The recent experiences with the flood in my hometown brought up thoughts about the period of trauma and transition after my accident. This is a time, in our sate, where people are asking the question “how can I help?” I reflected on ways people can help those who have experienced a traumatic life event in my 2014 TEDx Columbia talk, which is excerpted here.
After my accident 5 tears ago my visual landscape is fuzzy, partially erased, twinkling, dimmed. With my new lack of visual acuity came change. There were many things I could no longer do and others that became challenging.
And even though I, at my core, remained the same, how I relate to others and the way others relate to me has changed. And most importantly, the ways in which I need the help and support of others to function from day to day.
The lessons I have learned in my new normal of needing help and support are lessons for all. We all have to help and support each other. Because I am not the only one who is passing, with no outward sign of disability. Many, most of us, are wounded inside. We have experienced abuse, victimization, chronic illness, cancer, the pain of the loss of someone close to us, the experience of war, or the challenge of chronic pain or disabilities. So we have to learn how to hold each other up. When people tell you their truth, share their wounds and their need for help, what do we do or say. There is a point where we have to make choices or decisions about how we will react.
As a psychologist and life coach, what I found and was surprised by, were the myriad reactions to my sudden disability. There was a range of choices I saw people make. Some people just disappeared. They did not call for many months and some never called at all. Others just wanted to pretend like it never happened, to forget.
Most wanted to help but were not really sure how. They showed up, but did not ask and at first I was unable to tell them what I needed. So in this place of don’t ask and I can’t tell, they brought casseroles. There were people who were so willing and wanting to help that they would say yes to anything I threw out. And in the end they would overcommit and end up saying things like “Helping you is just too much of a stress for us.”
And then there are those few who just roll up their sleeves and jump in with you — they are committed, they can anticipate your needs. They tend to be the natural helpers or those that have somehow done it before. And they understand how to be selfless.
I would argue that most of us are not natural helpers. Given this, however, there are positive ways you can react. Simple, specific and small things you can do so that you can move past your fear or confusion or feelings of discomfort. These are five ordinary acts that make us extraordinary helpers.
1. Be there — just show up in some way.
Be there even if you don’t know what to say or what to do. Just sitting and talking and making a person laugh can create distractions from the ugly stuff going on. I wanted people just to sit with me and tell me funny stories or regale me with the crap in their lives, and maybe do this over coffee and chocolate. People told me they were afraid they would do or say the wrong thing and be judged. But right after the trauma, I really did not have the time or energy to judge others. I was too busy figuring out how to be disabled. A person brought me a biography of Helen Keller. But at least it was an audiobook. And I was okay with it.
2. Be honest about how you feel and share it.
That you don’t know what to say and, that you are scared and that it freaks you out that this could have happened to you. The best thing people said to me was: “Man, that really sucks.” A friend recently told me she had cancer and I said, “I don’t want you to have to go through that.” And that is exactly how I felt in that moment. Authenticity is key.
3. Think about what you can do to help and what is needed.
People would ask me what I needed, but I truly did not know. This was my first rodeo with blindness. So make some suggestions of what you can do based on your strengths, skills and talents, what you are good at and what you can truly deliver. This is not the place to over-promise and under-deliver. Small gestures are as good as large ones. Through trial and error, and dialogue, you will figure it out. It may not be pretty or the best thing at first, but it is something.
4. Healing is a long-term process.
It takes place over months, years and yes, sometimes lifetimes. You can’t snap your fingers and make everything okay quickly. But I noticed people wanted to do that. Because if I was okay, then they could stop worrying and be okay, too. But I could not accommodate them. Don’t blame or shame those when they are in the long process of whatever is there timetable of healing and recovery. And remember that what people will need will change over time on that journey.
The pressure of needing to appear okay, plus our amazing ability to adapt over time means we also have the fairy dust to make people forget. Forget we have disabilities, wounds, scars, illnesses. I am no longer surprised when I hear things like: “I saw you but you ignored me.” “Look at this hot guy I met last night,” (showing picture on smartphone) or, “Oh crap, I forgot to tell you about that step.”
People wonder why I did not go up and say hi to them when I saw then at the grocery store, or why I walked right past them somewhere. They have forgotten and I have to remind them. I still cannot see you. You have to approach me. I cannot recognize you or see that. And I still need help. And probably always will.
5. Be open to your own transformation.
You can learn much about yourself when you deal with someone who has had something terrible, unthinkable, unchangeable happen to them. Pay attention to how you feel, react, or hell, don’t react. If you have fear and discomfort, from where does that come? Can you have a sense of humor about it? Can you be open enough to show helplessness and vulnerability? Can you be truly okay with what you can offer, and can you say no when what is asked of you is too much? Can you make it not about you, just for a moment?
Having someone close to you experience trauma or tragedy should be an opportunity for you to learn and grow. When we have a life-quake and the ground shakes, the tremors should shake you. And in that you must learn ways to steady yourself and be stable and strong.
We all need to be strong for each other. So many of those around you need help and support. And now you know ways to give it. In small and simple human gestures, you can be someone’s hero. You can be extraordinary.
An excerpt from my 2014 TEDx ColumbiaSC Talk.