Surviving the Worst

Surviving the Worst
How to cope when a loved one is ill.
Terri and David
About two years into her marriage to David, Terri was diagnosed with Syringomyelia, a spinal cord disorder that leaves her with pain that she describes as "intolerable."

Her illness has also been hard on David and their two children.

"Terri really functions at half capacity," says David. "I can't keep waiting for Terri to get better, because she's not going to get better. So I've created my own life, apart from her."

After 17 years together, they are talking about divorce. "He's just sick and tired of me being sick and tired," says Terri, who recognizes that her illness puts demands on David, but is fed up with his lack of understanding and insistence that she get a job.

Asked if he questions the legitimacy of Terri's disease, David says, "Not at all ... I'm beginning to question, "Where's the line between where the disability ends and laziness starts?"

Terri used to have more energy than she does now, she says, because she hadn't suffered for 17 years. "I pushed myself and I pushed myself because he insisted," she says. "I fell apart from working that hard at it. I had an emotional and physical breakdown from it."

Asked if he feels any guilt that he's not a more sympathetic and compassionate husband, David says no, because it's been going on for so many years.

Dr. Phil sums up their predicament. Turning to David, he says, "It seems to me that you have become very intolerant of this, even suspicious of this, and frustrated and angry about it."

But Dr. Phil also understands David's perspective, and tries to convey it to Terri. "He wants to know," Dr. Phil says, "'Is she doing everything she can do to either pursue treatment, challenge herself, do whatever she can to be as functional as she can be?'"

David says he knows the illness is not his wife's fault, so he'd be satisfied if his wife were taking steps to help herself.

"There are two ways you can react to a disease like this," says Dr. Phil. "You can let it become your identity and consume you ... or you can let it be something that you manage but you don't let it consume you."

Dr. Phil tells David, "You, in my opinion, have a legitimate point that you are reacting to in a totally inappropiate way. The fact that you have this attitude of resentment and anger toward an involuntary condition on her part is, in my view, short-sighted and damn inconsiderate."

Dr. Phil suggests that David direct his frustration toward the disease " not the victim. He is not going to get Terri to live more productively by being critical. "You can get it out of her by being honest and inspirational," Dr. Phil suggests.

At the same time, Terri needs to play an active role in getting herself to a better place. "What he's saying is, 'I want to have as much of a marriage and family as we can, and I want to have confidence that she's working with me and doing everything she can do instead of giving in to the disease."

Backstage, after the show, Dr. Phil tells Terri, "I believe you can do more than you're doing. I don't think you've consciously said, 'I'm going to start being a slug. I'm going to start not doing anything.' I think days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, and what he's trying to do is shake you out of that."

The problem is that David's approach isn't working. Instead of being angry with one another, they need to behave their way to success. Terri needs to try doing something new every single day, even if it's just taking a walk down the block.

Terri says she understands her husband's point of view, but doesn't think he hears what she's saying. Dr. Phil tells her, "All you can do is 100 percent of what you can do. But if you do one bit less, you're cheating yourself, you're cheating your husband, you're cheating your kids ... You've got to set some objective criteria."
Heather and Cynthia

Heather, 32, suffers from cystic fibrosis and desperately needs a lung transplant. She says that her mom, who's a respiratory therapist at the medical center where she's treated, interacts with her as if she were her patient.

"I need her to be a mom, not a nurse," says Heather. "I'd love for her to just call up and say 'I love you.'"

"I try to keep a stiff upper lip," says her mom, Cynthia, who's been a nurse for nearly 40 years. It's especially hard for her to cope with her daughter's illness because she knows what lies ahead. "It's just very hard to sit down and talk to someone you love so much about dying," she says.

Heather adds, "It's not a healthy mother-daughter relationship. It feels staged."

"I don't mean to distance myself as a mother," says Cynthia, "but it's something to hide behind, to be very clinical."

"Because this couldn't hurt any more if you had it yourself, could it?" asks Dr. Phil.

"No, it'd be easier," says Cynthia. "I wish I did."

While the hope is for Heather to get a lung transplant, Dr. Phil asks Cynthia, "If you do lose her, are you going to look back and say, 'She could have hired a nurse, but I was the only mom that she had and I hid behind the wall?'"

"I hope not," she answers.

Dr. Phil continues, explaining that Heather is the "target patient," but Cynthia and others are affected. He asks Cynthia, "Is your highest and best use in this as a nurse and as a respiratory therapist? Or is your highest and best use in her life as her mother and a soft place to fall? ... What would it take for you to tear down that wall and say 'I'm not going to let this fear stand between me and my precious daughter?'"

Dr. Phil has them look into each other's eyes, and says to Cynthia: "I want you just for a minute to forget about being a respiratory therapist, forget about being a nurse, forget about being afraid. And I want you to see your little girl, not a patient."

Heather tells her mom, "I need you to break down the walls, I need you to realize that I know the inevitable...I have nothing in my life that I regret that I have done except break down this wall with you."

She continues, "I need an open line of communication with you...I want you to feel like you can call me anytime you want to and not be on guard."

Dr. Phil interrupts, telling Heather, "I want you to be selfish for a minute and I want you to tell her, 'I want my mom back.'"

"I do want my mom back," Heather says. "I want you to be able to come over and to be able to ask if I need you to run errand for me ... I need you to be able to talk to me .... If you're scared you can tell me too."

"I have a lot of demons," Cynthia tells her daughter. "I'm scared to death of losing you....I don't want to waste any more time... Every time you get sick, I wonder is this the one? Is this going to take you? And it scares the hell out of me."

Dr. Phil asks, "Are you willing to tell her when you're afraid instead of trying to be strong and pretend?"

"I'm tired of being strong," Cynthia says, promising to let her guard down for her daughter. "I'm not going to keep a stiff upper lip anymore. I promise."

Rosemary and Christian
Since she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, Rosemary's 10-year-old son has become her caretaker.

"She started calling me the man of the house," says Christian, who's watched his mother endure the pain of chemotherapy and radiation.

"I'm worried about how much I scarred him," says Rosemary. "He's a boy, he's independent, he's free-spirited. I felt like I took that from him. I feel like I don't know how to give Christian his childhood back. I feel lost, I feel hurt, it breaks my heart."


When someone has a short-term illness, people make temporary changes to accommodate the situation. "But if it goes on longer, then people start changing roles," explains Dr. Phil, which is what happened with Christian. "He stopped being a little boy and he started being a caretaker. And at the time, there may have been no choice."

He asks Rosemary, "Would you agree that once you have this disease contained and controlled, the silence can be deafening? ...Because it becomes an identity to be ill," Dr. Phil says, "and it became an identity for him to be a caretaker. But what you've got to do is create a new normal. What you gotta do is say look, 'I've been given a second chance here, I've got to reclaim my life and I've got to give my son back his life. I've got to let him be a child again. I've got to teach him to have fun again.'"

When Rosemary asks how, Dr. Phil suggests she ease him into it, and reminds her that children are resilient. "Let him see you having fun and he will do it," he says. "Behave your way back to success."