One scorching summer when my brothers and sister and I were all kids, we were on holiday and we found a waterhole. It was a deep green mystery – the kind you could dive into. But we didn’t dive in, because we’d been trained to be wary of hidden logs and branches under the surface. Instead we waded in until it was deep enough to swim, screaming and laughing and full of the exhilarating chemistry of childhood plus cold water.
At one point, one of my younger brothers and I swam out to the deepest point of the water hole. The water here was dark and a good few feet deeper than we were tall. But my brother, not yet a strong swimmer, began floundering. In his panic he pushed me underneath him and tried to stand on my head and shoulders to keep his own head above water. Now I was fully submerged with the weight of another child stopping me from reaching the surface. Fear grabbed me. I fought and I struggled and I burnt through all the oxygen in my lungs in seconds. The air was replaced by a searing pain in my chest. I looked up and could see feet and legs and above the bubbling surface of the water, the clear sunshine of the afternoon. I pushed away from those legs with decreasing energy, my vision misting into black dots. Then I screamed, and suddenly I realised I was screaming because I could scream, because there was air in my lungs again.
I don’t even remember the rest of that story. Did my brother swim off? Had we drifted over to shallower water? Perhaps an adult plucked us out? I don’t know. I didn’t even come that close to drowning – I never even lost consciousness, although I think it was a close call. What I do remember is thinking I would drown, and that fear of drowning is something that has stayed with me throughout my life.
In my house on this early winter evening, I’m not thinking about that particular memory. I’m immersed in the present moments of my life: cleaning up the dinner dishes, asking my son if he needs to go to the toilet, breaking apart pieces of lego for my daughter so she can reinvent one creation as another. It’s 7 pm and life is beautifully mundane. Yet at some point, my mind searches out the brief pauses in the bustle and fills them with strange thoughts.
There’s a leak in the ceiling.
Water’s coming down from the ceiling.
There’s a leak.
Reality: there isn’t a leak. Right now, I can see that. Our ceiling and roof are just fine, and it’s not even raining outside. I tell myself this. I also step out of the living room for a moment and into my bedroom. I find my little bottle of diazepam and shake one out. Swallowing pills without water is a trick for those who take lots of little pills, every damn day. Diazepam is for anxiety, but taking it when my ‘wonky thoughts’ start sometimes lessens the impact of the incoming hallucinations. Good old PRN.
On cue, a few minutes later, the voices begin. Two of them again – the same genderless nondescript and disembodied voices that have become familiar to me. This time they’re interested in the water too.
“There IS a leak,” they repeat, “It’s not in your head!” The irony of a voice that comes from inside my head telling me that is not lost on me.
I look up, and there it is. A crack that wasn’t in the ceiling before has opened up out of nowhere. Through it drips a slow stream of brown, muddy water. Grey wet patches spread across the white ceiling like circles of lichen upon rocks. Each patch grows darker and damper until drops of water collect and begin to fall. I hold my hand up and a drop falls into it. I see it reach my hand, but I feel nothing. Then it’s gone.
I turn around the room, watching the leaks spread and grow, worst at the corners. Rivulets of brown water are running down the walls now, leaving tracks of wet dirt and soaking into the carpeted floor. And then it’s like the dam bursts and there is water flooding through the roof as if the room was in a submarine and not on land. The voices are shouting now, “It’s flooding! There’s water! Everything’s getting wet!” The kind of useless statements of the obvious that people probably really do make in emergencies. They propel me to take action (apparently my diazepam isn’t doing too much tonight.)
Then I feel a hand on my shoulder. “Wait a minute,” says my husband’s voice. I can barely see him. I am too worried about the water and the ceiling and all our things getting wet. I’m too busy for this. “Is this the water again?” he asks.
I nod emphatically. “You have to let me do this,” I insist. I’m pulling all the furniture away from the walls. For some reason I know I shouldn’t be doing this, and I compromise by only pulling everything away from the wall by a few inches. Just enough that the worst of the water will splash down the walls without landing on the couch or the TV or the bookshelves.
“Did you take a diazepam already? If there was a leak in the ceiling I would be moving the furniture and reacting to it. But there isn’t a leak.”
“Yes, I took one already. But. I need to do this – it’s all getting wet – it’s all going to be ruined -”
I look around the room and confusion hits. There’s water, but there isn’t. The house is in chaos, and yet it isn’t. The kids are building lego and aren’t interested in our adult conversation, haven’t noticed me trying to move around the furniture any more than if I had been cleaning behind it. My husband has left the dishwasher open to come and see me. No-one else looks like they’re facing imminent evacuation due to water damage.
None of this is real, I think. Then I clarify: my husband is real. My kids are real. My house is real.
I am real.
I tell my husband I need a time out for a few minutes and he agrees. In my bedroom again, I lock the door, turn off the lights, and lie down on the bed. It’s cool and the muffled sounds of family life filter through the walls. Mentally, I run through a list of mindfulness and awareness exercises I could do, and settle on one. This exercise suggests imagining yourself walking downwards through a spiral tower until you settle at your centre. I do it backwards though: I want to walk up to the top of the tower. Downwards means darkness and suffocation; upwards means air. I walk up and up in my mind until the voices stop and the fear of water rushing in subsides and I feel like I am standing in a different space inside my head.
This one is flooded with light.