Editor’s Note: In the Natural Supports Perspective Series, SAMHSA’s GAINS Center explores the lived experience of individuals identified as a natural support of a person who was or is incarcerated or justice involved. Our goal is to promote a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities that natural supports may face when providing support to individuals involved in the criminal justice system who have mental and/or substance use disorders, intellectual and developmental disabilities, or trauma-related needs. Natural supports are established when support and assistance naturally flow due to a previously established relationship or environmental context. People identified as a natural support to a person who is incarcerated or justice involved tend to be family members but can also be friends, coworkers, neighbors, clergy, or local librarians, among others.
Natural supports provide emotional support through personal connection and have been identified as the key to effective service delivery in wraparound care practices. Natural supports of people who are incarcerated or justice involved have the potential to facilitate service utilization and adherence to court orders, from providing rides to treatment appointments, hearings, or parole appointments, to providing a home upon reentry. Numerous studies demonstrate the importance of natural supports for individuals with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities for improving the individual’s mental health outcomes and increasing program efficacy.
The following article is part three of the Natural Supports Perspective Series and provides the speaker’s reflections on their experiences with their nephew’s legal involvement and substance use. Because the author requested anonymity, all names provided herein are pseudonyms.
Content Warning: Death of parents, substance use, and incarceration. The following story is the speaker’s personal experience and may evoke strong emotions for some readers.
The following is a reflection on my experience as a natural support to my nephew and godson, Matthew. I could never have anticipated I would spend nearly two decades as the natural support for someone in and out of prison and experiencing substance use disorder (SUD). But looking back over Matthew’s life and mine, I am reminded we all have our own lived experience, which makes us who we are. To truly understand, we must start at the beginning.
Matthew became involved with substances early in life. In high school, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and although he recovered physically, the timing of the illness substantially impacted his ability to participate in sports, which were a central and stabilizing force in his life. Then, at the age of 19, Matthew lost his mother, and only 5 years later, he lost his father, my brother. By this time Matthew, had had multiple contacts with law enforcement, including overnights in jail.
If you find yourself, like me, in the role of a natural support of a person involved in the justice system who has mental illness or substance use disorder (SUD), I have four lessons for you: LOVE, LISTEN, LEARN, and REPEAT. Even though Matthew’s contacts with the criminal justice system are numerous, starting at age 18 and ending at age 37, they don’t define him. Today he serves others as a peer specialist, showing them to never stop hoping, to never stop believing in themselves. I hope our story is helpful to others, that it will encourage them to stay hopeful, even when it seems hopeless.
Matthew and I had always had a great relationship, and I took seriously the role of godparent from the day I was asked. However, I did not know the extent of his involvement with the judicial system or with substance use until after his father passed.
Matthew’s father was my brother and my best friend, but he never shared the legal trouble he was experiencing with Matthew. No parent wants to think their child has a substance use problem, much less a serious one. I am not sure he even knew the extent of his son’s addiction or legal issues. It is hard to be the natural support when you don’t know the full scope of what you are dealing with.
After his parents died, I was Matthew’s only support. At that point, Matthew was deep into substance use and had had several contacts with the legal system. I had no idea how to help him, but by this time, I was married, and my husband, Allan, became my own natural support, and we muddled our way through together. As unprepared as I, a licensed professional counselor, was for what lay ahead, Allan, an engineer, was even less prepared. However, we knew we were on the same mission. Allan helped by bringing order to all of the practical tasks involved in Matthew’s legal system involvement while I took a more nurturing role. We discovered very quickly that both would be essential at various stages as we took on assisting Matthew in his journey to wellness.
Because I was family, Matthew had always trusted that I loved him, and over time he began to trust Allan. Matthew had been hurt often by disingenuous people, so if he had had any indication that Allan could not be trusted, he would have shut down. Eventually, he allowed Allan to see his vulnerable side, and they developed a special relationship. I watched as Allan and Matthew began working together not just to get things done, but because they loved each other.
One of the first things we discovered on our trek as natural supports was that we needed to be strong enough to hear the ugliness of this endeavor and show up to be that safe place. The fortitude to ask questions to understand—not to judge—quickly became an essential component of our support. It didn’t take long to discern that this endeavor would take a team of advocates. The team included people who had some connection and familiarity with the situation. Of course, the most important team member of all was Matthew.
It took a while, but we gradually realized that we could not force the outcome. Our job was to empower Matthew until he could recognize he was the only one who could make his situation better or worse by his choices. We accepted that we could give him all the support he might need, but we could not do all the work. It seems obvious to us now, but it wasn’t so clear when we were entangled in the chaos. Supporting him was just that, supportive—we were willing to put in the work while remembering not to work harder than he worked. One of the most complex concepts to grasp was that natural consequences happen; they’re an innate part of the experience and can be for the better.
Once we were identified as Matthew’s natural supports, we soon learned how important it was for us to listen. He would let us know what he needed when we listened closely. We found it necessary to have conversations about what messes he had to clean up. We asked which ones we could help with.
At times it was important to listen to how overwhelming addiction and mental illness are to the brain and how he was constantly fighting the battle to create a balance. His head told him he needed the substance, and his heart told him he didn’t want to hurt himself or anyone else anymore. This battle is ongoing and exhausting in the mind of the person who struggles with addiction and mental health issues. Understanding that he was a ward of the state and didn’t have the resources to promote healing while incarcerated was hard to hear. He felt lonely and misunderstood most of the time, just trying to endure this miserable reality in which he had found himself.
In Matthew’s words, “The most challenging periods of your support for me was in my periods of dishonesty. There have been years of me not being honest with myself or you. That had to have been the hardest times to support me.” He was right. It was.
Allen and I had to pay attention to cues that reminded us that Matthew’s spirit was still in there. He let us know that he was doing what he could to work his program. We learned that he felt the need to hide that spirit deeply under a façade to survive his imprisonment, addiction, and mental health challenges.
In the beginning, he continued to try to manipulate us when he thought he could. He stopped doing that when he knew we were not trying to control him and that he could trust us to act in his best interest. When he pushed our boundaries, we realized he was not reverting to old behaviors; he was simply using the methods which worked for him in the past. He was also testing our support and resolve to help him.
By the time we thought we settled into our roles, we were confronting a new challenge with new questions. Matthew began to talk about his release date, how difficult it was to deal with the uncertainty of release, and what he needed to expect to happen in the process. He thought he had a healthy, practical plan to come home to us, but that exit plan was not accommodated. As much as he looked forward to being released, he was also faced with how he would manage on the outside with no support in town. That day he was flooded with emotions and questions of “what next?” But he stayed true to his plan and kept in close contact with us. Even though we were states away, he trusted we would do what we could. Because of the relationship we now had and his progress, he was able to use his resolve and the lessons he had learned to set up his survival plan on the outside.
Many people are needed to provide natural support, and each person will play a different role. One may be front and center, while another is just as vital behind the scenes. The one you might expect to be the natural supporter may be dealing with their trauma and can’t take on another’s. It is essential to be honest about where you feel you can be most beneficial to the team.
Allan and I learned so much over the years. We look back now at the many missteps we made and thank God that He translated them into something good. We quickly realized that it was okay for each of us to take a step back, which gave us the time to process and reset. We realized Matthew was not as fragile as we thought during those times.
One of the most important lessons we learned was not to take Matthew’s behavior personally. Realizing he needed our help to combat his illness and the devastating effects of that illness was a breakthrough in our caregiving. To help, we had to stay healthy physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Matthew told us that he felt one of the biggest challenges he had to face was learning how to recognize our support while accepting our boundaries. He had to learn what healthy boundaries looked like as we modeled them. He appreciated that only through working together did those boundaries become understood. Over time, as Matthew better understood the benefit of boundaries, he was able to propose his plans, and we just gave input.
In the end, we all understood that we needed time to reacclimate to life after incarceration. We set up a few days to be together and talk about all those things we couldn’t discuss for a very long time. We hugged and told each other that we loved who we were becoming. We laughed, and we cried until we were exhausted. Together we look forward to the new possibilities of our more honest and deeper relationship.
If you are tenacious with your efforts, this takes on a unique dimension. You become closer than you ever thought possible. We could never have imagined during those terrifying, hard times that we were conceiving an unbreakable bond with Matthew. We had to experience the worst of each other to get to the best of each other.
Allan and I understand now that the natural supporter mission doesn’t end after incarceration. It is a forever undertaking. If you are blessed enough to be chosen for this undertaking, your person will continue to need you, and you will in time need them. Allow them to be your natural support. You come to understand that you have been changed and have become a better you because of each other.
This article explains the practical side of being a natural support. But we would be remiss if we didn’t share how much our faith strengthened us. Throughout this process, our faith has kept us grounded. We continue to thank God for his blessings. He gave us the tools we needed to deal with all of the despair. He accompanied us and confirmed we were never alone. We continue to believe and hope in more light at the end of the tunnel. It is freeing to make plans for the tomorrows that still await us.