I recently had the opportunity to spend the weekend with a long-lost friend. Over 25 years ago, Peggy* and I lived in the same neighborhood. Our kids were all about the same age, and to them, our homes, refrigerators, and pantries were interchangeable.
When our children were in high school, Peggy and I both went through very difficult divorces and we ended up moving away from the old neighborhood. In the process of redefining our lives and starting over, we lost touch.
Last fall, as she was looking online for caregiver support, she came across my website, CaregiverHelp.com. She immediately sent me an email, and when I read it, I wanted to weep.
Going from Bad to Worse
After being single for nearly 20 years, she realized she was lonely. She still believed in love and she still believed in marriage, so she signed up for an online dating service. She had a few disappointing dates — and then she met Dan*.
Dan appeared to be the man of her dreams. He was tall, active and physically fit. He had a well-paying job in the high-tech industry, and he was always up for an adventure. After they dated for a year, he told Peggy he cherished her and wanted to spend the rest of his life loving and taking care of her. When he proposed with a gigantic diamond, she didn’t hesitate a second before accepting.
Fast forward four years: Although Dan’s lavish lifestyle was a concern to Peggy at times, she rationalized that they had a lot of money in savings and his income seemed to be large enough to support his extravagant spending. Then he lost his job. He was 68 and the people who were getting hired in his industry were decades younger and light-years faster when it came to learning new technology.
Every day when Peggy went to work, she assumed he was looking for a new job, but after a few months, he stopped submitting resumes and started gambling. The losses accumulated, and over the course of one year, he lost all of their savings and every penny in his retirement accounts. During this same time, he stopped exercising, started eating, and gained more than 100 pounds. Last summer he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and diabetes. In addition, he started displaying some disturbing cognitive losses.
Picking Up the Pieces When Everything Falls Apart
Peggy admitted when she learned about his gambling losses that she simply could not comprehend what had happened to her “happily ever after” life. For several months she joined Dan in his physical and emotional free-fall. She, too, tried eating her way through her feelings of anger and loss, and then about six weeks ago she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and decided it was time to stop nagging Dan about taking care of himself and start taking care of her own body and emotional wellbeing.
She said, “I realized that Dan was not going to change. He’s definitely depressed, but he won’t admit it or agree to see a doctor about it. I really think that without his work and his high income, he feels like life just isn’t worth living. I suspect he’s trying to eat himself to death. Every bite of food he puts in his mouth is bad for him. I can’t stop him, and I finally accepted that I cannot care more about him than he is willing to care about himself.”
When Peggy realized Dan was no longer capable of contributing anything financially, she knew it was going to be up to her to stabilize their current situation and make provisions for the future. Against Dan’s wishes, she sold their large, elegant home on a private golf course and bought a small two-bedroom condo in a middle-income retirement community. She shifted from part-time to full-time work. She joined Weight Watchers and started walking every day on her lunch break. When we got together for our girls’ weekend, she had already lost 15 pounds.
When I asked her why she didn’t leave him, she said, “I still love Dan — not the way I used to and certainly not the way I wish I could at this stage of our lives, but I’m not 40 anymore. I don’t have time to start over from scratch. I honestly don’t think he’s going to live much longer. If I leave him now, he has no place to go, and I don’t think I could handle the guilt. Besides, if I hang in there until he dies, I will at least get his Social Security, which will help me get by if I live for another 15 or 20 years.”
She said, “I know that sounds horrible—like it all boils down to finances, but I guess it does. I have some significant health problems of my own, and I won’t be able to work forever, so I’m focusing on living well within my current circumstances.”
Living Well Within Difficult Circumstances
I asked her to explain. She said, “I think everyone has circumstances. For some people it’s failing health. Other people have money problems or strained relationships. Everyone feels their circumstances are special. In truth, it doesn’t really matter what makes your particular circumstance difficult or even tragic — what matters is living well within your own unique set of circumstances.”
She went on to say, “I’m in a difficult phase of my life right now, but I don’t think it will last forever. If I can just keep facing forward and allowing room for God to work in my life, I believe this phase will pass. Until then I will use this time to learn how to take care of myself while caring for my husband. I’m going to lose more weight and do everything I can improve my own physical health. After he dies, I’ll be able to collect the survivor’s share of his Social Security, and that will enable me to retire without needing to turn to my children for financial help.”
Taking Control of a Bad Situation
I felt sad about the circumstances of my friend’s life. I also felt a tremendous amount of respect for her determination to take charge of the things over which she has some control and to release the rest.
If you find yourself in a difficult circumstance, it might be helpful to follow Peggy’s lead:
- Identify the problem.
- Determine what can be done to improve the situation.
- Make a plan and then take the steps necessary to fix what can be changed.
- Release your attachment to the things (and people) you cannot change.
- Set your sights on the future, and then make a plan that will help you get there.
I don’t know how long it’s going to take for Peggy’s situation to improve, but I do believe her determination to “live well within her circumstances,” will help her get through whatever lies ahead. I also believe that she will eventually be able to create a new life for herself that will have more joy than stress, and more peace than worry. Until then, I will keep her in my prayers.
Elaine K. Sanchez is a speaker and co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com, an online caregiver support program. The second edition of her unflinchingly honest and surprisingly funny book, Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver will be available in bookstores on May 17, 2016. It can also be pre-ordered now on Amazon.
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.