Mayday, Mayday

How I finally learned to reach out for help.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The Mayday international radio distress signal created in 1923 comes from the French “m’aider” (help me). It must be repeated three times in a row in case of an immediate life-threatening emergency on board.

When I first read about Mayday, it made me reflect on my own system to reach out for help. I had to acknowledge that I had none, which made sense since I hardly ever asked for support at all.

I grew up in a household where being unable to solve a problem, or feeling down, meant you were weak. That “suck it up and carry on” philosophy runs in my family, making many of us miserable. Only when I became a mother did I started daring to ask for a little help. I felt shameful and needy, but the relief was worth the discomfort.

I started wondering why I was so reluctant to seek help. I noticed I knew how to switch to survival mode -meaning attack or wrap up in myself- but I had no clue how to anticipate my need for support. I was a bit like these people suffering from congenital analgesia, who can not feel the pain, except that my lack of pain awareness was not a medical condition; it was more of a social handicap: I had no culture of help.

Observing my in-laws’ tribe was eye-opening in that regard. Helping and getting help was a no-brainer for them; it was just the way their family worked. They had soaked in solidarity just as much as I had infused into selfishness. This realization was life-changing; I decided to join their team.

Habit is second nature.

I wanted to change, but I did not know how to step into this uncharted territory. I decided to dig deep to find the roots of my “deal with it” default mode. These were my justifications for not asking for help:

I always thought my problems weren’t that big of a deal compared to what other people were going through. I was never really in a life or death situation after all, so why would I bother anyone.

I did not want to be a whiner, or worse, being seen as a whiner. I am the one who cheers everybody up, it has always been my role, so whining was not an option. I even feared my friends would not be willing to hang out with me anymore if I started complaining about my problems.

I thought I was smart enough to figure it all out. I am rather self-confident, which is a good thing, but I was too proud to admit that my brain had limitations. I thought if I kept thinking harder, I would find a way out by myself, eventually. Great recipe to be on a loop and stay stuck in a rut!

I wanted to numb unpleasant feelings because they were, well…, unpleasant and depressing, and I was a joyful person who had zero taste for sadness! So whenever low vibe feelings emerged, I kicked them out to the curb, thinking they would stay afar. Shocker: they did not.

I was not paying attention to external signs. I kept pushing when the going was getting tough. I used to tackle the bump on the road head-on, but I rarely questioned the path itself. I was unable to see problems as opportunities to pause and reflect on whatever was happening.

I was waiting for the right time to share, which I thought was the moment when people would be ready to listen to me. Since I always checked on people before they checked on me, this perfect timing never happened. Typically, by the time they were done talking, I was not in the mood for sharing anymore.

I was sending out “signals” instead of just asking for help. I thought my clues were crystal clear, and I was frustrated when people did not pick up on them. Until a dear friend of mine told me: Please, enough with the riddles, just tell me what is going on and how I can help you!

It was as simple as that?! No sarcastic humor or temper tantrum needed? Damn!

It takes a village.

At the time of my epiphany, I lived in the Corsican mountain where my husband was a forest ranger. Ninety-minutes winding roads drive from the nearest hospital or supermarket, quite a challenge with a newborn, especially for a city girl like me. I learned a lot from the locals who stuck together through snowfalls, fire seasons, and tourist invasions.

On May 1st, 2002, Policemen came to our house to inform us that my great-uncle François, who lived in a village down the valley, had not been seen in a few days. It was not like him at all; they feared something was wrong, so they wanted me to go and check on him.

I drove there and found him dead in his bed; I was devastated. He was the only warm and fun relative I had ever had. Since I was the only family member living on the island, I had to take care of the funerals. I had no clue what to do; all I knew was that Tonton François deserved a beautiful ceremony. I really had to seek help. So I did. Big Time!

I soon as I asked, I was swarmed with support: a friend offered to babysit my 8-month old as long as needed, a neighbor helped me deal with the funeral paperwork, a woman assisted me with François’s final outfit, another one took care of the flowers and set up the memorial service with the priest. Construction workers seconded undertakers to prepare the grave. Chef Marinette baked traditional cookies for the wake and made sure I got fed too. Dozens of people from the county and beyond came to pay François their final respects. The night before the burial, his friends stayed with me. Some sit in silence others told funny anecdotes. The house was a beehive buzzing with love and support. I had never felt so in-tuned with my fellow humans.

I am forever grateful to everyone who was there for me during that week. Through this experience of genuine solidarity, I finally understood what no self-help book could have taught me: asking for help is not selfish; it is a way to open the door to others.

After 20 years of practicing, I must admit that I am still not an expert at vulnerability, but I learned to pay attention to my inner signs of distress, and I formed a support team that I value a great deal. Most of all, I am convinced that even badasses need a little help sometimes!

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