Although I talk a lot about my chronic headaches here because, hey, it’s my column, I don’t often talk about what it’s like to live with a chronically ill person. This could be because I have no idea what’s it like, because I’m lucky – my husband isn’t sick. Just your occasional cough or sniffle, but that’s it, so far.
I know no one ever died of a headache, unless the headache was a symptom of something else, like a stroke or aneurysm, in which case the headache would be classified as “secondary,” with the “primary” problem being something Really Big and Scary. I’ve had enough MRIs and neurological exams and general poking and prodding by a whole pack of doctors to determine that I have a primary headache. A regular headache. A sometimes debilitating headache that happens just about every day.
But enough about me. This time, I want to talk about him. I want to talk about the spouses of sick people in general, and my spouse in particular.
And, since I know a few people who truly are suffering from a terminal illness, once again I want to acknowledge that I don’t count myself among them. Even if, for example, my friend Adrienne, whom I met when we were in a hospital’s Head Pain Unit trying , just posted on Facebook that she is considering having her head removed. That’s just headache humor. Migraine madness.
Adrienne lives alone, and I don’t know how she does it. She has two cats, but you know how helpful they are. Bob and I have a cat, and we are his servants. Even when Leo allows me to brush him, if I do it too long, he’ll likely bite me on the arm. So much for pets being good for your health. I’m glad Adrienne is moving soon, to be in the same city as her sister.
I am lucky to be married. I am lucky to be married to a man who continues to love me even though, two years after our wedding, this headache set in and has refused, for close to seven years, to leave. I don’t know how it is in other households where one person has a persistent, painful, bewildering medical condition, but here are some of the things my spouse has done for me, with no complaints:
- Giving me advice, even though he is not a medical doctor. Somebody has to decide which of the medicines currently on my list I should take this time, and when I’m in the throes of a bad one, I hardly have enough wits about me to choose.
- Administering shots, when we agree it’s time for that one. I was taught to draw up the liquid painkiller and then inject it into my thigh, but between you and me, I was lousy at it, and my legs looked like someone had gone after me with a baseball bat. (Someone very short.) Bob grew up on a farm, where his father expected him and his brothers to give the pigs typhoid shots, so he already knew how to do it. Wacky, yes, but helpful.
- Driving me hundreds of miles, many times a year, to see out-of-network doctors.
- Paying for motel rooms, restaurant meals, and everything a long-distance medical appointment entails.
- Making dinner most days, because most afternoons find me collapsed on the sofa soon after I drive myself home from work. I do the dishes, mostly by hand, because it often feels like my only contribution to this family. (That and risking my life by brushing the cat.)
- Doing everything for me on the occasions when I experience 24-hour vertigo. I will never forget the night I spent sleeping on the bathroom floor, the room spinning violently if I moved even an inch. He brought me blankets and a pillow, and fed me a sliced banana in the morning. I didn’t realize until later that he had slept in the hallway just outside the door.
I don’t go to a lot of weddings, so I don’t know if people are still vowing to stick together “in sickness and in health.” I wonder if they really think that over, if they realize just how hard it could become.
One evening, Bob and I visited a couple we liked a lot – I’ll call them Joe and Nancy – having dinner and conversation. Somehow the talk turned to marriage, especially young marriage. They were coming up on 40 years together, while we had only been married a few years, both of us on our second time around. When Joe left the room to get something, Nancy told us, “I think Joe was shocked at how intimate marriage is.”
She could have meant any number of things, but we didn’t ask for details. I, for one, didn’t think she meant anything to do with lovemaking. I figured she meant something like sharing a bathroom, doing each other’s laundry, hearing the details of an in-law’s mental illness. That kind of intimacy, for a starry-eyed couple just back from the honeymoon, can feel like a splash of cold water.
For a couple a bit frayed from first marriages that didn’t work out, encountering chronic illness can seem like a cruel surprise. But it also can mean that you understand far better what’s at stake when you make that vow. I like to think that, if you are the person needing all that help, you have also learned how to be grateful. So even when the medicine delivered by needle hurts like hell, even when I can’t help yelling, “It hurts!” I try to also say, “I know it’s not your fault!”