He came to church the first Sunday I began my internship. I will always remember that both of us began together.  He raised his hand at prayer time and asked for prayers for a safe place to live, and he said he wanted to thank God for the shelter that gave him a cot to sleep on.  He kept on showing up to church.  He kept on showing up for our hot lunch program every day.

Young.  Only in his 30s.  Handsome. Smart.  Soft-spoken with a Jersey accent.  Strong.  Deeply introspective and insightful.

And yes, also homeless.

Also schizophrenic.

He spent much of his 20s in a state facility in New Jersey.  He wants desperately to have a different life.   He takes his mental health seriously.

This Christmas he rang bells for us – standing outside at the kettle in the frigid temperatures and the relentless snow.

He took his job so seriously, that he would call me asking me if he could take a bathroom break.

Recently he was at the lunch program when someone asked him why he could not work.  You are an able-bodied young man they persisted.

They were not watching his eyes while they were questioning him.

They did not see his spirit being diminished and that wall that goes up when a person with serious mental illness feels attacked.

I watched him deflating in front of my eyes.

I watched him retreat within himself.  

He stared straight ahead and I knew we were losing him inside of himself.

“Let’s walk into the hall,” I whispered and miraculously he followed me.

“Do you want to tell me what is happening?” I asked.

He looked at me with so much pain in his eyes- “Karen, why don’t they understand?  I know my disability is not obvious like a man in a wheelchair. But it is not less real.  

I have to fight every single day to keep the voices away just so I can function.  They want me to listen to them.  It takes all my energy to not let them take over.  I want a good life.  Don’t they think I want to have a job and know what it is to have a paycheck?  But I can’t.  I have tried.  I am so hurt.  I don’t know what to do.”  He breathes out, exhausted.

We talk a little more, and I sit with him for a bit. I assure him again and again that I see him.

He taught me so much that day about integrity; about showing up and standing up no matter how hard things get.  He reminded me that not all disabilities are going to be obvious.  We have to come alongside of people; we need to be a safe place for their stories.  We need to truly know who they are.  We need to encourage the progress…no matter how small it may appear to us.  

We need to create relationship and we need to see one another.

Karen Cassidy (stmichaelcas@gmail.com)

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.