"Will Ben always be merely the shadow of the man I used to know?" says Kathy, 40, a pale woman with dark circles under her eyes. "I'm grateful that he's alive, but he's in terrible pain. I don't know how we're going to go on."
Two years ago, Ben, 43, a construction worker, was part of the team rebuilding the freeway after the San Francisco earthquake. Somehow, a huge piling fell from a crane and landed on him, crushing his right leg and foot, smashing several vertebrae in his back and causing internal injuries. After months in the hospital and five surgeries, Ben moved back home. Kathy, with the help of nurses and physical therapists, took over his care.
For the next year and a half, their lives, as well as the life of their teen-age daughter, were put on hold while all energies were focused on Ben's recovery. He has made remarkable progress, and he's learning to walk again.
However, he will never be able to make love without first giving himself an injection. "The spontaneity has disappeared from our sex life," explains Kathy, "and that's killing both of us, though Ben refuses to talk about it."
In the last few months, it seems that their marriage, which had always been happy, is on the verge of collapse. "Ben says things I know he doesn't mean, and we've been fighting constantly. I'm so worn out, but I can't sleep, and I just burst into tears over nothing," says Kathy.
Ben is similarly upset, though it's harder for him to talk about it. "I'm scared to death that Kathy is going to leave me," he finally admits. "We had such a good marriage, but now I can't even make love to my wife unless I give myself a shot. What woman would put up with that for long?" Maybe she should leave him, he says, half to himself, "I'll be a burden to her all her life."
Coping with trauma
"Ben and Kathy are both suffering from depression, a common reaction to a crisis," says Robert W. Harelson, a marriage and family therapist in Lafayette, Calif. "Whether a partner has had a heart attack, a debilitating disease or, like Ben, a serious accident, there are common reactions and responses from which others can learn."
With all their energies focused on surviving, many people in crisis bury their emotions and operate on automatic pilot. Since recovery from trauma can take a long time, couples must find ways to maintain hope. The absence of hope can not only lead to depression, it can actually delay the healing process.
If your family has endured a crisis, keep these points in mind:
* Don't ignore the needs of the healthy while you're attending to the needs of the ill. Kathy has switched her role from wife and lover to caretaker and nurse. It's time to reconnect with friends and family as well as the activities that bring her joy.
* There's no reason to go through this crisis alone. Denying your own needs won't help your loved one get better any faster. Seek professional counseling for young children or adolescents who need help in sorting through their feelings.
* Set aside time to reminisce about the good times: the first time you met, your honeymoon, the births of your children. Music often helps rekindle happy memories, so play a tape you both enjoy. If possible, revisit places where good experiences occurred -- a favorite restaurant, a theater or a park. If traveling is impossible, bring in dishes from a favorite restaurant.
* Get in touch with residual emotional pain. On a sheet of paper, each of you should complete the following sentences:
The most painful part of the experience for me was . . .
What I needed most and was unable to get was . . .
Discuss what you've written and begin to sort through those feelings.