On the way to my volunteer gig this morning, I saw a woman sitting on the sidewalk, rocking back and forth and crying. From the other side of the street, I could see that her makeup was running like she had been there for awhile. There’s almost no one up and about in Copenhagen before noon on Sundays, so I crossed the street to see if she was alright.
At the same time I saw her, someone else had too. We asked the woman what her name was and what was wrong. She was barely responsive, and seemed to be looking for something on the horizon behind us.
‘Should we call the police?’ the woman asked.
‘Definitely,’ I said.
When I decided to approach the woman on the ground, I assumed it was a moderate to severe case of ‘I had too many drinks on Saturday night, some drama went down and now I’m crying it out.’ As soon as we tried to talk to her, though, it was obvious that that’s not all that was going on. She had clearly been drinking, but she didn’t seem particularly drunk. She couldn’t respond to questions, and kept mumbling things about missing her children. She visibly recoiled from everyone that walked past.
The police didn’t care, or didn’t care enough to send someone anyway. The other ladyhelper suggested we take her to a friend’s apartment, where she could have some water, sleep for a few hours and regroup. We tried to get her to walk with us, but she could barely breathe. She alternated between scanning the horizon and looking behind bushes and fences, as if she’d lost something. Whenever we asked her something personal (‘how old are you?’ ‘where do you live?’) she hurried away from us.
By this point the other ladyhelper had called her friends who lived nearby, and they showed up to help. The woman freaked out at the arrival of all the new faces. She sat down on the sidewalk and started rocking again. She was holding the woman who had found her, and kept saying ‘don’t leave me, don’t leave me.’
Me and the three women who had just arrived made awkward introductions and discussed what we should do. One of them called the cops again. It took two more phone calls before they agreed to send someone. ‘We don’t know her!’ the woman kept telling the 911 operator. That seemed to do the trick.
While we waited for the ambulance, we got the woman’s phone out of her purse and called her mom. She was too drunk to offer much assistance, but she did tell us that this babbling, rocking woman was pregnant, and lived with her two children in a suburb at the end of the metro line. Her mom didn’t know what she was doing in the city. The woman was still incoherent, and was poking and rubbing the toenail polish of the woman sitting on the ground helping her.
A police car with three police officers showed up after about 10 minutes. They did their Cop Thing where they asked the woman the same questions we had, only louder, and got her ID out of her purse. I asked them what they thought was going on, and they said it looked like a pretty typical case of psychosis. ‘Sometimes pregnancy can bring this on,’ one of them said. ‘We’ll get her to a hospital. You can go now.’
I backed slowly away from the scrum of police and Samaritans. This is why we have governments, I guess. You find yourself in situations where you’re not equipped to offer the help that somebody needs, and so you call the people who are. They come, and you go, and the person who needs help gets the kind that cop cars and ambulances offer.
Just before I left, I looked at the woman who had also stopped to help. She waved goodbye and gave a sort of shrugging smile. She waved at the woman on the ground, but she was staring at the horizon again, startled every few seconds by the police radio static.