Posted on | May 20, 2012 | 3 Comments
I go to a place called Hadleys because they treat their customers like family. If you knew me from Halifax, I got my hallmark cards from a place called Spartan where a few Greek ladies saved the city with rice pudding and breakfast specials. They showed me that you could live small and have a huge impact. That by loving your work you could make a place that meant something. For 50 years they were Halifax. To me Hadley’s is Toronto. It’s a year old and is the dream of a young couple on their way to making Toronto their bitch. When I am feeling a little lonely I go in to eat ribs and talk to good people.
On Friday, I eat fried chicken and I am talking to a customer that became my friend.
Then she says, “I pulled a Mike Kimber today.”
“How so?” I ask.
Does she mean she was walking and reading, saying offensive things to strangers, or over sharing with the general public?
“I saved a suicidal person from killing themselves.”
“That’s always fun,” I reply. “What happened?”
“This woman on the street car was really out of it,” she says, her voice filled with that strange gallows humor you have when you are talking about something so sad you have to make it into a joke to survive. Like you are waiting for the punch line and know it’s going to knock the wind out of you. “Like banging her head into the window. Pretty clearly having a psychotic break and you could just tell she was in a horrible place. Everyone was sort of looking at her like she was being impolite. Like they wanted to tell her to shut the fuck up. I called the cops. They had to stop the train.”
“We are Canadians. It’s more important to be polite than care.”
“I just can’t stand people checking their watches and whispering to each other as someone loses their mind. So I had to do something. It’s strange to think that someone could lose their life and all they are thinking about is a delay in their travel time. Is the world really going to end if you don’t get your lattee?”
I think about my own time on the subways. I always sit as far away from the tracks as I can. I have no desire to jump, but a fear that I’ll trip or be pushed. That the city will eat me alive.
There is a strange orderly sense of shut the fuck up and pay attention to advertisements that goes with the TTC. The beating robotic heart of the lonely city, where for a moment we are with strangers on the way to see our friends, the TTC is a place where you pretend you are somewhere else until you are.
We have all dealt with subway delays and medical emergencies and checked our watch and twitched with anticipation of elsewhere.
We forget what those words mean.
That every day someone jumps into Toronto’s robotic heart, hoping to leave their pain, as we race to get somewhere, to get away from the loneliness that stalks us in coffee shops, in our bedrooms, that steals our morals and breaks relationships, that lives in our hearts and minds, that loneliness that feeds us into drugs and alcohol just to chill the distance between ourselves and the universe that is mostly filled with empty space and howling static.
My friend picked up the phone and stopped the trains.
And as my friend tried to save a life, the city checked their watches and looked at the floor. An old lady texted her grandchildren to report the crazy lady was speaking in tongues. You know tongues, where all your words become teeth that bite and bloody your lips for the lack of sense they make. The babbling gibberish that makes us look away.
We all fear madness.
We look away fearing we are looking into the panic that lives in each and every one of us. That there is no real way of communicating. That the tower of Babel is our everyday existence. That we unable to deal with a world where everyone speaks a different language and rarely do the words involve a compassionate leap through time and space, sanity and pain, to grasp a stranger and keep them from leaving us all behind. That as the Apocaylpse takes us, we will be reading advertisements and pretending we are elsewhere.
I often talk about the sadness that lies at the heart of mental illness. Of the terrible war we fight and the compassion for others and ourselves that provides our only chance of living in this world.
I rarely talk about the glorious leaps our madness allows us. I rarely talk about the gift of empathy we receive from our struggles.
We have been at war and we have survived to live moments of earth shattering beauty and joy. We have felt the sun on our faces and we have stared into the shrieking abyss and found the courage to smile and laugh. That we know what the air tastes like when you spend what feels like a lifetime drowning.
As the lady spoke in tongues, a man covered in tattoos spoke to her like a child. As he laid his hands on her arms to stop the shaking and screaming, he looked into her eyes and saw himself. He remembered the days he had spent in the institution. He talked to her like a child until she could hear him.
Next to him my friend was on the phone, her heart punching her from the inside. Remembering the days when her legs gave out from lithium poisoning, refusing to do anything other than stand beside a stranger.
The cops came and took her away.
Now she is in my favorite restaurant as I eat chicken like a barbarian. Telling me how she pulled a Mike Kimber.
“I feel terrible,” she says. “When you are like that it’s pretty difficult to come back. They will probably keep her for a couple weeks. Sometimes that’s all you need. It hurts seeing someone like that.”
“Part of the art of pulling a Mike Kimber is realizing you can’t save someone. You can keep them safe once or twice but it’s not up to you to save the world. You gave what you could and it was a lot. I’m glad you were there.”
“Everyone was checking their phones. Commented about how they didn’t need this shit. You really see the stigma. How angry everyone was that she was getting in the way.”
I can see that she is feeling that strange heartbreak where mental illness takes away all your shields and you can see inside the torture that people live everyday of their lives. And she cared. More than was sane, more than was normal.
She had been to war and knew what it was like to lose her mind. She knew that sometimes, if you are lucky, you get it back. So she stared into her worst fears and embraced the woman. And for now, saved a life.
For all mental illness takes away, it gives something back. The ability to see the war we all live in. To be a waterbearer in hell and give people a little something to live for. It was my friend and a tattooed man who comforted the woman until the cops came. Both of them had been in and out of the mental health system and learned to live. They could tell her that things get better.
As madness saved it’s own, Toronto checked it’s watch and bitched that it would be late for lattes and martinis and wished it could take a bullet train home to safety and sanity.
The one thing that insanity makes clear is the war that we all fight.
The most beautiful thing it gives us is the courage to run through the shrapnel and subway systems chasing a dream. That we leave no man or woman behind. That we have been alone and been saved by love. That we know the darkness passes, as the world checks their watches and time carries on.
The people with the courage to look madness in the face and find something to love, have stared at the mirror and gone to war. The best mental health workers have lost their mind and found it. The person who will save you needed to be saved themselves.
We can save each other.
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