“What should we talk about today?” Dustin asked. He edged the car around the crowded parking lot until he found a space.
I shrugged. My heart hurt. My head hurt. I was tired. So tired. My insomnia persisted despite Claire being home from the hospital. Even so, Dustin liked having a plan when we talked with Nicki, our grief counselor.
“Hmmm . . . .” I pretended to be thinking. “What do you want to talk about?”
“What about your sleep issues?”
“Sure,” then as an afterthought, I added, “Maybe our social ineptness?”
“Right,” Dustin’s fist tightened around the steering wheel.
Neither of us knew what we should say during the session. At each visit, we completed a survey on our emotional well-being before we began. Then Nicki read through it, glancing up at us when she saw questionable answers on our surveys. We squirmed uncomfortably in our chairs while we waited.
“Sally, you’re still having a hard time falling asleep?” Nicki prodded, concerned, but professional.
“And staying asleep?”
“Have you been to the doctor? Like we talked about?”
“Well, they’re just going to tell me to take Ambien. I can’t take Ambien. I have to be alert at night. In case Claire needs me.”
She nodded. She knew Claire needed me at night. Often. She shifted her attention to Dustin.
“Dustin, how is work? How is your motivation?”
Dustin was caught. Work was terrible. Each morning, he had to climb up a fire escape ladder to the little hole in the attic that he called an office. He then had to spend the day alone reading difficult, sometimes boring, research papers. The purpose of this was to fuel his own research, but his concentration skills were suffering, just like my sleep. It was a wonder if he understood anything he was reading let alone writing something new.
I intervened on his behalf, “Wait.”
Nicki and Dustin both turned toward me.
“We want to talk about why the end of the day is so hard.”
I peeked at Dustin. He looked surprised, but willing.
Nicki was listening intently now.
“Well, I expect the day hours to be draining,” I began. I wondered how to narrow the list of reasons for this. Forcing 15 medicines down Claire’s throat, the leg pain that left her trembling, the mood swings that made me feel like she’s wasn’t even my little Claire, the short, interrupted nights. I decided to jump to my point instead.
“But, I also expect the evenings to be better. After the kids are asleep, I mean. Only it doesn’t feel better.”
“Whether it’s just Dustin and me at home, or if I’m with others, it’s like I just ‘check out.’ I can’t hold a normal conversation or enjoy a bowl of ice cream with Dustin. Why? Why is it hard when I finally get a break?”
Nicki, being professional, took over. “Do you feel this way as well, Dustin? Like you’re not enjoying your evenings with one another? They’re difficult instead of restful?”
“Yeah. I guess I do.”
With a clear perspective on our dilemma, Nicki gently pressed forward:
“This is not surprising actually. While you are caring for your daughter, you simply act. Much like a soldier in battle, you are on the front lines. However, like soldiers who come home from battle and end up with post-traumatic stress disorder, when you are finally ‘off-duty,’ it would be very typical to shut down. The stress of Claire’s care can overwhelm your ability to cope in a normal way with your down time.”
“The front lines? Like war?” I questioned.
“Think about it. During the day, you don’t stew about whether this is hard or not, or whether you would rather not give Claire her medicine. You just do what needs to be done. Just like a soldier fights when faced with battle. It’s not what he would choose, but he does it. Then he has to deal with his actions later. Just like you.”
I stared at her, the words sinking in.
We were at war.
On the front lines.
If my days were really like being on the front lines fighting for Claire’s life then maybe it was okay that I had a little post traumatic stress disorder at the end of the day. Maybe it was okay that I had nothing left to offer.
“That’s exactly what it feels like,” I whispered aloud.
But, to myself I thought, To the front lines, then, because we’re not going to lose. Not this time.
If you missed Fridays post on advice from the front lines, check it out here. This will be a recurring column where I will discuss both how to help those on the front lines and how to help yourself if you are the one currently in battle. Look it for it monthly. Your suggestions are appreciated. Thanks!