By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’m concerned about my wife, “Chaya.” High-strung would be a good description of her. She’s a special woman whom I love dearly and care about very much. I put up with her nervous nature because she means so much to me and because so much about her is terrific.
I understand where it’s coming from. Though I love my mother-in-law, she is a bit of a lunatic. Her nerves are totally frayed and it doesn’t take much for her to practically jump out of her skin. A sudden noise, a change of plans—anything out of the ordinary—throws her for a loop. So I understand how Chaya could easily have adopted some of her mother’s traits.
I’m a pretty easygoing guy, and so I think I’m able to calm Chaya and balance out her hysteria. When she gets all worried about something, I’m usually able to be the voice of reason and get her to relax to a certain degree. I take over when she’s unable to move forward. So we have our balancing act going—I’m OK with it, and it seems to work well for Chaya. I’ve gotten used to her ways and have figured out how to successfully deal with her stressed-out moments.
But now all bets are off. Ever since the fighting in Israel has begun, Chaya is sick out of her mind with worry. If she sleeps for an hour or two a night, it’s a lot. She practically lives on coffee and cereal. She’s constantly glued to the TV or the computer, checking on the latest news. Whereas there was a time when she would have asked how my day was, now she asks, “Have you heard anything new about Israel?” “How many tunnels have they found?” “Did any more soldiers die?” It’s all she can talk about.
Of course we should all be concerned about Israel and stay on top of the news, but we also still have lives to live. We still have our day-to-day responsibilities to keep up with. We are still allowed to take a breather occasionally and even laugh—no?
I’m out of ideas. I just don’t know how to respond to Chaya and how to deal with her anymore. I fear for her physical and mental well-being. None of my old techniques for calming her make a dent. It’s like she’s on a spiraling path downhill, and until this war finally ends—G‑d willing, successfully—it feels like I’ve lost my wife to the war!
Do you have any suggestions of what I might do or say to Chaya to calm her down and allow her to get back to living a somewhat normal life?
There’s no doubt we are living during extremely stressful and frightening times. As Jews, we are all obsessed with the goings-on in Israel, but even beyond that, the world appears to be totally unstable, with killings in so many countries, planes being shot out of the sky, border issues out of control, and a president who is at best not present, at worst wishing for Israel to somehow disappear.
Even the strongest among us are having sleepless nights and a bump up in our usual stress levels as we face Twilight Zone moments listening to citizens of the world sympathizing with Hamas. However, from the way you describe Chaya, there is something more going on here, something much more serious. There is “garden variety” stress and “off the cliff” stress. Most of us suffer from the garden-variety kind. It’s understandable, appropriate, predictable, and, frankly, the sign of a healthy, thinking individual. It will ebb and flow according to the realities of our day, but generally not interfere with our functioning, more or less, in a normal fashion.
It’s impressive to hear how much you love and value your wife. And it’s touching that you’ve figured out how to soothe her soul when she needed soothing. We could all use a nice dose of tender loving care now and then. The downside, however, with the relationship between you and Chaya is that you’ve shielded her from herself, thereby enabling her behavior and discouraging any attempts on her part to seek some kind of remediation for her anxiety. In other words, your protective behavior acted as a band-aid, but was never a cure.
The two of you managed to muddle along all these years, doing well enough. And you may well have continued to muddle along, had nothing overly dramatic in your personal lives or something the likes of which we are all being exposed to now come along to turn over your apple cart. But such is life. Surprises happen. Good surprises and, sadly, sometimes devastating surprises. And that’s why during times like these, patching things up just won’t hold.
I believe Chaya’s anxiety issues should have been addressed long ago. Coddling is sweet, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. This is one of those times when I feel confident recommending talk therapy and medication. My guess is that the combination is likely to make a world of difference in Chaya’s life and in yours as well.
It sounds as though she trusts you enormously and, I hope, will listen to your suggestion and get the help she needs. Once you get the ball rolling, Chaya’s stress level may be lowered to a garden-variety level. In other words, manageable.
No magic bullets, but when Chaya starts feeling better and living better, you might want to suggest that she engage in activities that give her a focus for her worries. Rather than watch the news all day, it would be great if she could get involved in some volunteer work targeted toward helping Israel, thereby giving her a place to put all of her energy and worries. But for now, one step at a time.
Again, I think we’ve all been experiencing spikes in our adrenaline level. And that’s natural and normal. Hopefully, we can take that rush of energy and use it in ways that will make a difference in the world at large and even on a micro level, such as being mindful of acting kinder toward one another.
Let’s all try to be a little more sensitive to family and friends, particularly those among us who have family in Israel living their lives and, even more stunning, those among us who have family fighting in the Israeli army. A certain amount of stress is acceptable. But if you sense people around you stressing to the point of not fully functioning properly, reach out to them. Talk to them. Encourage them to seek professional help if you feel it’s warranted. After all, we are all connected. We are all one.
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.