Applying the Family Stress Theory — Personal Essay

November 2016

When I was a junior in high school, my mom was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. My five-foot-short, 95-pound, endlessly smiling mom, was sick. Completely distraught, I consulted Google, where I discovered that MS occurs when “the immune system attacks the protective sheath that covers nerve fibers and causes communication problems between your brain and the rest of your body.” I stared at a wordy description followed by a lengthy list of symptoms, risk factors and “complications.” In that moment, I could have been the poster child for doctors advocating against doing your own online research.

At the self-absorbed age of 17, it was the first time I was worried about someone other than myself.

My mom’s unexpected diagnosis was the ultimate plot twist for my family. She had been the beloved Gandhi, promoting peace and offering wisdom in our home. My sister, my father and I could partake in trivial disagreements about chores or vetoed weekend plans, but no one could get mad at mom. We had no reason to.

With MS comes unpredictability. The initial few months seemed “normal,” but soon after, things began to change. My mom’s symptoms worsened. Everyday activities that were previously manageable became laborious. She felt an almost constant tingling in her legs and arms. She experienced extreme fatigue. My mom’s formerly funny lack of coordination became nerve-racking. I was haunted by an unspoken dilemma: how do you take care of the person who has always taken care of you?

My mom (against her will) began working only part-time as a Nurse Practitioner at her family practice. To monetarily compensate, my dad, a mechanical engineer, started working more frequently. My sister’s longtime depression and anxiety persisted, and I assumed my position as the calming force. With no hardships of my own, I remained the constant variable in the group.

I continued this role halfway through my college career, consoling my sister about mom’s health and mediating stress-induced arguments from two and a half hours away. I maintained my optimistic presence and checked on my mom frequently, while the impending failure of this arbitrary system lingered.

Four years after my mom’s diagnosis, I discovered that I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Learning from my previous mistake, I did not consult Google, but rather, my medical professional. Dr. Knipe assured me that Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is highly treatable and had better odds than Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. It was, as he described, the “best” cancer you could have.

Despite the encouraging prognosis, my family collapsed. My father insisted I move home. My sister was hysterical. My mom, with all her power, fought back tears when I entered the room, only allowing herself to cry after I had left. I felt the familiar pressure to remain positive, to assure them that everything would be all right. I insisted on returning to school and receiving my treatment there. I treated the diagnosis as casual, in my perilous attempt to pretend I wasn’t afraid.

I faced a new dilemma: how would I take care of my family when I secretly wanted them to take care of me?

I began receiving chemotherapy once every two weeks. Initially, it did appear to be the “best” cancer you could have. The symptoms I was experiencing could be described as minor: slight fatigue, a little nausea, practically unnoticeable numbness. Continuing my “Cancer is Casual” persona in front of my family became almost effortless.

Soon, however, the minor symptoms intensified. Slight fatigue turned into a physical incapability of leaving my bed for periods of 24 hours or more. A little nausea became several toilet-hugging incidences. The practically unnoticeable numbness became forcefully noticeable, preventing me from moving my legs or arms at certain times throughout the night. I felt as though I was constantly out of breath. Certain foods had no taste. Certain liquids were impossible to keep down. Every article of clothing I put on or chair I sat in was coated in the long, blonde dead hair that served as a constant reminder of the previously purchased wig sitting in my closet, awaiting its use.

The ongoing debate in my mind seemed unsolvable. If I broke my positive, reassuring presence, my family balance could be incurably interrupted. But I could no longer pretend I wasn’t struggling. I wanted to be cared for. I wanted to be consoled. I wanted to be vulnerable, and I wanted to cry. I had not once cried.

In the only class I was enrolled in at the time, I was ironically learning about the Family Stress Theory. The theory outlines what could potentially happen to families when they experience a stressor, from a child doing poorly in school, to an unexpected death. A family’s existing resources and its overall perception of the stressor can either lead them to a crisis or lead them to a resolution.

In my family’s genuine attempt at achieving a resolution, we had accidentally reached crisis.

For the first time in my life, I threw away my fear of being a burden. As soon as I began opening up to my mother, I also began to question why I was ever reluctant to do so.

I will never forget my mom’s simple yet overwhelmingly reassuring words in the midst of my distress, “We will get through this together, like we always have.”

She was right. We did.

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