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When It's Okay To Walk Away

One of my most outstanding self-defeating patterns is the urge to fix everything for everybody.
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I've heard from Buddhist friends that everyone comes into our lives to teach us a lesson, and to help us rise above our self-defeating patterns, which we play over and over again. One of my most outstanding self-defeating patterns is the urge to fix everything for everybody. Since my sister was born with brain damage, I have felt a need to make everything okay again. After checking in with a lot of siblings (see Don Meyer's wonderful national project, Sibs ) I've learned that most of us feel this way. And so we find ourselves racing around waiting on people, solving their problems, giving us some slight relief from our guilt of being normal. And then new problems crop up the next morning.

Last winter my sister Irene, who cannot read or write, but who can certainly walk and run, and who talks a mile a minute, simply crumbled to the floor in her home near me. Her muscles gave out. She couldn't walk, couldn't hold her head up, and the doctors hospitalized her. Throughout her stay, as I sat with her in her room or pushed her in her wheelchair down the hall for tests, she kept asking over and over, "You like my jacket?" It was one she got for Christmas, white fleece with violets and sequins. "I love your jacket," I answered over and over.

I was thrilled to see Irene finally get better when they took her off the offending medications. Her head popped back up, she could walk, and her happy self emerged again.

But I was exhausted. I was headed to a writer's conference in Florida. I told my husband, "I am going to get a massage while I'm there, and I am going to put flowers in my room. and I am not going to push anyone in a wheelchair the whole week."

I did have my massage, and I walked the beach, and I thanked the Universe for getting Irene out of a wheelchair and freeing me from that burden. I didn't realize the Universe was laughing its head off, waiting for my Little Surprise Lesson.

The night before the conference began, I met a woman who was attending it as well and we made plans to meet and go together.

The next morning, when I went to her room, her door was slightly ajar. She was writhing on her bed. "I have thrown my back out," she wailed. She was in terrific pain. "Could you possibly just find a wheelchair, somewhere in the hotel? And wheel me to the car? What is the matter? What are you staring at?"

She was struggling into Irene's fleece jacket with the violets and sparkles on it. "Oh. Nothing," I replied. "It's just that you have the very same jacket my sister has. Very pretty."

Half an hour later, there I was, wheeling the lady in the fleece jacket. How spooky is that?

She had called a clinic. Would I please take her there? It meant missing my first session, but I of course agreed. She got a prescription for painkillers, which we had to fill at a drug store. Then we had to find her a sandwich to take with her pills. All the while our session is taking place without us. In the afternoon, I wheeled her in and we met everyone. At the break, she insisted I be the one to wheel her around, no one else, thanks. "Oh, Terrell will do it," she told them all.

When we finished that afternoon, a young woman in our group came over to me and said, "Walk with me a minute." I did. "Listen, Terrell," she said. "When you wheeled her in here, we thought you were her nurse and personal assistant. We had no idea you had just met. I am a doctor. I see patients like that woman all day. When some people are sick, frightened, or in pain, they become so needy they cannot leave us alone. This woman will heal twice as fast if you don't feed into this dance she's doing. Stay away! Have dinner with us in town. She will want you to miss what she's missing, and she will want you to keep her company. Just for what it's worth, listen to me. Save yourself. Enjoy this workshop. She will find the strength because she has to."

Over the next day, this woman sat in her dark hotel room waiting for me to come fix things for her. She hadn't ordered food or turned on her television, claiming she didn't know how. The pain pills were making her so sick, and could I just come stay with her and keep her company?

Staying cheerful, I handed her the room service menu, showed her the TV. control, and the bell captain's number. I said I couldn't miss one more day of the conference I'd paid for, and surely she would understand. She cried, sounding uncannily like my sister when she's manipulating me. I suggested she call room service, turn on her television, and call her local doctor or husband and decide what to do next. Then I went to bed.

By the next morning, she had packed, arranged for transportation to the airport, and was on her way back home to her doctor and husband.

I thanked the young doctor at our workshop, who said, "Thank God you caught on. You don't need to help people stay helpless and ruin your own day."

Finally I'm learning that people, including my own sister, want to be empowered, not dependent on me for help.

So if you fall down and I step over you and say, "Gosh, good luck, Honey," you will, I hope, understand. Especially if you're wearing a white fleece jacket with violets on it.