“Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” – Dr. Charles Figley
I go through seasons of exhaustion, times where I’ve just reached my limit and feel burnout on helping and counseling. I remember a few years ago having a near meltdown. I would go home from work spent, with no energy and emotional numbness. I would lie awake at night and dread coming in to work the next day. I was crying often, and anxious all the time. Thankfully, God has brought me through that season and I am more careful about managing my time and my schedule, but compassion fatigue, as it is often called, is a common experience of caretakers. While we certainly need to guard ourselves against exhaustion, it’s important that the loved ones of an addicted individual not give up hope.
Helping someone who struggles with an addiction can be incredibly discouraging. Change is hard and slow. There are often many setbacks or relapses. The hurt, betrayal, and resistance experienced by caretakers takes its toll. Furthermore, it is emotionally draining to watch someone you love destroy themselves. Often caretakers themselves can experience a sense of trauma from their role in the addicted individual’s life. There comes a point in which many are simply inclined to give up on real change. In one sense this response comes from a place of self-protection. The recurring dashed hopes have led them to guard against disappointment. It’s better just to abandon hope all together. Yet, the addict’s network of support is one of the most vital contributions to their recovery. Don’t give up hope.
I love Kevin’s story. Kevin was a heroin addict. He started on prescription drugs and when those ran out, or became too expensive, he made the switch. He had used drugs or alcohol to varying degrees since he was thirteen years old. Now in his early thirties he has been clean for a year. There’s always potential that he could go back, his sobriety is still young, and he knows that. But he is working hard. He attends meetings, he is wrestling with the heart issues that drove him to use in the first place, and he has built-in consistent accountability to help him keep on track. Several years back he never thought he would be this far. He never believed he could go a whole year without using. He hadn’t gone a day without using something during some cycles and the longest he had ever managed was a month of self-control. He marvels at how far God has brought him. When you ask him what has helped he’ll talk about lots of practical things, he mention recovery, but mostly he’ll talk about family (specifically his mom), and a good friend who have never given up on him. It’s a beautiful testimony to the power of enduring love.
I am not naive. It’s not as if “love is all we need.” Recovery is immensely complex and difficult. There are plenty of helpers who deeply love and desire to see their loved-one get clean and sober. Love alone will not change a situation. But without a good support network, without love and compassion, recovery becomes nearly impossible.We must do thinks to protect ourselves, to safeguard our own emotional sanity. The first post in this series argued that point clearly. Yet, our belief in the possibility of change is important for the addict, especially when they don’t believe it.
Within the Biblical world hope is rooted in the character of God. Hope is not naive and fanciful. It is not wishful thinking. It believes that “with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Paul connects hope to the Spirit of God and to suffering. He writes:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:1-5)
Suffering can strengthen hope when that hope is grounded in the love of God poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Hope that depends on willpower, programs, medicines, or meetings will not endure. Often families, once they have lost hope in their ability will turn to placing all their hope in treatment professionals. “Rehab will fix my loved one.” “Counseling will make the difference this time.” Such hope is in vain. Treatment is no more a guarantee of lasting sobriety than anything else, and the statistics of recidivism even after treatment are evidence of this. But what is seemingly impossible with man is possible with God. In fact, religion has long been seen to have a highly positive impact on the recovery process, with the religious person three-times more likely to maintain abstinence than the non-religious. In other words, put your hope in the God who rescues.
There are some other tangible signs of hope, and we should know what those are in order to think carefully about what progress looks like. How we evaluate progress can help us to maintain hope. Here are several important factors for evaluating change in the area of addictions:
- Desire – The first most hopeful change is the desire of the addicted individual to break the habit. The fact that they want to change is a huge deal! Do not undersell this transformation. Addictions have rewards to them, they provide something that the user craves or believes that they need. If they are wanting to turn away from that encourage that desire and be thankful for this change of heart!
- Frequency – If usage has decreased that is a change too. Obviously, so long as an individual is using any amount they are still struggling and the potential danger still exists, but decreases in frequency are good progress. Be encouraged and encourage them that they are applying greater self-regulation to their habit. Decreasing the amount of usage has biological and psychological impacts, it is not a small step to diminish the fequency of usage. The only caveat here is if the frequency has decreased but the amount of drugs used in a singular instance has increased.
- Duration – Usage often runs in cycles or binges. So, a person may be fighting for sobriety but once they fall of the wagon, so to speak, they may stay down in the ditch for a long time. If you are noticing a decrease in the duration of a binge cycle that is good news. It means the person is learning better self-regulation and better coping skills. Applaud them for not staying down when they fall.
- Coping – Learning to develop better coping skills, to handle emotional distresses with better stability is a HUGE victory. Because drugs are often an escape from emotional problems, this means that the individual’s skills at doing life are replacing, perhaps slowly, their tendency to use. Continue to encourage them in this and help them plan for problematic scenarios.
- Reorientation – Setting new goals for life is a big step in the recovery process. If an addicted individual is making plans, establishing concrete and reasonable goals, and looking towards the future this is a major positive change. This means they are planning their life around more than just their next high, and as a helper you can tap into this and utilize it as a means of encouragement.
There are many other things to look for that can be an encouragement: accountability, honesty, and humility are to be much applauded too. Growth in character and faithfulness to promises can all be signs of encouragement. If you know what to look for you can sustain your hope in the face of many disappointments. We should not be naive, of course, and seeing these positive signs should not indicate that an addicted individual is “all better.” Yet, knowing how to evaluate progress can be a boon to our own hopefulness. Ultimately, of course, we want to keep our eyes fixed on God, for He alone is the real ground of hope.
Caring for an addicted individual is traumatic in its own way. The discouragements and disappointments abound. Yet recovery is possible. There are many who actually do eventually kick their sinful habits and patterns of substance abuse and who attain victory. Put your hope in God, cry out to God, trust in His ability to empower true and lasting transformation. Don’t give up hope. As long as there is a God there is always the possibility of change.