Arlene is on the SCENE

The Helping Relationship–Who’s Who?

Posted on: January 26, 2011

I wanted to write about our recent article in the Quadangles magazine, especially as we begin writing the sequel to Arlene On the Scene and get into this whole “helping/caretaking” issue.  In the article, I am described as offering help, or “ministrations,” to Marybeth while we were roommates in college.  Okay, that’s true.  But I’m afraid my point that this was as helpful to me as it was to  Marybeth might be written off as just another line in the caretaker’s script, just a standard demure response to the waterfall of gratitude.

The helping relationship is incredibly complicated.   I should know; I have lived it both personally with Marybeth and professionally as a social worker.  From the outside, it really does look like selflessness, pure human kindness, in essence a one-way street.  But I just don’t see it that way from in here.

There is incredible personal reward for those who help others.  It’s  just there, whether it stems from your religion, your value system, your personal moral code.  We’re a connected society, and when one reaches out to help another, that helper gets rewarded, usually directly and in the moment, as well as indirectly from others.  In a lot of these situations, the helper enjoys an increased sense of efficacy, self-worth, perhaps even…power?

When it comes to people living with disabilities, sometimes their life is stuffed to the brim with situations in which they need to ask for help.  Inherent within the “Can you help me?” can be “…because I can’t do it myself.”  And then of course, there’s the thanking of the person who has helped them.  Does this get old?  I really wonder what would be left of my own sense of efficacy, self-worth, and power if I were in that position.

As we advance our thinking about people living with disabilities, as we begin to embrace disabilities as differences that enhance the mosaic of our society, I think we also need to rethink the helping relationship.  Caretakers and those who offer help deserve every bit of gratitude, no doubt.  But when I think back to my college days, and I read the article in Quadangles, I’m sticking with my version of events: I benefited as much or more from those years as a caretaker, and I’d redo it again in a heartbeat.  Because I got something out of it too.

Who is helping who?  It’s a two-way street.

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