There are stories you can’t tell.
Last Friday, I lived one of those stories.I can’t tell you where I was, or why I was there, or who the patients were, or why they were patients.
But it was one of the most profoundly powerful experiences of my life.
I got up before dawn and drove several hours to be “there” at 6:30 am. It was a beautiful drive. As the sun rose from the opposite direction, a full moon hung near the horizon – a huge ball of silver light, draped in soft rose-purple. I pulled into the near-empty parking lot and stepped out of my car into quiet. It was peaceful.
I walked into the facility to the sound of screaming.
A voice cries out, loudly. Painfully. Piercingly. It strikes me deep in my chest, and for a moment I want to run, but I can’t move.
I am not sure I have ever heard anguish like that.
Over and over, the voice calls out, begging the pain to go, strained and gravely from overuse. In the cries you can hear anger and frustration. The endless torture by demons that can’t be drowned out.
The reality of this person’s life.
As many of you know, I have been involved in BarberQue for over two years now. As an organization, we believe that a life lived with dignity is a basic human right. Every fall, the BarberQue community comes together to throw an event in Chicago’s Kells Park to support individuals suffering from homelessness. We provide a free, family-style barbecue meal, free haircuts, access to social services, and give away thousands of items of clothing, toiletries, and other essentials.
What many of you don’t know, is that I didn’t get involved in BarberQue because I was particularly passionate about helping the homeless. My friend Nate was. My friend Megan was. And one night over a few beers, they pitched me on the idea. I saw it as a fun way to give back while hanging out with my friends. I was in.
And like many things that come along unexpectedly, BarberQue changed my life. It came to me at a time when I was probably drinking too much, working too little, and only really cared about how many “hot” pictures I took with my friends over the weekend. It came to me in a time when I was disenchanted with the world and reminded me that goodness exists – and of the incredible capacity human beings have to love. It knocked down stereotypes. It opened my eyes.
And every time my life gets a bit turbulent and I get a bit lost, there it is again – a swift kick in the ass, a push in the right direction.
Wake up, Emily. There is more to this life than you.
In the distance, a woman screams.
I catch eyes with the nurse standing next to me, and the woman’s pain is reflected in the nurse’s eyes. “Nooo…” the nurse breathes, sadly.
“CODE RED! CODE RED! CODE RED!”
A flurry of movement at my back and I duck out of the way as two large men rush past, grabbing a stretcher from the wall. The woman’s screams echo hauntingly down the dim hallway, briefly louder as the men open the door to the room ahead, and then muffled. You can hear other staff, talking to the patient. Trying to calm her down.
But the screams continue; she is unable to shake the horror of a past that haunts her. Over and over again, she relives the rape that tore her mind in half. His breath, on the nape of her neck. His hands, on her body. His weight, holding her down. She, a child.
The nurse and I stand quietly, hovering beyond the door and waiting for our turn to enter.
Eventually, the woman quiets.
And the day continues on.
Last Friday, I met a person diagnosed with schizophrenia. I met a person diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. I met a person diagnosed with dissociative multiple personality disorder – something incredibly rare.
But I emphasize diagnosed, because I have met these people before. I met them under bridges. On street corners. I served them food and gave them haircuts. I have listened to their stories. I have shivered with them in the cold.
I know them.
Last Friday, as I listened to patients’ backgrounds, the same things popped up over and over again. Childhood violence. Childhood trauma. Childhood sexual abuse.
Schizophrenia doesn’t manifest until between the ages of 19 and 26. It affects people with above average IQ who have experienced extreme trauma, at a higher rate than others. Oftentimes, these people get all the way through college before suffering a psychotic break.
Meaning, they could have been just like any of us. Graduating college… starting a family.
We all got fucking lucky.
I sit with a patient. The patient suffers from mental illness; I can’t say more than that. But, I sat with that patient for an hour and we talked. At first, the same dumb questions I have asked a billion strangers a billion times. How are you today? Isn’t this weather nice?
But then, somehow, we started talking for real. It surprised me that we had so much in common, honestly.
We talked about Star Trek and old movies, our love for Epcott at Disneyland, our families, and aviation. I now know more about propeller jets than I ever thought I would. It reminded me of sitting around with one of my dad’s “old timer” friends, and talking about the days gone by.
For an hour we laughed, a lot.
The patient laughed, a lot.
For an hour, the patient was really there. Engaged. Unhaunted.
When I stood to leave, I did so a bit sadly. I will never forget the way the sunlight streamed into the room we were in, and the way the patient rested their chin on their hand happily, smiling. I was struck by the fact that people are just people, and that we all really are the same.
As I walked to the door, another patient approached me hesitantly.
“Can I talk to you for a moment?” the patient asked.
I smiled, and said of course.
“I just want you to know… that person is in so much pain. So much pain. And you made them laugh,” the patient looked up at me, purposefully. Earnestly.
“I have never heard them laugh before.”
There are stories we can’t tell. And god, do I wish I could tell them. Because I want you to know those incredible people I met last Friday. I want you to know them, because if you did, there was no way you wouldn’t want to help them.
But I can’t tell you their stories. Or even their names.
I can tell you that our government has let them down. The system has let them down. We, as a society and as human fucking beings have let them down.
So this year, the BarberQue gift drive supported them. There will be no warm fuzzy pictures and I can’t tell you who they are or even where they were.
But I can promise you that they needed it.
And that you should be proud of your support.
And from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for helping me bring some sunlight into a place that desperately needed it.