It’s winter: a cold, clear night. You can really see the stars. Our family’s house is a cocoon from the elements. The quiet in here is broken by the sounds of a war movie my husband is watching on TV, and my daughter coughing in her bedroom. We’ll take her back to the doctor when this weekend is over, I decide. I’m browsing for jobs online and feeling anxious and inadequate. I hate this process – writing down my skills and attributes, always feeling like it won’t be good enough.
The anxiety churns within my gut, and for a moment I imagine the stress hormones seeping into my veins like black ink. It’s probably not the kind of mindfulness visualisation my DBT class recommends. I push away from my laptop and the table. Enough. I know I need to take a breather, because anxiety triggers the voices and hallucinations.
It’s too late.
“Stop it. Please!” says a woman’s strained voice. I can’t see her, not yet – she is still just a voice.
“Why?” demands a man’s voice in return, low and threatening. “You deserve worse than this. This is nothing.”
“No,” she says again. “I can’t breathe.”
The voices are coming from near the wall of our living room, and I hear the muffled scuffles of feet and hands against the wall. Then I see streaks of colour, a man’s hand, and the hallucination emerges from the air.
There she is: a wild and striking young woman, with a mane of long red hair. She has bare feet and is wearing nothing but a white old-fashioned nightgown, the type my sister and I used to wear as children. The man in this hallucination is older, broad and grizzly, with a scar on his cheek where the stubble won’t grow. He has pinned the woman against the wall by her throat. She struggles and grimaces, trying to claw his face.
“I said – let go! You’re hurting me!” she cries. He shakes his head slowly.
“Hurting you? I told you, this is nothing. You want to know what hurting feels like?” He raises his other hand up towards her and I see the metallic gleam of a knife.
The woman makes an attempt to shake her head, red strands of hair falling over her brow. Her skin is blotchy now, and she opens her mouth like a fish on land. My skin crawls and I feel sick, but I can’t intervene. There are rules: interacting with people who aren’t real makes you crazy.
“Don’t,” she rasps, but he moves decisively and buries the knife in her chest. Bright blood blooms on her nightgown. She lashes out again, harder this time, and he yanks out the wet knife. I watch as he loses his chokehold on her and she gasps, face suddenly flushed, hands up in defence. As they fight, rivulets of dark blood criss-cross down her legs and spread across the floor.
Then, from the ceiling, another trickle of blood. This doesn’t make any sense; it’s not coming from her body. But then I guess none of this makes much sense. The blood from the ceiling branches out as it tracks down the wall. More blood follows, as if from an oozing wound. Soon the wall is covered in streams and smears of blood, and the woman and the man fighting are painted with red. The woman has cuts on her hands now, the knife thrown aside. You would think she might be dead from her injuries, but instead her eyes glitter with anger.
From somewhere in the room, the disembodied voices begin an excited commentary.
“He stabbed her! He stabbed her!” says one voice.
“Yes, and she fought back,” says the other. “And they’re still fighting! Why is she in a nightgown?”
“Good question,” says the first voice, entertained. “Look! He’s pulling her hair!”
On the television, a soldier is shot and killed. I almost laugh – I can’t believe there is both death on the screen and a bloodbath in my living room. It’s too much. It doesn’t seem possible that what’s in front of my eyes is no more real than the film. It looks so real. But it isn’t.
“I don’t feel good,” I say shakily to my husband. He looks up.
“Not good as in sick, or not good as in other stuff?”
“Not good as in other stuff,” I reply.
My husband flicks the remote in the direction of the television and pauses the movie.
“Are you seeing things, hearing things, or both?”
“Both.” I feel guilty, as if I’ve done this deliberately. As if I’ve let our team down. I watch his reaction carefully, for signs of disappointment. There are none; he just moves steadily to the next question. You can tell that he’s had this strange conversation before.
“What are you seeing?”
“The fighting couple.”
My husband nods. Of course, he has little idea what that really means. He knows that when I get anxious I see a man choking a woman and that blood comes down the walls. But I have never explained to him the tiny details: the dark grease on the man’s clothes, the red nailpolish she wears, and the way she’s so brave that I can’t help but like her.
“Sorry, darling,” my husband says. He stands up and opens his arms towards me. I move stiffly over and let him pull me in and rub my back. He smells so good. I breathe him in and try not to cry.
“I’m so tired of this,” I say in a high voice, and he nods. He knows. I bet he’s tired, too. Then, as my body warms against his, the hallucinations start to recede. It’s not always this easy, but I’ll take it on the days that it is.
The voices have stopped their commentary, and the walls are suddenly clean. Even the fighting couple have lost their sound now. They are a silent, fading scene.