Since I’ve been working from home for the last month I’ve been getting to know some of my neighbours a little better. Actually, it’s mostly one neighbour. We’ll call him Bob. “Bob” is 65 and struggles with a serious case of anxiety.
You see, Bob was born in the house that he lives in. He has never lived anywhere else. He lived with his mum, and he never moved out. He never got married or had a family. He doesn’t have any hobbies. He used to work but quit some years ago to care for his mother after she developed cancer. His mother died this year, and now he’s all alone.
I felt sorry for Bob, I really do. He doesn’t have any other family to come visit him, and he doesn’t really have many friends. Since lockdown he’s been too anxious to even go walk in the park and feed the squirrels, so he’s pretty much been sitting in front of his TV all day, every day.
Three weeks ago Bob stopped me on my way out of the house. He said that he had some symptoms, and he wanted a coronavirus test; however, he couldn’t order a home test kit because he didn’t have an email address or a mobile phone number. Being a kind (and, as it turns out, stupid) person, I offered to order one for him. I could get it delivered straight to his house and everything.
Oh god, I wish I’d just minded my own business.
9th November: Bob tells me he has symptoms, and I order a test for him.
12th November: Test arrives and I explain to Bob how to use it. Then I post it.
14th November: Results arrive; Bob is negative for COVID.
At some point during that week I also went to the pharmacy to pick up some medication for him, and I did some grocery shopping for him. Good for me. Job well done. Right?
Wrong, so wrong. You see, Bob has an unreasonable amount of anxiety. So the knocks on my door increase from once or twice a day to six or eight times a day over the next two weeks. First, he doesn’t believe the negative result, so he calls his GP and asks them to confirm that he doesn’t need to isolate. He’s convinced that he did the test wrong so the results are invalid. The GP explains (as I already had) that if the swab didn’t have enough of a sample to run a test, he would have received an inconclusive result and would have been sent another test.
This explanation isn’t enough for Bob. He’s still knocking on my door several times a day. So on the 19th I print off the email for him so he can see it in black and white. He still isn’t confident in the results, so he calls the non-emergency NHS number and asks me to talk to the woman on the phone.
By now it’s Friday 20th and Bob knocks on my door in a panic. The email that I printed for him states clearly that since his result is negative, and he doesn’t need to self-isolate unless:
- you get symptoms of coronavirus (you’ll need a new test)
- you’re going into hospital (self-isolate until the date you go in)
- someone you live with tests positive
- you’ve been traced as a contact of someone who tested positive
Now since Bob lives alone and doesn’t have a mobile phone, the last two don’t apply. When the results arrived on the 14th Bob had no new symptoms and no upcoming appointments, so I told him that he didn’t need to isolate.
Well that was then and this is now. He’s been freaking out about his results for almost a whole week, and no amount of reassurance from me or medical professionals is helping. Bob informs me that he’s got two hospital appointments coming up on the 2nd and 3rd of December, and he’s panicking because he “hasn’t been isolating” (he went to the doctor’s on the 16th). This man has no visitors, no social life, and doesn’t go out of the house except to the corner shop, where he wears his mask. I do not understand the panic. But I explained it to him several times, as did his GP and a nice lady on the NHS hotline. He’s all clear, nothing to worry about, and he needs to go to his appointments.
This isn’t enough for Bob. He worries himself sick. He spends the whole weekend knocking on my door practically every hour asking for confirmation, for me to explain it again and again. He tells me that he’s thinking of “turning himself in” to the police for breaking lockdown. I tell him that he had a negative result and didn’t break any rules, but he doesn’t believe me.
On Tuesday 24th Bob knocks on my door mid-afternoon and asks me to call him an ambulance. He’s grey and shaking, crying, and he is complaining of pain in his stomach. He tells me that he was supposed to have a scan to look for an aortic aneurysm back in March, but it got put off because of corona. So, I call him an ambulance. Five hours later, the ambulance arrives, and I leave them to it.
The next day, Bob hands me the notes from the ambulance crew. Turns out, he has acid reflux and heartburn and was having a panic attack. Phew, crisis averted – or not. Because Bob is still panicking, still knocking on my door demanding an explanation for something I’ve already explained. He’s now convinced himself that he broke the law by going to the doctors, and on Thursday 26th he tells me again that he’s going to call the police and turn himself in. I tell him that he hasn’t done anything wrong, and the police have better things to do. He bets me £1000 that he’s going to get dragged away by police.
Friday night (27th) rolls around and I get a knock on my door at 11pm. Amazingly, it’s the police. He actually did it, and they actually came out. The two officers explain that they just spent 40 minutes talking to Bob, trying to explain that he’s not in trouble and is not the UK’s most wanted. (Bob officially owes me £1000.) Since Bob told them that I’d been helping him out, they wanted to get my point of view. It turns out that Bob had two more ambulance teams out this week on top of the team that I called. He isn’t coping, so the police tell me that they’re going to refer him to the adult social care team so he can get some help. This seems like the best solution, and I’m glad he will get some help.
Unfortunately for Bob, this isn’t immediate. The very next day, (Saturday 28th), Bob knocks on my door again. He’s pale, slurring his words, and holding a handful of pills. He tells me that he’s going to kill himself, and he’s already taken some pills. I immediately grab my phone and call for an ambulance. I follow Bob into his home, and watch him put pill after pill in his mouth. Pill, sip water, swallow. Pill, sip water, swallow. I want to knock the pills out of his hand, but that would be assault. So I stand, and watch, and talk to the emergency dispatcher to keep him updated. It takes 15 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. At one point, Bob wants to get more pills from the kitchen, but I stand in his way. The dispatcher tells me not to put myself in danger, but I’m not scared. It takes me a while to work out what I’m feeling.
The paramedics arrive, and I talk them through what’s been happening. I find the medication packets in the kitchen and a list of medications that he’s on, so I put those in a shopping bag and hand them to the paramedics. I explain what I know of his medical history and his mental state. The paramedics ask Bob why he did this today, and his response floors me.
“It’s my friend’s fault. My friend, my neighbour. She’s been helping me, but she helped me wrong. She told me the wrong thing.”
I’m stunned. Utterly stunned. Three paramedic teams, and his GP, and the police, have all said I did the right thing. I don’t say anything, I don’t add anything else. It doesn’t take long for the paramedics to learn what they need and take him off to hospital.
Then I walk back into my house and sit on the sofa. I feel numb. Intellectually, I know that I should be feeling something. Watching a grown man clutch the photo of his dead mother and sob ought to elicit some kind of emotional response. I’ve never seen someone try to hurt themselves like that before. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to be feeling. Actually, I think I know how I’m supposed to be feeling; I’m supposed to feel sorry for him, and worried for him, and maybe sad for him.
I don’t feel any of those things. What I actually feel, what I overwhelmingly feel, is angry. I’m furious.
How dare he drop all of this on my doorstep? I understand it was a cry for help, rather than a genuine attempt. If it was a genuine attempt he’d never have knocked on my door. I’ve been suicidal myself enough times to know that. But he’s already had the emergency services out four times this week. Help was coming. Everyone was doing everything they could. This man is younger than my dad. He isn’t a frail 80 year old. Plenty of men his age still work.
But after everything I’ve done to try to help, this is the thanks I get? Repeating myself every hour on the hour, resisting the urge to snap or get frustrated. And all the thanks I get is the blame? I guess he doesn’t want to blame himself, and I’m the only one left to take it.
The last thing the paramedic said to me before he left was, “This is what you get for answering your door.”
The first thing I thought was “How cynical. How fucking cynical.” I don’t want to live in a world where I have to be that cynical. I want to live in a world where people who can help do help. I want to live in a world where we look after each other. I don’t want a medal. I just don’t want it thrown back in my face.
The cliche says “be the change you want to see in the world”. But no one warns you how hard and thankless a task that can be. I want to say that this experience hasn’t changed anything, that I’ll keep helping. But really, I think it’s going to be a while before I answer my door again.
Bob came back from the hospital on Sunday 29th. On Monday 30th he calls himself an ambulance and tells them he took another overdose. He gets taken to hospital at 11:30pm, but he’s back in his house by Wednesday 2nd December. I know this only because another ambulance turns up in the street at 9am on the 2nd and I overhear him saying he took another overdose.
I feel I should explain at this point that I live in a street of small, tightly packed terraced houses, and I’m working in my front room so I literally can’t miss the drama. I haven’t dedicated myself to spying on this man.
I haven’t actually spoken to Bob since he knocked on my door on Saturday 28th. I haven’t run into him in the street, and he hasn’t knocked on my door again. I feel a little guilty that I haven’t helped more, but realistically he isn’t my responsibility, and I can’t do anything useful to help at this point. I have to trust that the paramedics (and presumably the adult social care team) will be able to help him.
It feels callous to shrug him off as “not my problem”, but the reality is that I can’t keep putting other people first, offering help at the expense of my own wellbeing. It’s a lifelong behaviour but one that needs to be overcome. Looking after my own needs doesn’t make me a bad person.
Update: I was adamant that I wasn’t going to help anymore. I really meant it. But Bob’s been in hospital since Wednesday 2nd so I have been going over every day to feed his goldfish. Helping pets doesn’t count.