Help Yourself – An Essay

There must be a hundred of them, at $15 a crack.  That’s fifteen hundred buckaroos.  Not even counting the ones I borrowed from the library or from friends.  I mean, it not as much as I’ve spent on, say, movies or red wine but it’s a serious chunk of change, nonetheless.

 Yep.  I’m talking about books.  Self-help books, to be specific.

Books on how, when, what and why to eat and exercise.  Books on money: attracting it, ignoring it, saving it, spending it.  Books on how to get a job.  Books on how to leave a job.  Books on being alone.  Books on being together.  Books on self-esteem.  Books on letting go of self.  Books on how to get more.  Books on how to do with less.   Books on who cut or stole or moved my cheese. Books on how to create or manage or defy time.  Books that gave me Seven Habits and Twelve Steps and 101 ways to blah, blah, blah… Books on how to do just about anything from giving birth to passing away, even if I am a Dummy and/or an Idiot. 

Books that tell me in one way or another that I’m not good enough and here is how I can be good enough.  Results?   Well, of course I’m still not “there” yet but I’m still trying.  Luckily, there have been some amusing stories along the way.

In 1973, after marrying my college sweetheart, moving across an ocean to Hawaii and away from family and friends, having two kids, then discovering what a terrible mistake all that had been, I read a book.  I’m O.K., You’re O.K. I learned about three ego states into which a person can switch: the Parent, the Adult and the Child. I learned about transactional analysis.  A mouthful.  As I let the kids cry and the dinner go uncooked, I read and I read. That book spoke to me, held out hope, talked about a new beginning in this miserable adult world I had found myself. 

 After I finished it, I saw a list in the Appendix of the book, names of practitioners of this brilliant new approach to personal psychology.  One was located in my very own (new) town.  I stuck a bottle in the baby’s mouth (having failed to master the lessons of another book I had just read – the La Leche League’s Guide to Breastfeeding) to keep him quiet and dialed the phone number of this guy. 

He answered, “Hello, can…?”

I launched in, “Hi.  I just finished reading the book.  It is amazing.  I think my problem is that I am relating to my husband as Parent and my children as Child and my parents are not really Adults, see, they have their own problems and they live so far away and I’m here all on my own with these kids who won’t stop crying and neither can I and I wondered if I could get some more training on T.A. and…”

As I stopped to wipe my snotty nose and weeping eyes, he broke in, “Excuse me, but I am a psychologist with a patient in my office.  Somehow you have reached my private line and I cannot speak with you now.”

“Oh.  Well.  Oh.  Sorry.  Bye.”  The last two, sorry and bye, I said to dead air.

Putting down my pretty Princess phone receiver, a relic from my carefree college life, I sat stunned.  Then, I began to laugh.  Laugh and laugh.  So pathetically funny.  See, even the “ I’m O.K., You’re O.K.” people didn’t think I was okay.

Going into the kitchen for another bottle of milk for the baby and one of red wine for me, I threw the book in the trash.

A few years later, having escaped that island of misery, I read the book, Passages for the first time.  I felt like Gail Sheehy had peeked through the curtains of my life and recorded what she saw.  After describing my “Trying Twenties,” she began on my new phase, “One common response, in our early thirties, is tearing up the life we so carefully constructed in our twenties.”   I took THAT to heart and began a three year backslide, landing on adolescence for the second time, pretending I was seventeen again, footloose and fancy-free.  Thanks, Gail, for the blueprint in and out of that mess.

My fortieth birthday found me happily remarried and the mother of teens, five of them, steps and birth children, boys and girls. And fat.  Me, that is, not the teens.  How the hell had that happened?  So, true to form, I turned to books.  The diet cookbooks made me hungry.  The relationship and parenting books made me hungrier.  The exercise books, oh my God, the exercise books, just reading them left me hungriest.  Low carb, high protein, food combining, Mediterranean, blood type, counting everything: exercise minutes, intensity, heartbeats, carbs, fiber, fat, calories, sodium, ounces and pounds… I read and counted my way into another 50 pounds. 

My favorite pastime in that era was reading books that held parenting advice.  I read them all.  Parent Effectiveness Training.  Ann Landers pamphlets.  Even watched the Brady bunch to look for step-parenting ideas.  Results?  Here is a typical exchange with the kids soon after having read the latest child rearing book. Or before I read it.  Or if I never read it.

“Mike, I just finished the laundry.  Please put your socks away. “

“Mom.  The guys are waiting for me out in the car.  We gotta go to basketball.  Don’t we have any food in this house?”

“Josh, can you put away your socks and take Mike’s into his bedroom and throw them on his bed?”

“Why do I always have to do everything?”

“Alethea, would…?

“Drop dead.”

“Well,” I finish,  “Maybe when Brian gets out of detention and Krishy moves back home from her boyfriend’s parents house, one of them will help.”  I leave the room to pour another glass of red wine.

Y2K, which I survived by numerous self-help books written to prepare for the end of the world, found me, in the words of Gail Sheehy, “Setting Off for The Midlife Passage.” The kids moved out, started their families; I worked like crazy for another decade.  Having read What Color is Your Parachute years before, I thrived as a mid-level manager.  I obsessed on business self-help books.  The One Minute Manager.    The Tipping Point.  Dilbert.  But by now I had an expense account to buy all this self-help.  Here’s a classic example of how that went:

“Beverly, can you come into my office please.”

“What’s up, boss?”

“Let me clarify.  You are asking me if I have something to say to you, right?” Practicing my “feedback what you hear” lesson in clear communication.

“Yeah.  You called me in here.  What can I do for you?”  She’s used to it by now.

“The question, Beverly, is not what you can do for me but rather what I can do for you.”  I consult my newest book while trying to look right at her, deeply and sincerely then say,  “My job is to support you.  Remember, we have an upside-down hierarchy, a flat organization, see?  I am here solely to help you do a better job.”  By now I am reading directly from the book.

“Um, Donna.  I have to get out payroll.  Do you need me or can I get back to my desk?”

“Yes.  Well.  About payroll.  We have a new payroll service, much cheaper, and your job is being eliminated.”

I scan the book for hints on how to deal with her hysterical crying.  At home that evening I find solace at the bottom of a bottle of red wine.

Toward the end of this first decade of the new century, I retired.  In this phase, I had all the time, day and night, to focus on me, me, me.  The new improving version of me, me, me.  “Groping Toward Authenticity,” is the chapter in which Gail Sheehy labels my efforts, as I tracked my developmental stages in Passages.

 Up popped Another New Me.  A spiritual me.  A spiritual, meditating, mindful me.  Complete with a new set of books, borrowed and bought.  Meditation for Dummies.  Mindfulness Workbook.  Creative Visualization (again).  A Path with Heart.  How to be a Green and Juicy Crone. (I promise – I did not make this up.)

Here is an example of me, with a friend, discovering the ancient wisdom of Native American self-help, The Book of Medicine Cards and Animal Spirits

“Turn them both over.”  I say to Deirdre, my best friend of forty-five years.  “Put one up against your forehead and the other against your heart.”

“What is this?  A poultice or some kind of reading?” Deirdre, also known as DeeDee, the Skeptic.

“Well.  That is what it says to do here in the book.  First, shuffle the deck.  Spread the cards.  Pick up two, placing one against your…”

“Shut up. Just tell me what they mean.”

“Well.  Let’ see.  Number 4.  The Owl.  It means you are wise and…”

“Put on your glasses.  It is Number 8, not 4.  It’s the Coyote.”

“Is it upside down?  No?  Then it means you are crafty and your Father Sky is ready to howl.  Wait.  Ready to help, I mean.  I got the “Dog” one.  Let’s see what that means.”

“Maybe you’re ready to howl?” my friend brays. 

“Dog.  Loyal.  That’s me, alright.  But where is the lesson in that?”

“I think it means pack it in.  Get it?  Let’s open that new bottle of red I see sitting there.”

But lately, after checking in with my other long-time best friend, Passages and her mother, Gail, I find I am in the “Renewal Phase”.   She promises that at the end of this phase, I will have, “Approval of Oneself At Last.”  Hmmmm.  We’ll see.

And sure enough, there’s another new me.  A new, non-drinking me. My biggest self-help book for my current age and stage is “The Big Book”, fond nickname for the AA bible.  Life is very interesting sober.  And sometimes painful.  I’ve had to find other ways to self-soothe than that red, red wine.

Long hot baths with meditation podcasts are a favorite of mine now.  Having books read to me by actors whose voices speak quietly to me from my bedside IPod. Solitary drives with old music blasting, while soaking in the surrounding scenery.   Chopping vegetables from my garden and making big pots of homemade soup. Watching Bravo.(oops, guilty secret…)

And writing.  Mostly fiction, or what passes for fiction but is really thinly veiled recantations of how I wished my life had really been. Or feared it might have been. Or some combination thereof.

But maybe I’ll try my hand at self-help next.  I’ll title my book, How To Find Happiness and Fulfillment Through Taking Everyone Else’s Advice, However Contrary, and Ignoring It and Then Stumbling Through On Your Own Anyway and Finding Some Modicum of Peace. 

It’ll be short.



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10 Responses to Help Yourself – An Essay

  1. Love it, Donna! Glad you stumbled into my class and so glad I now know the funny, so true backstory. I am waiting for your new book! And short is good!

  2. Barbara Toboni says:

    This is a really good essay, Donna. I enjoyed it. I don’t think you can write a short book, but go for it anyway!

  3. Jackie Reynolds says:

    That was great! You keep me in stiches! 🙂

    • Donna says:

      Stiches are good, right? Wait until I start talking about my H2O therapy – might call you out by name! I believe……

  4. Deirdre Coyne says:

    You’re not OK & I’m not OK.
    I love this essay!

  5. Helen Modie says:

    Dear Donna, Reading this brought a mixture of tears and big smiles to me. What you wrote here has such sweet but searing truth to it. I still remember the first day I met you in September of 1965, and how fond I’ve always been of your honesty and humor. I love this piece of writing.

    • donnaleeblog says:

      Thanks for these kind words, Helen. I was such an odd duck at SCU and thankfully didn’t even know how different I was coming into it. A public high girl from a blue color family with big teeth and a big mouth, i thought I could do anything, adjust anywhere, and succeed. It was kind girls like you that made my life possible.

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