For as long as I’ve written about issues of homelessness, mental health, substance use, and addiction, I’ve done so because I take it personally.
Almost every time I write, I tell stories of people that I’ve known personally who have had these realities impact them. Sometimes they are stories of hope, but many times they are stories of tragedy. I tell such stories not simply because they are helpful “illustrations” or “examples”, but because the core of empathy is relational–these stories help make it personal.
The greatest honor that readers sometimes give me in return is their own stories–of hope, tragedy, and most often the messy places in-between. I’ve received countless DM’s, emails, and in-person approaches where people lay out the stories of their loved ones that resonate with what I’ve written. Don’t get me wrong–sometimes it’s a lot. But I continue to invite it because I want to keep it personal, and I know from experience the courage and retraumatization it takes to share such stories.
Having been trusted with so many of these stories, I started to notice something familiar emerging in many of them; something that broke my heart in an entirely separate way from the stories themselves. So often, I heard these stories surrounded by and shrouded in guilt and shame. The person telling the story about a loved one shared from a place of deep hurt themselves–not only sharing the story to connect, not just seeking advice or clarification, but seeking a sort of atonement, confirmation, or absolution of their guilt.
These stories usually sound something like this:
My loved one (ex, sibling, child) struggles with homelessness, addiction, and/or mental illness. I tried so hard to care for them, gave them chance after chance, tried every kind of treatment, and none of it stuck. They are out there somewhere, and I feel powerless to help. I know you say in your book that nobody wants to be homeless, that addiction isn’t about choice, but I’m not so sure. I want to believe that my loved one isn’t beyond hope, but after everything we went through I’m not sure I can. Did I not do enough? Should I have tried harder?
When I hear or read messages like this, I take a deep breath. I resist the urge to be defensive, even when the messages are more antagonistic. If I am doing it right, I breathe in compassion, and I breathe out grace.
Grace is the central idea in my book about how we approach these difficult topics, and that grace must extend back to us as we discern them and walk through them with others. If you are reading the above and your heart started beating faster, or your shoulders tightened, or your teeth clenched, take a moment to breathe. Whisper “grace” to yourself, because you deserve it, too.
If you’re ready, join me on this thought-experiment:
Imagine a married couple, husband and wife. The wife is an accomplished therapist, with a long history of private practice specializing in guiding patients through traumatic loss. Her entire therapeutic career, she is renown in the community for being the go-to for people who have suffered the loss of a child, a partner, parent, or friend. Her husband receives a phone call one day. His brother was in a devastating car accident and did not survive. In the same month, his father is diagnosed with lung cancer and is having to begin an aggressive treatment plan with a low chance of success. The husband is struggling to cope, displaying immediate signs of depression and extreme stress: poor hygiene, erratic behavior, and intrusive thoughts of self-harm.
Now a question: given the wife’s expertise aligning with her husband’s needs, should the wife be offering professional therapeutic services to the husband?
I hope you would answer an emphatic “No!” Of course, the wife can call on her training and experience in how she cares within her partnered relationship. She can use her professional network to help recommend some support for her husband. But it would be a monumental ethical violation for her to take on her husband in a professional therapeutic relationship. More than that, it would likely be completely ineffective and unhelpful. Why is that?
Sometimes, I believe, we can be too close to a messy situation to be able to help.
In this thought-experiment, the husband and wife are too entangled in non-professional ways to engage in a therapeutic relationship. Neither can fully disentangle their relationship and all the experiences and history that come with it in order to do the hard work together toward recovery.
If this is true, then we should set ourselves free from the expectation that only we can save our loved ones from homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.
Let me be clear: it’s not a green light to abandon. Families and friends still have a crucial role of support that will look different and take on a variety of forms unique to every person and circumstance. But we must also recognize three things:
- Our loved ones may not be able to receive help from us
- It has no correlation to your compassion, capacity, or “having done enough”
- It does not mean that they are beyond help
There are so many reasons, some of which we may never know, that our loved ones may not be able to receive our help. Perhaps some of their pain is associated with you–they may perceive (rightly or not) that you caused them pain, or maybe you endured the pain together, and they cannot be around you at the same time that they are trying to process it. There may be fear (again, rightly or wrongly) of judgment or shame associated with their progress or lack thereof. Like the husband and the wife in our story, the entanglement is prohibitive to progress, and it has nothing to do with her expertise, ability, compassion or care.
And the word of hope is that your loved ones are not beyond help even if your help has maxxed out. The husband can get better help from a neutral therapist, and other supportive services that exist with professional boundaries and without entanglement. In the world of homelessness, case managers and professionals exist who can be that neutral party to provide a blank slate, professionally boundaried, where people can get help at their own pace, in their own way.
This is the work I’ve spent my whole career doing, and I can attest with complete certainty that I have helped countless individuals who could not be helped by their loved ones. I know this because I’ve heard their stories. I know this because I’ve been beside people making phone calls to reunite with loved ones after years–even decades–of separation. I know this because I’ve had people reach out to me asking about their loved one who is on the street, and while privacy kept me from being able to share that individual’s successes, I knew that they were real.
If you resonate with any of this, let me move beyond a whisper. Allow me not to speak firmly but lovingly:
Grace! Grace! It’s not your fault. You tried, cared, and loved so hard. Do not allow yourself to think that it wasn’t enough, that you weren’t enough. “Enough” has nothing to do with it. Your loved one needs help that they can’t receive from you for reasons that are beyond your control. But grace, again! Grace, forever! They are not beyond help. There are people out there who are seeking them out to give them exactly the type of help that they need, and they deserve. And if you are a person of faith, you believe in a God without bounds who follows them and seeks their wellbeing through every relationship stretched beyond capacity, every burned bridge, and every unrealized opportunity. Step out of shame; Step into Grace.