October 1st, 2012

Mental health on blue line to Tijuana

Search the Internet for articles about the mentally ill riding trains and buses and you will find stories about people with mental illness behaving badly on commuter or long-distance bus routes and railway lines. One blogger describes fellow riders on Seattle’s Number 70 bus route ranting about government conspiracies. Another tells the story of an agitated man on a Greyhound bus who slapped a cross dressing passenger and then kissed another elderly man. It should come as no surprise that media reports are skewed. Bad news catches the public’s attention. Now that I have yours, here’s a story about one of the good guys.

My wife and I had come to the end of a long and pleasant day playing tourist in San Diego when we boarded a trolley back to our hotel from an outlying area of the city. As is our custom when we travel, we forgo the convenience of taxis for the authenticity of walking and riding public transportation. On that particular day, we had traveled by foot, ferry, bicycle and trolley, etching every bump and bend of our route into the very fiber of our beings. It was getting late and if we didn’t make the trolley that was waiting in the station when we arrived, we would have had a long wait for another. Our chances looked slim as passengers filed onto the sleek red conveyance already humming with the electric buzz of a machine eager to hurl itself down the rails. After assuring ourselves that this was the blue line in the direction of Tijuana and buying tickets from a vending machine, we hopped aboard just in time.

With our triumph tempered only by fatigue, we assumed the self-satisfied expressions of successful urban explorers. Perhaps that expression told the man sitting opposite us that we were kindred spirits, fellow connoisseurs of the rails or maybe he gave the same monologue to anyone within reach of his voice. At any rate, this short, squat man with greasy dark hair, missing teeth and some kind of identification card hanging from a cord around his neck, told us in a raspy monotone about his day riding the bus and the trolley. He was halfway through his second round trip of the day between San Diego and his home in Oceanside, California, a distance of 40 miles each way. He traveled by Greyhound bus and was using the trolley to connect to the main station where he would embark on his return trip. We learned that Greyhound offers a free bus ticket to the destination of your choice if you complete 10 round trips of any length in a calendar year.

This, he told us, is a much better deal than that offered by Amtrak which also gives a free ticket for 10 round trips. On the train, however, your free trip is restricted to the distance covered by rides you took to earn it.

Our traveling companion explained that he used his free bus ticket to visit Denver two years ago. Last year, he did not get a free ticket because, although he completed his tenth round trip before the last day of December, the trip was not credited to his account until after the new year. Lately, he’s been riding the bus less often, staying home instead to watch television now that he has a roommate who insists on buying the premium cable package with hundreds of channels. The cable package wasn’t his idea but he still pays his half of the bill and figures he might as well use what he’s paying for. The roommate wasn’t his idea either but his conservator didn’t trust him to live alone.

At some point our confident travelers’ expressions must have given way to looks of concern when we realized we weren’t sure where to get off the trolley. It was then that our companion broke off his monologue and asked where we were going. He not only told us where we should get off but also explained that our regular stop was closed because of construction.

These days at the hospital where I practice psychology we are hearing a lot about patient-driven treatment plans and recovery goals based on individual strengths and preferences. I wonder how my conversation with our traveling companion would have been different had it occurred on my turf and not his. I know I would have asked what he likes about long distance bus and train travel, what he thinks about as he stares out the window at the passing scenery or engages people like me with the story of his traveling life. Why did his conservator stop trusting him and insist that he have a roommate? Why does he have a conservator in the first place? There is no end to the questions we think we must ask to learn what we consider important about a person.

If I had met this man in the hospital, I hope I would not have been too quick to discourage his love of riding buses, trains and trolleys. The psychologists he did meet in hospitals and clinics have obviously respected his traveling impulse or been defeated in their attempts to cure it. Either way, he won and, as I learned that night on the trolley, so did I.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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