I recently heard a provoking question posed to listeners on a morning radio show. They asked “what do you apologize for about your partner?” The host of the show paused for a long time, and could be heard taking a deep breath before deciding what to say. Clearly, she had something important to say but was reluctant to share with the listening audience. I could relate to the reluctance and empathized with her plight of potentially exposing her and her partner’s vulnerabilities. Eventually, she found a tactful way to say that her partner can be a bit overbearing and which is sometimes perceived as aggressive. There it was, out in the open, something not so positive about the person she’d chosen as her life partner.
Because life gets awkward when you’re dealing with a partner who is compromised because of their brain injury, it can feel like you’re always apologizing for their behaviour. Sometimes it manifested in feeling ashamed of my spouse, but most often it was feeling ashamed because we tried so hard to be like other couples, but fell far short of the mark. We don’t have many happy family vacations, because that’s too much effort and expense for us. We don’t have regular date nights because it’s hard to plan when you don’t know if the energy will be there. We don’t have a division of domestic chores, but a haphazard of what needs to be done most urgently gets done. We don’t go out a lot and socialize with other couples or families. Our version of life as a married couple with a teenage son is not typical. And that used to make me both sad and ashamed.
During the hardest years, I remember saving McDonald’s coffee stickers to get a special hot chocolate for our then young son. I remember strategically planning my grocery shopping to get the best prices in the early morning hours, and thrilled to find unexpected treats for our son. I recall the agony of buying a day planner each year, wondering and hoping if this year I’d have some good memories and appointments to write in it. Every day felt like a struggle.
I kept thinking that if I was somehow better at all of this, there’d be no struggle. And so I wore a path to the section of the library where all the psychology and self help books are shelved. There it was, my prescription for a better life: Think differently. Be more positive. Fight for yourself. Take responsibility. Be efficient. Smile more. Be grateful. Triumph over your adversity. Have more faith. Struggle is good.
But I never could do all those things. I was a tired mom and caregiver for my husband who looked just fine to the rest of the world. And so I felt more ashamed. Where were the books that said “ Yes, this is hard. Take my hand. I’m here for you. I acknowledge your pain.”
Until I acknowledged the true magnitude of our situation, I could not move through it honestly. Denying it and trying to pretend we were just like other couples and families was salt to the wound. Every single day. I was ashamed of our struggles because I believed there should be no struggle if I were better, if he were better. Struggling meant we were not okay. And all I wanted was to be okay again.
After more than ten years of living my private hell, I went public. Not to the people who knew me. They weren’t safe for me yet. I started with my writing. I wrote with blunt honesty, rawness, and transparency. Some of it you’ve read in other posts here. Once past the first barrier, I shared with our therapist. Two years of couples therapy and two years of individual and couple work to unwind and unravel the pain that was burning inside us because no one told us how the brain injury could change our life. We needed someone to bear witness to our story, our grief, our pain. He did that and more for us. Gradually, our circle of safety has expanded. I show people the MRI picture of my husband’s brain so they understand. And they are kind to our struggles, receiving my honesty with gracious empathy.
So what do I apologize for about my husband? Absolutely nothing.