The Challenges of Separation Anxiety

I experienced separation anxiety as a child.  I didn’t like to leave home; rarely went to sleep-overs; and seriously considered my college choices based on how close they were to home so I “get” that feeling of longing to be close to someone you love and the slight edge of fear that comes when you are separated from them.  I learned more about the “other side” of separation anxiety when my children were little and I had to peel them off my body to leave them at day care so I could make it to work on time (which I rarely did because I had an aversion of losing skin during the peeling process). Now that my children are grown, I’ve learned to adapt to it again with my husband. It’s a little more difficult this time around.

When Lynn and I were first married, we were both self-sufficient, totally independent personalities. Both of us had managed alone as single parents for a while and both were used to doing our own problem solving so we didn’t “need” one another.  Sure we yelled the usual, “be careful,” comments as either was leaving the house but our thoughts quickly moved on to the next item on our agenda; there was no lingering anxiety over whether the other would return safely a few hours later. That all changed the day Lynn fell and was not able to get up on his own.  He had to lie in the blowing heat from the heat register waiting for me to return home from an hour and a half away after he had tried unsuccessfully to get up without calling me for an hour and a half himself. That three hour time frame shaped his psyche forever.  Where before he liked being alone and independent; after that day, he didn’t want me out of his sight or hearing.

After that day, if I needed something from the store, he tried to either convince me that we really didn’t need it or that it would be simpler to just order it by mail. I could see the fear in his eyes if I left the house and the, “be careful,” mantra took on new meaning for him.  He was afraid that if I left, I might never come back and if that happened, what would happen to him?  He was and is convinced that if I die or become unable to care for him that he will die, too. He knows that as much as our children or our siblings and parents might want to help us out, if I’m not around or able to provide his care, he will most likely have to go into an extended care facility and we do not have the resources for it to be a really nice one.  Therefore, he knows many of his personal needs and quirks (which are many) would go unsatisfied.  He knows that he would probably not get his special diet or his dietary supplements that are making such a difference in his well being.  He knows that he would not likely get the physical therapy adapted specifically to his needs.  He would more likely get a urinary track or kidney infection because the care facility would likely put in an indwelling urinary catheter.  He would not be able to use his peddler that keeps his legs and feet from hurting all the time.  He would not have access to his own personal computer to continue to write and feel productive.  He would become part of a group, exposed more often to viral and/or bacterial infections and probable skin breakdown.  He would likely not get showers but would instead get bed baths and his very existence would likely be compromised.  At the very minimum, his quality of life would decline significantly. Therefore, he panics when he thinks of losing me. Don’t get me wrong; he also loves me and would grieve my loss emotionally, but it’s all this other stuff that creates the panic.  He could survive the emotional loss but would not as likely be able to survive the physical changes.

Now, when I leave, we go through the twenty-questions of: Where are you going?  How long will you be gone?  Why is it necessary? Can’t someone else go instead? When will you be back? Have you checked the oil in the car? Is the car running okay? When will you be back?  Where is my phone? Is it charged? Can I reach it? When will you be back? …and on and on and on.

When the separation anxiety for became an issue, after I would peel him off my body emotionally and leave, the first thirty minutes would usually okay, but then I would get a text message…Did you make it okay?  When are you leaving?  Can you hurry up? Just checking to make sure you’re okay…..

All this “clinginess” made me feel claustrophobic.  I resented not being able to just come and go as I pleased. If I saw his number come up on my phone, my immediate reaction was resentment even though he might really have just needed to remind me of something to pick up. I craved the ability to leave just for a while.  It was so bad that if I went to the garage and got side tracked with straightening it up a bit and didn’t hear him call when he needed something, that there would be panic in his voice by the time I came come back into the house (usually no more than 15 minutes later). There was one time when I was in the shower and it had been a particularly difficult day so I was soaking under the warm water longer than usual.  He had fallen asleep while I was in the shower and when he woke up, he had forgotten where I was.  He called and called but I did not hear him due to the shower and radio.  By the time I stepped out of the shower, he had disengaged himself from the peddler, dragging the cling bandage that kept his foot attached behind him, and was in full panic mode looking for me throughout the house in his wheelchair.  After that I always showered with the door open and the radio off so I could hear him if he became panicked. That panic also happened anytime he heard a bump somewhere in the house and I didn’t immediately answer with “not me” or “I’m fine.”  He was afraid that I would get hurt and he wouldn’t know it and I’d lie alone like he did.

Fortunately, he’s much better about this now.  That fall event was in 2009 so the years since have helped his confidence plus he’s stronger and more self sufficient in his wheelchair now than before.  However, part of the change is the fact that I now DO order most of what we need over the internet.  I only leave him alone for an hour at a time and I check in with him from the grocery store when I do that.  I text when I arrive somewhere if he’s been nervous about me leaving and I text when I’m really on my way home (not till I finish all my stops though because any delay creates the panic again.)  He always has his phone charged and within reach when I leave the house. He has a medical alert type necklace so he can call for help if I’m not around.  If I’m going to be gone for very long, I get someone to stay with him.  I’ve learned to adapt to his need to feel safe and to know that I, too, am safe.  Now the panic attacks are pretty rare; they usually only come when he’s feeling particularly bad or he’s worried about my health; but I know they are always just under the surface.

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