Is there a man or woman on this planet who has entered their sixth decade without ever having been blindsided by some unexpected life crisis?
In times of great social or environmental upheaval – wars, tsunamis and the like – it is remarkable and heart-warming how people tend to pull together. When faced with illness, divorce, death, bankruptcy or any of a thousand and one inevitable personal life crises, our perverse tendency is to try to be strong and go it alone. Why?
Some will mumble about ‘traditional British values’, but these days a stiff upper lip is more likely to suggest an excess of Botox and fillers than qualities of fortitude and stoicism.
I’ve reached my fifties with my own share of trauma. At 25, I was totally paralysed. For months I existed in an intensive care unit, reliant on a life support machine, unable to breathe, move, speak or even close my eyes.
After that I felt that nothing would ever bother me again. But it did. As life rolled on, relationships came and went, each with a level of emotional devastation. I ruined a business and consequently lost my home. For years, I grappled with addiction to alcohol and drugs and eventually sought refuge in rehab.
My most recent nadir was going through breast cancer, with all its hideous treatments, immediately followed by my boyfriend doing a runner.
At first I tried to do what I had always done: tough it out. It was as if I was compelled do everything myself or I wouldn’t be able to justify my existence.
At one point during my treatment, a friend came over to help me fill in a benefits claim form. As we toiled together on the byzantine paperwork, I wondered why I was crying.
I finally had to admit that I found it incredibly difficult to ask anyone for help. And even if help was freely offered, I felt guilty. I felt that somehow I didn’t deserve other people’s generosity. I realised that I’d always felt like that, deep down. I’m telling you this because you might be feeling the same way.
Our urge to isolate is based in a pervasive sense of shame. Dr Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, says: “Shame is a fear of disconnection. If other people see who I really am, will they reject me?”
“Connection is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. It is the essence of why we are here at all.” Any Quantum physicist will tell you that.
Do we try to fix the car, fly the aeroplane to our holiday destination or do our own surgery? Not unless we are dangerously self-deluded. So why on earth do we feel that we must be our own bereavement counsellor, relationship therapist or financial advisor? Consider how wise it really is to expect to excel in matters in which you have no previous experience.
Many people will be quick to say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” When they said it to me, I couldn’t think of anything. More accurately, everything needed doing.
But we all fear rejection. What if you ask a friend to do something and they say no?
Psychotherapist Adela Campbell says that, far from being noble, refusing help amounts to a rejection of those who offer it. No matter what we may feel, that is an ungenerous and mean thing to do.
The problem is not so much ‘What are my friends prepared to do for me?’ but ‘What am I prepared to ask my friends to do for me?’ People want to help – but they don’t know how.
So help them!
Next week: How to slice up the elephant: practical advice on reaching out
Video: Jessica Jones on The Elegant Art of Falling Apart