By Gayle Lewis, Ph.D.
When thinking about the idea of “managing MS,” more than likely you immediately think about the patient and how he/she is dealing with, incorporating, accommodating to, accepting, grieving…and having many other reactive and thoughtful coping styles for getting used to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Certainly in my work, this is something that I focus on regularly with my patients: how to help them manage their MS. Whatever that might mean for the individual.
But managing MS is NOT JUST ABOUT THE PATIENT. It is simultaneously about the microsystem surrounding the patient, including partners and other family members. We can consider that “managing MS” needs to be looked at more globally, relationally and more systemically than just individually. That the trauma of MS diagnosis has many fingers of whom is affected and therefore who has to manage it.
My work more often than not involves discussions about my patients’ respective relationships with the people in their lives, particularly if a partner is involved and always when there is no partner, but the wish for one remains. Many relational areas get covered in sessions, but thematically, I hear over and over again the feeling of or actual act of being rejected; the reasons given are either directly stated to be because of the patient’s MS or indirectly communicated that MS has interfered so substantially in the relationship, the situation is no longer viable. Then there are the rejections that occur in which the partner/family member/friend remains as a figure in the patient’s life, but creates enormous distance between themselves and the patient, with the space between them being filled with uncertainty, anger, resentment, loss, sadness, disconnection and the like…feelings felt by both patient and their “people.”
And while I absolutely empathize with patients who feel rejected/are rejected by their “people,” I also have great empathy for the “people,” who are the ones patients rely on, who become the caretakers, who are tasked with increased responsibilities they may not be prepared for nor wished for when they got involved with said-patient. They didn’t sign up for this! Managing MS is NOT just about the patient, as I said. I work with people whose partners have had very strong reactions after a diagnosis of MS was given: some may reduce or stop sexual intimacy; or become increasingly snappish and intolerant when the patient struggles to do tasks at home that were previously rote and done with little effort, like removing dishes from the dinner table and bringing them to the sink; increasingly spending more time out of the house and away from the relationship, finding the patient’s symptoms too difficult to tolerate and too frustrating to face regularly; in some cases a partner may even leave the patient after diagnosis never to be seen from or heard from again. In one case a partner telling the patient that he needed to break up because he could not deal with her MS, even though she was asymptomatic and, in a meeting with the doctor (requested by this boyfriend), the doctor presented a very optimistic picture of the patient’s likely path with her MS. That boyfriend apparently did not want to pay attention. He was mostly concerned that the patient would end up in a wheelchair and he would have to take care of her, which he did not want to do anytime soon.
In all of these examples people are reacting to a situation (MS diagnosis and its sequelae) in ways that speak to how awful and traumatized they are feeling about what is going on. These are not the only examples I have; there are ones in which partners step up, learn about MS, specifically their partner’s MS, where they are supportive in loving, generous ways, when they actively participate in their partner’s treatments and step into not out of what is happening. But even those “angels” have to face and deal with the trauma of being with someone with a progressive, chronic illness. No one is immune from the impact of that. I frequently see or hear about relational pathology as couples/family members adapt to an MS diagnosis. But, I also see that many of the partners or family members willingly participate in treatment or get their own treatment or even join a group with others who have a person in their life with MS and are having difficulty managing what the diagnosis means to them. All of these latter tactics can be very constructive…and all are a process, as is managing MS…it IS a process that is evolving and ever-changing and one that needs to be open to the idea that it’s NOT JUST ABOUT THE PATIENT.
*Gayle Lewis, Ph.D. is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City, Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Neurology, at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, and Staff Psychologist at Juilliard’s Counseling Center. Additionally she is a graduate of both the American Institute for Psychoanalysis and the EDCAS program at the William Alanson White Institute. She specializes in the treatment of trauma, eating disorders and individuals with Multiple Sclerosis. See www.drgaylelewis.com