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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Speak When Spoken To and When You Choose

Two versions of the wondrous human helping relationship.

 One of the hallmarks of being human---our ability to speak.  It is one of the first things we begin teaching our babies.  And how delighted we are by their first attempts.  Some have been known to spend massive efforts teaching gray parrots to speak.  We wish sometimes we could know what our pets, and other animals would say to us, if they only could.  Speaking, having language, is one of the characteristics that distinguishes us from other living creatures.  It was such a treasure to be able to express oneself, our American forefathers even put it in the constitution; all Americans are adamant about our right to "freedom of speech".

There are two films which explore the other side of this picture---what happens to a person who cannot speak:  One is a film that was taken from a book (which I have read but have only seen a few clips from the film).  It is called The Diving Bell and The Butterfly.  This is the story of a man suddenly struck down by a cerebrovascular accident.  I once had a patient who had suffered this unusual, devastating physical event.  But, in his case, he was still able to speak, albeit, with difficulty.  In the story of the 42 year old, editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, a man in the midst of an exciting, glamorous world of fashion models and media events, enjoying a position of power and status,  wakes up not able to move and unable to speak.

In the movie, we are taken along with him in his experience of the slowly dawning realization that he is only thinking, no longer talking, and that no one else can hear him.  He has no means of communication; he feels as if he in in a diving bell, under the sea, able to breathe but, otherwise isolated, cut off from the rest of the world.  This condition is sometimes called, Locked-In Syndrome.

The other film is current.  In the movie theatres now, The King's Speech is about, again, a man in a powerful position---in this case where he acutely feels the demands placed upon him---the expectations vested in a person who is to reign over a nation.  He is beset with a speech impediment which makes it virtually impossible for him to speak, in many situations.  His father, the king whose shoes he must one day fill, has needs and expectations of him that have specifically to do with speaking, as do the multitudes of citizens of his country.  His time in history is one of sweeping change and great fear---his leadership, specifically in the interpretation of political events, was desperately needed.  But, he could not speak; he lived in personal crisis.

Here we have two true stories of great poignancy primarily about the inability to express oneself.  How often do we think of being able to talk as such a grand gift?  When you see the portrayal of one robbed of that ability, you may begin to think of it that way.  In the first story, we share the shock of the victim as he recognizes his predicament and in the second, we share the pain and immense frustration of an individual caught in constant conflict.

In both cases, there is a rescue; there is a savior, a person of such compassion that they each determine to overcome the immense obstacles and find a way to help.  Reyna Cowan, LCSW, a psychoanalyst and child therapist says that in performing psychotherapy we "...enter the world of the patient, have it wash over us..." and try to express it back in some meaningful way.
 In both of these cases, the helping person was not a psychotherapist by profession but they could not be better examples of how to be therapeutic.  How does a speech therapist find such determination in herself to devise a way for someone to communicate who has no ability to move save, breathe and open and close one eyelid?  How does a self-anointed "speech specialist" find the courage to stand up to a king in order to be able to help him?

I found the portrayal of this relationship in The King's Speech to be beautifully depicted and  very moving, in the delineation of the development of that relationship.  There are stops and starts, to be sure.  This happens even in relationships with the best intentions, including therapy relationships.  But the wish on the part of the helper to facilitate recovery for his patient was powerful.  If you see this film, watch for how the speech specialist has to protect his own dignity while still conveying the deference due a king---it is touching and remarkable.

When you are in a relationship or, even just a single interaction, wherein you are attempting to help, remember this model; you have to keep both people in mind, be respectful of both, help without losing yourself nor tarnishing the pride of the one being helped.

I'm really hoping you'll comment on the posts about communication!

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