This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
I lived with him for over a year, but never knew much about him. There was something caring about our relationship, even if we were just living together out of convenience. It's convenient that there's someone to switch off the burner on the stove you've forgotten about, or turn off the faucet when you got distracted drawing a bath. It's comforting to know that if you're choking, there's someone there to give you the Heimlich or call 112. It's comforting to know that if you died, someone would find you quickly enough to allow for an open casket funeral.
Even so, we'd maybe exchange about 40 words a week. We would say "morning" to each other in the morning and a casual "hey" later in the afternoon, or "sorry" if we happened to find ourselves in the kitchen at the same time. We never argued about cleaning. I would clean the kitchen and his invisible hand would tidy up the bathroom. Every month I would leave a stack of bills on the kitchen table before I went to work – which would be gone by the time I came home.
We quickly warm to strangers when it's convenient. We get into their cars to save on taxi fare, trust them with our house keys to pay for our holidays and sleep in the room next to them to make rent.
I had no idea that my flatmate suffered from psychotic episodes until social workers showed up at my door to take him to hospital on a Monday. The episode had started on the Friday before.
That Friday, I had noticed that he was singing and being a lot louder than usual. But I, a habitual round-the-house singer, attributed it to a new level of intimacy. Although he didn't seem sick, he told me to stay away from him because he had a bad flu. He had given himself a pretty rough haircut – mostly shaved, but with some stray patches of hair here and there.
On Saturday he was playing trap music on an endless loop while techno two-stepping around the apartment in a robe. But since this was Berlin, I just assumed he had dropped acid and had some dancing to take care of. I stuck to that story even when he was yelling unintelligible things throughout the night.
His ex-girlfriend's Scottish Fold cats ran into my room on Sunday morning. They had been at the apartment for two months during the summer, so we had become good friends. He asked me if I'd take care of them for a while, and announced he was going on a trip.
Later that day, I walked into the bathroom and saw his goldfish swimming in the bath, but I assumed he was just cleaning out the fish tank.
There was an attempt at homemade wet cat food in the blender, consisting of vitamin C tablets, cat treats and the goldfish from the bathtub.
That night, his yelling was so loud and persistent that the cats were afraid to leave my side. That's when I realised something was wrong, but I had no idea what to do about it. I stayed the night, bracing myself every time I heard him pace past my door.
I woke up to the doorbell. It was a man and woman who said that they were with the Amtsartzt – a German version of social services – and that they were there to see my housemate. They wanted to inspect the house, which had turned into a wasteland overnight. The neighbours had apparently called in to report his psychotic episode.
When I went to look for him, he was gone. The social workers left, asking me to call if he reappeared.
Shortly afterwards another visitor appeared: his ex-girlfriend. She told me she had brought the cats over earlier to calm him down, and was now here to take him to a hospital. He'd probably be away for a month or two. We waited together until he finally came home and calmly left with her.
Dumbstruck, I kept myself busy and cleaned up the mess. There were dead fish in every vase, there was yellow paint on the floor and walls and he had smashed a guitar and a bass guitar. There was an attempt at homemade wet cat food in the blender, consisting of vitamin C tablets, cat treats and the goldfish from the bathtub. With two pints of vinegar and some elbow grease I managed to rid my apartment of the stale smell of aquarium.
I decided to leave the house and process it all at a coffee shop, where I received a call from the ex, asking me to let her in to grab some clothes and books to hold him over during his time in hospital.
As we went up the stairs, we found him barefoot in front of the door. He had checked himself out and greeted us with a chipper, "Hi, thanks for letting me in." Sensing the need for privacy given the ensuing fight, I left to finish my coffee. When I came back, the contents of our living room were scattered across the courtyard and my flatmate was being dragged out of the building by ten policemen. He had thrown two iMacs, a chair, some paintings, house plants, and a bunch of letters out the fourth floor window.
I told the police that I was his housemate and they asked if I could clean up the courtyard – which I did. Afterwards I made my way upstairs and again spent hours cleaning the freshly trashed apartment. Bookshelves were knocked over, coin jars were emptied on the floor, and flower petals picked off of every plant.
My flatmate has bipolar disorder, which means that he can go for long periods of time, even years, feeling normal, before he slips into weeks of depression balanced by weeks of manic chaos. While it can be treated with medication and therapy, certain triggers can send him into a hyperactive delusional state where he can become a very real danger to himself.
According to his ex, this was the fourth time it had happened and it was what happens if he ever touches drugs or alcohol. She was careful to add that I wasn't in any danger. After some time in treatment and some meds, he would be fine. I decided that I wasn't going to let his illness change our relationship and believed that when he'd come back, things would return to the way they were.
Over the next couple of weeks his ex dropped by to grab hygiene products and his current girlfriend came over to bring some clothes and books. The current girlfriend was your average Berlin club-girl – undercut, septum piercing and bumbag full of fun pills. During the breakdown she had been unavailable due to the fact that she was partying for four days straight.
My heart dropped every time one of them opened the door, scared that he had come home early. The current girlfriend had become a little too comfortable with the apartment keys and tried to bring guys home from clubs on the weekends.
Two weeks after the police took him away, my housemate sent me a message on Facebook saying that he was coming back. I welcomed him home, assuming that the medical professionals treating him wouldn't let him go unless he was better. He wasn't.
It quickly started all over again. He un-potted all of the mini cactuses and put them in a pitcher, tried to make coffee by putting beans in a hot water kettle and left the stove on. He nearly flooded the bathroom and spent every night screaming over industrial techno. It was a nightmare, but I wasn't asleep.
I stayed in my room all night listening to him scream while the neighbours banged on the ceiling and ringed the doorbell. I was both hoping and dreading that someone would call the police. I didn't call them because I didn't know exactly what to say – and I was scared of his reaction if he'd hear me do it.
I strung myself together with caffeine and cigarettes the next morning and went to work. When I came home he seemed to have relaxed a bit. The apartment was still a disaster, but he was just in his room watching TV, like he used to do. I thought that the medication must have kicked in and that things would finally go back to normal.
At 02:00, he was manic again.
I briefly and gratefully fell asleep at 08:00, but when I woke an hour later, the front door was wide open and he was gone. The girlfriend had not been by to return his keys, so he was locked out when I left for work.
Around 16:00, social services called at work to tell me they had found him inside the apartment. He had scratched away at the front door with his nails until he could open the latch. Once inside, he had put seashells and the fish tank's air pump in the sink, and filled up the bathtub with clothes and bleach.
"We are taking him back to hospital," they told me. "But you should probably come home because the apartment no longer locks and the door is open."
I went home, cleaned up and called my parents to tell them that I was flying back home to the United States for a week. My name had been scratched off the buzzer, door and mailbox, and I had found all my swimsuits scattered around the house with the busts cut out.
Even knowing that he was locked away I jumped every time I heard someone coming up the stairs. My neighbours told me that they had denied him knives to get inside while he was locked out – he had gotten aggressive with them and muttered things about me.
During my time away, his parents tried to take him back home to Spain, but he was too much for them to handle and stayed in the institution. He sent me messages saying that the police had searched our place on suspicions of terrorism. That was the moment I decided that I couldn't live there anymore.
I arrived back in Berlin at noon, picked up the keys to a temporary flat at one, and had my things packed and moved by five.
There is a part of me that feels guilty for leaving him, but there's another that feels like a naive narcissist for even thinking that I could help when those closest to him couldn't. I was the last to know about his condition, the last to know when he was coming home and the first who these changes affected.
A psychotic episode really is the worst time to get to know the person you live with.
If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, talk to RSMH on 08-12 00 80 40 or at their website, here.
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