" You are worthy of tenderness, and you are entitled to compassion from others and from yourself."

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Episode 10 -- May 12, 2020

Life and Trauma: Ask for, and Accept, Help

We all need some help right now. Every one of us is dealing with a situation that we were not prepared for. Whether you're working from home for the first time, not working at all, having to take care of your kids while balancing your typical duties, or having to care for a traumatized loved one on top of everything else, you're dealing with a lot of change and stress. Especially now, we need to remember all of the sources of help available to us. And those of us who are in a stable situation may be looking for ways to help others. In this excerpt from Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One's PTSD, Cynthia Orange teaches us how to ask for help, how to best offer help to others, and how to make our crisis-filled days a little bit more predictable.

Did you hear the one about the guy in the flood? As the rains came day after the day, the river on which his house was located rose higher and higher until the authorities finally gave the word to evacuate. Neighbor after neighbor packed their belongings and left their homes, but the man refused to go with them. "God will take care of me," he told them confidently when they begged him to leave. "I'll just stay here and pray. I'm sure God will save me." The water rose higher, rushing into the first floor of the house. Undaunted, the man went to his second-story bedroom to pray some more. When people in a boat came by pleading with him to leave, the stubborn man shouted from his second-story window, "Thank you, but I'm going to stay. God will take care of me." And still the river kept rising, finally forcing the man to seek refuge on his rooftop. As he sat on his roof praying, a helicopter flew overhead, dangling a rope ladder for the man to climb. But the stubborn man waved the helicopter away, shouting, "I'll be okay. God will take care of me." Still, the river was more stubborn than the man and it rose high enough to swallow both the house and the man, who still sat praying upon the roof. He was a little miffed when he got to heaven. "God, I prayed and prayed. Why didn't you save me?" God, looking just a tad impatient, answered, "I sent the sheriff, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you expect?"

Sometimes we're like the stubborn man. We get so distracted waiting for help to arrive that we don't notice when it's right before our eyes. Our pride, fear, uncertainty, or just plain exhaustion can overwhelm us and keep us isolated on our rooftops. But if we reach out and embrace the hands that are extended to us, wonderful things can happen. Community can happen.

Charles Dickson, a North Carolina clergyman and chemistry instructor, urges us to take some lessons from the geese when it comes to getting help. He writes that whenever a goose falls out of the flock's V formation, it suddenly feels the increased air resistance of trying to fly alone, so it quickly learns to get back into formation to take advantage of the drafting power of the bird in front of it. By flying together this way, the whole flock can fly much farther. "If we have as much sense as the geese, we will be willing to accept help when we need it as well as lend help to others when they need it," writes Dickson.

There are three basic steps in asking for help. The first step is to identify your problem or need or fear. Often just naming a pain or difficulty is a release because by doing so, you give yourself permission to be vulnerable, to be less than perfect. When we expect perfection, we operate in a world of illusion. We judge ourselves by impossible standards and berate ourselves when we fail to meet our unreachable goals.

After you have a pretty good idea of why you need help, the second step is to figure out who can most appropriately give you the help you need--understanding that you cannot predict the responses you'll receive. Some people may disappoint you by not being readily available, and others will totally surprise you by their willingness to come to your aid.

Think about aspects of your life and your family's lives, and brainstorm a list of people or organizations you could contact if a need arose in a particular area. Enlist your loved ones in compiling this list, so you'll have it if an emergency arises and they are unable to help. Who would help you with a house or car repair? Who can take care of the children if you need child care?

If you are caring for a traumatized loved one, it is also fine--and a good idea--to ask your loved one during a calm period who you should call if a trauma-related, emotional crisis arises. Think of this person as having attributes similar to those of a sponsor for a recovering person. It should be someone who is familiar with your loved one's trauma--perhaps another trauma survivor who is solid in their own recovery (although the trauma experience may differ from your loved one's)--who would know ahead of time who to call and where to go for help.

The third step is to actually ask for the help you need. To ask for help is to practice humility, a noble virtue. Philosopher Simone Weil called humility "compassion directed to oneself." You are worthy of tenderness, and you are entitled to compassion from others and from yourself. Be as specific and as clear as you can be in your request for help. And if people aren't able to help you, accept their answer at face value. They might have other commitments, or they might not be able to help for some complicated and personal reasons unknown to you. Think about the times a favor has been asked of you and the times you have not been able to do that favor for whatever reason. If person A can't help you, say "thank you" anyway and call person B. If person B can't help, think about an organization or professional you could turn to. Consider this example from one of the trauma survivors I interviewed:

When our thirty-year-old son was diagnosed with a stage four melanoma, I felt helpless. People asked what they could do, but I was too overwhelmed to think of anything to tell them. Then I got a note from a friend with a list of choices like, deliver a meal, take a walk with me, bring over a movie, get some dishes I can throw, meet me in New York for his surgery. I loved her for offering such tangible things instead of the vague "if there is anything I can do," which puts more of a burden on the caregiver. Embedded in that generous list was a sense of humor and warmth that made it possible for me to accept her offer to be with me while he had his surgery.

Enlist family members to help you with household chores and meals--including the trauma survivor if she or he is able. If you have kids, teach them how to make their own breakfast, how to set the table, load and empty the dishwasher, and clean their rooms. Praise them for their competence. Even small children can be assigned household responsibilities that can increase as they grow older.

Keeping up routines can reassure all family members that there is normalcy even in the midst of abnormal situations. Honor your traditions such as Friday night pizza and home movies. If Saturday is chore day, try to keep to that schedule. Attend religious services if that is what your family has always done. If your normal religious service is not available, create a new spiritual routine to take its place. Such familiar patterns give your loved one a solid foundation on which to build some healing strategies. If something happens to change your plans, try to be flexible and carry on with the routine the next week.

About the Author:
The facilitator of a caregivers' support group, Cynthia--along with her husband, a Vietnam combat veteran--often speaks to audiences about the effects of trauma. She has published hundreds of articles about addiction, recovery, parenting, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and caregiving in various publications, and several essays and poems in literary journals. Cynthia is the author of two Nautilus Awar--winning books with Hazelden Publishing, Take Good Care: Finding Your Joy in Compassionate Caregiving, and Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One's PTSD.

© 2010 by Cynthia Orange