Just being there

David Servan-Schreiber discovers how unconditional love can be all that is needed to bring someone back from the brink


Just being there

The love we bear our nearest and dearest is often put to the test. Tested further than we thought possible. Yet it’s often at these extreme moments that love rescues us from the most desperate situations.

I was once privileged to hear the story of a woman who had experienced this with her son. Sylvie was terribly worried about her son Paul’s mental health. He used to pace around his room at night like a caged animal, and was constantly irritable. When she suggested he see a doctor, he’d threatened to punch her. When he was 22, he agreed to see a psychiatrist, who said he was having a psychotic episode. Terrified and fighting back her maternal instincts, she’d finally decided to have him sectioned, against his will.

Paul had been so angry with her he had cut off all contact. He’d been discharged after only a week in hospital, even though his condition hadn’t really improved. He went to live in the Aix-en-Provence area in the south of France. The only news Sylvie had heard was through some of Paul’s childhood friends he had contacted via the internet. They reassured her that her son was still alive. But every morning, she woke up with her stomach in knots: what would become of her son?

After six months of living through this nightmare, she decided to let Paul know that she’d be in Aix on his birthday, that she’d wait for him in front of the Mirabeau fountain. She said she just wanted to wish him a happy birthday, that she wasn’t expecting anything from him, but just wanted to see him, even from a distance. On Paul’s birthday, she waited for hours, sitting on a stone in front of the fountain, staring at every passer-by who looked anything like her son.

And then turning round, she suddenly caught sight of him, bearded, dirty, and terribly thin. He walked past her without looking up, muttering as though he were talking to himself. ‘Why have you come? I hate you. I never want to see you again.’ She was crushed, and managed to call out ‘Happy birthday!’ before he disappeared. But still, he’d come. That was the last she saw of him for another year.

Over the following months, she clung to that slim hope: at least he’d come. Years later, as she recalled the memory of what happened at the Mirabeau fountain, Sylvie couldn’t hold back her pain. Her grief, held in check for so long, was now released with the help of her therapist, who helped her tend the hidden wound.

During therapy another memory arose, from four years later. Her son had finally agreed to get help and was on lithium, which made him much more stable. He was living a normal life again, and he was able to talk to his mother about what had happened during that time. She particularly recalled him saying to her, ‘You know, Mum, when I was in Aix and my mind was so messed up, the one thing in my life I had to hold on to was the knowledge that whatever happened, you’d always be there for me.’ And she had been. Always. Even when there was nothing she could do to help, she had given the only proof of love she could give: being there for him. No matter what, just being there.

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