Let me share a story with you—hopefully one that’s memorable. You may not remember the words in five years; however, I’m hoping that you’ll remember the “candy bar” and the “handshake,” and that they will help you remember the meaning of the story.
It was a dark and stormy night … wait, that’s not how I want to start this story!
I crossed paths with a middle-aged gentleman in the spring of 1996. I’ll call him Randy. He had just been released from the state psychiatric hospital and was living in a shelter for people with mental health challenges.
Having spent the last 18 months on the sixth floor (why is the psychiatric unit usually on the sixth floor?), Randy shared a little story about his journey with me.
He told me about when he had been admitted to a local hospital after a suicide attempt. He had woken up in the ICU, restrained to the bed. He talked about a respirator tube helping to keep him alive. When he first woke up, the respirator was causing him problems with his breathing.
“I was suffocating and I couldn’t talk because of the tube shoved down my throat,” he told me.
The straps were too tight and causing swelling in one of his wrists.
“I signed [using American Sign Language] to my step-daughter that the straps were too tight.”
When his step-daughter talked to the nurse, the nurse told her that they could not loosen the straps because Randy would go crazy.
“Imagine telling an eight-year-old girl something like that!”
It seemed that no one wanted to listen to him. He shared that story with me because listening was the one thing that he wanted, and no one was listening!
Randy ended up on the psych unit. There was a rule that people on the ward could only get snacks at night if they behaved during the day.
“Do you remember being in kindergarten? Do you remember that if you were a good little boy or a good little girl, you’d get a snack if you did all you were supposed to do?”
Well, Randy went on to explain that people could buy snacks out of the vending machine if they had money. Randy didn’t have any money, so he would end up with the State snack—crackers and water!
One day a Snickers bar showed up with Randy’s name on it. He knew who put it on the table for him.
“Someone took 50 cents out of their pocket and put it into a vending machine for me,” Randy said. “I approached that psych tech and asked them why they did what they did.”
The psych tech responded that they overheard Randy mention that he would die for a Snickers.
The psych tech was listening.
How often do we listen to the people we’re working with? How often are we truly listening to understand what the person might be going through, as opposed to listening to respond?
When Randy was introduced to his first clinical case manager, a gentleman by the name of Gary, he shared another story with me.
“Gary asked me a question,” Randy told me. “He asked me what I wanted to do with my life.”
Randy told me that he didn’t have an answer. He told me that he didn’t have any goals, nor did he have any thought of what to say!
“I remember responding to Gary that I had absolutely no idea what to do!”
It was at this point that Randy shared what Gary did.
No, Gary didn’t pull out a Snickers bar. Gary did what no other health professional had done to Randy. Gary extended his right hand and offered a handshake and placed his left hand on Randy’s shoulder and said, “Well let’s figure that out together!”
Isn’t it interesting what happens when people listen to one another? Isn’t it interesting when people decide to walk together, side by side, along the road to recovery?
When Randy didn’t have any hope, when Randy didn’t know what he wanted in life, there was a psychiatric technician who offered him a Snickers. That tech was listening.
When Randy didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, when Randy didn’t have any goals or dreams, there was a case manager who extended his hand.
Randy—are you surprised?—Randy is me, the author of this story!
I’ve spent several years of my life in different hospitals and several years of my life living on the streets and in different shelters.
Because of those two small, seemingly insignificant acts of kindness, I developed a belief in myself and hope for a fulfilling life.
CPI has a history of caring and teaching effective communication. Listening is at the heart of effective communication, and that is what we do as CPI Instructors. Perhaps we could bring a couple of Snickers bars to our next trainings.
About the Author
Tom Kelly has over 20 years’ experience in the public mental health and addictions field, having worked with private companies and government agencies. Tom has had the opportunity to work with many CEOs, senior management staff, and frontline staff. He has designed and developed training to over 300 audiences across North America, reaching over 10,000 people. Tom has been a Certified Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Instructor since 2016.