Last night I took the subway home from a night out, alone, as I often do. And as I often do, I found myself seated across from a man who looked, and acted "crazy". He was screaming violent obscenities at another passenger on the car, but remaining seated and not physically threatening.
For four stops, filth poured out of his mouth as quickly as the train was travelling, and I and my fellow passengers did what everyone does in these circumstances. We avoided eye contact, checked our phones, cast furtive, knowing glances to one another. A few people whispered uncomfortably to their companions, or giggled nervously, unsure what to do or how to act. At his stop, the man stood up, told us all to "go f*ck yourselves", and spat as he exited the train. We all breathed a bit of a sigh of relief and went on to our business of travelling.
I realized I had been feeling anxious and threatened sitting across from this man who had been unleashing violent words on to the train and I reflected on the fact that if he had seemed less "crazy", he would have been more threatening. If anyone had believed him to be "sane", someone almost certainly would have taken steps to curtail his outburst. In a city as big as ours, we make different rules and have different expectations for different people. We get used to a certain amount of disruption and we brush off certain kinds of disturbance. I suppose in many ways it is a kindness, we don't insist that every mentally disturbed individual who screams outside of his own control be arrested (as we obviously shouldn't).
We learn to live with a bit of discomfort in our travels, and we reveal ourselves to be disappointingly human as we do our best trying to avoid noticing or talking about what's going on around us. It's a strange social contract that all the adults seem to have signed, but it's a tough one to fill kids in on.
Urban living means a more diverse population in every possibly way, and that includes in terms of mental health. Although I have no idea about the statistical differences in the number of people living with mental illness in the city versus the suburbs, I am certain that there is a greater likelihood of encountering people with apparent mental illness in our day to day lives in the city as compared with my experience of growing up in a small town.
The boys and I spend a large part of our days out and about in the city. We take the bus and the subway and the streetcar, and we walk up and down crowded streets and play in public parks. Oliver is charmingly social most of the time, and I'm so proud of the way he confidently says "Hello" to the people we pass, and chats with other passengers on transit. He's friendly and curious and asks a lot of questions, and people are drawn to him too. And sometimes that includes the people who are having trouble containing themselves in public. Once or twice it has been the case that the woman who is throwing obscene words over her left shoulder is striking up a conversation with Oliver over her right. When he was younger that didn't really matter, as he picked up on the friendly chit-chat and didn't seem to notice the difference between appropriate and inappropriate social behaviours. But he notices now, and he has lots of questions.
Of course, it should be simple to talk about how to interact with someone who appears to be mentally ill. We treat them with respect, we treat them with kindness, we treat them like everyone else.
The other day we passed a woman on the subway who had no legs, and Oliver loudly asked "Where did her legs go?" I felt confident answering "Maybe she was born without them, or maybe they were sick and she had to have them removed so she could be healthy." He drew the connection between this woman and Terry Fox, and was satisfied with my answer. But how much more complicated is it to explain that someone might be sick, or broken in their mind?
And do we practice what we preach, when we meet the obviously mentally ill in public? Is ignoring someone a form of politeness? I suppose maybe it is, giving them a pass by acknowledging that they're acting outside of their own control. Although Oliver is friendly and outgoing most of the time, he withdraws and can seem rude when he's feeling uncomfortable, and isn't that what we all do, really? When we're afraid, we cover it up with bravado, or by withdrawing, or with anger.
One night, in my first year of living in the city, I had been at a friend's place a few subway stops away from my own, and I decided to walk home at a time much later than I was usually comfortable with (sorry mum & dad). My route took me past a construction site that was dark, and cavernous, and made me very uncomfortable. I was already feeling out of my element when a man jumped out from behind the barrier of the site and yelled "BOOO". I screamed and what came out was "NO NO NO!". The man dissolved into laughter, mimicking me cruelly "Nooo, nooo!". I hurried on my way.
I was shaken up, even though I knew he hadn't intended to hurt me he had seriously frightened me. I was angry that someone could make me feel that way when I was just going about my business, walking through my city, to my home. But I knew he was homeless, and I knew he was drunk, and I knew he was probably harmless and I was angry for him too, that for whatever reason, he was out on the street, lurking around construction sites, amusing himself by terrifying unsuspecting pedestrians.
The city is full of all kinds of people, and we all live together in such close quarters that it feels like we should all be on the same team, looking out for each other as much as we can. That's the spirit of city living that I want to instil in my kids, but it's hard to feel like that's what we're modelling when we sit uncomfortably ignoring another person who is screaming out on the subway.