What Makes a Good Companion?
By Kae Eaton
Profound and persistent mental illness can lead to homelessness, but surely it leads to a kind of isolation for which the model of companionship was designed. The techniques for attending to mental illness are numerous, but everyday people uniquely practice companionship.
Unlike one-to-one private consultations, companionship appears in public settings like coffee shops, park benches, meal programs, shelters and houses of worship. Safety concerns for both parties is paramount, as is recognizing our limits to what we can do and how we can help. How do we set boundaries, especially when one party is in a vulnerable state of mind? How do we approach? Should we approach? What might we ask or require? How do we listen? Through what framework or lens do we speak or make assumptions? And finally, if or when we accompany someone, how should we? How much help is good for them? Or good for us?
Derek and Nance's story illustrates many of these principles through a long journey of contact, connection, time and patience. It began at a church-sponsored hygiene program for the homeless. Derek and his girlfriend, Nance, have been around for a long time. Their journey has been hard. There were signs of illegal substance use, and trouble between the two, including restraining orders and police involvement. I became concerned for Nance's safety. At times I sat quietly with her and offered her my card and my phone number. Then I would see Derek out the corner of my eye, pacing and glaring. I knew I needed to be careful. In that year, I learned to pay attention to the wariness I felt, to listen to my instincts. I took care of myself, read, talked, learned and breathed and continued my work.
Fast-forward to a year later. I ran into Derek, not having seen him for some time. We talked the next few days. I ventured to mention Nance. This took him by surprise, but we kept talking. A couple of days later, he came in with band aids and a story of an altercation and court appearance. For the first time, our conversations became truthful. The judge and clerks had wagered, he imagined, whether or not he could stay clean for the duration of his continuance. Following this, he became clearer and more rational, admitting to the mutual violence between him and Nance and willing to get help. All of this came about over an extended time of in a safe, clean space, with open and attentive people giving more than a shower or a plate of food, but giving of themselves in common space and a shared moment. Companionship.
How long will the journey be for Derek and Nance? Will they take the opportunity to step into a better place? Will we? Time will tell, but for sure, the moment has connection and some degree of healing for everyone.
Kae Eaton is the director of Mental Health Chaplaincy in Seattle.