Tag Archives: help

Imperfections

I am one of those people who often cannot ask for help.

At times, I am so afraid of seeming weak, or whiny, or overly-sensitive, or dependent on other people that I tend to either ignore my own needs until I start flailing around at the last minute in order to not get overwhelmed, or minimize the possibility that some things could be going wrong. I am one of those people who needs to outwardly look like I know what I’m doing and that I have things totally under control — preferably at all times. (Intellectually, I know that this expectation is intensely unrealistic, and can be dangerous; even the most “put-together”-seeming person can be a total wreck in private.)

Part of this is a defense mechanism that I developed around the same time that I started getting made fun of in grade school for my mild cerebral palsy and the limp it caused. Somehow, I figured that if I could be perfect at something — my something being academics — and make it look effortless, other kids would stop making fun of me. This didn’t work out quite the way that I planned; regardless, I still tend to hold onto remnants of this habit.

Part of it is also my own internalization of the cultural ideals that tell people with disabilities that we must always “compensate” for the imperfect status(es) of our bodies or minds, a la the Good Cripple or Supercrip, as well as the cultural messages that tell many women that they must be “perfect” while making it look downright easy, in accordance with the current “ideal” feminine role. A great number of women are told, in ways subtle and not, that we must try to “have it all,” and do it without a drop of sweat showing. We must look good all of the time, we must wear clothes that are “flattering”, we must keep a figure that approximates whatever sort of beauty standards happen to be “in.” We must take care of others’ needs and feelings and make this our number one priority, and think about ourselves last (if at all). We must project an outward appearance of cheeriness, strength, or deference, no matter how we might actually feel. If we cannot do most or all of these things, we have failed. And when this loaded set of expectations intersects with the PWD-compensating-for-disability trope, look the hell out.

These are just a few examples, of course, and these expectations shift in various ways depending upon race, class, ability status, sexuality, gender identification, education, and a host of other factors that are often derided as being remnants of “identity politics.” Identity and its politics, however, still continue to matter.

Here’s where I am going with all of this: For the past few weeks, I have been dealing with newer and more unpleasant fibro symptoms that are starting to affect my day-to-day life. At first, I thought these symptoms were just the result of a bad day, and then a bad week, bad month, et cetera (you can probably guess as to where this leads). I wanted to believe that these symptoms were not a huge deal, and look like I knew how to deal with them until I made it back to “normal,” however tenuous that position is for me. Now that these new and interesting symptoms have become a bigger deal than I had anticipated, a lightbulb has also gone off in my head: I need to work on letting go of this all-or-nothing, but-I-should-always-have-it-together-even-when-I-don’t-and-do-not-need-help mindset.

Today, I finally made the decision to schedule a doctor’s appointment to get help with my new symptoms.

Acknowledging that I don’t have some things completely “together” and that I (gasp) need medical help with these symptoms may be a tiny first step toward changing the tape loop in my brain that tells me that I am on one side of a binary — that I am either a or b, all or nothing, need help with everything or do not ever. There is a middle ground. Until now, I haven’t been able to acknowledge that.

Dear Imprudence: Do You Need Assistance?

A fascinating conversation unfolded during the livechat with Prudence this week. A reader wrote in to ask:

Q. Should I Have Helped a Disabled Person? A few weeks ago, I was washing my hands in the ladies’ room when a woman with a physical handicap came in. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that she was struggling to get the stall door open, and I froze. I didn’t want to insult her by helping her—she was able to get it open, but it required more work—and I didn’t want to seem unkind if she was open to help. What should I have done?

Well, speaking for myself, it’s really awkward when I am in a public space, having a problem, and someone is standing there obviously valiantly pretending not to notice. I tend to appreciate a ‘do you need assistance’ or, you know, a helping hand if it’s evident, that, say, I cannot move to open a door because I am laden with packages or groceries or whatever. I will probably say ‘no’ if asked because I am pretty self reliant and stubborn, in which case I appreciate an ‘ok’ as opposed to a resentful glare, and then we can all move on with our lives. But it is, you know, rather awkward when someone is clearly in a dither about whether to ask if I need assistance.

Prudence agrees:

A: I think when you see someone struggling with a door for whatever reason—disability, hands full with packages, pushing a stroller—the polite thing to do is ask, “Can I give you a hand?” Occasionally you will be rebuffed, but more often you will get a thanks. And if you’re rebuffed, don’t take it personally; just accept your help wasn’t needed.

I love that Prudence stressed asking first. Not assuming. Asking. Checking to see if someone needs help before jumping on it. That’s key, and it’s something that often gets left out.

Another reader wrote in with my favourite kind of story, the ‘I tried to help a person with disabilities and all I got was meanness because the person was mean and all disabled at me!’ narrative, where I feel like the person is leaving out the part of the story about how the ‘help’ actually involved attempting to force someone to accept it:

Q. Re: Helping a Disabled Person: I once offered help to a disabled person who was having trouble getting a door open. The person was offended and reported me to H.R. I had to go to sensitivity training.

Ah, yes.  Doesn’t this come up every single time nondisabled people talk about helping people with disabilities? Ohnoes! Sensitivity training! Somehow, I suspect that comment went through the context filleter before it got to the livechat, because there is obviously more to that story.

But, it gets better! A disabled reader wrote in to lay it down:

Q. For Helping: I totally agree that the person Helping tried to help is a massive jerk. But as a person with a disability myself, I’d like to suggest one thing: Next time, do us the favor of asking, “May I get that for you?” That way the person can tell you what he wants. A jerk might still not like that, but most people appreciate being able to choose between getting help (that they may have wanted to ask for but felt weird about) and refusing help (if they’re exasperated with getting “May I help yous” every time they turn around). And, for the love of beans, please, be OK with “No.” Politely telling someone “No thanks, I’ve got it” and receiving a murderous glower in response is sadly frequent.

Nailed it. This person covered the ‘ask first, don’t assume’ issue along with the ‘when someone says no, don’t get all huffy about it’ issue, and Prudence duly thanked the reader for the input.

This was a case where Prudie’s initial advice, responding to the first question, was right on. But it was really nice to have the voice of a person with disabilities centred in the conversation, especially after the usual sour grapes ‘meanie!!!!!’ comment got dragged out.