Yesterday, my husband and I went to Starbucks. A young woman was sitting at the corner table writing in a notebook. I recognized her from a few months ago when the two of us sat at the same table, and we both shared that we have schizophrenia. Next to her, was a woman who was talking to her loudly. The woman talking looked like she was probably homeless. Her hair was matted, and her skin was dirty. I assumed, although I can’t be positive, that the homeless woman also has a mental illness.
In that small Starbucks that seats about eight people, there were three women with a mental illness (possibly schizophrenia). It was surprising that we were all in the coffee shop at the same time, but what struck me was how sad, eye-opening and heartbreaking the situation was. Neither the young woman writing in her notebook or I wanted to talk to the other woman.
My symptoms weren’t showing yesterday. I looked like an average middle-aged woman having a coffee with her husband (spouse, friend, boss, or whoever people assumed my husband was). The young woman writing looked like someone who was working hard, and busy with her own life and in her world. She wasn’t showing symptoms either. The homeless woman, on the other hand, was showing symptoms of a brain in overdrive – she was talking loudly, she was laughing nervously, and she was trying to engage strangers in conversation. The young woman, politely told her that she was enjoying her music and didn’t feel like talking at the time (she said it a little kinder than I just wrote, but the message was clear).
When the young woman tuned out to the music piped into her ears through earbuds, the homeless woman turned in the direction of my husband and I. I looked away so our eyes wouldn’t meet.
Normally, I will talk to anyone who wants to talk to me, homeless, mentally ill, etc. but there are times when I can’t bear the enormous weight I feel about mentally ill people living on the street. I know the kindest thing I can do is look them in the eye, listen to their story and treat them like a significant and valuable human being. Yesterday, I couldn’t do it though.
After just getting through the holiday season, after just talking with my husband about our hopes and dreams for 2018, I couldn’t carry the burden of our cruel and inadequate mental health system that leaves thousands upon thousands of men and women without care or shelter.
My husband and I give our time and money to an organization that feeds, delivers medical and dental care, provides social and legal services, and assists in securing housing for the homeless. In other words, we are trying to do something to alleviate the suffering of some of the people without adequate care, shelter or services. Of course, we also write to our representatives and vote in every election. And yet, the problem is massive, and the human toll is high. Things don’t seem to be getting better.
And I couldn’t look a fellow human being in the eye yesterday. A human being, who I believe suffers from the same brain disease I do. A human being who isn’t as lucky as I am. She has no protection, no treatment team; she may not have access to medication, she has no shelter, no shower, she may not know where her next meal is coming from, she may not have a change of clothes. And all she was asking for was attention that no one wanted to give.
Next time, no matter how difficult, heavy, how much it weighs down my heart, I am going to look at that homeless woman, and offer to buy her a hot coffee. I know one step left or one step right and I could be in the same shoes she is wearing just looking for some validation that I am still human.
I’m sorry that I’m not always strong enough to hold the enormity of mental illness, but next time, I’m going to heave the baggage off my shoulders and pull up a seat and have a long conversation.
I want to treat everyone as significant. We all deserve that and so much more. Much much more.