Down Among the Dead Men

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Gary wants your money. He asks nicely but most people pass him by. Sheltered in the darkness of Mitchell Lane, most folk sweep by without even a glance towards him. They don’t even know he’s there. The few who do notice him, abuse him. He’s told to get a job, a life, some respect, to sort himself out and to clear off; though not as politely. He’s also told where to put his little paper cup that he holds out. Once, a young guy in a sharp suit and funny hair kicked the cup out of his hand, sending the small amount of change in it spinning down the lane. Gary could hear the guy and his mates laughing and heckling him. He didn’t care. He just wanted to find his money so he could go and buy a hot cup of tea. But tea isn’t the only thing Gary buys with whatever money he is given. Gary is a drug addict. A junkie to you and me. And all junkies are scum aren’t they?
Aren’t they?
Let me tell you about Gary. He came into the world in 1979 and was the only child to parents Gordon and Mary. His dad worked as an engineer for an electronics company and his mother was a primary school teacher. They were reasonably well-off and lived in a village in the south side of Glasgow, which was well-known as a prevalent area. Gary had a happy childhood. As an only child to middle-class parents, he received a lot more than he should have. He had all the coolest toys and was the first pupil in his school to have a shell suit; the late 80s were good to Gary.
He was a bright pupil and performed well above average for his age. In Primary 3, there was talk of him being put in the class above but it never went through. He carried on in his intellectual ways through high school, breezing through his exams without breaking sweat and gaining impressive results. When it came to Fifth Year though, things started to change.
You see, Gary was always a bit of a Jack the Lad. He was quite a popular boy and had a knack of making people laugh. The trouble was, he started concentrating too closely on the humour and less on the learning. His prelim exams grades were all over the place. He wasn’t enjoying school and everybody knew it. However, as luck would have it, a way out appeared. A friend’s father had an electrical business and was looking for an apprentice; did Gary want to come and work for him? Yes he did.
His parents had reservations. Why didn’t he just stay and get his Highers? He might regret this decision. In the end, his dad was happy with his choice as he was learning a trade and he would always have that to fall back on if times got tough. The boy was now a man.
Gary continued his way through life. He played for the local football team. He went out with his mates. He liked a drink. Doesn’t everyone in Glasgow? As Gary got older, the more he liked to drink. “Slow it down,” he was told but Gary was unstoppable. He was the life and soul of the party, the king of the room. A lot of this period Gary doesn’t remember. Huge black holes in his memory. He was told he had a good time but couldn’t recall it himself. Everything changed though, when he met Sarah.
The love of his life. Love at first sight he used to tell people. Unfortunately, Sarah didn’t see it this way but after a while of charming and wooing, she too, fell in love. A fast engagement, then marriage, then first child, then second child all happened in four fantastic years. Gary had the perfect life. Then it all fell apart.
Gary and Sarah were travelling home in a taxi after a night out alone. About a mile from their house, the taxi hit a pedestrian and screeched to a halt. Gary first made sure Sarah was okay, then burst out the taxi to help the victim. It was a girl, no more than seventeen. Gary knew her. She was dressed to go out and smelled of alcohol. She must have been at the pub and had been on her way home when she staggered in front of the taxi. Gary knelt down beside her. From the mess of her, it was clear she was in a bad way. She was struggling for breath. Gary had a vague idea of first aid but didn’t know where to start here. Suddenly her eyes shot open. Her wide, panicking gaze met Gary’s confused and helpless eyes. And then she died; held loosely in Gary’s arms, the girl took one last breath and fell lifeless.
Somewhere in the distance, Gary heard sirens.
In the months that followed, Gary’s behaviour changed. Mood swings; short temper; lack of desire; drinking. For the first while, Sarah tolerated it, putting it down his way of coping with the accident. He’ll get over it, she thought.
He didn’t.
Sarah persuaded Gary to go to the doctors. He reluctantly agreed and was surprised to be diagnosed with PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was confused as he only thought soldiers suffered from that. The doctor explained how any traumatic experience could trigger it. And Gary had suffered a whopper. He was put on medication and sent for counselling.
It didn’t work.
He couldn’t accept he was ill. Some of his mates called him a lightweight for needing medication, so he binned it.
“A real man would doesn’t need pills,” he was told.
“Give yourself a shake and get on with it”.
“You just need a good night out with the boys.”
In truth, that was the last thing he needed.
“A legend like you doesn’t get depression,” someone told him.
“Stop this silly therapy.”
“Talking about your feelings?” What was he, a woman? Man up.
Inside, Gary was screaming for help. There was this odd blackness that seemed to consume him most days, like a cartoon cloud that sat just above his head. He wanted to tell Sarah but if the lads thought he was some sort of joke, then what would she think of him? He needed to be strong to support her and the kids. He couldn’t have her thinking he wasn’t a good enough husband and father. So he put everything in a wee box in his mind and tried to push it away. Except the box kept breaking and everything kept falling out.
His drinking was now out of control; most nights he would be drunk. Sarah tried to stop him but she was becoming scared. One night, she tried to take the bottle of whisky from him. Gary flew into a rage and tried to get the bottle back. She refused, so he hit her. Immediately, he backed down, broke down and apologised. It wasn’t him, it was the drink. He was going to stop, he was going to get help. Sarah forgave him on the promise he did just that.
He didn’t
The night that haunts Gary is a blank to him; he can’t remember it at all. He is haunted by memories he does not have. He came home drunk; Sarah read the riot act; Gary reacted badly. He beat Sarah until she was bleeding and sitting slumped in the kitchen, unable to cry any more tears. The kids heard the commotion and came running downstairs. Gary roared at the kids to get back to bed but they were terrified and protested. Gary moved towards them and they ran back upstairs. To this day, Sarah is convinced that he was going to hit the children. He never got the chance. An empty wine bottle, sitting waiting to be put out for recycling, was within Sarah’s reach and was smashed across Gary’s head before he could chase them upstairs.
She called an ambulance and put Gary in it. She didn’t go to hospital with him. Instead, she went upstairs and packed his belongings.
He had nowhere to go, he begged. He was sorry. He didn’t mean it. He would change. Sarah wouldn’t let him in and told him to go or the police would be called. He had been disowned by everyone, including his parents, too. They were appalled at the state of Sarah and the effect it had on the kids. They slammed the door shut on him; they needed to protect their grandchildren. He checked into a hotel as he had nowhere else to go. He survived at his job for just a week longer before his boss had to fire him. He was late, unreliable and not up to the standard required anymore. He was turning up to work drunk and in an unfit state to perform. He had had chance after chance, warning after warning. It was too late. With no job, he soon maxed out his credit cards. With no way to pay, he was out on the street.
He turned up at home on a rainy evening. He battered on the door and rattled the windows. He just wanted in. He was different now, he promised. Sarah sat inside, sobbing. Eventually she plucked up enough courage and shouted through the letterbox to go away, for the sake of the kids, just go. Gary accepted defeat and left. To where though?
For a while, he tried different sheltered places in the village but each time was moved on by someone angry about what he had done. News travels fast in a village, you see. Eventually, he used the last change in his pocket to get the bus into Glasgow and headed for the homeless shelter. The people there were kind and gave him a meal and a chance to wash. Nobody asked him his story. They didn’t have any room that night as they were busy but he was welcome to try tomorrow. A broken man, he walked out into the cool autumn night and realised he didn’t know what to do. He did know that he wanted a drink but had no way of getting one. That was until Aldo turned up.
Aldo was homeless too and like Gary, had nowhere to sleep that night. But Aldo had a bottle of whisky. Stolen from some guy who said he stole it from the Co-Op, Gary was told. Aldo asked if he wanted some. Gary said yes. So both of them sat in a damp, derelict building, swigging away on the bottle and telling each other their stories. With each drink, Gary felt better. Eventually he closed his eyes and dreamed of his children.
The next day was the day he tried heroin. He was woken from his dream by the noise of traffic outside. He felt awful, then the enormity of what had happened to him set in and he wept. He sobbed and wailed and moaned until he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Aldo. He knew a way to make Gary forget about everything. Did he want to know? Gary thought about his wife and children and said yes.
He doesn’t remember much about the rest of the day. He gets flashbacks every now and then. He remembers going into a block of flats but no idea where. He remembers being told that the first hit was free but not much else. But what he won’t forget is how he was magically transported to a wonderful world, where all his worries disappeared and everything made sense. Now he wants to go back as often as he can. And he’ll try to get there any way he can. Which means sitting in Mitchell Lane and asking you for money.
Not all junkies are scum. It was easy for Gary to become one and it could easily be you and me. We’re all a few simple steps away from being in the gutter. This may be an exaggerated tale but characters like Gary certainly exist. And sometimes it’s they who are the victims.
What Gary did to his family was unforgivable. But it was preventable. Gary was suffering terribly from mental health problems but the stigma attached to the illness made it impossible to get the help he so desperately needed. Out attitudes need to change. If we all tried to understand and learn what it is like to have a mental illness, then stories like this will become few and far between.
Maybe you know someone similar to Gary. Maybe you could help. Ask. Talk. Be there. You never know what difference you may make.

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