“They can be like a sun, words. They can do for the heart what light can for a field.”
—St. John of the Cross
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Use All Your Lifelines

© 2014 by Jennifer Read Hawthorne

The popular television quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? allows contestants to use “lifelines” if they need help answering a question. They can ask the audience for help. They can ask the computer for help. Or they can phone a friend for the answer, one of five pre-arranged people they’ve selected with as wide a variety of knowledge as possible: a movie buff, a scientist, a university professor, for example. It’s a fun show. The only thing worse than a contestant’s failure to answer correctly is the moment when he answers incorrectly without having used all his lifelines!

What lifeline do you reach for when you don’t know the answer?  How do you deal with fear, worry or life’s big decisions? Have you ever considered what lifelines are available to you? Are you using all of them?

Lifelines are the things you can’t live without, the things that feed you, body and spirit. They include walking, meditation, the gym, writing, dancing, quilting, walleyball, swimming with dolphins, volunteering, a good book, your doctor, your pastor, your faith and family. Ellen goes to the gym three times a week; Sue does yoga every day. At 84, my mother still found her lifeline on the tennis courts.

Al-Anon is one of my most important lifelines, as is meditation. But, like Millionaire, my number one lifeline is my “phone-a-friends” list.

I used to try to be friends with everyone I met: the beautiful young woman at the cosmetics counter in St. Lake City; the concert organizer in New York; my yoga teacher’s teenaged son. I like people! But over time I found that I was depleting myself in an effort to maintain friendships with so many people—even if just through a card at Christmas. I began letting go of the need to stay connected with everyone who had ever crossed my path, and now count six women and one man in my circle of closest friends. These are the people on my short list, the ones who, in case of emergency—mental, physical, or spiritual—I would not hesitate to call in the middle of the night.

But what if you have no one to call in the middle of the night? Think bigger. Wider. Unconventionally. Think government and social service agencies. Think people wanting and waiting to help you.

Such was the case for Dr. Paul Dunion, a successful, confident man who had never asked for help in his life. But at the age of one, his child Sarah was diagnosed with severe mental retardation and cerebral palsy.

The task of caring for her was daunting. She required 24-hour care, because her little body was prone to sudden unpredictable movements that could endanger her. Refusing to succumb to a haunting sense of hopelessness, Paul and his wife began to research alternative approaches to Sarah’s condition.

They soon found a neurological rehabilitation program they thought could help. It consisted of a series of exercises and movements aimed at stimulating lower brain activity. The only problem was that the program had to be done in one-hour intervals, seven hours per day, six days per week. They calculated they would need 100 volunteers, with two people working with Sarah every hour. With great naiveté but even greater love—without grasping the enormity of the task—they put an ad in the paper asking for volunteers and invited people to a meeting where they could meet Sarah and hear what was needed.

The response was overwhelming. They got their volunteers, about 60 percent from the community and 40 percent from the students at the college where Paul taught. Their home came to resemble a community center with a constant stream of people moving in and out.

Shortly before Sarah’s sixteenth birthday, a volunteer with whom Sarah had a special connection helped her learn an innovative communication technique that used a keyboard. Suddenly Sarah was spelling out her parents’ names. The new communication technique began revealing at least average intelligence with above average verbal aptitude.

Her diagnosis was changed to pachygyria, a rare disease affecting only 600 people in the world. Sarah is one of only three people in the world known to have her specific version of the disease.

Sarah is now 33, a writer and homeowner. With the help of a computerized voice, she lectures and consults to social service agencies and families who have a member with a disability. She has even lectured in London. She still needs 24-hour care, but she has live-in help. She even interviews and hires her own staff.

Sarah’s story provides inspiration to create your own Personal Resources list for help in times of need. We have free clinics, libraries, civil liberties unions and lawyers’ associations that might take your case pro bono. We have support groups of every kind imaginable. We have counselors, ministers and 12-Step programs to help fight alcoholism, overeating, gambling, debt, sex addiction and many others. And there’s the world wide web where we can find anything, anywhere, any time.

If you don’t have a computer or don’t like the internet, put the number of your local library on your refrigerator. It’s filled with extraordinary reference librarians who know how to help you find anything—and will do so happily.

The point is this: Reach out. Ask for help. As Maya Angelou says in her poem Alone: “Nobody, but nobody/Can make it out here alone.”