How Do I Help Someone Who is Struggling?

Imagine you are sitting alone in your room and it is dark. You’re not exactly happy in the dark, but you’re content. As you’ve sat in the darkness, your eyes have adjusted to it and eventually you’ve become accustomed to it. The darkness is now comfortable. But just as soon as you settle into the darkness, I burst in through the door and flick on the light. What happens in this moment? Immediately, the comfortable, dark space becomes invaded by light. Your eyes squint and you look up at me with a hazy look of confusion. I look down at you and say, “Why are you sitting in the dark? Didn’t you see the light switch right there?”

This is the situation many of us find ourselves in day, after day, after day. Perfectly content sitting in our dark room, our eyes adjusted, everything’s fine. All it takes is one person to barge in and shine the light in our eyes and we are flooded, overwhelmed by their disapproval of the dark room we livein.

This is how most of us deal with the people in our lives who struggle with mental health issues and addiction. We insist on bringing light into the room they sit in. Let’s be real here, that is way more about our own discomfort than theirs. We hate watching them suffer but we are actually more concerned with how their discomfort make us feel than with how they feel.

People who suffer from mental illness and the disease of drug addiction, truly suffer; but we only exacerbate that suffering when we judge their suffering as worse than our own. We all suffer, that’s kind of the point of life. Suffering is the thing that creates meaning in our lives. When we can sit with someone suffering, in their darkness, and just be there, the comfort we provide is unmatched. We don’t need to minimize the pain or ignore it, just acknowledge their humanity and how we relate to their suffering, as we too have suffered.

People who suffer from mental illness and the disease of drug addiction, truly suffer; but we only exacerbate that suffering when we judge their suffering as worse than our own.

Ways we “turn the light on”

There are many ways to minimize the pain someone is experiencing. The most common way is rescuing. When someone shares with us their suffering or opens up about their pain our natural response often seems to be to give many reasons why they shouldn’t feel bad. This might sound like, “but you’re so beautiful” or “it could be worse…” or “at least… ” We search for reasons why their suffering isn’t suffering at all! When, in reality, the humanity within all of us just wants to be understood. This is showing sympathy not empathy. Brene Brown has a quick animated short on this subject that is wonderful! Click the picture below to watch it:

Symp vs Emp

Another commonly experienced minimization of pain is pity. When someone’s grief is too difficult for us to bear we pity them. This might sound like, “oh you poor thing.” Or, “I could never do what you do.” Or, “I don’t know how you do it, I’m just not that strong.” Pity sends the inadvertent message, “I’m so glad that’s not me…” When one is grieving or suffering the last thing anyone wants to feel is lonely. And when we tell someone your pain is too great to bear, the loneliness showers over them.

Shaming is the most blatant form of minimization of pain. This is unbelievably common when it comes to addiction. Many people see someone struggling with addiction and quickly judge. “I would never do that.” Or “How could she do that to her family?” Or “It’s pathetic how selfish he is.” Or the coup de grâce of all addict judgments: “Why can’t he just stop?”

Other’s suffering is unknowable

Let me be the first to tell you, we have NO idea how much someone is suffering. We can only guess at how much pain someone is feeling. We have no clue what they’ve been through. In an earlier post I cited that if someone is, in fact, struggling with severe addiction, it’s likely due to having suffered a traumatic childhood. Dr. Gabor Mate, a renowned authority on addiction explained why this is.

“The human brain itself, is shaped by the environment… Brain development occurs in reaction to the environment. The necessary conditions for healthy brain development are healthy relationships with responsive parents. When the parenting environment becomes distorted or hostile and abusive, you’re actually distorting people’s brain development. This means they are going to be more likely to want to use substances to feel better in their brain in order to achieve a different state of the brain.” – Dr. Gabor Mate interview with in 2016

When children are traumatized the physical makeup of the brain changes. It is “rewired” in such a way that it is primed for addiction. Some of us are predisposed for addiction simply because of what happened to us when we were most vulnerable.

In my practice working with addiction this is overwhelmingly the case. It never ceases to amaze me how often I sit down with someone and they break down right in front of me in a matter of a few minutes. Through sobbing and shame they explain to me about when they were molested or raped, or when their dad would beat them mercilessly. My heart breaks for those who struggle with addiction. The suffering they experience is intense. Their brains are wired in such a way that it believes the only escape it can get from the unceasing and intrusive memories of being victimized as a child, is through drugs and alcohol. We must suspend judgment when we don’t know why someone does what they do. All that judgment does is create barriers and isolation for people who already feel alone and worthless.

When children are traumatized, the physical makeup of the brain changes. It is “rewired” in such a way that it is primed for addiction.

The Solution

Sitting in the dark with someone is the start. Being empathetic is the most powerful way to connect with those who suffer. But often we want to do more than just be there with someone. However, that is likely all we need to do. Addiction is fueled by the shame that comes from isolation. When we pull the suffering members of our society in close, instead of pushing them away we are doing the very thing they need most, creating a connection.

If you don’t feel like you can do that, I get it. Someone in a full-blown addict binge is hard to love. They lie, they betray, and they are incredibly selfish. But take a step back, look at why they do what they do. Do they push you away because being close is scary and unfamiliar? Do they lie because they’re afraid to hurt you? Most addicts are doing their very best with the hand they’ve been dealt. The sooner we can understand that the sooner we will begin to put a dent in the greatest health crisis in recent history.

Addiction is the greatest health crisis of our generation

Some may be surprised by that last claim. However that is not hyperbole. Drug overdose deaths continue to climb every year. “For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses now are the leading cause of death,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the DEA recently as he revealed projected numbers of overdose deaths for 2016.

In reading the above table you’ll notice that the number of deaths in 2015 was just above 50,000. The number of deaths rose by just about 10,000 last year. That’s right, in 2016 nearly 60,000 people overdosed and died. That equates to upwards of 160 deaths per day. There were approx. 20,000 more deaths from drug overdoses in 2016 than there were from car accidents in 2016.

“For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses now are the leading cause of death” – Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein

Open your eyes and do something

We can no longer be blind to the epidemic. This affects all of us. And it’s only getting worse. Projected numbers for 2017 follow the same trend, we stand to lose 60,000-70,000 people this year to drug overdose death. Chances are you know someone who has OD’d and died. The news is riddled with stories, it is much closer to home than we care to admit.

If you know of someone who suffers with addiction or mental health issues you can do more than you realize. Be with them as they suffer, don’t reject them. Try to understand why they do what they do, love them more despite how they treat you. Try to see their humanity. Doing this does more than you could ever realize.

If you have someone in your life who is struggling and needs help, there is help. Drug treatment centers are getting better and better. Insurance companies are now required to pay for treatment. The suffering can be alleviated. Each year we understand more and more about the link between trauma and addiction. If you know someone who needs help please don’t hesitate to reach out to a local drug treatment center and ask what you can do to help your loved one get the help they need. A quick “Google” of ‘Drug Rehab near me’ is a great place to start. If you need more guidance than that, please don’t hesitate to reach out : Contact Matt.

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