Dear Man Shrink,
One year after being married to my second husband, he was involved in a horrible traffic accident. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. Most of the time he acts child-like. Sometimes he can be very dark, downright mean. Others don’t see this, and I don’t share. It is really my secret shame. This question is going to sound horrible, but here goes: what are my duties? (We do not have a sexual relationship. It has never been discussed, and I don’t want to. That almost sounds sick!) I have remained faithful, however it feels as though I have been sentenced to a life so incomplete. Doctor, my life, as it is, is hardly worth living, but could you imagine what people, not to mention God, would think of me? Today, it was just a thought. It is always a thought, but that makes me feel like such an awful person.—FG (Feeling Guilty)
Your question does not sound horrible at all. In fact, if you didn’t have these fears and frustrations, you’d be a little weird.
You have suffered a tremendous loss. Think of it this way—a car accident took away the man you married, leaving you with a stranger. You signed up for a life of love and companionship, but feel like you got a life of servitude instead.
There is hope, however. Much can be done to improve your quality of life and his. First, we need to address your feelings of hopelessness. Let’s do this looking at the way you worded your question.
“It is my secret shame.”
You need to ditch both the “secret” part and the “shame” part. You can’t hide this problem in the name of saving face for yourself or your husband. Friends and family need to be aware of what you’re going through. Learn to rely on those who respond with empathy and support, while keeping a safe distance from anyone who’s judgmental.
As far as the shame goes, realize that you’ve been thrown into the deep end of the pool. Your feelings, even your revulsions, are normal. In fact, people in your situation who deny such feelings are either lying or a little bit twisted.
“What are my duties?”
That whole “for better or worse” thing came to collect early, and how. You do have a responsibility to your husband, but it’s going to be more helpful to think of it in terms of problem solving instead of “duties.” Your new marriage has a set of tremendous challenges. Though you need to explore different solutions to these problems, you cannot fix them alone or, worse, pretend they aren’t there. In this sense, your duty is to identify the problems while realizing that you won’t always be the solution.
“My life, as it is, is hardly worth living.”
When clients say this kind of thing to me, we play a little game of twenty questions to determine if they need a mandatory vacation to Casa de Psych Ward. Even if you’re not suicidal, you need help. The professional kind. Lots of it. Right now.
First, you need your own therapist. You need a listening, understanding ear that is not attached to the head of a friend or family member. You need someone who can help you make tough decisions without beating yourself up. And—this part is important—you need someone who can help you figure out how to improve your quality of life. There are also support groups for people in your situation. If you can find one, you’ll be able to work through this with people who have similar problems.
Your life is not over. It makes all the sense in the world that you feel that way, but it’s time to start redefining your life goals. Your marriage is not going to be anything like you planned. That warrants sadness and a time of mourning. Eventually, however, you have to find other things that excite you, that give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. You need something to work toward. This could involve anything from career to education to creativity to relationships to faith. Working with a therapist will help you redefine the meaning and purpose of your life.
That’s not to say, however, that things can’t get easier with your husband. He needs to be working with someone like an occupational therapist or a neuropsychologist. The brain is a pretty resilient organ. When one area of the brain is damaged, another area sometimes steps up and restores some of the lost functioning. Though your husband will probably will never be exactly like he was before the accident, there is a chance that his mood, social skills, and cognitive functioning can improve. But there must be someone helping him with this. You should also explore the possibility of a full or part-time nurse to help care for your husband.
Over time, you, your husband, and the professionals helping you can come up with a plan. This plan should cover everything from your husband’s daily activities (including things like grooming and chores), ways to manage his anger, and what your precise tasks will be. It’s even possible that you could come up with a plan of action for the bedroom. The crucial thing, however, is that you are part of a team effort instead of shouldering the burden of your happiness and his all by yourself.
If you’re worried about paying for all this, contact your insurance company and your state or county health and human services department. A lot of states offer all the services I described above at low cost or for free to people who are disabled.
“Could you imagine . . . what God would think of me?”
I might be straying into the territory of my other column, God on the Ground , but I couldn’t let this one slide.
Yes, FG, I can imagine what God would think of you. In Matthew 11:28, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” It sounds like you qualify as “weary and heavy-laden.” I think God is worried about you. I think he wants you to stop feeling ashamed and seek help. I doubt he wants you to feel guilty about the overwhelming situation you’re in. And I think anyone who judges you is going to piss him off. I believe that God wants hear about every angry, frightened, disgusted feeling you have. I think he wants you to open up to him. And then open up to other people. God likes to show his love to us through our love to each other. You need a lot of love if you’re going to get through this. You just might need to ask for it first.
Ask the Man Shrink is published monthly. Each column features a real question from a reader, and we invite other readers to respond with their thoughts and insights by posting comments. If you have a question for Stephen, please send it to him in care of the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your question will be kept in the strictest of confidence.
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