As I was heading for the chemist the other day, a very large, wild-looking man paced outside, agitated, mumbling, grubby. He came in while I was waiting to be served, walked distractedly up and down for a bit and then stood still beside me and loomed. I turned to look at him.
‘I’m not drunk,’ he said to me, ‘I’m mental.’
Actually, that was what I supposed he was. Street drunk looks different from street mad. I understood the distinction as well as he wanted me to. I once lived in a flat full of dopers with a junkie who insisted: ‘You lot just take drugs, but I’m an addict.’ He meant both that he was more serious then we were, and that he was under the doctor.
It’s probably the case that being an alcoholic is as much of a condition as being ‘mental’, but there’s a kind of respectability or responsibility hierarchy involved. You’d think that being drunk was preferable to being mad; at least there’s a chance you might kick a habit, whereas if your brain chemistry is all to hell, there’s not much you can do about it. But being mental is medical and that gives you some gravitas perhaps. Something is always superior to something else.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Are you feeling bad?’ He looked down at me and growled: ‘I’m mental. And I’m very dangerous.’ A little threateningly, almost proudly. He was telling me he was someone to be taken account of. Well, who do you pay attention to? Those you admire and those you are frightened of. I nodded in agreement, though it didn’t seem very dangerous to claim to be very dangerous. I supposed he was, at any rate, very desperate.
‘Are you taking medication? Doesn’t it help at all?’
He shook his head.
‘No, nothing helps.’ But he wanted to be fair. ‘Well, it takes the edge off, a bit, I suppose.’
‘No, I’m sorry.’
I said goodbye and left with my eye drops, and it was his turn at the counter.