by Cat Jones
“Yeh, that’s right. You must be CRAZY. You must be MENTAL.”
These were the words that greeted me as I slid into the booth at the Hungry Tiger. I was so unprepared for them.
I travel with a service dog. Her name is Buddha. Like many people with service dogs, I often feel really conspicuous in public. In my case, I would anyway, because the reason I need a service dog is that I was born with a terrible, terrible anxiety disorder and one of its symptoms is extreme social terror. It is what it is. I deal with it. Mine is an invisible disability, and Buddha is very small. So I get a lot of crap about her, people often expressing skepticism that she is a “real” service dog. (People have a lot of mistaken ideas about that – thinking only a seeing eye dog, or only a shepherd or a lab count. Those people should do their homework before expounding on the issue to me and Buddha or any of the other thousands of people who have service dogs.)
The emotional assault on this day was delivered to me by a woman standing across the room, just finishing and preparing to leave the restaurant. She was at a table with four other people and all of them sneered at me and snickered their approval of her loud remark. It was truly hard to believe. It was even more unfortunate because it happened at a very difficult time for me. My mate, the love of my life, had just died a month before. It is a loss so devastating to me that I don’t think I will ever recover. And the wound was still so raw at that moment that I had been having a very hard time convincing myself just to live through another day. So I had taken to coming to the hungry Tiger with Buddha for lunch and a pint or two on weekends, just to have something to look forward to. (We started coming here after new staff at Vita Cafe – another vegan restaurant in town, the one we used to go to, – had suddenly and inexplicably made a scene about “The Dog” after years of eating there. It really is a pain in the ass having to educate everyone in the world about this everywhere I go.)
Once we’ve dealt with the initial tense explanations and found a place that feels accepting, it’s just so much easier to keep going back there than to have to go through it all again every time we go out. Thus, our Sunday ritual at Hungry Tiger. We grab a free newspaper, or bring a drawing pad, and Buddha and I slide into a cozy booth and make an afternoon of it. It had become one of the only enjoyable things left in my life, and on that day I had been especially in need of comfort.
And so, this woman’s outburst left me feeling skewered in the middle of
Sanctuary. It was so hurtful and invasive that, for a moment I just sat there in astonishment unable to believe it. As they all began filing toward the door, the woman made her loud point again by saying, “You heard me. You must be mental, you fucking freak. Dogs belong outside.” Then both she and one of the men with her made circle gestures with their fingers around their ears. Usually I wouldn’t take crap like that from anyone. But at the time I was so unprepared that I could only mumble back that she is a service dog. “Yeh, because you’re MENTAL,” she said. And that’s about when she reached the door and I reached my limit. As if I actually needed these playground bullies to tell me I have a mental health disorder. Christ. Unbelievable. I rose up out of that booth like a volcano. She was already out the door and I was after her. The big shit head with her who had made the ‘crazy’ gesture put out his big, white, doughy hand and shoved it toward my chest to stop me, and made the utterly unbelievable command, “Mind your own business, freak.”
God, I had just been minding my own business, sitting down to lunch, actually feeling almost pain free for the first time in days, when these complete strangers accosted me from across the room with their ignorant hate speech. And he’s telling me to mind my own business?! Maybe it was either the fact that there were more of them than there was of me or the fact that I imagined being arrested for doing so, that prevented me from dropping this guy to his knees with a crotch kick and then climbing over the top of him to tear out the loud woman’s larynyx and hand it to her. But I think it was just exhaustion. So instead, all I could do was ridiculously insist, “No! She just called me crazy!” Then I pushed past him to spatter her with a liquid spray of burning words… over the heads of other people who were sitting at outside tables and who hadn’t been privy to any of what happened inside.
The man loudly pronounced, “See? Your reaction proves you’re crazy.”
I wanted so desperately to make them understand the biting cruelty behind their words. I wanted everyone to. I wanted, stupidly perhaps, to scream at them that of course I’m ‘mental,’ you idiots, why do you think I have the dog?! I guess I wanted mercy. But I could clearly see, in that moment of decision between predator and prey, that these humans were not interested in enlightenment on that point. And, just to be very, very clear; I’m no one’s prey.
So as my arms fell to my sides and the ground shifted beneath us, I felt my eyes lock into his and I said very evenly, “That’s right you asshole. I’m fucking crazy.” Unblinking pause, head inclining forward confidentally, I felt my lips curl back from jagged ivory in a slowly widening grin. And then in a low voice, “And I’m armed.”
The confident sneers broke almost imperceptibly at first, and then gushed away in the torrent that comes with the icy thaw that goes all the way to ground. The bitter snickers were immediately and thunderously replaced by variations of the naked and idiotic grin that is the hallmark of our species when we are politely handed our ass but we still don’t want to admit that we can’t stand our ground. It’s a faltering expression that is as ancient as the trees we climbed out of and the dreams we have of falling, and we primates never can hide it very well.
They puffed out a few more awkwardly blustering comments and then crumbled into the distance.
The secret social vampire in my soul tasted blood. It’s not like I was actually armed, right then, with anything more formidable than a (fairly formidible!) Irish temper, but stigma and stereotypes around mental illness are so severe that people think it makes those of us who are deemed “crazy” dangerous. These people were willing to fuck with me for no reason, but the moment I played into their stereotypes, they were scared of me. It was a painfully ironic way to “win.”
In fact, while I am a pretty good shot, the truth is that mental illness doesn’t make people dangerous (we’re many times more likely to be victims of violent crime because of our disability than to be perpetrators). All I’d wanted was the same thing anyone wants. I just wanted to sit down and have lunch, without being harassed.
Oh. Although I wasn’t armed, right then, I might have been….
That’s me in these photos. This is what I was doing shortly before this encounter. See? You just never know who you might be fucking with. Pathological anxiety might be a bitch, but it doesn’t make me a shrinking violet.
There is such a thing as having a disorder without being impaired by it.
I just want to add that, when I got back inside, I shakily apologized to a guy sitting at another table. “No, man. What was their problem?” He said supportively. The two waitresses both came to my table to offer comforting words. I can hold my own when I need to, but that cruel intrusion had taken a lot out of me. I wasn’t hungry any more, and was close to tears. I might never have gone back, but the workers there were so freaking awesome. They get an A+ for knowing how to treat people with respect. Same goes for the workers over at the Red & Black – friends and allies whom I called right after the incident when it looked like the hate brigade was heading their way from the Hungry Tiger. The folks over at R&B listened to the story of what just happened, along with a description of the people who had done this. They agreed that the emotional assault was hate speech, and assured me they would not serve those shit heads there. Ah. Solidarity.