T/W: Infertility, depression, mental illness
How long have I been in this place? This place of interminable darkness, pressing, suffocating me with its walls that I cannot see but know are there. If I could reach out my fingertips, I would touch upon them long before my elbow straightened. Thick fog engulfs my body, holding it tight and close. I cannot move. I do not want to move, for what would be the point? I cannot go anywhere for there is nothing but the unrelenting abyss.
The motorway was empty under the dreary autumnal moonglow, cats-eyes burning like fireflies, flying faster, faster, laughing as I hurtled along. Were they laughing, or was I? It was not the laugh of a sane person. It came bubbling up from somewhere dark and stagnant, wrapped in pain and anger like poisonous froth upon a festering bog.
My hands slid on the wheel, wet, sweating. The open window snapped long dark hair over my face, obscuring my vision, once, twice, again and again. I didn’t care. The motorway didn’t care. My heart thundered. Eyes wide, drinking in the danger, the unquestionable recklessness. The quivering speedometer desperately inching closer and closer to the final barrier, the ultimate goal.
What was I doing? Why was I doing this? I knew why, somewhere buried beneath the pills and the tears, cold bedsheets and the empty house, it was there, tugging at my mind. I did not want to look. I plunged, forcing the accelerator which was already pressed down as far as it would go. The vehicle swerved, crying under the strain. I didn’t care.
I can see the walls now. Light has filtered in from some unknown place, illuminating my grey cell, making my terrible fate a solid, tangible thing.
I can move. The wall is smooth, like glass. I feel no warmth, no cold. I imagine my limbs tingling, blood rushing towards my extremities, but that’s all it is: imagination.
Abruptly, I become aware of a faint, high-pitched beeping and simultaneously know that it has always been there. What is it? I strain to hear more - I feel that there IS more - but like the numbness of my disconnected body floating in the void, my ears are blind.
It was a weekday morning when my mother suddenly appeared in my kitchen, sodden, dripping disapproval on my dirty tiles. I was perched on my chrome stool, naked elbows resting on the ceramic island. Smells of camomile tea and old dishwater pervaded my lair whilst dust motes hung around me like flies.
“You haven’t been going to work. They said you were off sick.”
“Are you sick?”
My eyes fell instinctively to the packet of prescription pills on the countertop, only for a second, but she saw.
“This again?” she said, eyeing the pills as she would a coiled rattlesnake.
Her coat was already gone, hung somewhere, her thick sleeves shoved up over the elbows as she drained the sink and began filling it with fresh warm suds. The scent of a springtime meadow fought with the horrid mustiness emanating – I knew - from my own clothing, “You can’t keep doing this, Bryony. You’ll lose your job and then what? Hm? You’re always welcome back with me, of course, but where does it end? Are you going to tell me what happened with Steven? I’m sure you can patch things up, whatever it is, if only…”
I tuned her out.
So many questions that I couldn’t answer or didn’t want to. Words surged up my throat and died on my tongue. She just didn’t understand, and how could she? I never told her, never explained. It’s not her fault, it’s mine.
I’ve kept all the nastiness inside where it couldn’t be seen by those I love, where it could remain hidden, unable to touch upon and spoil the façade. But it still did, didn’t it? Somehow, just being there, it diluted my exterior down to a veil of wet tissue paper.
If I told her, the woman who brought me into the world, who cooed, snuggled and tickled my tiny toes, that there was a deep sadness in her baby, it would break her even more than the not knowing. I couldn’t do that to her.
She wanted me to talk. That was the reason for the clanging plates, the darting worried eyes, the badgering and the too-tight way she hugged me before she left. Not fully understanding that I was fading, waning like an old naked lightbulb swinging above an abandoned stairwell.
The brief thawing of my insides stopped the moment the front door swung shut.
I should have told her.
I see that now, but now is where and for how long? A shard of information penetrates my thoughts and I know I have twenty-four hours or perhaps forty-eight to get out of here. Otherwise, I can never leave. I will sink slowly into the darkness that I myself have created. Never to see the light again. My mother’s face is a blur, present only in my decaying memory.
The walls have shifted, they are further away. I pace, thinking, fingering the rubble of my mind. Time does not exist in this place, yet I know that time is also running out. Trickling away as though through an hourglass, but when was the hourglass tipped? And how many grains are left to me?
Panic fizzles in my consciousness, warning me of the imminent danger. Get out! It screams. Do something! Fight!
I sweep my palm against the grey glass and lean into it, pressing my ear. I gasp. Voices! An achingly familiar voice flickers on and off, giving me snatches like a bad radio connection.
“Bryony?... If you can hear me… please… Bryony… sorry… go now… please… I love you…”
“Mum! I hear you! Don’t go!... Mum!”
I run, my feet soundless, my voice echoing, bouncing off the now mirrored walls. I am everywhere. In black and white, grotesquely large and pinprick small. Colour does not seem to exist in this place; my soft brown eyes are midnight-black in a waxen face of gravestone grey. A hundred, thousand, million Bryonys scream back.
When the specialist, Dr. Anders, finally saw us, I knew it wasn’t good news. He motioned for us to sit opposite his enormous desk and affected the sad face he was ever so practiced at donning. I saw it happen, the moment when the imparting-bad-news-mask snapped down.
My insides turned to ice.
“Miss Shelton, I’m afraid your ovaries have stopped functioning normally. When exactly this happened, I can’t say, but they aren’t producing normal amounts of oestrogen. We call this premature ovarian failure.”
“What does this mean… for us?” asked Steven, his thumb stroking my whitened knuckles, “Are you saying we can’t ever have kids?”
“I’m afraid so.” Dr Anders readjusted his spectacles so that he peered over them. “There’s always adoption, of course, but you’ll probably need time to, uh, digest this information. I’m very sorry.”
Outside, I allowed Steven to guide me towards the car like an invalid. Silence followed; it was in the wind that didn’t touch us as an autumnal leaf skittered across our path.
“Talk to me,” he would say for days, weeks and months afterwards.
I knew the noises, the way my tongue was supposed to move, but it was no use. What could I say? To this lovely man upon whom I couldn’t bestow the gift of fatherhood?
“If you want to, we could adopt,” he said one day, sitting on the edge of our bed, one gentle hand upon my shoulder as I lay sequestered beneath the winter duvet, “I’d be up for that. There are loads of wonderful children out there in need of a loving home. We could be that home!” He stood up, invigorated, as if I’d spoken. “I’ll do the paperwork. This doesn’t have to be the end. Please, Bryony. Please.”
But did he really mean it? Or was he grasping at smoke drifting from the dying embers of yesterday’s fire?
My hand shook as I reached out to the glass of water upon my bedside table, swallowed my pills and pulled the duvet back over my head.
I stop screaming. It does no good in this mirrored cell.
Steven’s voice is there, a low tide rushing over the incessant beeping that is becoming harder and harder to ignore.
“I’m sorry, Bryony… I went too fast, talking about adoption so soon after. I just… you’re so amazing and beautiful. I don’t want to lose you. I can’t lose you… please, wake up, Bryony.” An unrestrained sob cracks, loud like a thunderclap, the volume of everything is suddenly increased. “Oh God, please, Bryony. Not like this. Please! Wake up! Wake up!”
Beep… beep… beep!
My fist connects with the glass. My own face, distorted and pale and thin, stares back. The eyes are larger than I remember them being, the mouth, the chin smaller.
I punch again and a crack appears. A tiny imperfection in the shiny wall. The meaning slaps me in the face, immediately shaming me with its simplicity. I built these walls and I can pull them down.
I have the power.
The memory of my mother’s embrace swims to the surface, the scent of her, the thump of her heart beating close to mine. Steven, backlit by the winter sun, warm hands cupping my face as his thumbs brush the tears away. My mother again, younger, smoothing a vivid blue plaster over my scuffed knee as she ruffles my hair.
They love me, but do I? I’ll never get the chance to know or change that if I stay in here. And when was the last time that I said that I loved them? The memory eludes me. My palm presses against my chest, expecting to feel a rapid thrumming heartbeat, but it is faint… slow, slower.
Terror clenches my gut as all manner of light is abruptly snuffed out.
It is different this time. The darkness has awoken something, some… other memories, outraged that they should be forgotten even for a moment. More important than their monochrome negatives, these memories sizzle, bursting forth with vibrant colours like fireworks flashing their radiance into the night sky. They would be seen and they would be heard.
I am eighteen and full of everything. My passport and round-the-world tickets are clasped in one hand whilst the other waves goodbye to Mum and Dad. The airport tannoy calls out my gate and I join the stream of passengers with adventure burning the soles of my feet, grin so wide it just might split my face.
I am twenty-three, strutting onto the dancefloor, a vision in sequinned starlight. A young man with spiked white-blond hair and washed-out denim trousers joins me and we break everyone’s heart.
Two years later, on holiday in Mexico, I dare to jump off the highest limestone cliff of an underwater cave, splashing deep into the lagoon below. Steven was stunned, but not as much as I when he knelt upon pristine white sand with the fading sunlight winking off a diamond ring.
At thirty, I am the rock my mother clings to as slow curtains close over Dad’s rich mahogany coffin. Too soon. She trembles as I step up to the pedestal and recite a poem. Injustice sticks in my throat, but my voice only breaks upon the final few words. The weeks slip by and I comfort and coax my mother out of the house, to see her friends, to go for a walk, to breathe the scents of a world that continues to live.
Where did that Bryony go? Was it when the first suspicion slithered into my mind after months of trying? No. It was subtler than that, more insidious.
I won’t let this happen, not anymore and time is running out.
Blind, I hit the wall again, again, harder, faster. I take a few steps back and run forwards, shoulder smashing into glass, head thwacking, a roar of feeling shoots up my side, tickling my fingertips.
“Her hand! It moved!” It is my mother’s voice, as hysterical as my own laughter on that moonlit night when I tried to break the sound barrier with my car, wanting to feel something, anything other than the desolation within my soul.
How long ago was that? Days? Weeks? Hours?
Pain thuds into my brain, I feel it and this time it is not outside, abstract and incorporeal, it is inside. Alive and real.
Warmth touches my cheek, runs through my hair and the familiar scent of home invades my lungs.
I open my eyes.
The light is blazing, impossibly bright, making the figures around me blurry ghosts for a moment before my vision adjusts. My mother is inches away from my face, her fingers entwined in my left hand. My right hand is also held, fiercely. I roll my head to the right and see Steven, unashamedly weeping, hot, angry tears. His face is pulled inwards under the strain.
“I’m so sorry,” I say.
I squeeze both hands, promising myself never to return to the darkness. The words come easily, skipping off my tongue in their urgency to be spoken.
“I love you.”