*Trigger warning: mental health, suicide attempt
There are secrets we never plan to reveal to the world because we are ashamed or scared. There are also secrets so big that we can’t hold them in forever. Some fall into both categories, and each day is a battle between telling a friend and saving our pride.
I have been fighting this battle for three years. My secret has never surfaced, despite examinations by doctors and an overwhelming urge to scream that I hear voices.
Yes, I hear voices. Yes, I am crazy. No, I’ve never told a soul.
Well, I’d never told a soul until Mandi.
Until Mandi, I’d never had a friend who knew me better than I knew myself and saw the best in me. With her, I feel worthy of the air I breathe. With her, I feel alive. I forget about the hallways that lead nowhere and the grass that isn’t real and the locks on the doors. I forget that my existence would be shameful for most people. With Mandi, everything is okay.
She has always pushed me out of my comfort zone, so it was only a matter of time before she asked why they brought me here. I never imagined I would answer when she asked, but here we are. The truth is, Mandi gets anything she wants.
For years, I have considered her very predictable. She is always on my side, and she fights for me when I have nothing left to give. When she argues with me over my secret, I am totally caught off guard.
“That’s only one side of the story.”
After the shock melts away, I try to explain. She must have misunderstood. “The voices are in my head, and I’m the only one who knows about them. My side is all there is.”
“You don’t seriously believe that.” It’s not a question but a statement.
“Of course I do. I’m crazy, but not crazy enough to believe I’m sane.” That is a fine line that I have been careful not to cross.
“Tell me the truth, Jack. Do those voices feel like a part of you?”
I’ve lived with this for so long that I should’ve accepted it by now. Except I’ve lived with it for so long that I can’t. So I give into fantasy, just for a moment.
“I mean, no. They feel foreign, but no one else hears them, so they’re a part of me.”
“Try again. What’s the other possibility?”
I don’t like to explore this option. I don’t like to walk this line, but Mandi is watching me expectantly. “These voices don’t belong to me. They… are part of a plot to tear me down. They are an attack on my sanity.” It feels so good to say it and even better for someone else to believe it.
“Do you feel crazy? Or do you just believe you must be crazy?”
“I don’t feel crazy.”
“Good because you’re not. I won’t give up on you, and you can’t give up on yourself. Do you trust me?”
I hesitate because I need this. What I believe about the voices has to be real, even if they themselves are not. Knowing something about them, even something so small, kept me sane more than it drove me mad. I can’t let go of my one shred of stability, even for the slightest hope of total sanity. If I risk what little I have, I’m most likely to come back empty-handed. And I don’t know that I’m strong enough to handle that.
Still, I should never have hesitated. I see the look of betrayal and terror cross Mandi’s face and hurting her scares me more than anything.
“Of course I do, but it really doesn’t matter. I can’t change anything.”
“There’s always something you can do. Now stop feeling sorry for yourself and take action.” That should sound harsh, but it doesn’t when it comes from my best friend.
Maybe I’m humoring her, or maybe I’m just realizing the extent of my trust in her, when I ask, “Who’s controlling me?”
“Sit down and play cards. We look suspicious, just standing around and whispering.” She looks pointedly at the cards, so I begin shuffling. I know she won’t continue until she feels we’re safe, and it’s best to let her take control.
In a whirlwind, Mandi describes the security cameras that track our every move. It seems absurd to me until she reminds me of all of the ‘outbursts’ we’ve witnessed in only a few years. The people here are nice but horribly unstable. The nurses are afraid of us, so they watch us. Unfortunately, just watching us doesn’t keep them safe.
“They crave predictability,” Mandi says with a smile. “People like us will never be predictable, no matter how much they medicate us. But we’re also crazy, which makes us vulnerable. It’s easy to take control away from someone who doesn’t trust himself.”
It all makes so much sense. “It’s only a matter of time before they start telling me what to do.” I stop for a moment because something still doesn’t add up. “But how could they put voices in my head in the first place?”
“Did you forget what happened when you first came here?”
Of course not. That night replays in my mind like the scenes of a scary movie when you’re alone in the dark. I carry every piece of it with me every day. I can feel the cold seat of the police wagon and the handcuffs connected to a waistband. Sometimes I swear I can see the marks left behind by the restraints that held me down when I woke up on a hospital bed. The only thing I don’t remember is cutting my wrists.
“It was too easy for them to implant a speaker into your brain while you were out cold.”
The prospect is absurd until I consider that the doctor put me under without my consent. That he stitched up my wrists despite my pleas for him to stop. The truth is: consent doesn’t apply once you’re labeled as crazy.
“I can’t remove a speaker from my brain…”
“But you can break the microphone.”
The hours drag until they turn the lights out for curfew. Even then, I can’t put the plan into place immediately. The nurses will insist that I try to sleep for an hour or so. Once I take a sleeping pill and ‘try to sleep’, they’ll accept that I need to wander the halls to make myself tired.
As I wander the halls, my nerves are so overwhelming that I wonder if I’ll pass out. I focus on Mandi’s voice in my mind, saying exactly what she’d say if she were beside me. “These people have already done the worst they can do. If there’s any hope of proving to yourself this isn’t your fault, you need to take it.”
I find myself nodding.
A woman walks toward the nurse’s station, and everything after that happens fast. I bump into her as she opens the door, and I drop my fidget cube. It lands perfectly, wedged against the doorframe. But she bends down to get it.
“I-I got it. Thanks though.”
The nurse backs off with a sympathetic smile. I think she got the impression that I didn’t want her to know what it was that I dropped because she looks away and busies herself with opening the door instead. I never move the cube.
There’s a brief moment when I want to turn and run. I don’t want to have proof, because this could just as well prove that I really am crazy.
But Mandi thinks it’s a good idea.
With newfound courage, I duck into the office and crouch behind a desk. The guard at the front is losing his fight against sleep, so I risk a peak over the edge. I focus on the quiet voice in my head as my eyes fall on a man in the middle of the desk, talking into a headset. My heart is beating so loud that I can barely hear him, but his lips move to match the words in my head.
“This is not what you want.”
With a jolt, I realize that he could have implanted some device that can read my mind as well. I could turn back, comforted by the knowledge that this is not my fault. But at that moment, with control within reach, I know I need more.
I stand to make a move toward him - grab his headset, break it, confront him, hit him, anything. Everything.
But then I feel a slim hand firmly gripping my left arm. Fueled by instinct, I swing my arm. Hard. A woman cries out, and everyone turns toward us. Now that I’m exposed, I have only seconds. I run toward him, covering the few feet between us before anyone can stop me.
He sees me coming. Let him see me. Let him be afraid for once. Let him know the game is over, and that we follow my rules now. That he has lost control.
He raises his arm, ready for me to throw a punch, but I grab his headset instead, throwing it on the ground and stomping on it. That catches him off guard. He really doesn’t know that I’ve got it all figured out. As I try to raise an arm to hit him, all of my limbs become unbearably heavy, and the floor flies up toward me.
I’m vaguely aware that I’ve been defeated before I even got to say a word to that evil man. My body feels ice cold as I realize this was simply a show of defiance. They can build another microphone.
Before I hit the ground, I see her. Through the window, Mandi calls out, “You’re in control. Don’t forget that you’re in control.”
When I wake up, my first thought is of Mandi. She promised I’m in control, but I’ve never felt more vulnerable than I do now, strapped down to a hospital bed and hearing the same old voices.
Still, the man in my head has lost in a way. He can control what I hear but not what I think. Every time I hear a voice, I will know it’s just a cruel game.
“You’re awake.” The sound of the nurse’s voice startles me. “You gave us quite a scare back in the Behavioral Health Unit,” he says with a light laugh. A laugh! How can he be laughing? Was my attempt to bring down his boss really so futile?
“We’ll unstrap you just as soon as you answer some questions, and we get you on the right dose of medication.”
“Medication?” I ask incredulously. “You can’t make me forget everything. Do you people have any idea what I’ve been through? Let me go! Please just let me go.” Despite myself, I feel tears crop up in the corners of my eyes.
“Jack, just try and hear me out - “
“I can’t trust you!” I cry. “I’ll only listen to Mandi. Where is she?”
Dodging my question, he continues with a softer tone. “Jack, you’re sick. Do you remember? It’s why you came to this hospital in the first place -”
“Where is Mandi?” I demand.
He gives me a pitying look. I hate that look. “Jack, you have to understand. You can’t see her anymore.”
“What do you mean? She’s not a bad influence, I swear - I did that all on my own. She’s the best part of me. She knows me best. I need her. Please.” I’m begging now. I hate that I’m begging this man, but Mandi is more important than my pride. I start pushing against the restraints with all my might.
“Will I ever see her again?”
The man rambles senselessly. When he pumps something into my IV, he says, “She’s gone. It’s our job to make sure she goes away”. And, for the first time since I’ve been here, I don’t thrash against the restraints. Instead, I sink into the bed and cry because I’m so damn confused. All I know is that these people have taken away Mandi.
When the nurse returns the next day, I’m ready to fight. This was about controlling me, but it was never about Mandi. “You can’t control me, and you can’t have Mandi! If you don’t give her back, I’ll expose you, and someone will take you down. Maybe I can’t, but someone will.”
The nurse doesn’t seem threatened, which is almost as frustrating as being restrained. “Who do you think is controlling you?” he asks levelly.
“Don’t try to mess with my head. I know what you’ve done to me, and I’m not falling for your tricks any longer. I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy.”
“Of course, you’re not crazy.” He looks so gentle that I almost think he’s on my side. Something inside urges me to let him explain because, the truth is, none of this makes much sense.
Fifteen years have passed, and I’m living in something like a hotel with a lot of people who pace around and talk to themselves. It reminds me of the place Mandi and I used to live, though we were confined to just one floor. I remember when the nice people came to the hospital to take me here, saying that I just needed a little help. I still hate it when people notice how dysfunctional I am, but this turned out alright.
The people here help me when the voices make it impossible to cook or clean, though those days are few and far between now. Every time those voices poke through, I resent the man who put them there, but I don’t fear him like I used to. Maybe it’s because I know there is nothing I can do, and I’ve resigned myself to a life of vulnerability.
When I woke up today, something felt different. In the afternoon, Mandi shows up for a visit, and I know today will be the best day I’ve had in fifteen years.
“Mandi!” I yell across the room, and I run to her. She’s okay. She’s okay. “My God, you haven’t aged a day!” And I don’t mean it as a shallow compliment exchanged between friends that haven’t seen each other in so long. No, I mean it, and I say it because of how much it shocks me.
“We don’t have time for catching up,” she begins urgently. “I know it’s harder to remember to fight while you’re here, but that’s because they’re drugging you. Don’t you remember what we went through to try and save you? We can still finish this.” I should’ve known no one could break her spirit.
“Don’t worry. I barely hear the voices anymore. Things have gotten so much better now, but I miss you.”
She just brushes me off. “They want you to think that, so you let your guard down. Then, one day, they’ll come back in full force, and who knows what they’ll make you do. I know this won’t be easy to hear but -”
“They can’t anymore.” I think that was the first time I’ve ever cut her off.
“You know the truth, Jack. Don’t you trust me? They’ve been controlling you for eighteen years, but it’s not too late to fix everything.”
I remember the time I hesitated when she asked if I trusted her, and she had been right. She was trustworthy, but that isn’t the point anymore. It’s finally time to put myself first. Today, I don’t want her to be right. Today, I want her to allow me to heal.
I shut my eyes tightly. “I’m safe. I’m safe. I’m safe,” I chant to calm myself. It’s something they taught me here, and it works really well.
“Don’t do this, Jack.” She sounds so desperate, but I keep chanting. “Don’t give up on yourself. Please. You have to fight. You have to kill him. There’s no other way.” She finally stops to catch her breath.
Eyes still closed, the chant still running through my mind, I say, “I haven’t. I fight the voices every damn day. That’s the best I can do, and I have to accept that. So please, for the love of God, let me make my peace with this.”
When I open my eyes, she’s gone. I wonder if I’ve lost all hope of control, because what can I really accomplish without her? She was the strongest part of me. She was my sunshine.
But after fifteen years, I’ve finally attained stability. I did that, not Mandi. Sure, there have been ups and downs, but I’m still here and safe. I still have to fight the voices sometimes, but I’m beginning to accept what’s happened to me without giving in to it. On some level, maybe I’d even say I’m happy. And who knows, maybe, just maybe, this is control.