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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 26 April, 2019
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Opinion: Driving home on a stormy night, I saw a distressed young man on a bridge wall

I hope I did the right thing in that situation. To tell you the truth, I haven’t really slept properly since.

Donal O'Keeffe

I MET A distressed young man standing on the wall of a bridge the other night.

I was driving home from Cork, about half eleven on a stormy night, when I saw him climbing over the wall of the bridge. I stood on the brakes, hit the hazard lights and got out. I wasn’t really thinking beyond wanting to help and being afraid that time might be a factor.

Another car stopped too and the driver ran toward me. We headed back against the wind and oncoming traffic and approached the man on the bridge wall. The wall was a metal fence and he was balanced precariously with one leg over it. Below, the river was racing, swollen and brown.

The wind was gusting and the rain was spitting. Traffic roared by. The man on the bridge was young, slight, twenties, and scared-looking. I heard myself say “Come down off that before you kill yourself” and cursed myself for an insensitive fool.

To my surprise he climbed down, immediately and without fuss. He staggered away, toward the traffic, and I followed. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, gently as I could, “There’s no hassle, everything’s going to be fine”.

The other driver approached, cautiously. “We’re grand,” I said. Having somehow turned into Brendan Gleeson’s character from The Guard, I ventured to the young fella “’Tis a bad auld night”. He began to cry.

“I f*cked up,” he said. “Jesus, I f*cked up.”

Pretending to be wiser than I am, I said “Sure show me the man who hasn’t.” He asked “Have you got a fag?”

“I have,” the other driver said.

The young man asked where he was and, when we told him, asked “Is that near (town 30 miles away)?” He had no idea where he was. He was very drunk. I offered to drive him home. He said he’d take a drive to the train or bus station. I knew he wouldn’t get a train or a bus at that hour of the night but I figured he’d be safer in my car than alone on a bridge.

Long story short, I ended up driving 30 miles in the wrong direction on bad country roads in the middle of a hurricane. With a flashing fuel light. I didn’t do this out of any great nobility. It was just that, having determined that he was no longer in immediate danger, I could see he was still in a bad way a long way from home. I had stopped the car and I couldn’t just abandon him. I thought about Fr Dougal’s dismay that it’s not enough to have one good idea, you have to keep following it through.

I wished that I knew what the right thing to do was. I’d read of the National Office of Suicide Prevention’s ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) programme but I’d never thought I’d ever need that training. Despite all efforts to lift the perceived stigma surrounding mental health problems, it seems we still don’t really know what to do when faced with someone who’s very distressed, mostly everyone plays it by ear. Which could have gone horribly wrong in this case – witness my stupid opening comment about suicide.

He sobered up a bit along the way. He said he’d drank the bones of two bottles of vodka. He’d had a blazing row with his girlfriend and he couldn’t really remember anything for the past eight hours. As we rounded a hairpin bend in the middle of nowhere at 25mph, wipers flashing back and forth and the headlights showing a midnight wall of rain, he said “Just drop me anywhere”.

I replied, exasperated, “Well I’m hardly gonna f*cking drop you in the middle of this, am I?” He looked at me and, to my surprise, he started laughing. I began laughing, too. (I have a theory that Irish people can only really ever be at ease with each other when they can curse. The “f” word is our secret handshake.)

We talked about this and that. Work and the lack of it. My old car and his old car of the same year, which he’d recently crashed. I told him to look at my passenger-side wing-mirror. “You did some job on that, alright,” he said.

I asked him had he been thinking about jumping. “I was, a bit,” he said. “Like things get f*cked up, you know?” I said I did know. “The drink doesn’t help, I suppose,” he admitted.

It doesn’t. He was out of his mind on that bridge. A gust of wind could have turned him into a statistic. Similarly, his wandering in traffic might have ruined any number of lives.

His girlfriend was waiting up. She was drunk too but she seemed happy to see him. They offered me tea and cake but I left them, maybe a bit abruptly, but I didn’t want to embarrass them. As a parting shot, I told them to go easy on the spirits and to be kind to each other. Feeling very old, I headed home.

Should I have taken him to a Garda station, or to a hospital? Maybe. But I think, in as much as I could, I did the right thing in the situation in which I found myself. I hope I did. To tell you the truth, I haven’t really slept properly since.

He was right about the drink not helping. It really doesn’t. And neither does bottling things up. If things are getting on top of you, or if you’re worried about someone who may be struggling, please don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t leave it to chance – to some stranger spotting you (or your loved one) some night in the rain. You, and the people who love you, are worth more than that.

The HSE has just launched #littlethings. It’s a mental health and well-being promotion campaign which aims to highlight the fact that ups and downs are normal, that we all experience difficult times in our lives, and that when we do, there are some simple, evidence-based, little things that can make a big difference to how we feel. It also highlights what we can do to help others experiencing difficulty. In tandem with this, they have launched a new website, yourmentalhealth.ie that – along with tips to assist mental well-being – lists support services across Ireland for those who are urgently seeking help.

By way of a post-script, I discovered that night that the flashing orange fuel light was bluffing for 40 miles. My poor old car somehow struggled along, running on empty, until we reached a petrol station. Cars can do that, sometimes.

People are a trickier proposition.

Mind yourself.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

Would you know how to react if someone revealed they were suicidal?

Helplines

  • Console 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)

  • Aware 1890 303 302 (depression anxiety)

  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie - (suicide, self-harm, bereavement)

  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)

  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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