“Mum, can you help me please?”
I must hear this request dozens of times a day from my nine-year-old daughter. Help with homework, help with finding something, or help when she is hurting and in need of Mum to make it all better again. Children seem to have a never-ending, constant need for help.Then there is the help that we offer and give to friends and colleagues, from running an errand to being a listening ear. We then offer help to the wider society—maybe stopping to help an elderly person cross the road, or giving up a seat to a pregnant woman on a bus. Indirectly we help people less fortunate in other countries by filling charity bags with our old clothes or by stopping to put some money in a charity tin. The list of how we help others is endless. But how do we feel about asking for help and accepting help when it is offered?

I have no problem in giving help, except I give it too much. For me at the moment this is a real area of struggle. I will literally do anything for anyone, regardless of the cost to myself. I suppose I believe that I can make all that’s bad about me disappear if I can just do more good, help more people, be everything to everyone all the time. In fact if I thought I had a chance of saving the world, I would give it a damn good try.

However, when it comes to asking for help, that’s another story. It feels impossible. I don’t need help! Why would I need someone else’s help?! I am perfectly fine as I am: there is nothing I can’t do all by myself. In fact, am I not better off by myself? Me, myself and I—that’s all there is to it.

If only it were that simple. Although I am fiercely independent and repeatedly declare that I don’t need anyone to help, lately it seems that some parts of me don’t agree. Their cries for help come mainly at night. I can hear them inside, begging for someone to help them, and it’s relentless. These intense feelings are familiar. It seems like a collision between the ‘there-and-then’ and the ‘here-and-now’, where feelings from the past intrude upon my feelings in the present. Sometimes all I can sense inside is the burning cold, icy hot, eddying black fog of feelings. They are contradictory and confusing. Mostly I can’t feel them. But then at other times I can, and yet from far away. Do I need help with these feelings? Certainly not, parts of me argue. I can get rid of these feelings all by myself. I am clever and I can help myself. I don’t need anybody.

In therapy, the conflict boils over. Parts of me desperately want help. Other parts of me deny with every ounce of my being that we don’t need it. Some parts of me are battling to express their needs, desperately trying to break through their chains to be able to blurt out their pain to this woman who is ‘The Therapist’. She has promised to listen, to accept, and to be there whatever. These parts of me are desperate to make contact with her.

But at the same time, other parts believe that wanting help is bad. They fear being accused of attention-seeking. Admitting that I have needs is huge enough, but to ask for help is surely criminal. Do I really need help? Really? Can’t I do it by myself? Around and around, the doubts swirl inside me. Even if I could ask for help, whom could I ask? Who is safe? Will I be in trouble for asking for help? What if my words come out wrong? How can I ask for help when I don’t even know what I need help with?

Then, out of the blue, crisis hits. I don’t even know what triggers it. All I know is that there is this ‘something’ inside. That ‘something’ is surrounded by ‘something’ else. It churns around in more and more ‘somethings’. I can’t tell what it is. I have no words. All of these ‘somethings’ dissolve in a puddle of pain if I even dare to think of asking for help. And the shame. The shame of these ‘somethings’, the shame of needing help with whatever they are, the shame of the neediness, the shame of the shame.

Sometimes I have vague sensations that something is not right. But as soon as I notice it, it disappears, and I’m left wondering if I imagined it. Then at other times, it knocks me sideways as it erupts out of nowhere. It is unstoppable. And I watch from outside myself in horror, with a morbid fascination, observing this upset person, overwhelmed by feelings and needs and distress. I flit in and out. I desperately try to pull myself together but I can’t seem to hold onto anything. Various parts of me, of varying ages, merge together. My surroundings morph from bigger to smaller. I shrink and then I grow. Colours fade to bleach and then dazzle vividly. Pain flashes within me, on and off like a faulty neon sign. I feel lost within myself, terrorised by these ‘somethings,’ these feelings, these needs.

Vaguely, on the outside of me, are two people. I know them, and I forget them. They are friends—no, they are strangers. I can’t hold them in my mind. From a distance, I can see them reaching towards me. They are trying to pull me towards them. They are offering their help, and I am desperate to accept it. I come back to the real world and this dissociative moment passes. This cacophony of feelings begins to subside. Until later.

Later, shame and fear engulf me. It is so intense, I can hardly breathe. I feel like I am going to die. The realisation that I accepted help hits me like a truck. Parts of me are doubled over in terror. Later, I learn that four people helped me that day, but I was only barely conscious of two. I should be happy, I should be grateful, I should smile with the sweet relief that they helped me through this car crash of emotion. But instead shame and dread weigh heavily upon me. I fear that one day I will pay for accepting that help.

My therapist points out that I am patronising them, that they were only trying to help. Her point is valid, but this only brings with it a new wave of shame. Now I am ashamed of being ashamed. We look at the roots of this shame. I know that growing up, I was always on my own. To reach out for help was to invite rejection. To reach out for help was to be humiliated. To reach out for help was to trigger anger, punishment and pain. I began to believe that it’s best never to ask for help. I began to believe that asking for help is weakness, that you should never expect help, because you are nothing and no one gives a toss about your suffering. Your suffering is all in your head anyway, and further evidence of your badness. If you’re hurting, you need to go away and deal with it yourself. You mustn’t bother anyone else with your pain.

I’m working hard in therapy to change these beliefs. I’m working hard to weave the option of asking for help into the fabric of my new life. It’s another hurdle, like so many that I’m trying to overcome. I am so grateful for all these safe people in my life now, the people who support me and encourage me and believe in me. I am grateful when they help me to challenge my core beliefs, when they point out my irrational thoughts and my illogical behaviours. They give me the right to make my own decisions, even when my decisions are disastrous. They give me a safe place to be, a place that is warm and accepting and friendly and where I am not judged.

I am learning to understand the reasons why I pull away in fear when supposedly safe people try to reassure me of their safety. I am learning to understand the reasons why I react with shame when I want to ask for help and when feelings overwhelm me. I am learning that giving help is easy for me and saying no is hard. But asking for help is even harder, and yet it’s safe to do now. I am determined to heal, so I’m willing to take some risks. I’m willing to start asking for help and not think of it as a four-letter word. Because when my daughter says, ‘Mum, can you help me please?’ I don’t want her to feel ashamed or terrified either.