The Starling

I was walking home today and a man in the passenger seat of a car rolled down his window and shouted something mean-spirited at me. In times past, when I was shackled with depression, I would have taken this very poorly indeed. Likely, I’d have gone home and fixated on it for hours, if not days, convinced that this ill sentiment toward me must be shared universally. The man who shouted at me has doubtlessly forgotten that I even exist, but had I been feeling a bit more vulnerable today, his seemingly inconsequential action could have had a detrimental effect on my mental well-being.

Now imagine if I’d been really, seriously suffering today and this man’s lack of compassion had tipped me over the edge. His actions could have had irreversible consequences. Worse again, imagine I’d been a lone woman, naked and vulnerable, in the throes of a mental breakdown and the man in question had been a member of the Gardai, and instead of merely shouting, he’d taken the footage of my terrible ordeal and shown it to all his friends. Then imagine that these friends, members of the public service ostensibly designed to protect and serve vulnerable members of society, had allowed these images to make their way online, doing untold damage to an already fragile mind. Except, you don’t have to imagine it, because it actually fucking happened and now a woman is dead.

Dara Quigley’s death is shocking and tragic, offering a bleak illumination of some oft-ignored societal ills. For all the supposed advocacy, the celebrity soundbites and the constant stream of discussion on mental health, the mentally ill in this country will continue to suffer because a basic, societal empathy is largely absent. The widespread understanding of mental illness refuses to develop beyond a narrow, diluted picture of relatively straightforward sadness. Compassion is employed up to a point, but when the behaviour of a mentally ill person becomes too striking, or even just inconvenient, we revert to the freak show mentality. We point and laugh. Obvious cries for help, serious manic episodes, are discarded as the behaviour of raving lunatics, beyond saving.

Worse yet is the sort of institutional boys club culture that will happily value a sick thrill above the health and safety of another human being, particularly one who is so clearly suffering. The man who shared the video initially may have been the instigator, but those in the WhatsApp group who allowed the footage to exist, and spread, without immediately acting to intervene, are culpable too. So too those who watched the video elsewhere and did nothing. It’s a damning insight into our collective lack of empathy and a worrying symptom of a desensitized society. Even as the story spreads online, our national media seems reluctant to highlight such a sickening case of Gardai malpractice.

It happens often, the mockery, we just don’t notice because the outcome isn’t so immediately tragic in the way that Dara Quigley’s death has been. When someone acts out, they are routinely dismissed as eccentric, attention-seeking or hysterical. The desire to understand isn’t present, instead there’s a shallow desire to appear understanding. This self-preserving image of compassion is cultivated, online and elsewhere, but genuine empathy is being corroded. I’ve seen people portray themselves as advocates when it suits them, then go on to viciously mock an obviously unwell Sinead O’Connor. The narrative surrounding mental illness in Ireland is dangerously narrow. We’re fine when someone just needs to talk and everyone loves it when some celebrity sells exercise as a panacea, but when the stakes are raised and things grow too uncomfortable for us, we shun the mentally ill. When an unwell woman walks naked down the streets of our capital city, she can expect ignorance at best and cruelty at worst.

Someday the man who amplified Dara Quigley’s suffering will come face-to-face with the mental anguish of someone close to him. A friend or family member, maybe even one of his own children, because mental illness is never far from any of our doors. When that day comes I hope it cuts him. I hope it cuts him deep, because he’ll look on back on the day he hurt Dara, instead of helping her, and maybe he’ll realise that his actions have contributed directly to an uncaring, borderline malicious society that doesn’t only ignore the mentally ill, but openly treats them with utter contempt.

“Our economy and society is modeled on the behaviour of pigeons, survival of the fittest, everybody out for themselves. The reality is more complex and beautiful than this regime can possibly imagine. In reality, we are more like a flock of starlings, producing intricate, amazing patterns all arising from one fundamental rule: no one bird is allowed to get lost. This is the type of society I want to see, where no one person is allowed to fall between the cracks, nobody gets lost and no person is homeless.” – Dara Quigley

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The Call Centre

Cavernous and void of character, the call centre, in an aesthetic sense, offers little in the way of comfort. Imposing walls bear down from a tremendous height, painted an empty white which serves only to amplify the migraine fluorescents suspended above. In a sort of distorted stab at open plan affability, the centre consists of a single room, dizzyingly tall and split down the middle by a strip of carpeted walkway. At one end of the walkway stands a lonesome water cooler, at the other a key-coded door. Windowless, permeated with dead air and littered with blank eyes, the centre does not appear conducive to providing the kind of comforts it ostensibly offers to its callers. Dead air and an oddly disconcerting humidity imbue the workers with a heated claustrophobia. Relentlessly whirring, the ever present air conditioning unit provides a sonic backdrop against which a chorus of toneless chatter plays out. Over and over, from dawn to dusk and back around to the next breaking of distant light.

Four swift, barely audible beeps are succeeded by the click of an opening door. Mark trudges down the walkway, bearing the countenance of a man condemned to walk the plank. He plops into the ocean of cubicles at the sixteenth row, swimming slowly across to the empty space six cubicles in. His desk, like all the others, is sparsely decorated. There is a phone, a notepad and a digital clock. All three items have been chained to the table. The worrying around the edges of the clock would suggest that it has attempted escape at some point in the dreary past. For now, it remains captive at the table, the time reading 07:59. As the phone chimes into life with a jarring ring, Mark waits and watches the clock with sunken eyes. Unfortunately, the phone is still ringing when the clock rearranges its red LED lights into an 08:00. Mark drops his eyes and lifts the grey phone to his ear.

Good morning, this is Depresco and you’re speaking to Mark. How can I help you today?”

This sentence pervades Mark’s psyche at all times. Even when he manages to settle his mind enough to halt the relentless repetition of the phrase, it lurks, obscured, in the background, ready to pounce. The events of this first phone call of the day are uninteresting in their standard issue depiction of mental illness. Mark sometimes throws a glance backward into the past and sees an empathetic man obfuscated by the enduring sound of ringing phones, whirring air conditioners and quietly cacophonous chatter. Struggling to see clearly, his eyes strain and he quickly reverts from idealised past to apathetic present.

Good morning, this is Depresco and you’re speaking to Mark. How can I help you today?”

Caller number two continues in a similar vein. Indeed, so repetitious is the content of the first two customers of the day, that Mark cannot ascertain that they are different people. The two calls peter out in similar fashion. The customers attain some false semblance of connection to another human being and Mark, as frequently happens, fails to make the sale. You see, the sale is the point of the call. Again, looking backwards with dull nostalgia, Mark can almost remember the days when these kinds of services operated on the basis of that empathy which now seems lost. Empathy, having bravely withstood the slow numbing of contemporary society for so long, appears now incapable of awaking from its induced coma.

Despair is big business and Mark is a cog in the machine. Past Mark may be looking forward with disgust, but present Mark cannot see clearly through the fog of medication – self-prescribed, illicit and societal. A third phone call passes with a vocal fluttering of the eyelashes, an imperceptible flicker of improved mental health and the inevitable lack of closure on the part of the salesman. Mark considers that his ruthless streak may be on the wane. For a time he closed often and quickly. He could perceive the core weakness of a person’s mind and needle it. Once he had pinpointed this key piece, the rest would fall into place and he would proceed to the next caller, and then the next, with ever-growing confidence in his callous ability.

Today he felt the weakness within himself. Though he could not locate it with such cutting accuracy, another sign of his waning talent. They say that a man can only work this kind of job for so long before running out of steam and crashing hard. The ideal of easy retirement and a soft landing, like Mark’s sense of self, got lost somewhere along the journey to this point in time. As a man ages, he grows less capable of carrying the individual pieces that comprise his sprawling identity. The years roll past with exponential haste and the self must discard those characteristics which do not serve the current situation. In the poisoned work environment of Depresco, Mark found himself shedding anything that impacted his ability as a salesman. Empathy gave way to apathy and conscience grew clouded.

The emergence of depression as big business was no surprise. In a sense, depression had always been business and it had just recently become so direct. The line between finance and ill mental health had been well established in the years of Mark’s youth when advertising, largely unconscious to the public eye, operated on the basis that broken men and women could fix themselves with relentless consumption. Then, in Mark’s burgeoning adulthood, social media had sunk its talons forever. Advertising became unavoidable, penetrating every inch of existence. No longer did people merely consume products. They became products. They were to be advertised and sold, consuming one another until the world had eaten itself alive from the inside out. Like the rest of Mark’s past, he could look backward and see the outline of this shift in humanity, though he could not clearly determine the individual components. It had washed over him, forever staining his soul with dark residue.

In the role of alchemist, Mark had moulded this residue to encase his heart. This nifty contraption safeguarded Mark from all those dangerous feelings that often corrupted others. Love and hate and those other big words with the sharp edges. Far more than a simple shield, this internal craftsmanship had allowed Mark to hone the necessary skills to become one of the first great salesmen of the Depresco era. Mark’s early success with the company established his position within the firm. He required neither flattery nor promotion, not that there was much potential for career growth anyway. These early successes had alleviated the pressure upon Mark’s employment when his sales began to wane.

Mark had reckoned little of his declining ability. Slumps were a natural part of life’s rhythm and age had undoubtedly chipped away something of the old drive. Being a man with great disdain for emotional hysterics, Mark simply plodded along as the days ticked past in the fashion of a metronome. On this particular morning, however, something rather odd was afoot. The nerve endings tingled with electricity and that internal armour was succumbing to rust. A chink had appeared and for the first time in many years, Mark felt exposed as he picked up the phone to speak with caller number four.

Good morning, this is Dep… This is Mark. How can I help you today?”

In that brief stretch of seconds before the caller responded, Mark’s sense of self dissipated into the dead air and he felt himself begin to float toward the monstrous ceiling fans. Suspended in some officious limbo, tight chested and overwhelmed by the relentless monotone chatter of his colleagues, Mark watched the whole horrific call unfold. Deaf to the voice on the other end of the line, straining to even make out his own words, he watched with disgust as he began to shake and blubber like some overgrown man child. The bellowing weeps of the greying middle-aged man cut above the droning hum of the call centre. The faceless worker bees in the adjacent cubicles stood and watched. The drones surrounding Mark betrayed no signs of genuine emotion, more the rubbernecking fascination of those passing the scene of a car crash.

The wretched, empty sobs rattled out into the wretched, empty room. All the chatter was nothing and all the faces belonged to nobody. Mark remained suspended as he watched himself feebly place the phone back on the receiver and press his wet face to the desk. Those in the surrounding cubicles soon grew tired of their colleague’s ostentatious display of grief and returned to grinding down the callers. Shortly enough, two bland men in bland suits arrived behind Mark, hooking their arms under his pits and dragging up. A limp Mark, scrawny and unresisting was lifted without difficulty or hesitance. The men pulled him from the sea of cubicles and let his dangling legs scrape against the carpeted walkway. Mark hung in the air above seat six, row sixteen. He summoned all his might to crane his neck and watch himself leave, but his might was little and his will even less. His head bowed low, Mark’s eyes grew fuzzy around the edges and the monotone chatter gave way to an unrelenting squeal. Squeal escalating, darkness descending, Mark gave himself over to a dullness beyond even the nothingness of his last few decades. Nothing flashed before him other than the fading of fluorescent lights. Cold swept through every inch of his being and Mark expired with the memory of a smile.