I’ve unknowingly walked through my life believing that there are “helpers” and those that “need the help”. Early on I didn’t consciously assign judgment to either of these roles but simply saw people as one, or the other. From an early age I thought I was meant to be a “helper” and over time I saw this as a strength. Eventually, I started to associate asking for help with weakness. For me, it was really hard to ask, and then crushing if I didn’t get the help I needed or wanted. Asking felt like it sucked the life out of me so not asking was the safer bet. So began a pattern and a belief that I would be happy, even honored, to help as many people as I could but would steer clear of asking for any help if at all possible. One of the first major misguided lessons of my life.
When I was a little girl my Mom told me that she could hear me in my room crying by myself. I don’t remember doing this but I do remember her telling me later, with what felt like pride, that I preferred to be alone when I was in pain. I did feel proud of this and it was more comfortable so I held back sharing my pain with most people early on. My Mom and Dad were open with their emotions and I never remember feeling shame around crying, or anger, or any emotion for that matter. But clearly, I felt embarrassed in some way. Even to this day, I try to hide my tears in a movie theater during a sad scene, but doesn’t everyone do that? So early on, probably 3rd grade when I received my first diary, I started to journal my feelings. It was a way for me to get my “crazy” out and not involve anyone else. Just me and my journal, it felt safe.
In 5th grade, I was put in a small group of kids who had divorced parents. After two sessions with this group of kids, the teacher pulled me aside and asked me to help the other kids. She told me that I was handling things so well and it would be wonderful if I could help support them through this difficult time. This was for sure a moment of pride. I could be useful and that somehow meant that I was ok. Over time I started to equate “ok-ness” with “enough-ness”. If you didn’t need help you were better off than if you did. It was that simple.
After high school, I went to community college and managed to hold down two, sometimes three jobs so that I could have an apartment of my own. I remember feeling like I was really in control. But I was broke and barely getting by. I got myself in some financial trouble because of that damn credit card application that’s in your bag when you buy school books and had to ask my parents for help. My Dad had me sign a contract stating that I’d agree to pay the money back by a certain date. I assume he did this so I was clear it was an official loan, or my Stepmom made him do it because she didn’t trust I would pay it back. Either way, I thought it was weird and it felt terrible. My Mom didn’t make me sign anything but worked out a payment plan with interest included. I guess I should have felt grateful to get the loan and at an interest rate that was much more competitive than the local bank, but I was mortified. I repaid both of my parents as soon as possible, I suppose their tactics worked. But I never ever asked for their financial help again. I didn’t know much but I did know that asking for this help felt awful.
When I was 23 my Dad died of a sudden heart attack at the young age of 51. I quietly begged for help to relieve the pain but wasn’t sure how to ask those around me for what I needed. I have never felt more alone and more in need of help than at that moment. I’m sure people tried to help and I imagine I was getting some help that I didn’t even realize but I felt helpless and worked very hard to get to solid ground where I could find relief from the pain. The answer, I ran from my first marriage and threw myself into my career which resulted in a move to Baltimore where no one knew my past and how much help I truly needed.
My most vivid memory of clearly asking for help was in September 2013 when my daughter, Madison, was hit by a wave and swept out to sea. Once I realized that she was in the water and couldn’t touch or make her way back I ran to the edge of the break and screamed, “HELP!, HELP, PLEASE HELP HER!”. I can’t even begin to describe the terror I felt at that moment. But no one came, no one could help. So I went in and the ocean beat the living shit out of me but I managed to pull her back to shore. At that moment I realized that it was the adrenaline and a sheer will to reach her that helped me and I was grateful for whatever force was with us that day. But again I was left feeling like the “helper” and for months I had terrible flashbacks. I would sit paralyzed in my car and struggle to get out and go inside the house or work. I remember sitting in my car and calling Angela, one of my besties, and telling her I couldn’t stop crying. She listened and then she suggested I go see my therapist immediately. It was exactly the help I needed and I felt relieved to have someone else making a decision for me.
My brother Mark has been one of my greatest teachers on the subject of “help” in recent years. When he called me three years ago and asked for my help it would change my perspective on help forever. My brother is in recovery but at this time alcoholism was crushing him and he was now in need of a home and support to get back on his feet. So he left Texas and moved to Maryland to live with me and my family. But I was not prepared for the next year and what difficult decisions and actions it would take to truly provide the right help to my brother. I learned there is a fine line between enabling and helping. Someone said this to me and it somehow made sense, “if you are enabling he will be happy but if you’re truly helping he will be frustrated, maybe even angry.” That was hard to consume but sure enough, that was about right. My brother had been one of my greatest helpers and now he needed me to do the helping but I didn’t know how. This was an awful feeling. Somehow I thought I could be even more than “the helper” but also “the fixer”. How arrogant of me and what a lesson of humility this was. We don’t fix people and they don’t fix us, it’ doesn’t work that way. I was facing something new, I didn’t know how to be “the helper”, I needed help and so did he.
There are countless moments that we each face that we are either the “helpers” or the ones “in need of the help”. That’s logical to me and makes complete sense. So why does it feel so impossible to ask for the help that we need? We all want to help because it feels good to support the needs of others. We also feel tremendous relief when we get the help. But historically I have associated help with weakness. Just recently it became overwhelmingly clear that asking for help is actually one of the truest forms of strength that we can exhibit. It was me all these years confusing this and now I’m working on retraining myself to learn to reach out and just ask for the help that I need.
Building this new skill is difficult since secretly I’ve praised myself for being the “helper” all these years. I’ve managed to juggle various situations and the complexities of my life by helping others and taking on all of the “asks”. But over time it’s like my boat, of helping, has taken on so much water that I’m starting to sink. Without learning how to be the “asker” I’ve suffered and at times I feel like I’m drowning. Since I believe that suffering is optional I’m determined to look at this differently and learn.
I just finished Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers and I’m realizing that when I’m asking for help no matter how small or enormous it feels it truly is just a prayer. I’ve never really known how to pray but in learning how to ask for help I believe I’m also experiencing something even greater than just the skill of asking. At that moment I’m learning to surrender and let something so much greater than myself take over. We can be “the helped” and “the helper” but letting go of the belief that we get to control how all this actually works is one of my first steps towards peace.