There are two big, basic reasons why it’s basically impossible to ask for help when you suffer from some kind of mental illness. (1) I don’t want help from people who don’t already care enough to notice that I need help. (2) People suck at helping when they actually care enough to try.
So it’s not that I’m playing hard to get or anything (although I’ve done it before – who doesn’t want to know just how bad people actually want to help when they offer?), I just find it hard to believe that people either want to help or are even able to. So I rarely accept it even if it’s offered.
Anecdote for you: I come from a moderately dysfunctional family and spent most of my adolescence not hinting, not asking, but begging for help from anyone who showed an interest. People must have thought I was joking, because I never got it. Not once. Not that it would have really made a difference, in hindsight I have to admit that I still turned out OK (relatively speaking) and the rest of them didn’t and nothing was going to change any of that. But my childhood would have been so much less lonely if only I’d been able to talk about it. Once, a woman from my youth program at church called me (in her defense, she was a volunteer and a young mother with young children and no experience with teenagers whatsoever), and aside from saying “Hello?” when I answered the phone, and “Ok, bye” before I hung up, I never once got a word in edge-wise. She talked at me for 30-45 minutes straight about how she knew exactly how I felt and how she had had a hard childhood and she didn’t get along with her parents but they knew best in the end…. a whole bunch of stuff that proved indisputably that she actually had NO idea what was really going on in my case, but she was too busy “helping” to actually… help. It probably took a lot of guts for her to call me, and really I was grateful that someone even showed an interest at all, but what was it for in the end?
And that’s the problem with asking for and getting help. Usually it doesn’t help at all, which just perpetuates the cycle of depression with the added guilt (“she spent all that time and effort and it didn’t even fix anything”) and hopelessness (“Great. My one and only rescue boat is full of holes.”)
I’m in a similar situation now where someone has actually noticed and cared enough to get involved – amazing? I know, right?? – but then has spent gobs and gobs of energy lecturing me and giving advice in huge drawn-out phone conversations where I barely get three words out and I feel like that same disgruntled sixteen-year-old kid on the phone kicking myself for even wishing someone would help me.
So that’s why, when I recognize the signs in someone else who seems to need help, I act according to the following policy:
1. Never ask them directly if they need help. Either do it without asking, or ask someone close to them how I can help. I love the story of a family who was mired in grief and preparing for a funeral with loads and loads of people saying “Let me know if there’s anything I can do!” But one man just showed up on their doorstep with some rags and a shoe polish box and said “Hi, I’m here to polish the family’s shoes for the funeral.” And he just did it, and the family was touched and grateful for this one simple, humble unsolicited act of service. I want to be like that.
2. Never give advice unless asked for it. Only ask questions – “How are you handling ____?” “What are you going to do about _____?” “Does that make you angry?” Etc etc. And then listen. Listen, listen, listen, listen. Listen as much as my helpers talk.
3. When all else fails and I don’t know how to help or I can’t relate or they don’t want to talk about it, I just focus on being a friend. Getting them out of the house, thinking of things we can do together, going to the effort of planning things and making it easy for them to stay active and hopefully be distracted for a little while.
Why is that my policy? Because that’s what I wish someone would do for me, just once.