Asking is Giving
On Asking for Help
One day when I was nine years old, I got on my brother’s three-speed English racing bike after school to go visit a friend who lived on the other side of the high school.
My brother had gone off to college the year before, leaving me his bike to use but also leaving me alone in the basement bedroom we had shared from the time I was about six.
Our basement scared me. After my brother left, I slept with a light on until I was sixteen.
As I passed the high school, a kid ran out from behind a tree, grabbed my belt and told me to get off my bike. Two other kids appeared—three kids on two bikes. I stopped. I didn’t get off my brother’s bike, though. I remained astride it, my left foot on a raised pedal.
I found myself faced with three boys a few years older than I was, who encircled me flashing razor blades. I responded by doing the only thing I knew how to do, which was to be polite and friendly to them. I asked them their names. The apparent leader told me his name and then the names of the other two boys. I tried to make polite conversation. They asked if I had any money, and I told them I didn’t. They checked my pockets, found no money.
It must have become clear that I was not going to get off of my brother’s bike—razors or no, it was not mine to give. They weren’t getting a bike, there wasn’t any money, and since we’d run out of things to talk about, the meanest boy slashed my thigh with his razor. One of his associates, shocked, yelled, “Dang! You cut him!”
The boss said, “You got no money? Then get out of here!” I gladly did.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that this was a horrifying, traumatic experience for me, a pivotal moment in my young life. Though I still bear a three-inch scar on my left thigh, I don’t talk about it much.
That night in my basement bedroom, I was terrified, and couldn’t sleep. I kept imagining the boys breaking my tiny basement window to come in and hurt me.
Unable to calm my nervous system on my own, I left my room, climbed the basement stairs in my pajamas, and timidly approached my dad.
Dad was propped on his elbows on our kitchen island, chin in hands, the South Bend Tribune spread out in front of him.
Standing behind him, “ Dad,” I said, “I can’t sleep.” Without looking up from his newspaper, he said, “Try reading a book.”
I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but his response absolutely missed the mark.
In that household, I repeatedly got the message that I should be able to take care of myself, and if I couldn’t, then I was a burden and should be ashamed. I returned to my cave-like basement bedroom, pulled a paperback collection of Peanuts cartoons off the shelf and read until I fell asleep.
When I was twelve, I decided I wanted to go shopping at Town and Country, a big shopping center on the east side of Mishawaka. We lived on the west side of South Bend. The shopping center was most of two towns away, but I had ridden city buses before and I was pretty sure I knew how to get there.
I was wrong.
I boarded the bus, paid my fare, found a seat and I sat. I sat and waited, waited and watched out the window as the bus made its way eastward, across the sister cities, pausing at every bus stop. I kept looking for the shopping center, but didn’t see it.
After the better part of an hour, when the driver got to his turnaround point, he pulled the bus over and idled. Fifteen minutes later, he put the bus back in gear, and pulled out for the trip back to the west side. I rode the entire circuit, never saying a word, and not finding the shopping center I was looking for. It didn’t once occur to me to go ask the bus driver, the adult in charge, for help.
When I arrived home, several hours after my departure, my mom asked me if I had found what I was looking for. I told her I hadn’t, because I hadn’t found the shopping center. I hadn’t gone shopping at Town and Country like I’d wanted to, I had just sat on a bus for several hours.
“You’re so bullheaded!” she said, “Just like your father. You’re both stubborn.”
Bullheaded? That was hard for me to hear. I didn’t feel stubborn, I felt afraid.
More to the point, I had learned by that time that asking for help was imposing on people, and that it would not get me what I needed.
I loved both of my parents, unequivocally. They were good and kind and loving. They just lacked the necessary resources. They were afraid, too, and they were tapped out emotionally.
I was the fourth of five children, and at the time of my mugging at age nine, they also had a three-year-old, two teenage girls and a college freshman. They were financially strapped and in a tense holding pattern in their own relationship. In many instances, they just didn’t have what was called for.
By the time of my weird bus odyssey, I’d concluded that I was on my own and it was up to me to make it through. If that was hard, or if I couldn’t figure things out, well, that was on me. I must be doing something wrong.
A little over a year ago, a spinal CSF leak which had derailed my life from 2010 to 2012, reopened, and my neurological function once again began to take a nosedive.
My girlfriend, Mary Beth, began carrying more of the weight of our day-to-day existence. With my headaches, fatigue, loss of energy, memory issues, and inability to bend over or drive, I needed help just getting through each day.
Shortly after this shift in our routines, Mary Beth put out a call to our community. She asked our friends to bring us food. I was a little puzzled. I actually wondered if she was being a bit opportunistic.
But for Mary Beth, asking for help came naturally. She had grown up under different circumstances and drawn different conclusions. For Mary Beth, asking was a natural, obvious and sensible thing to do.
She says, “Asking someone for help is giving them the gift of knowing that, when they need it, they can ask for help.”
Too often people in that caretaker position don’t ask for help and end up exhausted, depleted and unable to carry the extra weight for long.
It worked out beautifully, of course. Our friends brought us food and sent us gift cards for restaurants that offered carry out, the same things that we do when folks in our community are in need.
Recovery from the surgery and the trauma to my brain took most of the year.
Once my cognitive functions were restored, I was again able to fully engage with my business and my finances. I found myself in the midst of a financial crisis, exacerbated by a notable downturn in business during the fourth quarter, the part of the year we always count on for a good portion of our annual revenue.
I had a sit-down with a business-savvy friend and laid out the details. He made some suggestions which have guided me as I work to put my financial world back together.
He also suggested I let him and another friend start a GoFundMe campaign to help me get back on my feet.
A GoFundMe on my behalf was a tough idea for me to swallow. I didn’t like the idea of asking for help in such a public way.
They helped me see a couple of things. Something really disruptive had happened to me. Twice in ten years. I didn’t cause it, it wasn’t my fault.
They also introduced me to the concept of social capital, and urged me to consider the many, many ways I have invested in my community, my social circles and my friends over many decades.
I agreed to the GoFundMe. We set our sights on wiping out a good portion of the debt which had accumulated as I’d clawed my way through a difficult year.
They put the campaign together and helped me get the word out about it, but they noticed me dragging my feet when it came to sharing the campaign with a wider audience, through social media. But that kind of exposure is how these things work.
I wrestled with painful feelings of shame, with feeling exposed, but in the end, I saw the sense in it. I acquiesced.
Once I finally let them spread the word, a miraculous thing happened: in just twenty-one days over two hundred people had responded generously, putting us more than halfway toward our ambitious goal for contributions.
This GoFundMe experience has been, and continues to be, an eye-opening and healing experience for me. When I sat down to write this account, I wasn’t sure how it would end. The ending here is really about the beginning of a new phase, one guided by an adult’s understanding that nobody makes it alone. As I learn to shed the crippling belief that, if I can’t figure everything out by myself, there must be something wrong with me, I am becoming more adept at asking for help when I need it, and more comfortable in receiving it.
To contribute to this GoFundMe campaign, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/david-sutton