This post is not a cry for help. By the time I am able to articulate these things, I am no longer in a space where I need help. These are reflections on the past week-and-a-half of trying to recover from major surgery in a mad sharehouse situation, learning some very steep, very harsh lessons about when and how and who it's worth asking for help.
I have been struggling, hard. And it's nearly impossible to write about because everybody is so well intentioned, and so lovely, and it's not their fault that my need for help and their ability or willingness to deliver it fall so far from each other. The gap between those two points, with my need for help on this side and their ability to deliver it on the other side: that's fraught, dangerous territory. I can't point it out without offending people who are, after all, helping me in whatever way they can. But I can't erase my need for help, either. I can only sit here and wish that the people who assured me of their willingness & capability to help, when I was arranging these things before my surgery, who find themselves in the event to be unable to help, were able to say to me: It turns out I can't help you. Let me help you to find someone who can.
The suggestion that I should have just gone back to my parent's house and avoided burdening my friends with these needs is always there. And I think about it, think about recovering far from the reach of visitors, far from my garden, in a house full of people I am fond of but not necessarily close to, in a house full of meat where it would have been a struggle to find anything I could eat, in a house where there is no spare room for me so the chances are good I'd be stashed in the study between boxes of books. I think about the anxiety on my mum's face when she said: "Where are you planning on going after hospital?", and the relief when I said: "My house". I think about the fact that my house is three blocks from the hospital, while my parents live 40 minutes away.
I think about the fact that when I got my stitches out on Tuesday I walked down to the hospital by myself, because there was nobody to ask for help, nobody to come with me. Wobbled out again on unsteady legs, sat on a warm brick wall and had to wait for long minutes to get up the strength to keep walking up the street. And I thought about what would have happened if I'd been staying at my parent's house, the very high chance that neither of them would have been able or willing to take the day off to come with me. So I would have had to catch the train all the way in anyway, and been in much the same state afterwards but further from safety. I think about how, in matters of illness, I have always been expected to be remarkably self-reliant by my family, and that this is probably why my adamant refusal to return 'home' to recover surprises my friends, whose families allow the reasonable expectation of the experience of 'being looked after' when they're incapacitated.
I think that at the core of me, I expect to have to look after myself (I recovered from my first surgery in a prescription-drugged-out daze, alone in a skanky flat in Wollongong, aged 18, scared and stubborn and with no friends at all- my family weren't much help that time either. My expectation of no help from them is evidence-based, not presumptive). But somehow the chorus of offers of help and support, when I was scared and pitching headlong towards the surgery date, convinced me that to receive help was normal, a thing I could comfortably expect. I even brought myself to ask for help, which is something that I clearly & obviously struggle with. I felt so assured, so confident in this warm bubble of support. I had my primary support-person lined up to help me out with hospital drop-offs and pick-ups, and assurances of practical help from housemates. People said: "Is there anything you need?" and I said: "Soup. Food is the biggest thing. I don't know how sociable I'll be, how up for visitors, but if you can make some food that would be awesome. Thanks". I was confident. I was set.
And so. Some people's lives have exploded, and it's not their fault, or an indictment of them, but I fall off the radar. Other people's attention spans are short, and maybe when they see me up and walking and tending to my garden, they forget that I ever asked for help (they say "You're looking so well!", filled with relief of being let off the hook, because if I look so well I couldn't possibly actually still be in need of help). And people do help, they are generous and lovely and leave parcels of food or come around with treats to distract me. But still, here I have been, with this yawning gap between the help I need and the help I'm receiving, thinking: what did I do wrong? Everyone tells me that I need to learn to ask for help, but I did ask for help, and it didn't work.
The first lesson my stubborn, independent soul wants to learn from this is that I was right the first time, that there is no greater strength than self-sufficiency. That I should have made my own vats of soup before I went into hospital, and frozen them for later, should have shut myself into my room and expected nothing. I don't think that's right lesson. I think what I need to have learnt is to set contingency plans in place (and a vat of self-made soup in the freezer is not a bad place to start), to be very clear and very direct about the help I might need, and to be specific (said one friend: "If you'd asked one person for one pot of soup, you might have got soup, but you asked 10 different people, so they all probably thought someone else was doing it"). To enlist from people who volunteer to help an assurance that if they find themselves for whatever reason unable to help in the ways planned, they will let me know, and have a back-up plan for someone to pass the job of helping me on to.
What I have definitely learnt is that the fuzzy post-surgical, doped-up-on-painkillers state is no time to be having to negotiate the finer points of ego, of ability, of ruffled feathers, of faltering promises. That this stuff needs to be crystal clear, concrete, with three layers of contingency plan built in before I arrive at such a state, because once I am there I can do nothing to help myself or the people around me.
My anger at the people who I feel have let me down is passing. I don't really blame them. It's not actually their fault that their lives exploded, and that they found themselves unable to help me in the ways I was relying on them for. It's just incredibly unfortunate that I didn't think about needing back-up plans, and that they were unable to think of them for me. It's unfortunate that in my time of need I was unable to articulate what was going on clearly enough to procure the help I needed elsewhere, that by the time I was able to sort through it enough to ask, I was no longer in a state to need it. Unfortunate that you don't learn these lessons until you really, truly have to learn them.
So. I have learnt. I will use what I've learnt for myself, because I will probably need surgery again in the New Year to correct the damage this disease has done to my eyes (and that's a whole terrifying concept I don't even want to go into). And I will use what I've learnt for other people who find themselves sick or otherwise in need of help. I have learnt: that food is love. That errands are a blessing. That nobody who is sick or recovering from surgery should ever, ever have to wash the dishes. That a sick person needs more than one front-line support person- probably they need an errands & practicals support, and a household support, and an emotional support (in addition to food support, which is the best role for people on the second line- good friends & acquaintances who want to help in small, concrete ways). That the fact that someone can walk, and talk, and answer the phone (or even shower, dress, potter in the garden and otherwise look quite functional) doesn't mean they're actually fully able to feed & manage themselves. That when someone says: "I have friends helping me", it might be a good idea to say: "Which friends? What's their phone number? Let me give them my phone number in case they need back-up".