Hello dear ones,
No preamble for this post. Let’s dive right into it!
Shame courses through my veins every time I have to ask someone for help. I feel my body go into full on shut down mode, my submit response taking over: There’s no use asking for help. You won’t get it, it tells me. I learnt this lesson early on in my life, after I became a primary caregiver for my younger brother at the age of eleven — and then, a few years later, when my father got sick. Everyone’s needs were more important than mine. Eventually, the load of always putting others before myself, of eviscerating my own needs, took a toll on my body.
In 2017, I found myself lying on a thin mat on the floor, naked except for my underwear, a thin white sheet spread across my body. I’d been receiving free sessions with a shiatsu massage therapist in exchange for acting as her test body. This offer came after I told her about the ongoing and seemingly disconnected health problems I’d been dealing with for many months—colds, flus, infections, chronic fatigue, anxiety—and my inability to pay for alternative forms of care. She thinks that my physical symptoms are the result of emotional stress caused by the twenty years that I’ve acted as a caregiver to my disabled father and younger brother.
When she asked me “How’s life?” I began going down the list: I wish I had more time to write my dissertation—but otherwise school’s good; I’m starting to date again and that feels really nice; I continue to love living alone more than I ever thought I could; friendships are solid and life-sustaining. I think I’m done.
And then she asked: “What about your family? How are things with your dad?” I struggled to answer this question. I know realize how I’d unconsciously bracketed my family life, relegating it to a parenthetical aside in the larger narrative of my life. After this session, I had dinner with a friend and as I listed all of the things I did to support my dad—laundry, grocery shopping, paying bills, accompanying him on outings—my friend expresses shock: “I had no idea you had to do all of those things.” We’d been close friends for almost a decade.
In his bestseller, When the Body Says No, Gabor Mate talks about a patient of his named Mary, who is living with scleroderma: “Mary described herself as being incapable of saying no, compulsively taking responsibility for the needs of others…Perhaps her body was doing what her mind could not: throwing off the relentless expectation that had been first imposed on the child and now was self-imposed in the adult—placing others above herself.” Later, Mate will go on to share that “In important areas of their lives, almost none of my patients with serious disease had ever learned to say no.”
If one has never learnt to say no, it is highly likely that they too have never learnt how to ask for help. We’re the ones who must hold it together; be the rocks that others depend upon. It doesn’t help that capitalism has taught us that asking for help is a sign of weakness. And when you compound that with a life in which your needs always came last, you learn that it’s safest to not depend on anyone but yourself.
When I became chronically ill in 2017, I had no choice but to ask for support. I got winded making dinner. I struggled to make it from my couch to the door, let alone out the house to get groceries. Friends delivered food. They helped me do my laundry. And while I felt so grateful for their care, I was ashamed that I needed them. Shortly after I became ill, my father died. And I was the one left to plan the funeral, to take care of all of the logistics — which become infinitely more complicated when you’re poor (I’ve written more about this in my zine Poor Kid Trauma: What Happens When the Poor Die). My best friend organized a GoFundMe to cover the expenses. My friends made food for the reception. And I let the shame move through me once again.
It’s funny how one can believe that everyone else is deserving of care — except for oneself. When I said yes to the care that I didn’t even have to ask for, the voice of my inner critic would rise to the surface: You should be able to do this on your own. You’re so needy. You don’t deserve this, you don’t deserve this, you don’t deserve this. I recognize how my inner critic is also a protector part. In blaming ourselves for the care we were denied, we can feel a sense of control. It would have been much too devastating for teenage me to acknowledge that I deserved so much more than what my single father could offer. That structural inequality was to blame — not me, not him.
When the stories of my inner critic and submit parts come up, when shame and blame rear their heads, I try to get curious. “Who’s story is this?” I ask myself. “Who does this story benefit?” I wonder. The answer is usually structural oppression. I then imagine that it’s my best friend who needs help. What would I say to her if she asked? “I’m so honoured you asked me for help. Thank you for trusting me with loving you.” Learning how to ask for — and receive — help has pushed me to treat myself as I treat others. It sounds so simple but is infinitely more difficult than we want it to be.
As with all healing, it becomes easier the more you practice and get to see a different result. I’m now in another situation in which I’m needing support, and making the call has felt hard, but I notice that there is less shame present this time around. And the shame diminishes little by little each time someone answers my call with “I’m so glad you asked. Here, let me offer what I can.” Then, I get to see the magic of community care — the antidote to the individualist mindset that has ruled us for far too long. Because the truth is that we all deserve so much more. More care. More help. More healing. More, more, more.
Right now I’m in a weird position. Last year was truly the first year that I wasn’t living there below the poverty line or hovering precariously just above it. And it was the first year I earned an income solely from freelance work. No one taught me how to be my own boss, which meant I had no clue how much money to put away for taxes.
This year I have $20K to pay back — and have gotten that down to $7900 though money saved. I’ve now just learnt that I will not receive the line of credit I need to pursue my MFA at CalArts until I’ve paid down my debt to $2500. Without this line of credit, I cannot get my Visa status.
To help me reach this goal, I am offering 10% off all products on my website with the code TAXPARTY10. If you’ve ever wanted to have some softcore trauma in your home, I’d love your support.
You can also send me a PayPal tip or make a 1 time donation through my website. And, if you don’t have funds at your disposal, you can support me by sharing this newsletter on your social media and directly to humans in your life who you think would benefit from it.
Thank you for all of your care and support. I am humbled and deeply appreciate you all 🖤🖤🖤
This resonates so hard with my long covid and esp. ME/CFS. Learning to prioritize myself is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Thank you for sharing this