Help me help my wife.
October 21, 2021 11:42 AM   Subscribe

How do I reassure my wife that her health isn't making other people angry or resentful?

My wife gets chronic migraines, and they can get pretty bad. She's finally landed on a medication that seems to be controlling the frequency of them, but the intensity is still there - she'll get a migraine about twice a month that will prevent her from working for about a day or two. This is down from several a month about a year ago, so we're definitely making progress, and this question isn't actually about treating the migraines - we've got that as dialed in as it has ever been.

My question is how to help her emotionally. Lately, she gets suuuuuuuuper down on herself when she gets a migraine. She doesn't blame herself for getting them, necessarily, but she wraps up a lot of other things in with her physical pain. She is out of vacation/sick time for the rest of 2021 because of migraines over the year, so she feels bad about that (even though we aren't traveling at all these days because of covid), and she feels bad about what her sudden absences do to her coworkers' workloads, and she feels bad about the burden she's placing on me by basically me having to run the house while she's out of commission (despite the fact that I don't see it that way at all).

I absolutely get where she's coming from, but as far as her work goes, she's worked with her team for about 7 years now, and migraines have been a part of her life for far longer than that. The team is extremely understanding about her health, they never even remotely indicate that her sometimes-sudden absences are a problem, and no boss has ever indicated that there may be a problem with either reliability or performance. She is one of the top performers on her team, largely because she works very hard when she's healthy to try to mitigate the impact for the times that she's not. She's on FMLA, so she's not worried about things from a legal/HR perspective as much as from an "I don't want my team to resent me because I take unscheduled time off a lot" perspective.

These days, whenever she gets a migraine, she gets really upset and depressed, because to her, she's letting everyone down, both at work and at home. She and I have been together for 17 years, married for 15, and it's only in the last couple years these have started to hit her in this way, and I honestly don't know what I can do to help her feel less bad about feeling bad, as it were. I help her as much as I can, and as I said, I don't see her illness as a burden at all; it's all part of the "in sickness and in health" thing we signed up for when we got married, and I know she'd do the same for me if the roles were reversed.

I know I can't fix all of this for her. But I'd love to know, outside of the reassurances I already give her, what more I can do to be there for her, and what I can do to make her feel less like she's a problem to be solved (which she absolutely is not) and more like a person who's just going through some tough stuff and has people who care about her to support her as she does.
posted by pdb to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Migraine is associated with depression, and from my own experience I’d say there's a migraine hangover that feels like depression.

So I think she could view these feelings of letting everyone down as another symptom that does not reflect the real situation — just like the scintillating spots in her vision.
posted by jamjam at 12:06 PM on October 21, 2021 [8 favorites]

I'm going to take this in another direction that might or might not work. What if you drew a boundary? Instead of offering continuing reassurances, what if you simply said, "I love you, and this isn't a problem, and I need you to stop asking if it's a problem in our marriage. It is not." And then you tell her how moving forward, you won't be discussing it. "Next time you mention this, I will say it's not a problem, and then the conversation is over. I will not continue to discuss the issue." I think there's a way to say this with warmth and love, especially if you get out ahead of it.

I'm not saying don't support her, or have serious conversations with her. But it almost sounds like this need for reassurance is itself becoming the burden for you. It's like when you have a friend who is so kind and sweet and always apologizing and at some point you want to be like, "OH MY GAWD I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE QUIT APOLOGIZING." And then you feel like a jerk when really what you needed was to draw a boundary with them.

Could it also be that you all could have this conversation with a few visits with a marriage counselor?

I would stop trying to appeal to logic or marriage vows because I think her fears are deeply rooted and possibly related to feelings of unworthiness or abandonment. I don't think you can fill those holes by continuing the same approach. She's asking for a lot of emotional labor from you, and it might be worth having a conversation with her about ways she can lighten this load -- and one of those is by getting some support to work through these feelings of unworthiness. Is there a support group she could join, for example, even if online?

[Also feel free to disregard this completely if it sounds terrible. But I know from experience that you can't fill a hole in some else's self-esteem.]
posted by bluedaisy at 12:08 PM on October 21, 2021 [16 favorites]

I know she'd do the same for me if the roles were reversed.

Have you asked her to try to imagine how she'd feel if the roles were reversed? If you had migraines, would she feel that you were letting her down? If a coworker she liked and respected did, would she resent them? (You might want to try this discussion at a time when she is not in pain and has more energy to think about it.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:22 PM on October 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: As a disabled person (which your wife is), it was revelatory to me when someone stopped reassuring me that I wasn’t being inconvenient and instead said “it’s ok to be a pain in the ass. You are allowed.”

Honestly, a lot of people minimize and somewhat gaslight disabled people’s concerns about the impact on other people. It comes from a good place, but it is seriously crazy making to KNOW you are being an annoyance or causing disruption and have people reassure you that you aren’t. Because it’s not true. What IS true is that it’s ok to be annoying or disruptive and literally everyone is and we still love and like and respect them, and we are owed the same. It’s very isolating to have this big concern and have everyone try to tell you it isn’t even happening when it is objectively impossible for it not to be the case. It’s much better to have recognition that yeah, sure, other people’s lives are being impacted but those same people are impacting your life in a variety of ways and you don’t hold it against them, so it’s ok to give yourself a break for impacting their lives.

Seriously, just acknowledge that she’s not wrong AND THAT IT IS ALSO OK. Things can be more than one thing, and disability is certainly in that bucket.
posted by Bottlecap at 12:26 PM on October 21, 2021 [98 favorites]

What’s her support network looking like? Has there been a change in it since she started having these struggles? Like, who can she call and complain about things with? Who is she able to express her worries to? Does she have any reciprocal kvetching friends?

It sounds like it would be a good idea to find a counselor, therapist, or other neutral person for her to express her worries to without burdening you. Right now you are saddled with the problem of telling your wife that her perception of the world is wrong all the time, and that’s not a simple issue to fix. For some people, having a person who is paid to listen to them is an amazing way to mitigate feelings of guilt about it. For others, it’s best to have a mutual complaining session, in which case group therapy can be great so it’s guided and doesn’t go off the rails. You can help her navigate the thicket of issues with seeking mental healthcare.

You can also help maintain social links to people who can reinforce acceptance of her abilities. Keeping in touch with family and friends, having regular calls and visits, asking coworkers about kids and life events… all of that can be things you maintain so your wife is surrounded by people who model this acceptance and don’t drop contact because she is unpredictably unavailable.

It is worth noting that migraines and depression are sometimes connected. I’m sure that you already know this, of course. If it has spilled over to times when she isn’t in pain or during prodome, addressing this like non-migraine depression might be a good way to gather tools and support.
posted by Mizu at 12:28 PM on October 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

whenever she gets a migraine, she gets really upset and depressed

Be aware that some of this may actually be a migraine symptom, not as in "I feel bad so I'm sad" but "my brain/endocrine system experiences a reduction in mood as part of the chemical processes of this migraine".

Which is not to be dismissive at all, but it may be worth strategizing while she's not having a migraine about mitigation techniques to use when she is. That might be agreeing on CBT-style narrative-adjustments to use, or making a point to acknowledge in the moment that we know everything feels worse through the migraine lens, even identifying a code word and/or comfort item to use when the anxiety about all this gets too high.

It's difficult not to be anxious about this stuff, even in the light of a good day. Employment rights are fragile, partners get fatigued. I think developing better tools for talking about it is the way to improve this situation overall, but it may help some to maybe agree during the migraine to try to leave those worries for another better day.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:41 PM on October 21, 2021 [5 favorites]

Came in to suggest something adjacent to Bottlecap, which is that generally with depressive feelings, pushing them away (or having them pushed away) can perpetuate them and make them grow bigger, so finding a way to let those feelings exist, can be the most helpful thing and, ironically, can let them be shorter-lived. It’s not always easy to work out how to do that, but Bottlecap has hit that one pretty nicely on the head for you.

So I guess it’s also partly about untangling your own feelings from hers. If, for example, the depression is a physical side-effect of the migraines or the new medication, you can’t argue her out of it, so can you find a way to live with it and make peace with it for the time that it endures? That will help you resist trying to talk her out of it to reduce your own discomfort. It’s awful to have someone you care about unable to be “fixed” by the things you tell them, but sometimes that’s the way it is, and accepting that is a useful, if difficult, thing to do.

This, I guess, is particularly the case if it’s something that is self-limiting and happens specifically around the time of the migraine. If it starts to expand and take over the rest of her life, encouraging her to get help specifically for the depression becomes more important (which is something you could do anyway if it seems problematic, but I don’t think that’s what you’re asking).
posted by penguin pie at 12:49 PM on October 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

How do I reassure my wife that her health isn't making other people angry or resentful?

You can't. You can reassure her that her health isn't making you angry or resentful but unless you live in someone else's brain, you can't speak for them. It might be that her health really truly isn't a problem for anyone else or it might be the case that someone on her team is incredibly frustrated with her absences. The thing is, that's okay. It's not on her to manage other people's expectations and reactions. As long as she's picking up the slack when she can and makes plans to keep her disruptions to an absolute minimum, her colleagues can keep their opinions to themselves (which it sounds like she is and they are).

She's also really allowed to get upset and depressed. Migraines SUCK and having them SUCKS and having them disrupt your life REALLY REALLY SUCKS. I absolutely appreciate when my husband lets me have those feelings and lets me vent about how much I hate that migraines stop me from living my life. I hate that other people have to step in for me. I'm very independent and having to be dependent really stinks. Maybe she just needs you to acknowledge that for her, too.
posted by cooker girl at 12:50 PM on October 21, 2021 [11 favorites]

I kinda agree with cooker girl: other people may be resentful, but there isn't shit she or they can do about it! Everyone involved in her life has to suck it up and deal with it. Preferably in a kind way even if they may be privately pissed. Yeah, I've certainly felt resentful of sick people at times, especially at my job when we're down to very few people as is and then people call out. But you can't do anything about it, you just live with it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:03 PM on October 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

She is a disabled person living in an ableist society, which means she has internalized ableism about her disability and faces ableism wherever she goes. (And ableism thrives on ideas like, "If it's only sometimes debilitating, you're not really disabled," or, "Other people have it so much worse," or, "It's not bad enough for me to deserve accommodations"--all of which make it seem "reasonable" for others to resent a person for having a disability.) One thing you can do for her is to learn about disability justice and ableism. Disability Visibility, edited by Alice Wong, might be a good place to start.
posted by theotherdurassister at 1:14 PM on October 21, 2021 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I think you have the best of intentions and I also think that everyone who has told you to just give her space to feel her negative feelings and worries without minimizing them. This is one of the greatest gifts I’ve learned to give and receive as an adult in my deep relationships: going from a fixer, to the point of being co-dependent, to someone who holds space for others. It’s hard at first but gets easier with time! And I know that a “it really DOES suck” then a “I I love you!” and a hug is really what I benefit from most. I’d ask your wife what she wants to hear from you in these situations because it will mean both of you getting your emotional needs met. Good luck!
posted by smorgasbord at 1:19 PM on October 21, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I have severe chronic migraine, among other disabilities.

Here are a few different thoughts:

1. What you regard as reassurance may feel like gaslighting or negating. I know for a fact that if I'm incapacitated, it has an impact on others. I would rather hear, "Yes, I had to do more around here but I love you and I want to take care of us," than any version of, "it's not a big deal." Acknowledge the reality, because we get gaslit by everyone all the time.

2. And, yes, it may be an issue at work. Employers are very good at muscling disabled people out of our jobs without discriminating against us in a way we can prove in court (if we even have the resources to go to court).

3. A depressed, dreary, hungover feeling is common to the migraine process. In addition, many chronic pain patients suffer from major depression.

4. It's been wild to see America's loathing for the disabled fully brought out into the open since the pandemic began. Seeing that all the accommodations we asked for and were denied were in many cases forked right over when abled people wanted them, seeing the calls for people like us to shut ourselves up forever, the resentment towards vulnerable people given first crack at vaccines...oof. She may be internalizing those ableist messages.

5. There may be a sort of survivors guilt going on, if she's plugged in to chronic migraine/chronic illness communities. She's less sick, and that's wonderful. But many of us have gotten worse, which is also what I'm hearing from my doctors. The pandemic has spiked migraine frequency, or created new symptoms (hello, tunnel vision!).

So I would talk to her at a time when she's not in a migraine flare process, and ask some leading questions. Let her talk, and don't rush to reassure or fix.
posted by champers at 1:35 PM on October 21, 2021 [18 favorites]

Working extra hard to compensate for a health problem she can't control sounds terrible. Is there a way to take on a more flexible work life- like a couple of floating extra days off each month- so she doesn't have to grind so hard?

The migraines are a part of her life. They're not really known to be totally curable so I think it's time to start behaving as if they're a part of her life and planning accordingly.

It sounds like she's trying to produce as if she doesn't have this disability, but... she does. She literally does not have access to the same 40 hours every week that her coworkers have, so, if she's losing a day some weeks and then trying to cram 40 hours into 33 hours? That stress sounds truly miserable and unfair (and probably also leads to more migraines although I don't want to remotely victim blame, migraines aren't caused by things she does but I bet being miserable also makes them worse.)

Bodies have limits. Those limits are not character flaws.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 1:45 PM on October 21, 2021 [7 favorites]

If her therapist isn’t well versed in disability issues and internalized ableism, maybe a different therapist would help.
posted by matildaben at 3:27 PM on October 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Reading through some of these thoughtful responses makes me feel like I wasn't clear enough in my initial post. To clarify:

- No one is being resentful of my wife at her work. The opposite is true, they're very supportive, in both word and action (both her immediate workgroup and the company as a whole). My wife just feels like resentment is an oncoming, inevitable consequence of her health (like, at some point they'll all just say WE'VE HAD ENOUGH).
- I don't feel like I'm overburdened or that my emotional load around this needs to be removed or lessened; she's the most important person in my life and I want to be there for her, in whatever capacity she needs (even if that's "leave me alone"). I'm just trying to figure out what that might look like, so I don't go in to a conversation with her about this asking her all the wrong questions, as it were
- I understand that she's allowed to be upset and depressed - I'm not trying to "fix" her depression around this, I'm just trying to find ways to navigate it that might give her some support/comfort while it's happening
- I am fully aware of how much migraines suck, I see it manifest all the time and it's awful
- she's had these migraines for 20+ years, so the question isn't one of "behaving as if they're a part of her life" - they very much are, and we're very much in the rhythm of doing that.
- I never say things like "it's not a big deal" - she knows that I pick up a lot of slack around here when she's unable to, and she is very appreciative of it (even though I don't require that appreciation, it's just the way our lives are and I'm happy to be of help when she can't). I don't minimize it, but I also don't make a fuss about it.

I guess the nature of my question is close to what bottlecap said in their comment. I want to find a way to communicate "I'm here for you, but I don't want to define what that looks like for you" that she hasn't heard from me a million times before, because I have a feeling that anything I say, at this point, has been heard so many times that it has lost meaning. I want the things I say while she's miserable to at least provide some comfort and space for her to exist as she needs to, not to eliminate her misery but to let her know that she's loved and supported while going through it.

I have said things like this to her before, but I want to make sure that what I'm saying is a help, not a hindrance, if that makes sense. I appreciate all the advice.
posted by pdb at 4:14 PM on October 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Gently, if she's a top performer at her workplace [ despite / because she's compensating for ] missing a couple days a month? Then she's NOT behaving like frequent migraines are a part of her life.

Behaving like migraines are a part of her life would mean lessening her commitments so she's not cramming an average amount of work into a smaller-than-average amount of time. Ideally her commitment of hours / output would be such that she could do a good job without sprinting to catch up, achieving a consistent and not-gruelling pace, even on a week when she misses a day of work due to a migraine and is at reduced productivity the next day from the aftereffects. That would be totally ok and once she gets used to it, probably waaay healthier for her.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 5:28 PM on October 21, 2021 [4 favorites]

Have you not just asked her this directly (when she's not having a migraine/depression) - "how can I best support and or comfort you when you're having a migraine and or feeling low about it"?
posted by love2potato at 5:53 PM on October 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: love2potato: I have. When she doesn't have migraines, she doesn't want to think about having migraines (understandable), so she basically says things like "you're doing fine", and I don't want to press her too hard on whether "fine" means fine, or means "I'm not sure how to tell you what I really need".

At some point, at her own speed and in her own time, we'll have a very full conversation about what she needs, given her evolving relationship with her migraines; we do have good communication about most things. One thing I know as a result of our years together, though, is that I cannot force that conversation to happen. I just want to be as prepared as I can when it does.
posted by pdb at 7:16 PM on October 21, 2021

Best answer: I want to find a way to communicate "I'm here for you, but I don't want to define what that looks like for you" that she hasn't heard from me a million times before, because I have a feeling that anything I say, at this point, has been heard so many times that it has lost meaning.

That feeling of yours is a thing for you to sit with and contemplate and understand and perhaps deconstruct. Don't burden your wife with it.

When she doesn't have migraines, she doesn't want to think about having migraines (understandable), so she basically says things like "you're doing fine", and I don't want to press her too hard on whether "fine" means fine, or means "I'm not sure how to tell you what I really need".

I recommend assuming that somebody you've been married to for fifteen years will be telling you the truth when you ask them how you're doing. Because if that's an unsafe assumption, your marriage has bigger problems than working out how to deal with migraines.

You're doing fine. Just keep doing that.
posted by flabdablet at 8:31 PM on October 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

I just want to be as prepared as I can when it does.

You already have seventeen years of preparation under your belt. Trust that to do its job.
posted by flabdablet at 8:32 PM on October 21, 2021

Someone I know who gets migraine (and has felt similarly to your wife about how others percieve them) told me they found Jeff Tweedy's piece about them in the NYT very helpful because it validated their own experience and feelings (not the painkiller stuff, the mysteriousness and panic and self-doubt). Maybe your wife would like it?
posted by caek at 9:26 PM on October 21, 2021

« Older Pectin problems - crab apple jelly edition   |   Please Help a Technopeasant Burn Some CDs Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments