Garbage bin
Photo: Dan Saelinger
On day one, I woke to a text message from an old friend whose life falls apart on a semiregular basis: "My life is falling apart. Again." Normally I would have called an emergency life-reassembly meeting at a Starbucks of her choosing. But I told myself this wasn't a real emergency.

Real emergencies aren't conveyed via text message. And because my friend's calamities are usually existential in nature—a general sense of ennui, a crisis of faith, a sudden rash of cynicism about free will—there's rarely anything I can do to solve them anyway.

Still, I couldn't help thinking that if she didn't need my help, she wouldn't have texted. I felt my CHT flaring up.

So I tried something new. Instead of helping, I sought help. I e-mailed Sue Patton Thoele, retired psychotherapist and author of The Courage to Be Yourself and The Mindful Woman, books written for those of us who dismiss our own needs to tend to others'.

Whenever I get the urge to help, Thoele told me, I should ask myself, If I never receive credit or thanks for this favor, do I still want to grant it?

I confessed to myself that what I really wanted, deep down, was to hear my friend tell me, "I knew you'd say the perfect thing."

Feeling sheepish, I snapped out of the fantasy and texted my friend: "I'm so sorry to hear that. xoxo." Then I spent the morning worrying that I was a pitiless porcupine.

Later that day, another friend e-mailed to share the news that the poetry press she'd launched had just gotten its first media attention. My immediate impulse was not to wish her many happy returns, but to shoot her a list of all the other media outlets she should contact. I was halfway through my list before I realized what I was doing. I deleted and started over.

"Congratulations!" I wrote. "I'm so proud of you!"

The prospect of composing a comprehensive public relations plan on the spot had made me so jittery, my pulse was racing. But the sense of calm that followed my decision to write a more appropriate e-mail got me through another 24 hours CHT-free.

And then I spotted a man standing on a street corner, looking puzzled. When I approached him on autopilot to ask if he needed directions, he looked at me, disoriented. "No," he said. He scratched his head. "I'm just...thinking."

He seemed neither touched nor surprised that I'd extended myself, which got me thinking about gender roles

In our e-mail exchange, Thoele had confirmed for me that "a woman's compulsion to help is both biologically and societally induced." Not only are we wired to offer support, but because our culture approves of the helper role for women, we help without thinking and everyone cheers us on.

The idea that my CHT might be rooted in sexist conventions irritated me so much that I unequivocally withheld my aid for an entire week. But on day eight, when I met two friends for dinner and the check came, I nearly relapsed. Ordinarily, I would have swiped the bill the second it hit the table, added the tip in my head, divided the total by three, and announced what everyone owed. This time I literally sat on my hands while two of the smartest people I know agonized over simple math.

Finally, one of them turned toward me. "Diana? Help?"

"Twenty-one each," I blurted. "Including the tip."

Next: The road to recovery


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