Help is a Four Letter Word

It was almost a year ago that I shared a funny story with my therapist. I was trying to illustrate the inherent stubbornness of my nature. (Some would say willful obstinance and that’s certainly their prerogative. Ahem.) It’s a story from my childhood that I’ve shared and laughed at for over 30 years.

When I was eight, we moved neighborhoods but not school districts and it was the day for me to walk home by myself for the first time. Unfortunately for me, it was also “clean out your desk” day and back then they gave you a cheap garbage bag and a thumbs up while you stuffed 40 years worth of paper worksheets into 3 cents worth of perforated plastic bag. I set off confidently enough, but got turned around fairly quickly until I was well and truly lost. I wandered for a long time. Crying, trailing snot and a torn bag behind me, strewing old papers in a pathetic wake along suburban residential streets, I wandered in what was most likely circles, and given the length of my legs at that age not even big ones. It felt like hours and hours to my little girl mind, though in reality it probably wasn’t more than one hour, at most. But I was scared and worried and I kept on walking.

That’s the salient point in the story, as I’ve always told it. I kept walking. I didn’t knock on any doors to ask for help. I definitely didn’t sit down and wait for someone to find me. Oh no – I stubbornly snorted back my snot and kept going! Because even at eight years old I was an obstinate, willful thing! Ha ha, isn’t that funny?!

My therapist chuckled a little with me, but asked, all guileless and with genuine curiosity, “What would have happened if you had just sat down?”

And my brain’s gears came to a screeching halt while I stared at her, dumbfounded. No one had ever asked me that in 30 years and it definitely wasn’t part of my story. This is supposed to be the part where we all laugh at what a perversely dogged child I was, so I just looked blank while my brain struggled to change direction. Then my emotions caught up before my head did and I was choking on a flood of tears while I struggled to get the words past my closed throat. “I’d still be sitting there.”

It ate up 15 minutes of my therapy hour before I could breathe again. Before I could face the fact that at eight years old, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that no one was coming to save me. I knew that if I wanted to get home, it was up to me.

As it happens, my stepfather was out looking for me, and we eventually ran into each other and he took me home in our family car. But while I was relieved to be going home, I was also nervous about getting in trouble for getting lost in the first place. Because that’s my family’s legacy – self-sufficiency to the point of an eight year old fearing punishment over getting lost.

This was a family who loved me. My parents (and extended to aunts, uncles and grandparents, such as they were) loved me and wanted me to be happy. They absolutely wanted my safety and happiness above all else. But the execution was poor. They were lacking in tools, they had wrong information, and to a certain extent were just too fucking selfish to do the job of making me feel secure and protected. I honestly felt, at eight years old, that was my job.

I’m still unpacking the pain that one not-so-innocent question revealed in me, not least because those same people are still failing me.

I kept on feeling that way – through adolescence, teenage years, and well into the time when another human’s safety and happiness depended on me, I felt that I could only count on myself and had only myself to blame when it all went to shit. No one was coming to save me. Ever. I inherited my family’s selfishness completely. My world was entirely my own, only my own actions mattered, and all the blame belonged to me.

That’s a difficult life to lead. It’s even harder when you add in a confused, lonely man who thought he wanted to “rescue” me but really just wanted me to apply my control-freak ways to his life, too. Still trying to portion out the blame appropriately for that one.

I lived my entire life not understanding that there is supposed to be a certain amount of help and support when you ask for it. Is it any wonder I chose someone so spectacularly bad at giving it when I finally let myself ask? I still struggle with the concept! For children, it’s supposed to be unconditional. I missed the children’s boat. I know adults who are still trying to catch it and it makes me sad and a little impatient for them. That’s their journey and I try to remember it’s not helpful for me to judge it.

But it turns out there’s a boat for adults. There’s a life raft when you need it, a cruise liner, sometimes a private yacht. There are people who know how to say the right thing at the right time, whether it’s encouragement or a reality check or nothing at all. Sadly, I didn’t marry any of them. But today, I asked for help and a lot of people jumped in to offer it. They can’t go back for the lost eight year old with the torn bag of school papers, but they are here for me now.

I don’t subscribe to the “everything happens for a reason” bullshit line of reasoning. But I do think that our minds are built to make order in chaos, and to jigsaw the randomness of life and the universe into some sort of cohesive meaning. So I don’t think that my husband needed to be a lying coward who would rather burn our lives to the ground than admit he made a mistake, but since he was, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn about what constitutes help, when I deserve it, and who to ask for it. And that’s not a bad lesson to take.

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