Written by Elizabeth Schaefer, LPC, CADC
Have you ever known about a situation ahead of time and made a smart and detailed plan for it, but when the moment arrives, the real-world situation doesn’t look anything like you thought it would? MBC Psychotherapist, Elizabeth Schaefer, sure has. Find out what happened to Elizabeth and how she learned an incredible lesson about asking for help in The Maze.
When I was a junior in high school, Operation Snowball offered a lock-in event at my school. We would bring our blankets and pillows with us on Friday, stay at the school all weekend, eat in the cafeteria, and leave on Sunday. I have a few strong memories from that weekend, but the one that really stands out was from Saturday afternoon.
The adults gathered all of us teenagers at the door to the basketball court and informed us that our next activity was going to be a maze, and we were going to be blindfolded while we were solving it. I only remember there being three rules. Number one, don’t touch your blindfold, or anyone else’s blindfold. Number two, follow the maze. In other words, don’t just wander around randomly. Number three, be considerate. If you bump into someone, say “Excuse me,” move around them, and keep going. We’ll clap and cheer for you when you find the exit.
I remember being so excited. Somewhere in the years leading up to that moment, I had read about how to solve mazes, and I was eager to try out my new skill. It was as if I could hear someone’s voice in my ear: Just keep your left hand on one wall of the maze. Eventually, you’ll find the way out. It might seem like you’re going down every wrong turn there is, but if you never take your left hand off the wall of the maze, you will solve it successfully. When one of the adults blindfolded me and put me in line behind my classmates, I was ready. I was going to walk through the door, find a wall of the maze, put my left hand on it, and follow it until I got out.
This plan ran into a major complication as soon as I walked through the door. I couldn’t see anything, of course, but the adult on the other side of the door put my hand on a rope that was about as thick as my thumb and stretched out horizontally at roughly hip height from the door handle. This, I was told, was the maze: ropes connected to other ropes. There were no “walls” as such. I’m pretty sure I accepted that as being a smart way to make a “maze” that didn’t take ages to set up and couldn’t be knocked over by a hypothetical trouble-making teenager. With that, I was sent into the maze.
I felt pretty good about my chances at first. I didn’t think I was the brightest kid in my class in absolute terms, but I knew I was smart, and I suspected that not many of them would have learned maze-solving strategies. I put my left hand on the rope, confidently walked forward until it met up with other ropes, picked the next rope in the knot going clockwise from the rope I was on, and kept walking. That was the best approximation I could make for “turning left.” Some of the knots of ropes had only two or three additional options for which way to turn. Others had a lot of them. I wasn’t able to keep a map going in my head after about six or seven nodes, but I kept finding knots that felt like they were different, so I figured I was making progress.
Every so often, someone would come up to me and say “Do you need help?” I kept saying, “No, thank you.” I had a plan! I was going to follow the maze around with my left hand until I got out.
After maybe five minutes, I was starting to get annoyed. I really wanted to push the blindfold up so that I could see, just a little, but I was too much of a rule-follower to actually do that. What I did do was make the most I could out of the little bit I could see between my nose and the blindfold. Ropes connected to ropes at about hip height, over more and more of the gym floor. Then, all of a sudden, I heard cheering and clapping. One of my classmates had solved the maze.
At that point I started to get angry. How had someone else gotten out before me? Maybe they made a lucky guess, I reasoned. Maybe they were one of the first ones in and they’d had longer to figure it out. I could be almost to the exit myself. I had a Plan, and it was going to work! I consoled myself with the knowledge that following one wall might lead to the center of the maze before it led to the exit. I just had to give it more time.
Then there was more clapping and cheering. And then it happened again, and again, and again. I knew there were about twenty of us, and the cheering was getting louder and louder as more of my classmates solved the maze and joined in with the adults to applaud each new solver. By this point I was nearly in tears. How had my plan not worked? It was supposed to get me out! The maze strategists had promised me: Just trace the left side of the maze with your hand, and eventually, you’ll come to the exit. How much maze could there be in one high school gym?
I kept walking with my left hand on the rope and brushed off all these annoying people who kept coming around and asking if I needed help. My answers changed from “No thank you” to just “No.” I might have told one or two of them to leave me alone. I had a plan! It was going to work! I just needed to stick with it. Everything would make sense once I solved the maze and got this confounded blindfold off of me.
You might see where this is going by now. I didn’t have a clue, at the time.
Eventually, there weren’t many of us left in the maze, and the silences between people’s exits were getting longer. I felt like we had been there for hours. (Looking back on it, it was probably about fifteen minutes.) I finally arrived at one of the biggest knots there was in the maze. It felt like it was nearly the size of a basketball and had something like twelve different ropes coming off it in all directions. Somehow it dawned on me, while I was standing there and trying to look down at the knot through the tiny gap between my blindfold and my nose, that I had no idea how many of the ropes at that junction I might have walked along already. I could have walked along six of them and would have no way of telling. I could have been going in circles the entire time, except that I hadn’t found myself back at the gym door, either. I was lost.
I stood there at the huge knot of ropes, trying so hard not to cry. I like to win when I play games (don’t we all?), and this felt like losing. I was mostly angry at myself for not being able to figure it out. Deep down in my mind, a part of me was also scared that I had misunderstood the rules and that I was doing something wrong, or even worse, that my mind was playing tricks on me. I didn’t know what to do. Then someone came up behind me, stood a little way off – I could feel their presence, but not in a creepy way – and said quietly, “Do you need help?”
Reader, at that point I finally admitted that yes, I did need help. And behold, the blindfold was lifted from my eyes, and I could see. Between where I was standing and the edge of the room, where my classmates and the adults were now cheering for me, was a tangled web of ropes with no “in” and no “out” to be found. It was a trick! The only way out of the “maze” was to admit that you needed help.
I’ve thought of that lesson again and again since that day. I can be a stubborn creature, and once I have a Plan for how I’m going to do something, I can have such a hard time admitting that it’s not working and that I need an outside assist. (It can even be hard to say, “I need help.” Sometimes I find it easier to say “I could use some support.”) It’s even worse if my grand Plan has something to do with my mental health. I really want to be able to do all the adult things on my own. I want to be the one person in life who can have a full-time job, a clean house, and a happy and well-attended-to family, and eat home-cooked food for every meal, and have effortlessly good mental health, and have cats who like to cuddle when I want cuddles and yet somehow don’t shed on my work clothes. See how my superhero cape flaps in the wind?
I don’t think anybody actually has that life. The only way I know for anyone to get a life that looks anything like that is with a lot of help from not just family and friends, but also colleagues or teammates, as well as all the people who do things like cook food at restaurants and carry the boxes of tomatoes from here to there. And I think that’s normal. Many cultures tell a story in which two groups of people are seated at similar tables. There is plenty of food on the tables, but the people have eating utensils that are too long, or for some reason their arms don’t bend at the elbows. One of the groups insists on trying to do everything themselves. None of them can get the food into their mouths, and they are all hungry. In the other group, the diners realize that they can use their long utensils to feed the people across the table, and everyone gets fed.
To be honest, I don’t even know how many people have effortlessly good mental health anymore. That might be a myth unto itself. Between climate concerns, political concerns, health concerns, and money concerns, there’s a lot to have strong feelings about, and that’s both valid and understandable. So if you find yourself with an empty stomach and either a too-long set of eating utensils or an unbendable elbow, please consider that your current way of doing things may not be working for you, and allow me to offer you a bite to eat.
Admitting you need help is a hefty first task and asking for that help might seem like an impossible maze to navigate. Let Mind Body Co-op be the support that approaches at a distance, and quietly says, “Do you need help?” Click here to start mapping your way out of the maze and towards the road to wellness.
Written by Mind Body Co-op Psychotherapist & Addiction Specialist, Elizabeth Schaefer, LPC, CADC. Elizabeth was born and raised in Chicago, got her Masters degree in Clinical Professional Psychology at Roosevelt University, and then added a certificate in Addictions Studies from Harold Washington College. She is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), a certified alcohol and drug counselor (CADC), and a proud member of Kink and Poly Aware Chicago Therapists (KPACT). For the last 8 years, Elizabeth has been doing a mix of psychotherapy and addictions counseling. This has ranged from once-a-month individual therapy to daily sessions on inpatient detox units – she has been around awhile and seen a fair bit. She has also had years of experience working with trauma and helping people get to a point where their past doesn’t run their lives anymore. Elizabeth is currently working towards her certification in EMDR Therapy and is already healing trauma through EMDR with her clients.
Mind Body Co-op is Chicago’s only space for individuals to discover, explore, and heal what is occurring internally at the cognitive, emotional, and physical levels. This unique, holistic approach to treatment and wellness is born out of the belief that examining the cognitive, emotional, and physical pieces and how they intersect helps lead to uncovering your full potential by providing thoughtful, collaborative, and complete integrative mental health care. We offer a variety of clinical services, including individual psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, psychological/neuropsychological assessments, medication management, CPT (comprehensive transitional program), somatic mindfulness, somatic groups, DBT, adventure therapy, therapeutic yoga, and more. We provide culturally competent services in English, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Russian & Arabic.