The theme of one of Monday’s walks was definitely caretaking.
I walked while talking to an old friend from graduate school, who has had two babies in the last two years. With each of them, she had hyperemesis gravidarum– a condition that causes intense nausea and vomiting throughout one’s entire pregnancy and results in dehydration, extreme fatigue, and loss of day-to-day functioning. She had to stop working very early on in both pregnancies and, between the HG and some other complications, was on bed rest for almost the entire time.
In the same way I lost the postpartum experience I was expecting, Elizabeth lost the vision of what she thought pregnancy was going to be like. No baby showers, no adorable photo shoots, no showing off her belly around town. Just a seemingly endless stretch of discomfort and worry about what impact her illness might be having on her babies.
Thankfully, her babies are both healthy and happy and wreaking the same havoc on their parents’ lives as all infants and toddlers do.
Elizabeth and I both attended the same prestigious PhD program. We were both very competitive in our previous workplaces. So the idea of relinquishing control and being cared for while we were sick was uncomfortable for us. Even now, after my second episode, I can feel myself rushing back to work and walking and staying busy with a variety of things to prove to myself that I am still strong and capable, even as my recovery continues.
Elizabeth and I talked about the paradox of being so incredibly grateful for having a partner that is your caretaker, while simultaneously feeling so incredibly guilty that they have to be one. Particularly now that my bipolar has persisted past the postpartum period, it’s daunting to know that this may be a role Matt has to play for the rest of his life. It’s frightening knowing that I don’t think it’s sustainable for him to maintain the current level of care he is providing for me. It means that something needs to change.
This latest episode was particularly hard for him. Initially, my hypomania made it seem like I was finally happy. I was loving and doting and seemingly cured of my depression. He had wanted so badly for me to start existing beyond the lackluster, going-through-the-motions threshold I’d set for myself, that he rejoiced instead of setting off alarm bells. He felt guilty after the fact for not realizing that something was wrong, even though I’m the one who should have realized how far I’d started to slip. My psychiatrist agreed.
“You can’t be her parent- that’s not fair to you,” she said to Matt in our debrief of my episode. “Stephanie, you have to learn to recognize your own signs and symptoms before it gets too late.”
I know she’s right. Throughout this experience I’ve lost myself a bit, and placed too much emphasis on what Matt sees in me. I simultaneously looked to him as my savior, responsible for taking care of my every whim, and yet wondered when he’d finally feel comfortable stepping back out of his caretaker role.
This was frustrating and confusing for him. In the midst of fully relying on him, I also started to warn him that his commitment to putting my needs above his own was going to burn him out. I was worried about his mental health, and didn’t want him to get to a point of resenting me that he couldn’t come back from. While he understood what I was saying and had certainly started to feel the burnout, he didn’t understand how he was supposed to take away the training wheels when I was still very much wobbling on the bike.
It’s one of the things that’s made this second episode so frustrating, as it feels like we’re traveling back to the starting line just to make the same shaky journey all over again.
We are working through this- with couples counseling, support groups, individual therapists, workbooks… we are committed to getting it right, and in most ways it’s going faster than last time.
And yet every day is intentional hard work.
So how do we get through it? He repeats a mantra to me, multiple times per day, which is to remember that we’re on the same team. If I were the kind of person who was knowledgeable about things like sports, I would make a really good analogy about how we can take turns as QB or coach or whatever.
But I’m not very good at sports. So I’ll just say that my version of the “same team” mantra is that we need to be “rowing in the same direction.”
Some days are faster, some days are slower. But at least I’m trying to get off of my bike and into the boat. It’s a place where we have to sit together and pull our weight equally in order to not veer off course. I’m sure there will be some days when Matt needs to take the oars completely, and I will probably have to do the same at some point in our marriage.
In the end, I’m grateful to have someone who holds me to high standards, while holding himself to a high standard of care. Since my diagnosis, I know that many people (consciously or subconsciously) see me as less than, incapable, in need of extra coddling. Instead of doing that, Matt pushes me, and holds me to high expectations even when I’ve set lower ones for myself.
This is one of the reasons I fell in love with him, and one of the reasons I make the intentional choice to continue to love him every day.
Thanks for reading,
78 miles down, 22 miles to go