The Art of Not Helping

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by Brad Dell |

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My head is in the clouds right now. I took a heavy sleeping aid about half an hour ago, and wooh, that stuff hits fast and hard.

The sleeping aid has become necessary some nights. I don’t know how to sleep when my phone keeps buzzing, buzzing, buzzing. I pick the buzzing thing up, and it’s a mom saying her son is dying and she needs my support. It’s a stranger asking for advice because all transplant centers have rejected him. It’s a person stuck in the hospital, unable to sleep and feeling suicidal.

“I read your column about addiction and …”

“I follow your blog, and what you say about anxiety hits me …”

“You’re such an inspiration. Can I ask your advice?”

“You up? Something bad happened …”

How do I sleep? Turn the phone off, sure, but then there are people out in this broken world with no one to speak with. It’s all on my shoulders; I’m the only one with the experiences that will help them, plus the heart willing to share those lessons.

Ah, did I forget to mention how easy it is to lie to myself in the middle of the night?

I have a messiah’s complex rooted ironically in self-loathing. Lung transplantation “gifts” one not only with new life, but the burden of survivor’s guilt. When I laid awake all night during transplant recovery — due to my pain, not others’ — I strategized ways to give back to the world. Transplant gave me 3,000 life debt points and I have to pay back each and every point, and then some.

Once recovered, I launched myself into helping. I gave away vast sums of money, volunteered days to serve the homeless, mentored high schoolers, wrote self-help blogs and this column, gave car rides to all who asked no matter the circumstance or distance, spoke at events, etc. Little drips of dopamine to make me feel like a good person.

Alas, nothing has driven away the guilt of surviving when people I’ve deemed far better than me pass away without their second chance at life.

I’m a type 2 on the Enneagram, so I have really loved to help and that’s no secret. It’s always, “Go ask Brad, he loves to help.” I find gratitude when my bank account runs low, I’ve met incredible people who are homeless, the high schoolers I mentor are my heart’s joy, writing is my passion, the best talks are during car rides, and speaking isn’t so scary now. But despite the joys found in caring for others, I’ve neglected to care for myself and that’s a big problem.

How do I help people effectively when I am exhausted? How do I help people empathetically when I’ve become nearly desensitized to death and suffering by facing it daily? How do I help people lovingly when I get pangs of people-fearing anxiety each time I see a Facebook message preview? How do I help people appropriately when boundaries are so easily made murky by guilt-tripping? It’s all falling apart.

I grew up admiring a CF blogger. I respected how he seemed to care for all who reached out to him. Despite his advanced lung disease, he made helping seem effortless. Years ago, though, he posted a message saying he was giving up his blog. It was all too much. He needed to focus on himself and his family. I didn’t understand how someone could thrive in helping others, but then drop it all, seemingly out of the blue.

Didn’t understand.

As a person with a crippled immune system, I must practice self-care for energy and health. As a person surrounded by death, I need the space to process and grieve. Right now, I don’t afford myself those things. In my work with youth, do you know what lesson I teach most frequently to anxiety-stricken high schoolers? To rest and care for themselves. Ha.

I am making progress. I’m distancing myself from Facebook and rarely checking messages. I’ve unfollowed loads of CF and transplant accounts on Instagram (sorry) so my mind can think of matters beyond my disease. I said no to helping people four times this month so far — that might seem insignificant but it’s not. It’s not. Oddly, the world continued its rotation upon hesitantly uttering the words, “Sorry, but I can’t …”

I’m realizing that while loving others is beautiful when done in healthy ways, a trick to kicking back at survivor’s guilt is to love myself, too. I’m more than a servant. I am a person of skill and passion and love and, and, and. I am a person who did and does deserve a second chance at life. So did the other people, but I can’t hold myself responsible for the Fates who acted against others.

Wow. Did I just help myself?

Man, this sleeping aid is strong. Time to sleep.


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