Learning about what it means to be a ‘healthy caregiver’

Volunteers for jail & prison ministry learn at breakfast

By Dan Russo | Witness Editor

DSC_0162DUBUQUE — It can be discouraging to work with people who have addictions. Knowing this as well as anyone, Deacon Bill Hickson urged a group of volunteers with Catholic Charities Jail and Prison Ministry recently to be like the gardener in Jesus’ parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9).

After years of not bearing fruit, an orchard owner wants to cut down the tree, but a gardener successfully lobbies for one more year. The gardener, symbolizing God showing patience with those who have not yet repented, believes he can eventually help the plant produce, so he keeps trying.

Deacon Hickson, Jail and Prison Ministry Director for Catholic Charities of the Dubuque Archdiocese, connected the volunteers to the parable, saying they may not always see positive results, but they often fertilize a seemingly barren plant that flourishes in the future.

“People ask me often ‘Isn’t this a very depressing business (working in jail and prison ministry)?’,” the deacon told a crowd of about 45 volunteers at an appreciation breakfast in their honor April 25. “First, I don’t expect perfection. Second, I have faith in the Holy Spirit … I have to remember I don’t see the whole story. I just see a couple of chapters. Most people want to see the success … Ours is a ministry of presence and patience.”

The theme of the event at Shalom Spirituality Center was “Healthy Caregiving.” Many of the attendees are involved with Dubuque County’s drug court program as volunteer mentors or members of circles of support and accountability. The drug court offers people with addictions an alternative to incarceration. Instead of being jailed, participants receive treatment. They are required to meet with counselors, find jobs and achieve a series of other benchmarks before graduating. The court partners with Catholic Charities. The organization recruits and trains volunteers to give support through one-on-one time and in-group circles, which regularly talk with, pray with and advise the participant. Using the Dubuque County program as a model, the jail and prison ministry is in the process of expanding its mentorships and circles initiatives to drug courts in other parts of the archdiocese.

Emotional drama, relapses and other challenges can be difficult to deal with for volunteers attempting to help people in addiction recovery. After the breakfast, two expert speakers gave presentations designed to assist the caregivers.

Bobbi Jo Molokken, a counselor at Substance Abuse Services Center (SASC) in Dubuque, talked about the biology and psychology of addiction. She said addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling is a disease. Once the brain is addicted, its chemistry changes, making the person dependent on the substances or behavior. On a biochemical level, the individual mostly loses the ability to make logical decisions, and, in some cases, can even lose the basic drive to eat or take care of one’s self. The pleasure and emotional centers in the brain dominate, while the portions for logic are subverted, according to Molokken.

“Expecting an addict to make a logical decision is illogical,” she said.

Depending on how young a person is when an addiction begins, it can stunt brain development and lead to mental disorders, if they are not present already. Once people decide to enter recovery, physically detoxifying them from a substance is relatively easy compared to the rest of the recovery, which requires changing how they think.

“When you’re dealing with (recovering addicts), try to bring it back to logic,” said Molokken. “Try to help them see the bigger picture. Many times, especially early on, they don’t have the ability to see that … When people have relapses, it doesn’t mean they’re failing; it means their treatment plan needs to be adjusted … It can take people’s brains up to two years of abstinence to fully heal. The biggest challenge, then, is to change the mental part.”

Molokken, whose agency treats the drug court participants as well as others in recovery, gave the attendees tips on how to cope with addicts, including that they should set boundaries.

“They are responsible for their own recovery,” she said. “People have a right to self-determination and self-destruction if they so choose. That’s hard to accept.”

Lynne Lutze, the clinical director for Catholic Charities, was the second speaker. She began her presentation with a heart-felt thanks to the volunteers, telling them, “I care about each and every one of you as I care about my clients.”

Lutze explained how volunteers can recognize and overcome “compassion fatigue.”

“Compassion fatigue is a natural consequence of stress – stress resulting from care of others,” she explained.

Caregivers must be sure to take breaks and distance themselves from the people they are caring for, if necessary, to prevent total burnout, according to Lutze. She urged the attendees to remember that the ministry is “about compassion and not taking (the recovering addicts’) suffering onto ourselves.”

The Jail and Prison Ministry has about 190 volunteers throughout the archdiocese. Some visit people inside jails and prisons, others, like most of those at the breakfast, help people once they are on the outside. Joy Lippstock, of St. Joseph’s Parish in Key West, has been volunteering in support and accountability circles for over two years.

“I see these people going to prison,” she said. “People need to give them a hand up the ladder, not push them back down.”

“I’ve received more than I’ve given,” added Sister Sara McAlpin, BVM, reflecting on her time as a volunteer.


This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.