I had a very disturbing — and ultimately sad — experience yesterday with an young mentally ill woman.
A Family Walk
I was with my sister, and we were visiting my niece and great-nephew. We were taking a walk to the park where we were going to have lunch. Now, my niece lives in very poor area with a lot of recent immigrants. There’s also a lot of drug dealing and other illegal activities going on, if you want to look carefully enough to notice.
As we walked down the sidewalk, we passed by a young woman who was focused very intently on the street. I figured she was waiting for a connection or something. So I didn’t think much about her. But as we cross the street, I noticed that the woman was now following us.
The Mentally Ill Woman
This could have been just a coincidence, but the woman was following rather closer than made me comfortable. As we crossed the bridge that went over the nearby creek, my sister decided to stop and look at the water. As we all stopped — including me with the baby in the stroller — the young woman stopped and waited uncomfortably until we continued on.
Then she continued to follow us.
At that point, I stopped and motioned, in a friendly manner, for her to go around us. As our eyes met, I could see a combination of confusion and terror. She started to move past us, but then shook her head, turned around and left in the opposite direction. She never said a word, although as she left, she seemed to be asking for permission.
The reason I asked her to go around us was that I didn’t know what was going on. Having a baby, I figured it was best to confront the situation straight on. I was pretty sure I was dealing with a mentally ill person at that point. And it is generally better, if possible, to define the reality of the situation rather than to leave it to their minds.
Helping the Mentally Ill
But it was heartbreaking. The woman was lost in most senses of the word. And even though a mentally ill person can change on a dime from nonthreatening and needy to menacing and violent, I still felt that I wanted to do something to help her.
Most people are, understandably, afraid of the mentally ill. They are unpredictable. Just the same, they are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. She not only seemed like someone who was likely to become a victim, she seemed like she had already been a victims many times before.
My Own Confusion and Fear
When we returned, she was gone. I hope that she has a caretaker and that there was just a temporary mix-up that found her confused on the street. I wish I had done more at the time. My focus was on the protection of the baby. But looking back now, it’s hard to see that this young woman wasn’t badly in need of protection, and in as much as she was capable, asking for it.
It’s hard to know what to do to help the mentally ill. Going back at least to “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” we know that when you don’t share the same reality, it can be impossible.
But all last night, her face — the confusion, the terror — haunted me. I was in a position to help her, but I didn’t — because of my own confusion and fear. There has got to be a better way for a society to work. There must be some way to encourage the best things in my personality and discourage the worst.
I feel that yesterday, the worst aspects won out without the best aspects even showing up for the fight.