“Ask for what you want,” people tell you. “Be clear and precise about your needs,” they explain.
It seems a good plan, until you get to the important stuff.
“I need you to be present for me, engaged, enthusiastic and caring.”
It turns out you cannot ask people to get out of themselves and heal on anything other than their own schedule.
My sister spent her big birthday away last Sunday. This week we discussed when it would be good for me to deliver a birthday dinner. She was on vacation and promised me time, maybe a day trip, definitely a restaurant, all that.
We agreed on Sunday and I spent all day making a big batch of boiled dinner to share with her and the balloon clown. I plumped for a special cake she would like and everything.
When I didn’t hear from her, though, I knew that she was probably blown. I packed everything up and found her sacked out on her couch, stuffing herself with TJs cashews.
Right then I knew that she wasn’t going to accept the gifts I had brought for her, wasn’t going to be present. This wasn’t unexpected — it is writ large in our history — but it was heartbreaking. I wanted dinner too, but that wasn’t going to happen.
She has an interview this week for a job she very much wants, but when I am too exuberant and enthusiastic, affirming her power and desirability, she backs off, pushes me down.
As I stowed dinner in her refrigerator and washed a sink full of dishes, her friend called. Friend’s dad is home after hospital, with a live in aide, and the struggle around the needs of a very elderly person are real.
“How can he get the aide to be present for him, to be engaged, enthusiastic and caring?” my sister was saying to her friend on he phone. “Of course he just chooses to stay in bed rather than try and get her activated.”
I knew that I couldn’t make my parents ask for me to be present, engaged, enthusiastic and caring. With the Aspergers they couldn’t anyway, but even if they could ask for what they need, you can’t really ask someone to be present, to be engaged, enthusiastic and caring. They either show up or they don’t.
I spent so long showing up for the people around me. I was always ready to rumble, to reflect back what they were sharing, bouncing them back in away that amplified and affirmed them. It was crucial that I put my own stuff to the side and affirm their attempt to claim life, to be there, to have one more good day.
What do I want in the world? What do I need in the world? I need people to be present, engaged, enthusiastic and caring, mirroring me and affirming me in ways that empower and energize me.
That, though, is something you can’t ask for. No matter how much I modelled that behaviour, how much I gave people the kind of attention and love that I need in the world, asking them to get over their damn selves and be there is never really a functional or reasonable ask.
All they can give is all they can give, so you need to be grateful for it. I get that.
Often, though, it isn’t enough. That old guy who feels his life and agency slipping away doesn’t have the fight to try and get someone to engage the sparks he has left and turn it into a flame. Trying to ask for what he knows he can’t get will just wear him out and break his heart. His daughter can only give what she can give, even if he needs, needs, needs more.
You can’t ask for someone to be present, engaged, enthusiastic and caring about what you bring, no matter how much you try to make it your best, no matter how many times in the past they have promised to do so.
You end up having to meet them where they are, feeling the cold and knowing the darkness.
I told my parents what I needed when I was two. They couldn’t be there for me. When it became clear I was queer & challenging, scapegoating me as the target patient, trying to pound me down just seemed easier.
We give what we give, but we cannot tell people how to be present, engaged, enthusiastic and caring.
So we learn to stop expecting different and just stay in our own world.