Ask a counselor:  when the helper needs help

by Kay Bruner on September 2, 2015

accept help

This is a question that came in several months ago, and it seemed like it needed an immediate answer, so I answered at the time.  I thought it was worth talking about again, though.

The question addresses a very specific and personal situation, but I think the answers can apply to many more general circumstances, where we realize that supporting someone else—as important as that is, and as much as we are willing to do so–is taking a toll on us.

Kay, I know that there was a lot of stress on me during my husband’s depression because he was unable to do the things he normally did. It really began to take a toll on me. What is your advice to the spouse, or close friend, who is walking through this valley with their loved one?

Let me preface my answer by telling you that this year has been really tough for me, supporting people I love through hard times. Things are stable now, but just this weekend one of my besties asked how my week had been and I said, “The week was okay, but it’s been such a hard year.” (Which is not news to her!)

I’m just realizing again that, for me, it takes a long time to recover after big events.  In the moment, the adrenaline is flowing and I’m finding resources and being engaged and supportive and all in for the ones I love.  I often don’t feel my own emotions as much during the event.  Afterward, however, I tend to experience a pretty big emotional “thud” that requires attention.

My husband, Andy, experiences things quite differently from me.  For him, when it’s over, it’s over and he’s good to go.  That’s a really good thing because when it’s over, I crash and he is good at picking up my pieces!

So I think part of walking through something like this with a loved one is this: know yourself.

  • Who are you in that situation, and what do you need?
  • Then allow yourself to receive the gift of recovery, however that might look for you.
  • Accept that you are God’s precious child, and he wants to heal and restore you as well. He’s YOUR Good Shepherd, not just everybody else’s.

Here’s how that looks for me right now:

  • I went to therapy myself in the middle of the mess.
  • I’ve allowed myself to work less than people might expect, for a long time now. And I’m still tired. So I’m still not working a lot.
  • I have removed myself from demanding situations where I could get involved and help if I had the energy, but I just don’t, so I’m out.
  • I hang with the people who know me and love me and don’t have big expectations of me. In fact, they are the ones who will tell me to go to therapy if I can’t figure it out for myself.

It comes down to this, I think: you need to heal, too.

I love what Anne Lamott says in Traveling Mercies:

On the first Sunday of Advent our preacher, Veronica, said that this is life’s nature, that lives and hearts get broken, those of people we love, those of people we’ll never meet. She said the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward, and that we, who are more or less OK for now, need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room, until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice and graham crackers. And then she went on vacation.

“Traveling mercies,” the old black people at our church said to her when she left. This is what they say when one of us goes off for a while. Traveling mercies: Be safe, notice beauty, enjoy the journey, God is with you.

We have to learn to accept traveling mercies for ourselves, and for some of us, that is so very difficult!

But the truth is this.  Sometimes I’m more or less okay, and I’m able to help others.  Sometimes I’m one of the more wounded ones, and I have to let people help me.

Here’s how to tell if you’re one of the wounded ones right now:

Emotional symptoms

  • Crying a lot
  • Angry, frustrated with self and others
  • Numb, unable to feel
  • Restlessness, inability to concentrate or feel at ease

Physical symptoms

  • Sleep problems (too much, too little)
  • Nightmares
  • Eating/appetite changes
  • Anxiety attacks

Behavioral symptoms

  • Social isolation
  • Self-medication: porn, alcohol, surfing the internet, gaming
  • Conflict with family, friends, colleagues
  • Inability to function normally
  • Risky behaviors
  • Self-harm

If you’re experiencing symptoms like this and would like help, please check our resource tab for counseling and retreat resources that cater to overseas workers.  Some are free.  Others are paid, but may offer scholarships if you inquire.

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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at www.kaybruner.com. She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to: www.kaybruner.com/counseling
  • Marilyn Gardner

    Great, practical steps Kay. I think your words about knowing what you need are so critical and so much harder than they seem. When we’ve been caring for someone, often we’ve totally forgotten what we may need. I remember having someone ask me and being paralyzed. It was incredibly scary that I had lost myself so much in the situation that I didn’t know what I needed. Thank you for this.

  • This resonates strongly. After long trying-to-push-through-and-carry-on, we concluded that a fallow season of rest and focus on health and recovery might be what we really needed. Especially me. I wish you well in your fallow season, even as I begin to think that ours is indeed the life-giving exploration we need and that I will once again feel, and have energy to respond. That numb exhaustion is not, indeed, all there is after 60. Smile. What a step it is, though, for the care-giver to admit that she just. can’t. keep. pouring out life. For a season.

  • Erika Loftis

    I am on home assignment after nearly 3 years in Thailand. I’m the wife of a missionary (he does missionary support stuff, counseling and media stuff) Anyway… I didn’t want to go to Thailand, but I expected that God would join us. And for the first 2 years, I was sure He had forgotten to show up. Then, He began to break through the thick black goo of spiritual oppression, and I saw glimpses of Him a few times. With a desperate, soul destroying loneliness, incapable of doing any meaningful work beyond the VERY basics of looking after 4 kids… (we had MAMA noodles A LOT.) I spent much of my time taping my heart and soul together, to try and stretch out just one. more. day. And so, now, on home assignment it’s all pouring out. I am broken. Not in a cute, Christian, “Isn’t it so great how God breaks us” but a desperately destroyed person. I have two passports, being originally from the US, now residing and being “sent” from Australia. I have no home. No where to run. I have three countries and no countries. I am currently struggling to see all this as a “remaking” or building time. We have hurting people in three continents. People we miss and never able to be there for. U.S. autumns that I haven’t seen in 10 years. I am now counting the cost and wondering why we do all this. I would love to toss in a robust “It’s all for God’s glory!” but, quite frankly, I’m not feeling it. I feel like He asked us to give Him everything. We did. I feel like He took it, and left me to die in Thailand. I’m angry with Him, yet raising support to go back, because it’s part of me now. As a counselor, my husband says that women, especially mums, typically get the bum end of missions. I can’t help but feel it’s true. So now, numb, angry, barely believing, teary, and anti-depressanted up, I am unpacking the shiz that has piled up in my return luggage. Hoping that some good bread, cheese, and counseling will get me strong enough to return to the place I fear most. This was perhaps tmi, but my husband suggested that other missionary mums felt like me too, and it was helpful to know that as I haven’t seen anyone confess it in real life… So I’m putting it out there. Sometimes missions is the monster. Sometimes missionaries are it’s cudgel. I’m clinging to a thread of hope that God is watching. That He is still working, and waiting for a time when I can see it again.

  • Maggi

    Yup, resonates with me too. I don’t think the lack of comments on this piece is any indicator at all of it’s usefulness, in case you were wondering. 🙂 Very, very helpful and insightful.

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