The night I heard the news of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, I did what I used to do to cope with stress — dissociate using any kind of chemical I could find. I went to the store and bought a pack of cigarettes after not smoking for two months, and went to my local bar where I proceeded to get wasted. I always liked going to this bar alone because on any given day it was inevitable that some interesting person would come along and strike up a conversation.
That particular night I found myself seated next to a man from Sierra Leone. After a few martinis, I wound up confiding in him that I felt like the scum of the universe that night because an earthquake had just struck Haiti, the bodies were piling up, it was possible that my family there was hurt or worse, and all I could do was sit in the comfort of my life in New York, in this bar, and worry about it. I told him I wanted to be on a plane there doing something to help, but instead I was sitting there not helping anyone, especially not myself.
He sort of chuckled and in a very wise old man way (even though he was only 25) took me to look here: he was from fucking Sierra Leone. Most of the people there live in poverty, there are civil wars and violence all the time and people generally live in fear. It wasn’t until the Blood Diamond came out that most people in the US even heard of the place, which is an indication of how little foreign intervention they get there. He told me wants to do so much to help his family and friends there all time, but he was sitting right with me and not feeling guilty about it at all. Why? “Because that’s all anyone wants, is the ability to because to just sit somewhere and not have to worry about anything in that moment. It’s all my family wanted for me,” he said. And then he told me something for the first time that I would hear many times over the next few years, which is that you have to help yourself first if you want to have any hope of helping other people.
I struggled with this concept at first because on the one hand it sounds like rationalization for laziness and selfishness. But when it comes down to it, it’s just accurate at a very basic level. That’s not to say that you can’t always be helping people. I help people when I can and love doing so. But in the past few years I have found myself overextending. I tend to attract people who try to take advantage of my compassion, who perhaps haven’t quite figured out how to sever the parental ties and look for mothers and fathers in other people. They look for it in me because they see me as independent, someone who “has her shit together,” and they cling for dear life hoping I can help them be the same way. And I want to, and part of the reason I work so hard is so that someday I will be able to, but sometimes I just can’t. But I’m terrible at saying no to people when they ask for help, so sometimes I try and try and it drains all my energy from my very core, and I turn into this listless shell who can’t even walk to the corner store let alone address an international crisis. I am independent and I probably do have my shit together more than the average 26-year-old living in New York City, but I am that way because I have to be. I don’t have a safety net like so many of my peers, so when I fall, it really hurts. I can’t afford to fall anymore.
So don’t worry if you hear me going on about raw food and meditation. I’m not joining a hippie cult or something, although the yoga studio across the street could pass for one. I really just want to try everything that crosses my path to be healthy, so I help other people in the biggest way possible while I’m still able, and I’m really grateful for the people who are able to help me do that right now.