When I was a kid, I used to think that sitting by the bedside of someone who was sick or suffering was something people only did in movies. Like in The Princess Bride, where the frame story is a grandfather reading an adventure novel to his grandson, who is home sick from school. Or maybe something that people used to do in Good Middle Class Homes, where Mother's "only" job was to keep the house and tend to the kids, but which had slowly died out under the pressures of modern life.

Certainly, no one did it for me. I learned early on that it wasn't much good to ask my parents for comfort. I remember my mother running herself ragged when I had the chicken pox, but it stands out to me, because I can't remember her ever doing that before or since. The main result of pestering either parent for help was that they'd stand around being crabby, especially if I tried it in the middle of the night. When I was ten or so, I decided that I could just hold my own hair back if I had to throw up at 3am, and tell them I was too sick for school when they came to wake me in the morning. Sitting at my bedside, keeping me company in an effort to make me feel better, was right out.

And yet, I found myself doing just that a couple of weeks ago, for someone who wasn't actually dying but probably half wished he was. There's a long and in hindsight kind of funny story about how I got there, but the gist of it is, I have a friend whose brain likes to give him elaborately sadistic migraines. I don't function when I have a migraine because I get holes in my vision, I can't concentrate, and I'm a terrible human being when I'm in pain; he doesn't function when he has his because his entire brain goes into kernel panic and starts shutting down processes at random until it accidentally hits a stable state from which to reboot. If I'm free when it happens, I offer to come take proper care of him. Occasionally he says 'yes', and this kind of alarms me, because he's the sort of guy who would respond to a major limb dropping off by asking around for some duct tape while assuring everyone in earshot that he's FINE! JUST FINE! REALLY! and that he can totally finish his basketball game. If he accepts help, that basically means that he can feel his brain starting to drip out through his ears, and it hurts so much he can no longer muster an argument for why I would be wasting my time.

This one left him temporarily aphasic, ataxic, visually-impaired, and it also mucked around with his cognition. He apparently thought he was covering for it well enough to go to a rehearsal. (Protip: When you have a migraine this bad, you look like you have a migraine this bad.) He called one of our other friends to give him a lift to the theater, and freaked her right the fuck out. I gave him my studied professional opinion of, "No you are fucking NOT running a slapstick routine like that, go back upstairs and lie down," and enforced that by standing in the middle of his front stairway until he gave up and did what I told him. It turns out it's really hard to argue with me when you can't operate words, although I am the one who once stole a roommate's shoes after she had passed out cold on the bathroom floor, then called her manager while she was still coming around to prevent her from going to work like that, so he was unlikely to win that one anyway.

(This also resulted in another entry in my list of Things The Burlesquers Make Me Say, the stunning triumph of logic: "If you can't feel your hands, how are you going to get your pants off?" I still think this argument holds water.)

Migraines are not dangerous per se. They just suck with the unrestrained gusto of a nuclear-powered shop vac. He had a long history of all the horrible symptoms, so I wasn't particularly concerned that this was the one time he was secretly all sneaky having a stroke. Worry-wise, my main one was that he'd hurt himself trying to do something physical while he was lurching around like a broken marionette. So mainly what I did was fetched him an ice pack, settled myself on the edge of the bed, and sat there, hand on his shoulder, while he buried his face in a pillow and stubbornly continued to exist long enough to outlive the excruciating head pain.

It seems to have been what he wanted, although I doubt I could have gotten him to say so even if he could have strung together a sentence. Any time he thought I might be getting up to leave, he started trying to interact with me; since he was still largely offline, it was mostly halting, agrammatic garble, with a lot of "I'm sorry" and "why do you worry about me so much?" mixed in.

This is usually the point in the proceedings where I realize I have no idea how I got myself where I am. I'm pretty good at knowing my own motivations, but why other people let me do the things I do is largely a mystery to me. People inform me of decisions, not the reasoning behind them. But this time, I do think I know why I'm sometimes allowed to take care of him, when other people are not: I know what this costs him.

He comes from a family background that is, in some ways, a lot like mine. It's a system where you're praised for not needing anything, and viciously ridiculed if you do. Wanting things is not allowed. Needing things is outright banned. Proper humans are entirely self-sufficient. Or else.

Asking for help is failure. It means you can't do something. It doesn't matter if the reason you can't do it is your fault or not -- asking for help because you fucked something up and can't fix it alone, and asking for help because a medical condition is preventing you from functioning normally are both a black mark on your record. How many times can you ask for allowances before people start thinking you just can't do your damn job? You need to control the uncontrollable, and if you can't (why can't you? what's the matter with you?), the only way to cope is to make sure that no one ever finds out you're not 100%. If you're not up to par, you have to make a choice between letting everyone think you're normally this incompetent, or letting everyone think you're so weak you can't deal with "just" a little stress.

How many black marks are you allowed before someone takes you gently aside and suggests that maybe you're not qualified to be a part of human society? A million? A thousand? One? If you were in school, they could bust you down a grade, but where do you go when you fail life? There isn't anywhere. Normal people -- people who have social support, and know they're encouraged to use it -- might be kind of vaguely afraid that if they crack they'll get teased for being the weenie who threw up on his date and had to go home. But if you were trained into self-sufficiency über alles, any admission of weakness risks annihilation. You can't know if the last time you knuckled under was the last of your allotment. It's not 'do I want to be tough or do I want to maybe annoy a few people by not finishing my work today?' It's 'if I tough it out alone, maybe no one will find out I don't belong here.'

This is not something you can unlearn in a day. Even if you've had it explained to you in little tiny words that you're not in that situation anymore, and you are in fact supposed to tell people when you need a hand, you don't stop being afraid. If you can make yourself ask, the anxiety of awaiting the punishment you instinctively think is coming is unbearable. If the punishment doesn't come, the guilt is crushing. You feel lost. You have no idea what to do with that -- kindness isn't a thing you deserve and you're not allowed to have it, so why bother learning how to cope with it? Even the positive parts are overwhelming. The gratitude comes in waves so big it hurts, and you can't tell anyone about it, because you're sure this is a massive overreaction and they won't have any idea how to respond. Even feeling thankful means you're fucking something up.

On the surface, that was a simple interaction: One of my friends felt like hell, so I came over and nursed him a bit and hung out until he felt less like hell, which turns out to be a thing that people actually do, or at least a thing that I actually do. But admitting that that's what he wants is like flinging himself off a cliff and trusting someone else will have put a net out to catch him, and it will be for a long time yet. Even when it works, you come out of it bruised.