The Privilege of Independence

When my parents dropped me off for my first day of camp when I was five they expected it to be tough. It was tough, but just for them. I was ready to leave and meet new people and to be on my own. When my dad came to visit me at lunch I even gave him the cold shoulder; I was busy with my new friends! I have always been extremely independent even that young. I do not like having to rely on others and prefer to trust myself to take care of me.

We expect to need others to rely on both early and late in life. Children are unable to care for themselves and the elderly often experience the same fate. In our society this dependence is both accepted and expected. However, as adults, young and old, often we are expected to take care of ourselves and maintain 100% independence. This is not always the case. What happens when we get cannot rely on ourselves alone?

Independence and being able to rely on ourselves alone is a privilege. It isn’t one you would know you have unless you have lost it. For those of us with severe physical or mental illness we no longer have that privilege. If we do not rely on others (or are not lucky enough to have these people in our lives) we end up homeless, dead, or injured.

A few years ago I experienced 3-4 blood clots that sent my health into a downward spiral. I went from a fiercely independent high-achieving pre-med student, an avid volunteer, a distance runner, and a dancer to becoming bed-ridden. I also have Dysautonomia; in my case means that I faint anywhere from once a week to once every 15 minutes. I also discovered I have Ehler’s Danlos, leading my joints to dislocate or pop out of place and cause frequent excruciating pain. Occasionally, I can live normally and near independently, but often I have to rely on others. Sometimes I cannot get food myself, make enough money for rent, or even walk to the bathroom without a shoulder to lean on.

It has been an incredibly difficult journey, and I have had to learn to rely on other people and let go of independence. I loathe it; I abhor having to depend on others. I really do. Learning to rely on others without feeling like a burden has been one of the hardest thing I have had to face and likely will continue to face for the rest of my life. Because it is so difficult, I absolutely hate when people who are judgemental about my “lack of” independence.

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Friends, family, and infuriating strangers frequently make comments about how important maintaining independence is. They are often incredibly judgemental in doing so, and they are not entirely wrong. Many forms of independence are important and healthy. For example, I am all for healthy attachment in relationships. Individuals should stay an “I” instead of morphing into a “we” without lives of their own when they enter relationships, friendship or others. However, asking for help from your loved ones when you need it can be absolutely healthy and necessary. That is not an unhealthy loss of independence and should not be treated as such. Independence should be valued, but independence does not mean doing everything on your own. You can retain a healthy independence and depend on the help of others.

It has taken me some time to realize that asking for help when you need is not admitting weakness, but I have become a better person and have a better life as a result. I can’t live alone, but have learned to better appreciate my wonderful roommates. Learning to get help from others has helped me be a better friend too. Learning how to ask what you need from people helps them better ask you when they are in a tough spot. Realizing the strength it can take to ask for help makes it easier to help loved ones with that in mind. Additionally, I know the people who surround me are real friends and that we can lean on each other when we need to.  

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I have my own hobbies, friends, and job. I am independent in all the healthy ways that matter. However, I do have to rely on others and let go of independence because of my illness and that really is okay. Independence is absolutely important, but people need to stop equating needing the help of others with an unhealthy dependence on others. If you are healthy and have the privilege of not having to depend on anyone else- good for you. You also need to realize that is not the case for all of us. Many of us have to rely on others to survive and that does not make us any lesser than those who do not.

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