The Mighty Logo

The Most Difficult Phrase of Chronic Illness

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

“I need help.” This phrase is much harder for me to say than any other. I have always been independent and my mother called me a “headstrong” child. The more people told me I couldn’t do something the more it made me want to do whatever it was and succeed at it.

But 10 years ago my independence was shaken by chronic illness and I had to start mouthing the phrase that bothered me the most: “I need help.” The first time the phrase came out of my mouth was the most difficult; it was my first realization that my body was failing me. I vividly remember the day. My early symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis were very textbook as my hands and feet were afflicted first. I remember being at work struggling to open a bottle of water at my desk. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t grasp the lid to unscrew it. Needing a drink of water, I had no choice but to bring the water bottle to the next cubicle over and ask my co-worker to open it for me. At first she thought I was joking since I like to be silly sometimes; but then I think she could recognize the anger, fear and disappointment on my face.

Asking for help that day was only the beginning of admitting I needed help with daily tasks that I once took for granted. The biggest blow to my independence came the day I had to ask my husband to help dress me. I found myself asking for help hooking my bra, putting my socks on, buttoning the buttons on my shirt and pants and tying my shoes. I can say true love is when you are speaking to your spouse through tears that you are sorry and his reply is simply, “I am your helpmate” and then he never says anything more about it. As I left for work dressed but barely functioning I kept worrying about the moment I would have to use the restroom at work. How would I get my pants undone and buttoned again? I remember calling my husband whispering on the phone, “David, what if I have to go to the bathroom and can’t get my pants undone.” His reply was, “Ask someone for help.” I was 30 years old and felt like I was 3 at that moment. It felt like a blow to my independence for which I was not ready and that also made me grieve the person I had been before illness ensued.

If anyone asked me today what the hardest part of being sick has been it wouldn’t take me anytime to admit it is having to ask for help and the realization I have to ask for help because I can no longer safely accomplish some things independently. And my headstrong nature still gets me in trouble from time to time even today. Thankfully when I try to be more independent than I should, my husband, mother, co-workers or friends are usually around to rescue me.

Now I am not going to lie, I sometimes push to the point of hurting myself and then I hate myself for hurting myself. But I am learning whom I can trust to ask for help outside of my husband and mother. I am learning that my family around me would rather I ask them for help than hurt myself. I am learning that being vulnerable with others and asking for help is actually a form of independence and sometimes makes me stronger than not asking for help. Each time I say those words, I am doing better for my body than trying to do something I physically can’t and that will end in emotional disappointment or physical hurt-sometimes both.

So to those of you who help me, thank you. Thank you for taking on my illness without even knowing sometimes. Thank you for taking the sting out of my request by doing whatever it is I ask with a smile on your face and a “No problem” when I say “Thank you.” Mr. Rogers was once quoted speaking of what his mother told him as a child, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” You all are the helpers and this arthritic girl is eternally grateful otherwise I would be walking around dehydrated, naked and barefoot!

Getty photo by Victor_Tongdee

Originally published: October 20, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home