Can listening save a life? Even listening just with your eyes, as in Candy Asman’s case?
Asman, a Baha’i in New York City, once worked as a clinical nurse specialist at a major hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.
That’s where she encountered a young man with a baffling condition masked by his inability to speak. For the purposes of this story, he’s called Paul.
“I have labored in the vineyard of working with people in pain, people who use beverage alcohol, illicit substances, or process addictions like gambling to medicate their emotional pain or intolerable external circumstance,” Asman explains of her work.
Getting patients to use their words to talk about their “anxiety, sadness, pain, abuse, loneliness or loss” is often part of the treatment, she says.
And an essential ingredient in that is the cultivation of confidentiality and trust. Just as they are key to all the interactions Baha’is have as they engage people in spiritual conversation and serve alongside them to build community.
“These may be spoken, stated. But more felt, palpable,” says Asman.
“The one who needs to speak must truly feel the listener demonstrates an earnest, ardent, sincere desire to be present, mind open and clear, to take in, to reflect when absolutely needed — or many times sit quietly and simply witness, hear the telling of the unspeakable anguish in silence.”
But what about when someone is in such pain that he or she can’t or won’t give voice to it?
Her conclusion? “One learns to listen with their eyes.”
As with Paul. The 19-year-old was wasting away because of his unknown disease and lack of eating.
Taking up the challenge, Asman observed him watch TV in his “own way,” which comprised standing for hours in three specific postures requiring incredible muscular control.
After what seemed like an eternity she got Paul to indicate through a blink and then a movement to assent to her presence.
Thus began months of five-days-a-week, eight-hours-a-day of one-way interaction.
“I was always trying to read his eyes. See through his eyes but expressionless face. Watch his body language if he moved, changed position at all — toward me, away from me.”
Paul habitually accompanied Asman to the lunchroom at midday.
“I would get both our trays initially,” she says. “Routinely, before I would begin to eat, I would say, each time, ‘Paul, the food is for you. It is to help you regain your strength so when you recover you will be strong and well.’”
She would add a sentence or two and begin to eat while he sat in silence.
Until Day 91, that is.
That day Asman said, “Paul, the food is for you. It is to help you regain your strength so when you recover you will be strong and well and perhaps become a doctor so you can help others who may feel like you have felt for so long.”
“I stopped eating, as I thought I heard a sound. I put my fork down and looked to see from where it came. It was Paul. He was whispering.”
Asman had been noticing small, incremental changes in Paul. He was eagerly anticipating her visits and was moving and standing less rigidly.
“Then this whisper, so huge, so meaningful to me. I did not want to react as it might somehow extinguish the behavioral change. Inside I was hoping and beaming.”
“You mean I could be a doctor like your uncle?” he asked.
“I just said, ‘Yes, Paul if you want to you can become a doctor, or a lawyer or any work you choose to do. The choice is yours. May we talk more about this? Do you think we can do that?’”
He then whispered, “Yes,” and nodded.
The healing process had begun. It began with eating some dessert then eating meals.
Slowly Paul began to speak of the “intrusive, irrational ideas” that were incarcerating him.
He also began actively fight his illness now that he could help doctors identify it.
“He knew he was going to be a physician one day,” says Asman.
And today he is. After living off-campus for six months with a therapist and his family, Paul returned home to his parents and family.
He learned the skills of cognitive behavioral therapy and began a support group for others in his hometown.
He received his high school diploma, graduated with honors from college and entered medical school, which he completed along with a very difficult residency.
“To this day, he attributes his recovery to me,” says Asman. “I know that is not true and tell him that I was an instrument to help him find his voice.
“He has been told by his colleagues that he spends too much time ‘listening to his patients.’ He laughs and says that will never change.”