It’s been said,
You cannot save people, you can only love them.
Obviously, this quote is not referring to firemen, life guards, and rescue personnel who regularly save people from imminent death.
But there are some things that are extremely difficult to save people from: misleading beliefs, addictions, suicidal ideation, mental illness, etc. These situations are sticky because much of what these sufferers need saving from is…well, themselves.
But no one likes to relinquish a familiar and comfortable part of themselves, even if that part happens to be poisoning them from the inside out.
That’s why it’s infernally difficult to save some people.
Still, even in these complex cases, people can be and are saved. People can be changed. Hence the existence of therapists, suicide hotlines, books, researchers, and more —
Sometimes these things help. Sometimes they don’t.
But when they do, there is always a common thread running through each success story:
The Basement Hermit
Ed Zine was an undernourished, filthy, and extremely anxious young man who lived in his father’s basement for years.
He suffered from a severe case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a horrific mental illness that causes its victims to become mentally “stuck”: although sufferers can see that their thoughts and behaviors are irrational, they are compelled to think and do them anyway, increasing their trauma and pain.
Ed’s family tried forcing him to go to a mental hospital and cleaning his dirty basement room while he was away, but it only made his condition worse.
Then one day, the Zines found an unorthodox doctor who specialized in OCD: Dr. Michael Jenike. They contacted him, and Dr. Jenike agreed to help — even though he lived several cities away.
Over the course of the next two years, Dr. Jenike drove six hours out of his way, every week, to see Ed. In time, Dr. Jenike was able to get Ed to let him in, and even take one shower — Ed’s first in years.
However, Ed was still severely incapacitated by OCD, and by the time Dr. Jenike ran out of ideas for therapy, Ed was still trapped in his basement.
Sadly, Dr. Jenike bid his patient goodbye, because there was nothing more he could do for Ed besides promise to continue their friendship.
Then one day, several months later, Dr. Jenike returned to Ed’s house unexpectedly, only to see a healthy-looking, buff, clean-shaven young man getting out of his car on Ed’s driveway.
The doctor was surprised — after years of visiting Ed’s house, Dr. Jenike had never met this stranger before. Nevertheless, Dr. Jenike walked over and introduced himself.
The young man smiled at him, grabbed his hand, and then gave him a bear hug.
It was Ed.
Michael Jenike was speechless. Finally, he managed to choke out: “What have you done with my Ed?”
What Saved Ed?
In one sense, Ed saved himself.
Nothing in Michael Jenike’s “bag of tricks” made Ed emerge from his self-imposed prison — Ed himself did that.
On the other hand, Ed would never have been able to do it had it not been for Michael.
Ed didn’t recover because Michael was a brilliant doctor, with superior skills.
Ed recovered because Michael loved him…with a pure, powerful, healing love.
Therefore, the quote that says “you can’t save anyone — you can only love them,” is only partly true.
Because, in loving someone, you can save them.
What is Love?
A lot of people seem to have a hard time defining love.
Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck defines love as:
The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing…another’s spiritual growth. It [involves] intention…action…choice.
Love is something we must learn to do. Like every other desirable skill, it requires practice. But practice doing what, exactly? What does it mean to love?
The best description I have ever found for love comes from a timeless passage known as 1 Corinthians 13:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Love is patient, love is kind.
The word translated as “patient” in the original manuscript is better translated as “long-suffering.”
The way Michael helped Ed was by loving him, and building a relationship with him.
In doing so, Michael opened himself up to the potential of suffering — if Ed never made it, Michael, too, would suffer with him.
And indeed, on Michael’s last therapeutic visit to Ed, when they both realized that there was nothing more to be done, Dr. Michael Jenike wept.
But that one act of true compassion led to an amazing change in Ed:
The way Michael dropped his guard that afternoon and wept for him…led the all-but defeated patient to suddenly find his inner strength.
In order to love, one must be willing to feel pain, to suffer along with the one you love.
This is not optional.
There’s probably a reason why maternal love is often hailed as one of the purest and most poignant forms of love: It starts with pain, and often continues in pain —
Each time a child falls ill or gets hurts (which is, let’s face it, pretty much all the time…life hurts), there is usually a resonant pain in the mother’s own soul.
Most mothers are willing to literally suffer and die for their children.
But most humans are not willing to do this for anyone else.
We humans are usually so eager to avoid pain that it stunts our ability to love. So when we find someone long-suffering, that is willing to suffer long with us, the way Michael did with Ed, it’s incredibly powerful. It heals.
[Love] does not envy, does not boast, it is not proud.
Michael Jenike was able to do so much for Ed, and for his other patients, because of his unorthodox focus on the patient’s well-being over his own reputation, convenience, and advancement.
As a medical resident, Michael once cornered an obnoxious surgeon who was bullying a fellow resident. Michael pushed the screaming surgeon against a wall and told him to stop abusing his residents, even though Michael was risking his own future as a doctor by standing up to this senior surgeon.
Later, as a young psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Jenike defied tradition and braved the disapproval of other doctors, in order to make house calls on patients too sick to come see him.
Michael’s cared more about his patients and their emotional and physical welfare than about his reputation. And that care was obvious to everyone, including the timid and fearful Ed Zine.
[Love] does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking
“I just want you to get better,” a friend of mine once said to me.
Like Ed, a crippling anxiety disorder had severely restricted my world. This particular friend had been one of the only friends to reach out in my darkest moments. There were (and are) many reasons I am thankful for her.
But when she said those words, I winced.
She had just finished repeating a story about a guy she knew with a similar condition, who had managed to somehow “just get over it.” And she thought I ought to do the same.
I knew my friend wanted me to get better. Everyone who knew what I was going through wanted me to get better.
But some of them had expressed this wish in very harmful ways.
They had tried to coerce me into getting better, through threats and violence, and that taught me something:
Sometimes, people want you to get better for selfish reasons. Your bizarre and stigmatizing illness embarasses and inconveniences them — more significantly, it threatens their worldview.
Their worldview includes a healthy version of you — a sick version just doesn’t fit. If you would only get better, then they wouldn’t be in such a conundrum.
In other words, they want you to get better, not for you, but for them. But they may not fully realize this themselves.
Now, I cannot blame anyone for thinking this way. We all do it. All human love is tainted, at least a little, by selfishness. We can’t help it.
But this kind of selfishness-tainted love is not powerful enough to effect the change that the people who wield it want it to.
It’s too small.
And sadly, it is too common.
It is rare when you find someone who doesn’t think this way. Someone who only wants to help you completely for your sake, not for theirs. Someone like Dr. Jenike.
“it never escaped Ed that Michael was a world-class physician who drove the six-hour round-trip to care for him, armed with compassion and wanting absolutely nothing in return.”
[Love] is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs.
Mental illness is a terribly frightening and frustrating experience. At times, when I was in a particular dark place, I would lash out at anyone who was nearby — which, unfortunately, often was my mother.
But, amazingly, my mother never held it against me. She continued to love and protect me.
Sometimes she would apologize for “aggravating” me, which would immediately strike my conscience. Then, when I apologized, she would kindly say, “It’s okay, I understand.”
My mother taught me by example what a love that “keeps no record of wrongs and is not easily angered” looks like. She has been the single most important person in my healing process.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
On the surface, Truth and Love seem to be parallel virtues — both good, but not related.
Actually, truth and love depend on each other.
One cannot figure out the truth unless one loves the truth and wants to it more than easier fantasies.
And most sufferers will not trust healers with the “shameful, embarassing, or otherwise painful” (yet necessary) truth about their thoughts, history, health, etc., unless they know they are loved by the person to whom they are about to reveal their darkest secrets.
At the same time, one cannot truly love another person unless one truly knows the other person — all their faults and foibles, dreams and fears, quirks and quandaries.
When Dr. Jenike first met Ed Zine, he did not jump into OCD treatment right away. In fact, he didn’t address OCD at all. Instead, he stood outside Ed’s basement door, chatting about his hobbies, interests, life. He wanted to get to know Ed, for Ed’s sake, not just for the sake of “curing his OCD.”
Human contact of any kind [was] excruciatingly painful for Ed…but almost immediately, Ed [sensed] in Michael a level of care and respect for his pain that he [hadn’t] felt from other medical professionals.
Michael realized that time was needed — time to get to know each other, trust each other — before any real “work” could commence. He took the time to learn the truth about Ed and his world, his condition, his history, his worldview, his life.
Only then was Dr. Jenike able to love, and help, the real Ed Zine — a three-dimensional human being, not just a “patient with OCD.”
And through Dr. Jenike’s loving sacrifice, Ed was finally able to understand an important truth, a truth he had sort of known, intellectually, but which had always eluded him, somehow:
OCD was Ed’s enemy, not his friend. And he had to fight it to win his life back.
[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
By the time Dr. Jenike came across Ed, most professionals had written Ed’s case off as hopeless.
It was a huge risk for Michael to drive 6 hours every week to see Ed, not to mention allow himself to love this young man — if Ed never got better, there would be a real risk of heartbreak on Michael’s part. But Michael did it anyway.
As a colleague once said of Dr. Jenike:
“ ‘Michael has a hard time giving up on people…especially when everybody else has already said, ‘I can’t help.’”
Michael did not give up hope in Ed when so many other doctors and professionals had, and in the end, it paid off.
Love never fails.
Honestly, Ed’s story could have gone either way. Even when someone loves greatly, the recipient of the love must accept that love for it to be of use.
If Ed had focused more on his OCD than on Michael’s loving actions, he might still be in the basement today — or even in the grave.
But Michael not only loved Ed, he loved him extravagantly: by driving the six hour round trip every week, for no pay. By taking things slowly, according to Ed’s level of comfort, not Michael’s own ideas of treatment progression. By weeping for Ed when all seemed lost.
Michael’s self-sacrificial, loving efforts did not fall on deaf ears.
One day, after Michael had surrendered after trying everything in his arsenal, Ed changed. He “flipped the script” on OCD and began to see things through the lens of truth. He realized that OCD was his enemy, that he wanted to live and not allow Michael’s efforts to be in vain.
Slowly, painstakingly, Ed began to change his life, one piece at a time.
“He did all of this not only to honor himself but also to honor Michael’s sacrifice of time.”
Love Means Being Willing to Join People Where They Are
“When people are stuck, they have all kinds of rituals that they’re afraid you’re going to interfere with…so you have to find out what world they’re living in, and join it for a while.” — Michael Jenike
In 1975, Raun Kaufman was diagnosed with severe autism and an IQ of under 30. His parents were told that he would never have a “normal” life.
Instead of despairing, however, the Kaufmans took their toddler home and created their own autism therapy — based on “joining” their son in his own mental world in order to draw him back out into theirs.
Today, Raun Kaufman is a college graduate and the director of the foundation his parents began, known as Son-Rise, which offers an autism treatment program that has helped thousands of children in over 120 countries.
One young man who went through the program described the process:
I felt very loved…I just needed to reconnect with someone who cared about me. It was just pure love. It was just clarity and connection…I have recovered from what many people said was unrecoverable.
Raun’s parents did not give up on him. They did not surrender him to an institution as the “professionals” were urging them to do. They joined him, instead, not knowing whether or not it would help, seeking only to love and connect with their son.
They spent hours and hours with their son, engaging in the same boring repetitive activities he was doing, trying to break through their child’s mental walls, hoping against hope that one day he would realize how much they loved him.
And one day, he did.
And when he did, he improved. Rapidly, miraculously.*
Likewise, in Michael and Ed’s case,
Michael made the first breakthrough when he planted a seed of trust by taking the time to get to know Ed as a person, not just a patient.
In short, Michael loved Ed, just as the Kaufmans loved Raun. And by loving him, he saved him.
The Problem With Modern Medical Paradigms
Modern medical paradigms do not allow the time and space to love people.
Doctors are discouraged from getting “personal” with their patients. They no longer perform house calls. Most GPs rarely spend even up to twenty minutes with each patient. Doctors don’t know what’s going on in patients’ lives, and patients know even less about their doctors.
There are good reasons for this, of course, but it’s been taken too far.
Dr. Jenike was willing to pour himself into loving and caring for Ed. He shared personal stories with Ed and listened to Ed’s personal stories. He drove several hours to Ed’s house in order to spend several more hours with Ed, before driving several hours home — all unpaid. He did not let tradition or red tape get in the way of doing what was best for Ed, whom he saw not so much as a patient, but as a friend.
Unfortunately, one doctor alone can’t do that for everyone who needs help.
We Need to Learn Love
How many Dr. Jenikes are there for every Ed? Even when trained professionals want to help, the suffering in this world is too great for them to handle all by themselves.
There’s a lot of hurting people in the world. And we can’t count on mental health or other health professionals to save every one of them.
That’s why we have to equip everyone — every parent, sibling, friend, human being, to be alert, to be ready.
There are broken people everywhere. We need to love them. We might be their only hope.
Love requires us to die to ourselves — our comforts, our ideas, our wants and wishes. It requires us to put another person ahead of ourselves, our desires, our well-being. Our natural selfish self-protective impulses scream against this kind of behavior.
But we have to learn how to do it. Our lives, our worlds, depend on it.
This world needs more Dr. Jenikes.
You don’t have to be an official doctor to be a Dr. Jenike. You don’t need a title or a degree to save someone’s life, to change someone’s life, to heal someone.
You just need to be willing to love.
Change is Conversion
Saving someone from themselves is like a religious conversion.
Conversions that are forced (with threats of hell or at the point of a sword) are meaningless. As soon as the pressure is gone (and sometimes even when it isn’t) the forced convert will revert to their previous condition.
Likewise, forcing someone with a mental illness or suicidal ideation or pessimistic worldview to change their thoughts/behavior through threats or bribery is only temporarily effective, and may do more damage in the long run.
In any meaningful personal change, the person doing the change must believein the truth.
And love is often the catalyst that helps people see and want the truth. By loving someone, and demonstrating a better way through actions and behavior, you can influence a person’s worldview, behavior, and ultimately, destiny.
Love alone converts. Love saves.
How to Change Someone Else
The most effective way to change someone else…is to change yourself.
Become a loving person and you will change others. Rely only on tools like psychological manipulation, forceful threats, or medication, and you can only create a temporary change, at best.
That does not mean that we should throw all therapies, books, and medications out the window and gather in circles, singing “kumbaya.” Obviously, true love is not that.
True love is getting into the trenches with the sufferer, wisely using whatever tools are available, and showing a willingness to suffer alongside those who are afflicted, no matter what it takes, no matter how long it takes.
Quite frankly, we’re incapable of pure, unadulterated love. (See the above section on “[Love] does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking”)
Rather, we are conduits for pure love.
The best conduits are humble, not proud. The best conduits realize that they are not in control of everything, but are willing to ask “How can I help younow?” Instead of fixating on “Why did this happen?”
The best conduits realize that, at best, they love imperfectly, but they are still willing to try.
True love is a cross. But one from which we will resurrect.
It is an important call. Will you heed it?
Mental illness such as OCD and autism are complex things. There isn’t a simple technique to “100% cure” all of these conditions.
But I firmly believe that real love — pure, selfless, unadulterated love — can do nothing but (significantly) help people who suffer from these conditions…even those people who seem beyond hope.
- Ed Zine and Michael Jenike’s story is told in Life in Rewind: the Story of a Young Courageous Man Who Persevered over OCD and the Harvard Doctor Who Broke All the Rules to Help Him by Terry Weible Murphy. All quotes about Ed and Michael are from this book.
- Raun Kaufman’s story is told in Autism Breakthrough.