Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Changing the Ground Rules #2: Illness and Disability

Tamika* and Timothy* had an unusual arrangement, but it worked for them.

Tamika, an open-heart surgeon, became quite successful, to the point where she was able to take only private pay patients. She surely brought home the bacon. And Timothy did the frying up in the pan. He finished college with a degree in education, but never worked–they married young–and was content, and proud of his management of the home and the raising of his children. Their life just worked; they were well-suited–her intense ambition and drive was tempered by his easy-going approach to life; her internal stress was eased by his company; his gentleness was maximized by her love and respect–and were proud of how they had put their lives together. They had money–ok, a lot of money–but they worked to prioritize family and learning and love–and, of course, academics, as Tamika wanted both of her daughters to be surgeons like her.

For Tamika was smart–quick as a whip, her husband said of her–and intellectual. She was also refined, he counted her merits like rosary beads, when he had a moment to think how lucky he was, socially adept, thoughtful. Tamika always said the right thing–and knew when to say nothing.

Or she did.

Tamika was hit head-on by a drunk driver, and spent three weeks in a coma.

In many ways, her recovery was tremendous. They said she’d never walk again, but she pushed so hard in physical therapy, and eventually was able to walk with a cane, and to stand almost upright. Of course she’d never operate again–or work as a doctor, or, really, work in any capacity that challenged her too much intellectually.

But those were not the biggest tragedies, in Timothy’s eyes. With her frontal lobe damage, Tamika’s personality, as is not uncommon, was completely transformed.  She became disinhibited, becoming sexually aggressive, and speaking of inappropriate topics–even in front of the children.  It was not uncommon for her to tell friends and family, “That shirt is ugly,” “You need a haircut,” or “I don’t like you.” She told their eldest daughter, “You’re fat,” which caused an uproar of gargantuan proportions.

Gone were Tamika’s steadfastness and poise–she was impulsive, jokey, silly. Bathroom humor entertained her, seemingly endlessly.

And, most painful of all, gone was her compassion for the other; life became all about Tamika, and what felt good to her at any given moment.

In essence: Gone was Tamika


And what of other, similar situations?

What of the vibrant wife and mother who develops scleroderma, and has to watch, with her husband and children, as her immune system slowly hardens all her necessary organs?  What of the husband who had always been quirky and off-beat who develops schizophrenia in his late 30s, and suffers breakdown after breakdown, requiring repeated hospitalizations, as his paranoia worsens? What of those who watch their spouses become progressively more debilitated from multiple sclerosis, from cancer, from Parkinson’s?

Yes, you promised  “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health”–but what happens when your role as a spouse is morphed into the role of the nurse-maid? Or when the person you married no longer exists, as with Tamika and her frontal lobe damage, or the husband consumed by paranoia as he battles schizophrenia?

Really–what happens?

Of course I can’t answer that for any individual person; each man’s destiny is in his own hands. But I have a few ideas about managing such constant stress that I’d like to address in the next post.


*As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Tamika or Timothy, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.



I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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