Stress Fractures

Published 10 years, 1 month past

As word of Rebecca’s diagnosis spread throughout our network of friends and acquaintances, we are told, more than one person said, “That’s why she was placed with the Meyers.  If anyone can handle something like this, it’s them.”

It’s flattering, I suppose, to be thought of that way.  Certainly it’s better than having people say, “Oh crap, that’s about to be a Category 5 train wreck!”  But how many couples were thought of the same way we were, and ended up separating?  Do they get marked in the false-predictions column, a lesson that we don’t know other people as well as we think we do?  Probably not.  Selection bias runs strong, especially when it comes to our assessments of others.  When our guesses about other people are right, we take it as proof of our insight; when they’re wrong, we tend to shrug it off as “people change” and forget that we’re often wrong about other people, never mind ourselves.

What concerns me is that this kind of thinking can easily lead to thinking that those who face crisis and stay together are strong, wise, noble — and that those who don’t, aren’t.  It makes a morality play of how people cope with events largely beyond their control, which is unfair no matter how things turn out.

After all, it’s not actually the stress of a crisis that drives people apart.  What breaks a relationship is how the people in it react to the stress, and (even more importantly) how they react to each other’s reactions.  Under stress, and particularly under extreme crisis, we are tested in entirely new ways, and our legitimate and honest reactions may or may not be acceptable to our partners.

To pick an example that didn’t happen, suppose that Kat and I had disagreed about where to take Rebecca for proton therapy.  One of our other choices was Bloomington, IN, about two hours closer to home than Philadelphia and definitely closer to several of my relatives.  Suppose I had decided that was where we should go, and Kat had decided that Philadelphia was best.

Already, that’s the seeds for a major conflict, because it is, in a very real sense, a life-or-death choice.  It’s not like arguing about where to go for dinner.  It’s a fundamental disagreement over a fundamentally critical choice.

Now, suppose that one or both of us reacted to other’s decision with outrage, panic, even scorn: “How could you think that way?  How could you endanger our daughter like that?”  And been met with outrage over the outrage, if you see what I mean.  Both of us being unable to understand how the other could act and react in such a way, when the right answer seemed so obvious.  That’s a fracture that will not easily heal.

Or, to pick another example that didn’t happen, suppose one of us had felt that they couldn’t stay in the PICU ward with Rebecca as she lay half-conscious, waiting for surgery after surgery.  Suppose one of us had stayed in a nearby hotel.  You might feel an instant, instinctual contempt for such an act, even knowing that it didn’t happen in our case.  We both stayed by her side non-stop, to the point that people started gently urging us to take some breaks away.  On rare occasion, we actually listened.

Come back to that contempt, though — how could a parent run away from a sick child?  Yet some parents do, and to judge them for that is contemptible in its own right.  Perhaps they know their anxiety, terror, and anguish would be so amplified by staying that they would do more harm than good.  Perhaps they know they would break down, become almost catatonic and unable to help anyone.  Perhaps they know they would go effectively crazy, and endanger their child and themselves.

Whatever the reasons, suppose one of us had stayed away.  How would the other have reacted to that?  With compassion?  Sympathy?  Feelings of betrayal?  Scorn?  Contempt?  Righteous anger?  All of the above?

Or more recently, when I cracked and had to set a limit for my own good, what if Kat had been unable to accept that limit?  What if what I needed was the exact opposite of what she needed, forcing us to choose which one of us didn’t get what they needed?  That sort of conflict can easily sow resentment, and resentment can easily become anger and contempt and worse.

It’s pretty easy to see how, no matter how deep their love, a couple might split up over such differences.  Maybe not in the throes of crisis, but sooner or later.

Had we had split up, people might have said, “Oh my, I guess they weren’t strong enough to handle it after all.”  That would sound true, but it would be a lie.  You could have the two strongest people in the world split up just because they can’t accept how the other deals with a crisis.

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, even though it so often does.  It’s astonishing enough that any of us can find someone who’s sufficiently compatible to live with us full-time, with all our quirks and foibles and failings, someone who can accept the way we hang the toilet paper roll, squeeze the toothpaste tube, and load the dishwasher.  To have that same someone accept, let alone admire, the way we react to extreme crisis… that’s luck so incredible as to defy belief.

I’m not saying anything your local therapist or religious leader doesn’t already know.  They see this play out over and over, year upon year.  I just want to remind the rest of us that it isn’t strength that keeps a couple together in the face of crisis.  It’s having the luck to remain compatible under the most extreme pressures.  Like any complex interaction between two complex systems, the outcome is fundamentally unpredictable.  If an unresolvable incompatibility is uncovered, it doesn’t mean the people involved are weak or undeserving.  It just means they’re people.

(Just in case anyone takes this as some sort of veiled announcement, Kat and I are not getting nor plan to get nor have any expectation of getting a divorce.  We both hope it will stay that way — a point of compatibility all its own.)

Comments (12)

  1. Good post. I’ve often wondered how my husband and I will react when (not if) a crisis comes. I guess we won’t know until we get there.

  2. As one of those people who said that, I didn’t say it because you and Kat were an invulnerable couple; I’m still concerned about the stresses it inflicts on you guys, which has to be tremendous.

    I said it because even if you got divorced, you’d always keep the kids a priority.

    I said it because Kat’s a doctor, and has the knowledge to sort out things like Rebecca’s treatments.

    I said it because you’ve grown up with far too much cancer in your family, which is unfair but it does make it so you have a better idea of this pathway than most.

    I said it because you’re financially well-off enough that you probably won’t go bankrupt treating Rebecca, and you have a job that’s flexible enough to let you travel as you need to to take care of her.

    It’s not that you and Kat aren’t suited for each other – which I think you are – but rather that combined, you have a lot of strengths in this situations that others lack. And no, if something broke you apart as a result of this, it would not be some judgment on my part, for sure.

    But there’s also an element of a good set of skills to deal with an unthinkable situation. I wish you didn’t have to go through this. I wish Rebecca didn’t.

    But if I had been forced to choose someone to endure this horror in order to provide the best possible outcome… it would have been you two.

    (The rest of the essay, I completely agree with, however. It’s the problem with politics; when such massive things are at stake, sometimes you can’t just compromise politely.)

  3. “It’s astonishing enough that any of us can find someone who’s sufficiently compatible to live with us full-time, with all our quirks and foibles and failings, someone who can accept the way we hang the toilet paper roll, squeeze the toothpaste tube, and load the dishwasher. To have that same someone accept, let alone admire, the way we react to extreme crisis… that’s luck so incredible as to defy belief.”

    I laughed about the toilet paper, the toothpaste, and the dishwasher. If you only knew how many times I wanted to divorce my husband over _those_ things, but have been able to abide with and forgive much more crucial things, you would laugh, too. :)

  4. For me, I never considered it a “destiny” thing that Rebecca became your daughter–what kind of screwed-up god would I have to believe in to think that it could control where a child ended up but not be bothered to omit brain cancer?

    That aside, I have felt that Rebecca was fortunate to be in your family because you have the resources to care for her optimally. Your work is flexible; Kat was able to take the time off. You have good insurance. Kat has the medical knowledge that got her back in Urgent Care on that August day and saved her life in the first crisis.

    You also built, over the years, the network of family and friends that have been more than willing to drop everything when need be to help you out. That wasn’t just a happy accident; your kindness and generosity over many years made that happen. There are a lot of people who would have been very much more alone and without resources.

    You also don’t give yourselves credit enough for your own adaptability and willingness to respect each other’s decisions. I know that together you have weighed the different treatment options, debated accepting or discarding different options, and reached a consensus. Neither of you has grasped onto an option that the other has felt untenable and refused to consider the other’s point. Both of you are empathetic enough to be aware of each other’s pain, rather than isolating yourself in your own bubble of anguish (not pretending that either of you are perfect at it, but you are there for each other).

    Each of you know that the other has Rebecca’s best interests at heart, and even when you disagree as to what is best, you still see those best intentions in the heart of each other.

    This is a huge skill set. Do not discount it.

  5. Unhappiness is often shielded by outbursts, anger, feelings of guilt and even physical pain. I have only read your posts for around a month now and am expecting some report of injury or sickness with either you or your wife, the main caretakers of your beautiful daughter. I expected to read about a physical stress in this article. I was relieved that it was not. I am praying for God to give you and your wife strength through Rebecca’s illness.

    I want to say that I was glad that you had to take a break after your outburst. You had reached your limit and knew you needed time to refuel your spirit.

    Being a Christian, it reminded me of Jesus going into the wilderness for forty days. He knew he needed spiritual peace before he could continue in his ministry.

    I go to a small church and I shared your story this past Sunday. We all prayed for Rebecca and your family. I want you to know that so many people care for you.

    No, I do not know you; my son Chris posted your story on is not often he does share something this personal and heart breaking for him. I started following you on Twitter ever since. I want to continue to lift you and your family, especially Rebecca up in prayer.

  6. When my ex and I split, *many* people reacted with surprise. “But you seemed so happy!” And I would respond, “Well, none of us really knows what goes on in other people’s lives.”

    I will tell you one lesson I learned, though: Contempt is killer of relationships. No matter what it looks like from the outside, if a couple does not respect each other in every way possible, they are probably in trouble.

    Also, the “what ifs” are awful. Don’t do that.

    I don’t know what life is like for you and your family, Eric. I only know what you write about it. And all I can do is hope. Hope that you’re feeling the love, support, and sympathy of a vast network of people who are connected to you. Hope that the doctors get everything as right as is humanly possible to get right. Hope that every day you all get at least a moment’s relief, where everything just feels normal and fine. Hope that there’s enough love to go around.

  7. “those who face crisis and stay together are strong, wise, noble”

    This made me laugh out loud, for real. What got my husband and I through some significant stress (nowhere near what you’re facing, but enough to take a toll) was not wisdom or nobility, but sheer bullheaded stubbornness.

    Neither of us was willing to be the one to call it quits, so we hung on by the skin of our teeth until that crisis passed. Not out of strength, but out of some twisted sense of pride: if this thing breaks, it’s not going to be _my_ fault. It has taken — is still taking — work on both our parts to get our relationahip back on a happy path; and, yes, I consider us tremendously fortunate to be compatible in that way, that the same pigheadedness that almost tore us apart was what kept us together long enough to come to our senses.

    You two seem to be handling things not only with strength, but with love and grace, and that is something you get to take credit for.

  8. Eric it IS very difficult for people who have never been through this sort of thing to relate. Even after 20 years of dealing with my medically handicapped son i have never gotten used to people who can’t really relate. The only thing that helps me with this is to keep in mind that they are trying to be kind, generally.

    I can’t tell you how many times i’ve been told that God picked me becuase he knew i could handle it. I just felt like yelling the “F” word at them. I think what they are really saying is they’re glad it’s not them. I guess that is a very human reaction.

    Eric i will keep your family in my prayers. Carla

  9. Having a child with special needs has shown me why a large number of marriages with these stresses end in divorce. We struggle to make it day to day sometimes and we don’t have the stresses that a lot of families face (such as no insurance, juggling 2 jobs, lots of hospital admissions.) Sometimes it’s just the stress of knowing what to do and dealing with the hospitals and doctors, even for therapies. Or dealing with schools for special education.

    I have been told many times that I am “special” because God gave me a “special” child. Or “God won’t give me more than I can handle.” These are bull crap statements that are hurtful to parents of special needs children. I am no more “special” than the next person and God had no control over what happened to my child.

    Very well written blog. Special needs families need support from the community. That’s how we will preserve those families and marriages.

  10. I recently found your blog, Your story has touched me. I’m so sorry for your loss! the thoughts of a complete stranger are with you! for what it worth!

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  12. I have no words of comfort for you. As a mother of three children myself I can’t even imagine the anguish you all are feeling. You, however, have given me comfort. You hit the nail on the head with this post! I feel a deeper empathy for those I’ve judged and the times that I have been judged in my fight to keep my marriage through ridiculous odds (I’m still fighting, but the fight is in my own head).

    I hope that you and your family find peace through the tumult and challenges and move forward to make beautiful memories with what’s left. My heart hurts for you…

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