By Alice A. Holstein, Ed.D.
The fact that I was asked to say a few brief words in April about my experience with mental illness to hospital clinicians where I am on an advisory board to the Behavioral Health unit, prompts me to share several of my experiences where the fact that someone listened to me was life-giving if not life-saving. Listening is such a simple thing, you say? My experience is otherwise. Instead, we are full of advice, argument and judgment. When we are truly listened to, however, from the heart and sometimes with the specific skills of “active listening,” profound healing is possible. Newfound strength and empowerment can occur.
My experiences suffering with bipolar mood disorder include some dramatic examples, partly because I lived sometimes on the streets when I was really sick (not because I was truly homeless but because I was either separated from my assets or too paranoid to tap them). One of those times was after I had been released from the hospital after a manic episode. Upon discharge, they did not ask me where I would be staying, and I was still somewhat delusional, so I did not have the capacity to think clearly for myself. I was on foot, without such things as credit cards or money.
The night (in La Crosse, WI) was chilly and rainy. I knew I needed help, but newly arrived in my hometown after 40 years absence, did not know how to meet that need. After stopping at one place where there was “no room at the inn,” I was referred down the street to St. Rose convent late in the evening. Fortunately, they let me in through their locked door and then they called one of the Franciscan sisters to the receiving room. Immediately I told her that I thought I was going to die and needed some help to arrange for some of my possessions, such as valuable jewelry, to be sent back to my Tucson home and the executor of my estate. I think the sense that I was going to die came from two sources; one was that I had been off my thyroid meds for some 5 months, which is life-threatening, and the other was that being back in my hometown signaled the fact that I was dying to an old, sick self that had finally found some safety in this place that had been the last one I had ever wanted to live.
The nun just listened to me. She did not try to talk me out of that story, nor to give advice. She merely listened with careful attention, holding my hand at one point and praying with me. She had no solution to my dilemma of a place to stay, but I was somehow strengthened enough to go back out into the rainy night and make my way to a Catholic Worker house nearby. It was closed, but there was a small children’s playhouse in the backyard where I curled up and fell asleep. The next morning, when they opened, I proceeded to use their phone to begin making arrangements for temporary housing. I was restored enough to health to begin making rational decisions about how to help myself.
Another time a nurse who knew how to listen silently, with great compassion, made a huge difference to my well-being. I was in the hospital on a Chapter 51 commitment (where you are judged a danger to yourself or others), dealing with an authoritarian doctor who would NOT listen to me about how sensitive I am to medications, which he was prescribing in heavy doses. He proceeded to threaten me with sentencing to the state mental institution for several months, which would have been a disaster since I lived alone without anyone I could ask to run my life while I would be gone. Besides that, I felt as though I did not need his solution. I asked for a change in doctors, but he denied the request.
I ended up sobbing in utter despair at the nurse’s station. The nurse did not speak one word to me. She too just held my hand and merely, but hugely just listened. There was no advice nor direction given, but I could feel and almost taste her compassion. Eventually I was able to return to my room where I had the strength to call for the patient advocate.
With the advocate’s help I was then able to document my situation and the course of these patient-doctor conversations strongly enough that the lawyer who was to assist with the Chapter 51 hearing put me on the stand in my own defense. The judge subsequently ruled that the doctor-patient relationship was broken; I was awarded the opportunity for a new psychiatrist. That nurse saved me from a traumatic, costly, demeaning and unmanageable situation. I can remember us sitting in the nursing station as if it was yesterday.
Both of these situations speak for themselves. Listening, without judgement, with compassion and love, is a sacred art. I think it is rare in this world, but whenever I was just listened to in such a way, I was validated and able to “return to my normal self” more quickly. I think we have hundreds of opportunities to listen effectively in a day or a week, but seldom do we realize how healing and life-giving that can be. Such listening with full presence is somewhat of an invisible thing, and we seldom get thanked for it, yet we usually feel enlivened and understood at new levels when deep listening happens. That requires suspending your own opinions while you are fully “with” another. It takes discipline, skill, practice and loving intention. When have you been the recipient of such a gift? How well do you give it to others?