Help others to help themselves

By facing our fears we set ourselves free from a prison with invisible bars. This is the way we learn to help ourselves, and how we show others to help themselves. Photo by Alexander Grashchuck

Nellie lived in a tiny room at a health Ranch where I worked in Florida many years ago.  The room had no bathroom, just a wash basin in one corner and an old wooden potty chair next to her bed, which gave the room a very unpleasant odour.

Sometimes we chatted when I delivered her dinner.  She told me how she’d been confined to that room for more than twenty years – and all because she’d given up the struggle to learn to walk in a frame after a back operation. When someone suggested that it would be easier for her to get around in a wheelchair, she thought it was a good idea.

“I regret it now,” Nelly said. “It became my prison and crippled me even further. It was good to get the extra care and attention after looking after my mother for so long, but I haven’t been able to walk for twenty years, and now I feel such a burden on everyone.”

Nellie was also in pain.  After losing more of her mobility due to age and lack of exercise, she had developed two huge bed sores on both hips – grey holes filled with foul-smelling fluid.  Nellie refused to go to hospital for treatment, preferring to remain in familiar surroundings.

Eventually she became so weak she could no longer get onto the potty chair by herself.  The staff took it in turn to lift her and change the dressings, but the extra work and responsibility soon left us feeling exhausted.

Then one night I nearly dropped her.  During my struggle to lift Nellie’s dead weight from where I had let her sink to the floor, she saw the strained and exhausted look on my face.  Realizing that this task was too much for me, she decided to face her fears and go to hospital, where she was convinced she would die.

I can still remember the cockroaches scurrying around in her drawers where she kept the dressings, the smell, the fears which locked her into a prison of her own making, and the look on her face when the ambulance took her away.  But, it demonstrated to me that helping can sometimes enable a person to stay stuck where they are so they don’t have to face their fears or learn to do things for themselves.

Perhaps there are many times we want to make things better for others, to fix their problems so we can feel good about ourselves. In Nellie’s case, helping enabled her to become crippled – on many levels.

I also saw what we do to ourselves each time we put ourselves into a ‘wheelchair’ through our fears and feelings of helplessness. It cripples, confines and limits us so much that we cannot move forward in our lives.

Sometimes it’s hard to turn our backs and walk away from helping others. They may get angry and scream at us for being selfish, or even make us feel guilty. They may try to delf-destruct by abusing alcohol and drugs. But there are times when it is more loving and more constructive to walk away, forcing them to use their anger to work through and resolve their own problems, and to find their path in life. In this way they may just learn to feel good enough about themselves to continue their journey to freedom from the crippling force of fear.

First published in the Ballarat News, July 27, 1994 and updated July 21, 2013.

As it turned out, Nellie had nothing to fear and everything to gain by going to hospital, where she had operations on her bedsores to allow them to heal. Nurses fussed over her and gave her spa baths to make her body feel good and to speed up the healing process. She was in a clean, bright and airy place with lots of people who actively cared about her welfare, isolated no more. Advice Nellie gave me one day to “turn your tears into stars,” she was finally able to achieve for herself.

For an extraordinary example of how you can overcome a crippling situation, watch how Morris Goodman learned to walk again after a plane crash doctors believed he would not survive, which left him paralysed from the neck down and in a coma, unable to breathe on his own.

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