A few of weeks ago, I was walking home after dinner with a friend when I heard someone crying. I carried on walking but something made me stop in my tracks. I stood still, listening to this person weeping their heart out and felt compelled to go back; they might be hurt and in need of an ambulance. I reached the top of a front garden path and saw someone lying on the front step in the gloom, I could just about make out that this person was female.
“Are you ok?” I called from the pavement.
She sat up and I saw the face of a teenage girl, makeup streaming down her cheeks, face puffy and red from sobbing.
“My boyfriend just broke up with me.” She whimpered.
“Ah hun, I’ve been there.”
I walked down the path, took a seat next to her on the front porch and she told me about her life in a desperate stream of consciousness. When I realised how young she was, I felt it was my responsibility to calm her down enough so she would go into her house. She didn’t want to go in because she’d been rowing with her mum. I would have felt terrible if something had happened to her; she was pretty wasted and very vulnerable. It wouldn’t be right to reveal the details of what she said, but she was managing a recent diagnosis of a mental illness, along with a difficult family situation. Although the circumstances of her life were very different to mine when I was at her age, I could relate to everything she said. I vividly remember the feeling of being completely overwhelmed with emotions I didn’t understand and without the sufficient experience to manage the pain. In recent years, even when I’ve been at my most unwell and grief stricken, I don’t feel that desperation I did when I was too young to know that the acute distress was temporary. Meeting that sad, frightened girl on the doorstep was like bumping into my teenage-self; she even looked a bit like I did at her age. I had the chance to say all the things I wish someone had said to me. I had plenty of people who loved and supported me when I was young; my parents were very caring and I had a great circle of friends, but none of them had dealt with the symptoms I was exhibiting.
I didn’t tell her that everything would be ok; meaningless platitudes were not what she needed. Insisting that she look on the bright side, that there were plenty more fish in the sea that she had her whole life ahead of her would not be helpful. She needed someone to say I see your pain and I know how much it hurts. I hear your words and I understand how hopeless you feel. It’s not ok that you’re going through such a lot of shit and your young heart is so broken. But you my love, you are not broken. You don’t have to feel ashamed for struggling. You don’t have to feel guilty for being imperfect and vulnerable. This anguish will lift and one day you will look back and realise how much you learnt. Your future-self will thank you for persevering, for getting through this terrible night because you will survive and become strong.
In some ways, this young woman was lucky to have an early diagnosis – at least she will understand that some of her feelings and behaviours are symptoms of a mental illness. I was diagnosed with bipolar when I was 30 and I had years of wildly undulating highs and lows, which I worsened and intensified with alcohol and other self-destructive behaviours. She was wracked with self-loathing and felt judged and misunderstood by people around her. She would not feel ashamed if she’d be diagnosed with epilepsy or asthma; social stigma is still so potent and palpable, even when the conversation around mental health has opened up exponentially. When I said that I have bipolar she looked at me, eyes wide and fretful and asked ‘How do you do it? How do you have a husband and a kid and keep your life together when you have bipolar?’ I told her that I seek help when I need it, that I take my meds and I do my best to look after myself. I tried to reassure her that having a mental illness is not a failure. Yes, it means that you have to employ good self-care and you have to consider your decisions a little more carefully than your peers. You may expereince life’s ups and downs with more emotional velocity than others. There will be times when you react to things in ways that don’t quite make sense. It is a burden that you will have to carry with you for the rest of your life, but it is no reason to give up. You have no choice but pick up that load and walk with it, accept and embrace it. You’ll find your own way to manage your illness and create a life for yourself that is productive and fulfilling and even, dare I say it, happy.
Despite my best efforts, she was still distressed and I realised I needed to give her something simple to focus on.
‘You’re trying to find solutions to a bunch of problems that are too big to deal with right now. You’ve had a really bad night so now is not the time. All you need to do for the rest of today is to go upstairs and go to bed. That’s it, that’s all you need to do.’
This seemed to do the trick and she finally calmed down. She stood up, swayed slightly and then was promptly sick all over her mum’s geraniums. She fished her keys out of her handbag and stumbled into her house. I said goodnight and walked home. Although I was sorry to see someone so young with the weight of the world on her shoulders, I was grateful that I’d had the opportunity to help her. She didn’t have to open up to me, she could have told me to go away, which would have been quite understandable. Although I felt that I’d done my good deed for the day, rather more selfishly, I realised that I’d healed something within me. I don’t know how helpful I was really, but at the very least I persuaded her to go inside, rather than lying supine on the doorstep. Since that night I’ve seen her a few times around the neighbourhood; I’d like to stop and ask her if she’s ok but I don’t think she remembers me, which is probably for the best.