I am a proud, independent woman. I don’t like to ask people to do anything for me if I can do it myself. I even have my own hammer and other essential tools hidden in a drawer so I don’t have to ask Lancelot to save me in a duct tape emergency. I take a lot of pride in being able to fend for myself, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
My independence isn’t always a good thing.
It is really, really hard for me to ask for help from anyone, at any time. I can be stubborn, at best, or outright rude, at worst, when someone offers to help me. It can be as simple as someone asking to help me carry bags out to my car, pick something up at a store they are already going to, or watch my children so I can have a date night with my husband. It’s almost as if I’m allergic to letting people help me. In my quest for independence, I’ve built a fortress around myself. That fortress sometimes makes me feel strong, but it also makes me feel scared and alone. I can feel overwhelmed and isolated by the fortress I built myself. I know the world is a richer place when people support each other and share their experiences, but something holds me back from asking anyone for help, no matter how benign.
I can pinpoint the exact moment I stopped asking people for help. It was a pleasant winter morning in 1999 and I was one semester away from graduating from Michigan State University. My parents and brothers had recently moved to Colorado, and I was planning to do the same upon graduation. I had been dating a guy (Doc) for a couple of months. Doc had recently lost his parents in a horrific car accident, and he was trying to get back on his feet. He had decided to move out to Denver with me, and he was looking for an apartment to rent with my younger brother in the mountains of Colorado while I finished up school.
That winter morning, Doc was in Colorado and I was in East Lansing. I was attending classes, finishing things up before graduation, enjoying my friends and pretty much loving life. I thought all was well with the world.
Then, my mom called. She said, “Carrie, do you have a friend that you can get right now? I need to tell you something. It’s important. Are you sitting down? Please sit down.”
My mom proceeded to tell me that Doc had just been arrested in my parents’ driveway. He had forged a check that he stole from his father, and my older brother had tried to cash it to buy some stocks on Doc’s behalf. Doc’s parents weren’t dead, as I had been told, but were alive and well and living a few blocks away from my sorority house. Doc was being charged with forgery, theft, fraud and even grand theft auto. The 24-year-old pre-med student I thought I was dating was actually a 21-year-old high school dropout who had stolen thousands of dollars’ worth of goods (including a Ford Explorer) and who had evidentially targeted me on his crime spree. Everything I thought I knew about him – even his name – was a lie. He was a con artist. He had been caught. He was going to jail.
All was not right with the world.
And that was it. That moment on the phone with my mom. That was the moment that I stopped asking for help.
I don’t remember everything I thought or felt that day, but one thing definitely stands out. I didn’t see this incident as something that Doc did to me. He did it to my family. My mom, my dad and my two brothers were involved. He was planning to be one of my brother’s roommate, and was investing money with the other brother. He was temporarily sleeping in my mom and dad’s house. My dad had to make small talk with him that morning when the cops were on their way over to his house. All four of my family members were involved in some way. Doc was so deeply entrenched in my family that I felt his betrayal in my DNA.
I kept saying, “I can’t believe I let him do this to my family!” I was a little upset that I let myself get taken advantage of, but that was nothing compared to the overwhelming embarrassment, anger, guilt and shame I felt because my family had been pulled into the whole business. I was incredibly mad at myself for involving my mom, my dad and my brothers. I took responsibility for their involvement, even if perhaps it would have been more accurate or fair to place full blame on Doc’s shoulders.
I was determined that my family members would never be pulled into one of my relationships again. I was fiercely devoted to ensuring they’d never have to help me clean up a mess that I made again. And, as it turns out, I was resolved to solve problems on my own from then on, thereby closing myself off to support and help from any person in my life, ever again.
Looking back, I remember telling everyone that I wouldn’t let this experience change me. I had always been an open, kind, trusting person, and I didn’t want Doc to change that about me. I resolved to be strong enough to keep my faith in humanity, because to lose my trust in other people would essentially be letting Doc win. I didn’t want to let him take my open, trusting heart away from me. I didn’t want the experience to cloud every future interaction I’d have with men. I didn’t want this short relationship to ruin every future relationship because of my bitterness, anger or fear.
I thought I was standing up for myself by remaining strong. I thought I was keeping my heart open. I didn’t realize that by being strong and pushing away people that wanted to help me, I was doing exactly what I swore not to do. I was closing doors, hardening my heart, and isolating myself. I was building a fortress.
My experience with Doc happened almost 20 years ago, and it’s changed my life in many ways. Some things, like my wariness around unfamiliar guys, are clearly a result of Doc’s influence and are very easy for me to recognize. Other things, like my fierce independent streak, have been harder to uncover. It has been easy for me to characterize my independence as just another part of my personality. Now, however, I’m beginning to see that it comes directly from Doc, and it’s not a good thing.
I told myself that I wouldn’t let Doc close off my heart, but unfortunately, I closed off my heart anyway. I haven’t been able to see that until recently. Now that I do see it, it’s time to do something about it.
I stopped asking for help in 1999. I think it’s time for me to open my heart back up again. I know that helping other people is beautiful. Now I want to know how beautiful it is to accept support, too.
Maybe, just maybe, I can turn that fortress into a castle.