pain pains
May 31, 2010 6:56 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to deal better with my girlfriend's chronic pain? Or should I? Lots of details inside.

I've been with my girlfriend for 5 months, and we've been living together for three of those months (classic lesbians).
She told me early on that she suffers from fibromyalgia, and sometimes would have a 'pain attack' where she would just have to lie down with an ice pack for a couple hours. She is also often sore in her shoulders and back, and I've given her lots of massages.
Recently, she had a really extreme pain attack. It lasted over a week. She couldn't go to work or do much of anything. And I reacted with very little compassion. My reaction (and subsequent worries about our future) are causing a huge rift in our relationship.
For the first day of her attack, I did my best to dote on her and make her feel better. I brought her flowers and fresh fruit, massaged her a whole lot, and cooed 'poor baby'.
Over the coming days, though, I grew more and more distant and resentful about all that she suddenly expected me to do. I felt like she was milking her pain for attention, and while I don't doubt that she was in pain, I did feel that she was really using it to her benefit. She put out numerous facebook status updates about her pain, and was very vocal about it. I think in a way she was trying to get me to clue in and start taking care of her more, but it just made me feel more resistant to helping.
I think this is partly because I've always admired stoic, modest types, and feel like if I knew she was in pain but wasn't continuously complaining about it then I would be more inclined to cater to her...I don't know exactly.
I also know that she sometimes uses her fibro as an excuse (ex: to get an extension on a late paper) and worried that she was using it on me.
I got nervous about being put in this caregiver role and felt like she expected me to completely give myself over to taking care of her. By the seventh day, I had a talk with her about how I missed having 'her' around, and that day she stopped complaining and said she felt better.

So basically I was really distant during her week-long pain attack. Which made her feel really upset and unloved and uncared for. And made me feel guilty and ashamed and inadequate for not having been more compassionate and understanding and empathetic. I've done lots of volunteer work with people with disabiliites and really love caregiving, I just didn't want to feel like that was what was becoming of me and my partner (I'm 25 years old she's 35).

Then there's my worries about the future. I want to have a big family, with 3 or 4 kids. I want to have a good job so that I don't have to worry about money. I am on the path towards both of those things.

She can only work part time right now because of her fibro, and thinks that most likely she will only ever be able to work part time. She is a nanny and takes care of one child for 5 or 6 hours a day. She hopes to go into a professional career, but she has a hard time in school, and as much as I'd like to believe in her, I'm not sure that she could get into the competitive program she hopes to go into, or then withstand the rigorous two years it would take to complete. I worry that if we had a family together I would shoulder most of the burden for making money AND for childcare, because she has such stringent limits. Also, I want to be able to stay home with my children for a while, and would like to be with a partner who could support me financially for a year after each baby, and I could do the same for her.

I feel really awful that I'm doubting a relationship with her because of a physical disability, and trying to talk to her about it has only made me feel more strongly that I'm a terrible person.

I guess it seems to me a little that the disability just manifested itself so suddenly...and what used to be just minor aches and pains is now a major physical disability. She made a list of things she can't do anymore, including heavy lifting, large loads of dishes, carrying loads of laundry, picking up the dog, etc. She said that it's a list of guidelines for life, not just during the pain attack, and it terrifies me that I would have to do all the lifting and take on all that responsibility.

That's not to say I don't have my problems. I'm prone to anxiety attacks and depression, and school and stress really aggravate those things. When I'm not in school I'm usually great, and I am on meds and in therapy. When I did have a week long depressive episode riddled with anxiety (the week my thesis was due), my girlfriend reacted really poorly as well, becoming distant from me and worrying about our future. I don't think that my reaction to her fibro attack was any kind of 'revenge' for that, but when she makes me feel bad about how I reacted it does comfort me to know that she reacted that way to my shortcomings too. It would be a lot better if we could both just react positively to each other's attacks, with support and unconditional love, but what are you going to do?

In addition to all of this, we fight a lot. She likes to yell and thinks I am passive aggressive because I stay calm and use sarcasm. I feel like I am very straightforward with my anger and feelings, but she's right about the sarcasm. Anyways that has made our relationship feel rocky as well...the fighting. About everything.

Sorry this is so jumbled, there's so much going on in my mind and it's hard to get it all out in an organized fashion. I guess what I'm asking is if I am a terrible girlfriend for the way that I reacted to her pain attack, if I should expect her to react differently to her pain attacks, if my fears about the future are valid or bunk, and strategies with which to deal with her chronic pain.
posted by whalebreath to Human Relations (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
The world is home to many people to love. You "fight a lot" and you're not good at giving each other care during your periodic bouts of depression and fibro pain, respectively... and it's only been five months! Time to go, for both your sakes.
posted by carmicha at 7:05 PM on May 31, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think this is very simple. I think you should dump her simply because you're not going to be happy in the relationship. Which is ultimately why we're in them. You can do better.
posted by smorange at 7:07 PM on May 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


She put out numerous facebook status updates about her pain, and was very vocal about it.

I have a friend with severe fibro and several other severe problems who does this. She and her still fairly new husband struggle with fibro/career/want-a-family-but-should-we balance. The status updates are an alert to friends, family, and collleagues. Being vocal and open is one way she manages it all.
posted by jgirl at 7:09 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Honestly, it sounds like you each have fundamentally incompatible basic needs in terms of a relationship. That's not a judgment of either of you, just an observation. She needs and wants someone you clearly aren't. You need and want someone she clearly isn't. If things are this bad at five months -- which should still pretty much be the honeymoon period, even with a bad health flareup -- you guys really don't have any foundation on which to build a healthy, happy, mutually satisfying future.
posted by scody at 7:17 PM on May 31, 2010 [17 favorites]


Stressful situations--well--we all handle them differently. My partner is not so great at dealing with sick people. Unless there is literally blood and a doctor involved, he thinks you should suck it up and deal even though he knows that's not realistic.

He's not a bad person. He's just not the person to call if you want someone to bring you chicken soup when you have a cold. That's okay.

The fighting all the time--that does not sound particularly fun.

Oh and the doubts about future plans are valid. On both your parts. Maybe you should both look for people who are more able to support you and your goals.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:20 PM on May 31, 2010


Chronic pain really brings out a person's true character. You sound incompatible and IMHO she was really imposing the caregiver role on you, especially at such an early stage of your relationship. Let her find someone to be her caregiver willingly and go forward to fulfill your own dreams.
posted by saucysault at 7:24 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Mr. and I have both been in your position in past relationships. In reading this, I totally agree with scody that you have incompatible needs. It's really hard to be a caretaker in a relationship. It's draining, and if it's already causing a giant rift in your relationship, the best advice I can give you is to cut your losses and move forward into your next relationship knowing a bit better what you want in terms of mutual support.

Relationships don't have to have to be full of fighting. It's still early on in your relationship, and the doubt and resentment this early on have a lot of potential to get much worse.
posted by Zophi at 7:28 PM on May 31, 2010


I'm sorry, but I really think it's in both of your better interests to break up. Not because you're a bad person or because she's a bad person, but because you're not a good fit for each other. You have differing life desires, differing communication styles that make it hard for you to talk to or fight with one another, and generally seem to not be a good match. Wish her the best and go seek what's best for yourself.
posted by Night_owl at 7:48 PM on May 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm with scody. You need to break up. She does need to have a caregiver if she's incapacitated by pain, and if you want someone who is able to hold up their end of the rope without help, this is not gonna be your girl. (Not that she can help it, but that's just the facts.) Volunteer caregiving is not the same thing as doing it 24-7 with your live-in partner by any means, and it sounds like she needs a lot of "poor baby" attention that you don't want or cannot give. especially if you already think she's malingering/putting on a show/slacking if she expresses pain. Plus realistically, she's probably going to need to be with someone who CAN provide for her 100%, financially and physically, because she's not going to be up to handling taking care of herself. That's something that anyone who ends up with her is going to have to be okay with, and you're not.

Speaking as someone else who is not a born caregiver... I can't tell you that you'll ever get over feeling like an asshole for essentially breaking up with her because of her disability. But breaking up now is still probably better than carrying on a relationship where she feels like you don't care and you feel trapped and annoyed.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:07 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


At best, one in 10 "fibromyalgia" patients I see is relatively normal. Most every other one is a victim of abuse or has a personality disorder. You are just scratching the surface of a nightmare in evolution.
posted by docpops at 8:36 PM on May 31, 2010 [9 favorites]


I was in a very similar situation (right down to me being calm = her thinking it is passive-agressive), and it was horrible. Get out while you can, because this cannot possibly lead to anything good.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 8:38 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you're not planning to shoulder most of the load or take care of her if things get worse, it's best if you move on sooner rather than later. Be realistic with yourself and with her. Stop being so hard on yourself for even thinking about leaving, too. You've only been together less than half a year. The situation is different now than when you started. You have to make the right decision for you, not her.

Also, she doesn't get a pass for being an asshole just because she's suffering from a debilitating disease. Don't put up with her shit anymore.
posted by inturnaround at 8:48 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think that my reaction to her fibro attack was any kind of 'revenge' for that, but when she makes me feel bad about how I reacted it does comfort me to know that she reacted that way to my shortcomings too.

It sounds like neither of you is in a place to be in a relationship with someone with a disability right now. Unfortunately, you both are. Like others have said, it's probably in the best interests of both of you to break up now.
posted by hades at 9:04 PM on May 31, 2010


Speaking as someone who has lived with life-altering chronic illness for a long time...

If you feel resentful now, expect that resentment to grow, and expect to be unable to hide it. No matter how hard you try to be "better" for her, she'll be able to tell. If how you feel doesn't change, things are not going to work. There is nothing that makes me lash out at my family faster than the suggestion--no matter how slight--that somehow I'm at fault. Being judged as a nutcase or a faker has made me hyper-sensitive.

I suspect that she's exaggerating for attention, but I don't want to say so with any certainty, especially since we only have your interpretation of events. It could be that she's terrified right now because her illness is getting so much worse, and that's driving the demands for attention.

However, even if she's being one hundred percent truthful, she can't reasonably expect you to dote on her all of the time. As bad as her situation is, the people around her, including you, have their own lives; they cannot simply drop them when she's feeling bad. She can't rely on you as her coping mechanism. She has to learn to deal with this on her own.

Compassion, yes--she's completely right to expect that. Help with tasks she can't manage, yes--if you're willing to be in a relationship with someone chronically ill, you've got to be ready to pick up the slack. Extra attention when things are particularly bad--okay, if she wants it. But doting on her all of the time is good for neither her nor you.

If she demands that, there is something more than fibromyalgia at work.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:20 PM on May 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


Being judged as a nutcase or a faker has made me hyper-sensitive.

I wasn't clear about this part. My family has never said anything like this to me, but the way that people with "invisible disabilities" are often judged has made me paranoid about it. Any hint that I'm being disbelieved or resented is hurtful and makes me angry.

And I don't have the extreme need for attention that your partner apparently does. Usually, I just want to be left alone. I imagine that for someone who wants that attention, being resented will be even worse, unless their partner is the best actress in the world.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:36 PM on May 31, 2010


Oh, I came in here to somewhat defend the gf with fibro, as I and my partner also are learning to balance my pain flares from fibromyalgia but, like most people said, I don't see you two as compatible. For your sake and her sake, find a way to end this now.
posted by _paegan_ at 11:01 PM on May 31, 2010


From what you've said here, you moved in together way too fast, and you were ill-prepared to be the partner of someone with a chronic illness. You do not want to be her caregiver in any meaningful capacity, so in my opinion, the kindest thing for the both of you is if you end it now, before you get further attached.

And docpops, nice use of "fibromyalgia". Everyone knows that we're all imagining it! Oh, and making it up because of our past histories of abuse and/or personality disorders. Thanks for that.
posted by crankylex at 6:24 AM on June 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


It sounds to me like you two have some problems with trust - you're not entirely sure she isn't faking it or trying to get more attention out of it, she doesn't trust you when you say that being calm is just how you react to certain kinds of things. Those things right there are pretty major problems in and of themselves. Add to the mix both resentment and worries about the future and you've got a potentially toxic brew cooking up there. I think part of the problem is that you're not seeing what *she* does to deal with the illness, and so you're feeling like you have the responsibility of dealing with all of her stuff on top of your own stuff. And maybe she feels the same way when you have a depressive episode - it's harder then to see what specific measures you're taking to help yourself to climb out of the hole, and ohhhh the future looks bleak (and of course it does to you right then). I think the trick here is for each of you to understand the illnesses here, and understand how they will impact your lives, and talk about what each of you can do to be supportive without being coddling or disrespectful. You want to help, but you don't want to be shouldering more than you can carry. And if what she lays out on the table is more than you feel you can or should handle, it is more than ok for you to say that. This isn't a test of your worthiness as a human being, and if you ever feel even for a minute like it's being leveraged that way against you ("if you REALLY loved me you wouldn't mind doing all the housework ever ever ever and me not committing to even trying to help in any way ever again because omg sick") then you can walk away with an even clearer conscience.
posted by lriG rorriM at 7:19 AM on June 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


"She likes to yell." This is why you should not be together.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:21 AM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Five months? And you're fighting a lot and freaking out over each others' disabilities? Yeah, break up.

But I want to tell you something. When I was disabled with CFS, people with chronic anxiety and depression were overwhelmingly overrepresented among those people who simply could not or would not handle the situation gracefully. (There were also some brilliant exceptions.) It was particularly difficult for them to look past their own emotional neediness and see that what I was expressing was not, in fact, emotional neediness. When I said that I needed a chair, or that I wouldn't be able to make an event because of fatigue issues, I did not mean, "Poor poor me, soothe me and tell me I'll live a normal life someday." I meant exactly what I said.

But no, they'd get all gooey and cooey and "compassionate and empathetic" over me. That was very awkward and rather disrespectful. You know, you live with a physical disability for a while, and -- in my experience, at least -- it's not tragic. It's just normal. And you have your normal coping skills, such as not picking up heavy laundry baskets (or getting an extra basket so you can make extra trips). The pain or fatigue can be intellectually fascinating, interestingly political, and irritating as all hell, but it's not tragic -- and yet, any number of ablebodied people will insist on pushing that tragic framing onto you. There's a reason why "No Pity" is a common refrain among disability activists.

Worse, of course, is that then these highly emotional people would get angry that they'd been all gooey-cooey. They'd done their best to dote on me and make me feel better, but I was not better, oh the shock. Of course they felt that my illness was being leveraged against them emotionally -- they were projecting. I couldn't say a damn thing about my experience or even my simple needs without their going through that little gooey-cooey-fury dance. I think you can tell that I got pretty sick and tired of catering to other people's emotionality over my disability. That is a shitload of drama to take on when all you want is a chair.

Even if she is dealing with her limits in a heroically intelligent, reasonable, and straightforward fashion, I wonder whether you'd be able to perceive that through your own mental filters.

Your girlfriend needs somebody who's not going to have conniption fits over always being the one who lifts the dog, and it sounds like it'd take a lot of work for you to become that person. And you want someone who will support you in the financial comfort you value while you stay home with as many as four children; that's not going to happen here.
posted by sculpin at 10:21 AM on June 1, 2010 [18 favorites]


To clarify for folks above and one MeMail (thanks, I love getting mail), the original physician who coined the term 'fibromyalgia' has stated he regrets ever doing so. The fact is clear that there is a subset of people in the world who have unusual pain issues and we currently call those cases fibromyalgia. In my practice of almost 20 years I have seen cases that by any metric fit this pattern, and yet like other individuals with chronic pain from arthrits, cancer, injury, neuropathy from diabetes or chemo, they do not have umpteen layers of psychic overlay and maladaptive behaviors. Pain is a facet of an otherwise stable existence, and not their defining characteristic.

Unfortunately, there are so many persons who are such Gordian knots of past problems and psychosocial chaos with the label of fibro that those less common cases get a lot worse care. My definition of fibromyalgia is the former scenario. The poster/asker in this case is dealing with something entirely different. You might as well call a 747 and eagle since they both have wings.
posted by docpops at 12:07 PM on June 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


At best, one in 10 "fibromyalgia" patients I see is relatively normal. Most every other one is a victim of abuse or has a personality disorder. You are just scratching the surface of a nightmare in evolution.

To risk a further derail of this thread, docpops, your personal experiences are just that, your personal experiences. Peer reviewed literature on the topic doesn't agree with what you are suggesting, to the the extent that such a thing can be measured.

See here:

Patients with FMS [fybromyalgia syndrome] in general have a sociotropic personality style similar to patients with MDD [major depressive disorder], and different from HC [healthy controls], but FMS patients without a lifetime history of MDD had a cognitive personality style different from patients with MDD and similar to HC.

Note that same paper puts the number of what you would call "relatively normal" individuals with fybromyalgia at around 40%, not 10% "at best", though their sample size was small.
posted by euphorb at 9:54 AM on June 2, 2010


Euphorb,

I appreciate the chance to view that paper. And you're correct, of course, that in my haste I took empiric experience and wound up exaggerating, more than somewhat due to my own exasperation with that 60% of FMS folks in the office who really have something as-yet-unnamed. I suppose it's a point we can agree upon that it is, in the end, a condition that carries a massive burden of co-existing psychic trouble that in my opinion provides the substrate for the disease and not vice versa. It's a shame in these cases to not address the underlying behavioral trouble but rather to tie up specialists in rheumatology who generally do little for these patients when a good CBT would do much better.
posted by docpops at 11:07 AM on June 2, 2010


( join in on the derail)

docpops, from my own limited experience, I tend to agree overall with your last statement. From fibro groups I've been involved with, I've gotten the impression that there are not only "something as-yet-unnamed" but that there are at least six different types of "fibro" I hear being described. This leads me to believe that many people will be re-diagnosed as more evidence to causes and symptoms arise with new research. I am surprised how long I was under treatment before ANYONE suggested CBT. When I was referred, it wasn't even regarding the fibromyalgia or from my rheumatologist (and I saw the best in the state at the time.)

My PTSD may seriously be behind many of my troubles with my body and CBT has helped immensely. However, my docs do not discount the considerable effect of a medication poisoning that left me with systematic organ damage (and put me on disability) or the high percentage of fibro co-morbidity* with uncontrollable Left Temporal Lobe Epilepsy I endure. Not every one who is Depressed/Angry/Tramatized is ONLY Depressed/etc. So many health care professionals were quite ready to put me on the Depressed Band-Wagon that I spent over 15 years having my Epilepsy treated with anti-depressants and group therapy. It wasn't until I was in treatment for my medical conditions, including FMS, that I began to live life depression-free.

Most every other one is a victim of abuse or has a personality disorder. You are just scratching the surface of a nightmare in evolution. - this earlier statement, though, is uncool. I cannot speak for those with personality disorders, but those who experienced enough abuse to cause life-long MDDs are having enough trouble without having potential partners scared away or without being referred to as a potential nightmare - both which can affect the already-critically-low self-esteem. I certainly hope you didn't mean it to come off as such.


*I have nothing to cite, only my top-notch neuro's word on that one; he said as many as 60% of LTLEs w/fibro. Please feel free to correct or verify.
posted by _paegan_ at 9:08 AM on June 3, 2010


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