I’m writiEyesng this on the floor of my living room, 3.53am. Is this right before the big one blows in? The storm inside me howls.

These things sneak up on me slowly. For several days now I have felt that I’m being watched. At first it is a niggle, a prickle of fear at the back of my neck and a lump of anxiety stuck in my throat. But then the thoughts cascade outwards, a dark rainbow of images and ideas.

The first time I feel like this, I am, like every night, squeezed onto the side of my son’s single Big Boy’s Bed. The duvet cover is tucked over us both, my arm around his bare belly as he stretches and sighs his way towards sleep. As I lie there looking at the ceiling I think I see a black dot in the corner where the walls and ceiling meet. Some people might think it a trick of vision or a speck of dirt; I clearly see a camera.

When I come out of my son’s bedroom I interrogate my husband. Why are there cameras in this house? Who is filming us? Is it him? I feel vindicated: I knew I was being watched, and now there is proof. My husband humours me enough to tiptoe back into our boy’s bedroom and check the spot on the ceiling. I see the camera again. He sees nothing.

For hours I hunt for more cameras. I find lots of them, hidden in corners all around the house. They are of a weird kind of soft and blurry quality, and I can’t touch them. I figure this is down to some kind of new technology. Perhaps this means someone very important is watching our house. The possibilities are frightening. I can’t sleep because someone is watching, and I have to stay awake to be safe. In case they come for us. But in our house, the cure for insanity is sleep, and my husband watches over me as I eat temazepam like little peach candies. I hate the temazepam now, I hate how quickly it renders me unconscious like a fist plunging me below the waterline. But I take them anyway, and sleep.

The next day the cameras are gone, but there are strange lights shining in the corners of the ceiling. I know that this is some new variant of being watched. In fact, this is worse than the cameras because now it is the house itself that is watching me. I imagine the four walls of each room having senses – touch, sight, hearing – and I am trapped within this hellish observation box. I am an insect, a specimen under the microscope. At the same time, there is a small part of me that whispers truth.

Houses are inanimate objects. They don’t see you. They don’t hear you. You are safe in this place.

To hold on to these glittering grains of sanity I take so much diazepam I spend half the day sleeping. When I wake, the house is just a house again. I eat dinner like a normal person. I fold washing and vacuum like a normal person. With every action, I remind myself that I can be like this: I can do normal. This can be my life. Then I cry in bed because normal is so hard.

In the midst of these hazy days, my son is not sleeping. He is waking five, ten, fifteen times a night and coming to me for cuddles. I will tell you now, I am not that parent that will leave their child to cry. Can’t do it, won’t do it. But after I have returned him to his room and soothed him back to sleep for the hundredth time, benzos be damned, I am no longer tired. Wide awake at night I browse the internet, chat on Facebook, or cut fabric for sewing projects. Like I said, in this house, the cure for insanity is sleep, and I’m not getting it.

Tonight the hours trickle away in the same pattern. I put my son to bed; he sleeps for a few hours and then we begin the go-back-to-bed-darling dance. At 3AM he is finally resettled and I am awake and prowling the house. But tonight things are different. The house is watching me once more and I am keeping myself safe by walking in straight lines through the middle of each room, away from the walls. With only the kitchen light on, the living room is cloaked in shadows. Still, at that moment I see them clearly. There are eyes in the walls.

I am terrified but transfixed. I take a step closer. Not one eye, but hundreds. The eyes collect in piles above curtain rails and in certain spots on the walls. Some of them are on the surface and some blink half-concealed under the layers of paint. There is no mistaking it, the eyes are everywhere. Although I am scared I am also absolutely compelled to touch them, to see how real they are, to see how they might work and if they are alive and really watching me. As I run my hands over these clusters of eyes they blink; I feel their soft eyelashes brush against my fingers. I wonder, have these eyes always been here? Or have they been plucked out of living bodies and deposited, still animated, into the walls of my home?

As I busy myself running my hands along the walls and discovering more piles of eyes submerged within, I make another discovery. Under the mirrors and curtains and picture frames, under anything hanging on the walls, there are teeth. Huge gaping mouths with cartoonish monster fangs. I want to know what will happen if I reach out and put my hand in one of these mouths. Will my hand be bitten off? I am too afraid to find out.

My husband struggles to wake and emerges from the bedroom to find me wall-gazing. He insists I take more temazepam, and we go through the motions of the same old argument.

“I don’t like how it makes me feel. I don’t like being forced to sleep. It’s like the difference between someone asking you to do something, and yelling at you… It’s not a normal way to sleep!”

“Any sleep is better than no sleep. You know what happens when you don’t sleep – this is what happens! Eyes in the wall. Jesus Christ. This is crazy talk.”

“Don’t call me crazy. Don’t be mad. Please don’t be mad. Look – I’ll take the temazepam. Just let me touch the walls until I get tired.”

“I really want you to lie down for a bit – come to bed?”

I lie in bed for half an hour. It takes every ounce of determination I have not to sit up and examine the walls, not to go over and touch them just to see. At the same time, I am almost hoping the temazepam does work, and will bring respite from these ugly thoughts. This one night I want it to work, it doesn’t. After that half hour is up I am still awake, teetering on the edge of just sane enough not to tell my husband that there are mouths with teeth as well as eyes. Then I’m up again, prowling the house and touching the walls. Running my hands over the soft piles of eyes in the walls.

The eyes watch and blink. They follow my movements. I’ve never wanted to be famous, but now I have a captive audience all my own.


The Fight


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.

The Blue Girl

21deae981c87d80a1c1ccb27f99c3c36When I was seventeen, someone commented on my weight and laughed. It was true enough; I had gained weight that year, although I was still healthy and athletic and strong. But those bitter words cut through my fragile teenage soul, and I began my diet from that moment on.

As it turned out, I was good at dieting: good at depriving myself and feeling virtuous, good at losing weight, and good at lapping up praise over my shrinking frame. As time went on I became good at other things. I became good at lying and telling people I’d already eaten, or I was going to later, or I couldn’t because I felt a bit sick. I became good at making excuses and not showing up to restaurant dinners with my friends. I was good at promising myself I could eat something in an hour, and then stretching that out for hours upon hours. I was good at hiding my hungry body under thick layers of clothes – I needed those clothes anyway, as I was always so cold. And for years, I was good at withstanding the torment of starvation, the desperation and despair of being around food but being unable to eat it.

I was good, very good, at whittling myself down to the bone.

My anorexia was severe and the recovery was slow and painful, but those days are over. Now, my bones are hidden again, the sharp edges and stretched skin exchanged for the soft curves of my flesh. I may not love this body, but it is familiar and mine and it is home. I take care of it well enough.

I tell you these things so you will understand why I recognise the blue girl immediately, the first time I see her.

It is Sunday morning and I’m in the kitchen, standing next to the toaster, waiting for my toast to pop. Amid the noisy hustle of getting our children ready to go out, the blue girl stands silently in the living room and watches. She is young, maybe seventeen or eighteen, and has long dark hair hanging straight on both sides of her face. Her eyes are wide and timid, and together with her long gaunt limbs she looks like somebody’s neglected fawn. She wears a forget-me-not blue dress with tiny yellow flowers on it, and over that a grey wool cardigan pulled down over her hands. Still, her fingers curl over the edges of the cardigan sleeves; thin knobbly fingers that are blue with the cold. It isn’t cold in this room, at least not to me. Morning sun streams through the windows, casting warm rectangles of light down upon the floor. But without body fat to insulate you, you will always be frozen.

I have seen the blue girl now, and taken in her presence. The toaster pops, and I feel a strange pang of guilt as I butter my toast in front of her. Standing in the living room, she leans forward to look. She is hungry and anxious, torn between jealousy and disgust. I hesitate, suddenly unsure, and then take a bite.

“You will eat it, then?” she whispers, her voice hoarse for someone so young. I am startled – often my hallucinations don’t talk to me, they just watch or gesture. The voices I hear usually do the talking instead.

In any case, I don’t answer. It’s very difficult not to answer a direct question, but I am aware that the blue girl isn’t real. I squeeze my eyes shut, take another bite and chew. But I can’t enjoy eating being watched like this, and she’s still there when I open my eyes.

“I can’t believe you’re eating it,” she whispers again, pulling her cardigan down further and watching miserably. Then she tilts her head to one side and looks at me directly, a glimmer of mirth suddenly upon her lips. “Aren’t you fat enough?” she asks.

Ah, I think, so that is why you have come. I like to think of myself as fully recovered, but there will always be things I find hard. Parts of my body that are too soft and bones buried too far below for my liking. And now my psychosis brain has discovered this vulnerability and is mining the dark jewels of insecurity within. Stubbornly, I finish my toast and refuse to answer. The food sits uncomfortably in my stomach.

“She didn’t need to eat that, did she?” says a voice out of nowhere. The blue girl looks around, less surprised than you’d expect for someone listening to a voice without a body to accompany it. Then she shakes her head in agreement. “No, she’s fat enough. Don’t you think she’s fat enough already?”

“Yes!” The voice crows. It loves an audience; no matter that the girl is as unreal than the voice itself. “She used to be tiny. So much more self control back then. Now look – all lost.”

The blue girl gives a weak smile. She’s pleased to have her suspicions confirmed.

“I knew it,” she says softly to me. “You’re like me. You were like me. You can come back – you can be like me again.” Her kindness is disarming. For a brief second, I imagine what it would be like to have psychosis and anorexia collude. What it would feel like to welcome the blue girl’s presence as my skeletal mentor; to always have someone to say put that down, you’ve eaten enough. I have no desire to return to the agony of an eating disorder, but the idea of weight loss holds a dangerous allure. Equally, I just know: I can’t. She would kill me in the end.

The blue girl takes in my reluctance with a sigh of disappointment.

“So disappointing,” the voice concurs, “such weakness of character.” It tuts.

I’ve left the kitchen now. I’m pulling clothes over my son’s head, putting underwear the right way round, tying shoelaces on little shoes with a grim determination to stay grounded. My son’s body is pink and warm and full of life, a study in contrasts. The blue girl shivers and wraps her arms around herself. She looks as though the slightest breeze would topple her.

“If you want some help…” she tries again. I try to walk through her and she steps back awkwardly, out of the way.

No. I don’t want help. Fuck, did I say that out loud? I’m not sure. Either way, the girl heard. Her wide fawn eyes blink.

“Don’t give up on me that easily,” she says. There is a hint of steel in her voice that makes me realise she is stronger than she looks. Then her face softens again and she offers me a gentle promise.

“I won’t give up on you.”


a792f23d69e32c279762e7768cca0e82My husband declares there’s a mouse in the house. At least, he is convinced he can hear one making little scratching noises in the corner of our bedroom, under the treadmill. It’s late at night, prime mouse activity time. He’s probably right. I dig out our humane trap from the laundry cupboard and bait the end with peanut butter – otherwise known as mouse crack. We set the trap next to the treadmill and head to bed.

“I don’t want a mouse in our fucking bedroom,” I complain. “The kitchen or the end room or somewhere else is one thing, but not in our room.” I don’t have a fear of rodents at all. In fact, I had pet mice as a child and pet rats as a teenager. The rats disgusted my mother, and in my teenage moodiness that didn’t detract from their appeal. Rats are surprisingly friendly; spend enough time with them and they become very tame little companions. But still. My affection for little creatures aside, I don’t want a wild mouse problem in our house.

My husband’s not as bothered, and neither of us can hear the mouse anymore. He pulls me across the bed so he can cocoon me with his arms and legs, then falls easily into sleep. I listen to his steady breathing behind my ear. And I also listen for the mouse. I don’t know why this is bothering me so much. I think about where in the room the mouse might be now. Still behind the treadmill? Under the bed now? Or perhaps it has skittered out of the door and into another part of the house.

A mouse is going to eat your toes. This idea diverts my other thoughts. I know straight away that it is wrong and illogical. It would almost be comical, if I didn’t recognise it as a warning sign for an onset of hallucinations. I try to dismiss it. I focus on what I can feel: the warmth of my husband’s body intertwined with mine, his soft exhale on my skin, my own body nestled under blankets and between cool sheets.
The idea circles around and makes another pass.

A mouse is going to chew your toes off. I picture this and cringe. Now the thought is more insistent and repetitive. I wriggle my body free and find my storage basket of pills in the dark. There’s only one little round bottle in there and my fingers find it easily. This one’s the diazepam, that I take as soon as possible when my thoughts start going ‘wonky’. When I know I’m having thoughts that don’t make sense. It doesn’t stop the dominoes falling in their predictable thoughts-voices-visions trajectory, but it slows the momentum.

Back in bed, I hear the first voice.

“A mouse is going to eat your toes,” it whispers. Quiet, but confident, as if it’s sharing an imminent truth. “Don’t go to sleep. If you go to sleep you’ll wake up with stumps for toes.”

Then the second voice chimes in. “What’s worse?” It muses slyly. “To have a mouse eat your toes, or to cut them off first?” A picture of our knife block appears in my mind, and right on cue, the second voice adds, “The big silver chef’s knife. That one. You could do it now. Cut your toes off, it’s better than having them chewed to stubs.”

“No,” the first voice disagrees, “Just wait and let the mouse come. Can you feel your toes? Soon you won’t have any. But let the mouse do it.”

One voice comes from the empty space near my dresser, the other from the darkness across the room. I know in this moment, that neither is real. But knowing this doesn’t stop me hearing them bicker back and forth about the merits of chewing versus cutting. I squeeze my eyes shut and hope for sleep. It doesn’t come. Sometimes the teachers at my son’s kindergarten ask how I’m sleeping; I’ve mentioned a few times that I often have bad nights. “Is it your thoughts that keep you awake at night?” they ask.
Yeah, basically.

After an hour lying awake listening to the voices, I’m frustrated and tired of thinking about the demise of my toes. Creeping out into the living room, I switch out the moonlight for ceiling lights and am immediately drawn to the knife block. What the hell am I doing? I am both horrified and inexplicably enticed. The silver knife glints in the artificial light, and though it is half plunged into the wood I can see the sharp edge of the blade. I move closer, then away again.

“Cut them off!” screams the voice suddenly. “It’s the better option, do it now before the mice get you.”

I feel giddy, anxious but excited. Should I do it? I’m not a self harmer, not unless you count the ferocious anorexia of my late teens. But never with a knife. Then I take a hard look at my toes, and all of a sudden the enormity and stupidity of doing something like this hits. I can’t breathe, I can barely think. The feet I thought of maiming carry me back into the bedroom, fast, and I take all the PRN drugs I am allowed to take in one go.
They force a heavy and clouded sleep.

When I wake in the morning, foggy and tired, the knife is on the kitchen bench. I cannot even remember holding it in my hands.



c9eac060d7e90786c8f1d3d0acdb7670In real life, I don’t have a particularly green thumb. We grow vegetables and herbs in the spare corner of our garden, but most of it is taken up by lawn. The kids ride scooters and balance bikes over the grass and I hang washing out over it: that’s about as much action as the garden sees most days.

My mind, on the other hand, is a beautiful gardener. The singular hallucination that I do not hate and wish away is, of all things, of flowers. They grow across the inanimate surfaces of what I am looking at: walls, floors, furniture, roads, buildings. Mostly they look real, a fresh and lush collection of daisies and violets, roses, lupins, chrysanthemums, orchids and a hundred other varieties I could not name. Occasionally they look a little more cartoonish and psychedelic, or a mix of the two: the realistic and the impossible together. They grow and flourish with extraordinary speed, without leaves or thorns – just flowers. They crowd together in cracks and corners, or spread across a concrete road as I watch.

The flowers are a mystery. I don’t know why I see them, why they grow across the frame of a picture or the edge of the bed in front of my eyes. I feel a brief shiver of pleasure when I see them, exquisitely full of colour and life. Then a pang of guilt – does enjoyment mean I am sinking deeper into the sea of psychosis? Cautious, I try to keep the spark of joy in check.

Either way, the voices that usually accompany my hallucinations provide no clues. When I see flowers, the chatter and accusations and instructions from the voices are quiet. It’s a wonder in itself, that I am left to watch in silence. All is peaceful, as the flowers bloom outwards from my broken mind.


Water, Part Two

3eeb6766c69d0d32b4c2044a727a5a66See also: Water, Part One.

When my daughter was two and three, our family lived on a tiny tropical island. Our island was a fifteen minute speed boat trip or forty-five minute ferry ride from the island that was also the capital city. We visited the capital (and other islands in the area) often, usually travelling by ferry. The ferries were slow and old. They coughed out fuel and bounced easily among the waves, a habit that unnerved me but left the ferry captains unphased. In fact, little bothered them. Regardless of the weather they kept one hand on the ship’s wheel and leaned the rest of their bodies out of the low, wide windows to catch the wind.

During these many ferry trips I would sit and clutch my daughter on my lap. It was sticky and hot and sweat often ran down the back of my neck into my collar of my top, but I couldn’t bring myself to let her sit on the seat next to me. She might fall out of the window and drown, I told myself. I didn’t realise this was an irrational anxiety. It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Occasionally, she would choose to sit on my husband’s side of the bench. He would let her stand at the window like the ferry captains, not leaning out but still breathing in the heady mix of ship fuel, tropical air and ocean breezes. I knew my husband thought I was being overly cautious with her around water so I tried hard during those journeys to let him look after her how he felt to be reasonable. Instead of calling her back to the imagined safety of my arms, I sat in terrified silence. I imagined her falling, us jumping in to try and save her. Us resurfacing with empty arms.

Later, when we moved back to our home country, I forgot all about those ferry trips. In fact, I didn’t think of them again until I began seeing a psychologist. In those meetings, I began unravelling the reasons behind my hallucinations and one of my most awful visions finally began to make sense.

There’s often no warning for this one, no tell-tale prelude of strange thoughts and stranger voices. One moment I am in the thick of my everyday life; the next, I see it. Something shiny and bright yellow in my peripheral vision. I turn face on to see more clearly, and wish I hadn’t. It’s our yellow bucket, or at least one just like the one we actually do own. It’s filled with water, too much water, and water has overflowed onto the ground. Slumped over it is the soaking wet, still-clothed body of my daughter. Her face is submerged and I know without pulling her up to look that she has gone already; she has drowned. Her hair spreads out in strands over the surface of the water, her skin grey. Even her fingers are pruned as if she has been in the water a long time.

There is so much to this picture, this hallucination, that doesn’t make sense. First of all, my daughter is in her bedroom with a friend and I can hear her squeals of laughter. Why would she have drowned? Why is her whole body wet if there’s only a bucket of water? How did it happen?

“You did this.” A voice says suddenly. “It couldn’t make sense any other way. You must have done this.”

“You murderer,” says a second voice coldly. “You did this to her.”

She’s alive she’s alive she’s alive she’s alive. I run the thought on repeat through my head, deliberately and steadily. I know this time, I’m fully aware this hallucination isn’t real, but that doesn’t make it not awful.

Breathe. Listen. See? She’s fine. 

Aside from my PRN meds, there isn’t much else to do. I make an excuse to go into my daughter’s bedroom and check on her. She’s bright eyed, caught mid-giggle as the door opens swishing a toy through the air. Her hair is pulled up into a messy ponytail, not forming a watery halo around her head. She couldn’t be more vividly alive if she tried. She stops giggling for a moment to complain I’m interrupting their game, and I leave them to it. Laughter resumes.

I wander back and forth in the house, acutely aware that if anyone were watching I’d look strange. I’m trying to see if the hallucination is always there, if it works at all angles, if it comes and goes or is static. Trying to change angles and perspectives to force it away. But it won’t go. She’s in every room: my dead daughter, in clothes I recognise, in a bucket I recognise, drowned in half a foot of water.

I focus on what the psychologist told me: this is not about you having awful murderous desires. This is about your unresolved anxiety about your daughter drowning. Is that right? I’m desperate to think this is the truth. The voices disagree. “Murderer, murderer, see what you did!” They crow together. They sound gleeful now, they don’t care how terrible this is. Or would be. I can’t get rid of the hallucination, or the voices, so I just sit as far away from it all as I can get.

I pick up my needle and bag of threads and locate a half finished embroidery. It’s an easy one; flowers. I work on them in silence. This hallucination is hard, this one is so hard to deal with. I pick out my daughter’s voice, my real daughter’s voice, above the insistent mocking of the voices that come from my head. She’ll come out of her room soon, I tell myself. Probably wanting snacks or to show me a drawing she’s done with her friend, or maybe to ask if she can go round to his house to play now.

In any case, she’ll come out soon, so don’t cry.



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.