The most important role in my life over the past month has been caregiver to my wife Amy, who had arthroscopic surgery in April and will have minimal use of her right arm for about six weeks in total. The operation was needed was to repair a tear in her labrum, the ring of cartilage that surrounds the shoulder socket and keeps the arm stable in the joint. (The handy graphic above is from Health.com's informative article on the subject, and "SLAP" stands for Superior Labrum Anterior to Posterior. )
It's an injury most commonly suffered by baseball pitchers and competitive swimmers, neither of which describes Amy. We're not entirely sure how it happened in her case, but she had experienced increasing pain and decreasing range of motion in her shoulder for the past 2 years, and once the tear in her labrum was finally picked up on an MRI a few months ago, it was clear that surgery would be necessary.
We tried to choose the earliest possible date for the operation that wouldn't pose an impossible conflict with our respective work schedules, and we tried to think through in advance the implications of her being without the use of her arm for a month. And over a month into the process, Amy's recovery is going well--but the experience has also been a lot more stressful than we anticipated.
To be fair, I've been much busier at work than I expected to be this Spring, and that's one of the main sources of my stress. But being a caregiver is also simply harder and more time-consuming than I expected it to be, and that would be true no matter what was happening at work.
We've hardly found the solution to this problem, but we have found 3 key steps that helped us manage our stress over the past month:
Acknowledge the Stress
I'm completely dedicated to supporting Amy through this process--if a wife can't count on her husband to help her at a time like this, what good is he? But playing the stoic and acting as though everything's fine--which I tried at first--wasn't sustainable and ultimately wasn't even helpful, because it increased the distance between us just when we needed to be closer. At the same time, of course, Amy was deeply stressed not only by her physical symptoms but also by the experience of helplessness and dependence that accompanied the sudden loss of the use of her arm. Even on days when things were going well, we had a lot of difficult emotions swirling around in the background.
So it was a great relief when we realized how stressed we both were and how helpful it was to talk about it with each other. My stress didn't mean that I resented being her caregiver, and her stress didn't mean that my caregiving was inadequate--it simply was. And we had to acknowledge it in order to be able to deal with it.
Take the Long View
The miracle of arthroscopic surgery--we walked into the ER at 6am and were home in time for lunch--fools us into thinking that the healing process will be equally speedy. But it doesn't work that way, and the longer our time horizon, the more we realize that it's OK if we don't experience dramatic progress on a given day--and we may even take a step or two backwards.
We've also realized that our experience of living together is going to be different for an extended period of time. In the past when one of us was sick and had to cope with some limitations and the other had to pick up some additional responsibilities, it was a brief hiccup in our domestic routines--but this is different. For a few weeks Amy needed a lot of help simply getting bathed and dressed, and I had to plan the start of my day around those processes. Today she's regained her independence in those areas, but there are still a lot of things she can't do, and those jobs are mine on an ongoing basis. So rather than view the way things were before the surgery as normal, I've come to view normal as a definition in flux, and every few weeks it's going to change. Being a cliche doesn't make it any less true: It's a marathon, not a sprint.
Savor the Little Things
In retrospect perhaps it was good that two months ago I learned so much about what makes me happy by coming down with a terrible cold--because today I really appreciate a Martini, and exercise, and any opportunity to be outdoors. On an even simpler level, I appreciate the experience of just being in physical contact with Amy as she recovers. I shouldn't have been so surprised, but it was stunning to realize how much we depend on touch to express ourselves to each other and how much the pain that followed her surgery disrupted that process. Each step forward in her recovery is another opportunity for us to re-establish that connection, and on the most difficult, stressful days over the past month, little things like that have been the most important.
Graphic from Health.com, © Healthwise, Incorporated.