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April 2019

The Right to Not Help

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Since May is Mental Health Awareness month, I’m going to share a bit more about one of my struggles and a recent revelation I had about it.  Asking for help is one of the hardest things for me to do, but giving help is a driving force in my life and part of my self-identity. I consider being a helper one of my virtues and honestly enjoy being of service, however it is a trait that causes a great deal of anxiety in my life.

I attribute this trait to growing up in a family of social workers, doctors, and teachers.  My father was often on call.  My mother went out of her way to help her clients, even if it interfered with family plans. I got it. I couldn’t resent it because I understood the whys of what they were doing and had compassion for the individuals in need.  Even as a bratty teenager, I knew my desire to get home in time to watch a tv show could in no way surpass the need to drop baby formula off to a family without a car (even though it was before VCRs).  Any resentment I did feel led to guilt because what they were doing was important and what I wanted generally was not.  

Recently during a conversation with a friend about whether or not we were people-pleasers, I articulated my theory about my compulsion to offer assistance with a word that I hadn’t used before, one that both of us remarked on had hit the nail on the head.  This is what I said – 

I don’t think my motivation is people pleasing, it’s more like if I’m able,  I don’t have a right to say no.

I saw helping as a duty – I help because I can.  I help because I pathologically put other people’s needs before my own.  Saying no with the only reason being I don’t want to only leads to feeling guilty about it for much longer than it would have taken to help, so often it’s just easier to do whatever is asked.

My helping tendencies become a curse because I am still working on my boundary issues and continuously overextend myself at the expense of getting my own things done or trying to stick to a schedule I’ve set.   Feeling overwhelmed unfortunately shifts my mood to anger.  When I connect the dots, I recognize the anger is fully at myself for not making my own wants and needs a priority. 

Articulating my feeling that I don’t have a right to say no explains my anger to me.  I don’t like being told what to do.  I’m frustrated that I don’t stand up for my needs.  I feel trapped.  

I’m not looking to stop helping others – I honestly like doing it and it gives me purpose. in doing It’s just never felt like a choice and I need to balance what I say “yes” to with my own   My inner voice reminds me I have no rights.  I certainly didn’t have rights as a child to my parents attention or time when someone was in crisis.  I’m sure if I did put up any fight I lost it and the idea of helping others was reinforced.

I don’t yet know how this new revelation will affect my relationship with my helping issues, but I’m hoping the “have to” feeling dissipates and I will not just intellectually understand that I do have a choice and all my offers of help come from a true desire to do so.

Premiere of Talking About Suicide Loss With Carla Fine

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In September of 2016, I had just joined the board of the Greater LA chapter of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and received a scholarship from the national office to attend their first ever conference for long-term survivors of suicide loss.  My experience there was a triumphant and validating culmination of a year of personal growth, purpose, and engagement with the world that started when I first shared my story with another survivor at the group’s Santa Monica Out of the Darkness walk the year before.

My mother killed herself in 1985, and suddenly talking about it to other loss survivors allowed me to process much and heal by leaps and bounds.  I became very comfortable talking about both my story and the subject of suicide.   Meeting other long-term survivors at the conference, however,  brought a whole other layer of relief I didn’t expect.  Long-term survivors have distance from the trauma and have either dealt with their grief, or are practiced at working around it.  We can laugh about some things that recent survivors might take offense at.  We can reflect on how we felt early on without the grief overtaking us for the rest of the day.  We have conversations that come from experience, scarring, and time.  Our grief is still deep, but it has shifted and our perspectives are different.  We survivors are all family, but among the many cousins, those who have similar distance from a loss feel like the ones we grew up with.

At the conference, one of the break-out sessions I attended was a writing seminar given by Carla Fine, author of No Time To Say Goodbye.  Her book, released in 1999, was one of the first to discuss grief after suicide.  She wrote it because when she searched for something to read about what she was experiencing after losing her husband to suicide, she found nothing. Now in it’s 23rd printing, the book continues to be a valuable resource for those affected by suicide.

Through her work, Carla has become a prominent figure in the mental health/suicide world.  She has continued to write about suicide loss and other subjects, and travels the world speaking to survivor groups and professional organizations while continuing to write.

The exercise she gave us was to just put pen to paper and write whatever came into our head for five minutes. Thoughts did just flow and I ended up writing about a teddy bear in storage and how taking it out would mean I feel I’m the person I’m meant to be – if I remember it correctly.  And, yes, the bear is still in storage.  

Going against my natural tendencies, I raised my hand when she asked who would like to share.  I was somewhere in the middle of about 8 people who read aloud. I remember being very impressed with all the stories and the wide range of topics and styles. I felt mine was a bit more rambling and not a good example of my skills, but I felt compelled to put my hand up, so I read mine.

I honestly don’t remember what anyone, including Carla, said about it in the room, but it couldn’t have been bad because I would have ruminated on that for a long time, and it would have missed the point of supporting each other at the conference.

That evening at a reception, Carla sought me out to introduce me to a staff member at AFSP who  was coordinating the blog posts for the national site. She told me that she suggested I write the blog from the attendee POV about the conference for the official AFSP website. I was stunned but massively flattered and, of course, accepted the opportunity. The team was great to work with and I was motivated to turn it around fast. You can read it here:

A Year of Firsts

I am hoping The Silent Goldens documentary will open the type of doors that Carla’s book did for her – to be able to take my story around the world to inform professionals about suicide loss and encourage survivors everywhere to be open with their stories and to address their pain.  Carla sharing her story as a speaker at the event connected deeply  with me and made me want to attend her break-out session.  I felt unusually compelled to share my writing and Carla connected with that, solidifying my confidence to move forward with my project.  The confluence of events was on the magical side.

Carla and I have stayed in touch and I’ve visited her a couple of times when I’ve been in NY.  She’s been very supportive of my documentary project and I’m so grateful she spoke to me for this new Talk About Suicide With Carla Fine.

Check out her interview here:

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Please share with as many people as possible – you may not know you know someone who it could help.