I’d never be able to speak again. I’ve had my share of pity parties, “why me?” moments and even, I hate to admit, periods of feeling very jealous of those people I knew who weren’t going through what I was going through.
But eventually I always did manage to bounce back to my former self. Maybe a little more beaten up and maybe even a little wiser, but whether it took days or weeks or sometimes even months, eventually I was able to smile from my heart, laugh from the deepest parts of me, and truly enjoy being alive, despite what wasn’t working in my life. I’m sure this is a blessing and something I can’t take too much credit for, though I have to say that I work hard on myself to always move forward, to have gratitude for what is working in my life, and to seek out loving people who can help make me feel happy.
So now I’m going to talk about Al. Al was a really great guy when I married him. He still is a great guy. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He can feel happy for everyone else’s successes, without the least hint of any kind of jealousy. He is honest, hard-working, and kind. But I’ve noticed over the last few years that the light has gone out from him. Whereas once he was a real jokester, always ready to laugh and have a good time, now he barely smiles anymore.
From the moment Al wakes up in the morning until he goes to bed at night, it just seems as though he is going through the motions. He drags himself out of bed, gets ready for work, and just seems to push himself along, without the least bit of joy in anything he does.
Even when our grandchildren come over, and I know he loves them very much, he tries to interact with them a little, but I see that his heart is really not into it anymore.
Sometimes I force him to go to a movie with me or out to dinner. He’s still a nice guy and so he’ll go along, but I can tell what a great effort it is for him to play the role of the happy companion.
It breaks my heart to see Al this way! I still love him dearly and feel so sorry for him, however, if I’m not really careful, I see myself being dragged down with him, despite how hard I’ve been trying to stay happy and grateful.
Plain and simple, Al is hard to be around. I know he doesn’t mean to upset me. I just don’t think he can help himself at all. The final nail in the coffin came when Al’s younger brother suddenly passed away from a heart attack at the age of 52. It was so shocking to everyone, but I feel that Al took it the hardest. His brother was not only his closest sibling, they were best friends. This happened three years ago and it just seems to me that since then, Al has really given up on life. Or at least given up on trying to live a real life.
I try all the time to get Al to speak to me about what he is feeling. I’ve asked him often if he would go speak to a professional, if he doesn’t want to speak to me, in order to get over his sadness. But he refuses. His basic response to me is that he is doing everything he is supposed to be doing as a husband and father, carrying out his responsibilities and I should be satisfied.
Somehow that’s not enough for me. Yes, he continues to be responsible. He is never disrespectful toward me or hostile. But it’s like I’m living with the ghost of the man I once married and it’s getting really, really bad.
I sometimes wonder how much longer I can continue putting up with him in his present condition. Again, I don’t want to sound like a complainer, and I know there are many women out there who live with husbands who are bad guys, and Al certainly is not a bad guy, but I really can’t take it anymore! Sometimes, I’m ashamed to say, I think about leaving him.
Where do I go from here?
My heart goes out to both you and Al. You two have really been put through the wringer. Yes, it’s true that many people face all sorts of challenges during their lifetimes. Sooner or later, most people wind up having to pay their dues. Where there is life, there is pain. It’s nearly impossible to have one without the other. But most certainly the degree to which people suffer varies enormously. And perhaps even more important, one’s level of resilience following a blow is ultimately the most important factor in all of this. Some people get discombobulated when very subtle events occur, while other people are able to carry the weight of the world. Somewhere in the middle lies your average Joe. But who can say what is monumental and what isn’t for each individual? Who can say what is beyond a doubt the last straw in one’s ability to cope and what wouldn’t and shouldn’t be?
It’s not for any one of us to judge one another’s ability to deal. There are just way too many factors coming together in the final analysis. I give you tremendous credit for confronting your battles and ultimately moving on. It’s not by accident that you persevere and choose “happy” over misery. You are clearly a survivor who works really hard at manipulating your thoughts and choices regarding what you want to focus on and how you want to fill yourself up. You are strong, you know how to roll with the punches, and you ultimately rebound.
Though it sounds as though you and Al have shared most of your challenges, however close you may or may not have been with his brother, this awful blow was his alone. And so you are not presently operating from the same playing field. That is not to say that if, G-d forbid, you would have lost a family member you would be in the same place Al now finds himself in, but his personal loss is hard for you to truly empathize with.
And though neither you nor I is judging Al’s present mind set, the reality is that he is in tremendous pain and it sounds as though he is functioning in a robotic way, lacking any passion or even mild feelings. Aside from the enormous compassion we both feel for Al, since you’ve taken the initiative of writing in to me, I feel compelled to commiserate with how unbearable it must be for you to be living with a shell of a man. And though you continue to work at staying in a place of love and gratitude, sometimes when the vessel already has some patched up cracks throughout its core, it doesn’t take much for it to give out eventually.
I could make lovely suggestions that you plan a fabulous get-away with Al, and try to remind him what happiness could and should look like. I could encourage you to continue trying to connect with him through empathetic dialogue, until you are blue in the face. I could advise you to reach out to Al’s friends, children, and grandchildren and encourage them all to draw him out. But I think Al sounds like a truly depressed man.
It sounds like he was never depressed by nature, but that life’s situations have ultimately gotten the better of him and a switch finally flipped within him, leaving him in veritable darkness. Al has lost his way.
Therefore, you need to pull out the big guns. No more suggesting that he go for professional help. You must insist. Insist nicely, but if that doesn’t get you anywhere, you need to beg, argue, demand, and ultimately threaten, if that is what it takes to get him the help he needs.
The life Al is presently living is vacant of anything meaningful and joyful. And living with someone like that can become contagious. Firstly, for Al’s sake, but for your sake as well, pull out every last stop to get Al help. My hope is that with proper talk therapy and perhaps even some temporary medication, Al can relearn how to live life with hope and pleasure. But it has to be non-negotiable and absolutely unacceptable that Al be allowed to carry on in his present way. It sounds as though he is incapable of understanding what it is that he needs right now, but you can see clearly what is going on. And therefore, it is your responsibility to act as his guiding light, leading him back into a brighter place.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.