By Elizabeth Crane.
Welcome to the newest installment of The Manifest-Station. Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column With a Spin.The questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. Today’s question is answered by author Elizabeth Crane. Sometimes the responding author will share their name, sometimes they choose not to. Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Send an email to dearlife at jenniferpastiloff.com or use the tab at the top of the site to post. Please address it as if you are speaking to a person rather than life or the universe. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us!
Elizabeth Crane answers today’s DEAR LIFE.
I play the same cycles over and over in my life. I’m sure everyone does to some degree. The part I continually find myself is that of caretaker. And it has finally begun to exhaust me and I also believe led to cancer in my body. Yet every time I swear it is the last time, I do it again. Upon reflection I see that taking care of another is the only place I feel I matter. The only time in my life I feel I have a purpose. Truth be told, it’s the only way I think people love me. I did it with my siblings. I’ve done it in nearly every friendship I’ve ever had. I did it with my mother. And I even did it with my abusive father. For some reason, no matter how poorly he treated me I felt sorry for him and would do what I could to take care of him. At 16 when I worked full time while going to high school helping to support my single mother and hoping to save for college, I even snuck my own money into his wallet after I knew he had gambled away his rent money.
Cognitively, I can see the cycle and how it all began. But I simply cannot seem to find a way to stop playing that role of the person who give up my dreams, my hopes, my wants, my needs for anyone else’s happiness. Maybe it’s that I simply cannot understand how someone can love me if I’m not doing something for them or supporting them in some way.
I do not mean to appear “poor me” at all. I take responsibility for putting myself in this position and for thinking this way. But how do I stop?
You got this. Feel free to scroll to the end if you’re in a hurry, because the solution is super simple and even though it’s long-term simple, it’s still really good. (Is change ever not super slow? I like to think I’ve changed a lot since the days twenty years ago when I was in my apartment alone, feeling sorry for myself, wondering how not to think that the world was generally against me and so why bother – which is very much not the way I think now – but that was a long-ass process that involved a whole bunch of continued effort on my part.)
Before that, though, you said something sort of off-handedly that is sort of a bugaboo of mine, something very much along the lines of things my mother (who died of cancer) used to say. You mention that you believe this behavior led to cancer in your body. I know that there are those who hold very strong beliefs along these lines, and in a sort of general way, I don’t think there’s harm in looking at how our beliefs create our existence and where we can create new, more positive beliefs. HOWEVER. Sorry, sometimes I just get capsy. However. To me, this kind of statement implies blame. And I just can’t get down with that. I don’t know about you, but I’m the sort of gal who’s inclined to blame herself for all kinds of things I’m not actually responsible for, and to take on blame for something like an illness – seems not only unhelpful but soul-damaging. So I’d personally like to relieve you of that. There’s so much that’s not known about cancer, all kinds of cancer. My mother was a vehement non-smoker her entire life, wouldn’t come within ten feet of a smoker if she could avoid it, and when she was 63 she somehow still died of lung cancer (there are different kinds, and this kind is more common than is known about, and is not caused by smoking or second-hand smoke). A ridiculous number of people on my mother’s block had some form of cancer all around the same time. Our world is polluted. That’s but one possible contributing factor. I’m not a scientist, don’t write me letters about this, people. I’m just saying there are all kinds of studies and actual sciency-things out there that explain where cancer comes from, and I’m on board with science. Do I also believe in the power of the mind? Sure I do. But not in this way. I can’t. Because it basically means that significant numbers of the people I’ve loved and/or been related to have created some kind of awful illness in themselves; my dad died of Parkinson’s Disease and nobody had a more cheerful disposition than that guy. So… I can’t urge you strongly enough to let that idea go. There are lots of caretaker-types out there who don’t have cancer. It just doesn’t add up. I’m not judging you. What I want is for you to not judge yourself.
So, to the primary topic – caretaking: By way of my own experience, I did this in my own way with a close friend for over fifteen years. This was a friend who I related to, who was super bright and funny and who helped me very much at a difficult time in my life, and who, when I was down, was tremendously compassionate and always knew the exact right thing to say.
But a dynamic existed between us, one that took me many years to become fully conscious of, wherein – I was sort of recreating an unhealthy pattern that had existed in my relationship with my mother. I’m talking about emotional caretaking. My mom was given to emotional extremes, and the primary lesson I took away from that as a kid was to avoid conributing to that at all costs. My purpose in life as a kid was largely “prevent Mom from crying.” I was a six-year-old Executive Assistant in the Department of Crying Management. And it was a job I sometimes assigned myself in my adult relationships. So while I might not be any kind of – chicken-soup maker or financial supporter (hahahahahahaha) or drop everything and come over-er, I have been known to tell you what I think you want to hear, and it turns out that this can be incredibly damaging. It’s dishonest. I too, have in the past wanted to be loved so much that I not only sacrificed who I was, but harmed others. And I wondered that same thing – could anyone possibly love me if I wasn’t doing something for them? It turns out the answer to this is a million times yes. Better, we don’t even have to understand why; we only have to accept it. The unconditional love of friends sustains me beyond measure. My friends are not saints. They’re beautiful, flawed people, like me, and they loved me until I learned to love myself. Those people exist for all of us, especially if we know where to look. And I happen to know exactly where you should look!
In any case, whatever fault I once believed lay outside me, the first thing I have to do is take responsibility for my part, and you have already acknowledged that you’ve done this, and that’s huge.
Here’s where the slow/simple part of the solution comes in. It’s called Al-Anon. That’s it, that’s the whole thing. Absolutely, a good therapist in conjunction with this can also be of great help. But this is what Al-Anon is all about. How to create boundaries, to say no when it’s appropriate, to learn how to take care of yourself and create healthy relationships with people.
I wish I had a speedier solution. But I can offer you this one assurance based on my own experience. This can absolutely change, and I look forward to hearing about it.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of the story collections When the Messenger Is Hot, All This Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter. Her work has been featured in McSweeney’s The Future Dictionary of America, The Best Underground Fiction, and elsewhere.
Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.
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