The Help That Makes You Helpless

Stock drawing of hospital bed

At one point, I was an only child, and I imagine that the spotlight shone on me. I don’t remember, however, as my younger sister came along less than two years later. I also don’t remember a time when she wasn’t ill and commanded all my mother’s attention. She was diagnosed at a young age with muscular dystrophy. While my father checked out to cope, my mother grounded herself by leaping into action, doing all the research she could and doting on my sister. We didn’t have much serious illness in our family; in fact, we had several relatively accomplished athletes. We grew healthy and tall with good appetites and energetic spirits. I don’t think my mom knew how to handle a sick child and overcorrected for her inadequacy of knowledge and experience.

I remember that at first there were a lot of trips to the doctor and physical therapy, but my sister hated going. It was a fight to get her to every doctor appointment. She would cry at physical therapy which my mother had trouble dealing with and would frequently intervene with the therapist. It had led her to yelling at many of the therapists and demanding that they try something else. Eventually, they asked my mother to stop going to sessions which she was bitter about. My sister would frequently come home from the appointments crying. I hate to say it, but I think my mother took a certain satisfaction in telling the therapists that they would not be back.

I don’t blame my sister, of course. It isn’t any fun as a child to be poked and prodded at the doctor’s office and I know that physical therapy was probably painful at times. Our mother was the adult and should have been more encouraging. Sometimes parents had to make their children do things that they didn’t want to do because it’s for their own good. She certainly had no trouble telling me that I couldn’t do things that I wanted to because it would make my sister feel left out. No little league, no cheerleading, no dance classes. My entire family was to live within my sister’s limitations so that she never felt less than under my mother’s rule. It bred a resentment between sisters that shouldn’t have been there.

My sister passed away when she was twenty-three from heart complications due to the muscular dystrophy. I hadn’t been home in a year at that point. My mother and I had a fight over the phone the night before I was supposed to go home for the funeral. She told me that I didn’t care and not to bother coming home for the memorial service. I didn’t go but the satisfaction of winning that particular battle of the wills didn’t feel as good as I expected.


I push my patients hard. I have a reputation of being a bit of a hard ass and I absolutely revel in that. I don’t have patience for tears, for complainers or quitters, or for people who had resigned themselves to helplessness. Some of my patients hated me but, in the end, they thanked me because most of them did get better. They got stronger and lived better lives and that was worth having some of them hate me. I cared deeply about these people who came through my office, but it wasn’t their discomfort during the exercises that I cared about. I cared about them living the best quality of life possible for them as individuals.

I worked with a wide variety of patients. Veterans coming back from war zones, elderly people recovering from a fall, people who had been in traumatic accidents, and middle-aged housewives with lower back problems all came through my office. They all had their own unique individual needs. The veteran might want to get back to activities that they love but haven’t been able to do because they’ve been in service where they suffered an injury that they were afraid would take those joys away from them forever. The elderly might want to maintain their independence and be able to stay at home rather than moving in with children or going to an assisted living facility. The people in traumatic accidents usually just wanted to go back to how things were before and forget it had ever happened. The housewife might just want to get through her day without pain and be able to keep up with her active family.

I am willing to work toward any goal that they have if they are willing to put in the work. I rarely have to break it to someone that something is just impossible for them. There are usually modifications that can be made or strength that can be built in order to make these things possible. The hardest thing is not usually figuring out a way for them to live their optimal life but often finding a way for them to afford such modifications. Or the entire length of therapy that they require. It caused me endless frustration to see people prevented from living their optimal life due to financial issues. I remembered how hard it was with my sister when we couldn’t afford to pay for people to come care for her. Toward the end, she couldn’t be left alone, even for an hour, and it had required increasingly intense sacrifices for the family.

I never showed my frustration, though. I told them that we were going to do the best that we could and that we would make the best of what we had available to us. We were a team, my patients and I, and I tried my best not to let them down. I stayed late on the phone with insurance companies and calling charity organizations that helped the disabled. I spent my evenings in my office reading the latest on kinesiology and exercise science. My phone would ring as my husband called to see when I would be home for dinner. I would silence it and turn on the lamp as it started to get dark outside my window. One of the assistants would pop her head inside my office to let me know that she was going home. I would tell her that I would lock up tonight.

I worked hard to meet the individual needs of my patients, but they all did have one thing in common. They were all adults. I did not work with children.


“Do you have someone to take care of you at home?”

The nurse is holding a clipboard and trying to prepare my discharge from the hospital. I sigh wearily, leaning my head back against my standard issue hospital pillow and closing my eyes briefly. I am thirty years old and two years divorced from my husband. We had never had children together which had made for a clean break. We hadn’t spoken in over a year. I had friends but not the kind that I could just move in with until I was recovered. That was a big ask of any relationship that wasn’t familial or two people formally committed to one another.

“I can call my mom.”

We only talk every few months and she is surprised to hear from me. She instantly knows something is wrong to receive a random phone call on a Tuesday night from her estranged daughter. I report what happened with hardly any emotion in my voice. Drunk driver and car totaled. Broken leg and arm, both on the right side, and a concussion as a bonus. Leg will require extensive surgery to regain full function. She is sympathetic and horrified, gasps in all the right spots, and immediately tells me that she’ll prepare my old bedroom for me. She tells me that she loves me before we hang up, and it’s not something that I ever doubted, because love was never the issue. I tell her that I love her, too, almost feeling like a child in school reciting something from rote memorization.


My entire body hurts all the time even with the pain medication. I’m restless and cranky because I can’t really do anything for myself. I can’t even use crutches to navigate because of my broken arm. I have lost use of my dominant arm which is frustrating even though I tell myself that it’s only temporary. I tell myself I’m lucky that it wasn’t worse. My mom had gone to where they had towed my car to see what kind of shape it was in and had come home crying. She said the man there couldn’t believe it when she told him that I had survived.

My mother dotes on me the entire time that I’m there. The kinder she is and the more she does for me, the more irritable I become. Our default mode has always been bickering, has always been pushing against each other, but she seems unwilling to fight back. When I snap at her or lash out, she just tells me that she understands, and it’s completely infuriating. I do wonder in my weak moments what it would be like to just give in and let her take care of me. There are times when she would be helping me get ready for bed that were particularly tempting. I would lay back in the bed and she would cover me up like she used to do for me when I was very little. She would brush my hair back gently, I would close my eyes, and it would be so tempting to give into her care. Then, after she left, I would wonder if she would still have such tender feelings when I was well and independent again. I would wake up cranky in the morning.

One such morning, she was trying to help me get dressed after my shower, and I was getting frustrated with her for reasons that weren’t really her fault. I felt like she had been hovering too closely all morning, making me feel like I couldn’t do anything, and I was sick of her. I had snatched the clothes from her and sat on the bed trying to get them on with half my body not working. It wasn’t working but I was determined to do something for myself.

“Oh, Vanessa,” My mom said, trying to take back the shirt that I was struggling with. “Let my help you. You’ll hurt yourself.”

I don’t let go of the shirt and tell her, “It’s fine. I can do it.”

She puts her hands on her hips and looks down at me, “Why are you being so stubborn? Why won’t you let me help you?”

“Don’t you get it?” I cry, throwing down the shirt in frustration. I look at her blank face and realize that she doesn’t at all. It was the guiltless face of someone who thought they had only ever done what they thought was right for their children. “Mom! I won’t let you help me because that kind of help – your kind of help – only leads to more helplessness!”

You couldn’t help my sister, I wanted to yell at her. Look at what all your help got her! She never even got to live! She lived her whole life in this house feeling like a burden!

I don’t say the words though. I know that once I said them that there would be no coming back from the kind of hurt it would inflict. And she’s looking at me like she is afraid of what I’m going to say next. She knows that I have the power to hurt her. My sister’s death left a deep wound and she’s aware of the vulnerability in that part of her heart. I don’t say anything more. I start crying for reasons that I can’t explain and hand her the shirt.

She breathes a little sigh of relief and helps me into my clothes. With her help, I’m fully dressed in under two minutes, something I was unable to manage at all on my own. She smiles gently and says, “There. It’s okay. The pain medicine always made you sister emotional, too.”