*Note: The following post is not meant as an indictment of men. Pronouns are chosen for convenience only and reflect the majority of cases I see in the groups.*
One of the issues I see quite frequently in our Gastroparesis support groups yet which remains a rather taboo subject outside our groups is spousal (substitute: partner, family, significant other if you wish) abandonment. I realize many factors weigh into a divorce/separation and that it is perhaps not as easy as saying, “Stay with your spouse through thick and thin,” but the effects of such desertion on the chronically ill are devastating and desperately need to be addressed.
Many of those forsaken were married for years before being cast off. They built a life centered on family and counted on their spouses for emotional support, physical comfort, and companionship. They never held jobs, held low-paying jobs, or had to leave their jobs once illness hit. Some delayed educational pursuits to care for their families and never got around to finishing their degrees. Many agreed to stay home and raise children or work part-time on the promise that the spouse would continue to work and provide a family income. Some turned down high-paying occupations and sacrificed their own ambitions to further their spouses’ career goals. They were in what they thought to be committed relationships with common goals. They established mutually agreed upon objectives meant to benefit the family as a whole. Such commitments were, admittedly, made in the absence of illness, hardship, and crisis. There was no plan for what-ifs.
Then, when illness struck, all their grand designs began to crumble. Perhaps things continued on as before for a while – even a good long while – before one spouse decided he no longer wished to live his life “tied” to a sick partner. After all, this was not what he “signed up for” and was no longer “fulfilling.” There are all sorts of justifications for abandoning one's spouse: “She is not the same person I married. She is always sick. She can’t go anywhere and can’t take care of the kids or help with the chores like she used to. I do everything. We can’t even get romantic anymore. Who wants to live like this? Why should I be held to this marriage when she can’t hold up her end of the bargain? Don’t I deserve happiness? Don’t I deserve a decent life?” And so, one day, despite years of togetherness, tenderness, and shared dreams, the spouse walked out the door.
You may think me judgmental – may even side with the spouse who left – but I see the end result of this type of thinking, of this rejection and callousness, of this “me-first” attitude. In our groups, we struggle to pick up and reassemble the pieces of those left behind. The abandoned spouse is devastated emotionally and spiritually and questions whether she was ever really loved in the first place. She wonders how someone she once thought devoted could so easily reject her, their family, all their beautiful dreams. She cannot properly care for herself and her children, physically or financially, without spousal assistance. And though perhaps once capable of pursuing a career (or an education), she cannot now find gainful employment due to her debilitating illness. Worse still, she loses her insurance coverage once her husband leaves and cannot afford her necessary (and yet costly) medical care.
Yes, there are options… none ideal. There are public assistance programs for housing but these often come with long waiting lists and the dwellings are sometimes located in less-than-desirable areas. Disability might be a possibility, but it is frequently difficult to qualify and takes years to obtain approval. There are also programs (such as SNAP and food pantries) designed to help with food costs, but many times, these do not cover all expenses incurred or items needed for care. Medicaid may be an option for healthcare, but the approval process can take time and, even once in place, procedures and treatments can be delayed due to processing time. It is often difficult to locate providers who accept this form of reimbursement as well.
And, so, a downward spiral begins. Mentally, emotionally, and physically drained from illness and abandonment, the affected spouse slowly loses all for which she worked so hard. She is truly alone. She has no emotional or physical support. Her home is gone. Her family is split. Her medical care is non-existent or subpar. Her condition begins to deteriorate due to the stress resulting from lack of assistance and care, and she finds herself in a dark abyss with little hope of climbing out unassisted. This once optimistic, vibrant, dream-filled soul sees no bright future and abandons hope.
Now, I do not pretend to have the answers to this very real dilemma. We live in a free society where marriage is an at-will contract and taxpayers reject ideas of further assistance to the “lesser” among us. We have rights, and rightly so. But as decent, caring human beings, I beg of you to consider the consequences of your choices, and I ask you: What happened to commitment, to devotion, to promises? Where is your sense of responsibility for your fellow man? Where is your compassion? How can you so easily ignore the plight of those around you, perhaps people you once cared for deeply – loved, who have struggled to keep their heads above water and are now drowning in misery and hardship? These people are in need and cannot succeed without you. What do you owe these souls? Much. Much. We are all connected, all intricate and valuable parts of this society, this world, and a similar fate could befall any one of you at any time. Open your eyes. Unbolt your hearts. Extend your hands.