We stared at each other with disbelief.
"I think she has a better vocabulary than I do," said my co-therapist.
We were doing a day of meeting people who had been referred for service and as such there had been a line up in the waiting room all day. We tried really hard to stay on schedule and had managed pretty well. But the interview we had just done had run over a bit. We had met someone extraordinary.
She had Down Syndrome and a history of making up stories that ended in police involvement and investigations. It was serious stuff and she was a serious person. She had sat in the waiting room reading "O" the magazine put out by Oprah. We had been told that she was very, very, very, bright and that she read voraciously and was addicted to Dr. Phil. She came in with a sense of the importance of the meeting and a complete understanding of her own behaviour.
Did she know that what she was doing was wrong?
How did she feel about the resulting furor and mess created by her telling tales?
With one word answers it was difficult to see the woman we had been told about. Very bright, very intuitive, very alert and aware. I took a shot.
"Is it attention that you want?"
"Noooo," she said drawing out the word so she could think, "not attention exactly."
"What exactly, then?"
"I think, affirmation."
"Affirmation, you mean like love?"
"Love," she began, "and affirmation aren't the same thing. You asked me about attention. I get a lot of attention, I'm very involved in the community. I get a lot of love too, from my family in particular. I think what need is affirmation."
"Affirmation?" we were both a little thrown by what she had said.
"Yes, affirmation," she said and raised her hands and lowered them to demonstrate a stream pouring down onto and into her, "you know, messages that I matter. Right now I need those messages from ..." she paused and pointed around, "out there. Because I don't feel them inside. Inside I believe I'm a mistake."
"Oh," we both looked at each other then back at her.
"So we need to help you with self esteem?" It's a good guess.
"No," she seemed frustrated, "with affirmation."
When she left the room we had entirely forgotten that she had Down Syndrome, she was a woman who knew who she was and what she needed. She had gone on to say that she wanted to find positive ways to feel affirmed, but that she didn't know how. I admitted to her that I didn't really know how either, but that it would be an interesting journey. She agreed that it would.
I've spent the rest of the day thinking about her and her need for 'affirmation' and she is right, affirmation is not attention and it is not love. It's something much different. It's something we all seek at a deep level. It's something that many learn to live without. It's something that's she's unwilling to give up without a fight.
"Messages that I matter. That I'm not a cosmic mistake." It's not a lot to ask for.
But it's a hell of a lot to get.