QUESTION: I have a question of the
stresses on marriage/family when a debilitating disease comes into play.
About 6 months ago, I was diagnosed with Graves Disease. I have gone
through RAI and was feeling reasonable good for a few months. I've recently
gone hyperthyroid, and with that have felt really terrible, tired, anxious
etc. I'm told that this is normal to the condition but my husband is
getting frustrated and telling me that I think about it too much. How
can I make him understand that it's going to take time? I should also
mention that I've started to see a counselor to hopefully work through
my feelings/symptoms etc. Any advice? Thanks!
ANSWER: Remind your husband
that this is the part of the marriage that is referred to in your marital
vows, "for better or worse...in sickness and in health". Illness requires
a family to reorganize. This can precipitate crisis, as the family works
through the initial stages of change. Especially when the person who
is sick plays a major role in caretaking others. Chronic illness can
be particularly taxing due to a vacillation between crisis states and
states of normality.
Adapting to your illness may bring up tremendous
feelings of loss for you as well as your husband. Feelings may give
birth to fears, some of which may be real while others are not. Individual
therapy aimed at coming to terms with these changes and sorting through
feelings will help you personally. However you may also benefit from
some couples' counseling to work through the feelings brought up by
your illness and its effects on your relationship. Problems which
may have been at a low or latent level in the marriage will be exacerbated
by your situation. The silver lining in the cloud can be found in
the opportunity to flush out old resentments and make way for a new
beginning. Greater intimacy and connection can result from getting
through this crisis and looking back from a later point in life with
pride and appreciation on how the two of you came through a difficult
Family studies have determined that there is a relationship
between the family's adaptation to illness and the course of the illness
itself. How members adjust and reorganize themselves to adapt to illness
in the family can also play a part in reducing or magnifying stress.
Naturally, a well adapted family system influences health and well-being.
In order to promote healthy reorganization, start
by exploring your family history and beliefs about illness. How did
your respective parents accept and handle illness in the family? Was
there any significant illness in either of your childhoods? If so,
how did your parents deal with it together? Were they effective at
reassigning roles and responsibilities when necessary? If there were
significant negative feelings left from how illness was handled in
your childhoods, then much of that past experience will be coming
up now for resolution.
After acceptance, one of the main challenges illness
places on families is to find a healthy balance of dependence and
independence between members in the family. Talk through the needs
of each family member and how they are affected by the illness, practically
and emotionally. Whose life is changed the most? the least? in what
ways? Do not shy away from this information. In this way you will
have greater opportunity to bond together to cope with the illness,
to find ways that allow individuals in the family to maximize autonomy
while continuing to love and help one another. Do not let the "illness"
beat you as a family. It is a challenge for communicating and allowing
feelings to be expressed and heard. Solutions will come out of sharing
feelings in a safe and open atmosphere. The situation requires the
family to be flexible and creative in finding answers to everyone's
If possible, join a support group. Many have found
such groups invaluable, as have their families. Family counseling,
too can be a helpful tool through the transition of stabilizing your
family in the face of this new challenge.
When you feel you have sorted through some of the
grief in your own therapy, have a discussion with your husband about
what you would like to hear others say (years into the future) about
how the two of you handled this situation as a family. What legacy
would you like to pass on to your children in dealing with this crisis?
As you work through grief and come to some acceptance of loss, you
are likely to gain a larger perspective on life. In Judith Viorst's
book, "Necessary Losses" she describes life as a series of losses
requiring growth. She sees maturation as a product, in part, of learning
how to let go.... from seeing children off to college to growing old,
losing some of the control of our bodies we once enjoyed.
Although Graves is not a fatal disease, coming to
terms with any loss brings us face to face with the fact that life
is finite. We all face loss in our eventual and inevitable deaths
which await us at the end of the life cycle. This awareness comes
dimly and gradually for most of us. Mid-life crisis is one preparation
which requires us to address the profound psychological acceptance
of our growing vulnerabilities, without which we do not mature. Unexpected
illness is another call for such maturation.
You are dealing with feelings of loss unexpectedly,
in the form of your illness. This represents a loss of control. It
is natural that this process of acceptance and adaptation will take
some time. Be patient with yourself and your husband. Make room for
feelings and be flexible. As we travel life's road, perhaps its richness
will be determined by how we deal with life's challenges. And like
any challenge, whether it be having a new baby or dealing with an
illness, it carries the potential to bring you closer together or
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