Despite my capacity for self-delusion, when you know something is wrong, you just know. My phone call today to L made me decide to head up North to bring her home, if only for Christmas. This was complicated by my being in London and having to get home first to get the car. The journey is one I hate, especially at night. L is at university in my home town and the journey north is one I made many times to see my best friend when she was dying of cancer. The same journey I made to visit my dad when he was elderly, confused and frail. And now to see L. I suggest she comes and stays with her granny but she says it will be fine and that it’s ok for me to come to the doctor with her. She says Hattie the toy cat has saved her life – Hattie was the children’s favourite toy, a black and white cat who went to inpatient treatment with L, and even to A&E when she took an overdose in September. L asks me to remind her about Hattie’s story, one told many times during childhood, of Hattie’s adventures as a fishmonger’s cat, captured by pirates and then escaping, only to end up winning the Fowey regatta. She reminds me of the funny voice I used to pretend our real cat was talking to them and it makes her laugh. I tell her I’m about to start the drive and I’ll see her later.
Two hours into the journey, her boyfriend phones. I know what he’s about to say before he does. That L is in A&E, that she has taken another overdose and her friends are with her. I don’t feel shock, just numb familiarity with a situation that never gets better. I ask Siri to reset my journey destination. I call the minimum people who need to know while carrying on this grim journey along a rain-lashed motorway.
It takes forever to find A&E and when I do I see L, curled in a ball with another young women holding her hand. Her friend looks frightened and worried. I thank her and tell her L is really ill. She nods as if she knows. And of course she does. L’s bravado fools no one. When her friend leaves, L sobs in my arms. She looks dirty and there are fresh scratches down her arms. The vomit in the bowl is black, flecked with white powder from the tablets. Hattie nestles next to her – possibly the only thing that differentiates her from the drunks lying on trolleys. Perhaps others see a drunk, but I see a vulnerable child, technically an adult but in need of so much help. The staff here are kind, but there are too many patients. I know that she isn’t yet urgent – I’m all too aware of the treatment plan for a paracetamol overdose. She sleeps and I wait, using the time to fire off an angry email to student support services who promised to see her today and instead slipped a toe under the door. Kind friends text me or call. “She’ll come through this,” says the new man in my life. But the thing is, she might not. Some people don’t.