The empathy of silent voices

I’m solidly middle class. One might even say I’m yuppie-ish. I have a well-paying job, own a house, have a nice car, and am financially stable. I’m pretty fortunate, actually, given my modest upbringing as a child of welfare and food stamps, as upward mobility in the United States is pretty poor, despite what the American dream would imply. Nonetheless, I lead a pretty comfortable existence, with or without my mental illness.

Like many middle class folks, I rely heavily on my smartphone. I’m a total podcast junkie and listen to them almost any time I’ve got some time to myself where I don’t need to focus deeply. Podcasts have been a staple of my media consumption ever since I got my first smartphone in 2008, the iPhone 3G that poisoned me to Apple products forevermore. I listen to a lot of public radio, like any good white person. Among my favorites is The Diane Rehm Show.

Just today, I listened to a fascinating interview on Diane Rehm with Dr. Robert L. Okin, author of the book Silent Voices: People with Mental Disorders on the Streets. Dr. Okin decided over the course of a year to visit and interview people on the streets, speaking with them in detail about their lives, what brought them there, and what they needed. I have not yet read the book, but I hope to, as his interview was riveting. A large proportion of the homeless and inmate populations are mentally ill. Dr. Okin hoped to shed light on this fact in reference to the former, and help people understand just how similar the homeless are to all of us.

His stories were heartbreaking. Already quite vulnerable people made themselves even more vulnerable by opening themselves up to Dr. Okin, allowing their stories and photos to be made public in his book. He spoke to people who’d been sexually abused, ostracized, addicted, and mentally ill both before and during their homelessness. Dr. Okin discussed one man, Jeff, and his motivations and fears, motivations and fears shared by all of us. Jeff had lost all of his teeth, dental issues being common on the streets due to lack of care. His lack of teeth made him deeply ashamed. Jeff often dreamed of having a romantic relationship with a woman, but he willed himself to never look at women because he just knew that his lack of teeth would disgust them, even if he had dentures. A big nose was something you were born with, and thus many people would overlook it, he thought. But a lack of teeth indicated a dirty person, someone who didn’t live life correctly. Jeff wrestled with shame, as do we all.

I listened to this episode as I was removing blackberry vines from the property that I own, with a comfortable and well-maintained house on it, listening to a podcast on a device that I’m privileged enough to afford, after having come back from a meeting discussing giving scholarships to high school students who will be given a chance to succeed and likely will, and all that following a day working at a job that I’m fortunate to have only because others invested in my education so that I too could succeed. Jeff could have easily been me, I thought. I’m in a position where I can take medications and deal with my health and lifestyle in such a way that I can manage my dysthymia. Had my life’s circumstances been different, had someone – including me – made a different decision, I thought, I could have been on the streets. My mother raised my sister and I on a very low income, but we were fed, clothed, housed, and educated. What if our grandparents hadn’t been around to help support her and us? What if, like my father, I’d become addicted to drugs? What if our mother had died from the illness that has plagued her since my sister and I were young? What if, what if, what if?

The thought of what these people go through, how they must feel, and how very poorly I would have done in such a situation made tears well up in my eyes. Perhaps that was the sweat and sunscreen making that happen, but I don’t think so. That was empathy.

Empathy is not a quality I had to much degree previously, for reasons that are probably obvious to those of you who’ve read some of my other posts. Said more directly, I lacked empathy in any real sense of the term. Sure, I could intellectually identify with someone’s plight, but truly being able to feel what someone else might be feeling didn’t come until after I could see in color. Now, while I don’t consider myself strongly empathetic, I nonetheless am capable of imagining and, in doing so, feeling what other people feel, just as I did with the people Dr. Okin profiled.

I’m just getting used to processing empathy. It’s been hard enough processing the new-to-me emotions brought on by things in my own life, but processing emotions raised by events in others’ lives adds a whole new element. Reading or hearing about something like this in the past would have engendered a logical assessment of how awful such a situation was. It generally wouldn’t spur any kind of response, though. It wouldn’t make me change the way that I interact with the homeless. I’d still have avoided eye contact, still refused to help them, thinking that such things were better handled by supporting shelters and soup kitchens. Now, though, I’m not sure I can just turn my head anymore. We share a kinship, and I don’t mean our struggles with mental illness. Rather, I refer to our shared humanity. I’m finally able to grasp both the emotional and intellectual parts of being a humanist. Like Dr. Okin, perhaps I can carry a spare set of socks or a hat, buy a homeless person a sandwich or a bus ticket. These are things that I never would have considered before, showing my progress.

And the fact that I even have to consider them shows the sad lack of social progress in treating one of the underlying causes of homelessness. So please, give to your local homeless shelter, domestic violence center, social support agency, or whoever you feel would best support the downtrodden in your own area. Write to your state and federal legislators to encourage them to invest money in prevention rather incarceration. I don’t believe that we can completely eliminate mental illness, but at least we can prevent its most deleterious impacts on people’s lives.

About Buzzy

I'm a librarian. And a government bureaucrat. And I have a mental illness. Sometimes I write about these things. View all posts by Buzzy

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