Are We Drowning a Person Who is Trying to Help Us?

About fifty years ago, a terrible tragedy happened in my extended family. My stepmother, who was a young married lady with a two-year-old daughter at the time, was travelling in Venezuela to visit relatives. One sunny afternoon, she and her husband went for a pleasure flight in a small plane with a dear friend who was an amateur pilot. My step-sister stayed behind with her grandparents. There was a mechanical failure of the plane and my step-mother, her husband and their friend were forced to jettison the plane in the ocean off the coast of Venezuela. My step-mother and her husband were lithe, athletic, confident swimmers. In fact, my step-mother had been a medal-winner on swim teams throughout high school and college. Her husband was almost as skilled a swimmer as she was. However their friend, the pilot, wasn’t a skilled swimmer and he sustained some minor injuries during the water landing.

As the three of them struggled in the ocean, my step-mother’s husband, Roberto (Bobby to his friends and family) insisted that she swim for shore and not look back. He said, "Think of our daughter, not of me. Only think of her until you’re on the shore. I’ll help our friend; you swim for our daughter!"

She knew instinctively that he was right, of course, they couldn’t leave their daughter orphaned and their friend was too heavy for her to help. She was a small woman and he was a big, injured man. So she swam across the currents, swam through the rough surf and crawled out of the ocean, coughing up saltwater but safely on the shore.

You have probably anticipated the rest. Bobby and the pilot didn’t make it.

I have thought about this incident many times over the years. When my widowed step-mother met my father eight years later, my step-sister was ten and I was twelve. We shared a room after their marriage, and my step-sister kept a portrait of Bobby on her dresser. He was a tanned, very handsome man in the photograph; his sunny and confident smile giving only a hint of the heroism that would mark his death. I was curious as a child about how he died, exactly. Did helping his friend exhaust him? Did he regret letting my step-mother swim on without him? Did he already know when he told her to swim for shore that there was no way that he and the pilot would make it?

Later I learned a horrifying fact: very often, people who are not good swimmers will actually fight with a person who is trying to help them, sealing both of their fates. The weaker swimmer will grab onto the stronger swimmer, choking them, pulling them under, treating them as more of a thing than a human being. They’ll even try to climb up on top of the person who is trying to help them, as if they were a small island in the water. Life-guards learn to actually slug the person who is trying to drown them, waiting until they’re semi-conscious (no longer able to fight or grab) before trying again to help them to safety.

Metaphorically speaking, as a newly diagnosed diabetic, or a person who is facing a new and terrible complication, instead of lying back in the water, letting the people who are trying to help you pull you closer to shore, are you fighting them? Are you hysterically grabbing onto them? Are you drowning them with your panic, your fear, your outrage at your terrible fate? Are you desperately, angrily trying to maintain control in a situation where you really need to let other, more knowledgeable people help you through the rough currents?

Maybe they’re not perfect. Maybe they make mistakes. Maybe you don’t understand what they’re telling you, or you feel frightened and anxious about what they’re saying. Maybe a wave of fear crashes through and for a moment you feel your head go under the cold, salty, rough seas that are sometimes the reality of life with diabetes.

I know that I have been guilty of lashing out at well-meaning people. When I think of it, I pause and say a little prayer, "Please, please, please don’t let me drown the person who is trying to help me."

Sometimes, we need to relax a little, breathe between the waves, try to trust that even through they’re not perfect, even though they make mistakes, even through we might feel totally overwhelmed, bit by bit, day by day, we very likely are getting a little bit closer to shore and we’re not getting there all by ourselves. Other people are helping us!

Try to listen objectively, take notes, when you’re calm, ask questions about the things you don’t yet understand, pace yourself, learn one new thing at a time, become willing to relax back into the ebb and flow of diabetes. I’m speaking to me here, too. An occasional 300 is not going to kill us. An occasional 50 is not going to kill us. An occasional bleeding injection site is not going to kill us. An occasional painful BG test is not going to kill us. A less-than-stellar nutrition appointment is not going to kill us. One frustrating endo appointment is not going to kill us. A grandmother or cousin or co-worker making an insensitive comment or offering us something we shouldn’t eat is not going to kill us.

The next time you feel like freaking out at someone on your care team - from your wife to your mother, your doctor or her nurse, your pharmacist or someone on-line who gives you advice you find less than helpful, a co-worker or team mate who makes a well-meaning comment that is so ignorant that you could scream, think of Bobby, struggling in the icy gray sea, doing his very best to save the life of a friend, putting his friend’s life above his own, and ask yourself, "Am I drowning one of the people who is trying to help me?"

Maybe we could tone back the anger a bit, ramp back on the panic, take a step back from the tart retort, breathe and find it in our hearts to be grateful that other people - as imperfect as we all are - are at least willing to try to help us. We can be gracious, compassionate, forgiving. If it’s not helpful, we can say, “Hey, thanks but no thanks” with a warm, heart-felt smile.

We can take a minute to look at it from Bobby’s point of view: he’s not a super hero, but bless his heart, he’s swimming for us just as hard as he can.