Today I read a story written by a compassionate and courageous woman on a bipolar support forum. I really admired how she, a non-psych nurse, treated a manic teen in a general hospital. The manic teen’s behavior to an outsider would have seemed shocking, but she knew that it was not his fault, but that he was ill and needed help and understanding. After encountering ignorance and prejudice against the mentally ill boy by other staff, she spoke up to defend him and challenge stigma. That reminded me of an occasion when I, on tenterhooks, didn’t speak up about two kinds of prejudice.
One morning, about two years ago, I had an overwhelming desire to get out of the house for a rare change for a very early lunch. I didn’t want to drive far, so I decided to go to the local diner for a sandwich. I normally wouldn’t go to that diner because the food was mediocre to lousy at best, and the staff was often unfriendly. There were predictably few people there because of those facts.
The diner manager (or maybe even owner) acted as host and sat me in a booth. A waitress came quickly and I immediately ordered a sandwich and Diet Coke. While I waited, I noticed that I sat across from an elderly African American woman. I noticed her trying on a few occasions to get the waitress’s attention. The waitress finally came to her table. I then overheard the elderly lady say that her eggs tasted like dirty grill, and her toast was nearly burnt. The waitress then said that she’d tell the manager.
There was a long wait for the manager to ever go to the elderly woman’s table. In the meantime, the elderly woman started a conversation with me about her two kids. She seemed very friendly. Then she said that it seemed like a long wait for the manager to get to her table. I agreed. Finally the manager arrived and asked her in a brusque way what her complaint was. She repeated to him what she had told the waitress. In response, he said “Well, you’ve already eaten half of your eggs. What do you want me to do about it?”
That rude statement and question seemed to shock the lady. She then said “I thought that if you knew that the food was not good that you’d appreciate the feedback.”
“OK, I now have your feedback,” he said. “Is there anything else you want me to do?”
The elderly lady looked down and said “No, it’s fine.” Then the manager/owner walked away.
I felt horrible about the manager’s behavior. How unprofessional and what poor customer service! So I looked at the elderly lady and said “I can certainly imagine that your eggs taste horrible. This place is not known for their good food. That’s why it’s half empty here. I normally don’t come here myself.”
She then lifted her toast in my direction and said “Don’t you agree that it’s burnt?”
“It definitely looks burnt, in my opinion,” I said.
Then with a little courage and wee bit of anger showing in her eyes, she said “I think maybe he didn’t apologize because I’m an old black lady.”
Her statement stunned me for a few seconds, and almost stuttering I said “Oh oh, I don’t know. Maybe so.”
I looked down and the scenario played through my head again. Then I played in my head a scenario where I, a middle-aged white woman, had the same situation and called the waitress, and then talked to the manager. Would he have apologized to me, and thanked me for the feedback? Maybe even discounted the meal? Or only made me pay for the coffee? My stomach grew a little upset because I thought that maybe the answer to one or more of these questions may well have been yes. And if not, what a horrible establishment this was indeed! I was never going to return again.
The waitress gave the elderly woman her bill. The elderly woman then looked up at me and said she enjoyed talking to me. I said the same to her and apologized to her that she was poorly treated. She said that she would never come here again, that the tire shop within walking-distance recommended the place. I said that next time she ever goes for tire service to go to the bagel shop, instead. She then said goodbye, went to the cash register where the manager/owner was standing, paid the bill, and then left.
I immediately asked for my check because I didn’t want to remain in the diner any longer. Then to my surprise, a man who was apparently sitting in the booth behind me came to me and said in an obnoxious way, “What a looney she was! Really! I worked in the psychiatric ward at X psychiatric hospital and had to deal with those types all the time!” Then he walked away even though I said nothing with a shocked stare.
At that moment I felt completely paralyzed. I had been a psychotic patient with bipolar mania at that very hospital a few years before, and several times at another nearby psychiatric hospital, as well. He didn’t know that, of course. He thought I might be sitting there thinking he was right about everything he said, and that it was the elderly woman who was at fault in some way and NOT the manager/owner.
I picked up my bill and walked to the cash register. The manager said something supposedly friendly to me with a smile. I gave him my credit card in a daze. I signed the slip and left for home.
When I got home, and snapped out of my daze, I felt intensely angry and disappointed in myself for not being able to speak up and defend the elderly African American lady AND myself and other people with mental illnesses. I told my husband the story when he got home, and he told me that now that I have seen this prejudice with my own eyes, I WILL have the strength to do more to fight ignorance and hate.
My mental illness still keeps me home, but I have tried, as I can, to do things to make up for that day mentioned above. I try to regularly contribute to the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (see SUPPORT FOR MENTAL ILLNESS). I’ve recently and in the past written to my congressmen and senators about related issues. I occasionally write blog posts against hate and stigma. Hopefully I’ll do even more in the future, especially have that courage to speak up on the spot that my husband mentioned, and that the nurse had for the teen boy.