When I was single and childless and living alone in a studio apartment near downtown Los Angeles, I used to zip around town on a bike. I had no car and no money and no family. I was free as a bird, but also lonely as a bird left behind in the winter, after every other bird flew off into hibernation.
I never felt as lonely as I did that day I accidentally ripped out the flesh of my calf. It was a hot summer afternoon. I was out on my bike when I got a flat tire, so I was dragging the cumbersome thing on the sidewalk, when one of the pedals somehow caught into the skin of my calf. I didn’t realize it until I tugged on the bike, and tug out a huge slice of my flesh as well. Blood spurted out and gushed down my ankle in shiny red streaks. I looked down to see a upside-down V-shaped hunk of flesh hanging down like a peeled tangerine skin. I saw wobbery pink flesh and a flash of white bone. I also saw stars; I was in so much pain.
Somehow I managed to get back home with my bike, carry that stupid thing up two flights of stairs into my studio, and climb into the shower to rinse my wound. Oh man. If I saw stars when I first hurt myself, now I was seeing fireworks. I took a picture of my wound and sent it to my parents, who are on the other end of the country in Virginia. They freaked out. I had originally planned to just treat the wound myself– surely some bandages and Neosporin would do, I thought– but my parents urged me to go to the hospital.
This was a time before Ubers. I had no car. No family. All my friends lived at least a 30-minute drive away, and they had jobs. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the nearest urgent care clinic was 2 miles away and closed at 5 pm (ain’t that ridiculous?). Obviously I could no longer bike there.
I clumsily wrapped a torn-up strip of old T-shirt around my wound and limped that 2 miles to the urgent care clinic under the scorching sun. I cried every step of the way– not from pain, but from this overwhelming, bitter sense of being completely alone. Woe is me, I mourned. I’m all alone. I’m in crisis, and there’s no one I can call for help. Not even a stupid boyfriend. Good thing there hasn’t been a massive earthquake, or nobody would even realize I’m gone until my body’s half-decomposed!
I’m glad I went to the clinic, because the wound was pretty bad. It needed to be disinfected, injected with some shot, and get lots of stitches. After my leg was numbed and stitched up, I limped the 2 miles back to my empty studio apartment, feeling desperately and crushingly lonely. I don’t even have a stupid dog to greet me when I come back home, I thought mournfully.
Now when I think back to that day, I suppose I could have called someone for help. I wasn’t truly alone, not really. I had good friends. I just didn’t even make the effort to ask for help, because…why? I decided on my own that it was too much to ask. I decided on my own that I wouldn’t be a burden. But all that aside, I also…maybe, perhaps, sadistically, enjoyed the image of myself being alone, semi-abandoned. Because if I’m brutally honest, self-wallowing and self-pity is seductive. It’s like burrowing your head into the deep covers of your bed and shutting off the world around you. There’s something weirdly, perversely comforting about it. You get to create your own world, and your pain, your struggles, your problems are the main characters of a drama starring you, produced and directed by you, narrated by you.
I felt this temptation to aggrandize my isolation as a new mother.
People have warned me that being a mother can be incredibly isolating. Frankly, I was too exhausted and too stimulated by the novelty of it all to feel this isolation until many months after Tov was born. I started feeling that isolation more recently, as Tov turned 7 months, 8 months, 9 months and I realized I have not had any quality time with my own husband, and can count the number of times I’ve been out with my friends without Tov on three fingers. And then I looked at the number of times David has been able to go out with friends to movies and concerts and sports games– and suddenly I looked around at my own social calendar, and self-pity flicked on like a stage spotlight. When was the last time I had a proper hot dinner without being interrupted? When was the last time I had an hours-long adult conversation with my girlfriends that had nothing to do with babies? I didn’t even get to celebrate my own 35th birthday. In fact, does anyone even know how I feel now, where I’m at, what I need?
Very cunning, self-pity. It quickly creeps from being frustrated with my life circumstances, to (usually irrationally) blaming others for not helping to change those circumstances, while not doing a damn thing myself to change it. It is a very ugly, toxic, self-obsessed creature.
But my feelings of isolation is real– and universal. Just like when I ripped out my flesh years ago, my feelings of helplessness, physical pain, and loneliness were real, worthy of validation. Only back then, I chose to endure it alone, like some Hollywood star martyr.
In a way, my back and neck troubles are a blessing, because it prompted me to ask for help. Not just for prayers– the most Christian thing to ask for, when many of us often doubt the other person is praying for real– but for actual tangible help. I’ve had to ask David to step up, and tell him what I need help in, instead of expecting him to “just know” and do it, all the while seething because he hasn’t learned to read my mind yet. I’ve had to call friends and ask them to come help me carry Tov on nights when David isn’t home.
For example, last week, David was gone for three nights. I deliberated about asking for help, feeling silly for asking for help on such simple things, not wanting to be a burden, not wanting to be annoying, and then just bit the bullet and texted a few friends. All of them said yes without hesitation. One evening, my friends Lauryn and Omar came over and hung out with us for several hours. They helped pick up Tov, helped me put him on his feeding chair, helped carry him up and down the stairs, and pick him up from the bath. On Saturday, my friend Jodi came and stayed from morning till evening, helping watch Tov so I can go work out for a bit, helping to put Tov in and out of his stroller, and basically keeping me company so I don’t feel isolated. Then on Sunday, when David returned from his work trip, his cousin Becky came to babysit Tov for the night so David and I can have our first date in nine months since Tov was born.
They might not have felt they did much. But their very presence was incredibly life-giving. It was, in many ways, also humanzing: It helped me feel human, and less like a farmed cow. It humanized me by placing me in my proper place– a position of vulnerability and need. It humanized me by linking me to other humans, reminding me of other people’s burdens, frustrations, growth, and isolation. It reminded me I’m not a god. It reminded me that I don’t live in an individual pod, but as part of a collective community of people who all have their own moments of isolation, because we live in a broken world– and what better way to heal that brokenness, than to collide and burst into one another’s isolation?
All it took, really, was to call out: Help.
Funny, that that’s also the first thing we do the moment we’re born: We cry out. We might not know the word “help,” but we’re crying and calling out to someone, anyone– help. I’m cold. I’m naked. I’m hungry. I’m scared. Help! Waaaah! Waaah! Help!
Asking for help? No shame in it. It’s the essence of being human.