By Michael Everett, MHS | June 24, 2015
CEO, Intimacy & Colour | Consultant, ETR Community Impact Solutions Project
We all know what it feels like to sit in the back of the room, praying we don’t get called on by an instructor. Or to feel too afraid to ask a question despite the depths of our confusion on a given topic.
The culture of asking in this country is a complex one. On the one hand, as a greater society we believe in the power of help. Look at our public health policies, free HIV testing or charitable organizations. Even the values we learn in kindergarten—“Clean up the play area together”—promote helping.
On the other hand, we are not as hard wired to ask for help as we are to provide it. So this begs the question—what is our big “ask” problem?
Asking is a vulnerable act that sometimes feels as if it requires too much emotional currency. Asking for assistance is generally frowned upon. In our society, asking for help feels burdensome. We receive a lot of messages designed to reinforce the idea that it is our duty to remain self-sufficient.
As a young person I would often express myself through poetry. This was a relief because I had a very difficult childhood. In thinking about my constant moves and my struggles with family addictions, I wrote a piece entitled My clean, my mess. The piece is a reflection of a deeper need to have more independence.
I considered myself the invisible child. My goal was to minimize the burden I caused by living with people other than my biological parents. I remember the angry whispers of a particular family member who expressed discontent that my sister and I were always in such great need.
The poem was in large part a coping mechanism because I was child with limited personal power. In other ways, the piece was a declaration to free myself of shame—the shame of wanting and needing—and asking as soon as I could for my independence.
This experience was my first involuntary lesson that “asking = bad,” and that “not asking = better than asking.”
The truth about our big ask problem is that a lot of us just aren’t very good at it. We all know what it is to be rejected with a strong no, to believe that others perceive us as stupid, or to feel inadequate. To protect ourselves, we can easily blur the lines of privacy versus secrecy.
Privacy is about respect for information and is a means to protect us from being unnecessarily vulnerable. Secrecy often manifests from a place of shame and perceived or experienced judgment.
For example, your social security number is private because in the hands of others it leaves you vulnerable to being exploited. We are ultimately held responsible for what others do with our information, and that is why we keep it private!
Smoking cigarettes while working in public health—now that might be a secret. The values of public health are seemingly inconsistent with those of us who smoke. So some of us hide our smoking and try to deal with the matter secretly.
Appropriately distinguishing between the two can make a real difference. In some cases the difference could be life saving. If we choose, for example, to keep our medical information private, that is often a matter of good boundaries. If we feel a need to be secretive about an HIV risk we’ve taken, we might avoid getting an HIV test or be less than forthright with sexual partners about our risk.
This June marks three significant observations: LGBT Pride Month, Men’s Health Month, and HIV Testing Day on June 27th. These events have a special commonality in that they all represent the need to encourage vulnerable communities to stand in the truth of their need and claim it.
This June also presents the opportunities for us to challenge ask-associated stigma and dismantle the shame within needing. It is an honor to be of service to someone. It also takes courage to receive the help we need to enhance the quality of our lives.
Take an opportunity this June to ask for the help you may need. It might be help to do your job more effectively, or deal with internal issues that keep you from being whole, or even becoming an advocate for your own health and wellness.
Let us honor the events of this June by taking some steps to practice asking. This can be as simple as Googling the nearest free HIV testing site, making a proactive appointment with a doctor to address health related concerns, or even learning a little more about LGBT history. We can be inspired by the courage of those who demanded help when many refused to provide any.
Remember that help never has to look like one particular thing. It is all about taking baby steps—and all of the steps along your journey are critical to your destination. Together, we can turn a big ask problem into a small ask problem. One day, if we commit enough as individuals, asking will not even have to be a problem. It will just be the way we honor our duty to care for ourselves and one another.
Michael Everett, MHS, is Chief Executive Officer of Intimacy & Colour. He is a certified professional coach and facilitator with expertise in harm reduction and navigating interpersonal challenges, and a consultant for ETR’s Community Impact Solutions Project. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Michael Everett
I whispered promises of the things
I never wanted,
but always haunted by them anyway.
I whispered prayers in the night
to let me dance into the life of a space greater than what I had.
Always angry, always mad, some used to say
But it was hopelessness that hid my way, my path,
I fasted and held the hungriest of bellies
Longing for the place for me,
Longing for identity
A place to laugh as I confess
My place, my space,
My clean, my mess.
I used some things that weren't my own
while others wished that I went home and so did I.
I learned the tricks of the invisible child.
Backing down hallways and always staying in bathrooms until someone else needed to go.
I diminished my trails and dusted my tracks
crept into corners and rested my back against walls not mine.
I was a stranger in everybody's house
from grandma’s to my mom’s I
prayed that I would one day be blessed with,
My place, my space
My clean, my mess.
I’ve struggled in the wilderness
making my way through
hard days and harder decisions.
I no longer sleep in someone else's bed
holding my hungry belly
and wishing I was dead.
Ravishing the comfort of my safety:
holding close to my now smiling inner child
No lines across my face
from sleeping on the floor
and when I cook, I cook forever never wanting, needing more.
Although the tears still come and at times I lose my breath
I simply seek the comfort of
My place, my space
My clean, my mess…