When your partner’s in pain, too

I wrote this during summer 2009 for ChronicBabe.com, but I never heard back from the very busy Jenni about whether or not she wanted to publish it on the site. So here it is in this form.


Overnight, tons of percussion instruments appeared all over my house. Congas in the living room, bongos in the bedroom, an African balliphone in the TV room, and a collection of maracas in the office. After three years together, my musician boyfriend moved in with me.

In truth, we've been pseudo-roommates since the summer we met. Downtime is at my house, dinner time is at my house, coffee time is at my house, and oh-my-god-I-hurt-so-much-I'm-going-to-throw-up time is at my house. That's right: I cope with migraine disease, chronic fatigue, and a host of other chronic problems, and my boyfriend has some chronic pain and migraine issues himself.

When I'm really low, J is a loving, caring nurse, albeit one who loses patience with his patient now and again. In some way or another, we've all been in his position: someone we love is hurting terribly and is unable to tell us how we can help simply because there is no solution, no cure. My college psychology professors would tell you that, when faced with a friend's problem, women will focus on listening while men will try to figure out what action they can take. There have been several instances wherein I've watched J's back as he left my darkened daytime bedroom--he shuts the door briskly in frustration as I've told him yet again that there's really nothing he can do.

We were pretty spoiled for awhile there: rare was the day when both of us were struck down. Then came last year. I'm not sure what happened to us, but last spring we turned into arthritic, achy 60-somethings overnight. Suddenly we were both sick and bedridden at the same time, and it. was. awful.

J and I are both fiercely independent (it took a couple months of exclusive dating and confessions of love before we actually admitted that we were boyfriend and girlfriend) and have trouble relying on others for help. Oh, another thing that's fun, especially when we're sick? Each of us is right all the time. Makes for some productive conversational volleys.

So let's return to the scene last year, when I was having some particularly rough migraine spells and his back was, after years of wear, was finally beginning to tear. We two were lying in bed, too worn out to take care of our own lives, let alone each other's. We bickered. I glared at him when he turned over in bed and woke me from my hazy, migrainey nap. He winced with a sharp intake of breath as I tried to hug him--no matter what, I always seem to forget how much his back hurts and squeeze him too hard.

It can be exhausting to be with someone burdened by health problems. Sometimes J's empathy is heightened and he really identifies with what I'm going through; other times, I think he sees too much of himself in me and, consequently, is a little too harsh and judgmental. (Same goes for me.)

Here are some things I try to tell myself when dealing with a stressed-out, ailing fellow:

1. Don't assume you know how he feels. Yes, you have similar diagnoses. No, you don't know how his pain affects him physically and emotionally.
2. Choose your time wisely. Have most of your health-related discussions while you guys are feeling good and healthy. Too often, we start Serious Health Talks when one of us is down for the count. I'm guilty of preaching to him about making more frequent doctor visits while he's completely tuckered out and feeling awful.
3. Remember that you have a choice in how you deal with what life gives you. As Jon Kabat-Zinn might say, it's important to respond to what you encounter and not necessarily react to it. The emotions you experience may not be under control, but increased self-awareness can allow you to choose between ignoring or indulging in those feelings.
4. When feeling healthy, teach each other what you'll need when you're sick. I know where J's medications are and will have them at the ready as soon as he asks; he sometimes knows where mine are, but there are lots of bottles and supplements and it can get confusing. Note to self: make a list he can consult so that next time you're in bed with migraine you're not calling out to the dude in the bathroom (as your head throbs with exertion), "No, not that bottle. The other one. The one on the right? NO, THE OTHER ONE!"
5. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Always remember that he loves you and wants the best for you, and make sure he knows the same is true for you. Try to be extra patient when he is in pain and vulnerable.

Our health problems have been addressed thoroughly, and each of us has seriously evaluated our futures: can we handle being with someone this sick? Can we hack it if our loved one's problems grow dramatically worse? Will we be okay if one of us is miraculously cured and no longer depends so much on the other? As for now, we're confident we can handle what the future brings--after all, we have a pretty good record so far.

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