This past summer was very difficult, with Mom’s two surgeries and one of my own, and it became clear to me that my reluctance to ask for help when I needed it – or even to accept it when it was offered – made things much harder than they had to be. I know that there are people in my life who would be happy to help me, and who have offered to help many times, but I always say something like, no, I’m fine, thanks anyway.
I knew some of the reasons why it was hard for me to ask for help: it’s embarrassing to try to explain what I need versus what other people expect me to need; I’m afraid of being judged for the things I can’t do; I don’t believe I deserve help; I’m afraid of what I will owe in return; I often have no idea of what kind of help would help me; and, often, what I really need is so much bigger than what people can give me: I want to feel safe and loved; I want to pay off all of my debts; I want to be healthy and have the energy to go to work more often; I want to be published by a major publisher; I want a house with a yard, and ten dogs, and a horse; I want children. And if I can’t have what I really want, whatever I get instead ends up feeling disappointing, no matter how kindly and generously it is given.
So, I said no to the offers of help this summer, whether they were offers to make meals, or give rides, or just be a supportive listener; even though I was terrified while Mom was in the hospital, and for the first few weeks after she came home. I worried that she would die, and then I worried that something would go wrong and I wouldn’t know how to help her, and then I worried that something would break in the apartment and I wouldn’t know how to fix it. Through all of it, I just kept saying, No, I’m fine, thanks anyway.
I’ve been practicing my asking-for-help skills with Mom for years, because she always wants to help me and never judges me for being needy. And I’ve learned that when what I ask for is impossible (aka, take out your magic wand and fix everything, Mommy), she will search for ways that she can help that I couldn’t have thought of myself. And more often than not, that help is what gets me to the solid ground I need in order to take the next small step by myself. But that practice hasn’t translated very well into asking for help from other people, maybe because I don’t trust them to help without judging me.
When I told my therapist about this essay, she told me that I was conflating two kinds of help: practical help and emotional support. But for me, those two things have to come together or else neither one really works. Emotional support feels empty without some kind of practical help that gets me over the void in my own abilities, and practical help feels unsafe and alienating if it’s not accompanied by emotional understanding and sympathy for why I need help in the first place.
To be fair, to me, I’ve gotten better at asking for help than I used to be, and to be fair to other people, there have been plenty of times when I have received meaningful help, without being talked down to or treated like a lesser being. But I never expect it to go that way.
I was reading a scene in a Rhys Bowen novel recently, where the protagonist had injured her collarbone and needed help carrying her bag up the stairs (needless to say, this was not the dramatic peak of the novel), and she wasn’t embarrassed, or feeling guilty, or trying to muscle through it. She just asked for the help she knew she needed and moved on. And I was gobsmacked! This otherwise unimportant scene stayed with me, because I kept asking myself how it was possible that she didn’t feel embarrassed, and didn’t imagine that she was exaggerating her injury, and didn’t see herself as a failure for needing support. I take all of those feelings for granted, as the cost of living, but wouldn’t it be amazing not to feel that way?
I was almost done with this essay, I thought, when another facet of this fear of asking for help came up; one that I hadn’t recognized before: I had to reach out to my dentist, between appointments, because one of my bottom teeth was loose and causing a lot of pain. I’d been putting off calling her, telling myself that I’d just seen her recently, and she knew my situation, and there was no point in being dramatic about it, and the pain wasn’t so bad. But Mom, who knew how hard I’d been working on this essay, told me that I needed to ask for help, and I felt sufficiently scolded to push myself to reach out to the dentist. The dentist called me right back and said she wanted to fit me in for an appointment as soon as possible, because she’d been worried about that tooth since my last visit, and she already had a plan for removing and replacing it. I made the appointment and then grumbled to myself about the unfairness of life, and how annoying it was that she’d called back so quickly and already had a plan in mind. And I realized, that’s why I didn’t want to reach out to her in the first place: I didn’t want to know that my lower teeth were in such bad shape, so soon after the trauma of replacing the upper teeth.
I keep wanting to believe that asking for and receiving help will be some kind of magical elixir, where the pain disappears and life feels easy; that is often the kind of help I’m craving. But if getting help actually means having to face the harsh realities of life, the ones that I can’t handle on my own, then no wonder I’m reluctant to ask for help. Maybe putting off asking for the help I know I need allows me stay in La La land for a little while longer.
I have no idea how to overcome this desire to stay in La La land. Intellectually, I know that I have to, but I also know, deep in my body, that I’m not ready. I think part of my belief that I can’t get the kind of help I want from other people comes from knowing how hard it has been to give myself the compassion and support I need when I’m struggling. I figure, if I can’t give that to help myself, why should I believe that anyone else would be willing or able to give it to me?
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?