Madame S. has been living in a train station in the Liège region for more than two years. She lives in the middle of a corridor, in the middle of the noise. She lives where people pass, sometimes standing still but always moving on. She lives there, withdrawn in a corner. You cannot see her, but you notice her smell. The kind of smell that repels, makes you gag, drives you away. Whatever, she exists.
She exists in the noise.
She is almost always in the same place. From her fortress she sees and hears people passing by.
If she moves, it's to check out the outside of the station. Sometimes she sits down on a bench and stays there, engrossed in everything she sees and hears.
Is this what she's looking for? Being overwhelmed by noise and various stimuli so as not to be bothered by her own?
She exists in her body.
For several months she has been telling us that she wants to wash, but only in a specific place, which is only open once a week - and always right during our team meetings. Bingo…
We freed ourselves a few times anyway because she asked us to join her. But every time she has at least one reason not to go. We are always willing to accompany her, but then she tells us that she wants to go alone. This has been going on for a few weeks now, with no results.
She is clearly aware of her smell. She tells herself to wash but despite all our efforts it never happens.
Something she does take care of is her hair, which she brushes and styles. She apparently has no clear idea about what it means to take good care of herself.
She exists by her smell.
We know that being dirty, not taking care of yourself, smelling bad, can be a way to protect yourself from others, to keep them at a distance. For a woman, it is undoubtedly also a double protection.
But it's also sometimes a cry for help, a way of saying "I'm down and can't get up. Help me."
Quietly in a corner, she makes her presence known by her smell, even if it is at the cost of looks full of judgement, discomfort or pity, or even contemptuous and insulting remarks. She is seen, heard, addressed. In short, she exists.
She exists through our guidance.
Through our presence we give her an acknowledgment that she exists, that we see her, that she is important, but also an acknowledgment of what she is going through.
We offer her the opportunity to be there, to be guided and supported by us on her way to something else. We also try to create a bond with her during conversations, involve her in a discussion and let her find herself.
We explore possibilities and stand by her no matter what and how long it takes to remove this mask, this protective layer of dirt, this unmistakable smell.
Whatever happens, we'll be there for Madame S.
We will accompany her no matter what she looks like or what condition she is in.
We'll be there, however long it takes before she stops escaping her own thoughts by immersing herself in the comfort of the hustle and bustle.
We will always be there to show Mrs. S. that she can count on us, with or without these layers of clothing, this dirt, this smell, this mental flight.
We have to be aware
It is hard to see how people are in sometimes unacceptable conditions. But we must also recognize that often they are dirty because of a lack of services and assistance, but because they choose this option to survive on the streets, even wandering around, lonely, and running many risks
Body and clothing are a protective shell, but so is behaviour in a place full of stimuli, a shell that’s necessary to hold on and escape from mentally unacceptable situations.
It's a way to survive in a destructive and inhumane universe.
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(*) We do our utmost to respect the privacy of our patients and our professional secrecy. However, we want to testify to how they must survive and how we are working together to reintegrate them. As a result, the names of places and people are deliberately omitted or changed and real-life situations are placed in a different context. There is no direct link between the photos and the stories above.