Water, Part One

62a377a541e773ea78c8b52010c534bbOne 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.


The White Man

5b101f07cfb6753ed9560281798612caI’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.