I don’t know if I’ll get a response to this, but it’s worth a shot. I’ve trawled the internet, asked friends, asked myself, but even after all that I’m no less lost and would love a wise word or two.
The girl I’m dating slipped two disks in her spine in a horse riding accident in January, and has progressively gotten worse. That was when we were still friends, and not dating, and at the time neither of us thought much more of it than a mild inconvenience.
Fast forward three months, we’re dating, and she has deteriorated in a way that’s scary. She’s lost most of her strength, can barely walk, always walks with a limp, has numbness and other signs of nerve damage as well as what she describes as 9/10 levels of pain.
I am trying so hard to be a good friend. I’ve taken her kid to school and made her lunches, do the housework and restock food essentials when I’m over, walk her dogs and watch the dogs she brings in for her doggy daycare business. I’ve sat through nights when there has been no sleep but lots of crying, held her hand until she’s fallen asleep during the day, and get up and down to get pain meds and red bulls and various cats.
Why is this so hard? Am I doing it right? I desperately wanna respect her boundaries and back off, but also she needs help and is having such a hard time. I’m trying to walk that line of only offering a little assistance, but there have been some days when she’s been doing so badly and I’ve asked if she wants me to stay extra nights, and the answer has always been yes. It helps that we’re long distance (one town away from each other,) so that automatically creates a nice boundary we can use to keep our space and autonomy.
I guess the real kicker is she’s not my girlfriend. When the whole AAAAH, FEELINGS chat went down we agreed that we both want to take it slow, and obviously right now she’s in no state to commit to a relationship and I don’t expect her to. While I would do all this for a friend in a heartbeat, because my friends are my world, usually I’d never do stuff of this magnitude for someone I’d only been dating for a month. So I guess I also have feelings about that?
I’ve had a chat to my friends and my therapist, and they’ve all said that as long as I’m practicing self care and putting my life first it’s okay to help out. I guess I have a lot of feelings around this because I had a debilitating injury that took eighteen months of painful regression to even get looked at by a surgeon, and through those years I didn’t have any help from anyone other than being dropped off at the hospital. When you’re down and out it’s so good to have someone who will do things. But I don’t wanna be annoying! I respect that she’s an adult! She just… also does six hour crying jags and physically can’t take out the trash.
Any advice much appreciated, sorry for the length!
(Oh, yeah! After much pushing she finally got to see a surgeon, they’re operating in two weeks! So hopefully things get better after that? There’s a three month recovery period post surgery.)
[Editors note: When we receive your questions for You Need Help, they are filtered through to a Slack channel and occasionally a few lines of the end will be cut off. We usually log online to review the full question before answering, but in this case we were so worried about this person’s medical care we rushed and answered right away — we received the question on Thursday and are publishing it five days later (it can sometimes take us weeks or months, for context on how swift that turnaround is). So only when I was in the final stages of prepping this column for publication did I grab the full text… and we can now see that Heather’s main advice has already been heeded! LW, we are so relieved to hear your date is going to have surgery, and we hope you find the advice about what to expect re: dating during a health scare useful! We also decided to publish this as is, rather than changing the original answer to address the fact that surgery is on the horizon, because we want others to know if you’re in this level of pain or medical emergency, you should prioritize getting yourself to the ER! With that clarification, please enjoy Heather’s thorough and generous advice. — Vanessa, Community Editor]
Hi, friend! I’m so sorry to hear that you and your person are going through so much hard health stuff right now. Before I get into the question you asked — about boundaries and labels and things — I want to strongly suggest that your person gets into see a neurologist or neurosurgeon absolutely immediately, even if that means going to the emergency room for imaging and a referral. I am not a doctor, of course, and am completely unqualified to give medical advice, but this does feel like an actual medical emergency to me.
A couple of years ago, I had such advanced cervical stenosis (my spinal canal was closing in on and crushing my nerves) that I needed a multi-level discectomy and fusion and I needed it fast. My thing started like your person’s thing, with 9/10 pain and losing feeling and strength in my left arm and shoulder and fingers. I went to urgent care first and they told me it was just a slipped disc, not to worry, that they see it all the time. They prescribed me some muscle relaxers and sent me on my way. I had a nagging feeling they were wrong, so I finally got into see my primary care physician who got me into a neurologist that same day and the neurologist got me into a neurosurgeon that same day. They sent me for an MRI and CT scan, and sure enough: it was a serious, serious issue.
The doctors’ concern was the loss of strength most of all; they said it was a likely precursor to losing more strength and mobility and even becoming paralyzed permanently from the damage, if I didn’t do something about it right away. I will honestly never forget the look on the neurologist’s face when she asked me to hold up both of my arms like chicken wings, and then she gently pushed down on both of them, and the left one just collapsed. Her face was sheer panic, like a fire alarm had just gone off or something. I know seeking this kind of care can be stunningly expensive, scary, and that a million questions unfurl out of it (How will we afford it? Who’s going to take care of the kids and pets? Will we be able to get the time off of work? How expensive is physical therapy? Are we going to be able to even squeeze that in with our schedules? What’s recovery going to be like? How long will it take? What if something goes wrong with surgery and it gets even worse?) but, truly, this feels like an emergency: “She’s lost most of her strength, can barely walk, always walks with a limp, has numbness and other signs of nerve damage as well as what she describes as 9/10 levels of pain.”
So before you jump into any talk about boundaries and defining your relationship, I think maybe a stern talk about seeking more medical care is in order!
However! You did asking about how to navigate this hard time in your person’s life, in terms of respecting her boundaries and not moving too quickly and making sure you’re on the same page, so I do want to give you some broad advice about that. First of all, it sounds like you are being a heroic support network for her. All the things you’re doing to help take care of her feel like exactly what she needs, from the practical to the physical to the emotional.
I’m like you: I would absolutely do the same for any of my close friends. Also like you: If I was confused about where I stood with my person, while doing all this caretaking, I would feel equally confused and concerned not getting anything mixed up. The main thing, I think, is intention. It sounds to me like you’re doing all this because you genuinely care for her and just want to help her. That’s what makes this feel okay to me. It’s not like you’re doing it to try to win her over, to prove you’d be great partner, to ingratiate yourself with her children, to make her feel like she can’t live without you, or manipulate the situation into anything other than what it really is. Someone you care about is in need. You seem both clear-eyed and open-hearted, and that’s good! I also feel like you’re keeping the lines of communication open, checking in to see what she needs and that she feels good about you being such a vital part of her support system.
The only thing I think you need to be careful about is making sure you’re not accidentally assigning false meaning to things in such a harrowing time. You have to be careful because these kinds of situations come with all kinds of heightened emotions, deeper needs, rash judgments, etc. Your person’s body is in full-on fight or flight mode right now, and honestly maybe yours is too, so y’all’s brains are pumping your bodies full of all the chemicals and feelings you’d need if you were tying to outrun a bear in the wild. Your primitive evolutionary biological wiring has kicked in. Not exactly the best time to be making decisions that should be carefully considered.
If I were you, I would try very hard to keep my heart focused on whatever it is you decided before she got hurt, because that seems like maybe the last time you were both in a good and calm and non-emergency headspace. The situation has changed, drastically, and so she may need and want more now than she did before, but it could be situational; she could be reacting to her very scary and painful needs right now, without being able to consider what kind of meaning you’re taking away from it. Saying “Please don’t go” when you’re in excruciating pain isn’t the same as saying “Please don’t go” when everything’s fine and dandy, so just try to keep that truth in the front of your mind. (Maybe something really strong and deep and wonderful is growing here; maybe it’s what it was before, feelings-wise, but with the pressure of an emotional tourniquet. Now’s not the time to really find that out, I don’t think.)
But pease please please take my top advice first. This does sound like an emergency to me. I am sending you and your person all my love and wishes for competent and compassionate medical care, swift healing, and fruitful conversations in the future about your growing relationship.
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.