A silent witness
[Disclaimer: Aspects of this post may cause emotional discomfort]
Monday began like an ordinary day. My alarm clock forced me to greet the morning at five-thirty. I responded to e-mails and penciled a to-do list over three cups of coffee. I squeezed myself onto the ridiculously crammed metro, caught the bus, and unlocked the door to my lab about thirty minutes later. It was an ordinary day of collecting and analyzing neuroscientific data, of meeting my supervisor, and of writing bits of my dissertation. I was busy, focused and pretty reserved all day long. The afternoon was also quite ordinary; I waited for rush-hour to subside a little and left work around six-thirty, in order to have a less stressful time with overcrowded transportation. I recognized the bus driver, got a seat towards the back like I usually do, and was at Sherbrooke metro in fifteen minutes – just like any ordinary day.
When I pushed the heavy door to enter the metro station, I noticed two police-offers were shooing a man toward the exit. “Outside!” one officer yelled in English (which, I remember, surprised me more than the fact that an itinerant was being asked not to loiter). The man began to retaliate, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying, as I was listening to my iPod. “Outside!” the officer yelled again, and added something that sounded like a threat to intervene if the man didn’t comply. I passed the busker who was singing joyously with her guitar, passed the turnstile as my STM pass emitted its routine “beep” to let me through, and walked slowly down the stairs to the platform. As I walked down, I could hear a man shouting something below. A different man than the one they had just ushered out of the station, obviously, but someone who sounded equally distraught. I removed my iPod and continued down the steps. He was loud and sounded upset, like he was venting about something. He did not sound like he was well. Before I even got to the bottom of the stairs, I could tell roughly where he was standing, due to the converging glances of passengers waiting on the track. Everyone was silent – listening, watching, pretending not to listen, pretending not to watch.
I turned the corner, and noticed he was pretty erratic, pacing back and forth, stuttering as he tried to get his message across loudly, to anyone who would listen. I couldn’t make out too much. I heard “Mesdames et messieurs” several times, and felt my heart-rate begin to rise slightly because I knew I had to pass him on the platform. My gut told me immediately something dramatic might happen, and I became extra cautious. I waited until he moved towards the middle of the platform so that I may pass by him by walking as close to the wall as possible, afraid to be pushed into the tracks. I continued along to the very end of the track, like I do every day. One minute until the metro, I read on the screen. I had looked away from the man, by now. I was lost in my focused thoughts again. What a busy day…Then, my eyes landed back on the man. I could barely hear him now; I was quite far from him and all I could hear was the hum of the metro which was about to arrive.
My eyes watched as he approached the edge of the platform and – all of a sudden – I saw him lying down on his back on the ground. I squinted in disbelief. I watched as he, still on his back, pushed himself even further off the edge of the platform, until his head was dangling purposefully into the void. The hum of the metro grew louder. I remember thinking over and over again, as if to make myself believe it, “He’s gonna do it, he’s gonna kill himself. Right here, now, right in front of me”. I felt my legs turn to ice. Why was I immobile? Why was I watching? Why wasn’t I running there or trying to get help? Could I even help? I was so far down the track. It all happened so fast. Part of me couldn’t believe what was happening at all. The metro was now in my line of vision, and the man was still on his back. Everyone was watching. No one moved. The driver didn’t slow down. WHY ISN’T ANYONE HELPING, was all I could think, my heart racing in a true state of panic. Finally, with the metro only three meters away, another man literally leapt onto the near-victim, and attempted to pull him away from the track. There was a struggle – the man clearly did not want to be helped. I was frightened for the one who was trying to save him – he was equally at risk now. They stumbled towards the wall, to safety. Others surrounding them continued to watch. The metro continued to advance. The day continued to be ordinary – the silent witnesses all entered the metro and stood amid a sea of passengers who had no clue about what had just happened. As the metro departed, my eyes hurriedly scanned the platform for the hero and the distressed – I couldn’t see either of them. Either they had entered the metro, or had gone to seek help upstairs. I prayed it was the latter. I also prayed the distressed man would not simply wait for the next metro.
I was crying as I stood amongst the iPods and the iPads. No one noticed, naturally, because no one really looks at each other these days. I had witnessed a trauma and a miracle, all at once. I had witnessed a man at the end of his hope, a man screaming but not being heard, a man who was determined to end it all on that Monday afternoon. I had never been so close to witnessing a suicide. Nor had I ever witnessed a person save anyone’s life. That man was truly a god-sent – he snapped into action, set himself aside and cut into the scene, no matter what may have happened. I thought of how I didn’t think I’d have been brave enough to do the same. I felt ashamed of having explicitly worried about which path to take to avoid danger, without considering that the man was in full danger himself. I thought, over and over again, of how grateful I was for that man who jumped in to pull him to safety, when no one else had the courage to do anything but watch. It baffled me that even the metro drivers didn’t notice and didn’t react by stopping the train immediately, or by at least interrupting the service after the incident, in order to ensure the two men were safe, and that police and/or paramedics would be called.
The thing is, mental illness is so overwhelmingly prevalent in Montreal’s streets nowadays, we may – in some ways – have become desensitized to it as we encounter these disadvantaged individuals on our way to and from work every day. But, if you think about it, this is simply atrocious and truly sad. These individuals need help and we are often but silent witnesses of their misery, going about our days as they are going about theirs, trying to stay out of their way for fear of their unpredictable behavior. For many of them, poverty, depression, and suicidal thoughts make up just another ordinary day.
I wish mental illness were more of a priority in our city – far beyond petty language disputes, nationalism and ostracism of any kind. I wish there was more awareness, more of an impetus to help, and more of a system in place to avoid dangerous situations such as the one on Monday afternoon.