Puzzling out the need to help at all costs

If you ask me for help with something, I’m likely to go out of my way to provide it.  At times this means putting my own needs aside, even when they are more pressing, or trying to be there for almost complete strangers to the extent that is expected for close friends.  I’ve been examining this in recent years and trying to puzzle out why this is such a driving need for me.

I think one aspect of it is rooted in the fact that I’m not someone who typically asks for help.  I struggle through trying to find every way I can to deal with a problem on my own before I ask for assistance.  Or I don’t, I leave something unsolved rather then admitting I need a helping hand. If I were one of the seven deadly sins, I would be pride. So, when someone comes to me for help, I see them making a sacrifice even in the act of asking.  Maybe they aren’t as obstinate and prideful as I am, maybe for them it isn’t hard to reasonably reach out for a helping hand when they need that.  But I don’t know that, and I liken it to my own experiences and don’t want to let someone down if they struggled intensely to even reach that moment of asking.

Another aspect is that I do derive a lot of joy and purpose from helping others.  I’ve always felt most comfortable in tight knit community settings, where I feel connected with a group that works together for our mutual benefit and shared closeness.  When I help someone else, I feel I am helping myself, because I truly get a deep satisfaction by seeing others succeed and flourish.  And often those people are the ones I’m close to, and their well being does directly impact mine.

I think the factor I’ve noticed the most though, relates to my experience with mental illness.  I questionably have ADHD, I’ve been given the diagnosis, but that was many years ago and I question if I have the associated traits at this time.  At times though, focus is hard and executive dysfunction makes doing the do quite impossible.  I also have bi-polar disorder, PTSD, and anxiety.  These days I’m starting to add chronic pain to the list, though I haven’t sought out a doctor to determine the cause of the constant back and joint pain I’ve been experiencing increasingly for a year or so.  It all culminates in being very low on spoons most days, and having an inability to do basic things, a fact I beat myself up for.  I am not pleased when I’m anything less than extremely productive, so when my anxiety can’t handle asking an associate where something is at a store, or my chronic pain makes me put off cleaning for another day, I feel like a bit of a fuck up.  I know that’s not the case, I would never think that of someone else, but it’s easier to be hard on yourself I suppose.  But, here is the thing.  When it comes to most of these issues, there is a magic little switch in my mind that flips on when someone else asks for help.  I may be on the verge of a panic attack thinking about asking generic Target Comrade where the decorative soap dispensers are, but if a friend I’m with need to ask for something and is too anxious there’s a little click.  They need me to do a thing, the switch is flipped, and I’m marching right up there to make sure I ask, and do it damn well, and figure out exactly where the singing unicorn photo frame my friend desperately needs is kept.  I can brain hack past most of my mental illness as soon as I’m doing it for other people.

This happens to me with Kelev a lot.  We share many of the same diagnosis, PTSD, bi-polar, anxiety.  Neither of us is a completely functional human, though we both manage to survive alright on our own if need be.  Sometimes though, he just can’t manage the facade of being okay some days.  If I’m in a fucked up headspace and trying hard to direct myself towards thoughts of sushi and glitter but instead keep dwelling on how lovely it would feel to run my car off a bridge, and then suddenly I become aware that he isn’t doing okay, the switch is flipped.  I’m not focused on my suicidal ideation  or existential dread anymore, I’m focused on what I can do to make his day a little brighter and my problems just float away.  And since most of my issues aren’t actually based on any real life problem, but just my brain meat deciding that life is awesome so we’re gunna have a shitty time anyway, often those consuming thoughts has dissipated entirely by the time I come back to them later.  I don’t know where the switch came from or why it is there, but I know that if I feel someone needs me, I am able to do things and handle things that are well beyond my capacity to do on my own, hard as I may try.  So I like that, it makes me feel a bit like a superhero, because I’m performing feats that are just simply beyond my best efforts on a normal day.  And if I can ease someone else’s burden a little bit, I’ll feel the day was worthwhile.

So, I like to help.  I like being asked, I consider it an honor with how hard even that act can be.  I like feeling purposeful and seeing the improvement in the lives of those around me if I can assist them.  And I like that while I may be a slightly broken worn out human specimen, I can shut that off for a little while and wear the cape of Captain Assistance for as long as it takes until everyone else is okay.  One day I’ll figure out if this all is healthy for me, but for now, it feels good and it’s useful, and that’s all I can ask.

 

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Productivity is my best friend and my worst enemy

I feel good when I’m productive.

Earlier today I was reading an interpretation of my astrological chart.  I’m not sure what my feelings on astrology are.  I have a cousin who is an astrologer, I believe he’s done it professionally for a long time and writes for a few newspapers.  I took an interest in it many years ago and he sent me some things to learn from, and then I read some here and there teaching myself a bit more.  I find it interesting, but like anything I relate to spiritually, I’m always skeptical.  I can believe in something, or in the possibility of something, while at the same time realizing that what I perceive is real in my mind, but not necessarily measurably real in the material world.  As the same time, I love aspects of spirituality as I do perceive them, and astrology is enjoyable to read from time to time.

Anyway, the interpretation I got on my full chart had this section in it.

“The work that you do, and the services that you offer, are very important to your sense of identity. In order to feel good about yourself, you need to be busy with daily activities and to produce work you can be proud of. Focus on finding a suitable and rewarding avenue for expressing this part of you, being extra careful to choose an occupation in which you can express yourself. You are sensitive to criticism about the work you do, and you work best when you can create your own schedule. Positive feedback for the services you render is important to you, but be careful not to over-identify with the appreciation you receive from others, as your work and your health suffers when you feel under-appreciated. Motivation to do a good job should come from within.”

Regardless of the accuracy or lack their of, of the planets and what they say about a person, this happened to be quite accurate to me.  When I came out of my years of alcohol induced haze and inactivity, what I did any given day became very important to me.  Productivity, usually in cleaning and de-cluttering my house, was my measure of success.  Then it was my ability to work.  When I got my first job as a vet tech, I unintentionally based a lot of my self esteem in my ability to handle that job.  I worked fourteen hour days, sometimes longer, with a head vet/owner who was verbally abusive at best some days.  The turn over at that clinic was frightening.  I remember one person who was hired and quit within two days, not because the head vet treated her terribly, she was still in the honeymoon period where our insecure boss was sucking up to her and trying to curry favor.  But the new tech saw how those of us who had been there a while were treated and left, with that as her reason, because she wasn’t willing to tolerate that sort of toxic environment.  I stayed for nearly a year, much longer then I should have.  I was miserable and stressed and almost at my breaking point, and even when I had other job offers at much better clinics with higher pay, I felt guilt for leaving.  Because I had based some of my sense of self in who I was there, in being someone who could stick it out and take the abuse, and in the first career in which I really got that satisfaction of productivity from my workplace.  I left before it fucked me up beyond reasonable repair I think…I’m not sure, it was a close call and it took another six months before I could de-stress to any reasonable degree.

When everyone moved out of my household over the summer and I had the chance to live by myself for a few months, I was the only one to do what had been chores we split between the whole household.  It was a huge boost to my mood each day when I finished all the morning chore list I had made for myself.  I measured my mental health, my self worth, my success, by my productivity.  “In order to feel good about yourself, you need to be busy with daily activities and to produce work you can be proud of.”  That is me to the letter.

These days I’m wondering if that is really a good thing.  It wasn’t really helpful when it kept me at a toxic job for long enough to come close to really damaging my mental health for a good long time, and doing a considerable bit of short term damage.  It hasn’t been helpful recently when I’ve struggled with an increase in the symptoms of my bipolar disorder coupled with a lot of difficultly getting enough sleep.  I’ve been less productive, my morning chore list goes half finished some days.  This last semester I did my best for the place my head was, but it wasn’t the best I could do for me at top shape.  And I really beat myself up for that some. I feel defeated many days because I do what would have been a whole hell of a lot for me a few years ago, but which isn’t close to as much as I did at my most productive times at jobs or when folks first moved it. For someone who gives few fucks about what others think of me despite death threats at times in my life, I’m terribly demoralized by a lack of cleaning the kitchen counter tops for a few days.

It can be a good thing.  It really motivated me when I was trying to stop drinking, it helped me stay sober because of how much joy I got from being a wonderfully functional being.  It pushed me to be better at my jobs, to seek a new career and pursue further knowledge and growth.  It helped me de-clutter and get rid of about 2/3rds of my material possessions when I was nearly drowning in useless crap. My need to keep myself busy and do a measurable amount of useful shit in a day to feel good get things done.  Until I hit a point where I need to relax and de-stress and can’t get things done for a bit because I’m just fucking out of spoons, and then it really isn’t helpful.

So I need a balance.  And I need to find a way to utilize this particular aspect of myself to my advantage without letting it hurt me.  Right now I’m a bit too much of my own worst enemy, and I’d like to be a fabulous rainbow of joy again.  I’m still figuring out quite how to do that, but at least today was a productive day, so hopefully I can start to do that tomorrow from a satisfied confident frame of mind.

New year’s resolutions

It’s a brand new year, all shiny and hopeful and just prime for a good fucking up.  So, in the nature of things that are just waiting to be fucked up, I’m going to make some new years resolutions!  I’m actually very fond of the practice, it can be a meditative exercise for me, figuring out what I need to change and focusing on it, examining the motivation, and trying to imagine the progress and reaching the finish line.  This year I snuggled up in bed with Kelev and we decided to each come up with three resolutions, preferably well grounded goals, since our extensive and loftier ones last year lasted until mid February.  Here are my three:

Health

My first resolution is to improve my health.  This is actually a multifaceted one, a series of mini resolutions you could say.  First, I need to work on eating better.  I have some food intolerances I have been ignoring for a while now, which leads to chronic pain, so to start I need to better stay within my limitations in what I eat.  During the spring/summer/autumn I get most of my veges from a weekly CSA (community supported agriculture) program through a local farm.  It helps me eat seasonally and support a local business, and I know my produce is raised in a way without a negative environmental impact.  I did not get a large enough CSA share to store and can for winter though, so winter this year is when I get to choose what is “in season” for me from the abundance at the grocery store.  In some ways it’s lovely, I really did miss avocados a lot during the rest of the year, but it doesn’t fit my ethics in the long run.  Plus, when I don’t have an automatic big box of fruits and veges that I have to go through in a week, I tend to hop more on the pasta train, and eat out way too much.  So, limiting the eating out and adjusting my diet to a more healthy balance again.  I also need to reincorporate yoga into my routine, my flexibility has dropped drastically since I got too busy for it, but I want to do it weekly at the minimum and then increase that.  Also trying to consistently get to 10k steps on my step counter.  I’m very good at that some days, but during school I do a lot of sitting and studying, and those days my step count is pretty sad.

And weight loss.  Big sigh.  Weight loss for me is often a side effect, not a primary goal.  I have struggled with an eating disorder since my teens, which was at its worse around the time I developed adult onset bi-polar.  So I’m very very careful with weight loss, not to mention it often isn’t a focus when I’ve learned to really enjoy the fat on my body.  I embrace body positivity whole heartedly, and I love when I see myself taking up space and having curves and rolls to my body.  When I was getting the most complements and praise from my parents and friends, was during the times where I would eat one day out of an entire week for months as a time, and subsist in between on cigarettes and sips of vodka. That was when I was applauded for looking “healthy”, I really had to decide on my own what healthy was for me, and body fat is a proud part of it.  It means I’m not self-destructing, I matter to myself, I have a will to live.  That all said, I know weight loss will be a side effect of the changes I’m making, and I plan to embrace that if it is happening in a healthy way, and also later transition to gaining muscle so that I can still take up space in a way that makes me feel real.

Finance

This year the founding group of the intentional community I’m a part of is beginning to meet regularly and move forward with our plans.  As such, I really need to learn to budget tightly, and help Kelev do the same, so we can start planning for our future there and map out what we are about to do financially.  I want to cut down on eating out for my health as well, and hope that in doing so, I can also save a little money.  I try to be a prudent person who does not buy what I don’t need, but the stress and lack of spoons from school has led to me leaning more on pre-made food because it was a choice many times between having the energy to study or having the energy to grocery shop and cook, and I chose my grades first.  That is reasonable, but I want instead to find solutions where I can still maintain my study habits, but also have time to cook and eat healthier and cheaper meals.  I also will be looking again at my budget, as I do every year, and figuring out what I can trim back.  And, when I do my yearly spring cleaning and de-cluttering this year, I will see what I can part with and sell, as the beginning of my savings for my community venture.

Learning

I had an amazing first semester with nursing clinicals, and a difficult and stressful second semester.  I did not take enough time to relax during break and then went in to the semester already stressed and scrambling to keep up.  That feeling pervaded through the entire fall, and while I did the best I feel I was able, it was a struggle, and I would like to feel more competent and on top of things this time around.  I also am appreciating the amount of personal growth that has been coming of writing this, and place to continue it daily and learn as much as I can about myself in the coming year.

 

So, I am looking forward to a year in which I can let these three guiding resolutions or areas of focus light my way.  If it is anything like last year, I may have a lot of change thrown at me and have to adapt to all that as well.  Maybe this year will bring more relaxation and time to recoup and plan.  I hope so, because I am setting the building blocks to forge ahead to a bright future and many ambitious plans, and I’m ready to do this right.

He is my hero – on having a partner with disabilities

When I first got involved with someone fifteen years my senior, a smoker, an alcoholic, with a history of mental disorders, I wasn’t really thinking about how health would effect our lives.  The deeper I fell in love with him, the more my crippling fear of loss made me worry about losing him, because statistically I knew that based on age alone he was likely to die before me.  I knew that you can never really know with life though, you can be two people in perfect health and in your prime, and lose someone to a car accident or mass shooting.  Life is never certain, and I dealt with my fears as best I could, though every day the thought of living without him someday haunts me and I hope that day never comes.  What I didn’t consider though was what happens along the way, how health is a fickle thing and can deteriorate in ways you don’t expect.

It’s eight years after we met and fell in love. I sit on a stool that gives a little when I move, and subdue the urge to bounce and swivel back and forth with the manic energy that so often inhabits my body.  I watch him lying flat on his back, straining to lift his leg up off that table at the physical therapists office.  One leg lift is a hard won feat, the ten that are asked of him make his face crease with intense pain and determination and he is breathing hard when he finishes the final one.  They say the cartilage in his knees is just gone, I know this means that despite the exercises, this new knee pain is now one more constant in his life.  We can tally it up with the back pain, the leg pain, the carpal tunnel, the constant headaches, the tremors, the memory loss and blackouts, and all the fucked up mental states that come and go. I think about how I’m starting to get pangs of pain here and there, my knees aching and cracking from time to time from a few years at jobs where I knelt on concrete while restraining large dogs as a vet tech.  I have a bit of a headache, probably didn’t drink enough water this morning, and that is enough to distract me and throw me off my game for the day.  I can’t imagine pain that is exponentially worst, being a constant background noise in my life.  This is the one area in which we don’t understand each other perfectly, because I have no frame of reference.

When I found out he was bi-polar I wasn’t phased.  We grew closer because of it, having the same condition and realizing how easy it was to relate to the spiraling mood shifts that could last months or years and change the color of the whole world for that time.  When I talked him past a period of suicidal ideation not long after we first met, I could see myself in him, I’d walked that path too many times on my own.  I wanted him to see he didn’t need to walk it alone, I committed to always be there through that.  As we grew close we revealed shattered pasts of trauma and abuse, our stories profoundly different, but our understanding of the invisible scars we each had was the same.  He overcame his alcoholism within the first six months after we met, mine persisted for a few years longer before I decided it was time, and with his borrowed strength I came out the other side.  We had our difficulties where mental health played a role, but there was always an undercurrent of empathy, understanding, and kinship.  I never doubted we could handle any of those curve balls that life threw at us, capricious manic moods, depressive spells, unexpected trauma triggers, we could take it.

The first time I got a call from his doctor at school to let me know they had sent him to the hospital, suspecting a heart attack, my world dropped away.  My fears of losing him went from background noise to a constant cacophony that disrupted every day functioning.  After a time it receded again to a background murmur, but always louder then it had been prior. It wasn’t a heart attack that time, although if it had been it would not have been his first.  Doctors, an ever growing list of medications, and a longer list of diagnoses, followed over the years.  This month we add a rheumatologist, we’ll have to figure out where they fit in with the neurologist, psychiatrist, urologist, cardiologist, endocrinologist, pulmonologist, and any others we’ve seen over the years or are now a constant part of life.  Assistive devices became normal, the glasses after the stroke in his left eye, the cane when his balance got worse, the handicap placard when the constant back and leg pain made walking long distances prohibitive.  When we met, we had more in common in our respective illnesses of the mental persuasion, but as more physical disabilities have entered his life in a steady march, I can’t relate to what he goes through because I have no lived experience to match.

He brings me flowers.  Going to the store is never easy, not with the panic attacks from being out around a lot of strangers, the pain with walking, the shortness of breath, the constant exhaustion.  I can’t function with a mild headache, his daily background is so much more then I think I could ever handle, and he bears it to bring me flowers just to see me smile.  He plays with his nephew, wrestling around knowing that it will cost him, that it means days of increased pain and less ability to devote the little energy he has to doing the few things that keep him sane.  He does it because he always puts others first and loves to bring them joy.  He sees himself as selfish because of how he withdraws when it all gets to be too much, and I see the selflessness in every time he pushes his body a little too far just to make someone else smile, knowing he’ll pay for it for days.

I go into nursing.  I love my job working with animals, but human medicine pays more and I know that I’ll be the one supporting us, and maybe I can learn skills that will help me better take care of him.  I try and help him advocate for his boundaries with me, to learn after a lifetime of short relationships with poor communication how to say no and express when something is too much.  I offer comfort, knowing I can’t take away all the pain, but wishing desperately that I could, and instead giving the little bit I can that barely makes a dent in it all. Our polycule is there, always understanding, always asking what they can do to make his life easier.  They are a constant source of compassion when he isn’t able to make a birthday because the pain is too great or the mental fog won’t clear that day.  My parents treat him like family, never commenting on me choosing someone so much older or with so many problems, but cheering him on as he fights the system for years to get disability.  With my own history of trauma, I am amazed at the love and empathy and support that is a stable source of comfort, so grateful for such wonderful people in our lives.

I sit there watching him struggle to lift his leg at the physical therapist, the pain creasing his face.  The laugh lines at the corners of his eyes that crinkle up when he smiles, a feature he hates because it shows his age but I love because it shows how much of his time is spent flashing that brilliant smile and laughing his laugh that lights up the room; those are lines of pain in this moment as he pushes through the exercise.  My manic fidgety energy calms for a moment and all I can think is how he is my hero.  I’ve been the stable one, the one who supports us, who guides us through the problems we’ve faced, but I’m not the strong one.  I know he breaks down and cries because he feels so weak.  I wish he could see himself through my eyes.  He is the man who brings me flowers, who plays with his nephew, who shares his most vulnerable moments of trauma, who inspired me into a career path I am now passionate about, who taught me a level of compassion I didn’t know possible, who makes me feel safe, and who has the strength to handle pain and adversity that many would crumble under.  He is the man I fear losing more then anything else because I can’t see a world without him.  I didn’t know what I would be getting into eight years ago when we met, and I also didn’t know heroes existed back then, but now I know they do, and I would never trade the time I share with mine for anything in the world.