I'm Too Old for This Shit - Life Catastrophe Edition
March 6, 2016 6:12 AM   Subscribe

My marriage is unsatisfying and problematic, I am in treatment for breast cancer, and the affair that was taking my mind off of these problems seems to be slowly, painfully fading. I turn 40 in a few days and my entire life is a disaster. How on earth do I cope with all of this?

I am overwhelmed by the things going on in my life and am having trouble coping. I'm crying multiple times a day and feeling incredibly sad.

I have been with my husband for about 20 years. We get along ok, he's intelligent and capable with lots of interests, but our lives have been mostly structured around his needs and wants. We've been together since we were teenagers, and I feel like I never really lived my own life or got to know myself, and when we disagree on things he feels passionately about he will use yelling and belittling until I'm too tired to fight anymore to get his way. In the big emotional labor thread last year, somebody used the term "bonsai human" and that is a painfully accurate description of how I feel - clipped and trimmed to fit into the life he wants to have, regardless of how it impacts me.

A recent example - he decided to undertake an expensive long-term project (mid 5 figures in cost and multiple years in duration), and initiated without discussing it with me, with a significant commitment of money. It is something he is very excited about and he knew I was not interested in, and rather than working through that disconnect and finding a compromise, he just did it unilaterally.

He is often thoughtless in the way he talks to me, saying things that are belittling or mocking, and then protests that he's just "being funny" when I am upset by them. He's insecure and seeks a lot of reassurance, but doesn't give the same kind of reassurance to me when I seek it (for example, for things related to my cancer treatment - he says that he knows everything is going to be ok, so he doesn't have to reassure me). The sex is not good. We have a child, and divorce would be difficult and expensive. All in all, I often do not feel valued or cared for in my marriage, and was starting to take steps toward divorce when I was diagnosed with cancer.

I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in October of last year. My prognosis is good; the cancer probably won't be the thing that kills me. I have been getting chemotherapy since then, with the final treatment last week. I still have to have surgery, radiation therapy, ongoing infusions of a non-chemotherapy drug for a year, and many years of estrogen-depleting therapy after that. I lost all my hair, and my fingernails are starting to fall off. I have constant, nagging effects from chemo (brain fog, GI issues, fatigue, achiness, and weird changes, sores, and pain in all my mucosa [nose, mouth, eyes, vulva]). I went from being pre-menopausal to (possibly temporary, possibly permanent) menopause in about a month, which I think is probably contributing to my emotional volatility. Chemo side effects have been tough, but I have mostly powered through to keep working full time. My husband has been sort of thoughtless in caring for me. I ended up writing out a list of what I needed from him (e.g., "Ask me how I'm feeling today." "Ask me if I need things (food, water, meds) to feel better." "When I ask, give me reassurance that the things I'm doing to manage side effects are working.") and that helped. I think he's trying to do better, and he definitely perceives himself as being caring and supportive.

I started an affair shortly before my cancer diagnosis. He was warm, affectionate, confident, and pursued me actively and assertively with both a sexual and emotional focus. The sex was amazing. The time we spent together not having sex was also wonderful. I had sort of decided that I wasn't interested in sex and just wasn't a sexual person, because of my sex life with my husband, but I quickly realized that was completely untrue. Being with him woke me up to the gleefully dirty, ravenously libidinous self that was hiding under that indifference. We were in daily contact through online messaging, with phone calls a few times a week and in person meetings much less frequently. He is cohabitating with his SO, and our agreement was that we are friends, that there is real caring and feelings between us, but that we were not headed to a future together for a variety of reasons and that we would keep things discreet.

His contact has dropped off significantly in the past week or so. He had a major work deadline, but that has passed, and he is still not really responsive to my messages. I asked him last week to look for a date when we could meet up, and he sidestepped it, stating that he was too overwhelmed by work. I feel like that was the point at which he started to fade. The few messages I have received have been friendly, nice, and apologetic for being hard to reach. But few and far between. I am fucking devastated by the slow fade he's pulling now. Our relationship was a source of support through difficult times with my marriage and my treatment - not because I was directly seeking support from him for those things, but because our interaction was such a wonderful, enjoyable distraction that made be feel sexy and beautiful and valuable - and I feel like I'm falling apart without it. I know it sounds a little nuts to be in an affair with someone undergoing cancer treatment, but he insisted it was a nonissue after I was diagnosed, and I have been able and willing to get down through treatment. Since we're not in physical contact very often, he hasn't seen a lot of the effects of the chemo, so I tend to think he's just over me or bored with the relationship or something rather than being turned off by me physically.

I started seeing a therapist at the end of last year, but she changed jobs after a few sessions and transferred me to a new therapist, who I have only been able to see once because of mutual scheduling challenges.

I'm despondent, and I'm struggling to focus at work, crying quietly in my office multiple times a day, crying in my car, crying at home. I feel like I have wasted my life just floating along as someone's accessory, and now it is more than half over, I'm sick in a way where I will never be the same, and I have missed all my opportunities to have a life that is about me and what I want and need. The milestone birthday I have coming up may be throwing all of this into sharper relief. I still have to function as a parent and a professional through this. How can I get some equilibrium and stop feeling so completely overwhelmed by grief?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry.

If it is possible for you to take significant time off work but keep your job, and work isn't something that makes your life better, consider doing that. In my experience something has to give when I'm in this sort of situation, and taking leave from work is better than doing a crappy job at work in most cases. Some people do better with daily structure which makes a job helpful. If this is you, another alternative is to find another easier volunteer commitment... driving for Meals on Wheels, etc. Let your husband figure out how to handle it financially, since he seems to think he should be in charge of such things!

In your position I would feel better with clarity about my situation with my lover... I'd rather know it's over than wonder if it is. Straight up ask. Tell him you really value your relationship but would prefer a clear breakup to a slow fade.

While divorce seems like a good long-term plan, it's probably not right now unless you could expect significant alimony and child support from your husband. Until you're in better condition to go through that process while making things as easy as possible for your child, try to find other places where you can get support. Family? Friends? Cancer support groups? Don't hold back from doing something that might sound radical if it might help, like asking your mom to stay with you for a month or spending a month with your old college roommate. You need time, space, and comfort to pull your shit together.

Get massages, and acupuncture if you enjoy that. Or any self-care thing you might enjoy... manicures, chocolate, recreational shopping, hot tubs, whatever.
posted by metasarah at 6:52 AM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

My heart goes out to you. My suggestions are less about concrete decisions and more about getting through this difficult time. The opportunities to reshape your life are not over at 40. It seems like for now the thing to do is focus on surviving and getting better. If you can, mentally table other priorities until you are better.

If you and the new therapist are having trouble working with each other's schedules, can you ask them (or your old therapist) for another referral? With everything you are dealing with, it seems important to have that support in place.

Do you have friends? Reach out to and spend with people who are kind and who make you feel loved and lifted up. I'm your age, and my local unitarian church has been crucial in helping me connect with my community.

Long term: Divorce might be hard and expensive, but it might still be worth it. When you are better, maybe consult with a divorce lawyer about your options. Sometimes getting a clear look at exactly where you stand helps you make a strong decision that you can feel peaceful about - whether that's to defer action or end things now.

One last thing - the grief of even a casual relationship can be profound. I had a breakup a few months ago that was incredibly difficult and over which I cried several times a day for months. A good part of my grief, I suspect, was over the loss of the hope that that person generated in me, hope of being loved intimately and generously. Whatever happens with this guy, know that you deserve love and that there is more love in the world for you.

Good luck to you.
posted by bunderful at 7:25 AM on March 6, 2016 [12 favorites]

This sucks. You don't deserve it. It's not fair.

Right now, it seems like life is out of control. Maybe find things you have mastery over and expand those?

Turning 40 is ok :) Don't let a false landmark like that one bring you down. You will still be just as loveable and worthwhile on day 40 + 1.

Good wishes from afar.
posted by gregglind at 7:35 AM on March 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

I know somebody who chose to stay in a crappy marriage during cancer treatment, and they are miserable. They are both miserable. They should have got divorced years ago, but they are now just constantly giving each other such a hard time that they are making each other insane.

Speaking as somebody who had a major health problem and made a lot of changes, life is too short. Your life can change for the better, and you can find somebody who is supportive and will make you feel like a million bucks.
posted by The River Ivel at 7:47 AM on March 6, 2016 [11 favorites]

I feel like I have wasted my life just floating along as someone's accessory, and now it is more than half over, I'm sick in a way where I will never be the same, and I have missed all my opportunities to have a life that is about me and what I want and need.

Not one word of this is true. You are going through a terrible, terrible time. You are going to get through it. I know you will.

You and I are the same age. I finished my last Herceptin ten days ago. I have always been a very easy going person without big ideas of what I wanted in life, just happy to read books and hang out with my cats and all that, and being diagnosed with breast cancer at 38 was a horrorshow of a slap in the face. Is this all there is to life/what is the fucking point of any of this/what the hell did I do to deserve this happening to me/I can't even envision ever being the same person I was before/et cetera. So I am here to tell you that today, five days short of a year since my first chemotherapy, I am almost back to being the person I was before this all started. I don't think about it too much. Physically I feel fine, with only some twinges of soreness in my cancer breast here and there. Emotionally I still have moments of vertiginous, "oh my god I had cancer," feelings but they are lessening. I'm enjoying the things I used to enjoy, doing the things I used to do. You are going to be you again when this is over.

So, with that said, there isn't any reason to not move forward with decisions you know you want to make. Breast cancer instilled in me a sense of urgency I had not previously possessed. Maybe part of what you're feeling is a desperation to make the changes in your life that you've known for a long while needed to be made. The man you've been having an affair with was a distraction from having to make those decisions. The distraction seems to be disappearing now, and you're emotionally raw from cancer - everything you're feeling is completely and absolutely natural and understandable. But in order to start feeling better, you're going to have to make changes you know you want to make. In the mean time you're just spinning your wheels, digging yourself deeper into a situation you don't want to be in.

Forget the cancer treatment for a moment - you're right, early stage breast cancer is very treatable, and it probably won't kill you (or me). So we need to make decisions for our futures that are based on what we want those futures to look like. It's time to take steps to get out of your marriage and move forward. I know you're grieving the potential end of a relationship that has been important to you in the past few months, but if anything that experience should give you hope: there are people out there who can make you happy. You're never going to find them if you keep doing what you're doing.

Please feel free to memail me any time. And maybe ask your doctor for Xanax. I might have gotten through the last year without it, but it would have been much harder. Take care.
posted by something something at 7:57 AM on March 6, 2016 [41 favorites]

surprised no-one has mentioned this, but the crying after/during a major health issue is a common, "normal" depressive reaction (as far as i understand things). i went through something similar some years ago, and while it was discussed, i didn't take any meds. in retrospect, 6 months of something to help get through the worst of it might have been a good idea. so consider talking to a psychologist. fixing that might give you a bit more clarity on the rest.
posted by andrewcooke at 8:26 AM on March 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

How is your child impacted by all this? By the parents staying together vs. divorcing? I know this post is about how you feel, but I think any advice depends also on what's in the best interest of your child. You said divorce would be expensive and difficult, but I feel that needs elaboration in order for the full situation to be understood. After all, obviously there are other costs in life besides monetary ones, and difficult is a relative term.
posted by OCDan at 10:11 AM on March 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

I agree with OCDan; I don't know how old your child is but having his/her parents divorce during his/her mother's cancer treatment sounds quite traumatic. I would recommend some sessions of family and couples therapy (even without the affair) to help you all work through this time together.
posted by that's how you get ants at 10:19 AM on March 6, 2016

First discuss your depression and feelings with your doctor. Post-chemo anxiety and depression are normal,and unless you mention it to your doctor, they tend to not suggest it until you ask. ( I don't know why this is, but it is). Get a referral to a counselor as well. If anyone needed a shoulder to cry on, it's you.

Get well. Feel well. Once you've got your health sorted out, you can tackle your marriage.

Right now a divorce looks like climbing Everest. But once you've got some anti-depression drugs in your system, and your health back, you'll see things in a new light. You might realize that while it might be difficult and disagreeable, that having your own place and your own life, not shared with someone who's not right for you anymore, might be a fun adventure.

So your first 40 years weren't spent how you'd like. You look back and see things you wish you had done differently. Welcome to middle-age, that's all of us. It's okay. The only thing worse than thinking you've wasted half-your life, is wasting the rest of it.

I promise, 40 is fantastic, and it only gets better from there (I'm in my fifties). Start thinking about how you might like to live going forward. How does that look? A little apartment that's all your own? Able to spend your money as you please and not having to worry about how your husband is frittering the family finances away on things you don't give a hang about?

As for the man with whom you had an affair. I think you may see now that affairs aren't really about support and love, they're more about fun and excitement. This guy isn't the kind of guy who's in it for the long haul. I recommend leaving him behind. It's not helping anything and he's served his purpose.

Good luck with the next part of your life!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:39 AM on March 6, 2016 [10 favorites]

Nthing getting an assessment from a healthcare professional (ideally a psychiatrist, who is a physician who can prescribe medications if needed) for potential depression, adjustment disorder, or other diagnosis. Find a therapist who is logistically easier for you to work with. I see a lot of hopelessness and catastrophizing in your post (and the word catastrophizing sounds like it belittles your problems, which I don't mean at all - you've gone through a lot and how you feel is absolutely understandable) that suggests you could benefit from mental health care.

The fade from someone you care about sounds miserable, but ultimately I think is a very good thing, because before he faded you were able to use him as a crutch to facilitate staying in a life that you weren't truly happy with.

I'm sorry you've got poor support from your husband and I hope you find solid, long term support systems to lean on soon. Strongly consider short term disability or at least some short vacation so that you can focus on your health and wellbeing. You are worth it!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:15 AM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh man that is a lot of stuff for one person at one time! You are gonna come through this though.
I'd say, try to prioritize what's important and just do baby steps. If I were in your shoes I might try to do the following, in this order:

Priority 1 -
Work towards feeling physically well. Take your drugs, do your treatments, get lots of sleep, get outside and moving when it feels good to do that, eat well, stay calm and steady... all that stuff (which is a full-time job in and of itself).

Might help to try to keep other things simple and stable during this time. That might mean letting lover ghost and trying to just be calm about it, and keeping things smooth w/ husband, just doing the best you can with what he offers. Even though it's not much, it sounds like you have some tough treatment ahead, and it may be easier with him than without. If you can replace his physical support with someone else's physical support, then maybe you don't need to be so conciliatory... but if not, it's your turn to take take take from this guy. Tell him your needs as diplomatically as you can and let him care for you even if that care is a little sub-par. Post-surgery you need someone to bring you glasses of water, maybe it can be him.

Find emotional support that's not bound into romance. Reach out to friends and relatives, and connect with people who will check in on you and support you. Try to get a few people in place before the treatment ramps up. This will probably feel vulnerable- you may end up saying something like, "my husband is not as caring as I will need when I can't raise my arms after surgery, and I'm scared, could you help me by checking in on me every day for the first week?"

Another option would be to hire a nurse, or just a regular person, to come over for a couple hours a day (look up "Personal Support Worker" or PSW on Craigslist) so someone can help you with physical needs. In my city a PSW only costs about $15/hour, so for $30/day (under $300 for that first really hard week after surgery) you can get someone to help you shower and make you dinner and tidy up the house and generally take care of you... totally worth it, if you ask me.

Priority 2 -
Once the hardest parts of treatment are done, get out of that marriage, it sounds awful. Bonsai human with a partner who mocks you and withholds reassurance during chemo? Nope. Lover may or may not be the one, time will tell, but my guess is that he's not given that he's drifting and married... it was still great that you met him, because it shone a light on areas of your life that weren't working. If that's the case, do your best to gratefully take that insight and let the rest go.

Priority 3 -
When the marriage is over, seek out a partner with whom you can connect and be voracious and loved. You sound great and you will find someone.

It sounds like the next year will be really hard, but you also sound resilient and lovely. Best of luck to you, you can do this. One thing at a time.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:17 PM on March 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

[sorry i said "psychologist" above and meant "psychiatrist"]
posted by andrewcooke at 12:27 PM on March 6, 2016

I am so sorry this is happening to you, it all sounds terribly difficult.

If I was in your situation, I would want a plan, something to work on and refer back to, during those times when life's stressors build to the point that day-to-day coping seems impossible. Your plan could be a weekly map of the next six to twelve months and include all major components of your life. Your surgery, treatment and doctor appointments. Searching for a new therapist and a schedule of your appointments. Big work deadlines. Weekly self-care indulgences. Scheduled fun outings and experiences with your child. Finding a family therapist and a schedule of your appointments with this person. And, if that doesn't work, beginning the process of thinking through a separation (researching lawyers, figuring out your finances, finding a new place to live). Having a plan will help you space out all of your obligations so that they don't hit you all at once and it will give you some deadlines for making difficult decisions that you might otherwise put off indefinitely.

I imagine that you're like most mothers and you put your child's needs well ahead of your own, pretty much all of the time. You probably don't need a lecture implying that divorce at this stage in your life is selfish and imploring you to consider your child's best interests as if you're not already doing that. While it will be hard on her to see her parents divorce while her mom is undergoing cancer treatment, it will be just as hard on her to see her mom go through a mental breakdown while on cancer treatment. That really seems like the path you're on at this point. A mentally and physically well mom is one of the best gifts you can give your child and if divorce is the only way to get there (and, of course, it might not be) then please do not feel guilty about that.

Take care.
posted by scantee at 12:28 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

In case you don't know this, I just want to reassure you that everything you're talking about -- the make or break moment in your marriage, the affair, the feeling that it's all about to change and probably fall apart -- is pretty typical of people who have life-threatening diagnoses. (And of while I don't have stats for this, I would anecdotally say it's commonplace in people who have cancer, and are women, and are, say 38 - 55.)

It is not too late. Find a therapist, build some support, split from your husband, and learn from your affair that you are capable and worthy of intimacy and communication.

Basically: fuck it. Ding ding. Round 2 starts today.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:29 PM on March 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm so sorry this has all piled on. You will get through and you will see better days, and you can get there one step at a time.

The idea of making a plan is good. However if you're feeling just completely out to sea, and the idea of planning and stuff is just too ambitious, I offer you the coping mantra that has saved me when I was completely and utterly at wits end. I wrote that in response to an infidelity question but in my experience it's remarkably effective no matter what crazy shit is going on. I hope it helps you.

One last thing. Next time your husband says something belittling, and you protest, and he says he's joking, please hold firm and tell him that it's only a joke if both people think it's funny. You do not, and you won't be spoken to that way, especially after bearing his child and being knocked around by cancer. Please just hold that asshole accountable to not be cruel to you. Worry about divorce and shit later--you have every moral authority to pull rank on his crap, so go right ahead and do it--this Internet stranger gives you permission.

Good luck
posted by Sublimity at 3:03 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Concentrate on getting well, and hope - know - that the rest will follow. Divorce the husband when you're back to strength. Awful to get faded out by the boyfriend, but almost certainly nothing to do with you, just changes in his own life. Get well.
posted by Pechorin at 6:26 AM on March 7, 2016

. We've been together since we were teenagers, and I feel like I never really lived my own life or got to know myself...

I think this is a really big deal and it might go a long way to explain why the other relationship has been so important to you, and its ebbing right now so devastating. You met this new person as an adult. This is the first such relationship for you, if I'm reading you correctly.

I married a guy I met when I was a teenager, and that always limited the relationship. But in another way, it made it extremely hard to consider getting a divorce because he was almost like a member of my family of origin. (I almost certainly partnered up so early to get away from them, which is my story, not yours, but it made me feel even more reliant on him.) I'm not surprised that it's hard for you to contemplate leaving but that might make it all the more important to do so. In some ways, your relating as a couple is probably based on your teenage identities. If you want to move forward with the relationship, maybe you should focus on this aspect and see how you might redefine the relationship no longer based on your teenage selves. On the other hand, if you leave, you will have other chances to experience being desired for the adult you are now.
posted by BibiRose at 4:47 AM on March 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

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