I loved my parents – and my dog – very much. But I probably should have known something was up when I cried much more when my dog died.
I didn’t know anything about grieving back then. I didn’t know it could fester inside in my soul and come out sideways as anger, denial and desperation. I didn’t know that my grief would morph into a bizarre, extreme strain of self-reliance that would end two years later with a swan dive into a deep, dark depression.
My mother, who grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin during the depression, believed deeply in self-reliance. If something needs to be done, you do it. Don’t bother anyone with your problems but always, always always hold out your hand and help someone else when they need it.
If snow needs to be shoveled, pick up a shovel and do it – and shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk while you’re at it. If clothes need to be washed, wash them. If food needs to be cooked, cook it. She did it all and taught me to do the same. The more self-reliant you were, the better person you are. Self-reliance, generosity and a strong work ethic were virtues of the highest order.
So, I dealt with my grief and didn’t ask for help. I threw myself into my work and believed the more I helped others, the more I would get over the deaths of my parents and my dog. I figured that sorrow was something that melted over time. And while you are waiting for it to melt, work your ass off.
That’s how I ended up on disability, antidepressants and a therapist’s couch. The clouds finally parted and I realized that what my mother had taught me about self-reliance was wrong. You see, every time you deny someone the opportunity to help you, you deny them the opportunity to feel as good as you do when you help people.
I felt horrible. I loved helping others. I loved the way it made me feel. But I had denied so many people the opportunity to help me. I had denied them the opportunity to feel good.
I would have to change my way of thinking. I would have to let people help me. But how?
I discussed this with a friend and she agreed – and I let her – help me learn this unnatural act. We went for a drive in her car and she took me to a full-service gas station. Instead of me pumping her gas and washing her windshield for her, we let the attendant do it.
My friend stood outside the car and chatted with the guy as he pumped the gas, washed the windshield and even checked the air in her tires – all things I was perfectly capable of doing. He seemed very happy to be helping and she was grateful.
Then we went to the grocery store. In the checkout lane she allowed a kid to bag her groceries, push her cart to her car in the parking lot and load her groceries into her trunk. Painfully awkward. She chatted with the kid and asked where he went to school and his plans for college. He seemed really pleased she bothered to ask about him and turned down a tip when she offered.
It was excruciatingly uncomfortable for me but I got the message. Little by little I started letting people help me. Years later I am still working on this. Sometimes I am good but sometimes I still fall into my old self-reliant ways. I still try to do others’ work for them – which I’ve learned pisses some people off…bad.
I am much better about letting people help me and I genuinely feel grateful and good about myself when I do so. But I feel profound sadness that my mother did not understand this. She never went to movies or lunch or shopping with friends because she was always working on something. She worked alone in silence. She seemed sad and resigned to her lot in life.
I miss her terribly. I still have to work on letting people help me. It still feels like an unnatural act. But I am getting used to seeing the joy it bring to others – and to me – when I make that connection, humble myself, and ask for help.
Helping hand image available from Shutterstock.