The scene at my house this evening, minutes after arriving home from work:
Husband: Hey, hon, do you still have some reusable grocery bags I can leave in my car?
Me: Oh! Yeah, I have some right here. I’ll go put them in your car right now so I don’t forget.
Husband: No, no, you don’t have to do that.
Me: It’s no problem. I have to put these cds in my car anyway. I’ll be right back.
I trot out to our driveway, put things in my car, open his car door to place the bags in his passenger seat. Then I find this on the floor:
I flipped the package over to look at the date. Was this left over from before his heart attack when he was eating loads of junk? “July 9, 2021.” Last Friday.
I slowly walk back into the house with this fried chicken bag pinched between my fingers. My breath is getting heavier with every step. Cue the cartoon steam exhaling from my ears. I walk through the door and put the bag in front of my husband’s face. With a clipped tone I ask, “What the hell. Is. This?”
Husband looks slightly shamefaced but not nearly enough. He’s smiling a little, but that nervous smile he gets when he knows he’s fucked up and got caught. I may have been afraid to yell at him a week ago, worried he’d have another heart attack. I certainly wasn’t scared today. I lit into him. When our son asked what Papa did, I showed him the bag with the fork still in it so he could eat in his car without anyone knowing. The boy just shook his head.
I raged for just a few minutes. Told him that it hadn’t even been 4 weeks since his nearly fatal heart attack. 27 days, in fact. “You couldn’t even go one fucking month without fried, fatty food?!?” I left the room to put my sneakers on so I could take a walk to cool down. But before I left, I stomped back into the living room, pointed my finger at my husband and said, “YOU are not allowed to kill yourself. I am the only one who gets the pleasure of killing you!”
Ok. Not my finest hour, but it felt good. And we both ended up laughing because it was so absurd and sounded exactly like me. Then I still had to leave the house because I was pissed.
But you know what REALLY upsets me about this? The night before he ate that fried chicken, he had a scary episode. He went to bed, but then came back to the living room just a minute later and said he couldn’t lie down. His stomach was bothering him, which was one of the signs he had before his heart attack. So he sat in his recliner, and I asked him if he’d like me to stay with him. He said that he would and took my hand. “Once I start snoring, you can go to bed if you want. I’ll be ok by then.” So I kissed him, turned out the lights, got blankets for us both, and lay on the couch listening to my husband breathe, cough, and sniffle. Eventually he slept deeply and I went to bed. It was a frightening time, yet he trusted and loved me enough to ask me to stay, which I know is a great gift.
And then…he ate the fucking chicken.
As a caregiver, one has to know when to draw the line or when to say, “Ok, big boy, you can make the phone call to your cardiologist to find out when they’re going to look at your other blocked arteries.” (This is something I’ve been asking him to do for a week, and today his nurse told him the exact same thing. Should we take a bet on how long it takes for him to do it now?) Since Wal’s heart attack, my sister and so many of my friends have been telling me to make sure I take care of myself, to take some time for myself. I mostly have. But no one has yet said, “It’s time to stop taking care of him.”
Because we don’t do that, right? We try to squeeze moments out for ourselves which often causes more stress in the long run, but we never say to someone, “Ok, you can give up on that person now.” And why? Because what if that person dies or has a stroke due to their declining health and is bedbound or mute or paralyzed. How would we feel then?
But…shouldn’t there be a time when we finally say, “I will no longer take care of you. I will remain your partner until death, but I can no longer help you if you refuse to help yourself.” Any person we are taking care of must take some responsibility in their own health if they are able. When I took care of my mother, I understood that she could no longer do this. She could make her own coffee and get dressed, but showering and eating well and taking her medications were no longer in her realm of tasks she could do. And after a few months of working full time and taking care of my son and my mom, I knew that I couldn’t keep caring for her without losing much of myself.
So what do you do when you’re taking care of your spouse or partner? I have a friend who is dealing with this on an even more intense level. I have tried to lend my shoulder and ear to her as much as I can, but I know it’s never enough. She’s given me loads of advice and listens whenever I need her to, but her caregiving tasks are much more serious and frightening. And her spouse is NOT able to care for himself much anymore.
But my husband can. And he needs to. I find his lack of respect for his health infuriating but also incredibly sad and unfair to me. To our son. Does Wal know and understand all of this and everything I’m feeling and what I wish he felt? Yes. He does. And if he doesn’t, he will when I read him this blog post. 😉
The question remains: What do I do now? Do I throw my hands up and say, “Whatever. Do whatever you want”? Or do I say I will help you if you need me to, but I will not make phone calls for you or keep track of your sodium or fluid intake? My therapist and I just had conversations about what kinds of boundaries to set down, and the latter seemed the most appropriate at that time a week ago, but now? Now I’m angry and hurt and not sure what steps to take next.
I’m already tired of being angry. I’m not apathetic because I’m too emotional about this. I think I’m sad, frustrated, and disappointed.
Maybe I just need to find some patience and let him be and hope he finds the path towards good health. He doesn’t need to die trying to look for it because it’s right there in front of him. I’ve been holding out my hand to show him for a long time, but now I guess I just need to go on ahead and hope he catches up. I’ve left breadcrumbs and neon arrows to guide him, so let’s hope he just opens his eyes.
Al-Anon has a principle that I find very useful: detach with love. I love this illustrative story: a woman’s husband keeps falling out of bed when he’s been drinking too much. She used to try to get him back in bed, but just can’t do it anymore. She needed to practice detachment. But she couldn’t bear just ignoring him. So she practiced detachment with love: she put a blanket over him and went back to bed. Et voila, detachment with love.
I like that so much, Sarah. Thank you.
I am a twit and put Sarah rather than you name. I was rather rushing to put it down as we have friends round shortly. I had noted Sarah C’s comment and automatically put in her name.
My apologies to Sarah C if she reads the first comment of mine.