Sometimes I think I came out of the womb with my own checkbook, a to-do list, and three jobs. Part strong-black-woman syndrome, part a product of an immigrant and single-parent household, I learned to provide for myself practically at birth.
Ask my mother for money? Request an extension on a deadline? Actually admit I needed anyone for anything or anything from anyone?
Not this girl.
If it meant getting paid to write resumes or transcribe interviews after an already long workday for some extra bucks, or pulling an all-nighter for the second night in a row to complete a company proposal on time, I was going to do what I had to.
To ask for help was a sign of weakness. An Achilles’ heel I was not prepared to risk revealing. It meant opening myself up to disappointment. And it made me feel inadequate. I overachieved at being an overachiever and self-criticized harder than my harshest critic. Excellence was the standard. From the classroom to the office, I made sure to surpass it so that I would never have to rely on someone else to pick up the slack. Needless to say, it was exhausting and self-deprecating when I felt my performance was anything less than perfect (and this was often).
As a kid, I watched my mother slave behind wealthy, white families in New York City’s Upper East Side. Some summer days she took me to work, where I sung nursery rhymes to blonde babies and got slipped money from her employers for menial tasks like organizing a bookshelf. I watched my mother then trudge home to cook and clean behind me and my sister, tired body and broken spirit. Yet everything--from our meals to our laundry--was impeccable.
Through osmosis, I acquired my mother’s inner drive. What for her was a deep sense of pride in anything she did, whether it was scrubbing the bathroom floor or purchasing her own home, manifested in me as an almost insatiable thirst for perfection. No one was going to do anything for me as well as I needed or could. So why bother asking? Plus, I hated being a burden.
The turning point was when I mustered up the humility to publicly launch a fundraising campaign. Not meeting my goal was not an option. After many restless nights, I learned how to let go and to rely on my friends, family, and community to help make one of my dreams, a sustainable Black queer website and magazine, ELIXHER, a reality.
To my surprise, many people moved to action before I could even ask. Others (good friends and colleagues I had known for years or whose projects I had previously supported), however, ignored my multiple pleas. I learned that some people are apathetic assholes; others are just forgetful, busy, lazy or all three. More importantly, I learned to not let people’s failure to follow through deter me from asking for help again and to not take it too personally. Well, so I thought.
A recent failed attempt to relocate almost landed me on the streets. A quaint but spacious (and affordable) apartment available for rent had virtually fallen on my lap. The timing was uncanny. My overpriced one-bedroom had turned into a mice- and mold-infested nightmare and I was desperate to leave without too much of a downgrade. Two weeks before my move-out date, the owner of what was going to be my new would-be home decided she was going to sell her house instead of renting.
Panic set in. What the fuck was I going to do?! Where was I going to live?? The old me would’ve retreated, shut everyone out, and resorted to fixing the issue myself.
The new me, the one who had learned how to ask for help, crawled up in a ball and cried until my lids got puffy, then reached out to a few close friends to express my anxiety.
Proud of my vulnerability, I waited for a flood of immediate responses.
A few words of encouragement trickled in but for the most part, that night, my phone calls and text messages went unanswered. With Craigslist opened on my laptop screen, I started reevaluating some friendships and I felt that newly open and exposed part of me begin to flee.
“You ask for help and expect it,” I recalled an old friend recently saying. “If it doesn’t come in the form you want it in, you’re quick to cut ties with people who disappoint you.”
It was true. It is true.
Although, I’ve gotten better at asking for help, I hold people to the same unrealistic standards I hold myself to. The same immaculate standards I idolized in my mother as a child, and grew up trying to embody. My rationale? If you’re a good friend, you’re always there.
I wondered how many missed calls I had forgotten to return or text messages I had delayed to respond to.
Fact of life: People, well-intentioned people, will disappoint you. And at some point you will disappoint them, too. And that’s okay.
The next day, calls and messages from concerned friends (some who I hadn’t even directly contacted) started pouring in.
“Do you need me to connect you to my old realtor?”
“There’s an apartment I was going to rent. It might still be available…”
“Are you completely against a roommate? I know someone looking.”
“If you ever need a couch…”
I didn’t hear from everyone I had reached out to, and that’s fine. I’m not going to delete their numbers from my phone…yet. Although some people might not come through all the time, you have to be open to the ones who do and when they do. Because getting angry at the people who don’t step up can blind you to generosity and thoughtfulness of the people that do.
Slowly but surely, I think I’m getting the hang of this. And thankfully, at the end of the month, I won't be homeless.
Follow Kimberley on Twitter: @KimKMcLeod.