Recently, my colleague and I were able to spend an hour with a client who was having a rough day. They have a long history of mental health, addictions, homelessness and exploitation by the people around them. Unfortunately, their story is not that much different than most of the people I work with. And yet, although I spend most of my days with individuals who have some or all of these struggles, today is the first day in a long time, that I reaIly, truly got a sense of how people treat my clients.
I will fully admit that I have no idea how or what was going on in their mind that led them to feeling so unwell. I do not know what it is like to combat loud and disruptive voices or bouts of paranoia that make you feel unable to move or to trust anyone. And even as I write this, I am not naïve to how unaware I am of things that my client experiences, even though I have been working in this field for years. I am not in their head, or in their life, and cannot fathom fighting the demons they are fighting on a daily basis. And then they also have to combat the negative way in which other people treat them.
So, while this client was having a bad day, myself and my colleague tried to support them. We spent an hour with them doing a quick shopping trip to get them a few things before they went home for the night. This client had a long day filled with appointments and expectations that were hard for them, so they were already overwhelmed and overstimulated before we even went into the store. By the time we got inside, they were struggling with their emotions and were visibly trying to cope with their anxiety using outward facial and body tics as well verbal outbursts. They would walk from aisle to aisle as they looked for the things they needed and could be seen dancing to the music playing overhead while trying to choose the next thing they needed to grab. And, while they were doing this, I just observed.
I observed other customers in the store have a variety of reactions. Some of them would obviously avoid eye contact with them as they said hello or excuse me and would sigh in frustration while they took a few extra minutes to make a decision. Some intentionally would see us down an aisle and switch direction or avoid us completely. Some of them would look at us, give us, as their support, a head nod, and smile shyly at the client as they moved past them down the aisle. Only, one person made a point to speak to them, have a conversation and told them to have a good night.
I watched the staff of the business watching us closely. They would pass by the aisles on a more regular basis than I would normally see and would stare at us each time they would walk by. At one point, I noticed three staff members in the same section as us, while the rest of the aisles being empty. I saw them speak to each other, not always quietly, about “that person who yells is here again” or rolling their eyes when they had to stop and take their mask off for a second as they felt claustrophobic. They watched them with distain, or attitude, or frustration, but worse of all, not one of those staff members were kind. Were understanding. Offered us any help in finding something.
So, getting what they need, we made our way to the cash. This is where I felt my heart breaking. The lady ahead of us at the cash treated us with kindness. The client, feeling overwhelmed and emotionally spent, began to have a meltdown. They were crying and cursing and voicing frustration that life is always so complicated and that they are unable how to manage the frustration sometimes. This lady did not look at the client with judgement or attitude. She did not roll her eyes or sigh in frustration. Instead, she smiled at the client with tears in her eyes and made a point to look away in a way that did not further embarrass or create a scene for them.
And unfortunately, that lady, along with one other, was the only ones that treated them with any kind of dignity or respect. Instead, upon getting to the cash, the cashier immediately called her manager as she saw us approaching. Comments of “no trespassing” or “not them again” could be heard by everyone waiting in line. Then, they were unable to find their debit card and we had to leave empty handed. That cashier, another staff member, and now the manager, rolled their eyes at us as we asked to have the transaction cancelled. The others in line stared at them as they grabbed their stuff and we went to leave.
As we left the store, I couldn’t feel anything but sad. Sad that we had interacted with at least fifteen individuals during our time in the store, and only two people treated this client with any level of understanding. Were they behaving bizarrely? Yes. Were they cursing in frustration or flapping their hands feeling overwhelmed? Yes. Were they slow in their decision making and having to backtrack to get stuff they forgot? Yes. Did staff want to tell them to leave but didn’t because they saw us with them? Yes. But, you know what else they were?
A person, who to anyone who was watching was obviously having a hard day. A person who was overwhelmed, overstimulated and overly emotional. And as a fellow person, I went home tonight feeling sad that a person like them could be treated so poorly. This client is a person. A human like the rest of us. Period.