If I didn’t say those words aloud, I certainly thought them. A lot.
I grew up in a small town in New York state, about 40 miles from New York City. I had a pretty idyllic ‘60s childhood – we wandered and roamed through neighborhoods, woods and fields on foot and on bike, getting back home only in time for meals. I was the only child of two only children, and as such, I learned very well the lesson to be independent and to do my best to take care of myself out in the world. I envied my friends who had big brothers to protect them and fight battles for them. My mother was willing to go to bat for me when needed, but when others made fun of me for getting my mother involved, I quickly learned the lesson that if I couldn’t handle it, it was best to just keep it to myself and work it out as best as I could.
Before her marriage to my dad, my mother lost her central vision and was declared legally blind, although she did have limited peripheral vision. For me, growing up with a partially sighted mother was just "normal." My mother had books on records, and later on cassette tapes, that she listened to. She was amazingly creative and sewed beautiful clothing for all of us, even with her limited sight. She was a fabulous cook and baker. What was hard was that there was never anyone to take us shopping, and my mother didn't get out socially very much, which I know she missed. My dad was a pretty big introvert, and it was hard in the suburbs for my mom to have friends when she couldn't drive to meet people out somewhere.
My mother absolutely hated asking her few good neighborhood friends for help. She would agonize over making a phone call to her best friend to ask her to take her somewhere. She was afraid that since she couldn't reciprocate, she would “wear out” their friendship. Over the years, my mother told me repeatedly that you couldn't count on other people for anything and that you needed to be independent (which of course she wasn't able to be herself) in order to make your way in the world. If you were lucky, she said, you could count your true friends on one hand.
As a child, I observed and learned that lesson all too well. It was best not to owe anyone anything, to do it all myself, and above all, not to ask for help unless I really, really needed it. And then, it was better if someone just saw that I needed help and jumped in to do it with me. That was nice. So I created a habitual, almost life-long response to do everything for myself, by myself. I had a lot of friends, but I seldom let them in to know what I was feeling, or what I needed.
Clearly, this was a recipe for personal disaster. No one in this world is meant to go it alone, and we all need to learn to ask for help at one point or another.
At the lowest point in my life, I had not yet learned this lesson.
I talked some on Day 6 about Supermom syndrome, and at this point I was in the thick of that. Driving my daughter to activities every day after school, helping her with what she needed, doing lesson planning for my full-time plus job, traveling away from home for weeks at a time to guest-teach at universities, doing workshops, calling contra dances – when I look back at calendars from that time, I have no idea how I did it all. I never stopped, and I slept little and fitfully. I was not taking care of myself, instead pouring all of my energies out into others without replenishment or nourishment for me. Self-care was not yet in my vocabulary – I didn’t think I had the time.
My marriage continued to be difficult. After years of therapy, my first husband and I finally got to the point where we needed to try a separation. After a while living apart, we started “therapeutic dating” in the hopes of getting our marriage back on track. Living alone in our house with my daughter Anne was pleasant. Life got lighter and easier, but my body finally called it quits and completely failed me. I developed pneumonia, and I was home sick for over a month. I couldn’t shake the fever enough to go back to work. Finally, one day the school called and told me they absolutely had to have me there to direct a musical number in the school play. I told them I’d come in and sleep in the back of the auditorium until they needed me, do my thing and then go home. They woke me, I started down the uneven aisle steps, and promptly fell and broke my right ankle. When I got home from urgent care, I called my husband and asked him for help to drive our daughter to school and other places for a month or so. After a moment of silence that seemed to go for eternity, he said, “I want a divorce.” The room started spinning. I was shaken to my core. I had asked him for help, and he refused.
Once I got over the shock, I started wondering what I was going to do to make all of this work. I simply couldn’t take care of myself, or Anne, or work, or do anything other than lie on the sofa and let my body get better. Finally, finally, I had to ask for help from people outside my own family. And boy, did I have others in my life who wanted to help me. What a surprise! Dinner started appearing from church friends. Parents in the area rallied and worked out a carpool schedule to get Anne to school. Women from my therapy group came and sat with me and called me every day to see how I was doing. Suddenly there was a hugely abundant world out there that I hadn’t even realized existed. All of these people WANTED to help me. Me. By asking for help, I finally understood that I was worthy of receiving it.
The following fall, I started my Alexander Technique teacher training. At the school I attended, the entire first year is focused on self-development, which was perfect for me at that time in my life. I decided that the best thing I could do was to approach divorcing my husband from the place of abundance I had recently discovered in the rest of my world, treating him with kindness in the process. For two people who had treated one another with scarcity throughout our entire marriage, this was a radical departure. And for me, it felt good.
Like shedding any other unneeded habit, it took me a while to learn to ask people for what I needed on a regular basis. My ingrained response is still to say “Nothing” when my wonderful second husband asks me if I need anything. So now, I pause, I check in with myself – maybe I’d actually like a glass of water? - and I let him do nice things for me. It makes both of us feel good, and reciprocating is fun. The best way to create a new habit is positive reinforcement, after all.
What is your relationship to asking for help from others?
Do you have a self-care routine?
What habitual responses could you eliminate from your vocabulary?