Jeremy’s Silent Fight *
Jeremy was a twenty-year-old man who came to my practice in Zurich at the insistence of his parents and doctors. He had stopped speaking, wouldn’t go to his university classes, and had withdrawn into his apartment. When his parents visited him he sat completely still in the corner, wouldn’t talk to them, and didn’t even make eye contact. They forced him to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with Selective Mutism Disorder which is a type of social anxiety that makes one clam up in certain situations. The diagnosis didn’t make any sense to his parents since Jeremy had always been outgoing, so they sent him to another shrink.
The second doctor told them that Selective Mutism usually starts in childhood so it was unlikely it was the correct diagnosis. He diagnosed Jeremy with PTSD and sought to elicit a description of a traumatic event from him. Only problem was that Jeremy wouldn’t answer when the doctor asked him questions. At their wits end, his parents sent him to one more professional—a highly respected psychotherapist in downtown Zurich. She diagnosed him with Catatonia. She said Jeremy exhibited three important identifying symptoms that led her to the diagnosis: He gave no verbal responses to her questions or instructions; he physically resisted her when she tried to reposition his body; and he mimicked her movements. She sent him to her colleague—a psychiatrist at the University Hospital of Zurich—who prescribed him Ativan (a tranquilizer) and Resperidone (an antipsychotic).
They tricked Jeremy into seeing me by not telling him where they were going, and as soon as they arrived and saw the sign on my door—Adam Zwig, PhD—he shook his head violently and ran down the stairs. But for some reason when he got to the bottom he turned around and came back up.
The three of them entered my office and I did something weird: Riffing on what they had told me about Jeremy, I didn’t talk. I just smiled, shook their hands, gestured for them to sit down, and took my chair. The parents were a bit taken aback but seemed to sense what I was doing. They said they’d go for a walk so Jeremy could talk to me…which of course he didn’t do.
I didn’t say a word to him for the entire hour nor look at him more than a few times. At the end of the hour I calmly stood up, smiled, and let him out. During that week his mother called me several times extremely worried that his withdrawn behavior hadn’t changed. I called her back and told her it will take some time. The following week he returned on his own; this at least gave his parents hope that something good might come out of his work with me.
Our second session was exactly the same as the first one; I meditated while he sat there staring at the wall. Same with our third session. And the fourth, fifth, and sixth sessions, as well. Not a word was spoken between us. We didn’t even exchange non-verbal forms of communication. We just sat together in the same room.
By the seventh session I was getting bored and decided that next time I’d bring my guitar, which I did. About half way through our eighth meeting, I felt I needed to do something besides just sit there, so I picked up my guitar and started noodling around. After a few minutes, Jeremy spoke: “Das ist cool.” I nodded and kept playing. I didn’t want to engage him verbally and take away any of his sense of control over the process of verbal communication. I didn’t yet know why he wasn’t talking but I knew it was a relationship process he had to lead. That’s all he said that day.
In session number nine, I once again played my guitar, and he commented, “Ich mag es” (“I like that”).
Nothing else got said but he spent the whole session engaged, watching me play. Same thing happened during the next few meetings. He’d say one or two brief things each session and that was all.
Two months later, on his sixteenth session, we had a breakthrough. I was playing something on the guitar and he said, “Das ist Scheisse” (“That’s shit”). I burst out laughing and so did he.
“Sorry, man. You want to play?” I said, in Swiss German while trying to give him the guitar.
He shook his head and smiled.
“It’s okay, Jeremy.”
“It’s totally okay.”
Here’s the translation from German to English of what ensued.
“You know, back in 1973 there was this awesome dude,” I began. “He stopped talking on his twenty-seventh birthday because he found himself arguing with people all the time. He didn’t talk again for seventeen years…”
Jeremy’s eyes widened.
“He also gave up driving in cars or riding busses because he’d seen an oil spill on the San Fransisco Bay and wanted to make a statement about the environment. People thought he was nuts. His girlfriend and parents thought he’d been taken over by a California cult. Eventually, his girlfriend came around to understanding what he was doing, but when he said he wanted to walk from California to Oregon to explore the wilderness she broke up with him.
“During this time, he got a bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD in environmental studies. He learned some sign language to help him communicate, and he walked across the United States playing his banjo. He became known as Planetwalker.
“After 17 years of not speaking, he finally felt he had something to say. People came to hear him talk about the environment in a hotel in Washington DC. His first words were, ‘Thank you for being here,’ but he didn’t recognize his own voice and started laughing. His dad was in the audience and thought his son must be crazy. But he wasn’t. From studying and listening to thousands of people talk about the environment, he had realized what a narrow understanding we have. He explained how it’s about far more than saving trees; it’s about how we treat each other, which includes gender and economic equality, and civil rights.
“He met his wife just after he started speaking again and, because his PhD had focused on oil spills, the US Coastguard hired him after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Now he teaches in schools and gives talks around the world. He started using vehicles again in 1995, after twenty-two years, when, while walking through Venezuela to Brazil, he realized that walking had become a prison for him. He still practices being silent every morning, and sometimes doesn’t speak for several days at a time. It reminds him to listen to people properly instead of judging what he thinks he’s hearing. In interviews he says he loved not speaking because it gave him great inner peace. His name is Dr. John Francis. You can read about him.”
Jeremy had a tear in his eye but I still didn’t want to engage him directly, so I continued.
“A while back when I was writing and recording fifty songs I didn’t talk for a year. I had to do this to protect my vocal chords. For some singers it’s not a problem but if I sing every day, all day, I can’t also talk. Some people thought I was deaf and mute. Others thought I was a nutter or something. I used simple sign language and was cool with it. In fact, it taught me some incredible things. I learned how people relate to each other in incredibly unconscious ways by adapting to so many social rules, and this causes them to lose contact with their true selves. I gained an awesome independence from the world, a sort of self-contained spiritual sense of myself that stayed with me after I started talking again.”
Suddenly, Jeremy stood up and walked toward me. It was a shocking moment. Up until then, he had always walked super slowly into my office, sat in the chair without moving for the whole hour, then left my office in the same lethargic way. This time he bolted up, strode over to me, and gave me a hug. Then he went back to his chair and sat down.
“Thank you…but I have nothing to say,” he said.
“You’re welcome. You don’t have to say anything.”
In the next session everything changed. When he arrived he greeted me with a hug, and before I’d even closed my office door he started talking.
“Everyone’s full of shit. Everybody’s a phony. It’s all a game they’re playing. I don’t want it. I don’t want to join. I don’t want to talk to anyone.”
“You don’t have to,” I replied.
“But everyone thinks I’m crazy.”
“True, but who cares.”
He burst out laughing.
“I don’t give a crap what people think of me,” I said. “You say everyone’s phony; I think everyone’s dreaming—each person in his own dreamworld projecting his psychology onto everyone else. Who cares. I don’t waste my energy on that. I just do me.”
“But what if they say you’re wrong or crazy or bad?”
“I am wrong and crazy and bad, and I like it!” I joked.
Jeremy leapt out of his chair, scaring the crap out of me. “This is awesome! Who the hell cares! I’m going to tell it all!”
“Tell it, tell it!” I said, not knowing what he was talking about.
“Nature sees us. Nature feels hurt. Nature is mad. She has feelings and she’s watching us!”
I was dumbfounded. My story about John Francis had been intended to show Jeremy someone else’s process of going mute; the part about the environment was incidental. So, when he started talking about the environment I could hardly believe it. It reminds me of Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old world renowned climate activist who told reporters that she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, selective mutism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Aside from all these made-up diagnostic labels, it’s fascinating to hear several peoples’ stories in which they had extreme reactions to humanity’s lack of concern for the Earth.
“I totally agree,” I said. “This is what the Native Americans and indigenous people from around the world have always said: The Earth is alive.”
“It’s alive!” Jeremy shouted.
“Yeah, but in order for science to develop people needed to get rid of that idea, I guess.”
“Why can’t we have science and know that she feels things too?”
“Right. But you’re way ahead of the curve. Tell it. Tell the world.”
“What’s your major in school?”
“Screw that. Change it to environmental studies… like John Francis did.”
“But no one’s going to ever listen to me. He waited seventeen years…”
“Why won’t people listen to you?”
“I’m too young.”
“True, you need to get more educated. But you can do it, and you don’t have to wait seventeen years. You can get a degree in environmental studies in two years and become a teacher, writer, lecturer…whatever you want!”
We spent the rest of the session having an animated and productive talk about his future. He changed his major to environmental studies, and combined it with his own study of philosophy and indigenous religion—fertile grounds for amplifying his perception that nature isn’t only a biological phenomenon but a spiritual one, as well.
A few weeks after this session he started speaking again, but he didn’t return to who he’d been prior to going mute; he began living his life in a very purposeful way, focusing on his goal of making a difference in the world by educating people about the environment. Socially, he began spending time only with friends who shared his interests and passions. He was on a new path and was excited about life.
Jeremy’s behavior was obviously extreme and weird. When people act in a way not in line with the cultural agreements of their society—in this case, not speaking—the immediate reaction is that they must be “sick” in some way. In my next Blog Post, I’ll discuss Jeremy’s process and how it reflects important changes psychology needs to make—changes that will prevent practitioners from getting mired in bogus objectivity. If you want to know more about how to cure psychology’s faux objectivity read my previous Blog Post.
*Client names have been changed.