Attorney seeks help with spouse’s chronic illness

Issue April 2009

Q: It has now been over a year since my husband was diagnosed with what is likely to be a permanent medical condition that has prematurely ended his accounting career. I am considered a “rising star” at a large law firm, able so far to keep putting in long hours and churning out many billable hours of good work. But, to be honest, I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. I barely sleep, and often feel overwhelmed. Although my husband does all he can around the house and with the kids, it feels as if our marital relationship is barely there. I try to put on a happy face, but I often find myself feeling angry, and then guilty. I feel so drained that I fear my rising star at the firm will come crashing down, and am not sure where to turn.

A: The loss of your home life as you formerly knew it is an enormous and very stressful change, especially if there is little hope of returning to the way things were. You and all the members of your family are dealing with a significant loss; it is understandable and normal to feel anger, not to mention the emotional turmoil of the grieving process. Mature love and marriage, in contrast to early attraction and commitment, requires attention, motivation, sacrifice and effort for all of us, which is difficult enough. But for you (and your husband) the adjustment demanded by these new circumstances is particularly difficult.

The most obvious comment is that a person in your position needs plenty of support and it is important for you to reach out to friends and family for emotional as well as practical assistance to help reduce your burden. It will be important for you to achieve a new kind of balance in your life, including time to get away from both home- and work-based stresses, in order to pursue interests and activities that replenish and renew your inner resources.

You and your husband must ultimately face your plight with a combination of hope and realism, addressing the question of what kinds of closeness are feasible while a new kind of bond develops from your shared battle with his illness. Though it may be difficult, each spouse must ask the other for needed support, and express (without judgment) a range of feelings including anger, frustration, sadness and guilt — you are likely to feel guilty for any self-focused strivings, and he for his dependency on you. One goal is to seek ways to “have a life,” both together and individually, that is not illness-focused.

Even if you make good progress in those efforts, the demands of work life at a large law firm can be all-consuming, and may not be workable in the long run. To regain a sense of control over your life and set realistic expectations for yourself, it may be best to deal directly with the effects of your changed family circumstances on your career. You might find it useful to confer with someone: an executive coach concerning how to best approach this matter with the firm, or with a career coach about whether and how to redirect your career. As you probably know, LCL can help you with the search for resources.

Two books that you may also find helpful are: Surviving Your Spouse’s Chronic Illness: A Compassionate Guide by Chris McGonigle, and Beyond Chaos: One Man’s Journey Alongside His Chronically Ill Wife by Gregg Piburn.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

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