“You don’t understand! They will kill me if they find out! They might be listening to this call right now! You don’t know what they are capable of! They watch me, everywhere! They have cars on the roads, they hide in alleys, they listen to every word and every sound! They cut up my dog!”
She spoke swiftly, in a rush, as if all of her words had to be used before she ran out of time.
“They did! They did! I don’t care what you say! They cut up my dog!” She stopped to sob for a moment, taking several deep breaths as tears flowed down her face. “I don’t know! I can’t un-see it! I don’t know who they are! But they cut up my dog and I can’t ever get him back! It’s my fault!”
I curiously looked around the corner of the hospital waiting room, where the woman was sitting, speaking on a courtesy phone in the lobby. Several people around her were looking distressed as she kept speaking rapidly, every sentence out of her mouth ending in an exasperated exclamation point. People began to move away, not sure what to do or say.
“Listen to me! No, listen! They cut off my food stamps first! They can’t do it, but they did! They said they needed proof of where I live, but then they said they didn’t! They got the proof then said it was never there! They don’t want me alive! They won’t even feed me! And they cut up my do-ah-ah-g!”
She began wailing louder this time, fully histrionic, her gestures getting wilder. She was small, skinny, likely only 30 but looking much older. She wore a baggy black coat, frayed jeans, and a new-looking pair of tennis shoes. Her brown hair fell loose on her shoulders, and she wore no makeup. Her face looked lined, as if she’d had several years of hard drinking and perhaps methamphetamine use. I wondered who she was talking to so frantically.
“My dog, my dog, my dog!” Her voice grew strangely quiet with conspiracy suddenly, and she started to look around frantically. “Listen, I think they are watching now. They’ve been trying to drive me crazy for years. Years! In every different apartment. They’ve watched me, messed with me, tried to kill me.” Then she shouted again. “They tried to poison me! I don’t know what kind of poison, every kind of poison! All of them! Poison!”
The mental health professional in me starting doing an auto-diagnosis. If this woman wasn’t currently high on drugs, she was very likely an untreated paranoid schizophrenic, or was suffering some kind of psychotic break in conjunction with a medical condition. I wondered if there was even anyone on the other side of the phone. I saw a nurse, an employee across the room, dialing a phone for assistance.
Her voice went dangerously low again. “Listen, I don’t have long. They killed my dog. They killed my dog! They killed my dog. They cut him up. They want me to be next.” She yelled, then went quiet again. “I’m at a hospital. Now, I don’t know where. I don’t have food. I–I’m going to need help. Listen, you can do it. You can help me. They are after me.” And then a powerful shout once again. “They tried to poison me! They killed my dog!”
I watched the worried looks on the faces of the few people who remained in the room. My brain shifted back to years ago, when I was working with the extremely mentally ill in various hospital or drug treatment facilities. I considered walking over to the woman to ask if she needed help, or to de-escalate her, but the hospital had staff for things like this. And sure enough, a security guard walked down the hall and took a seat near the woman.
“They’re here,” she whispered, ever so softly, then hung up the phone. She immediately shifted her energy and turned toward the guard with a bright smile on her face, no sign of distress at all. “Hello, officer, how can I help you?”
The man had a kind face. He looked weary, like he was at the end of a long shift. “Hello, ma’am. You sounded pretty upset. Anything I can do to help you?”
She made her voice sugary sweet. “Oh, no. Well, I’m just going to go to the bus stop. I seem to have forgotten where I am. I just, maybe you could help me get to the right place? I’m not sure I can walk.”
“Well, I could get a wheelchair and do that, take you outside to the stop. It’s not far.”
“Oh! Sir! You’d do that for me!” She batted her eyes briefly. “That plus a sandwich and a few dollars? That would absolutely wonderful.”
“I’m afraid I can only get you to the stop, ma’am.”
“Well, fine. You just get the wheelchair and I’ll step outside for a cigarette and wait for you.”
Apparently forgetting that she couldn’t walk, she got up and walked through the double doors and I quickly lost sight of her. The nurse looked toward the security guard.
“Thank you!” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t listen to how they cut up her dog one more time!”
Within a few minutes, the hospital was back to normal. The woman never returned for her ride in the wheelchair. I wondered where she might go next, and if she still thought people were watching her. Then I realized I had been watching her. I wasn’t trying to poison her, nor had I killed her dog, but my gaze probably hadn’t helped.
I left the hospital shortly after that, and I worried after that poor woman who was in so much pain. She’d left a piece of her with me when she’d departed, I realized. She must scatter pieces of herself wherever she goes, and then wonder where she left herself later.