DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My partner is an adjunct instructor of Sociology at a local community college. He is a brilliant social scientist and a great teacher, but he is terrible at the bureaucratic side of things: he loses track of emails, has a crazy disorganized mess of files on his computer, and struggles to navigate online systems to double check his work and connect with his colleagues and supervisors. I don’t think this is a terribly unusual persuasion for a professor-type, but the early stages of his career coupled with the digital demands of the pandemic have really brought this issue to the forefront lately.
Last spring, there was a huge problem when he failed to keep track of emails about an online certification program that his school was requiring. It almost resulted in him losing his job. He has missed notifications for in-service dates (and subsequently failed to show up), missed emails from supervisors and submitted the wrong copy of forms. So far he hasn’t suffered any lasting consequences, but that’s mostly because of the patience of his supervising staff. Those same supervisors are becoming increasingly (unsurprisingly) frustrated, and I worry that this could easily derail his career.
This would all be a problem within itself, but it’s doubly stressful because of his struggles with mental health. My partner suffers from body dysmorphia (a delusional disorder that affects all-over self esteem, not just body image) and anxiety. While he takes medication and mostly manages these issues, when a “crisis” arises (usually as a result of him missing an email or important date) he flies into a downward spiral. Instead of being disappointed and frustrated like any of us would be, his self-esteem plummets off a cliff and he starts talking about what a failure he is as a human and how he should just give up and resign. Sometimes this nears suicidal-levels, or includes a generalized rage which he doesn’t direct at me, but which makes it impossible to talk to him and sometimes results in rash actions like sending unprofessional emails to supervisors or throwing his phone down and breaking it.
I am also a disorganized person, but I’ve realized through trial and error that I can head off these kinds of crises by forcing myself into habits. I keep my work email open on my computer 24/7 to ensure I don’t miss emails, set alarms for important dates, and always place my belongings in the same spots so I don’t lose them, etc. I’ve tried to offer advice to help him avoid these issues in the future, but he mostly refuses. In the moment he thinks it’s totally hopeless and he should give up altogether, and later he seems to pretend the issues never happened. He claims he’s trying to be more on top of things, but I don’t see any evidence of that. As it is, I have to exist in a constant state of fear that his failure to keep track of his professional life will send our household into chaotic crisis mode at any minute.
How do we get to a place where he can cope with and prevent these mishaps? Is there help he can seek out for this kind of tendency to screw up the “mundane” tasks of his professional life?
All Crisis-ed Out
DEAR ALL CRISIS-ED OUT: This is a tough one ACO, in part because it sounds like your partner is refusing to deal with the underlying issues. If some form of disruption causes him to fly either into a deep depression or unfocused rage and he refuses to talk about things afterwards… well, that makes it really goddamn difficult to solve anything. It gets especially bad if he refuses to either admit that there’s a problem or to actually deal with it in a meaningful manner.
So with the obvious caveat that Dr. NerdLove is NOT a real doctor, I am of a mind that this needs a two-prong approach: a practical one to deal with the disorganization, and a systematic one to deal with the underlying causes. If the disorganization and consequences thereof are a major trigger for these outbursts or breakdowns, then getting that under control may make it easier for him (and for you) to work on his anxiety and dysmorphia.
I’m like you, ACO; I’m incredibly disorganized under the best of circumstances. I’ve got ADHD, which means that — amongst other things — I have a bad case of “out of sight, out of mind”. This has required a host of compensating behaviors and systems, including calendar alerts on top of alerts and automating everything I possibly can. So I get where you’re coming from with this. However, I can also tell you that things can slip through the cracks, and it requires being on top of things in a way that can be really difficult without outside help on occasion. Thus far, your partner hasn’t been willing to set up a system like yours, or to accept your help in setting one up. I suspect that, even if he does accept your help or sets something up, he’ll still have things fall through, resulting in more crises for him and more stress for you. That’s why my suggestion is to take the American approach and outsource the organizing to somebody else.
One of the benefits of our increasingly connected world has been the rise of virtual assistants — people whose job it is to take the scutwork you can’t deal with or that you struggle with and take care of it for you, even without being physically present. Having someone who can, for example, help with filing paperwork, making sure bills get paid, organize your files and so on, can be a huge benefit both to your emotional and mental health and to your overall productivity. Having the metaphorical weight taken off your shoulders — along with the time and stress of dealing with all of these small but critical tasks — can free up your time and your mental bandwidth. And in the case of your partner, this can hopefully help keep his triggers at bay by helping everything run smoothly, which will give him the bandwidth and motivation to treat his condition more effectively.
The other benefit is that these services are often far more affordable than you’d realize. You can find a licensed and bonded assistant for anywhere around $15 – $30 per hour on services like Care; a few hours a week could make the difference between career-threatening lost emails and keeping everything running smoothly. That means less stress for the both of you, on top of the time saved trying to get everything accomplished and putting out the fires that crop up.
Now the second approach is going to be harder. It sounds like your partner is seeing a therapist and is getting treatment, which is great. However, the behavior you mention and his triggers make me wonder if there’s another condition that’s either co-morbid with his dysmorphia or may be masked by the conditions you already know about. Or it could be that the current course of treatment isn’t working as effectively on all aspects of his dysmorphia and anxiety. Regardless, he really needs to talk about with his doctor about how easily stress triggers a spiral and how much it’s been disrupting his life and work. There’re a lot of ways that he can learn how to manage his emotions and try not to let things rage out of control, but triggers are rarely rational and can hit a lot harder and faster than people can respond in the moment. Even if it’s just a case of running out of cope, the fact that the reactions are this extreme and this disruptive means that they run the risk of having profound consequences to his life and yours. It may be an awkward or even embarrassing thing to talk about, especially if his dysmorphia is f--king with his self-esteem, but it’s necessary.
In both cases, I suspect a lot is going to come down to how you present these options to your partner. Sometimes the difference between stubborn refusal and a willingness to listen all depends on how you pitch it.
The virtual assistant may actually be the easier lift, particularly if you frame it as “how about we find someone who can take these things off your plate and make it so that you don’t have to worry about it anymore?” While I wouldn’t suggest hiring an assistant for your partner, it may be worth checking out some of the profiles in the link I provided in advance and interviewing some potential prospects. If you are able to present your partner with specific examples of what a VA could do for your husband, it may be easier than saying “hey, have you considered hiring somebody to take care of all of this?”
Alternately, you could hire someone to help with your organization and then be able to wax rhapsodic about how much they’ve done for you. At that point, you both win.
Getting your partner to talk to his doctor may be a little harder, especially if he’s resistant. That is a talk you may have to structure like an Awkward Conversation, where you lay out why this has been concerning you, what you think would help (talking to his doctor) and how this would make things better (less anxiety, less depression, less rage, less risk to his career). Then he can share his side, including why he may have a hard time discussing these things or why he has a hard time bringing them up.
Now, I’m not gonna lie. It’s going to be a struggle. Men in particular tend to be resistant to dealing with issues that strike their anxiety or sense of competence and self-esteem. The shame of feeling like you can’t handle life like a grown-ass adult can be immense and paralyzing. But at the same time, having an actionable solution and one that you can lay out on a cost/benefit ratio may help him get over that particular hump and start the process of making his life (and yours) easier, happier and less stressful.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com