Beyond words

Often, simply being there is what really matters.

David Servan-Schreiber | July 2008 issue

The love we bear for our nearest and dearest is repeatedly put to the test. Tested further than we thought possible. Yet it’s at these extreme moments that love rescues us from the most desperate situations.
I was once privileged to hear the story of a woman who’d experienced this. Sylvia had been terribly worried about her son Paul’s mental health. He used to pace around his room at night like a caged animal, and was constantly irritable. When she suggested he see a doctor, he threatened to punch her. At 22, he finally consented to see a psychiatrist, who said he was having psychotic episodes.
Terrified, and fighting back her maternal instincts, she decided to have him committed to a psychiatric unit against his will. Paul was so angry he cut off all contact. He was discharged after only a week in the hospital, even though his condition hadn’t improved. He then went to live in the South of France, in Aix en Provence, moving around from one place to another. The only news Sylvia heard was through some of Paul’s childhood friends he contacted through the Internet.
They at least reassured her that her son was still alive. But every morning, she woke up with her stomach in knots: What would become of him?
After six months of this nightmare, she decided to let Paul know she’d be in Aix on his birthday and would wait for him in front of the Mirabeau fountain. She wanted to wish him a happy birthday, she said; she wasn’t expecting anything from him, just wanted to see him, even from a distance.
On Paul’s birthday, she waited for hours, sitting on a stone in front of the fountain, staring at every passerby who looked anything like her son. And then, turning around, she caught sight of him: bearded, dirty and terribly thin.
He walked past her without looking up, muttering as though he were talking to himself: “Why have you come? I hate you. I never want to see you again.” She was crushed, managing only to call out, “Happy birthday!” before he disappeared. Still, he’d come. That was the last she saw of him for another year. Over the following months, she clung to that slim hope: at least he’d come…
In therapy years later, as she recalled what happened at the Mirabeau fountain, Sylvia couldn’t hold back her pain. She’d lost all confidence during that period, barely managing to keep herself together by learning to push the pain away. Her grief, held in check for so long, was released with the help of her therapist, and she was able to rediscover and tend the hidden wound.
And then, as one session went on, another memory arose, of her son four years later. He’d finally agreed to get help and take lithium, which made him much more stable. He was living a normal life again, and was able to talk to his mother about what had happened during that time.
She particularly recalled him saying to her, “You know, Mum, when I was in Aix and my mind was so messed up, the one thing in my life I had to hold onto was the knowledge that whatever happened, you’d always be there for me.” And she had been. Always. Even when there was nothing she could do to help, she’d given the only proof of love she could give: being there for him.
This is what psychology professor Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, found when he studied the effect of family visits on hospital patients: The presence of loved ones—whether they knew what to say or not—assisted recovery. Just being there was what mattered. Well beyond words.
David Servan-Schreiber is a psychiatry professor in France and the U.S., and the author of Healing without Freud or Prozac.
 

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