On Healing 3/30/2009: Since mate’s injury, wife is ‘always in fight mode’

Seven years ago a driver fell asleep and struck an unsuspecting man named Rick. The accident left him a respirator-dependent quadriplegic, paralyzed from the shoulders down. His wife, Trish, defied doctors’ advice to put him in a nursing home and took him home. With his income eliminated, Trish went back to work full time, leaving her with three full-time jobs – work, wife and mother, and caregiver/case manager. I first met Trish through one of her postings on the Christopher Reeve Web page. She will join me for a Web chat at noon tomorrow.

Dear Dan,
I feel like I’m always in fight mode. My husband’s injury changed me. I used to be reserved, nonconfrontational, rather subdued, but now I am totally different. I can’t begin to tell you all the medical mistakes, insurance mishaps, and other screwups I have encountered over the last seven years.

My attitude now is that everyone is going to mess up unless they prove otherwise. I guess in some regards that has suited us well because I have fought hard for things that were denied to my husband, and my persistence has ultimately paid off.

The problem is that I have lived in this fight mode for so long that sometimes I can’t seem to turn it off. Tonight we ordered pizza. My husband did it online and redeemed some online coupon for $2. The pizza guy shows up at the door and wants a copy of the coupon or he is going to charge us an extra $2.

I get furious since we ordered pizza there 50 times and this never happened. I rummage around the house and finally find the coupon. He’s satisfied, but I slam the door in his face.

By now I’m completely worked up and I start looking in the phone book so I can call the manager and scream at him. Luckily I snap out of it. OK, this time I have come to my senses, but what about the next time? I have this mentality that everyone is on the brink of screwing us, and I’m going to do anything to keep that from happening. How can I be kinder and gentler when the world feels dangerous?

Dear Trish,
Anger? Anybody reading your letter probably felt anger. When something or someone threatens someone we love, anger turns into rage.

All emotions have positive and negative parts. When I had my accident, my family used their rage to move mountains. Insurance companies were pestered, lawyers were mobilized, hospitals made exceptions with rigid policies, and none of that might have happened without anger on our side.

But our body’s crisis mechanisms are designed to work in short bursts. That’s because when we were all on all fours, crises happened quickly. The mountain lion appeared and one way or another the crisis was over. Your mountain lion seems to have taken up residence in your life.

I usually talk about people’s hearts. I’d like to talk about your brain. I’m sure you know by now that your husband was not the only one traumatized seven years ago. But what you may not know is that trauma also affects the brain. Add to that all of the stress hormones coursing through your veins, and you have a cortex that needs care.

Once the brain and nervous system get agitated repeatedly, it takes less to agitate them and more time to calm them. And pretty soon your brain becomes like an overtired child who can no longer distinguish a lion from a pizza guy!

So how do we take care of your brain? First, you have to agree that you and your brain are as important as anything else. So you must find time to get rest, eat well, and find something that gives you pleasure every day if only just for a few minutes.

I’d also like to see you distinguish between what happens and how you react.

Research shows that if you can put a few seconds between a stressor and your response, you have many options. If you could be more aware of when your chest tightens and you feel out of control, then you’ll know you need care in that moment.

Whatever happens outside is not a mountain lion. It can wait. What is happening inside needs care right away. So close your eyes, take a few breaths, notice how distressed you are, and focus on Trish for a few seconds.

Hmmm. Maybe pizza could be slid under a front door to prevent serious injury to pizza guys. Please take care of yourself.
– Dan

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