My classmate spoke from the point of view of a clinician who had had a frustrating day, when he followed a client with mental illness around trying to make sure the client didn't hurt himself or someone else. He told us that he had called the police and someone else, too.
He was "challenging the narrative" that he said prevented us as a society from putting people in a place where they couldn't get out so that we could take of them.
This classmate talked a lot about ways that people with mental illness are different than "we" are. I stopped talking once he started, but I typed a few things he said: “People with mental illness don’t see the world we see….They don’t see the world like we do." Another classmate pointed out the assumptions he was making about who was in the room and the danger of creating an "us" and "them."
After class, a classmate a with mental illness diagnosis told me how painful this had been. I talked with the instructor and asked her to address the able-ism, something I have witnessed before in this school and have heard stories about but have never seen or heard about the able-ism being addressed.
Before class the next week, the student who had divided us all into a camp that didn't include people with mental illnesses sought me out because he wanted to understand my thinking. He asked about what had been so offensive. We had a good conversation, and I had a lot of respect for his initiative. He said that he would apologize to the class, and when we began class he did apologize.
One student offered that he didn't think it was "that bad," and when it seemed that no one else would speak up, I offered that I had found it offensive. This group of students doesn't know me well enough to know that I am seldom offended. In fact, I don't think I've said the words, "I thought that was offensive" in this school before. But I now feel discounted as a person who is too sensitive. I don't know if that's true. That's just how I feel.
Later in the conversation, another student said that he didn't think it was a big deal either, and he just wanted the class to stay on topic. (There aren't many guys in the class: maybe six and fifteen women, so it's interesting to me that mostly the guys were speaking up. I don't know what others felt, but I felt like we were choosing teams for pick-up basketball and no one wanted to be on my team.)
Because I'm taking classes at a different pace than most students, this group of students is new to me though they know each other. There's an odd vibe in the room, a simmering tension, that has some source I'm not aware of.
The experience of what felt like others discounting a painful experience reaffirmed for me the importance of the work I've been doing the last few years to try to increase the teaching and understanding of people with disabilities in this school. It reminded me of the importance of language and of the way that language both reveals how we think and shapes how we think.
Sunday, when Barb, a lay leader in our church, talked about language, her comments resonated with me. She made me think that I've been making assumptions about being unable to help people who are homeless because there are so many things I can't do since my surgery. Her talk made me think about things I might do, like lead discussion groups or writing groups that help form communities of support. After all, I did these groups for years with teenagers (the groups were called classes), and now I do groups with elders, most of them experiencing memory loss.
Barb's talk gave me a framework for understanding my own experience and hope for new understanding--my own and others'. She spoke about language and compassion and being.
Barb said that I could share her comments on this blog. I'll bet you'll find them brilliant and compelling like I did.
A weary soul embarking on another hard day might just need a simple moment of safety, warmth, and comfort. So, I stifle my questions and suggestions. Instead I offer up an undemanding silence. Oh, stories bubble up within it sometimes; I might hear about hard times, big plans, small disappointments—but often, morning’s quiet instead.