Only You Can Know Your Duty

We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me
~ 1985 lyrics to “We Are the World” by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson

My song.

I was startled out of a dream by the sound of an amazing orchestra with a chorus of backup singers, singing the famous Michael Jackson song, “We are the World.” I was in the spotlight on stage, singing too, but the words I was singing were different.

Only You can know your duty.

Only You.

No one else.

Only You can know your duty.


I don’t usually forget powerful dreams like this one, but apparently I did until last Saturday. On that day, I opened my iPad to pull up the New York Times, a habit I have each morning. I like to start my day by checking the news and maybe a few emails or texts, just so I have a handle on what happened during the evening, and what is coming up for the day.

What came up — out of seemingly nowhere — was a handful of emails I had sent over five years ago, including one about the dream that I had sent to my minister. He was impressed and suggested I record the song before I forgot. I meant to, but I got busy with other things. Isn’t that the way with human beings? We can be awakened by a potent message and then toss it aside in the busy-ness of taking a shower and looking for the right scarf to wear with that sweater — and matching earrings too!

This time though, I paid attention. On Saturday, five and a half years after I sent this email, why on Earth did it pop into my feed today? Plus, there were other emails too — all from that time period — reminding me of something very important — but what? So, I read every single one of them and the pieces started to fall into place.

My email.

I was shocked as I read the emails I had written to my cousins all of those years ago, warning them of my concerns for one of their siblings. Why was I shocked? Because I was reminded that I had tried desperately to warn the family of the tragedy that lay just around the corner. 

I sent these emails just days after returning from an out of state visit to a part of my extended family which was supposed to be a joyous celebration of the birth of a new grandbaby. Even as I held and admired the new baby, I struggled to contain my disbelief when I saw my dear cousin. The deterioration was intense. B– was morbidly obese, with pockets of fat skin spilling out of their shoes. They could hardly walk through the doorway. Although I intended to visit at B—‘s house too, the rest of the family advised against it because their house was an “awful mess.” 

I listened and watched and thought during that trip. I hadn’t seen B— in several years, so I hadn’t witnessed the disintegration of their health — and their life. But now it was obvious that B— was suffering and needed protection. I spoke privately to one of their siblings but got the brush off. Not quite denial but more an excuse that their hands were tied since “B—wouldn’t listen anyway.”

When I got home from the trip, I sent an email to the other siblings suggesting that B— was in “life threatening danger.” I listed my concerns specifically, not just about the obesity (about 400 pounds on a small-framed person), but also about the possibility of hoarding (i.e. the “awful mess” at their house), and a host of other symptoms that appeared to be autism to me. I considered it urgent that B—‘s family get on board. I suggested an intervention if B–  wouldn’t voluntarily seek professional help.

The responses I got back were painful enough the first time but excruciating on Saturday. All of the responses were defensive and nasty. 

  • The first response denied even the obesity (i.e. they “just need a good diet”).
  • I was accused of conspiring behind my cousin’s back. 
  • I was told that it was unethical to diagnose a relative.  
  • My professional standing was belittled (i.e. “You think everyone is autistic”).
  • They even went after me personally (i.e. “Just because your family is a mess, don’t come after ours”).

More emails four years later.

Why was it so excruciatingly painful to read these emails many years later? Because four years after I sent them, my dear cousin was hospitalized, near death, in a coma.

Here’s the short story. After not hearing from B—for a few days, a couple of family members went to their house. Amid the filth and the flies and the stench of the out-of-control hoarding, they found B— huddled in a corner, hallucinating and terrified to move. In the hospital they were diagnosed with encephalitis and place in an induced coma. The recovery was slow but after several weeks, they were transferred to a nursing home, and later assisted living. There was more than one incident of decompensating while under medical care — each time followed by a miraculous recovery. B—‘s home was stripped and disinfected — and sold in order to provide for their medical care and living expenses. They lost all of their belongings, including family heirlooms that had been entrusted to them by the family.

I called and texted and offered my help to this part of my extended family. They seldom responded, or  only sent a brief text of “thanks, we got this.” But they didn’t. They still were in massive denial about B—‘s problems. Yes they now accepted that a sweet life was in danger, but they could not accept their complicity. 

I get it that the guilt would be horrendous, but denial means they are still not prepared to do the healing that is required for the entire family to recover. So, I sent more emails, explaining what I know. Crickets.

What’s My Duty now?

As you can imagine, on Saturday when I re-read those emails from 5 ½ years ago, I burst into tears. I need some healing too. I tried to warn my family. I offered not just my professional opinion but also my love. But I couldn’t reach them. I couldn’t get past their confusion, their denial , their defensive accusations. I watched helplessly as a precious member of our family suffered without anyone to understand them and guide them to the medical and psychological help they needed.

So, what is my duty now, as my dreams from years past suggested? I am still unfurling that flag. I know it has something to do with being resilient so that I don’t cave when I know what I know. It also has something to do with trusting that there are lessons even in suffering. Another duty is to respect the rights of others to be wrong — in their wrongness are lessons unique to them.

“Only you can know your duty. Only You. No one else.” What I know, I will share with you shortly, so that it is not only me who knows this important fact — facts.

The first duty is to me. Easier said than done, but if we all take note of this you can do so much more with your lives. Frequently  I tell my clients to be brave, to take on the tough stuff of your life, to be authentic — to Stand Up, Speak Out, and Talk Back. But this is so much easier than living your life for joy. Think about it, if you treat yourself with the love and respect you offer others, and if you FIRST create each day with a joyful embrace — then you can’t help but make the world a better place.

The second duty is personally mine, not yours, but it is yours to share with me if you wish. You see, I know quite a bit about family systems, and in particular NeuroDivergent family systems. It is the breakdown in my family system that contributed to the terrible consequences my cousin faces. This breakdown doesn’t have to happen again to any other family if you understand how to intervene when the worlds of NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse collide. I will discuss the nature of this collision in the next installment. 

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