We All Need Help Sometimes

Growing up with a busy, single mother and a rebellious, angry sister, I was used to not having help when I needed it, even when I asked for it. Eventually, I learned to internalize my struggle and figure out a solution. Externally, I looked like a clever, self-sufficient boy. Internally, I questioned whether I could depend on anyone for help or whether I was worthy of being helped at all.

That early programming stayed with me all my life and served me. The truth was that I was a clever boy, and I could figure things out. Those skills helped me navigate my childhood and transition to adulthood and a successful career. I was low-maintenance, a quick learner, hard-working, and productive.

That’s not to say that I never had help. Throughout my life, I’ve had many good teachers, bosses, and friends who were generous with their guidance and assistance. But I rarely asked for it, and when it was freely given, it often made me feel uncomfortable and that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t do it by myself. Receiving help made me feel ashamed. That shame motivated me to need less help in the future. That made me a better employee and resulted in more opportunities. I had it all figured out.

In the words of Marshall Goldsmith, ‘What got you here won’t get you there.”

In hindsight, the pseudo-reward cycle between shame and progress is neither healthy nor sustainable. No one can do everything and solve every problem, and that’s not a sign of weakness—it’s reality.

Nowhere was that more evident than when our son was first diagnosed with epilepsy. And I don’t mean medically. I could not have done what the doctors, nurses, therapists, and support staff did to keep our son alive and put him back together during the first few years.

There were other areas where I needed help, but rather than ask for it, I, again, internalized those needs. I needed to be strong and carry on. I could take care of my fears on my own. I could deal with the stress those years put on my marriage and still focus on my career. The more I realized I wasn’t doing any of those things, the more shame I felt and the more I turned inwards.

That cycle didn’t only affect me; internalizing it also distanced me from my family, especially from my wife. Not only was she dealing with everything I was, but she bore the brunt of the load and was the target of our son’s outbursts and anger. She also saw what was happening to me and was unable to help because I couldn’t let her.

That led to many hard years. When I finally sought help, it was almost too late. A family can only take so much before it crumbles.

That help came through therapy. That help came from an incredible wife and partner. That help is why our son and family are where we are today. It showed me that asking for help is not a weakness, that I am worthy of being helped, and that there are people who I can depend on for help.

It also helped me realize that people want to help. Being vulnerable and asking for and accepting help brings people closer. I’ve seen that in my relationship with my wife and hope to instill that behavior in our son. He’s going to need help as he navigates his life and I want him to know that asking for it is okay, that there are people who he can depend on to help, and that he is worthy of being helped.

Like every change, it’s a journey. I still have a lot of programming to unravel. I’m better at asking for and accepting help at home than in other environments, like work. But it feels like I am on the right path.

Take Care Of Yourself To Take Care Of Others

I’ve racked up a lot of airline miles in my day. I’m such an expert traveler that I can recite the different safety speeches from the different airlines. Sometimes I’ll sit in my seat with my headphones on and think the words to myself as the flight attendants demonstrate the safety features of whatever Boeing or Airbus metal tube we’re about to push into the sky. “In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, yellow oxygen masks will deploy from the ceiling compartment located above you.” The flight attendant will reach across to the middle seat to the left and the right and let their sample mask drop from their hands and suspend from a rubber tube above the captive audience member.

“Reach up and pull a mask towards you. Place it over your nose and mouth, and secure with the elastic band that can be adjusted to ensure a snug fit. The plastic bag will not fully inflate, although oxygen is flowing.” The snap of the rubber band secures the mask to the painted face and perfect hair of the actors in the repetitive play before the big life lesson is revealed.

“Secure your own mask first before helping others.”

Boom. Mic drop. Well, except for the part about where the emergency exits are. And the safety lighting. And the raft. And I’m sure a loose microphone rolling around the plane is a safety hazard. But that statement about securing your own mask before helping others…that’s the one that gets all the press. But why? It goes against everything we’re taught. It’s selfish to think of yourself first. “I need to save my [insert anyone other than myself]!” “There will be time to put my mask on after I save everyone else.” “Think of the children!” Such a contradiction in a statement that is made thousands of times a day around the world in a hundred different languages but also one that is as relevant on the ground as it is at 30,000 feet.

I’m not the first person to write about the importance of taking care of yourself so that you can take care of those around you. I’ve read the articles, too. They sounded great in theory. But in practice, it’s easy to forget to do it or to realize that you’re not doing it. There’s always so much that needs to be done and no one else to do it or no time to do it all. There are jobs and obligations and doctor appointments and seizure days and batches of keto cooking to do. There are the day-to-day operations of keeping a family in the air and safe and together. There are the “have to” with little time for the “want to”.

In an airplane, there are sensors that detect the loss of cabin pressure and trip the release of the oxygen masks from the cabin. That’s a pretty clear sign that something is wrong. In life, there are no sensors. There are no oxygen masks. Most of the time, you don’t know that your cabin pressure has been lost until it’s too late. Instead of passing out from the lack of oxygen and unable to help those around you, you find yourself in a hole, alone, and distant from those that need you the most. In both cases, it is impossible to breathe.

I’m finding myself in that place again. I feel myself pulling away from those around me. My wife is hinting that she’s feeling alone in the quagmire. I’ve dropped the things from my list that are just for me, things that refuel me, and I’m feeling drained. These are my warning lights, telling me that I’m not taking care of myself and that it’s impacting my ability to take care of my family.

It is time for me to find my own mask and to put it on.

What Got Me Here

“How are you doing?”

It’s such a loaded question. I fear that if I gave the real answer, it would overwhelm the person who asked it and they would never ask again. I’d be surrounded by people who were all too afraid to ask how I was and I’d feel more alone than I already do.

Most people get the obligatory “Good, thanks, how are you?” Closer friends may get more of the story. Maybe not the full story, but some of the mechanical bits about how tired I am because I never really sleep. But we don’t talk about how sad I am, or how much I worry about the future or what would happen if something happened to me? I’m not sure that I even talk about that with my wife as much as I should.

It’s isolating, this not wanting to burden the people around me with the depth of these issues. Besides, I’m a man. It’s not in my nature to share. We internalize, and apply logic, and try to solve an impossible problem. We certainly don’t talk to other people about it. It’s a sign of weakness. Even if other people are going through exactly the same thing and talking about it would be the high tide that raised all ships, it’s better somehow to keep all the boats stuck in the mud.

I know it’s bullshit. At least, my head does. I think. But after so many years of figuring it out myself and seeing where that got me, it’s hard to let go of the idea that the things that got me here are the things that are going to get me to where I want to be. After all, I have a pretty good life. I’ve done some amazing things and traveled the world. I have a Master’s degree and a good job. These successes are the result of my figuring out how to survive in this messy, hard and sometimes cruel world.

Those tactics, though, serve only to protect me from the outside world. Their side effect is to isolate me from the people around me. My wife is going through the same things I am, and when she is looking to me for support and a connection, I’m nowhere to be found, lost in my own inner workings. She may push and poke to see if I am there and I respond by pulling further away and burrowing further into my hole. In the end, we push each other away when we should be moving towards each other, we are left angry and frustrated when we should be comforting and empathetic, and we find ourselves alone when we should be together.

epilepsy dad help date night

“What got you here is not what will get you to where you want to be.” That is the type of insight you get when you open yourself up to guidance and support. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It shows my commitment to my family and my belief that the stronger and better connected the unit is, the better capable we will be to face what is in front of us together. It shows that I don’t have the tools to solve this impossible problem and that it’s important enough for me to develop a new set of skills. It’s setting a good example for my son so that he doesn’t follow the same path of pushing people away and trying to do it all himself. It breaks my heart to think about the difficulties that he is going to have in his life and the idea of him facing them alone.

What got me here is not what will get me to where I want to be. It’s time to work on what will get me there, together with my wife, my family, and my friends.