I volunteer at an organization with a very busy retail store, lots of activity, and tight quarters.
I have been a volunteer there for over three years and worked with this individual on an infrequent basis over that time.
This weekend, I evidently touched him on his back (probably travelling behind him and not wanting to be stepped on) and it resulted in him approaching me and telling me that my behavior made him uncomfortable.
As it was an unconscious or unintentional touch, at first I had no idea what he was talking about. He said there was another incident where I touched him to look at his sleeve tattoo, which I don't remember and assume was a while ago.
Generally, while volunteering I am pretty reserved and heads down with my work but occasionally the environment creates an atmosphere for teasing or joking (all very above board silliness, nothing off-color).
I was very upset by this confrontation, not sure what he was insinuating and really not sure why something as simple as a touch while passing someone would send someone in to confrontational mode.
I talked a bit to the manager of the store who told me this gentleman is the most sensitive man she knows, and she knows she can't do something as simple as teasing him about anything.
In hindsight, he is very monotone, does not show any facial emotion, talks about experiencing insomnia, and generally keeps to himself. There have been instances where he has invaded my personal space, and as he sometimes has overpowering b.o., its not pleasant but generally I try to be friendly and approachable.
After thinking a lot about things and doing a little research, it occurs to me that he might be schizophrenic. I know he was unemployed for a long time, but on some type of disability (or at least I assume he was due to the length of time, etc). In hindsight, I can see something about him, to me, has always been "off" or different, but I thought it was just his personality.
Trying to resolve this situation within myself, and not have it negatively impact my volunteering (its a three hour weekly committment), has generated some questions.
1. Could this man be schizophrenic?
2. Since his condition was not disclosed, how should I treat it while being empathetic? His confrontation creates a lot of awkwardness for me and makes me now uncomfortable.
3. In cases of a difference of perception, where someone's reaction to something seems overblown how is it possible to modify my own behavior to avoid future confrontations? I don't want to overcompensate by completely cold-shouldering but then again I found the situation kind of scary.
I want to be sensitive, but without full disclosure its really difficult. Its hard to be accomodating when someone has unpredictable reactions to a seemingly normal situation. Unfortunately, the environment is such that not bumping in to each other is virtually impossible. However, if he does suffer from schizophrenia, I don't want to fuel any fears or perceptions of persecution, etc.
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