“Wouldn’t you be afraid if you were locked up in a place like this?” I hear one orderly ask another somewhere close behind me.
“That’s not my point,” a deeper voice argues. “All the others have ticks and triggers. Obsessions and behavioral patterns. But she just acts terrified all the time, of everything. She doesn’t chant or rock or scream or babble or act like someone she’s not. She’s not violent…”
“Not our job to decide why she’s nuts,” the first one chastises. “They threw her in here for a reason. Now shut up and keep your eyes open. Mrs. Barry likes to sneak pudding cups back to her room.”
I feel a chill snake down my spine and curl its icy fingers around my stomach. They’re talking about me. Why are they talking about me? I never misbehave, I never lash out. I don’t speak unless spoken to, I practice good hygiene and keep my room neat. I try so hard to be as unremarkable as possible. An institution full of truly psychotic people, and somehow they’ve noticed me? What did I do wrong?
I slide further down in my seat, staring with unwavering intensity at my lunch tray. I study the unappetizing mystery casserole, gelatin, and milk carton, keeping my eyes from roaming and a single muscle from moving. I feel my face burn red against my will, so I shift my head almost imperceptibly so that my hair covers as much of it as possible.
I sit like that, frozen and burning, suffocating in my own terror and self-loathing. I don’t know how long I’ve been stuck like this, like a wind-up toy that lost momentum. Or worse, like a cold-blooded fish frozen in the ice in suspended animation, waiting for spring to thaw it back to life. I don’t even realize I’ve stopped functioning until the guard on duty yells for us to return our trays and exit the cafeteria.
A new wave of horror washes over me. I feel hyper-aware of every inch of my body – every strand of hair brushing my cheek, every place the fabric of my clothes touches my skin, every stale muscle that slowly and stiffly starts to unkink as I push myself away from the table and pick up my tray. And yet, a numbness has set in that makes my limbs feel heavy and clumsy. I focus on every small, deliberate step on my way to the waste bin.
My toes catch on the floor and I stumble, and it’s like I’ve short-circuited. My legs lock up and suddenly my lungs stop working. I start to get dizzy as my brain craves oxygen.
I am drawing attention to myself, and this strikes a new sense of fear into my heart. Eternal minute by eternal minute I force myself to reanimate. My eyes are the first to move, then my head begins to lift at a glacial pace. Finally, my feet begin to move forward. My face is feverish while the rest of me is frigid. I tremble so violently I can hear the plastic-ware clatter on the tray in my hands. I imagine everyone watching me, judging, laughing, sneering in disgust at how pathetic I am. I don’t dare look up to confirm this though. Finally reaching the garbage can, I go to dump my trash and wasted food, but I am shaking too hard and lose my grip. The plastic tray falls from my hands and tumbles into the bin. I want to leave it there. I want to run. But I can’t. The orderlies are watching, I know. So I watch my own hand stretch in slow motion into the rubbish and retrieve the stupid thing. I move as quickly as I am able and place it on the return counter, but it feels like my arms are filled with lead. It takes all of my strength not to cry as I hurry out of the room and into the hall.
A body slams into me and I bite my tongue, trying not to scream. I taste the blood as it fills my mouth; I have no option except to swallow it. I glance up to see who I’ve unintentionally attacked. But instead of just one person, I am staring in horror at a sea of onlookers.
I suddenly don’t know if they are real or if my panic has gotten the best of me. They all look familiar – other patients who had been filing out of the mess hall ahead of me. I notice, however, that they all have the same eyes. A rotting sort of yellow that almost glows, with blood-red pupils. They are all staring at me with their wide, searing eyes. One of them smiles at me as if to comfort me but I see the pointed teeth, the sinister curl to their lips. I move just an inch to back away, and they all begin to bare their sharp, gleaming teeth. The creases in the folds of their skin – wrinkles inside of putrid green-brown wrinkles – reveal dark purple bags beneath those wretched eyes. The begin to almost vibrate, growing and shrinking, as if my vision is pulsating in my fearful state. They are swimming in front of my eyes, rolling like waves, like a flag in the wind.
I clamp down harder on my half-severed tongue and fold my arms around myself, the only form of protection I have. I try to be as small as I can, to take up as little space as possible. Keeping my eyes on the floor and away from the horrible creatures that have me surrounded, I hold my breath and my heart hammers wildly inside my rib cage. I charge wordlessly in terror through the crowd in front of me, breaking their lines and bursting through to the other side. As I pass them, they each dissipate into a cloud of noxious black smoke. I see them disappear one by one, but I do not stop fleeing until I reach my room. I immediately throw myself onto my bed, burying my face in the linen.
What an idiot.
The voice is too familiar. My voice, but somehow twisted, demented, dark. It is soft and faint in my mind, but its echoes reverberate off the walls of my skull, booming and cracking like thunder. The sounds of it drowns out everything else.
“Shut up,” I whisper so meekly I can hardly hear it myself.
The voice – my voice – snickers menacingly. You’re so stupid you can’t walk like a normal person. You can’t even eat on your own.
“That’s not true,” I murmur weakly.
You’re so psycho you freak out at the tiniest things. Those orderlies probably weren’t even talking about you. And if they were, who cares? Oh right, you do. You’re so conceited, thinking everything is about you. It’s not! Regular people don’t have time for your petty little dramas. You should just get over yourself.
“You think I want to be this way? That I like it?”
You just want attention. You want everyone to feel sorry for you because you’re sick. Anyone with a knife and a couple of wrists can garner someone’s sympathy. But you’re too cowardly and selfish to even do that. You should just spare everyone the trouble and release them from the burden that you are.
That’s not healthy! I fire back silently, too tired and beaten to keep fighting. I shouldn’t think that way. I try to ignore it, tune it out. I finger the scars instead, to remind me how much I’ve endured. Fingernail marks on the back of my neck under my hair, on the underside of my arms, on the sides of my abdomen. Pale, long lines high on my upper thighs, just past the edge of my panties, where I dug a knife deep into my skin where no one would see.
Oh look at me, I’m so sad and helpless! it mocks in its whiniest tone. Is that why you lost it at the office? So many sorry years crying when no one was looking. So many pointless panic attacks. What a sorry excuse for an employee! Everyone was probably glad when you finally snapped and went catatonic when your boss ripped into you that one last time. I bet they threw a party when you rode away in that ambulance!
“Shut up!” I sob into the pillow, wondering if I had the willpower to smother myself in it. “Be quiet. I don’t want to hear your lies.”
But they’re not lies, you know. It’s all true. Can’t you feel it, deep down in your soul? Everyone hates you and thinks you’re stupid. Just a worthless waste of space.
“Shut up!” I cry one final time before giving into the darkness rising up to swallow me. My teeth sink into the fleshy part of my hand, almost like an infant sucking its thumb for comfort. Essentially, I think to myself, that’s really what I’m doing. The physical pain is a punishment I commit upon myself to satisfy the voice. It grows quiet – smug and ever-present, but finally quiet – as I devote this offering to it. It also distracts me somewhat from the pain exploding in my heart, threatening to choke me. I am not good enough, and the voice knows it, and it knows I know it too. The blood dripping down my forearm feels better than that pain. I’ll take it over the voice any day.
Later I will have to explain my injury to the authorities, and it will make me feel stupid and inadequate all over again. But that is a battle for later. Now, I simply find solace in the crimson blood staining my sheets.