The Long Reach

For two weeks I battled awful physical symptoms. Worrying about what was wrong kept me up every night and likely made the symptoms worse. My suspicions grew that I was dealing with a previously dormant infection received from my former husband. Whether that was the case or not, I was sent into a trauma episode, the likes of which I hadn’t had for a while. I was facing the long reach of his destructive power that could still put me at risk. 

I had already dealt with a number of health issues related to the deep stress I had lived with for way too long. Would I ever be safe? Ever? Finally, exhaustion and terror led me to make a dreaded doctor’s appointment.

Some may wonder about my “dread”. I was hesitating to make a doctor’s appointment because, like so many women “of a certain age”, my concerns were often dismissed or attributed to implied character flaws and deficiencies within myself—basically the physician’s assumption that I spent my days lying on the couch eating deep-fried bonbons. So, the prospect of going up against that prejudice increased my anxiety. But also, I knew that when my doctor entered the examination room, there was no going back. I would end up knowing one way or another.

I began the appointment by telling her my list of symptoms. I then told her what I was afraid they were indicating. And in order to get her to take me seriously, I had to tell her that over nine years ago, my marriage exploded because of my then-husband’s secret life of sexual and sexualized activities, and that because it was secret, I had never been able to protect myself from any possible infections during nearly three decades. And then I told her that I had PTSD from that experience, as nearly 70% of partners do, according to the credible research, and that I was under the care of a psychologist for some time after discovery.

You may wonder why she didn’t know this already. I had switched doctors a few years ago (when there were enough doctors taking new patients that I could do that) because my previous doctor refused to even write down my concerns (for example, all the symptoms of gluten intolerance that I ended up figuring out myself.) In fact, I used to make appointments for the days when she wasn’t there, so I would get another doctor. But even with my new doctor, I was terrified to tell her everything. I just couldn’t take the possibility of any more personal critiques or outright dismissive behaviours instead of real help.

So, how did my new young doctor respond?

In this appointment, she really came through. She immediately asked about my anxiety and any level of depression. Did I need professional support there to get through this episode? I assured her that I would get help if I needed it because I had done so in the past, and I told her how I had a big toolkit of coping strategies that almost always worked to interrupt episodes and dial them down. She asked about STD/STI testing. I told her I had been tested twice and was clear. But it was this new health fear where I wanted and needed her help. 

Without hesitating, she said she would help me.

She said would help me.

I don’t think you can overstate how deeply those words impacted me. I had heard them so rarely since my nightmare began over nine years ago. Like so many of you, I had been left to look after myself. Her words stunned me and I found myself just doing whatever she said. I think she became my doctor when she said those words. And I hadn’t really had a real doctor in a long time.

She did a thorough physical exam to check for other symptoms that might indicate I was in trouble. When she was done, she told me things felt okay to her. Then she explained a series of tests she was going to order to address my concerns and how those tests worked. She explained what the results would show and not show. And then she very gently told me that she didn’t think I had Hepatitis B, but she understood why I needed the tests. I cried a little. She handed me a tissue. Maybe you’re like me in that you are so used to being treated badly that when someone is kind it makes you cry! I told her I was worried about my new partner and about my sons who could have been in utero or nursing when and if I contracted it from my first husband. Worrying about my sons was the worst thing. And I couldn’t say anymore as the terror about their health gripped me. She said firmly but gently that we would deal with one thing at a time. I needed her ability to put boundaries on my fears.

I went directly from her office to the lab and had a lot of blood drawn. In a few days, my doctor’s office called with a message from my doctor telling me I could go ahead with my other shots. That was the cue that I was not infected. Of course, I cried again.

In the meantime, I had told my new life partner what I was being tested for, and he had said all the right things of love and support and commitment no matter what. And after fulfilling that priority he remembered that he had all the Hep shots years ago because he was in a restaurant infection scare. So, that confirmed I couldn’t have gotten it from him and I couldn’t have given it to him, either!

It took me days to recover from this whole two-week episode. I was like a wrung-out dishcloth. I slept one night for eleven hours. My doctor also had given me a one-month prescription to treat one of my gut symptoms so that I could have a more “normal” day and night. I had enough relief, so my worries lessened and my sleep was uninterrupted.

Okay. I don’t usually go into that much detail about my “ailments”. But here’s what I know about us, the wives and partners of men called sex addicts. It doesn’t matter whether you leave or stay. These things happen to us. And they happen years after we think we are finally out of the woods. This is the LONG REACH of a life lived with a man called a sex addict. They may go merrily along in their lives, but we don’t get to. We live under the dark cloud of their secret lives and their relentless commitment to lie about it, no matter what that might cost their wives/partners or their children. That truth about who they are is always true, whether you get away from them or not. The harm they do to us is still an open chapter.

You, too, may stumble into a dark place one day because of his “long reach”. I don’t mean to say he intends to keep harming us (although a few may be that dangerous.) I mean to say that just as he never spent an ounce of energy worrying about the impact of his secret life on our mental and physical health in the years we were his unknowing victims, he would likely resist accepting any responsibility for the way the ongoing impact leaks through divorce, supposed recoveries, and the passage of time to sideline us now with physical problems. But for those of us who are still putting ourselves back together and dealing with damage, the connection to newly discovered ailments is a live one and usually the most likely one.

The rage that bubbles up within me about this, however, is not really about him. It is mostly about the treatment industry, its practitioners and resources that want us to “put it behind us”, “focus on moving forward”, “let go of the past” and that also criticize women for being “bitter” and “unforgiving. They have no idea what it’s like to never be out of the woods, to build resilience and then have it torn down by yet another occasion to grapple with more destructive impact. And let’s not pretend that because I was not infected by my ex-husband that my anxiety about it was an over-reaction and my own problem. It was absolutely rational. And it was exacerbated by the triggering of my post-dramatic stress—a disorder that I get to live with every day of my life now.

So, everyone needs to stop pretending the trauma impact on our lives is not physical. It is very physical. I incarnate the injuries in many different ways, treat them and manage them, push their boundaries as much as I can and then accept their limitations on my life and get on with it. That’s what most of us do. Hypothyroidism, auto-immune problems, inflammatory ailments (including gluten-sensitivity and intolerance for those genetically pre-disposed), breast health issues, clenched and grinding teeth, and more, but we press on through the symptoms and the treatments. If this is all new to you, here’s an introductory look at the connection between PTSD and inflammation:

When workers contract ailments linked to aspects of their working environments after they have stopped working at that job, those physical impacts are taken seriously and often addressed with compensation or medical support. That’s very much like the situation we are in (except for the compensation and support). Because our physical risks are never the priority in the treatment industry and our PTSD is not treated appropriately, our physical struggles are not considered as traumatic injuries, so we stumble on health-wise for years after we escape the abuse. Readers, please, pay attention to your body, have self-compassion and respect for your post-traumatic stress symptoms, and look after your health! The impact of his secret life has a long reach. I am truly thankful for another lucky day, which is more than some of my clients ever enjoy.

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With you


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Diane Strickland