'During my husband's illness, everything has fallen to me. How can I stop feeling trapped?'


I love my husband dearly. I took care of my parents for 15 years. I was their caregiver until they died. Afterwards my husband fell ill and for a year doctors have been trying to find out what is wrong. He is very depressed, sits in his chair all day and gets no exercise. I’ve tried to be patient to let him heal while the doctors continue to run tests. I am almost 70 years old. He is 59. Recently I find myself resentful of anything I have to do for him, because he doesn’t want to do anything to get better. Everything in our lives is left up to me, whether it’s paying the bills or physically taking care of the inside and outside our home. He won’t even take out the trash.

He is very, very depressed and now I am getting depressed and resentful that for the past year everything has fallen on my shoulders. I try so hard to be kind and not push him, because I know how tired he feels all the time. Please tell me what I can do to keep from feeling resentful and trapped.

Eleanor says: Some people’s primary experience of themselves is powerlessness. Dependents, the mentally unwell, and the physically sick are among them. I have been each one at points, and for six months of adolescence I was all three together. In that space you get a curdling, spitting resentment at all the things you cannot do. Your wellbeing is outside your control. Your body, your choices, your recreation: none of this is within your power.

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The only real power this leaves you with is the power to say “no”. You can say no to invitations; to company; to well-meaning offers to do something productive like exercise or take up a craft. We tend to exercise this power with relish, maybe to make up for all the other power we’ve lost. We block what might help us.

I don’t know why this feels as good as it does. I’ve wondered if it’s because it makes the people around you feel as wretched and stuck as you do. It’s like they’re tossing around a football, and they throw it to you hoping you’ll throw it back – hoping in front of you – so instead of throwing it back you deliberately puncture it and watch them deflate at the same time it does. There, now you understand.

I think this may explain some of what is happening in your home. Your husband may experience himself as so powerless and so unable to set the course of his life that he is ensuring, and then forgetting, that his refusals have power over you too – that he is setting the course of your life.

You do not need to do all this work alone. Caretaking is difficult, consuming labour. If you had two people you needed to take care for right now, you might consider enlisting professional help. So let me suggest that you do have two people to take care of: the second is yourself. It’s no wonder you’re suffering when no one (including you) treats it as their primary job to look after you.

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You don’t have the time or emotional capacity right now to care for yourself in the way you deserve to be cared for. Your husband does not either. But there are professionals whose job it is to provide emotional care when we can’t, and therapy or counselling could be enormously helpful for you. In so many of your roles – caretaker, spouse, spouse to someone unwell – you spend your time attending to someone else. It might be restorative just to have an hour a week when the only agenda is your feelings and wellbeing.

If your initial reaction to that suggestion is to balk, or to consider it indulgent, try to do what you wish your husband would. Try to say “yes” to things that might help.

It is laudable that you’ve sacrificed so much to care for your husband. But sacrificing yourself will help no one, especially not the man you want to keep loving and caring for.

You are allowed to ask for care, too – you are allowed to insist that you deserve what you have spent so long giving others.

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