By Lindsay Steele
My two best friends from college, Tori and Katie, came to visit me in early February to celebrate my birthday. We went downtown to enjoy a meal and a drink, but our evening didn’t go quite as we expected.
The restaurant we walked into was full, so we opted to sit at the bar. Not long after we sat down, the stranger at my right turned to me. He looked to be about my age, and he appeared to be sitting alone. “Who is that playing basketball on the TV?” he asked, laboring over his words. “The Iowa Hawkeyes,” I replied. “So the Iowa Hawkeyes are playing?” Yes, I assured him.
A few minutes later, he asked a similar question. Around this time one of the employees came over to me and quietly whispered, “let us know if he is bothering you.” Apparently, the stranger next to me is a regular customer who struggles with severe mental illness. He is harmless but tends to annoy customers due to his intellectual and social challenges.
I was torn. Honestly, I was annoyed at the fact that he kept interrupting me while I was talking to my friends who had each traveled a few hours to see me. But in an abstract way, I saw myself in this man. I remembered being a freshman in high school and thinking how worthless I felt when my classmates refused to make room for me at their lunch table. I wanted to be friends with them; they didn’t share the sentiment. I also remember how much it meant to me when the senior captain of my marching band colorguard squad invited me to sit with her; she set an example that I’ve tried to emulate ever since.
So, yes, I’d been looking forward to my birthday dinner with my friends for a long time. But if God teaches us that all people have worth, who was I to reject this young man? Whatever irritation I felt, he was still a person who deserved to be treated as someone with dignity. While I wanted uninterrupted time with my friends, he probably needed our kindness more. I turned to my friends and they understood what I needed to do — what we needed to do.
“No,” I told the employee.” He’s not bothering us, but thanks anyway.”
We formally introduced ourselves, and made conversation with him. Katie happens to be a mental health case worker, so I followed her lead as far as knowing the best way to interact. He told us about his struggles, including past suicide attempts. We did what we could to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone and that things could get better. Katie offered some advice about medication compliance, adding, “I’m not judging you at all, I totally understand. It happens.”
For my part, I was candid about my own struggles and told him that everyone feels sad sometimes — even the people who seem like they have it all.
When we left the restaurant an hour or so later, we offered hugs and wished this young man a happy future. I’m not sure if he’ll remember us, or whether we made any difference, but it’s my hope that while we were with him he felt appreciated and a little less lonely.
(Editor’s note: Lindsay Steele is a reporter for The Catholic Messenger. Contact her at email@example.com or by phone at (563) 888-4248.)