Jim’s Story. 6 Ways to Avoid Helping Too Much When Your Loved One Struggles

CompassionateLove Blog: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness  (c)2013 Nancy Virden, Always the Fight Ministries

406Laying eyes on him for the first time, my judgmental self saw a man who didn’t care, who had given up trying. Then I began to see beyond his dirty, frayed jeans, and loose flannel shirt that served only to emphasize the discouragement expressed by his demeanor. Slumped shoulders, eyes downcast, and  little interest in observing those around him – these proved to me what our surroundings already assumed.

We were in an intensive therapy group for people who had just been dismissed from a psychiatric hospital, or who were trying to gain emotional stability to avoid being admitted. Clearly, this room was not filled with optimists.

Jim’s story still surprised me because of its extremes. He told us he lived with his parents, controlling types who refused to allow him the adulthood he felt he deserved. In his forties, he still had a small bedroom that would not lock, and nosey intruders checked on him often. Immediately, a question rose in my mind. Why would any grown-up allow this?

Jim had started abusing drugs in his teens, and addiction soon mastered him. His life became a go-around of detox, relapse, stays in rehabilitation centers, hope, and “why bother?” Somehow, he managed to graduate from college, obtain his Masters, and begin his professional career.

It was job loss due to relapse that landed him back with his parents. They would go through his things, make him report his every move, and micro-manage his food, time, entertainment, money, and space. This would make anyone stress-out. Suicidal thinking grew in his mind, and when Jim was found sitting on his parents’ front porch with a loaded gun to his head, he was taken to the hospital.

When we met, his life consisted of therapy, unemployment, another round of rehab, a negative outlook, and chain-smoking. Still, it was fascinating to see sparks of life as he shared hard-learned and even harder-lived wisdom. He made a positive difference in our group and did not seem to know it.

We shared time there for approximately six weeks. I heard him swear he would never give up smoking because he was giving up too much (drugs, alcohol, personal freedoms) already.  In my last few days there, he announced he had throat cancer and was giving up smoking. Several years later, I ran into him at a counselor’s office. He did not remember me. When I said I recognized him, he said “too bad for you.”  I was glad he was still alive.

The fact that his parents’ over protective behaviors added to Jim’s stress does not mean they carry responsibility for their grown son’s poor choices. However, from what I could see (admittedly having only one side of the story), the kind of support they offered to him was not as beneficial as I’m sure they hoped. I wonder how messed-up they felt their lives had become now that they were hypervigilant about his safety.

It was nice of them to open their home; their concern for Jim was clearly profound. Nevertheless, depressed, drug-addicted, alcoholic, suicidal, and otherwise troubled people have to learn how to manage distress, and respond to it in healthy ways. As adults, we are responsible for saving our own lives.

So, how is a support person to know where to stop? Here are 6 ideas I believe are helpful.

  1. Be knowledgable about what your loved one is suffering. Learn, seek answers from reliable sources. Al-Anon is an excellent resource for those who care for addicts and alcoholics. Talk to your loved one. Listen.
  2. Do not allow your relationship to change. For example, a parent does not become a jailer, and a friend does not become a therapist. A next door neighbor does not become gopher, and pastors do not become saviors.
  3. Bring in the experts. Your loved one probably needs some professional support. You may want to reach out for some wise counsel too. What is the point of suffering when an educated specialist is available to relieve some of that burden?
  4. Know your priorities. Avoid costly trade-offs that hurt other people or destroy your life.
  5. Draw boundaries for yourself. Boundaries are deciding what is and is not acceptable to you. You decide what you will allow in your home, schedule, head, or budget. No one has the power to keep up chaos in your life; you choose what you will and will not do.
  6. Give up delusions of fixing your loved one. As helpful as we wish to be, there is no possibility of changing anyone. Micro-managing does not work (and it’s not your job!).  Support is not rescuing, it is just being there to the degree that is reasonable for you.

Stay healthy emotionally, physically, financially, and time-wise. Hope for the best always, but encouraging versus enabling someone to remain dependent is a fine line sometimes. Support them in their growth, however you may have to let go and let God.

After all, they are in the best hands when they are in His.

Today’s Helpful Word

Hebrews 13:21

“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with every good thing to do His will. And may He accomplish in us what is pleasing in His sight through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”



NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help is yours.

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