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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

People on the street needing help aren’t so different – I know now

Catherine Johnston Olympian

A mentally ill woman shuffles along a Pioneer Square sidewalk in her socks, muttering about her pain. I walk around her and ride the elevator up the Seattle high-rise to a fancy office where I sit in meetings, listening to colleagues talk about compassionate care for the sick and marginalized in our society.

People who shuffle along the street needing help, seeking relief from their pain, always seemed so unlike me, unlike people I know.

But now I believe that circumstances such as addiction, grief, abandonment, childhood abuse or prescribed medications can rob anyone of her dignity or sanity, can take anyone to dangerous places, including to mental illness. Anyone.

In the afternoon, I escape the meetings and sip coffee outside. I watch the woman from the morning shuffle toward me and stop. Tears flow from her green, bloodshot eyes. Her matted blond hair and dirty clothes need washing; her shoes lie strewn under a nearby table.

“I am so sick!” she says as she grabs my arms.

“I know you are,” I tell her.

Oh, God, do I know.

Months earlier, I faced a life-threatening illness and needed to make treatment choices. But I couldn’t stop hyperventilating, couldn’t sleep. The anxiety overwhelmed me, and so I was given medication that temporarily eased the anxiety – but came with a horrifying, unforeseen side effect: severe depression. I survived the life-threatening illness, but the medication for anxiety almost killed me.

For weeks, I shuffled around the house, and when my husband insisted I eat something, I refused. He put a straw to my mouth and ordered me to sip the nutrition drink. I sobbed, choked and occasionally swallowed the drink. I was unable to follow simple conversations. The sound of hammering frightened me. I wrote outrageous e-mails to friends who telephoned, alarmed by my words.

When I came to the end of myself, I had to find someone who could help me end the madness. I called a nurse practitioner, not the prescribing physician. She listened.

“You are not crazy, Cathy. Those medications can be dangerous. They sometimes cause exactly what they are supposed to cure – anxiety and depression,” she told me.

She helped me slowly and safely wean off the medications. Finally sane again, I reclaimed my life and felt profoundly lucky.

I used to think I was not like any of those people I avoided on the sidewalk. After all, I have a fine education, a loving family and access to health-care resources. But I no longer believe a chasm exists between people like the Pioneer Square woman and me.

“I am so sick. I need to eat,” the woman says.

“Sit there – I’ll be back,” I tell her.

When I bring her juice and a sandwich, she jumps up, hugs me and cries. I hug her and cry, too.

“I hope and pray you get well,” I say, and I mean it.

A year later, I still wonder about her. I know that a turkey sandwich and bottle of orange juice did not cure her mental illness. But from my judgmental heart and smug worldview, miraculously, she saved me.

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