Thursday, October 18, 2012

Back in the Lymelight Again

This past week, Ma'ikwe had a Facebook exchange with someone close to her (whom I'll call Jesse) that didn't go well despite both of them wanting the best for each other. Worse, when Ma'ikwe reached out to me for help (having recognized that the back-and-forth with Jesse had derailed), my response didn't help. Yuck.

While the key dynamic with Ma'ikwe is the cumulative emotional toll that her constant struggle with chronic Lyme has exacted on her psyche, this tender dynamic is worth exploring because it could happen whenever someone is in a depleted state. This sequence is unquestionably not peculiar to Lyme.
I'm going to use this blog to unpack how three intelligent, caring people could miss each other so poignantly. Think of it as a crash site investigation.

The Back Story
o  Jesse lives with her partner on a small rural acreage, where they do homestead farming, work two jobs, and try to keep up with their rambunctious four-year-old daughter. Their lives are full.

As Ma'ikwe and I are self-employed, it was easier for us to travel to Jesse's family than the other way around, and over the last four years, Ma'ikwe and I have visited them a handful of times. To date, Jesse and partner have not visited Ma'ikwe at Dancing Rabbit.
o  A straight forward person, Jesse's style is to simply put out what she wants and let others know what she's thinking. While she doesn't expect to always be agreed with, it's her way to speak up when something is on her mind.
o  Ma'ikwe has done a lot of personal growth work over the course of her adult life and she's generally willing to look closely at her part of a dynamic when things don't go well.

o  Ma'ikwe suffered from depression in her early 20s and the personal growth work helped considerably with her recovery. By the time we met, she was a high-functioning, spunky, centered woman who was an accomplished organizer and frustrated with people who flaked on commitments.

o  Jesse and partner lead a more or less traditional nuclear family lifestyle; Ma'ikwe and I don't. Both she and I have been involved with intentional communities for decades, and we have an odd marriage in that we live three miles apart, each in our distinct, though well-connected communities (Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit). Jesse has had no personal experience with group living.

o  Lyme disease (which Ma'ikwe's been battling in its active chronic form for most of the last three years) is progressively enervating and she's struggled to come to grips with her no longer being able to do things, or be anywhere near as productive as she once was.

o  In the last year, Ma'ikwe discovered that her 15-year-old son, Jibran, also has Lyme disease. While there has been a certain amount of camaraderie to their seeing the same doctor and commiserating with one another over symptoms, it's been heartbreaking for a mother to see her son suffer and be cheated out of normal teenage activities.

o  On top of near-constant muscle and joint ache, and a sharply diminished capacity to do things, it is psychologically exhausting not knowing when or if she'll recover (about 20% of chronic Lyme patients never do). While Ma'ikwe has a strong will and is an amazingly upbeat person who rarely complains (which is one of the bedrock reasons I think she's a great partner, by the way), Lyme's constant siege on her being is an exhausting burden, and sometimes it's too much. After a difficult weekend, she was in one of those especially tender and teary places at the start of this week.

Ma'ikwe & Jesse's Facebook Mishap
On Tuesday, Jesse reached out to Ma'ikwe via Facebook, unaware of Ma'ikwe's fragility and low emotional resilience. The conversation started off well enough, with Jesse inquiring how she was doing, knowing Ma'ikwe had better and worse days.

Jesse asked if Ma'ikwe would be open to visit where she could offer a stretch of domestic assistance and Ma'ikwe said she'd love that.

Jesse had noticed (via Facebook reporting) that Ma'ikwe had seemed in better spirits following a long visit from her mother in September when she was able to provide substantial domestic assistance and wondered if Ma'ikwe's health challenges were exacerbated by living in an unfinished home with a partner (me) who was around so little to help.

This is where it got sticky. Ma'ikwe tried to explain that good and bad days were not so much related to how much the dishes were done as they were to the cycle of spirochete blooms, yet Jesse pressed on. Even though Ma'ikwe reported that she benefited from a precious level of emotional and physical support by virtue of living in community, Jesse noted that her health challenges seemed to coincide with her moving into her new house three years ago. Maybe she needed to live a more "normal" life.

Ma'ikwe had a bad reaction to that, believing that Jesse had no feel for what living in community meant. On the other hand, stress is undoubtedly a contributing factor to Lyme becoming active and there's definitely been stress related to building the house—so it wouldn't be right to say that Jesse was completely off base.

Jesse was offering her heartfelt thoughts, connecting the dots as she saw them. Ma'ikwe was upset that she didn't take the time to look for more dots before offering the conclusion shed drawn with them. Ma'ikwe felt misunderstood and Jesse felt punished for reaching out. Train wreck.

While they broke off the exchange before it got ugly, Ma'ikwe could tell right away that it hadn't gone well, and even in her strained state she did a savvy thing—she asked for help. That's when I got in trouble.

Laird's Face Plant
Ma'ikwe recapitulated the Facebook dialog and asked for my perspective. Because the communication was on email, I made a guess as to her emotional state and assumed that she wanted help seeing things differently. (There's a big difference between being in distress, and talking about your having been in distress.) While she really did want my perspective, she first wanted my emotional support—as her partner, as someone who knew she was in a fragile place, and as someone who is a professional who works with people in distress. ("How come you know so well how to offer emotional support to others but not to me?" That hurt.)

Essentially, I violated a cardinal rule of working emotionally: validate the upset person's experience before doing anything else. I misread that she needed that (hey, everyone makes mistakes) but my big goof was not noticing that I was making an assumption and checking it out before proceeding. Doh. 

I was so happy to be able to offer a bridge to Jesse (I didn't find it that hard to see an innocent and caring motivation for all she wrote, even if much of her offering was off the mark) that I leaped to that, bypassing the acknowledgment of my partner's pain. Not one of my finest moments.

So now we had three people feeling shitty. Ugh!

By the time I caught up with Ma'ikwe's email expressing her frustration with my response, I at least didn't compound the problem by writing another email (I may be a slow learner, but that's better than being a no learner). Instead I picked up the phone and apologized.

In spite of all the prickliness of this communication chain, I'm in awe that Ma'ikwe could muster sufficient focus and energy to scrape herself up off the floor, tell me fairly cleanly how my reply to her didn't work, and then send a follow up email to Jesse that did a terrific job of laying out the elements of what's being hard for her right now.

My hope now is that Ma'ikwe and I can convince Jesse to get back on the horse, and stay in touch. While it's no fun going through hard exchanges; it's when we're most susceptible to reactivity that meaningful relationships mean the most.

No comments: