the bread of validation
I was awakened one morning at 4:25 AM by a phone call from Betty. She was sobbing, and I could barely make out the words, “I’m afraid of what I might do.” I said, “Okay, I’ll be right over.” I threw on some jeans, put in some lubricating eye drops, and grabbed my phone. On the way to Betty’s subsidized apartment, I called a local behavioral health facility and asked for a refresher on what one does when there is a need to commit someone. The attendant was helpful and instructed me that I could drive her to the emergency room in my car or call the police to take her in if she was a danger to herself or others. Arriving moments later and feeling more equipped to deal with whatever I might find, I knocked on her door.
My affiliation with Betty began almost six years prior. I was working as a hospice social worker, and Betty’s husband was one of our patients. After he died, I did bereavement follow-up with Betty and somehow, our relationship continued for years. During that time, Betty, a devout Catholic, had moved twice, had multiple surgeries, been in and out of behavioral units and the accompanying outpatient programs, filed an elderly abuse claim against her daughter and son-in-law, refused to speak to one or more of her children, and attempted suicide by ingesting pills. She was put in jail for disturbing the peace and asked to sign an agreement to voluntarily leave her apartment. Two days earlier, I had coached Betty on how to make a good impression with the apartment management, in the hopes that they would let her stay. She considered me her ally, maybe even her only one.
In How Can I Help by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, the authors wrote,
The more you think of yourself as a ‘therapist,’ the more pressure there is on someone to be a ‘patient.’
This concept, while not new to me, resonates deeply with me and has been a part of my spiritual practice for some time now with hospice patients, counseling clients, and people I companion in spiritual direction. I know that the more I think of myself as a “helper,” the more I regard the other person in a disempowering way. So the intention of not “talking down” to Betty, of trusting in her innate wisdom, accompanied me into her apartment that morning.
An additional supportive framework was given to me by my friend, Julie, who tells the story of sitting on a pier during a retreat when she was approached by a group of ducks floating by, dipping in and out of the water. Empty-handed, Julie felt powerless because she had no bread or crackers for them to eat. She thought, “I have nothing to offer.” As a result, she experienced a moment of enlightenment in which she realized that her presence was enough; it was enough for the ducks, and it was enough at all times.
Her story has come to my mind on many occasions when sitting with hospice patients and their caregivers and the variety of people I companion in different settings. “I have nothing to offer. I cannot fix this. I am here with you. This is my best.” Yet, to this narrative was added the reflection at the end of Chapter 2 in How Can I Help,
What do we really have to offer, what do we really have to give? Everything, it turns out. Everything. If within each of us is that essence of Being which is in all things — call it God, Life, Energy, Consciousness — as open to all that as we are in ourselves, so we have it to share with one another.
So supplementing my intention of honoring Betty’s dignity was the realization that I had my presence to offer her, and in that presence was a Receptive Benevolence that has the potential to facilitate healing through connection; and so the visit began.
Betty was distraught. She told the same story of shame and blame over and over with different leading characters. Her eyes were swollen and her teeth were absent from her mouth. She was in her pajamas and intermittently cried and grabbed the sides of her head. I sat there, centered in Love, listening with all the empathy I could muster so that I could mirror back her deepest emotions, and practicing seeing her as Jesus in disguise.
I have nothing to offer. I have everything to offer.
Then it happened, and the space closed in. I decided that there was a problem to be solved, that I was there “to help,” that I must come to her aid, be her savior. I let her vent for quite a while, probably an hour. Then I stepped out of simple presence into “fix it” mode.
It occurred when she admitted that she didn’t know what to do. I suggested that, just as she had told me that changing her diet had positively impacted her health, a change of mind was what was needed here now; that if she continued to dwell on the circumstances that she couldn’t change, she would make herself sick. So I read scripture to her and prayed with her — the “Jesus, Help Me” Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, the Morning Offering.
Bread for the duck, bread for the duck
Betty said that she didn’t want to pray anymore, and then I delivered the punchline, “Betty, may I drive you to the hospital so that they can help clear your thinking?”
It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Betty suffers from mental illness and seemed “out of her mind.” Yet I left 45 minutes later without Betty and wishing that I had just gotten an agreement from Betty not to take her life, and then simply sat and listened until I couldn’t stand it anymore. That was pretty close to what happened anyway. The major addition was the part where I gave her an ultimatum, “Ms. Betty, you have two options: you can dress and ride with me to the emergency room, or I can call the police to take you there.” I didn’t give Betty or myself the space to just be. I felt the need to do.
Surprisingly, Betty did not cry out in anger at me or shout accusations of, “You’re just like the others!” like I feared that she would. Instead, she patiently and adamantly explained why she didn’t think that another commitment was what she needed. We had to hash this out.
No bread for the duck. I have nothing to offer. I have . . . nothing to offer.
Then the sky opened and a sense of spaciousness emerged. I was just being with Betty, without agenda.
Bread for the duck; manna, manna from heaven
It was the bread of attention, the manna of witnessing.
Betty, I’m here for you. Betty, I see you. Betty, I see your pain; and verbalizing, “Betty, you try so hard. I would be so hurt if my son spoke that way to me.”
I have nothing to offer. I have everything to offer — the bread of validation, the manna of affirmation. I am your witness. I see you.
When I was tired of hearing another round of the monologue and had secured an assurance that Betty was not suicidal, I went home, clothed in non-attachment to outcome and resting in simple presence. It was about 6:45 AM and I needed to feel warm and secure, so I snuggled back in bed with my husband until I was ready to get up and meditate another day into existence.
Reflecting on this experience later, I recognized that I was emotionally activated during my encounter with Betty and now needed the reassurance of my heart. I soothed myself by reminding myself that I did the best I could. I knew that I needed to explore the hospital option with her, even if it meant stepping into a “helping” role and crowding her personal space. I wanted her to be safe. I also suspected that what Betty really needed was a listening ear, and I felt the spaciousness of finally offering attention, validation, and affirmation. Along with that, I released the judgment I had on myself for proposing to take Betty to the emergency room and then closing in on her by giving her an ultimatum. I didn’t want Betty to think that I saw her as defective or crazy. Yet looking back, I realized that going to the hospital was a reasonable option, and I knew that the ultimatum was not issued from a sense of powerlessness or of usurping power, but out of love. My inner critic had gone into high gear, trying to evaluate the rightness of my behavior, and it felt good to extend myself some grace.
I called Betty to check on her the next afternoon and she was okay, even happy. We commiserated that all of us have our moments. She shared that she rode to the store on her motorized chair and was renewed by the fresh air and change of scenery. She said, “You wake up and it’s a new day.”
May your mind be peaceful and calm, may your body be relaxed and comfortable, and may your heart be filled with love.
Thank you for reading.
Blessings and gratitude, Ani
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