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Voices Project

Shannon: Part 1 (The Voices Project ep. 2)


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 (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.

 

Greg (The Voices Project ep.1)


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.

 

The Voices Project


In late January, we are relaunching The Voices Project. A blog initiative of Conversations on the Fringe that will share stories of people who are marginalized in our society. Our hope is, these stories will re-humanize people who are often forgotten about and pushed to the fringes of our world. We walk by these people daily in our own journeys but pay little attention to them or their stories.

Karen Bradford-Cassidy will be our primary Story-teller. She works for non-profit that serves marginalized and vulnerable individuals and has a ginormous heart for those she encounters in her daily work. She is a gifted writer as well.

Here’s a preview of her first post, coming out next week:

“Yesterday at lunch I had such a powerful moment of clarity. There are times you know you are wearing the shoes you are supposed to wear, so you can walk the road you are supposed to walk.

One of our clients was talking to me with such brutal honesty. He said: “ you can’t see my disability. But it is there. Just like a man in a wheelchair. It takes everything in me, every day to quiet the voices that want to be heard. It is exhausting being me. And Karen, I did not ask to be born this way, and I get so tired, but I know there is a reason.” 

I was so moved and humbled by his honesty. 

Seeing past people’s outside into their hearts and minds, and into their lives is what we are all called to do. Whether you are an officer, a waitress, an attorney, a miner…we are called to hear one another and to “bear with one another.” Mental illness is a powerful force in so many people’s lives…I pray that God will use me always as His eyes to see their struggles and to remind them that they are loved right where they are.”

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