Time eats memories.
I recall the circumstances and the events, but I can’t place her name. Darren and I were living in our first house together, in Jesmond, Newcastle. It was a big, old and ugly place. The landlord had divided it in two by sealing off a central doorway; we lived at the front of the house, and a quiet, standoffish girl lived in the back. Despite sharing the same roof and several walls, we never spoke.
We lived in that arrangement for over 18 months, with only one break in the routine of avoiding each other.
That time she had a mental breakdown.
I’ll call her Jane. The room we had that shared a wall with her side of the house was our lounge-room, so it wasn’t until a friend was staying with us over an Easter weekend that we discovered something was wrong. “Your neighbour, she’s really noisy”, he said the first morning. His own sister suffered from a form of brain damage, so he spoke with some experience when he said “She doesn’t sound normal.”
Easter went and with it, our friend, but we became aware of the increasing noise coming out of Jane’s side of the house. Pots clanging at all hours, cupboard doors slamming open and shut repeatedly, and the loud talking to herself. Not just talking. Shouting. Screaming. Cackling.
Eventually we were left with no choice but to call in the mental health authorities. The noises coming from her side of the house were not sane, and the few times either us or a friend had spotted her outside she would either be sobbing or manic, but never any more communicative.
I still can’t remember her name, but I remember when the mental health workers arrived and started talking to her, hearing her forcefully shout back at them, “You can’t prove people need to eat!” Time doesn’t eat whole memories, just selectively nibbles away at them, so I can even remember we were watching a documentary about avalanches and skiing mishaps during that visit. Her name? Still blank.
After a while, the mental health crisis team went away, but came back later with the police, and took her for help and treatment. She came back a couple of nights later, and when we called the team, it turned out to have not been with their consent, so they came back and got her.
The next day, her case worker came and visited and explained she’d be away for a while, but was worried about her cat, which had got out when they were taking her. Her recovery would be improved if she knew the cat was being looked after, so we agreed to keep an eye out for it, let them know when it came back, then look after it while she was gone.
Within a day or two the cat turned up and we got hold of her keys so we could keep the cat inside.
Mental health is often portrayed in clichéd terms in movies, but there’s often a kernel of truth to clichés. Her half of the house was like a scene from a horror movie. Messy, papers everywhere, an entire wall covered with gibberish scrawlings. An empty pantry, save for half a bag of rice and some cat food. An empty fridge. No furniture other than a tiny table with one chair in the kitchen, and a deflated air mattress with a sheet and a thin blanket.
It had been a cold autumn, she had no heating, sleeping effectively on the floor with no protection from the cold, with no food. No wonder she’d had a breakdown. Anyone would have.
As the weeks passed, her case worker filled us in on the barest essentials. Oddly enough, as the people who had arranged intervention for her, we were effectively closest to her. She’d had some major argument with her step father, and her family had cut her off. Without funds, she was spending all her money on rent, with nothing left for herself.
We couldn’t let her come back to to nothing. The house we were renting had a full suite of furnishings occupying the garage that we had access to as part of our agreement, so we moved a bed into her rooms. Darren’s mother, ever the seamstress, came in one day with dozens of sheets, pillows, blankets and curtains. We had an old TV we weren’t using, so that went in, too. Cutlery, crockery and a bunch of non-perishable food populated her kitchen again. We may have even found an old lounge for her – I can’t recall.
Eventually she was better enough to be released, and her mother had agreed to help her financially again.
We barely spoke even after she came back – she was still largely reclusive, and there was equally that uncertainty that comes from sharing such situations. It was like we’d all glimpsed each other naked and were too embarrassed to talk about it. Except one time. She’d been walking past when we were outside, then abruptly turned and said “Thankyou. For everything. The voices have gone away now and I feel a lot better. I’m painting the walls. The landlord said I could say if I did and my case worker said it would be good for me to do it.” She had such a soft voice.
And from our lounge room, we’d hear her TV, hear her laughing, normally.
But I still don’t remember her name.