By Esther Mann

 

Dear Esther,

I’m worried about my wife, Mindy. Mindy has always been one of those women who take excellent care of themselves. Sometimes I used to think she did this to a fault, though I would never criticize her in any way. She used to get up early each morning, run to the gym for several hours, and spend a tremendous amount of time getting herself ready for her day. She would not leave the house unless she felt she looked absolutely perfect.

Sometimes, on a Shabbos or Sunday when I was home, I’d see her change her outfit, her shoes, and her jewelry several times until she was satisfied. I think she’s beautiful and that she always looks amazing, so when I’d see her changing, I would be surprised, because to me she is always a stunner! But she put a tremendous amount of thought into every detail of how she looked. It’s not that she was preparing for a meeting with the president of Amazon or anything super-important. Even if it was just to take a walk on the Avenue, meet a friend for lunch, or do her errands, she had to look like she just stepped off the cover of a fashion magazine. It was extremely important to her. (I used to think it was way too important to her, but I never said anything.)

Within a week or two of this quarantine beginning, she started not caring at all about her appearance or lifestyle. Little by little, she slipped into a pattern of staying in her sweats all day and sometimes not even getting out of bed the entire day. She’d stay up until who knows when watching TV, and whereas she once used to be up and out before 9 a.m., now she seems to be sleeping later day by day. This past Sunday she woke up after 11 a.m.! In the past, she used to spend hours on the phone talking to her friends about what seemed to me to be nonsense, but she rarely picks up the phone these days. At this point, I’d be thrilled to hear her talk about nonsense again.

My job has allowed me to work as much as ever. I have an office at home, and between my phone and computer, I’m all set up. I get up early to daven, and I work out on our treadmill and with weights. Despite this crazy shift in lifestyle, I’m trying to keep my routine as similar as possible to my old life. Though no one sees me (or certainly no one sees me from my waist down while I’m using Zoom), I make sure to get dressed, brush my hair, and look normal. More than ever, I’m trying to eat well and stay in shape.

I go out once or twice a week to pick up groceries or whatever else we need. Mindy is afraid to leave the house and literally hasn’t been outdoors this entire time — not even once. I don’t mind doing these things, though I think it would probably be good for Mindy to get dressed once in a while and see people. But I don’t push. I know she’s stressed about getting the virus, so I leave her be.

Meanwhile, Mindy, who used to always refer to herself as a “salad eater,” is living on ice cream. I can’t tell you how many pints I buy a week. It’s almost hard to keep up with her needs. If I even try to hint toward her poor eating habits right now, she gives me a look that says, “Don’t even…” So I don’t.

I don’t know when, but I know that someday life will go back to normal. I’m concerned about Mindy. Though I haven’t seen her in real clothing in what feels like ages, it’s pretty clear to me that she’s put on a lot of weight. I can’t imagine that any of her clothing would even fit her. Since she’s always prided herself on looking perfect, I have to wonder who she will be without that image.

I know the first question you will ask me is whether I’ve discussed my concerns with her. I’ve never been a critical husband. I don’t like conflict or any sort of disagreement, for that matter. Mindy’s always been the uptight, critical one between the two of us, and I’ve always been the “go along to get along” partner. It’s worked for us. I have tried to subtly bring up some general issues about her present behavior. For instance, I’ve asked her whether she misses the gym, and she’ll say something like, “It’s a relief to finally be able to take a break from that hard routine.” I guess she never really loved it, like some people do. Or if I ask her if she misses getting dressed every day, I get a similar response.

I’m not a “deep” guy and it’s not natural for me to have a “deep” conversation with her about what’s she feeling right now. I know she’s scared, and though I’m not sure what the criteria are to determine if someone is depressed, I’m thinking maybe she is depressed. It’s hard for me to see her this way and I would do anything to help her feel better and get a handle on her life. I don’t know what I could possibly do or say, so I’m reaching out to you for some suggestions.

Worried

Dear Worried,

It seems that everyone is responding to our present world in his or her own particular way. Some people remain hopeful and optimistic that life will resume to normal in the not-too-distant future, while other people believe that we will never go back to a normal lifestyle and that they need to forget about ever returning to what brought them joy in the past.

Some people are using this time to pay particular attention to their choices and behavior so that they can feel some sort of control over their life, which presently feels lacking in control, and also to stay healthy enough to fight illness during this critical time. Others feel it’s useless and a perfect opportunity to give themselves a break from their former disciplined life that was never too much fun to begin with. Some people are searching for meaning in this pandemic and using the time to elevate their emotional and spiritual platforms, while others are doing just the opposite. No two people are alike.

It sounds like because Mindy’s previous lifestyle is no longer viable, she has lost a big chunk of her identity and is perhaps left feeling empty and purposeless. Since she is no longer able to feed off of the approval and compliments from others, her motivation to take care of herself and fuss over her image is obsolete. Some of us know who we are because we are self-aware and spend time digging deep into our essence, while some people use others to mirror for them who they are and what their self-worth is.

I know I’m making some rather strong assumptions about Mindy based on the little information you’ve given me, but perhaps it’s a start. In addition to these assumptions, I’m going to go one step further and assume that you and Mindy don’t have the type of relationship where you feel comfortable talking about the “uncomfortable” stuff. You sound like a nice guy who tries to play it safe and avoid tough talk. When Mindy so much as gives you a look, your instinct is to bolt rather than stay with the conversation.

Right now, both you and Mindy have an opportunity to grow from the pain you are each privately experiencing. For you, this is a perfect opportunity to work on your communication skills and ability to tolerate resistance. You’ve asked me whether or not Mindy could possibly be depressed, but have you asked her how she’s feeling and whether she is feeling depressed? The answer might be painful for you to hear, but that shouldn’t deter you. It’s hard to watch someone you love falter and to sit with them in it, but I think that’s exactly what you need to do. Ask the tough questions and encourage her to share with you what is going on with her. Be honest with your observations.

You pride yourself on being a sensitive individual, never one to criticize. This is not about criticism. This is about tough love. Though I’m sure you’ll meet with resistance initially and maybe for a while, stay with it. Continue trying to get Mindy to share what’s really going on with her right now. If, after many attempts at getting Mindy to open up, she still refuses to share any of her feelings with you, encourage her to reach out to a therapist. This could be the perfect opportunity for her to grow as an individual and come out a more evolved and self-aware individual.

Ultimately, the heavy lifting remains in Mindy’s court. As her loving and caring husband, you can certainly plant some meaningful seeds and point her in the right direction. You can also suggest and nudge her a little to get out for some fresh air. Tell her how much it would mean to you if she took a walk with you. Prepare a big tasty salad for the two of you and invite her to enjoy it with you. These small acts will not fix the deeper issues going on with her, but may (as we are all sick of hearing so often these days) “flatten the curve,” before she does so much damage to herself that coming back might feel insurmountable.

To conclude, this may be a whisper to Mindy right now that her previous lifestyle and values need to be looked at closely and hopefully revised. If she is able to tune into this important message, she will emerge from this pause in time a much happier, more fulfilled, and certainly more developed individual, possessing a keener appreciation for what matters in life. At the end of the day, what Mindy is going through now may turn out to be for the best.

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

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