Crushing on My Caregiver
August 17, 2020 6:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm a middle-aged guy with a disability who needs some advice on how to get past a strong attraction to one of my long-time caregivers. Read on for the details.

First, a little about me: I’m 47 and I was born with a severe physical disability. I’m essentially a quadriplegic and I use a ventilator to breathe. I live independently, but I depend on 24-hour nursing care. My dating experience is fairly limited.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with an attraction to one of my nurses (let’s call her “Chelsea”). She has worked with me for 12 years and, over that time, we have become close friends. We’re the same age and she’s smart, funny, beautiful, and really good at her job. To be clear, she is happily married and I have never sensed any reciprocal feelings from her. I’ve felt a twinge of attraction to Chelsea for several years, but I just attributed that to my own loneliness. I’ve been attracted to other caregivers and those feelings usually resolve on their own.

Recently, Chelsea had to quarantine for 3 weeks because a couple family members had COVID. Fortunately, their symptoms were mild and they are fine now. This was the longest period of time that we had been apart in 12 years and I found myself really missing her. We texted and FaceTimed while she quarantined and I felt that rush of dopamine every time we communicated. That’s when I realized that my attraction to her might be stronger than I had thought.

Chelsea is back to work now, which makes me happy. I don’t plan on ever discussing my feelings with her; I think such a discussion would only make her uncomfortable and make things awkward between us. She has already mused about finding a new job (although that was before the pandemic) and I don’t want to hasten her departure. My ongoing isolation during the pandemic is probably a factor in all of this, so I need to address that somehow. I’m going to try on-line dating again, although I’m a bit skeptical given my previous experience with it.

I’d appreciate any advice on how to get over an unrequited attraction. I feel like I’ve done this before, but it’s been a while and this particular instance has thrown me for more of a loop than usual. I can’t really discuss this with anyone in my real life, but it feels good to get my thoughts out here. Thanks for reading.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Listen: there is nothing wrong with what you're feeling. This is how attachment works - what biologists and psychologists call "attachment" is what human beings refer to as "love". Not just the capacity but the *need* for attachment is hardwired into our brains and our psyches; it is both nature and nurture, and it is THE most potent driver of human behavior, even more than our (conscious) survival-seeking behavior is.

Biologists and psychologists used to believe that attachment was a secondary drive which served our primary survival instinct. But actually there's now a great deal of evidence - experimental, empirical, qualitative, and statistical - that attachment is in fact a primary instinct like survival, only even stronger! We crave love in and of itself MORE than we crave life. (See Harlow's experiment with baby monkeys; it's a heartbreaking read but so powerful.) And according to all the science, we never outgrow our need for attachment. We are hardwired and psychologically primed to feel powerfully attached to both our caregivers and our romantic/sexual interests.

And here you are, someone for whom the two classes of attachment partners has merged into one. Your caregiver is someone who is sexually attractive to you. Could there possibly be a more potent activator of your attachment impulses? It would be impossible not to fall in love with her.

So that's my first point: feeling this powerful love and attachment is fundamental to your biology, your psyche, and your very humanity. It's not evidence of there being anything wrong with you, and it's not a shameful or inappropriate feeling. You are not doing something wrong by feeling it. In fact the reaction I have to your confession that you love your caregiver is simply: respect. One of my wishes for you as I read this post was that I hope you can find a way to honor these feelings. They arise from the best within you.


The other reason I respect what's in your post is that it's clear you understand the difference between having feelings and acting on feelings. You already know that it would probably be inappropriate to tell your caregiver about your feelings, especially in a way that implicitly or explicitly asks for her reciprocation or any kind of openhearted response. She shouldn't be put in a position where she must romantically accept OR reject someone she works with, ideally.

However, this doesn't mean you have to protect her at the expense of yourself. You may find yourself with genuinely no way to handle the feelings you are having, you may find that your mental health and emotional balance is disturbed because of these feelings. AND, it may be that you don't have access to a therapist or other professional or (qualified) personal helper who can guide you through resolving these feelings. So it's highly possible that you now face a choice between

- "inappropriately" confessing your feelings towards her and transgressing on her professional boundaries


- keeping everything to yourself and quite possibly sacrificing your own mental health and functioning because you don't have the resources to manage your attachment for her on your own.

If this is the case... If you do not have a therapist or a religious counselor or some other qualified +reliable personal contact whom you can lean on to help you through this... then it may be not only appropriate but necessary for you to confess your feelings to her. Because here's the thing: she's your caregiver. You are her charge. While caring for your mental and emotional health may not be strictly a part of her official job description, every healthcare worker knows it is de facto a part of the job. In the absence of any other resources for you, she is the most appropriate person to talk to about this.

Given her profession and the fact that she isn't new to it, it's quite likely that she has both the skills and the training to get you both through this without freaking out, without getting angry with you, without even making it awkward, without ruining your relationship, without punishing you or abandoning you or quitting on you tomorrow. Think about it: she's a professional. This situation is NOT NEW to her, or to the profession. There's a very high likelihood that "How To Gently and Respectfully Handle A Patient Who Develops Feelings For You" was a pretty big part of her training. Perhaps not as big a part of her training as it would be for, say, a therapist. But it's impossible that she will see your confession as something shocking or horrific.

Though of course that depends on the manner in which you talk to her, and what your goal is in speaking to her. I would advise you to approach this conversation with the goal of letting her know you are struggling with something, and asking for her help in getting past it. In other words, TREAT HER LIKE YOUR CAREGIVER and ASK FOR HER PROFESSIONAL HELP WITH SOMETHING THAT MAY IMPACT YOUR (MENTAL) HEALTH. This makes your confession of feelings both appropriate and constructive.

You can say something like, "[Caregiver], I need to ask you for help with something that's very difficult to talk about. Working with you has been a wonderful experience for me, and I appreciate your professionalism, your work ethic, and your skill very much. Lately, my warm feelings towards you have developed into something more. I'm definitely not asking or expecting to turn our professional relationship personal. I fully understand that acting on these feelings is inappropriate. I'm just trying to manage my overwhelming feelings, and failing. It's beginning to affect my day-to-day emotional well-being. I need help getting past this and I just don't know who else to ask. Do you have any experience dealing with this type of situation? How can I manage this?"

Maybe the very act of being open about your feelings will take your thoughts out of the realm of fantasy, and that will disrupt the spiral you are caught in. Maybe she will be open to discussing her professional approach to this type of situation with you, and once again, that sort of reality check tends to disrupt the emotional whirlwind within. Maybe she can recommend a therapist or counselor for you to speak to. If she is as wonderful a caregiver and as experienced as you describe, this type of confession will not, in reality, be as risky as it feels to you.

So this is my second point: it is not necessarily inappropriate to confess your feelings to your caregiver, because it's kind of their job to care for you! Especially if you lack other resources like therapy, and especially if you make sure that you are asking for your caregiver's professional help rather than making a personal demand on them, talking to your caregiver about your feelings is a good and healthy way to manage your current "emotional spiral".


When you have dealt with this immediate situation, and gotten yourself out of the emotional spiral -- like, even if your feelings for her have not completely died out, you're calmer and have more perspective and you are able to enjoy your usual hobbies and activities again -- then, at that later point, perhaps you will want to think about how you might realistically meet your attachment needs. It really is fundamental to your being. You may or may not be able to fall in love with someone and be loved by them like in a fairytale - none of us is guaranteed that, and with your particular challenges re: the disability, dating and falling in love is that much harder for you. But, you know, it ain't over till it's over, and the meaning of life is possibility. Someone as thoughtful and mature and introspective as you are has a lot to offer a partner. And perhaps, until you do find a partner, your attachment needs can be met in other ways.

Freud called it "libidinal energy". Most people understand this to mean "sexual energy" but actually it means "life drive". Many of us who do not have access to good attachment relationships are able to sublimate them and pour our libidinal energies into other obsessions which consume us and give meaning to our lives.

So that's my third point: When your heart and mind and body and soul are engaged by some passion - a hobby or pets or career or skill or friendships or learning or art or mentoring etc etc etc - the "hole" in our psyche created by unmet attachment needs can be quite, quite filled up.
posted by MiraK at 8:14 AM on August 17, 2020 [38 favorites]

When your heart and mind and body and soul are engaged by some passion - a hobby or pets or career or skill or friendships or learning or art or mentoring etc etc etc - the "hole" in our psyche created by unmet attachment needs can be quite, quite filled up.

Very much agree! My first thought when reading your question was about what you are engaged in, when it comes to other friendships or close relationships, passions, hobbies, etc.

The second thought is that what you are feeling is very natural, and there's no need to feel bad about it. And I think when you are able to engage with available passions, hobbies, people, this will help to dissipate it. Of course, finding these available things can be hard, either practically speaking or because we may have emotional defenses up.

I'd also second the idea of searching for a therapist, because having an outside professional to talk to about these desires and to maybe work on meaningful targets could be really useful in this situation.
posted by bearette at 10:08 AM on August 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Sometimes, when I see events depicted that mirror my own experiences, I find comfort in that, as it reassures me of a wider universality of that experience. "The Sessions" is a 2012 film (where to watch) that depicts a disabled individual falling for his caregiver. That is not the entirety of the plot; the film depicts the protagonist's thought process after that, and his subsequent decisions regarding addressing his sexual needs. You may find the film of use or interest, and it is non-fiction (although presumably at least somewhat fictionalized) and based on this article.
posted by metabaroque at 1:07 PM on August 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

You seem like a thoughtful guy, and you’ve already said that you don’t intend to discuss your feelings with Chelsea. As a nurse who has worked in a variety of community/home-based programs, I encourage you to honor that commitment, and to either confide in a friend or a therapist about your crush on Chelsea. While the advice above to discuss your feelings with her directly is well-intentioned, the reality is that as soon as you disclose these feelings to Chelsea she is going to stop being your nurse. It’s not her job to manage your feelings of attraction. This is not a social relationship, and her caregiving domain (tending to your bodily needs and your trach/vent management) is emphatically NOT the sort of psychotherapeutic milieu where frank discussions about feelings of transference might be welcomed or encouraged. Because of the liability inherent in a home health assignment, it would be almost 100% likely that Chelsea would ask to be reassigned from your case, or would take that theoretical “other job” you mentioned, if you told her you were attracted to her. I’m sure you are a reasonable person who doesn’t mean any harm, but no nurse worth her license is going to risk her livelihood to continue working with a male patient who has confessed this sort of attraction. She’s going to disclose any confession of this sort to her boss, and she’s going to get transferred to another patient.

I think your instinct to try online dating again is a solid one. I wish you good luck making a connection with someone else who can reciprocate your feelings.
posted by little mouth at 2:39 PM on August 17, 2020 [38 favorites]

Just one piece of anecdata for you. I have a prosthetic leg and missing fingers. It took a long time for me to see myself as attractive (lots of bad messages growing up), but I've had what I think is probably a typical range of sexual and romantic experience. Echoing those who say not to breathe a word of this to Chelsea. Instead, like anyone else, concentrate on "putting yourself out there." Put your profile on SEVERAL dating sites and share plenty of honest pictures that show your various disabilities. You might be surprised. What I found is that at 21 a lot of people want "perfect." At a little older, a lot of people have already gotten together with the all-American generic sexual partner. They're ready to branch out a little. And that's where you come in.

I have a comment somewhere on here about a guy with leg braces I had a crush on. Here I am disabled myself, and I never understood exactly what people saw in me. I thought they were kind of looking the other way when it came to my leg, etc. Then I saw this dude with braces walking down the hall one day (limping, as it happens) and I wanted to tear off his clothes with my teeth. So desire works in all sorts of ways. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.
posted by 8603 at 3:01 PM on August 17, 2020 [9 favorites]

I did Chelsea's job for a while, helping care for a guy who was quadriplegic and living at home. He didn't use a vent so I was an 'unskilled' carer rather than a nurse, and it was mornings/evenings rather than 24 hours. But there was a team of just three of us providing his care on a rota basis, so we saw a lot of each other.

There is an inevitable, unique bond that forms between people in this situation who get along well, as you know better than any of us. It was, and remains, one of the privileges of my life to get to know this guy the way I did, to be allowed into his life and to serve him. The closeness that develops did, inevitably, mean that we shared some things in conversation that you wouldn't find yourself talking about in most jobs.

But I'd agree with little mouth that a care giving relationship like this isn't the same as a mental health/therapeutic one, and just because Chelsea is your care giver does not mean she is your therapist. I would support the decision you've already made not share this with her. It would put her in a difficult position professionally - she may actually be obliged to report this to her employers if you tell her, and even if that's not in her training/contract she then has to make the decision herself as to whether to report it and/or seek a new job (which, in all likelihood, she would, no matter how much she loves working for you). It seems likely to leave you feeling worse in the long run, rather than better.

Like I say, you obviously know all this very well, better than any of us, hence your decision not to tell her. I just wanted to come in and support your decision - I think there's some great advice above, but the suggestion that you tell her because she'll definitely be fine with it because she's a carer - not so much.

All the advice about seeking other sources of company and fulfillment is good, especially since you recognise yourself that the isolation of lockdown is what's brought this to a head. Likewise, the suggestion of seeing if you can find someone else to talk to about this - though I recognise that might be difficult if you have 24 hour care and lack easy access to privacy. Maybe a friend you can email? Sometimes all it takes to puncture that bubble is for someone else to laugh and say "OMG, I know the inappropriate crush feeling, did I ever tell you about the time I got drunk and told my piano teacher I fancied him when I was 17? That did not end well, let me tell you about it, I feel your pain!" (Not suggesting that this is just a crush, but even when the experiences aren't totally analogous, it can really help).

I would just add that, while it's maybe not a replacement for romantic feelings, the connection you do have with Chelsea is something you have every right to value and appreciate. It's the kind of relationship not many people get to experience, and while it might not be romantic, I bet it's been enriching and valuable for both of you; even if she moves on to that other job, you'll always have been an important part of her life. I still think about my guy with fondness, 13 years on.
posted by penguin pie at 6:05 PM on August 17, 2020 [14 favorites]

It might be worth asking for her support to find mental health resources such as a therapist you can discuss this with. Tell her that isolation has taken a toll on you and you'd like someone to talk to (who doesn't?). Many people are booked solid these days, but a referral from her or her organization might help get you in the door with someone equipped to help you.

But for goodness sake trust your own instincts and do not listen to the first comment and confess your undying love. Others have covered how it might affect her, but I am certain there is nothing but embarrassment and regret for you down that path. Any response other than her admitting to having similar feelings will leave you feeling like a bit of a fool. No matter how empathetic and professional her response you'll always wonder if you crossed a barrier or not.
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 6:15 PM on August 17, 2020 [11 favorites]

I've been thinking about my comment above and I thought I'd follow up a little. You might think (and you might be right) that it's not fair, in the dating meat market, to compare a prosthetic leg to quadriplegia and a vent. So glad for you, 8603, that you've had a fairly normal dating life, you might say, but that's not realistic for me. Well, I can say this. I went to college with a more or less quadriplegic guy--he had very limited arm movement, but could operate an electric wheelchair and feed himself. From a raw physical standpoint, I would have dated him--he's not a bad-looking guy--but I just didn't dig his personality, the same way I might not dig the personality of any other guy. (I looked him up on Facebook as part of "research" for this comment, and nope, I still don't want to date him.) Maybe I can feel attracted to him, from a purely physical angle, because I have a fairly minor disability, a cynic might say. So maybe, if we're going to be cold, hard pragmatists, his "pool" has a big proportion of disabled people and people with close experience with disability, maybe in family members. First off, that's still a nonzero number of people in his pool. Second, my being attracted to him says nothing about whether or not a "regular" woman could be. A non-disabled woman could easily be attracted to him.

I hope this is helpful. What I'm trying to say is don't hesitate to get on dating sites. Do what you have to do.
posted by 8603 at 10:00 AM on August 20, 2020

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