Support for the Support System: How to love hurting people.
I’ve shared a little about my struggle with PTSD and depression, but what about those who are struggling with helping the hurting? How are you supposed to approach being a part of someone’s support system?
It hurts to watch. When someone you love is in so much pain it’s visible in the dark circles under their bloodshot eyes, their tear stained shallow cheeks, and the way they now carry themselves, or worse, can’t.
Beyond all of that, you’re gripped by the fear that you’ll say something wrong or stupid that will make their pain worse. You’re sore from walking on eggshells. You hold your breath, waiting to see how they are going to react to something, or what their disposition will be like each day. You hold out for the moments they actually smile, and feel the stab when that smile fades from their face, for them to look even lower than they were before.
I’ve been on both sides of this.
So my goal today is to share with those who are trying to figure out how to be of help to someone who is hurting; to support the supporters, and give some advice.
I talked a little bit in my blog post “How to Breathe Underwater” about the duty of a support system. I want to unpack that a little here.
- It is not your job to fix it.
Don’t feel bad or guilty about not being sure how to make the situation better, or how to fix it. Its terrible, and liberating to realize you can’t. Terrible because you wish you could. But liberating because you can let go of that weight, or guilt, or whatever is holding you back from focusing on what you can do.
- Don’t try to fix it.
If you’re not an expert on what they are going through, don’t try to fix it. Take a deep breath and know that, that responsibility, isn’t on your shoulders. Breathe. In addition to not needing that pressure on you, you also run the risk of doing the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do, and making the situation worse. I don’t say that to make you panic. I hope you’re not thinking, “Oh God, I already have!” Stop. You can’t go back and change anything. Move forward.
- Don’t put pressure on yourself.
There is enough anxiety and negativity already in the situation. Don’t add to it by telling yourself lies like:
- You’re inadequate
- You’re the last person they need right now
- You don’t know enough
- Any other negative thoughts that aren’t helping the situation.
Like I said, find relief in knowing it isn’t on you to fix this. You don’t have to be an expert on whatever they are going through. You don’t have to answer all the questions running through your minds.
- Don’t jump in the well with them.
The whole point to having a support system is this:
Imagine you’re stuck in a well. Its dark, its cold, you’re alone, you don’t know what is down there with you… You’re scared. You look up at the light filtering down from the mouth of the well, it’s so far away… No one knows you’re down there. You’re stuck. This is it… You’re going to drown down here, and no one will know or miss you.
That is what it can feel like.
Now imagine it like this:
You’re stuck like that down in the well. Suddenly though, there’s a figure peering over the stone wall. A voice echoes down into the darkness, it just says, “Don’t worry, I’m here. We’re going to get you out. Help is on the way.” A voice that tells you, you’re not alone. You’re not going to be left alone. You’re not abandoned. You’re not going to be down there forever. There is hope. And, that light, you’re going to bathe in it again…
That person, is the one that stays with the person. Stays and talks with them, reminds them that this isn’t forever, that helps to keep them calm, and feel less alone until they are lifted out of the well. The support system is company in the waiting. Not the rescuer.
You’re more help to them outside the well, you’re free to see clearly and run for snacks. But if you fall in the well with them, now there are two of you stuck and in need of help. No matter how hard the situation is, don’t take it on yourself.
Its hard to know how to be there for someone in pain. I wish I could lay it out for you step by step. The thing is, everyone is different. I can tell you exactly what it is I need when I am in my well. But that may or may not help you with your loved one.
Just ask them. They may be in a place where they can tell you what they really need.
Maybe they need someone willing to listen, and not interrupt, not try to give advice or fix anything, just listen.
Maybe they need someone to talk. To remind them that this is going to pass. That it might take a while, but one day they are going to wake up and the pain wont be as bad, and one day, the pain may be entirely gone. They are going to smile again, laugh, have fun, and enjoy things.
Maybe they need someone to just sit in a quiet room with them, so they don’t feel alone. Someone who wont make that seem weird or awkward. But who will make them feel like wanting that, isn’t wrong or stupid. You can sit quietly together, and be left to your thoughts, and its natural.
Maybe they need someone to hold them while they weep. Maybe they just need that physical (not sexual) reassurance that they are safe, and not alone.
Maybe they need someone to distract them. Maybe they want someone to not treat them like they are broken or damaged. Someone who isn’t walking on egg shells around them because of what they went though, but acts normal. Someone who talks about normal things you would normally talk about. Someone who wants to go do things with them, or just hang out and do stuff. Who will watch tv with them, or instigate activities that keep them from dwelling on what they’ve been going through. Someone to help them mentally escape the weight of it all, in a healthy way that reminds them what normal life looks like.
Some people, though, aren’t going to know what they need. You can throw out ideas. By helping them figure out what they don’t want from you, they can figure out what it is they do need, though I warn you, they may get irritable with this process. But you know what, that’s okay. They make you feel like you’re annoying or obnoxious, and they just want you to leave them alone. But that is part of the process. Maybe that’s how they figure out that they don’t want you to leave. They just want you to shut up, and be there. There you go! They just want that companion to sit quietly with them while they think, and keep them from being alone. It might not be a pretty process. But, if it helps them figure out what they need, annoy them a little. I promise you, out of all of this, they can get over that.
Take care of yourself.
You want to help your loved one, that’s great! But you can’t neglect yourself in the mean time.
When someone is drowning, they are freaking out. They aren’t thinking straight, and could easily ensure their demise by pulling down whoever comes to save them. For this reason, lifeguards are trained to (when necessary) hit the drowning person where it hurts. This causes them to stop flailing, and pushing the lifeguard under, trying to stay above water themselves.
All that to say, you can’t help them, if you start drowning yourself. If they pull you under, into their mess, and you get to the point where you can’t breathe.
Take some time for yourself. Enjoy the things that you enjoy. Don’t give up everything you love, to be enveloped in their misery. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone in my support system. Seeing them live their normal, happy lives, makes me want mine back. It might make me angry, jealous, or sad at times, but it gives me a vision of something to strive for: the day I get to have that back…
Share the load.
Some situations are sensitive. I definitely understand that. But this cannot be your burden to bear alone. If you are the sole support for someone, and are getting weighed down, gently let them know. Encourage them to invite others who love them to become a part of their support system so the burden is spread out. Heavy stuff is easier to carry with a lot of people.