I am half Irish, half Italian, and my mother’s son, so if I am not stubborn I do not know what I am. I am not good at paying attention to my body when it tells me to slow down and I’m even worse at listening to people when they tell me to do the same (sorry, Jacqueline). If I vehemently believe something, good luck trying to convince me otherwise. Being stubborn is not the worst quality in the world but it does tend to get in the way of one of life’s biggest community builders – asking for help.
A couple months ago I designed and helped run a powerful developmental weekend for twenty-five men in their twenties. We talked about the weight they carry around every day in the form of responsibilities and fears. I asked them questions like:
- What version of yourself do you allow others to see?
- Who do you talk about your fears with?
- Who are you trying to make proud in your life?
- What is one lie you tell yourself every single day?
- What would it take for you to believe that your story is good enough?
Then I asked them, what would be possible if they started to shed some of that weight they carry? The fact of the matter is we all carry those pressures. The heaviest part of ourselves is our insecurities.
During the weekend one of the participants asked of my co-facilitator:
“How do you get better at asking for help?”
I don’t completely know why, but that question threw me for a loop. Maybe it’s because his question was super meta since he was asking for help on how to ask for help… I think it’s more, though, that I am not good at asking for help and never really thought about how or why I should be better at it. Then Wednesday, June 17th happened (Yes, the one a just over a month ago. Now buckle up because this is a long story).
I had flown down to North Carolina the day before because I was supposed to speak at a Student Affairs Professionals drive-in conference at Methodist University in Fayetteville. Now, as a quick backstory, my back had been bothering me for quite sometime but I had seen a doctor about it and was doing physical therapy because I decided it was probably bad that I could not feel some of my toes. Anyway, I flew down to NC and had a good day but as I was ironing my fresh outfit and talking on the phone with my friend Leigh my hamstrings starting getting super tight. I later called my wife while I laid down to try and get some sleep. At most I got 2-3 hours of choppy rest because I could not get comfortable. I began to feel like someone was shoving daggers in the back of my hamstrings.
The next morning, the 17th, I could barely get out of bed. Walking was not a stable affair, I could not sit for longer than forty-five seconds before the pain was too much and I needed to get up. I also could not bend at the waist to even try stretching, which is what I thought I had to do because both of my legs felt like they had permanent Charlie-horses. I laid on my back on the hotel room floor and cried on the phone to my wife. I had no idea what to do, I needed to speak that day but I could not move without stabbing pain in my back and legs. I told Jacqueline I was thinking of calling an ambulance on myself. She said I should do just that because I never say I am in pain so since I am now, and so much so I think I need an ambulance, I should follow that train of thought. So I did. I also called my host at Methodist, Doris, and told her what was going on. I said I would not make my breakout session in the morning but hopefully the hospital could get me on my feet by my 1pm keynote address.
HA! Good try, James. That keynote did not happen. Instead I called one of my great friends, Elizabeth Stewart, who works at UNC Chapel Hill, ninety minutes away, and asked her to come pick me up at the hospital and bring me back to her apartment. While at the hospital they gave me one shot of steroids and one shot of painkillers – one in each of my voluptuous butt cheeks, and prescriptions for more of the same. I then crawled in the back gate of Liz’ Jeep Patriot and laid diagonally on her folded seats all the way to Chapel Hill. Here’s another fun thing, I was supposed to fly out later that afternoon to go speak at CAMPUSPEAK’s new speaker training in Denver…that also did not happen.
What did happen is that I spent the next three days in Liz’ spare bedroom barely eating, barely sleeping, consistently crying, and trying to figure out how the hell I could get home to New York and live the rest of my life in this much pain. If I walked for more than three or four minutes my whole right leg would be numb, which actually felt better than the stabbing pain I felt other times. It was ugly, friends. I wound up flying back to NY that Saturday, the 20th and somehow drove my stick shift Volkswagen seventy minutes home.
That Monday, the 22nd, I had an appointment with my general practitioner so I could get a prescription for an MRI. He told me I probably just had a flare up because of the travel “so let’s not rush anything” but an MRI would be fine to get if I wanted one. At this time my symptoms were: tingling in both of my feet, right leg going numb after three minutes of walking, feeling like people were shoving knives in the back of my right leg whenever I tried to move it, incredible tightness in my lower back, numbness in my groin (which affected a lot of things), and lack of sleep from an inability to rest for more than 2-3 hours a night.
Also, that Monday I was supposed to fly down to Florida because on Tuesday I was to attend the CAMPUSPEAK Board of Advisors meeting and represent my fellow speakers along with my friend, Kristen Hadeed. That did not happen. I was then slated to stay in Florida because I was presenting three workshops at the annual ScholarCon conference a few days later. That, also, did not happen. #foreshadowing
Thursday, the 25th, I went in for my MRI. Having to stay still for twenty-five minutes was disturbingly painful and almost did not work as my legs were involuntarily twitching – fortunately that did not ruin the test. I then went for a swim in my new friend, Kusal’s pool because hydrotherapy was the only thing I could do that did not hurt as much. That afternoon I was doing research for how to best market my book when my doctor’s nurse called and said they just got off the phone with the MRI radiologist. The radiologist made a special call to them because she was concerned with what she saw – a severely herniated disc between my L4 and L5 vertebrae and spinal stenosis. The nurse said I should call and see if I could get in to see my neurosurgeon sooner than Monday, which is when I had an appointment. When I could not, my nurse called their office herself. In the meantime I called my brother, Brian, who has unfortunately lived with back issues for quite some time. While on the phone commiserating with each other, my nurse called back. She said she got the neurosurgeon to look at my MRI and then she asked me:
“How quickly can you get to the emergency room? You need to have emergency back surgery tonight.”
Holy. Shit. My mind took off like a poorly trained dog and it took hours for me to catch up with it. I called my brother back and told him the news, then I called my wife, then my parents. I do not know what was said in any on those conversations because I was scared and bawling. I knew Jacqueline was coming to get me so I fed the dogs and threw a book, my laptop, and cellphone charger in a bag and waited for her.
When we got to the ER, it was packed. After an hour my neurosurgeon Dr. Metcalf, who I had never met before, came out looking for me. He had a southern accent, which was strangely comforting, and he told my wife and I that they are trying to get a bed for me as soon as possible. I asked him a handful of questions to try and wrap my mind around what back surgery, more importantly its side-effects, would be. He told me that if they did nothing about my disc it would be a 90% chance that I would lose control of my bowels, sexual function, and eventually the use of my legs. So surgery it was! My wife, parents, and I weighed the option of going to a bigger, more renowned hospital a couple hours away but ultimately the same question kept coming up: you just met the doctor, do you trust him? I did. I do not know why but I trusted Dr. Metcalf and so I went with my gut.
Sitting in the ER waiting room I had no positive thoughts. Jacqueline stayed strong while I contemplated about how, potentially, my last steps were used to walk into an emergency room. I thought of 347 other places I would have rather taken my last steps. I thought about how my speaking career would be drastically affected and how I may have to find a more traditional student affairs job just to make ends meet. I thought about how useless I would be at home and how much people, namely Jacqueline, would have to take care of me. That, in turn, made me think her life deserved and needed to be way more than that, so maybe I should tell her to leave me when the surgery went wrong. I was in a very dark place.
About thirty minutes later I was on a random bed in the hallway of the ER and they were waiting to move me up to the surgical floor. While I was laying on the bed I checked my phone and remembered that I had never responded to an email from my friend Shannon who works for the College Student Alliance in Ontario, Canada. She wanted to see if I was available to speak to CSA in October. I started typing my response. My wife, quite confused, asked who I was texting and I told her to hang on. I typed to Shannon that I would love to be a part of their CSA October event so count me in! I then told my wife that I was responding to a work email, telling the client that I would love to be there…that I will be there.
It was at that moment I decided being nothing but scared of all the possible surgical outcomes was doing nothing for me. I told the doctor when he came over to me that I trust him and am glad that he was the one doing my surgery. I fully recognize that was probably more for me than him but whatever. I then told Jacqueline that I am going to be ok and I think, in a way, that gave her permission to show that she was scared. I was still nervous but I felt a huge weight lifted off of me.
I was moved up to the surgical floor where they setup an IV and checked my vitals. It was a little eerie because I was the only patient on the whole floor, to the left is a picture I took while hunched over in the only position that didn’t send shooting pain up and down my legs. Since we were all up there alone and it was creepy quiet, I did what I do best and started chopping it up with the nurses. I asked them where they were from, how they fell into the nursing career. One said while laughing, “well aren’t you nosy?!” I told her about my Airplane Friends and she said, playfully, that if we met on a plane we would “not have been friends.” They were great and it helped pass the time. I also called my doctor over to talk about his favorite restaurants in Ithaca and we talked about South Carolina and Georgia cuisine – we both agreed some sweet tea would be perfect right about now.
I called my wife around 4pm that day to tell her that I needed to go to the ER. At midnight I went in for surgery after giving her a tear-filled bear hug. About two hours later I came to, supposedly back in the same room as earlier but I was slightly out of it. I don’t remember any of this, but apparently I moved my legs to get comfortable and the nurse said, well that’s a good thing! I also immediately went back into cracking jokes and talking to everyone like we were old friends. I told the nurse who called me nosy that I have a few more questions for her and told the anesthesiologist I hope he did not get called again tonight (an inside joke we had from earlier). I then passed back out while they tried to feed me ice chips.
I vaguely remember the rest of the night after I was moved to the surgical recovery floor. I was woken up every couple hours to make sure my vitals were good but I mostly just slept. Sleep was amazing because I had not gotten any substantial amount in about a month. One thing I do remember was having to pee and being very excited that I had not already gone, that meant no colostomy bag or diapers for me!
A little before lunch my parents and Jacqueline came to hang out. I ate some surprisingly decent-for-hospital food and then I got out of bed and we all went for a walk. I had virtually no pain. I was blown away and so was everyone else. This was by far the closest thing to a miracle I have ever experienced.
Later that evening my brothers and one of my sisters-in-law showed up. They, too, had driven 4-5 hours to come and see me. I told Jacqueline earlier in the day to tell them they did not have to come, but she did not relay that message because she knows how ridiculous I am when it comes to not wanting to inconvenience people when I would do the same for them. It was really special having them there. We do not get together all that much (so says the one who lives the furthest away) but we are always there for each other when it matters most.
I left the hospital two days after I showed up with instructions to take it easy, not to do a lot stairs, and not to do a lot of anything. They gave me narcotics, which I have since made a lot of money off of, just kidding… My first two nights home I slept for 14 hours both nights. I did a great job listening to the doctor, which is not usually the case so I am proud of myself for that. It sucked though because I had to ask for help and Jacqueline also just knowingly did things for me because she’s pretty great, but that also was hard to deal with.
Do you remember the beginning of this post? It was quite some time ago. I started talking about how stubborn I am and the question one of my workshop participants asked, “How do you get better at asking for help?” For me, after surgery, I would not say I thought about how to get better, instead I just had to. That was, and still is very hard for me.
I am not sure what impedes my ability to ask for help more. My first guess is stubbornness or pride, but that seems too easy. I think the main reason is because I do not think I deserve it. I know how valuable time is in my life and therefore I do not think I am deserving of using other’s time. I would like to think I put in enough good in the world to ask for a little back from time to time, but I cannot stand putting that to the test.
I am not sure what the long-term impact of my back surgery/recovery will have on my ability to ask for help. I wish I could end this with some amazing take-home and tell you I am a changed man, but saying that now would be a bit hasty. I guess my main takeaway is that getting better at asking for help is a process. I am on that journey now. Fortunately I have surrounded myself with some pretty amazing and insightful people whose opinions matter greatly to me and I know are definitely willing to help me…I just need to get over myself and ask. I also know that my wife will give me a very stern talking-to if I do not get better, so that is a pretty good incentive, too!
To try and give you some more ideas of how to get better at asking for help I posed the same question, “How do you get better at asking for help?” on Facebook, and here is what some of my wise friends said:
Kristen Hadeed: “Remove all fear of the answer being “no!”
Marc Sauvé: “Understanding and accepting you are worth helping.”
Jen Gilbert: “Repetition. The more you do it, the less scary it becomes. Be specific. When you’ve honed in on what you need help with, you empower the person you’re asking to give you better help.”
Hillary Reeves: “Help others more. When you know what it feels like to dole out help, it feels less scary to ask for it from others.”
Mary Reed: “I had to change my perception of “asking for help” to “allowing other people in on the adventure.” When I realized that I loved helping people do interesting things, and I was happy to “help,” I finally made the connection that I had to allow people that same opportunity.”
Jennifer Mullan: “Let close peeps know that you struggle with this. Ask them to gently hold you accountable when you are over-doing and under- asking. AND make a note to ask once a week for something. Remind yourself that strong also means vulnerable. This has helped me immensely.”
Samuel Sanker: “The thing that first helped me get past my own personal misgivings about this was when I realized people have been helping me all my life without my having to ask them. That implies that people are willing to help other people without having to be asked.”
I hope some of their words resonated for you as they did for me. I encourage you to work on getting better at asking for help because when you need it the most you’ll be glad you developed that skill.
Oh, and just in case you are wondering, I am still recovering just fine. I have virtually no pain, am walking normal, I can drive, travel, and can get on the exercise bike. I spoke at Yale earlier this week and by the time you get this I will be helping to facilitate a LeaderShape Institute National Session. I am not allowed to lift anything of substantial weight just yet but that is coming. I’ve lost twenty pounds and will continue to lose weight. I still get emotional when I think back to the day I found out I needed to go in for surgery, but that is because of how very fortunate I feel and how thankful I am for proactive doctors with skilled hands. Thanks for asking 🙂