This article first appeared on Role Reboot and has been republished with permission.
Asking for help is the hardest part. It’s a cliché that just about everyone who has gone through tough times, or dealt with mental health issues, knows is only too accurate. Mental illness can be isolating, making it difficult to reach out in times of need, but an aversion to vulnerability isn’t just a symptom of an off-balance brain but an off-balance culture.
We live in a society that fetishizes self-sufficiency, where the highest compliments are things like “he makes it look easy” and “I don’t know how she does it.”
Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s caffeine and unsustainable coping mechanisms. We post #nofilter selfies, but everything we share is filtered through our reluctance to admit when we’re struggling.
I don’t mean to suggest that we’re intentionally pushing one another into isolation. People say things like “You can call me any time” or “Whatever you need, I’ll be there,” and I think most of us really mean it. I have said variations on this to a lot of people over the years. Very, very few have ever taken me up on it.
The truth is that asking for help is uncomfortable, even when we’ve been repeatedly reassured that it’s welcome. Asking for help is seen as out of the ordinary. We’re all happy to proclaim that our friends can come to us if they really need us, but it’s the definition of “really need” that presents a stumbling block. Most of us will only ask for support in a down-and-out emergency — and even then, with a sense of shame.
As a person with anxiety, I am keenly aware that I need help more often than most people, that the things I find so stressful I want to hide under my bed are in reality everyday inconveniences. I hesitate to ask for help because I’m afraid I will be judged harshly for needing it, for not being able to just “cowgirl up” or “get it done” or whatever unsympathetic aphorism is currently in vogue.
I also shy away from expressing need because it so often feels like a one-way street. I know that I ask for help more than I am asked for it in return. Even with my spouse, I’m uncomfortably conscious of how often I lean and how often I’m leaned on, and the dramatic discrepancy between the two. I know the people I love are probably not keeping score, begrudging me the emotional assistance they have never asked me to reciprocate, but that doesn’t change the way I feel. Every time I think “I’m having a crisis and I need to talk to someone” I reflexively imagine that person saying “Oh Jesus, again?”
Obviously one part of the solution, as usual, is for me to chill at least 78% of the fuck out, but I don’t think that’s enough.
We need to work on normalizing asking for help and turning to our loved ones for support, not just in extreme circumstances but all the time.
As counterintuitive as this might feel, I believe the best way for people to support their friends with mental illness and other chronic health conditions is to ask us for backup more often. We need to feel that wanting encouragement and assistance is not extraordinary, and that offering it is not an undue hardship. Asking for help is scary. The absolute most effective way to make it less so is to lead by example. Show me that I can reach out to you by reaching out to me.
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For one week every summer, I volunteer as a counselor at a day camp where girls learn to play musical instruments. The community around this organization is one of the most magical things in my life, for a hundred reasons—their commitment to fostering creativity and empowerment in kids; their ridiculously good hair — but especially because they are interdependence in action. There are so many moving parts, so much going on at any given moment throughout the week, that no one ever has all the answers. Problems come up and are dealt with by whoever’s available. The hallways echo with “Can you grab me a different mic stand?” and “Will you watch my group while I run an errand?” and “Does anybody have a tampon?” (Someone always has a tampon, possibly because they’re using it for an arts and crafts project.) Volunteers are always brainstorming ways to help this camper overcome her stage fright, engage that one in the songwriting process, and mediate a disagreement between those two.
It is an intense week. My toddler daughter comes with me, gets overstimulated, and doesn’t nap. The days are long and tiring and I never have energy for laundry when I get home. I eat too much junk food and don’t get enough sleep. And it is the week out of the entire year when my anxiety is at its absolute lowest.
Because everyone is asking for help, not just when they need it desperately, but when something arises that they might be able to handle alone, but could be taken care of more efficiently by two or three people. Everyone is sharing the workload, doing what they can and asking for what they need. When it’s normal to ask for help, and OK to say “I’m overwhelmed, can you grab this?” I feel less ashamed of being perpetually overwhelmed. And when people ask me for help — even if it’s as simple as “Will you go find me some extra bass strings?” — I remember that I’m part of a community.
I am very bad at being an island. It’s wonderful to be reminded that I don’t have to be.
So can we all try to bring back interdependence, vulnerability, and the reality that human beings need each other? Normalize the idea that you don’t have to be on the verge of a breakdown to need compassion, patience, and maybe an extra pair of hands to corral your kid at the grocery store. I swear everyone’s load is lighter when we help each other, when we stop pretending that anyone, anywhere, can sustainably “do it all” without help. Acknowledging that it’s hard is a beautiful act of compassion that, counterintuitively, makes it easier for everyone around you. And if you want help with that, just let me know.