Brief Encounter

Updated: Jun 3

This year has been the most incredible period of self-growth for me, yet last month my attention was drawn to a book that would turn my entire view of myself and my life on its head. I found it thanks to the writer, Lauren Sapala, a writing coach who has read and shared my blogs for over a year now. It's called The INFJ Revolution. Within its pages I found the answer to every question I'd ever

had about myself, and up until that day I began reading it I'd never heard the term 'INFJ personality' before.

I confess, I don't like labels. Through experience, reading a lot of self-help books and a period of therapy earlier in the year I'd learned I'm a highly sensitive person and that it's okay to be proud to speak out about it, so have worn that label in the same place I wear my heart: firmly on my sleeve. I've learned that it's nothing for me to be ashamed of. Yet there are parts of myself and my personality that I've held back from absolutely everyone because, quite frankly, I thought I was weird. Whilst I believe the Meyers Briggs personality test should be used more of a guide for understanding ourselves rather than fitting us into a one-size-fits-all label for who we are, Lauren Sapala's book has opened a door for me to find out that I'm not alone in my 'weirdness' and that, in fact, I'm not weird at all. Just different. And have a highly intuitive voice inside of me that I've been choosing to cover up and largely ignore all my life. It can be a lonely existence being who I am because people often find themselves telling me deeply personal things I haven't asked them about without really meaning to or understanding why. And very soon many of them wish they hadn't or decide I must have tricked or manipulated the information out of them. Then they start to distrust, avoid me and/or leave. To use one example from the many things I learned, I thought I'd been gullible in some of my questionable relationship choices; that I was too trusting. Until now. Thanks to Lauren's book, I'm beginning to pause to listen properly to my deep-thinking self and learning to trust my natural intuition more, hoping to use it for the greater good. And now I know there are other people out there going through a lot of the same things I've been keeping to myself for all these years.

Last Tuesday, having finished the book and thinking about this plausible new side to my personality, I inadvertently tested the theory that I may not be so gullible or too-trusting after all. It came about on a short train journey home from a networking event I'd attended. I'd had a few glasses of (free) wine, which admittedly made it easier - and me braver - but the result turned out to be a poignant and strange story. I listened to my intuition, went with my gut-feeling about someone, which I have ignored to my detriment in the past, and I think/hope it paid off.

*Note: I've changed some of the details of the other person in this true story in order to protect his identity.

I rushed down the steps to the platform where the last train to Larkhall (pictured) was waiting, only to find a young, well-dressed man staggering around lost. As people were ignoring and running around him to jump on board, he was asking no one in particular if this was the train to Hamilton.

'Yes, it is,' I said, grabbing his arm and pulling him on to the train with me, knowing it was about to leave. Satisfied he was on and safe, I sat down and within seconds he had parked himself opposite me on what was a relatively quiet train full of empty seats, and begun opening then tearing hungrily into the salad wrap he was carrying. I observed him for a few seconds, and then went to myself and my own feelings in the moment. There it was; this fleeting thought that he was deeply upset about something. Of course, there would have been a series of visual clues now that I think about it after the fact. There was some huffing; the way he ripped open the sandwich - perhaps angrily? He was a young, fit man maybe in his early twenties - clearly very drunk - and I perhaps should have been afraid to speak to him, but for reasons I can't properly explain, I wasn't. My intuition, that thing I had never trusted or believed could be in any way accurate before, told me I should and also that it was safe to in a matter of seconds. Even with a few wines in me, I wouldn't normally start a conversation with a drunk stranger on a late night train.

'What's wrong?' I asked.

He looked at me for a moment, puffed out his cheeks and continued to stare out of the window into the darkness. I thought he was going to ignore the nosy woman sat opposite him as many young person might do when they're angry at the world. Then he looked back at me again.

'Why do people have to fucking die?' he said.

'I don't honestly know,' I replied. Then I waited, rather than asking, for his story.

The man leaned forward in his seat, staring right into my eyes, and said, almost matter-of-factly, 'My grannie's dying.' He sat back again, taking another bite of the wrap.

'I'm sorry,' I said. 'How old is she?'


'Shit.' I paused for thought; the picture of a poorly, elderly lady I had in my mind dissolving. 'That's not old at all. What is it?'

'Cancer,' he announced, folding his arms with the half-eaten wrap still clasped in one hand so that bits of meat and what I assumed to be mayonnaise fell on his sleeve. 'What would you say to that?'

'Nothing,' I replied truthfully. 'There's nothing anyone can say to that except sorry. It's terrible, and bloody hard.'

The man crossed his legs, still fixing me with a stare. Yet he looked less angry now, more interested; perhaps seeing me for the first time, I thought. He spoke briefly about other things - things he was interested in and his thoughts on the world in general, before announcing: 'I've been to thirty funerals this year. Thirty! What would you say to that?' He unfolded his arms and took another bite of wrap, satisfied that I wouldn't have an answer.

He would have been right on a normal day. But I was a bit tiddly myself, so the next thing I did was to go off on one, not really caring about who else on the train would hear - something I definitely wouldn't have done had I been completely sober.

'There's nothing anyone can say to change how that must feel for you,' I admitted. 'But believe it or not, you can change how it feels for yourself with time. I've suffered a huge loss this year - my oldest son. And maybe you didn't sit here by accident, because what I can tell you for certain is that you have to find the lessons from your losses, and nobody on this train can demonstrate that this bullshit-sounding fact works better than I can. It's the shittest thing to hear when you're grieving and trying to make sense of the frankly fucking horrible things that are happening to you. But I know, because I'm there experiencing it all now, that there's a reason for all of it. A real reason; and you have to find it and then you have to find a way to use it for something.'

'There's nothing anyone can say to change how that must feel for you,' I admitted. 'But believe it or not, you can change how it feels for yourself with time.'

Sure, I rambled even more drunkenly than even this sounds and I swore a lot in response to his doing the same. I don't remember all of it, but I do remember he sat up straighter, looking sorry at this point, and said, 'Jeez!'

He went on to ask how my son died and I told him it was a diabetic coma. Then I told him my son was gay and a cross dresser, and that I, a comedy writer, was now pouring all of the pain and abuse he'd suffered for that into my work to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues. I told him how I want the world to be a better place because my son was here, and writing about it seemed the best way to do that for me.

'No,' he said, sounding angry again. 'Don't write about that! Write about JDRF [Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund] and the great work they do for diabetic kids!'

In that sentence and his return to anger, I thought I heard bigotry. I thought I sensed and heard ignorance surrounding LGBTQ+ issues - ignorance of the fact that an equally significant number of people around the world die from being open about their sexuality as from the also important issue of diabetes. I could have been very wrong; perhaps a relative of his had died due to diabetic complications. Yet still I saw a man in pain first. I brushed my other thoughts aside, the ones I would normally try to dig deeper into, feeling that this wasn't the conversation I needed to have in the fifteen or so minutes I was going to have talking with this drunk stranger on the train. As I write I can't tell you why. Like many people, I can become abnormally argumentative about things I'm passionate about with a drink in me. Not today.

'Whatever you do,' I told him calmly. 'Do something with what you learn, because you're not going through this extraordinary level of loss for nothing unless you decide you are.'

I noticed his eyes misting now, and finishing the wrap in a bite he turned to look out of the window. It was clear he didn't want me to see he was fighting the urge to cry. 'Ten of my mates committed suicide,' he admitted, looking back at me briefly before fixing his stare on the floor between us.

Even though I wondered how the hell anyone could suffer so many bereavements in such a short space of time, I hadn't asked.

'And I could have guessed about six of them,' he went on, looking up now. 'Six of them were obvious. But the other four -' He stopped, still determinedly fighting back tears and shaking his head. 'I had no idea,' he said after a moment. 'Or I might have been able to stop them.'

'No, you can't blame yourself. It's not your fault.'

He shook his head again, remembering his anger at the world in a moment. 'It's such a fucking selfish thing to do!' he barked. 'All the people they left... they hurt...!'

'It's not a selfish act,' I said. 'My son explained it to me once. He said he'd thought about killing himself as a teenager while he was being bullied a lot at school. He told me you don't think about all the people you're leaving behind in that way; you think you're doing them all a favour. You believe that everyone's going to be better off without you around.'

At this the man finally began to let the tears fall. 'Your son's right,' he said, wiping his eyes. 'Your son is absolutely right.' He then went on to tell me that he'd been wandering around Glasgow and the train station for a while that day and into the evening, thinking of ending his life.

An announcement rang out on the train: the next stop would be Hamilton Central - his stop. I didn't have a handily placed leaflet in my pocket to pass the guy. I hadn't memorised the number for The Samaritans. I had precious few minutes to make my point before he was gone. But, me being me, what I did next came from somewhere inside that never had any time for thinking things through. I leaned forward and held out my hand to him. 'Take it,' I ordered.

He looked at me, then my hand, and turned to stare back out of the window.

'Take my hand!' I said more loudly. 'Come on, you're never going to see me again after tonight, so just do as you're told.'

Huffing, he took my hand but wouldn't meet my gaze.

'Look at me,' I said.

He rolled his eyes before finally facing me.

'Don't you make my son's life be for nothing,' I said, staring hard at him.

'No... don't you... don't you do that,' he stammered, starting to sob but keeping his hand in mine.

I held onto him, looking him directly in the eyes. 'You did sit here for a reason,' I told him with a kind smile. 'I'm your fucking angel tonight, Okay?' I laughed at this, and was relieved when he did too. Then I went on seriously. 'My son didn't have a choice to live,' I said. 'You do. Don't you dare waste that.'

The train slowed and as I released his hand he wiped his tears on the sleeve of his jacket, laughing at himself at the same time. Sense of humour intact, my mind told me. This ability to laugh at myself and in the middle of my misery has always been my saviour too.

'Oh and this is your stop,' I said, grinning at him. I was trying hard not to look as concerned as I felt, again, I can't tell you why that seemed important. I'm not a counsellor.

He stood up and made his way wordlessly to the door.

'What do you do for a living?' I called after him, thinking in the moment about what he might do with the rest of his life and hoping I might be able to offer some more positive advice before he got off the train.

'I'm a boxer,' came the reply.

The train stopped.

'You mean to tell me I just saved you so you can go on to beat the shit out of people on a weekly basis?' I said, laughing as my 'more positive advice' fell off the table.

'That's right!' He grinned back, giving me a thumbs up sign as the beeps rang out to signal that the train doors were about to open.

'And you're my bloody angel too because you know now I have to write this,' I told him. 'It's the perfect, imperfect ending.'

Then the doors were open, the cold came rushing in and the young man who I'll never see again stepped off the train and out into the night. I was satisfied to notice what I knew to be a real smile on his face as he left. I can't know whether I helped him or said the right things, but I hoped that somewhere through his onward journey he might find a way to keep it there.

'Whatever you do,' I told him calmly. 'Do something with what you learn, because you're not going through this extraordinary level of loss for nothing unless you decide you are.'


© 2020 created by Heather Smith.