Mental Health Matters: A Person of Value and Worth
Although it has almost been two years since I retired, I still enjoy working on various projects or tasks in my home office. Today, I was cleaning out some bookshelves and I came across a photocopy of three 2-by-2-inch Post-it notes spanning over a year’s time. These three notes brought back one of the most sacred stories of a woman I worked with in therapy. Her story is as unique as she was; but a story shared by so many.
Without disclosing anything that would tell you who she is, let me tell you just a little bit about her. She was adopted as an infant by a loving couple, and as an adult, landed in federal prison after becoming romantically involved with a man who got caught up in illegal activity. Somehow, he dragged her into his mess and she found herself alone, and in prison. There was nothing pretty or easy about coming to prison, and she was absolutely miserable. She was full of shame and regret for all the little choices that led to her incarceration.
I welcomed her to my office and suggested we work together in hopes of her feeling better and making some personal changes. She agreed, and I was excited. Something about her touched my heart. I knew she didn’t have to feel this way about herself, and it was a challenge for me to get her to believe it too.
For weeks and months, she continued to share stories about her life leading up to the present day. My training was in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. So, I really focused on just listening to her, allowing her to express whatever thoughts, feelings, or emotions came up. I provided her a safe place where she could begin to feel honored, and maybe start to feel just a little bit better over time. I tried to be her steady and stable object, as she felt so unsteady and unstable about herself.
It was rare for me to take notes in our sessions together (that would be out of form for the kind of therapy I tried to practice), but from time to time, I would quietly jot down something she had said. Her words were important and chocked full of meaning. It was hard for her to believe that anything she said was important, but I disagreed. I would even copy it down for her and ask her to take the sticky note back to her room. This served as a transitional object in the psychoanalytic world, or in the cognitive behavioral world, a cognitive reframe. Nonetheless, I had saved copies of the three sticky notes from our time together. I wondered if this was my transitional object?
The first note described how she felt unlovable as her birth mom gave her away and never loved her. So why should anyone else? Months of therapy transpired analyzing these words and the deep wounds these words left on her heart. Finally, at one point, I looked at her and said something I thought she was ready to hear, and it went something like this: “Your birth mother gave you life, but your adopted parents prayed for you when you were just a twinkling star in heaven: they prepared for you, they choose you, named you and brought you home, loved you and celebrated you, and called you their own. They wanted you more than you will ever know.”
My office, her holding space, became quiet; she looked down and silently wept. She cried for what seemed like an eternity. The floodgates opened and she let it all out. At the end of the session, she looked up, smiled softly, and in a low voice said, “Thank you.”
She finally heard the message. She finally believed the message: I am a person of value and worth. I had said this phrase to her continuously over the weeks and months we met, knowing that it wasn’t going to stick right away, but believing that someday it would. I knew it all along, but had to be patient, give her time, and show her I cared.
We continued our work together as she prepared to leave prison and return home. She left feeling stronger, feeling renewed, and feeling ready. In our final session I asked her to share with me what she was thinking and what she was feeling. Really, these questions were the same questions I asked every week. Today, she proudly stated, “Because I have value and worth, that even though the woman who gave birth to me gave me life, she did not teach me to live. My parents gave me a LIFE and love, no matter what. I am important to them and to many other people. I matter: what I think, feel, and like matters. I CAN come first, set boundaries, and still be loved and cared for. I don’t have to settle, because I am worth it!” With confidence, she wrote this note, signed her name, and dated it.
I asked her if I could share her story and what she had written and she readily agreed. She was proud and strong and wanted others to hear her story and see her victory. During our final session, my final question was, “What worked [in our sessions]?” She replied, “What worked was I knew you cared. I mattered.” I thanked her, smiled, and shed a tear.
In my home office, I cried when I saw the photocopy of our Post-it notes. I was quickly taken back to my old work office, our sessions, and our time together. I learned as much as she did, perhaps more. I was grateful for her and grateful she finally believed she was a person of value and worth.
One of the greatest things we all can do as humans is to hold space and care for others. Actually, everyone is called to do this, and it doesn’t require a PhD. Listening to people—really hearing their story in a safe place free of judgement and ridicule—communicates to them they are a person of value and worth. When this happens, it becomes a sacred moment between two people. Philosopher and seven-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Martin Buber, called this sacred dialogue between two people the “I and Thou.” Martin knew through this dialogue of connection is where the real healing occurs.
We have a world full of too many hurt and sad people desperately wanting to be heard. They are searching for connection and relatedness. I encourage everyone to really see the value and worth in others—their humanity. Create the time and a special holding place for others where they feel safe and loved. There are an infinite number of “I and Thou” relationships waiting to happen.
You all are people of value and worth. Mental health matters to you and me!
Dr. Skillestad Winans retired from the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons after 24 years of service where she served as the Chief of Psychology Services. She is currently an Associate Professor at Northwest University in Kirkland. The information in this article does not constitute a doctor-patient relationship and assumes no professional or legal liability.