Sarah had once been a carefree person with a sunny disposition. Her mother shook her head in disbelief, not knowing how or exactly when her chatty, cheerful little girl had evolved into a morose young woman with nerves as taut as piano wire.
She tried to talk to Sarah.
“I’m fine, Mummy,” was the response. “No, there’s nothing wrong. I’m just a bit tired I suppose. Working long hours.”
Vanessa Gordon wasn’t at all reassured. Her daughter’s smile was too bright and artificial in a face that was pale and drawn. There were dark circles under her eyes, and she looked thinner. Her dark hair was lank and unkempt. This was not the girl she knew and loved, but until her daughter admitted something was wrong there was little else she could do apart from encourage the girl to talk.
Vanessa liked Eddie, her daughter’s boyfriend. Sarah and Eddie had been living together for a couple of years. Vanessa hoped they would eventually marry. Eddie was a hearty fellow with a ready laugh, a science teacher at a local comprehensive who liked to play rugby at the weekend. Vanessa tried to get Eddie’s perspective on the change in Sarah, but he just shrugged.
“I dunno, Nessa. I put it mostly down to Women’s Troubles,” he said with an embarrassed grin.
Sarah was all too aware of the concern expressed by her nearest and dearest, but try as she might she could find little enthusiasm for life. She tried to pretend that everything was fine, but they knew her too well. The old Sarah would never have burst into tears at the drop of a hat. But now she stumbled through her days, feeling as though she was on an endless treadmill. Struggling to keep up with the demands of her job, battling to remember things like buying fresh milk and bread and turning up on time for a dental appointment. It was all she could do to try and keep some semblance of order and cleanliness at home. Eddie was not much in the housework or tidiness stakes. Each night she fell into bed exhausted, but slept fitfully and awoke well before dawn.
One of the girls at work suggested she make a list of things she had to do. So Sarah started writing lists in her desk diary. She also wrote various tasks on post-it notes and stuck them on her computer. The habit spilled over into her home life. Sarah bought a notebook, and on Friday night she would head a page for each day of the following week and write down everything that needed to be done each day. She found it helped. It was satisfying crossing off items on her lists or crumpling up post-it notes when tasks had been completed. It made her feel a bit more in control.
Sarah had been in her current employment for around five years. She had joined the company as a secretary but had been promoted to an admin role after about eighteen months. She had at first been thrilled that her boss saw her as something more than just a secretary, but after a while the endless statistical reports started to grind her down. In order to keep up with Tony Sinclair’s demands she started going in to the office earlier and leaving later. Just a half hour at first, then it stretched to an hour. Then she started working through her lunch break. Recently the company had upgraded the computer system, causing Sarah a lot of extra work bringing data on the old system up to date. She supposed it was at this point that sleepless nights became a real cause of anxiety. Then the strange dizzy spells started. The first one had happened while she was showering. Next thing she knew she was on her knees, gasping for breath under the onslaught of water but lacking the strength to turn the shower off.
Frightened, Sarah made an appointment to see her doctor. He listened, fingers steepled in front of his face, as the young woman spoke with some difficulty about her troubles. She spoke as though she was talking about somebody else, and this worried him.
When she had run out of words he spoke. “It sounds to me like your job is causing you too much stress. You have difficulty unwinding. You seem to have lost the key to happiness. In order to find your key you need to either look for another, less stressful, job, or take steps to deal with stress more effectively.”
Sarah tried to concentrate as the doctor listed helpful things she could do, but his words became a jumble in her mind. She found the ‘key’ analogy a bit patronising. All she could focus on was the hairs on his hands, still steepled in front of his face. She left the surgery with a prescription for an assortment of pills and a leaflet about stress management.
After a couple of weeks Sarah found the pills were helping a bit. Some mornings she awoke after an unbroken night’s sleep, and she could feel it doing her good. The anti-depressants made her feel a bit dizzy at times, but at least she was crying less often. She felt numb, sort of dumbed-down, wrapped in cotton wool, but at least she was coping a bit better.
The following weekend Eddie went away with his rugby team. After seeing him off on Saturday morning, Sarah thought she’d give the flat a thorough cleaning, then settle down with a good book. While cleaning she kept thinking someone was knocking at the door, but when she reached the door there was no-one there. The fourth time this happened she banged the door behind her, shouting for the annoying person to go away and leave her in peace. Then she started to feel as though someone was peering at her through the windows. Yet when she turned around there was no-one there. She closed the curtains, but then it was too dark to see what she was doing. So she abandoned the cleaning and took up her book. She couldn’t concentrate long enough to follow the story. The words seemed to drift about on the page. She could still hear noises outside, as though someone was creeping about. Logic told Sarah that the flat was secure, but still she felt nervous. No matter which room she was in, she felt as though someone was following her every move.
When Eddie returned on Sunday evening he found Sarah slumped unconscious in a chair. Empty wine and tablet bottles on the table told their tale. Cursing that he never should have left her alone, he carried her out to the car and rushed her to hospital.
The doctor said another couple of hours would have been too late. Sarah stayed in hospital for three days.
Eddie ‘phoned her boss on Monday morning.
“She won’t be coming back,” he said, unusually surly for the normally cheerful Eddie. “You’ll have to find some other mug to do your donkey work.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” protested Tony Sinclair.
“Oh, I think you do. That job has turned Sarah into a zombie. No-one should have to rely on a load of pills to cope at work.”
“I hardly see it as my fault that Sarah can’t cope with her workload ….” began Tony Sinclair, but Eddie had already slammed the ‘phone down.
Eddie felt guilty that he hadn’t done more. He hadn’t even known that Sarah was taking medication. He sought legal advice in the hope that Sinclair could be brought to book for mistreatment of his employee, but drew a blank. To make a successful claim Sarah would have needed to show written evidence that she had complained to her employer of unfair treatment over a period of time.
Back at home, Sarah took on board the knowledge that she wouldn’t be going back to her job. At first she was angry with Eddie for interfering, but she didn’t really have the strength to protest. She heaved a sigh. Perhaps it was for the best. Armed with a different selection of tablets, her priority was to rest and recover. She expected to feel better after a couple of weeks.
Sarah was not to know that the job she had just left would haunt her dreams for years to come. She did her best not to dwell on her experiences during the day, but despite taking sleeping tablets she would often wake in the dead of night, heart pounding and sweat pouring from her body. She was only thankful that she had Eddie to protect her from the outside world. Little did she know what the vagaries of ill fortune had in store for them.
By Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015