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Tuesday February 12, 2013

Linda Lee Albert

Today's Caregiver - My husband, Jim, had no intention of retiring. He was never a man who longed to replace his office for the golf course -who pictured himself leaving his native Michigan for warmer climates. He was a man who considered it a worthy challenge to maneuver his car without mishap in the kind of lake effect snow and ice for which we were famous, and who never looked out the window during our very long winters and fretted over the gloom and absence of sun for which we were also well known.

For the first seven years after his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 58, Jim barely turned a hair. He had climbed to a successful enough place in life to satisfy himself; found a comfortable plateau in his profession managing a small stable of real estate holdings he had developed, and was content to stay there for the rest of his life. Then one day, things changed. He felt stiff and lethargic in a way he had not previously experienced. His optimism was suddenly no longer in evidence. His belief in his ability to make good decisions disappeared. Trips to his neurologist did nothing to reassure him, even though the doctor was convinced there was no particular change for the worse in the progression of his disease. We were bewildered, and Jim was beginning to be frightened.

Fortunately, our son-in-law, Andy, a clinical social worker, took it upon himself to do a search for us on the Internet. According to what he found, 50 percent of Parkinson’s patients will be fated to undergo a clinical depression at some point in the course of their illness, with the symptoms imitating the Parkinson’s symptoms themselves, so that a diagnosis is very difficult to ascertain. No failing on the part of the person suffering through this is to blame, we discovered - not even the pain and disappointment of having to deal with a progressive physical disease - but rather, the compromised brain chemistry itself was both the primary cause and the potential remedy

Neither my husband’s internist nor neurologist had alerted us to this possibility, but once armed with information, we were ultimately able to find a neuro-psychiatrist who aided us in understanding what my husband was going through, and who reassured us that Jim could be helped. The doctor prescribed Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant, to give my husband what he called “a floor” on which to stand emotionally, and encouraged him to get back into living his life as fully as possible.

But there were challenges ahead. Jim had retired abruptly from his work, leaving me to handle our personal affairs in order to save him from stress, and his longtime trusted assistant to carry on in his behalf until we could figure out how to sell our investments and close down the business. He no longer went to the office and with no retirement plans in place, life appeared to be over as far as he was concerned. He spent long days sitting around the house in his bathrobe. I would try to perk him up by encouraging him to think of what still lay ahead for us - some of our children yet to marry - weddings to plan or attend - grandchildren to look forward to - new places to explore. But this only appeared to make him feel worse. He felt hopeless, and was ashamed of his inability to improve his spirits.

Then I learned from a nun, who was teaching a course for spiritual directors which I was taking at the time, that in Catholic tradition, hope is not considered something you can force into being through your own will power, but rather, is a gift from God that comes through grace. I was stunned to hear this.

Having grown up with the notion that “God helps those who help themselves,” I was a strong believer in action, in the idea that we have to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps in order for anything worthwhile to happen. But things were not good at home and I was willing, as I usually am, to consider any idea that might be helpful. Sometimes the best gifts come when our backs are against the wall, or from worlds different than our own.

If it was true that we humans cannot actually will hope, then my efforts to persuade Jim to feel more hopeful were clearly failing for good reason. Not only that, they were undoubtedly exacerbating the pressure he felt under to find his way when the path he planned to be on had clearly closed down on him. I returned home, told him about what I had learned that day in class, and apologized.

If hope could only come as a gift, then there was nothing my husband could do to be hopeful when hope had disappeared. There was no point wasting energy beating himself up about his lack of success in trying to do the impossible. It was hard enough to be without hope. What he could do instead, we reasoned, what was still within his power, was to begin to hope for hope. It was a gentle recognition and a doable one.

It was something, in fact, the two of us could do together. That was the beginning of a turning point in our lives; the start of a remarkable journey that has led us to Florida - a place we never expected to be -to a beautiful condominium overlooking a beautiful bay, to warmth and sunlight, and improved health and energy for my husband. These past 10 years have brought all kinds of amazing synchronicities and new possibilities our way, and the sweetest 10 years of our almost 50-year marriage.

What challenges the future will bring, we do not know. Nor can we control that future, much as we might like to. But it is a gift to know that good things can often come out of bad, that surprises and adventures of the best sort may be around a dark and frightening corner, and that even when things seem hopeless, we can always hope for hope.

Linda Albert is a corporate trainer and personal communication and life coach with a Master Certification in Neuro-Linguistics. An author and poet, Linda’s work has appeared in many publications including McCall’s Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. She is a recipient of the International Merit Award in Atlanta Review's 2007 International Poetry Competition. Linda resides in Longboat Key, Florida with her husband.

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