This month we’ll be hearing from Linda Graham author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being. She reminds us that “resources generate the strength, energy, steadiness, and balance we need for adaptive coping.” Resources are the safety net of resilience and we all know that seeking support brings surprising and much needed energy to our endeavors at the very moment we need them. However, even when we’ve experienced the gifts of reaching out which have so generously plucked us out of despair, why is it so difficult to ask for help?
Sometimes resources are forced on us, coming unbidden and in surprising ways. I recall a moment when my life seemed like so much flotsam and jetsam being tossed hither and yon on a roiling stormy sea. Then, like magic, a lifeline was tossed to me and, like a tractor beam in a Star Trek movie, it pulled me into a safe harbor.
It was 1966 and I was a young mother living in Alexander City, Alabama. Robert was a two and a half year old toddler and I was commuting to Auburn University (an hour’s drive away) working toward a degree to be a teacher. Robert’s father, Donald, and I lived with his mother Buna who was dying of cancer. He was working the night shift in a local cotton mill and Buna and I would share a bedroom. It was under the cover of darkness when she’d find the voice to talk about her dying. During the day she’d bravely put on clothes and drive her insurance route never speaking of the cancer that was riddling her body. It was in the tenebrosity of the bedroom when she would whisper her thoughts to me about her dying. Not only did she reveal her deepest convictions of life after death, she instructed me on the details of her funeral. In these confessional moments she even acknowledged that she understood (even before I did) that I would not always be with her son.
I was her designated nurse and would give her shots every evening for pain. It was one of the most difficult things I had to do since her flesh was black and blue from these injections. I have a most poignant memory of a particular visit by her twin sister Una, who was a nurse. Since Una was there, I took the opportunity to go to the Sunday night service at Wayside Baptist Church. On my return, I was surprised to find Buna waiting up for me to administer her shot. She said, “even though your shots hurt more, I think they do more good.” My heart melted with deep love and empathy for this valiant and proud woman.
Her funeral took place on the Sunday following Thanksgiving. After her death the various strands of my life began to fray and fall apart. I remember even the smallest decision, such as what to wear, would send me into extreme distress. Donald, totally out of character, would have to pick out a dress for me. I took the Monday following the Thanksgiving weekend off from my courses at Auburn.
On Tuesday I went to all my classes and explained to my professors that a funeral prevented my attending class on Monday. Skipping class on the day before or after a holiday at Auburn was not allowed. All the instructors expressed condolences and did not impose any consequences. That is, until I got to P.E. which took place at a bowling alley. I must admit that I previously had skipped quite a few of these classes. Before I could get my tale out, the instructor said, with what I detected as a smirk, “Well Mrs. Welch, so good of you to grace us with your presence.” I lost it. Like an electric cable that has been severed and is sparking and sputtering as the broken end of it dances on the ground, my screams blended with the crash of balls hitting pins.
I then stormed out and somehow managed to get myself home. Robert was still with the babysitter and Donald was not home. The phone rang and with almost unbearable exhaustion I reached for it. “Hello, Mrs. Welch, this is Doctor Oppenheimer from Auburn University. I’m a psychiatrist. I’d like to see you.”
I replied, like shooting bullets from an automatic weapon, a litany of what was on my mind: “I’d love to see you, but it is only two weeks before the end of the quarter and I have two papers and one project due and have absolutely no time to see you.” I then abruptly hung up on him.
The phone rang again and I registered his ultra-calm voice once more. He said, “Hello, Mrs. Welch, this is Doctor Oppenheimer. You don’t understand, I must see you before you will be allowed to attend class.”
The reality of what he was saying slowly dawned on me. The gym teacher must have “turned me in.” She thought I was some sort of schizophrenic madwoman who was a danger to herself and possibly others. I acquiesced and agreed to see the doctor the next day.
In our session I explained all that was going on with me and he offered me not only sympathy, but a lifeline. He asked me if I thought I could attend my final examines for that quarter and if I could complete the papers and the project that were due by the end of the next quarter. If I could do that he would arrange with all my professors to schedule an incomplete for that quarter to be completed by spring quarter, thus saving all the work I had done. He also prescribed a mild tranquilizer to get me through the next couple of weeks.
He was my “tractor beam”. My course work was saved. As promised, I completed it and was rescued from a complete mental and emotional collapse. The gym teacher turned out to be an angel in disguise. The moment when the doctor called me back and said “I must talk to you before you come back to class” was a moment that made me pause and allow something new in. There was a shift in my state of consciousness. I was fatigued, stressed, and overwhelmed. I was in survival mode. He gave a lifeline to a drowning person; he raised me from the waters, gasping as I gulped in a breath of fresh air.
At that time, my life was a churning of ferocious fury and my survival responses were not terribly effective. I was in the neural swamp. Linda Graham suggests rather than waiting for someone to show up we can deliberately seek others. I can’t say that, almost 50 years later, my default position is to ask for help, but it has gotten easier to make the request and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I suggest that you test it out for yourself. I can assure you that you’ll be gratified by the support that is just waiting to come your way.
— Justine Willis Toms
Cofounder, Executive Director, Host