Feeling Mixed Up

I am feeling down and confused, and I am not sure what to do with it.

Today I was at a coffeeshop, working, when a women walked in. She was homeless, and obviously mentally ill. Maybe she was about 60, but it’s hard to say — she may have been younger but very weathered. One of the workers gave her a warm washcloth for her hands — today is a below zero day, a terrible day to be homeless in Minnesota.

She sat at a table next to me, talking softly to herself constantly. Actually she stood, mostly, messing with her many bags. Finally, I said, “Ma’am, you look very cold. Can I buy you something warm to drink?”

She accepted — though I still really struggled to understand her — and I tried to help her off with her coats. One was stuck on her big cross necklace. I had to help her on and off with the necklace — I have no idea how she uses her fingers, which looked calloused beyond having any feeling.

She got coffee and a muffin, and then I tried to figure out where she was going next. Over time it was clear that she was connected with the homeless network — she had a cell phone, a bus card, she knew the names of the main shelters in the area. She would not go to them — people stole from her, she said, and they pushed her husband around. (She had no husband with her.) I asked her about riding the bus. She had a “to go” card for the buses, but she said the drivers were mean to her. She would tear up every time she talked about it.

I made several calls, but if she didn’t want to go to the shelters, obviously I couldn’t make her. I also suggested the hospital — if she were assessed as mentally ill, she could get into special shelters — but apparently she knew that already and did not want to go that route.

In the end I left her sitting in the coffeeshop. When I bought the coffee, she leaned over to me and asked, “How long do they let you stay here? A half hour, do you think?” It was one of more her lucid moments, trying to assess how long she could stay indoors.

“Longer than that,” I answered. “You have to have time to finish your coffee.”

At some point I introduced myself and asked her name. It was becoming clear that there was not much more I could do. Her name was Bonnie. Actually, she said her name was Mrs. Something-or-other-I couldn’t hear, then she said her name was Bonnie. “Can I call you Bonnie?” I asked.

“Yes!” she said.

So I tried to look her in the eye, nod, and call her Bonnie. That was all I could think of to give her, to call her by name.

I was distressed to leave her, but I didn’t know what else to do. I went to the grocery store afterwards, feeling guilty for shopping at Whole Foods, feeling useless and out of touch with the real needs of people in my community. Feeling hopeless for people like Bonnie, who are so needy they cannot even accept the help being offered them.

I’m just posting this because it is weighing on me heavily. I’m not posting it because I think I did a great act of kindness spending $4 on a woman with bottomless needs. I’m not posting it because I want someone to reassure me that I did my best. I just need to tell this story again, to release a little of the pressure inside.

Looking this woman in the eyes and trying to accept her for who she is, without changing her, without rescuing her, was really hard. And yet geez, what a ridiculous thing to say, snug in my office, full of organic squash and a little ice cream — you see the downward spiral I could easily get into here. So I am still not sure where to go with this.

I may have to pull a Patience and delete this post later. đŸ˜‰



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9 responses to “Feeling Mixed Up

  1. That really sucks Shaun.
    I don’t think you should delete it FWIW.

  2. I don’t think you should delete it.

    I have been in your position. It is heartbreaking and obviously there is no answer.

    You have faith. I can only suggest that you pray and you pour your heart out into a something that is mightier and stronger than yourself.

    You have compassion and as much as it hurts it is a trait that more people should have.

  3. Well, and people often dismiss this as an avoidance of actually doing something, but you can pray FOR her. God knows her, knows her name. He knows better than you or I do what she needs, and though you can’t know how it will play out, prayer is doing something significant for her.

  4. patience

    dearest, I feel for you. May I suggest you don’t go anywhere with the information and emotions, just hold them and breathe through them. Somewhere along the line Bonnie made choices that we ultimately have to accept. All you can do is what you have done – giving kindness and coffee and giving her back her name. And consider it from another perspective. Perhaps Bonnie was an angel sent to you. To give you the opportunity to make the beautiful choices you did, and let others make their own. It’s one of the most painful lessons I learned as a domestic violence counsellor.

    I wish I could say more, or say it more eloquently, but I am having serious computer problems and have to go try to fix them. I hope you keep this post up, because your experience is now our experience, and so Bonnie can be an angel for us too.

  5. It is always so painful to run smack into proof that the world just isn’t working like it should. Knowing something should be done, anything, but not knowing just exactly what that something is or who exactly should be doing it. The price we pay for having a conscience, I suppose.

  6. I’m with Patience: somewhere along the line Bonnie made some choices of her own that got her to where she is now and all you can do is do what you did. Don’t delete. I like reading these kinds of posts from you.

    Funny, I’ve been having some depressing moments of my own lately. I’ll send you a virtual hug and commiserate with you. It’s been a tough and weird week.

  7. Hugs. What you did is hard. Probably much harder than taking her to a shelter. Because as desperate as she is, you gave her more than her name. You gave her the ability to exercise her free will. She has the information she needs to get help and the help available isn’t what she needs right now. That’s really tough. But she still deserves coffee, and warmth and conversation.

    And you don’t need to feel guilty for what you have. You haven’t taken it from her.

    Patience and others are right. Sit with it. Pray if that feels right. And know that we are all here thinking about you as you have these difficult thoughts.

  8. Jen

    Thank you for sharing this. It is really hard to accept that there is only so much we can do. I volunteer at our local food pantry once a month, and sometimes the reality of it all can be too much for me. I just try to focus on what I can do… offer food, an ear, calling them by name, looking them in the eye (dignity), and prayer. You did all of that.

    I agree with the other poster… sometimes people with so much less are actually angels placed in our path.

    Prayers for you and for Bonnie.

  9. Just wanted you to know I read your story. I feel helpless when I have to face these issues. But we are fortunate enough to face them, to not turn away. So many people are too busy to even feel. The injustice will remain if we are unable to face the reality.

    I like what Patience said as well.

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