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Unpacking Being a Random Witness to a Person in Distress

When I went to meet my art mentors today, I had an upsetting experience on the bus. There was a young man in psychosis whose overall appearance and mannerisms made me feel he was either on drugs or perhaps withdrawing from them. He was on the back of the bus with me, where the seats are lined against the window, facing each other/the aisle. He was distraught, and took off his soiled hoodie and t-shirt until he was topless. His pants were hanging below his bottom, but he had underwear on. He was intermittently crying, his face red and wet from tears. He would exclaim loudly every once in a while, for whatever the voices were saying to him, to stop and leave him alone, as he would bat at his head with his hands then burst into tears again. He did get his shirt and hoodie back on before he exited the bus.

It was upsetting to witness, for anyone, but I personally have been in places like that, so it hurt deeply to see. What was nice though, was that as I glanced around at the other passengers, although a couple seemed uncomfortable, the majority of people on the back of the bus had looks of genuine concern in their eyes for this man.

I work in mental health now and grew up as a psych patient with addiction issues but I still didn’t know what to do. He didn’t appear to be in a place where approaching him would have been helpful. He was in another world and my gut told me not to intervene. He wasn’t displaying any signs of needing immediate medical care. Our system is so overwhelmed, they wouldn’t keep him in hospital even if someone did call 911 and honestly, the experience of 911 coming would probably cause more unnecessary distress to this man.

It was upsetting to see but I held back my tears, albeit barely. I have a lot of fear around crying in public and being deemed emotionally unstable for doing so. I encourage others to cry when they need to, but for me, it doesn’t feel safe. If you see me crying in public, you can guarantee I’ve held it in until I can’t anymore. This time, I was able to distract myself and fortunately I could talk about the experience a bit with my mentors once I arrived at our meeting.

Art: “Psychosis” (2003 - Age 17) with a few lines from a poem I wrote back then encircling it.


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