Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hard Conversations, Part 2: Can You Help Me?

Gertrude Stein, the American author who spent most of her life in France and whose Parisian salon attracted avant garde-ists such as Matisse and Picasso, is reputed to have raised herself up on her death bed and said:

"What is the answer?" (silence as she lay back down and then raised herself up again) "In that case, what is the question?"

One of the hardest questions to ask is not, "What comes after death?" or "Is there sentient life on other planets?" or "Why don't men ever refill ice cube trays (imho)?" The hardest question to ask is, "Can you help me?"

For a person with a prolonged or chronic illness or disability, the question, "Can you help me?" often stands as a marker of a growing dependency on others for help with the tasks and responsibilities that this society too often identifies with worth.

Adults handle things. They take care of children, finances, home maintenance, and small dogs. Adults are the "go-to" people, not the "do for me" people. Adults who require help are assigned a seat in a second class car on the life train. And sometimes, especially on bad days, we believe that's where we belong.

Asking for help sets in motion a cascade of feelings and meanings. For some ill people, there can be a prolonged internal struggle between the voice of harsh denial that says, "Oh you can do the grocery shopping today (or the laundry or go to work). So what if you feel weak or in pain. Be a grown up." And the voice of sadness or shame that whispers, "I just can't."

How often are healthy people in situations where they have to confront their own limitations? Where they have to say out loud, "I can't do that." People with serious illness have do that many times a day. And each time requires an evaluation of one's abilities and possibilities, of one's place, even of one's identity. The question the ill person wrestles with is, "Am I to be defined by what I can't do, or by what I can?" Either way, the awareness of the possibility of falling short or failing to live up to some social standard infiltrates deeper into one's sense of identity each time this question is asked.

Notice too, how much our culture judges human value through measures of "doing" not "being." One's resume is about accomplishments not about character. At a social event, people say to each other, "So tell me what you do," not "Tell me what you think about." If your bio has been truncated by the limitations imposed by illness, how do you introduce yourself? Do you refer back to ten year old achievements? Do you mention your current illness? Or do you just avoid these events?

And if you need to depend on your intimate partner for help, on a regular basis, how can you prevent that from warping your relationship? How can you maintain a relationship of equals and thwart the slow side to a relationship of caretaker and patient? How can you keep asking the question, "Can you help me?" and still maintain a balance that keeps the relationship growing for both people?

I think the key is to not buy into the social norms that define asking for help as an admission of weakness and associate human value with doing and achieving. Within the boundaries of your intimate relationship you can define anything, any way you want.

Asking for help from your partner can carry a message of trust and intimacy. When you are willing to recognize your limitations and be vulnerable with someone you love, asking for help becomes an act of communion. It carries with it an expression of inner honesty and outer trust. And asking for help offers your partner an opportunity to actually do something. It can be a relief for the well partner to be able to actually undertake a task that can make the ill partner's life a bit easier.

The ill partner can, if he/she can shift from a "doing" to a "being" focus find many ways to rebalance the relationship. Perhaps the most important thing the ill partner can do is recognize the well partner -- see the caring contained within the help; recognize how hard it is for the well partner to be witness to his/her sweetie's daily struggles with pain or exhaustion; offer comfort.

Imagine the ill partner holding his/her sweetie's hand and saying, "You've had a hard time today. I know. Let's just sit together for a while and let me hold you." How much better is that kind of "being" than "doing" a mountain of laundry or making dinner?


Margaret in NJ said...

Hi Barbara,
I just got here from Shrink Rap. I can't thank you enough for this post. My husband has never been able to understand why I have so much trouble asking for help and I've had trouble explaining it to him. I'll point him here.
I'll be back.

MaxJerz said...

Barbara, thanks for this post. I'll be sending my DBF the link shortly. I have a lot of trouble asking him (or anyone) for help. Your post really resonated with me.

Be well,