(This piece has been featured on DrAndyRoark.com and associated social media networks.)
Leading a group of men through a study based on the book Fathered by God (John Eldredge), we’ve been prayerfully considering what God intends us to become as men. As we wrestle with current struggles, we’ve journeyed back through our personal stories, asking God to reveal where, why, and how our masculine spirits have been assaulted, seduced, and surrendered. For the men who are willing to engage in such an expedition, they discover a gut-wrenching sort of liberation through the process. It’s been the same for me, and over the years I’ve done this sort of thing many times. It just seems God’s not done with me, yet. (I only mention this because I want you to understand why I’m going where I’m going in this piece.)
Having poured out my soul about my marriage (I was blown away by your numerous emails and private messages–Thank you for sharing your hearts, dear ones!), you’re aware that Laura and I struggle like everyone else. However, I’m compelled to reveal something deeper about my wife and our relationship. To do that, I must first tell you how I’ve failed as a man.
Here’s my confession: I have not been the lover my wife deserves because I’ve not been the warrior God created. You see, I grew up in a home often fragmented by emotional tension and turmoil. Even as a boy, I learned to survive by avoiding conflict at all costs. I constructed thick, armored shields of wit, humor, and intellect to deflect uncomfortable encounters. Certainly, there’s great wisdom in picking and choosing your battles, but my reality was built upon a weak foundation that all conflict could (and should) be avoided. The result was a go-along-to-get-along kind of guy who prided himself on being the peace-keeper (all the while feeding a violent creature of passive-aggression that haunted the shadows of my soul).
I’m sorry, but I simply cannot be that guy any more.
For the sake of my wife, our marriage, and our family, I’m going to risk some discomfort, hurt feelings, and open conflict here and say something that I should’ve said years ago:
Stop asking my wife questions about your pets.
If you don’t already know, Laura is a veterinarian and we run a small animal hospital in West Virginia. For most of you, I realize that the very word “veterinarian” conjures up images of wet-nose puppies and fluffy kittens nuzzled up to the adorable, laughing young DVM with the toothpaste-ad smile and dreamy eyes. Indeed, it’s an alluring, media-driven mental image. But it’s not real. Not even close.
A neighbor recently told me that her soon-to-be-college-grad daughter was trying to decide between medical school and veterinary school. She offered this advice to the young woman: “Be a vet! There’s no stress.”
It took everything I had to remain polite. What I wanted to say was something along the lines of …
“No stress, indeed! That’s why two-thirds of veterinarians suffer from clinical depression. Certainly! Encourage her to the long hours and relatively low pay, shackled to the incredible debt most vets incur from veterinary school. In fact, the monetary realities of this no-stress career are actually delightful compared to the kick-to-head heartbreak that veterinarians are four-times (yes FOUR TIMES) more likely to commit suicide than people in any other profession. Your sweet, puppy-kissing pet-vet will be twice as likely to take her own life than her human-medicine counterpart. Do you personally know six veterinarians? If you do, at least one of them has seriously considered killing themselves. In fact, I live with a statistical example.”
Not long ago, a fellow blogger gave an accurate glimpse into a day in the life of a veterinarian (I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here, so I encourage you to read that post). The author demonstrates why something known as compassion-fatigue is a harsh reality in this industry: People in this field are often deep-feeling, amazingly empathetic, compassionate, tender souls … and it is killing them. I wish I could count the times Laura has zombie-walked into our home after a 12-hour work day; shoulders hunched over; arms limp at her sides; eyes fixed in a vacant stare. Everything about her physical appearance reveals what her lips sometimes can’t find the strength to mutter:
“I’ve got nothing left.”
Truth be told, my wife often has nothing left by noon, but she keeps going. Because she cares too much. And because Laura does care so deeply, the self-cannibalization is then set in motion: She stumbles home, takes one look at me and the kids, and hates herself because she can’t find any possible way to be the wife and mother she longs to be. Besides, she still has to reply to the daily-dozen texts and Facebook messages from friends and family members with questions about their animals.
To survive as a veterinarian, one needs an incredible amount of spiritual care and attention. This is what prompted a meeting with one of my best friends and associate pastor at our church.
I explained to Steve my concerns for Laura. She’d become socially withdrawn and isolated (and for good reason), which was putting a serious strain on our relationship. The stresses of the job were killing her, but she couldn’t get away from it. Everywhere she went, she was available and on duty to anyone with access to her. Already wrestling with guilt for leaving work early one day to watch our son play tennis (Laura missed most of our oldest son’s baseball games and deeply regrets it), she ended up missing half of Danny’s match anyway because three people stopped her to ask pet questions. We quit going out to dinner. Quit going to parties. Soon we weren’t even being invited to social events as our list of friends dwindled. She even started walking our dogs after midnight because she was constantly being stopped and asked to put on her DVM coat by friends and neighbors. Before long, Laura’s intense need to get a break from her role as a veterinarian turned us into prisoners in our own home. However, her adoring public still found her.
As I told Steve about these issues, I tried to explain the spiritual crisis we were in–I was intimately involved in the ministry of our church, but Laura was slipping so deep into self-isolated depression that even being in the church she’d grown up in was creating a huge amount of anxiety. Steve knew that Laura had begun showing up late to church and leaving early, but he didn’t realize why. Nor did he know how common it was for people to be waiting on her at the church door with their questions, seeking her out in the middle of service for her advice, even stopping her in the communion line, pulling out pet products to ask her professional opinion. Once, someone even presented her with a bag of worms, asking her to prescribe medication for their dog. She’d already quit attending fellowship and social events at our church, but now she just wanted to quit going to church altogether. Beat up from typical 50-to-60 hour work weeks and starving for spiritual connection/fellowship/transcendence, three hours in church on Sunday morning meant no less than 60-to-90 minutes of veterinary Q-and-A. The worst part was that as she was losing her faith in the church, it was also taking its toll on her faith in God.
So there I was, struggling as a husband to help my wife. I knew that Laura needed a ton of spiritual care, but she was beginning to loath even the thought of church. Meanwhile, I didn’t want to rock the proverbial boat. I didn’t want to step in and confront someone, creating an uncomfortable situation, so I did nothing. I think I was hoping that it would all just go away and get better. Maybe I thought that Steve would say something like, “Let me take care of this,” so I wouldn’t have to. Maybe he’d parlay the message into a sermon on leaving thy neighbor alone about work stuff and letting them worship in peace. However, that’s not how my friend responded. Instead, the spiritual advice he offered was far from what I expected: “You need to find another church.”
Though it took many months as I prayed and waited for that “final straw” (and that came in an almost comical, unrelated way), we finally left the church we love.
We had to.
Before going on, I want to clarify something about the other characters in this story: These people asking their pet questions are not bad people. I’m not talking about freeloaders trying to weasel free advice from the doc because they’re too cheap to pay for an appointment. Far from it. In fact, most of these folks are dedicated clients who support our business; they are people we count as friends. We are incredibly grateful and indebted to them; they are the reason our business is successful, and to have a successful business in West Virginia–any business!–is saying something. Many of them are even family members. Some are just well-meaning individuals who try to strike up a conversation with Laura but they know nothing about her apart from the fact that she’s a veterinarian. And therein lies another problem: everybody–EVERYBODY–has an animal story to share, either a personal one or something they saw on the internet. As a result, everyone thinks they have something in common with my wife that they can talk about. However, as her husband, I need to finally step up and make things uncomfortable as I fight for her survival:
You’re killing my wife.
Every time you approach her in a social situation with your pet questions and stories, it’s like inserting a small pin into her head. It may seem insignificant at the time, but by the end of the day (every day), she’s left feeling like Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies. Little wonder she isolates herself and hides. I’m not surprised that she struggles with her place in the world, constantly wondering if she has anything to offer anyone beyond her abilities as a veterinarian. That’s all that most people know about her. It’s become her personal catch-22: She can’t go anywhere because no one knows her beyond the fact that she’s a vet, and no one knows her beyond the fact that she’s a vet because she can’t go anywhere. Not even to church.
I realize that a lot of people suffer with the same dilemma because of their careers. With that in mind, I offer this to all of humanity: I am hereby instituting what shall henceforth be known as … THE RULE OF FIVE.
The Rule of Five: You may not ask my wife any professional-related question until you have first talked with her on that day about five other things.
Laura is an amazing woman with a lot of passions. You can talk to her about our family. Ask her about our kids: Danny loves tennis; Katie is a beautiful dancer; Ben is playing college baseball. Naturally, Laura loves all the things our kids love. You can reach her through Katie’s escapism in Harry Potter, Danny’s intrigue with Supernatural, and Ben’s obsession with The Lord of the Rings. A constant reader, Laura enjoys a good book. Ask her what she’s reading. She’s read The Outlander series more than once. Live theater and musicals–just ask! She can talk for hours about Broadway musicals, and she delights in local theater. Travel? Laura loves visiting new places. She’s rediscovered her passion for the outdoors: we have some camping trips coming up, along with hiking, zip-lining, and white-water rafting. Want to have your soul elevated? Get her talking about her spiritual journey and what God has done in her heart–you’ll be blown away by the passion of our Father and the ways he’s fought for my wife when her husband didn’t know how.
Until now, that is. Until the institution of The Rule of Five.
God has recently led us to a new church, and we are finding some comfort and joy in this place. For that, we are thankful. However, be forewarned: I am prepared to rise up as the warrior/lover of my wife. Ask a pet question outside of the office and you’re going to get this from me:
Laura is passionate about her career, but she needs (and deserves) a break from it. Let her have it. Let her have her time away from the office. Let her be with friends again. Let her make new ones. Let her enjoy her family. Let her worship in church. Let her relax in the outdoors. Let her be more than a veterinarian, because she is so much more. And if you won’t let her be more than a veterinarian, it’s going to kill her. And I won’t allow that.