When I was a child, there was one image I immediately associated with a hospital: the picture of a nurse, all dressed in white, prim and proper, holding an admonitory finger to her mouth, silently demanding silence with that simple gesture and a stern look in her eyes.
For ten-year-old me, that image was unquestionable.
Fifteen years later, I beg to disagree.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being invited to witness a multi-familiar group therapy session at a local mental hospital for women. What I saw there were the devastating effects of decades of abuse, abandonment, desolation and silence.
I heard a 58 year-old woman break down in tears as she spoke for the first time in her life of how she had been abused by her uncle when she was 7 years old. She had never told anyone about this. She had lived with this secret for over 50 years.
I heard the mother of 11 children tell a group of complete strangers that she no longer wanted to live, because she felt she had failed as a mother. She had always believed she would be able to tell if her children were being molested, but she wasn't. All of her children had been abused through the years by their father, step-father, neighbours and even their own brothers. The mother hadn't been able to protect her children and she wanted to die.
How can we even begin to understand what it must be like to live with a secret every single day of your life, day after day, year after year? To me, there's no deeper cry of despair and desperation than silence. And there's so much we can do for somebody just by listening to their problems.
For many, silence is the first thing that must be broken in order to start fixing a shattered life. The hospital, the doctor's office, should be a place where people know they will be heard without being judged, a place for the lonely and hopeless to break the silence, to take the first step towards recovery… the first and hardest step out of the darkness and towards hope.
"Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak. Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break."William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 4.3.