Thursday, August 30, 2018

An Impossible Dilemma

In this week’s episode of Ask Polly, our least favorite advice columnist outdoes herself. Her response is so pathetic, so off base, that we will happily ignore it.

There’s nothing happy or good about the circumstances the letter writer finds herself in. Her life has become a nightmare. She is struggling, against long odds, against circumstances that have befallen her, and she does not know what to do. Facing an insoluble moral dilemma, she complains about how her friends are treating her. In truth, it’s the least of her problems, but it does hide a far more significant issue.

She calls herself No More Girl Friday, and she writes:

Five years ago, I was on top of the world. I was 33, happily married to a lovely man, and had recently had a series of huge career wins in a challenging field that I loved. Then things started to unravel: my company went bankrupt, evaporating most of my personal net worth with it. I started a new company, but it’s been a miserable trench warfare experience that I’m hating every minute of, and — much more significantly than any of the money/career stuff — my wonderful husband was suddenly diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that involves a particularly long and grueling treatment path and some very high mortality rates….

I thought my husband was the man I’d grow old with, perhaps start a family with, and now, even if he survives this disease, the reality is that he is permanently physically and psychologically damaged and nothing about how I envisioned our lives together is ever going to be the same. And to add to that, my career has gone from being something I was passionate about to feeling like a poorly paid prison with no escape plan.

Let’s be harsh here. She’s 38 years old, childless, nursing a husband who is permanently damaged. We do not know what kind of cancer her husband has. We do not know the prognosis… except that it’s bleak. She needs to keep working because she needs to support the two of them. And she seems to be the only caregiver in the equation.

Later in the letter, we will learn that her husband had “an ominous relapse” and no one else is helping her out.

This leads us to several reflections. We want to know whether she or her husband has family members who can help out with his care. We want to know who cares for him during the day while she is at work. We want to know whether they can hire a caregiver, a visiting nurse to stay with him. We would want her to get out on her own from time to time.

About this, we know nothing. The woman has presented herself and her husband as alone against the world, fighting a losing battle against cancer… without very much sympathetic understanding from friends.

Since NMGF will explain that she does not know what she wants, and since Polly will latch onto this phrase as though it’s a sign that the woman needs therapy, the truth of the matter is, that she might very well know what she wants. Only she cannot admit it, to herself or to others.

The man she is caring for is not really the man she married. She might want to exit the situation and to move on with her life. She might want to have a child, but now understands that, for all her business success, she postponed it too long… unless she gets pregnant by another man. She loves her husband but she also knows that she bears a moral responsibility to care for him, in sickness and in health. Her friends know this too. And they do not know how to say anything constructive about it.

The issue of her moral responsibility involves how she would look to her friends… and perhaps family, if she exited the marriage. It is unthinkable, morally, but I trust that the thought has crossed her mind.

If she is concerned with her own biological clock and wants to have a more normal life, the easiest way to affect it would be for her husband to die… sooner rather than later. It’s cruel. It’s heartless. It’s unthinkable. One imagines that it’s always possible for her to have an affair, but since she has no time to do anything but to work and to care for her husband, an affair is out of the question. Then again, perhaps her way of scheduling her time is designed to ensure that she cannot have an affair. Her friends might want her to get out and to have some fun. They might be more sympathetic than she thinks. But they cannot reasonably encourage her to commit immoral actions.

Anyway, none of these issue arise in her letter. And none pop into Polly’s mind. Instead, NMGF performs some self-therapy about the state of her relationships. It is off point, but I will share it anyway. It shows a denizen of our therapy culture withdrawing from the moral dilemma that has come to define her existence.

My problem is that these misfortunes have been the catalyst for me to realize that I’m caught in a lifelong rut in my close friend and family relationships, one that is no longer working for me. I’m suddenly aware that (with the notable exception of my husband), most of the people I’m close to are best summed up as charming and fun and generally lovely, but also extremely self-absorbed and overly-sensitive to perceived slights. Most are only capable of getting along with someone who is willing to act as a supporting character in the drama of their lives.

And, what if they are capable of more than of using her as a supporting character in their life drama? What if they care more about her than she thinks? What if they are trying to draw her out of herself and her predicament? The alternative is that they are grossly inconsiderate.

I have become known as the friend you call when you need a wing woman, or someone to patiently listen to you vent for way too long about the petty but maddening problem you’re having with your boyfriend or your job or your landlord. And up till now I wouldn’t necessarily say it was all bad — the truth is that because I am shy, introspective, and inherently risk-averse, there’s some symbiosis in friendships with charismatic, impulsive extroverts who let me be part of their orbit but out of the spotlight, and until recently I was more or less content with that give and take.

The puzzling part is that they all behave as though to ignore her life crisis. Not one of them seems to show any concern for her husband. Do they dislike him? Do they sympathize with her more than she thinks:

We can see this in two ways: either all of her friends and family are boorish buffoons, with no sympathy for her condition… or she herself is so completely self-absorbed that she allows them nothing else. I am shocked to read that family members cannot muster up an ounce of compassion. Shouldn’t they be helping to care for her husband? Does she ask them to do so? Are they all out of town? Can they contribute to hiring a caregiver? Shouldn’t her friends be helping her, perhaps by preparing an occasional casserole?

NMGF has written an indictment of some of the most heartless people we have heard of. In truth, it is so one-sided that we would want to hear the other side of the story before drawing any conclusion. Have people offered to help her, only to be rebuffed?

This year my husband had a very ominous relapse that we’re still actively dealing with (making his prognosis more frightening than ever and adding a lot of additional burden for me as his main caretaker), work has continued to get more awful than I thought possible (and exiting right now would be prohibitively difficult and costly), and suddenly I’m finding I just don’t have it in me to play the role these people want me to play for them. I think that I’ll scream the next time Friend A calls me when I’m running on four hours of sleep, just worked a 16-hour day, and am now in the middle of trying cook dinner for my sick husband, because she “really needs to vent” about how the stereo in the new luxury car that she just purchased isn’t working and the dealership isn’t responding fast enough. Or the next time I tell Friend B that due to everything else I’m juggling, I can only squeeze in an hour for the catch-up coffee she’s insisting we need to have, and then she shows up 50 minutes late because she “just couldn’t decide what to wear!” I could give so many more examples, but you get the point. All three of my closest friends, as well as multiple members of my family, consistently behave with a total disregard for the life crisis I’m going through — seemingly believing that their behavior counts as thoughtful because they occasionally pause their self-involved monologues with an aside like “oh, of course, I’m sure this all sounds really petty to you, you’re dealing with so much, you poor thing!” — barely giving me an instant to interject before resuming The Sorrowful Tale of How My Hairdresser Made My Highlights Too Chunky Even Though I Specifically Said I Wanted More of a Subtle Ombré Look: A One-Woman Show in Three Parts.

Since Polly believes that the solution is to set boundaries, we note that NMGF has already tried to do so, to little avail:

But it seems like every time I try to withdraw a bit from providing my customary level of supportiveness and ask for a little more consideration of my needs, they respond by being extremely melodramatically wounded and it blows up into something that I’m somehow expected to apologize for, even though all I did was try to very gently set some boundaries because I’m completely tapped out right now….

I’m not even sure what I want; I don’t expect their entire personalities — or mine — to change overnight. I guess I just want them to understand that at least temporarily, I need permission to say — preferably without me having to do too much emotional labor to figure out the most perfectly diplomatic and uncritical way possible to word it — that I lack the emotional reserves to be deeply engaged and sympathetic when they want to vent at length about minor daily frustrations, or to force a smile and brush it off when someone who claims to care about what I’m going through is being incredibly inconsiderate of my time, or to generally be the grown-up who is supposed to help them sort out their lives when frankly I can’t even handle my own life.

It is hard to imagine a group of friends who are that self-involved and that impervious to the situation NMGF finds herself in. Surely, it’s possible, but if it’s true, these are people she selected as her friends. It’s puzzling. We do not know what she should do with these friends, but the unfolding picture of her future life is very grim indeed. There are no good solutions. The ones that come to mind are mostly unacceptable. NMGF is caught on the horns of an insoluble dilemma. It’s not about her friends, except to the extent that they all seem to prefer to pretend that nothing has changed. Or else, that they hate seeing her suffering under her burdens and are trying to pretend that life can be normal.

As for NMGF, she is no doubt waiting for God to solve her problem for her.

[It's positively uncanny, but New York Magazine today has a story about a woman whose husband contracted cancer and who decided to have his child, nonetheless. Her husband died very shortly after the baby was born... but she details the process and shows how she dealt with the situation.]


whitney said...

There's a glaring lie in that letter that makes me suspect the entire letter. She said she's inherently risk-adverse and that she started a business. Those things don't go together

Anonymous said...

This happens. I am surprised that you are surprised about it, Stuart. Many modern friends are no longer future-proof. Their relationships were never more than complaints about the stereo and things at work. If they had all started having children around the same time, they might have gradually moved on together. With a cancer-stricken husband, NMGF is clearly too far ahead of them. It must be very painful for her that on top of everything, their friends are mentally and practically unavailable. Kudos to her that she managed to start a company under these circumstances.

Anonymous said...

"Kudos to her that she managed to start a company under these circumstances."

Yes, she is obviously tough. Some people seem able to lock into 'the zone' a survival automaton instinct that animals often possess. Humans often ruminate more and seem to require momentum. Stopping can sometimes be the killer as you often never regain the momentum you once had.