Help is a four-letter-word

First, a confession–it’s been two months since I’ve written on this blog, two months in which I forgot not only my password but even the website address which consists of little more than my own name. After months of thinking incessantly about business plans and new coaching clients, I took on the most demanding client of all–myself and my family.

In my previous post, I made casual reference to a medical appointment, the results of which turned my world upside-down. Though I willingly and knowingly presented myself for genetic testing based on the history of cancers that claimed my mother, aunt, and grandmother viciously and far too young, it was my hope that I was ruling out the risk through the test. This was not to be, though, and in mid-November I learned I am positive for a mutation that puts me at high risk for cancer of the pancreas (my mother’s cause of death), breasts (my aunt and grandmother’s cause of death), and ovaries. It would have been easy to retreat to fear, curling up in a hole of woe and remaining there until at least the new year.

In truth, the first few hours were all shock. I called my husband and found words to say as he anxiously asked, “What does this mean?” I texted a friend, and I calmly suggested in a message to my sister that she call me when she had a chance. I drove to the grocery store, stopped in at a community food program in the town where I am a pastor, and got the flu shot I had been planning for that afternoon. Eventually, I made it home, and I remember absolutely nothing from that evening. The next morning, though, is crystal clear.

I was supposed to drive to New York to pick up my in-laws for the Thanksgiving holiday. My husband and I were standing in the dining room, red-rimmed eyes blurry from a night of worry and no sleep. He was attempting to leave for work, and I was attempting to figure out how I would put the key in the ignition and start the car. He asked again, and then again, if I needed him to go, to make the drive. The most clear response I could give was, “I don’t know.” Finally I said, “If you’re waiting for me to say it, I just can’t. I need you to offer.”

The “it” of course was “I need help–I can’t do this today,” but such phrases aren’t in my vocabulary. They aren’t allowed, or so I believed that morning. Without saying a word, he picked up his computer, emailed his work colleagues, and went to the car to take over for me. Gratefully, I inched my way to the computer and wailed and wept as I alternated between reading emails from the few family members in-the-know and daunting medical articles about my future. These were giant-sized tears, full of what was and what is and what if. These were the kind of tears prevalent when my mother was dying and then dead; ones that rarely make an appearance now….until this.

I gave myself permission to take those hours given to me by my husband and fall all the way down into the pit of sadness. It’s a place we presume we will never leave if we dare to go in, but of course our instinct as human beings is to survive, to pull ourselves out of the pit, to know joy. So after an hour or so of screaming, catching my breath, and screaming some more, I did what I would advise any client to do. I asked myself what my greatest strength is–my most dependable resource in a situation like this. After my willingness to feel what I feel, a true and valued strength, I am skilled at gathering information and building my team. I set to work.

By the time my husband returned that evening, I had appointments with a breast surgeon, a lead on a gastroenterologist with a speciality in genetic cancers and pancreatic screening, a therapist’s name through my husband’s EAP program, and some promising information on early detection trials for pancreatic cancer. I was still sad. I was still scared. But I was also competent and courageous.

Much has transpired since that November day, and I am grateful almost all the news has been good. My screenings have been normal/benign/negative. My plans for a double mastectomy and reconstruction move forward. I have moved from the place where I wish to “un-know” or “un-learn” this truth about my body to a place where I see what a gift it is to have this powerful information. I am able to take steps to alleviate my risk and survey my body that were never available to the women who came before me, and I believe these steps I am taking are a tribute to them and their memory, as well as to my own children to follow.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson of all has been what happens when I ask for help. I have had to ask for a great deal, even now at what is the start of this lifelong journey. I’ve asked a friend to watch our dog for a day of appointments and tests. I’ve asked another friend to be on-call for my kids on days when I get stuck in Boston beyond my carefully-orchestrated itinerary. I’ve asked my uncle to come along for an appointment my husband couldn’t attend. I’ve asked my sister to walk this journey with me, just as we have the difficult journeys of losing both our parents to death. I’ve asked a friend and colleague to join me in caring for a dying friend; together, we officiated at her funeral the week of Christmas, and I was grateful to not be standing alone but instead in good and loving company. Perhaps the biggest “ask” of all was setting up a GoFundMe site to support us in the significant medical and travel costs we’ve sustained, as well as anticipating the months of recovery when I will be unable to work and contribute financially to our family.

I had been half-joking with a friend in October that I was going to set up a fundraising site to get my family with me to Europe on a fellowship I was seeking. I delayed the fellowship application–something in the timing didn’t feel quite right, but the idea of the site stayed with me. I was intrigued and unsettled by the idea. Who asks for money? For themselves? I have asked many times for money for causes and programs I believe in, but for me? Never. Or so I believed.

In truth, though, we have all asked for financial help. I’ve applied over and over for scholarships that have partially funded what is going on four academic degrees. I had the privilege of asking parents and grandparents for money to travel on study and music programs in my teens and twenties. I’ve asked for increases in my compensation to ensure my gifts are recognized and my salary commensurate with my experience. This past summer, I took a leap, put my name on a company, and asked clients to pay me simply for being me. The money I receive as a coach is the most satisfying I’ve ever earned, largely because it begins with asking people for help–asking them to believe in my gifts, my training, my nature, and my offerings. And of course they must make themselves vulnerable too, seeking out my services as their own request for help, a wish to not be in this life journey without support, encouragement, and wise questions.

Many of us believe we cannot ask for help. We see it as a four-letter-word. As a child, I was so fiercely independent that I refused to let a friend’s mother sew on a popped off button at a sleepover. As an adult, fiercely ill and pregnant, I refused to ask my mother-in-law to bring me a glass of water. I did not want to need anyone. I wanted to rely only on myself. What I’ve come to see in my present journey is that our failure to ask for help is a denial of the interdependent way we were made to live. In truth, we are asking for help all the time, and perhaps believing we do not ask for or need help is just another way we overlook or deny our ever-present privilege. Most of us have people we can ask for help. How much a privilege is that?

When I finally launched the GoFundMe site, I did so at the nudging of my therapist. She said, “Do it as a social experiment. There’s something for you to learn here–why not try it and see?” There were surprises to be had–good ones. I’ve received astounding, generous, heartfelt gifts from people who have known me since birth, people who knew my parents and grandparents, high school friends I haven’t seen or spoken with in decades, former students, colleagues, and more. My story has been a prompt for some friends to think differently about their health. I have given people who are grateful for my help a way to express their thanks. I have received such beautiful, meaningful messages of encouragement. I have been helped, and I feel not weak for it, but strong in it.

Help is indeed a four-letter-word. There are lots of them, some of which I used or dwelt on in the early days of this news–risk, sick, dead. Now, thanks to the help I sought and have gratefully received, I am seeing other four-letter-words: hope, love, life. Thank you, fine friends, for being my teachers and for joining my team. Let’s do this.

(I’ll have a “sabbatical” this spring for surgery, but I am ready, willing, and able to work with interested clients now. My coaching repertoire has only grown from this recent news, and my passion for helping you to help yourself is greater than ever. Let me know!)

© 2014 Jennifer L. Sanborn. All Rights Reserved.