The neighbor came to our door in tears, barely coherent, disheveled, frantic. Something terrible had happened, but it took us a long time to figure out what it was. Primarily it was a domestic thing – trouble with a parent, trouble with a brother – but with other, lesser problems wrapped up in the mix.
We had lived on the street for five years. In that time we had probably never before exchanged more than a few lines of dialogue with the neighbor. If the sum total of our conversations had been a sitcom script there would have been a disagreement about where we put our garbage cans and a few “hello”s or nods of the head and that would have been it. No producer would have accepted that or spent the money filming it unless there was an overwhelming need for a montage.
Yet without warning the neighbor was there, in our living room, sobbing and overwhelmed.
We spent twelve hours with the neighbor that day. It was exhausting. It was stressful. It was just the beginning.
The neighbor returned the next day. And the next. It suddenly became a “most days” sort of thing. Someone we had barely said a word to in five years suddenly became a person who would spend hours in our living room trying to sort paperwork or complaining about their brother, or lamenting their mother or reminiscing about their past – or just crying. Our lives rapidly became sucked into a whirlpool of computer problems, money, familial relationships, lost love, and a Driver’s License suspension.
And mental health issues.
The neighbor was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety attacks. The neighbor’s explanation of their problems was often long, rambling and would jump from one topic to an entirely different one in the course of a single sentence. Sometimes there would be an interruption in the narrative when the neighbor broke down in tears or drifted off to the oranges we had in the living room or our cats. When this happened it would often taken five minutes or more to direct the conversation back to the original topic.
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
There are four basic types of bipolar disorder; all of them involve clear changes in mood, energy, and activity levels. These moods range from periods of extremely “up,” elated, and energized behavior (known as manic episodes) to very sad, “down,” or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes). Less severe manic periods are known as hypomanic episodes.
Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. You might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The feelings can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships. There are several different types of anxiety disorders. Examples include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
We tried to help. Honest to God, we aren’t monsters. We took the neighbor to doctor’s appointments. We took the neighbor to appointments with the DMV to try to get their license back. We took the neighbor to pick up prescriptions from their psychiatrist. We tried to sort out all the paperwork from the DMV. We tried to figure out how to get the neighbor help from the county. It was exhausting, confusing, trying, and took up hours of our day – often leaving us so frazzled and stressed and mentally exhausted at the end that we couldn’t get much done for the remainder of the day.
Our original plan was to deal with the neighbor together – I felt uncomfortable being with them by myself (particularly after the time they came over without underwear). But the sheer scope of the assistance the neighbor needed and the sheer amount of time required to decipher their needs and wants from the tangents and the tears soon made this impossible to do. Instead we started taking turns so that at least one of us could get on with our day to the extent possible with a near stranger weeping and sometimes shouting in our living room.
The neighbor was getting worse.
We called the police twice because of potential domestic violence between the neighbor and their brother. The police were mildly interested, but would do nothing because they did not actually witness the abuse. Once it was because she had reported an incident to us – but apparently did not give the same story to the police. Once my wife heard screaming and shouting from across the street and the sound of things crashing around, but again the police did nothing. They didn’t see it, and the neighbor obviously made a terrible witness.
The neighbor started talking about taking an overdose of medication and checking out.
At first it was general statements: “I wonder what would happen if…”, “I have a lot of pills around the house”, “I don’t think anyone would miss me”. But over time the threats got more specific – “I could go home and…”, “no one would care if I…”, “Sixty pills ought to do it, right?” We were already feeling anxious, and there seemed to be a trajectory to the neighbor’s behavior. But we could never quite narrow it down to anything specific enough to feel like it was a credible enough threat to call the police about it – we’d already had them out twice and nothing had come of it, and we were worried that if we kept calling we’d get a “chicken little” reputation.
I got the neighbor to promise that before they did anything they would talk to me first. Even when I said it I knew it would be trouble. It was a license to call at all times of the day or night. And this was already a problem. It was also admittedly a CYA maneuver on my part, so that if and when the police and coroner showed up to haul a body out of the house across the street I could say “well, I tried! I offered to help! If ONLY they had talked to me!” I didn’t feel particularly proud of it.
Predictably, things escalated from there. The neighbor started calling at 10:30 at night, or knocking on the door at 7:30 am. They became less inclined to talk to my wife (who in turn was becoming less and less inclined to talk to the neighbor) and more inclined to talk to me. And the thing they started being more inclined to talk to me about was past lovers.
I started becoming really alarmed.
We stopped answering the door sometimes and started screening the neighbor’s calls. More often than not these calls and visits had nothing to do with a concrete problem that we could help with, and simply involved the neighbor wanting to talk. We sympathized – they were obviously lonely and had little outside contact – but their condition had progressed to the point that they could talk literally for hours without pause, jumping from topic to topic and from emotion to emotion with bewildering frequency and often digressing to topics for which there was no useful response possible, and after a full day or at the beginning of the morning before coffee and breakfast it became simply impossible for us to deal with.
So when the neighbor came over one night while we were on a conference call, my wife told her I was unavailable at the moment and would call when we were finished with out conference call. Which I did.
The neighbor had many pills in the house, and was considering taking them. The neighbor was also clearly mad at me for not coming to the door. We had an awkward conversation for about ten minutes in which I was told repeatedly that “nothing was wrong” and that the neighbor didn’t want to talk anymore, and that the neighbor had lots of pills of various sorts and that clearly nobody gave a damn whether the neighbor lived or died. The neighbor forced me be proactive, to ask questions about the pills and whether any had been taken and whether any would be taken. The neighbor would then answer flippantly “Oh NO! I haven’t TAKEN any PILLS! I’m JUST FINE! EVERYTHING is GOOD!” I hung up eventually and made dinner and thought.
Then I called the police non-emergency number. Of course it did no good. An officer came and apparently talked to the neighbor for a few minutes, and once again did nothing. My wife and I both found the situation very frustrating. It was clear to both of us that the neighbor was gradually escalating. Vague hints were now turning into vague threats that were turning into more specific threats. But what could the police do? The neighbor had not actually taken any pills or tried in any visible way to commit suicide.
So now we wait. Every day we sit at home, trying to work, trying to write, trying not to hide in our own home. Trying to be helpful to someone who is clearly in trouble, but not enough trouble to attract the notice of the powers that can actually do something to help. We recently took the neighbor to the DMV to meet with a hearing officer about the license suspension (so far as we could tell from what the neighbor said afterwards the interview was probably pretty horrible and did not result in their getting the license reinstated) and last night I noticed the neighbor’s car out of the driveway and spotted the neighbor driving it later in the evening. Its pretty obvious right now that if things continue as they are going, there is going to be a massive emotional and possibly physical train wreck in the future. And we’re going to get caught up in it because we got involved.
I like to think of myself as a good person. I certainly think of my wife as a good person. I don’t know quite what that means here though. How far do we allow ourselves to be carried into this situation? When does it stop being a situation where we are helpers, and start being a situation where we are enablers, or worse, victims?
On the other hand, if we did not get involved, do not stay involved, are we the sort of people we want to be? If one of us was alone, in pain, troubled, would we not hope for, pray for a kindly stranger to offer aid and assistance? Is not our very living situation currently an example of someone doing for us what our neighbor needs us to do for them?
There are no easy answers here. It seems that there never are when issues of mental health in the community come up. For now we must take it day by day, offering what help we can because that’s what neighbors should do, limiting our activities and exposure as we must to keep from being damaged ourselves, and waiting for any potential opportunity to get some authority higher than “neighbor” involved. It’s difficult and stressful and tiring, but its the better thing to do.