Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I Don't Want To, and You Can't Make Me

When Stew was suffering with massive anxiety issues and the thought of going anywhere, or doing anything, was so overwhelming he would shake at the thought of it (and not a good sort of shake), I would ask him to make an effort.

That doesn’t sound particularly helpful, does it?

I would also tell him that it was his choice, and that if he didn't attend (fill in the blank), the world would not come to an end. "But I do want you to make an effort," I'd say, "Even if it's only to get dressed and get in the car. Then, if you still don't feel up to it, you can stop and come back in."

I'd break it into tasks for him. Shower. Check. Get dressed. Check. Go out to car. Check. Get in car. If the world hadn't fallen to pieces around him by then, there was a better than even chance that he would make it at least partway to his destination, if not all the way.

A better than even chance may not sound like much, but it's certainly better than making no effort at all.

This doesn't work for everyone, of course -- everyone operates differently. All I can tell you is what worked for us. And your partner has to be willing to make the painful effort of trying.

Make no mistake -- it is very painful. If the thought of leaving the house can cause one to break out in hives, make their heart race and breathing become difficult, the act of leaving the house can make all that even worse.

I find anti-anxiety meds help with that. But as much as they help, they don't relieve the problem. They don't make it go away and they don't make life suddenly easy. But they can calm the physical symptoms enough so we can consider the possibility of taking that next step.

Some of our loved ones don't have the motivation to take that next step, they're comfortable being who they are, and aren't interested in making that extra effort to get past it. "You just don't understand," they might say, as if your understanding would make all the difference.

"If only you would understand."

And so we try. We reassure them, we tell them we understand, we make allowances because they're ill, and we keep trying to understand.

But they still refuse to leave the house, because all of our understanding isn't what they need. All of our attention, our time, and our devotion to their illness aren't what they need.

I don't know what they do need. I'm not an expert. I'm just experienced with a few individual situations. But I do know that external measures aren't going to be enough. They need to want to do better for themselves, not just because you say they need to.

With Stew it was easy. He wasn't likely to use the "You just don't understand" line with me because he knew that it didn't matter if I understood or not. I was there to help him through it, and relating to it wasn't as necessary as listening to what he needed. He had the internal motivation to get better -- he was driven by his own vision of what he wanted his future to look like, and it did not include being a shut-in.

Even when it seemed as if being a recluse was the most attractive option.

I don't believe in the coddle theory of helping, which is when we say, "It's okay, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do," as if a little more time and rest will solve the issue, as if by magic. I believe in the sort of pushy theory of helping, which goes more like this: "Try it, make an effort, because if you at least make an effort, you'll feel better about it, even if you don't make it all the way. Trying is an accomplishment."

And that's the point to emphasize. Trying is an accomplishment. Not trying at all is giving up before we even try. Sometimes that's appropriate, but mostly it's not, not if we want to make progress.

Some days, the best we can hope for is just a bit of effort. It can make the world look just a little bit more attainable, and it can make the next effort just a little bit easier. But without that first step, well, the first step is the hardest, isn't it? And if we never take it, how can we get to the next one?