Poking A Bear In The Public Library

This piece was written in May of 2018.
It’s always been relevant, but I’m finally publishing it.

I am currently at my local library and have just witnessed an upsetting event that has prompted me to step out of my comfort zone of “thinking about” writing, and put fingers to keyboard.

I need to effect change and I need to do it now. 

Today, I watched ignorance unfold in front of my eyes. 

As I waited for a program to begin, I saw what was, in my opinion, a schizophrenic man threaten another patron with a chair. 

It happened because the other patron invaded his space, apparently attempting to remove his brothers’ bag, which sat close by the “ill” patron’s bag. Tension ensued, and the unwell man’s anger flared.

Getting up from his computer station, he immediately grabbed a chair and held it up in the air in a clear attempt to threaten the other. I was reminded of a bear rising up on its back legs, ready for a fight, a cat, arching its back and hissing, or a “tough guy” moving his coat to the side to brandish his concealed weapon. 

After he proved his point – I’m mad and I’ll come at you – it was a matter of seconds until he put down the chair and went back to his business. 

But instead of recognizing this man’s attempt to be left alone, the provoker; a skinny 20-something, notably (and rightfully) infuriated by someone fucking with his family, did not.

In this case, mental illness was so clearly evident as, on one of the first warm days in the city, when everyone is wearing t-shirts and open-toed shoes, this man sported a heavy sweater and a winter hat. In addition, over his unkempt facial hair, he had a surgical mask pulled down to cover his bearded chin.

If there was ever a picture of “crazy” this was undeniably it.

Yet, whether from PTSD, bravado or just plain ignorance, the skinny dude repeated, “Try me…” as he stared at the bearded man who was silently sitting back in his chair, ready to continue on with his computer work.

He poked the bear, and he used the teeth of the bear’s dead cub to do it.

Up he stood, again, chair in hand, with no concern for the female staff member who had good-heartedly attempted to intervene to dissolve the initial situation. Screams, gasps and tense fear surrounded the space as patrons watched, yet no one did anything – including me – because we didn’t know what to do.

We didn’t know what to do because education about mental illness and how to deal with it is sorely lacking in our society. 

Another staff member quickly picked up the phone to dial 9-1-1 (where she was put on an immediate hold – that’s a bit of a problem), and the bearded man was being told by other staff members “You have to leave”. 

He complied, took his blue plastic bag, full of his belongings, and left the library, while everyone rushed to the aid of the Provoker and his mother. 

I had my child with me in the library for a program, but, had I been alone, or if my child was being supervised in the program, I would have joined the man as he walked out, offering my compassion and explaining that I understood his anger. How I have, as well, been upset so severely that I threw a chair, kicked a door, smashed a glass vase because I was triggered, and I would hope to create a sense of empathy and solidarity with him, because, having someone who understands you can be the greatest tool for healing. 

About 10 minutes later, when my child had settled into the program, I saw that the staff member was being tended to by her colleagues and the security guard, so I left the space in an effort to seek out the man who was forced out. 

I couldn’t find him and I was upset about it. 

Upon returning to the library, I found the staff member – noticeably shaken – and, I spoke with her.

She raised the notion that The Provoker had initiated the provocation, and I explained that, when triggered, there is an almost complete lack of control, “seeing black” as though you’re covered by a heavy, dark blanket that you are just fighting to get yourself free from by whatever means necessary.

He did not see her there, instead, he saw the years of shame and harassment and misunderstanding that he has had to ensure over his 35+ years, all encapsulated in a single phrase: “Try me.” 

“I’ll try you. I’ll show you. I’ll end this pain and bullshit right here, right now.”

But it doesn’t end it. It gets you kicked out of a public space.
It gets the cops showing up, who will look for you, bring you in to detain you and ask you questions about why you do the things you do, to which you can’t answer because you don’t know, yourself.
They may as well be asking that bear why it’s about to attack.

In talking with the staff, I communicated that extending sympathy and compassion to this man, despite his violent display, was the only way that we can make things better. 

Do I know if they understand? Do I know if it will change things? Do I know if it will create a global awareness that mental illness exists, that we must learn to recognize it, to accept it, and that ejecting someone with mental illness from one of the most clearly recognized public spaces in the world that’s supposed to be a hub of education (education!), is completely incongruous.

When my child asked me what was going on, I explained the situation to her in a somewhat watered-down way, however, I told her that this man got angry and, unfortunately, he probably didn’t have a doctor or a family that could/would support him. He was sick, but nobody was there to help him. He was sick, he needed help, but he wasn’t able to get it.

Addendum (modified):

In 2018, the Toronto Public Library hired a single social worker to help with homelessness (read the article in the Toronto Star).

Sure, homelessness is most often a result of mental illness, but mental illness spans multiple demographics, not just downtown Toronto, and everyone needs help.

In the communities outside of the downtown core, we still see people, using their public libraries as shelter, but there just aren’t as many visible examples as there are at Yonge & Bloor. Many may not even be homeless, but escaping their homes where they’re subject to judgement, abuse and misunderstanding.
Shouldn’t the library provide a safe space for them?

The Toronto Public Library has made efforts to accommodate those with physical accessibility issues, but, as my story illustrates, those with mental illness are banished.

In addition to a social worker who deals with homelessness, maybe the Library can consider a psychologist to find ways to accommodate those with mental illness through accessibility and staff training.

Here’s their statement of Commitment & Policy, as it is listed on their website (full text here):

Toronto Public Library is committed to providing equitable access to library service that meets the changing needs of all Torontonians including persons with disabilities in a welcoming and supportive environment. The Library will develop and support a work and service environment where the needs of persons with disabilities are addressed in accordance with the principles of dignity, independence and integration. Toronto Public Library will meet or exceed the standards set by the AODA and its regulations.

Where’s the dignity for the man kicked out of the library?
Better staff training is required.

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