I Never Asked His Name

(Diriye Osman is photographed by Bahareh Hosseini)

I spent the summer of 2004 in a secure psychiatric institution in London. I had experienced a horrific psychotic episode and as a result I stopped my studies and embarked on a leave of absence from university. Traumatized by the aural and visual hallucinations I was experiencing, I stopped speaking altogether. There were no beds at my local, low-security mental hospital so I was shipped off to an institution that was reserved for men who had committed horrendous crimes, many of whom had to wear handcuffs when in the communal areas. Isolated and in a state of over-medicated stupefaction, I wandered up and down my assigned ward as though it were a desolate dreamscape, a subterranean enclave within my muddled mind. I watched in disengaged silence as grown men were tackled to the ground, stripped and injected with tranquilizers as they howled for God. I watched in disengaged silence as poverty-stricken patients picked up cigarette butts from the ground and tried to light them up. I watched in disengaged silence as starving patients sprinted to join the daily lunch queue, desperate for food. I carefully parceled up my humanity and locked it up in the attic inside my head, hoping to be able to retrieve it in the future.

I spent six months in that mental hospital, and during those six months I considered the fact that I might not survive this experience. For the first time in my life, I faced up to the fact that this was a fight I might not win. Up until then, I was so used to winning in the face of extraordinary circumstances that the realization that I might lose on this occasion turned me to stone.

There were three men sharing my hospital room with me and one of them was a teenager. At night this young man made disturbing sounds: a sonic halfway-house between choking, drawing up phlegm and howling. Unable to sleep, I would sometimes go over to his bed to see if he was OK only to realize that he was dreaming and was not, as I feared, dying. In the morning I would see him eating his breakfast in the dining-room, quietly going about his day, his tinny stereo playing Adina Howard's "Freak like Me" on loop.

The only time this young man would speak to me was when we were in the smoking room together and he needed to borrow a cigarette. I would always oblige but I did not want to make conversation. I didn't ask him what his name was. I didn't ask him what his life was like outside of the hospital. I didn't ask him about his night terrors. I was afraid, in that callous way that ignorant people are afraid of difference, that his madness was contagious and incurable. I still harbored hopes that I would recover, and this young, vulnerable boy whose mental illness manifested in giveaway physical markers, tics, was simply a minor signpost on the map of my journey to well-being.

Many years later I was waiting for the bus, my completed dissertation in my bag. I was heading to university to hand it in and at the bus-stop decided to spark up a cigarette. A young man with a familiar face walked up to me and shyly asked me for a cigarette. It was my former roommate from the mental hospital. He now walked with a lurch to his gait and his hands trembled. He was making the same feral sounds he used to make in his sleep but he was no longer asleep. I handed him four cigarettes to assuage my guilt. He smiled and thanked me. I asked if he remembered me. He shook his head.

"We were in the same room in the hospital," I said.

"You were in the hospital?" he said, sizing me up. "Rah, you're doing well. Where are you off to now?"

"I have to go to uni to hand in my dissertation," I said.

"Congrats, man. Boy done good. Rah!"

My bus came into view and I said goodbye. As I got on the bus and sat down, the young man smiled and waved at me. I waved back and wondered what his life would have been like if he had received the kind of support and opportunities I was lucky enough to have obtained. I wondered what would have happened if I had lost the will to survive my time in the mental hospital. I wondered if I too would have been standing on the street begging for cigarettes. I wondered if the young man had a family. I wondered if he was happy.

As I contemplated these things and secretly congratulated myself on a successful life, I realized that I didn't even ask the young man the most basic question: his name.

Diriye Osman is the Polari Prize-winning author of 'Fairytales for Lost Children (Team Angelica), a collection of acclaimed short stories about the LGBT Somali experience. You can purchase Fairytales for Lost Children here. You can connect with Diriye Osman via Tumblr. He will be performing at The Huddersfield Literature Festival, The Polari Salon and The London Short Story Festival.