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Caring for the Caregiver

by Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

I’m married to my husband for almost 9 years. We know each other 11 years. For the outside world, we are perfect couple, who loves adventure, travel, cooking and is madly in love. Behind the door is a different story. In the past 10 years, we’ve been straggling with my husband’s father, who had a stroke and now has a cancer. We were helping my in-laws in their difficult times.

My husband is struggling a lot with this situation because he is a primary care. He started drinking more than usually we did during weekends. He can have 3 martinis or a whole bottle of wine plus drink with rum on his own. Numerous times, I was asking him to minimize it but now I started finding empty glasses or bottles all over the house, garage or garden. I confronted him many times. However, he became very angry and started screaming. When we go out, he is the only person, who would be wasted. I’m embarrassed by his behavior. All our friends believe that he is just drunk because he is very tired.

I truly don’t know what to do. I cannot trust him because he lies to me about his drinking. Another thing that shocked me is the fact that he exchanged a few inappropriate emails with his ex-girlfriend. They were talking about their past, how great it was. He asked her about sex life. He wrote so many private things about us to her. Usually their emails were very very long. He never wrote me such emails. You probably wonder how I found out about their correspondence. Well, it was a pure coincidence. I did not know how to use iPhone and I opened his phone where their emails were listed. I confronted him (of course I cried because I’m very emotional). He told me that he just wanted to find out how she is doing because they were best friend for a long time. He promised that he won’t write to her anymore. I believe him again. I found another email to her. I truly don’t know what to think. He said that his life is horrible. I’m trying to help him and his family. However, I think I’m losing myself meantime. I have anxiety attacks because of the whole situation

For your entire married life and throughout your 20s, you and your husband have been trying to help your in-laws manage your father-in-law’s illness. I wonder if your husband feels like life is passing him by while he does the right thing. Taking care of someone day in and day out can make a person feel emotionally drained. I’m guessing that your husband’s alcohol problems started because he found that a drink could relax him at the end of a challenging day. It has since progressed to being a way to check out from the reality of his life. Make no mistake, what you are describing at this point is alcohol abuse.

To manage the stress of caregiving successfully, a caregiver needs to be sure to take care of themselves and move forward in their own lives. Your husband isn’t doing either. He also seems to be trying to recapture his more carefree youth by contacting the ex-girlfiriend. He’s in serious trouble.

You can try talking to him. Instead of being upset and accusatory, try being compassionate about the position he finds himself in. His life is going nowhere. Talk about how the two of you can get additional help with your father-in-law so your husband isn’t the only support person. Look around for a caregivers support group. Many hospitals and hospice organizations sponsor such groups. It’s important to have a place where it’s okay to share feelings and where information about helpful services is exchanged. Then work together to figure out how your husband can reclaim his own life’s direction. Does he need to go back to school? To find a job that is more gratifying?

Finally, you need to tell your husband in as loving a way as possible that although you understand the urge to drink, it’s gotten way out of control. Ask him what he is going to do about it. If he continues to deny that there is a problem, tell him the truth: You can’t make him stop drinking but you don’t have to stay around for it. Then get yourself to an Al-Anon meeting to learn how to detach from his problem. Here’s the website.

Yes, self-care takes time and attention; time that is hard to come by when caring for someone else. But if your husband isn’t taking care of himself, he is doing something else. He needs to refocus his time and energy so that your marriage will survive and so that he is working toward his own future.

I wish you both well,
Dr. Marie

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