I’ve been staying in a local hostel off and on for a few weeks, and occasionally chatted to a guy that seemed to drift in and out of the place. He stood out a bit as he was not only a local, but had his own place nearby, as he said, up on the hill. He was amiable, and had a job, so his presence there made no sense. If you have your own place, why stay in a hostel?
The other night we shared some wine and he told me his story, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. We got talking about my project on Fairytale of New York – see earlier blogs if you haven’t already – He had been married for many years, and most of the time he and his wife didn’t get on too well, but on Christmas Day they never fought. It was his happiest day of the year, which seemed strange to him, so we discussed what was really happening in the song.
But then he told me how they split up, he moved into a flat that had a lot of noise. He was working night shifts so the noise of people chatting on a bus stop outside his window disturbed him, and there was other stuff, so he started to go mad – here we were into territory I thought I could recognise. But no.
He completely lost me with his story of how a black mass started talking to him whenever he tried to sleep. It told him it was the Holy Father, and told him to kill himself and a lot of terrible things he would not tell me. I thought he was talking about some religious ritual, but he meant a big black blob thing that scared him out of his wits.
He was institutionalised for some time, and was repeatedly told that he was suffering from sleep deprivation, not that he was being told things by a big black blobby thing. They gave him drugs that were supposed to stop this thing, but they made no difference. He told me he could see it and hear it when talking to other people. They could not see or hear it, but he knew it was there, and it was as real as the chair he was sitting on.
I asked him what the voice sounded like, and he said it had no accent, no intonation etc, so was akin to what we know as our ‘inner voice’. So here we have an example of two inner voices – the normal day to day ticking over, you must remember to take out the garbage voice, and another one intent on doing him harm.
That’s why he goes to the hostel. He doesn’t feel safe being on his own. The staff there are fine about him coming and going. Sometimes he has a bit to drink and nods off on the sofa. Sometimes he books in for a bed for the night, sometimes he goes home. He is still holding down a job, and this is his way of coping with what is, on the surface, a severe mental illness. It is an illness that the system has failed to deal with, but he has, like many of us, found his own way of coping with, if not a cure.
This sounds like an example of what the professionals call ‘distraction’, but I would dispute this. Distraction is reading a book, watching a video, going for a run. This man is seeking out company. He is seeking out other people, other voices. He is seeking confirmation that there is a real world out there which is an alternative to the fear he has within his head.
This is not distraction, as distraction is only a temporary thing. He is rebuilding his life. He is establishing a sense of normality outside of his head. He is finding a way to fix what the system cannot fix. He seems to be an amiable drunk, but I think he is one of the cleverest people I have ever met. His example shows that housing is a real problem.
He repeatedly said he cannot just go home from work and spend every evening on his own. That is when the scary stuff happens. Maybe he needs to join a club, get some hobbies, but he just needs someone to talk to. Not to dump his problems on, just to talk, like a normal human being.
There used to be places for people like him – they were called streets, they were communities, where people knew their neighbours, they nodded to them in the street, they noticed if they hadn’t been around for a while.
Much is made of how the most popular places to live are where there are public parks. It is assumed that this is due to the access to fresh air and exercise. I would argue that parks are that, but they are also places where people socialise, where strangers can nod to each other, chat about the weather, where connections can be built without commitments. If you have enough of these links, you have a social life, albeit a limited one. It is a beginning, a glimmer of light in the darkness. You have the hope of an antidote to black masses.