Complicated Compassion

Larisa Brass, M.P.H.

It had been going on for years—the fights at home, the requests for money, the summers (and then the school years) the kids spent with their grandparents. Finally, the desperate call and frantic rescue.

All at once, Claire*, the middle-aged daughter, wife, and mother of three with a once-successful career, was dependent again on the care of her family and the drugs that were ruining her life.

It’s the same-song-different-verse story that could be told of addicts, criminals, victims, and perpetrators around the world. But this story is not about Claire, and it’s not about them. Because for every person at the center of these unfolding, unending dramas, there are the families, friends, and communities caught up in them. Because the Claires of the world aren’t the only ones to have their lives turned upside down.

For Claire, there were the aging grandparents she lived with, followed by her mother and devoted step-father who she went to live with after her grandparents died. Her children, struggling with addiction themselves, wrestled with how to help their mom when she needed money, a car, or to be bailed out of jail. Her first grandchild, born during one of Claire’s multiple incarcerations, went to be raised by her brother, while she missed the child’s first birthday, his second, his fifth. Her aunts relented again and again to her pleas for financial aid. Her husband alternately took her in and threw her out. She stole, she lied, she got it together, only to be tugged back into the lifestyle over which she has yet to gain control.

And nobody knows what to do.

“You still feel like it’s your responsibility and you don’t know how to fix it,” says Claire’s step-father, Stephen*, a retired minister. “We can let her live here, or we can take her down to live with those guys under the bridge.”

Dealing with denial and bad choices

It’s difficult enough knowing how to help someone in a crisis that isn’t of their own making—a cancer diagnosis, the unfaithfulness of a partner, a layoff, the death of a loved one. But when the person in question is part of the problem—whether it be addiction, criminal offenses, immoral behavior, or a negative life pattern—we find ourselves at a loss.

How do we support without enabling? How can we fulfill our role as a trusted friend or family member and, at the same time, guide them toward a different path? Is that even part of our job? How do we know if we are helping or simply making the problem worse? And how do we keep ourselves mentally healthy in the process?

“You’d be surprised at the number of people who have absolutely no idea where to begin,” says Steve Wildsmith, a recovering addict who has been clean since 2002 and now works at Cornerstone of Recovery, an addiction rehabilitation center near Knoxville, Tennessee.

Those struggling with addiction or other negative life behaviors typically live in denial, which makes dealing with the situation challenging from the outset, he says.

“If a friend or family member has cancer, you’re not dealing with someone who says, ‘I don’t have cancer,’” says Wildsmith. In contrast, people in the middle of addiciton or negative choices rarely admit the problem. And how can you help them solve a problem they don’t think they have?

The long-term nature of dealing with a family member or friend struggling with some type of dysfunction also represents part of its challenge.

“The role when dealing with addiction or poor choices tends to be more long-term, whereas dealing with a death or illness is often experienced as short-term, relatively speaking,” says Jennifer Gless, a marriage and family therapist who practices in San Bernardino, California. Also, she says, “When someone is dealing with a death or illness, we tend to tolerate more ‘negative’ behavior because at some point the grieving will subside, or if someone is sick, they will get better, etc. This is not necessarily true of addiction or someone who has difficulty with choice-making.”

The elephant in the room

One important part of relating to someone in crisis mode is recognizing and acknowledging the problem for what it is.

“Everybody knows it’s going on, but no one wants to say there’s an elephant in the living room,” says Wildsmith. “By the time my parents were forced to confront it, the bank was saying, ‘Did you make a $500 withdrawal today?’ Be aware, and don’t be afraid to confront it head-on.”

For Fran*, the moment of truth came when her teenage son’s behavior reached a crisis point, and as a single mother, she made the choice to kick him out of the house.

“I’m not certain of all he was doing, but drugs were involved,” Fran says. “He was already on probation because of another offense, and he had gotten physical in his anger with me . . . my collar bone was broken. The final straw was his senior year when he was arrested for selling ‘look-alike drugs.’ I refused to bail him out.”

Ultimately, a young pastor took in the teenager, and he turned his life around.

For many families, acknowledging the problem is equivalent to admitting personal failure. So it’s easier not to say or do anything at all—until it’s too late.

There are reasons for this. Family and friends have learned from experience that such confrontations are painful and don’t usually yield the desired results.

“People don’t want that help. They’re going to resist it or sabotage it,” says Robert Hayes, a retired professor of psychology and counseling at Ball State University. When the person trying to intervene is a close family member or friend, the person in crisis will often twist things around: “They can strike back so quickly. They know you too well. They know how to hurt you with words. Many times someone who is in the family and close to them may not be the best person to address the issue.”

At Cornerstone of Recovery, recovering addict and therapist Chris Lowe encourages open communication between family members and friends—which may ultimately lead to communal, targeted intervention on behalf of the person in crisis.

Unlike the television show Intervention, such a strategy should involve as many people as possible—with 25 being an ideal number, Lowe says.

“It should be friends, it should be a coworker. It should be so blatantly obvious that everyone knows what’s going on,” Lowe says.

In addition to sending the point home that change is required, this type of community action—which should always involve a professional therapist to help coordinate and mediate the process—also sends the message “that there are that many people who care,” Wildsmith says.

Such cooperation addresses the primary barrier to recovery: isolation.

“It’s a disease of isolation for us,” Lowe says—both for the person in crisis and those supporting on the front lines. “The more we communicate, the more we relieve families and churches of that stigma,” the better it is for everyone, Lowe adds.

When to talk and when to listen

It can come in the middle of the night or on a perfectly ordinary afternoon—the call from a friend or family member, life falling apart (for the first time or the 100th) of their own making. And we struggle to know what to say, to do, how to feel.

The most important thing is likely to do nothing at all.

“The first thing I do is literally just listen and let them talk themselves out,” says Sandy Tracy, a chaplain who works every day with families in crisis. “People who have not been trained want to talk and fix people. It’s hard, but you just listen.”

Simply hearing what another person has to say allows you to be in a supportive role without taking sides or expressing judgment, Tracy says.

Hayes agrees. “I think one of the most valuable things is presence,” he says.

These listening sessions can open opportunities to direct someone toward more resources, such as their pastor, a counselor, a social worker, or—in more extreme instances—to make a call to Mobile Crisis Services.

Drawing boundaries

Establishing boundaries on the relationships actually helps serve the person in crisis more than simply being at their beck and call.

“When you are on a plane and the oxygen masks drop, you are to put the mask on yourself first, then the other person,” Gless says. “If you are not healthy, how can you help the other person?”

For a friend going through an affair, it may be refusing to lie to the spouse or children on their behalf. For a grown son or daughter still living at home without ambition, it may be setting a deadline for their departure—and then sticking to it. For a loved one dealing with addiction, it may be the decision never to hand over cash in time of need.

Gless acknowledges that knowing where to draw the line isn’t easy. One rule of thumb is to ask yourself how you will feel if you do what the person is asking.

“Will you feel anger or resentment? Then don’t do it,” Gless says. “If you can do the task without getting something in return (if you have no expectation of a thank you, no expectation that they will owe you a favor or that they will love you, etc.), then do the task.”

And, she says, don’t expect to get it right the first time.

“Experience can be a great teacher of boundaries,” Gless says. “It is okay for you to make mistakes—there is no perfect solution. It can be messy for all involved.”

Marking lines in the sand can serve as motivation to reverse the destructive behavior. For both Wildsmith and Lowe, their parents’ choice to kick them out was the impetus needed to sign themselves into rehab.

But that’s not something you can count on, Lowe says, and one must make personal choices with the understanding that they cannot force another to change.

“It’s different for everybody,” Lowe says. “We can be locked up, beat up, and prayed over, but things won’t change until we’re ready.”

Make time for self-care

In all crisis situations, staying mentally healthy can often take a back seat to dealing with the situation at hand.

“A lot of times the caregiver needs to do self-care and doesn’t know what to do,” Tracy says. For starters, Lowe and Wildsmith recommend families in long-term crisis situations seek counseling for themselves and find support among others dealing with similar circumstances.

It’s also important for members of a person’s support system to seek out interests and pursuits of their own—even if it’s just going to a bookstore after dropping their loved one off at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

“Find some things you like to do by yourself,” Lowe says. “Families need to let go, surrender.”

It can also be easy to overlook the basics, Tracy says, including getting enough rest and exercise or eating well. And the most important component of her self-care regimen: a spiritual connection. “If you’re going to give spiritual support, you have to have it yourself,” she says.


4 Questions to Determine if You’re Helping or Enabling a Loved One

A friend in need is a friend indeed, right? Not so fast. Sometimes our best intentions can make a troubled situation worse for the very people we are trying to help—and it can damage us in the process. Here are some pitfalls to steer clear of as you navigate this sticky terrain.

1. Are you giving a handout or a hand up?

Whether you are giving money that ends up being spent on drugs, lying to help cover up an affair, covering up how bad things are to other family members and friends, bailing someone out of hard situations, or always making yourself available no matter how outrageous the demands—you may be creating an environment in which a person can continue to make poor choices without facing the truth. It also creates feelings of resentment, unrealistic expectations, and mistrust on both sides of the relationship. Dependency does not beget devotion, just more dependency.

2. Are you addicted to helping?

We enjoy feeling important to someone, and helping others makes us feel good. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. However, our own need to be needed can lead us down a path to codependency in which helping becomes a need for us as much as it is for the other person. This leads to further entrenchment in negative behavior—and two people being part of one problem.

3. Are you so focused on helping this one person that you neglect other people in your life?

Of course there are times in crisis when it’s appropriate to drop everything else. But dealing with people who create constant drama exhausts everyone—and can result in sacrificing others who need our attention. If everyone else—spouse, children, friends, family—is taking a back seat to the one in “need,” it’s time to reassess. One person should not command 100 percent of your attention and energy. Period.

4. Are you experiencing burnout?

Wearing someone else’s troubles on your sleeve and in your heart can be costly to your personal mental health and spiritual well-being. Pay attention to the signs of mental strain—insomnia, depression, fatigue, physical health issues. Make space for rest, renewal, and counseling. Remember, you can’t truly help someone who’s going through a personal struggle without being fit yourself.


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