Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Bad Habits

I came home this evening from a draining and yet gratifying day of addressing staffing issues at work to find that the Big Dude was doing laundry (!) and had prepared his own dinner and left some for me (double !!).

And tonight, he has gone to bed early, as he has done for the last three nights in a row (triple !!!).

This last item is the crucial one. I should explain that I have been trying to get him to go to bed ealier for years, and here is why.

The fact is that the man is ill. None of his illnesses are fatal, but all of them are chronic, not easily cured and have to be managed. Lack of sleep doesn't help, including from being afraid to fall asleep because he might have those horrible dreams about being back in Vietnam. But lack of sleep from staying up late and watching TV or being on the computer until all hours also doesn't help.

As in so many cases, this combination of genuine illness plus avoidance plus garden-variety bad habits has a lot of implications in our household. Part of the reason I end up doing so much of the work around the house is that he doesn't get enough sleep at night, both from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-related poor quality sleep and from the late nights.

The problem is worse since we had a baby. Because of the inadequate sleep at night, he ends up having to sleep in for most of the morning, while I am looking after the Little Dude, just so that he can function. Then it's hard for him, even if he has the energy, to do housework in the afternoon when he is minding an active little toddler. Spending those morning hours sleeping also means that he can't take advantage of at least some of those hours to take some time for himself or to do something fun or interesting. Which increases his boredom and mild depression. Which makes him even less likely to help around the house or, for instance, to pay attention to his partner.

The Big Dude has a fatigue problem which is both medical and war service-related. But the bad habit of late nights makes it worse. In the past few years, I've suggested he go to bed earlier, I've reminded him to go to bed earlier, I've practically begged him to go to bed earlier. He just wouldn't do it. But for the last few days, he has been trying.

He told me this evening that he was planning to go to bed early again. Then, a few minutes later, he slapped himself on the head and said he'd forgotten he had to go downstairs and get the clothes out of the dryer and then do the Little Dude's bottles. Then he talked about how much he wanted to see a particular TV show that was about to start. Then he talked about how tired he was feeling. And he waited.

He waited for me to offer to do those things for him.

Because the Big Dude, while being genuinely ill, frankly has another bad habit: he takes a passive aggressive approach to what should be straightforward problems. Sometimes he genuinely can't do certain things. But quite often, he semi-intentionally fails to get his act together to avoid having to address the issue. And he doesn't ask directly for help. He doesn't want to openly admit that he has responsibilities that he is about to flake on. He just procrastinates and makes excuses and then waits for me to step up and offer to solve his problem for him.

I was about to offer, as I always do. I wanted to. It was on the tip of my tongue. But some instinct stopped me.

I thought about my go-slow, and it just gave me pause. And that pause was long enough for me to have this thought:

"If I do that, everything will be the same. I will be doing everything in this house, and he will be staying up watching TV instead of going to bed as he should. Nothing will change."

I was really surprised by how much I had to wrestle with myself to not offer. I felt like I was being mean. Really mean. What's a TV show after all? What are a few bottles or a load of laundry? And the man really is sick, after all. But I just didn't take the bait. I made myself turn the conversation to polite chit-chat, walked away from him and sat down to do something else. And I deliberately hardened my heart.

Does it sound strange to say that it actually took an act of discipline to be just a bit less helpful?

And when I looked up 30 minutes later, he had taken the clothes out of the dryer and done the bottles. And he had done more: he had also washed up the dishes that were in the sink and emptied the nappy bin. I thanked him and kissed him and told him how much I appreciated everything he had done today. And then he went off to bed very cheerfully, at the still early hour of 9:30pm.

And I am sitting here, totally delighted.

I am trying not to read too much into what happened this evening. But, pondering this turn of events, and noticing how hard I found it to not offer to help him, I am wondering:

Can caring too much, helping too much, solving other people's problems for them, also be a bad habit?

Even when that person really is sick?

This go-slow thing may be taking a direction that I would never have predicted.


Blogger Fiona said...

Can caring too much, helping too much, solving other people's problems for them, also be a bad habit? Even when that person really is sick?

Yes, Emily, absolutely it can be. Not so much a bad habit but rescuing and taking away responsibility just makes it easier for some people to shirk their responsibility.

I'm glad you listened to your intuition and didn't cave in. It was a good test for both of you methinks :)

It sounds like you not only showed him he has to stick to his obligations, but in doing so you have given him some degree of self achievement and a desire to go beyond. To exceed your expectations.

I'll bet he was smiling because he knew you'd be so pleasantly surprised by the extras.

I hope this all keeps working out well for you both.


4:33 AM  
Blogger aphron said...

So you've stopped enabling his bad behavior? As they say in Austalia (from the movies here in the states) "Good on you."

5:37 AM  
Blogger LBP said...

Enabling never helped anyone. Good for you.

7:38 AM  
Blogger FTN said...

I'm glad that you were able to hold back and let him do some of those things! Sounds like things are working so far.

My comment about this on a previous post, about how things might be different if it was a MAN "helping too much" and deciding to stop "enabling"... It doesn't necessarily apply to me (well, maybe a little). I was just wondering for conversation's sake. It seems to ME that this might work for you and some women, but I just canNOT see it working for a man if the roles were reversed. Most women, I think, would just get angry about it.

And before any women here say that "no man helps and cares that much 'extra' in the first place" .... Yes, there are plenty of them.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Tajalude said...

My sister-in-law is 24 and has spina bifida. She lives at home with my MIL. While she cannot walk, she has complete functionality of her upper body. Yet, my MIL does her hair. She does her makeup. She picks out her clothes. She washes her hair. Can you imagine not doing your own hair at the age of 24? And when you DO do your own hair, being told it looks "Horrible" by your mother and having her do it over?

Eventually my MIL is going to be too old do take care of my SIL in the way she is accustomed, and then what? She's not living with us, not the way she is now. She is spoiled and bratty and feels entitled. I think deep down she wants to feel capable, but sometimes the enabler does what they do for their own reasons... to feel needed. It's much more difficult to let go then to reach out when you see your loved one struggling. But it is also so much more helpful.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Cat said...

To FTN's question/point. No I don't think it would fly for a man to do the same thing. But there are plenty of things that men pull that never work if women try them either. And that is just the way of men and women I guess. No matter how much things evolve there are still things that are not as good for the goose and or gander...

9:37 AM  
Blogger freebird said...

Excellent, Emily. Just... having got this far, don't cave!

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Rosie said...

Good for you Emily, and your success. But reading you makes me sad as I see so much of myself, my attempts to rescue an ill and emotionally damaged person.

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Therese said...

I agree with fiona.

You know, it probably was good for him, too, just for his own sense of self worth. No one likes to feel he has nothing to offer or is a burden.

7:14 PM  
Blogger oldbear said...

I agree with 'bout all of what you all said.

Good on you Emily, for being behind him and loving him.

(and if anyone gives a damn, GOD I HATE tha t!!@#@! war more the older I get!)

Where have all the flowers gone-LTP.

7:54 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

You know, I understand what people mean by "enabler", and this is a question in my mind.

Its possible that, by taking too much responsibility myself, I have let him off the hook too much on the household front and that this can be bad for him as well as for me. This is something I'm exploring through my go-slow.

At the same time, that term is mainly used with reference to addictions like alcoholism and quite serious forms of bad behaviour and I just want to make it clear that my Big Dude doesn't have issues of this kind.

I wouldn't want to give you the impression that I think I'm dealing with some manipulative personality who is routinely behaving badly and exploiting his partner.

He's really just a very good man who has badly dropped the bundle on some things - as we all do from time to time - while also doing other things very well. I would never damn and blast a guy for trying to get out of the housework when he has limited energies and would like to use at least some of them for something more fun.

I have a lot of respect, as well as love, for my Big Dude, who is the very best man I know, and I truly admire the way he copes with his illnesses and all that he has been through. I certainly don't think I would do any better myself. I hope that my little explorations about how to improve our lives together don't overshadow those basic facts.

3:24 AM  

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