This post is about twice as long as is recommended for blog posts, but I think you will find it very thought-provoking.
About a dozen years ago, on a lovely Spring afternoon, I was walking down a pretty Chicago side street, talking on my cell phone. I had my cordless headset on with the actual phone in my pants pocket, so was not obviously on the phone. It was totally understandable that the schizophrenic guy walking toward me on the other side of the street, also talking to somebody who wasn’t there, took me as one of his peeps. He gave me a big smile, a hearty wave and a super-friendly “Hi”. I will always regret pulling my phone out of my pocket to let him know that I was actually talking to a real person. Why did I have to do that? Sure I’m not schizophrenic, but I had already for several years carried a psychiatric diagnosis (first clinical depression, then the more accurate bipolar disorder) . But schizophrenics are at the bottom of the mental illness food chain – they are really crazy (never mind that I have met schizophrenics who are very high functioning, many better in some ways than me). There are some who claim to have completely recovered from mental illness – and look and sound for all the world like they have. But I still don’t want “them” in my support group – I want it to be “just us”. Anyway, my compadre on the other side of the street just hung his head and continued on.
A little while ago, on an equally lovely Fall morning, I put my sweater over a table outside a cafe in the perfect-temperature sunlight and went inside to order some food. I immediately became aware that the young guy at a table at 11 o’clock was mentally challenged. I don’t know what his diagnosis would be. When I was trained as a clinical psychologist 40 years ago, they didn’t put much emphasis on mental retardation. You would have had to work hard to get a practicum working with “that population”. (Hey, back then they didn’t even know about bipolar disorder; it was manic-depressive psychosis – if you didn’t have delusions and/or hallucinations, you didn’t get diagnosed.) But I’ve had enough experience with “mentally handicapped” people to recognize the look – and the sound. And I somehow, out of the corner of my eye, spotted the family member or social worker who was with him. Or maybe I just assumed they were there – this guy was not out and about alone, I felt sure.
So I recognized his voice when, ten minutes later – with me all caught up in my lunch and my laptop, pretending to multitask while I am swayed by the research showing that we really can’t do that very well. He came up behind me, talking to his voices or his worker – or me! I felt a hand on my back and knew it must be him. That was literally a first. In my 69 years of life, I think it’s totally possible that I have never touched a “retarded” person, old or young. If perhaps I did an assessment with one (with instruments that were primitive for “normal” people and probably grossly inappropriate for mentally challenged people) during my clinical training forty years ago, we were taught by our Freudian supervisors never to touch a “patient” (not “client” or – gasp! – a “consumer”).
This guy who was apparently attempting to talk to me: Do other people understand him? Does he understand them? Does he know how to use a phone? Does he have a job? So much I don’t know. I guess acknowledging that I don’t know is a start.
As I turned in his direction – being careful to not make eye contact (what do I think? It’s catching?) – it became clear that he was talking to me. Now in Asheville initiating a conversation with a stranger on the street is more the norm than inappropriate. Even if the person is very odd, like the woman who joined in Marian and my conversation yesterday on the porch at Greenlife. The fact that we were talking about bipolar disorder, which I have, did make it seem inappropriate – and then she was odd in other ways. She had in her shopping cart some broken-down cardboard boxes which she set up on her table around her laptop, creating an impromptu cubicle. (I guess the Greenlife management turned down her request for a private office.) But even here we let into our conversation. Actually, Marian was very polite and talked with her some. I had earlier on diagnosed her as “crazy”, just from the boxes, and didn’t want any part of this conversation, even though the little parts of it I did hear seemed only odd, not loony-tunes. I finally, when this person showed no signs of tiring of the conversation, interrupted to say, “Marian and I actually have some business to transact” (which was true, though it would not have been truthful to say that there was any objective hurry for the two of them to break off their conversation).
So anyway (who’s tangential – one of those words I learned in my psychiatric training and maybe have never used since, to this very moment. Probably no loss.), it was clear that this young guy was talking to me. I looked at his worker (family member? How could you tell? Could they look alike, in spite off having such different stations in life?), who shrugged her shoulders like she didn’t have any more idea than me what he was saying. I still hadn’t made eye contact and made an instant decision not to. I went back to my work with my computer, burying my nose in it – if you can do that like you do with a book. He took an abrupt step back from me and then continued down the street – I thought with slumped, discouraged shoulders.
What was he trying to tell/ask me?
- “You look like a nice man.”
- “Do you come here often?”
- “I had the soup, too – it was great.”
- “I’m lonely.”
I’ll never know, maybe because
- I didn’t pay attention to him.
- No real attention had ever been paid to teaching him to speak better.
- His worker was not well-trained and not able to translate for him.
- She had not been on the job long, like pretty much no one stays in these “entry-level”, poorly paid jobs.
So I who pride myself in being all about engagement with people – including spontaneous, improvisational encounters on the street or in the theater – missed a chance. Missed a chance in a way that I chronically miss chances – chances to engage with people who are in general marginalized and maybe thus even more in need of friendly connection. Missed the chance to reward a guy who was maybe pretty heroic to reach out, given that he gets responses like this all the time and I had not given him any encouragement.
I missed a chanced. I’m disappointed. But I got a blog post out of it. And if I really listen to what I’m writing here, I may not always miss these opportunities. I may still miss some – old habits die hard. But maybe not all. And if I take a chance and it goes well – even to just exchange smiles and head nods, like I do with foreign language speakers at my cash register – these successes may build on each other and I may be on the way to a new habit.