There are some people that you meet and you just know they are a gentle spirit.  I knew this the moment that I met Shannon.  But it was more than that.  She was like a deer you approach slowly, you just know when you meet here if you rush your way in then she will flee.  I tried so many times to talk to her during our lunch program.  I was met with silence and the most minuscule of nods.  I figured out pretty quickly I would need to change my approach.

I grabbed a tray of food, and I went to the table where she was sitting.  “ Listen,” I said, we don’t even need to talk, “I am just going to sit here and eat with you  if that is OK?”  Smallest of nod to let me know that was OK.  As I was eating I noticed her studying my wrists.  Finally she whispers to me, “You have tattoos?”

“Yes” I respond.

“They allow that?” She asks.

“Well,” I begin, “I kind of came with them, and so they are stuck with them! But the Salvation Army just loves me where I am, as I am, tattoos and all.”

“I have tattoos,” She confides in me.

“Would you like to tell me about them?” I ask….and she does.

That is what it took.  My tattoos.  The part of me I worry the most won’t be accepted, is the very thing she needed to see to tell her that I could handle her story.

Once she began to show me her tattoos, her story rolled out of her.  She grew up in the church, she wanted to be a pastor.  But then one summer in her late teens at a church camp, she suffered her first breakdown, complete with auditory hallucinations.  Her life was never the same.  The voices and breakdowns came in rapid succession.  The medications leave her feeling flat and depressed, but without it she is afraid of everything and everyone.  The medication has caused morbid obesity.  She only wants donuts, she laughs at herself over this.  “I wonder sometimes which is worse, feeling nothing, or feeling everything.”  I tell her I can’t imagine having to choose one or the other.  “I miss church.” She whispers.  

I ask her to come and sit with me on Sunday.  She tells me she is so afraid.  I confide in her, I get scared too!  I am in a new place, living a life that I had never pictured for myself.  I feel scared every day.  This seems to reassure her. “Maybe”, I say, “Maybe we can be scared together”.  She meets my eyes for the first time; her bright blue eyes are so full of life and hope.  “Maybe we can,” she agrees.

So many people are just waiting.  Waiting desperately for someone to hear their stories, they walk through life feeling so alone and so full of words they just can’t express. Waiting for someone to reassure them that their words matter, that they can be heard and still be safe.  Waiting to not be scared.  What if we don’t insist on hearing it?  What if instead we just sit with them, and allow them the safe space to speak?

Karen Cassidy (

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.