Welcome to Tissue Issues, an advice column from comedian Ash Fisher about connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) and other chronic illness woes. Ash has EDS and is very bossy; having an advice column is a dream come true. Got a question for Ash? Reach out via Twitter or Instagram @AshFisherHaha.
Dear Tissue Issues,
My wife, Amanda, is a force of nature: a loving mother to our 6-year-old, a devoted middle school teacher, a talented painter, and an all-around incredible human. She also has rheumatoid arthritis, which was just diagnosed last year. Amanda has always been stretched too thin as long as I’ve known her. She helps her students outside of class hours, she cooks elaborate weekly meals for her aging parents, has been homeschooling our daughter for nearly a year, and does most of the housework like cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I know, I know, I should help. She won’t let me!
She’s become irritable and snippy with me the last few years, and I noticed she hobbles or walks stiffly in the mornings, and stopped going on her morning runs. When I confronted her, nicely, about her snippiness, she broke down and confessed that she was snippy because she was in near-constant pain and was scared to say it out loud. So I was relieved when she got the RA diagnosis. We had an answer! We could work on it!
But it’s been almost a year, and she’s only gotten worse. She still works too much and takes on too much in her personal life. She doesn’t get enough sleep, she doesn’t eat enough most days. She refuses to see more doctors, claiming she’s scared of COVID-19. And she won’t accept my help with housework or agree to stop doing so many favors for relatives and friends.
I’m worried she’s gonna seriously damage her body if she doesn’t start taking her health seriously and slow down. How can I get through to her that this could very well be a matter of life or death? How can I support her better?
— Worried Husband
Dear Worried Husband,
You asked a classic unanswerable question: How do I make someone do something they don’t want to do? Unfortunately, you can’t. Good luck, and thanks for writing in!
Just kidding. It’s obviously not that simple. But I do want you to stop focusing on your wife’s behaviors so much and start focusing on yours. You only have the power to change yourself. I know, I know, that’s annoying. But it is, for better or worse, the truth.
You said your wife does all the household tasks, and that she doesn’t “let” you help. I’ll be honest, dude, I am side-eyeing that a bit.
Housework and child-rearing still mostly fall on women, and I have trouble believing she’s happy doing it all by herself. Why don’t you start by making a list of all the household and child-related chores that need to be done (that are currently being done by your wife)? Now, pick some! Take over the laundry or the grocery shopping.
You’re able-bodied, and it sounds like you have more free time than your wife. So make good use of that time and start taking the initiative to do these necessary chores yourself.
Your wife said she’s irritable because she’s in constant pain, and that makes sense. But I suspect it’s more than that. She might be irritated that you don’t help more around the house. And she might feel like a failure as a woman, a mom, or a wife if she can’t “do it all” the way society tells her she’s supposed to.
Nowadays, women are pressured by society to be so many things at once: a good mom, a good wife, a successful career woman. And we’re supposed to do all that while maintaining an immaculately clean house, full of Pinterest-worthy decor.
It’s time to have another discussion with your wife. Actually, it’s time to start a series of discussions. Have you ever tried or considered couples therapy? It appears you two are having a breakdown in communication, and it might be time to have a professional guide you.
Therapy doesn’t mean you’re doomed or that your marriage is necessarily in trouble. It means you care about your marriage and your family enough to do anything you can to improve your situation. And for the record, I do believe you care deeply about your family and your wife; otherwise, you wouldn’t have written in.
Some other ideas:
- Ask her if you can see her doctor together so you can both bring up concerns and questions about her health.
- Plan a weekly outing with your daughter to give Amanda some time to herself. Go to the park, see a movie, meet up with friends, whatever you or your daughter want. Your kid will be thrilled to have quality time with you, and your wife will get some much-needed alone time.
- If you can afford it, hire a cleaning service. Having a few hours of paid help — even if it’s only every other week or once a month — will take some of the bigger, deep-cleaning household tasks off your wife’s plate.
- Do chores without being asked to. This is an important step that I believe would greatly improve your circumstances. Check out this feminist comic by the brilliant French cartoonist Emma about “the mental load” many women carry. Read it with an open mind — this comic will give you valuable insight about the pressure and expectations society places on modern wives and mothers.
- Give your wife time to grieve. A diagnosis of a chronic illness is a major life shift. For many people, such a diagnosis kicks off a grieving process: grief for your old life, for your former abilities, for the future you once envisioned. Your wife needs time and space to process this news and adjust her expectations. It’s a giant adjustment to her life; give her space to process it.
- Do you get any time as a couple? If not, try monthly date nights. Take the lead with planning: Order takeout or cook for her so she doesn’t have to. Research movies she might like. See if there are fun local bars or restaurants to try. Prioritize time together as a couple so you can reconnect and be closer.
It sounds like your wife is a wonderful person and that you’re a loving husband. The RA diagnosis is new, and your family is still figuring out how to adjust your lives and routines in light of this new information. In time, you’ll figure out a new flow to your life as a family.
For now, commit to proactively helping out around the house, and let your wife know you’re always there to listen to her (and if you need to vent or get support, reach out to your own friends or consider individual therapy).
Be patient. Be gentle. Be open to change. I hope things get easier soon.
Ash Fisher is a writer and comedian living with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. When she’s not having a wobbly-baby-deer-day, she’s hiking with her corgi, Vincent. She lives in Portland. Learn more about her on her website.