Surprise vendors on life during the coronavirus crisis

Interviews by Diana Frei and Klaus Petrus, Surprise

Surprise vendor Sandra: “I’m right at the beginning”

For me the coronavirus crisis doesn’t actually make any difference. For instance, I never really went shopping much. I never wanted to buy anything apart from alcohol. My addiction was the reason I was in hospital. Afterwards you go home and suddenly you’re left to your own devices. Alone in your own four walls. Perhaps you go for a walk. But you lack money and courage. And mates. You have to change your social circle; you can’t hang out with drinkers. You’re very lonely. You ask yourself why you stopped drinking.

It feels as if through the pandemic, the rest of the world is getting a bit closer to my experiences and feelings. When things are normal, you always know that everyone else is working. You always have the feeling that you’re missing something. You know you’ve failed. I know from others in similar situations that they feel the same way.

At 14 or 15 I was diagnosed with depression and started drinking. When you’re that young you can’t imagine that a pill might be able to help. Alcohol I knew about. I knew that it helped immediately; it killed the feelings. Or made me cry. It does something to ease the pain. My mother suffered from depression and anxiety like I do. Today I’m on a 100 per cent disability pension. But I always wanted to function. I worked in the service sector, in a bakery, in a motorbike shop, and I trained to be a potter. The depression always came back. I drank and then lost my jobs again.

Sandra Brühlmann (37) was the first woman in Zurich to lead Surprise social tours of the city. [Credit: Lucia Hunziker]

A psychologist prescribed me three different anti-depressants; at some point he gave me Ritalin. It was 57 tablets per day. First, things improved: I went all Speedy Gonzalez, was able to work more, achieve more. And then suddenly there was a big breakdown. I developed a psychosis. I stopped drinking but started going crazy. People started avoiding me. I’d hear things that weren’t there. I was afraid to go to sleep, to close my eyes. I stayed awake for days. I walked around Zurich as if in a game. Everything was unreal. I took someone in because I’d mistaken him for someone else. I didn’t recognise people anymore and thought they were filling my apartment with gas. I took sleeping pills, retained fluid and got bruises from even light pressure. Those were probably side effects. I was only skin and bone and was wasting away in the apartment. At some point I was found by the police and taken away in handcuffs.

My apartment was cleared out; I lived on the street. It wasn’t until later at Suneboge, a residential and working community, that I noticed all the good things in life. The trips with other people do me so much good. To the open-air museum in Ballenberg or to the Sihl river. It’s so important to be able to do things like that. To find a purpose in life again. I was so thankful when I came out of the psychosis. It was as if I was really living for the first time.

Now I’m 37 and have missed my chance of having a career and a family. I’m right at the beginning. But I’ve now been teetotal for six years, I’m on good medication and am stable; I live independently in an apartment.

I’d like to train to be a peer supporter. In peer support, people who have been through a psychiatric crisis themselves help others to find their way. I’ve read that only a small percentage of people find their way out of their problems, their addition. It must be possible to raise those percentages. I’ve got a few ideas and believe I could contribute something there.

Surprise vendor Ghide: “I laugh. They laugh back”

As a single dad I always have to be on the ball. The day starts early. I get the children ready – my son’s in first grade, my daughter goes to nursery – and as soon as they’re out of the house I start cleaning the apartment, doing the washing, shopping or selling Surprise. In the afternoon when the children get home from school, we get their homework done and then go out to play.

Now of course, with the coronavirus, it’s all changed. For me the routine’s become even tighter. Now I have to keep the children entertained the whole day; I help my son with his schoolwork, play a lot with my daughter. Both of them like football; we go out in the fresh air or do some skipping with the rope at home. That’s fun and the kids get some exercise, which is good for mind and body. That way they’re not always in front of the TV!

I am very sporty. Even as a boy I ran a lot and rode my bike. I grew up in the countryside in Eritrea. My father was a farmer; my mother died when I was five. So I had to work a lot from an early age. I didn’t go to school until I was eleven. But that made me really eager to learn. I wanted to be able to read, write and do maths as soon as possible. And I always had a job as well. That’s how I was able to buy my first bicycle, a racing bike, with my own money. I was very proud of that. From that moment on I trained hard. Years later I cycled in races and even won a few competitions. Until I had to join the army. Nobody tells you how long you have to serve: whether it’s only a few years or maybe your whole life. After two years I fled. I could no longer see any perspective. I went to Sudan on foot, and from there to Libya where – without having done anything – I was put in prison. Fortunately, I was in good condition. I was able to flee and simply ran away. I managed to escape over the sea to Italy and from there to Switzerland. That was in 2008. I’ve been living here since then.

Ghide Gherezgihier (39) sells Surprise in Biel and wants to master life's challenges like a good athlete. [Credit: Klaus Petrus]

Surprise is very important for me. Not just because of the money I earn by selling the magazine, but also for the social contacts. If you’re on the streets as often as I am, you know lots of people. Most of them I don’t see at the moment because of the virus, which is a real shame. I miss them. Sometimes when I walk through the city or go shopping, people call out.  They say hello and ask how things are going. There was a woman recently who wanted to give me a hug, but of course that’s not possible right now. I think people will also be pleased when we can finally be back on the street selling our magazine. Then I’ll try again to infect them with my energy. I think people notice that and appreciate it. I laugh and they laugh back. That’s nice. And anyway, I believe that when you give something, you also get something back.

Sometimes I see life as a challenge for me to overcome, like a good sportsman. I have to rely on myself. I don’t have a wife or family here who could support me. Of course, I’m often tired in the evening and sometimes sad, too. But then I try to think about something else and to focus on what I have and what I need to do. Why should I keep thinking about things I’m missing, when I can’t change the situation anyway? That would just drain the energy that I need so much. I have to be strong. I want to fight and never give up – if only because of my children, because I want to be a role model for them.

Translated from German by Jane Eggers