Mary is a stay-at-home mom with three boys (ages 10, 8, and 7), and wife to her soul mate, who is an orthopedic surgeon. They reside in Pittsburgh, PA while he finishes a fellowship in hand surgery and then will be moving home to Georgia to start a private practice. She is a runner and avid a reader. I am grateful Mary was willing to open up on a really personal matter. Her story is exactly why I started The White Coat Wife and continue to bring on guest bloggers. Thank you Mary for sharing your story!
Two weeks. That’s all it took.
Two weeks into my husband’s orthopaedic residency I walked out to the back deck to take stock of the dog food. There I was met with a scene that set me on a new course.
Maggots. Thousands of them. Maybe millions. (Let’s be honest, it was probably only thousands, but if you’re counting maggots, it might as well be millions). They were voraciously consuming 39 lbs. of Purina One, and as I stood staring into the can, evaluating the shocking mess, I only had one thought. This is me. This is all me. Had we still been in school I would have waited it out, until my husband came home. But I wasn’t sure he was actually coming home. Nope, this is me.
And for the next two years I adopted this as my mantra: You got this.
We had three small boys at the time, between the ages of 15 months and 4 and a half, and so most of my work centered on them. It was a one-man show. I cooked and cleaned, changed, made, washed, arranged, ran, cuddled, read, measured, folded, refolded, and folded again. So I started my days early and worked until I couldn’t anymore. Missing dads make for a lot of work.
I had seen other women – wives and mothers – guide their families through residency, appearing on the other side to be whole. I assumed I could too. And I assumed that if I worked hard enough, if the t’s were crossed and the i’s were dotted, we would all make it. But nobody told me that this life – the one where you lose the man you married to a system you don’t understand, and you raise boys alone, and go to bed alone, and go to church, weddings and funerals alone – might be more than I could manage. Nobody told me that medical training would stretch the limits of my mental, emotional and spiritual health to their breaking point.
Somewhere between the Day of the Maggots and PGY3, the curtains began to close. Subtle at first, the signs were easily dismissible. More tears, more yelling, less energy. A tight chest. And GI problems that sent me to the doctor. And then all of the lights simply went out. The show was over. Everything was dark. It felt like a 300 lbs. man sitting on my chest.
My family was several hours away, but their support was immeasurable. They couldn’t fold the laundry or pull the 300 lbs. man off of me, but they could encourage and pray. And so they did. And while there is no replacement for a husband lost in the vortex of medical training, they helped lift my head above water long enough for me to see that I needed help.
I think the truth is that many of us find ourselves still “performing” long after the curtains have closed. We keep acting like the show goes on, but its time for an intermission. Of course, the kind of help that we each need varies. Help folding the laundry and mopping floors can go a long way. But sometimes we need more than that. For me it came in the form of an anti-depressant. For those with space in their schedule, the listening ear of a counselor can help, or perhaps the community of like-minded and encouraging friends, or a local church.
No matter the device, the first step is to tell someone. A little bit of fear goes a long way in keeping us trapped in our own struggles. But a little bit of light shed on a dark subject like depression and anxiety goes a long way in freeing us. Depression and anxiety are amuck in the news. Movie stars are coming out of the wood works to talk about it. We all have friends that have struggled with it. We even warn one another about the dangers our husbands face. But it’s usually someone else. And when the world claps you on the back and asks you how residency is going then retreats with, “You got this,” there’s not much room to explain that I don’t got this.
Because it doesn’t matter how hard you work to make life work. Sometimes, you just don’t got it.
So, after nearly 12 years of following my husband around the country, supporting him psychologically, emotionally and spiritually, raising three boys, and eventually falling prostrate in exhaustion, my advice to those of you who find yourself in the dark: find someone you trust and tell them. Let someone help you get the lights back on.