What I did for my wife's anxiety
... and why it worked so well.
There came a point in the slow erosion of my first (and so far, only) marriage when I realized that so much of what I was unsatisfied with was my fault.
I didn’t want it to be my fault. I wanted it to be my wife’s fault.
After all, she was the one with the drinking problem. She was the one with the anxiety. She was the one prone to temper tantrums and panic attacks and violent outbursts.
But about five years ago, the last time when she sat me down and told me, “I’m unhaaaaaaapy. I want to take the kids and move 2,000 miles away,” I took a hard look at myself and I decided I didn’t like what I saw. And if I didn’t like it… then why should she?
I decided to make some changes.
That’s when I started reading books. In particular, the two that helped me the most at first were No More Mr. Nice Guy by Glover and Married Man Sex Life by Kay. These books encouraged me to find the defects in my character and fix them.
Thus began my journey back from obesity, anxiety, and victimhood to a person that my kids and I might be proud of.
My wife’s anxiety was my fault.
One of the most important things I learned early in this journey was how to deal with my wife’s anxiety. This had been a point of contention between us, mostly due to the perceived inadequacy with which I had responded to her periodic visits to the emergency room. Convinced she was having a heart attack, she’d check herself into the hospital for a battery of tests revealing nothing medically wrong, creating a crisis for me at work and the necessity of somehow smoothing over for our two school-age kids the disruption at home.
Maybe you can understand if I was a bit irritated.
The fact was that there was something wrong with her heart. Metaphorically, it was breaking.
She wasn’t getting from me, or her marriage, or anywhere else, the love she needed and when I finally realized this, I knew I had to make changes.
My usual approach to her panic attacks ranged from anger to pampering. Neither worked, because neither is an antidote to anxiety.
Consider my anger responses for a second, and the gross incompetence of my logic. There is no way that threatening her at a time when she is already anxious will provide the security she needs to relieve her anxiety. What was I thinking? That she would sort of say, “You’re right, Honey!” and rip the electrodes off her chest, jump out of bed, and drive home playing jaunty tunes thru the car stereo?
You can’t expect better behavior from people by making them feel worse.
A bit stranger is her reaction to my feeble attempts at support, understanding, and comfort. I’d take her for a walk. I’d tell her “It’s OK.” I’d pour her a glass of wine and make calm, reassuring noises.
That was better, but only in the sense that it didn’t make things worse.
The antidote to anxiety is Leadership.
What I eventually discovered worked for my wife’s anxiety was taking over.
I don’t remember how I discovered this new strategy, but I remember when I first applied it.
It was late in the afternoon when my wife become overwrought with emotion and anxiety that threatened to spiral into a full-on panic attack.
I listened. And listened some more. And listened.
Then I said,
“Here’s what’s going to happen… you are going upstairs. You are going to run a hot bath. You going to turn off the lights. You are going to take off your jeans and T-shirt and bra and panties and climb into the hot water, naked. You are going to bathe in the water until it feels cold to your skin.
“Then, you will climb out of the tub, put on the flannel pajamas I bought for you last Christmas, and you will take your autographed copy of A Prayer For Owen Meany that I got you for our anniversary. You will climb into our bed and you will prop your head with the pillow and you will begin reading Chapter 5.
“I will come up after I have made dinner and got the kids started on their homework. You will show me how far you’ve gotten through Chapter 5, and you will hand me the book and I will snuggle into bed next to you so you can rest your head on my chest and I will read the rest of Chapter 5 to you.
“Then we will decide if we are going to put the kids to bed and rewatch Seabiscuit, or if you’re ready for sleep.”
“OK,” she said. And she toddled off upstairs to start the bath.
I was stunned.
What worked for my wife’s anxiety was assuming total control, as if I was omniscient and omnipotent.
I created a movie of the next few hours of her life, in exquisite detail, with nothing left to chance. She had no decisions to make, nothing to interpret, and no longer bore any responsibility for her mood or negative emotions.
It all started with, “Here’s what’s going to happen… “ as if I possessed awesome Wizard powers of prognostication.
And as soon as I got an, “OK,” I knew her anxiety was over.
Leadership is learned.
As her confidence in me grew, her anxiety diminished.
She began driving again. Her drinking ebbed a bit.
It got so much better that we planned a trip. On a plane.
Not just any trip, but two planes, a bus, and a ferry ride. From Phoenix, Arizona to the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts.
And here’s the kicker: we would travel separately, and reunite on island. I had a conference on the East Coast, and it wasn’t possible for me to come back and pick up her and the kids and chaperone them East. This was the only way.
Looking back, it was too much to ask. The last time we tried flying separately, I got a call from my preteen daughter, crying in the Atlanta airport, distraught.
“Dad, I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Mom is so drunk, I don’t know if she can walk. I don’t know if I can get her on this plane. I don’t know if she can make it to the gate. I don’t know if I should get on the plane, or stay with her!
“What do I do, Dad?”
I said, “Emma, you get on that plane. You are not responsible for your Mother. She will either follow you onto the plane or she will stay behind and figure something out when she sobers up. You will not miss that plane. I will be here, waiting for you when you arrive.”
So did her Mom.
This time, the kids were older. Both in High School.
My son, three years older than his sister, was finishing his senior year, but my daughter had just started.
Looking back, it was too much to ask of any of them, to board the plane in Phoenix, to change in St. Louis, to deplane in Boston, to find the bus to Hyannis, and to get on the ferry to Nantucket.
What an ordeal.
Sure enough… I was in Reagan National Airport in Washington DC when I got the call from my son.
“Dad,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Sister feels like she’s going to throw up and Mom says that we have to cancel the trip and I don’t think she’s really sick, I think she’s just scared.”
I had a moment of realization, to myself.
“Of course she’s scared!” I thought.
“OK, son,” I said. “This is going to come out alright. What I’ve discovered works when the women in our family are scared is that they need us to take over. Completely. Tell them what’s going to happen. Do not ask them any questions. Do not ask them what they want.”
“Do not expect them to make decisions,” I told my son.
“Take away all of their doubts. Give them a movie of everything that is going to happen. Just take over, with total confidence.
“Do you think you can do that?” I asked him.
“Dad?” he asked.
“I got this.”
Step by step. Break it down.
He looked at his Mom and his sister and they described all their symptoms and the reality of the illness and how the only prudent thing to do would be to cancel the trip and how they were soooo sorry, but it was for the best and they’d think of something else fun to do from home.
My Son said, “Let’s just pack these clothes into these suitcases, and we’ll see how we feel.”
They said OK, but they couldn’t possibly go on the trip and the only reason they were going to pack was just to humor him and you know they couldn’t possibly, actually, go on the trip.
“Let’s just take these suitcases downstairs and we’ll see how we feel,” he said.
Well that was fine, they told him, but he shouldn’t expect that they’ll be able to go, you know, and maybe they should just cancel their ride after all and it would really be alright.
“Well, our ride is here,” my Son said. “Let’s just put these suitcases in the trunk and we’ll go out to the airport and have a look and see how we feel.”
And it kept going like that.
The whole trip.
“Lets just go thru security,” he said. “We’ll see how we feel.”
“Let’s just go to our gate. We’ll see how we feel.”
“Let’s just try our seats. See how we feel.”
“Let’s just buckle up our seat belts. See how we feel.”
Being free of concern is a luxury we seldom get to enjoy.
I was on Nantucket island before their arrival, so I waited on the ferry dock.
I watched the boat gently bump into its slip.
I watched the gangplank make the crossing from the deck onto the wharf.
My family were among the first to come down the off the boat.
My wife and daughter were smiling, laughing, and they squeezed me in a big family hug.
“How was your trip?” I asked.
“Great!” my wife said. “Not a hitch!”
“Yeah, no problem!” said my Daughter.
My son came in close to hug me, too.
“I’m exhausted,” he whispered, up against my shoulder.
I know, Son.
The morality of Leadership.
In the throes of a panic attack, it’s immoral to abandon someone to their own resources, as if their decision-making capacities weren’t already compromised. They have no executive function left. They have no coherent preferences. No judgment.
They’re having a panic attack.
What they need is for someone who loves them to take over their lives for them, at least until their brains can come back online.
Thank you, Son.
My wife and I are no longer together. Our divorce became final a few years ago. I will chronicle the story elsewhere, another time.
The short version is that after an especially difficult couples counseling session, she informed me that she “didn’t want to do this anymore.” She wanted a divorce.
I didn’t want to be married to someone who wants a divorce from me, so I agreed to a split.
There is some irony in this outcome, I realize. On the one hand, I’ve written an article about how I came to learn that when she is emotionally distraught, it is immoral to allow her to make decisions. And I knew she was emotionally distraught when she told me she wanted a divorce.
According to my own logic, it would be immoral for me to allow her to make such an important decision in such a state of mind.
Yet, I did.
It was selfish of me, because I wanted out. And she’d given me the opportunity that I sought at the top of this article — a chance to make it all her fault.
It makes a good story, but it’s not really true. I could have, in that moment, given her the “Here’s what’s going to happen…” treatment, but I didn’t.
There wasn’t enough left in the marriage for me. I was ready for something new.
The fact is I owe her my gratitude, for doing what I didn’t have the courage to do myself.