As a young social worker in a New York City psychiatric clinic, I was asked to see Roz, a 20-year-old woman who had been referred to us from another psychiatric facility. It was an unusual referral in that no information was received ahead of her first appointment. I was told to “play it by ear.” And to figure out what her problems were and what she needed.
Without a diagnosis to go on, I saw Roz as an unhappy, misunderstood young woman who hadn’t been listened to in her earlier therapy. Her family situation was unpleasant. I didn’t see her as disturbed, but rather as lonely and misunderstood. She responded so positively to being heard. I worked with her to start a life worth living – to find a job, a satisfying place to live and new relationships. We hit it off well, and she started making important changes in her life right away.
The records from the previous psychiatric facility arrived a month after Roz and I began our successful work together. To my complete surprise, her records were several inches thick, describing a number of psychiatric hospitalizations. Her diagnosis was “paranoid schizophrenic,” with a comment on her being “hopeless.”
That had not been my experience with Roz at all. I decided to forget those pieces of paper. I never treated her as if she had that “hopeless” diagnosis. (It was a lesson for me in questioning the value and certainty of diagnoses.) I did find out about the horrors for Roz of those hospitalizations, of being drugged, isolated and abused. I also learned a lot from her about surviving such traumatic circumstances.
First Roz found a job, then a place to live away from her difficult family. After several months of working together, she introduced me to her husband-to-be, a successful businessman who adored her.
When we completed our therapy, Roz gave me the gift of a silver bookmark and a note that said, “Thank you for believing me well.”
I have carried that note with me and I will for the rest of my life, to remind me of the stand I take for people, thanks to one brave woman’s triumph over a “hopeless” diagnosis.
By Judy Tatelbaum