Once long ago--but not so long ago that I could use youth as an excuse--I fell for a brother. Hard. A young physician in London responded to the online profile I had posted on a matchmaking site. Four months and several exorbitant phone bills later, I'd decided that a certain A-line dress was the most flattering cut for bridesmaids.
That's when he stopped calling.
I panicked. When I managed to catch him on his cell, he bookended our brief, awkward exchanges with the excuse that hospital rounds left him too exhausted to talk. He promised to visit. He never booked a flight. I FedExed a gift for his birthday. He "forgot" mine. I found a smarmy line from a dating book--"Call it quits if he quits calling"--and Scotch-taped it to my phone. Failed that one, big-time.
Any woman not blinded by romance would have viewed this man's waning attention as a flashing exit sign. But amid protests from my friends, I declared his disregard to be "emotional residue." I reasoned that his angry alcoholic father and his cheating ex had embittered him. What he needed, I told myself, was a sympathetic ear. I prodded, coddled, advised, affirmed. For every admission of pain I pulled from him, I was ready with the perfect antidote. By May, the romantic slow dance of January had given way to a wild staccato two-step: He revealed. I healed.
I should have known better. I'm the second eldest of nine in the motion-picture drama that was my family. In my role as best supporting actress, I was the caregiver, referee, Mama's little helper, Big Sister on line one. I changed diapers, cornrowed hair, checked homework, filled Cheerios bowls. If childhood taught me my script, adulthood became the stage on which I delivered my lines. I evolved into a crisis manager-on-call who urged others to flee toxic friends and lovers. Which is why it confounded me that when a certain brother with a sexy accent called, my hunger for intimacy (and a compelling fantasy plot) trumped every ounce of good sense I had.
At summer's end, my hard head decided I had to fly to London to discover what my best friend had been telling me since February. This man didn't need a partner. He needed a prescription for Paxil. In me, he had a girlfriend, therapist, savior. Over tea, we discussed his breakneck schedule, the British economy, terrorism, his family drama. Never once during our three hours together did he ask, "How are you?" After I arrived home, I ended what can't even be called a romance.
I spent six months examining what playing nursemaid had left me too engrossed to notice: Others in my orbit also required emotional resuscitation. At the center was my own need to be nurtured, admired, loved--needed. If Flo Nightingale administers the lifesaving medicine, the English Patient cannot abandon her. I wasn't born with an extra helping of generosity. I kept others close by taking care of them.
GIVING TILL IT HURTS
Turns out I have company. When I sent out a message in search of women who give too much, the flood of responses crippled my E-mail. Sisters from Oakland to Atlanta offered stories of overtime worked, church committees chaired, relationships destroyed. We hyperhelpers are described by a slew of titles--people pleasers, compulsive caregivers, codependents, giveaholics. But a pleaser by any name still feels exhausted. On her list of dirtiest words, no is at the top. She wouldn't call herself a doormat. By contrast, she's often the achiever, the healer, the leader--the woman more comfortable granting favors than receiving them.
Though often labeled the disease to please, caregiving is not, in and of itself, an illness, says New York City therapist Jeree Wade. "But if your motivation is to make someone else dependent on you or to feel good about yourself, the behavior is unhealthy and can make you sick."
Literally. A woman I'll call Tanya* has jeopardized her health to serve as Rescue 911. The 30-year-old writer from Detroit has borrowed money to financially bail out her sister and is usually the one all her friends seek out for help with relationship troubles. "I'm perceived as this emotional bedrock, yet when I need a shoulder to lean on, I don't know where to go," she says. "I'll call a friend, tears streaming down my face, and without my even asking, 'How are you doing?' she'll launch into her own problems. I don't have an emotional outlet."
Which is why she started drinking. And smoking. And pushing away her plate. Last summer, five-foot, five-inch-tall Tanya rapidly dropped from 144 to 121 pounds--a weight she hadn't been even in high school. Her doctor told her she was making herself sick. "I couldn't control the requests from friends or family. But I could control how much I ate," says Tanya. As for her nicotine fix, "When the phone rang and I would see my sister's name on the Caller ID, my heart would race. I'd grab a cigarette to calm down. For years I've set myself up to be the savior. I wanted people to say, 'Look how strong she is.'"
It's a centuries-old characterization in danger of becoming a caricature: Black woman as tower of strength. Protector. Healer. Performer. "During slavery and Jim Crow, the ones who gained favor were the ones who made White folks say, 'Why can't all Black folks be like you?'" says Angela Neal-Barnett, Ph.D., an Ohio psychologist. "Pleasing became the one way of escaping punishment and getting ahead."
WHY WE DO IT
Experts agree that the reasons we fall so easily into this behavior are varied and complex. Among the most common:
To gain acknowledgment. In her novel Their Eyes Were God, Zora Neale Hurston declared the Black woman "the mule of the world"--strong, yes, but also the most displaced figure in this country's racial hierarchy. "Often the way Black women counter the sense of invisibility and prove their credibility is to do more than their fair share of the work," write Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph.D., in Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America (Perennial). We save the company, save our families, save the community. And then we forget that even a savior needs a spa day. To comfort our inner child. Neal-Barnett and Wade agree that upbringing is often what separates overgivers from receivers. "Pleasers often parent when they're young--perhaps because their primary caregiver is ill, on drugs or otherwise unavailable," says Wade. "Whatever the reason, caregiving gives the child a chance to be close to the parent, to feel necessary and important. She grows up thinking that in order for people to be available to her, she has to take care of them." Such is the case with Tanya, who was raised by her alcoholic mother. "Our relationships are a dance we use to resolve our unmet childhood needs," adds Wade.
Renaye, 33, is married to a man she bottle-feeds and burps. "I'm his secretary, I run his errands. I stop what I'm doing to look up things on the Internet for him," she says. "Our relationship has always been about his happiness." Even at work, this office manager is responsible for--surprise--pooper-scooping other people's messes.
A look back to Renaye's early days growing up yields a clue as to why: Not only was her mom an overgiver, but also her father was incarcerated for most of Renaye's childhood. Upon his release, the couple divorced. "Because my dad wasn't there, I always longed for a man's presence," Renaye says. "I wanted the love that my father never gave me." What she signed up for instead was a lifelong community-service project. She admits that she's as harried as her own single mother was 25 years ago. "Mom didn't know how to say no," Renaye says. "She worked overtime, went to ball games, social activities. Most nights she was exhausted. I've grown up to be just like her." To counter feelings of worthlessness. Beverly, 44, has finally identified the feelings that led her into a marriage in which she feels overwhelmed and undersupperted. She and her husband of six years maintain separate bank accounts, with most of the household expenses paid from hers. Beverly also does most of the caregiving for his 11-year-old twins--sons he had with another woman during a break in their 15-year relationship. "When I was a girl, grown family members would say, 'How come you aren't as pretty as your sisters?' To this day, it bothers me. I wanted to be loved by everyone so much that I did whatever I could to please."