The Power of a Friend
In a recent blog (3C’s – Connection, Community, Companions) I shared a quote written by Adam Smith in 1759 in which he stated that “The mind is rarely so disturbed, but that the company of a friend will restore it to some degree of tranquility and sedateness.” There is a lot of truth in this insight and the story you are about to read will underscore the impressive power of simple friendship.
As part of my research for writing the Glasser biography, I became familiar with the work and writings of Dr. Peter Breggin, the author of Toxic Psychiatry (1991), an important book on the dangerous realities of psychotropic drugs. At the beginning of the book, though, Breggin shares a story of an experience he had as a young, undergraduate future psychiatrist, a story, it turns out, that I have never forgotten.
Early in college Breggin got involved with a student-led program that focused on volunteering at nearby psychiatric hospitals. This was in 1954, the same year that thorazine came onto the mental illness scene and also the same year that Glasser began his psychiatric residency in the neuro-psychiatric veterans’ hospital in Southern California. Breggin quickly observed the inhumanity and even horrors within mental hospitals of the day – intimidating and abusive staff overseeing patients who were treated more like animals, more like hopeless cases of permanent dysfunction, housed in cold, colorless cement. He questioned that these hospitals needed to function this way and that patients were viewed as hopeless vegetables.
Breggin rose to a position of leadership within the volunteer program. His questions about how patients were treated — why were patients forced to endure freezing cold temperatures in the winter and stiflingly hot temperatures in the summer; and why were insulin comas and electric shocks forced on patients – were answered unsatisfactorily. The volunteer program grew, though, and as it did it began to have its own effect on hospital’s atmosphere. There were fewer cases of staff abuse and the hallways began to take on color and life.
Feeling like more could be done, as a sophomore Breggin came up with an idea and approached the hospital superintendent. “Let a dozen or more of us,” he began, “have one patient each, assigned for the duration of the year. We would work with the patient one afternoon a week,” he continued, “and meet as a group with a social worker.”
Instead of responding with interest and support, the superintendent responded with outrage. How could untrained undergraduates in college even entertain the idea that they could work with back ward schizophrenics? The president of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society also protested the idea and warned that the patients could be harmed as a result. Breggin explained that he could take the volunteer program to another hospital if they preferred and their ire turned calmer, given that the volunteer program was one of the hospital’s only bright spots.
And so began a simple, but powerful arrangement. Fourteen students were begrudgingly given a patient – all older, chronically ill, and hopeless – with whom to work. Hospital staff felt they were beyond harm or help. Breggin was one of the 14 students. Instead of me trying to describe his remarkable story I will let him describe it in his own words –
My own particular patient, an elderly man I’ll call Mr. Liebowitz, was diagnosed as psychotically depressed, overcome with feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. It was impossible to motivate him to do anything. He was afraid of people and phobic about having a heart attack. When I introduced myself to him, he tried to shoo me away like some vastly annoying fly. I thought to myself, “He’ll never even talk to me!”
After a time he began to trust that I actually would show up each week and that I would be a friend to him. Like most inmates, he was absolutely friendless, and my attempts to establish a relationship must have seemed strange and inexplicable to him. Gradually he let me help him get better clothes from the dispensary and encourage him to work on some simple projects in the hospital carpentry shop. Soon he became willing to chat with me about what he might do to get out of the hospital.
Fearful at first about a heart attack, Mr. Liebowitz gradually allowed me to help him walk outdoors around the hospital, and then eventually around the hospital grounds. We became more able to talk about his actual physical condition, which was excellent, and to contrast his fears to reality. We chatted about his concerns about old age and put them in a more hopeful perspective. I am sure that the interest of a young college student did much to convince him that he still possessed some human worth.
Then I helped him select a home for older and retired people in town, where he was able to take advantage of going outdoors, shopping, and visiting in the community. It was more than a decent place to live and he was very pleased to be free of the hospital.
Other students in the program had more extraordinary accomplishments. Some worked with more grossly “psychotic” patients, those suffering from hallucinations and delusions, and helped them return to their families. While Mr. Liebowitz didn’t talk much, many of the other patients became quite involved in expressing their feelings and discussing their lives with their student aides. For many of the students, this once-a-week supervision with the social worker became as intense as graduate training in psychotherapy. Nor did medication play any role in the outcome. Our patients were not yet receiving the new “miracle drugs.”
Breggin’s story thus far is interesting and even touching, and the story could end there and still be worth every moment you have taken to read this far, but it is the next paragraph, the one that talks about The Results of this simple program that is truly informative and inspiring. Continuing on, Breggin writes –
By the end of the year, eleven of the fourteen patients had been released from the hospital. Only three of those eleven would return in the follow-up, which lasted one to two years.
This story strikes me as incredibly profound. Men viewed as hopeless psychotics, tucked away in a back ward of an institution and tended to as some tend to vegetables, and sometimes worse than that, became sane enough to leave their confines and return to life with their families or venture out on their own. Both – the effects of loneliness and the effects of a supportive friendship – are powerful. Society tends to overlook or misunderstand these effects, though. May this story serve as a gentle reminder of the importance of positive relationships and connection, and further serve as a nudge toward being a friend to others.