I like to help. Historically, however, I’ve gone too far in helping.
What I mean by that is that I’ve exhausted my own resources and not set healthy boundaries in taking others’ problems on myself. While it gave me meaning, it has been an unhealthy behavior pattern that has compromised my own health and well-being on a number of occasions.
I think there are times that sacrifice is noble, admirable and worthy. I think conscious decisions to forgo yourself in service of others are critical to the excellence of the human spirit and to the health of our souls.
I think what I have often done are not those things, but rather a lack of boundaries and an inability to say no. It feels better to present it as noble self-sacrifice, to tell yourself that story, but when it isn’t, and it’s an unhealthy relationship with yourself…I’m just grateful I have the ability to learn and grow and change and heal.
But now that I know differently, now that I am more aware of cause and effect and trauma and boundaries and the stories we tell ourselves and the reality of myself, now that I have to battle PTSD and my choices were to implode or to do the hard work of healing, how much do I do toward helping others? How much of my story and my experience and my knowledge do I share in order to help?
Very recently a friend’s brother has escalated a pattern of substance abuse to destructive behavior that is cutting him off from options, help and support. His pursuit of numbing has broken relationships and trust, and he is now facing homelessness and isolation. A few years ago I would have written him off as an addict. Now I’m recommending compassion and vulnerability to my friend, in the face of such a painful situation as confronting your sibling with the ultimatum of accepting help through the provision of a rehab program or losing all of your family support and your home because he cannot work and no one will pay his rent or provide a place for him to live (he has recently begun stealing credit cards and items to sell for cash). This is hard, and so many families have experienced this.
Having lived with so much pain myself in my experience with PTSD, I understand this person is seeking to numb pain, and to escape the existence he cannot tolerate. But for the Grace of God, I could have been there too, and there are such clear connections between trauma and addiction. There has been a lot of addiction and substance abuse in my extended family, so I knew what I was facing following my diagnosis if I did not stay very honest with myself and if I did not find a way to deal with the pain, and I am thankful that therapy provided me with the support and knowledge I needed to not get trapped in substance abuse. Not everyone has that, and so many people do not have either support or resilience or tools or resources to avoid addiction. Sometimes you aren’t in a place to be able to do things differently. Sometimes people aren’t able to reach help, even if it’s offered. You can care at the same time that you can’t.
So how much do I help? When I see people in distress or in these situations, if I have more insight into what is going on and if I can offer a more understanding or compassionate perspective, if I can provide honest feedback and discuss addiction behaviors in a way other than shame and blame, how much do I pour out to do that? Because there is a cost to me. Providing emotional support has a price for me. It wears me out, it takes my focus elsewhere and it sometimes brings up my own experience with trauma, which I then may have to manage. Depending on the relationship, it takes the focus off of the relationship I have and puts it somewhere else. In the case of addiction, it’s a resource suck on as many people as possible, feeding on energy like an insatiable beast.
Which is why boundaries are so important. In the past I likely would have directly involved myself in this. Not this time, I don’t have the ability to do anything more than support on the phone for a few minutes a day. In recognizing where I am right now, I have to know that I am limited in how much energy I can give right now and that my resources have run a bit low, and I have to carefully navigate what could push me over the edge into severe PTSD symptoms. It’s not an issue of sacrificing myself right now so much as foolishly wrecking myself and not being able to help anyone, including myself. It’s not a cycle I want to start or contribute to, so I am supporting how I can, and being honest about how I can’t.
Once we start the healing process, it can be so attractive to help save everyone else. It can be compelling and feel like a calling, we can feel obligated and we can find fulfillment in using our improved position to pull others up with us. And ideally that is a wonderful thing to do. Just don’t forget it also needs healthy boundaries, and a clear understanding of what is noble and what remains unhealed.