Carolyn Hax is on leave. This column originally ran on March 16, 2016.
Dear Carolyn: I’m a middle aged woman who has never married. The only family I’m in contact with is my 91-year-old mother who lives an hour away. But I believe I am blessed with many friends.
Recently I was knocked down by a terrible respiratory infection that kept me in bed for over a week. I’m just now able to be up and around a bit. I know that an upper-respiratory infection does not sound so threatening, but I was really ill.
Several of my friends knew I was under the weather and I’m very sad to say not one called to ask if I was feeling better or if they could do anything. I really could have used some food and, yes, a bit of friendship.
I have lived very independently for a long time and admit that I’m not comfortable asking for help. My friends have very full lives with family so am I selfish to hope they would notice a friend without family could be in need? Is the onus on me to reach out? If so, what are the words … help, I’m sick, I’m vulnerable, I’m alone?
Tough words to choke out for anybody.
They’re also the words we all reckon with when circumstances expose a hole in the net we always trusted to catch us. Certainly people with spouses and involved families — or just roommates — are more insulated from them than others; just having someone in the home, even a tenant who doesn’t like you much but has a fundamental sense of decency, can spare you the distress of having no one to warm up a can of soup for you.
But even those who live with someone and/or feel blessed as you do are subject to the discovery of a gap in their sense of security. Maybe a spouse is a lousy caregiver, or just as sick if not sicker; maybe you never noticed till now that certain local family members are better at receiving than giving. Maybe they’d be the first to come over for a sprained ankle but recoil at the thought of a germ. And so on.
Or maybe they care every bit as much as you expected they would, but need a thok to the forehead before they’re able to recognize the difference between a head cold and a viral knockout punch with a side of existential crisis.
I spell all this out for a couple of reasons: The first is to assure you that your concern is real and valid but you don’t stick out like a sore thumb for it. Those who live alone aren’t alone in sometimes having to leave their comfort zone to get what they need.
The second is to sever the implied connection between “Nobody came to my aid” and “I’m not as blessed as I thought.” It’s possible, certainly, that your friends are not as invested in you as you believed. But it’s much more likely they were absent for no deeper reasons than busy lives and a lack of clear instructions.
As annoying as it is – especially mid-illness or -crisis – we all have to calculate on a fairly regular basis which discomfort we prefer: the discomfort of asking for help, or the discomfort of toughing out something alone.
I do think it gets easier, though, if you treat it as a choice, a common, conscious and renewable one, and prepare yourself for it in advance: “Hey, (person I find least awkward to approach), I had an epiphany last week that I’m terrible at asking for help. Next time I’m really sick, would you be my go-to person? And I’ll be the same for you?”
For what it’s worth, anecdotally, far more people write in to ask how to be more helpful to friends than how to take on less.
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