Feb 28, 2012

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

Asking for help is never easy.  We all have to do it from time to time of course, but for those of us with a chronic illness, it can feel like we do it all the time.

I have friends with clinical depression who need support on occasion; someone to unload on, someone to make sure they get to hospital if they need to.  I have friends with vision impairments who need help with navigation and reading menus aloud, and friends with limited motor function who ask me to cut up food and help them into coats and scarves when we go out.

I don't know if they feel the same anxiety I do when asking for practical favours.  I suspect some do.  Others seem not to.  I do know that I generally don't mind being the one to help out.  Who doesn't like to feel needed?

It's when the situation is reversed that I start to struggle.

Lately, I've been depending on my sister and friends to get me to the supermarket (I can't use my Coles-Myer gift cards online and I can no longer walk from the tram stop to my house whilst carrying things).  They've been good about it, but I can't help feeling like an annoying burden when calling.

I got a talking to the other day for not leaving messages.  My friend Erin was quite upset when she realised the missed call on her mobile was there because I'd run out of food, and that I'd hung up without asking her to call back.

While I'm certainly glad I have wonderful friends like Erin in my life, who will go out of their way to make sure I know they are there for me, the truth is, I felt very uncomfortable calling at all, and certainly didn't want the plea to be recorded, because honestly, this is what I hate most about having ME/CFS.  The dependency.  The lack of capability.  The lack of control and the resulting lack of freedom.

I've come to accept that many things - competitive sports, hiking, video games with complex graphics and loud concerts involving strobe lights - are now out of my reach, but independence is something that has been slipping tortuously in and out of my grasp for the last six years.  One minute I'm well enough to support myself, the next I'm back at Centrelink begging the bored girl at the desk to approve yet another claim for sickness allowance.  Faced again with unspecified-term unemployment and physical weakness, I find myself forced to depend on friends, family, medical professionals and, least comfortingly, the government, to get me by.

To make things slightly more awkward, I apparently give off the vibe of a woman perfectly capable of looking after herself.  For two years, I did little more than lie in bed, and even then, people close to me would give me a mild look of surprise when I suggested I might never be in a position to really take care of myself again.  It was a concept which took me a long while to come to terms with personally - I even went through the seven stages of grief over my own self sufficiency - but for others it never quite seemed to sink in.  On the few occasions I really broke into tears over the whole thing, I was met, not with comforting support, but with overwhelmed expressions of panic.  I'd spent so much time appearing to be fine that the distress was just plain unexpected.  On one occasion I actually ended up comforting the person I'd cried to.

Then, of course, I got well enough to go back to work, which made everyone around me feel better about it all, but it also took away the comfort I'd gained from accepting my own dependance.  Independence was infinitely preferable, but hope, even tentative hope, can be a dangerous thing when your health is still so fragile.  It led to three years of me desperately trying to stay in work to avoid feeling helpless again, hoping the new state of affairs could continue indefinitely.  I would regularly go into the office on days when I felt like I was dying of the flu because I really enjoyed being the one others could depend on.  The one who didn't need to ask for help.

It just wasn't sustainable though, and led to my current situation as well as a solid reprimand from my doctor.  I also went through a second, if condensed, version of the seven stages of grief.  (I'm hoping this blog entry represents stage seven: acceptance).

A friend recently told me she was not worried about my mental state, despite my situation.  It was a compliment.  She was telling me she thought me emotionally strong and I agreed with a flippant "yeah, yeah, I'm fine."  Inwardly I was concerned that I really may not be.  The desire to be fine and not to worry her had taken over though, so I said nothing.

But that's really not helpful to anyone, I suppose.  Friends need to know when you need them, and nine times out of ten they will be happier you spoke up.

One of my friends with clinical depression decided on a strategy a while back, to spread the calls for help around.  She is determined not to put too much pressure on any one person.  She has made sure she has a good support network, and she, in turn, is part of other people's networks.  It's an approach that works well.

I now have a housemate, two family members living close by and a large group of friends who I know will be supportive if I just ask.

The trick is to know that asking is okay.

Can't honestly say I've mastered that one yet, but here's to working on it.
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