“Hell is other people” is one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s most famous quotes. It comes from his play “No Exit”, in which three unpleasant people spend their first day in hell. It’s just a room, and the door doesn’t work.
This is not what was going through my head when I got locked in the toilet at home the other night.
I tried all the practical things: I fiddled with the lock, I turned the handle. I did the stupid things that people do in movies: I jiggled the handle and pulled on the door. It became clear the mechanism in the handle was broken and I was trapped.
I thought of an old birthday party when I was about seven or eight years old, at the old house where I grew up. For some inexplicable reason, the toilet had a lock on the outside.
I remember us kids being called to account by Mum, all standing in a circle in the hallway while she uttered the legend: “Who locked Uncle Stan in the toilet?”
Poor Uncle Stan. How long had he been in there? I hadn’t locked him in. Being a goody-two-shoes, such a thing wouldn’t ever occur to me. It was probably one of my female cousins, they were always the ones stirring up shit.
A few years later, Uncle Stan collapsed in the garden unexpectedly and died. I was there when it happened. I went to a room with my cousins and hid. I was old enough to understand that something bad had happened.
And then an odd thought occurred to me: I shouldn’t be here. This is a very personal, private family moment. I should get out of the way, so I’m not a nuisance.
But they were my family. Why shouldn’t I be there?
Back in the toilet, I started banging on the door in the hope that George and Nick upstairs would hear me. I wasn’t going to start screaming like Jennifer Jones in The Towering Inferno.
A slight panic overtook me. The door was obviously busted. Even if they do hear me, how are they going to open it? It’s the only way out of the bathroom.
Eventually, George heard me and came downstairs. The door opened from the other side, he gave me a hug and we decided it was probably a good idea not to shut the door again until it gets fixed.
Last night, I was too depressed to go out to the RUOK Day Vicbears dinner. The irony of that was not lost on me. A number of possible options ran through my head – the typical coping mechanisms of the depressed: I could get drunk. I could go man-hunting on an app, go out and get laid. I could go to bed, possibly with the aid of more than the recommended dosage of sedative meds.
I did none of these things. I decided to talk to someone instead. It was not an easy conversation. There were tears involved. There was shit dredged up from my past which still dogs me. There were long periods of silence.
But at the end of it all, I felt better. Outpourings of emotion and disconnected thoughts gave way to understanding, clear thought, and even a few laughs.
Hell is not other people, it’s created in our own minds, as it always has been. And sometimes we lock ourselves in the toilet.