Help! My Fiancée Suffered a Debilitating Stroke. How Long Before I Can Leave Her?

Advice on manners and morals.
March 28 2013 6:15 AM

Emergency Exit

My fiancée suffered a debilitating stroke. How long before I can leave her?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
I am 40 years old and until recently a single father. A little over a year and a half ago, I met a woman who totally changed my perspective on life. I’d never believed in soul mates, but she made me a believer. We could complete each other’s sentences and had the kind of love that I’d never felt for anyone. After six months we bought a house together, merged families, and I proposed. Three months ago my fiancée had a major stroke, lost all function on one side of her body, lost her speech, and is disabled. She will likely never return to work or the life she had. She can now walk some and has regained some speech, but it is limited. Her arm still has no function. This has created a future that I had not envisioned nor signed up for. Every day is a reminder of what once was, and so is a constant source of hurt and pain. I am committed for at least a year, which is how long I knew her before her stroke, to assist her in regaining as normal a life as possible. But I cannot envision going through the rest of my life like this. I know she will be devastated if I leave, but I will be devastated if I stay. Additionally, I do not think it fair to my own child, who has a limited number of years remaining at home. This is a tragedy no matter what choice is made. I welcome your thoughts.

—Life Changes in a Minute

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Dear Life,
However long you’re going to stay, make that time count. You say you want to help her recovery, so you should oversee a recovery boot camp. Our medical system can be good at saving people’s lives, but often these patched-up individuals are sent home to figure out the rest of their lives on their own. But for a stroke patient, particularly a young one, getting aggressive rehabilitation early is crucial. I hope you two have a support system of friends and family who want to help; if so, put them to work. Have them investigate the best treatments in your area for aphasia. Have them see what kinds of rigorous physical therapy is available. (Good places to start are American Stroke Association, the National Stroke Association, and the Stroke Network—and you can find support groups through these places for yourself.) Have someone be a point person to deal with the insurance company. Ask loved ones to stay with your fiancée so that you can get the respite you need to go out with friends, or go on a camping trip with your child. What you’re facing will be grueling, and it could be that your fiancée will remain severely disabled. It’s also possible that a year from now she will be in a remarkably different place.

When my younger sister was 30 years old, while she and I were on vacation together she suffered a massive stroke which left her unable to use the left side of her body. After she came out of surgery the doctor told me she would probably never be able to use her left arm. She learned to walk again and while she’ll never be a concert pianist, that arm now works. At the time her marriage was on the rocks, but her husband came home to help. The reconciliation failed, she says in part because she didn’t want someone who was there, as he was, out of pity. When I talked to her about your story, she had no words of condemnation for you. She said that you two being together for a little over a year was pretty light for something this heavy, and she understood that it’s particularly hard for a young person. There’s a lot of pain for both the stroke survivor and the caretaker. But three months out is too early to judge the extent of your fiancée’s possible recovery. (She also highly recommends the book Stronger After Stroke: Your Roadmap to Recovery by Peter G. Levine.) Even if you ultimately decide you can’t stay in the relationship, you still might be able to remain a close, supportive friend. You could also use a therapist of your own to help you work through what you can and can’t do. I hope in time the days get easier. And as they go by, keep checking in with yourself and ask, “What would I expect and want her to do if our situations were reversed?”

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Drama Queen Mom

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I are in our mid-40s and have been married for 20 years. We have a teenage son and a younger daughter, and for the past five years, my husband and I have explored swinging. We've had sex with two other couples over the past several years, and find it a fun way to be both intimate and adventurous together. We currently meet with a couple once or twice per month when we go to a hotel and leave our children at my parents' home. We’ve been careful and discreet but little while ago, one of us forgot to sign out of the account we use to contact this couple, and my son found a sexually explicit email from the other woman that he assumed was directed only to my husband and concluded his father was cheating on me. He's confronted my husband, who was flabbergasted and said little apart from unconvincing denials and sputtering about privacy. My son threatened to tell me. I can't imagine that coming clean to him in any detail about our private lives would be healthy. I’ve been trying to come up with a believable lie or half-truth that could be told. What do we do?

—Caught

Dear Caught,
First of all, make sure to keep your cellphone out of sight while you’re dropping the kids off at your parents’ house. You don’t want your mother to pick yours up to order pizza for the kids and discover what date night really means at your household. It’s both impressive and sweet that your son had the guts and the chivalry to confront his father on your behalf. While your husband didn’t handle it well, his essential message is sound: This is none of your son’s business. So now the two of you have to deliver this explicitly and together. Sit your son down and say you’re sorry such a private message was left on the home computer. Tell him it’s understandable that he drew the conclusion he did, but fortunately you can reassure him that your marriage is in great shape. Then say all three of you can agree that this is as far as the conversation is going to go, because the rest of it is private. Tell him that while you’re closing off this particular discussion, it says something great about your family that when something was troubling him, he felt he could talk directly to his parent, and you hope that’s always the case.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I work at a nonprofit organization where one of my main responsibilities is to coordinate a foreign exchange program. My current job is OK, but it's my dream to work at a particular media organization. I've applied to a few positions and even a fellowship at this news outlet, but have had no luck. Through my current job, I've recently met (virtually) the vice president of this same media organization because I'm sending her daughter abroad through our program. In my email correspondence with the family, the VP and her husband have remarked several times that I have done a spectacular job with this project thus far and once even told me I would make a marvelous "management consultant" because of my attention to detail. How can I take advantage of this opportunity to network without compromising my current position or employer?

—Career Climber

Dear Climber,
You don’t want the VP to feel you’re holding her daughter hostage by trying to get a new job while the girl is still mid-trip. So wait until the daughter’s home and you’ve finished your duties to the family. Then it would be fine for you to send the VP an email (from your personal account), saying it has been a pleasure getting to know her while assisting with her daughter’s program, and explaining that you have been interested for quite a while in switching from nonprofit work to the media. Say you are hoping it would be possible for you to come by her office at her convenience to introduce yourself and briefly get any advice she might have on making this move. Add that you are attaching your résumé for her to get a better idea of your background. There’s nothing wrong in your seizing this opportunity to make a valuable contact.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
There's a young woman at work who uses a ton of hand soap every time she uses the bathroom. If you are in the toilet, you can hear the auto dispenser chug 10 times while she is washing her hands. I never noticed this until someone pointed it out to me, and now it is driving me nuts. I'll go to the sink and there's like a foot of soap bubbles that she will have left behind. Should anyone intervene with her about her OCD tendencies and advise her that all the girls are talking about her and think she's wasteful and weird?

—Hand Job

Dear Hand,
I hope you’re not the person who wrote in about the boss who doesn’t wash her hands after using the facilities. In general, it’s a good idea to be oblivious to one’s colleague’s bathroom behavior: their frequency, their noises, and their hygiene—unless you’re in an industry like food preparation or health care for which hand washing is vital. Until your co-worker’s habit was pointed out to you, you were blissfully unaware of it. The laws of chemistry dictate that a steady stream of water will pop those bubbles. So if you find yourself being driven mad by a tower of foam, turn on the faucet. This co-worker is not washing her hands repeatedly out of malice, but probably because she has some kind of compulsion. So have empathy and tell the other gossip girls that what she does in the bathroom is none of your business. The people who get together to make mocking comments about a co-worker’s harmless hand-cleaning habits should have their mouths washed out with soap.

—Prudie

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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