I am a strong advocate for veteran issues and veteran health. I have been involved in volunteering in support of those actively serving and those retired, in support of veteran issues, and in support of veteran organizations for more than 13 years. Because this is PTS(D) awareness month, it’s something that is currently all over social media. (Look at me breaking all my own rules to talk about something I just talked about…)
I have a love/hate relationship with posts like the ones I’m seeing because hidden among the beautiful sentiments full of love, acceptance, and hope, an unpleasant truth is often overlooked:
“What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” (Morticia Addams)
I saw this photo shared on a Veteran PTSD support group the other day and it made me cringe. Can you guess why?
Everything the statement on this picture embodies to me is the normalizing of chaos by telling flies to devotedly accept life on the spider’s web.
*Now don’t you go gettin’ your knickers in a twist! I’m not sayin’ that people with PTS(D) are spiders and everyone else is a fly. No, not at all, just bear with and keep readin’.*
I have been told many times that I epitomize altruism and unconditional love in how I approach people I care for; trust me when I say this is rather an unintentional backhanded compliment. I’m so devoted to those whom I love that I have to actively fight myself in order to set healthy boundaries and expectations. I would be the most adoring doormat if I weren’t careful because my love and devotion, once given, are nearly without condition. I’m hopelessly patient, dangerously so, and my desire to see others succeed can, if not checked, become toxic for my health and wellbeing.
I’m beautiful like that.
I’m also a fool like that.
When we look at “healthy and normal” in terms of relationships, both parties have their strengths and weaknesses. A healthy relationship is supposed to be a give and take between the two, a tango. One is strong where the other is weak. When the needs change, the roles change.
To have the expectation that it is normal and healthy for one half of the partnership to always be the strong one, to always be the glue, and to always take care of the other one is to have an expectation that leads to learned helplessness, to codependency, to a toxic cocktail at home, and to an open door to abuse and addiction.
Do not mistake me in this: I’m not talking about situations where a physical difference will always require a certain accommodation or a condition where one is permanently altered to the degree that they are not fully competent to care for themselves. I’m talking about situations where both partners are capable of cognition but one is expected to be all and do all while the other is given a proverbial free-ride because of a diagnosis.
I’m talking about placing unrealistic expectations on caregivers and spouses by nature of the fact that they are caregivers or spouses of a particular kind of person or of a person with a particular diagnosis.
Maybe these are obvious questions and maybe not, but let me ask you all anyway:
What kind of business partnership would you have if one half of the partnership was expected to do all the holding it together, maintaining the business and customers, media relations and marketing, finances and taxes, while the other half did nothing but exist as a partner, collecting revenue, and being a face and name connected to the business?
Would you stay in partnership as a business owner if you were being the glue for the business and your partner was not pulling their weight?
Would you accept from business advisers, lawyers, or a board the idea of it being your duty to disregard the original contracts you and your partner signed in this partnership?
Would you, as a business person, be okay with being told it was healthy and normal for you to hold everything together while your partner was given a free ride on handling any business matters?
I think it is safe to say that none of us would choose to remain in a business relationship with someone who operated thusly. Yet, in this beautiful sentiment about being with and caring for someone with PTSD, is that not the apparent expectation being touted?
Be the devoted glue.
Give up your time and energy to do so.
They depend on you!
It will be worth it in the end.
This is what is told to every military spouse I’ve ever met whether or not their spouse has visible or invisible wounds of war.
This is also what is told to every caregiver, military or civilian, I’ve ever met about their *duty* of caring for that loved one.
I am not suggesting that it is not altogether right and good to depend upon another or to be depended upon. Nor am I suggesting that service and unconditional love are not beautiful gifts to give others. The heart that that give these gifts is a rare and precious one! But there’s a problem:
Who will take care of the devoted glue if not the partner?
You see the answer in the second sentence of that photo: “And take care of YOU.” If you didn’t turn your head sideways with a little “wait, what?!” then let me rephrase all the expectations from this photo for you with the unspoken sticky, tangly bits of web that get people stuck in unhealthy expectations explicitly stated:
You must be the devoted glue to hold everything together for them…
~ even if they are unwilling or “because they are unable” to hold anything together for themselves or for you.
Take care of you…
~ because you can’t, shouldn’t, or won’t be able to expect them to take care of you.
It is your duty to take care of them…
~ because you married them and promised, and also because they’ve already done their duty for this country and for your family.
They depend on you…
~ but that doesn’t mean you can depend on them.
It will all be worth it in the end!
Oho… Unpleasant truth has been spoken.
I’m not for a moment speaking this truth as a means to throw shade at the military or at the medical system.
These truths, unpleasant as they may be to read and think about, are important to acknowledge and address. Placing unrealistic expectations on one half of a partnership is unhealthy for both partners. Giving someone a free-ride with behaviors and expectations because of a diagnosis is hobbling to their ability to change, heal, and grow as a human being.
I want to see the health and wellbeing of the patient to be important enough to not hobble them by learned helplessness and codependency and to see the health and wellbeing of the caregiver and spouse to be addressed equally.
I want healthy boundaries to become a part of the solution and dialogue.
How can I grow, learn from, and get beyond the trauma of my life’s experiences if I’m told:
It just must be so hard for you with your PTSD, amputation, autoimmune diseases, blood clotting, dysautonomia, etc.
You’ve just lost so much. It’s not fair.
You deserve better than this!
It’s your time to be taken care of.
You’ve sacrificed enough.
It’s understandable for you to feel this way. You’ve gone through so much.
These sentiments can be the sticky web that traps the patient on a web of helplessness and victimhood. The patient who has just gone through so much and needs to be taken care of! Poor thing!
But, how can I help my loved one to heal, grow, learn from, and get beyond the trauma of their life’s experiences when I’m told:
It’s just so hard for them! You need to take away their burdens and expectations so that they can deal with the difficult emotional stuff.
They’ve lost so much! It’s not fair. They can’t lose you too… They’d never survive without you there!
They deserve so much better! We should take care of them! YOU should take care of them!
They served and sacrificed and now it’s your turn to serve them and sacrifice for them!
You just need to understand them better. They’ve gone through so much.
These sentiments can be the sticky web that traps the caregiver or spouse on a web of endless sacrifice without the support of their partner. The spouse or caregiver whose duty it is to give up everything to care for the needs of the patient. Heaven forbid they make any choice that is in their best interest, for they will surely be swiftly told how wrong they were to think of themselves and their needs first.
Are you with me now?
Are you seeing the way well intentioned words can trap people into unrealistic and unhealthy expectations?
It is not anyone’s job in this world to be utterly devoted glue at the expense of their own health, wellbeing, independence, or identity.
Love does not hobble itself or another.
Love does not protect another from the natural consequences of their choices nor does it make decisions that will have unhealthy consequences on the self or another.
Love does not sacrifice its own identity in order to boost another’s, and love does ask another to lose themselves.
Unrealistic and unhealthy expectations on either side of any relationship ~ marriage, caregiver-patient, parents-children, teacher-student ~ are not appropriate or normal.
Leveling such expectations normalizes chaos and inequality.
The normalization of such chaotic relationship expectations is toxic for all those involved.
But what do I know?
I’m just a fly desperately trying to get off this damned web of chaos.