How Do You Help the Person Who Feels Like They Need to Do Everything Themselves?

a closeup of a game of battleship. On the board are 3 white pegs in various locations indicating a miss. There's also a 3-point ship with 2 red pegs stuck in it, indicating two hits.
Image by Andrew Malone / CC BY

“Just not in the best mood today,” he warns me.

And it’s not hard to see why. He hasn’t felt well for quite some time, but it’s been tough to get answers. Shuffling from one doctor to the next. Stuck in that purgatory where you’re sick enough to have it chip away at your quality of life, your sanity, your bandwidth. But not enough that it knocks you on your ass.

And the human body isn’t nearly as standardized as most people think it is. Our bodies aren’t like assembly line engines. We aren’t robots with uniform structures. That game Operation isn’t a historical reenactment or an artist’s happening.

No, bodies are rather idiosyncratic. And that’s just considering anatomy.

Physiology? Tracking down complex symptom patterns? Intermittence? Referred pain? C’mon now. If you think any of this is easy, you might as well think Bigfoot is real.

When it comes to the human body, you can forget about things being straightforward.

It’s been quite a trying scene. An army of medical professionals shuffles in and out, scratching their heads. Unable to find the exact source of the problem, let alone fix it.

On top of this background drain, the uninvited “new normal” of chronic illness, is another 11-hour work day. Of course. A last minute phone conference scheduled to serve another time zone. Your garden variety technerati scourge.

“Feels like tonight will be a catch up on work night,” he says. “Blah.”

“I’m sorry,” I reply.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I just want to curl up under blankets and go away.”

“How can I help?” I ask.

“You can’t really,” he says. “I’m just mopey.”

“I love you so much,” I say. “Sorry it’s a hard day.”

He tells me it’s okay again.

I physically restrain myself from asking again what I can do for him. From soliciting suggestions from him again about how I can help. Because he’s already answered that question, even if I don’t like the answer. And though I’m frustrated, too, that he’s struggling and I have no way to be helpful, I know that the last thing he needs to do is comfort me and soothe my own frustrations. The last thing he needs is for me to make his rough day about me. My emotions. My feelings of helplessness. Of impotence.

So I take a second to realistically consider my options, given all of this. Food for the day has been handled. I already have a few ideas planned for dinner, ones I’ll present when he gets there to see which he prefers. And I’m prepared to arbitrarily make a decision if he’s overwhelmed by that simple choice, if he’s run out of executive function for the day.

My own responsibilities are settled… or close enough. I’ve made good headway into my own personal to-do. My writing projects are in decent enough shape for the day. In some ways, I’m still playing catch-up myself, but it’s the kind of catch-up where it’s manageable. Where you’re not behind but you’re not ahead. Where it’s a little embarrassing to not have anything done up ahead since I like to be on top of things. But it’s not mission critical. Nowhere near the red alert procrastination stage where you’re essentially in a sinking vessel, all alarms blaring at full volume.

I’m doing okay. Not perfect, but okay.

And a solution dawns on me. I’ll start tackling his to-do list. The stuff I’ve heard him say “really should get done” but likely won’t. Since talking to him, it seems like he’s already in the sunken battleship stage of feeling like he’s behind. His alarms are blaring.

Quickly, I identify two tasks that won’t take too much out of my day but to him feel like water coming in under the door.

I send out an important email that needs writing, a bit of a nuisance and one easily lost in the shuffle.

And I mow the back lawn.

As I’m cutting the grass, I think about the fact that I’ve come up with this plan all on my own. That I didn’t check back in and press him again for ways to help him.

There was a time where I’d never do something like this without asking him first. That I’d make sure I had his permission before proceeding. That I’d ask, and if he said no, I wouldn’t help out.

But things are different now. Because he doesn’t always answer those questions in a way that’s helpful to either of us. And I’ve known him long enough that it’s better just to tell him when I’m about to do something than to ask him if he wants me to do it. Since he always says no when I ask him, “Do you want me to do [X]?” even when he desperately wants help. Because I know that there’s something about him that makes it difficult for him to accept help when it’s offered. And impossible for him to go a step further and ask for it.

I’m not sure exactly why. I don’t know whether it’s a feeling he has that he should be able to manage everything on his own.  Or if he just assumes that I’m asking to be nice. That I want to be on the record that I (half-assedly) offered to help. That I have no intention of actually doing it.

If it’s the latter, it would be rather easy to offended. But thinking through it a few moments, I know better. I can clearly see that it wouldn’t be out of a lack of respect for me but much more likely to be a result of conditioning from past experiences with other people.

Because I’ve been there myself. I know all too well the chorus of people who ask “Do you want some help?” or “Anything I can do?” fully expecting that you’ll say no. That they’ll never have to follow through on that offer. That by offering they’ll get credit for being helpful without ever having to do anything.

And I know the stunned look when you actually say, “Actually, yes, could you [X]?” Their flustered redirect. Followed by a flimsy excuse like “Oh shit, I’d love to, but I forgot about [Y].” Or the additional push back to put the ball in your court, something like, “Okay, just let me know when.” Or “Alright, I’ll check my schedule” with no later followup.

I know how rare it can be for someone who is offering help to actually follow through. To be fair, it happens, that someone is sincere in that initial offer. But in my experience, it’s definitely seemed like a minority of instances. Far more often, someone is offering to be nice, to express a desire to help, never expecting you to take them up on it.

When the lawn is mowed, it looks okay. It frankly doesn’t look as good as when he does it. The edges aren’t neatly trimmed. And in spite of my best efforts and my going over certain sections a few times, some parts look a little sloppy.

But it’s definitely shorter. It’s good enough for government work, as they say.

I report back on what I’ve done. And even though I didn’t really ask his permission, he seems happy that I took the initiative.

“Aww, thank you,” he says.

“You’re very welcome!” I say. “I want to help if I can.”

And I nearly tell him the rest, but I stop myself at the last second. I stop myself from letting him know how difficult he can be to help sometimes. That I suspect he has me mixed up with the rest of the world, with people who ask if you want help but are hoping you say no, that when it comes to him and me that this is a different creature altogether.

I could easily say all of that. But I don’t go there. Because it’s going to be a long day. And he doesn’t need a lecture.

Instead, I make a private joke about something dumb I did seven years ago but that we both still find really funny. We inexplicably laugh about it even though it’s likely not funny to anyone else.

And then he’s off the short break and back to responsibilities. He does what he needs to do. I do what I need to do. We work hard.

He comes home. And then he works hard some more there until a ridiculous hour.

And when he finally gets done with the day that won’t end, the instant he gets a second to himself to breathe, he pulls me to him and wraps his arms around me so tightly, I feel like he’s worried I’m going to drift away somewhere.

*

Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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