Table of Contents
Part One: Accidents
Barb and Wayne:
The Worst of Times Led to The Best of Times
Part Two: Death of a Child
Meryl and George Muller
A Legacy of Love
Tasha and Richard Leland
A Relationship Reborn
Part Three: Financial Crises
Gail and Curtis Lowrey
Banking on the Success of Their Relationship
Part Four: Job Stress and Revitalizing a Dying Relationship
Denny and Phoebe King
Learning to Love Again
Part Five: Infidelity and Death of a Parent
Gloria and Peter Desmond
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Part Six: Illness
Louise and Martin Devoreaux
Seeking Outside Support for Inner Fears
Jessica and Larry Wright
Traveling Different Roads on the Same Journey
Part Seven: Natural Disasters
Anne and Nathan Robison
Their Love Burns Bright
Melissa and Andrew Smythe
Never in Over Their Heads
Part Eight: Crisis Casualties
Couples Whose Relationships Caved in Under the Pressure
Part Nine: Crisis Proofing Your Own Relationship
Crisis Proofing Your Own Relationship
Barb and Wayne Adams
The Worst of Times Led to The Best of Times
I listened in amazement as Barb and Wayne Adams recounted their story. How could anyone endure so much tragedy and still laugh, I wondered? Barb’s laugh is light and musical and feathery, a contradiction to the heavy burden of caring for her husband. Wayne’s laugh is deep and rich and devilish, a chuckle with character.
The couple’s laughter took a while to emerge from under their despair. But when it did, Barb and Wayne’s sense of humor carried them through their continuing crisis. It helped Barb lift her two-hundred-and-twenty-five-pound husband out of bed every morning. It helped her change his catheters. It gave her the courage to face the knowledge Wayne could die at any moment from his recurrent kidney infections.
When Barb walked down the aisle in August 1972, this was not how she had envisioned her future.
Her Paralyzed Prince
Nineteen-year-old Barb awoke on the morning of September 24, 1972 prepared for an idyllic life. Almost four weeks ago, she had married Wayne and looked forward to starting a family in their hometown of Wautoma, Wisconsin. But on that day in September, Wayne decided to play football—and all Barb’s dreams shattered.
“I’d like to say I was playing for the Packers,” recalls Wayne, who was twenty years old at the time, “but it was for fun with friends. It was after the Packers had beaten the Bears, and I was looking for something to do.
“What started out as fun with friends turned into a nightmare. Wayne, a wiry bundle of muscles, caught the football and slipped away from his rivals. As he sprinted up the border of trees that marked the sideline, an opponent rushed toward him. Determined not to run out of bounds, Wayne faced the man head-on. The two collided, and Wayne fell backward, slamming his head against the ground. His neck snapped. The force crushed seven of his vertebrae. Pain overpowered him and he slipped into unconsciousness.
On the way to the hospital, Barb’s aunt tried to reassure her, telling her over and over again, “It’s only a pinched nerve.” But when they arrived, the doctor showed Barb the x-rays, and her hope dissolved into despair. Her husband’s neck was twisted into the shape of a V. The diagnosis? Wayne was paralyzed from the neck down and might never even sit up in a wheelchair.
Sobbing, Barb approached the neurosurgeon.
“I’m going to let you go in and see him now,” the doctor told her, “but you’ve got to quit crying. You’re not the one who’s hurt.”
Barb recoiled from the doctor, sobbing harder. For a moment, she thought her father, standing nearby, was going to punch the man.
“The doctor was a very good doctor,” Wayne says in retrospect, “but he did not have a good bedside manner. Looking back, I think he was just trying to toughen Barb up for what lay ahead.”
What lay ahead was years of agony and adjustment and torrents of tears. Every day, for nine-and-a-half months, Barb visited her husband in the hospital. She missed only one day, when a storm dumped fourteen inches of snow, making driving impossible and closing all public transportation. At first, during Barb’s hospital visits, the couple became closer. They talked for hours, about life, politics, music, religion.
What they never discussed during the first few months was how Wayne’s accident would affect their physical relationship. Then, one day, when Barb walked into Wayne’s hospital room, she glanced at Wayne’s bulky groin and thought, That can’t be all Wayne.
Barb pointed to the area, asking the doctor, “What is that there?”
The doctors explained they had packed Wayne’s private parts in ice. In case he wanted to have children, they were afraid his high fevers would render him sterile. Barb nodded. She desperately wanted children. But, for the moment, she had other worries. A priest, observing the situation, approached Barb as she stood in the hospital.
“If your husband can’t have children, you should consider annulling the marriage,” he told Barb.
She shook her head. No, she vowed. I’m not going to give up on him.
A social worker who visited Barb at home prior to Wayne’s release from the hospital also offered his share of inaccurate advice. He glanced at the unassembled, specially designed bed sitting in the corner. Unsure how to assemble it, Barb was waiting for a weekend when Wayne’s family could help her.
“If you don’t assemble that bed right away,” the social worker told Barb, “we’re going to take Wayne away from you.”
Panic clutched Barb. Could they really take him away from her? But how could she set up the bed by herself?
Wayne’s voice softens with compassion as he looks back on what his wife went through. “She never really shared that experience with me until some time later. I told her, ‘Barb, they could not have taken me away from you.’ But it was terrifying for her. She really thought they could take me away if she didn’t get her act together and do everything just perfect.”
From Newlywed to Nurse
In June 1973, nine months after Wayne’s accident, the doctors released him from the hospital. Shortly after he returned home, bedsores and infections consumed his skin, and he landed right back where he started. For twelve of the first sixteen months of his marriage, Wayne remained in the hospital.
When Wayne finally arrived home for good, Barb went from newlywed to nurse, inserting suppositories into her husband, changing his diapers, dealing with leaking catheters and dressing his bedsores. He became more like a baby than a lover.
“I used to gag when I had to change the dressings,” says Barb. “I was such a wuss at the sight of blood. Boy, I had to get over that in a hurry.”
Wayne’s disabilities were often as physically challenging for Barb as they were emotionally draining. Initially, she struggled to lift her two-hundred-twenty-five-pound husband in and out of the bed, straining so hard from time to time she would jolt her shoulder out of its socket. At times, she nearly collapsed from exhaustion.
The stress started unraveling the tight bond the two had formed while Wayne was in the hospital. Their relationship took a back seat to Wayne’s physical and emotional needs. At first, Barb pictured a bleak life as a recluse, wondering, Oh my, God, how am I going to live like this forever and ever? She envisioned a dismal relationship, where she was the one to give, Wayne the one to take.
Faced with this image, Barb packed her bags. “I can’t do this anymore,” she told Wayne.
She fled to her parents’ house in Milwaukee. When she arrived, her father told her, “Barb, you’re not a quitter. You give this a year. If you can’t do it, fine, come home, but you have to give it your best shot.”
Within a week, she returned to Wayne. But the struggles had just begun.
Meryl and George Muller
A Legacy of Love
Tears swim in my eyes as I listen to Meryl and George Muller tell their heartbreaking story.
Twenty-six years ago, during the initial stages of their marriage, Meryl and George listened as many of their friends vocalized disapproval about their union.
“I’m Jewish and George isn’t, so a lot of people felt our marriage would never last,” says Meryl. “And here we are—we probably have one of the most stable marriages in Philadelphia. We’re happy and we love each other.”
Despite the doomsayers, the Mullers’ marriage has thrived even after one of the worst catastrophes a couple can face: the death of a child. Their son Danny’s big heart couldn’t save him from the cardiovascular condition that took his life.
When Meryl and George think about Danny, they jokingly call him “The Messiah,” the only baby Muller. George laughs as he thinks about the day Danny appeared in the world. The Philadelphia Eagles were playing at home, and Meryl’s doctor rolled a television into the labor room so the twenty-five-year-old George could watch the game while comforting his wife. But how could he comfort his wife? He hadn’t expected to be in the delivery room, and he was just as scared as Meryl.
What am I supposed to be doing? he wondered, watching the nurses take over as contractions wracked his wife’s body. Gently, George slipped Meryl’s hand into his own and stood next to her as the doctor presided over the birth. As the pain pulsed through her body, Meryl clenched George’s hand, struggling to breathe properly, in and out, in and out. Push and breathe and push and breathe and God the pain, the pain.
Finally, the doctor, bending over Meryl’s body, motioned to George. “Look at his head. He’s almost out.”
As the baby emerged completely, George glanced at his son and thought, He’s ugly.
All the doctors and nurses surrounding Meryl kept telling the Mullers, “Look at this baby! He’s beautiful.”
Meryl and George met each other’s eyes and said together, “We’ll try harder next time.”
Noticing the shape of his son’s head, George asked the doctor, “Is the cone going to always be there?”
The doctor looked at him in disgust, but Meryl smiled.
“He was the ugliest newborn baby I have ever seen in my life,” says George. “But he was my ugly baby. I held him in my hand—my hand’s pretty big—and I’d say it was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. And in a week and a half, his appearance started to change.”
“And it was frightening,” says Meryl. “As first-time parents, we had no clue what to do with him.”
While Danny’s appearance improved, his health worsened. At an age when most children learn to walk and talk, two-and-a-half-year-old Danny struggled through open-heart surgery. Born with three holes in his heart and a constricted valve, the toddler bravely faced what some adults don’t encounter until they reach their 50s, 60s, or 70s. Heart surgeons closed one of the holes in the little boy’s heart, patched the other two and widened a constricted valve.
Crisis Proofing Your Own Relationship
This chapter is meant to serve as a roadmap to help you travel through the stressful times in your own relationship. In it, I provide the advice from a number of experts I interviewed initially for a magazine article I wrote on this topic. The chapter is divided into two parts providing advice to both couples who want to be prepared for catastrophe before it strikes and couples who have already gone through a devastating event.
Prepared and Proactive: Pre-Crisis Techniques
When a couple first walked into Cheri Huber’s office, asking for counseling only months after they started dating, Huber was surprised. As director of the Zen Monastery and Interfaith Retreat Center in Murphys and the Zen Center in Mountainview, California, Huber had counseled many couples, but normally those couples had been dating or married for years. This couple’s relationship sailed smoothly along in a sea of infatuation. So why did they need a counselor?
In speaking with the couple, Huber realized they wanted to be proactive in their relationship. They wanted to steer clear of the bumps in the relationship road ahead before those bumps stalled their progress.
“They were in their early thirties when they started the counseling, so they’d had other relationships,” says Huber. “They knew how it went and they didn’t want it to go the same old way. So they did a lot of preparation, guessing there would be things in their life that were going to challenge their relationship. And they wanted to know one another and trust one another with those difficulties in life.”
Preparing for crisis before it strikes can give us the tools necessary to cope. By enrolling in couples’ workshops or classes, by reading self-help books or seeking the advice of a therapist, you’re building a foundation that will remain standing in even the shakiest of times.
We prepare ourselves to stay healthy physically, points out Huber. We prepare ourselves financially, saving money and investing wisely. We continue to educate ourselves so if one career falls through our fingers we have something to fall back on. We prepare ourselves for so many other aspects of our lives, but we often neglect to prepare ourselves for crises.
Because practice makes perfect, it’s often the couples who have endured more than one tragedy who are the most adept at dealing with disaster. The initial disaster gave them a road map for dealing with the second or third crisis.
“That’s one of the reasons why it’s more difficult for younger couples to deal with crisis than older couples,” says Charles Figley, Ph.D. a disaster mental health expert at Tulane University. “Because frequently there is an accumulation of experience that older couples can look to and draw upon and not even bother with certain strategies for coping. They know that’s not going to work because they’ve tried it.”
For others, being bombarded with crisis after crisis can have a detrimental effect upon their relationship. People who experience a series of traumatic events may become overwhelmed. If nine things happen over the span of a reasonably brief period of time, and you haven’t fully been able to come to grips with event two and all of a sudden you’re on event seven it can be pretty overwhelming.
Preparing yourselves for crises before they strike can ease some of the overwhelming pressure after the event. It’s easier to find your way in unfamiliar territory if you have a road map.
Figley calls that road map a traumagram, a device he illustrated in his book Helping Traumatized Families. You can draw your own traumagram, suggests Figley, in order to identify how each of you have coped with crises. First list all the major crises you’ve endured in your life. Beside each crisis, list the methods you used to survive it. Write down how you’ve coped with crises as individuals and as couples. By recalling these experiences, each of you may call to mind skills you have forgotten.
Another barometer of your crisis-coping skills is the quality of your daily communication within the relationship prior to a crisis. Ask yourselves if you can discuss simple decisions on a daily basis, something as simple as deciding what you want to have for dinner. Then analyze your more momentous decisions. Can you peacefully discuss something as economically significant as buying a new car or a house?