How To Care For Someone You Love Without Knowing What They Need
In a perfect world, when you need something done, you ask for help. When it’s too heavy, you get a hand. Need to talk? Simple.
“Hey, I had a really yucky day today at work. I just need to rant and I don’t want your opinion. Cool?”
This is no perfect world. Heck, the world as it is reminds me of 13th century France, except with internet and home deliveries.
I never knew how hard it was to watch someone you love suffer until I got married. And when I say suffer, it would be understandable if this were physical pain: sick in the hospital, pregnant — anything that had an established cause and possible reparation process.
What to do when the pain is invisible? How about when it’s unknown, the air rife with uncertainty?
I write to think. When I get into a mind space where I feel like I’m losing control of my ability to think straight, I try to capture it in real-time because the clues are often there.
I once joked to my wife that if she read me online, she’d know me even more than she did.
But how true is that when I can edit?
As complicated as this introduction is so far, I’m fully aware, now, that when I’m not able to express how I feel and what I need, my wife cannot be still.
Is this co-dependency? Some would say.
Yet, I wonder if it’s possible to love someone and not feel their pain this way. I wonder if while we consume self-improvement texts, improve our financial literacy, grow our side hustles and slab our abs — while we do all this work on ourselves — what if the person we love isn’t in a place to do any of this?
And what if, they aren’t even able to express it in a way that gives you a hint on how to help?
The first time it hit me that I had moved to the US and nothing was ever going to be the same, the person who saw the challenge first hand was my wife.
She’d just gotten into the fourth year of med school. I had no documents to either get a job or anyone to, say, take me around.
We rented in a house with 3 other med students. My wife and I had the basement to ourselves. The stairs led down from the kitchen — the brown carpeted floor serving as our palace.
Before I got here, my wife and my brother-in-law put up black and white dotted drapes to divide the entire area — all for me.
Once you go down the stairs, the supplies room was to the right; the office was straight ahead. There was a mid-sized oval mahogany table they’d pulled together and another drape separating the little parlor area. She got us a small TV and a fridge ( even though I eventually spent most of my time binge-watching on Netflix for those first few months).
Our bathroom was large enough for my 5’7’’ to walk freely, and I loved that the temperature knob worked so fast!
Fun fact: when we moved to Pueblo in May, I realized how cold Denver had been and that the water I thought was warm up there, was boiling.
In Aurora, our bedroom area had enough space for us to run around during those rare times she had off.
On a typical day, she’d leave early for class, text or call whenever she had breaks to check if I had eaten. It was our ritual. At the time, we were still figuring out this whole living together situation.
15 years we’d known each other. From the day she’d sported thin scalped hair in boarding school to her present adornment of beautifully cared dreads, we’d been in each other’s lives either as partners or friends.
She’d worn a dress to pick me up from the airport — a Sunday. She had a class the next Monday.
It’ll soon be two years in June.
That first time it hit me — the darkness — I remember like it was yesterday.
I couldn’t say anything to anyone — I had a feeling of dread. Like my brain was empty of meaning and full of child scribble. Words made no sense. I wasn’t hyperventilating. I lost interest in all food and all the new Asian shows I had become fascinated by.
All I wanted to do was stay in bed — and stay in bed I did.
“What can I do, babe?”
Nothing annoyed more than that question. I’d close my eyes and will her away. Wanting something I had no name for. Wanting a hug without being touched, wanting music in the silence. There was nothing my tongue needed, yet a lump of fire ice couldn’t quench belched in my throat.
I saw a therapist — being able to talk with someone who had an understanding of what identity dislocation felt like was a relief.
My therapist gets a lot of credit for my growth. She was able to teach me how to notice what got me angry and to question it: to learn how my body reacted to things and dig to the root.
“It’s okay if you catch yourself later”, she’d say “It works even in retrospect”
Then again, maybe I should give myself credit for being open to being helped.
Seeing a therapist has become sort of cool now — but if I said this within a group of typical Cameroonian people, I’m definitely going to get on Santa’s Cuckoo list.
When I’d finally relax enough to apologize to my wife for my attitude, it was never a happy conversation.
Breaking the hearts of the ones we love leave wounds everywhere.
I have learned to accept that sometimes, the best we can do is to take care of ourselves — and of the parts our loved ones can show us.
What Does This Mean?
When I came here, I couldn’t drive. I had no job. I was fully dependent on my wife — who was in med school.
The reality of living in the US is something that cannot be explained. You can read all the immigrant essays you want, nothing replaces moving to a country and living there.
In the beginning, I didn’t know better: I assumed so much about everything.
I was entitled. I thought I could do whatever I wanted and it was even my right — because I had left so much behind: job, family, identity.
I can see it so clearly now in retrospect.
I can appreciate how hard it was for her now that the weight of responsibility has lessened.
When I see her now going through something and she’s unable to share with me usually because of the nature of her job — especially now with the virus — or because, like all of us, she’s still figuring life out, the least I can do is remove myself as an obstacle.
I’ll make my own food. I’ll clean around. I’ll get to Walmart, handle whatever bills need to be handled.
Then, if I see that she needs help with something, I’ll ask if and how I can help and then depending on what she says, I’ll respect it.
Respect is Everything
Respect, to me, is the major solution to situations like this. It’s the basic right every human should have, no matter what they’re dealing with.
It doesn’t matter if she wants to sit and watch TV all day on her day off — I’ll respect that and stop complaining about it (my record isn’t stellar — yet).
Doesn’t matter if the dishes aren’t clean because she really doesn’t feel like it — I’ll respect that and clean it up or just let them be.
Growing With the Person You Choose
When you choose to be with someone, you need the desire to know them.
This means being able to call their bullshit when necessary. And also letting them cry and not try to stop them from heaving if it’s what they need.
The romanticized idea of love? How we’re here to save our partners or that they make us better?
That’s too much pressure to put on someone, who like you, is figuring out life.
Some days suck. Some weeks you can’t handle and you need to call off and see a therapist or take a vacation.
They’re days my wife is so broken I know there’s nothing I can do to help except just listen and be present.
It’s so fucking hard sometimes.
What I have learned is this: the last thing we need in these moments is for anyone to make the other feel guilty for what they’re dealing with.
Guilt Rips Everything
The more I know my wife (and myself) the more I realize that there will be days when I’ll need her light, and there will be days when she’ll need mine.
But what happens when we’re both dark?
That’s the part where I know I have to take care of myself too — I can control that. I cannot control how she handles things, but I can always control how I do — to the best of my abilities.
When you don’t know what someone you love needs — give them love, don’t make them feel guilty. Then, ask what they need.
Handle what you can handle, treat them with respect.
And above all, realize that they’re humans who, like you, are a little broken and sometimes just need someone to look at them and say:
“Hey, I’m worried and I don’t know what to do. Can you tell me if there’s something I can do?”
Give them a hug. If they push you back, don’t make them feel guilty. Just check on them every so often. They may not have an answer for you. They may even smile partially because they can feel the love.
They may slouch back to the TV and call you occasionally for a hug.
You can’t give from an empty cup — care for yourself so that when they need you, you’ll be there.
We all need someone to count on. When you’re slouching in front of the TV, inundating sorrow with cheap chips on a Thursday night, it helps to know that someone has your back.
That might be all the care you need.