Hello Captain and fellow Awkward travelers,
My husband and I, along with our 16-month-old daughter, moved to a new city on Saturday. The reason for our move is that I just finished medical school and will be beginning residency in June.
Husband woke up this morning and said he’s not sure he can stay in our new rental because his allergies have been worse. He feels like he can’t breathe or sleep. He has a long list of tasks he wants me to do to banish all possible allergens from our home, but says there’s a possibility that he’ll want to move anyway. I’m now so stressed thinking about the financial and logistical costs of a second move that I can barely put words together.
That’s the short version. Here is some other relevant information, in no very thoughtful order:
- There was nothing about this rental that would have indicated it was a hotbed of allergens before we signed the 12-month lease. It’s about 15 years old, appears well-kept, and by the landlord’s report was previously occupied by a non-pet-owner.
- There’s no reason to expect another place would be a better bet from an allergy perspective unless it were a brand new construction, which is quite expensive in our area.
- We have no savings.
- Husband has a number of chronic, uncomfortable-but-not-life-threatening physical health issues that require considerable effort on his part to manage.
- He also has (and acknowledges that he has) anxiety that presents as and amplifies physical symptoms. He’s been doing much better from this perspective over the past few months, but during my pregnancy and maternity leave, he was basically in a sustained crisis (frequent visits to the ER and different kinds of specialists; lots of money spent on vitamins and supplements; multiple restrictive diets attempted; physical activity, including things like preparing his own food or holding the baby, extremely limited).
- He also is in recovery from dependence on prescription drugs, to which he attributes the bulk of his ongoing health problems; because of this, he has a deep distrust of physicians.
- During my pregnancy, we moved into a brand new apartment and then broke our lease after a month because there was loud construction noise that worsened his symptoms. We fought a lot about that decision, and I found it pretty traumatizing.
- The division of domestic labor that was established when I was on leave and husband was incapable of holding the baby has proved distressingly stable. To put it bluntly, I don’t feel I can rely on him to do more than occasional daycare drop-offs and pickups, and even with those I expect a lot of complaining.
- When people hear that I have a young toddler and am finishing medical school, they often assume I’m extremely competent and type-A, but in fact I’m pretty limited by anxiety, lack of energy, and attention problems. Most days I’m home I find it hard to do anything other than feed, clean up after, and play with my daughter.
- Most of the time I’m utterly incapable of applying my medical curiosity or compassion to my husband’s suffering. If I’m honest, what I truly feel, deep in my body, is that I wish he would just suck it up. Sometimes I’m so unmoored by this feeling that I worry I’ll be a bad doctor.
- I certainly don’t want to move, but I’d much rather move now than after I start work. I’m stressed out dealing with my husband, but I’m not done with the relationship, and I need even the limited help with parenting that he gives
Captain, I’m well aware of the codependency that screams from every sentence in my letter – but that seems like something that it takes years to get free of, and I need to get these things sorted now. What do I do?
-Desperate for Roots (she/her pronouns)
Dear Desperate for Roots,
Good morning. Your letter falls into the category of “Letters I don’t quite know how to answer but that I will think about until I do.” Time to muddle through and overuse the bold function and the ellipsis.
It’s truly awful to feel like you can’t breathe, and I feel terrible for your husband. It sounds like his number one job right now is to take care of his health and heal and get better, and being uprooted from home is making that all the harder. That has to be so scary. It has to be really scary also to not know how much to trust the information your body is giving you – Is this physical? Is this anxiety? Whatever it is, it’s really hurting him, and that sucks.
If you’ll permit it, I want to give a shout-out to the character of Chuck McGill on AMC’s Better Call Saul right now. The character has an unexplained and severe reaction to “electronic stuff.” Living with the condition involves some pretty severe and inconvenient alterations in his living situation, and some severe adaptations on the part of people who love him. The condition is almost certainly partly psychosomatic – in one episode a doctor demonstrates without a doubt that as long as he doesn’t know he’s being exposed to a device it doesn’t hurt him. However, his real suffering and the accommodations that others make for it are taken absolutely 100% seriously, and it’s always clear that he’s the boss of his own life and that the most consequences of the illness fall on him. He’s allowed to be brilliant and competent at his job and he’s allowed to be so vulnerable and he’s allowed to be a total asshole at times. It’s a rare and lovely and complex portrait.
I feel terrible for your spouse, and terrible for Chuck McGill, and sweet holy wow do I also feel terrible for you. You just moved cities to start a very intense job. That would be stressful without a toddler! You had to move twice (!!!) when you were pregnant. You do nearly all the parenting and other domestic work in your house and I feel 99% confident that you did nearly all of the apartment hunting and packing and unpacking and logistical work of moving. You’re exhausted and stressed out, and it’s okay to have an “Nooooooooooooo, not again!” reaction to the suggestion that y’all move house…four days after you just moved house.
And like, okay, I think there is stuff your husband can do in the short term, short of moving house again. Stuff like:
- Y’all moved Saturday. It is now Wednesday. Moving kicks up dust and after every move it takes my asthmatic body a few weeks to breathe normally. Have you even had time for the dust to settle (literally)?
- Could he have the place inspected for hidden stuff, like mold issues that might not be apparent to the naked eye? “Dear Landlord, we love the new place, but I’m experiencing a sudden escalation in my allergy symptoms. When was the last time it was inspected for mold, etc.?“
- Has he put a medical support team back in place for himself (primary care doctor, allergist, therapist, addiction treatment plan)?
- Speaking of doctors, where did this list of allergen mitigation come from? How do we know it’s the right list? Do his meds for allergy symptoms and breathing issues need adjusted? He “doesn’t trust doctors” but it’s half past doctor o’clock and you are a doctor and you know that it is time for him to go to the doctor.
- Different cities have different plant life, and at this time of year everything is in bloom in the USA (Chicago is lovely right now but it is also trying to kill me?). If it’s winter where you are I’d be more likely start with something indoors as the problem. It could be both, who knows? A doctor will know. His doctor will know.
- It’s possible to hire someone who is Not You to do the allergy mitigation tasks – whether that’s a few hours of a cleaning service or a TaskRabbit or something like that.
All of this stuff takes effort and time and money and “spoons” for a person who is already sick, so, yeah, it’s daunting and debilitating. It’s unfair and it sucks and breathing is necessary. But it seems like his go-to solution is, “Wife, solve this for me. Save me from this.”
- Would the long list of tasks to banish allergens work to help him breathe better? Is it at all possible/feasible to do, say, if you had help? Is there a time frame over which he could track his symptoms closely*and a process for figuring out if a move is really necessary?
- What if, as you look at that list of stuff to try, moving apartments really is the path of least resistance for right now? If the house were making your daughter sick, would it change how you feel about this? Is there an argument to be made for throwing money** at the problem rather than trying to wrangle a chronic illness into submission in very short order?
- Since we’re engaging in Thought Experiments here, what if the right long-term solution is for you and your daughter to stay where you are and for him to find a studio apartment in a new construction building? “You can’t live here, and I can’t move again so soon, so, what do we do?“
- Did moving actually solve the problem last time you had to do it? (I feel like…not really?)(I said these were hard questions.)
- Why is moving his first suggestion of what to do?
- Moving sucks for everyone, including him. If he’s willing to put himself through it again so soon, doesn’t that speak to the severity of his medical issues?
- Is moving easier/less scary for him somehow than going to the doctor? Is that reasonable, in your opinion?
- If he feels so strongly about moving could he take on the bulk of the planning and mental/emotional heavy lifting?
- What would he do about this if you weren’t here to help?
- When he does feel better/on his good days, do you think he does his very best to parent your daughter and take care of the domestic front? Do you think it would really get better?
- What would he do if moving were simply not an option?
- Do you feel like you can say no to him about moving?
- Do you feel like you can talk through some of these questions with him, as an equal teammate?
Because hey, it sounds like moving is not an option. **You don’t have the money to do it. So maybe the answer is a conversation along the lines of “Ok, if we gotta move we gotta move – do you have any suggestions for finding a new place that will work for you and making that affordable and feasible?”
“Moving would take $X, we have only $Y, so we can’t do it until we have at least $X saved up, which means after I start working, at which time it’s going to be impossible to coordinate. If we had to stay out our lease here for one year, what could we do to make it work?”
And the “we” in “what do we do” has to be a real we, not just you. I don’t think “suck it up” is useful to say to him here but “Financially and mentally I cannot even contemplate this, can we exhaust other solutions before that’s an option?”
You obviously want your husband to be safe and happy and comfortable and able to breathe, both for his own sake and so that he can take on a larger share of the parenting. You want to show him that you believe him about how he feels and that you take his health seriously. But something’s gotta give here, and I think it’s okay to look at a variety of possible solutions, including and especially some solutions where the work of his well-being is primarily his own.
Two Self-Care Steps To Implement Now:
A) There’s a reason that it’s unethical for doctors to treat members of your own family, so I wouldn’t necessarily expect that you’ll be a bad doctor because of your frustrations about your husband and his condition. You have been really careful in your letter not to step into that doctor role with describing your husband. In practice, you’ll see your patients for short periods at set intervals with professional structures and a support team of other doctors and nurses in place (Also, they won’t live with you!) Still, I think it’s good and important that you are recognizing the signs of extreme stress and compassion fatigue in yourself and it would be worth finding a counselor for a safe place to unload your own anxieties and troubles.
Taking care of your own emotional well-being and your own health is gonna make you a better doctor. Neglecting that is where the mistakes due to stress or exhaustion or numbing out are gonna come from. I know it’s hard to do when you’re already stretched so thin, but it’s so important that you, as the saying goes, “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”
B) Think about finding a local group or MeetUp for parents with kids your daughter’s age, nothing too intense, something along the lines of “Saturday mornings we go to the playground in the mall and the kids play and we drink our coffee.”
When you’re living in crisis mode like you’ve just been through with pregnancy and moving multiple times and finishing med school and your husband’s medical stuff, it’s easy to put off all this stuff for “someday, when things settle down.” You’re new in town, you need community. You need a regular place to go outside the hothouse of your marriage. Practically, you need other local adults who know where the good daycare is and might be persuaded to alternate pickups or trade off babysitting (eventually). I think this would be a neat thing for your spouse to do, too, but his circle should be separate from yours at least at first and he should do it only when and if he has the energy.
Longer-term, what I’ll say is that you sound very unhappy coparenting and being in the relationship with him. There are some unhealthy patterns in play. You know that he doesn’t do what you see as his fair share of the parenting and domestic work, and you’re unsure about how much of that is “He physically can’t” vs. “Can’t has turned into a Won’t habit.”
You aren’t “ready to be done” with the relationship but a time when you are done isn’t impossible to imagine. The Sheelzebub Principle (“If things didn’t change for another year, would you stay? Another 5 years? Another 10?”) applies. Eventual couples’ counseling might help you make things better or it might help you figure out how you can part on the best possible terms.
For now it’s okay for both of you to focus on baby steps: Stabilize his breathing. Find a counselor. Meet a few new parents. Let your dust (literal and metaphoric) settle while you start the hard conversations.
I really wish you well.
Commenting Ground Rules:
- Threads here can get real intense whenever health stuff like this comes up. Also, it can be irresistible to brainstorm fixes to unfixable problems. I had to stop/mitigate myself from doing it about 100 times when I was writing this, so, I know. Please do not attempt to diagnose the husband’s medical issues or science away the problem. The husband needs a doctor. He needs doctors, plural. He needs long-term medical and emotional stuff that we cannot provide here. If you have related experiences, talk about them in terms of how you solved that for yourself.
- If you’ve been in the husband’s shoes, tell us what that was like.We cannot cure his medical stuff or wish it away and the thread will derail quickly if we try. To that end:
- “Has he tried ___________ (remedy)?” = BALEETED. We don’t know what kind of allergies he has, so how could we know what remedy would work?
- “It sounds like he has x condition, which means _____” = ALSO BALEETED.
- “Has he tried yoga?” = BALEETED AND POSSIBLY BANNED. Nothing against yoga itself, but trust me: The sick and anxious and otherwise disabled people of the world have heard of yoga.
- The husband didn’t write to us. The stressed out wife did. How do we help her handle this situation in her relationship? How do we help her handle the difficult conversations and decision-making about the future? How do we help her make a decision about whether moving to a new place is the right thing to do?
*The apps linked are for asthma and the husband has allergies. I linked them because the process of tracking symptoms could apply to other respiratory conditions.
Edited to Add: Wow, 307 comments! I think we’ve covered every aspect of this that needs covering and given the LW some food for thought. Thanks for the kind and mostly on-topic discussions.