A young girl stands before me in a tattered and faded pink dress. Across her pale neck and small wrists lie deep gashes dripping blood. In her hands she holds bloodied razor blades. She turns to me and says “Come play with me” in a young child’s voice. Horror grips my throat suppressing the scream that begs to escape. “Come play with me. It’s easy” she says, offering up a blood-stained blade to me. As I shake my head no, trembling with fear, unable to make any words eek out, she leaps from the open second story window, falling out of sight.
The bus full of my classmates enters the Lincoln tunnel. I stare out the window, patiently waiting to arrive at our destination. The bus is a cacophony of excited chatter, everyone looking forward to seeing a Broadway show. Through the darkness of the tunnel, as the dim lights flash past, I see shadows flit across the walls. Yet, they are not the outlines of cars as one would expect inside a tunnel, but rather dark, human-like figures scaling the walls. The shadow people move closer, making their way towards the bus in which I ride. As they approach, the figures become ninja-like, pulling acrobatic tricks as they scuttle across walls and ceilings to get to me. I know it’s me they’re coming for, though I don’t know how I know this. Fear bubbles up as they reach the bus. I try to assure myself that I am safe, that they won’t be able to make it on the bus. Yet, moments later, they have breached the doors of the bus and are flooding in. I can’t understand how everyone else remains so calm, as if nothing is happening. How could they remain so calm when the world seemed to be shattering around me? The ninjas climb the walls of bus, scurrying across the ceiling to get to where I sit. I bury my face in my friends shoulder as she pulls me in close stroking my head as I wait for the attack. Yet I feel nothing. I look up and I am surrounded, but no one else notices. My friend tries to assure me there’s nothing there. I know she’s right, but the fear lingers on.
It’s been a couple weeks since he died. The morning I had heard the news of his overdose, I was in shock. He was my slinky emo kid; a crush that had become a dear friend. Despite his previous attempts, I never thought he would be gone. The weight of the loss sat within my chest like a boulder ever since. I walk across campus, weaving my way through the crowd to make it to my next class on time, the boulder weighing me down with every step. Then, as if a bolt of lightning shot through me, my body jerks as I see a familiar face staring back at me through the crowd. There he stands, his face as pale as ever, with his sunken eyes staring at me without blinking. He stands unmoving as the crowds makes their way past. But it can’t be. He’s dead. I continue on my way, trying to suppress the shake that threatens to knock me off my feet.
I stop in my tracks. There he is again, staring at me from across the way. His face is cold, unsmiling, unblinking. He does nothing but stand and stare at me. He’s dead, I tell myself, yet he looks so very real. He seems as solid as the bodies that make their way past, none noticing the dead man walking. I try to approach him, pushing my way through the packed crowd to get to him, yet as I make my way over, he begins to walk away and I lose track of him amidst the bustling bodies.
We’re alone in the hallway. I was on my way to the bathroom when I see him standing at the other end of the hall. Determined to finally figure this out, I hurry down the hallway, yet the hallway seems to grow longer the further I get. As I make it to the end, he turns the corner and by the time I make it around, he’s gone. With this, I turn and make my way to the guidance counselor’s office knowing that something is truly wrong with me.
I look in the rear view mirror as I go to back the car out of the driveway to head to school. In the mirror, I see a dark figure seated in the back of the van. The shadow man has no eyes, but I feel him staring at me. My heart racing and my breathing coming in small gasps, I make my way out of the driveway to head to school. Still he sits there, always in the mirror each time I check. I try to avoid looking in the mirror, yet, no matter how hard I try, my eyes keep flitting back to darkness that won’t leave.
I pick up my boyfriend and he assures me there is no one in the car with us. I want to believe him but I still see the shadow man staring at me through the mirror.
As I make my way to class, he follows me. It’s been two weeks and he hasn’t left me alone for a moment. When I wake up in the morning, he is there standing over my bed. Each time I drive he is there in the mirror, always staring. He follows me to every class, through every hallway. There is no peace. He has begun to speak to me. He tells me not to tell anyone about him. He tells me he’ll hurt them if I tell.
Finally, I break. My boyfriend and I sit alone in my parents’ house and I tell him about the shadow man. Yet, as I tell him, more of them appear. We are surrounded by shadow men, each towering over us. One of them moves in on my boyfriend. The shadow man reaches around, a knife appearing out of nowhere, and slits his throat. I watch helplessly as the blood gushes out, pouring down his chest. I don’t understand how he’s still sitting up with how much blood he is losing. I reach out to help and I pull my hands away covered in blood. With this, a scream lets loose from my tightened throat and I can’t stop.
I’m in the hospital. They tell me it is safe here. They tell me the shadow men won’t be able to get me here. I don’t tell them that he’s still here. I don’t tell them that he never left.
He’s standing over me again, threatening to hurt everyone I love. I’m curled up on the stiff hospital mattress, my hands covering my head, trying to escape. My roommate asks me where he is. As I point to where he stands, she strides over and begins to fight him, punching and kicking at the shadow man she can’t see. Though each hit failed to make contact, I loved her in that moment for believing me and fighting for me.
We’re walking back from the dining hall when he begins to run. Before I know it, he’s atop the arm of the bridge performing a tightrope act over the nasty water no one dares to touch. My heart leaps into my throat as I watch my best friend jump off the end of the bridge and scamper up one of the tallest trees. He nimbly swings through the branches climbing higher and higher. Soon he dangles far above my head, hanging from a branch before leaping to the ground. I’m shocked to see him scurry off unscathed.
He runs with boundless energy, yelling and whooping. The other students continue on their way, likely assuming he’s just another kid on drugs. Yet, I know that something is very wrong. The pace of his speech, the glint in his eyes, the constant movement, and recklessness are all too familiar to me. I see my manic self reflected in him at this moment. I rush him to the safety of our dorm room hoping this will pass quickly.
A goddess has been speaking to him. She appeared to him in a vision of a beautiful tree with large sweeping branches and exquisite cherry blossoms. He’s convinced that he has been chosen by her for a special task. I try to reason with him. I try to convince him she isn’t real, but he won’t listen.
He barricades himself away, refusing to come out of his room. Weeks have passed with little change. He shows me the sketch book in which he has been drawing all that he’s seen. I’m met with gruesome images: a grotesque spider with unnatural proportions and too many eyes, his youngest sister with her bloody head held in one hand, the shadow people coming for him.
He’s become a shell of himself. His eyes dart about constantly, always looking for the danger he senses as ever-present. His speech is broken and disjointed, one sentence dropping off before blurring into the next. The horrors his mind has created consume him becoming all he can think about.
His sister walks into his room, coming to check up on him. At only eight years old, she is wise beyond her years. She’s been leaving him messages on the wall to try to cheer him up. Yet, when she enters this time, he doesn’t see her but rather the ghastly contortion his brain has conjured of a headless child making her way towards him. In his panic, he attacks, throwing her across the room so that she collides with the wall leaving a dent where she makes contact.
It is after this, after he hurt the person he loves most in the world, that I am able to convince him to finally seek help. Together we go to the psychiatrist and he is put on medication.
It’s been five years and much has changed. My best friend, the man who jumped from trees and saw terrible things, is now my husband. My mental health stabilized to the point I was able to get off of all of my medications. After a few years off medication, my mental health worsened to the point that I needed meds again but this time I found a better fit and a new diagnosis to help me understand my experiences. It’s been years since he last had a hallucination and his mental health has seemed solid despite stopping his medications. We’ve built a good life together that, while it has its struggles, is full of love and happiness.
He bounces through the house, unable to stay still. He rocks and sways and flaps. He talks incessantly about everything and nothing. His body aches from the constant movement but he finds himself unable to stop. The new medications aren’t working well. He’s manic again for the first time in years.
We sit in our friend’s basement having a smoke. I thought he was mad at me so I pulled him away to talk about it. I break down in tears, overwhelmed by hormone-driven emotions. Then, unexpectedly, he’s crying too. He tells me he can’t do anything right and that he just keeps hurting me. Through rushing tears and a broken voice he tells me that he’s been hallucinating again. As I hold him close to me he tells me of the voices commanding him to do things, telling him not to trust me. He tells me of the shadow people who follow him, the figures moving in the dark. Fear darkens his voice as he recounts the horrors that have plagued him for a week.
I hold him close to me, at a loss for what to do, stroking his hair as my husband, my wonderful, strong, intelligent husband, falls to pieces before me. It’s odd to be on the other side of this exchange. Typically I’m the blubbering mess as he comforts me, but now the roles have reversed and I feel woefully under-prepared.
Yet, even in the midst of the pain and fear I feel at watching my husband suffer, my mind kicks into gear and shuts down my own emotions so that I can care for him. I help him call the psychiatrist who makes major changes to his medications. I talk him through his fears and worries. I use all the techniques that have helped to calm me down and ground me in the past to help him. I use my own experience as a guide for how to help him.
Psychosis is like living in a horror movie come to life. A horror movie no one else can watch. It’s a darkness that spreads and enshrouds all that is good, twisting and warping reality into grotesque caricatures of life.
Psychosis is a thief stealing memories and time. It’s a thief that creeps in through the night when you feel safe and secure to upend your world. It attempts to steal all that you hold dear, all your relationships, your happiness, your sense of safety, your sense of self.
Psychosis has stolen its way into my home and crept its way inside my husband warping him into a shadow of himself. We are still in the midst of its grip, clinging to each other to weather this storm. The darkness surrounds us and holds us captive, but our love is a light that burns away a piece of the shadows.
One day the darkness will leave us and we will be able to rebuild what has been lost. But for now we must live with this unwelcome guest, this thief, this horror film. We must hold strong against the onslaught of gruesome horror that plagues his mind.
Psychosis is like an old friend we both know well. It is this shared knowledge of the darkness that allows us to help each other and fight off the crushing abyss together. It may be a difficult and daunting road that lies ahead filled with whispered commands and the shadow people, but we walk this road together and together we will make it through.