So how do you slice up the elephant in the room? How do you help people to help you? I suggest that you write two lists: one of friends and family, the other of things that need doing. Then match up who you think will be up to what job.
The first job on the list should be ‘administering the rota’. Choose someone who is bossy, capable and well-liked to be in charge.
This lets you off the hook from making lots of emotionally draining phone calls and trying to juggle everybody else’s schedules. You will have enough to do with organising your day-to-day life.
You might feel comfortable asking for help with the most dramatically charged matters: someone to accompany you to the hospital; help with funeral arrangements or legal advice.
But what about the daily necessities that, if neglected, lead to a rapid breakdown of life’s equilibrium? Things like making the beds, filling in forms, shopping or getting the car serviced.
Before I had cancer, it had never occurred to me that I didn’t have to do absolutely everything myself. I despaired of calling on friends for a lift to the post office or help with other such humdrum chores.
So here is another cunning strategy. I regularly sent out a group email to all of my friends, listing specific tasks that needed doing, and then simply waited for the reinforcements to charge in.
Much is written about giving and getting emotional support in times of trouble. But what exactly is that? Do I want someone to ring me up on the telephone to commiserate with my woes? Maybe — but not for long.
On the other hand, a phone call from a friend who is in the supermarket asking, ‘Is there anything I can bring you?’ is truly an act of kindness. Nothing says ‘I love you’ like taking the trouble to travel halfway across town in order to take out the rubbish.
I had in the past thought of charities as organisations to which I donated, which then did something vaguely beneficent with the money.
It took a great deal of urging from friends and medical professionals to convince me to contact relevant charities and allow them to do the thing that justifies their existence, by accepting their advice and support.
Whether it’s drug dependency or depression, bereavement or breast cancer, there is a self-help group for almost every issue.
The term self-help can be a touch off-putting, as it implies that you are involved in an effort to help only yourself. In fact, a defining feature of self-help groups is that we help one another.
A member of a self-help group is both a helper and a helpee, and therein lies the therapeutic value.
It is a tenet of 12-step programmes that ‘We only keep what we have by giving it away’. Times when life is prosperous, easy and filled with hope are the times to give help to others.
Accept what is offered now. There will be plenty of opportunities in the future to give back what you have received.
I would not wish for cancer or a relationship break-up – neither for myself nor for you – but we don’t always get what we want. Still, for me, one of the most gratifying and enriching outcomes of an otherwise despicable situation has been learning how to ask for help.
Video: Jessica Jones on The Elegant Art of Falling Apart