On Thinking I Don’t Need Help
A good friend counseled me this morning that many of our core beliefs are implanted by the time we are twelve years old, and that it’s worth reviewing them now and again to see if they have stood the test of time. Are they still useful or are they detrimental?
When I was twelve years old, I figured out that the basic needs in my family were already taken up by my father’s and sister’s disabilities. Their needs were paramount, and my mother had her hands full. My parents and my sister needed me to be strong and protective; they didn’t need me to need anything, especially help. Although I would not have been able to articulate it at the time, it looks to me from this vantage point almost sixty years later that I decided to comply by sublimating my needs, all except for being an artist — that was and still is nonnegotiable, and I have made sure my family understands that.
As I’ve written before, the combo punch of sublimating needs and not asking for help was of course a flawed strategy, a flawed belief, or at least a belief that no longer serves me. While being identified as the strong one with endless reserves to create and give and give and give may have served me and my family for as long as my batteries held up, the truth is I do need help and probably have for a long time.
Having brain cancer and facing my own mortality brings this dilemma into high relief. There are simply parts of this journey that I cannot traverse on my own, no matter how strong or creative I think I still am, no matter my previous beliefs about needing or not. Even the strongest warrior needs a hand up now and then. Thank God for Henry.
So I find myself in swampy territory. I can no longer say that I’m clear of cancer — subtext: if I’m clear of cancer, I don’t need anyone’s help; I can no longer say I’ve got this on my own. Ha! Nice while it lasted.
I can no longer say that I’m free of Western medicine since the cancer has found a new blood supply and new spots to invade, and chemo offers the best remedy that the 21st-century can come up with. Subtext: I need help from a haphazardly run and outrageously expensive system I only partially believe in and could not possibly afford without insurance… But that’s another story
I can no longer say that my spirits are high, that I’m writing every day on the two books that I would like to complete before I croak, that I’m painting and carving every day; that I plunge into working with my incarcerated students every day; that my heartbeat is strong and that I have good wind; I’m pretty sure that I would no longer be able to run a mile, nor do I trust myself to get on top of Esperanza anymore. Balance and stamina have been compromised, and if it weren’t for the railing, I would have a hard time climbing the kitchen steps.
What I can say is that some days I cry a lot; some days I take three naps; some days it’s hard to take a deep breath; and the days when I cannot tap into my creativity are the days I’m not sure who I am. Subtext: I hate to admit it but I am depressed.
Why is this hard to admit? All of us are living through the angst generated by the possible mortality of planet Earth; the death of democracy, decency, a stable and pleasant climate; the feeling that we are all going through this together and that we have each other’s interests at heart. An incarcerated student and I have come up with the acronym for this new malady: Acute Nihilistic Termination Stress Insanity, or ANTSI. There is much for which to mourn. At the same time, there is much to restore and praise, to love and be grateful for. My spirits may not be high, and I may need to cry, but help is all around: my soulmate Henry who tickles me and makes me laugh, my beloved family, friends, neighbors, the larger cancer community, my students, my ancestors both near and distant, the trees and animals with which we share this miraculous little piece of paradise, as long as it lasts.