I’m lying in my preschool son’s bed, reading him his bedtime stories. We read Madeline, then We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, then A Dark, Dark Tale. Spoiler alert, at the end of A Dark, Dark Tale there’s a surprised little mouse. That’s basically the worst thing that happens in the whole book.
“That’s a scary story!” says my son happily, even though he loves the book and requests it every night.
“What makes it scary?” I ask. He frowns and thinks.
“It’s dark in the house,” he says at first. Then he surprises me. “And you don’ know what happen next.”
Yes, I think, actually that’s right. It’s not the mouse, of course. It’s the not knowing that’s the scary bit.
I dim his lamp and re-arrange the blankets. I wrap my arm around his belly and we settle into the shape of each other’s bodies. His breathing gets deeper, then slower, until sleep finds him. I’m not tired enough to fall asleep beside him. In fact, although my body is still my mind is wide awake and full of curious questions. A lot of them don’t make any sense.
Is there water coming down from the ceiling? (No).
Has someone else come into the house? (No).
Why am I being chased?
This is what I call my wonky thinking. Wonky thinking happens in the ten minutes or so before I start hearing voices or seeing something that isn’t really there. Or the most difficult thing of all, believing something that isn’t true. Wonky thinking is something I do battle with in my mind: arguing back that’s not true, that isn’t happening, there’s no-one here but us. The wonky thoughts battle back. There is someone else in the house, they insist. Or else why would it feel like you’re being chased?
I slip out of my son’s bedroom, managing to escape tonight without that one spring in the mattress squeaking. My husband’s still busy putting my daughter to bed and the living room is empty. Or it would be empty, if the white man were not standing by the doors.
The white man is a familiar and regular hallucination of mine. Young and serious, he has cropped white hair, white eyebrows, fair skin and wears a neat white suit with a white tie and shirt. Creative nickname I gave him, I know. As he often does, he stands by the curtained front doors and gestures outwards.
“He wants you to go outside,” says a voice. Not a real voice, although it feels just as if it comes from the room – not like a thought at all. And not a man’s voice or a woman’s voice. I can’t explain it but the voice is as genderless as it is disembodied.
“Go outside,” says the voice again, more insistent. “It’s safer outside because inside you’re being chased.”
I’m not being chased I’m not being chased I’m not being chased, I remind myself.
A second voice from nowhere chimes in.
“There’s someone in the house chasing you! There is!” This voice is more excited. “Go with the white man. Go outside. You’ll be safe there, he can find you somewhere safe to hide.”
The two voices agree with each other and chatter back and forth about the white man and how important it is to go outside. The white man says nothing, but he points at the door behind the curtains again. He seems frustrated at my inaction. Fair enough – I’m standing there, frozen in the living room, one foot in each world. There’s the real world, and the world my mind has invented. Those thoughts, memories and fears that somehow I’ve spun into existence, but only visible to an audience of one.
Do I go outside? I feel such a strong pull to run away from this house, to get out, to find safety, to stop feeling like someone’s about to find me and hurt me in my own home. I open up the curtains properly and unbolt the top and bottom of the door. Then I rub the window clear of condensation so I can see out. But the tiny noise I’ve made unlocking the door has thrown my husband out of our daughter’s bedroom like an earthquake has struck. He knows exactly what that sounds means.
“Hey, hey! You can’t do that.” He calls me back to Earth. “It’s night time. You’re not going outside.” We make eye contact and he tries again, voice softer. “You’re at home and we’ve just put the kids to bed, remember?”
The white man looks at me, almost sulking. He still doesn’t say anything. He used to talk to me all the time and tell me to do terrible things. I don’t like his silence, but I prefer it over that. The two voices do enough talking for him anyway. They continue to urge me outside. And now they’re angry.
“He’s lying to you. Don’t believe him. You – we – let’s go outside. Don’t trust him, it’s not safe in here.”
My husband manages a smile.
I trust you I trust you I trust you.
I trust YOU, I think again, and the thread that pins me to this world begins to wind back in. Most nights I am able to find my feet again, and tonight is one of them. I close my eyes for a second and inhale. Slowly and carefully I bolt the doors and close the curtains again.
I want to ask my husband if it’s really safe in here and if he’s telling the truth, but I swallow those words instead. I’m lucid enough to know they’ll worry him. Instead I offer the slightly more reassuring, “Cup of tea?”
He nods and reaches out to rub my cheek with his hand. I press his hand against my face for a second, feeling lost and found at once. Then I head into the kitchen.