There are moments when life changes forever. A flash, a pivot, a New York minute. Through a phone call or a social media post or a few phrases in person, life as we know it can all come crashing down.
I’ve long known how to “do crisis,” as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, making my experiences public and living through the aftermath. I found myself on my own at 17, working my way through college and living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Years later, more upheaval as both of my children were born via emergency c-sections. Fast forward another decade as my first marriage ended with a whimper. Each experience was a crisis with real and lasting physical and emotional consequences.
A few years ago, I wrote five things I hated when I was in crisis. I was fully in crisis at the time, and I stayed there for the better part of a year, heading into recovery for a couple of years after that. Recently, however, I found myself as a support person to someone in crisis, and to be honest I was a bit gobsmacked.
First there was the denial that the crisis was happening; that was short-lived, thankfully. Once I realized that these circumstances were occurring with or without my support, I felt lost, like I had been in this place before, but I didn’t know the exact directions. What was I supposed to be doing? How could I help? How could I find my way without a map?
After recalibrating – and breathing, a lot of deep breathing – I realized that even though I wasn’t the one in crisis this time, I had plenty of knowledge and experience about how to be there for the person in my life who needed support. Here are eight important ways to be there for a loved one who is in crisis.
Be Present – Our first response after denial is, “I don’t know what to do!” Typically our first inclination is to ask the person who is going through the crisis. This is a mistake. The loved one going through the crisis needs all of her energy to process her way through what is going on, not teach and comfort her support people. It’s okay if you don’t know what to “do,” because it’s easy to remember: Show Up. You can’t help if you’re not physically, mentally, and emotionally there. Be present in the moment, and opportunities for providing support will present themselves.
Pare Down – As a direct support person for a loved one in crisis, I have needed to take care of myself. As the circumstances unfolded, I let my closest support people know the bare minimum of what was going on so I could call on them. I changed my schedule and planned time off work. I cut commitments for a time and concentrated only on being there for the present moment. Paring down my schedule and commitments ensured that I could be present when needed.
Gather Your Own Support System – Even if you’re going through this experience with a great partner, things are going to fall apart a little. You will both feel exhausted, in addition to a wide range of other emotions: sadness, grief, anger, resignation, and irritation, not to mention happiness and joy. If emotions go unchecked – and many times when they’re well-managed – partners can end up taking out their feelings on each other. Gathering one or two other people outside the household that can support you can make all the difference, not to replace your partner, but to add extra help and care during this time of crisis.
Ask for Help – Having a crisis doesn’t mean that every day life stops. We still need to eat and do dishes and wash clothes and work and walk the dogs. It is essential to practice asking for help. This could mean trusting a friend to get groceries for the family or watch the kids during an important appointment. It could also mean hiring someone to watch the dogs, or asking your partner for extra snuggle time. Identify what you need help with and start asking.
Keep Your Routines – Through this experience of supporting a loved one in crisis, I have said many times, “Sometimes self-care isn’t easy.” Eat regular meals, walk or otherwise exercise if you can, go to bed and get up at regular times, shower, brush your teeth daily. I know this is difficult, but this is what self-care really is – the basics. Taking care of yourself when life gets tough.
Sleep When You Can – Going through a crisis as a support person often means that your time, emotional state, and physical well-being are not your own. It can be difficult to concentrate, feel emotionally even, and sleep, to name a few. There came a day – after several chaotic days and nights – when there was a long afternoon block of quiet. It reminded me of when my children were babies, and the advice: “Sleep When the Baby Sleeps.” I took that advice to heart and took a nap. Do not dismiss the value of a nap. Sleep when you can.
Educate Yourself – A crisis presents a need for more information. It’s not the job of the person in crisis to educate everyone about what’s going on. As a support person, I’ve gathered information from my loved one and professionals and then started researching for myself. There are online articles, books, professionals, and even friends or friends-of-friends who can help you get the information you need.
Give Yourself Grace – A lot of grace. As in, imagine a giant swimming pool full of the grace you’re giving yourself and multiply it by at least one hundred. You will make mistakes. You will yell at your partner. You will cry for hours. This is all – for lack of a better word – normal. When your loved one is in crisis, it is completely reasonable for you to respond with a wide range of feelings, physical and emotional.
Take heart. This time will pass. And as the popular meme says, it might pass like a kidney stone…but it will pass.