I believe in the power of silence. I grew up in a middle class suburban neighborhood of Detroit. When I was 11 years old, my father suffered his first episode of bipolar disorder. He was found at the university, where he was studying anthropology, preaching the coming of the Messiah.
In 1966 there were few medications approved in this country for mental illness. He was placed on Thorazine, a major tranquilizer, and in the eyes of his daughter seemed to stop talking and became an old man. We did not understand that the lack of expression on his face, tremors and shuffling walk were because of the side effects of his medication. From then on I thought I had two fathers: the one I knew before he went to the hospital and the father I had after he came home.
My mother returned to work to support her four children and my father. It was a financial hardship to have my father see a psychiatrist weekly. He seldom spoke and we wondered what good were these expensive visits.
One day I was talking with my father, and I asked him what he wanted from his psychiatrist and all those years of therapy in which he did not speak much. My father slowly looked up and said to me, “I think I wanted him to be quiet with me.” He also told me the Thorazine built a wall between himself and the world.
Seventeen years later I attended graduate school to pursue a degree in adult psychiatric mental health nursing. My fist assignment was at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. I worked with a woman named Mary who was institutionalized for 11 years and still heard voices. I taped our sessions for my professor to critique. I focused on the losses in her life. She would mumble her responses, not answer my questions or walk out yelling at her voices. I did not know how to reach her and was afraid I would fail my first course.
My professor told me to be less judgmental and listen to what the patient was really saying. I remembered that conversation with my father and changed my direction with Mary. Instead we spoke briefly about simple things like blues singers, Christmas dinner, or went for walks on the grounds of the hospital. In the last session I asked her what changes she had seen in herself in the past nine months. She said, “I can sit here with you now, and I like it.”
I have now worked in the field of mental health nursing for 25 years. The first lesson I learned was from my father. I believe in listening to silence with another person.