People who have significantly recovered from mental illness frequently say they were greatly helped by someone who believed in them. One woman stated that there was a doctor who…”believed in me. She never gave up. She was the only one who didn’t give up as far as [my] being in the hospital.” Another woman stated that for her it was a caring therapist. She said, “He was the first person I encountered out of the ordeal that actually had some sort of feeling. He was sympathetic at least and was understanding. He was really helping me out and motivating. Motivating me to keep on fighting, don’t give up…Don’t let them get their way, just keep on fighting.”
A nurse working with me reflected that the most important elements to her recovery were, “Having a mentor, a connection and a relationship…someone I made a strong connection to and they made one to me and they believed in me and I knew it…There was a knowing in their eyes that I saw that said I see you and I really believe in you. Someone that carried me. Somehow that encouraged me to not fall backwards.”
Another woman in describing the residential counselor as the most important person in her recovery stated, “She believed in me…She sent me a card that said, ‘keep up the good work.’ She saw a spark in me. She told me from the start I had a good deal going for me. She helped encourage me and put courage in me. She gave me incentive.”
The people who work in residential services are often the ones whose belief made a difference in someone’s recovery. Jim is an example of such a worker. For 8 years he has patiently and respectably offered his heart and hand to consumer/survivors. Recently he described a priceless moment with a consumer/survivor, Eric, that everyone else had written off. During a walk with Eric, Jim commented on the beauty of the sky, Eric replied, “It is of no importance to me now; why are you telling me about it.”
Jim was delighted. It was one of the first times that Eric had expressed a strong emotion directly to another person. It was also one of the first times that he stated that his needs were different from those of others. Jim thinks that Eric now feels safe enough to express strong feeling within their relationship. Over several years, Jim has carefully won Eric’s trust through listening to his deepest requests. For instance, Eric has bitterly complained that he has not felt alive on his major tranquilizer. Jim has been able to help Eric to negotiate a much lower dose. Though in the past Eric suffered increased paranoia when his medication was lowered, he has not done so this time. I am sure this is because of his close relationship with Jim which has allowed him to feel safe with greater feelings. Eric has also started to listen to different music. For many years he would only listen to heavy metal which Jim felt he needed to listen to because it was needed to drown out his painful thoughts. Now Eric is able to listen to soft rock and folk.
When I asked other staff about Jim they said he reminds them of Yoda, the wise being from “Star Wars.” When he walks into a room everyone feels a sense of calm and peace, yet he can be firm. A consumer called and was abusive to him on the phone, He calmly said, “I won’t talk with you when you treat me that way. When you can have a civil conversation call me back.” In a few minutes she did and they had a productive conversation. He has a sense of humor. One day a consumer was getting very angry on the bus. Others felt threatened, but Jim suddenly burst out laughing and so did the consumer. When I asked Jim what he felt was most important in his relating with consumer/survivors, he said, “I just accept them, the real person. Then they will present more and more of themselves to you.” Such an elusively simple description of the beauty he weaves.
Jim’s manner reminds me deeply of the contact I yearned for and occasionally found in my own journey to recover my own lost self. After a year with an emotionally remote analyst, I sought a different kind of therapist, one that was more human and showed more of himself to me. I made one request at the start of our therapy. “Could you please be a real person with me?” He said he would try to and the combination of his acceptance of my request and his humility planted the roots of trust. There were many tests of our relationship, but he was consistent in his support of me at a deep level. When I told him I wanted to become a psychiatrist he said he would be there for my graduation and he was, even though I was no longer in therapy with him. When I would thank him for an insight he would insist that I had done the work and the healing. He said he had merely provided the setting. When I asked how he felt about my attending a group with another therapist. He said he trusted that I knew what I needed to heal.
Equally compelling is the centering and spiritual renewal coming for the person who does the believing in another. Whether it is for our children, lover, pet or person in need of help, there is deep meaning for the person who can step outside their world to support another’s. A client I had seen through many hospitalizations recently had a long period free of such episodes. She clearly had a new light in her eye. When I asked what had changed she said now that she was working as a provider she had a sense of meaning and purpose in her life. Helping others gave her sufficient meaning that she felt her life was worth living.
These observations recall the research of Carl Rogers into the nature of the helping relationships. He stated that “the safety of being liked and prized as a person seems a highly important element in a helping relationship.” (On Becoming a Person, 1961). Martin Buber also describes the importance of having someone believe in you. He calls this characteristic “confirming the other…Confirming means accepting the whole potentiality of the other. I can recognize in him the person he has been created to become.” Rogers goes on to state that “if I accept the other person as something fixed, already diagnosed and classified…then I am doing my part to confirm this limited hypothesis. If I accept him as a process of becoming, then I am doing what I can to confirm or make real his potential.
These descriptions, however, were mostly for people with moderate emotional problems. When someone is labeled with mental illness, it is as if all that has been learned to be helpful in therapy is thrown out. Medical students are taught to medicate not to converse with mental patients. They are told that people labeled with mental illness have a brain disease and you cannot talk to a disease. Our lived experiences speak otherwise. Our lives show that people labeled with mental illness need a therapist and other people who believe in them.
We who have been labeled with mental illness, remain just as human if not more so than others who are temporarily not labeled. Our needs are human needs of which the most basic is to enter into trusting, loving, and caring relationships. These relationships need to be nurtured and cultivated for us to find the compass of our true self to guide our recovery. Any system of care which disturbs or interferes with these relationship is preventing not promoting recovery.