Horror after horror of mass murders has left many of us shaking our heads in dismay wondering if we’ll come back home from a movie or a trip to the grocery store. This was not a common concern in the earlier decades of our modern society.
After listening to Patrick Kennedy, younger son of the long-time Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, promoting his book, A Common Struggle, I was remembering experiences of seeing people with mental health issues who were clearly not getting the care or medication they needed as they acted out bizarre behaviors on the city bus that I took to and from work daily. They were probably harmless individuals but I always felt sad watching them, most of whom seemed to be under 35, which I suspect is young for the kind of deviant behavior they exhibited.
One morning one of these young men climbed into the bus. The driver must have recognized him and tried to discourage him from entering – but the man was persistent and got loud insisting on his rights as his bus pass was valid. It was, and he marched to the back of the bus. He was tall, thin, emaciated looking and had clear blue eyes – his burgundy knit cap close around his head and his camel colored wool coat all buttoned up. On this ride, he was quiet and rode and got off without causing a stir.
The last time I saw him it was an evening rush hour and on that time he was carrying on a conversation in which he and himself were debating the religious view of some issue.
The first time I saw this man, perhaps two years ago, I noticed that if anyone looked at him, his eyes opened very wide and a broad deep pleased smile crossed his face – the kind that may be reserved for a closer relationship.
Going home the evening before St. Patrick’s day this same young man unshaven for a few days, wearing a different warm looking coat and knit cap pulled snugly over his head boarded the bus. All was quiet until the Broadview Road stop when his scream cut the otherwise peaceful ride – and he thundered off the bus in pursuit of a young scallywag who had snatched his cap – while the verbiage was basically unclear, obscenities were coherent. The driver was thoughtful enough to wait for the man to recover his cap and run back onto the bus. Certainly he is fast and alert even though he is clearly disturbed. It is all the more puzzling.
One less fortunate, but equally afflicted man got on the bus, long curly brown hair, his winter jacket could not have offered him much warmth. It was worn with tears down the back and sleeves. That morning a lady who works for the Veterans Administration was sitting and chatting with us – although he sat across from her for a few minutes – he changed seats frequently – she did not look directly at him but she quietly said the man had not taken his medication – that he was schizophrenic – this man was softly talking and laughing a lot, much as one might do in a two-way conversation. He got off the bus at the public square and I wondered where he was going from there.
The man who touched the deepest chords in my psyche was an aging Oriental man, perhaps fifty or so with grey strands in his dark hair, he was slight, little more than about five feet tall. He got on the bus and sat down and in a while he got up and began to “pick up” invisible things and put them into his bag. He picked them up off the floor, the seat, the frame of the seat, and the aisle. He seemed oblivious to the people around him. One woman moved to a different seat. He moved his hand over the frame of the seat again and again. Then he sat next to a young woman who always gets on at Metro Hospital. She looked like she could easily protect herself. When he began the ritual of picking up something that was not there, she could see that he was harmless and she stayed put while he went through his routine. At some major intersection he walked to the front of the bus and when the driver asked him if he wanted to get off, he did so without saying anything and I wondered if he knew where he was.
There was a lady who got on the bus with an assortment of plastic bags. From one of them she pulled a tussled looking blondish wig and after shaking the dust out of it, adjusted it onto her head and followed that with an assortment of primping rituals and application of make-up. By the time she was finished, she did look better and different, but the process was not exactly unnoticed by the other passengers.
While these individuals clearly need help, there are others who are less benign and only after they explode in violent behavior are we aware that somehow our systems have failed them and all of us are impacted. I do not think there is a one size fits all solution to our societal dilemma. However, I think Patrick Kennedy has some viable suggestions.