From time to time, I look over my shoulder. Along with years, experience and memories, I have accrued mistakes and sometimes those errors have been associating with people I shouldn’t have. As a result, I find that it’s best to check if someone is sneaking up behind me, just in case they’re ready to deliver a nasty surprise.
Nearly 8 years ago, I got to know a young woman from Australia. We met on a politics forum: I thought she was sharp, witty, and funny, if a bit rough around the edges. For some reason she liked me too and we proceeded to become better acquainted. We even wrote a humorous piece together which compared John Kerry’s salute at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to the one used by Arnold Rimmer from “Red Dwarf”. However, it didn’t take long for the lustre of fresh companionship to fade: after a trip to the dentist for a root canal, she was less than coherent. Her conversation was full of trailing off sentences, as if her thoughts were ascending into the ether before she could get them out. I assumed it was due to a bad reaction to the novacaine.
“No,” she replied, “I took something for the pain.”
“Good grief,” I said, “what did you take?”
Worse was to follow: I had previously encountered people with bipolar disorder, but in her case the condition was particularly pronounced. She had manic highs that required a metaphorical spatula to scrape her off the ceiling: the future was full of endless technicolour possibilities and the achievement of pristine dreams. Yes, she was certain, it was all going to happen, and she’d carry with her a glow of success as radiant as a garden path bathed in Antipodean sunshine.
Her contrasting lows were spent in the blackest pits of despair. There was no hope, she was getting older, she was losing her hair and teeth and gaining weight, she saw ugliness whenever she looked into the mirror, she was hopelessly unemployed, and life had no meaning. I can only assume that her dependence on illegal narcotics made her condition more acute. Furthermore, anyone who was within her gravitational pull: family, friends, even mere acquaintances were sucked into the vortex with her. It got so wrenching that I finally broke off relations; her reaction was extreme. She knew where I worked and repeatedly phoned my office: it was humiliating, but I was eventually forced to explain the situation to the telephone operator, who kindly assisted me. It didn’t let up: she kept on phoning my home phone to the point where I had to unplug it from the wall. She left messages every single time she called: some were pleading, often she issued threats, occasionally she was lost in a narcotic haze. I could not go online: I pulled up every virtual drawbridge in the hopes that if I didn’t put any energy into the situation, somehow it would burn itself out. But she persisted: I tried contacting her family, which wasn’t helpful. I eventually called the police in her municipality. They were less than thrilled, but sounded unsurprised. I can only assume that I wasn’t the first who’d had this problem; they said they would speak to her but it didn’t stop. I remember lying in bed awake waiting for dawn to come. In the darkness, I could see the outline of my phone sitting on the night table: the cord had been yanked out of the wall, it was silent. Nevertheless, I wondered how safe I was. Was she so angry that she would try to hurt me? Would she have the resources to get on a plane? Could she find where I lived? Would this ever end? I eventually resolved matters by changing jobs and moving home: I recall being in my new apartment, with its laminate floors and serene cream coloured walls and reflecting on the silence. I subsequently tried to purge myself of the experience by composing a horror story which contained elements of this episode: it didn’t achieve its desired intent, though it added to my writing portfolio. It took a long while before I re-emerged onto the internet and I stopped being jumpy whenever I heard the phone ring. Up until fairly recently, I regarded the telephone as somewhat menacing. I still harbour an irrational dislike of it.
Years after this incident, I occasionally looked over my shoulder, mostly by utilising Google. When any particular bit of good fortune descended, I’d do a quick check just to make sure that my happiness was secure. Now is a golden spring of sweet content. I have landed at the end of my rainbow in Yorkshire: I have a warm home, I have found someone with whom I could share my life, employment that suits me and even two wonderful cats. Yet the instinct to preserve means I cannot be entirely free from fear, so I cast a glance backwards. I had read at one point that she had gotten married, which I thought was good, as wedded bliss would surely be the best form of distraction. However, I just found out she died, in the words of the obituary, “suddenly at home”. I assume that narcotics were either directly or indirectly responsible.
I don’t feel relieved. There is little to be said for such a sad, short life, except that I hope she’s at peace wherever she is. She had suffered a plague of torments in life, though many of her tortures were self-inflicted. I feel most for her parents, who must have suffered terribly at seeing their child destroy herself. My mind’s eye averts its gaze from the moment when they discovered she was gone. I look over my shoulder and see the shadow of memory: a passing thought occurs to me, was there more that I could have done? Was there more that anyone could have done?
My recent embrace of Anglicanism provides some solace: scripture suggests that God knows and forgives all, and perhaps released from the shackles of this careworn world, she has found a place in His plan. Yet faith also inspires some guilt: perhaps if I’d been more tolerant, had “not me, but Christ in me” (in the words of St. Paul) been magnified, she might have been steadied by the knowledge at least one person wouldn’t recoil from her. This sense is also enhanced by my time as a union activist and my interest in politics: I’ve long tried to believe that nothing is hopeless.
But this is a gross overestimation of what one person can do: the main lesson I’ve carried from this episode is that some people are beyond redemption. Yes, we can improve society, we can make it fairer, more just and make righteousness our chief virtue. We can alleviate poverty, feed the hungry, roll back the damage that has been done by avarice. We can legalise drugs and make it the public health problem that it so definitely is. We can pour more money into mental health services and pull many out of the midnight of despair. But we won’t save everyone: no matter how much we care or how pure our idealism or how much money we give or how hard we push, the demons that lurk in human souls will always be powerful enough to drag off some into the darkness. Oblivion, for some, will always be preferable to existence. The requiem will sound even in a happy land.
As politicians argue about who is going to be President or what constitutes a Granny Tax or how many bailouts to fund, they may be convinced of their omnipotence. It would be refreshing to hear about their limitations: not the constraints of the public purse, but rather the frontiers of their intelligence and influence. I doubt any well-meaning public policy would have saved the lady in question. I doubt anyone could have. All that is left for the living to do is reflect on how precious life truly is, and for a time, mourn.