A fictional short story based on my struggle with depression.
Some people are mistakes. I have figured that out by now. That is to say, we may have been meant to be born, but we insist on staying alive and outliving our usefulness. I should know. I should have died when I was born. Instead, thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, I am still alive and kicking whomever I can reach. But the fact is, I can’t kick the thing that has been following me constantly for the past week, has been following me for years, in fact. The cosmic order must be breakdancing on its head. And I’d laugh if it all weren’t so damn disturbing.
People here know that I am haunted. I see it in their eyes and their postures, in the way they look through me and then turn away. I hear it in their distantly polite voices. They know. They know that I shouldn’t be here. I wonder if I really am a ghost. If all this is just some sort of cruel illusion. Let’s face it, in this supermarket we call life, some middle-aged red-headed cashier is staring at me while she hollers “Reality check on Aisle 3” into her intercom. And I need one. My shrink thinks I’m paranoid. I’m not. My parents tell me that this is all my imagination. It’s not. My boyfriend just gets angry and upset and tells me to drop it before I lose my mind and end up back in the hospital. Like the first time. I won’t. Not ever.
The monster first appeared when I was four. In my dreams. I think it was made up of carrot and potato peelings, but who cares? It was not really big, but it was big enough. I ran screaming to my mom’s room and didn’t go back in mine for two days. To this day, I don’t know why it appeared. But through the years, it has grown bigger, blacker and more ubiquitous. Pervasive. It feeds on me, sucks away all my guilt, all my fears, all my weaknesses. Takes them into itself and then vomits them back on me at vicious and random intervals. I live, or rather I exist, in a cycle of pain and dread. I studied Greek mythology in tenth grade. Mrs. Schickel’s Honors English class. Orestes was chased by the Furies for years before he went to Apollo and had them called off. He thinks he suffered. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word. This thing, my own personal nightmare, makes the Hounds of Hell look like sweet little puppies.
The upshot was, after several years of this, I ended up in the Psych unit of St. Martin’s hospital on a suicide watch. Two weeks of group therapy, craft class, and security blankets. The therapy helped. And I saw people there who were in even worse shape than I was. I don’t know why, but seeing them helped more than anything. And by the time I checked out of there, I thought I had banished this thing for good. Life was positive, upbeat. I was proactive, determined not to let my past rule my future. Things were different, and they were going to stay that way. So I blissfully made plans for my new and improved life. My grades improved. I got accepted into Penn State instead of the state pen. Life was looking good. And I got to spend this last weekend camping with some of my friends at the beach.
I saw the thing, my monster, again last Monday on my way to school. To say it was disconcerting is one of the century’s grossest understatements. Up to then, my life had gotten back to normal, whatever that may be. I walked along the sidewalk in a kind of haze, listening to my friend Donna’s incessant pattering on about what dress she was going to buy this week, who was dating whom and which movies were hot at the mall cinema. My mind, however, was not on movies, but music theory. I had to analyze figured basses, and I had no idea where to begin. None of the basses I knew even had figures. I snickered to myself. It was about all I could do to tell a diminished sixth chord from a time signature. Goodbye, Carnegie Hall. I wanted to be a nurse anyway.
Suddenly the bright morning sunshine paled as a dark shadow crossed my path and flitted into Mrs. Gillespie’s prize-winning hydrangea bushes. A chill of dread clutched my chest and squeezed painfully. “Did you see that?” I gasped.
Donna, well into her saga of Angie Lopinsky’s love life, looked sideways at me with a scowl, then peered around cautiously. “See what?” she asked, short-sighted brown eyes flashing with annoyance. “There’s nothing there!”
“But I saw something. I swear!” I protested. “There’s something in the hydrangea bushes. I saw a shadow.”
“Well, if it doesn’t have a membership card to the Garden Society, Mrs. Gillespie will make it pay dues or chase it out,” Donna retorted. “Personally, I’ll take my chances at school.” We walked on. I shot a nervous backward glance at the hydrangea bushes, but saw nothing.
Nervousness blossomed in my stomach like a foul weed as the week progressed. I chased every shadow, strained my ears to catch the faintest whisper of trouble. Cruel whispers and derisive laughter invaded my nights. I began to wonder if this wasn’t my imagination after all. I needn’t have worried. Trouble showed up loud and clear at lunch on Thursday. We were standing in line, like always, when I heard a deep, demonic laugh rumble behind me. I whirled, ran and cannoned into Ross Pruitt, the class genius and resident tennis champion. He sprained his ankle when I knocked him down, and cursed me fluently in three languages as his friends led him down the hall to the nurse’s office.
“How was school?” Mother looked more tired and worn than usual that evening, yet managed a smile for me as I walked through the door. As usual, the smile never reached her faded eyes.
“I’d rather not talk about it.” I studied her lined face, her thin figure, wasted with rheumatic arthritis, her neat but faded dress, her limp gray hair pulled back into a girlish ponytail. Pain radiated from her almost as a tangible force, yet she still made great effort to keep herself looking nice and well-groomed, to keep house, and look after my two very active younger brothers.
“I got a very disturbing call from Mr. Pruitt just now,” Dad came into my room after dinner. “Apparently Ross is going to miss the state championship because he states you attacked him. Mr. Pruitt is threatening to sue.”
“Ashley, I have to call you back,” I said hurriedly, and hung my phone up.
Dad read the worry in my eyes, and his face softened. He sat down on my bed. “Suppose you tell me what happened,” he said gently.
My face crumpled. “It’s back,” I sobbed. I told him about the shadow, about the laugh, about the dread that had filled me that morning. “Oh, God, it’s happening again. I can’t stop it. It’s never going to leave me alone.”
Dad hugged me until I stopped crying, then let me go. I threw myself face-down on my pillow, but could feel his sober grey eyes fixed on my back. “Honey, do you need to get help? I can call Dr. Vegas again. We can get your medicine changed.”
I shot up furiously. “You don’t believe me!”
“Of course I do, Hon. You think you see this monster...”
“I don’t just think I see it, I see it!”I screamed. “I hear it. I feel it turning me cold at night. I hear it whispering to me during the day. It’s real!” I jerked away and ran out the front door. I jumped into my car and drove blindly, frantically, anywhere to escape the voice that rasped in my head, burned into my brain.
You’re worthless. You’re fat. You’re lazy. You’re stupid and ugly. Nobody loves you. Nobody wants you. You should be dead. You’ll never amount to anything. You’ll never get anything out of life. You should be dead. Everyone would be better off with you dead. You should be dead...dead...dead...
I didn’t see the guard rail rushing up at me. I didn’t see the gorge. I didn’t hear the crash.
I woke up in a white room. All white. Bright, lonely, unbroken white. No doors. No windows. Four walls. I started to panic. “Hello!” I called. “Is anyone here?”
“Ah, there you are. I’ve been waiting for you.” A tall woman with mischievously twinkling black eyes entered the room and looked expectantly at me.
“Where am I?” I cursed myself for that corny stock phrase, but I really didn’t know. “Am I dead? Is this Heaven? Or Hell? And who are you?”
The woman smiled. “You may call me Pariah. Yes, you are dead, in a manner of speaking. And this is neither Heaven or Hell. This is what you might call a waiting room, a place where you review your life and make decisions.”
I looked at her dubiously. “What kind of decisions?”
“You’ll see.” A slender dark finger pointed toward a far wall. It began to shimmer and glow. I turned my face from the glare, blinked, and then looked back to find that the wall had somehow become an image of my mother. A younger mother, neatly dressed, dark haired, with a sweet, naive face and sad eyes. As I drank in this unfamiliar image, the woman that was and yet was not my mother knelt while tears trickled down her cheeks.
“She prayed many times for a child before you came,” Pariah informed me gently. “Your parents thought they couldn’t have children. They looked at you as an answer to prayer. And you were a great blessing to them. You gave them a lot of joy.”
I stared at her, dumbfounded. “You’re kidding.”
Pariah’s jaw set. “I never kid.” She turned her attention back to the wall. “And you did a lot more good with your life. Look.”
I saw myself growing up, taunted by the other children for my birth-related disabilities. To make up for this sense of inadequacy, I started doing household chores whenever I could. I saw myself helping Mom with the dishes, cooking, changing my brother Michael’s diaper when he was a baby, cleaning, and a thousand other things all in a moment. The kindergarten me cried over a praying mantis I had painstakingly captured for Show and Tell, then carefully released only to be stomped on by Michael as he screamed “Squash that bug!” I saw myself helping elderly Mrs. Green to take out her trash when I was 10. I had forgotten all about that. Forgotten about the merit badges I had earned as a Girl Scout. Forgotten about basking in the pride my mother felt when I came home with a straight-A report card. Getting into the Honor Society. Determined that no one would ever know the inner me, garnering awards like wildflowers. My whole life flashed before me in an endless moment: all the joys, cares and sorrows of my childhood long, long forgotten by a girl who grew up feeling somehow second best, less than acceptable. Worthless. Covering her inner inadequacy with good deeds, flaunting them like soldier’s medals.
Still, the guilt and shame over what I really was festered inside, poisoning me. I realized that I had analyzed and agonized constantly over every negative thought, every action I had taken, every decision I had ever made. Was it good enough? Could it have been better? How could I have been better? I saw myself as less than normal, less than human, therefore I had to be perfect in order to redeem myself, to justify my existence.
As I realized this, the monster appeared and grew, filling the small room. Every negative thought, every action, every decision I had ever made flowed into it and nourished it. I cringed. I had already died once to escape it. Was there anywhere in the universe that it could not follow me? My dry mouth formed a soundless scream and I turned to flee.
Pariah stood watching, silent, passive. Yet she managed to stop my rising panic with a mere gesture which dispelled the rising darkness, trapping the beast, and arresting my body in mid-flight. She looked at me. “There is a place where you can escape this monster for all time. You have the power to kill it, just as you had the power to create and sustain it.”
I could only stare dumbly at her, shaking my head in disbelief. Not only at what she said, but at the fact that she had read my inmost thoughts with such ease. Pariah smiled. “Yes. I can read your mind. I know you better than anyone, perhaps better than you know yourself. And it is true, only you can destroy this beast because only you created it.”
The monster — my monster — roared from within the wall, a hideous sound of pain, rage and fear, and lunged for me. But his wall-prison held fast. I stared in fascinated horror, and the beast changed. He still had his huge black form, but now, for the first time, he had a face. My face. And he spoke with my voice.
I hate you. I have always hated you. Because you were loved and wanted by your family. Because you have been gifted with intelligence and musical talents. Because you have the power to create and shape the world in which you live. Because you have a purpose in your life, in your existence. Because you have power over me. I hate you.
I just stared. There were a million questions I wanted to ask this walking nightmare of mine. But only one would rise to the parched surface of my lips. “Why?” I whispered. “Why would you want to ruin my life?”
I had to stop you from realizing your purpose. I had to make sure you only saw your life in terms of the here and now. I tried to stop you with self-hatred and frustration. Then humiliation. Then despair. Then panic and fear. And I have succeeded.
“That’s not quite true, you know,” Pariah said quietly from behind me. “You have the power to return to your life if you want it. Or to go on from here if you choose. But either way, you must destroy your monster.”
I swallowed hard. That is, I tried to swallow. I had seen more moisture in the Sahara desert than was in my mouth right then. And I thought. Thought hard. For some ridiculous reason, the severely obese image of Mrs. Ebert, my first-grade gym teacher, came into my mind. I hadn’t thought about her in years. Frankly, I was glad of that. She had been a merciless taskmaster – and I had never been very good at anything athletic. But then I saw deeper, past the glaring eyes, the rotund form. I saw a shining soul, dedicated to forming these young lives, molding these personalities, insisting on excellence, no matter what caliber. All she really had ever asked us was that we do our best. Whatever that was. My eyes opened wider. I saw HER life – her pain, her abuse, her “monsters” that had chased her down through the years. With a shock, I realized that everyone has monsters – and that these monsters are real. They may take many forms, from an abusive parent, guardian or relative, to a hypodermic needle or a bottle of alcohol, to an endless, paralyzing black pit of despair and fear, to innumerable forms waiting in the darkness. Where I did not want to go. Ever again. But then I realized how many people I had touched, how many more there still were to touch, to reach, to help fight their monsters and defeat them. To help them live. Really live.
And, I reluctantly admitted, there was only one way to do that. I had to go back. I saw Pariah in a swimming haze of tears. She smiled. “I know. I know everything.” There was really nothing more to say. She placed one slim hand on my shoulder and gently pushed me toward the portal. Into my monster. I suddenly knew what I had to do. Squaring my shoulders and praying as I had not done for years, I walked right into that dark monstrosity. To shatter it with my body, to kill it, put an end to it for all time. I knew there was not a snowball’s chance in Hell that I could do it alone. But the Divine Presence surrounded and protected me, and together we passed through that cold, dark abyss that had haunted me, tortured me, beaten me down. A soul-rending scream was the last thing I heard before the Light enveloped me. Warm, embracing, sustaining Light. And I knew this time it would never leave.