How to Be There for Yourself While Caring for Others

Emma Smith
Emma Smith

During National Recovery Month, I’m thinking of those who have succeeded in overcoming their addiction, those who are on the long path to recovery, and those who haven’t quite made that choice yet, but hopefully will someday. When you have a loved one living with addiction, watching them struggle can be devastating. Although I haven’t personally suffered from addiction, it’s impacted every part of my life.

As a child, I hadn’t learned how to cope with my own feelings, let alone how to offer help to those in a similar situation. However, in the past few years, I’ve learned how important it is to simply tell caregivers and loved ones of those who are dealing with addiction (or any mental health condition) that their mental health matters too. My own experience presented many challenges, but I also learned invaluable lessons and became more resilient from it all. Here are a few reminders that have helped me:

  1. When you are supporting someone else’s mental health, don’t forget to maintain a support system for your wellbeing. If you are anything like me, you may find that you will overextend yourself for others. However, it’s so important to understand your limits. Today, I make an effort to monitor my wellbeing and reach out for support when I need it by talking to people who have gone through similar situations. If you’re a young adult, I suggest trying to find, or even starting, an Active Minds chapter at your school. My chapter has helped me in ways I didn’t know I needed, and I couldn’t be more grateful for my community.
  2. Your feelings are valid. Watching someone important to us struggle with a mental illness can be an upsetting and painful experience. You may feel that you don’t have the space to process your feelings because their struggle seems so much bigger. But, just because you, as a loved one, may or may not carry a diagnosis of your own, doesn’t mean that you don’t have your own mental health to take care of. It took me years to realize that my feelings of sadness and anger about my childhood were valid, because, as a child, these feelings were diminished. Thankfully, through therapy and many conversations with those facing similar challenges, I realized that what I felt, and what I still feel, about the situation is okay.
  3. Find something that brings you joy. I’m someone who needs to verbalize what I’m going through to process what I am feeling. From a very young age, I gravitated towards music, so it was natural for me to write songs and sing about my experience. Even today, writing music continues to be a coping mechanism for me. I have found that the most important time to practice this type of self-care is actually when I feel I’m too busy or too overwhelmed to make time for myself. These are the moments when I remind myself to slow down and put my well-being first.
  4. Set boundaries for yourself. Growing up, I attempted to set many different boundaries to create healthier relationships in my life. However, it also can be hard to set a boundary with a loved one, especially when healthy boundaries were never modeled for you. Unfortunately, my boundaries weren’t respected, which led to me setting the ultimate boundary: not having a relationship at all. For a long time, I thought the neglect of my boundaries meant that I was the issue, but that’s not the case. I want caregivers and loved ones to know that your boundaries are valid, and it’s okay to put yourself first.
  5. You can support and encourage them, but you cannot change them. This may have been the most important lesson I learned throughout my experience. We cannot be the ones to change our loved ones or make decisions about their recovery process; we can only stand beside them and support them to the best of our ability. Instead, we need to focus on what we can control: how we react to situations outside of our control, and how we take care of ourselves.

To the family members and friends of those struggling with addiction, or working through recovery: never forget the importance of your own mental health. Their battle isn’t ours to fight, but we can stand beside them along the way. Your support for them is so important, but your mental health is too. We’re here for you, and we’re cheering you on.